Tarnished and Torn
In general when someone suggests you leave a burning building, you should follow orders. But something told me this wasn't your average fire at your typical Gem Faire.
And I, being neither average nor typical, felt compelled to find out what was going on. Instead of exiting, Oscar and I burst through a service door that led into the heart of the massive, hangar-like structure.
Small fires were burning in several corners, unaffected by the overhead sprinklers soaking everything below. And yet the flames did not appear to be spreading. One display table was lit as though a puddle of gasoline were burning right in the center of the tablecloth. Another fire was so hot that the solid gold pieces in a locked display case had melted, the small puddles of molten metal flowing into one another. Still, the flammable tablecloths and posters were not catching afire.
The loudspeaker squawked: "Do not be alarmed. Please allow the officials through. Move in an orderly fashion toward the exits. Do not panic."
Frantic merchants were gathering their valuable wares as frightened security personnel tried to convince them to abandon their items, insisting everyone leave the building immediately.
Soaked visitors streamed out of the exits in a more or less orderly fashion, though a few were crying and clearly on the verge of panicking. More than one paper bag, sodden from the sprinklers, had split open and spilled its contents onto the floor; the items were then kicked and stomped by the shuffling crowd.
I untied the rope around Oscar's neck, telling him to meet me at the van. That way I wouldn't have to worry about him while I checked things out. Under the circumstances I figured he could take care of himself better than I...and in all this bedlam I doubted anyone would be overly concerned with a free-roaming pig.
I spotted Johannes, ketchup staining his white shirt. All of us were soaked by now; the water making the ketchup run down in streams, like blood. But it was the fearful look in his eyes that worried me.
"Johannes," I grabbed his arm as he ran by. "What happened here?"
"Ich...I don't...Es ist eine Hexenjagd!"
I don't speak much German. But I know one word for sure: Hexen. As in hex. As in witch.
"Is Griselda all right?" I asked, feeling a tingle of premonition at the back of my neck. "Where is she?"
"Come, now! Vorsicht!" he grabbed my upper arm, gallantly trying to persuade me to leave with him. "Come!"
But I pulled away, and he hurried toward the exit without backward glance.
Normally a person would be a fool to remain in a burning building, and I'm usually not a fool. But there was something about these fires...they weren't spreading. Neither were they extinguished by the sprinklers, which by now had rained down so much water that little streams were running on the concrete floor.
Hexen. Witches. And Oscar sensed something demonic.
I had to see if the security guards needed my help. One thing was for sure: they were trained to deal with things like crowd control, not the kind of havoc demons—and witches—can wreak. Turning toward the back of the hall, I started to fight my way through the crowd like a salmon swimming upstream.
I stroked the medicine bag that I wore on a braided belt around my waist and said a quick chant of protection, then continued towards the back of the hall.
Griselda's jewelry stand had been abandoned. It looked as though its contents had been tossed, as though someone had rifled through, looking for something. Or perhaps it had merely been ravaged by the water and the rushing crowds, like so many other displays out on the floor.
I noticed a gold cufflink on the ground. Picking it up and weighing it in my hand, it felt surprisingly heavy, in the way of real gold. I looked for its mate, wondering if it was part of Griselda's merchandise. But no—the cufflink was slick, with a modern angular design, not an antique. I held it in my hand and concentrated, and I thought I felt distinctly modern vibrations—and unlike the case with most jewelry, I felt these sensations quite clearly. In fact, there was something so familiar about them it niggled at the edges of my consciousness.
The massive blue curtains that cordoned off the back from the show floor swayed in toward me, as though blown by a wind from behind.
A lock of egg-yolk yellow hair tumbled from under the curtain to land at my feet.
Unlike everything else in the hall, the hair was dry. I stared down at it for a long moment. The sounds of chaos, the screams and shouts, the sirens faded as I stared down at the errant lock of hair. I was afraid to reach down toward it.
Finally, I took a deep breath, stroked my medicine bag to calm myself, reached out slowly, and parted the curtains.
It took me a moment to recognize what I was seeing. Two large plywood boards, one on the ground, the other on top of someone with yellow hair.
Placed upon the top board were several cinderblocks and more than a dozen boxes of what I presumed to be heavy jewelry.
Griselda was sandwiched between the boards, crushed.
© Juliet Blackwell
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