Can the Devil love?
That’s one question Connor MacAuley never imagined he’d be asking himself as he sat at the bar of Kelly’s, staring at the bubbling black beer in his hand like he half expected it to wink back at him.
After all, he reasoned, there had to be something else to Him besides cloven feet and infernal contracts.
In fact, he’d personally come to find the devil’s contract was not really at all what everyone thinks it is.
The devil takes many forms.
They got that much right at least. The rest, he suspected, was just religious superstition. The truth was there were so many more devils in the world than there were dwelling in the darkest pits of Hell itself. They just managed to go unnoticed. This was either because they didn’t want to be seen, or because people failed (0ften outright refused) to recognize when they were looking them straight in the eye. That’s the way they preferred things, anyway.
The funny thing was they were remarkably easy to spot when you actually wanted to see them.
So why was he able to?
All his life they stood out to him plain as day.
Ma always chimed, ‘daoine íogair do na saol eile‘.
He was neart. That’s what she’d call him. A strong force. He had to be steadfast and ‘just leave it be’. They were like bees buzzing in the field. Simply leave’em be and they’d fly off eventually.
‘Best not mention it or think about it, Connor. Few would understand. Just accept that it is and it’ll never do you any harm.’
If only she knew…
It was true that Connor was steadfast by nature and never one to let things stick to him for very long. He had to be. It was easier, after all, to compartmentalize and push forward. But today, he couldn’t avoid the question that seemed to dig at him like a cat digs at the sofa.
He sat, inhaling the overwhelming scents of tobacco, drink and sweat coming from his fellow dock workers, each one of them trying to drown the aches and pains of their day’s labor in the bottom of a pint of ‘Kelly’s Finest‘ stout. As he conjured thoughts about devils and mothers and everything in between, the thought reached Connor that he’d been cursed with his mother’s same lateral way of thinking.
He permitted his mind a brief respite, and his eye wandered towards the game streaming on the wall. Score one for the Rovers! Followed by a resounding cheer from his companions, many of whom raised a toast in solidarity of what now promised to be a win for them. Connor felt a brisk smack to his shoulder and turned toward Brutus, his foreman. They clapped their mugs together before downing what was left of the Guinness in their glasses.
Suddenly, his nerves seemed to burn, and the room, for the briefest moment, blurred and darkened, as though reality had become utterly detached from itself before returning to normal. He shot around, as if magnetically compelled. Going past him was a girl wrapped up in a dark leather jacket, zipped just tight enough to allow a deep green bodycon to squeeze down to her knees, carried on golden thin-strapped stilettos.
Gael for sure. Auburn hair, pulled back into a tight bun, exposing a long and slender neck. She belonged at The Rose Bar at the Gramercy. Not at Kelly’s beer bin, which catered to the finest class of underpaid dock monkeys in Hell’s Kitchen.
He had glimpsed a resolute look on her face, etched upon a squared jaw, and eyes of emerald green set apart by a wide, soft-looking nose, awarding her a brazen—almost serpentine—sex appeal that drew not only Connor’s attention, but also half the room as she carried on.
Certainly, she was not from this end of town.
“Hey!” The shrill of a terrible accent cut through the maudlin discord of the room like a blunted saw. Some boorish gobshite who couldn’t or wouldn’t even try to distinguish his O’s from his U’s, contrasting his own high-end looking black linen jacket and outfit. Also a wee bit out of place at a joint like Kelly’s.
The man was making his way to cut the girl off. She didn’t stop. Not even when his hand firmly clasped around her forearm. A jerk of the shoulder was all it took for her to break free and continue on her way, only to be checkmated when Loverboy fell back on the human wall strategy.
Connor had taken in the scene well enough. The loser was getting dumped by the sight of it, compounded by the occasional coherent outburst of “Stuck-up bitch!”, “My girl!”, “Not over!”, and, of course, the classic beggar’s “Please”.
It was never his policy to bother in other’s dysfunctionality, but when Loverboy started throwing around words like, “I should snap your head off!” this was starting to become the kind of drama no one wanted to see; yet more and more eyes were starting to follow. More specifically, they were drawn to her, apparently studying her intently as she stood, dourly tapping her foot with all the patience of an incensed bear. She ignored the assemblage of eyes like they were nothing in the world to her.
Somewhere, in this half-cocked groveling, Loverboy’s eyes made contact with Connor, standing up to face them.
“Wha’ da fuck you lookin’ at, ugly?”
Connor stepped towards the unsightly pair. Loverboy’s foul breath reeked like rotten eggs. His yellowed teeth reminded Connor of a meth head he’d seen living in the alley. They were jagged, rotten and decayed as the walking dead. And what had initially seemed to be sweat glistening on the man’s face from a distance was actually a greasy gloss, covering a very spotty complexion. His hair was shaved off to a short stubble, making his burly head look like an overly-ripened peach. Definitely shit-faced, judging by the perfume of whiskey sour permeating off of him—and ready to do some damage with his beastly, stub-nailed mitts.
“Don’t believe the young lady appreciates your treatment of—”
“No,” he interrupted, “What I don’t think she appreciates is some pervert-“
Connor took another casual step.
“Who has no sense of fashion—” the words seemed to belch themselves out as his eyes scanned over Connor’s admittedly underwhelming attire. Still, how would you look after pulling overtime on the docks? When you go to work dirty, you come home dirty.
If he only knew.
“—and is such a scrawny lil’ faggot he’s probably never even had a girlfriend!”
A final step closed the gap between them. When Connor refused to back down, Loverboy’s face and eyes seemed to get just a bit redder, making him the color of a fresh beet.
“Stand there and speak sweet nothings to me all night long—”
“—I don’t walk away until one of two things happen. Either you turn around and go with what’s left of your tattered ego…or one of us is laid out on this floor.”
The words barely left his lips and already several of the fellows, encouraged by Connor’s example (Brutus included), were being roused from their inebriated meditations on her and redirecting them towards her aggressor. By now each of them was more than eager to teach the new plaything a lesson in longshoreman etiquette; and they could be quite thorough when it came to the lesson of throwing shapes around in a pub.
“And I’ve a strange inklin’ it’s not gonna be me.”
When Loverboy raised a fist, it seemed things were about to get bloody. But the goon stopped short when he noticed that there were a half a dozen chaps on either side staring him down like lions ready to defend their alcoholic pride. Even the barman— whose hands noticeably disappeared beneath his counter, retrieving a very sizable aluminum bat that already looked very well broken-in—had that fiendish “please do” twinkle in his eye that said he was itching to make an example out of the latest fool at Kelly’s.
“Should have mind your own fuckin’ bus’ness, Missur Hero,” was the last thing he croaked before furiously storming off, leaving a fine long crack in the glass door slammed shut behind him as a memento.
Hero? Whatever happened to plain decency?
Was it so much to ask that in this day and age of rampant disillusion with everything that one person had the wherewithal to do one decent act every once in a while? Then again, who should expect a manky creature like that to have the capacity to do anything decent short of hiking his trousers up?
With a short nod towards Brutus, the lads knew it was okay to go back about their own business, though a few stragglers continued to study her as if that would get them somewhere. Connor looked to the barman, gesturing to send them all another round. What was a few drinks in exchange for a few spared ribs, after all?
He held the door open to the lady. All she did was stand there, her attention now firmly locked upon him.
“I didn’t require your help.” Her words came out in a hiss of resentfulness that was as indignant as it was condescending the way only womankind has ever been able to master.
“I wasn’t offering any. I was just escorting you both out.” The words came out harsher than he had intended, but if that was how she wanted to be, then so be it!
In an instant her face flushed, and, while it might have been Connor’s imagination, her deep green eyes seemed to fill with an impactful glow as she glared at him with the intent that told him she was fighting back every urge to pick him up and toss him through the door herself. Ultimately, she seemed to give it up and made her way out, but never once abandoned that predatory focus. Not even after she’d cleared half the parking lot. From that distance, Connor could still make out her gaze, trailing him like a piece of game…
Another erupting roar of excitement for the Rovers pulled him back to the world inside the pub. When he looked again, she was gone as fast as she’d been there.
Halfway home she was still stuck in his head. That rueful pucker about her lips. Those eyes that had followed him. What the Hell was that about, anyway? He’d done her a favor and she repaid him with the look of death? Too late, he realized, he should’ve just yielded to his instincts and not gotten involved in the first place. Things always seem to just go arseways whenever you do–
Suddenly, a hand clutched Connor’s throat, gripping as a snake coils its form about its prey. There followed the cold tickle of a sharp instrument tracing across his belly, as if sniffing out the ideal location to puncture a can. For his part, Connor couldn’t believe he didn’t smell him coming from a mile away. The reek of rotten eggs and sour whiskey still enveloped the brute.
“Money, now!” The knife punched its way through fabric and gave Connor a none-too-gentle prod. “Missur Hero!”
Oh, joy. Loverboy wanted to play some more.
“Don’t carry any. Let go.”
The blade launched rather than pushed its way in, drawing the slightest amount of blood. Not that it made any difference. Connor didn’t feel any pain. It was another one of those ways that he was neart.
“Cut da horseshit! Money, jewelry—”
“Do I really look that much like a woman from behind?”
“SHADDUP! ’EFORE I — !”
Before he had the chance to finish, the snake’s coil loosened and slipped away. The knife tore in slightly deeper, before likewise being left embedded where it was.
From the darkness behind Connor came a vulgar sound—a kind of crunch! noise. He was afraid to look back but dared himself to anyway, and was greeted by the sight of a slender and silhouetted outline, casting off a vague luminous shine in the pitch black of the alley. Loverboy’s throat was clinched in its vicelike grip; his mass suspended just off the ground by an otherworldly strength. With the other hand the silhouette clasped his face and puckered his mouth, from which it seemed to draw the living breath from his body.
Even in the stygian light, Connor could almost see the aura of life dim as it abandoned him, while the silhouettes seemed to grow in response. Finally, with a snap of the wrist, a taloned hand severed the head from its neck, chucking it through the air before it landed with a resounding slam dunk into a nearby dumpster. The corpse followed shortly after, crashing with enough force to bring the lid down on top of it. As he watched the macabre spectacle unfold, Connor could not bring himself to envy the poor shmuck that was unfortunate enough to discover that nasty little surprise when trash day came.
The obscurity of the dim alley night did nothing to conceal her eyes of emerald, now glimmering as they rested upon him, glowering with predatory regard.
Moments eked by with painful stillness as her gaze remained on him. He was next. He had to be.
Yet she remained still. Composed and attentive. The gaze never faltered. Why didn’t she make her move?
She was the predator, and he was the prey. His next move would decide if he lived or became another drained body in a dumpster. Backed into a corner with no easy exit, he was in no shape to run. Not with a fresh wound leaking out of him, held only by the pressure of his own hand trying in vain to contain it. Should he stand his ground? Draw the blade out and hope for the best, perhaps? No, he wasn’t running anywhere. Not like this. And to try and fight was all but a death sentence.
She shifted at his sound, intent to hear what the man had to say for himself now. Hell, he was probably going to die anyway, what did he have to lose?!
“I didn’t require your help.”
- Did not. Just. Say. That.
“I wasn’t offering any.”
It was her alright. Her voice, still irrefutably feminine, now carried an extra quality. A kind of homorhythmic resonance, both silvery and smoky at once, perfectly blended. Unreal as it was, it put him at ease, for some reason.
“That was for me.”
At that moment a lamplight snapped on, and the silhouette stepped into the glassy overcast to illuminate someone very different from what Connor had seen earlier at Kelly’s. What he beheld was an unearthly beauty that would have left the hardest man distraught with longing. She was lithe and shapely, in clothes that only further emphasized the fullness of her figure. The jacket was gone, revealing the form-fitting dress which clung to her breasts, waist and hips like a second skin, leaving bare and unabashedly elegant legs and feet exposed.
Even under the highlight of the lamp she seemed to glow as if she were a sliver of moonlight herself, weather-reddened cheeks sprinkled with freckles about her wide but soft-looking nose and luminescent marbled skin. Her head burned by an immense crown of bright red hair bounding off of her shoulders and descending down to the swell of her hips. And those eyes…ever glimmering the deepest emerald green.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
What kind of faery’s child was that poet talking about, Connor couldn’t help but wonder…?
The girl—if that was the word for her—sauntered up to him in a motion more like floating than walking, her hands tucked unassumingly behind her as she went.
Tilting forward like a dipping bird, she took in the full sight of his wound. Her tongue momentarily peaked out and wetted her lips, as if the sight inspired a hungry desire in her. “That’s in pretty deep. How bad is it?” Her question buttoned with a half-serious poke.
“I—don’t think it nipped anything important, if that’s what you mean.”
“Pity.” She made another go for it, but this time she found her wrist caught in Connor’s own grip. The precociousness was immediately replaced by a very lethal candor that needed to redirected fast.
“So, who are you?” he asked, releasing the hold he had on her, slowly, before she chose to bare fangs as well.
“Someone you’ll be happy not to be on the bad side of. Now shut up and hold still.” With no flicker of hesitation—or warning—she removed and discarded the knife as unceremoniously as she had its previous owner. She raised Connor’s shirt and dropped to her knee, Connor watching—half-dazed and dumb—as the girl-monster-thing pressed her wetted lips to his hip, running her tongue over the fresh, trickling wound. The burn at first, with each stroke, became lesser and lesser, until not even a souvenir scar remained.
As she looked up at him, lapping the bit of crimson staining her mouth, Connor scrambled for words. What had just occurred was all but ridiculous in how impossible it was. How could he rationalize it? His whole life in the past few minutes had become too surreal—like he’d stepped out of what he knew as reality into a dream that wouldn’t let up.
The girl stood, smiling in a way that suggested nothing short of pure malicious intent, hidden beneath a façade of civility. “Remember, this means we’re even now.”
No words passed for a long time. The girl didn’t seem interested in leaving either. At this point, was that good or bad…?
“So…” he began. “…what are…you…called?” Her brow peaked with a cautious scrutiny. “Do you…have…a name?”
At first she seemed reticent. Uncertain whether or not to share this apparently precious piece of information.
“Please?” He tried to manage an unassuming face; or at least as much as one could, given the circumstances.
“Sirennia.” The word barely escaped her lips enough for the ear to catch it. “That’s my name.”
Sirennia. The siren calls and the helpless sailor plunges to his death at her beckoning.
The irony was so incredible that Connor had to smile.
“You find something amusing, sir?”
“You’re the first to ever talk to me.”
“I’ve seen things like you—” Her other brow peaked, followed by a flat grimace that suggested she took umbrage at being referred to as a ‘thing’. “—I notice them all the time. But they’ve never noticed me. Now here you are, and I’m not sure what to say…” It took more than a moment, an age it felt like, but somehow the words he had wanted to say this whole time came to him. “What…are…you?”
“You…have…no idea, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What w—” She stopped abruptly, as if catching herself before she could take this conversation in a direction she dared not go. She had clearly reached some conclusion. But Connor would never know what it was. “What are you called?” She asked, now quick to change the subject.
“Do you have another name?”
What that was supposed to mean, Connor couldn’t tell. Still, it was far from the oddest thing that had happened tonight, and more pressing matters were currently standing right in front of him.
“If I ever find out, I’ll gladly share it with you over drinks. Just not at that place.” He shot his thumb out. It pointed back toward Kelly’s.
That managed a soft smile from her. Progress, at least.
“Might you have a shower? I need to wash off, before everything starts congealing.” She held out blood-stricken ladyfingers, displaying a right mess, indeed.
“I do.” He extended an arm for her, though he couldn’t fathom why. “I’m just around the corner.”
How had this shifted from damoiseau in distress rescued by an enchanted princess to “Do you want to come back to my place”? The thought popped into his mind almost as quickly as it left.
For only a moment she held her reluctance. But that recessed, and the affirmative sprite cordially took hold. “Then, if you would kindly.”
What the Hell are ya doing, man?
Why is she even here?
And Why, oh-why, did you just hold the door open and invite her inside?
Those were the questions Connor knew he should be asking himself in this moment. Alone, in his room, with a woman apparently able to transform into…what was she, anyway?
But, no. Instead all he could think about was how much he wanted—needed—for her to stay.
What the Hell is wrong with you? The last spark of his sanity shot this warning sign into his mind before it, too, lolled back into the void of mindlessness.
He tried listening to the sound of the running water from the bathroom, attempting to declutter his mind. Bad mistake. Instead, the image of that bare-skinned figure generously soaking herself followed by something else altogether inappropriate crept its way into his imagination.
How do I get her out of here? What could I do to get her to leave?
Why would you want her to leave?
God, help me!
All this unproductive contemplation was cut short when he heard the door open, and what stepped out was nothing short of divinity wrapped in a poly-cotton towel. The sight of that slicked back red hair or that alabaster skin dewed with moisture was enough to send all the blood rushing from any true man’s head to his pelvis in a heartbeat.
By the way she looked at him, Connor felt certain that she could sense how fast his heart was racing. Curling a come-hither finger, she gestured him to come. His brain would not even permit itself a moment to think. Arching up slightly on her forefeet, she stopped just short enough to tickle his nose with a sweet little peck. Her smile professed that she found the dumb-founded look on his face gratifying.
“Thank you,” she trilled, rather affectionately for once.
“Certainly,” was the most he managed to conjure up.
Connor scrambled to make some sense—any kind of sense—of what he was thinking. The thought stabbed into his mind that anything she wanted was hers, as long as it meant she’d stay. He wanted whatever voice was droning on inside him to shut up, so that he could clearly define a plan to excuse her from his flat. Or, failing that, excuse himself—anything to put some distance between them. He breathed deep and held it as he broke his eye contact and turned away from her.
“I don’t know about you, but I need a drink.”
Somehow, he directed himself towards the kitchen, where his lifesaving bottle of Bushmill’s sat prominently on the counter. He fought to keep her out of his field of vision as he poured the whiskey into his glass, then followed it with a large ice cube. He crunched the ice quite deliberately between his teeth after he threw back the shot, hoping that the cold agony would numb the infernal impulse he felt right now to run straight into her arms.
A moment of silence went by without incident.
Then he felt her arms enwrap him from behind, the hands making for the buttons of his shirt.
“Umm…excuse me?” served as his substitute for “What the Hell are you doing?”.
The words, “You should get out of that,” whispered in his ear.
Looking himself over, he realized for the first time that he’d neglected to change out of his soiled clothing. Between being marked with blood, a none-too-subtle tear in the side, and having a sleeve stained with whatever bits of matter that had clung to Sirennia’s hands when she took hold of his arm earlier, there was little doubt that shirt had seen the end of its use. He finished the job she started and tossed it in the garbage.
“Damn,” he thought aloud. There went his last decent pub-crawling shirt.
“Might I have something to drink?”
“Yes.” The word escaped his mouth before he could stop himself. Reaching into the freezer, a litany of thoughts bombarded him from one side to the other.
What the Hell is going on?
He asked himself the question over and over again to no avail. Was it possible that being alone with this “girl” who could kill him as readily as kiss him (in no particular order) was about to become the best thing that could possibly happen to him tonight? It was true that he didn’t have much to lose at this point. It was also true that she was a monster—maybe even the Devil himself in some twisted, starry-eyed, red-headed form! But she was also perfection unmatched. How could he deny that?
A large cube of ice clinked! into the glass, shortly followed by another amber flow of Bushmills.
As he held it out to her, her fingers ever so delicately wrapped around the glass. Connor couldn’t keep himself from gawking as she closed her eyes and took a long slow protracted sip before handing it back. He could only assume that she meant for him to finish it, which he did, despite himself.
“Kiss me,” she ordered.
“What?” he asked, unintentionally coughing back up a bit of burning liquor.
“It is what you want to do, isn’t it?”
With that, almost as if on cue, the towel fell, revealing every uninhibited inch of her. ‘Perfection’ did not do it justice. What choice did he have? Barely tilting his head forward, her mouth overtook his. The taste of her whiskey-laced tongue was more intoxicating than the drink. As he took her in his arms the entire world around them seemed to dissolve, until all Connor was able to perceive was random color and abstract shapes. The feeling of the warmth of their bodies enjoined. The mounting ecstasy overcoming all other sensibilities…
Connor opened his eyes with no small degree of effort. Then clamped them shut again just as quickly. Trying to rub away the ache, along with the pounding sensation in his head, he finally managed to get up from what he realized was his bed, still made from the day before.
“Come to me, my dear,” the caped black and white Count on the TV proclaimed as he gestured towards the buxom young object of his wicked seduction. “Come!”
Just as his lips lowered to the neck of his mesmerized victim, the scene cut to an Elvira (or was it Morticia?) lookalike announcing the commercial break. “We’ll be right back with more ghoulish delights momentarily on this, the fifth night of our ‘Classic Terrors from the Vault’ marathon in a bit. Don’t go getting cold feet…at least not until we’ve had a chance to finish the job! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-HA-HA-HAA!!!”
“Ugh—Enough of that.” The power button on the remote discontinued the agony-inducing drivel coming out of that woman’s mouth.
In between the pulses of pain in his temple, the first thing that registered was a glass, alongside a significantly emptied whiskey bottle settled next to it on the nightstand. Well, now, that explained everything, didn’t it?
Doin’ your ol’ Irish ancestor’s proud now, aren’t you, Connor, me boy-o?
The thump-thump-thumping of his brain admonished him as he swirled the bottle and its contents in his hand.
Somehow managing to get to his feet, he tried to stretch out the pangs of an uncomfortable night. Rolling his neck first to one side, then another, he suddenly noticed something that shouldn’t be there. That couldn’t be there…
The shirt. Cleanly folded and unassumingly hung over the rail of his desk chair. At that moment, the events of the previous evening flooded into his head with enough force to kick him back into bed. Taking it in hand, almost trembling at the thought of examining it, the shirt unfolded. Nothing. Not so much as a stray thread out of place. Never mind the blood stains or the cut that his memory told him should be there, if he remembered correctly. Was he remembering correctly?
There were no strewn about lacy unmentionables. Nor any other indicators of a woman’s presence. Hell, he was still in the same pants and shoes he had on yesterday. In the bathroom, there was no sign of disturbance. All towels clean, dry and accounted for. No moisture suggesting recent use of the shower, or an affectionate note left on the mirror with a cell number promising future encounters anywhere in sight.
Just himself, alone, with a rushing palpitation in his head that had him praying to God in all His mercy to just end it now, and make it as peaceful as possible.
The infernal BZZZ! BZZZ! BZZZ! of the alarm clock having just hit 5:00 AM returned him to reality. Such an ungodly hour. The law should forbid being awake so early.
Still, he didn’t make the schedule, and the docks don’t work themselves. Just the same, the notion of listening to grinding forklifts and sputtering delivery trucks was nothing short of dread inducing right now.
What he needed was coffee. Wandering into the kitchen, he managed to locate the precious grounds needed to bring himself back from the edge of oblivion. He poured the aromatic elixir of life into a mug and sat, alternately blowing, sipping, and repeating until his raw mouth was able to tolerate the burn. As he began to wake up, another thought struck him.
It was a place.
How long ago was it that he’d left that county and that name behind?
How old was he? Three, four years old maybe? One wondered how he could even recall the name.
Ma and Da were gone. Certainly no one else in Hell’s Kitchen had any connection with Killead. Hell, all that Connor had were vague images from his childhood and the stories his parents carried with them to their new home.
He could recall fields of green that seemed to have no end. Crystal blue skies, with one damn cloud that always managed an afternoon rain.
The more that he thought about it, the more certain he became. He had to go back. Something deep down told him that was the answer. The only answer. It had to be. He didn’t know how, but the thought couldn’t have popped into his head randomly.
The clock reminded him again that the morning needed to get started. He couldn’t afford to be late on the day he planned to ask for time off, after all.
Just enough time to shower and leave.
One or two Tylenol to help ease the head pain. Maybe three. Or even four. Fuck it. Take the bottle.
Then the image of her standing beneath that street light returned.
Had she been the Devil?
Some apparition of the Fae?
Or perhaps something even worse?
He drowned his thoughts in what was left of his coffee.
But he could only hope that the cold shower would be enough to wash her away.
Authors Note: I began writing this prologue in January 2011, as I had imagined an entire universe of characters and story lines for The Otherworld Chronicles…. edit after re-edit, after re-edit, I was finally content with Connor and Sirennia meeting for the first time, in this short story on March 29, 2020.