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Shortlist Saturdays: Netherworld by Frances Boyle

Mia had fretted for weeks, wondering if James had gotten involved in something illegal, maybe even organized crime: his late nights, his whispered phone calls, the long dark cars that lingered ghost-like outside their New Westminster home. Their house was spacious and grand, a former lumber-baron's mansion that had been updated and brought back to glory by the last owners. Yet to Mia, it still carried an old odour: wax and polish with something musty or mildewy underneath, something almost sinister that she had to shiver off on grey days.

It was Saturday evening on the Labour Day long weekend, but James wasn't home. He was at the office, yet again. Working late, yet again. He and Mia had been married twelve years, ever since they were both articling students at the law firm where James was now a senior partner and she―she had become a nonentity, a spouse who had given up lawyering when the kids arrived.

Mia missed the early days of their marriage, missed the old ways. She felt she hardly knew James these days, couldn't believe that the man she used to think was her soulmate was now enough of a stranger that she'd even suspect him of wrongdoing. She hated that she was allowing mistrust to creep into their relationship, tried to tell herself that she was acting like a stereotypical bored housewife, feeling abandoned, a work-widow, stifled by not having the chance to use her brain for what she had worked so hard to achieve.

Quelling her qualms at snooping, Mia opened the drawers in James’s desk, an antique that had been left behind with the house. She rifled through jammed-in files looking for something ―anything!―that would prove her suspicions wrong. Mia had to pull to release the tightly-crammed papers so she could begin to read.

The documents Mia found were so alarming that she fled to her car and drove towards James’s office downtown. Streetlights were smeared through the rain on the windshield, and the light gleamed off her wedding band as her hands turned the steering wheel, gripping tight. On the papers she’d scanned, there were columns of numbers that added up to six figures, with the name “Donatelli” appearing prominently.

She remembered once asking James what he knew about the Asian street gangs that were in the news.

“Not much,” he’d said. “But don’t forget that Italians control the construction industry here, and that’s an even bigger gang issue.”

“Are you saying that the Mafia―like, in the movies―operate in Vancouver?”

James hadn’t answered. But the cranes that poked out of every construction site in the suburbs were emblazoned with letters that spelled out “Donatelli”. That much money, and what looked like coded descriptions, could only mean mob activity.

Mia’s phone lit up with an incoming call. James’s number. He rarely called her cell, and had probably tried to reach her at home first. But she couldn’t answer while she was driving. She didn’t have handsfree and, with the rain coming down steadily, she wouldn’t chance anything dangerous ―or illegal. James sometimes called her the girl scout, she was so rule-abiding.

“You’re the one who’s the lawyer,” she would say, but with a smile. She wasn’t smiling now. If James was involved with underworld activities, he could be putting not only himself but her and the kids, their whole future, in danger.

James hadn’t always been so secretive―they used to share everything. But when she asked him about some items she had found a few weeks before, he’d just silently taken them from her and put them away. They seemed relatively benign: rabbits’ feet, a chili pepper made of coral.

So, a phone call wouldn’t do; she needed to talk with him in person. She readily found a parking spot on the almost deserted holiday weekend streets in the business district.

The law firm had keypad entry and she remembered the code, let herself into the building. James wasn’t in his office, so Mia wound her way through the cubicles toward the boardroom at the back of the firm’s space.

Mia gripped the doorframe. Inside the boardroom, James was carefully tipping coloured sand from a series of containers onto the bare wood floor. He poured straight lines that intersected in a star shape —a pentangle, Mia remembered it was called. In the dimly lit room, smoke rose from the outlined shape and began to coalesce into a recognizable form. A ram’s head, with glinting yellow eyes and large letterbox pupils, thick horns curled to spiral.

This has to be a hallucination, Mia thought, trying to shake the image from her mind. She thought of the photo on the old Rolling Stones album from back when James still collected LPs. The record’s big hit was that sad breakup song “Angie”, and she’d always hoped she’d never feel the pain that Jagger put into his voice when he talked about the nights they’d cried.

Then Mia heard James’s voice, hushed in the eerie silence, but thick. “This is the last time, Taxil. I’ve been doing your bidding far longer than we bargained. This needs to come to an end. I’m quitting you.”

From within the smoke a low grinding sound. The head did not speak, but Mia could feel the menace grow, a chill to the air. James stood his ground. Even in the dim light, Mia could see him set his jaw.

Mia’s thoughts spiraled. She had worried about the “underworld” but the notions about mobsters she’d gleaned from film and television suddenly seemed so benign in comparison to this. What had James done, and what had he gained from this bargain? A secret he’d kept from her ―she felt a flash, a crumbling as if their whole life together had been one big lie.

She tried to stifle a sob, but it came out as a choke. James turned at the sound, and the look in his eyes―startled and so vulnerable―brought back to Mia a hundred times he had looked at her like that: the day that they married, the first time he had held their infant. The death of first his mother and then his father within two months of each other.

James rose from kneeling and moved toward the doorway where she stood. “Mia…”

But Mia rushed forward and threw her arms around James’s neck. She kicked at the sand lines until the pentangle was broken.

James clutched at Mia. “What have you done?” A deadness to his voice.

The apparition began to dissolve back into smoke. While it still maintained its shape, it raked the tip of one sharply pointed horn across James’s cheek.

James’s let go of Mia and tried to staunch the trickle of blood with his palm. His face held no expression, and his eyes were stony.

James didn’t speak, and Mia found herself unable to say a word. There was silence as they left the boardroom, passed the empty cubicles, went through the heavy office door that wheezed shut behind them. James’s hand on the back of Mia’s raincoat guided her out to where she’d parked the car. She remembered when they always held hands, wherever they went.

The Vancouver rain was heavier than ever as they drove back to the suburbs. Mia’s still-shaky exhalations clouded the inside of the car windows. She realized too slowly that there was no fog on James’s side nor any sound of his breathing as he gripped the wheel. No breath at all, just the slap of the windshield wipers and the smearing of water against glass.

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