My first December in my new home—and I simply hoped for peace on Edgewater Street.
Forget peace on earth. I just wanted to walk down the street I lived on for a little normal Christmas shopping. After the horrors of this past year, I deserved a Currier-and-Ives holiday.
The chances of it happening in the Zone, the industrially blighted outpost of South Baltimore where I worked and lived—was about as good as my getting lucky before day’s end.
In my office, watching the snow fall in greeting card prettiness through the big plate glass window, I abandoned my desk to grab my coat. For the first time in my entire history, I had money in my pocket.
Through my office doorway, I watched my six-foot-five quarterback assistant catch a buzzing fly against the glass door in the front lobby. I held my breath while he eyed the insect like an appetizer. Then he opened the door to let in a client, and I sighed in relief as he sheepishly flung the fly out the door. Ned was a trifle self-conscious about his former life as an amphibian.
It had been a brief episode in Ned’s thuggish career, and I wasn’t certain how much of it he remembered, but it pained me every time Ned pounced on an insect. I held myself responsible for his condition and used him as a chronic reminder not to misuse my weird abilities.
Hi, my name is Justine Clancy, and I’m a freak of nature. Or Saturn’s daughter, according to my mother and grandmother, but they’re not in the picture much anymore. Last I heard, Mom was hiding in an isolated Peruvian village, and Themis. . . I wasn’t totally certain she wasn’t communicating from the Great Beyond. Since a few months after my twenty-sixth birthday, when I learned I could damn my boyfriend to hell and get rewarded for it, I’d been without a rulebook. I had no idea what would happen the next time I damned someone. So I tried very hard to keep my vocabulary polite.
“C’mon, Clancy, It’s lunchtime. Let’s find something to eat.” The client who had just entered dropped ominous envelopes from the city on my desk. He was the main reason I now had money in my pocket.
Most people called me Tina. Andre was just being obnoxious. He stood there expectantly, allowing me to admire all his handsome manliness, waiting for me to jump at his bidding.
Actually, he knew better. He was just taunting me with what I couldn’t have.
Andre Legrande could have walked out of my favorite old-fashioned cowboy movie, the kind where the slick gentleman gambler wears a frock coat and silk ruffles and vest. Today, under his shoulder-hugging leather blazer, he wore a blue silk shirt that emphasized taut abs and wide pecs. Combine all that hunkiness with thick black hair, and curious blue-green eyes and a smile that could melt bones, and Andre was the most dangerous man on this side of Baltimore. He knew it, too, and his arrogance was another reason, despite our past history, I wasn’t going to bed with him.
Mostly, it’s unethical for a lawyer to sleep with her clients, and Andre’s business paid over half my bills. The amoral cad liked to kick me in my principles.
“It’s almost Christmas,” I reminded him. “I’m going shopping with Cora.”
Cora works at the detective agency down the street and has her own set of weirdnesses, but she was a super friend of the sort I’d thought never to have. Once upon a time, Cora had been a prostitute working the streets in the Zone. Weirdly, the chemical flood had given her tattooed snakes a life. That was just how the Zone worked.
“We’re hoping we can persuade your mother to leave the house,” I added.
“Not in a wheelchair.” Andre’s smirk faded into a frown of regret. “Katerina Montoya is not about to let anyone see her as anything other than who she once was.”
Acme, our neighborhood chemical factory, controls a mystery element. In their dangerous experiments, they had cured Andre’s mother of cancer, except the cure had sent her into a coma for nearly a decade. Another gaseous experiment a few months back had returned Katerina from the near-dead. Once a proud, beautiful woman, she was still too weak to get about on her own and hadn’t appeared in public since her recovery.
Because his father is a famous attorney and Andre Legrande is a lying manipulative cad most of the time, he protects his parents by generously not polluting his father’s good name of Montoya.
“Your mother is confused by ten years of changes since she went to Never-Never land,” I suggested. “I’ll call and ask if she has a shopping list anyway.”
Andre helped me pull on my leather biker jacket. The proximity to his spicy aftershave had me drooling, so I had to counterbalance with snideness. I tapped the stack of letters he’d just dropped on me. “Don’t beat up any of those building inspectors or you’ll end up paying twice.”
“The city is after us because of all the damned tourists,” Andre grumbled. “You’d think the idiots would have the sense to stay out of an environmental hazard zone. Acme used to keep the city off our backs and the tourists off the street. You’re the one who took Acme’s management out of commission. You do something about it.”
“Tourists are profitable,” I argued, half-heartedly.
“Not for the tourists,” he warned. “I’m suing the moron who shit his pants when one of the Dumpsters got in his way. The damned fool shot at a frigging Dumpster and missed.”
Among other things, the chemicals permeating the Zone’s ground have given theoretically inanimate objects the ability to move. Waltzing Dumpsters used to scare me too. It would only be a matter of time before the media realized the Zone wasn’t just a drunken hallucination but the real deal. So, maybe tourists weren’t a good idea.
“That bullet took out the bar window and the arm of one of my bartenders. Just give me one good excuse, and I’ll sue Acme too,” Andre grumbled.
“Gun control laws should involve intelligence tests,” I muttered as Andre accompanied me to the outer lobby. “But Acme has no responsibility for keeping out tourists or idiots.”
“Someone has to keep them out. The Zone isn’t normal and Acme is the reason!” he protested, as if he weren’t preaching to the choir. “Imbeciles are going to be trouble if we don’t find some way to move them along.”
I didn’t have an answer to that. He was right. The Zone with its dangerous idiosyncrasies was no place to play. It was a worse place to live, but once infused with the chemicals that permeated the area, some of us had little choice.
My assistant, wearing a pink shirt, rose-colored tie, and a pink quartz earring, held the door open for us—as if he hadn’t been hunting more flies in the window.
I worried about Ned’s other froggy friends and whether they’d ever returned to normal. They’d been thugs and the world was probably better off without them, but I’m a lawyer. My over-developed conscience didn’t like condemning people without a real trial. Consequences inevitably sucked. I wanted a rule book that promised I wouldn’t go to hell for condemning people without due process.
Outside, a cold wind rushed down the hill, promising heavier snow than the pretty flakes falling now. My office was in an old storefront across the street from the row of Victorian houses where Andre and I lived. Andre probably owned the whole street, but our apartments were in separate buildings.
Below us, in the Zone proper, I could see bums warming their hands over steaming manholes, unbothered by the traffic creeping around them. I knew manholes could steam in the cold, but this steam had an oddly red tint to it. Given that sidewalks here turned to green mud and the buildings glowed neon blue, a little steam wasn’t worth questioning.
“No wailing sirens, no gaseous clouds, no chemical waste lines exploding.” I recited my litany of gratitude every time I saw this peaceful scene. “May Saturn be praised.”
I was being facetious. So far, no one had told me if my Saturn was a planet or an antique god, but astrology and gods made as much sense as anything around here.
Andre snorted. “If you think killing off Gloria Vanderventer means the Zone will stay peaceful, you haven’t lived here long enough. Something’s stewing. It just hasn’t broken out yet.”
I knew that. Gloria and her grandson Dane had once owned Acme Chemical. They had been evil personified, as far as I could determine. I’d damned them both to hell and been rewarded for my good deeds. I had no other way of verifying that they were actually gone. I worried sometimes, because I occasionally saw them writhing in flames and cursing me.
But they hadn’t succeeded in destroying my home, and it was the season of peace. I wanted—needed—to celebrate my new security for a while. After a lifetime of wandering, I finally had a home, friends, and a new career. That was worth a revel or two before life started tossing fireballs at me again.
“Are the Christmas lights on the streetlamps supposed to be pink and orange?” I asked cautiously, still admiring the view as we strolled down the hill. “Because they kind of clash with the red wreaths.” The day was gray enough for the twinkling lights to sparkle nicely.
Andre jammed his hands into his pockets and studied the holiday scene below. “No one here paid for decorations. That must be the DG’s work.”
The DG, otherwise known as Dedicated to Good Inc. or the Do-Gooders in local lingo, had been inexplicably attempting to clean up the Zone these last weeks. They were mundanes from outside the Zone. For whatever reason, we’d become the nonprofit’s charitable cause, whether we wanted it or not.
“Cheap bulbs from China,” I suggested. Or the Zone’s pollution was already eating at them. It happened. “I’m meeting Cora at her office. Where are you headed?” I pulled on my gloves, striving not to admire Andre’s conquistador profile.
“I’ll stop at Chesty’s for lunch. Who’s feeding your cat?”
Chesty’s is a bar and restaurant with pole dancers that caters to the industrial workers from the plants to the north. Andre owns it.
“Milo and Mrs. Bodine have bonded. When he’s hungry, he yowls, and she sends someone up to feed him.” Milo was a tailless, tufted manx who looked like a baby bobcat. In the Zone, it was hard to say what he really was, but he never hurt anyone unless they tried to hurt me. “I can’t keep him in the office. He scares the clients he doesn’t like.”
“Your cat’s not normal, Clancy,” Andre warned. “Neither are you. Don’t go getting happy ideas about this spell of quiet.”
I grimaced. “It’s Christmas, Legrande. Be merry. We’ll worry about calamity in the new year.” I walked faster, eager for my shopping trip.
The orange and pink bulbs below exploded into little flames that ate the red wreaths and produced colorful circles of hellish flames on all the lampposts.
Then the manhole covers blew off.
I hated it when Andre was right.