Byron pulled back the shower curtain and swapped a caterpillar-shaped pipe for a fluffy towel, which he wrapped tightly around his tight midsection. He stepped out of the tub like a wading crane: Jamaican showers made his feet feel funny, but his heart was as light as the air was heavy with smoke and steam.
His bathroom was immaculate, though he said a prayer every night against conception. The extra towels, lidded trash can, heterosexual quantity of potpourri, and obsessive cleaning regimen were all intended to make visitors comfortable. Mountains would crumble before a woman ever saw a poop streak in Byron's toilet.
He flossed and used his electric toothbrush. The mirror had fogged, blocking the view of his favorite work of art. Unacceptable. He wiped open a porthole. It was time to spit, and he didn't mean toothpaste: "Byron in the bathroom, gonna get graphic, toothbrush like a mike, 'cause you know he's magic... Eating Pop-Tarts, popping off in tarts, topping the charts, don't know martial arts..."
Byron cleared his throat. The bathroom still had plenty of steam, but he was spent. He played some Arctic Monkeys on his cell phone, singing, "Why'd you only call me when you're high?" His voice sounded pretty fucking good to him.
He checked his texts. Ray still hadn't answered. Have fun walking home, dick, Byron thought.
Humming a martial cadence, he sat on the toilet lid and browsed a hookup app. "Left, left, left, right, left. No, shit, right!" He had accidentally cast a saucy vixen back into the ether, but he did not mourn. Byron understood that beauty was fleeting.
Warm and sticky fluid trickled onto his lip. He wiped blood from his right nostril. That wasn't right, he thought. He hadn't done coke since high school.
A wad of toilet paper stopped the bleeding, but not the feeling of wrongness. Something moved at the corner of his perception. He looked into the porthole. A pair of jaundiced, canine eyes stared back. An electric current passed through his torso, searing his nipples.
"Fuck!" He fell off the toilet, knocking over the bowl of potpourri. He grabbed his cell phone and fled the bathroom before Bloody Mary or Beetlejuice or whatever the hell it was could eat his ass—and not in a fun way.
Byron had always had a knack for telling what people wanted. The knack helped him find customers, kept him clear of undercover cops, and let him distinguish women who were DTF from those who just wanted to flirt, like Karen. But the feeling was never this intense and never this hostile. Someone wanted him dead, and not just him; Ray was in bad trouble. He was sure of it.
Dealer's intuition was never wrong.
"But that sounds nothing like a bald eagle." Trivia had taken pity on Ray and come down from her stone seat. Wilson had joined her, and Roosevelt hadn't been sitting to begin with.
"I know, right?" Ray paced back and forth with a look of concentration.
Audubon stayed on her perch, looking bored. "Who cares? Wilson, seed me."
"You finished them. You want the last caramel?" Wilson sat across from Roosevelt next to a pile of empty candy wrappers.
Audubon shook her head. "Can you think of anything else, Ray? There are other pieces on the board."
"I've told you everything I can think of," Ray said.
"And I thought I hated the man before," Audubon said.
"I'm doing my best!" Ray said.
"I meant Frazer, mostly," Audubon said. "How did a man like that become King of the Woods?"
"If you mean how he became Deputy Chief," Ray said, "it was before I started at the field unit, but he just replaced the guy before him, Joe Porter."
Audubon looked at Trivia. "Frazer challenged his predecessor? The Green allowed it?"
Ray furrowed his brow. "It's not an elected position."
Trivia shook her head. "He didn't pluck the Bough."
"That mushroom? What's it have to do with Frazer?" Ray asked.
"Nothing," Trivia said.
"Then how did Porter fall?" Audubon said.
"He didn't fall," Ray said. "He died in a car accident. Hit a tree or something."
Trivia glanced at Roosevelt. "It was his time to go."
"I guess that's what people say." Ray scratched his chin. "I wonder how old he was."
"Not old," Roosevelt said. "Weak."
"You knew Joe Porter?" Ray said.
"Roosevelt's from around here," Wilson said. "We are from Alabama, originally."
"I'm French." Audubon smiled.
"No, she's not," Trivia said to Ray. "Audubon and I travel."
"I get around, but not as much as Trivia." Audubon winked.
"I left to search for a successor," Trivia said. "Frazer was crowned in my absence."
"What do you know of his allies?" Audubon said to Ray.
"Nothing," Ray said. "He said I'd attracted attention, and that he was protecting me, but I don't know from who."
"Well, someone made him King." Audubon said.
"Frazer's a civil servant," Ray said. "I don't know how people get promoted—I just answer the phones—but it's all decided in Tallahassee."
"Tallahassee is a Creek word," Wilson said. "We never had problems with them before. They celebrate the Green every year. Plenty to eat, mostly corn."
"No, it's a city. The center of government around here," Ray said.
Audubon smiled. "'And ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and I will carry you away beyond Babylon.' I am going to enjoy this. Nothing tastes finer than the despair of worldly rulers."
Trivia took Ray's hands. "Thank you. You have named our enemy, and names have power. But you must be careful. Tallahassee must be terribly powerful, to crown a King of the Woods without the Green's consent."
"I'm telling you, we don't have kings!" Ray said.
Roosevelt lurched to his feet and cleared the space between himself and Ray in two long strides. He gestured to his scars. "Why?"
"Um, George Washington." Ray said.
"He means, why does the forest burn?" Wilson said.
"Because Frazer is setting fires," Ray said.
"There you go," Wilson said.
Having made his point, Roosevelt sat down.
"That doesn't make any sense!" Ray said. "I've told you what I know. I think I deserve an explanation."
"Give us a minute," Trivia said to her companions.
"By all means," Audubon said. "It's not as though the forest dies a little more with every delay."
YOU ARE READING
King of the Woods, or Trivial PursuitFantasy
Florida Forest Service duty officer Ray Lumley is in love with a white fringetree. Not an I-read-Walden-in-high-school love; a sweaty, sappy, I-want-to-rub-against-you-'til-I-get-splinters love. It's awkward. So, he's relieved to learn that he's rea...