Authors: Jeff Somers
Ketterly thought regular people were stupid. He was a bootstrap magician. Had figured it out on his own, to an extent—had seen things
when he was a kid that had convinced him magic existed. He’d
it. Like a math proof in his head. Had sought out mages on his own, figured things out on his own. He thought, since he’d done that, everyone should be able to. People like me, who’d needed to actually witness magic before believing in it, he thought were merely slow-witted. People who never figured it out, he thought were fucking cretins. He had no compunction about robbing them blind. Charming them. Hurting them from time to time.
I picked up my glass and sniffed it. Cheap stuff. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I tipped my head back and tried to bypass my taste buds completely. Direct to the throat, let it slide down. It got warm in my belly and I put the glass down. Hated owing Ketterly something. I’d worked with Ketterly before. Used him a couple times tracking people down—he did have a talent for it. But I didn’t like him. Or trust him.
Mags suddenly coughed. A fucking earthquake. Two hundred fifty pounds of dumb Indian convulsing.
The spell he’d been building dissolved. Collapsed on top of us, all that gas in the air suddenly set free.
I heard Ketterly hiss, “Oh,
There was a flash and I was blind. A second of implosive silence, like the sound had been sucked away, and then fire in the air around us. Hot and bright, raining down, disappearing before it hit the floor. I was lifted up, chair and all, and thrown backwards, crashing into a table and chairs that collapsed beneath me, sticks of wood everywhere. I sat up, head throbbing, scars aching. Sheila was staring, shocked, behind the bar. Ketterly was on the floor, too, struggling up onto his elbows. Mags was still in his seat, but he’d been blown back into the next table and sat back with his elbows on it.
It was what happened when you didn’t complete a spell. It always happened. Someone knew why, but it wasn’t me. My education had been incomplete.
“Fucking hell, Mageshkumar!” Ketterly shouted. “Who the fuck taught you how to fucking recite? You can’t fucking
in the middle!”
That was basics. Anyone who got apprenticed, who went through
knew that much. I’d heard rumor of the occasional Normal who figured something out on their own, a single Word plus a bleed and causing havoc. But mages clamped down on that shit. Some kid causing grief with single-Word bullshit got scooped up and bonded as
to learn a few things, or he disappeared. It was a rough business. And no one knew how permanent being apprenticed to an
was better than me.
Mags blinked around at us. Eyes wide and damp. Near tears. He could kill someone by accident. Could crush you to death like a kitten when he was hugging you for joy, just fucking accidental homicide. But he didn’t like to be yelled at.
He started bawling. “I’m
” he whispered. Looked at me in appeal. “I’m
“It’s okay,” I said, climbing to my feet. Grabbing a chair and setting it right. “It’s okay, right, Digs?”
Sheila was still staring at us, alarmed. Unsure what she’d just seen. Past experience had taught me that the best way to handle it was to ignore her, let her think what she would. They almost never thought,
I glanced at Ketterly. Didn’t like the hint of bitter disdain I felt.
Ketterly looked at me, then at Mags. Finally nodded, getting up. No fucking cheer now. All frowns and fuss. “Sure, sure. Okay. No problem. Listen, Vonnegan, I’ve been waiting here for you. Figured you’d come in here eventually. Neilsson asked me to look you up.”
I winced, waiting for it.
“He wanted me to tell you: Stay away from that place he discussed with you. He made an error in judgment. You shouldn’t get involved.”
I nodded, anxiety seeping through me. I’d understood that Neilsson didn’t want us knowing about the apartment, but I’d assumed that was because it was worth something. Now I figured Neilsson knew what was in there and who had put her there. I didn’t want to get involved.
I gave Ketterly a smile as he brushed himself off, throwing Mags a
glare that almost got the big guy crying. “No problem. Tell Neilsson we’re gonna leave it. Probably shouldn’t have coaxed it out of him in the first place.”
Ketterly nodded. “Good.” He looked up, tried to reconstruct his cheerful mask. “My work’s done, then, eh? Come around the office sometime soon, boys. I’ll teach you a new one then, eh?”
Mags nodded eagerly, smiling shyly. “I’m awful sorry, Digs.”
Ketterly shrugged. “We all make mistakes, kid,” he said. Looked at me steadily. “All that matters is how we react to them.”
I nodded. Ketterly waved and turned and left. I sat down. Mags dragged his chair back over without standing up and sat next to me like a dog that had just been kicked.
“Heller in Jersey,” I said slowly, unhappy. Resigned. A good idea to get the hell out of Manhattan. A bad idea to mess with Heller, ever since my Fixing days. I looked at Mags. “Let’s get out of the city for a few days and go join the circus.”
PLAYING CARDS AT ONE OF
Heller’s parties, room 37 of the Starlight Hotel—a desolate hole on Route 1 and 9 in New Jersey—I felt hot and weak. I’d been bleeding myself a lot, and half the cash piled up in front of me on the table was speckled with my blood: singles, gassed up to look like twenties, fifties, hundreds. Most of the blood boiling away as I cast, leaving behind crumpled dollar bills. I was pushing it, but desperate times called for desperate measures. The booze wasn’t helping; I was thin and half the liquid pushing through my veins now was liquor, light brown, searing.
The room was crowded. Massively crowded. Heller lived his whole life this way, moving around, motel to motel, always seedy and off the highways, always cheap. He set up shop and threw a party. His customers came to score some weed or coke, meth or ecstasy, and they
brought friends. Working girls showed up like magic, like fucking
like there was a wireless network only whores could see that announced things like drugged-up assholes in a motel. More likely, Heller passed the word for a cut of the action. Music played softly, a throb at the edge of perception, bubbling under the fuzz of voices. The room had been transformed. The beds removed, tossed into the parking lot. Tables brought in for cards, chairs set up. Heller went all out for his High Rollers, who followed his game. The whores followed the High Rollers, and the Tricksters, we followed everyone. That was the natural food chain.
People moved constantly. As I sat there trying to concentrate through the distant pounding of surf in my head, the crowd beyond swirled and shifted. Girls in short skirts and torn stockings, their makeup reapplied so many times this one night that they looked like ghouls, their hair stiff and their hands papery from hand sanitizer. Guys who didn’t blink, their pupils the size of pins, still nodding at something they’d heard an hour before, leather jackets steamy and skin red and angry. The swells, in their ugly, expensive suits. The dealers, in their sneakers and jeans and fanny packs. It all swirled around. It smelled like feet in the place. Smoke and sweat and vomit and blow jobs all swirled together into something you didn’t want to breathe in.
The Bar Kids worked the room on an honest tip. Or semi-honest. They ran around taking orders. They were Heller’s kids, recruits. Mostly Hispanic and Arabic kids from his home neighborhood. They came with him and did waiter service and made more money in three nights than they could in a month at any straight part-time job. Then on Monday they were back in school, tired and wired but flush. Everyone left the Bar Kids alone and let them earn their tips and steal as much as they could without being obnoxious about it.
And in the midst of it all were my people.
. Some of us were just as bad off, just as tweaked out, and just as desperate. But most of us were better off. A little sallow and anemic, maybe, but clear-eyed and sharp, our little weasel noses twitching, smelling money. All the
Normals were our marks. If you couldn’t smell the gas in the air, if the Words didn’t make you prick up your ears, heart pounding, then we worked you, and worked you hard. Some of us worked the whores. A Charm Cantrip was good for a lot of things. A freebie, if you didn’t mind being ninth in line that hour. Bleed a bit more and put a few more Words into it and she’d be tithing her take up to you all night long, slipping you half of what she got every time she went to the bathroom with some guy.
Some of us worked the High Rollers. Like me and Mags, playing cards. Prick your thumb under the greasy table and you could win every hand. Be a little creative and
every hand but somehow end up with the pot anyway. Go easy all night and no one would notice. They were all used to losing anyway.
Some of us worked the dealers, some of us worked the bodyguards, some of us worked the adventurers who’d found their way in by accident. We all worked
No one worked Heller. Heller was one of us. He was just
. And the booze was free.
This particular motel reminded me of my father, picking me up from Cub Scouts one night after I hadn’t seen him in months, kidnapping me. Literally. He was waiting outside the meeting and didn’t smile when he saw me, just gestured me over and told me to get in the car. I was excited, I was happy. Looking back now, I could see he was drunk. We drove for hours, hours and hours, and I gave up being happy halfway through and just sat glumly in the front seat.
“Hey, hey,” the fat guy across the table from me barked, snapping his fingers at my face. “You fucking sleeping? It’s fifty bucks to you.”
I blinked, my eyes feeling like they were shrouded in sandpaper, and made a show of looking at my cards. “You snap your fucking fingers at someone, they might get bitten off, Magilla.”
I glanced up in time to see him grin and snap his fingers at me one more time. I nodded, letting my cards drop back down. I tossed a real fifty on the pile. “Call.”
I was using a Glamour I’d learned a few years ago to win. It was a nifty little spell, compact and efficient, and didn’t need much gas to keep at a simmer, though I was keeping the wound on my left palm open under the table to feed it. The beauty of it was, you didn’t try to make every card look like what you needed, or try to make every hand look like a winner. It was similar to a Charm Cantrip: You made everyone at the table think you won, and let
supply the details. They just saw whatever winning hand they preferred. It was elegant. Elegance was lost to most of us. Most of us learned rough spells that got the work done but took too long to say, wasted the gas with inefficient rambling. It didn’t take much to study the logic of it, the patterns, and find faster ways. Elegant ways.
The bet went around again, and my mind wandered like smoke. There were six of us, aside from the Bank. The Bank had been the only constant in the game since we’d gotten there, an old man with deep bags under his eyes, wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt and paint-splattered work pants. He didn’t appear to be breathing. His big spotted hands dished the cash in and out of the strongbox in front of him, and he never twitched or blinked or seemed to care who won or lost.
The rest of the game had been evolving. The current slate had been steady for about three hours:
Fat Boy, who had a thick gold chain around his neck and a big gold ring on his left hand, thought he was bright because he kept ordering vodka on ice from the Bar Kid and letting it melt, untouched. Something he saw in a movie, staying sharp. He’d arrived recently, strutting about in his polo shirt and loafers, looking angry.
The old woman with her hair like a cloud of unnaturally blond wire had taken her seat at the same time I had, back in the misty past when I’d been merely dog-tired and desperate. Her lips were smeared almost purple, her eyes done up in a thick dark blue mascara. She played with hundred-dollar bills that were crisp, unwrinkled, and uniformly dated from twenty-five years ago, extracted with ritualistic precision from what was apparently a tote bag full of them.
The twitchy kid in the shit-brown leather coat and sunglasses who was five minutes from stroking out in front of us or going bust, whichever came first, had been a resident for a few hours.
The strangely tan, thin gentleman in an Italian suit and a gold watch that flopped sinuously around his thin wrist, face half hidden behind huge round dark glasses, had logged six hours so far and hadn’t had a drink or taken a piss in that time. His lips were in a permanent purse, pink and wet, seemingly unaffected by the height of his stack.
And the Truck Driver, fat and black, with a belly that forced him to sit forward, elbows on the table as he sweated, growled, and moaned through every losing hand. Which was every hand. He’d been sitting there so long I’d started to recognize the different inflections and pitch of his horrified grunts, like a little language of misery. When he lost, he would tug on his baseball cap and grunt. He reminded me of my father that way.
Dad had a lot of Tells, too.
I saw the old motel again, Dad pulling the beater into the parking lot and bringing me into the office with him, like luggage. I remembered him paying the rent, thirty dollars, most of it crumpled singles and fives pulled laboriously from his pocket, and then the key in his hand with a green plastic tag on it. He didn’t take me to the room; we walked fifteen feet to the small dark bar that was part of the motel’s compound, and he lifted me up onto one of the stools, bought me a Coke, and ordered a Jim Beam with a beer back. I remembered his drink order because I heard it about twenty times that night.
I startled as a roar went up around me, but it was just Fat Boy winning the hand. I smiled thinly at him as he shot me a triumphant look, became for a moment a Fat
leaning forward with some effort to gather his winnings. This was on purpose; it wouldn’t do to win every hand. You paid a little tax now and then and lost one, and that supported the Glamour, gave it some structural integrity. Some of the bills in the pot were painted with a drop of blood that hadn’t burned off yet, but he wouldn’t notice until later. I glanced at my winnings and estimated maybe three or four
thousand dollars. Enough to get Mags and me a roof and a meal or three, enough to rest up and recuperate a little, make a plan.