The Caldera's Vice

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CHAPTER 24

Daisy?

At three in the morning, a nebulous, yellowing sulfur cloud drifted above the billowing smokestack emissions. Below, Asher strolled the industrial district’s empty streets peppered with the occasional Lifter shuffling about in a dismal haze speaking in tongues to imaginary adversaries. His glazed eyes trailed in and around the buildings, hunting, his fingers snaked around the belt, shredding the leather away from the buckle strip by jagged strip.

His teeth stopped chattering hours ago as the frosty wind crystalized the blood beads freckling his complexion. He freed the buckle with a flourishing rip, inspecting it. An ordinary, silver buckle glimmered under broken street lights in his hands. A storefront on the outskirts of the Boarder Zone caught his attention. Painted on the window was the establishment’s name:

Kirk’s Metallurgy

Asher smiled and rounded the alleyway to the store’s rear entrance. He slid the buckle into his trouser pocket, drew his revolver and smacked the knob until it gave. Inside, dust clogged his nostrils with a single inhale, sending him into a riotous sneezing fit. He covered his mouth as he checked around for a bulb switch.

The light blinded him, spotlighting a shabby hallway leading into the empty blacksmith’s room. In the corner stood an anvil, a tripod forge, and a metal tub of water. He lit a match and threw it onto the coals inside the bowl of the forge and donned a pair of leather mittens. Nearby sat pliers which he used to clamp the buckle and hold it over the fire.

His eyes reflected the forge’s fire as it softened the belt buckle. He pulled it out and gingerly set it aside, picking a metal whittle and etching a design into it. The heat from the metal liquified the dried bits of blood on his face but he didn’t notice it dripping off his nose or chin, his focus honed in on the craft, the metalwork.

While he picked up the sides of the buckle with metal plyers, he carefully walked over the water vat and dunked it in. Vapors hissed into a massive cloud, forcing him to cough, but he held still for it to cool. With a flourish, he slipped the finished product into his pocket and walked the rest of the way home.

***

He awakened to the abrasive clang of his alarm, grumbling and groggy, but the sight of the meat packaging wrapped parcel tied with twine swept aside the fog with shining hope. Alongside the parcel sat the letter and the round salve tin. The teletalky rang seconds upon reaching the front door.

“Oh come on.”

He bolted over, snatched the speaker off the hook. On the screen, a familiar red demon with black horns and the tattoo of an upside-down cross on his forehead made his teeth grit.

“Asher-er-Glassberg? It’s Deryl Rosebud. You know, the coroner. I’ve been calling the past couple days would it bother to answer the damn ’talky? What’s the matter with you?”

Asher nodded, “Yeah, I see you, Deryl.”

“Hey come on, don’t be that way. What did I ever do to you to deserve the bitters? Lighten up, you dig? Life’s too short for a sour granny smith, well at least for you. Not for me because, lucky bastard, I can’t frackin’ die.”

Asher didn’t respond, only grimly staring at the demon who didn’t wait long to proceed.

“Anyway, I gotta few things to say about your mom’s headstone.”

Asher froze but Deryl brushed past it.

“First of all, I can’t have any special order stone like granite or anything fancy like that. You’re gonna get lime or shale or honestly whatever’s left of the stock. It’s gonna come out to a hundred, give or take. The give or take depends on the pebbles.”

Asher gripped the teletalky’s mouthpiece, cracking it.

“What else?”

“And another thing I gotta tell you is the price ranges for the headstone and the priest or whatever’s gonna do the burial rites for your mom.”

“Rabbi.”

“Yeah, Rabbi. I’m not religiously inclined, not gonna be knowledgeable about those sort of things now am I? Anyway, expect the headstone and yeah the funeral or memorial or whatever frackin’ acceptable terminology is. Gonna be soon so keep your head up and your eyes peeled, Ok?”

Asher nodded, his jaw stuck tight.

“Anything else?” he bit back the urge to smash his fist into the teletalky screen.

“Dress nice for the burial, you dig? It’s your ma they’re lowering six feet under not a roadkill muskrat. And clean up, you look like you hand slaughtered a cow.”

Asher didn’t wait for any parting words, slamming the mouthpiece into the receiver, and glimpsed his reflection in the blank screen. The blood droplets remained. On his shirt, red splotched his chest.

“Dammit.”

A quick face washing and change of clothes, leaving behind Kemp’s bloodied tweed on the couch, and he left. On the porch, a glint in his peripherals forced him to turn, a dark figure peaked over the hood of the car and disappeared before he could discern any details.

Sharp terror jabbed his chest, freezing him, giving the intruder time to scurry away. He broke into a sprint, hitting the side wheel well, taking a tumble, his chest broke his fall with a loud thud. By the time he caught his bearings, the trespasser slipped around the house corner into the alleyway and he scrambled, leaning on the side drain pipe.

A black, small figure slipped behind the backside of the house into the block behind them.

“Hey, get back here and show your fucking face!”

His neighbor leaned out of her side window, yelling at him in Yiddish to stop cursing, he turned, rounding the car, startled to find a knife protruding from one of the tires.

“Jesus,” he gasped, hitching back, looking around and then back to the slowly deflating tire. His mouth dried but he opted for his morning dash to work.

***

He slipped into the quiet packing lab.

“Well hello there.”

Goosebumps rippled up Asher’s arms, recognizing the genteel accent. His eyes bumbled around, hungry for the source of the voice, and found Kemp nestled on the desk in the back of the room, the curve of smoke coiled around his horns, his body turned so their eyes met.

Asher smiled back, “Hi.”

Neither moved. The clock ticked, synchronizing their heartbeats. Kemp edged forward, his dress shoes clopping down the ramp. Asher watched, his chest rose and fell, licking his lips until Kemp was an arm’s length away. Fresh soap replaced the musk and chemical tang on the chemist’s skin. Streamlined creases split his crisp, ironed button-up sleeves beneath a beige sweater vest.

Asher’s gold grabbed Kemp’s topaz.

“You look good.”

Kemp’s cheeks blossomed pink roses.

“Thank you, kindly, Asher.”

“I got your letter. But I didn’t have time to open it.”

Kemp’s smile faded, “You were busy last night.”

Asher’s eyes widened, he gulped, but he cleared his throat and shook himself as guilt reared its ugly head.

“Yeah. But I made you something.”

“Oh, Asher-”

“But…” Asher poked Kemp’s chest, awkward and shaky, “You have to come to my place to open it.”

Kemp tittered, a small nervous chirp, looking down and then again to Asher.

“It would honor me to visit you again.”

Asher licked his lip and leaned forward, “And I can open your letter.”

Kemp laid his hand on Asher’s shoulder, cocking his head, leaning down.

“That sounds like a pleasant plan.”

Asher bit his lip, glancing around the room, grabbed a fistful of Kemp’s sweater.

“Want to go now?”

Kemp’s brow rose, “Now?”

Asher tugged, a tad rough, grinning, “The chemist can’t play hooky?”

Kemp dragged his lower lip into his mouth. Leaning further into Asher’s magnetic tug, unavoidable and irresistible.

“Well,” Kemp licked his lip, brow rose, trailing off. Asher tugged harder.

“My, aren’t you insistent,” Kemp ran out of breath, helpless in Asher’s grip, “I suppose I did enough work last night to suffice for today. Yes, we can go now.”

Asher grinned and let his hand slip down to squeeze Kemp’s before he walked towards the door. They unhooked fingers the moment they were in the hallway.

“Asher!”

A familiar voice made Asher’s heart punch his throat and when he turned his suspicions were confirmed. Japheth headed for him, the cigarillo bobbing between his clamped teeth when he spoke.

“Where in the Sam hell did you go last night? Was waitn’ damn near fifteen minutes for your ass to show.”

“Hey, case solved,” Asher shooed the snake away.

“Case solved? What kinda speakin’ in tongues jibberish is that?”

“Asher?”

Asher ignored Kemp’s gentle query, facing Japheth.

“We’re good, huh? Ok? I’m done,” Asher cleared his constricting throat.

Japheth glanced up at Kemp, then to Asher, a grin split his face, revealing all of his rusty tipped razors. He extended his hand for Asher to shake.

“Alrighty, then. Pleasure doing business with ya, budabub.”

“Yeah,” Asher’s eyes narrowed, accepting the shake, “Pleasure.”

Japheth chuckled, tipped his hat with his gun and winked.

“You two boys have a gay old time.”

He strolled away.

“Asher?”

Asher turned, looking up at Kemp.

“It’s nothing.”

Kemp towered over Asher, eyes deadpanned and lips taut. He was Dr. Kemp Manson again. Deathly, apathetic and ghastly. His voice simple and toneless.

“Very well.”

“Do you still want to go to my house?”

Kemp’s eyelids fluttered, the glimmer of amity reveled in his gaze displaced the malignant trance.

“Oh, yes, of course.”

Asher tugged Kemp’s cuff, and urged him towards the elevator.

“Is everything alright, Asher?” Kemp asked once the door closed.

Asher smiled, gliding his fingers across the back of Kemp’s hand.

“Now it is.”

Kemp beamed, gently squeezing his hand in one affectionate pump.

The mid-morning sun teased its gentle warmth amidst the freezing breeze on their way to the car. They both looked around into the empty parking lot and then to each other as they eased their bodies close together.

Kemp started the car with a flippant swipe of his wrist, he let his hand glide over Asher’s laying in the middle seat.

“Last night I finished the new strain.”

He wheeled out of the parking lot. Asher kept himself from looking back. Instead, his focus drew into the soft, dryness of Kemp’s hand as their fingers intertwined. His palm brushed Kemp’s, gracing the bumps and curves of scars.

“Jeff tested it and seemed exceptionally pleased,” Kemp pulled out to Belial.

“Why wouldn’t he?” Asher turned to Kemp, smiling.

Kemp let out a cough of a laugh, a touch of sarcasm.

“Not all which I produce is blessed with the golden touch.”

“Some is,” Asher said, meaning coated his tone and it incited a glance from the poet who in turn smiled and squeezed Asher’s hand.

“Jeff’s description implied it kept him in tepid spirits,” Kemp continued, wheeling his wrist, “The drug’s sensationalism, intensity, and hallucinatory effects were mellow at best.”

“Is that bad?”

“Its original purpose wasn’t meant to be confectionary,” Kemp shook his head, “However, he reported greater empathetic value of himself, a higher emotional state, which was my intention.”

It was quiet as Kemp turned down a side street, then cleared his throat.

“I’ve named it Heaven’s Ash. If-if that’s alright.”

He looked at Asher, worried.

Asher gave pause, “You named it after me?”

Kemp slapped his forehead with his palm, “I apologize. How tactless of me to name a drug after you.”

“No,” Asher smiled, “No, it’s endearing.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Kemp glanced, returned the warm expression.

The Royce blew through Mammon and into the Boarder Zone, rolling into Asher’s street. After Kemp killed the motor, they looked at each other. The piercing bright mid-morning sun fell on the dashboard. Asher licked his lips and turned for the door handle, fumbling, his feather-light mind drunk on jittery nerves and butterflies swarming his belly.

“May be locked,” Kemp’s chuckle failed to hide his trembling as he leaned over, his long arm stretching across in front of Asher, brushing his chest to flip the lock up.

Dust motes hung in the air, twinkling. Asher met Kemp’s eyes as the chemist paused, hand still on the lock before he opened it. They walked to the front door, glancing at each other, a little nervous and Asher stopped, taking out his keys and trying for the lock.

“Shitty keys,” he tittered, glancing up at Kemp on the third try who in turn let down his shaking hand on Asher’s and guided the key into the lock.

“There we are,” Kemp whispered, the billow of frosty air catching the glint of the sun near Asher’s cheek.

The door opened. Blood and lemons still permeated the air, a phantom smell of cleanliness failing to obscure death. Asher pivoted, facing Kemp. They were quiet for a few moments, smiles in their eyes and something a little more.

Asher licked his lips, “You want a drink?”

“Tea, if you have it.”

Asher bounded over to the kitchen’s left wall, light on his feet, lead by a bird’s fluttering heart.

“My mom has-” he paused, corrected himself, “had a lot.”

He yanked the cabinet doors open, Kemp leaned against the wall nearby, watching Asher grab tea tins and set them on the counter.

“Earl gray is my favorite,” Kemp smiled.

“Then I’ll make it.”

Asher picked up the tin but he dropped it, landing with a loud metallic clatter. They both crouched to pick it up. Asher snatched it before Kemp did, but he paused to look into the topaz eyes before he rose and started preparing the tea.

He passively watched the movement of his hands, measuring out the loose leaves, putting them into the strainer, but his attention focused on the chemist to his left. The powdery smell of soap, the mechanical rhythm of his breath undulating the sweater vest, the clawed hand nestled on the counter. He put the filled kettle atop the stove, turning back with a triumphant sigh.

“Should be ready in a few minutes.”

Kemp’s half smile burned brighter with an admiring gaze. Asher grinned, dipping his finger into his shirt pocket, but glanced at the couch, thinking better of it, and nodded over.

“Come on. You can open your gift while you wait,” he moved along before Kemp responded with a soft “alright” and a smile.

The young man tugged the older counterpart over to the couch and he gave the barest imperceptible pause when his eyes fell on Kemp’s bloodied tweed. He lost a breath, rushed over to chuck it behind the couch, turning to find Kemp’s narrow gaze on the jacket’s edge slipping behind the back.

“Sorry for the mess.”

A second, a dangerous pause. He distracted Kemp, pulling him by the cuff so they flopped on the sofa in a collected heap. Kemp sat across, letting his hand slide across onto the back while Asher flipped the parcel and the letter from his pocket.

“Trade,” Asher grinned, reaching over. They met halfway, both of them holding on to their respective items, a little wary, a little excited and let the other have their gift.

“You first,” he added, tapping the couch, a little bouncy.

Kemp smiled, slipping his claw beneath the twine.

“If you insist.”

Asher licked his lips, giddy, once again a young man drunk on emotion. Kemp pulled the string apart with one gentle motion causing the crinkly paper to unravel and split apart. In his palm rest the belt buckle and he frowned, tilting his head, picking it up and inspecting it.

He looked up at Asher, “This is a cahnation.”

“I remembered what you said about your mom. Thought I’d make you something that couldn’t die.”

“You made this?” Kemp’s voice was a strained whisper.

Asher nodded, slow. Kemp leaned in. Asher smelt his stale mint breath. An excited glint danced in the older man’s eyes. A curious chemist, young and hearty.

“How did you make it?”

Asher’s smile faded, his eyes widening.

“How did I make it?”

Kemp’s fascination blinded him to Asher’s glazed expression. Asher shrugged off the growing discomfort in his head, cleared his throat, shifting, his frenzied gaze hopping around.

“Well, I had a belt buckle and melted the top. Scraped the design in.”

Kemp tilted his head to the side in a child like jerk.

“A belt buckle? You only wear suspenders.”

Asher blushed, gripping his lip with his teeth.

“I-er-found it.”

“Found it?”

“Yeah. In town.”

“And I suspect you have a metallurgical oven and an anvil in your basement,” Kemp chuckled, but there was no hint of sarcasm. Only impressed appreciation.

“Well, I-er-sort of broke into a metal shop and-er-forged it there.”

Kemp’s smile faded, “You broke into a metal shop?”

Asher winced, his mouth dry, “Yeah.”

“And you stole a belt buckle off the street?”

Asher nodded, gulping.

“And fashioned a carnation for me?”

Asher froze, his lower jaw shifting from left to right to calm the bludgeon of his heartbeat in his head.

“Asher,” Kemp set the metal carnation down and neared him, “This is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

Asher expelled a sigh of relief, “It was nothing.”

Kemp shook his head, “It’s everything.”

Asher glanced to the letter in his shaking hands.

“Now, for this.”

He opened it, seeing over the tip that Kemp edged closer, listening to the hiss of his claws gliding over the back of the couch, like a swimmer’s fingers breaking the water crests.

Dear Asher,

Last night I knew your obligations had to be fulfilled, but I must confess your early departure affected me, as your company is much more than simply pleasurable. After work, at night, your image burns bright behind my eyelids; a wisp which my fingers burn to touch. My heart, only barely contained in its frail, creaking ribcage, guides my body from vapid dreamscapes into the golden sea of your eyes. Your ethereal radiation is the sunrise that evanesces death’s umbral frost within my soul.

Apologies for the lack of poetry. These words befitted my feelings for you far more accurately. As always, I look forward to seeing you again.

Yours,

Kemp

Asher shook as he folded the letter, his mind heavy, aswirl with new emotions. It was quiet as Kemp’s eyes searched Asher’s.

“You have a beautiful soul, Kemp.”

Hahdly. You draw the beautiful parts out.”

Asher licked his lips, extending his hand to plant on Kemp’s chest, eliciting a pleased sigh. Their knees touched. Kemp’s heart thumped beneath Asher’s crimson digits. They watched each other. Two gazes attempting to form words. Asher cleared his throat; he whispered, the barest hint of a question.

“Daisy…?”

Kemp shifted, Asher grabbed a fistful of his shirt as though to keep him from drifting away in a strong gust. Worry danced in Kemp’s eyes. He cleared his throat, his voice low suggesting invisible ears listening.

“Some may call it that, yes.”

Asher cleared his throat, his grip on Kemp’s shirt tightening, his voice quieter.

“Are you?”

“Yes.”

Asher sputtered, clearing his throat from his heart forcing its way up, his lips cracking into a nervous smile as the hand on Kemp’s chest tightened, bunching up the stretchy threads of the sweater vest. His voice quaked, inaudible.

“For me?”

Kemp inched, hungry to close the gap, his hand closing in on Asher’s shoulder from the back of the couch.

“Yes.”

A question lingered in Kemp’s eyes.

“What about you, Asher?”

Asher’s grip tightened, a swarm of butterflies took flight in his gullet’s lowest pit.

“This would be my first time.”

Kemp smiled, “I’m honored.”

Asher panted, wolfish, famished, pulled Kemp so the long snub nose bumped against his. He fell into the growing pupils of the chemist and the poet, into the topaz, into the soul of Kemp Leonard Manson.

The crimson lips of the young gentleman met the pallor of the poet’s in a gentle kiss, their shared breath quickened within a brief parting. Asher’s eyes fluttered open as Kemp’s did and lost himself in the soul soaking warmth as he closed his eyes again, smoothing his palm down Kemp’s back. They pulled apart.

“How was that for a first Daisy kiss?” Kemp said.

Asher’s husky response, “Damn, you’re good at that.”

Kemp ran his fingers through Asher’s hair, tousling the raven locks and edged closer.

“Then I will give you many more.”

He planted a tender kiss on Asher’s lips.

“I’ve never wanted to be with a man before,” Asher said.

“You don’t realize how special that makes me feel,” Kemp stroked Asher’s cheek with the back of his finger, admiring the young man’s face.

“You are special.”

A piercing shriek filled the room, causing both of them to jump and laugh when they realized it was only the tea kettle alerting them that the water had boiled.

“Let me get you your tea,” Asher pecked Kemp’s lips and brushed the back of his thumb on his cheek before he got up. Asher rushed over to the tea kettle but Kemp’s long strides caught up to him and gently laid his hand on Asher’s shoulders, smoothing it down to the deltoid as Asher poured the boiling water over the strainer.

“Careful back there,” Asher tittered, grinning as he set the kettle back on the range and wafted the cloud steam out of the way.

Kemp chuckled, leaning in closer and kissed the side of Asher’s head just near the base of his left horn. Asher paused, sighing, pulling away from the cup as the boiling water pushed the loose leaves in the strainer near the bottom of the cup. Kemp kissed his horns, Asher’s eyelids grew heavy, exhaling as warm pleasure swirled in his chest.

“Do you want anything to drink?”

Kemp stopped to let out a small, terse laugh, “I’m having tea.”

Asher revolved, intertwining their fingers, smiling.

“Wine. I meant wine.”

“Oh,” Kemp smoothed his palms down Asher’s shoulders, “I can’t.”

Asher’s smile eased into a grin bordering on wicked.

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t,” Kemp’s dourness clouded his features, “I have jaundice. Alcohol disturbs my liver.”

Asher’s grin winked out.

“Oh.”

“But you may, if you like,” Kemp said quickly, “I will have tea.”

Asher smiled back, “Swell. Let me get it.”

He squeezed Kemp’s upper arm and bounded for the door at the kitchen’s back wall. Near it, a collection of empty wine bottles sat. A few shattered remains littered the floor and a wine stain burst like a purple star on the eggshell white wall. Kemp’s eyes flashed a cold glare. A slight Asher didn’t see in favor of kicking the shards out of the way and yanking the door open, revealing the stairs to the cellar.

“My dad always got wine from the synagogue.”

Kemp followed him, “I presume your father was a boozelegger as well?”

Asher paused at the door, searching for a truthful answer but he shook it off.

“No.”

He turned to Kemp, “He was an officer in the synagogue and the Rabbi gave him paperwork to get wine for them.”

Kemp approached him, nodding in naive affirmation. Asher didn’t wait, descending the steps, sparse dust motes puffed where his previous footsteps had yet to traverse. His head bumped a chain and he pulled it, illuminating the walls of wine at the bottom of the steps.

“If I may ask, why do you want wine in particular?”

Asher paused, two steps from the bottom, pivoting so Kemp saw his risen brow and wiley smile.

“Isn’t that what people drink? You know. To get in the mood?”

Kemp’s lascivious smile curled his lips as he leaned.

“You aren’t in the mood already?”

Asher bit his lip and gently pinched Kemp’s forearm.

“Of course. But I want to get more in the mood.”

He turned and trailed the last two steps and glanced at a lopsided bottle in the back wall. Kemp frowned at the bottles.

“I can get you more in the mood,” he wrapped his arms around Asher’s chest from behind, planting a warm kiss on his cheek. Asher eyed the lopsided bottle but chuckled as Kemp kissed the crux of his jaw.

“How about now?” Kemp whispered, brushing Asher’s earlobe with his lips. Asher lost focus, his eyes closed, exhaling a pleased sigh as Kemp gently bit.

“Come on, Kemp, huh? Just a little,” Asher broke from Kemp’s affectionate cocoon and edged closer to the wine bottle. He grasped the bottleneck as Kemp steered him around by the shoulder, and begged.

“Let me kiss you, dahling.”

Asher switched hands mid turn but kept one on the bottle, letting Kemp kiss him on the lips, grabbing a fistful of sweater vest, exhaling a small sigh. Kemp wrapped his arms around Asher’s torso, caressing from the shoulder blades down to the small of his back, breathless as his kisses deepened, pushing him hard against the wall. The wine bottles tinkled.

“Now?” Kemp backed up, looking Asher in the eye, and moved to kiss him on the neck. His lips parting and closing chirped down Asher’s neck to the clavicle, nuzzling the button-up shirt out of the way to kiss bare skin. Asher rubbed the bottleneck from the cap down to the base and back up again, his grip tightening, his sighs fading into wistful moans.

Kemp chuckled, then sighed in pleasure. Asher’s grip on the bottle loosened, pulling away, but his breath hitched and he jerked back to pull it out. It caught. He frowned, pulling harder, but it only snagged again. One of Kemp’s hands slid down from Asher’s lower back down the side of his leg and up his inner thigh.

Asher gasped and pulled the bottleneck forward and down. A click sounded behind Asher, forcing his eyes open in curiosity, then the wall began to slip to his right. He made a muffled cry of surprise and Kemp’s eyes opened and they both stumbled apart.

From behind Asher the wall slid open, they both tore away from it, standing side by side and watched as the wall continued to slide, slow and steady until it came to a halt. In its place was a cavernous black square leading down where the light shined onto a step. An odd smell drifted up from the gloom.

“Were you aware of this?” Kemp whispered.

Asher shook his head, staring into the black square, he moved forward.

“I want to see what’s down there.”

He walked closer to the empty space, searching for a light switch or bulb chain hanging from the roof. Kemp let his hand flutter down to Asher’s shoulder.

“Perhaps we should let it be.”

Asher didn’t look at him.

“Why?”

“The smell. It disturbs me.”

Asher shook his head, not finding any switch and headed into the darkness.

“It’s probably just dust and mothballs.”

Kemp followed him, “Perhaps you may not like what you find.”

Asher ignored him, cursing under his breath when his forehead bumped a metal string which he pulled down, illuminating the stairs with a single bulb. His eyes trailed down to the tin vats at the bottom, only offering a foot or so of space to walk between them in the dirt floor. Rot twirled in his gut.

“Asher?”

Asher reached out for the vats to press his finger against the metallic chill.

“What the hell are these?”

Kemp’s footsteps clopped behind him and he appeared, his hand stretched out and hovered over the tops of the vats where a knob was attached. A handle, which Kemp closed his fingers around but hesitated to lift.

“Open it,” Asher’s demand was uncharacteristically harsh.

“Asher, I don’t think-”

“Do it.”

Kemp sighed and lifted the lid. A bit of condensation evaporated off the top as he set it to the side. Asher peered in. Spirals of vials lined the inside. He was about to reach in when Kemp stopped him.

“No, let me,” Kemp said but didn’t hesitate for Asher’s approval as he dipped down and brought a vial. Black, viscous fluid bobbed inside of it.

Asher squinted, “What is it?”

Kemp inspected it, tilting it from side to side, narrowing his gaze. It flowed with a syrupy resistance.

“It looks familiar,” Kemp peered close, then his eyes widened, reaching a sudden conclusion.

“What?”

“If I didn’t know better...” Kemp trailed off, licking his lips, and lowering the vial but not returning Asher’s gaze.

“Kemp, tell me.”

Kemp cleared his throat, “It looks like Diesel.”

“What’s Diesel?”

Kemp put the vial back into the vat, still not looking at Asher, “Silas had me test a drug that has been causing significant problems in Hellhole. Diesel is what it’s been dubbed by Lifters in the area. It potentially causes the user to essentially become a killing machine due to the high amount of anabolic steroid content and benzoyl in its base.”

Asher’s mouth propped open, drying his lips and tongue, his eyes falling into a no-man’s land of terror.

“This says nothing about you or your fahthah,” Kemp turned, hasty with worry. Asher stared at the vat, into the swirl of the vials.

“Asher...?” Kemp moved closer but Asher edged away, his glazed eyes blinking out of the heaviness.

“I’m calling Silas,” he turned to trudge up the steps, Kemp followed him.

At the teletalky, Asher’s shaking fingers dialed the number on the rotary. Kemp caught up to him and gently took his free arm. As the dial tone purred into the earpiece, he glanced at Kemp’s hand and took it.

Kemp kissed his cheek, “Everything will be alright.”

“Let’s fucking hope so.”

Kemp gently pulled from Asher when the screen flickered on. Ruth appeared. Even in the sepia tone, her blade silver eyes stabbed him.

“What is it?”

“Asher Glassberg, I have some news for Silas.”

She sighed, tilting her head until the raven strands of her hair limped forward from the bun behind her curling horns and her neck muscles popped.

“What about?”

Asher grit his teeth, “I’ve found a load of Diesel in my basement.”

Her expression remained serene and apathetic.

“One moment.”

She pulled away from the screen, revealing a room with a bookshelf and a radio on a small table behind where she was standing. Muffled voices could be heard from the other end, but none of them discernable.

Silas appeared, “Asher, get your ass on over here. And bring some of the stuff you found.”

He hung up before Asher could respond.

A sigh escaped Asher’s lips as he hung the teletalky receiver back on the cradle protruding from the wall.

“Can you grab me some samples?” he turned to Kemp, who looked down at him with a gentle nod, and touched his upper arm before he left. Asher stared at his reflection in the blank screen.

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