Read We Are Not Good People (Ustari Cycle) Online
Authors: Jeff Somers
I didn’t say anything, though. The girl had stopped trying to scream and kick; just flashed her eyes at us, jumping from face to face.
Hiram studied her for a moment, then sighed, unbuttoning one sleeve and starting to roll it up. “We’re not going to get far with her in this state; we need to calm her,” he said, reaching into his pocket and producing the pearl-handled straight razor he liked to use. Although Hiram’s face and neck were free from scars, the white flesh of his left arm from the wrist to the elbow was a highway map of puckered old wounds, ranging from the delicate, almost vanished to one ugly gnarl of pink that ran for three inches like a mountain range on his skin.
Hiram didn’t mind bleeding others, but he didn’t have the rank to attract Bleeders. He got by on his own gas a lot, just like the rest of us. When Hiram had a big spell to cast, he got some local rummies or a whore or two, people who would take money for anything.
I closed my eyes and saw my first girl again. Her sneakers. The pink marker. She was shivering. She’d been skinny with dark hair, too, but pale, skin like ice cream.
I opened my eyes again. With a quick, masterful twitch, Hiram drew a nice bead of blood and laid the razor in the sink. He spoke the Cantrip in just six syllables. Hiram was a master of the language, which had always been appealing to me. He had a knack for paring down every spell to maximum efficiency; some mages had to chant for ten minutes to get the same effect.
I felt the power move gently outward from Hiram, and when I looked at the girl again, she looked back with calm, unfrightened eyes.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said, my voice wet and thick. “The, er, body, I mean.”
She shrugged as if it were nothing to get excited about. She was still and calm, her face blank. Like a film had been inserted between her and the world, everything now at a safe distance. Hiram’s penchant for stealing had given him ample experience in calming people down with a drop of gas and a well-chosen Cantrip.
“My dear,” Hiram said, kneeling by the tub and reaching in, “I am going to undo your gag and let you speak. Do you promise not to scream or make any noise?”
She nodded again, watching him placidly. When the ball had been removed from her mouth, she worked her jaw a bit and then looked at me. “That was terrible,” she said.
Her voice was flat and unaffected. She sounded bored and tired. I studied her, something in my gut twitching. I tried to imagine if the girl who’d attempted to assault me while hog-tied in the trunk of a car was capable of faking this kind of calm.
Finally, I nodded.
“What is your name, dear?” Hiram asked gently, reaching for the razor in the sink and bending down to attend to her bonds.
“Claire,” she said, still sounding like she’d always expected to end up locked in a trunk and covered in blood. Hiram’s spell was subtle but effective. “Claire Mannice.”
“Claire,” Hiram said in that gentle way, “I have cut the ropes binding you. Please stay in the bathroom until I come for you. You can clean yourself up, but please do not leave. Can you do that for me?”
She nodded again. “Sure.”
Hiram stood and reached for a hand towel from the rack. Wiping the blade of his razor carefully, he folded it and returned it to his pocket, then held the towel against his wound momentarily. He looked at Mags and me and sighed, tossing the towel at the hamper in the corner.
“Come, gentlemen, let’s discuss your other problem.”
WE’D LAID THE SKINNY
Fuck on his stomach, because Mags didn’t like looking at his face. Hiram mixed us all drinks at his elegant little bar in
the corner while I told him the story from the beginning, from Neilsson to Heller’s to the dandy in the parking lot. It all sounded crazy, but that was the way with magic sometimes. Coincidence was just magic running wild, like a vine that envelops your entire garden, your house, creeping in through your windows. Sitting in one of Hiram’s high-backed plush chairs, I could feel sleep creeping over me like a spell.
Hiram’s study was like the rest of the house: crammed full of interesting things. Or at least things Hiram found interesting. There were four identical chairs, deep and soft, the kind you slid down over the course of an evening before eventually falling to the floor. The walls were lined with heavy-looking built-in bookshelves, each filled to capacity with a variety of tomes, some old and massive, some cheap new paperbacks. In front of all the books were knickknacks: dolls, snow globes, small sculptures—anything that had caught the old kleptomaniac’s eye at some point. The floor was covered by a thick Persian-type rug with a gold fringe. Between the chairs was a massive wooden coffee table littered with more things: a chess set and board carved from some dark glossy wood; a thick glass ashtray; a small ivory box with no obvious hinge, a gold beetle of some sort on top; a fiddle of uncertain vintage. Taking up the last of the floor space was a huge old-fashioned globe in a wooden frame, the colors faded, the borders out of date, the Communists still in control.
No matter how long it had been, when I walked into Hiram’s house, I felt choked.
When I was done telling the tale, Hiram drained his gimlet and sighed, gesturing at the body. “All right. Let’s have a look. Roll him over.”
Mags leaped up like a puppy and scampered to the corpse, flipping him faceup. His arms flopped out onto the rug, and I could have sworn the sliver of green stone was still affixed to the
spot on his chest where I had first seen it. The light caught it and made it gleam.
“Jesus fucked,” Hiram said, stepping back. “Jesus
Mr. Vonnegan, what have you been
“Do you know what that is?”
Panic lapped at the edges of my thoughts again. “No. My education was pretty shitty.”
The old man looked at me, and then panic broke through and swamped me, because
looked panicked. “You did not
it, did you?”
I shook my head, and relief edged into his face.
“That’s not just any ‘Artifact,’ as your story had me believe. That is a very
Artifact, Mr. Vonnegan. Or a piece of it.” He stepped to the left to get a better angle and seemed careful to stay a certain distance from the green stone. “A very
Artifact.” He looked at me again. “The mage in the parking lot—describe him again. Carefully.”
I did, trying to be detailed, and he started nodding when I was halfway through.
“Calvin Amir, I think,” he said. He sighed and sat down on the edge of the coffee table, letting his hands dangle between his legs. “Do you know who Cal Amir is?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t kept up on the gossip.
know who Mika Renar is, though?”
The name made me jump, and Mags looked down at his hands and muttered,
a grace note of despair and terror.
I swallowed thickly. “Renar is . . .
.” Archmage. “Probably the most powerful mage on earth.”
“Not probably,” Hiram said softly. “She
. There are other
to fear. Elsa Brandt, be afraid of her, yes. Alfonse Alligherti, stay out of his way, certainly. Mika Renar? Worse than all of them. By an order of magnitude. Cal Amir,” he added almost gently, “is her apprentice.”
I put my head down in my hands. “Ah, shit.”
Mika Renar. Ancient, brittle old woman. Probably the worst living serial killer in the world. Able to reach around the globe and swat you off her ass without bleeding a drop of her own. Connected and rich, too, just for giggles. And I’d fucked with her
“Lem?” Mags said, sounding like a lost kid.
I looked up and forced myself to put my hands on my knees and smile.
“It’s okay, Magsie,” I said as cheerfully as I could. “We’re with Hiram now.”
Mags smiled a little, relieved. I hated myself, but Mags could only understand four things at a time. We didn’t have time to teach him anything else. I looked at Hiram.
“What can I do?”
Hiram snorted, standing up and heading for the bar. “
Nothing, Mr. Vonnegan. You have a girl who has clearly been marked for ritual in my bathroom. You have a stolen car parked outside my house. You have a man wearing a three-thousand-year-old Artifact neither of us could create or control under any circumstances, which is the property of either the most powerful entity in the world or her apprentice, which makes very little difference.” He turned his head slightly as he worked the glass. “Mr. Vonnegan, I believe you have done
I swallowed. I had seen what powerful mages could do; magic required blood and, at their level, a lot of it. They were not a class of people concerned with ethics or morality, as a rule. I’d seen people hideously deformed, killed in spectacular ways, cursed for life with the cruelest of subtle
spells. I’d heard stories of worse, of course: buildings blown up and planes crashed, just to get the supply of fresh blood a spell required. The bigger the spell, the more blood needed. Some of the worst local disasters in history had been engineered by
seeking huge amounts of gas for their spells.
When you went up a level from there, to the Archmages,
you could link some of the worst
disasters to them. Wars had been started, extermination policies enacted, all to fuel the
the epic rituals such individuals could cast. Hiram’s lessons flashed through my mind.
kept it reasonable. Small-scale. Flight 19, 1945. The
, 1872. Roanoke, 1590. The Ninth Legion, 117. The
did shit like that just to get warmed up. Volcanoes
had been induced to erupt, burying cities in ash and lava. Entire religions practicing human sacrifice had been established, fed by immense Charms that pushed everyone to believe, and to kill, and kill, and kill. And in the modern age they’d even gotten mechanized, setting up suicide armies, firing up ovens, herding whole populations to be grist for their spells. Dozens, hundreds, thousands dead, bled dry, burned up. Used by
like logs in a fire.
“I’m sorry, Hiram,” I choked, my body vibrating. “I didn’t—”
“Think, yes,” he said, turning back to me with a drink in one hand. “So, the die is cast. We have to get rid of it all—the car, the body, the girl, the Artifact. First, though, we need to know what we’re up against. Why does this man, who is not one of us, carry an Artifact? Why was a girl with ritual runes in the trunk of his car?” He shook his head. “Before we panic and try to clean up the mess as quickly as possible, we need more information. I have a spell we can use . . . on
.” He nodded at the gaunt body on the floor, then looked at me. “I can cast it on you, and you will know everything
I blinked, revolted. “Jesus, Hiram, why
Because this is your fucking mess, Mr. Vonnegan!
” Hiram shouted in the old disciplining voice I knew so well. “We need information. There is a price to be paid for it. I say that bill is on
I looked down at my feet. “Yes. Fine.”
There was a second of silence. “I will need more blood than I can provide myself.”
I sighed. “I don’t have much left to spare.”
“I’ll do it.”
I looked up at Mags, who was already rolling up his sleeve. My whole body snapped back to alertness. “No!” I snarled.
“Mr. Vonnegan,” Hiram said in a more reasonable tone of voice, setting down his glass, “not all of us share your ridiculous moral certainty about using another’s blood in our work. Mr. Mageshkumar is a voluntary subject, and I need only a pint or so, mixed with my own. Sit down and rest while I prepare.”
Hiram once told me that magic was violence. That its very nature was destruction, and trying to civilize it with my petty moralizing—as he put it—was hopeless.
I looked at Mags. “You don’t have to do this.”
Mags shrugged happily. “I want to help, Lem,” he said, sounding like a panting puppy.
I dropped into one of the chairs, letting it envelop me. I closed my eyes, thinking I might catch a nap while Hiram gathered his shit and then bled Mags. My rule was you never used a Bleeder. You never used anyone’s blood but your own, even if they volunteered, and
if it was involuntary.
I thought of the kid in the dirty blue dress, all those years ago, sallow skin and sunken eyes. Hiram could fool himself that bleeding was a choice. It wasn’t. The powerful cast and the weak bled, and I had learned that the only way to win that game was to refuse to play it.
I told myself Mags was no child.
It didn’t help much.
“MR. VONNEGAN? WE’RE READY.”
I snapped awake. No time at all seemed to have passed, but Mags had a thick bandage wrapped around his forearm, and Hiram stood over the corpse with his little silver bowl. Feeling like I’d been chewed, I struggled to my feet. “Where do you want me?”
“Kneel with your hands on his head,” Hiram said immediately, his voice back to its usual smooth boom, commanding and ingratiating at the same time.
I tried to breathe in as deeply as I could. My head felt fuzzy, and I wanted to spike some oxygen into my brain. The room was too crowded. The bric-a-brac covered the walls like barnacles, clinging to every exposed surface, and even the floor was crowded with
from the chairs to the table to the odd wooden boxes sitting between the furniture—one not a box but a
, a huge round elephant’s foot. The rug on the floor was thick and dusty, blue and gold in a dizzying
pattern. It felt hot under me as I took up my position. The Skinny Fuck’s skin felt cold and gummy, as if it would hold the imprint of my thumbs for hours after I let go.