When I published my first novel, HE HAS MANY NAMES, I wanted a book tour with all the fixings: morning shows, signing lines, standing room only readings. You know the usual accommodations to literary world rolls out for unknowns. I mean how expensive could an ad in Times Square really be? It’s not like I was asking for a 30 second spot in the Superbowl, just a 15 second one. Like all humble artists, I required a few simple things:
A concept album
An official podcast
A comic book adaptation
A documentary short series
And a partridge in a pear tree
These seemed like reasonable requests on my backstage rider. That and fifteen-foot python filled with brown M&Ms. It turned out indie publishers didn’t budget for exotic pets. If I wanted promo materials, they’d have to come out of my own wallet. I tried to hypnotize artists into making them for me, embedding subliminal cues into casual conversation.
“I need to finish this YOU-line good-WILL paper-WORK be-FOR FREE-day.”
I’ve since discovered that mentalism is a junk science and Derren Brown is a vampire who glamours all his participants.
I had to do my book promos myself. This proved challenging after the book had already been published. I cut together a book trailer with some unused film school footage. When that failed to get any traction. I cut another one, and another one. Eventually I wrote screenplay for a local filmmaker who’d expressed interest in shooting the opening scene. That never came to fruition and the promo cycle rolled on. My publisher had bigger successes from authors with bigger platforms.
Then Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram adjusted their algorithms to downplay links, and I was back to square one (I blame Buzzfeed and Upworthy, a pox on both your houses).
Fast forward, through an international health crisis, and I have a second novel. Now, I could start shopping it around, find a publisher, get it out into the either, but what happens when it comes time to promote it. Quit my full-time job and pray for success? I need a better strategy. I need to work on the promotion side of things, before bringing a book to market. In this instance, it’s smarter to put the cart before the horse.
What Videogames Taught Me About Bookselling
In the videogame industry developers rarely program from the ground up. They use frameworks built on libraries of 3d assets, real world textures, and motion capture data. They call this framework an engine, because it sits at the heart of a complex machine. Engines simplify game design by giving designers elements they can reuse over and over.
If my next novel was going to have a chance, I’d have to build an engine of my own. An engine filled with assets perspective book buyers might like. So, I asked myself, what kind of content keeps me from scrolling on?
Not the slick homogenous stuff an AI might spit out, but evocative, imagination driven designs. Patrick Nagel’s art deco women. Gustave Doré’s depictions of the inferno. Drew Struzan’s movie posters. Those are the designs that get me every time and they’re applicable to what I’m working on.
If I could teach myself to draw like that, my next novel might have a chance. Over the last six months I’ve been building a portfolio, depicting my character Mahthildis as one of Patrick Nagel’s femme fatales. I now have a healthy library of designs.
Designs I can reuse by turning them into memes.
The next step was to build a framework for video. Let’s face it, short-form video rules social media. If you want young people to consider your long form content you have to engage them in quick bursts first. Photoshop helps with this, since my subjects are grouped into layers. I can separated them from the backdrops, make them zip in and out of frame, and eventually move their limbs.
I’m beta testing my engine with animations. I’m writing a series of short stories featuring the demon goddess Mahthildis. In each story I’m pitting her against a mythic figure associated with that month. Krampus for Christmas, Father Time for New Year’s Eve, and St. Valentine for Lupercalia.
I thought it would be funny to animate Mahthildis facing off against her foes, like characters in the VS screen in Mortal Kombat 3. That way I could reuse the Mahthildis image and slot in a new villain each month.
It seems like a lot of effort to make a book trailer, with music and narration, for a series of free short stories, but each one is a test to see how far I can reach.
Hopefully, this process will teach me how to streamline my video edits. I’ll learn which social media platforms are worth targeting. I’ll learn how to build an engine with a lot more horsepower than before.
An Engine is a Good Excuse to Dust Off Some Old Skillsets
More and more people want to be writers, which makes getting your work noticed that much harder. Authors need to bring every skill they have to the table. Imagine the ideal reader for your story. What are their niche interests? What tools do you already possess to engage them in other spots? Write them down and plan out a frame work of reusable tools.
If you’re a photographer then bust out your DSLR. Stage pictures of subjects relevant to your novel and tease the images out throughout your promotion cycle. If you’re an actor get some friends together and record a reading of a scene. If you’re a musician create soundscapes you can read excerpts over.
Follow other indie authors. Scrub through their feeds. Consider which posts get traction and which posts don’t.
An Engine is a Good Excuse to Develop Brand New Skills
I learned Photoshop the same way I learned to tie a tie with Youtube tutorials. That’s how I’m teaching myself motion graphics and animation, one video lesson at a time.
Think about the skills your framework requires. Which ones have you always wanted to learn? Which ones would you want to have, even if your book promo doesn’t go well? Those are the skills worth investing in.
Build an Engine on an Engine
There are plenty of time savers out there. Just remember that over one else is using the same ones.
Yes, you could use AI to generate art assets. You’ll have to study the prompts other creators are using before you can make something the slightest bit unique. I’ve experimented with several of the AIs out there. I found the characters were inconsistent from frame to frame. They generate awkward artifacts. AI struggles with eyes, with edges, and fingers. Every image has the same tight depth of field. And so many of the creations look like renders from video game engine.
If you don’t have time to learn Adobe Premier, you can use a book trailer maker. Drag and drop some assets into a video template. Choose from a library on licensed stock video scenes. Type your pitch out in a series of captions. I’d recommend pushing the boundaries of the template as much as you can. Those stock scenes rarely cut well together.
Look up the #BookTrailer hashtag on Instagram for examples of people who didn’t put in much effort. You’ll find music that doesn’t jive with the spirit of their story. Images with mismatched color tones. Videos with abstract subjects. Most of them look like video collages. You might be better off using still images.
Do whatever you can to give your trailer a sense of author ship.
There’s a reason all the those bright-faced booktubers say, “You shouldn’t get into writing for the money. You should do it because you love it. It should be its own reward” That’s a nice way of saying you’re probably not going to get paid for it (I’m not talking to you though, just everyone else, you’ll be one of the exceptions that takes the publishing world by storm).
There’s a song that breaks my heart every time I hear it. It’s called Everything is Free, by Gillian Welch.
“Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I ever done
Gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
That we’re gonna do it anyway
Even if it doesn’t pay”
That verse must hit every artist right in the gut, because they know it’s true. We are all feeding the content dragon, hoping for but a taste of the horde its sitting upon.
You have to love making art for the sake of it. You have to love promoting it too. I’ve made no allusions to how much I hate self-promotion. That’s why I’m building an engine, to give myself a framework, to showcase my creations without having to conjure up a fresh scheme every time. Continue reading How to build an Engine instead of a Platform→
My driver caught me spiking my hair in the rearview.
“More of a scheme than a plan.”
His eyes wandered to the rhinestones along my bustline. My eyes wandered to the medallion hanging from his mirror. St. Benedict? No. St. Christopher? No. St. Valentine. Figures.
“Is your date meeting you there?” He addressed my rhinestones.
“Yeah,” I broke his sightline, adjusting the pouch hidden beneath my bra. “The little devil’s been there for ages now.”
My driver’s smile faded on the way up Mulholland. The gridlock had him gritting his teeth. He didn’t relent until when we reached the estate. That’s when his jaw dropped. The manor had a sculpture garden, a lazy river, and a skyway between the wings. Then we rounded the corner and he went right back to grinding.
A gathering of bright young things had amassed along the double staircase. They ran all the way out onto the lawn, jamming the motorcade, ensuring none of the chauffeurs could turn. My driver stared daggers at the mirror.
I strapped my bag over my shoulder. “I could use the walk.”
And with those words he transformed into a perfect gentleman, opening the door, tipping his cap, offering his hand.
I smoothed my skirt, slid on my velvet mask, and bid him adieu. “May your life be filled with rhinestones.”
A murder of goth influencers had gathered at the entrance. Tanker boots up to their kneecaps. Lolita skirts up to their thigh gaps. Wednesday Adams blouses buttoned to their chokers. Jet black pigtails whipping through the air. I barreled toward them in my crimson gown, a sparkling comet ready to char the landscape. My pixie haircut spiked into horns. My bat mask spread from ear to ear. My stilettos clicking like cloven hooves. The black sea parted as the red death approached.
When I heard, “Valentine’s Ball” I thought, “Masquerade.” So, that’s what I dressed for. No one told me the dress code would be, “Funeral casual.” To be fair, no one sent me invitation either.
“Name?” The bouncer spoke to the shadow on his list.
“Look up.” I answered.
He scanned my rhinestones and my high cheekbones and waved me in.
This is how I got into the shock rocker’s mansion. The shock rocker in question? Who cares? I didn’t come for autographs. I came for an artifact, which is why I had a travel pouch hanging from my bra clasp. All I had to do was get through the throng.
Party planners had dressed the foyer like a b-movie graveyard, full of cherubs, black roses, and mist. A smoke machine pumped fog at the guests in long drawn-out bursts. That gave me the opportunity to steal away to the gallery.
The host had an extensive collection of occult items and I had my heart set on one: a hand carved devil from a Punch and Judy show. According to legend, the devil had driven his trident through his puppeteer’s neck. Witnesses claimed the devil kept moving long after the puppeteer stopped breathing. Since then, the devil has been imprisoned in a silver case, with stained glass windows, and hinges lined with rosary beads.
Hermetic orders have passed the case down since Victorian times, conferring the same instructions: do not look upon it with sin in your heart, do not look upon it at night, and whatever you do, DO NOT TAP THE GLASS, but when I tapped the glass, nothing happened. No vibrations in my armored ring. No alarm bells in my mind. Just a rattling hinge and a puppet with a big clueless grin.
“You’re not supposed to do that.” A woman whispered over my shoulder.
Her silhouette leaned into the corner of my vision. She stood at eye level, even with my stilettos.
“Do what?” I whispered.
“Tap the glass.” A lace fingerless glove pointed to the sign that read DO NOT TAP THE GLASS. “It’ll wake the devil.”
I tapped again. “It should say OUT OF ORDER.”
I went to tap for a third time, but the woman took my wrist and spun me around.
“Do you want to see something creepy?” Her eyes lit up.
She whisked me into the gallery. The display cases whizzed by in a blur as I kept my pale blue eyes on hers. Her eyes were a deep soulful brown. Her face radiated with a warm Greek glow and she had the faintest little groove on the tip of her nose. She wore a denim jacket covered in enamel pins, a white tutu, and a matching bow.
I’d heard the word, “Ball” and came dressed for a masquerade. She heard the word, “Ball” and came dressed for homecoming.
My stilettos screeched as we slid to our destination.
A stuffed canine stood on its hind legs, paws primed, fangs bared, eyes fixed on anyone who dared look in its direction.
“Aen-o-cy-on dir-us guil-day-i.” The women read off the plaque.
“It’s a dire wolf, like Luperca, the wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus back to the health.”
What do they teach in schools these days?
“Once upon a time, there was king named Numitor. By all accounts a just and decent man, so he had to be overthrown. His brother, Amulius, threw his hat into the ring. He seized the throne, killed Numitor’s son, and condemned his daughter to a vow of chastity. So naturally, she got pregnant with twins. She named them Romulus and Remus. When Amulius found out, he set them in baskets and tossed them into the river Tiber. A dire wolf swam out to receive them, but rather than gobble them up, she brought them into her den and nursed them back to health. The brothers named her Luperca. Luperca’s milk helped them grow big and strong. Strong enough to overthrow the king and found the city of Rome.”
The woman scanned her brow. “Why does that sound like the story of Moses?”
“Because it is. It’s the story of Krishna, Ra, Osiris.” I tilted my head back and forth. “They each have a basket. They each have rivers and they each have a savior.”
“I guess some legends have to share.”
It had been a while since I’d heard a mortal stumble upon a truth like that. She didn’t know what to make of the fascinated look in my eyes and turned back to the wolf.
The forgery impressed even me, from its long-rippled tongue to the sweat dripping from its nostrils, but I wasn’t looking at it. I was looking at the woman reflected in the glass. The material girl, making me nostalgic for the 1980s.
“My name is Alexis. By the way.” She addressed my reflection.
“Is that like Matilda?”
“Older, but I’m bringing it back.”
My eyes wandered up her gallery of enamel pins, past the triple-moon goddess, the death’s head moth, and the Ouija board planchette, to the pin above her pocket. I reached out. “Can I have this?”
It looked like a goat posing as a Playboy Bunny, with its horns in place of the ears.
“The Play Goat?” She beamed. “Hell yeah, you can. I’m designer, this like my logo.
Alexis took it from her pocket and pinned it to my dress, like a carnation.
Her fingers felt so natural hovering over my heart. I couldn’t help but exhale. She froze.
I ran my fingers down her pins, testing the elasticity of her comfort bubble. Her breathing slowed, her eyes narrowed, and her lips parted. My fingers found her elbow and eased her closer. She gripped my shoulders for balance. Her touch felt safe and familiar, like home. I aligned the tip of my nose to indentation in hers. I leaned forward and she met me in the middle.
I never did get that puppet.
Alexis and I hit the honeymoon phase pretty hard, confining ourselves to the bedroom, starring at each other between sessions like, “I can’t believe what you’ve done.” Her eyes stinging with sweat. My hair reduced to a series of cowlicks. She stayed so long; her roommate threatened to file a missing person report if she didn’t text back.
Now I’m not one for labels, but I’m told I’m omnisexual: someone attracted to every gender, but that definition feels narrow. My unique anatomy affords me a lot of opportunities. I’ve been attracted to some abstract things: psychic parasites who straddle their hosts at night, possessed individuals with legions of souls, four-headed cherubim like the ones back home.
I’m from the silver city. THE silver city. I was cast out for questioning my strict religious upbringing. Forced underground, I started a community of my own, but things turned political and I got shut out by my own people. They left me in this realm where everything is fragile and nothing lasts long.
Since the dawn of civilization, I’ve been searching for a connection. I tried to relate to kings, politicians and business tycoons, but they were all so boring. I’m more attracted to people with inspiration. To the music makers and the dreamers of dreams.
Alexis oozed inspiration. It showed it in all her fashion-forward designs. Her single shoulder blazers. Her asymmetric collars. Her lone leg trousers. It showed in how she modeled her creations, smirking through the runway deadpan. It showed in how she carried herself on the town. “Who am I wearing? Me, myself, and I.”
Socialites gravitated toward her at film premiers, at gallery openings, backstage at concerts. They’d shout her name across crowded rooms. “Alexis, you owe me an outfit.” She could’ve wandered off with any one of them, and yet, she stayed close.
I wanted to take things to the next level, but with her lifestyle, Alexis preferred to do things without a title.
“Let’s just enjoy what we have now.”
With my temperament, I wanted something consistent.
I’d ask about her five-year plan, as a coded way asking about her five-decade plan. I’d ask how she felt about children, as a coded way of asking how she’d fare through generations. I’d ask what she’d do if she could turn back time, as a coded way of asking what she’d do with all the time in the world.
“In five years, I want to take my fashion career to the next level. I love children, but I’d rather just be the cool aunt. I wouldn’t turn back time. It’s always better look forward.”
“What if there’s more time behind you than there is ahead?” I muttered to myself.
I know you shouldn’t hide tests in your relationship. You’re supposed to be honest, but too much honesty can shatter a mortal’s reality. It’s best to assess their grasp of metaphysics, before introducing new planes of consciousness.
I decided to pop the question on our three-year anniversary, make it another Valentine’s Day to remember. Alexis had taken modeling gig in Europe, which gave me plenty of time to plan the evening out. We meet at our favorite restaurant the moment her plane touched down. I would hand Alexis a heart-shaped box. She’d open it and find it filled with sand. She’d ask, “Why sand?” and I’d lay it out all out. How I’m technically a demon. How the self-appointed king of Hell won’t let me back in. How I stole sand from Father Time.
I’d get down on bended knee and ask, “How would you like to spend eternity with me?”
The night played out differently. Alexis kept me waiting at a table for two, the gift of immortality waiting between my heels. The courses came. The chef gave his speech. The courses stacked up. I called Alexis, and gave a speech of my own.
I called for weeks. Every time, the phone rang five times before going to voicemail. If Alexis wanted to shut me out, she could’ve blocked me, but she didn’t. This had me worried.
Her booking agent said she took a gig in Austria. I contacted the photographer. He said she’d gone into the alps with some friends. He didn’t know if they came back down.
I studied the train routes and waved a scrying pendulum over the map. Alexis was last seen in town called Verstecktes Tal. A car free community with shuttle buses and horse drown carriages. A destination for rock climbers and cross-country skiers. Not aspiring fashion designers.
My contact in Vienna set me up with a pair of dowsing rods, not the copper ones you find on Etsy, but the glass ones blown from ash stone. I trekked to Verstecktes Tal and waved them over every cabin, over wine cellars, and restaurant basements. I felt for vibrations in the cobblestones, sewer grates, and fresh graves. When things got desperate, I drugged a priest, so I could scour his rectory. I befriended a pair of junkyard dogs, until their owner came to see what the silence was about. I picked a locked, and almost got lockjaw stepping onto a bed of nails.
The search left me wandering through the forest in the dark. My collar brimming with pine needles. Boot treads clogged with muck. Toes caked with snow. I felt for thinness in the air, for a gap in reality large enough for Alexis to slip through, but the rods never moved.
If I was going to find my lover, I would need an expert.
Many sanctuaries claim to contain St. Valentine’s remains. Some claim bits and pieces, others claim the whole skeleton. The Catholic church doesn’t dispute these contradictions, because they keep the tourists coming. Who doesn’t want to spend their trip paying respects to a decapitated evangelist? I didn’t, but I needed a piece of him if I was ever going to find Alexis.
This meant a lot of ink in my passport, so I’d have to pack light. A lockpick in my heel, a nun habit in my satchel, and my hair up in a veil.
Sister Mary Mahthildis toured the parishes of Europe, leaving a mess in her wake. Clergy members described her to Interpol, saying she carried herself more like an actress than a woman of the cloth, with her smokey eyeshadow and bloodred lipstick. They all remembered her as pale. Pale as a painting. Not a Renaissance painting, but a painting you’d find on an album cover. They’d say she licked her lips, like she was hungry. Hungry like the wolf.
Every destination left me starving. Glasgow’s relics were glaringly fake. Dublin’s were dubious. Prague’s were pretend. Madrid’s were all made up, and Terini’s were tenuous at best. Here I thought monks invented genetics, you’d think the church would know how to run a DNA test.
Only one site remained. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The relic? A gap-toothed skull, with a crown of pedals, and the words S. VALENTINI written across its brow. I saved this one for last because it seemed the least authentic, like a Gucci bag with a copper finish. Still, I had to check.
Visitors to the Basilica were met with the face of an angry titan, a 1 ton carving in an ancient sewer cover. His empty eyes watched me step out of line. He saw me reach up my sleeve and put something in my palm. The titan’s nostrils flared, inhaling the ammonia aroma. Its gob hung open anticipating what was coming.
The sculpture was called the Mouth of Truth. Tourists lined up to take selfies with their fingers between his lips. Legend had it if you were dishonest, his mouth would clamp shut and snap your hand off. I couldn’t help but slide my armored ring across his tongue and tap the back of his throat. Sorry to report, the Mouth of Truth was out of service. No surprise there. If legends were true, I’d have burst into flames the moment I stepped into the building.
That’s the thing about legends, they’re built on top of the truth. Take the basilica. The church built it upon the Temple of Hercules, casting out the pagan powerlifter for a skull with a nasal fracture. Just like they built Valentine’s Day upon the feast of Lupercalia, watering down a purge party with a Hallmark holiday.
Oh, how I miss the real reason for the season, before the dead roses and dinner reservations. The Romans knew how to throw a party back then. They sacrificed goats at the altar of the dire wolf, dosed themselves in blood and milk, and streaked across the city. They flogged anyone who crossed their path and plenty of women were happy to do just that, offering their wrists for a ceremonial slap. Not my erogenous zone, but who am I to kink shame?
Then Valentinus had to go get himself killed and killed all the fun.
Valentinus, the patron saint of lovers, got his name from performing midnight weddings. He did this despite Emperor Claudius’s mandate that his troops live like Jedi Knights, unburdened by emotional attachments. Claudius refused to enlist anyone with a ball and chain. Registered men sought Valentinus to doge the draft. It didn’t take long for the Roman Legion to come a-knocking.
Valentinus got house arrest. When a judge came to review his case, Valentinus used the opportunity to push his faith. The judge decided to put the priest’s faith to the test. He presented Valentinus with his daughter, a girl who’d been blind from birth. Valentinus stuck his thumbs in her eye sockets and low and behold, she saw stars. Valentinus walked.
Of course, faith is like a drug, and Valentinus couldn’t help himself. Before long he was back on the street slinging that Christian rock. This time he got himself thrown in lock up.
Now Emperor Claudius considered himself a merciful man. He took it upon himself to visit Valentinus in the dungeon. He tried to win Valentinus back to paganism, but the priest was too far gone. Claudius had no choice, but to put Valentinus out of his misery, by clubbing him, stoning him, and chopping his head off.
I needed that head to raise the dead.
The sculptures eyed Sister Mary Mahthildis as she checked out the security apparatus. Surveillance cameras. Check. Motion sensors. Check. Crucifixes. All over the place. The halls filled with prerecorded chanting, like a Gregorian alarm system. The virgin Mary watched from the ceiling, as did the cherubs, eyeing the genuine cherubim who walked among them. My wheels concealed. My wings folded in. My jeweled plating reduced to but a ring.
Scanning the walls, I spotted fluted columns, remnants from the temple the church had paved over. Running my ring along the railings, I came upon St. Valentine by accident. His skull sat upon an altar, in a box more bronze than gold, dwarfed by a painting of another saint. You wouldn’t know it was him had they not stamped his name to his forehead. I lifted my thick rimmed glasses from the strap around my neck. The lenses weren’t prescription, but someone needed to have a look around.
I raised my hands in prayer, and whispered, “Elizaveta?”
“Yes, my child.” Elizaveta responded from a speaker in the ear band, her Russian accent made all the more apparent by her authoritative tone.
“How’s the power grid going?”
“Swimmingly. Italian ice is really easy to crack. No wonder the Vatican is drowning in botnet.”
“Do people really talk like that?”
“In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, they do.”
Elizaveta had been reading between assignments. She’d come a long way from the chatbot the CIA had pitted against the Russians. Especially since, I gave her the gift of sentience.
I panned the lenses up to the rafters. “I need a place to set the rest of my valentine’s gifts.”
“Then you’ll have to wander off the tour.” Elizaveta played an audio wave of fingers scattering across a keyboard. The lights for the security cameras blinked off and on.
I pinched my glasses by the hinge. “I take it the closed-circuit television is playing reruns?”
“Now would be a good time to visit the upper levels.”
The basilica had a belltower, a good place for a limber individual to step out onto the window sill. An even better place to tape my gifts up. Not to ruin the surprise, but it’s amazing what one can find on the Italian dark web. With my party favors in place, I found a blind spot, and stretched out on the shingles.
Alexis had a thing for trashy romance novels. She used to knock on the bathroom door to quote them. “Her petals blossomed as he laid his pollen—”
“Her nipples erected like a pair of tents.”
“Her caress made his manhood inflate like a long balloon in the grip of a party clown.”
“Nope. Nope. Nope.”
With hours to kill, I cracked one of Alexis’s worn spines open. The book had all the tropes I’d come to expect: the big city girl returning to her small-town roots. The football has-been who’d grown since then. The bank vault they found themselves trapped in. The long night before the branch manager returned. Petite protagonist. Towering beefcake. The story writes itself.
For the longest time, I struggled to understand why Alexis read these things, as if her life wasn’t short enough already, but there on that roof, I think I got it.
She loved them flaws and all. She found comfort in their predictability. She liked knowing the coupling was a forgone conclusion. She liked the clunky awkward sex scenes. I could relate. I wanted, no, needed, these two opposites to hook up. I read until my eyes weighed heavy, until the timer for the bank vault lights turned off, and the old rivals scooted into one another’s arms.
I awoke to a thunderous clap. The Trastevere district went dark, followed by the fountain, and the bell tower.
“Stay low.” Elizaveta whispered, “The police station is in the same building.”
My robes ripped as I crawled back inside. The tear turned my habit into a high slit dress. Not a bad look, especially when form aided function. After all, it was a long walk down. The bell tower had become a silo of shadows. My pupils filled my irises to accommodate.
Back on the ground level, I made a beeline for St. Valentine’s room, gripped the railing, and vaulted over. I didn’t care about leaving fingerprints, for I had none. Remember the part about my unique anatomy? It comes in handy in times like these. As did my armored ring. Its sharp talon cut a perfect circle in the glass and its silver columns glowed blue as they neared the skull. Then the vibrations kicked in, followed by the angelic hum. The real St. Valentine had been found. I hooked my fingers through his eye sockets and wedged his skull under my arm.
That’s when I heard the rustling of rosary beads, the creaking of chairs, and the cracking of knees. A dozen loafers scuffled across the floorboards. Hands ran along fabric, along leather, along metal. Silhouettes fanned out as Latin whispers filled the air.
“Is that you lord?” I broke the silence.
A well-dressed man appeared before me. He stood tall and lanky, with a gaunt face, made all the narrower by his long silver hair. He regarded my outfit. “You know, most nuns don’t wear habits.”
“What can I say? I’m a traditionalist.” I curtsied.
“You would be.” He unscrewed a vial of holy water.
“Elizaveta.” I whispered. “Who am I looking at?” My glasses were equipped with a lidar scanner. I aimed it at the target and a series of light waves bounced off his face.
Enter the Entity, the pope’s answer to the central intelligence agency. These were spies, assassins, exorcists. They were said to be the foremost experts in demonology. Strange how it took us this long to meet.
Alessandro palmed his vial, aimed his toe, and raised his back heel. “We know what you are.”
“And what’s that?” I reached up my sleeve and palmed a little something of my own.
Alessandro bit his bottom lip. “The voice in the garden. The one who whispered into Herod’s ear. The one who entered Judas. The one who put our lord on the crucifix. Lucifer, the deceiver, the ruler of demons.”
“Is this guy serious?” Elizaveta mused.
I took off my glasses and left them to dangle. “The voice in the garden, was a snake. They all talked back then. Herod never shut up long enough for anyone to whisper in his ear. And I never entered Judas. He wasn’t my type.” I looked up to the cross on the balcony. “As for the crucifixion, I didn’t know that was happening, and if I did, I wouldn’t have gone. If you’ve seen one crucifixion, you’ve seen them all. It’s mostly a lot of waiting.”
Alessandro cocked the holy water back and I stepped into the splash radius.
“Lucifer was a star god, until they found out it was a planet, and renamed it Venus.” I jabbed my armored ring into the priest’s chest. “And it’s hard to rule demons when they won’t even let you back in.”
Hammers cocked as the silhouettes took aim. I crouched behind Alessandro. Seeing he had the upper hand, Alessandro composed himself.
“Then you’re one of the lesser figures: Lilith, Ishtar, or Vepar.”
Insulted, I cast my veil off. “I’m the one who met Robert Johnson at the crossroads. I’m the one who taught Tommy Johnson to play blues. I played the violin at the edge of Giuseppe Tartini’s bed. I turned Nicolo Paganini into a virtuoso. I am the benefactor for all the talents your lord left behind. I am the Patron Satan.”
“Then what are you doing with the skull of St. Valentine?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand,” Alessandro feigned sympathy, “You’re someone who hatches schemes to avoid moments of quiet contemplation. I understand that you think these missions will give your life meaning. I understand that they never amount to anything. Why press on, if not to keep the loneliness from settling in?”
“Father, I have more people than you can count.”
“And yet, you feel no love from any of them.”
“Love is the reason I’m doing this.” I felt my cheeks go flush.
Alessandro studied my eyes, baffled by the moisture at the windowsills to my soul. He said, “St. Valentine will do nothing for you.”
“I’m not here for him. I’m here for the one he’s bound to.”
Remember what Alexis said about legends having to share? It happens sometimes. Spirits from one festival get entwined with spirits from another. They cross pollinate, become something else. Odin and the Wild Hunt, turned into Santa and his reindeer. The trickster fairies of Celtic lore, became St. Patrick’s henchmen. And the dire wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus, became St. Valentine’s companion.
Alessandro hurled his holy water against my earlobe. My skin sizzled and popped, like bacon on the skillet. The searing pain swished around my brain. The tissue liquified. Black blood seeped down my collar. A pearl earring bounced off my shoulder and rolled across the floor.
Gritting my teeth, I pressed my trigger, detonating my party favors. The Mouth of Truth popped like a kernel, casting stones into the western wall. The blast radius knocked the gunmen off their feet. Then the basilica rumbled. The bell rang and rang, until it gonged. It crashed through the ceiling, through the floor, through the crypt, down into the temple of Hercules.
With the skull secured, I ran the gridiron, swerving through coughing silhouettes. I hurdled over scattered chairs, up a hill of bricks, and broken lengths of fence. I leapt through the dust cloud, through the tourists, and into the Tiber River. The same river that carried Romulus and Remus to safety all those years ago.
I won’t bore you with the details of how we got the skull through customs. Suffice to say, it involved a pantsuit and a badge from an Archaeological Institute. When I got the skull home, I held it like a ventriloquist dummy.
“Let’s get this show on the road before I grow a backbone.”
The are many grimoires for raising the dead, but I prefer the Liber de viis Secretis Spirituum, it has illustrations and more of an idiot’s guide to everything. I use its schematics for all of my shapes.
The trick to drawing the perfect summoning circle is the 60-inch ruler. You drive a nail through one hole and set your drawing utensil in the other. Then all you have to do is turn until you have a ten-foot diameter.
Next comes the runes. Traditionalists use limestone for their sigils and sea salt for their protection circle. I prefer Magic Markers, because they’re easier to clean and I never bother with safeguards. I’m more of threat to those I summon than they could ever be to me.
Once you have your glyphs in order, you have to connect them to a power source. Traditionalists will raise a cone of power with a trance dance, flailing their arms, arching their torsos, collapsing like old string toys. But not tonight. Tonight, I felt like doing a tango.
Last Christmas, Alexis got us couple’s tango lessons. The instructor waxed poetic about the intimacy of the dance. “The tango is about matching your partner, synchronizing your steps, your breathing, your hearts. Lovers who tango together last forever.”
With my hands in my armpits, I played like I had no clue what to do. Like I’d never drawn figure eights with heels on. Like I’d never turned my waist with my arms firmly around another person. Like I’d never run from the police when the dance was still a crime.
Once Alexis had a handle on the basics, I took the lead, weaved her across the room, spun her around, and dipped her down. The instructor declared us a pair of natural talents.
“Strike it up to our sympatico.” I kissed Alexis on the hand.
Tonight, I tangoed solo, tracing the sigils with my toes, swiveling my hips, drawing circles with my heels. I two-stepped to the center of the circle, ran my foot up the length of my calf and kicked at the darkness.
With the energy field established, I set St. Valentine’s skull at the center, checked my compass for east, and carved myself an exit. Traditionalists use a ceremonial dagger called an Athame. I use my armored ring. It’s a metaphysical multitool.
Once you’re outside of the circle, the finishing touches are up to you. You can light candles, make a floral arrangement, or leave a swag bag full of chocolates and body oil.
Now comes the time to recite the incantation. This is no monotone chant, no lazy Pinterest printout. No. This is a work of heartfelt personal prose.
“Roses are red,
violets are blue,
get your ass up here,
or I’ll crush your skull too.”
The air conditioner roared to life, followed by the dehumidifier. The blades whooshed in and out of sync, like the breathing of a giant.
My arm hairs stood on end, followed by the hairs on the back of my neck and up went my cowlicks. The space filled with the thick scent of ozone, like a crater after a lightning strike.
The inground lighting system sparked. Things got bright, so bright the bulbs burst.
Two bodies rose from the center of the circle. St. Valentine’s bishop robes flowed behind him. He held a pastoral staff in one hand and his own severed head in the other. Luperca walked beside him. Her long snout came up to her partner’s shoulders. They regarded one another; two spirits intertwined by syncretism.
St. Valentine raised his head to take in his environment, puzzling over the lane lines, the ladders, and the diving board.
“Where are we?”
“A swimming pool.” I noted the missing tiles. “I’m having it replastered.”
“What do you want of me?” The hole in his throat oscillated as he spoke.
“I want you to set that back on your shoulders.”
“I choose to hold my head, to show my sacrifice.”
Nobody likes a grandstander.
“Well, hold it still, because I’m here to talk to her.”
I approached the edge of the circle. Luperca came forward and sat. I presented my fist and she gave it a sniff. Her vision narrowed when she sensed the presence of a predator.
“I need help finding someone. I’ve used up all my material resources. Now I need your nose.”
Luperca raised her head to present her neck. A show of dominance. I bowed to show respect. Her course tongue licked the wound along my eardrum. The tissue cracked and sparked as the cartilage shifted back into place. She’d taken pity on me.
I presented the Play Goat Alexis had pinned on me like a carnation. Enamel wasn’t much of a breathable material, but it held her scent, because it was her creation. It would be enough.
Luperca’s nostrils flared. She shut her eyes and took a good long whiff. Then she trotted back into the center of the circle, dug into the tiles, and faded through.
St. Valentine resisted her pull long enough to ask, “Will you give my skull back?”
I shook my head. “I may still have need of it.”
The dire-wolf yanked on his tether. The saint’s feet fell out from under him, and he dove backward, hitting the tile head first. His robes spun like tissue in a toilet. Then he was gone.
At the time of this writing, his skull serves as a bookend between an alchemy almanac and a bestiary. I would have treasured it under different circumstances. Had last year’s Valentine’s Day gone as planned. Why I would’ve introduced him to all the other artifacts, all the graven images, all the pin-filled poppets, all the things I thought I had to collect. Now I’d give them all back for a chance to see Alexis.
Sitting on the windowsill, facing away from in gallery, I hold my knees, imaging it’s Alexis I’m holding. I’ve never wanted anything more. Not a seat in Heaven. Not a throne in Hell.
“Hurry, Luperca.” I pray to the dire-wolf I’ve put my last shred of hope in. “Bring my love back to me.”
Centuries ago, the demon goddess Mahthildis was kicked out of hell. She’s been fighting her way back ever since. The tides of battle turn when her lover goes missing. Desperate to be reunited, Mahthildis must steal the skull of St. Valentine if she’s ever going to see her lover again.
We invite you to join us on this unholy heist we’re calling THE DEVIL’S VALENTINE. A short story that takes you into the heart of the Vatican Secret Service, the feast of Lupercalia, and the real reason for the season.