Authors: Jeff Somers
A girlfriend suggested her friend Heller, who worked in the pharmaceutical line. She said this with the practiced diction of an actress reciting a line. He had the idea that his girlfriend often had people who needed chemical help while with her. That he had simply graduated to a familiar place in their relationship. He gladly took everything they offered, and for a while he slept again, fitful, narcotic sleep.
For a while.
A few weeks ago, in the midst of stock tips and traffic directions, perfect schemes to murder thousands in football stadiums, airtight plots to start new wars and become powerful through the chaos and fallout, the voice started telling him things about
. None of them were good.
It told him what his breath smelled like. It told him how he appeared to other people, and he recoiled from the gaunt, sweating scarecrow they saw, the stains on his fine silk shirts, the constant wet motion of his lips. It told him about Boo Radley, and he burst into tears, the air around him like a sauna.
He pictured Boo Radley: black and white, with a pink nose, purring and twirling, tail in the air when he came home from school. Every day for three years, Boo Radley had been there, purring, his tiny body vibrating with the rumbling noise, as if his pleasure were too large to be contained inside his skinny little body. At night Boo Radley slept in his bed, snoring.
Boo Radley had escaped one day, bounding out the door to chase a squirrel. Boo Radley had never been seen again, and he’d imagined, after getting over his grief, that such a sweet-natured, happy cat had been found by another family, been loved, lived to an old age.
The voice told him the truth: Boo Radley had skulked back a few
hours after escape and hidden under the back porch, scared and waiting to be rescued. And had frozen to death that night, slipping off to eternal sleep missing him desperately, sad, tormented. The voice described the creeping numbness, the tiny, inarticulate despair, and he howled and banged his skinny arms against the walls.
And still, the girls. This last one, the youngest yet. Pretty. Fought like a devil. Nothing placid or docile about
she was delivered to him bound, kicking, and thrashing, and he had a hell of a time getting her into the trunk. Her eyes had been the worst. They locked on his every chance she got, and the hatred and anger he saw there made him flinch. He was
. He was
. Who was she to disdain him?
The voice, it said
This had never happened before. Feeling shivery and gray as he drove, he’d run through it in his head. The voice always had something to say. Always. It was how he’d kept his luck, his advantage. He needed a drink. Amir wouldn’t mind. Would understand if once he didn’t go straight on with the girl, if he made a stop, calmed down, settled his nerves.
I SURGED AWAY FROM THE
body, crashing into the big globe and making it skid backwards a foot or two. My stomach tightened into a knot and then loosened, and I barely managed to flip around before I vomited all the booze I’d had right onto Hiram’s nice rug. My body kept trying even after I was empty, totally empty. Just kept trying to push more out, and I remained there on all fours, dry-heaving, for two minutes.
“It is not a
spell,” Hiram said unnecessarily.
“Jesus,” I whispered. “The girls. Dozens. Maybe a hundred, it was hard to tell.” I turned my head and looked at the sliver of green stone against his sunken, bony chest. A shiver of revulsion left over from my
the Skinny Fuck swept through me, and I had to work hard to keep from puking all over again. I shut my eyes. “She’s a linked ritual, all right. A fucking
ritual. Seems like she’s the last one to roll in, too.”
I pictured the girls. All of them. I still had the Skinny Fuck’s memories, some more distinct than others. I could see the girls clearly. I shut my eyes and tried to will them away, delete them.
Big-time mages, people like Cal Amir and his boss, Renar, cast big-time spells. The bigger the spell, the more blood you needed. There had been spells cast back in history that had required
of people to bleed out simultaneously—it wasn’t easy. Even if you had thousands of servants who could run through thousands of people on cue, it wasn’t easy. And civilization made it harder. So what you did was you set up a domino effect: You took a manageable number of people—say, a hundred. You slaughtered them to cast a smaller spell, which in turn would slaughter a thousand people, doing the dirty work for you, and then you used the blood generated by those deaths to cast the
We are not good people.
The girl in the old apartment had been runed up the same way as Claire. But that one had been drained and dumped. The ritual probably required the body to be preserved, so they couldn’t burn her or dump her in the river. But she hadn’t been part of the main ritual—she’d been preliminary. Her blood had been used for something
to the ritual but not the ritual itself. My head ached thinking about the possible uses of six quarts of healthy, inked blood. For the main ritual, whatever it was, the sacrifices had to be done together, because as each one died, her blood would fuel the next link, killing the next one. One missing girl fucked everything up. And we had one missing girl, sitting in Hiram’s bathroom.
“Well,” the old man said. “We know what we have to do, then.”
“What’s that?” I spat onto his rug. There was no making the stain
, I figured.
“Give Renar back her property. As quickly as possible.”
My heart leaped in my chest and I sat up. “What?”
Hiram had his blasé face on, the blank look he adopted when he assumed he was smarter than you. “Mr. Vonnegan,” he boomed, still impressive after fifteen years. He’d taught me everything I knew, and he’d been eager to teach me more, to teach me how to go beyond him. But I’d left, and he’d never forgiven me. “Mika Renar can burn the two of us out of existence, do you understand? She could remove us from
powerful. All that limits her is blood, harvesting enough.”
I was reminded, abruptly and forcefully, why I’d left.
Since Hiram had not released me from my apprenticeship, I could not seek another teacher, nor could he take on another apprentice. We were locked in a cold war.
He smiled. “And if you were removed from history, where would your dim-witted friend here be?”
Mags looked up, realizing he’d been referred to, working through the last few words to try to get the context. He grinned at me, sheepish.
“He’d be dead,” I said flatly. Mags had the spark, he could work a spell. But he couldn’t remember much and fucked up the half he did remember.
a Trickster, by choice. Mags would never be anything but. And he’d never survive on the streets alone.
Hiram nodded. “So we return Renar’s property. Immediately. Before she has to come find us.”
I shook my head. “She’ll be slaughtered. Along with who knows how many others.” I pointed at the body. “This asshole has been collecting them for Renar for months now. We return the missing link, we’re condemning them all to death, Hiram.”
I saw the girls again. They were of a type, twins upon twins. Darker-skinned, thin. I flipped through the Skinny Fuck’s greasy memories. The first girls had been in their thirties. Over time they’d gotten
younger and younger, until we got to Claire in his trunk, the youngest yet.
“Lemuel,” Hiram said, pushing his hands into his pockets and pushing his little round belly at me. His voice was cold now, authoritative. Hiram was no joke; he kept his magicks small, but he had ability if you pushed him. And while he was no murderer—or at least not much of one—he didn’t share my distaste for other people’s blood.
I put my hands in my own pockets and grasped the switchblade, all the unhealed cuts on my hands and arms throbbing with my pulse.
“You brought this shit into my house. My
Even if I let you take it all away, the trail will come through here. Renar will come here or send her apprentice, and once they have proof of our involvement, they will
level this house
to the ground, and kill you. And possibly me.” He shook his head. “We will bring her and the
and offer our apologies, and perhaps we’ll survive this.” He looked at me again. “In spite of you.”
My education was incomplete, but I knew the word meant
, and my eyes latched on to the ugly green stone. An Artifact—an actual, real
Long ago, before machines, the old masters had created objects of power using organic materials. Stone. Metal. Carvings and such—some small enough to carry with you, some huge, monstrous. Not easy to do. A few hundred years ago, some of the smarter
had started working with machinery in making a new breed of Artifacts. Devices, large and small. More powerful, because they could be varied depending on their internal workings. Fabrications.
I studied the
again. I’d been careful not to touch it. Ancient, Hiram had called it. I believed him. I didn’t know how many people you had to murder in order to create something like that, how many hearts you had to rip out of people on top of pyramids, but I imagined it was a number I didn’t want to know. I didn’t think there was a Fabricator alive who could make something on this level today. Fabrication was a skill that had seen better days, and most of your Fabricators were assholes making love charms and silly magicked coins. None of them
were going to summon a fucking
, dominate it, and trap it inside something. Or at least, none of them were going to do it
and not end up torn to pieces.
I thought about a cigarette. I had a crumpled pack in my jacket pocket, but I thought in my current dry condition a single cigarette might make me pass out. I pulled out the pack anyway and shook one loose to buy time. I didn’t have a light and waggled it between my dry lips for a moment, giving Hiram back his blank stare.
“I can’t let that happen, Hiram.” For a moment, everything in the room was still and silent as we stared at each other, and then he shrugged, turning away. “You don’t have a choice in this, Mr. Vonnegan. I am going to collect her now. If you think you can stop me, please do. But I won’t fight you unprovoked. You’re still my apprentice, after all.”
There were consequences for going against the oath of
. All of them theoretical for me so far. Taking on a
bound you to your master. In one way, this was tradition: Magicians had a loose set of rules. Easily forgotten when convenient, but no mage would teach you anything until you were bound to them. Not a single Word. Once you were bound to a
no one else would teach you. You could seek a new master, and they’d take one look at you, see the binding, and refuse. It was just common courtesy. In another way, this was a function of the oath: I could never stray too far from Hiram. If I tried to leave the city, I would suffer for it. Fever, convulsions, coma—eventually death, if he wished.
I was tied to the fat thief until he freed me. Or until one of us died. And Hiram was still, after all these years, so angry with me that I had little hope he would ever let me go.
He turned for the bathroom. Mags, who’d been ping-ponging his head back and forth between us, trying to keep up with what was happening, leaped for the old man. Tried to envelop him in a bear hug, simply stop him from leaving the room. Mags thought of Hiram as his grandfather and wouldn’t hurt him on purpose.
The second Mags moved, Hiram brought his hand out of his pocket, straight razor extended, and in a well-practiced move slashed it down across his own palm, a superficial, wet wound. Blood welled up and Hiram hissed out a spell as he spun away, and Mags froze in midleap, one foot the only part of him touching the floor. Without a sound, he toppled over, holding the leaping position.
The spell would last a half hour or so, and Mags’d come out of it without any permanent damage. Hiram and I locked eyes, and then he was out the door. I ran after him, cursing. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do—I didn’t have enough strength to start throwing spells at Hiram Bosch, and Hiram had fewer scruples than me. And played dirtier.
“Dammit, Hiram!” I shouted as I chased him down the hall. “I came here for
“You ungrateful shit, I
helping you!” he shouted back, stopping in front of the bathroom door. He reached forward with his bloodied hand and turned the knob, pushing the door inward . . . and then stood there.
I almost crashed into him, then turned to look through the doorway.
The window was open, a classic image of the drapes fluttering in the chill wind blowing in. The tub gleamed with the shiny kind of clean that only a constant, unhealthy obsession could purchase; the one sign that anything had happened in here at all was the slick of blood Hiram had left in the sink.
Claire Mannice was gone.
To my surprise, the old man put his arm around me. He smelled like pipe smoke and liquor. “Well, my boy—the girl has
doesn’t she? Not my best work, perhaps, but I haven’t had someone shrug off one of my spells that easily in
.” He sounded admiring. “And she’s killed us all!”
I stared at the window and thought of her, bound and gagged, kicking and screaming, her eyes flashing. Thought of her calm and
quiet, answering our questions. Thought of the runes all over her body.
And I smiled.
Don’t look back.
I INSPECTED THE BROWN PAPER
bag Mags had left on the dresser and frowned. “Jesus, Mags,” I said over my shoulder. “All you bought was liquor. Liquor,” I added wearily, “is not