My Poisonous Friend – Ch.3


Chapter 3: On the Town

I’d known Yurilee was large. The sprawling convolutions of her body and tail made her bedchamber a crowded place. But out here, in town, I realized just how huge she really was, meters longer than any lamia we passed. Other women offered me promising smiles, but kept a respectful distance, acknowledging that – at least for today – I was the sole property of my imposing companion.

She held herself at a modest height, though, just slightly above my own. That made it easier to talk as we travelled through the streets.

“You know, Mark, Madiyan is really quite fond of you.”

“Is she? She hides it well.”

“Oh, yes. She calls you her ‘old wolf’.”

“Not sure how flattering that is, but I won’t argue. You seem to know her pretty well.”

“I ought to. She is my granddaughter, after all.”

“…no.”

“Or my great-granddaughter? It is so hard to keep everyone straight anymore. Why ‘no’?”

“Yuri, you can’t be old enough to have a granddaughter Maddie’s age.”

“No?” Yuri’s lips curled impishly. “How old do you think I am, sweetbit?”

Well, I’d broached the subject. I looked up at my genial monster, and chose a careful near-honesty. “No older than me, I’m sure.”

“…and how old are you?”

“Fifty…and some.”

My answer seemed to tickle her. “Do your human women look like me in their fifties?”

“Well, they’re a lot shorter. But I’ve known some fifty-year-old women who would snarl if they saw you.”

“They should take better care of their skins, then.” Yurilee sniffed. “But truthfully, lamia see more years than men. And I am…a bit older than you. In fact I am one of the oldest women on this island.” She gazed down the street, toward the sea. “Does that disturb you?”

“This certainly doesn’t feel old.” I reached over and squeezed.

She lazily swatted at my hand, smiling. “Ah, you are such a naughty student.”

“I think I’d rather be your naughty student than Madiyan’s ‘old wolf’.”

“You flatter me too much.”

Madiyan had given us a good address, but we circled the block twice before we found the door in an untrafficked alley. I knocked on the unpainted wood, and Yurilee bent close to listen.

I wasn’t surprised that nobody answered.

Yuri shook her head. “I do not hear anything. Do you think he still lives here?”

“I suppose we should find out, shouldn’t we? Madiyan did want to know.”

Few doors on this island bothered with locks. I pushed this door open and quickly scanned the room: occupants, none. Bathroom door, closed. Bed: neatly made, with no suspicious lumps. Desk, stacked with books and a laptop computer.

The back of my neck prickled, and my eyes jerked back to the bathroom door. “Yuri,” I said softly, “wait outside for a minute, please.”

Two quick steps carried me across the tiny apartment. I listened for a moment, then pulled the door open.

There was nobody in the bathroom.

I stood there for a moment, then started searching. It didn’t take long to find Julian’s cache. We’d attended the same schools, after all. But I didn’t find much, just an old-fashioned lockpick set and a small leather pouch with unlabeled bottles of liquid and a pad of chemical test papers. Nothing very incriminating, but items that an operator wouldn’t have left behind unless he had to depart in a hurry. I slipped the lockpicks into my pants pocket, just in case. I’d apologize later if I had to. Everything else I returned the way it was.

Maybe Yurilee had waited the requested minute. In any case, she was in the apartment now, or at least the half of her length that would fit. She was leaning over the desk, and looked around when I re-entered the room.

“From my library,” she said, handing me a book.

I flipped through pages of chemical diagrams with Krataiic and English captions, recognizing a few of them. “You were teaching him scientific terminology?”

Yuri picked up more books. “No. I did not know he had these.”

I squeezed past her to open the laptop, shielding the screen with my body as the login prompt demanded credentials I didn’t have. I gave Julian enough credit not to look for a scrap of paper with his password on it. The blinking dot in the upper corner of the screen tried to warn the owner that he’d missed his scheduled check-ins with HQ. Instead, it admitted to me that Julian hadn’t been back to the apartment for at least a week.

After a moment’s thought, I typed random characters into the password field until the screen flickered and the machine started to eat itself. I wasn’t entirely sure whose secrets I was protecting. In any case, whatever data Julian had gathered on his laptop quickly dissolved into electric nonsense.

I turned to my teacher. “Why was he studying biochemistry in Krataiic?”

“I surely do not know. He never told me he was interested in such things.”

Yurilee nosed around the apartment as the afternoon light faded from the room. I leaned against the wall and didn’t bother turning on the lights. The sun had finished its business in this alley. It was looking like we had, as well.

Finally she ran out of things to look at or under. Her hand rested on the neat stack of books she had made on Julian’s desk. She seemed uncertain whether to leave them there, or gather them up to take back to her home.

“He has not been here for a while, I think. Is he…gone?”

“Damned if I know. But he certainly isn’t here.”

“Then what do we do?”

I pointed to the stack of books. “Well, that’s the only clue we have. It looks like he was translating names for chemical compounds, maybe medicines. So where would he have found those sorts of chemicals?”

“Medicine?” Yuri blinked. “Maybe at the clinic? Or the apotekopoiia?”

“You haven’t taught me that word yet.”

“Am I a neglectful teacher?” she smiled wearily. “The apotekopoiia is where they make the medicines, and test the new ones.”

“A pharmacy and a research laboratory, combined?  That’s certainly a possibility. How far away is it?”

“It is part of Dr. Aemilia’s clinic. She leads the research program there.”

“Oh, really? Then we should go talk to the good doctor. I think I’m due for a checkup anyway.”

It had been a long day already. My renewed energy didn’t escape Yurilee. “Perhaps you would rather go visit her alone, sweetbit?”

“Am I that obvious?” I grinned at her. “But the mission comes first, and we haven’t tracked down your missing playmate yet. Besides, I wouldn’t trade your company for anyone, not even the charming doctor. Je n’ai d’yeux que pour toi, chérie.

“Ah, you are so cruel to your teacher, using these words that I cannot understand.”

“You understand me just fine, Yuri. Come on, let’s go see Dr. Aemilia.”

The clinic compound isn’t far beyond town, but dusk overtook us before we arrived. Yuri and I found the clinic’s entrance dark. We could see lights in the long, low building that extended east from the clinic proper, and we followed the path around, looking for a door. Along the way I spotted a white-coated figure through the windows, and my back straightened a bit.

I don’t remember being carried into Aemilia’s clinic, those months ago when I arrived in the Lamia Islands. I had been drifting in and out of a morphine haze, arguing with myself whether I was dead or alive. I wasn’t too worried about being dead because there was already an angel leaning over me, with golden eyes and rainbows in her hair. Wherever I had ended up couldn’t be that terrible.

Then the painkillers wore off and it really was terrible. When breathing hurts, everything hurts. Each cough felt like a ribeye was being carved out of my chest. For a while, being alive seemed like a consolation prize that I’d’ve readily traded for a good cup of coffee and a long, breathless sleep.

But the angel was still there with me, with soothing hands and a siren’s voice that I couldn’t help but follow out of the darkness. The rainbows were real, too, teases of blue and pink and green that reflected from the mahogany scales of her tail and plekti. I’d focused on the colors while Aemilia wired the jagged ends of my rib back together. I’d followed them with blurry eyes during the painful weeks of therapy afterwards.

Now my knock brought a puzzled angel to the door.

“Yes? The clinic is closed…oh.” Doctor Aemilia blinked at me, and Yurilee, and me again. “I was just about to shut down for the night. But of course I’m open for any urgent matters.” She glanced over my shoulder at Yurilee, and her professional smile struggled a bit. “Mark, is something wrong? Do you need to consult with me in private?”

I was tempted, but now wasn’t the time. “No, Doctor, this isn’t a medical visit. We have a mystery that you might be able to help us with.”

Aemilia’s forehead furrowed. “A mystery?  That sounds…intriguing. Come inside, then.”

We breathed astringent air as the Medusa doctor led us between steel tables burdened with complex stacks of glassware. Cabinets full of chemical jars and reference texts lined the walls. New-looking machines blinked and hummed quietly at us as we passed.

One table was obviously in use, filled with labelled bottles and rows of test tubes. “I was just compounding medications for the coming week,” offered Aemilia as we passed.

A glass wall and open doorway separated her personal office from the rest of the laboratory. The room contained a large desk against one wall, another wall of filing cabinets, and exactly no chairs. Yurilee coiled smoothly beside me. It seemed rude to sit on her tail, so I remained standing.

Doctor Aemilia slid to her desk and turned to face us, hands firmly clasped, ready to listen to our troubles.

“So. Tell me about your mystery.”

After a glance at Yurilee – who nodded – I did. “We’re looking for a man named Julian, a tall, blond fellow. Do you know him?”

Aemilia nodded. “I do. I performed his physical exam when he arrived, as I do with each of the men who come to the island. His was much simpler than yours, of course.”

“I would hope so. By any chance have you noticed him around the…Yuri, what was the word you used?”

“The apotekopoiia. Perhaps the closest English word is ‘apothecary’.”

Now you tell me?  Anyway, Doctor, we think he may have had an interest in your research, or maybe one of the girls who works here. Does that sound familiar?”

“No, and I’m sure I would have heard. The apotekopoiia is not an open facility, although I could have arranged a tour if he’d asked. Why is it important?”

“He seems to have slipped away somewhere. Left his apartment in a rush. We’re trying to figure out where he went.”

Doctor Aemilia’s dark eyes widened. “Slipped away? You mean that he’s missing?”

“You could say that. Nobody admits to having seen him for a few weeks.”

“I haven’t seen him outside his regular medical appointments.”

“And when was his last appointment?”

“Several months ago, I think.”  She turned away and pulled open a wooden drawer. I wasn’t surprised that she was keeping medical records on paper. Quickly she had a file on her desk, open. Even if I had been standing closer, I couldn’t have read the Krataiic notes upside-down. “Yes, about three months back.”

Yuri sighed. “He has visited me since then.”

“You mentioned regular appointments. Were you actively treating Julian for something?”

Aemilia closed the file before answering. “I’m afraid that patient records are confidential, Mark. You, of all people, know that I respect my patients’ privacy.”

I smiled ruefully at her. “Yes, you are never anything but professional.”

“I’m sorry that I can’t be more helpful. But I have no idea where he could have gone.”

“Well, we appreciate your time.”  I turned to gather Yuri. We still had to walk back to town and then to our village tonight.

“While you’re here.” Aemilia moved from the desk. “You’re not quite due for an appointment, but I’d like to check your wound. Yurilee, would you mind slipping outside for a few minutes?”

“Of course not, doctor. Please take care of my dear student.” Yuri offered me a sly smile. “Should I wait for you, or start making my way home alone?”

“Oh, you think I would leave you to walk back in the dark?  I’m insulted.”

My teacher cackled merrily and slid out of the room. I sat on the edge of Dr. Aemilia’s desk and let her pull my shirt over my head.

“Does it still hurt you?” She probed at the discolored stripe of skin with careful fingers.

“Not really, except when I get squeezed hard.”

Her lips twitched. “I imagine that happens a lot. Raise your arm, please.”

I did, and managed not to wince as the scar tissue stretched.

The doctor poked, and peered, and finally seemed satisfied. “You’re healing very well. I’m afraid that scar will be permanent, though.”

“One more for the collection,” I grinned at her. “Women find scars interesting, right?”

“I believe that some do, yes.” She penned notes at her desk while I got dressed.

Her next question surprised me. “How are your language classes progressing?”

“Slow, but steady. Yurilee is being patient with me.”

“You’re doing this as a favor to her, aren’t you?  Hunting for Julian, I mean.”

I nodded. “He’s important to her. I don’t think we’re going to find him, though.”

Aemilia’s eyes rose from her notes. “Oh? Why do you say that?”

“Well…”  I figured that Julian’s secrets weren’t mine to tell. So I told my doctor something else.

“…I’m not sure he really wanted to live here. I think he decided to go back to the States.”

After a moment she nodded. “That’s possible. Some men don’t ever fully embrace our culture. Nothing quite matches their memories of home. They hold themselves apart, resent the small inconveniences, and finally all they want is to leave. It’s very sad for us when they go.”

I offered an apologetic shrug. “I can’t judge the man too harshly. It isn’t a simple thing, moving to these islands to live with you lovely ladies. It’s disorienting. The language is tough to learn, the food is unfamiliar, the culture can be unsettling sometimes. Not wrong, mind you. Just challenging.”

“You’re referring to our mating customs?”

“Only partly. The women here are delightful. And very beautiful,” I winked at her. “But making friends with a hundred lovers is hard. It can be rather lonely, actually.”

Aemilia stared at me intently, as Medusae tend to do.

“Are you lonely, Mark?”

I smiled, half to myself. “Sometimes. You’ve been wonderful to me, nursed me back to health. Yurilee has been patient and kind. Even Madiyan has been supportive, in her way. I haven’t really been alone since I’ve been here. But it’s still a strangeness.

“It gets easier, though. Yurilee is teaching me more than just the local language, I suppose. She’s a good mentor, as well as a friend. Speaking of which, I shouldn’t keep her waiting much longer.”

Aemilia put down her pen and drew near to me. “Mark, may I offer you a bit of professional advice?”

“Hmm? Of course.”

“You shouldn’t rely too much on any one person. That can be isolating as well. You ought to make more friends on the island.”

“Oddly enough, Julian told me much the same thing. I don’t think he took his own recommendation, though.”

“I wish that he had.” At this closeness, her eyes were tall black ellipses, crossing warm fields of copper. “You will let me know if you find him, or find out that he’s gone? He is one of my patients, just like you.”

“Of course, Doctor.”

Her eyes crinkled slightly. “You could call me Aemilia, you know.”

“Wouldn’t that feel a bit unprofessional?”

The white-coated medusa turned away briskly, returning to her desk. “You are correct, of course. A doctor mustn’t take liberties with her patient. Still…

“…at the rate you’re healing, you may not need treatment from me for much longer.”

“I’m sure I’d need a few follow-up visits, though. Just to make sure everything was working properly.”

Aemilia ignored or never saw my teasing grin. “We’ll have to see. Now, I think someone is waiting for you. And it’s getting quite late.”

“Yes, it is. Good night, Doctor. Thank you again for helping us.”

“I hope you find him well. And…take care of yourself, Mark.”

A few scraps of orange still drifted in the overhead dusk, mementos of another spectacular sunset. Here, below the treeline, the clinic’s buildings were deeply shadowed. As I stepped away from the doorway, one large shadow rose above me.

“You did not last very long with the doctor. You must have been awfully excited to be examined.”

“Hush, you old serpent. Aemilia wouldn’t take advantage of a patient like that. Unlike certain language teachers I could name.”

We set out on the path back to town.

“But I always thought you seduced me, sweetbit.”

“Well, I would have, if you’d given me half a chance…”

Yurilee crawled heavily beside me. Her face was shadowed, but it didn’t matter. I could hear the disappointment hidden beneath her banter.

“I’m sorry we hit a dead end at the clinic, Yuri. I thought we had a solid lead.”

“No. I am sorry to have dragged you out here in the night.”

We moved in silence and darkness for a while.

“Mark, did you think that Doctor Aemilia sounded worried about Julian?”

“She sounded concerned for the man, certainly.”  More than Madiyan had, I recalled. “That isn’t surprising, though. Aemilia gets to know us all personally, all the men I mean. Much like you do. And she’s responsible for our health. So I’d expect…Yuri?”

She wasn’t there. I pivoted to find my companion a few paces behind me, very tall and undulating strangely.

“Yuri?  Are you alright?”  I didn’t step closer.

Dim moonlight reflected from her eyes, the yellow-green glow of uranium glass.

“He was here.”

“Who, Julian?  We know that. He’s Aemilia’s patient.”

“No, no,” she protested. “I mean here here. Not long ago. I can smell him.”

“Really?  You know his scent?”

“He was my lover, sweetbit. Of course I remember what he smells like.”

As I looked back the way we’d come, lights in the clinic’s windows were still dimly visible. “Do you think you could you track him?”

“I…do not know. I have never tried to do something like that.”  Her long tongue flickered in and out, tasting the night air. She swayed slowly, trying to triangulate the scent. “This way, I think?”

I stood aside as she crawled off the path into the trees. She moved with assurance, despite the darkness. I walked in the pressed-down path that she left.

Eventually she stopped. “I smell him more here. I think he was here for a while.”

Between the trees, I could still see specks of lights from the clinic. Leaves blocked much of the moonlight, but even so I could tell that the undergrowth here had been crushed in a wide area. I edged carefully around the perimeter, trying not to spoil the scents. The flattened space was much larger than a man.

“Do you smell anyone else here?  Maybe a lamia?”

“I smell lamia everywhere, darling. But…I do smell sex here.”

Moonlight sparked from the ground as I circled, and I backtracked, trying to find the reflection again. “I hate to say it, but he may be seeing another woman.”

“Good for her. He still should not abandon me.”

I found the reflective bit and reached for it. I had to tug a bit, but I knew what the object was before I had it out of the ground. “Maybe this is his excuse. He lost his phone.”

“I do not even have a phone,” she said, but she sounded worried now. I pushed a few buttons, but of course the cellphone was dead.

“Yuri, does the scent go further?  Obviously he didn’t stay here.”

I waited, while she crawled in slow circles.

“His smell goes this way. I am trying to follow, but it is much fainter.”

“Because he was being carried,” I said flatly.

The trees were thicker now, blocking the moonlight entirely. I focused on my footing and followed the sound of Yurilee’s heavy body crushing the undergrowth ahead of me. My thoughts were creeping down an equally dark path. Moonlight tryst or no, Julian wasn’t likely to be careless with the most valuable piece of his toolkit. Or he would have come back for his phone in daylight, if he could. I was starting to suspect that he couldn’t.

Without warning, a heavy blow to the chest knocked me backwards. I found myself caught in the grip of a lamia’s coil.

“What the hell?”

“No more steps, sweetbit. It is not safe.”

The trees had parted. I looked out at darkness, and gradually distinguished the sky from the starless sea below.

Yurilee had stopped me from walking out into nothingness. I patted her tail thankfully.

“Is this where the trail ends?”

“Yes,” she said, very quietly.

Now I could hear the breakers far beneath me, soft and constant.

“Then I think it’s time to go and tell Madiyan what we’ve found.”

“I think you are right,” she said.

To be continued…

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