Chapter 1

Hester was already tired, and the night had just begun.  The sun had sunk almost completely below the horizon, and she could barely see where she was going.  The full moon had already risen and reflected pale yellow light onto the steep grassy hills.  Cemeteries were always surrounded by tall grassy mounds with a smaller mount in the center.  Nobody knew why, but Hester suspected they existed solely to try to kill her.  In the basin, trees mingled with the tall marble spires that reached into the sky.  It was like a tiny Urbana of the dead, but ironically, more life endured in the cemetery.  Branches and grave stones caught the remaining sunlight and full moon, creating curious and confusing shadows that attacked her from all directions.  In the daylight, Hester might enjoy the forest of marble.  Reading the names and imagining the lives lost would be a day well spent.  But without the sun, she couldn’t help but imagine living people, hiding behind each tree, marker, or mausoleum, waiting to attack.

Don’t act the victim.  Won’t be the victim. 

Her legs and back ached, begging her to slow down.  Instead, she looked ahead, leaned on her cane and continued at her current pace, following closely behind Ezra.  

Wearing the boots with the thin heels had been a poor choice.  They were especially awful for this terrain of tall grass, sinkholes, and long forgotten headstones.  Even with her cane, Hester was impressed that she had only tripped twice.  She shouldn’t have worn them.  She shouldn’t even own them.  She should have thrown them out after the incident.  But they were her favorite.  They were hell to put on with all the tiny brass buttons that climbed both sides of the boots from the heel to the knee.  But they made her backside look spectacular.

I just hope I don’t break my ankle again.

She glanced around the cemetery, looking for anything that might try to attack Ezra as he carried the product to the top of the hill in the middle of the cemetery.  Most of the trees, tall headstones, and mausoleums were behind them now.  If somebody was going to attack, it would have been done already.

Feeling safe, she let her mind wander, but glanced about in all directions.

Just in case.

It had been only six months since Hester and Ezra had met Tomas in the theatre.  In that time, the three of them had grown very close.  Tomas had taught Hester and Ezra to use sign language.  Hester dined with Tomas’s family once a week.  Tomas introduced her to Urbana’s deaf theatre where he performed.  Ezra loved it, and Hester almost didn’t dislike plays anymore.  Tomas and his language had returned substance to her life.

Even thinking about Tomas caused Hester to sweat and smile unconsciously.

Is this love?

She had nothing to compare this feeling to.  All she knew was that he reminded her how to laugh.  He had shown her that a life without one sense might still be a life worth living.  And tonight she wanted to remind him that she was a beautiful woman with thanks to give.

“Balls!” The feeling of Hester’s own scream awakened her from her reverie.  A headstone, melted by a hundred years of rain poked up from the dirt and tripped her.  Turning around to face her, Ezra grabbed Hester before she hit the ground.  Hester raised her hand, about to sign «thank you», when she looked toward the hilltop ahead.  The remaining light in the sky silhouetted the single cedar tree and a bent old man on the hilltop.  A strong smell of cedar wafted down with the wind, swirling around Hester and her brother.

«You know the plan» Ezra signed.

«Stay here» Hester mocked Ezra with an unexpected shiver.  Instinctively, she reached into her vest pocket.  The bottle of Deliverance greeted the palm of her hand with a cold kiss.  Her hand embraced it longingly in return.

I promised.

Noticing her tremor, Ezra removed his red woolen overcoat and tossed it to Hester as he walked away.  Her grip loosened on the bootle as Ezra walked off toward the old tree where Antonin and he always struck their nighttime deals.  On her brother, the coat’s hem nearly brushed the ground, but when she wore it, it barely fell past her knees and the arms barely went past her elbows.  She wrapped it around herself, and was surprised to find that it fit around her almost perfectly.  Only after wrapping herself in the warmth of wool did she notice the chilly autumn breeze.  She buckled one of the big brass hooks that adorned the front opening from high collar and once again let her mind go astray.

Stay here?

Before the incident a year and a half ago, Ezra was proud of his little sister and her skills.  He bragged about her toughness and fighting skills to friends and enemies alike.  Vicious and desperate buyers had often attempted to harm Ezra, but Hester had always been on hand to neutralize them.  But tonight, like the night before, standing still and watching from a distance was all Ezra allowed.

So many times the pair of them had met with Antonin, yet she had never been closer than she was at that moment.  She took a step forward to try to get a better look at the deal in progress.  She slammed into a brick wall of dizziness and dread.  Cedar no longer gave its essence to the air, and it smelled all around her like death.  Her mouth tasted of ash and bile.  Her vision shimmered red and grey.  Rubbing her eyes and spitting, she jumped back and collapsed to the ground.

Withdrawal was a bitch.  Hester had heard the stories.  But she never thought it would be this violently sickening.

She took a swig from the bottle in her vest pocket.

Waiting for the drug to take effect, she sat in the dirt and watched the deal, trying her best to ignore the strange synesthesia.  She tried to make out what the old man and Ezra said, but the light was too dim to see details.  The only thing she saw was Ezra’s ginger ponytail and satin black vest glowing faintly from the setting sun and risen moon.  Ezra reached into the small black leather duffel where he kept the phials of Deliverance.  The meeting was almost complete. 

Nausea crept back into Hester’s stomach.  Ignoring it, she glanced around the cemetery, looking for threats.  To her left, several tall monuments pointed high into the sky.  No movement.  An angelic statue in a long cape watched over the occupants of its grave to her right.  A gust of wind blew, moving the grass and some fallen leaves across her path before her.  All was normal in the cemetery.  The sickness ebbed away.  Casually looking around, but pointedly not looking directly at the old man, she checked Ezra’s many coat pockets for something interesting.  She found nothing but a box of matches and a silver cigarette case filled with pre-rolled cigarettes.  She pulled one out of the box and smelled it before lighting it with one of the last match in the box.  She took a long draw and relaxed, slouching as much as her corseted waist would allow.  The relaxing smell of herb permeated the air around her.  The familiar fog filled her head as she relaxed further.  She took another drag of the cigarette and let her hand fall from her lips to her necklace.  Exhaling a ring of smoke, Hester gently fondled the turquoise raven that hung on a blackened silver chain.

Her mother had given it to her on her tenth birthday.  Hester remembered vividly her mother’s voice telling her, “It was from your father.”  She had never known her father.  She had seen Ezra’s father once, on the day of his funeral.  But her own father was a mystery.  Her mother rarely talked about him.   When she did, it was with a distant expression and the shadow of a smile.  Hester assumed that her own incredible height, pale skin, and mismatched eyes came from him.  Her mother was short and red-haired like Ezra.

She took another puff of the cigarette and let the smoke envelop her has she closed her eyes in an effor to keep the tears from rolling down her painted cheeks.

Once again her mother’s voice echoed in her memory, so distant now.

Her voice.  It was beautiful.  It was music.  Magic.     

A soft triple tap on her right shoulder startled her eyes open.  Her muscles tense once again, Hester dabbed her eyes with a coat sleeve.

Ezra didn’t seem to notice that she had been crying.

«Tomas?  Shall we?» Ezra smiled as he made the signs.

«Please,» Hester nodded, drawing on the cigarette to hide her sniffle.

They turned and began to walk back toward the city.  Hester looked back at the old tree to find Antonin had disappeared.  No dizziness.  No ash.  Nothing.  She took a final draw from the cigarette before dropping the remnants into a puddle in the walkway.

Exhaling another smoke ring, Hester signed, «Tell me about him.  Antonin.»

«Why now?  I thought you didn’t want to know.»

Barely pausing for Hester’s shrug before continuing, Ezra continued, «I think he only speaks Urbanic.  And I’ve still never seen his face…»

He continued to sign quickly and nonchalantly, but Hester had stopped paying attention to his hands.  She was lost in her brother’s eyes.  They were big and shining in the moonlight.  She felt his apprehension.  Something about the man troubled Ezra, but Hester knew he would never tell her.

Ezra blinked and his fear was gone.  «He’s our best customer,» he signed, grabbing Hester’s arm and helping her up the steep hill at the edge of the cemetary.

She leaned on her brother and her cane as the pain swept over her once again.  Aches and shooting pains attacked her with full force by the time the pair reached the top of the hill.  Urbana’s electric glow beckoned her silently back to where she belonged.  Paved streets, alcohol, pastries, and Tomas.  She would soon be with him, and the pain and lingering taste of ash would be washed away with a nice whiskey and a kiss.

«He tips well,» Ezra signed without even trying to get Hester’s attention.    The words barely registered in her periphery.

Hester glanced at her brother with an arched eyebrow to find that his chuckle looked almost convincing.

«He’s a clock maker,» Ezra explained sloppily with one hand as the other searched through his black leather bag.

A glittering something flew right at Hester’s face.  She caught a silver pocket watch.  Moonlight and Urbana’s glow glinted off the chrome and showed the intricately engraved case.  She pushed the button on the top of the watch and the cover sprung open.  A tiny naked lady smiled up at her from behind the watch hands.

Dizziness.  Confusion.  Ash.  Bile.  Hester threw the watch back to Ezra and retched into the grass.

The air smelled once more of damp leaves and grass.  The taste of ash and bile were gone.

She stood upright and again wiped tears from her eyes.

Ezra met her gaze, his expression full of concern.  Or was it pity?  Either way, Hester didn’t want it.

She spoke to Ezra, “Sorry.  I don’t know what came over me just then.  Sorry.  Only thirty minutes until the party.”

Ezra checked the time on the naked lady and nodded, signing, «Thirty minutes.»

Hester continued to move, eyes straight ahead, chin high, trying not to lean on her cane.

I definitely needed a strong drink.  And probably a breath mint.

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