Juniper: Wendig Challenge
This week’s challenge was a list of one-word titles. I chose “Juniper” and I have no idea why. Started out sort of noirish, quickly morphed into urban fantasy, and ended with more questions than it started. There’s certainly more story I could tell, but I think I’m about done looking into the world of Johnson and Juniper. At least for now.
Story after the break.
In the backstage area of the empty theater, the report of the .45 JHP was louder than Johnson expected, but it wasn’t the gunshot which rattled his brain. It was getting brained by a metal bar wielded by an invisible hand which sent his world into a tailspin. Johnson had grown up with the cartoon birds floating around heads, but was shocked to see honest-to-god sparrows circling his own. Even then, he just assumed it was a hallucination from the hit to the head, from the stress of having to draw and fire his personal defense weapon, from the isolating nature of the job. Johnson did his best to maintain his awareness, even as he felt his vision narrowing at the margins. It reminded him of being on the old fair Gravitrons, the feeling of danger and excitement, but now all the excitement was sucked away by fear.
Johnson hated birds. Always had.
He swatted his left hand as a bird flew close to him, but it merely pecked at his fingers and swooped away. He nearly took a second blow to the head, but when the bar swung at him a second time, he had regained enough focus to duck. The sudden motion threw his feet out from under him, sending Johnson to his knees, right shoulder up against the solid concrete wall. He glanced down at his right hand and was surprised to see the .45 still gripped tightly, so he swung it up in the direction of the bar and pulled the trigger twice in rapid succession, aiming lower the first time and hoping the recoil motion didn’t throw the second shot too high.
A sparrow’s angry chirp became a distinct “Oof” as though someone’s wind had been knocked free to mingle with the stagnant air of the theater, and then a rattling thud echoed as a body seemed to hit the floor.
His vision beginning to clear, Johnson stared in the direction of the sound, but no human body lay there. Instead, there were the sparrows, at least a dozen of them, all seemingly lying dead and stiff, blood pooling out of the centermost one in the flock. He gathered his feet under him and gently stood up, but sank back to his knees as his head began swimming again.
Johnson wasn’t sure exactly what had happened here, but things were finally falling into a familiar, if completely frustrating, pattern. When he’d taken the job tracking down a missing child, everything had seemed perfectly normal, something Johnson had been hoping for ever since he’d opened his office two years ago. Unfortunately, not one of his cases had been simple in that time. He had been double-crossed by clients using information to re-kidnap children who had escaped, discovered missing kids who were in fact not human at all, and interrupted weird cultish indoctrination ceremonies that corrupted some who were. When this one had seemed like a regular-old parent abduction, Johnson had counted his lucky stars. Too soon, it seemed.
After waiting a few minutes on his knees, Johnson finally gathered enough steadiness to try standing again. He shuffled over to where the birds lay dead. The sparrows reminded him of his first experience with death as a young child. He had discovered a young wren one winter evening, built a makeshift nest, and brought it in from the porch where he’d found it. His mother wasn’t about to have a wild bird in the house and made him take it back to the porch over his protestations. He thought he’d given it enough cloth scraps and leaves to keep it warm overnight, but when he went out the next morning to feed it, he found it stiff and cold.
These sparrows were already so cold he wondered whether they’d ever been alive. And the one with the bullethole through its midsection was so heavy he couldn’t even lift it. It had all the weight of an adult human crammed into a body the size of a typical one ounce sparrow. If that wasn’t odd, Johnson didn’t know what was. It shouldn’t have been able to fly at that weight, but it had surely been circling him, along with the rest of pile.
Johnson didn’t want to wait much longer as he was sure the cops would show up on scene soon. A bullet crack wasn’t unheard of in this section of Atlantic City, but police presence had been stepped up in recent years and their response times had been dropping below 5 minutes. He struggled to pick up the heavy bird and managed to wrangle it out the back door and into his car. He went back in and gathered up the rest of the bird carcasses, figuring it was better to have all the available evidence. He needed some help figuring this out, and he knew just the woman to help: Juniper.
Juniper was a witch, an heir to Hecate, and Johnson had seen enough since he’d opened his missing children’s office two years ago that he didn’t really doubt her skills, but she certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of witch. No black cats, no wiry straw hair, no warty nose, no pointy hats, and no broomsticks. Not even a single Tarot deck or mortar and pestle that he’d ever seen in her home. In fact, she looked, acted, and worked as a tax accountant, but her encyclopedic knowledge of the occult was real. The only problem was it was 2 o’clock in the morning. Still, he had nowhere else to go, so he headed out to her place.
Johnson should not have been surprised when Juniper opened the door before he had a chance to knock, but in the year he’d known her he still hadn’t come to grips with what she was readily capable of. When he sat down at her little kitchen table he found a cup of tea, perfectly steeped and sweetened, ready for him.
“So, let’s see what you have for me,” said Juniper. “As much as I enjoy social calls, it is rather early and I’ve a bunch of taxes to file, so I’d like to see if I can get back to sleep after we’re done here.”
So, she doesn’t know everything. Johnson nodded, took a sip of tea, and said, “You’ll have to come out to the car.”
Juniper followed him outside where Johnson popped the trunk. The witch looked inside and shuddered.
Johnson had the idea she knew exactly what he’d killed “So, what the hell is that?”
“Shapeshifter. Dead. Let’s take it into the basement. It ought to have returned to its human shape after it died, and it’s quite odd that it has not. Were there other birds there?”
“Yes.” Johnson pull out a plastic grocery bag where the rest of the carcasses were.
“I’ll take those. You bring the heavier one down into the basement. Let’s keep them separate for now, as I think we’ll see a dramatic change if they all touch.”
Sure enough, once all the birds were laid together on Juniper’s basement floor they morphed into a naked girl, probably no older than 15. Johnson took out his phone and pulled up the picture he’d been sent.
“Fuck.” It was the girl he’d been hired to bring home.
Juniper sighed. “Can’t you ever just find a regular runaway teen?”