Authors: Jeff Somers
I raked my eyes along Hudson Street, watching the suits coming and going. The wind cut through my jacket and made me shiver; I looked up at the sky for a second and contemplated the winter: It was coming, and we had nowhere to stay, nothing between us and the snow.
When I looked back, someone had joined Mags. Cursing, I ran out into traffic and dodged three cars, leaving a wail of horns behind me. I slowed to a walk just as I pulled open the door and stepped into the vestibule. It was a tiny space, and the three of us were crowded. Mags was pretending to finish up with one of the machines while our mark punched buttons on the other.
He was a doughy-looking guy in a decent suit, briefcase set on the floor next to him. He had a thick head of graying hair and a round pink face with delicate lips. He looked like he’d been tortured by bullies at school and got his revenge on others in little ways every day.
I tried to control my breathing and pretended to fuss with the deposit slips and pens, waiting for the high sign from Mags. When Mags coughed twice, indicating the Mark had inserted his debit card and punched in his PIN, I muttered the spell and sliced open my arm, letting the warm blood run down to my hand.
The pain was sharp and hot, and this was one of those moments I enjoyed it a little, savoring the bright red way it ate into me. Nothing dripped onto the floor; I recited the spell fast enough to burn it off as it flowed out of me, disappearing, swallowed whole by the hungry universe.
My vision swam and I felt dizzy as the spell finished, and I had to lean against the little table for a bit, breathing. I turned towards the Mark, who was staring at the ATM screen in dreamy confusion. I swayed, digging in my pocket for my crusty handkerchief.
“Hey!” I said, feeling light and shivery. “How are you?”
The Mark turned to look at me and smiled. It was a slow smile and looked completely out of place on his face. It twitched and shimmered as if the muscles of his face were not used to holding the expression. “Hello!” he sighed. “How are you? Good to see you.”
He trailed off into more mutterings, impossible to translate. I held out my hand and he took it, slowly but enthusiastically. Began pumping it. Up and down, up and down.
The ATM machine began beeping, impatient.
“Let’s get a drink, old buddy, it’s so good to see you,” I said cheerfully, slipping an arm around him and pushing him gently towards the door. “You can tell me what your PIN number is and we could have a conversation about that. What do you say?”
On the security cameras, it would look like two old friends meeting by chance.
“Oh, yes,” he said as I pushed the door open for him. “That sounds
He recited his PIN and I glanced at Mags to get the nod. Then I walked him around the block, and he talked to me, a steady hissing escape of breath formed into words. He wasn’t such a bad guy. He told me how disappointing his life had been since he’d left the band, taken the money and the desk job, and started eating candy bars all day, just unwrapping and chewing and unwrapping and chewing, no thought. He would glance in his trash bin before leaving the office and be amazed to find ten or twelve wrappers in there. He kept his arm around me, and I could smell him, and it wasn’t so great: sour deodorant. By the time I got him to the Radio Bar, he was telling me a story about his vacation, a trip on a cruise line to the warmer parts of the world, and he wished I’d been there to hang out with him.
I suggested he go in, get us some drinks, and I’d be right in to join him. He gave me a look of damp joy at the thought, nodded. I watched him step inside and settle onto a stool at the bar like a zeppelin docking with a tall building, and turned away.
I was feeling better physically, steadier, though my hand was throbbing again just when the other wounds had calmed down. A heavy depression was pushing down on me. I didn’t know what this guy was like in reality, but under my heavy dose of Charm he was a sad panda, and I felt guilty.
Mags was on the corner, wide-eyed, looking in the wrong direction, his body language like a poodle who’d been tied to a street sign a little too long. He jumped when I appeared and then smiled, his big body going soft.
“Two thousand!” he said. “In the account. But five hundred was the limit here!”
I nodded. “We’ve got at least fifteen minutes. Let’s see what we can do.”
We are not good people.
WE SIPHONED THE OTHER
fifteen hundred before the card went dead, and we just walked away, the ATM still beeping. It was enough, I thought. Nothing to get excited about, and I’d bled a little too much on the Charm, leaving me gray and staggered, but it was a decent pile to have riding on your hip. Mags yapped around me, happy and energetic. He’d already forgotten we were in trouble. I decided not to remind him.
He started to recognize the neighborhood we’d wandered into and got even more excited, this week turning out to be one of the best of Mags’s entire fucking
so far, at least for the moment. We’d pulled a grift normally too ambitious for us in terms of bloodletting and dangerous publicity, worked it perfectly, and now we were going to Digory Ketterly’s office.
KETTERLY USUALLY WENT
“D.A.” because he disliked the singsongy sound of “Digory Ketterly.” He thought it made him seem weak and poofy. He was right. I didn’t trust most other mages. We were all grifters of one sort or another, and we were all parasites—of others or ourselves. Ketterly I trusted less than most. I’d never heard of Ketterly actively cheating one of his own, but I thought it entirely possible that he would. But I was the walking wounded, exhausted, literally drained. Finding spells wasn’t my specialty in the first place, but when you added in the complication of the runes and their effect on magic, I needed help. I’d surveyed my vast circle of friends and acquaintances and decided I would have to risk putting a little faith in Ketterly, or else I was going to risk bleeding myself into a coma.
His office was a basement affair in Chelsea, six steps down. Instantly you felt damp, imagining the sewage seeping up from below. A glass storefront still read
OLYPHANT BOOKS | USED | NEW | ESTATE SALES.
The door had a yellowed piece of copy paper taped to the glass that read
D. A. KETTERLY, INVESTIGATIONS: MIRACLES ACHIEVED
We pushed our way into the dark, dense interior, the rusty bell attached to the door ringing as we did so, and were immediately enveloped by gloom. A cave. The bookshelves and books were exactly where they’d been decades before, covered in dust, the hand-lettered section signs clinging to the wood:
FICTION, REFERENCE, MUSIC
. It smelled like paper and dust and cigar smoke.
The whole place was just one room with a tiny washroom in the back that beat at us with the heat of its smell, a terrible green odor that had heft and mass and grabbed on to you as you moved, insistent. The center of the room had been cleared out and a large green metal desk installed. There was one chair, a huge cracked leather one on wheels that creaked and sighed with every move Ketterly made. He leaped up in a cloud of cigarette smoke and threw his arms out.
“Is that Pitr fucking Mags?” he shouted. “Hey, watch this.”
He waved his hands in the air theatrically, and I caught the barest glint of light on his tiny blade. Ketterly liked to use a sharpened
penknife for his Cantrips—it was unobtrusive. He liked to astound and amaze the rubes; an obvious knife and a bleeding hand ruined the effect. I didn’t notice his lips moving as he spat out the syllables. Ketterly worked public, so he’d taught himself to almost throw his voice, a barely audible whisper, without moving his lips. When he was finished he barked out a nonsense word enthusiastically, making Mags jump as a fiery, glowing bird appeared in the air between us.
“Aw, shit, that’s fucking
” Mags hissed, his eyes locked on the bird as it swooped around the room lazily. “You’ll teach it to me?”
I snorted. Every time Mags learned a new spell, he forgot an old one.
“Sure, sure, if you concentrate this time and not blow up my shop, huh?” Ketterly pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and held it in his hand. His suit was an old, well-cared-for one. Up close, I knew, it would show a million repairs, all done with careful stitches and good thread. From three feet away, all the work was invisible. Ketterly was a miser. He wasn’t making a mint with his detective business, but he salted away every dime he screwed out of idiots who’d never heard of a Seeking Rite. I’d never seen D. A. Ketterly on the street with more than pennies in his pockets.
He sat down in his squeaky chair and crossed his short little legs, fussing with his overlong black and gray hair. He looked at me as he leaned back, dim light glinting on his glasses. He laced his fingers behind his head. “Your boy Mags here is adorable, and I like having him pant around my office.
ugly as hell and boring to boot. So to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
I smiled. Mags was already trying to guess at the Words of Ketterly’s stupid Cantrip, mouthing them in a hushed voice. This was a doomed effort, but Mags’s face was a mask of somber effort, and I didn’t have the heart to mock him. “I need you to find someone for me.”
“Ah,” Ketterly said, nodding. “My specialty.”
“I’m told spells won’t work well on this one.”
He squinted at me. “Why not?”
I pulled out a wad of cash, already damp from my own sweaty pocket, and tossed it onto his desk. “That’s three zeros. A retainer.”
He looked down his short torso at the money, wrapped up in a rubber band, and then looked back at me. I willed him to take it, to pick it up and accept the job, but he kept his eyes on me.
“You’re pretty eager to grease me off, Vonnegan,” he said. “And I can’t use a spell, huh?”
I shrugged, failure burning my shoulders. “You
use a spell,” I said. “It just probably won’t work.”
He squinted at me, then glanced down at the wad of money and back at me. “All right,” he said. “I’ll ask: Have you been shitting in some other mage’s sandbox?”
I nodded. “Shit everywhere.”
He looked back at the money. “I don’t like getting into fucking
politics, kid. Always messy.”
Our rules—you didn’t get involved in another magician’s business; you didn’t cast anything big enough to mess with the fundamental underpinnings of the fucking universe—were mostly to keep us from tearing the world apart.
Throughout history, there’d been a number of attempts to break the second rule, and other magicians around the world had gathered in coalitions to defeat them. It hadn’t been pretty. Half the stories in the Old Testament were foggy histories of
wars, oceans of blood shed to destroy one of their own declared dangerous to the whole world. Chances were if you scratched any old legend of bloodshed on a monumental scale, you found
either spinning bloody webs or waging war to stop one another from spinning theirs. It hadn’t been that long ago that four
had engineered a world war just to settle their own accounts. And every war since had seen a cast of horrifying characters bending it to their own ends.
Sometimes the overriding opinion was that fighting the crazy bastards
caused more harm than good. Hence the first rule: Mind your own business.
“That’s a thousand dollars, cash. You don’t have to touch her, okay? Just find her, let me know where she is, and I’ll take it from there.”
Ketterly leaned back again for a moment and then, lunging forward, pulled open a desk drawer and swept the cash into it with his arm. Still hunched over the desk, he scowled up at me. “Fine. If I get shit on my shoes, kid, the bill will come your way, and it’ll probably take more blood than you have in your wasted frame to pay it. You okay with that? Someone bleeding for you?”
I stared at him. “No,” I said, turning away. “I’ll be outside. Teach him the fucking bird, okay?”
I LEANED AGAINST THE
railing and managed to glom a cigarette off a civilian passing by, skinny guy who hadn’t showered in days, his irises like pinpricks. Didn’t even need any gas for it; I just asked nicely and he handed one over. Most natural thing in the world.
I smoked and fought to keep my eyes open. My stomach was growling, and every single cut on my arms and hands pulsed with burning low-level pain. Even so, I saw the two cops approaching from half a block away, thinking they were being sneaky. If Mags had been standing right next to me, if I wasn’t already a pint or so down, I would have asked the Big Indian Bastard to teach them a lesson, but I was too damn tired and just let them walk up to me.
“Lemuel Vonnegan,” the woman said, declarative, a statement of fact. She held her badge up in front of me for a moment. Not long enough to study, of course.
She was short and slight, Hispanic, curly dark hair that looked rich and healthy and luxurious, like she spent half her paycheck on it. She’d been pretty when she’d been young, but the youth had leached out of her and left behind hard edges, making her handsome instead. She was wearing a warm-looking turtleneck sweater and a pair of well-cut pants. No perfume; shampoo and cigarettes.
“How’s it going, Vonnegan?” the guy said, grinning.
He was a fat black guy, skin shiny, head shaved and, by all appearances, waxed. His teeth were yellow, and I wanted to make him stop grinning. He was big but looked and moved soft. Fleshy. He wore your standard detective costume: suit and tie made for another man entirely, wrinkled and perfunctory.
They liked to use your name. Made you feel like they knew everything about you already, like they’d been watching you, listening in on your phone calls. I’d been hassled plenty by cops. Sometimes you couldn’t get away when a grift fell apart and you didn’t want to be too obvious about bleeding out an escape—nothing like a cop seeing you float up into the air or something like that, scarred for life by the sight, following you around, trying to figure it out.