Let's start the workday with a beautifully natural sight that you will take to your grave.
Previously: The Hull sisters head to Sal’s Crab House to pick up the day’s deliveries. Then the story is rudely interrupted by the history of the restaurant, and how it was conjured out of lies and paperwork and exuberance.
HAWTHORNE GRAIN Job No. 00399
CLIENT: S. Holt
The Khamsin is not the best hotel in town (that would be the Apiary), nor is it the most clandestine (that’s the Laundromat). But it is definitely the most expensive.
The main atrium features a waterfall of rose-tinted gel, and the glass elevator includes a string quartet and crepe bar, leaving very little room for Batya and Mina. During the ride up, the toque-topped chef whips up an artichoke and brie crepe for Bat, and then a dark chocolate crepe, for dessert, also for Bat.
Mina knocks on the penthouse suite and a nurse peers out. She’s wearing your classic white short-sleeved starched dress and tiny cap with a red cross on it. She has a bloody handprint on her shoulder and looks desperately exhausted.
“We have a delivery for…” Mina rummages through her satchel and finds the envelope. “Baroness Sadiya.”
“Give it,” the nurse says.
“My apologies,” Mina says, handing the envelope to Bat. “But we must give this directly to the Baroness herself.”
“The Lady is indisposed. She is unfathomably indisposed.”
Bat, still eating, tucks the envelope under her flexed bicep. “Too bad because here’s what I’m gonna—” She’s cut off by a howl of pain from the depths of the suite.
“Is that her?” Mina asks.
“Listen,” the nurse says. “I’ve been instructed to turn away any and all dirtbag couriers today. Is your bruiser here going to beat me up if I don’t let you in?”
“This bruiser is my baby sister, and beat you up is a very bland description of the ghastly carnage she’ll inflict.”
The nurse looks like she wishes she was dead, or the sisters were dead, or both. She slams the door shut.
Mina looks Bat over. “She didn’t seem scared of you one bit.”
“To be honest I wasn’t putting a lot of mustard on it.”
A maid rolls a cart down the hallway and Mina steals a handful of mints as she passes by. “We should’ve been sneakier. I bet a matryoshka would’ve worked.”
“Oh I am done stashing things in my matryoshka.”
The nurse is back. “You turkeys going to bribe me or not?”
“Should we?” Mina says.
“Have you ever done this before?”
“This is my first day,” Bat says proudly.
“Congratulations. Do you have any money?”
“Course not, that’s why we’re doing this job.”
The nurse scowls. “Just my luck, I get a pair of dunces who don’t know how things work.”
Mina goes through her bag, takes out an extremely disheveled ten-dollar bill, tries to flatten it out. “This is my emergency cash, OK? I keep it just in case I get wounded and require inexpensive life-saving medication or procedures.”
“What’s that smell?”
“Crab sandwiches. Now, if I give you this bribe, and something happens to me, I trust you’ll do your duty as a nurse and tend to my injuries, free of charge.”
The nurse snatches the bill and swings the door wide. “Help,” she says, raising her voice. “You can’t come in here. This area is restricted. Please stop terrorizing me.”
Bat gives her a friendly nod and strolls into the biggest hotel room she’s ever seen. It seems to span zip codes and ecosystems. It was once precisely and luxuriously decorated, but now all the lamps and couches and paintings and mattresses have been knocked over and shoved against the walls.
There are about seventeen to forty people in there (Bat is bad at estimating), all wearing sumptuous terrycloth robes the same color as the gel waterfall, all looking bored. But what really catches her eye is the long trail of blood meandering along the marble floor and through the billowing flaps of what looks like a fumigation tent.
The sisters glance at each other, then unhappily follow the trail. Bat stretches a smile across her face to show everyone just how much she’s not panicking. “How’s it goin,” she says to each robed figure.
They arrive at the tent and Bat peeps inside. She’s greeted by the sight of a woman in stirrups, surrounded by masked doctors, a small bloodied head emerging from between her spread-eagle’d legs.
“Ah god it’s the fuckin miracle of life,” Bat groans, searching for something/anything else to look at.
“Um?” a doctor says. “You’re not allowed in here? At all?”
“I tried to stop them but they used cruelty on me,” the nurse yells from a long way off.
“Hello!” Mina says. “Might there be a baroness here in the birthing tent?”
“Over here,” the woman says, raising a finger.
“I had a feeling it was you,” Mina says. “Milady, we bring an important document.”
“Hurrrrr,” Baroness Sadiya says, pushing. Then: “Sorry, no documents, thank you.”
“OK, but this one seems pretty special.”
“I assume it’s from my dreadful in-laws.”
“What if we found out together?” Mina gestures for her sister to hand her the envelope. “Could be fun.”
Bat, hiding in the corner of the tent, flings it at her like a frisbee.
Sadiya, sweaty, strained, lit with the inner glow of birth-fueled agony, looks at the envelope with distaste. “No point in prolonging the inevitable, I suppose. Would you mind reading it to me?”
“I’d be delighted,” Mina says, unwinding the red thread and taking out a piece of paper.
Bat espies the document and rushes over, temporarily forgetting the brand new head that’s entering the world just a few feet away. “Ooh la la,” she says.
Indeed, this is no mere paper but an official writ made from some kind of opalescent crystal, razor thin, words etched upon it in a filigreed script gleaming like moonlight.
“A Decree from one Silas Holt,” Mina reads, “father of the late Baron Atticus Holt, grandfather-to-be of the Child being born on this day.” She smiles at Bat. “Look at us, right on time for once…born on this day, to be christened with a Name chosen by the Holt family per the Consummation Agreement made by both parties hereafter designated as—”
“You can skip the folderol,” Sadiya says. “Just look for the name.”
Mina makes idle chit-chat as she skims the glowing writ. “I’ve heard tell that giving birth can be, in rare circumstances, a grueling process. But you seem to be coasting through it like a champ.”
“Nice of you to say. I’m in my fortieth hour.”
Bat, ashen, says, “I don’t even like doing things I like doing for forty hours.”
“It has certainly redefined my understanding of suffering,” Sadiya says. “But my physicians have prescribed this local liquor that dissociates negative connotations from pain.”
“Plumber’s Serpent,” the sisters say.
“Ah, you’re familiar with it.”
“One time I saw a guy take a shot of that and all the hair fell off his body,” Bat says. “And then new hair grew where he didn’t want it. So maybe pace yourself.”
“I appreciate your kind advice,” Sadiya says with a weak smile.
“So,” Mina says. “Your baby’s name is in here somewhere?”
“Presumably. Do you want to hear the story?”
“We got time if you got nothing else going on,” Bat says.
Sadiya takes a hearty swig from a brown bottle emblazoned with the Snakehair Beverage Co. logo. (A jaunty Medusa looking three sheets to the wind.) “This child,” she says, “who stubbornly refuses to exeunt my goddamn punani, was conceived shortly after the passing of its father.”
Bat says, “Did you…did you murder him with your lovemaking?”
“Batya,” Mina hisses.
“What? I’m just curious if she murdered him with her lovemaking.”
“No,” the Baroness says. “He was dead prior to the lovemaking.”
Bat’s eyebrows shoot heavenward but there is no other noticeable change in her expression.
“I should clarify…”
“Only if you feel you have to,” Mina says.
“I was what they call spectrally inseminated.”
Bat says the thing she says when she’s pretending to know what someone is talking about: “Makes sense.”
“My husband passed last year, but I still wanted his child. And I heard of a shaman here in Fort Hook who could summon his spirit from the, you know, the other side. Or rather the spirit of his seed.”
“You can do that?” Mina says.
“When you have a great deal of money, yes. I won’t bore you with the specifics of how I was fertilized by this…ghost fluid, but—”
“Please bore us,” Bat says.
Sadiya sighs. “The shaman acted as a surrogate, and—I’ll admit the whole procedure had a whiff of flimflammery about it, but I suppose the results speak for themselves. Regardless, my husband’s family was not happy when they heard about this methodology. They’ve always loathed me, always wished their little baron had married someone who was—well, their pet phrase was less ethnic. But they need an heir, you know how it is. So after ten rounds, our lawyers came to an agreement that my baby would be accepted into the family as long as they got to choose the name. And here you are.”
Mina gives the writ another look. “Here we are.”
“You know the name, don’t you.”
“I do, milady.”
“I don’t yet know the gender of my baby,” Sadiya says. “I assume they selected a boy’s name since they’re so feverish for a male heir.”
“I believe the name is, um…unisex.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense.”
Mina reads: “…and thus the Name which the Offspring shall bear, the Name which can never be changed, which must be announced via herald or crier upon entering any room, whether in official or private capacity, is…”
Bat tries to peek but Mina jerks away from her.
“Sadiyasux. Not sure if I’m pronouncing that correctly. S-a-d—”
Sadiya laughs. “I have it, thank you.”
“It’s a pretty tough name,” Bat says. “I like it.”
“Well then, I suppose this concludes our delivery.” Mina places the writ under the bottle of Plumber’s Serpent. “If not yours, ha ha.”
The Baroness pretends to pat her pockets. “I’m afraid I don’t have a tip at the ready.”
“What say we take a couple of those robes?” Bat says. “I bet they feel like wearing a kitten.”
“Of course. Thank you for your time, ladies. I’ve enjoyed this brief respite from being torn asunder by Sadiyasux, but now I must get back to it. I do so long to meet them.”
The sisters bow (Mina doing a weird curtsy, Bat bending over way too far) and then start the long trek back to the door.
“What do you want to bet,” Mina murmurs, “that Sadiyasux will look an awful lot like that shaman?”
“Zero dollars,” Bat says.
This has been Chapter 21 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: Cha-Cha’s is Spooky