By Fire

An open loft dimly lit by a series of lanterns, an Arabic rug with comforting fixtures and seating in view.

C woke up to violent buzzing from the bedside table. Flipping through his notebook, he pressed a careful sequence of four digits before a voice sounded in reply.

“Marhaba, inquisitor.”

“Hey, Moncef. Uh, listen. 3am’s a little rough for house calls on a mind wipe day.”

“Nonsense, it’s the perfect time for your mind to be sharp and work to get done. There’s a package for you to collect at Vigne Mûre Hypermarket, don’t open it until you return to your room in the Red Dunes. Your il-Mahroosa will make sure the job gets done. As-salaam alaykum.”

With a warm click and a hum, Moncef’s face went dark.

“Jerk.” chimed a deep woman’s voice on the other side of the bed.

She had blue, outrageously curly hair, and wore nothing besides bloomers and knee-high purple socks, her back carefully facing C. Between them was a cat, a breadloaf snug between the two of them.

C quickly leafed a few pages to catch up on the woman, Eleanor, and the cat, Mallorie. “So I was wondering where this ring on my finger came from…”

Eleanor turned her head, back still facing C, big grin on her face. “Detective needs a hint?”

“Nah, I just figured I’d be engaged to my cat.”

With the sound of springs and covers churning, Eleanor turned herself to look directly at C, hat covering her bosom, toes wiggling on her feet. A black ring with a rose on it was visible on her ring finger, as it was clutching her hat.

“Shut the fuck up, hero.” C was greeted with a pillow to the face.

C shrugged, not wearing any clothes himself. “I love you too, Eleanor.” With a deep sigh he resolved to get out Mallorie’s wet cat food and prepare himself for the day.

“We’ve got an assignment.” C started a cold shower hoping it’d further jog his memory. “Am I acting as security today, or will we be problem solving?”

Eleanor was gobbling down the last of her very rare, vegan chocolate raspberry mousse cake. “You’re playing hitman, I’m the acting director.”

“Bigger game than usual?” C couldn’t remember being able to afford a room quite like this one, having a demanding cat like this one, or having a woman accept his hand in marriage like this one. But he knew to roll with it, rather than take much for granted.

“New boss, higher impact assignments. MY recommendation!” Eleanor was clearly in a good mood.

C couldn’t find any notes suggesting that Eleanor had a desire to see the world, though he was starting to sense that theme in his accomplice-turned-fiancée.

“By the way, Mem sent us something handy while you were recovering…” Eleanor fished around her side, pulling out a schematic.

Rubbing his face, C tried to get a closer look through water-filled eyes, but couldn’t see anything through the glass door. Only the sound of running water could be heard for half a minute.

Alarmed, C felt something jump on his back and scurry up his limbs, latching onto his cranial region with claw like hands. He turned quickly to face the body-size mirror to catch a glance of his grinning fiancée. “Back for another piggy-back ride?”

“Here’s a magic trick that you can do at home.” Eleanor raised the tip of her finger to the ceiling, then pressed down on a point on the back of his neck just below where his hair started to grow. C’s cortex popped open like the top of a lunchbox, revealing the expected human grey matter and a few plastic add-ons.

“Ta-dah.” whispered Eleanor, undressed for the occasion. C sat down, cross-legged, considering the situation.

“So, I have a thermal exhaust port? Some secret vulnerability that you two plan to take me down with?” C smirked. “I guess it’s not in my best interest to be cuddling with the rebel alliance.”

“Oh, shut up.” Eleanor exaggerated a pout. “Unless you’d prefer not to know about this piece of crap that’s flushing out your memories.” A long, blue fingernail pointed to a very specific device right on top of C’s frontal cortex.

“Wait…” C’s face brightened up. “You can turn it off?”

“I can, but that’s dumb.”

C’s face instantly turned ashen. “Say what, now?”

Eleanor sighed. “Honey, you have this incredible memory. Able to recreate people, places, emotions, entire moments in time as though you could step in whenever you'd like and feel those same things again, as you are today.”

Eleanor closed up C’s scalp with a pincer motion to the back of the neck, then sat on her feet to C’s side. “And you can feel these things more strongly than in the moment you were there, but there’s a catch.”

C’s let his jaw slack to a bit, eyes focused on Eleanor’s purple irises. “That’s not normal?”

“No, C. And when you have this… mass of memories, memories that make you feel strong emotions, you’re… weird.”

“Eleanor, dear, I’m always the goofball in the room. That’s just me.”

“C, you were nearly catatonic after our honeymoon.” Eleanors eyelids and eyebrows dropped to silently emphasize, I’m not bullshitting you. “I had to repair your memory destroying whatsit with Mem on comcall so we could get you back to reality.”

“Ah…” C took a moment to consider his wife’s statement of fact. “That would explain some missing pages in the notebook.”

“Let me fix that.” Eleanor grabbed the journal sitting in the jacket pocket just outside the shower door. “Red pen for facts about you, blue pen for facts about me?”

“Right, yeah, exactly!” C seemed delighted that she was learning his system.

“New notes just behind the front cover. You won’t miss it.”

C opened the book to find two new notes in the indicated position. In red, with considerably different handwriting than the rest of the tome, “You gave yourself a hardware mod to wipe your memories. You need it to live.” In blue, the same handwriting as the red, “Eleanor loves you ♥ Don’t fuck yourself up.”

“Better get dressed for work,” Eleanor was the first to step out of the freezing cold shower. “We’ve got ourselves an adventure ahead of us.”

Minutes later, Eleanor calmly left the room, dressed in an 80s-vintage purple hued grey silk Saint Laurent Rive Gauche belted “Safari” jacket bearing wide lapels, breast pockets and a long satin belt, with straight leg pants in black and white tiger stripe print ending at black “Roma” lambskin buckle ankle boots with heels.

At Eleanor’s behest that he wear something decent for a change, C took a bit longer to escape the safety of the private room. C’s final, agreed upon outfit was an 80s vintage Matchless “Craig Blouson” jacket, Orlebar Brown “Felix” blue polo shirt, beige Brunello Cucinelli khakis, camel tan Aldo boots, and a set of Tom Ford “Henry” sunglasses.

Eleanor adjusted her black and beige pink-hued Yves sunglasses to size up C’s final decision. “You look like a movie star about to jump off a building.”

“That’s alright with me, I’ll take egomaniac movie star over total slob.” C fired back effortlessly in reply. “Did you happen to know that The Living Daylights is one of my favorite movies?”

Eleanor shook her head. “I’m a little tired of James Bond, and the people who want to be James Bond.”

“Well, I happen to think you look very pretty. Did... I pay for that outfit?”

Eleanor grinned. “Well, it reminds me of something my mom used to wear. Glad you like it.”

C closed the door carefully, not without noticing some distressing red matter on the door knob.

“Oh, one of the presumed neighbors happened to be checking our lock last night.” Eleanor pulled out a stiletto switchblade from her breast pocket. “I said ‘hello’ while you were out.”

“That might show up on our bill.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it! It’s just some punk running around without a full set of fingers. Between the muggings and the riff raff outside, nobody’s going to notice.”

As the two made their way downstairs, C nodded to the front desk manager, hoping that they hadn’t caused too much trouble at the Apartments of the Red Dunes. The manager nodded back, inhaling sharply at the sight of Eleanor, C’s il-Mahroosa, without another word.

Outside was a sun perpetually oscillating above and behind the towers and palaces off in the distance. If Hokkaido was under an eternal veil of darkness from the effects of the ICBMs, Marrakech, and presumably much of Morocco, was illuminated by constant sundown.

Though night was barely distinguishable from day, clocks continued to turn, reputable establishments kept to breakfast-to-dinner hours, and less reputable abodes lit up after most citizen’s working hours.

C’s first assignment was to pick up a package from Mahmoud al-Nubani of the Vigne Mûre Hypermarket. At least, that’s what he expected, before a sudden fire and the market’s untimely closing.

C turned to Eleanor, “Do you think Moncef expected this?”

Eleanor stared at the firefighters and the royal police tape. “Hold it, I don’t think this is the work of an arsonist.”

“Hunch of yours?”

“Pull out your map.” Eleanor commanded as she quietly cast a Mappara spell. A red, shimmering lattice depicting nearby walls and doors appeared in the air in front of her.

C noted that the region that was Vigne Mûre Hypermarket was a fraction of a giant, ugly, urban warehouse. It was also established relatively recently, enough that the map from four years ago indicated the presence of a much wider occupied area behind the visible storefront.

“Think we should do some sightseeing back there?” C inquired, eager for some sneaking.

“Just a peek, they won’t mind.” Eleanor surged forward as C was trying to catch up with her pace. The warehouse was cold, cavernous and poorly illuminated. C touched the ground, ran a few calculations on the dark matter they were standing on. By initial appearances, the boxes were barely touched for years, a home to long term storage of some uncertain cargo.

Eleanor was listening for heart beats with an outstretched finger, suspicious of when the welcoming party might arrive.

At a distance of about forty-eight yards in the warehouse, five masked men jumped the duo. Eleanor beheaded the first man who tried to strike at C from behind with her stiletto. C got down with his Walter PP7 behind the downed body, striking at an enemy leg and arm with luck.

As Eleanor recovered her stature, C continued to cover her with a pistol that wasn’t particularly well suited for fighting small armies while performing adequate gymnastics around their close range blades.

With a wave of her hand, Eleanor summoned up a torrent of blood from the direction of enemy fire, pulling it straight into herself, swiftly ending the chaotic shuffle of footsteps that once surrounded them.

“I got this, C.” Eleanor reassured her husband as stray droplets of blood fell around her.

C checked his vitals, saw nothing of particular horror besides some bruising, and took a moment to check one of the bodies. They looked to be as strong as horses, bearing a VDV patch on their clothes.

“Eleanor, they’re Russian.”

“Russia? All the way in North Africa?” Eleanor’s face bore the mark of puzzlement and frustration. “Guess those colonist jerks are trying to get their hands in everything.”

“Do you have any idea what those Cold War LARPers might have been after?”

Eleanor went back to searching for unmarked, less obvious rooms. Behind one mound of boxes was a lone room, one which appeared to have no entrance.

“C, see if you can spot something funny about the wall over there.”

C dutifully used his Lock Buster VI to scan the stone wall for practical hidden lock mechanisms. Though he did not find a familiar frame to latch onto, there was a pattern of buttons on the wall that looked like a distorted hourglass. A line of three dots squarely in the middle, forming the neck of the hourglass, stood out the most in the center.

Taking about three steps back, C took a closer look at the composition, as a whole, thinking harder about the night sky as he recalled it.

“That’s the constellation of Orion.” C pointed to the three stars, the “belt”, and the other features of the hunter Orion in short order. He pressed various combinations of the belt to not much success.

Stepping back, thinking again about what he knew about astronomy as a little one, C wondered if the puzzle required two people to assist. As far as Orion was concerned, only two stars in this constellation were among the twenty-five brightest stars in Earth’s night sky, and they were in opposing locations within the constellation itself.

“I’ve got another idea… Help me by pressing the left foot of Orion, Rigel, while I press Betelgeuse on Orion’s left shoulder.”

Eleanor shrugged. “Better than watching you adjust ‘his’ belt in the time-honored presence of dead, manly-men Russians.”

On three, the constellation glowed, pulling the two into unknown space.

C awoke, the second time today. Around him were stars, nebula, galaxies, boundless infinite space. Beneath him was a tile floor of marble and his wife. And in front of them…

A large, ebony man donning robes of blue adorned with gold trim. Where one would expect there to be hair there was a swirling, clouded apparition of gold and smoke, with no fire visible. The clouded apparition extended to where his eyes were expected to be, giving him a very intimidating presence.

“As salaam alaykum, Eleanor Harman.” He turned and nodded at Eleanor, who was dusting off her knees from a harsh landing. “As salaam alaykum… C, as you prefer.”

“Name?” Eleanor interjected.

“My apologies, guests. I am Amänär, banished warrior of the Tuareg.” He spoke with a voice that was resonant, as Eleanor and C had to shout to be heard in this curious space. “I come on behalf of the Bureau of the Lens, the agency responsible for keeping the peace within the cradle of humanity.”

Amänär’s eyes were impossible to observe as he spoke, his neck moved only slightly to face whom he was addressing. It was fairly clear that Amänär was the sort who, in the lands they came from, would be classified as a “demon”.

C fought to compose himself with aching legs. “So, uh, I think I should apologize about the delivery…”

“No trouble at all, praise Allah. I only wanted to meet the new agents in person.”

“The package was a setup?” Eleanor was not amused.

“A small trial. Moncef, the grocer, the warehouse, was all a test of abilities.”

“Those VDV folks sure felt real…” C was starting to become skeptical as well.

“It was test for them as well, my friends, which they brutally failed. Too much bulk, not enough intelligence to be competent soldiers. As the pot started to boil, not a single one thought to flee.”

“Hmm.” Making a satisfied sound, Eleanor seemed happy enough with that explanation.

“All that said, I am curious about your motives, Eleanor.” Amänär got down on one knee, his face still locked on Eleanor’s eyes.

Eleanor put one hand to her hip, the other to her forehead, as her legs separated in a dominant pose. “You make us play war games. Now you want to know a girl’s secrets?”

“I want to know why you, as a Mizrahi Jewish woman, elected to leave a safe haven of Hokkaido, losing the protection of your husband’s corporation, to join an organization involved in the peacekeeping affairs of what you call the Berbers.”

C thought it would be a good time to update his notebook after this meeting of the worlds. Today was full of surprises. His pen scratched the paper, muffled beneath the conversation.

“I want to know more about my home, I want to be somewhere I can make a difference.” Eleanor ignited her right hand. “And I want to know what happened to the angels, to the fallen angels, to God.”

“I see, a homecoming then.” Amänär’s expression changed, though it was hard to perceive if it was satisfaction or tranquility. “Before you leave here, I want to raise that I am concerned by your methods.”

Eleanor would have scoffed, but had second thoughts.

Amänär continued. “You show brutality. I worry it is because you see my children as beneath you.”

Amänär’s voice grew dark. “My people attempted to introduce democratic law to Islam through the sect of Kharijism within the dynasty of Barghwata. Built the astrological society of Dogon, which discovered Sirius B before humanity had the means to see it with their eyes. Successfully fought off waves of Portuguese invaders across dozens of wars while securing shared trade agreements through great women like Queen Njinga of Ndongo. All of our progress then, came at the expense of colonizers who stripped my children of their belongings, pride and self.”

As Amänär finished, C chimed in. “Amänär, we’re foreigners and lovers getting by on my translation software and our wits. I… we both wish you and the Berbers nothing but the best, along our way.”

Eleanor interrupted, “You’ll find that I treat all of my enemies the same. Sometimes, they become my friends.”

C thought of Mem and was, at the very least, happy that the Eleanor and Mem found a means to co-exist. Addressing Amänär, C finished his address. “We’re happy to be agents, especially if it helps people in need.”

“Say, before you leave, I’d like for us to be relocated to the Mellah.” Eleanor was not relenting to the same degree as C.

Amänär’s expression changed again, an extended lower lip indicating curiosity. “A low income zone within Marrakech known for issues with safety and crime? The one that the Jewish people left behind for their pilgrimage to the state of Israel?”

Eleanor nodded with force and extended a finger to Amänär. “Yes, that quarter. I want to live where my people used to be.”

Amänär’s face turned to C. “As for you, has your wife made you aware of your own Jewish heritage?”

C scratched the temples of his forehead. “She might have… I don’t exactly have the best memory, you know.”

Amänär turned back towards Eleanor. “Your request is approved. I expect good things from the two of you in the days and nights ahead.” With that, Amänär stood up and dissolved, as the stars turned black and the floor melted away to the darkness below.

C woke up to the sound of a rooster, in another room that he did not recognize at 7am. A piercing sensation could be felt on his cheek, and a warmth on his feet.

“Eyes open, detective man.” Eleanor was beside him in bed, Mallorie covering his legs. “Want a tour of the new place?”

With a yawn, C pulled up the covers before his wife could jab him again with a fingernail. “Mmph. Tomorrow!” He pulled a pillow over his face for extra protection.

As the extra thousand kiam in his pocket would attest, that was enough adventure for today.

Redirected to by fire from trial by fire.