5 min read

A Writhing Crystal Cobra

See if you can hold your breath for the duration of this chapter!

Previously: Through pervy and illicit methods, the sisters learn that the sword they’ve been hired to steal is stashed in a very fortified (!) dairy. Batya insists that she plan this heist. She has never planned a heist. Mina thinks this is a terrible idea. I think it’ll probably work out fine.

— 39 —

Batya got to work on her plan. She was so excited. She’d never been in charge of anything and wanted to use every idea her sister ever scoffed at.

She started by sneaking into the Hook County Clerk’s office to steal a glance at the blueprints for Folly Dairy. (Neither sneaking nor stealing was necessary but Bat wanted to get in shape.) The specs showed that the main building was surrounded by a moat and a twenty-foot stone wall. Yeesh, Mina wasn’t kidding about the place being a stronghold.

“But,” Bat told her sister later that night, using the chalkboard for the first time to draw a rudimentary map, “there’s a drainage pipe, here, that goes from the moat to a processing plant about a quarter-mile away. We could get in from there.”

“You mean a sewage pipe.”

“A water pipe.”

“Filled with shit, probably cow shit.”

“The blueprints didn’t say. They did say the pipe’s really small.”

“How small are we talking here, pal?”

It looked like Bat was going in for a hug but actually she was just making a tight circumference around Mina’s shoulders. “Something like that.”

“That...doesn’t seem to be enough room for, say, an oxygen tank.”

“No, but you could fit and just hold your breath.”

Mina’s laughter echoed off the narrow office walls. “You think I’m going to swim through that?”

“Yeah you know why? Because I’m the boss and you do what I say.”

“Oh please. There are far easier ways to break into this place. For instance, we—”

“Shut it! You have no say on this plan. This is my plan and you’re skinnier than me so you go in the pipe. Look, it brings you under the wall and into the moat, then you get out and go over here and open this access gate where the delivery trucks come in and I’ll wait there for you with our gear.”

Mina studied Bat’s terrible map. “I assume this is to scale.”

“Why don’t you scale my johnson.”

“Exactly how long would one have to hold their breath?”

“I’m not sure, something like…” And Bat was suddenly struck by a coughing attack.

“Just say it.”

Bat stopped mid-cough. “Six minutes.”

Mina hooted. “Batya, my personal best is maybe ten seconds tops and you know this.”

“I know but I hired a pearl diver to train you.”

Mina held Bat’s hands and used their mother’s quietly condescending voice which drove Bat nuts. “I appreciate that, I do. I appreciate all the effort you’re making on this project. But I will never, ever, get in that shit pipe.”

Bat sighed. “Yeah I figured. I’ll do it.”

“And then how do you intend to open that access gate? It’s going to be just as locked as everything else.”

“I’ll admit,” Bat said, cracking up, “this plan does have a ton of problems.”

Bat found the pearl diver by poking around Camphouse Cove and asking who was the cheapest. That led her to a rangy gal named June Petroski who’d previously worked as a sous chef and then a shark consultant and then a morphine technician, whatever that is. To get Bat’s breath-holding up to six minutes, June prescribed a weeklong training session on a dilapidated sailboat out over the Dragonfly Trench.


June began by delivering a series of philosophical mumbo jumbo to get Bat in the right mindset. “You don’t belong on the surface,” she said, her voice low and scarred. “You’ve been unhappy your whole life because you’re not where you should be. You should be below and not above. You are a denizen of the briny depths.”

“No offense,” Bat said, “but a) you don’t know my life, and also the briny depths are filled with, you know, monsters and no air.”

“Fear is a lie you tell your dying heart,” June informed her. It was kind of her signature catchphrase. Then she clamped an actual ball and chain to Bat’s leg and threw her overboard and waited a long time before rescuing her.


Next, Bat needed to become “aware of her body” as it drowned. Pulse rate slowing, blood vessels contracting, head throbbing, salt burning, water flooding the lungs, none of the oxygen, all of the carbon dioxide. June explained that getting accustomed to what it felt like would help quell her body’s understandable impulse to stop drowning, allowing her to remain underwater longer. Bat did not enjoy this one bit and said she’d like to make June “aware of her body” by kicking its ass.


June taught Bat a Bedouin ditty that divers sing during al-ghaws al-kabîr, the pearling season in the Gulf. It’s not very catchy but it “occupies the mind and distracts the lungs.” Bat sang it while June held her head underwater, bubbles wailing out of her.


June said Bat had to get a tattoo that specified where in the sea she wanted her ashes scattered. This was a crucial rite of passage in the Fort Hook nacre community. June volunteered to do the work herself.

“You know, my folks are pretty famous tattoo artists,” Bat said.

“I didn’t know there were any famous ones,” June said.

“They do a special kind that’s against the law in most countries. It takes weeks and supposedly gives you special powers.”

“Did they give you one?”

Bat slouched against the mast, looked off at the horizon. “No. They said the last thing I needed was special powers.”

“You seem pissy about it.”

“Well it’s not fair. But who cares because I got my own tattoo a few years ago, you wanna see?”


“I’ve only seen it a couple times myself,” Bat says, getting up and dropping trou.

“Dear god,” June gasped. “What’s that supposed to be, a ⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️?”


“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah. The guy who did it was pretty messed up.”

“Please pull up your underwear. I’ll give you a nice one on your shoulder.” And she tattooed Bat’s chosen latitude and longitude (very close to where she wants her secret fortress) with an upholstery needle. Turned out pretty good. June had surprisingly ornate penmanship.

Bat didn’t, and doesn’t, have a lot of friends. And it’s not like she was friends with June. But sitting there on that boat in the mid-afternoon sun, just gabbing and getting tattooed by her? Well, it was a nice change of pace. Easily the best part of that miserable week.


Bat floated there underneath the sailboat, pure and serene, seawater flowing in and out of her, a denizen of the below.

She surfaced and said, “Well?”

June clicked her stopwatch. “One minute seventeen seconds.”

“Eh, close enough.”

The night before the heist, Bat was so giddy she could barely hold it together. Her plan gleamed in her mind like a writhing crystal cobra. The routes were mapped. The gear was purchased (on credit) and perfectly packed. The alibis were ironclad. She sang the pearl diver song until Mina told her to hush up. She closed her eyes and saw a bright, shining path that stretched out in front of her, leading directly to the sword, and the two thousand dollars, and her bold new leadership of Rock Salt Ltd.


This has been Chapter 39 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.

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