QSFer Chris Fain has a new queer dark urban fantasy/horror book out (gay, gender fluid, genderqueer): Iron & Brass.
Ramona Stone is a retired boxer and cancer survivor barely getting by in a faded Rust-Belt town—until she unwittingly frees a jinni from a thrift-store teapot.
Now her cat has the power of speech, an ultra-powerful being is bunking on her couch…and her snow-locked community is set to become a battleground between our reality and a magic netherworld beyond.
For the shapeshifting cannibal ghul Ashera has vowed to pursue Izi al-Samoon from the frozen vales of urban West Virginia to the gates of Hell itself—or take Ramona’s own weary soul in his place.
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At a Speedway, she filled the silver Lincoln’s tank and paid with Barakah’s credit card. In the gas station’s toilet, she stripped the wool pea coat off and hung it on a hook behind the door. Under a nasty fluorescent light, she leaned over the sink to examine herself in the scratched, pitted mirror.
At the empty steel plant, she’d scrubbed her skin with snow after eating. But without a real mirror, she couldn’t be sure of her appearance. If she was stopped, she didn’t want to stand out. Barakah’s memories suggested it happened to him frequently because of his skin color and accent.
The last thing she wanted to do was kill a cop. Red tape aside, it’d anger Chief Inspector Dennison–and she needed to be on his good side. With the tap running lukewarm, Ashera washed the last traces of Shorty from her skin.
She slid behind the wheel once more and drove away from the gas station’s bright lights.
Around the Lincoln, Sheffield unfolded another neighborhood for her. She was still too far out on the western edge of the warrant’s radius and, when Madison ran out at 5th Street West, she doglegged right onto 6th Avenue. Barakah’s mental map of Sheffield was limited to only half the neighborhoods but she knew that 6th Avenue would take her back to the downtown district.
She pulled the leather tie from Barakah’s hair and set it free and the wind tickled long curling ribbons against her throat. It tangled in her beard, too.
On either side of her car, two-story houses lined the street. Many of them were boarded-up and abandoned. Under the street lights, they gleamed dully. Pale green, white, brick instead of wood, porches and railings and concrete steps. Tall yellow grass stood above the snow. Overgrown bushes and fallen roofs, broken windows and spray paint. The road under her wheels was worn and pot-holed, and, in some spots, a sheet of ice.
She watched the faces beyond the windshield when they turned to look at the expensive vehicle. Brown skin and white skin. Mostly men, bundled up against the cold. She took deep breaths, inhaling the scent of Sheffield’s night life.
Barakah’s memories murmured of an economy centered on calls centers and the hospitals, the college. Once a solidly working class city built for the railroad and the river trade, Sheffield was a shadow of its former self. And as economy shifted, the neighborhoods shifted in demographics and upkeep.
Ashera reached for the car’s stereo and pushed a button. The radio came on and a smooth-voiced woman talked about the memorial service being held on Sheffield College’s campus. The snow-covered commons was full of people with candles, she said. She explained that the deaths of Professor Matthew Bannerman and his husband, Todd, were a terrible shock to the local LGBTQ community and to the college, where Matthew was much-loved.
Pleased, she smiled to herself. She didn’t get that sort of feedback every day.
The warrant flared to life and throbbed with its silent warning cry. Somewhere, within its detection range, Izi al-Samoon used magic big enough to be seen by the eyes of the dead.
“Got you,” she laughed. The warrant, inside Barakah’s coat pocket, pulsed with energy. She pulled the Lincoln to the nearest curb, easing in between a pair of Xfinity work trucks. The street was empty of life.
She climbed out of the car. Her shoes crunched slivers and chunks of ice-covered snow as she drew the warrant from a pocket and held it out at arm’s length. She turned. Once. Twice. Three times. Then four. The warrant vibrated steadily, never pinpointing a direction.
In this form, it was a glass orb. The words of al-Samoon’s charge sheet sparkled within its core, red and gold, painted in a living flame taken from the renegade’s blood. The fire called now to the magic of that body.
On the distant skyline, beyond the city, a burst of particles rose at the far end of the warrant’s radius. It showed against the dark clouds, flickering beyond the reflection of electric lights, a faint haze of magic spreading a thin cloud that faded as she watched.
He was here.
“What the hell is that?” A slurring voice intruded, woozy and male. Footsteps approached from behind. Crunch, crunch, crunch.
Ashera ignored the man, her face and arms lit by the active warrant as she watched the cloud of particles disperse in the air. The warrant’s glow was fading, too. It vibrated in time with the jinni’s heart and cast lovely shadows over the car, the ice, the nearest tree.
“Hey, what’s that?” The man staggered closer and into view, coming around on her left. Bundled in a heavy coat and hat, he swayed at her side and now she shifted to look at him.
Unshaven, leathery. Pale human eyes, bleary and half-focused, rose to meet her gaze. The stench of stale clothes and piss and grime and cheap, sweet booze was an assault. Barakah’s senses reeled in horror and his memories whispered ‘Unclean’.
“Hey, kid–what is that thing?” The drunk warbled and lifted a shaky finger to point at the warrant. He showed rotten teeth in an uneasy smile.
She wanted to kill him. She wanted to put his eyes out, those terrible pale jellied eggs. She wanted to cut his mouth wider, slice through the cratered lines of his stubbled cheeks. The warrant in her hand sang in rhythm with its distant heart and she wondered how pretty the stranger’s blood would look, splattering out in a fan on untouched snow. The glow of red-gold light from her fingers illuminated the Army surplus field jacket he wore, the black straps of a backpack over his shoulders.
She thought of the knife in her coat, resting against her ribs, and then she thought of his skin with its creased layers of filth.
“Go,” she whispered through cold lips. “And don’t think about it anymore. Just…go.”
A son of West Virginia and native to the southern Pocahontas coalfields, Chris Fain is a social geographer with a lifelong passion for cartography and research – literally charting the unknown. He is a former journalist and has written about genre TV for Project: Torchwood. Chris lives in Huntington, West Virginia, with two catkind housemates: The Doctor and Missy the Master. This is his first novel.