34 A lovely night to pistol whip some rando

Life in Vancouver was not the same after Michel arrived. He had no problem going to bars and listening to loud music. George had better things to be doing.

Michel didn’t drink alcohol – “It got no effect on me, at all,” he said – so if Jesse had a few, he’d look out for him on the Vomit Comet, the night bus that conveyed him back to Burnaby (Jesse had moved, but only one street over), and keep the pickpockets and jackasses away if he started to ‘nap’. Knowing he was with a person of considerable strength, skill and speed was sometimes enough to make Jesse giddy, no alcohol required.

Michel’s favourite watering hole trick was to wait until closing time, figure out which of Vancouver’s world-class supply of entitled young douche-nozzles was drugging the drinks of their marks, and tie him into diverse shapes in the parking lot, after surreptitiously punching out all the security cameras. Sometimes he just covered those prying eyes in gum, it being useful and pretty much lying around everywhere downtown. Threats were usually all it took to deal with jackasses, since Jesse was big and Michel was a small town in Saskatchewan¹, but there were always the nights when Michel allowed things to get lively.

After, he told Jesse he’d smelled the gun a mile against the wind.  It had been recently fired, within the last day, anyway, so Michel knew he was dealing with, at minimum, a hobbyist who probably wasn’t a bad shot, and at worst, a wise guy, who lived to achieve oneness with his gun.  Michel knew and loved wise guys from his early days in Montréal. The prospect of being shot at didn’t bother him, and he thought he’d take special pains to ensure Jesse didn’t eat a stray round, that being at least a possibility. Jesse, having survived, allowed himself to be amused.

Michel had caught a young man drugging a woman at closing time. His comments on the young man’s technique had led to a shoving match which Michel cheerfully took outside, with Jesse keeping Michel between him and the amateur druggist and his chums.

“So you’re telling me one of three things,” Michel said, punting each syllable across a chasm of disbelief, “You think you’re too ugly to pick up girls without drugs, you know you’re too ugly to pick up girls without drugs, or you just plain like girls who don’t move and can’t complain about what a sorry excuse for a penis you have.”

“You don’t get to say shit like that to me,” the young man said, with complete contempt. He pulled a gun from the rear of his waistband and shot Michel once.

Jesse yelled, and ducked behind a car. Michel’s voice, apparently in his ear, said, “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with the gun. Stay put.” Jesse couldn’t help himself and peered around the vehicle.  He could see three men, but only one with a gun.

The young man approached again and shot Michel, who had fallen over backward, twice more at point blank range.

“Well, you shot me, but you didn’t manage to kill me,” Michel said, conversationally. He got up. He was neither bleeding, nor gasping, nor anything really, except moving toward the gun as implacably as a golem. “Jeez, if you’re shooting at me, shouldn’t I at least know your name?”

Jesse yelled, “Don’t tell him, he’s got a really good memory!”

Michel said, “Now what the fuck would you say that for?”

The young man, eyes glaring and face stark with rage and disappointment, fired twice more.  Michel appeared to skid along on the ground on his ass, rotating slightly with each shot. The gunman’s two buddies, coming forward, murmured to each other.

“I dunno, dramatic effect?” Jesse yelled.

“You’re enjoying this too much.”

“You said you’d get rid of the gun,” Jesse yelled.

The young man emptied his clip, another seven bullets.

It was as if the gun hadn’t spoken with its deafening, soul-shattering voice.

“Oh yeah,” Michel said.  “That’s right.”

The gun disappeared from the shooter’s hand and reappeared in Michel’s.  Michel, apparently having been shot 12 times to no effect, pistol-whipped his assailant once and then tripped his buddies as they approached to help their friend. 

Michel said, as he stood over them, “Because you came forward to help this asshole” – here he toed his unconscious form with dainty disgust – “I’ll give you the chance to run away now.  By god if I catch you drugging girls or helping to haul them home, you’ll get drugged and wake up in a Saudi jail. Or maybe an Indonesian one, depending. You fucking understand me? Try to have fun without hurting women. It is possible, you know.” He then hauled them to their feet as if they were puppies, patted them both hard on the ass and they bolted. “Don’t forget to call 911 for your friend!” Michel called after them.

Jesse had reached for his phone.

Michel said, tucking a hand into Jesse’s belt to pull him along, away from the scene, “Don’t bother. If you call the cops you’ll be tying yourself to me in a police report and while I have very little respect for cops George does not share my opinion.”

“He could die,” Jesse said.

“I don’t think so.  It’s just a little depressed skull fracture over a part of his brain he doesn’t seem to be using, it’ll slow him down for a week maybe.  Let’s rewind! He shot me twelve times! Well, if you’re gonna get technical he shot me ten times and I had to stand in front of the strays to catch ’em so they didn’t hit somebody’s car.”

Or me.

This triggered Jesse’s interest in forensics. “Hey wait a minute,” Jesse said, turning to look one last time at the scene.  “Where’d all the shell casings go?”

Michel gave an exaggerated shrug.  For about half a second, he looked like a tall and infamous professional magician, and then, smiling at Jesse’s startled reaction, he theatrically spat out a shell casing.

“Jesus!” Jesse said.

Still smiling, Michel continued to spit. Eventually his left hand held all the shell casings, and his right hand held all the bullets, which had been flattened, as if they’d hit a wall.

“What in the ever loving fuck are you made out of?” Jesse breathed.

Again, that shrug.

“I don’t know,” Michel said.  “But George is made out of the same stuff, except for his hair, and he wants to find out what it is.”

“Why would any creature evolve naturally to be able to resist being shot at point-blank range?” Jesse asked, his brain ringing along with his ears.

“You think evolution did this?” Michel said, tapping himself all over.  He tapped his hand, and Jesse heard a cartoon bouncing noise.  Then he tapped his chest, making a great, hollow, metallic noise. Then he tapped his head, and it sounded like a tree being struck with a baseball bat.

“I can sound like anything too.”

“You can do anything,” Jesse said. It was hard not to sound envious.

“I can’t seem to make babies with Kima,” Michel said. The tone wavered between resentment and acceptance.  “It may be too much to ask, her commitment to George being how it is.”

“I wish I could meet her,” Jesse said. Then he said, as he started to tremble, “I really hate getting shot at.”

¹ Biggar

33 A lovely day for a boat ride

“I gave you her number. You didn’t text her?”

“I expected you’d tell her.”

George said, “This is awkward. Pull over, we’d better link.”

In the language of light, things made even less sense. Linking had always been painful with anyone except Michel and his mother. In his surprise he spoke aloud. “Nonsense!”

Michel dropped the link. “It’s true. I am scared of her.”

“Of course you’re scared of her, you’d be an idiot not to show her some respect.”

“Respect is not at all what I want to show her,” Michel said.

“You’d better not take that mood with you or you’re going to get your ass poked through your nose and tied in a knot.”

“That’s just a story,” Michel said.

“It’s a very good story.  Father says it’s true,” George said.

“That fucker barely registers gravity. The truth? I doubt it gets close enough to rub off on him,” Michel said, but there was no heat in his voice.  Laelaps, George’s father, was generally considered the second craziest individual to ever roam the planet.  Excluding humans of course, but they were very sociable about committing war and murder and theft and rape, and George’s people were not.

Laelaps’ crime had been against himself, and it had rendered him even more solitary, hiding far from the usual tracks and haunts. He no longer checked in with Hermes, everyone’s go-between, although Michel had hunted him down on his last visit home and hung out with him. To no purpose, of course. Laelaps had been impenetrable when his link worked, and now it was gone, he was a blob on a hillside, indistinguishable from the scenery, occasionally gesturing or lighting up. Sometimes they’d wrestle to stave off boredom.

“I never got the impression he was all that crazy,” George said.  “It was less than six months, the time I lived with him, but it was long enough to learn a lot more about him in his own words, to counter everything Psyche had said. He just seemed sad and always preoccupied, as if his thoughts could not be set aside for other activities.”

“I suppose,” Michel said.  He texted Kima.

“It’s a little late now,” George said, with irritation.  “She only surfaces twice a day to pick up her messages.”

“What?” Michel said.

“Deep water and cell phone coverage don’t mix.  If she’s not right at the surface, she might as well be on the moon.”

“Shit,” Michel said.

He thrashed around for a while. George stood out of the way, as was polite.

“I will be giving her a surprise,” Michel said, knowing this was a bad thing.

“I’m pretty sure she wants to see you.”

“I should warn her.”

“It’s not traditional.  She likes it traditional,” George said.  It was true, as far as it went, but he’d still get a scolding for not warning her.

“I have to see her,” Michel said dreamily, “Even if she thumps me the whole time.”

“That seems unlikely.”

They slowed to a more sedate pace.

It was a beautiful fall day, perfect for a boat ride. They found an inconspicuous place at the marina to reappear, and walked down the ramp. The boat was a 24 foot Sea Ray, adequate for a jaunt out into the Salish Sea on a sunny day. The boat captain was a First Nations man who greeted George by name and smiled at Michel. “Good morning,” he said. George introduced him as Sparrow.

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” George said.

Michel linked with him, giving him a blast of shit for giving Kima’s location to a human. He’d been under the impression that they were going to hitch a ride on a boat, not be accompanied there by a nosy bonebag.

Aloud, George said, “My cousin is unhappy that you know the coordinates.”

“It’s only for today,” the man said, puzzled. “She doesn’t stay in the same place.”

“You know Kima?” Michel said, astonished.

“That’s one of her names,” the man said, frowning a little. “You have more than one name too, don’t you?”

Michel for once couldn’t speak, and ponderously moved his slate grey glare in George’s direction.

“Michel, I know who you are,” Sparrow said, with a calm that suggested coaching. “George, you shouldn’t tease him.” George said nothing, and Michel knew George was doing exactly that.

“What do you think is happening right now?” Michel said, slowly and carefully.

“You’re going to meet with Kima for a few hours, and then I drop you back wherever you want,” Sparrow said.

“Like I said,” George said.  “Have fun, play safe, all good wishes,” he added.

Michel called him a number of choice things in Greek, something unforgivable in Hungarian, and capped it with a biological slur in Romanian, but in a tone suggesting that everything was perfect and that he couldn’t be happier.

“Same to you, you miserable worm,” George said in Greek with a smile in his voice, and turned away with a wave.

Sparrow was under contract to George to provide him and certain associates with access to Kima. Michel, making conversation, learned that he was not the only human who knew about Kima, and that he had seen her dance on shore.

“What the fuck?” Michel said.

“George told you nothing about our arrangement? That doesn’t seem like him.”

“Oh no,” Michel said, his voice filling with gravel. “It seems as like him as anything I can think about.”

“George says you think you and he are competing for Kima,” Sparrow said.

Michel kept his temper, since there seemed to be more coming.

“But he said that she’s not a prize to be won.”

“No,” Michel said, looking ahead. “Kima and George have an agreement. Kima and me don’t.”

It took about an hour to get there. When they arrived at the coordinates, Michel thanked Sparrow and apologized for his harsh tone. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he said.

“I’ll take you up on that someday,” Sparrow said, and watched as Michel went over the side and vanished beneath the waves.  He drew off to a more sheltered place, set a few fishing lines, and kept a watchful eye on the spot where he had last seen Michel.

32 A lovely day for a run

That was really the heart of Jesse’s misgivings. He could not help but think that George had been very careful to select him, but could not understand the why of it.

__________

George arose after almost exactly four hours and walked over to look down at Jesse sleeping. Most of his kind are invisible when asleep; George had trained himself decades previously to look human while he slept, which no-one else had ever bothered with.  Michel and Kima disappeared when they were asleep, just like normal people.

He thought of going to the roof to see Michel, and then decided to wait.  Michel would come down soon enough, desperate to find out where Kima was. George tried to picture that reunion, but he already knew that Kima preferred Michel as a sexual partner, even if neither of them had managed to get her pregnant.

He smiled at Jesse, thinking that this man could have sex a couple of times with a woman and knock her up without even trying; the notion that George had been trying to become a father for forty years would confuse him, if he didn’t find it outright ludicrous. Or he’d tell him to go see a doctor, which was an occupation unknown to a species which could live for five centuries and had remarkably few ailments. The closest thing to a doctor he knew was his incredible busy-body of a grandmother, with her pretensions to being an expert on reproduction – when her own water brood had died. It was not a stellar record. Zosime had only managed one living child, and Psyche had only managed to give birth to George.

Humans, with their easy, casual, domestic animal rates of increase, filled him with gloom illuminated with overt envy.

He went out to the balcony, blocking all the light from the door as he exited, to be kind to Jesse, and moments later, Michel swung over the top of the overhang to stand next to him.  They spoke quietly, in English, in case Jesse awoke and was irritated they were leaving him out of the conversation.

“Today?”

“Today. You don’t have to come tonight, we’re not going to be moving that much, so we’re taking Morag’s truck.”

“What’s happening tonight?”

“The ex-wife wants all her photographs and memorabilia out of there.”

Michel chuckled.  “Out of that mess? Good luck. I’ll be doing something much more fun.”

“You hope! I know what a photograph smells like, even in that midden-come-charnel-house.  I’ll find them soon enough.” He looked over Coal Harbour, toward Stanley Park, and said, “I’m really glad you’re in town.”

“Lonely, are you?” Michel said. He sounded sarcastic, but George knew better. For Michel it was much the same. Few of their kind had any use for humans, whether they were forced to interact with them or not. George living as a human among them was bad; Michel doing it was worse, since it was general knowledge that George was a sadly irrational fool, but Michel was accounted to be more sensible, even though he was the current ranking expert at living human.

“Do you feel like running across town to the boat? I left a note for Jesse, and a key; he can let himself out.”

“You’re trusting.”

“And so are you!” They linked for a second, until Michel had it clear in his mind where they were going.

They ducked below the sightline of the balcony railing, disappeared and flung themselves over the side to surf down the row of balconies.  Michel did pratfalls all the way down, spectral bounces and stretches, only visible in their sideband vision, more than once banging into his cousin, who was expecting it and appeared to give no sign of noticing. George proceeded to the ground with speed and efficiency, but no style. 

Then they ran, flat out across town, invisible parkour maniacs who could lope along at thirty kph. Across yards, climbing buildings, dodging Skytrains, scaring the shit out of unwary dogs as they came through, all noise and no scent or sight, accidentally putting a tiny ding in a bus fender, knocking cell phones into the passenger footwell if the driver left a window open, and otherwise being giddy assholes.

“Hold up, hold up,” George said, pausing at a cop car and relieving it of a couple of zap straps.

He did not put it in a pocket, because he had none.  The hole that opened in the side of his body swallowed the zap straps, and then closed. It could not be said to have vanished, because it could not be seen, at least if George had had the sense to stand still while he was making a hole.

“Tell me again about the guy with the gun,” Michel said. They had switched back to Greek.  He dearly loved firearms, and George had promised time at a private range, where he would not be required to show ID, which he appreciated.

“What’s to tell?” George said.  “I told you once, has your memory failed since the last time we spoke?”

“I like the human way of singing the song more than once,” Michel said, unapologetic.  That was the deal.  He didn’t have to apologize for liking something human around George.

“Do you want me to do a cool jazz version of it this time?”

“No, more like John Woo, total fuckin’ chaos.”

“To be candid, every time I think of Jesse’s face as he got the gun shoved at him, it’s hard for me to bring myself to sing the song again, as it has quite unpleasant echoes for me.”

“I’ll ask Jesse.”

“He may be more forthcoming with you. He seems to like you already.”

“I think Jesse would like any man who didn’t try to hurt him,” Michel said.

“More fool him,” George said.

“Is Kima expecting me?” Michel said.  He would get increasingly single-minded as they approached the shore.

31 Head space

Jesse lay back in the sleeping nest he had constructed. He put on his sleeping mask and carefully screwed up his foam earplugs and stuck them in his ears. He sighed.

Let’s recap, Jesse thought.

George and Michel are members of the same species, presenting as male humans. But are they really? They talk about a mate, or Kima, and refer to her as she, and themselves as male. Can I assume from this that whatever they are, they experience gender sort of like we do? Of course God help them if they do, because the way we experience gender is often extremely fucked up.

It annoyed him that there wasn’t enough evidence. People can say anything about themselves, and often do.  But Jesse had always thought, even if he couldn’t prove it, George told the truth unless he had a good reason. But he had no idea what that reason could be.

Why did George say ‘planet’ when he could have said ‘Earth’? But they both say they were born in Europe.

He’d confirmed that with Michel, while he was working with him, away from George.  But it was a weird piece of hearsay: “We were both born in Europa, him on land and me in water.”

He contemplated that for a minute, but realized that humans also have water-births, although it isn’t common, and decided not to worry about that part.

Both of them can vanish.  Are they moving out of my view or just disappearing, or are they somehow editing the light my eyes and brain turn into my perceptions? Is it a species-wide characteristic?

He wanted to start putting his questions into a notebook, except that he’d be viewed as a lunatic if somebody else read it.  He imagined laboriously writing in his childlike handwriting, “Ask Michel and George separately if Kima can vanish.” And then finding Raven looking at it, with one eyebrow going up like a wing.

Michel thinks Kima is real. So maybe – she is real. Michel certainly seems real.

I should start thinking of the questions I’ll ask her if I ever meet her.

“Hey Kima how does it feel to be referred to as a mate?”

Maybe that’s what she wants.

If she’s not a girl, she can’t be a girlfriend.

Michel was born in water.

George said, “If you feel like swimming.”

Kima lives in water? Or across a stretch of water?

He reviewed every weird or inexplicable thing he’d ever seen George do.  After almost six months, it was a sizeable list.

He can move impossibly fast and carry very heavy loads.

He always sighs and laughs and barks exactly the same way, like he doesn’t have a voice so much as a … playback button. He never yawns, or makes breathing noises, and he never farts.

That just ain’t right.

But if he doesn’t eat, why would he need to fart?

That still ain’t right.  Anything that eats, excretes. How can his appetite be ‘vestigial’? Does he eat but he’s in denial about it, like one of those wacky New Age folks who think they can live on air but their friends sneak them food?

You can’t sneak up on him.

He speaks medieval Greek, Romanian, Hungarian, English, a little bit of German and some other language that isn’t human. But if they have their own language why would they learn human languages? And if it isn’t a human language, what the hell is it and where did it come from?

Raven would say I’m going down a rathole.

He won’t say how old he is but talks about World War II as if he lived through it.

I need to find more ways to ask him about his family that aren’t like me grilling him.

Why did George pick me to work with?

30. Crash space

“Indoors sucks,” Michel said. “I’m more like your dad that way.”

“What’s his dad like?” Jesse asked curiously.

“I’m right here.”

Jesse looked at George as they walked along.  Michel made a goofy face, and George said, “You know I can see you.”

Do you have eyes in the back of your head?” Jesse asked.  It had always bothered him, how aware George was – while pretending not to be.

“And the top of his head, and the soles of his feet, and the tips of his fingers. Mind you he got no head, no feet and no fingers, but he doesn’t let that stop him,” Michel said.

“You are a mixer,” George said quellingly.

“Are you – are you a shapeshifter?” Jesse asked in horror.

George’s “No!” cut across Michel’s knowing laugh.

“We’re a separate species from humans, not a magical variant of them,” George said. “There’s nothing magical about us at all.”

“Bullshit,” Jesse said.

“He’s telling the truth,” Michel said, nodding soberly.

“If you’re not human, and you’re not supernatural – or what, I guess ‘folkloric’? – what are you?” Jesse said.  “Are you defrocked gods or something?”

George shook his head.  Michel was smiling again.

“Nope,” George said, making it two syllables. “We’re born, we live, we die, just like every other critter on this planet.”

The bottom dropped out of Jesse’s stomach. There was an explanation that readily covered George and Michel’s oddity, but he hadn’t thought of it until George said ‘planet’.

“Feeling okay?” Michel murmured.

Jesse started to feel that an invitation to crash at George’s place might come at a high cost to his mental health. He took a deep breath, expelled it noisily and said, “What is it that you are seeing, when you can tell I’m upset about something?”

“Blood flow,” George said.

“How do you see it?”

“Colour and heat,” George said. “That, and posture.”

“But you can’t read my mind.”

“We know where the blood’s going,” Michel said.

“Refinements in medical imaging have made it easier to guess what’s going on. We’ve had years of observation, but it’s always good to have them confirmed by science. Yes, we know you’re upset.  We can also guess why.”

“You have arrived at your destination,” Michel said. With smooth efficiency, he entered the variety store, and picked out six items: milk, Cheerios, instant coffee, toilet paper, hand soap and a two bags of corn chips.

George and Jesse waited outside.

“Why don’t you eat?” Jesse asked suddenly.

George took the question with urbane calm, and replied, “I don’t have to. If it makes you feel any better, Michel eats a lot.”

“Everybody has to eat,” Jesse said.  “You’re fucking with basic physics if you don’t eat, and heading back into supernatural territory.”

“I have vestigial hunger, but I’m not going to talk about it until I’m home, and maybe not then.  I’ve been good-tempered about your questions, but they are tiresome and unwelcome. Could we please change the subject?”

Michel exited the store and handed Jesse the bags.

“What do I owe you?” Jesse said, reaching for his wallet.

Michel shook his head. “Just make sure you drink all the milk. If it goes bad in the fridge it may be weeks before George does anything about it.”

“Can’t you smell it?” Jesse asked.

“Yeah, but he don’t care,” Michel said. “And you heard him, enough with the third degree.”

Jesse’s phone alarm for dawn went off with a croaking sound.

Michel hadn’t heard it before, and looked questioningly at him.

“Gotta get indoors,” Jesse said.

“It’s not far, maybe ten minutes.”

“We could go faster,” Michel said, and Jesse, sensing that he might be the victim of a practical joke, tensed a little.

“Nonsense.  We have plenty of time, and Jesse has the mask in his backpack,” George replied.

George lived in a condo rental in a modest (there was no concierge) twelve storey building.

It was as spartan as George had hinted. There was a very strange looking bed, a sofa, a lamp, a TV and a remote. There was literally nothing else, no kitchen table, no chairs.

“Shit,” Michel said. “Should I have gotten cutlery?”

“I have one of each in the kitchen.”

“I carry utensils and a coffee cup,” Jesse said. He went straight to the kitchen to put away the milk, and opened the fridge door.

It was empty.

There wasn’t even ice in the trays, or a lonely box of baking soda.

After a very long pause, enlivened by Michel rolling his eyes and shooting out his lower lip, Jesse said, “Has there ever been anything in this fridge?”

“Raw tuna, beer, raw salmon, sushi and Chinese takeout,” George said.

“Who was the beer for?” Michel asked.

“The phone guy.”

“Ah,” Michel said.

“Who’s the phone guy?” Jesse asked.

“For the love of fair play and good manners, can we please cease to use interrogation as a discursive technique?”

“Fine,” Jesse said. He walked out of the kitchen, closed the living room curtains, which he was unsurprised to see were perfectly opaque, and sat down on the couch. “Pillows? Blankets?” he asked. “Or is that too interrogatory for you?”

Michel fetched them from a cupboard. Jesse made up his bed and got his earplugs and sleeping mask out, and without further comment stripped off to his briefs and sealed his disgusting clothes in a camping bag.

George got into the bed, which appeared to have a rolling wooden top, said, “Good night,” and closed it.

“You should get one of those,” Michel said.

“Nah,” Jesse said. It was a handsome piece of furniture, for a roll-top coffin. “I can’t sleep in a confined space; believe me, I’ve tried.”

Michel put his hand on the balcony door handle. “I’m off to the roof. It’s not a bad balcony but it’s got too much of an overhang, and I like to feel the wind in my hairs.”

“How are you getting to the roof?” Jesse said in alarm.

“Climbing, of course,” said Michel. He vanished. The door closed.

29. God damn the man

Jesse moved like an automaton.  Morag had warned them about having gear for the job, and so he had thick gloves and a face mask, which would prevent the larger chunks of torn-off fur and caked dirt, faeces and urine from getting into his nose. His clothes, which he would not wear again – since he would throw them into the trash bins in the back walkway and traipse into his apartment naked before he ever brought them inside, and to hell with the landlady – were covered in dark green one-use coveralls with a hood, and he had waterproof booties, because Morag said they’d need them as well.

Jesse and Michel started the process of moving the dogs. They had put down tarps in the back of the truck at Morag’s insistence to keep the worst of the crap out of it. Michel started staging the largest of the animal carriers at the kennel entrance, carrying eight at a time, balancing them all like a waiter. 

Through a combination of craigslist ads, personal contacts and a couple of very helpful veterinary techs at the closest clinic to his apartment, George had lined up 40 animal carriers.

George and Morag walked over to the house.

George unlocked the front door of the house by pretending to use a bump key and Morag said, blankly, as the door had to be forced by the corpses of five cats, “I’ll cry later.”

“These two are alive, but their kidneys are shot and they’ll have to be euthanized,” George said, finding signs of life further down the hallway.  There were ten more dead cats by the back door.

They found seven live cats in the house and lost count of the dead ones.

“We didn’t need all those carriers after all,” George said. “There are only four here that are likely to recover.  Do you want me to euthanize the ones that won’t make it? The idea of moving them so they can die in relative comfort somewhere else has no appeal.”

Morag’s face crumpled.  Then, thinking of the suffering George meant to end, she said, “Okay, but I can’t watch.” In a stronger voice she added, “I’m taking these four and then getting some air, if there is any in this hellhole. God damn the man!”

George moved through the house and wrung the necks of all the dying cats.

Jesse, who was weeping behind his safety glasses, helped Michel put one stinking, almost lifeless dog after another into carriers.

Only two dozen of the cats and dogs had survived.  One of the horses had been forced into a tight one-legged hobble, and the wound it had caused had gone septic. The other horse and the pony, although they were merely matted coats over sacks of bones, looked more or less fit to travel. The only animal that didn’t seem to be on the point of death was the pig, and Jesse was too sickened to give much thought as to why that might be.

“Georgios,” Michel called as he emerged.

“Coming,” George said.

He saw the horse and sighed.

“I’m afraid I might make it suffer,” Michel said.

“What?” Jesse said in disbelief. “Can’t we save it?” He was still in the comfortable universe of calling a vet when you had a problem with a farm animal.

“I can’t believe the horse is still alive,” Michel said. You could hear its ragged, noisy breathing.

“Jesse,” George said, “The horse has a systemic infection. If we walk away it will be dead in hours anyway; if we transport it we’ll be making it suffer out of guilt and not out of a compassionate understanding of its true condition.” He gestured. “Some room, please; he’s going to fall over.  I’m going to stop his heart.”

George put his hand on the horse’s chest. The horse collapsed, stone dead.

“What did you do?” Jesse said, hardly breathing.

“What I said I’d do,” George said, without much emphasis. Looking at Michel, he said, “Are there any dogs too sick to be moved?”

Michel said, “Not anymore.”

“What?” Jesse whispered.

“Look a little green, kid. Are you gonna be okay to drive?” Michel said. “Don’t have a license but I don’t let that stop me.”

“You drive?”

“Sure, I’m not proud like George here.”

“You’re too proud to drive?” Jesse said asked George in disbelief.

“I’m not responsible for the constructions people put on my behaviour, only for my behaviour,” George said. “But if you will forgive my lapse, I know exactly how I’d behave if the owner of this property were to appear in front of me right now.”

“Me too,” said Jesse.

“Me three,” said Michel. “Mama told me not to kill humans but for him I’d make a very exceptional exception. Let’s get the fuck out of here.” He led the remaining horse and pony out of the barn and up the ramp into the truck. Both beasts promptly lay down. “I’ll stay in the trailer with them,” Morag said, rejoining them. “My headlamp died, can I borrow yours?”

“Sure,” Jesse said, handing it over.  “I’m never going to want to look at anything again anyway.”

“Well, I hope you look at the road, going home,” George said, in that strangely toneless voice.

“If we are leaving, where are we going?” Jesse said.

“Fort Langley. I’ll text George the address.”

“And they’re expecting us at three in the morning?” Jesse confirmed.

“Yes. After that it’s only two more stops, though, since we didn’t get the number of animals we were expecting,” Morag said, “One in PoCo and the other in New West.”

The horse and pony rallied enough to get up and slowly come down the ramp. Morag’s riding buddy Deb burst into tears and put her hand over her mouth when she saw them. “Do they have names?” she gulped.

“Marta and JoJo.”

“I’ll call you, we gotta haul ass,” Morag said. They hugged and Morag got back in the truck.

“The vet’s coming in the morning,” Deb called. “He’s gonna want to know where they came from.”

“That part’s easy,” Michel said. “Some crazy animal rescue type did it, you have no idea who.”

Jesse, unable to help himself, handed over his earnings to Deb. “You’re going to need it for vet bills.”

The drop off in PoCo was for the dogs; New West was for the cats.

It was just dawn when they turned in the truck. To Jesse’s astonishment, George said, apparently to him, “Why don’t you crash on the couch?”

Michel said, “And in the morning I go to Kima?”

“You can go now, if you feel like swimming,” George said.

None of this made sense to Jesse. “I can stay at your place?”

“Sure.”

“Bet there’s no toilet paper. Or soap,” Michel said.  “Humans like toilet paper, they’re actually very fond of it, temporarily anyway.”

George checked. “Yes. We’ll be walking by a 24 hour grocery, so we can get a few things.”

“You’ll have to forgive me for how spartan my apartment is,” George said. Michel said something, probably in Greek, and George said, “There’s a balcony.  I know you don’t sleep indoors.”

28. The animal hoarder

The next midnight move was a tough one.  Morag, the client, was a woman in her mid-forties, short and dark and with an intense gaze that reminded Jesse of a squirrel staring you down at a bird feeder. Her ‘unqualified ongoing disaster’, as she referred to the job, wasn’t a case of moving some boxes between two points, but of locating, corralling, crating and moving almost one hundred domestic and farm animals from a hoarder’s property in Langley, to be distributed at the six different drop-off points in the Lower Mainland where animal lovers were prepared to take on at least some of the evacuees.

With his normal cold efficiency, George treated the Langley hobby farm move as a logistical challenge; for Jesse it was two shifts’ worth of PTSD flashbacks, mixed with the kind of molten, angry misery that sensitive souls feel when faced with the horrid evidence of extended cruelty.

Michel came along to help deal with the scale of the task, which dwarfed anything they’d previously attempted. Jesse heard a lot of colourful Québecois slang the first night. After a while, even Michel fell silent.

Legally, Morag had no claim on any of the animals, and had been escorted off the property twice by the local RCMP. With a voice like a glass-cutter, she outlined the stupidity and laziness of the officers who had seen the hoarding situation and done nothing, not even press ten digits on a cell phone to get the BCSPCA involved.

“Why didn’t you call the SPCA?” George asked, pointedly.

“Because my sister’s name is still on the title to the property,” Morag said furiously.  “So she gets dragged into the legal crap and all the fines and what-not. And now that son of a bitch is out of town – he didn’t even get somebody to come in and put down food.”

“How many crates will we need?”

Morag said, heavily, “All of them.” George shrugged.

“A number, please,” he said.

“Fifty,” Morag said. “We can get two or three cats into each carrier, and probably some of the animals have died.” With a great sigh, she added, “I have no idea what we’re going to do about the pony, the horses and the cow. They’re pretty beat up from being in the paddock with hardly any shelter, and two of them don’t even have bridles so we have to get that sorted out, and god knows how we’ll get them into the truck.”

“I can do that,” Michel said.

Jesse said, “I’m not understanding why this move has to be at night.”

Morag made a growl of disgust. “The next door neighbour is an animal hoarder too, although her animals are in better shape. She drinks herself to sleep every night around nine so if we move fast, we’ll be history before she staggers out of bed in the morning. During the day she could see us from the window that looks onto the east side of the property. She’d call the cops fast as lightning as soon as she saw me.”

“She may call the cops anyway if she gets up to take a leak and sees the lights,” Jesse said.

“If that happens, I’ll stay and you guys can leave.”

“It’s just theft under, trespass and mischief,” George said. “I’m sure we can handle that.”

“Stealing horses is not theft under,” Morag said. “Not if you’re stealing a trailer to move them.”

“I see your point,” George said, “But unless Jesse voices an objection, it’s a risk we’re willing to take.”

Jesse said nothing. It’s hard not to see yourself as a hero when you’re rescuing critters.

“You’re going to see a place no animal should live inside and no human should ever create through negligence.  I know my brother-in-law’s crazy and not fully responsible, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is going to be really, really hard. I’m sorry, because you are going to be seeing and smelling this for a long time, at least if you’re not mentally ill or a complete fricking sociopath.”

“We’ll manage,” George said soothingly.

“I won’t,” Jesse promised. “But I’ll keep it together for the job.”

When they arrived, the gate was locked.

“Shit,” Morag said. “I didn’t bring bolt-cutters.”

“Michel,” George said.

Morag watched with astonishment as Michel hopped down from the truck, walked over to the padlock and snapped it apart like it was a breadstick, dropping it with a theatrical flourish.

“He’s very strong,” Jesse said. Jesse had not been able to establish what the upper limit of Michel’s lifting capacity was, although it was easily three times what Jesse could manage. If he could tear apart a padlock, he had stronger hands than a human being should have, so it was comforting to know he wasn’t human. During the last move, Michel had been stacking boxes six high and dancing around with them in a hilarity-provoking imitation of a beefy, working class Fred Astaire.

“No shit!” Morag replied, watching Michel with admiration as he opened the gate and Jesse drove them through.  Michel leered at her, and her frown came back.

“That man’s not quite all there,” Morag said.

George and Jesse both laughed. “The part that’s here can lift half a ton,” Jesse said. “And likely has other talents we’ll need before the dawn comes,” George added.

As wrenching to the soul as to the organs of olfaction, their first task was to locate the animals which had a chance to survive.

“Shit,” Jesse said. A couple of cats approached them out of the darkness, mewing hoarsely. Morag turned her headlamp on. They were filthy and one of them limped, dragging a mangled foot. A kitten with a crooked tail, its eyes nearly swollen shut from flea bites, trotted up to Michel, wailing. Fleas leaped off it as he picked it up.

The dogs in the kennel were too weak to get up. Jesse’s heart broke as one attempted to wag its faeces-caked tail. Fleas moved in sheeted swarms in every direction. The whole property stank, but the kennels were an order of magnitude worse.

Delightful trip

So, I was in Victoria yesterday because Katie and I could not STAND that Alex was so amazingly verbal these days but mOm had not received a demonstration.

We had yummy food and Alex drove toy trucks over mOm’s feet and called her ZiziMa. He likes ZiziMa house. He used to like the Flying Pig but now it almost scares him.

I chased him all over deck 5 of the Spirit of British Columbia yesterday.  My feet are still singing.

I have to take the car back this morning, but I’m going to run some errands first.

Putting this here so I can find it later.

27. Michel arrives in Vancouver.

Jesse tried to work out how having romantic feelings was socially suspect, when every critter on earth with a spine had some variant on romance.

“So you’re asexual,” he hazarded. “As a rule.”

George wagged a finger.  “Don’t start.”

“Okay. But –“ said Jesse.

“Don’t start.”

“One more question.”

“I don’t promise to answer it.”

“Your people call themselves something,” Jesse said. “I just wanted to know what it is.”

“We call ourselves many things,” George said. “But I tell you what,” he added, pursing his lips for emphasis. “You can ask Michel when he comes by.” He changed the subject with an emotional clang like a jail door closing.

Jesse let all thoughts of conversation drop as he started asking himself what Michel would be like.  He expected, as one does, someone much like George in appearance and manner, thinking that two of George would be something to see, like finding out there are two sets of Niagara Falls, or two moons orbiting the earth. Perhaps not two moons; that seemed too remarkable even for George.

So he was expecting someone about five eight, with sharp, vaguely eastern European features, Edwardian clothing and Old World savoir-faire in manners and expression.

Jesse was sitting up in the cab of the truck when Michel got out of the taxi. Michel looked directly into Jesse’s eyes, and smiled an evil, knowing smile, as if he knew not merely what Jesse was thinking, but the full measure of how silly he was for thinking that he, Michel, could be anything like that little squeaker, George.

“Holy fuck,” Jesse said.

“Impressive, ain’t he?” George murmured.

The person approaching him stood just under two meters tall and was wearing stained blue coveralls, as a professional mover would. His black hair had been shaped into a mullet, which increased his height with something resembling an afro on the top, and fixed his resemblance to a motorcycle club member with a long wild horsetail at the back. He walked like someone who had carried more heavy loads, been in more mosh pits, told more tall tales and courted more fine women than anyone in the world, and that he’d as soon punch your lights out as share a jug of beer.

George had mentioned that Michel had lived in Montréal for a long stretch, but didn’t mention that he’d picked up his accent there. Michel sounded like a Canadiens player from the sixties, attempting his first interview in English. 

Michel opened George’s door and pulled him out onto the ground, “Weak ass’ little bugger that you are, you have to call on me.” Jesse threw himself headlong across the truck seat to get a glimpse of what was happening.

The two of them thrashed around, first in the street, then in the gutter, then on the sidewalk for a minute, insulting each other the whole time as they writhed and sought purchase, if their tone was a sign. Jesse couldn’t understand a word and reached for his phone to record it.  As soon as he turned on the phone George laughed, and Michel said, “None of that,” and faster than Jesse could believe, Michel was laughing at Jesse through the truck window and stood with the phone in his hand. George’s hand came up to touch the phone.

For a strange second it seemed as if having wrestled, they would now dance. The phone rested between Michel’s hand and George’s, as they stared each other down.

Abruptly, Michel tossed the phone at Jesse.  It described a perfect arc and landed in his jacket pocket.

“That was bracing,” George said, smiling fondly at Michel.

“I’m doing this before I go see Kima,” Michel replied, furrowing his monobrow. “Allons-y, I got girls to bang, places to be.”

“Uh,” Jesse said.

“I texted you the address,” George said.

“When?”

“Just now.”

Jesse looked at his phone.  Between the time he’d pulled it out to record the fight and the time Michel had tossed it back to him, George had texted him.

While he was wrestling on the ground with Michel.

“Uh,” Jesse said. “How –“

“Really Jesse,” George said, amused. “Have you never heard of multitasking?”

“Never touch the stuff,” Jesse said, fighting to maintain his dignity with a witty response. “It hurts your ability to concentrate.”

Michel said something, probably in Greek.

“English only,” George said. “Jesse’s a good man, very hard to fool.”

“Thanks,” Jesse said, with genuine gratitude.  Having extra help is great, but not if it means you have to listen to two other people giggle and pass notes in a language you don’t understand.

“That so?” Michel said, not impressed.

“I know you aren’t human,” Jesse said, tired of being the butt of this asshole’s rough humour.

Michel wordlessly turned to George.

“He guessed,” George said, shrugging.

“Timing’s the pits,” Michel said.

“No, not really,” George said. “Kima isn’t pregnant yet.”

Michel gave a shrug that seemed to span the roadway. “If you say so, cuz.  C’mon, let’s go, my balls are itchy.” He dashed around the side of the truck and hopped in next to Jesse.  Jesse felt his weight, and warmth, and realized that whatever the hell they were, they were quite different from each other.  And yet friends. And relatives.

Indecorously, inauspiciously, Jesse’s friendship with Michel had commenced.

26. Layered like an onion

“Gotcha,” Jesse said blankly. He returned the truck, took a cab home, and did not sleep.

Jesse, who knew he was not imagining things, wondered if he’d ever see George again.   Apart from former clients, there was nobody else in town who could identify him. He’d never been to George’s apartment.  If George decided to vanish, there’d be nothing to show for it but a couple of anecdotes and a Fortean-scale mystery and whatever money he’d managed to make.  He could try running down the antiquities part of George’s business, or see if anybody in the poly group had more of a line on him.

Getting out in Abbotsford, though. For George to have been that angry and that disgusted, that he didn’t even want to ride back into town with him, was almost scary.

He felt like he’d broken George. It hadn’t seemed possible.  Now it did.

But George, true to what seemed to be his nature, reappeared for the next job, free of comment or insult, and he waited until he had all of Jesse’s attention to apologize.

“I’m very proud,” George said. “I like to think I know everything and when I don’t I can be quite obsessive and angry and …”

“Humiliated,” Jesse said.

George didn’t argue.  “I’m sorry for worrying you and I’m sorry I kept harassing you about your personal life.”

Jesse briefly considered George, and what he’d said. “You couldn’t worry me, at least about your physical health. I was worried that you’d fired me without notice.”

“Very well,” George said, “I’m sorry about that too.”

“I for one am sorry I saw you disappear,” Jesse added.

“You didn’t see that,” George said, and there was a thread of some other mood than dismissal. 

Mmhmm, thought Jesse.

“Oh, I’m not saying there’s not a rational explanation,” Jesse said with a calmness he didn’t feel.  After all, if he was right, there was no telling how George would respond. “Quit squirming, I know you’re not human.”

“Of course I’m human,” George said, in a tone that implied that any other suggestion was ludicrous..

“No, you really aren’t,” Jesse said.  “Ya see, one of the things about my childhood is that my mother gaslighted me about damned near everything, but my aunt and sister prevented me from completely losing my mind, and my keen observation, especially when I’m sensing I might be in danger.”

George gazed at him, motionless.

 Jesse continued. “I have no idea why a puka or magic sasquatch or temporarily embarrassed vampire would want to live in Vancouver –“

Here George tried to interrupt, but Jesse wasn’t having any. “– And whoever you are, you’re certainly welcome here, seeing as how you appear to be performing heroic tasks to make fat stacks.”

George quit trying to interrupt, with a sharply exhaled sigh.

Jesse continued. “I don’t really care what you are. All I care about, and all I’m ever gonna care about, is how you behave.”

“So I could be a vampire or some kind of magical creature and you’d be okay with that,” George said.

“I would be as accepting as I could manage, and as curious as I could get away with. I find it interesting that I had a massive cognitive reset and you could immediately tell, but not what happened. So I know you’re not spying on me.”

George made a noise.

“Anybody who has the power of invisibility can spy on people.  Humans find it almost impossible not to spy if they have the capacity. Do you?”

George thrashed in his seat quietly.

“I do spy on people,” he said. “But I don’t spy on you, because anything I want to know about you I can ask, and you’ll tell the truth.”

Jesse grinned. “Not everybody does.”

“You have no idea,” George said in a voice that seemed to have blown in with an arctic outflow.

“Shit! Of course I do.”

“And you’re prepared to never know what I am.”

“George,” Jesse said cheerfully, “I get the impression sometimes that you don’t know what you are. And you keep talking about people who don’t exist, like your ‘mate’ and Michel.”

George chuckled.

“Oh, I assure you, they’re real. In fact –“ George said. He pulled a phone out of his pocket and checked it. Jesse shot his eyes over it; even upside-down he could see it wasn’t George’s usual phone, and the lettering on the text was Greek. If George kept multiple phones, he definitely had a double life. He remembered what George had said once, offhandedly.

My people speak medieval Greek as a common language.  Keeps people out of our business.

“Michel is here. He should be joining us for the move,” George said, and put the phone away.

“What?” Jesse said. He’d been fantasizing that George was the last of his kind, making up imaginary colleagues and friends so that he wouldn’t sound so lonely.

“Yeah,” George said.  He brightened. “Michel and I have a complicated history.  He tried to kill me once – it was more like several attempts over one short span of time – but we got over it pretty quick.  Now if I have a close friend in this world, it’s Michel.”

“You also have a mate,” Jesse said.

“True, but one relaxes with friends, and one never relaxes with Kima, there’s too much at stake,” George said, almost to himself.

“You’re trying to get her pregnant,” Jesse said, “You’ve mentioned that. Isn’t that relaxing?”

“Whatever you do,” George said, trying to laugh but not managing it. “Don’t say that to Michel, I’ll never hear the end of it. Mating is not relaxing.”

“You’re doing it wrong,” Jesse said thoughtlessly.

Whatever bad temper George had vented was not coming back. He laughed merrily and said, “Definitely, definitely do not not say that to Michel. He’s only here in town for Kima.”

“He wants your mate? And you’re okay with that. Are your people poly?”

George laughed again. “In ways yet undiscovered by humans, I suspect.  It is unusual, and socially suspect, to have long-lived attachments.  My parents did.” Abruptly he stopped talking. Like Jesse’s mother, George’s mother was a sore subject, although he’d been evasive about why.

25. Jesse the trickster

 

Ten minutes later, with much less suavity than he normally showed, he was at it again.  Jesse kept fending him off and George kept trying to understand just what it was that could have happened to him to make Jesse so different. Jesse switched tactics, and threw himself across the front seat onto George. He did so in the expectation of three things.

1. George wouldn’t grunt or make any noise.

2. Whatever George did with his body would not match what Jesse saw with his eyes.

3. Jesse, no matter how hard he threw himself at George, would emerge unhurt.

George, who could sense Jesse was winding up for something but did not know what, fell back, said, “Oof!” and prevented Jesse’s head from hitting the inside of the passenger window with his hand.

“What are you doing?” George said in irritation.

“Sorry,” Jesse said automatically, and shoved himself back behind the steering wheel again. Jesse was surprised, and not surprised.  George sounded like a man who’d gotten the wind knocked out of him, so scratch that. He couldn’t say that what he saw, heard and felt was mismatched, although it seemed that George got a little blurry.

“You can predict what I’m going to do next, right?”

George didn’t answer right away.

Then he said, “You are one of the hardest people to read I ever met, even though your body language says you are an honest, open person.”

“You didn’t answer the question,” Jesse said.

“My people are not fond of the inquisition as a social form.”

“My people are not fond of evasive clownbags,” Jesse said.

“If I promise not to mock you, or laugh, or bring it up again, or tell anyone else, will you tell me what happened?”

“If you tell me why you want to know, when you generally don’t give two shits about my personal life, will I promise to consider it? I doubt it,” Jesse said. 

“Why is it so important?” George shrugged. “Idle curiosity.”

“Nope,” Jesse said.

“Nope,” George repeated blankly. “I’m telling you to your face it’s idle curiosity!”

“And I’m telling you to your face you’re lying, though I know I can’t prove it,” Jesse said, triumphant.

George looked at Jesse, frowned, and said, “Fine. Why do you think I’m asking?”

“Because you want to predict my behaviour,” Jesse said. “And did you just admit you were lying?”

“No,” said George.  Jesse smiled his three-cornered toddler smile and looked away.

“It’s okay, George,” Jesse said. “I know you can read minds.”

“No,” George said, with suppressed fury, “I can’t.”

“You can read something. C’mon, George! – you can smell human blood at 30 paces behind two doors! – what other tricks have you got up that fancy sleeve of yours?”

George threw open the passenger door so hard it nearly came off the hinges, slammed it so the truck reverberated and swiftly walked out of sight.

After about ten minutes he returned, got in and sat down. He stared directly ahead and didn’t speak. Jesse counted to thirty.

“Never saw you lose your temper before, George,” Jesse said.

“I don’t like being called a liar,” George said.

“Even if it’s true?” Jesse asked softly.

There was a short pause.

“Especially if it’s true,” George said.

“You’re obviously not like other people, what with your upbringing and your funny clothes and all,” Jesse said. “Do you know how strange you are?”

“Compared to what?” George asked. He almost sounded despairing.

“Just about everyone,” Jesse said. “But I like you, so it doesn’t much matter to me.”

There was another pause. Then, as if he really couldn’t help himself, George said, “What happened to you?”

Jesse said, “You’re not going to like it.”

“I know that already, from how resistant you’ve been.”

“Er, no. You sure have a high opinion of yourself. It’s because you’re an atheist.”

“How would that make a – oh, you’re kidding,” George, for once, looked nonplussed.

“Yup. Met a god. But that’s not the best part,” Jesse said.

“You did not meet a god,” George said, voice dropping into incredulity.

“Just one way of putting it.  The technical term is theophany.”

“If you think Lark turned into a god in front of you, you’re crazy.”

“Oh, it’s far worse than that,” Jesse said. “I was the god.”

“Humans have the most incredible capacity for self-delusion,” George said. “Every time I think I’ve plumbed it, the bottom drops out yet again.”

“While he was passing through,” Jesse said, as if he hadn’t heard this, “He told me to keep a very close eye on you. He specifically told me that you don’t belong here.”

George appeared to lose the power of speech. He looked at Jesse, his brown eyes stricken, and then got out of the truck again. He didn’t come back for half an hour, said nothing, and hardly spoke during the move.

They helped a woman after her roommate’s brother had drunkenly assaulted her in her sleep. The roommate was convinced it was the client’s fault, and the client was heartened that she didn’t have to listen to the same crap from the guys loading the truck.

Normally George came back with Jesse to drop off the truck. When they’d offloaded into the client’s parents’ place in Abbotsford, George said, “I’ll find my own way home,” and got out of the truck.

“Are you sure?” Jesse said, appalled.  “It’ll be a hundred bucks at least for a cab!”

“It’ll be worth it,” said George. As he walked away from the truck, Jesse watched him in the rear view mirror, and saw him vanish into thin air.