It's been awhile since I posted a story here. But this month, Fantasy-Writers.org made their monthly contest another 5-element challenge. Can you find the evidence of corona virus thinking in the following story? These were the prompts:
And here's the story... "Flickered"
It was one in the morning in the back room of a high class speakeasy. January chill seeped through the blacked over window. The beauty across the table pulled her sequined wrap tighter. She was slim and brunette, and whether you looked at her face or her figure, the view was grand.
"I'll see your fifty," she said, "and raise you a hundred." She grinned.
Archbishop Reilly snorted awake when I tapped his shoulder. "Padre, remember that little wizarding you asked me to do? Spot me a grand. If I lose, I do it. I win, you double your money."
The bishop's smile was brighter than the glow off a collection plate as he pulled out his wallet. "Consider this an advance on your fee, my son." Meaning me, Nelson Rockne, formerly a Pinkerton agent, sometime nightclub owner in Frisco, now a private dick trying to stay off the breadlines like a thousand other stiffs in the Big Apple. I didn't like jobs that needed magic, but sometimes you had to compromise.
With the bishop's backing, I met and raised again. We went back and forth until both of us were all in. I had the lady, but she pulled a fat emerald off her left hand. "This is worth at least a thousand," she said, leaning back and finishing her drink.
"Bishop," I said, "Would you remind my opponent about the house rules?" The opponent in question narrowed her eyes.
"Oh, indeed. Cash only, unless all parties agree."
I laid down a full house. "Which means," I said, "that your bluff has been called." If eyes were daggers, she'd have sliced me up and left me in an alley for the rats.
The lookout yelled an alarm from the top of the stairs. "Coppers!" The owners must have fallenbehind on their bribes. I swept up my winnings as the place went wild, and hustled the bishop out the back into the cold. Couldn't have his eminence in the headlines. I figured he needed a keeper. As his cab pulled away, he leaned out into the falling snow. "Tomorrow at midnight, Nels! St. Patrick's! Don't be late!"
I got back to my rooms and pulled out the winnings. I shook my head and chuckled. I'd pocketed my pretty opponent's engagement ring with the rest of the dough.
I woke up at noon, and set about applying my investigative skills. Her name came quick enough: Miss Nolray Shaw, a high class dame with a railroad baron for a father. Apparently, engaged. Probably to some blue-blood lad of leisure rich enough to line every one of her fingers with gems, but I liked a challenge.
Between the Ritz and the Astoria, the Ritz was the winner. I rang her room from the lobby. A maid said she was out and could she leave a message.
I put in an appearance at my office, then wandered over to where they were digging the foundation of the next contender for tallest skyscraper. They were calling it the Empire State Building. The site was fenced, but through a knot hole I spied dozens of men moving in and out of the pit like ants. They had to have one powerful Architect to manage all the flicker they were stirring up.
Flicker, quintessence, whatever you called it, the stuff of life ran deep and rich under a metropolis like New York. Managing it was the job of Architects, and if you were short on capital, street wizards like me. But let too much quintessence build up, lose the balance, and you could find yourself on the wrong side of reality. The Great Flicker Storm of 1898 redid the map of Manhattan in a single weekend, with entire blocks sliding around like drunks on Bowery. Wall Street relocated to Riverside, and Harlem ended up by the Battery. That's when the city brought in a whole squad of Architects to make sure everything stayed where it was supposed to be. That'd worked well so far.
Back at my apartment, Hans, the building's twelve-year-old honorary doorman, flagged me as I came through the lobby door. "Some doll was lookin for ya."
"Porcelain or rag?" I said.
"I dunno, but she said you should come by the Ritz and give back what you stole."
I flipped the kid a nickel, and laughed all the way up five flights of stairs.
Tomorrow would be soon enough to take Miss Shaw's measure again. I hoofed it over to St. Patrick's at midnight, and stomped my feet by a side door. Back in ‘98, the cathedral moved itself from 51st to 33rd and took up residence across from Macy's department store. If only they let stores open on Sunday, you could worship at one altar, then jaywalk over to the other.
The cathedral bell tolled twelve. The door opened wide enough for me to slip through. A fur-trimmed boot stopped it from closing, followed by Nolray Shaw herself, wrapped in a mink that could have paid off the country's debt.
"You're a surprise," I said. The cleric who'd let us in gaped like she'd stepped off a movie screen.
She shook snow from her hat and stowed it in a sleeve. "I heard the fat man tell you to meet him here."
"You mean the archbishop?"
"Is that what he was? I thought he was a haberdasher."
"Father...?" I prompted.
"Martin," said Father Martin.
"Meet Nolray Shaw. Miss Shaw, meet Father Martin."
"How do you do." She took one of his hands in a smooth kid glove. I could tell she liked that I knew her name.
"Your ring is back at my place," I lied. No one in their right mind would leave that rock for any burglar to find.
"Pish. You can bring it to me later. I want to know what's going on here."
"Martin," I said, "what is going on? The bishop tried to fill me in, but what with him trying to figure out whether to bet a pair of sixes or fold, I'm a bit in the dark."
He glanced at Miss Shaw. "Is the lady with..."
"I don't think the lady needs to be with anyone, but she's with me. I think."
Miss Shaw slipped out a silver flask, took a sip and passed it over. "For the cold."
"She's definitely with me," I said. She offered it to the priest, but I waved a hand. "Probably has his own supply."
Martin led us through a series of marble-floored halls, into the great vaulted sanctuary. We stopped in the aisle, admiring the ornate altar, covered with silver, gold, and more gold.
A shiver took me. Somewhere nearby was a whole lot of flicker, more than I'd felt in one place for a long time. "It all started a few days ago," Martin told us. "Morning Mass is usually peaceful, but several of our regulars, well, sang along with the Latin. Then yesterday, Mrs. Kelly and Mrs. O'Connor rose during the consecration and started dancing!"
"What was it?" Nolray asked.
The priest hid a smile. "I think it was the Charleston."
I drifted over to a set of steps that went under the altar. The sense of flicker strengthened. "Sounds like maybe you should call for the Baptists, instead of me."
"No, no. I'll take you down to the crypt. You’ll see for yourself."
"A burial crypt? This just gets better," laughed Nolray.
According to Father Martin's brief history lesson, they'd been stowing bishops and luminaries in a little crypt since the 1880s. He went past me down the steps, and stopped at a set of bronze doors. He stuck in a key. "They do argue so. I hope you can do something about it, Mr. Rockne.
Miss Shaw made to follow him, and I put out a hand. “Now look.”
"Call me Nolray, or Nollie. Everyone does."
"Alright, Miss Shaw. Now listen--"
"Is it look or listen?"
"And what do I call you?"
"Anything you want, only this could be more than a basic haunting."
She showed me the handle of a shiny silver peashooter nestled in her mink. "I can handle myself." I didn't try to argue.
Martin swung the doors open. The sound of ghostly disagreements hit us.
As Martin lit a lamp in the room beyond, Nolray edged past him. "Doesn't the archbishop have an Architect to deal with things like this?"
"Yes, certainly,” said the priest. “Well, that is, no."
"So where is he?" I asked while Nolray explored the room.
"Father Benedict? No one knows. He would have dealt with this, but we haven't seen him since last Friday."
The mausoleum was lined in gray marble, with stones in each wall marking the position of the coffins laid behind them and plaques advertising the dead men's particulars. There were ten of them, in a checkerboard pattern around the walls; and if I was following the argument, there were ten different ways you could conjugate the Latin for "transubstantiate".
We couldn't talk over the racket. "Gentlemen!" I called. "Gentlemen!!"
A bang cracked my ears, ringing in the close quarters. Nolray slid her gun back in the mink as cement and gun smoke filtered down from the ceiling. "Was that strictly necessary?" I complained.
"It worked, didn’t it?" She was right. The cathedral's permanent residents stopped arguing, and seemed to want someone to wind them up again. Father Martin took a long drink from his own flask.
"Told ya," I said. "His own supply."
He spluttered and coughed. "How strange.” He peered into his flask. “I'm certain I put in something stronger, but this is just water."
I took it from him and tasted. Water, but with an odd taste. I tried Nolray’s. Minutes ago, it had been fine brandy. Now, it was water, too. Made me want to weep. "Any of you fine fellows want to tell me where the flicker leak is?" I asked the ghosts.
"Leak?" asked Father Martin.
"The minute you opened those doors, all our liquor turned to water. It takes a lot of quintessence, but put enough of the pure stuff in one place and it'll draw the spirits right out of spirits. Sort of a miracle in reverse."
I turned back to the room. "All right, boys. Confession. Where's the leak?"
A thin voice came from one of the niches. "I believe what you seek is below your feet."
I went on my knees and felt around the slabs. "Is there another room below this, Father?"
"No, not that I've ever--"
"Got it." They'd hidden the catch, but Architects needed access to the flicker channels below. Every building had them, and every city sat on a vast network that balanced out all the energy generated by thousands and thousands of people.
I opened the hatch. An overpowering smell of liquid quintessence filled the room."That's more than a little leak," I coughed. "We've got to find that Architect."
"Him." Nolray was coughing, too. I held out a hand to steady her. "Let's get you upstairs."
Father Martin stepped to the opening in the floor and started chanting over it in Latin. "Don't do that!" I ordered. "You'll only feed the leak."
I pushed Nolray up the steps to the sanctuary. Down in the crypt, ten more voices joined Father Martin's. Flicker built heavier and heavier. I started back down, but ghostly hands reached out and pulled the bronze doors closed in my face. I put my fingers into a ridge and pulled as hard as I could. They didn't budge. The metal went bone-hot white. I had to let go or get burned. I tried to frame some magic of my own, but it was like pushing on the Titanic.
I took the stairs back to the sanctuary. "We're going."
Nolray wasn’t having it. "What about Father Martin?"
"I tried, but this is beyond me." The floor shook. We nearly lost our footing. "Come on!" Nolray took a last look down to the crypt, then followed me.
We'd reached the side door when the cathedral's flicker channels blew. We needed that Architect, and we needed him now.
The city had the sense to put a precinct house a block away. We rushed in, out of breath. The night sergeant frowned down at us. "What's all this commotion, now?" Then his face lit in recognition. "Well, Mr. Rockne, isn't it!"
"Hey, Riordan!" I remembered him from a dice game down in the village. Good cop.
"What are you doing out in the snow? On a case?"
"A flicker leak," said Nolray. "A big one."
Riordan looked to me, and I looked back. "A big one," I echoed.
"You don't say. Is that whiskey I'm smelling? You two been breaking the law a wee bit?"
"From your lips to God's ears."
"At St. Patrick's," Nolray clarified.
"Right in the cathedral?" Riordan was ready to say something else smart, when a flash lit up the street outside like a Fourth of July nightmare. We ran back outside and stared at St. Patrick's. The twin steeples blazed with silver light. Eleven weird figures gyrated across the rooftop.
"You need to call an Architect." I said.
"Are they dancing up there?" Riordan made a slow sign of the cross.
""This whole place could blow, Sergeant!"
"No need to get all riled up, Rockne. We've actually got one here would you believe, right in the drunk tank."
We paraded after him through the precinct house. The few cops snoozing at their posts roused when they caught a load of Miss Shaw. "Down, boys," I ordered. "She's spoken for."
We reached the final cell in a dismal row. Riordan opened the door without needing a key. "We put him in here for his own safety. Let him sleep it off."
The Architect lay on his back on a narrow bench, snoring softly. Hairless dome, white collar, rumpled cassock, and shiny black shoes: just what you'd expect a sleeping priest to look like if you didn't think they owned a pair of pajamas.
The sergeant shook him awake. "Father Benedict. Visitors."
The Architect blinked and looked around. "?it is what, Yes" he mumbled.
Riordan shook his head. "Still drunk."
"Not drunk.” I helped the old boy to his feet. “Flickered."
The priest fumbled a pair of spectacles from his pocket. ".walking trouble having be to seem I .you Thank."
Nolray took an arm, and we marched him around the room. "I've seen flickered, Mr. Rockne. But not like this."
I waved two fingers in front of Father Benedict's blue-shot eyes."This is the kind of flickered you get when you dunk your head in it for a day and a half. What have you been up to, Father?"
Nolray helped the priest settle his glasses. "Wasn't poor Father Martin's missing Architect named Benedict?"
"Somebody up there likes us. Maybe we'll get to the bottom of all this."
A deep rumble rattled the cell doors. We hustled Father Benedict out, him still talking backwards. "Snap out of it, Father," I said. "We need some serious architect wizardry or things are going to be bad. Mind if we take him off your hands, Sergeant?”
We reached the street.
"Fine with me, Mr. Rockne. I'm doing what you said the first time and calling this in."
Three blocks away, a pillar of light shot into the sky from the Empire State. I hated to think about the men who'd been working there through the freezing night.
Moments later, storm sirens sounded out across the city.
We needed a place off the street, and the Ritz was closer than mine. We took Father Benedict, and made it to the hotel before panic took hold completely. The teeth-jarring alarm blared from every street corner, yanking every good citizen out of bed and over to the window. Every New Yorker knew that sound, and knew they had to stay inside til the storm blew over. You didn't want to leave your apartment, then spend the next few days trying to find your new address.
The Ritz swarmed with frightened guests in bathrobes, demanding cabs and bullying bellhops. The elevator was impossible. The stairs were blocked by luggage coming down. We retreated to the lounge. No one manned the bar, so I jimmied the cabinet where they hid the good stuff, and selected a likely bottle before remembering there wouldn't be a single alcoholic drink left in New York.
The Architect was coming around. Nolray shed her fur, revealing something between a safari outfit and dining at Delmonico's. I tried to guess her age. Late twenties, I figured. Maybe ten years younger than I.
I gave a low whistle. “Aren’t you the bees knees, like we used to say.”
"Flatterer," she shot back, but I could tell her mind was back on Father Martin's death.
"I only flatter women who need a boost."
"I'm not sure how to take that," she said.
I set the bottle on its side and set it spinning lazily. "What I can't figure, is there shouldn't have been enough quintessence under St. Patrick's to trigger all this. On Easter maybe. All that incense and hallelujahs."
"?Patrick's St. about What." Father Benedict started over. "I mean to say, what about St. Patrick's?" We filled him in. When we got to the part about Father Martin, he wilted where he sat.
Nolray stopped the bottle spinning. "I bet the leak came from the Empire building. You said they have to manage a lot of flicker. Something went wrong." Father Benedict let out a low moan.
"Well sure," I said. "But their Architects would have noticed and stopped it." We drifted into silence for a minute.
Nolray went to a house phone, coming back a minute later. "The operator says all the lines are down."
"They'll shut down the bridges and tunnels, too. No getting in or out until this is over."
"I have an appointment tomorrow. I need to catch the two o'clock train." She pulled a cigarette from a small purse, and fidgeted with it.
"Tomorrow, as in today? Or tomorrow tomorrow? What’s up? Something with the engagement?"
"What's it to you, Mr. Rockne?" She dropped the cigarette, and pulled out more bottles from the cupboard.
"That'll pack a kick," I joked.
"Shush. I'm pretending." She mixed water with some other water, added more water, and served us two glasses with an olive in each.
"No, it's not important." I stirred my drink. "What your appointment is for.” Our eyes met. "Cheers." Something new stirred in me. "Here's to matrimony."
From a nearby sofa, Father Benedict wound back to life. "It's all my fault."
"It was last Friday, after Mass," he began.
Nolray sat next to him and took one of his hands. "Go on, Father."
"An old friend of mine, a guild brother--"
"Guild?" Nolray asked me.
"Architects' guild," I answered.
"--came to me. He was working on the new skyscraper, and he'd come down with a terrible cold..."
It was a long sermon, so I'll hit the highlights. Benedict agreed to take his friend's shift - "just for one night, mind you" - but the mope didn't show the next day or the next. They needed a back-up, so Benedict stuck around. This went on, and at a certain point the old fellow took a warm nap in the construction shack. Which, of course, is when one of the diggers cut through the flicker grid. Benedict had a dab hand with spiritual architecture, but he'd dealt never with a full-on break.
"I made the most basic mistake." Nolray handed him my pocket square to dab his eyes. "'Never handle pure quintessence for longer than ten Hail Marys.' I wrote this a thousand times in my apprentice book. I'm afraid I don't recall much after that, until you woke me at the station."
Throughout the priest's story, the lobby had been getting crazier. With all the angry guests and heavy fur coats, it had the sweaty heat of a crowded corral. Every time a guest escaped outside, the staff lassoed them back in and had to withstand a torrent of words for thanks.
Things spilled over into the lounge. Nolray put her ear up to Father Benedict's mouth to listen.
"He needs to go back," she told me, when he was done. “He believes he can stop the storm if he's back where it started."
"He's still flickered if he thinks he's getting fourteen blocks on his own, Architect or not. If the storm doesn't kill him, imagine the terrified people huddled in their buildings, spreading rumors, and talking foolishness. They see a man in black going toward the center of the storm. It doesn't take much to trigger the worst in people, Miss Shaw."
Nolray set her face. "We're taking him." That face told me I'd never win the argument, and she'd go without me.
We snuck through the kitchens and out to 45th Street. Lights flickered and shimmered around us, setting the fur of Nolray's coat on end. Long streamers twined up lamp posts and jumped from building to building.
A ball of wild flicker whistled past. It splashed a shop window, shifting the reality of the plate glass to something sticky and dripping. I set a simple ward on the place to keep looters out.
We hit Fifth and 36th. "You're a practitioner, Mr. Rockne?" Father Benedict asked. A few blocks to go.
"Just a little street magic, padre. Nothing like what your type can handle."
"Architecture is not about power, lad. It's about training. One without the other is dangerous. With this much unhered quintessence powering the strata, you may find yourself wielding considerably more strength than you are used to." He stopped and grabbed my arm. "You'll need it. Be careful."
I wanted to ask what he was getting at, but right then three toughs stepped out of a doorway. Each one carried a shovel across his body like a club. I blocked their path. "Why don't you fellas find a warm bed and sleep it off?" It wasn't a question if they wanted trouble, but how hard and how fast.
The tallest of them pointed past me at Father Benedict. "Where are you going, Architect?"
"We saw you back at the dig," said the second. "Fifty men died in that pit! Fifty men! And you left them to die."
The accusation hit the old man hard. His eyes went flat with grief. The spirit ran out of him. The toughs saw it. Like any predator sensing weakness, they pounced, swinging their shovels in nasty arcs. I got inside on the first one and gave him a teeth-clacking punch to the jaw. Nolray's little pistol cracked, taking the second man in the shoulder. He didn't go down, but he didn't knock my head from my shoulders, either.
This close to the center of the storm, I reached into the strata and found power like the old man told me I would. I formed a ball of flicker as easy as buying a newspaper, and sent it bowling into the three. They didn't have time to breathe before it twisted their reality and they disappeared.
Nolray grabbed me. "Where did they go? You didn't --"
"I'm not sure," I said. "Though I was thinking about the East River really hard."
"I hope they can swim." She looked around. "Where's Father Benedict?" We scanned up and down 5th, but he was gone.
"The Empire State," I reasoned. "You still game?" She took my hand, and we hoofed it.
We turned the last corner and stopped dumbstruck. The pillar of light we'd seen before had been replaced by a translucent skyscraper built of crystal girders. Somehow, half the giant building had been built from flicker in a few hours, brick on glowing brick, floor by silvered floor. Thousands of empty windows, offices, and hallways stood in sparkling outlines, reaching up.
Above the finished floors, tiny figures moved among the skycraper's bones, setting beams into place. "I bet there's fifty of them," Nolray said, her head tilted back as high as it would go.
She pointed suddenly. "There!" A disc of light glided up through the center of the building, moving easily through the magical structure. Standing on the disc was Father Benedict. As he passed, the ghostly workmen left their posts, grabbed their glowing shovels, and climbed after him.
I faced Nolray. "I'm going up there."
"Not without me!" We'd been holding hands without thinking about it. Now she gripped mine like steel.
"He needs help," I argued. "My kind of help. I'm not letting anything happen to him like it did to Father Martin."
She held my eyes, then leaned up and kissed me on the lips for a long fraction of eternity. She pulled away. "Go!"
I saluted, and ran to the line of unreal doors at the base of the building. I turned a last time to memorize her, and she shouted, "I still want my ring!"
I figured there'd be elevators once the building was really here, so I reached into the strata and called one. The doors slid open. A ghost in overalls sat on a stool, his shovel propped against the wall. "What floor?"
I said take me to the top.
Manhattan emerged as the ground fell away. From Midtown to the Hudson, lightning crackled and buildings lurched. Dawn was near. It glittered off the bay, looking more peaceful that it had a right to.
"As far as I go," said the liftman, opening the doors on an observation floor. Before he could even touch the shovel, I whisked him back to the unreality he'd come from.
Farther up, the ghosts swarmed a smooth-sided tower to the pinnacle of the building; at its top, a figure in black reeled in quintessence from every corner of the city. I climbed non-existent stairs. A ghost loomed, shovel ready, and I flicked him off to another strata. Power was there for the taking. I laughed as I flicked away another and another. A very solid-feeling shovel smacked into the back of my head, making stars, and it got very real.
At last, I reached the roiling quintessence in which Benedict worked his magic. I couldn't guess what architectural framework he was spinning, but he didn't have much time for it. Even with all my sending the ghosts away, the storm just spun them out again. They ringed the Architect's bubble of flicker, hammering away with those damned shovels. Cracks were spreading.
"Padre!" The wind howled, but he heard me. "What should I do?"
"Keep them away!" he yelled.
"They keep coming back!"
"I need more time!"
I waded back into the workmen, inventing ever new ideas for how to hold them off. Hours or years stopped meaning anything. I gave up on fancy ideas as I numbed to the flicker. Soon all I had was my own silver shovel, so I kept swinging. But now when I sent them off, they stayed gone. With all the power Father Benedict commanded, there was nothing left to resurrect them.
He stood in an infinity of flicker compressed to the size of the elevator car I rode up on. I could barely make him out in the spinning quintessence.
I pounded on the flicker. "Get out of there!"
"It's alright," he said, his voice coming from a trillion miles away. "It's not only the training. It's the sacrifice, too."
"I'll bring help." There had to be a dozen Architects in the city now, dealing with the damage.
I could hardly hear him now. His bones glowed inside his skin. "Do not fear. All will be well."
Fine for him to say. He was going to wherever he was going. I was a thousand feet up on a skyscraper that hadn't actually been built yet. Reality was about to come rushing in hard. I liked New York, but I didn't fancy too close an acquaintance with the pavement below us.
The quintessence burst like nothing I could ever describe in words. Terror. Sorrow. Sacrifice. Joy. Prayer. Light. Death. Fifty men who just wanted to earn a living. Life. More life, and Nolray.
The storm ebbed, faded, ended. I stood on hard brick, alive, atop a titan of brick, steel, and concrete, all the way down. The fully finished Empire State rested under my feet as real as could be, ten months early, and way under budget. Thank you, Father Benedict.
I hoped the elevators were working.
We figured out where Pennsylvania Station had moved to, and got to Nolray's train on time. The city was digging out, shaking itself off, seeing what was where. I was fairly flickered myself, and had collapsed on the sofa in Nolray's hotel room. Somehow she'd had my suit cleaned, pressed, and waiting when I woke up.
My heart shrank the closer we got to the station and her real life. She made it clear I was to escort her to her compartment, so the torture went on. I handed her in, but didn't follow.
She waved me in. "Come on. You can sit for a minute."
I perched across from her. Something jabbed me through my trouser pocket. Oh, yes. I drew out the emerald engagement ring. "This is yours," I said, handing it over.
"Thank you," she said. She opened her window and tossed it out.
"Say!" I said. "Someone could eat off that for a year."
"Pish. You'll buy me another," said Nolray.
"But what about him, the fiancé?" I sputtered. "The blond-haired titan of industry or what have you."
"Doesn't exist," she said, looking very pleased with herself.
"I'm a modern woman, Nelson," Nolray said. "But a fake fiancé makes it so much easier to put off the gold diggers." She pulled out a deck of playing cards. "Besides," she said, shuffling. "I want a rematch."
As we steamed west through the snow, I was deep in a hole and sinking.