The neon lights lit the cobblestones underneath the Flat Five’s awning, casting a surreal blue haze over the club’s entrance. Muted jazz poured onto the streets as I passed a dirty dachshund panhandling for change or leftovers.
The snake at the door, Nick, stopped me on my way in and motioned at the duffel bag I was toting along. “What you got there, Jack?”
“A horn. I was thinking about blowing tonight with the captain.”
Nick’s tongue flicked. “I thought you were a bassist.”
“I am, but in my down time, I’ve picked up another trade. Wanna see?”
“That’s all right. I’ll hear later, cat.”
“Right on. Thanks.”
I slid in, scanning the crowd for an empty table or Tiffy.
Onstage, an outfit I didn’t recognize freestyled in the key of G, and they were really cooking. Made me wish I had my axe instead of an unregistered, illegal energy source with me.
As I pushed through the throng, I smiled and greeted the friendly handshakes and backslaps that came out of the darkness, always afraid that one phantom, overfriendly hand would belong to a weasel. I was so caught up in the fear that I jumped when Tiffy put her arm around me.
“You came.” She kissed me so deep, my tail twitched in my new jeans. “And you cleaned up real smart, too.”
“Is the captain around?”
“Yeah, he’s in the greenroom. Are you playing tonight?”
“Probably not. I want to see about setting up something in the future.” The half-truth stung more than the threat of weasels, but I didn’t want to drag Tiffy too far into this until I had to. “Can I see him?”
She nodded and led me through the service access, into the narrow halls that crisscrossed the back of the house. After three left turns, she knocked on a green door. The captain answered, clad in his usual stage attire, a black and white suit.
Not the biggest turtle I knew, but the smartest, the captain embraced me in the doorway. “Jack, Jack, the Thump Attack—how are ya?”
“Good, Cap, good.”
“I’m glad to see you’re still this side of the salt with all the turmoil going on in the world. It’s a bad time to be citizen, but a good time to be an artist. Now, we have something to say, eh, boy?”
“Can I spare a few moments of your time?”
“Always, my boy.”
Tiffy licked behind my ear. “Good luck, sugar.”
Once inside the greenroom, Captain motioned for me to take a sofa as he plopped down on a rolling office chair. “Giving the factory a break and sitting in with us tonight?”
“No, I was wondering if you’d be interested in fencing something for me.”
The captain’s eyes narrowed. He’d aged since the last time we spoke, but the bright green stripes that stretched from his nostrils to his brow still looked vital. “Jack,” he whispered, “it’s been years since you made a move. What are you doing?”
“I got in a pickle with El Blanco, and I want to make one last play so Tiffy and I can get outta here.”
“El Blanco’s weasels are not to be trifled with. If I get involved, they could come after me, too. How serious is it?”
“There’s no punchline to this one.” I patted the duffel bag.
The captain considered the bag a moment. “I can handle catnip or maybe even a little silver vine. If you’re holding valerian root, I’m not sure I’m the man to move it.”
“No, I don’t have drugs.”
The captain steepled his webbed hands. “Oh, my. You are in trouble. Is it an artifact?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, let’s see it.”
I unzipped the duffel bag and displayed the glass cage.
The Dancing Lilly billowed.
The captain jumped, scooting the rolling chair back until it knocked his shell against the wall. “How did you get that?”
“You know what it is?”
“I know of them. El Blanco will have us both wacked.”
“Can you move it?”
“I wouldn’t even know where to start.” He leaned in to get a closer look. “That cage is secure, right? Who knows what mayhem that pretty light could cause if it got loose.”
“Got loose?” I didn’t understand. “Like an animal?”
“You’ve no idea what you got there, do ya?”
I shook my head.
“Jack, you’re a musician, and you’re not even hearing it. Listen to the Lilly.”
The jazz still permeated the green room’s walls, so I placed the cage to my ear like a seashell and listened for the waves.
Except I didn’t hear the ocean.
The Dancing Lilly was singing the greatest song I’d ever heard, hitting notes and keys I’d never before imagined as if the tune had been passed onto us from the spirit world. Once I heard its aria, I could have kicked myself for being so tone-deaf, so ear blind to its wondrous music.
“See, Jack? That little creature is what dreams are made of.”
“What is it?”
“That, son, is a fire sprite. Chaotic little thing, too. It’ll burn anything it touches.”
“How come I’ve never heard of them?”
“Before greed and war got the best of the ancients, they almost poached the sprites out of existence in hopes that the little buggers could grant wishes. Whether they do or not is anyone’s guess, but what I am certain of is that they like to play mischievous tricks.”
The captain took off his coat and rolled up a white sleeve. Twisted, discolored scars covered his forearm.
“I’ve been in love only once. When I was young, I was swimming alone at a creek on the other side of the plant. It was getting dark, so I started to call it a day when a Dancing Lilly appeared at the bank. Now, I’d only heard about them in children’s books and campfire stories, so I was cautious at first, but her glow was so dazzling, I couldn’t help but get close. She sang the sweetest song I’d ever known to me, waving me towards her flickering arms. I was so head over heels that I didn’t stop to think. When I threw my arms around her, the damned fairy almost killed me before it darted in the woods. Left me with two disfigured arms and heart so broken, all I could do was sing the blues the rest of my life.”
The Dancing Lilly hummed an enchanting melody; its music the only thing I could hear.
“I thought that this was some type of energy source, fuel, or a weapon.”
“It is, Jack. The most powerful kind, too. It all comes down to the harvest, how you plan on refining it. The right machine could extract her raw power to use for either good or bad. If those rats figured out a way to keep the Lilly alive while syphoning its energy, she could be an indefinite source of potential energy, both constructive and destructive.”
I couldn’t sell another living thing on the black market, nor could I return it to a life of slavery.
El Blanco would have me killed, and I’d brought Tiffy and the captain into it.
“What do I do with it?”
“That, I can’t answer. Remember though, since you have her in your possession, you have all the power. I, however, believe that some creatures were born to be free no matter what the circumstances.”
“Then I’ll take her back.”
The captain put his hands on my shoulders. “Whatever you choose, I hope we get a chance to jam again.”
Living and creating in New Orleans, Louisiana, Anthony S. Buoni haunts the swamps and bayous along the Gulf of Mexico, writing, editing, producing, and lecturing about his craft. A practicing pagan, he’s responsible for the BETWEEN THERE anthologies as well as his screenplay-novel, CONVERSION PARTY. Recently, he’s co-edited and co-produced several exciting anthologies alongside Alisha Costanzo with their independent imprint, Transmundane Press: DISTORTED, UNDERWATER, AFTER THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER, and ON FIRE.
In the past, he has produced the underground zine MEOW and the illustrated horror rag OUTRÉ from Meow Press, and his work has appeared in WATERFRONT LIVING, NORTH FLORIDA NOIR, and SMALL HAPPY. Currently, he’s writing a New Orleans monster novel as well as putting the final edits on novels featuring ghosts, zombies, and a café between life and death filled with secrets and philosophy.
When not writing, Anthony poses as a Bourbon Street bartender, underground musician, and DJ, drawing down the moon with new wave, trance, and melancholy tunes. Other interests include film, gardening, comic books, and playing video games with his son, Fallon.