From the author: When the things haunting the books in the archive get loose, this team is on the case.
By the back door entrance of the Red Seven club, in shadow and streetlight glitter on worn cement, the pages of a discarded magazine – Mira! – fluttered in the windless night air.
A figure evanesced up from the magazine pages and slowly solidified into a woman. She wore an intricate lace mantilla, layers of skirt, vest, and long shawl. The skin of her face, hands, and feet was like indigo sheened with quicksilver. Her garments, coal black with that same blue pitch, moved in the still air as the magazine pages had. Thin leather sandals kept the soles of her feet from the dirty ground. The eyes in the beautiful face beneath the mantilla gleamed like abalone under water. Her mouth folded, malicious and tender, around some word – a word she might spit out to burn the air at any moment.
With a furtive glance around, the woman walked deeper into the alley. She disappeared into the shadows smoothly as a shot of Bourbon into coffee. Behind her, the magazine flickered with hot blue flame, burning down to ash.
Around the block by the main entrance to the Red Seven, Minch leaned against the metal roll door through which bands loaded. The streets and the club were quiet on a Tuesday night. Minch was grabbing a smoke and a breath of thick, humid night air – it couldn’t exactly be called fresh in comparison to the AC-cooled, smoke-free-by-grace-of-city-ordnance air of the club – while talking to Jeff, who was working the door that night. Jeff, over two meters tall with perpetual shadows around his eyes and a philosophy and five-espresso a day habit, was on about Kierkegaard. Minch found these discussions with Jeff endlessly engaging.
“It’s completely a matter of perception,” Jeff drew a spiral on the air with knobby fingers. “Us seeing the same color but you seeing blue and me seeing red.”
Minch squinted at the coal of his smoke and flicked it. “There’s instruments can measure the wavelength of color.”
“Well, yeah, but you – hoochooo,” Jeff broke off, looking up the sidewalk past Minch. Jeff said hoochoo when something surprised and impressed him. Minch had asked him about it once, for which he got a rambling story about pigeons and his ex-girlfriend and nothing that resembled an answer.
Then Minch saw what Jeff was looking at. “Fuck.”
A woman with a heavy lace veil draped off a high comb, like she was the prow of a ship – some Spanish kind of thing, Minch couldn’t think what it was called – came toward them, sinuous and gliding. Her skin was silvery with dark blue glints under the sodium fall of streetlight. Eyes like electric violets gleamed under the lace as she paused between them, skirts restive in the heavy air, her feet on the ground but seeming to hover. The flicker all over her skin and clothes put Minch in mind of a lighter flame, hot and blue.
“Hello,” Jeff said.
Her mouth turned in a smile, but something about it made Minch take a step back. All her attention on Jeff, she pursed her lips and blew out a sound. A word, but Minch couldn’t understand it. A smell of burning, incense-flowery, filled the humid air and that blue shimmer flicked from her to Jeff, licking up from his beaten work boots to shadowed eyes and thinning hair.
Jeff’s mouth stretched in a scream, but nothing came out.
Lips still pursed, the woman now breathed in, a slight hissing intake of air. She breathed in Jeff, who turned to smoke like a wick burning down at speed, until there was nothing left of him.
Minch blinked in disbelief, a rush of vertigo falling through him
The woman turned to him.
“Hoochooo,” she blew the word out on a little puff of Jeff-smoke and smiled, showing pearly teeth. She came closer and Minch felt his legs shaking, as the world grew distant. He backed another step, tripped over his own feet to scrape one knee and one palm on cement, stumbled away half on his knees, lurched to his feet to run –
– and found himself stuck like a fly in honey as the woman spit out that word again and the air turned to amber around him, little flickers of blue light coursing up his body and over his face, making his scalp prickle and his hair lift in a rush of heat.
“No!” he yelled, but made no sound; the smell of burning flowers filled his mouth.
The top of his head felt unbearably hot. There was a screeching sound, a loud bang and shouts; suddenly the air was just air and he fell to his hands and knees, free.
He saw the woman disappearing, a swirl of skirts and lace into the alley. Another woman followed her with what looked like an mp3 player held up in front of her.
Minch looked up at the guy who’d stopped beside him; he was almost as tall as Jeff, dark skinned with his hair in short dreads. He wore a black t-shirt with a band name on it in white, The Transgressors, and a picture of an antique pistol.
Minch didn’t have an answer to the guy’s question, but took the hand offered him and came shakily to his feet. He made his hands obey him in lighting up a smoke and a few pulls into it the shaking subsided. Then he thought about Jeff and the woman and let the cig fall, snuffing it under the toe of his sneaker and swallowing a rise of bile.
A white van sat at the curb, the words Texas State Library and Archives Commission under a state seal on the open sliding door. The woman with the mp3 player ran back out of the alley.
“She went sub-textual in the shadows.”
Transgressors-guy nodded. “Did you get a trace?”
“I think so, but it’s a little hinky,” she said, handing him the mp3 player, which Minch guessed probably wasn’t an mp3 player.
“That’s to be expected,” the guy said as he studied the device. “La Mantilla can do things most of the others can’t.”
“Yeah.” She ran both hands through short brown hair streaked with several shades of purple, then locked her fingers behind her neck. “I’m going kill Ludo.”
“It was not my fault!” A voice with a crisp accent – it sounded sort of German to Minch, but then not quite – yelled from inside the van.
“Who was on containment?” She yelled back. “At least we got here in time.” She stuck her hand out to Minch. “Camille. You’re all right, yeah?”
“Jeff…” Minch said slowly, gesturing at the door to the Red Seven.
“Well, Jeff,” Camille said. “I’m sure you’re a little confused right now, but – ”
“No. My name’s Minch. But Jeff…that woman…”
“Oh, shit,” Transgressors-guy said. “She smoked someone?”
After a moment, Minch nodded.
“Shit,” Camille said, then grabbed his arm. “You’re with us.”
The van shot up Red River to 15th, into a jouncing passage across town that Minch glimpsed from behind the front passenger seat, where Felix – that was the guy with the Transgressors’ shirt – gave directions off the little device. Camille drove. The back of the van looked like a cross between a mobile surveillance unit and a scholar’s desk heaped with old books, maps, and notes.
Sitting in the midst of this was the owner of the almost-German accent, Ludo. A tiny man, maybe half Minch’s height, Ludo had a curled mustache, some kind of strange military uniform – in a dusty salmon shade with biscuit-colored rickrack – and, hanging from chains and ribbons around his neck, half a dozen different monocles. A simple one with a metal frame occupied one of his eyes, the eye huge as a hazel egg behind the lens and scrutinizing Minch as Minch said, “Why am I with you, exactly?”
“We need to know stuff,” Camille said, “about – Jeff?”
Minch nodded, swallowing.
“Jeff. Look, I’m sorry,” she said, even as she sped up to get through a yellow light. “I’m – really sorry about your friend.”
“Yeah,” Felix said, “seriously. We all are. But we need to know some things about him.”
“Anything you know,” Camille said.
“Who are you guys?” Minch heard the hysterical rise in his voice and drew a breath, clutching at the seat back. He felt disconnected from everything, emotions distant but tangled close and clogging his chest at the same time.
“Just like it says on the van: the Texas State Library and Archives Commission,” Camille said.
“Lamar, north,” Felix said, studying the little device in his hands, which had a screen with a small, phosphorous blip ghosting in and out of sight on it.
“This one is human,” Ludo said then, gesturing to Minch, “twenty years of age, gainfully employed but directionless, one parent of Caucasian extraction and one of Asian.” He lowered the monocle and affixed a more elaborate one, with a worked gold frame and a ring shaped like a curled leaf, to his other eye, turning back to the screens and keyboards of the electronics array.
Camille snorted. “I could have told you that.”
“Texas State Library and Archives Commission?” Minch said, lagging somewhat in the conversation.
“Cursed Books division,” Felix nodded. “We’re kind of a bastard child, or something, of the commission. Our holdings don’t actually appear in any of the catalogs accessible to the public. The Cursed Books division formed in 1842 when – well, it’s a long story, but a very powerful man – a sorcerer, in fact – was turned into a book, Tenoch de la Savre’s Gnosis of Birds. In his efforts to escape and become human again, a lot of books in Texas became cursed or haunted. We have a lot of them in the archives already, but things are always trying to get out.”
“Get– out? Of the books?”
Felix nodded. “I know, wrap your head around that. They text leap,” Felix gestured, one hand hopping from place to place, “by way of phrase resonance or reference association. Kind of like that six degrees of separation game. Get it?”
“Well, it’s like this, if a book haunt, a woken character, cursed meme, or whatever, can find an echo of a phrase from their text of origin in another text – a figure in a history volume finds a mention of their name or a phrase echoing something from their origin text in anything from a report on annual rainfall to a Texas Ranger’s pension request. If they can keep doing that until they get to a text outside the archive wards, they can slip out. We have containment measures, of course, but they’re very slippery, especially the woken characters. And since collections started getting digitized…” Felix shook his head.
“Job security,” Camille said.
“Seriously,” Felix said, still shaking his head. “Anyway, once they find a way out, they can cause all sorts of weirdness, chaos – death. Like what happened to your friend. We get them back or wipe them out. Whichever we can manage.”
“Ideally,” Camille said, with a glance in the rearview at Ludo, “we keep them from getting out at all.”
“This one, I think, ultimately cannot be contained,” Ludo said. “She was written by a mad poet and the logic of poetry fleshed her. The illogic of madness is her blood and bone. Like a fish, she can swim in the deep waters of many texts. She can find resonances almost anywhere, deeply buried ones, to texts well outside of our purview. When she decided to leave, she left.” He shrugged. “I was monitoring the fields – the resonance flicker was well under normal, incidental fluctuation. If she hadn’t stopped in zoology and cut a swath through Notes on the fauna of a portion of the canyon region of northwestern Texas, we might never have known she was gone.”
“What got your friend,” Camille said, “is La Mantilla. She originally came out of a Spanish book of poetry by the disturbed second son of a wealthy ranchero. It was one of the first texts hit in the 1842 incident – so she got an extra dose of,” Camille lifted a hand off the steering wheel to wave it, “juice. La Mantilla is class one, deadly.”
As Camille took the ramp off 15th down to Lamar at twice the posted speed, Felix said, “Being that La Mantilla’s motives are the motives of a mythic female figure in an epic poem by a crazy man, we don’t know exactly what she’s trying to achieve, but what she does is absorb the stuff of other texts into herself and make chaos of them.”
“I think she’s denying any reality but her own,” Camille said.
“Except that it was her own reality – her origin text – that she turned to smoke and absorbed first,” Felix countered.
“She was trying to blot herself out before anything else,” Minch said, startling them, he knew, because they were silent a moment. “So, out in the world, she smokes other beings. Literally, like, like they’re walking texts?”
“Exactly,” Felix said.
Pease Park was a spiky belt of leaf and branch darkness to the left as they careened up the long curves of one of the city’s older north-south arteries. Minch expected police sirens and flashing lights any moment, but they didn’t appear; traffic was thin after one a.m. on a weeknight.
“I, myself,” Ludo said, “had to flee my home text, the journal of an early Dutch settler, when La Mantilla came through and integrated nearly all my originator’s thoughts, memories, dreams, and musings into her. She stripped the journal of meaning behind me. I was a dream,” he finished, somewhat proudly. “That is what allowed me to escape. As a child of the imagination of an intelligent and resourceful individual, I was able to jump to a resonance in the county marriage records and from there to a collection of legends, narratives, and ballads of the southwest, from whence an earlier antecedent of these two,” Ludo gestured to Camille and Felix, “offered me safe haven and employ.”
“La Mantilla’s pass through Ludo’s origin text sent echoes of the original curse through the book and Ludo caught a good dose of awakening,” Camille said.
Ludo sniffed, as if to say he’d always been perfectly awake and aware, thank you.
“So,” Felix said, “tell us about Jeff.”
Minch snapped his head back to the front from watching Ludo affix a different monocle in his unoccupied eye so he wore two, the second one some kind of faceted glass; it glittered as he studied the screens.
“You knew him, right?”
“Yeah,” Minch said in a small voice, then shook himself. They meant to catch the woman…the thing, the made-up figure of mad poetry…that had left a Jeff-shaped hollow in the night. He’d help.
“Tell us something about him so we can get a trace on La Mantilla – she leaks a little of whatever she last took in.”
“Philosophy, book after book of it. And espresso. And his ex-girlfriend. That’s what gives Jeff his happy.” Gave, he thought. “Is he really – I mean, can you – you can get him back, right?”
Silence answered him, and then Felix shook his head. “No, man. Sorry. He’s gone.”
Minch stared out at the bulk of trees under light-polluted night sky, reflections in the windshield blurring under his eyes. “This really sucks.”
“Of what was Jeff speaking just before La Mantilla took him, please?” Ludo didn’t pause in typing into one of the keyboards as he asked.
“Kierkegaard,” Minch said. “About perception and subjectivity and how they shape reality, that kind of stuff.”
“She won’t like that,” Felix said.
“Actually,” Camille said, as they swerved around one of the 25 mile per hour curves at about 55, pressing them all hard to the right. “I think it’s hard to say how it will affect her. ‘Subjectivity is truth’ can hardly be a difficult thing for her to swallow. She’s all about the priority of the individual’s interpretation to make meaning – or unmeaning – of a text.”
“Triangulating by early Kierkegaard’s subjectivity is truth,” Ludo said, “hmm, romantic obsession for the ex-girlfriend…and the aesthetic and ethical life,” his fingers flew over the boards while he tilted his head side to side, peering at the screens first through one monocle, then the other.
The screens showed lines of scrolling text and notations with the occasional graph, map, or illustrated table. Abruptly Ludo turned to a large dark green tome with the look of an almanac, flipped rapidly through pages, peered at one, back at the screens, flipped a page, back. Then he grunted with satisfaction and let the faceted monocle fall from his eye. “Shoal Creek, north, in a small park. She’s conjuring. I think the caffeinated philosophical content of the late gentleman is perhaps making her,” here he broke off and twirled one finger by his temple.
“What, crazier?” Camille said.
Two more sharp turns and they were on Shoal Creek Boulevard, speeding along the winding road past low ranch houses and tall trees.
“Hmm, I may have an idea,” Camille said. “Scroll up some Hegel, the ‘rational is the real’ stuff, and get that description of the poet’s home – La Mantilla’s originator, I mean – it’s in that little biography.”
“I know the one,” Ludo said, fingering through piles of books with one hand while the other worked over a keypad.
They came around a curve and on the left a low ground of grassy, coppiced park, tall pecan and oak trees with spreading branches, opened down to the creek. Camille brought the van to a stop that threw Minch into the back of Felix’s seat. Felix and Camille unbelted and joined Ludo in the back while Minch righted himself, rubbing his shoulder.
“Yes,” Camille pointed at one of Ludo’s screens. “Felix, suck this Hegel into the tablet.”
“What are you going to do?” Minch asked.
Camille looked around at him like she’d forgotten he was there. “Create a text trap for her.”
“Using Hegel and a biography?”
“It’s a specific section from the biography of the poet who wrote La Mantilla, describing his childhood home and a traumatic memory, which figures largely in the text of the poem.”
“So, you’ll…read…to her?”
Camille nodded. “Felix will read the Hegel mixed with some stuff we put together standard for text trapping. I’ll read the bio passage and Ludo will use his visualization monocle – part of his original dream equipment – to form a net. Ludo, you have the biography?”
The little man nodded, monocles clicking together on his chest, and handed Camille a slim hardback book with age-brown page edges. She also took a small notebook from a stack of them still half in their packaging.
Felix glanced out the van’s windshield, “You think we can net her into a blank?”
Camille gave another nod. “And then burn it.”
Felix plugged his tablet into the computer array while they conferred a bit more about textual resonances, trope configurations, and sub-sub-textual anchors. Minch peered out through the windshield and saw the woman in the veil down at the edge of the creek. A juddering shift of color and distortion filled the space over the creek before her.
The judder in the air became a black horse stretched out in a leap. Before it touched water, the horse was gone, replaced by another juddering distortion and then an old bus, derelict and broken-windowed, sitting at the edge of a dark wood that blotted out the scrubby Texas version along the other side of the creek. Figures moved dimly behind the bus’s broken windows.
La Mantilla did not move or gesture, but blue flame-light sheeted off her like hard rain off a roof, flickering on the undersides of leaf and branch.
Minch could smell burning flowers even inside the van.
Felix leaned beside him. “She’s pulling images out of all the text – and people – she’s consumed, like debris from a shipwreck surfacing in the ocean. She’s playing, basically. When she gets bored, and comes down from smoking your friend, she’ll go smoke someone else.”
“Why don’t you just kill her?”
“Won’t work,” Felix said, disconnecting the tablet from the array. “We could shoot her, burn her, cut her up in little pieces – she’d just reassemble. She has to be rendered back into text first.”
“Okay,” Camille said behind them. “Let’s do this.”
They climbed out of the van. Camille held the biography, one finger holding a place between pages. She also had the plain paper notebook tucked in her back pocket. Felix carried the tablet. Text and symbols scrolled across its screen. Ludo had a small blow torch – Minch recognized it as the kind his mom used for crème brulée – and all his monocles swinging from his neck. Minch also saw him tuck a laser-pen in the rick-racked front breast pocket of his uniform jacket.
Camille turned as Minch climbed down after them. “Stay back; you don’t want to get too close, yeah?”
“Seriously,” Felix said.
Minch nodded and hung back as they approached La Mantilla and her mid-air nickelodeon. Blue light flickered over them, sparking off Ludo’s monocles: three heroes closing with the bad guy – an insane, carnivorous poem-woman – with books and a dessert torch for weapons. Jeff would have loved it, Minch thought, and flinched from a shudder of empty, horrible loss.
The bus and forest gave way to something Minch recognized: the pool table in the Red Seven, a game under way, Jeff’s bony fingers on a cue and his ex-girlfriend on the other side of the table, sipping a pale, sweating draft and leaning on her own pool cue. Minch watched, rapt.
Felix’s voice rose, the fingers of one of his hands tracing symbols in the air as he read. Minch caught a word in English here and there, but otherwise it was a mix he couldn’t follow, German, Latin, French. Then Camille joined Felix, opening the book to the place held by her finger, reading in Spanish.
With the little blow torch set down in the grass beside his polished boots, Ludo had a monocle in each eye and held another up, directing the light from a laser-pen through it. The beam broke red on the lens, which scattered it into a visible net of lines cast wide above La Mantilla.
The conjured pool game faded into night; snow took its place, falling from nowhere into nowhere, thick flurries of it in a light whose source was elsewhere.
Camille’s and Felix’s voices rose and fell.
The snow freeze-framed, stuttering. Camille’s voice rose, the cadence of the Spanish growing aggressive – repeating a paragraph over and over. Minch picked the words casa, amarillo, and usado out of the rise and fall several times.
The snow fell away, fading. La Mantilla’s conjuring space, above the creek, remained empty; instead hot, overexposed sunlight flared around her, an irradiance in the night. Blousy, parchment moon-colored roses trailed high among dusty green leaves over the portico of an old house. Doves murmured in the eaves above. La Mantilla looked up.
A heavy, drowsing perfume filled the night.
La Mantilla reached a hand up to meet a petal falling from one of the roses. Then her hand snapped closed and she whirled around. Her eyes blazed and she snarled a word that singed the air around her. She snarled another word and the blue flame light flashed from her and licked over Felix. His voice shook and fell a moment, then came back. The sheeting blue flame sizzled out into sparks fading on the air.
La Mantilla gestured with one hand, imperious as a Flamenco dancer. Sheeting blue light focused into a gleaming point and then began to spiral out. Darkness coalesced at the center, black as thick printer’s ink cutting cleanly into a page.
Camille’s and Felix’s voices were both growing ragged. Minch found his hands clenched into fists, nails biting into sweaty palms.
La Mantilla continued to spit out caustic, incomprehensible words and the dark spiral spun larger and larger, frilled at its edges with blue flame, spinning a hole in the world.
Then the same jump cut, freeze-frame stutter that had stopped the snow froze the scene of house and roses a moment – only this time La Mantilla and her blue spiral stuttered with it, becoming one with the conjured setting.
“Now, Ludo!” Camille interrupted her reading to shout, then went right back to the Spanish.
Ludo turned the monocle in one hand; the laser lines began to close in.
Stutter. La Mantilla seethed within the fume of roses and sunlight, spitting words that pitted the air, the spiral growing out in jumps and stutters to meet Ludo’s closing laser web.
Freeze. Stutter. Another rose petal began to fall, turning in the air. Freeze, jump cut, the petal was gone and La Mantilla stood frozen, her spiral falling to sparks, a thousand fireflies in the grass. The whole thing wavered like heat.
Camille whipped the notebook out of her back pocket and cracked it even as she continued reading from the old volume.
Ludo’s net closed as La Mantilla began to waver, becoming heat and light. Her upraised hand became fume and her lace veils began to smoke into the air.
Minch felt an odd drift of wind and all the hair on his body prickled. A thread of blue tendril, curling away from La Mantilla like a tentacle, had slipped under Ludo’s net and was snaking along the ground, reaching for Felix. None of the others, their focus on the action, seemed to see it.
The tentacle circled Felix’s legs.
Minch ran and leapt at Felix, pushing him out of the way and diving over the tentacle himself. He rolled to a stop –
– just short of La Mantilla’s sandaled feet. Close enough to see the flex of tendons in slender, quicksilver-blue ankles, the brush of heavy lace and skirts, and then see them begin to distort, becoming smoke and air.
He drew a surprised, frightened breath and heat filled his lungs, searing through him.
Everything spun into darkness laced with unbearable radiance, a gleaming, abalone-shelled radiance. He heard doves and smelled roses and hot sunlight and then there was only a deep, rushing garble of word and image giving in to void.
He was aware first of the smell of burnt paper, then of voices speaking softly nearby.
“…going to have to keep an eye on him, clearly.”
“Probably it wasn’t enough to make him dangerous, yeah?” that was Camille.
“Most of her was successfully distilled into the notebook.” Ludo’s voice.
He heard a soft rusty cooo, cooo, cooo and shivered, seeing the doves in the eaves above him, his hand reaching for a rose, a thread of hunger through him, tender and cruel…
“Mourning doves,” Felix said. “Saddest sound in the world.”
“I like it,” Camille said.
Minch opened his eyes, aware then that the doves were only calling out of the scrubby woods along the creek. It was just barely dawn. The air was humid but cooler, a soft gray light caught in the trees.
Camille’s face appeared over him. “Okay?”
Minch started to say yes, then didn’t. He sat up and images and sensations – moon-gold roses, una casa de la pesadilla, a rush of feathers, blood, and the taste of sunlight – fell through him. “Um,” he said, and shuddered.
“You caught a lungful of La Mantilla,” Camille said.
“There’s a crackle of trace,” Felix said, looking at the mp3-ish device.
“Yeah,” Camille said. “We’re going to have to keep an eye on you.”
Minch looked at the little pile of ashed paper notebook beside Ludo’s crème brulée torch. He shook his head, as if he might jar the images and feelings loose and spill them out an ear.
“Yeah, I think maybe you’d better.”
This story originally appeared in Crossed Genres.