From the author: Bultungin. I change myself.
In his dreams, John Dollar heard laughter.
Raucous cries, echoing from the canyons of steel and stone that was the city. Madcap giggles slithering through the open air markets and coloured tents. Chuckles as deep and dark as the lagoons.
In his dreams, John Dollar ran, and the laughter followed him. He ran through nonsense streets, pursued by bodiless sound, hunted through the angles by the laughing dogs.
And then he would wake, alone in his prison, and he could not tell which world he preferred. In his dreams, he was hunted, true, but in the waking world, he had already been caught.
‘You are my witch, John Dollar.’ That was what Macumbe had said, in that thunderstorm voice of his. ‘And you will catch these things for me.’
That was all the conversation there was. A statement of intent from the quiet king of Victoria Island, and then John Dollar was parked on the shoulder of the Third Mainland Bridge, squatting for three days in the back of a car made of rust, paint and dents.
Loose canvas clothes, heavy in the humidity of the rainy season, covered him and he wore a pair of insect-eye sunglasses that kept the day’s harsh yellow-brown light out of his sensitive eyes. John Dollar was a fake white man, with none of the recourse to the sun’s glare available to real oh-ee-boh. His skin was like snow, and it melted almost as quickly.
That was why Macumbe kept him. For a rich man, he had more than his share of a poor man’s superstitions, and John Dollar’s frail skin was one of them. He knew Macumbe sold his hair and his blood and nail trimmings to similar thinkers. And Macumbe sent him on witch-quests. Like this one.
Dollar lay across the back seat of the car, trying not to breathe too much in the wet heat for fear of the smoke and pollution that clung to the nicotine coloured air like a film, listening to the sounds of the traffic jam just beyond the car. Bumper to bumper on a bridge that trembled and groaned. The Third Mainland talked at night, Dollar had found, holding open-ended discourse on the follies of Lagos and the State.
Dollar didn’t have the heart to tell the bridge that it was dying. It probably wouldn’t have listened anyway. He wasn’t a witch, after all, despite Macumbe’s yearnings. This was Lagos, and there were no witches here. Only people.
Some good, some bad, but only people. Witches didn’t exist, more was the pity. Dollar fancied that he might have made a good witch.
A pistol rested on his belly, and Dollar cleaned the cylinder with a twist of paper. There were silver bullets somewhere, in a fancy box, given to him by Macumbe, but Dollar thought he might sell those, rather than waste them on the bultungin. It might even pay for him to go somewhere away from Lagos, away from Macumbe and his neat little room in the Victoria Island compound.
Granted, that meant getting rid of Song, first.
The other man was big and dark and snoring. He wore knock-offs of knock-offs, striving to emulate the Nollywood gangsters who emulated Europeans who emulated Americans. There was a machete on the dashboard and an automatic rifle painted in the national colors in the floor. Song Abiye was Macumbe’s boy. He collected for him, when he wasn’t watching witches. Or catching monsters.
Macumbe was greedy. He wanted everything, to have and to show off. Dollar thought of the times Macumbe had trotted him out to guests, and made him mumble spells to elicit shrieks of delight.
Being a witch was better than being dead, but not by much. Maybe being a bultungin was better than being a man. Perhaps, when they found them, he would ask.
If they didn’t kill him, of course, if they even existed. Maybe it was simply dream-sickness, but Dollar thought that this time, this witch-quest, might be different. Something was out there. Something—
Dollar sat up as something went crack-crack-crack. Song grunted, and pushed up the lenses of his sunglasses. ‘What?’ he said.
‘They are here,’ Dollar said, reassembling his pistol.
‘Bultungin,’ Song said, voice cracking.
‘No, robbers,’ Dollar said and spun the cylinder, taking comfort in the soft zee of clicking metal. ‘The bait,’ he added.
‘Ah,’ Song said, sitting up and hefting his rifle. He checked it with brisk movements, letting his fingers play across it lovingly. Dollar gestured.
‘Keep it out of sight. No shooting until we have to.’
‘Do not tell me my business, witch,’ Song said.
‘But this is not your business, is it, boy?’ Dollar said, ‘Quiet.’ Song subsided without saying anything. Dollar wasn’t sure whether Song really thought him a witch, but he feared Macumbe. Everyone feared Macumbe.
The robbers stalked through the haze of exhaust fumes and water vapor, shoving at each other and threatening the stalled motorists. They were a common sight along the bridges from Lagos, waiting for breakdowns and traffic jams. Then they would swarm like wild dogs.
One swung a rifle over his head like a banner, emptying a clip in a showy display of control. Song sniffed.
‘Stupid. Bullets are expensive.’
‘They are hoping for tourists.’ Dollar hunched closer to the door, keeping his body low. No sense attracting attention. Not yet.
‘I know. I am not stupid,’ Song said. ‘I have done a bit of it myself, you know.’ He preened slightly, proud of his hard man heritage.
Dollar said nothing. He was not a hard man, not by any stretch. So, when the robbers began pulling men and women out of their cars and forcing them to lie down on the bridge, Dollar looked away. Instead of listening to the screams as a car rolled over one of the victims in an effort by the driver to avoid a robber’s eye, he thought about the signs. Signs in the dust. Signs in the garbage. On the stones. Old signs, older than Lagos State, older than the city; older than everything except Nigeria.
John Dollar saw those signs in his dreams sometimes. He had never wondered what they meant, until now.
Old men, who had lived out away from the city, where animals other than rats and dogs roamed, said that hyenas walked signs in the dirt to mark their range. They walked strange circles, back and forth, twisting back in on themselves. Spiral marks.
It was just folklore. Stupid folklore. Like witches, Dollar knew. Hyenas did not walk spirals and albinos were not witches and men did not become beasts.
But Macumbe had had photos, from all over the city. Spirals walked in odd places, places where the rain wouldn’t touch and no human foot would disturb. Under overpasses and in alleyways too small for men. On windowsills and the hoods of taxis. And on the Third Mainland Bridge.
Bodies, too, had turned up. Bad men, mostly, and in pieces, near the spirals. Hyenas waged war on other predators. That was what the old men said.
Everyone and everything comes to Lagos, sooner or later. Dollar couldn’t remember who had told him that, but it was true. After all, he had come, hadn’t he?
Maybe even witches would come, eventually. Maybe bultungin, too. Everything was in Lagos.
John Dollar hoped so, for his own sake. He hoped Macumbe was right. He clutched the pistol tighter and forced himself to turn back. Another failure and Macumbe might decide that he needed a new witch to go with his hyenas.
Song hissed and then chuckled. ‘Shot him, oh my,’ he said, slapping his thigh. A motorist fell wearing a crimson mask and a robber gave a bark of loud laughter.
The bark became a shrill cry as something, a blur, a blotch of color, streaked past, spinning him in a spray of slippery pink things. Song cursed, but Dollar grabbed his wrist.
‘No. Watch,’ he said.
‘Watch,’ Dollar snarled.
Guns were snapping, in all directions and people were running. Car horns honked. Metal gave a whine as something heavy bounded off of a roof and scrabbled across the road surface. The thing moved so fast, hunched and slithering forward through the canyon of bumpers and wheels.
A robber vanished, pulled beneath a car. The others were scattering, no longer wild dogs but running goats, fleeing from something they couldn’t see. ‘Now,’ Song said.
‘Now,’ Song said again, opening the door and sliding out, weapon already swinging to his shoulder. Dollar rolled onto his back as the top of the car gave a groan.
Song spun as something jumped onto him. The rifle clattered away as the hyena bared too-white teeth and gave a throaty chuckle. Song grabbed its throat and struggled as it forced its head lower.
‘Help me!’ he said.
‘Hyenas hunt in groups, fool,’ Dollar said as he stepped out and shot the hyena in the back. Its chuckle spiralled up into a shriek and it whipped away from Song, stumbling sideways, its blood making a circular pattern on the street. ‘That is what I was trying to tell you.’ Dollar shot it again, in the haunch. Its leg gave way and it sat awkwardly, panting.
Dollar sank to his haunches in front of it without really knowing why as Song scooped up his rifle. ‘Kill it!’ Song said.
‘Watch out for the other ones,’ Dollar said absently. ‘They know we are here now.’
‘I will kill this one first.’
‘Mr. Macumbe wants them alive.’ Dollar did not look at the other man. ‘Go find them. Do not kill them too much.’
Song grimaced and turned away, rifle barrel slicing the air. Dollar crawled forward. The hyena did not move, save for the in and out of its chest. Its eyes were those of a woman.
‘Bultungin,’ Dollar said. He blinked, and the beast was gone and only a woman lay there, propped up against a car, breathing heavily, clutching herself. Dollar stared at her, entranced. A mane of matted hair sprouted from her sloped skull, flaring back and dangling across her broad shoulders and wide back like a hyena’s ruff.
She was not beautiful. Not really. Her face was too rounded, too coarse. Her eyes were too dark and her teeth too white. He could see the beast beneath her dark skin.
And yet-and yet, she was beautiful, and almost familiar, in the way of a half-glimpsed face. Where had he seen her before?
‘Witch,’ she said. Her voice was high-pitched, like a giggle. Dollar licked his lips and tried to ignore her nakedness.
‘No,’ he said. She looked at the gun in his hand, and he felt a surge of shame. ‘I am sorry. But I had no choice. Not in this or anything.’
She grunted, and tried to rise. Her bare back was wet with blood and her thigh as well. She fell. Dollar almost reached out to help her, but remembered himself.
There were ropes and chains and straps and other things in the car; things to bind her with. Blessed, and silver and gold and every other thing Macumbe had read or been told by frauds and hucksters. It was superstition, just like the talk of witches. Or bultungin, a traitorous part of his mind whispered.
He rose to his feet. People were keeping to their cars, staying out of things. Eyes looked away from him. He knew that he should have had Song bind her.
‘Witch,’ the woman said again, pulling herself up. Teeth snapped together behind her lips. It looked as if something were fighting to be free from her skin.
‘I am no witch,’ Dollar said. He gestured with the pistol. ‘Stay still.’
‘This is ours now,’ she said, slapping the body of the car, ‘Ours! We made our marks, witch.’
‘Your marks mean nothing to Mr. Macumbe,’ Dollar said, stepping back. Song was weaving through the cars now, rifle raised, following the sounds of grunting and whining and giggling. They were eating the robbers, Dollar knew. Maybe that would keep Song alive.
He looked back at the woman. She braced herself against the car. Metal glinted in her thigh, and blood ran in thick rivulets down her leg. He smelled hot metal and cooking meat.
‘This is all ours. Lagos is ours.’ She coughed, and red splattered at Dollar’s feet. Amidst the red, one of his bullets rolled glinting. He thought of the little box of silver bullets in the car, and then, that maybe those hucksters and blessing-men had been right after all. He raised the pistol, wondering if it would work a second time.
‘Lagos belongs to Mr. Macumbe,’ he said, knowing it was foolish even as he said it, ‘As you do.’
She bared her teeth, and he stepped further back. ‘Is he a witch too?’ she said.
Dollar blinked. ‘No.’
‘Then why do you serve him?’
‘I am not a witch!’
She threw back her head and laughed, the same high-pitched rattling cry from his dreams, and Dollar shuddered, feeling weak. Her eyes shone in the light of the setting sun and her teeth clicked.
The old men told stories of villages where all the women were hyenas at night. And all the men were witches. Dollar blinked away the thought, wondering why it had occurred to him. This was Lagos, and there were no witches in Lagos.
Song’s rifle went rat-tat-tat, and something screamed. The woman turned, eyes narrowing, nostrils flaring. Dollar pressed his back to the car. Song came back, looking over his shoulder the entire way. His face had gone the color of ash.
‘I know what they were doing,’ Dollar said. ‘Where are they?’
‘Ran. I put a half-clip in one, but he did not stop. Did not even slow down.’ Song looked at Dollar. ‘Why did she stop, but not them?’
‘I do not know,’ Dollar said after a moment. ‘Get the chains. Quickly. They will be back.’
Song hesitated, then slung his rifle and did as Dollar asked, moving with nervous speed. The woman watched him without interest.
‘We do not take more than our share, witch,’ she said.
‘Stop calling me that,’ Dollar snapped. The woman didn’t even blink.
‘There are so many of them—area boys and gangsters and robbers. They are in our territory and we drive them out. It is ours.’ She flashed her teeth. ‘Ours,’ she repeated.
Up ahead, a car was moving. Engines grumbled. Somewhere, far back, sirens pealed. Dollar shook his head as Song bound her. ‘You are mistaken. Hurry, boy.’
‘No,’ she said. Her arm flashed out and Song grunted and stumbled, bleeding from a slash across his cheek. His big hand flashed out, catching her across the jaw. She swayed, but did not fall.
‘Bitch,’ Song said, lifting the chains.
Cars were moving around them, engines gurgling like a river. Dollar heard laughter below the noise, growing louder. He turned as something blew hot on his neck.
The hyena giggled.
Dollar shot it, and it rolled off of the car, whimpering. More of them appeared, not two, or three, but a dozen, more, dancing across the hoods and roofs of the moving cars like wind-blown leaves, moving in a crescent of savagery.
The hyena on the ground had become a woman, shrieking and cradling her arm. How had that happened? Song dropped his chains and grabbed for his gun. People were screaming in their cars as the hyenas flashed over them, laughing like the shadows in Dollar’s dreams. Cars crashed into each other, glass shattering and metal buckling. None of it mattered to Dollar. It was just background noise. He looked at his pistol.
‘Witch,’ the woman said, jumping onto Dollar, her fingers fastening on his throat and head. ‘Witch,’ she snarled.
‘I—no—’ Dollar tried to look away, but she held him, her strength far greater than he had imagined.
‘Only witches can hurt us,’ she said.
‘No,’ he said. He could hear Song cursing, could hear his rifle firing, but the laughter continued. The wounded woman had become a beast again, and was chortling as she stalked Macumbe’s boy. Beneath his feet, the Third Mainland was talking. It was talking in Macumbe’s voice, telling him what he was and what he must do, and Dollar wondered, as he always did, why.
‘Ours,’ the woman murmured, pressing close to him. He could smell nothing but the rank heat of her. In her eyes, he could see the shadows, drawing closer. But they weren’t hunting him, were they? They never had been.
‘No witches in Lagos,’ he whispered.
‘Everything is in Lagos,’ she said. Her fingers found his wrist and his arm swung up, his finger on the trigger. He fired three times, very fast.
Song pitched forward, never knowing what had killed him. Dollar looked down at the pistol, and tossed it aside. Dark fingers trailed down his white skin, leaving red pressure marks.
‘Witch,’ she said, and he didn’t deny it.
The hyenas watched him, squatting in a circle, eyes gleaming, jaws open, dim chuckles dripping from within valleys of spear point fangs. They hooted as he looked at the woman.
‘How?’ he said.
She smiled. ‘Bultungin—I change myself.’ The woman pressed herself tighter to him and the smile became a grin, and then she was gone, on all fours, only her laughter left to keep him company.
Dollar stood, on the side of the road, and watched the cars stream by for some time. One of them rolled over Song, tumbling him out of sight. He thought about his dreams, and what he’d thought they’d meant, and which world he preferred.
And then about the old men, and the villages they’d spoke of, and wondered if those were happy places, where witches and hyenas lived, away from Lagos, away from the Songs and the Macumbes.
‘I change myself,’ he said, and laughed.
Dollar began to walk back towards the city, leaving the car where it was. He left Song, and the pistol and all of it, shedding his fears and worries. Following the marks of the hyenas into the hidden places, as they’d intended.
This story originally appeared in Shapeshifters (Fox Spirit Books).
Daidoji Shin, unrepentant wastrel with a taste for scandal and dice, coasts through his role as Crane Clan’s trade envoy in the City of the Rich Frog. But when a case of poisoned rice threatens the brittle peace between the competing clans, the Imperial Governor drags Shin from his indolence and orders him to find the culprit.
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