Katherine Mankiller


Underworld, by Katherine Mankiller
October 14, 2018, 9:27 am
Filed under: short fiction

Originally published in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, January 2015.  (The site appears to be defunct.)


Tucking his computer science textbook and his Book of Shadows into his backpack, Dion dropped the bag onto the floor at the foot of his bed, and launched World of Warcraft. He selected his realm: Earthen Ring. He was number eighty in the queue. Expected wait time: twenty minutes. Stupid server. He glanced over at the wilted plant on the window sill and waved his wand. It perked up.

His mother wandered into the room, wearing a gold lamé evening dress and hose without shoes. He hid his wand behind his back, but made no attempt to hide the glass of wine on the desk, next to the computer. As long as he didn’t get shit-faced, she had no problem with it.

“Honey, have you seen my rhinestone earrings?” She walked over to his dresser, opened the jewelry box, and looked inside, but Dion knew it didn’t have any rhinestones in it. Just some pentagrams and crystals. “Be careful, baby,” his mother said, picking up the pentagram. “You don’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention.”

Blah blah people will think you’re crazy blah. Like there were no Wiccans in college. “You left them on the bathroom sink, so I put them in the medicine chest,” he said. “I didn’t want them to fall down the drain and get lost.”

She dropped the pentagram back into the jewelry box. “Where would I be without my little man?” She walked over and kissed him on the cheek. Then she left, fancy dress rustling as she headed out the door.

Dion groaned. He was nineteen-years-old and six-foot-one; he was hardly his mother’s little man. “You’re welcome!” He could hear her chuckling in the other room. He glanced down at his computer console again. His position in the queue was now seventy-seven. “I’m not going to have to come rescue you again, am I?”

“Oh, hell no,” his mother said, appearing in the doorway. Her makeup was impeccable, her dress was elegant, her rhinestones sparkled, and she was pinning a corsage to her chest. “I used to date him back when you were a baby. Mr. Kataibates is pure class. You should see what he drives! He has a gorgeous silver…”

“I don’t care what he drives. I care that he treats my Mama right.”

“I’ll be fine, baby. Like my mama always said, it’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor man.” She winked at him. “Don’t wait up, now.”

Dion groaned again and threw a Darth Maul beanie baby at her. He heard the front door close, and pulled out his wand. He murmured a spell and his position in the queue went from seventy-four to two. He wasn’t the best wizard in the world, but computers were easy. He was also pretty good with plants and shapeshifting, which was why he played a druid. They were good at plants and shapeshifting, too.

He wondered again what his father was like — he’d clearly gotten his magical abilities from him, not his mother. But Mom wasn’t talking.

~~~

He was awakened by Sir Mix-A-Lot announcing that he liked big butts and he could not lie. For a moment he thought it was just a crazy dream about rappers in his bedroom, but then he realized it was his cell phone. Rolling over, he groped for his phone in the dark, knocking it off the nightstand and onto the floor. He scrambled and answered, “Hello?” and was surprised by how scratchy and incoherent his voice sounded, even to him.

“Baby, I’m so sorry to call you so late.” His mother. “I’m so sorry, but I need you to come pick me up right away.”

Dion sat up. “Mom?” There was a sliver of light from the streetlight coming in between the bedroom curtains forming a line of visibility over to his computer. He threw a book at the desk to jiggle the mouse, and the screen lit up.

“I’m in the ladies room in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel, and I’m afraid to come out. I’ll explain when you get here. Oh, shit, I think he’s coming.”

She hung up.

With a sigh, Dion scrambled out of bed by the light of the computer screen. Part of him thought that he should just leave his mother there — she kept getting into these messes, and it wasn’t fair of her to expect her son to get her out all the time. He turned on the bedroom light and hissed at the brightness hitting his eyes, then grabbed his jeans and the first t-shirt he could find — the one that read “you are dumb” in binary — and pulled them on. He put on his socks and sneakers, then crossed the room for his jewelry box and his pentagram.

Then he went into his mother’s room and opened her Bible, which was where she kept her “mad money,” and grabbed three hundred dollars in case he needed to bail her out or something. He grabbed his wand, wallet, and cell phone off his nightstand and stuffed them into his back pockets. There was a mirror over his dresser, and he scowled at his reflection. He looked like a gangly teenager whose mother woke him up for a ride at…

The clock said 4 in the morning.

He swore and stormed out to his car, a cherry red 1984 Chevy Caprice. It was older than he was, but it had some serious juice. He hoped he wouldn’t have to kick some old man ass. His mother tended to like rich pricks with expensive lawyers. He wondered if his father was a rich prick with an expensive lawyer. A rich wizard prick with an expensive lawyer. He snarled.

When he arrived at the Four Seasons hotel, there was a chill in the air but he had his irritation to keep him warm. Especially when the doorman — a thin, pimply white guy in an ill-fitting suit — watched him like a hawk, and the women leaving clutched their purses closer as he walked by. Please. He knew for a fact that black people had been to the Four Seasons before. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes and figured his shirt said it all. The lobby was all marble and fancy wood and rugs and people in expensive clothes with a lot of jewelry. He walked over to the door marked Ladies and was about to knock when a gorgeous, regal Greek woman came out. She was maybe forty, and had dark curly hair piled up on her head and big, gorgeous, intense brown eyes. She wore understated makeup, a little royal blue dress, and pearls. She had a hair comb with peacock feathers on it. She was totally hot, and probably had no use for a skinny teenaged gamer geek. She turned back towards the door and said, “I believe your son is here.” Maybe she was a friend of his Mom’s.

Dion’s mother peeked around the woman, then rushed out and grabbed him by the arm. “Let’s go.”

“See you later, Semele,” said the woman in blue.

“Not if I see you first,” Dion’s mom muttered. On second thought, maybe she wasn’t a friend of his Mom’s.

As they were headed out the door, Dion asked his mother, “Who was that?”

“Mrs. Kataibates,” his mother whispered.

“Mama!” He stopped and stared at her. He looked back at the woman in blue, who crossed her arms and smirked at him in a way that made him grab his mother’s arm and hurry her towards the door.

“I didn’t know he was married,” his mother said.

Bullshit. How long had she known this guy? He was nineteen years old, and she used to date Kataibates when he was a baby. Either Kataibates was a really good liar, or his Mom… He didn’t like either train of thought, but he liked the latter less.

There was a Greek man dressed entirely in black — black turtleneck, black jeans, black leather jacket — waiting next to Dion’s car. There was something about him, a supernatural quality, something more frightening than just Greek mafia. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me, Mel.”

Dion’s mother cowered behind him. Dion pulled out his wand and pointed it at the man. “Leave her alone!” A silvery glow came out of the wand and headed towards the man, but he seemed to have a protective shield around him. Well. That, and hexes weren’t really his forte.

The man laughed. “Little boy, do you have any idea who I am?”

Dion shook his head.

“The name is Thanatos,” the man said. He pulled something out of his pocket and everything went dark.

~~~

Dion woke up cold with a damp back and the doorman leaning over him. “Welcome back, kid.” The ground smelled like motor oil.

Dion sat up. “Mama?”

“Gone,” the doorman said. He handed Dion one of his mother’s earrings and the corsage. Up close, Dion could tell the doorman’s suit wasn’t particularly well made. Well, he supposed it was a uniform of sorts.

“Did you call the police?” Dion asked.

The doorman laughed, but there was no humor in it. “No, I value my life. That guy’s Greek mafia, and those guys are untouchable. Olympians. Sorry, kid.”

Dion scrambled to his feet. “Which way did they go?”

“Forget it. Your mother’s in a shallow grave right about now. Go home.” He looked at Dion’s car and said, “I’ll call you a cab.”

Dion looked over at his car and started to swear. That dick Thanatos had slashed his tires.

He grabbed the doorman’s arm. “Which way did they go?”

The doorman shook his head, pulled his arm free, and walked away. Dion flipped him the bird behind his back. His mother might be a… a… the other woman, but she loved him, and he loved her.

He tucked the earring into his pocket and hung the corsage like a pendulum. “Which way did they go?”

The corsage pulled to the right.

The doorman whistled. He turned, and the doorman was waving him over to a cab. He ran and climbed into the back seat. The cab looked clean, but it smelled like coffee and salami.

“Where to?” the cab driver asked. He was an old man in a fisherman’s sweater with flashing pale-blue eyes.

“That way,” Dion said, pointing in the direction the corsage pointed.

The old man gave him and the corsage pendulum an appraising look. “It’s extra if I cross the river.”

Dion realized that no one was reacting to him practicing magic. He didn’t know if that was good or bad. Maybe the cab driver was “the wrong kind of attention.” Thanatos sure as hell was. Either way, it was too late to worry about it now.

~~~

They followed the corsage pendulum across the river, and through scary, half-deserted streets with boarded up windows and shambling bums who threw empty bottles at the cab as it passed. They finally found themselves in an abandoned warehouse. Dion got out of the cab.

“Wait for me.”

“It’ll cost extra,” the man said. “In advance.”

Dion nodded and handed the man a hundred dollar bill, making sure he saw that he had more where that came from. He opened the warehouse door. It was dark and dirty and smelled musty. There were concrete stairs leading down, and voices. At the bottom of the stairs, a dog growled. Dion wished he’d remembered the beef jerky he had in his backpack for when he didn’t have time for lunch, because he wasn’t any good with dogs. But the corsage insisted his mother was down there, so he pulled out his wand and decided to play Warcraft druid. “Root!” he said, and vines rose up and tied up the dog, who was understandably confused by the whole thing. Since that worked, he decided to try to become a leopard. His beard stubble became kitty whiskers, and he dropped to all fours. He would have thought it would hurt, but instead he felt more athletic. And really hairy. Light became brighter, colors dimmer, edges less distinct. The dog whimpered. Dion thought he smelled something nasty — the dog, gross! No wonder cats hated dogs.

So freaking cool! He couldn’t believe it worked! He changed back and did an insulting little touchdown dance. The dog lunged at him, vines gone, teeth towards his face, snarling and pulling at the end of its chain. Dion leapt back, and almost fell, but caught himself just in time.

He crossed over a footbridge — well, more of a concrete plank over a gutter — and up another flight of concrete stairs. His mother was there, lying on the floor, her pretty dress covered with blood and dirt and her face bruised and swollen. He thought she was dead at first, but then she let out a tiny little sob, and he knew she’d seen him. She didn’t move, though, not even when Thanatos kicked her.

Dion swallowed the hints of bile that welled up in his mouth — a prelude to vomiting, which would reduce his intimidation factor, such as it was — clenched his fists and sized up the other people in the room.

Aside from Thanatos, there was a man and a young, tall, willowy, sad-eyed brunette. The man had long, silky black hair, almost prettier than the woman’s, and was wearing a silk suit and a diamond ring. He was younger than Mrs. Kataibates, but…

“Are you Kataibates?” Dion asked the man.

The man in the silk suit laughed a mirthless bark of a laugh. “Ordinarily I’d be flattered, but since I’ve just learned that my brother-in-law has once again failed to keep it in his pants…” He shook his head. “You should go now. I have many guests, and most of them are not permitted to leave.”

“What the hell?” Thanatos said, starting towards Dion.

“Wait!” the tall brunette said, grabbing Thanatos’ arm. “You can’t kill him.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” the brunette said, “he’s Kataibates’ kid.”

Oh, shit. His father was a rich wizard prick. A rich Greek mafia wizard prick, who probably had an army of expensive lawyers. And an angry wife. Dion resisted the urge to swear. He looked over at his mother, but she didn’t move or look at him.

Thanatos looked over at the man in the silk suit. “Is this true, Polydektes?”

The man in the silk suit raised an eyebrow at Thanatos. The coldness of his stare made Dion shiver, and it wasn’t even directed at him.

Thanatos blinked. “Mister Polydektes. Sir.”

Mr. Polydektes appeared unmollified.

“And don’t think for a moment that Kataibates doesn’t know it,” the brunette continued. “He’s been paying child support for years — under the table, of course, so his wife wouldn’t find out.”

Dion thought of the hundred dollar bills in his pocket and winced. No one seemed to notice.

“Well, she found out,” Polydektes said. “And I’m not going to just let the bitch go. I owe it to my sister to look out for her interests, and if this chick has no respect for the marital vows, well, that’s her funeral.”

“Your sister can take care of herself, honey,” the brunette said.

“It’s a matter of loyalty.”

The woman rolled her eyes, and Polydektes pulled her closer and gave her a peck on the cheek. It was her turn to look unmollified.

“They made my sister cry,” Polydektes said, his voice surprisingly soft.

Dion considered that Mrs. Kataibates hadn’t been crying when he saw her, but said nothing.

“Maybe,” Thanatos said, “if it was supposed to be all hush-hush, he shouldn’t have taken her to the Four Seasons.”

“I’m not leaving without my mother,” Dion said. “So you’re going to have to either kill me or hand her over.”

Polydektes rolled his eyes. “Oh, go away, kid. You’re bothering the grown-ups.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Dion said. “If I can kick his ass” — he pointed at Thanatos — “I get to walk out of here with my mom. Deal?”

Polydektes laughed, but it wasn’t a cheerful sound. “It’s up to you, Persephone.”

The brunette chewed her lip a little. Dion handed her the corsage with a deep bow.

“Deal,” she said. She pulled a black ribbon out of her hair and used it to tie the corsage to her wrist. “Why don’t you bring me flowers any more?”

Polydektes leaned over and whispered something in Persephone’s ear that made her smile.

Dion gave Thanatos a long, appraising look. Thanatos smirked back at him. He clearly didn’t have the magical chops to fight this guy with spells, but Thanatos hurt his mother.

He threw himself onto Thanatos in a flying tackle, punching wildly and shrieking in rage. Thanatos was clearly not expecting that, and was pulling his punches. Apparently he didn’t want to hurt Kataibates’ son.

Dion didn’t pull his punches. He kept hitting until his hands were covered with blood, and finally Thanatos turned on him, his eyes icy. Dion felt his limbs grow cold and numb.

“Root!” Dion said, and vines sprouted up out of the earth and twined around Thanatos. Vines, with thick, lush bunches of grapes covering Thanatos’ shoulders and eyes. Thanatos blinked and looked around, and Dion felt his limbs tingle with the blood rushing back to them. He turned into a leopard, and lunged for Thanatos’ throat. Blood mingled with the sweet taste of grapes in his mouth, rich and intoxicating. He shook Thanatos out like a dishrag, then tossed him aside and pounced again. He tore at Thanatos’ limbs and chest, vaguely aware of screams.

“Stop,” Polydektes said.

Dion ignored him, planting a paw on Thanatos’ chest and gnawing a limb off. And then Persephone was there, placing a hand on his chest. He was going to growl at her, but he was distracted by her sad eyes. They were deep and dark, like the earth.

She reached up a hand and stroked his head, and he leaned into her touch. “It’s all right. Everything will be all right.”

“Damn,” Polydektes said, and shook his head. “You really are my brother-in-law’s kid. You got his temper, that’s for sure.”

Dion ran over to his mother, turning back into a human. He picked her up, and she weakly wrapped her arms around his neck, like a child. “We’ll be going now.”

Thanatos whimpered, and Polydektes leaned over and casually pressed Thanatos’ arm back into its socket, like he was made of clay. Then he looked up at Dion, his eyes unreadable. “That would be wise, yes.”

Dion took a step backwards, then turned and carried his mother as fast as he could. He didn’t look to see if anyone was following him.

When they got to the dog, Dion said, “I just kicked Thanatos’ ass. You don’t want to fuck with me, dog. In the name of Hecate, down.” The dog dropped onto his stomach, growling, but he let them by. They got into the taxi, his mother on his lap, and handed the driver another hundred. It was covered with blood, and he didn’t know whether it was Thanatos’ blood or his mother’s. The driver raised an eyebrow and started the car.

Dion asked his mother, “He’s my dad?”

His mother’s voice was a whisper. “He told me he was divorced. I believed him.”

Dion wasn’t sure he believed her, but it didn’t matter. She was his mother. He had her back.

~~~

Dion looked up from his computer science textbook — stateless firewalls — as his mother swept into the room. She was wearing a white lace blouse and a flowered skirt. She pirouetted. “What do you think?”

His heart sank. “You have a date?”

“Yes, with the nice man who owns the bookstore on the corner,” she said. “I don’t expect to be out too late.”

“Okay,” he said, because there wasn’t anything else to say. She left. He tried to finish his reading, but he was distracted. Who knew what kind of asshole the bookstore guy was? Who knew what other rich assholes his mother might get involved with?

It occurred to him that he apparently had an in with a very rich, very powerful, very dangerous asshole. One who could be an insurance policy against anyone else doing his mother wrong.

So he Googled up Kataibates. There was a phone number for Kataibates Enterprises, which he dialed.

“Kataibates Enterprises,” a perky receptionist said. He could almost hear her smacking gum in the background, and wondered if she was his age.

“Yes, I’d like to speak to Mr. Kataibates.”

“May I ask who’s calling?” she asked.

“His son.”

Her voice took on a suspicious tone. “Which one?”

“The illegitimate one.”

“Which one?” the receptionist asked, her tone dry.

“Dion,” he said.

“I’ll… tell him you’re on the line.” She’d heard of him? Really?

There was a pause, and then an older man picked up. “This is Kataibates.” He hesitated, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded uncertain, almost vulnerable. “Dion?”

“You and I need to talk,” Dion said, “about protection for my mother.”


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