Heat of the Moment

“Heat of the Moment”

by Gordon Linzner

“Feck!”

Billy Yee leaned to his left.  A shoe soared over the cobbler’s counter, past the ten-year-old’s shoulder, to join the dozen littering the floor.  His grip tightened on the one he’d retrieved after it flew onto Mulberry Street through the open doorway.

Similar scenes were happening all along Cobbler’s Row in Little Dublin.  The chaos was readily visible through shop doors left open in the vain hope some slight breeze might relieve the oppressive heat.

“Mr. Shaun?”  Billy was familiar with his employer’s extreme though short-lived tantrums.  That made them no less disturbing.  His free hand wiped sweat from his forehead, then rubbed it against his shirt.  The thin cotton was already sodden; a bit more couldn’t make it worse.

The bells of Old St. Patrick’s church, a block away, rang out the hour.  Ten a.m., with temperatures at street level already well over a hundred.  As they barely cooled overnight, the atmosphere felt even more sweltering than the previous Wednesday, when the August heatwave really took hold.

“Fecking feck!”

Two more shoes flew over the counter.  Billy dodged both.

“Mr. Shaun?  Are you hurt?”

The swearing stopped.  A tuft of thinning, bright red hair slowly appeared behind the counter.  Two glinting green eyes followed, fixing on the young apprentice.

“Billy, m’lad.”  The leprechaun grinned.  “No, everything’s ducky.  Except…”

Shaun didn’t finish the sentence.  He didn’t have to.  For nearly a week someone—or something—had been messing with the shoemaker’s stock, switching out left shoes for right every night.

At first, he suspected sabotage by a competitor.  That theory crashed when he learned every one of the score of shoemakers along Mulberry Street, south of Prince, suffered from the same plague.  Half of them had right shoes swapped for left.  Trading inventory between the businesses sorted things out, but only until the following day, when the problem recurred.

Even aided by their human apprentices, Shaun and his fellow country-beings spent more time exchanging shoes than making new ones.  Frustration took its toll.  The wee folk walked all-night patrols of Little Dublin, armed with hammers and awls.  No activity was detected.

Nonetheless, every morning, when they opened for business:  this!

Shaun pounded his tiny hands on the countertop.  At these moments he understood why their Italian counterparts, the mazzamurello, spent their evenings hitting walls.

“Maybe it’s time…?”  Billy began hesitantly, knowing his employer’s response.

Shaun perched cross-legged on the counter.  A withered hand smoothed his beard, easing his agitation.  “No.  Still no.”

“But the police…”

“A more corrupt lot would be hard to find.  I’m ashamed to say most are from my home country.  No telling how much stock and equipment might vanish with their so-called help.”

“The head commissioner is working to clean up the force.  I read it in the Sun.”

“That Roosevelt fecker?”

“He’s a good man!  He’s arranged ice deliveries during this emergency, for we who can’t afford it!”

“The eejit wanted to shut down bars on Sundays before this disaster!  I’ll not forgive that!  Those are sacred meeting spots!  Ask the kobolds living in the beer cellars of Kleine Deutscheland.”  Shaun waved a hand northward, his face flushing angrily.

Billy grew quiet.  Had the boy been a faery he might have shrunk to the size of a finger.  As a mere human, the best he could manage was a heart-wrenching cringe.

Shaun sighed.  He’d grown fond of his new apprentice in the few months since taking him on.  The number of humans he considered trustworthy over the past century could be counted on the toes of a cloven hoof.  He struggled to curb his temper around Billy.

Given his innate nature, he rarely succeeded.

“Heat’s getting me a bit nutty, Billy, m’boy.  We’ll not be taking police wholly off the table, but I sense this mystery’s beyond the ken of most humans.”

Billy nodded, chewed his lip in thought.  His eyes suddenly brightened.  “I might know someone who can help.  I’ll ask my friend Leon.”

Shaun chuckled.  “A lion, is he?  I’ve no wish to endanger young lads like yourself.”

“Not him.  His grandmother.  She’s a mambo.”

The leprechaun raised a shaggy eyebrow.  “Is she, now?”  He flicked a finger against his nose.

“It’s like a priest, Leon said.  Actually, from what he’s told me, more like a witch.”

“I know what a mambo is, Billy-boy.”  The green eyes glittered.  “Let’s clear these shoes up and lock the place down.  We’ve visits to make.”

Mulberry Bend, located less than a mile south of Little Dublin, was considered by many the most dangerous street in the already dicey Five Points district.  Eighty years earlier, the lethally tainted Collect Pond had been filled in and built over; in such scorching heat as this, one could still smell its foulness.

Two blocks east of the bend, the Sixth Avenue Elevated train rumbled down the Bowery towards South Ferry.  Two blocks west stood the notorious House of Detention—known informally as the Tombs for its Egyptian-style architecture—which at one time or another had served to house most of the neighborhood’s residents.

Mott, Cross, Bayard—every street felt more crowded than usual.  Residents fled stifling, cramped apartments and storefronts for the slightly less stifling sidewalks.  Sweat, dung, rotting food and other foul odors filled the steaming air.  Horses dead from the heat could not be removed for days.  Open fire hydrants released cooling water.

For the sake of his companions, Billy Yee and Leon Zamor, Shaun resisted his impulse to return the jibes of ne’er-do-wells and lowlifes, and made a point of displaying his shillelagh.  Most locals knew better than to bait a leprechaun.

Leon’s grandmother, his entire family in fact, occupied a tiny third-floor apartment in a ratty tenement overlooking Bandit’s Roost, one of several narrow side alleys intelligent strangers only entered if they had a death wish.

The apartment was permeated with a very different aroma: fresh leaves and herbs, roses, fried fish, even a trace of cigar smoke wafting through the open window.  A caramel-skinned older woman sat at the kitchen table, arms folded over her pale blue blouse. Her irritation focused more on her grandson than the two strangers he had brought.

“What do your parents and I tell you, Leon, time and again?  Dirty clothes are washed in the home!  People make up enough reasons to hate our kind without adding to them!  I saw lynchings during the draft riots!  Thirty years have passed and it still seems like yesterday.”

“But, Grann!  Billy’s my friend!”

“And that skinny pale-skinned Irish fae, is he also a friend of yours?”  Even though she was ranting, and making snide comments about his own people, Shaun was impressed by the lyrical quality of Anise Zamor’s voice.

“Billy vouched for him.  That’s good enough for me.” Leon stuck out his lower lip defiantly.

Shaun stepped forward, trying to look imposing without being threatening.  To appear as either was difficult when the ten-year-old lads either side of him stood half a foot taller.  “May I say a word, Mrs. Zamor?”

“No!  I know what your Catholic church thinks of our religion!” She waved her right hand dismissively.

“I will speak!”

The woman fell silent then, struck by Shaun’s sudden authoritativeness.  She sank back in her wooden chair.

“Thank you.”  The leprechaun bowed his head.  “For the record, I care not how one church doctrine differs from another.  My own people have oft been persecuted by pedantic priests.  Nor does skin color, human or fae, matter.  Brown.  Black.  Pink.  Green.  Yellow.  Orange…well, orange-skinned creatures can be annoyingly stupid.

“The point is, Mrs. Zamor—Anise—I’m told you may provide wise advice concerning a problem myself and my fellow cobblers have.”

Shaun could be persuasive when he made the effort.  Zamor eyed the little man top to toe, then nodded.  “To ask your way does not mean you are lost.  Say your piece.”

The leprechaun described the situation in detail, glancing occasionally toward his apprentice to provide verification.  Shaun knew too well his own inclination to exaggerate.  Billy’s presence kept him grounded.

“Can you help?”  Shaun’s tone came as close to a plea as one of his kind could manage.  Which is to say, not very close at all.

Zamor leaned forward, her elbows on the table, her fingers intertwined.  “You don’t buy a cat in a bag.  You have no idea of the cause, then.”

“If I knew, I’d not be troubling you.”

The woman shrugged.  “Well.  I can provide certain herbs and candles, call on associates of mine to help perform a ceremony.  We would speak in tongues, invoke spirits, sacrifice a chicken.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  We shall see what, if anything, we can invoke.  The ritual should not last more than five or six hours.”

Shaun frowned.  “My shop’s already been shut half the day…”

“Not by day.  At night.  After sunset.”

The frown deepened.  “Sunset comes a bit late this time of year.”

“Should we succeed, the ritual will likely need be repeated for each of your fellows.  How many shops did you say are on Cobbler’s Row?  Twenty?”

“Twenty-two, to be precise.”  Shaun sighed.

“We might be finished before the trees start shedding leaves. Might.”

“Feck all.”

“Or…” Mrs. Zamor continued, thoughtfully.

“Or…?”

“One must beat the drum to hear the sound.  You need more information about the situation.” Her long fingers tapped the table in emphasis.

“You think I haven’t tried?  Eight, ten, a dozen wee folk patrol the block, inspecting each shop hourly, night after night.  Sometimes one of us spots movement from the corner of an eye.  On closer look there’s nothing there.”

“Nothing you can see.  I need not tell you, Mr. Shaun, that certain entities do not wish to be seen.”

“Surely they can’t elude beings such as myself.”

“Your own words confirm they have.  And others can only be seen by a gifted few.”  Her gaze shifted toward Shaun’s apprentice.

Billy blinked.  “Me?”

“I do sense a certain spirituality about you, young man.”  Zamor turned back to Shaun.  “Has the boy also been on these night patrols?”

“The lad’s but ten years of age!”

“Nonetheless, speak to his family about acquiring his services for this evening.  Make up a good story.  Your kind excel at that.  I can help persuade them.  Few humans understand spirits.”

“I don’t like putting the lad at risk.”

“I doubt there is danger.  What you described seem little more than harmless pranks.  Your visitor may even welcome the attention.”

Billy clapped his hands.  “I’ll do it, Mr. Shaun!  I can convince Mama!  And if not, the fire escape’s near my bed.”

“I see I’ve little choice,” the leprechaun conceded.

Leon piped up.  “Can I go, too, Grann?  I might have the gift as well!”

“I would need speak to your parents first, my little lion.  And at this point we do not wish to confuse the matter with too many chickens in the pot.”

Leon pouted, sticking out his lower lip.

Shaun tipped his hat formally.  “I thank you for your time and your wisdom, Anise.”

She acknowledged his gesture with a slight inclination of her head.  “Keep me informed of your results, Mr. Shaun.  Or is that your first name?”

“Either.  Both.”

Leon gripped Billy’s hand.  “Tell me what happens, too.  I want to know everything!”

Billy Yee chuckled.  “As if I would not share with my best friend the most exciting adventure of my life!”

Shaun and Billy hunkered down alongside the shop’s counter.  Beyond the window, long shadows stretched across Mulberry Street until naught remained but the feeble glow of gas lamps.  Even the bells of Old St. Pat’s church had gone to rest.

The hour was past midnight; they were officially in the ides of August.  Shaun had advised his fellow cobblers there would be no patrol tonight.  He told Billy’s parents the boy was essential to aiding him in assessing the store inventory, and they readily accepted his offer to put the lad up for the night.  For a ten-year-old to wander late at night from Little Dublin to his home on Bayard Street was far riskier than entrusting his wellbeing to the shoemaker for whom he’d worked the past few months.  To nail it down, Mrs. Yee was concerned that Billy’s younger brother, Ray, might be developing measles.

Billy’s chin dropped.  His breathing grew raspy.  This was third time that evening he’d nodded off.  Shaun prodded the boy with his shillelagh.

Billy blinked alert.  “Is it here?” he whispered.

“Don’t know, m’lad.  That’s why you’re here.”

“I thought this would be more…interesting.”

“Careful what you wish for.”  The leprechaun raised his eyes to take in the rack of shoes visible behind the counter.

All was as it should be.

Save for one gap where a shoe had suddenly disappeared.

Billy leapt to his feet.  “There!”

Shaun raised a finger to his lips for silence, though he knew it was too late.  The creature must have heard the boy.

“Where?”

“There!  By the rack!  He’s smiling at me.  Waving.  Reminds me of my baby brother.”

Narrowing his eyes, Shaun could just make out a single shoe floating in the air.  “I see no one, m’lad.”

“How can you miss him?  He’s wearing a breechclout and moccasins, like an Indian.  Hey!  Maybe he’s just looking for a new pair of moccasins.”  Billy jumped forward, waving his arms.  “Hi!  I’m Billy!  Want to play?”

Shaun reached out to pull the boy back, then stopped.  If Leon’s grandmother was right, Billy was in no danger, and the leprechaun did need to learn more about the intruder.  If she were wrong…

His grip on the shillelagh tightened.

Billy hurried toward the shoe rack, laughing.  He began running in a circle.  The floating shoe followed him, then sank to the floor.

Billy grabbed a random shoe and placed it next to the stray.  A third shoe floated from the rack to join those two.

Within minutes the racks were empty.  A pyramid of footwear precariously dominated the center of the shop.  Billy grinned at Shaun, pointing proudly at their creation.

“He’s confused, Mr. Shaun.  He can’t figure out why we’ve still only got shoes for the right foot.”

“Tell him if he’d stop switching my shoes out with the other cobblers he’d not have that problem.”

The boy nodded, then turned back to his invisible—to Shaun—companion.  A moment later, the pyramid collapsed, falling in on itself.

Shaun’s apprentice also collapsed, lying flat on the floor, trembling fitfully.

“What have you done, you monster?”  Shaun raced forward.  If he swung his shillelagh hard enough, often enough, he was bound to strike whatever creature had taken the lad down.

Before he could reach him, Billy rolled onto his side.  He wasn’t trembling from a supernatural curse.  He was laughing.

Billy Yee had made a new friend.

That Saturday the heat wave broke.  Temperatures plummeted into the eighties.  Two figures met at a tavern on the Bowery, near Grand Street.  They settled into a booth near the back where they could speak privately, he with a glass of Irish whisky, she with a tasty Caribbean rum.  They made an odd couple indeed, a tiny, red-haired leprechaun and an elderly mambo.  Anyone with a modicum of sense would know to leave them be.

“I expected to hear from you two days ago.”  The accusing words rolled off Anise Zumor’s tongue with the same enchanting sing-song rhythm as when they’d first met.

Shaun stroked his beard.  “It took that long to get the full story, second-hand, through Billy.  There are still gaps.”

Zamor placed her elbows on the table, chin resting on her entwined hands.  “The spirits are listening.”

From what Shaun gathered, the prankster visible to but a few gifted persons was one of the Wematekan’is, a little people once known to the Lenape tribe, who occupied Manhattan Island centuries earlier.  After fumbling over the pronunciation, Shaun referred to it as a Wood Dwarf.  Centuries ago, after exposure to excessive sunlight, the Dwarf turned to stone and sank to the bottom of what the English later called the Collect Pond.  More recently, that body of water was drained and built upon, quickly and badly.  Last week, perhaps due to a combination of shoddy construction and the severe heat wave, the Dwarf revived.

The mambo raised an eyebrow.  “How, exactly?”

“That’d be one of the gaps.  I’m speculating.”  Shaun drained his whiskey and waved for the bartender.  “Another rum?”

“Cooked food has no master.”

“I’ll be taking that as a yes.”

After the next round arrived, Zumar asked, “Is he happy?”

“Billy?  Very much so.  His new friend?  Not so much.  He’s a spirit of the forest, you see.  Helps protect the trees, the plants, the animals.  The forest he lived in is long gone.  This is the point at which I ask a small favor.”  He took a sip of whiskey.  “Or, rather, ask if I may do a favor for your family.”

Zumar smiled.  “You have big ambitions for a little man.”

Shaun shrugged.  “Tonight Billy and I are taking his new friend for a wee ride on the Ninth Avenue El, up to One Hundred Tenth Street.  There’s a huge wooded parkland up there.  I believe our Wood Dwarf will be quite content there.”

“That is kind of you.  What is required of me?”

“Your permission.  Your family’s.  Your grandson Leon brought us together, without which, I’m not ashamed to admit, this situation would’ve taken a bit longer to work out.  I would reward him by making him part of this finale.”

“My grandson does not share Billy’s gift.”

“Alas.  But he could share the experience.  Although he knows it’s for the best, Billy will be heartbroken to lose his new friend.  Leon’s presence will help him get through it.”

Zamor nodded.  “I will talk to my daughter.”

“Muchly appreciated.  These drinks’re on my tab, of course.  Thanks as well for the measles scare that freed Billy up the past few nights.”

“A heat rash is a simple spell.  Inflicting the real disease would have been more difficult.  And unethical.  And with dire consequences for all concerned.”

“And not at all be what I’d’ve wanted.  So, in further appreciation of your efforts…”

He reached into the pouch at his side, pulled out a coin, and laid it on the table before her.  “For your trouble.”

Zamor’s eyes widened.  “This is real gold?”

“Of course.  I have a reputation.”

“How can you afford it?  On a cobbler’s income?”

“I’ve a pot of the stuff.  Don’t ask where.  That would not end well.”

“Then answer me this, Mr. Shaun.  With so much wealth, why spend your days making shoes?”

“Because I enjoy it.”  He rose and gave a little jig.  “What more reason does one need to do anything?”

_______________

Gordon Linzner is founder of Space and Time Magazine, author of three published novels and dozens of short stories in F&SF, Twilight Zone, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and numerous other magazines and anthologies, including recently Humans Are the Problem, New Sherlock Holmes Stories Part XXIX: More Christmas Adventures (1889-1896), Flash in a Flash, and Spawn of War and Deathiness. He is a member of HWA and a lifetime member of SFWA.

 

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1 Response to Heat of the Moment

  1. I love how this story takes different cultural myths into one really entertaining peace!

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