Gods and Monsters Installment 9: Jo-Jo’s

Reading Time: 9 minutes

THE STORY TO NOW: River arrives in San Francisco with his crow, Huck, and a supernatural talent for baking. He visits Club Vamp, where Gabriel is the DJ. When Gabriel sees a beautiful vampire, he leaves River to DJ and takes her home, where their lovemaking makes her lose track of time. In the light of dawn, she crumbles to dust, leaving behind only her teeth, which transform into captivating crystals.
Read last week’s installment hereSee all installments here. Read the next installment here.

(Image created by E.E. King with Adobe Firefly.)

Chapter 23


San Francisco 1981


River spends nights at The Vamp and days discovering the city, Huck on his shoulder. He roams from the Bay beside the forested Presidio, through the coffee houses of North Beach, into the dirty, noisy streets of Chinatown. Here the streets are crowded with tourists, and jammed with shops selling cheap, colorful, useless items, easily bought, broken, and forgotten. Huck swoops down snatching greasy bits of Dim Sum from the sidewalk.

Suddenly, Huck flies into a small alleyway. Even though the day is bright and clear, buildings and awnings shade the alley, maintaining a perpetual twilight. Stairways lead below the street, some to the cellars of restaurants, some to basement apartments, and a few into underground shops or restaurants. “Chic Pretty Mod Hair Salon” reads one doorway. It features a black line drawing of two very round-eyed white people with brilliant crimson lips and 50’s style hairdos.

Next door “Mike’s Corner Pawn Shop,” is scripted out in unlit neon. “Cash Fast! Gold, Jewelry, Guns, and Watches. Get Top Dollar Here!” is inexpertly scrawled below in glitter-gold glue. It resembles a deranged child’s collage.

Jo- Jo’s Happy Bakery is two doors down. It is here that Huck has landed. He is greedily pecking at a large pile of discarded buns. Thus, he is distracted when a pair of wiry arms reaches out and grabs him, yanking him down into Jo-Jo’s.

“Hey!” River takes off at a dead run, vaulting down the stairs. A man is holding Huck in between short stubby hands. Long curved fingernails tightly encircle Huck’s neck, slowly twisting in opposite directions. River grabs the man’s neck, pressing his large, calloused thumb to his windpipe.

“Drop him.”

The man opens his hands and Huck falls to the ground, limp and still. River bends over him. He cradles the unmoving bird in his arms, grabbing a towel from a nearby shelf he gently wraps Huck inside, warming him.

The basement is a maze of shelves filled with rolls, sticky buns, pork buns, rice cakes, and jellies. Four huge white ovens flank the stairs to the upstairs restaurant. River opens one of the ovens and gently holds Huck just outside, letting the sweet heat engulf him.

“Hey!” the man yells, “What you doing?! Close that door.”

River ignores him. Huck shifts in his hands. The man digs his index finger sharply into River’s collarbone. It hurts. The finger is abnormally long, longer than his middle finger and very, very strong. The man’s hands are coarse and hairy. River shrugs him off.

“You’re lucky he’s okay or you’d be a dead man,” he says. He speaks softly, but there is menace in his tone. The man backs toward the stairs which lead to the restaurant, then turns and bolts up them. In a few minutes, he returns, followed by a squat bodied, round-faced man.

“I am Jo-Jo,” the squat man says. “This is my bakery! I own this place! What you doing? Why you attack Wang Lijun?! I call police!”

“Look, Mr. Jo-Jo,” River says. “I could call the police on you. But I won’t. Huck…” River gestures toward the glossy crow perched on his right shoulder.  “My pet bird was outside. In the street, a public street, when your Mr. Wang,” River carefully emphasizes the Mr., “ran out and tried to kill him.”

“Black crows bad luck,” Jo- Jo says.  “Crows trouble at elbow and armpit.  We want no crows here.”

“All crows are black!” Wang Lijun says.

“They may be black, but Huck is my pet. I raised him from a chick. Anyone who messes with Huck messes with me.”

Wang Lijun and Jo-Jo look into River’s unwavering eyes.

“Wang Lijun did not hurt him,” Jo-Jo says. “You take your bad luck and go!”

“He needs water,” River says, taking a small glass cup and filling it with water. Huck leaps down and perches on the rim. He takes a drop of water in his beak and tilts his neck back, letting the liquid trickle down his throat.

“Hey, hey!” Jo-Jo cries. “Dirty, black crow cannot drink from my cup.”

But, looking into River’s hard face, he does not move.

Another man races downstairs from the street. He says something in an excited voice to Jo-Jo, who shouts back. They argue, wildly flapping their arms, screeching like fighting birds.

“If he not deliver bakery goods, he will not have job!” Jo-Jo yelps. “He late again. The black crow has already brought me bad luck. I have no dessert already.” His voice rises in pitch. River thinks Jo-Jo might have a fit.

“Hey,” River says. “I can bake and I’m looking for work. Why not let me make you some muffins, cookies, brownies? I guarantee you they’d be popular. “

“What?!” Jo-Jo’s face is red as a newborn’s. “I never let a man with bad luck black crow in my kitchen.”

River shrugs and reaches out his arm for Huck, who hops onto his wrist and up his arm, resting on his right shoulder.  River ascends the stairs, Huck cawing in derision. River does not want to leave. He does not like the anger scenting the air with bitterness.

River returns home. He wants to bake. He wants to bake for Jo-Jo. He longs to submerge his hands in dough, to feel love and forgiveness seep out of his fingertips into batter, sticky as emotion. He wants to sweeten Jo-Jo’s distrust with sugar and vanilla, to mix suspicion with egg whites, beating it light and frothy until it rises, to melt like a dream in daylight.

Stopping in at Mario’s Italian Deli and Grocery, a block from his apartment, he buys flour, sugar, cinnamon, lemon, almonds, eggs, amaretto, orange juice, butter, and walnuts.  If River had arrived just ten minutes earlier, he would have met Gabriel leaving with chocolate, coffee, nutmeg, and wine.

River returns to his tiny room and begins mixing ingredients, encouraged by Huck, who after tasting a variety of batter, is promptly sick.

River softens half a cup of butter and adds sugar to sweeten.  Deliberately, he sifts in flour, and adds eggs and almonds. He sets tangerine-sized dollops two inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets. After eight minutes, the cookies emerge, slightly ochre and fragrant. The scent of amaretto fills River’s apartment like a summer night wafting out into the evening, transforming enmity into amity. River also makes five-spice walnuts, which crunch like awakening from a nightmare.

Chapter 24


San Francisco — 1981


From his booth inside the club, Gabriel sees her spinning on the dance floor, beautiful as a fallen star, deadly as the arsenic hidden inside the seed of a perfect apple.

Gabriel thinks of announcing another D.J. contest. Then he notices River, leaning on the bar, nursing his scotch. River must have done fine last time; there have been no complaints.

“River Jones,” Gabriel whispers into the mic, “you are tonight’s D. J. …”

River comes to the door. Gabriel wordlessly hands him the playlist. Frankie sees Gabriel leave the booth and move to the dance floor. He has seen him leave before. He knows he should protest. He knows he should order Gabriel back into the booth. After all, he is paying him. Yet he does not.

It is not only that he fears Gabriel, although he does. Mostly it is that he, like everyone at the bar, wants to watch Gabriel and the pale stranger sway together fluid as waves, luminous as sea under moonlight. They move with the boneless grace of panthers. They dance with the freedom of clouds. Also, in some tiny mercantile helix of Frankie’s DNA, he knows the dance is good for business. So Frankie does not protest nor even comment when Gabriel leaves the bar with the pale, feline stranger.

They walk soundlessly into the night. The door swings closed behind them. When they leave, the club seems darker and dingier. River stares through the booth, wishing he could see into the night.

“I’m Gabriel.”

“Sylva,” her lips are as deep and red velvet as the dark red wines Gabriel favors, her voice sweet and cool as a glacial spring.

When they reach Gabriel’s apartment, he holds the door open. “My place, won’t you come in?”

The elevator glides noiselessly up to the thirteenth floor.

Once inside his apartment, Gabriel pours out a single glass of wine. He doesn’t offer any to Sylva. He knows that it’s not her beverage of choice.

Their lips, red and wet, meet urgently. Sylva’s back arches. She groans, baring her white neck. She grows moist in places that have not been damp for one hundred and fifty years. Gabriel hardens against her.

Afterwards they lie spent and dewy on Gabriel’s white satin sheets. The soft light of morning creeps in, rosy fingers of dawn stroke Sylva’s body.

Gabriel rises. He makes cappuccino. He puffs a lavender cigarette, watching the smoke like ghosts. He stirs his cinnamon and chocolate heart into a ∞ before licking foam off the tip of a silver knife. He touches Sylva with the blade, watching her fall to cinders.

Vacuuming her up, he carefully pats the ash around the searching roots of his orchids.

Potash, usually made from ash wood, is essential to keep orchids disease-free. Gabriel doesn’t know if vampire ash is the same, but ash, he figures, is ash. It seems to suit his orchids. They grow lush-lipped and open-throated, creating jungle shadows on the wall opposite the window.

Gabriel has read that plants thrive on classical music. He waters his plants with Chopin and Debussy, letting the melancholy waves of sound feed their questing branches. He doesn’t notice that the major chords narrow into minor ones. In spite of, or perhaps because of the music, the orchids thrive.

Gabriel adds another pair of crystal prism teeth to his window.

Chapter 25


San Francisco — 1981

The Aloe of Forgiveness

The next day, River returns to Jo-Jo’s, leaving Huck at home. Huck complains noisily at the injustice, but River ignores him. He walks into Jo-Jo’s.

“You! Crow man, go-way!” Jo-Jo says.

“I brought you these,” River replies, unwrapping the cookies and opening the bag of walnuts.  Jo-Jo wants to tell River to leave. To show him how much contempt he has for a man who has a pet crow and who bakes in his own home. That is woman’s work. But the bittersweet fragrance of amaretto and almond reminds him of home. He cannot resist sampling the five-spice walnuts. One bite and his eyes fill with tears, recalling how as a boy, Qinyang, his beloved puppy had mysteriously disappeared, only to reappear later that evening as dinner. The dog had been given to Jo-Jo’s family as a present but was too expensive to maintain. Qinyang had been trapped in the awkward middle ground between best friend and hot soup. Jo-Jo had forgotten. He had scoffed at the fat, white, round-eyed Americans who spent more on their dogs than their children, but now he remembers. He can feel Qinyang’s rough tongue cleaning his cheek. He can smell the warm live puppy squirming in his arms. Wang Lijun, who had just come up the stairs with a plate full of pork buns, nearly drops the tray when he sees Jo-Jo sniffling like a girl and patting River on the shoulder like an old friend. Wang Lijun is angry. He refuses to be tempted by the scent of memory and forgiveness. His mouth sets in a tight, bitter line. His eyes glint with dislike and mistrust. Even so, Jo-Jo hires River on the spot. River learns to make Peking Dust, a gooey concoction from fresh chestnuts and whipped cream. He grinds up raw rice and almonds for almond tea, creates eight precious puddings filled with maraschino cherries red as first love, dates, and a dash of hope. People who have never liked Chinese sweets begin to come to Jo-Jo’s. Old friends forget imagined slights. Families reconcile. Children enjoy school more and study harder. Huck, after getting repeatedly ill on River’s Asian concoctions, learns to avoid them. Huck accompanies River to work. People who have regarded crows as evil omens and symbols of bad luck began to admire Huck’s glossy plumage, recycling skills, and scavenging abilities. Many a lost ring or mislaid earring is discovered by Huck and returned by River’s large, floury fingers to empty fingers or naked ears. Huck and River become a familiar sight roaming Chinatown at dusk.

River sets up a small corner by the ovens. Here he keeps his special spices and a small Aloe Vera plant. It doesn’t thrive, neither does it die. River figures this is a good omen.

Jo-Jo’s begins serving coffee as well as tea. It’s not a Chinese tradition, but River’s baked goods aren’t altogether traditional either. The bakery has begun to attract a more varied clientele. They want coffee to dip cookies in. They want to dampen the memories and emotions that melt on their tongue.

It becomes Wang Lijun’s job to brew the coffee, strong, black, and bitter. He dislikes the smell, the acrid beans, the mess of wet grounds. He’s nauseated by the dark, gritty leavings of this western drink that fills the basement with the scent of loss and sorrow.

Wang Lijun secretes the grounds, spooning them into River’s Aloe Vera. He waits for the frail succulent to wither and die. But the plant thrives. One can almost observe the small flesh points growing, spears expanding with viscous juice.

River’s delighted. It’s a miracle plant, an underground healing garden, a symbol of life, hope, and survival, a portent of growth and fortitude.

Wang Lijun seethes, full of acid, poisoned by the grounds, which he continues to spoon into the soil of the aloe, hoping for death.

After work, River washes the flour from his hands and wanders to The Vamp. He orders a scotch on the rocks and spends the night watching the cubes melt, diluting the rich golden liquid. He doesn’t know what he’s expecting. He doesn’t know why he’s here. He only knows he needs to be near Gabriel.

Watch the author read this week’s installment in the video below:

NEXT WEEK: Gabriel spends his afternoon fashioning jewelry,  hanging a single tooth in the center of each necklace. Even underground, the teeth twist sunlight, trapping and separating it into colored fragments.

Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba and Sophie Gorjance.

E.E. King is cohost of the MetaStellar YouTube channel's Long Lost Friends segment. She is also a painter, performer, writer, and naturalist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Ray Bradbury called her stories “marvelously inventive, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking. I cannot recommend them highly enough.” She’s been published widely, including Clarkesworld and Flametree. She also co-hosts The Long Lost Friends Show on MetaStellar's YouTube channel. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at ElizabethEveKing.com and visit her author page on Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Gods and Monsters Installment 9: Jo-Jo’s”

  1. Gods and Monsters Installment 9: Jo-Jo’s” by E. E. King is a captivating blend of supernatural intrigue and rich characterization that keeps the reader hooked from start to finish. The vivid descriptions immerse you in the streets of San Francisco, and the characters, from River with his unique talent for baking to Gabriel with his mysterious allure, come to life on the page. The interplay between the ordinary and the supernatural is masterfully woven, creating a world where anything seems possible. I eagerly anticipate the next installment to see where the story leads!

  2. An imaginative…(and fun) read…from a master storyteller. I feel guilty I’m reading this for free…engaging characters we come to care about…even though they are bloodsucking albeit beautitful monsters. I’m hooked!!

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