Authors: Jeff Somers
On day one, the cops showed up, always, usually about three hours in. It was a game; Heller paid off the motel manager, the desk clerk, and the cleaning staff, and then the manager, the desk clerk, and the cleaning staff turned around and sold the tip to the cops for an extra bump. Heller took the cops into the bathroom and five minutes later they left happy, pockets bulging. They had a system going.
By day two, Heller’s parties had become small societies. Orbital card games cropped up. People started living there, sleeping anywhere, waking up and toasting up and then passing out again. People cabbed over from the city, paying off hundred-dollar meters so they could hang out and soak up the atmosphere, just because the circus came. And we came with the circus to hustle and run little grifts and pay Heller a tithe for the privilege.
Fat Boy cut the deck as someone nudged my elbow. I blinked and tossed a fifty into the pot as ante. Fat Boy was still smiling at me. “Maybe you should sit out a hand, Sleepy?”
I started to shake my head, then paused. Was I really going to let Fat Boy fuck with me? I
tired. Three days without sleep, bleeding myself like I enjoyed it. I nodded and plucked my fifty back. “You’re right, Magilla. Deal me out.”
I scooped up my cash and stood up. I went light-headed for a moment but took a deep breath and headed for the door, staggering a bit. The music and voices swirled, and then Mags was there, putting his arm around my shoulders buddy-style so he could steady me without embarrassing me.
“You okay, Lem?”
I nodded. From behind us, Heller’s voice, deep and booming, cut through the noise.
“Lem fucking Vonnegan,” he shouted. “You ain’t walkin’ out with a pocket fulla kosh without kissing me good night. You want to be in my pocket
I turned and managed a smile at Heller, sitting there at the kitchen table, a glass of water and a closed briefcase in front of him. He was maybe fifty years old, tall and lanky, with a huge belly—the body of a big, strong man allowed to eat and drink whatever he’d wanted for forty years. He wore huge Elvis sunglasses, and his head was shaved to a nice round ball, red and peeling. I raised a hand.
“Never in life, Mr. Heller!” I shouted, trying hard to make it sound hearty. “Just taking the air. I’m right outside, you need me to give you a hand job.”
Heller laughed, his teeth green and yellow pebbles. He was, I knew from unfortunate experience, covered from his ankles to his neck in black and blue tattoos. Heller was shit as a Trickster, marble-mouthed and slow with the Words, but he ran his movable feast as tight as anyone I’d ever known. I turned away and let Mags help me.
There were too many people. Everything blurred together, the music slowing down while the crowd sped up, moshing this way and that. There was no air. It was just exhalation, carbon dioxide and smoke. I hung off of Mags and let him lead me. People put their hands on me as we staggered, slipping them into my pockets and feeling me up for whatever they could find.
I looked up and squinted around. We were in the kitchen.
“Jesus, Mags,” I breathed, “wrong way.”
A skinny boy in full makeup and skintight, low-riding leather pants, his long, silky black hair tied into a thick rope, held a red plastic cup out to me. “Drink this, beautiful,” he said. Behind him, people were leaning over the countertops, straws in hand. A brick-shaped woman in a red jumpsuit was hunched over the sink, vomiting so loudly I imagined lungs and spleen clogging the drain.
I smiled at the kid. “What is it?”
He grinned, jerking his chin at the red jumpsuit. “Ask her.”
Mags reached out and put a shovel-like palm against the kid’s chest. Pushed with what appeared to be a tenth of his innate strength, sending the kid sprawling back into the stove, cup and thick brown liquid
flying. Then I was in the air as Mags scooped me up and carried me, barreling through the crowd without a word of apology. People dived this way and that, cursing and shouting, but all you could do against an unstoppable force was get out of the way.
And then we were out in the parking lot. The noise was halved and the smoke and smell gone. Mags set me down, and I sat on the curb of the paved walkway that circled inside the motel’s rooms, right next to a gleaming new black BMW, a gem. I breathed hard, sweating freely.
“Fuck him,” Mags said, lighting a cigarette and pacing in and out of my peripheral vision. “That little fuck. I’m fresh, Lem, I’ll give you the gas, and we’ll teach them all a fucking lesson.”
I froze and reached up to grab him hard by the arm, pulling him down to my level. Mags squawked but let me do it. “Don’t ever fucking say that again, Mags. I don’t use anyone’s blood but mine.” My heart was pounding.
“C’mon, Lem,” he whined, wide-eyed. “I didn’t—”
I looked up at him. Wanted to cut him some slack but couldn’t do it. I gave his arm a yank, making him lose his balance and stumble away as I let go. “
. That goes for you, too, or you can go fuck yourself.”
His face suddenly opened up, a flower blooming, and instead of the perpetually angry big bastard people avoided on instinct, I got that rare glimpse of what a little Pitr Mags had looked like: almost handsome, innocent, eager. “Jesus, Lem, I didn’t— I mean, I wasn’t—” His expression changed again and he was in agony, heartbreaking. “Oh, shit, Lem, I’m
, I didn’t mean it. Honest. I’m just tired.”
I felt bad. His desperation to be forgiven ate at me, so I gave him a smile and a nod. “I know you didn’t, Maggie,” I said. “I know. I’m tired, too.”
His relief made him handsome again for a moment, jovial and happy. “Ah, thanks, Lem. I’m sorry, I just get
.” His face darkened as he returned to the source of his current mood, and he was Mags again, the sort of man who punched walls on a regular basis. “They
think they’re so fucking
the smart ones, and they don’t even know it.”
No one was with me to appreciate the joke of Mags calling himself
, so I kept my smile private.
I looked around the parking lot. I remembered walking out of the bar, my father sleeping soundly on the stool next to me, the bartender satisfied to leave him there for eternity. I’d wandered into the parking lot in my Cub Scout uniform, and the old man had been standing there in a white suit, white hair, white shoes. Oldest man I’d ever seen.
I would never, I reflected, know that old man’s name, but I would never forget him. I could still see him, pulling out the ornate knife with the pearl handle and slicing his hand open with a sudden practiced jerk. I remembered stopping in shock as he smiled at me, and I remembered how he’d made a fist, blood dripping onto the asphalt, and I remembered how he’d risen up, an inch at a time, as he muttered something I couldn’t quite hear. When he was floating a foot or so off the ground, he’d grinned at me, toothless. And I’d run back into the bar.
I startled again. I was falling asleep where I sat. “Sorry, Mags.”
“You hear that?”
I paused and listened. A rhythmic pounding noise and a muffled . . . voice. I stared up at the black car right next to me.
With a groan, I pushed myself to my feet, Mags there instantly to steady me, and walked around to the back of the car. I paused to look around the parking lot, trying to be sure no one was around, and then I pulled the handkerchief from the infected wound on my left hand. Infections were constant. More than one of us had died from blood poisoning over the years. You had to let the wounds heal naturally, because healing spells on open wounds usually backfired gruesomely. Something to do with burning blood to cast on blood—it just never worked.
I took a dab of blood on my right index finger and flicked it at the trunk, muttering three syllables my master had taught me years ago.
The trunk popped open, rising up on hydraulic hinges. Mags and I leaned forward and looked down into the trunk and found a girl, eighteen, twenty, hands and ankles tied tightly together. She stared up at us for a moment, eyes wide and shining. I blinked, and she surged up against her binds, thrashing and bucking. Screaming against the very effective ball gag. Her eyes were locked on me and stared at me unblinkingly.
Then she went still, though her eyes remained on me. She didn’t blink. Her eyelids twitched and quivered, her whole body tense.
“Fuck,” Mags whispered, making it a modifier suggesting wonderment. His sole talents were indifference to pain, strength beyond that of normal men, and the ability to conduct entire conversations using one word. He could have recited the complete works of Shakespeare using just
with subtle alterations of volume, stress, and accent. Assuming he could read, which I was not entirely certain of, having never seen him do it.
With a muffled howl, the girl began struggling again, twisting and rocking violently in the trunk, making the whole car sway.
I put my hands up, all my tiny wounds smarting, and smiled tiredly down at her. “Hey, hey,” I said. “Calm down. I’m going to cut you loose, okay, but I’d like to not be smacked in the head for the effort, okay?”
She paused, sweaty, her nostrils flaring with each labored breath. Her eyes, green and big, flicked from me to Mags and back. She was tall, folded cruelly in the trunk, and had short dark hair, tan skin that looked creamy and perfect, like she’d never had a zit or a scratch in her life. She was a kid, and I felt old and perverted, thinking this girl was cute even as she was tied up, kidnapped.
She nodded once, curtly, and lay still. I got the switchblade from my pocket and flicked it open.
I paused. The voice behind us was shaky, thin. It had a pleading tone to it. Mags whirled, and when he didn’t launch into Mags Smash All mode, I sighed and looked down at the girl, whose eyes had gotten
impossibly wider and were locked on me, jittering this way and that as she resumed screaming deep into the gag.
“Sorry, love,” I said. “Be right back.”
I turned slowly, hands up, and found a ghost standing behind me. He was older than me. Not by much, but he’d seen some hard times. He was tall and thin, thin,
. His suit was a beauty, and had cost him several thousand dollars, but it had been cut for a much healthier man, a man with an extra fifty pounds everywhere. He was white and pale, balding, his face a gaunt skeletal remnant, his eyes sunken and shadowed like he didn’t
eyes, just empty spots on his face. The gun in his hand was one of those newer automatics, so light they looked fake. I didn’t think it was fake, though.
“Step away from my car,” he said, his voice cracking with strain. He was shaking all over and high as a fucking kite. My eyes flicked to his arms. A shirt cuff poked out from his left sleeve but not his right, and I imagined he’d been in the back bedroom of Heller’s All Night Circus of Death shooting up. Smack was a bitch, and it had made plenty of people tie girls up in their trunk.
” he said, his face crumpling into a mask of pain and horror. “
I started to say something, to act on the welcome information that the Skinniest Fucker I’d Ever Seen did not actually
to kill me, but as I took in breath to speak, he started having a conversation with himself while staring at me.
“What? Yes. No! No.
. What?” He squinted at me. “I see. No.
Mags and I both jumped at the word. It meant, in a language I barely understood myself, Trickster. Little magician. Which meant Mags and me; short spells for short cons. It was a word you didn’t hear out in public. There were others:
a step up from us, and a truly powerful mage called
. There were also
Archmages, but there were damn few of those, and when you heard that word, it was usually your cue to find a good hiding place.
Please, I’m begging.” He was blinking rapidly, sweat rolling into his eyes. “I’m . . . No!”
I slowly folded the fingers of my left hand against my palm, the sizzling pain stretching and yawning, waking up. I pressed my fingers into the crusting wound and spread it apart again, pain blooming. I kept my face blank. My heart, pumping fumes and dust in lieu of blood, danced alarmingly in my chest. I felt the warm smear on my fingers and prepared, my mind bringing up the syllables, the simple Cantrip—simple was what I lived on, only what I could fuel myself.
The man shut up, stiffened, and pulled the trigger.
At the same moment, I snapped my hand out and shouted. A sudden flare of sunlight, pure and unfiltered, burst from the palm of my hand. The Skinny Fuck cried out and staggered back, turning his head away, and Mags, faithful Mags, crashed into him like a runaway bus as the light died away, leaving us in deeper dark than before. Confident that my tank-sized friend could handle anything short of mechanized troops, I spun and looked back at the girl, who stared back up at me, frozen, a bubble of snot blooming and fading in one nostril as she hyperventilated. My hand still slick with my own tired blood, I whispered again, and the eerie bluish light spread over my hand as before. I had a sickening hunch and knew better than to dismiss it. Even before the spell finished, I could see the symbols on her—just like the girl in the tub, she was covered from head to toe in runes.
I extinguished my light and stared down at the girl for another moment. “Fuck
” I whispered, and for a moment I almost expected that to be the world’s shortest Cantrip and something amazing would happen.
Behind me, there was another shot. I jumped and spun, noting in passing that people were already crowding out of Heller’s room, making their escape. They would fade into the night for a few hours, then creep back. This wasn’t the first time someone had been shot at one of his parties. There was a protocol.
Mags leaped back from the Skinny Fuck like he’d been stung.