Sample from Gravfika

Sample from Gravfika

Image of Geneva Lennon and Veronica Gianni from Gravfika

This work is by Alex Fiano, copyright 2020. No portion is to be shared or published anywhere without obtaining permission of author. Trigger Warning: Adult language and threatening situations.

“At its most elementary, event is not something that occurs within the world, but is a change of the very frame through which we perceive the world and engage in it.” –Slavoj Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit

André Gide, “Everything has been said already; but as no one listens, we must always begin again.”

Chapter One

Veronica Gianni holds an umbrella over herself and her client as they walk into the hotel downtown where the woman is temporarily staying. The client, early forties and looking exhausted, hunches over in her raincoat as Veronica speaks to the head of hotel security, then the concierge. They both know her as a smart and decent private investigator. She’s sent business their way and remembers favors. She tips everyone casually and generously. Then Veronica accompanies the client to the bank of elevators. She looks around quickly. The lobby has few people–a tourist couple and a middle-aged woman in an Edwardian-style dress who is in a large plush chair. To Veronica, the woman should have a cigarette in a holder; she wouldn’t be out of place in Downton Abbey. The woman meets her eyes briefly then down at her phone. 

The lobby has a small cafe that also catches Veronica’s eye. For now, she escorts the client upstairs to her room. She spends fifteen minutes or so checking out the room and going over strategies with the client, before shaking her hand and leaving. The client is visibly relieved that measures are being taken for her problem, and the lines ease in her face as she thanks Veronica.  

In the lobby again, Veronica notices that rain is now falling, pretty heavy. She decides to hang out for a bit in the hotel’s cafe before going outside. 

After taking a seat at the counter and ordering coffee, she checks her phone for messages and then takes out a legal pad from her backpack and begins making notes. Immersed in her work, she doesn’t register the man who has moved next to her. He’s white, mid-thirties, suit with no tie, suspenders. He snaps his fingers to get the waitperson’s attention. Veronica notices that, as she waited tables in her youth and despised finger-snappers. Making a face, she goes back to her notes. 

The man appraises her. Veronica is 35, 5’8, with broad shoulders and strong back and legs. Some aspects about her the man is critical of. She’s not model-thin. Her short hair is upswept and has hints of burgundy and cobalt blue. Her clothes are simple; a man’s sports jacket, white shirt, jeans and boots. Her face is striking, although no make-up. Not someone he’d show off, but a sensuality that he’d be willing to invest an afternoon in. 

The man curtly orders an expensive bourbon, giving the waitperson shit because the bar doesn’t have some obscure artisanal brand he wanted. Having established his bona fides in taste, he turns towards Veronica and leans on his elbow on the counter with a practiced grin, expecting her to look up. She doesn’t.  

His smile becomes strained after a minute of waiting. “What’re you writing about?”

Veronica looks up again, her brow furrowing. He’s standing too close and wears smugness like a bodysuit–the air of a man who expects her to drop her work and submit to his flirtation. He taps her legal pad to emphasize his question, making Veronica wish for a mousetrap.

“I’m working,” she said flatly, no smile, and turns away.

A faint redness creeps up his ears. “You don’t have time to say hello? Really? Women these days. Smile just a little. Life isn’t that bad.” 

Veronica suppresses an urge to stomp on his foot. Instead, she ignores him. She doesn’t want to move away–this is her damn seat–but she knows he’s going to say something bad now because she isn’t deferring to his charm. 

He tries again, from his NiceGuysⒸHandbook on Negging. “You’d be really pretty if you fixed up some. Don’t try to be a man, it doesn’t become you.”

Her face heats up but she continues to ignore him. In her mind, she’s already cursed him out. The silence hangs heavy because he hasn’t gotten the reaction he wants.

She can feel his tenor change like storm clouds gathering. He has to demonstrate that she’s wrong. He reaches over and takes the legal pad out of her hands. “It can’t be that important–to not take a second to be friendly.”

Infuriated, Veronica snatches at the pad before he can move it fully from her reach. The two of them tug on the pad. Veronica knows he wants to hold it over her head like a dog being teased with a treat, and he’s getting angry that Veronica is quick and strong enough to challenge his game.

His eyes turn dark. Now it’s not about seduction but saving his pride. “What the hell is wrong with you? I just wanted to talk.”

The waitperson has just set down the expensive bourbon. His eyes flicker towards it. With her other hand, Veronica knocks it over. He’s startled enough to let go of the legal pad. 

“What the fuck? You know how much that cost?” 

Veronica summons up her coldest, steeliest voice. “Get. The. Fuck. Away. From. Me.”

The man brushes and drops on his suit. “You bitches are always taking everything as a threat. It’s why you can’t get a decent man. What are you, a Goddamned lesbian or something?”

When she was young, she had a hard time standing up for herself, drawing boundaries. She would shrug and smile and try to slink away as men grabbed at her hand, blocked doors, demanded her number…

Veronica steels herself to harden her expression. “Get. The. Fuck. Away. From. Me. Asshole.”

The man’s face is so mottled with rage he looks gangrenous. He leans over her, and for a moment she is sure he’s going to hit her or choke her. She can hear some roar of hate emanating from his soul like the mouth of hell.

Let him. I’m tired of appeasing some fuckwad’s fragile ego.

Raising his voice, he calls her a cunt, whore, and fucking bulldyke, and tells her maybe she needs to be gang-raped.

The hotel security manager comes in.  “Sir? Sir. You’re going to have to leave.”

The man swats at the security officer’s hand. “Fuck you.” Then he stomps away, yelling at the waitperson that he’s not paying and the place is lucky he doesn’t sue.

The hotel man, Mike, asks if she’s okay. She nods quickly and he turns to walk out after the man. 

Veronica can’t concentrate anymore, but will not let that show. She’s proud of herself for standing up to this asshole, but it’s at a cost. She’s shaking inside. While this man will just move on without concern, she has to keep an eye on the mirror behind the counter to ensure the man actually leaves the hotel. 

The waiter waves away her offer to pay for the bourbon. She leaves the money as a tip.

Outside, she waits a few minutes under the canopy, being careful to observe the street to ensure the asshole isn’t waiting for her. 

 She walks a couple of blocks to a park to have a cigarette. She’s glad for the ability to still enjoy the park, rain or no, and to be able to shake off the incident. She has changed.

Zihou Chiang opens his studio door and looks quizzically at the woman in the hallway.   

The woman in the hallway in turn checks him out carefully. Chiang is around fifty, about 5’7, in good shape. He has longish dark hair going grey, and a beard doing the same. He has a studio on Canal Street, in which he teaches select students martial arts and Taoist principles–liberally dosed with other lessons he’s picked up along the way. He’s dressed in a dark purple loose-weave shirt and black karate gi trousers. His feet are bare. His hair is gathered in a ponytail. 

Chiang notes the woman is some years older than he, has short dark hair in a bob, and wears a maroon long dress, silk and lace, very old fashioned. He gets a sense of something brewing by virtue of her presence, that keeps him from saying anything as she inspects him.

She completes her visual task by meeting his eyes and speaks in a low, somewhat gravelly and resonant voice. “My name is Lilith. I need your help–I have something for one of your students.”  

Her accent is not placeable, yet familiar. Chiang automatically starts to read her face, her body language. He’s had deeper experiences than he’s ever alluded to with any of his students. Those experiences engender a different reaction than an ordinary person. He senses she’s sincere.

He addresses her sincerely. “What do you have, and for which student?”

“The one who is a detective, private investigator. Not the one who’s in the news all the time. I mean Veronica. I have a case–a referral for a friend.” 

“Her agency has a phone number and a website; I have a card if you’ll hang on a moment.”

“We wanted first to know if you’ll vouch for her.”

Chiang is nonplussed. In spite of his intuition, he is reluctant to put his student in danger. “Vouch for what, exactly? Who are the ‘we’ you speak of?”

“To vouch if she has the strength for a difficult job. We are interested parties. You’ve run into us–persons affiliated with us–before.”

Chiang shifts from foot to foot. “Is there anything…” he tries to think of the right term. “Anything you can demonstrate to me of your own intentions?”

Lilith is prepared. “In a sense, yes, through what we know. In 1992 you took a vacation from your work and went to Japan to meet your grandfather, a Shugendo priest, one of the yamabushi. You did not tell anyone what you were doing and ensured you weren’t followed. He was not welcoming; he thought you could not handle the practice or the discipline. Yet you demonstrated you could be a genja, a figure of power, or a gyoja, an ascetic practitioner. You saw a tengu, and wrestled with it on another level.”

Chiang’s face has gone pale from shock. He was born in Hong Kong, and lived there, in England, and other places during his intelligence career, until he moved to New York. Few know of his Japanese grandfather.

Lilith finishes. “Your grandfather praised you, but there were those around him who were jealous, and would have harmed him had he accepted you in the community. You left and have not returned–at least, not to Mt. Kurama. You’ve sent messages to your grandfather on occasion.”

“I’m not sure he’s still alive,” Chiang says.

“He is. He’s in a good place, you might say.”

Chiang shrugs. He has no way to verify that. “And your intentions towards my student?”

“You would consider the intentions good. Let’s say we are trying to combat onryo.”

“Vengeful ghosts, the most vicious of the yurei.”

“Except these aren’t ghosts. But the same effect, you might say.”

“The case is dangerous, through.”

“More difficult, for now. It may lead to other difficulties.”

“Why Veronica?”

“If she settles it satisfactorily, it has benefits. And perhaps, at another point down the line, she might want to help more. We need people to do so.” 

“Help with what, precisely?” But he already has an idea.

“You were approached about that, years ago. You didn’t want to know. Do you now?”

Chiang doesn’t answer that direct question; he just looks directly in Lillith’s eyes. “That’s putting a huge responsibility on her.”

“Only if she wants it.”

“She would want it. That is who she is.”
“And that is why we are looking for her. I’ve already observed her working.”

Chiang contemplates Lilith, and chooses his words carefully. “I vouch for her. You already know that, I suppose. That doesn’t mean I endorse you in turn.” 

Lilith nods, turning to leave. “Fair enough.”

One way to keep the negative thoughts that creep up when one is accosted by a creep is work. Veronica has a lifelong practice of immersing herself in work to build up a defense against that which exists in the world to attack you. Today, she spends several hours in the New York headquarters of Spartan, a tech company whose CEO is one of Gotham Investigation’s major clients.

It is now after 9 pm. Veronica has reviewed security procedures and interviewed employees at Spartan in relation to an industrial espionage issue. She’s pretty tired, and finally ready to step into the elevator to the lobby to leave. She texts her roommate, Geneva, that she’s done for the day. Geneva has been worried about Veronica overworking herself. Geneva responds quickly.

You deserve it. Are you sure you can’t get a chance to visit the MagiCon?

Veronica grimaces. The MagiCon is a small gathering of book, art, and ephemera sellers. It’s set up like a book fair in a hotel convention room on the West Side. A niche market, but pulls in people from all over the tri-state area. Veronica loves both stage and hermetic magic. MagiCon focuses on the latter kind. She would so be there…if she hadn’t have worked tonight. The exhaustion is creeping up.

I don’t think so…

—It’s open another two hours—go! Think about it. I gotta get back to my stuff. In addition to working part-time for Gotham, Geneva does bookbinding and poster restoration. Several nights a week she completes orders in her tiny studio.

Veronica smiles and then checks the messaging service for Gotham. A person with a Scandinavian accent has left a message. “Ah–Mx. Gianni. My name is Jöran Vång.” 

Veronica draws in breath. Jöran Vång is a Swedish filmmaker, part of the Extreme Euro movement. Veronica is a huge film buff and familiar with his work. Veronica sees some symbolism and narrative whimsy in Vång’s artistry she likes. Most of their friends don’t care for such films, altho Geneva is game to watch one on occasion. 

The message continues. “I would like to speak with you about a consultation. On the occult.” A pause. “And, uh, similar topics. You are welcome to call me anytime when you get this message, if possible. I stay up late.” He then recites a phone number, presumably his cell. 

The elevator hits the lobby. As the door opens, music is audible from Split Enz on Joel’s iPad, connected to a portable bluetooth speaker. Veronica had forgotten he was working tonight. Joel is an artist, and her partner Gabriel’s boyfriend. New Wave music from the Eighties is their thing, one of many things they share. Spartan CEO Travis Churchill is one of Joel’s patrons, and commissioned him to create a mural in the lobby. She and Joel therefore run into each other even more than usual, which can be the proverbial blessing or curse, depending on their mood. He knows she’s there; that’s why the music. Baby Boy trying a lure. She shakes her head with an amused grin. 

The phone message arises in her mind again. She walks over to a quiet area of vending machines and calls Vång. 

He sounds happy for the call. “Can you meet with me now, by chance?”

A sudden inspiration. “Have you ever heard of MagiCon? I’m heading there now. She briefly explains what it is.  

“Sounds like just the place. I’ll be there in a half-hour or so.”

Veronica ends the call and turns around. Joel is standing there, arms crossed, splattered in paint. He’s about her height and a couple years younger, blond with a neat goatee and dark blue eyes.

She gives him a fake suspicious look. “Christ, I should put a bell on you.”

He smiles, taking her hand. “Part of my street skills includes being ninja-quiet. I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

She shrugs that off. They embrace each other. Joel says in her ear, “You’re leaving?”

Much implication in those words. Tonight, she doesn’t want to get into their dynamic. “Yes, a new client.”

“You sure? Even for a few minutes…” He knows how to be seductive. 

But Veronica has suddenly found some energy, and it’s not sexual energy. It’s a synthesis of excitement to see MagiCon, and her favorite filmmaker. She’s taken little time for herself this week, and it seems urgently important to do so. “I’m sure, Baby Boy.”

Joel is a little irked at that nickname, but Veronica can tease him as no one else is allowed to.

Veronica arrives at MagiCon around 10:35. A little over an hour left, but it’s one’s own. Quickly buy a ticket, and stop to breathe. This earns a little laugh. This was like going through arcade game levels…got to be a damn Ms. Pac-Man to have some me-time.

She doesn’t see Vång anywhere around the convention room. After scanning up and down the aisles, she starts visiting tables and exhibits. Her attention turns to finding some interesting stuff. One book to buy becomes two, three, four, and also a few old magazines from the Seventies. Man, Myth and Magic. Then her phone goes off. Vång? No. Baby Boy again. She mutters to herself out loud, “Fuck that noise.”

“Is that a spell, perhaps, Mx. Gianni?”

Veronica turns to see a tall white gray-haired man smiling at her wryly. Jöran Vång. He’s around 60, fairly thin and his silvery hair is on the long side. He wears a denim shirt with steel-frame spectacles sticking out the breast pocket.

 Veronica holds her hand out. “It is now. It’s my new mantra.”

“It becomes you.” He gazes at her a minute, making her wary.  “I recognize you from your website photos. They don’t do you justice.”

 “How did you happen to see my site?”

“I was researching articles on paganism and magic and ran across your blog. I also saw you on those videos from a few months ago. The protest downtown with your partner. As I mentioned, I’m researching magic for a film.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Vång. I’m an aficionado of your oerve.” Veronica blushes, noting her diction change to impress him. Just saying I’m a fan seems cheap. Vång is also gay, and had spoken at length about how being closeted as a youth had influenced his themes of hiding, truth, and repression. Veronica relates to that.

Vång smiles slowly. “Many people confuse me with Lars van Trier, or on better days, Michael Haneke.”

If he is testing her, she’s ready. “I’m ‘meh’ about van Trier except for Dogville, or maybe Antichrist. Haneke’s Funny Games was intense and terrific but I could only watch it once. I started watching your work in an art house cinema in the early Nineties. I saw Consume three times to try to get all the details. I try to get people to watch Telltale. I tell them, if you like Peter Greenaway…” 

Feeling she’s babbling, she trails off. But Vång smiles warmly.

“Thank you. I did not expect you to know my work. Perhaps this is synchronicity. I’m a fan of your work as well. You don’t have pretensions, but you’re knowledgeable and serious without being dogmatic.”

“No one can say there’s only one interpretation of a spirituality.”

“But many will try. How did you become interested in magic?”

“My mom. We lived in a bohemian area of Seattle. We actually moved from where I was born, because it was conservative and she was a little wacky. She was fascinated with the history of magic and witchcraft. She wanted to build a case for a feminine principle of the universe. I read everything she read and then more. Old, new, serious, exploitative. I would research what I didn’t understand. I fell down a lot of rabbit holes, but they were all interesting.”

“I’ll bet. I’d love to hear about them. Are you still looking around?” 

“Oh, we can talk now.”

Vång then indicates they should move to the small concession area. He offers to buy her a glass of wine. Veronica accepts a plastic cup of burgundy.

“Veronica, I think you would be exactly what I’m looking for to help with my film. Would you be willing to consider a consultant arrangement?”

Veronica doesn’t hesitate. “Fuck yeah. When do we start?”

Vång laughs. “Soon. I do the bulk of my research before filming. I like to get things moving; I’m a logistics person. You have the time?”

For a few seconds, Veronica is ready to jump on a plane and go anywhere. When Vång asks if she has time, Gotham’s obligations come to mind. Since Gabriel was shot and began recovery, she’s worked overtime.

Vång studies her face. “I have a good feeling about you. We can work with your schedule.”

She remembers Geneva’s admonitions to do more things for herself. Don’t let this slip away. “I would like to, sure. I can find the time. I can find it.”

“You are working on cases? You and your partner? He’s been injured, right?”

“Uh, yeah. I’m looking to get help, but I want to do this. I need something of my own. A separate project. I mean, I have one, with my roommate Geneva, we’re collecting info on murdered trans people…”

“Ah, tell me about that.” 

They move back to the tables, and as Veronica continues to look through various books and objects, she tells Vång about the website she and Geneva work on. They collect and crowdsource information on violence and murders of transgender and gender nonbinary and nonconforming persons. 

Vång gently lays a hand on her shoulder. “That is a powerful project. So, listen. Vice has a slot open for me on their channel, to do a mini-documentary. I would like to focus on you.”

Me.” She starts to laugh and stops.

“Why not?”

Veronica, despite being distracted, spots an old book with a lot of terrific Medieval engravings. She snaps it up while answering. “I’m not usually the one in the news.”

“I’m not sure what you…Oh, meaning your partner, Gabriel. Yes, I know. He has been quite the figure and then being shot and all. No offense to him, but I’m more interested in you and your project. You, Mx. Gianni, for the project and your interesting writing on magic. I like the heart you have in it. I’m an atheist, but you make me want  to believe in the potential of magic, for my movie.” 

Veronica nods, her heart pounding. “So, what would this involve? Gabriel was filmed for some programs about the Don Mathers case. I was privy to some of that and got an idea of how it worked…”

“I’d try to be as unobtrusive as possible. What we film probably depends upon what you are doing now, but I’d like to get started. They left the topic up to me, because my name is supposed to be a draw. Taking care of some related business, I’d say we start in a month.”

“I hear you. That gives me time to work on my staffing. Is there a film crew?”

“Myself, maybe a couple others. Documentaries do not necessarily need crews to be on location but some planned shots will have them. You and I would map this out. I don’t, as my mother would say, gå som katten kring het gröt–walk like a cat around hot porridge. I’m direct. Is your arrangement with Mr. Ross as such that you need him for this?”

“I’m direct as well. No, I do not. At the moment, I’m running the business as he recovers. In any case, while we share a lot, we also respect each other’s individual ventures.”

“Good. He would be a distraction to the project. His infamy…I don’t mean that in a bad way, but, you know, people would be watching and wondering when he’d show up again. I want the focus on you.”

“Understood. What is your theme, or your perspective on this, so to speak?”

“It’s more your perspective, what you’ve been through and why you want to do this. I find that important. I believe individual stories affect people, because the one-on-one nature forces the viewer or reader to connect. Masses of people can be numbing. Also, I think that understanding why someone is motivated to act may engage with others more effectively than just saying do-what-I-do. I’ve touched upon idealism and practicality in movies–you know that. I want to see how that works with you.”

Veronica luxuriates in the beauty of the moment as Vång–a famous fucking film director–puts his number in her phone and takes hers, saying he’ll text her in a couple days–is that okay?

Is that okay…Jesus. Karma works, maybe. The cautious side of her mind notes that putting one’s self out there publically is always risky. Look at what happened to Gabriel. But Gabriel is a person who forges ahead by a drive he doesn’t understand completely himself. Veronica’s drive differs…how? She’s not sure, but she knows as a Queer person and one who has femininity she carries an extra target on her back.  

But fuck it. This is hers.

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