Viper Moon

A Visit to the Barrows

    My mother would never send me into danger, so when she told me I should go to Duivel as part of an assignment for my first job, I expected to be bored.  Where was Duivel and who went there?  The only thing unusual about the mid-sized city in eastern Missouri was that no one seemed to know it existed.   When I pointed it out on the map, the people shrugged and walked away.  

   Mother insisted that I go specifically to a place called the Barrows, but she also insisted that I go see her good friend Abigail first.   Abigail the Psychic.  What a revelation.  My mother, the cynic, the ultimate skeptic, had a friend who was a psychic?  When I returned home I would have a serious talk with Mom about Santa Claus and how a six-year-old’s dreams were shattered with facts.

   Abigail, actually a lovely person, directed me to a woman named Cassandra who could guide me.  When her apartment door opened, I politely explained to Cassandra what I needed. 

   "You’re kidding.”  Her eyes widened. Nice eyes, hazel-brown—and that hair, spectacular red like maple leaves in the fall.  "A tour of the Barrows?"  Her voice matched the incredulous look on her face. "Why in the Earth Mother's name would you want to do that?"

   "I work for the state." I stood straight and tried to look official. "Part of the new Tourist Development Program.  I’m designing a brochure. Unusual Destinations in Missouri When You're On a Budget."

   She threw her head back and laughed. Genuine laughter, as free of derision as a child’s.

   "What's your name," she asked. "And how did you find me?"

   "My name is Isobel.” I explained about Mom and the psychic.  “Abigail said you’re an investigator. You find missing children."

   Cassandra wasn’t exactly beautiful, but it didn’t seem to matter with her generous friendly nature.  She looked like her wardrobe came from the fifty-cent bin at the thrift store, but I wouldn’t judge.

   "I'll pay you," I offered. "Fifty dollars."

   She raised an eyebrow and grinned. "Fifty Dollars?  Sounds good to me.  And call me Cass. Come on in and let me get my boots and gun."

   "Gun?"  

   I followed her into the apartment, a modest place, clean and filled with obviously used and mismatched furniture.  As I scanned the single living room, dining room, kitchen, my gaze locked on a light fixture hanging over a dining table. It took a second to register. I swallowed hard and stepped back. 

   I couldn’t speak so I pointed.

   A long, thick brown and black snake coiled around the hanging light.  It turned its head toward the sound of my voice.  It stared straight at me with its forked tongue flicked in and out like a tiny whip.

Cass, boots in hand, sat in a chair directly under the snake. She glanced up.

   "That's Nefertiti. Never have figured how she gets up there. Don't worry. She won't bite."

   I scooted back again until I stood in the still open doorway, ready to bolt if Nefertiti moved in my direction.   Cassandra laced up her boots, then strapped on a large pistol in a shoulder holster and belted a knife at her waist. She covered them with a jacket.

   "Is this going to be dangerous?"  While I really needed the job, the state didn’t pay enough to do some things. The snake alone pushed my need for this particular paycheck way down.

   "Dangerous?  Maybe.” She laid a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Isobel, where's your sense of adventure?"

   I swallowed hard.  "I left it at home."

   I followed her down to the most disreputable vehicle I'd seen outside a junkyard. Holes were punched in the trunk and fenders, some of them patched with trusty duct tape.  A long crack splintered the back window glass. The engine did start—after she called it a few names I can’t repeat in my travel brochure. Abigail had instructed me to meet Cassandra in the early evening, so twilight passed on into night as we rode southwest.

   "This is River Street." Cass waved a hand at the road-side structures. "Looks pretty ordinary. Watch how it changes."

   It did, indeed, look ordinary. We passed a small shopping center, a few stores and several American icons, the pervasive convenience store with associated gas station. The road forked ahead of us.  Cass pointed to the right fork. "That goes to the river docks. Not much down there but warehouses. Now, we're going into the true Barrows."

   She drove slowly past assorted bars, X-rated theatres, already shining and garish with abundant neon tubing. Shabby apartment buildings, some with boarded windows, huddled together next to the lairs of commercial sin. A few prostitutes had already staked out their respective corners, regardless of the early hour.

   "How are you going to write about that," Cass asked. 

   I bit my lip. My first assignment was not going well. "Is it all so sordid?"

   "No. It gets worse. Travel brochure?  Maybe you can say, the Barrows will appeal to your desire for exotic personal stimulation.”  She chuckled, obviously amused at my discomfort.  “I’ll park.  We can walk and you can get a real feel for the place." She wedged the car between two others in a space so small it defied imagination to believe that she would ever get it out.

   Apprehension rose as we progressed, but my guide strode with confidence.  She looked tall and yes, dangerous, even deadly.  Far more dangerous than the snake that greeted me in her apartment.  Derelict men in shabby, mismatched clothes loitered on the sidewalk. Most of them lowered their eyes and stepped out of her way.  So did a couple of more perilous looking specimens.

   She laughed. "You're not taking notes, Isobel."

   "Photographic memory."  A lie, but the actuality of the place kept me stunned. I couldn’t write.  I could barely speak. A number of scantily dressed women waved and spoke while I followed her on down the street. Huntress, they called her, never Cass or Cassandra.  She called each of them by name and returned their good natured greetings.

   We'd just walked past a place called Holey Joe's Bar when I said, “This is great, but if I wrote about it, I would never get published and—”

   A woman raced out of an alley in front of us.  A man about three times her size, ran right behind her.  He caught by the hair and slammed her to the sidewalk. With one hand still locked in her hair and the other on her arm like a steel clamp, he dragged her back into the alley. She hit him ineffectually and wailed, a hopeless sound filling the night.

   Fear swelled and clamped around my heart.  I glanced around. The once populated sidewalk was suddenly deserted.  I opened my mouth to speak—or maybe scream—but nothing came out.  

   "I have to take care of this," Cassandra said. "Just stand back and watch. Don't try to help me. I'm stronger than most men you ever met.   And don't call 911. The police don't like my methods."

   I couldn’t talk, let alone call 911.

   She eased to the corner and peered into the alley. I cautiously watched from right behind her.   A van stood there, with its back doors wide open. Inside, under a dome light, three women crowded in a tight, silent bunch.  The woman the brute dragged back into the alley lay on the pavement by the open doors. She huddled in a ball, sobbing. He drew his foot back as if to kick her.

   Cass moved in. She crossed the yards that separated them fast. He turned just as she reached him, but she was ready. She drew back and slammed her fist into his stomach. He doubled over, grunted and made a wheezing sound, like rapidly deflating balloon. Cass grabbed one arm and twisted it behind him—impossibly far—behind him. It made a soft popping sound at the shoulder. He yelped, then silently collapsed and lay still. She beckoned the girls in the van to come out, but they sat there still frozen in fear.

   Cries of anger and pain came from the open door on my left as two more thugs dragged a woman out. She wasn't a large woman, but she made so much noise and fought so hard they focused all their attention on her. Then they spotted their downed brother. They dropped her, and reached for guns on their belts—too late. Cass smashed one in the face with her fist while she tore a gun out of the other's hand.  I heard the sharp snap of finger bones.  The one she hit in the face had slammed back into the concrete building wall and he too, collapsed.

Cass grabbed broken fingered guy's hair and bashed his head into the van door. Released, he fell on top of his partner, babbling with pain.

   The woman they manhandled had fallen and sat huddled in the doorway, her thin body scrunched as tight as it would it would go. She still sobbed, but she'd stopped screaming.

   Cass propped her hands on her hips. "Okay, Nell, what's going on?"

   Nell did rise; slowly, clinging to the door frame.  She had a dreadfully swollen face and one eye completely closed. They'd pulled out handfuls of her brassy, bleached yellow hair. Both eyes in her battered face would probably be swelled shut in the morning.

   Cass turned to me. "Part of me says Nell here received a little of what she deserved. She's mistreated her girls for years. But it pisses me off that three big men busted up a woman who couldn't fight back."   She turned back to Nell. "Talk to me, Nell. Can't fix things if I don't know what's happening."

   "You take care of him, Huntress?  For me?"  

   "Yeah. I'll take care of him." Cass spoke with such surety it amazed me. “Not for you.  For them.”  She nodded at the women climbing out of the van.  “And you’ll owe me big time.”

   Nell choked, cleared her throat and spit out a mouthful of blood.  "It was Brewer.  He said it was a business deal." More blood dribbled out of the corner of Nell's mouth. "Said he could protect me, get me more girls, young girls, a nice house. He scared me, though. He scared me something fierce. Cass, I swear I said no.  He sent them after me.”

   Cass grabbed one of the unconscious thugs by the arm and ankle, picked him up and tossed him in the van. I jerked as he crashed into the far end. How strong was this woman?  Was this possible? The one with the twisted arm lay on the pavement moaning. Cass crouched down and dragged him up straight.

   "Okay, here's what you do. Go back to Brewer. Tell him that Cassandra said the women and kids in the Barrows belong to the Huntress.  He needs to back off, or I’ll take him swimming in the bog—with concrete blocks on his feet."

   She pushed him to his back, put one boot in his armpit and popped his arm back into the socket. That set him screaming.  My stomach churned and I fought to keep my lunch down.

   Cass stood and grinned at me. She tossed her head and that fire red hair appeared to flicker in the low light.  "I love my work.  I'm never bored."  She didn't look back, and I hurried and followed her to her car.  I was breathing hard, still trying to get myself under control.

   "So you do more than find children," I said, after we climbed in. "You protect them—and the women."

   "When I can. Some of these kids, teenagers, are here because they want to be. Nothing I can do about that.  The working girls?  Free will is involved.  Or semi-free will.” 

   She again recited her litany of curses to start the car.  

   One of us was having fun. 

   "Okay, Isobel, time to go to the Goblin Den.  Lot of action down there."

   My insides still churned and I started to tell her to take me back to my car. Then I realized that I was probably safer with her than I would be almost anywhere else.  She drove on until the road ended in a cul-de-sac.  On the left stood what looked like a warehouse surrounded by cars.  After we parked, we went to the door where a substantial looking bouncer eyed her skeptically.  He stepped up and pointed a finger at her.  “No trouble tonight, woman.  My back still hurts from last time.”

   She shrugged.  “No kids here, no trouble.  You know that Buck.”

   Buck grunted, but stepped aside and let us pass. 

   “I’m not very popular with management here sometimes,” Cass said as we entered.

   “Is it your…methods?  Like with Nell and with those men.”

   Her mouth twisted and she winked at me.  “Probably.”

   The Goblin Den, in spite of—or maybe because of—its name, was a place a heavy metal addict would love. Big barrel lights hung from the ceiling and illuminated an eardrum-busting band as they shouted blasphemy with energetic enthusiasm from the stage.  People of indefinable gender gyrated on the crowded floor.  Sweaty bodies, bad beer and other less definable odors oozed through the cloud of cigarette smoke laced with the more exotic aroma of marijuana.  I went to a rock concert once, and the expressions of ecstasy on the dancers’ faces were roughly the same.  Almost everyone was on the floor—except for one couple on a table near the wall.  Two bouncers headed for them.  Apparently there are some rules at the Goblin Den.  Alcohol and drugs are okay, but not public intimacy. 

   The building vibrated under our feet and smoke thickened and swirled around us. 

   “I’d buy you a drink, but they’re five deep at the bar and someone might get knifed,” she shouted in my ear.  “I don’t see any kids.  Has your photographic memory seen enough?”

   I nodded.  When we walked out I gasped the fresher air, trying to clear my lungs. 

   Cassandra grabbed and steadied me when I tripped on the rough pavement.  “You’re holding up pretty good, Isobel.  I want an autographed copy of your travelogue when it comes out.” She didn’t start the car right away when we climbed in.  

  “There’s a part of the Barrows I won’t show you.  There’s no point. You’ll see it, but you won’t remember it later.  There’s a spell on it.”

   “Spell?  Like magic?”  A bit of unease stirred in me.  Was this most practical seeming woman going to get weird?

   “Yeah.  The spell hides certain things.  It hides human evil, the Bastinado gangs, and inhuman evil, the monsters that live in the ruins and under the streets.”

   “I haven’t seen any ruins—or monsters.” 

   “The ruins are hidden behind the façade of River Street.  The monsters, too.”

   “And a magic spell covers them.  Hides them.”  I know a travel reporter needs to be impassive, impartial, and exact.  This pushed my limits.

   “Oh, yeah.” She sighed.  “But there is some magic I can show you, something you can remember and take home with you.”

   I did like this woman.  “Then lead on, Cass.  Oh, if we happen across a monster, could I take a picture?”

   “Sure.” She started the engine.  “But I’ll stay in the car with the engine running while you do.”

   She drove back up River Street and it was the same, except for more people, more flashing lights and more cars.  Prostitutes, drug deals, I saw it all.  Who brought children to this strip of hell?  No matter, the Huntress would deal with the bad guys.  Just as we left the really tawdry businesses behind, she turned left into a parking lot. “This is the Archangel,” Cassandra said.

   “It’s a bar. A nightclub?” The Sunday School girl in me felt slightly offended, thought I don’t know why.  The Goblin Den, appropriately named, had not—but the Archangel?

   “A bar?  Oh, it’s worse than that.  It’s a high-class health and exercise club.”

   A neon sign on the building’s façade spelled out the name, along with a flashing representation of an angel, wings flapping like a great awkward bird.  Mercedes, BMWs, Jags and other high-end cars filled the parking lot, watched over by, to my amazement, armed security guards.   

   Cass whipped her rolling piece of junk around the parking lot. I hyperventilated when she whipped into a parking spot inches in front of a BMW.  She jumped out and there was a lot of shouting around me that I ignored while I waited for my heart rate to slow. Finally, Cass stuck her head in the window.     “Hey.  Isobel.  You okay?”

    I nodded.  I had to climb over and get out on the driver’s side because she was so close to the next car.  I staggered a little, thankful I’d worn sensible shoes.  The security guards opened the door for us at the Archangel, nodding politely at Cass.  No threats this time.

   What looked like a warehouse on the outside was a modern, upscale exercise studio on the inside.  Almost all machines were occupied and an aerobics class flung their bodies around in a large room to the side.  A health food and drink bar stretched across the back wall. Typical of most health studios I’d seen, but with more class.

   “This is nice,” I said. “High end finishes, looks expensive.”

   “It is, but this isn’t the main attraction.  Look what’s coming across the room. That’s the real magic.”

   My mind went blank.

   Cass laughed soft and low.  “They call him the Archangel.  His name is Michael.  He’s…unique.”

   Unique?  This man made every other man in the room look like a sweating barbarian, desperately seeking his perfection and never able to attain it.

     So tall, built like a classical Greek statue, Michael wore a silk shirt that clung to his golden-skinned body.  His hair, cotton white with a touch of summer gold, was drawn back and clipped at the crown.  It flowed over his shoulders, but wisps drifted free and framed his exquisite face.  He should have looked feminine, but he positively reeked of masculine power and grace. 

   Wanting a man like that would be pure torture, a harrowing exercise in futility.  He existed as an ideal of perfection, found only in magazines or movies. With a look, he could drive a woman like me to immoderate behavior and maddening frustration.  Frustration because I knew he would never be mine. 

   Those brilliant, perfectly blue eyes were not on me or anyone else in the room.  Nothing existed for him but Cass.  All of his attention focused on her and his desire was so obvious it broke my heart. She greeted him graciously, but I could see her holding back.  The only uncertainty of the evening. 

   He spoke graciously when she introduced me.  I managed to remain moderately coherent and answer a few questions about my journey here into the Barrows.  He and Cass spoke for a few minutes, but I don’t know what they said.  I stared at him—like everyone else in the room.  Eventually, Cass grabbed my arm and dragged me out. 

   “Take deep breaths,” she said.  “It will fade when he’s out of sight.”

   “I hope not.”  I meant that.  I wanted to remember.

    Cass drove me back to my car parked by her apartment.  She tried to refuse when I went to pay her but I insisted. "The expressions on your face were worth more than fifty dollars," she said.

    I waved goodbye and left, my mind churning with images of the evening.  How could I write of what I’d seen? I couldn’t.  I’d have to find another place. Surely Missouri had others.  Two incredibly vivid memories remained.  The strange powerful woman who hunted lost children, but would also protect a prostitute in need—and the exquisite Archangel, a truly magic man, residing in the most unlikely of places. 

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