Skin Deep

“You will not find a more potent hypnotic,” Samiya purred as she offered Rhys the open jar.

He reached for it, but she slipped it back toward her chest.  Her full, burgundy lips curled in a demure smile, and her coffee irises seemed to glow from a hidden ember.  Rhys had trouble determining her age, and that enigma only confirmed her identity.

“I can’t examine it?”

“Look.  Do not touch.”  Again she extended her arm, slender and reminiscent of silky chocolate.  “Mere contact is enough to trigger an altered state.”

The drab, patinous powder filled two-thirds of the pint jar.  It was unremarkable compared to the dried plants and animal parts that hung from the beams of – for lack of a better term – her hut.  Constructed from canvas and hide and lumber and mud brick, it was a syncretism of modern and ancient architecture, blending into the arid landscape.

Her shop of horrors, located beyond sight from the town, was close enough for wayfarers to stumble upon.  Even now children played nearby in the cool of morning, their shouts muffled but clear.

And his investigating partner, Kazim, hid nearby, waiting for the quarry they truly sought.  Although native to this country, he determined Rhys should be the one to contact Samiya.  She would be less suspicious of him since he looked like just another khawarja, white guy, and was good at coming across as a witless wonder.

Kazim had a way with words.

“Hypnosis has its limitations.”  His gaze returned to her face, and in spite of himself admired her even, sculpted features framed in coiled, black tresses.  “You can’t, for instance, compel a pacifist to kill.”

Her lids lowered and lips pouted.  “What is it you desire?”

“I need complete control.”

The satisfaction of her smile made Mona Lisa look grumpy.  “Then you find what you seek.  All you need do is adjust the dosage.  A pinch renders the subject susceptible to suggestion.  A handful will make him submit to any whim.  Any more than that will cause unconsciousness.”

“How long until it takes effect?”

“A matter of seconds.”  Samiya tilted her head, which seemed to accentuate the gracefulness of her neck.  “This is my own recipe, perfected only recently.”

“Did your husband help you develop it?”

Her smile became impish, like a little girl caught lurking outside the boy’s locker room.  Her free hand glided from her shoulder to the wrist, and the tips of her delicate fingers rippled over an ornate bracelet of gold and shimmering stones.

“I have no husband.”

Despite the sultriness of her action, his acuity snapped into high gear.  That bracelet was not what it appeared.

She’d just summoned the husband she denied.  Okie-doke, two could play at that game.

“Oh, come now.”  Rhys shrugged as he rubbed the back of his neck, enabling him to tap the alert button on the communication device lodged behind his ear.  “Surely a sweetie like you needs more than some noxious potions to keep the wolves at bay?”

Her smile implied that whoever claimed flattery would get you nowhere had never tried it.  “The men around here know what is good for them.  They want their children to explore the hills and gather herbs they can sell me.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Poverty is a taskmaster.  But I control that condition, which makes me their ultimate master.”

Her admission was as startling as a used-car salesman proclaiming he peddled lemons.  Then again, that boldness was probably bolstered by expectation of her husband’s arrival.

“But what about your customers from beyond these borders?”

The curtain in the doorway rustled, and since Kazim hadn’t alerted him their quarry was on the way, Rhys only glanced toward the disturbance.  A local boy, maybe around ten years old, focused on Samiya as he stepped inside, perhaps hoping to sell her herbs.  Rhys returned his attention to the woman.

His subconscious twitched.

His gaze shot back to the lad, who glared at him with amber, swirling eyes and slit pupils.

Knickers – she hadn’t summoned her husband, but her son.

The preternatural offspring sprang forward, hissing, and at a height above Rhys’s head.  With a similar but lower spring, Rhys slammed into the wall behind the woman.  A Zulu-style shield hanging where he collided crashed to the floor of packed earth.

The boy landed on the spot Rhys just vacated.  With a rumble reminiscent of a crocodile’s growl, he raised a dagger probably in his clutches since entering the hut.

Rhys snatched the shield with his left hand, and with the right drew a pulser – like a pistol that fired charges – from his pocket.  He’d rather not shoot–

Gritty powder struck the left side of his face, a tangible reminder Samiya was nearby, and adept at flinging contents in jars.  A greenish cloud stung his eyes and an acrid aroma burned his nostrils.  He stopped inhaling, although the damage was already done.

His head swam.

Kazim burst through the doorway, pulser drawn.  And – like any good man upon spying a woman and a child – hesitated.

The boy spun around and lunged in a low tackle toward his new prey.

A peep cracked from Kazim’s pulser as a wad of light hurtled just over the boy’s shoulder.  The projectile flashed as it struck the wall between Rhys and Samiya.  The so-called lad nearly succeeded in slashing Kazim as he struck, but the man deflected the blow with an arm sweep and kick.

His knees wobbled as Rhys hurled the shield toward their attacker.  He tried to aim low enough to disable the boy, but the room seemed to spin around him and he struggled to avoid falling forward from his own momentum.

As the shield struck the assailant’s head, blood splattered toward Kazim as Rhys dropped to his knees.  No, he hadn’t meant to throw with that much force … and because it was impossible for a mere human to execute, he’d betrayed his identity.

He collapsed to the floor.

Traitor!” Samiya screeched, and from the corner of his bleary vision he spied her lunge toward him, a larger knife in her grip.

A flash of light struck her as a peep cracked from Kazim’s position.  Rhys’s vision darkened but he believed he heard her strike the wall.

Well, that went poorly was his final, conscious thought.

*****

“Don’t sit up too fast.”  Kazim’s baritone voice seemed to emanate from the acacia trees that surrounded them.

Rhys welcomed the warning since the world still felt like it was spinning faster than usual.  He preferred to not leap to his feet, ready to defend himself.

“Oh … what a night.”  As he propped up on elbows from his supine position, he noted they were nowhere near the hut, but in a dusty field dotted by trees.

His heart dropped when he spied only Kazim step closer to him.  No prisoners.  There was no question Samiya’s son didn’t survive the blow to the head, but he’d hoped his partner would be able to detain the woman.

Rhys inched into sitting up.  “Where’s Samiya?”

“I had plenty of time to dispose of the bodies.”  Kazim folded his arms, his left wrist bandaged with white cloth.  “You’ve been out for hours.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”  He had a nagging suspicion that if Kazim told him to go roll in rhinoceros dung, he might just do it, and not to symbolically express his opinion of how this takedown went.

“I don’t know if she turned the knife on herself or just cut herself accidentally, but she was already dying when I got to her.  That blade was poisoned.”

“Looks like it was lucky for you her son’s knife wasn’t spiked, also.”

Kazim shrugged.  “It might be lucky for you they’re both dead.  If word got out who you really are, your career as a Tracker will get cut short.”

Rhys pressed his fingers against his temple and rubbed, hoping that would make the spinning slow enough for him to stand.  “Finding our target will be harder with her out of the picture … and I really wish I hadn’t wasted his son.”

Kazim raised an eyebrow as a corner of his mouth curled up.  “You’re a hopeless optimist.  That creature would have never turned to our side.”

“Stranger things have happened.”  Nope, the world still seemed to have somewhere to go and was in a hurry to get there.  “And I’m not just speaking from personal experience.”

“Speaking of personal experience, this whole fiasco is going to be a truckload of fun to explain to the elders.”

Was it focusing on Kazim that helped to steady the swoon … or contemplating the reality of what his associate just said?  Maybe he’d rather go roll in rhino excrement….

“And you claim I’m the one who’s always the optimist.”

###

Here is my contribution to this month’s #BlogBattle, and the word this round is Hypnotic.  Be sure to check out the other stories!

4 thoughts on “Skin Deep

  1. Some many questions and no real answers. What monster are you?!
    You definitely know how to hook us. The photo works very well – helps spark the imagination even more.
    I’m not sure if understand the bit about the husband and bracelet… Do we get more or is that a random piece you’re testing?

    (Side note: A couple of typos: “All you need do is adjust the dosage.” I’d add ‘to’ between need and do. “I don’t know if she turned the knife on herself of just cut herself accidentally…” or instead of of. “and I really wish I hadn’t wasted his son.” maybe ‘her’ son? (unsure since there might be something we don’t know)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, although I’m trying to be just your friendly neighborhood monster….
      As is often the case, this is one of those ‘snapshots’ in a movie of background to a future novel, so the bracelet as a communication device is a minor (?) detail in a bevy of weird and wonderful tech. Hope that helps. The first and last typos you mentioned were on purpose, the first being her dialogue and the last my way of reminding readers that devil-spawn was also the son of their target. Maybe I could have done that better. But good catch on the middle one, which I’ll fix!

      Liked by 2 people

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