Authors: Kater Cheek
Tags: #urban fantasy, #rat, #arizona, #tempe, #mage, #shapeshift, #owl, #alternate susan
By Kater Cheek
Cover Art Copyright 2014
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblances
to places or people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Susan crouched under the pecan tree, holding
a small limp body in her hands. She felt like some investigator on
television, except that the investigators on television always had
full makeup and push-up demi bras under tailored suit jackets
instead of jean shorts and suede sandals which were getting ruined
from the mud. Susan would describe herself as about fifteen pounds
too heavy, currently unemployed and with a hobby she didn’t like to
discuss. That’s how she thought of mage-craft: her hobby. If
someone had informed her that she was the second most powerful mage
in the Phoenix area, she would have scoffed and rolled her eyes. If
she knew that at that moment she was being watched, that what she
did with the body would make dangerous people take note of her,
she’d be inside making wards, rather than turning the body over and
searching it for cause of death.
This wasn’t the first body she had found in
the garden, though Susan had blamed the first murder on the cat.
Plausible, seeing as how Sphinx was able to see gnosti, and the
first dead body had been one of the common garden fey, resembling a
softer and cuddlier version of a hedgehog.
But not this one. He was too human looking.
The dead gnosti had black hair and skin the color of dry soil, and
was short enough that even a Barbie doll would have wanted to wear
flats on a date with him. Unlike Ken, this dead gnosti came with
complete tackle between his legs, which Susan was trying not to
look at out of a vague sense of decency. He was about the same size
as a garden fey, but she didn’t know if he even was a garden
She’d never seen one that looked this human.
Gnosti, then, until she had a better term.
Gnosti was the catch-all term for any magical
creature: fey, djinn, seca. Even Ruby Gardener was technically a
gnosti, though Susan preferred the terms ‘Goddess’ and ‘ancestor
spirit’. Gnosti was about as useful a term as ‘animal’. Junebugs
and pandas were both animals.
Sometimes it frustrated the hell out of Susan
that even an experienced mage like herself had about as much
knowledge of the gnosti as a seventeenth century European had about
American wildlife. Even the best mages were just muddling through,
making it up as they went along.
Once, Susan had found an online site with
photos and descriptions of common garden fey and other gnosti. The
only one she recognized was a bramblemae, and half the “facts”
about them weren’t true. She’d seen one that looked something like
the little Ken doll here, except that online the photo clearly
showed him with wings, and it said they only lived in cold, damp
climates. A suburb of Phoenix did not count as a cold, damp
It was the humanness that made her decide to
bury him, and it was his humanness that made her decide to get
involved. Normally the fey affected human lives about as much as
animals did. Sometimes they could come into your life, briefly, but
mostly they lived their lives independent of and ignored by
mankind. A dead gnosti had as much to do with Susan’s life as a
dead pigeon would. Even two dead gnosti wouldn’t affect her at
Except that when he had fingers and toes and
human features, he was no longer a body, but a murder victim.
She searched in the shed for a plastic
trowel, still holding the limp body of the faerie in her hand.
Susan never liked touching dead things, and even when their
previous cat had killed birds, she would usually wrap the feathered
corpse in a paper towel shroud before picking it up, but it seemed
disrespectful to treat it like one of the cat’s victims. She
couldn’t dig easily in the soil with one hand, so she had to set
the body on the ground. A fly settled on the gnosti’s hand briefly,
then flew off. Most insects, like most people and most animals,
didn’t even notice garden fey, as they existed halfway between this
world and the Elsewhere. Once they were dead, they fell into one or
the other, and either got eaten or decayed, or did whatever they
did in the Elsewhere.
Until a few months ago, Susan had been living
in a non-magical alternate reality, where everyone knew that gnosti
didn’t exist and the only people who talked about magic were crazy
homeless people and Sedona tourists. Sometimes she wondered if
magic and gnosti had existed in that other world too, and she just
hadn’t noticed it.
Susan had to abandon her first hole when she
saw nasturtium seedlings covering the ground under the pecan tree’s
trunk. Zoë, her roommate, landlady, and longest friend, was an avid
gardener, and she wouldn’t appreciate any more destruction,
especially in November when all the beds had been weeded and
planted with seedlings in anticipation of six months of decent
weather. Most of the garden had been destroyed earlier that summer
by an evil djinn, which was kind of Susan’s fault. She buried the
fey on top of the grave of Zoë’s cat. Zoë’s cat had also been
killed by the djinn. Their friendship had withstood that, but
barely, and Susan didn’t want to antagonize Zoë any more than she
While Susan was washing the mud off her
hands, Zoë opened the glass door leading from the master bedroom to
the backyard. She plucked a vine of catsclaw off the screen of the
window vents, and frowned at it. Even though they had hacked the
catsclaw vines down the previous year, it was creeping up the wall
again, as though trying to lasso the roof and drag the house to the
Zoë held her hands under her armpits and
tongued her lip piercings as though she had something difficult to
say. Zoë was small and thin, with short hair that was black at the
tips and platinum blonde at the roots. Her ears were pierced many
times, her tongue was pierced, and her eyebrows had two rings
apiece. She was wearing a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off.
The wing of each of the two full-length dragon tattoos on her back
peeked out under the edge of the sleeve, and the tails of the
dragons snaked out from under her denim shorts to curl around and
tuck into her boots.
Susan turned off the water and dried her
hands off on her shirt. She stood and shaded her eyes against the
sun. “Something up?”
“You’re what?” Susan asked.
“I’m selling the house,” Zoë said, as though
it were nothing at all to get rid of the home she had slaved and
worked to perfect. Her most recent renovation, putting in gravel
paths in the backyard, had taken several months to complete, and
cost almost a thousand dollars. Zoë would never leave this house.
Zoë loved this house. Even now she couldn’t help tearing vines away
from the window.
“You can’t be serious!” Susan’s protest came
out whiny and panicked. “You just fixed this place up!”
Zoë shrugged and snipped vines with a pair of
scissors she took out of her pocket. “A friend of the family is
selling his house. It’s bigger than this one, and on a quieter
street. He’s giving it to me for a good price. I can’t let this
opportunity pass by.”
“But what about me?” Susan asked. What she
meant was, how could Zoë do something so horrible? This place
wasn’t just a room that Susan rented, it was home. Why would Zoë
disrupt something that was working just fine?
“You can rent a room in the new house,” Zoë
said. “Unless you want to buy this house from me.”
“I can’t buy this house.” She didn’t have
enough money or credit, for one thing. Also, she wanted Zoë to
forget this crazy idea that sounded like a cruel joke.
“Good,” Zoë said, nodding. “Because Darius is
okay with renting a room in the new house, so that will mean only
one more tenant to find.”
“I don’t want to move. Why do you want a
bigger house? This house is fine.”
“So get rid of some stuff.”
Zoë shook her head. “We need more space.
Besides, I just fixed this place up, there’s nothing left to
“Four years is an awfully long flip.” Susan
folded her arms. She was aware that she sounded petulant, but she
couldn’t help herself.
“Susan, we’re moving only a mile away,” Zoë
said. “You can keep the same friends, shop at the same stores, and
even use the same exit on the freeway. I know you don’t like
change, but it will be for the best.”
“I’m fine with change,” Susan said.
“Good. We have some boxes, if you want to
start packing early,” Zoë said. She went back into the house and
shut the door.
“I don’t wanna move,” Susan said, after the
Susan knew she was whining. She also knew,
deep down, that she didn’t like change at all. She’d had more than
her fair share in the past year. Zoë’s news unsettled her. The dead
gnosti upset her too. She needed comfort, even if she had promised
herself that she wasn’t going to indulge anymore.
Six months earlier she’d spent every week
doing the same thing, hanging out with her brother and sister and
trying to get them and their mom out of the various straits (mostly
financial) they found themselves in. Now she was here, without any
family except her estranged sister and her mom Maggie, who was
still holding a grudge about something stupid. Except Zoë, all her
friends here were new. And if that weren’t bad enough, in this
reality Susan was a mage who could see the fey. Susan was coming to
terms with it, for the most part, but there were days when she
Whenever she felt like life handed her too
much to deal with, Susan liked to peer into the life she left
behind. She had a huge mirror stuffed into the back of her closet,
which she had tried to make into a portal home again. It didn’t
work as a portal, but it showed her alternate counterpart. She
clicked the light on. Did it count as voyeurism if the person you
were spying on was wearing your old body?
Susan pulled off the old coat she had used to
shield the front of the mirror from view. The mirror showed the
reflection of the room, or what the reflection would have looked
like, had it been hanging on the wall in the room behind her. It
disconcerted her, especially how the image didn’t alter when you
moved the frame. Her brain saw it as a mirror, but she’d been
trying to remind herself it was just an unusual monitor with a
camera feed to the other reality. There wasn’t any sound, but since
you couldn’t string cable across the planes of reality, it was the
best she could do to relieve homesickness.
The other Susan sat at her computer desk,
listening to music and surfing the web. The door obscured the view
briefly, then closed again, and a figure crossed the room. She
hoped it was Jess or Christopher; viewing her dead siblings alive
again was the main reason she kept the mirror. A brief rectangle of
light showed that someone had opened the closet door in the other
reality. A split second later, Susan heard her own closet door
shut. And then she felt a hand on her shoulder.
Susan screamed and jerked away, tangling
herself in the coats and dresses. A moment later, she laughed at
herself. It was just the spirit of her dead grandmothers, taken
“You spying on her again?” Ruby tsked.
Ruby took the form of a rawboned woman in a
calico dress. Her hands were rough and chapped, and her hair looked
as though she’d never purchased any salon products. Her eyes were
sharp. She wasn’t any specific grandmother, or great aunt, but the
amalgamation of the deceased members of the Stillwater family.