We Are Not Good People (Ustari Cycle) (9 page)

BOOK: We Are Not Good People (Ustari Cycle)
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He didn’t say anything. Mags was in a pissy mood because we’d been cooped up in the motel for three days, smelling each other’s farts and acting like sunshine burned. I pulled the bottles from the bag and inspected them, wondering what the nutritional value of cheap booze was, how long we had before we turned yellow and our teeth fell out.

“That was our last forty bucks,” he said from the bed. “I didn’t want to waste it on food.”

I closed my eyes and started twisting the cap on the off-brand bourbon he’d brought in. Going underground wasn’t easy. It sounded easy, but cash was a dying breed, and the world that mattered at the moment was wide-awake, watching out for assholes like us. Cal Amir and his boss didn’t need electronic receipts and surveillance cameras to find us. Mika Renar would slit a half-dozen throats and fucking
in the room, thunderbolts in her withered old hands. Hiram had made fun of me for even suggesting going into hiding.

“My boy,” he said, shaking his head, “if your name comes up connected to this, where will you hide that an
cannot find?”

This encouraging bit of mentoring had occurred while we were dumping the body of the Skinny Fuck, whose name I still didn’t know. No one
their names. I had a fading impression of him, his inner monologue, everything that had been him, but he’d never once thought his own fucking name. Everyone was
in their heads. We’d put
him in the river and Hiram had bled for thirty seconds, muttering a spell that would keep the body in the dark water forever. I’d swayed next to him, ready to pass out, wishing for a cigarette.

I almost hadn’t noticed Hiram palming the
getting past his fear of the Artifact easily enough. I didn’t need to see it; Hiram stole everything.

“Mr. Vonnegan, if Mika Renar wishes to find you, she will find you. You should be thinking about how to appease her.” Hiram had turned to me, wrapping his hand delicately in a bandage, his white beard looking silver in the moonlight. “Find the girl. Bring her to Renar or her apprentice. Beg forgiveness, claim ignorance. Everyone will believe you.”

The fucking bastard, with his twinkling eyes.
never forgive me.

I took a long swig from the bottle Mags had brought. It was terrible. Wincing, I choked it down, and it bloomed into a believable spot of warmth in my belly. I turned and leaned against the dresser, bottle in hand, and looked at Mags. He was stretched out on the musty floral bedspread, his suit tight and wrinkled on him like a snakeskin about to slough off, his stocking feet wiggling in the air. He jabbed at the remote control every three or four seconds, grimacing at each new offering. He looked about thirty seconds away from hurling the remote at the TV. Which meant he was about an hour and thirty seconds away from telling me, in a singsongy, tiny voice, that he wished there was another TV to watch.

I took another swig.

It was time to go. It was time to make an excuse, put on my shoes, steal a towel from the bathroom, and walk out into the night and leave Mags behind. Pitr wasn’t bright, and I’d been kidding myself that I’d been taking care of him all these years. Here we were, broke again, on the run. We had nothing to show for anything, and it was all my fault. The worst part was how easy it would be. I could wait for Mags to fall asleep, or just tell him I was going out for a smoke. Step out, crack a scab and cast a quick Glamour, make everyone’s eyes skip over me, and just walk away. He’d be better off without me.

I brought the bottle into the bathroom and closed the flimsy wooden door behind me. I was, as usual, wearing everything I owned. I set the bottle on the back rim of the sink and leaned forward, staring at myself. Sunken eyes; limp, greasy black hair; an uneven, sallow sort of face with a crust of beard. I looked like someone who’d lift your wallet and cry if you caught him. I was twenty-nine and I’d had Mags for eight years, and here we were. All the fucking power of the universe at my fingertips and nothing to do.

The bathroom was small and cramped, crowded with mildewed tiles that looked like they were sliding off the walls—salmon-colored in a way that was essentially
salmon but something else entirely—and a popcorn ceiling that would never, could never, feel clean no matter what you did to it. People had died in the tub, I was sure of it. A layer of human grease left behind, invisible but detectable nonetheless. I picked up the bottle and watched myself take another swig. The Vonnegans had always been good drinkers. We took to it naturally.

I was about to turn and inspect the thin, scratchy towels for the best one to steal when I heard the hollow knock at the door.

A second later, the squeal of hinges and Mags framed in the bathroom doorway, silent in his socks. “Lem?” A squeaky whisper, Mags like a startled cat.

I took the bottle with me back out into the room and put a hand on Mags’s shoulder for a second, nodding, already feeling a little light-headed from the liquor; we’d eaten last in the morning, and I was starved. I felt strangely unconcerned and light as I crossed to the door. I had, after all, nothing much left to lose. I didn’t even have much blood left to lose. Another short Cantrip would put me in the hospital. A spell of any heft—of any
—would kill me. As I paused at the door of the room, I thought,
Look around, take it in. This is Bottom. There is freedom in Bottom.
Then I twisted the knob, and pulled the door inward, and stood blinking for a moment at Calvin Amir.

And there it was: the New Bottom.

“Mr. Vonnegan!” he boomed. “You are a hard man to find.”

I gave him an eyebrow. “Not hard enough.”

He smiled. His smile was sunshine. It appeared instantly and made me happier for having seen it. Cal Amir was the most handsome man I’d ever seen, with clear, smooth skin the color of creamed coffee, a pleasant, squarish face that was masculine yet finely etched, with just the right level of natural blue shadow on his cheeks. His hair was dark with a streak of gray on one side, the imperfection sanding him down to a smooth finish. His eyes were blue and seemed to reflect all the available light back at me. He was also, I thought conservatively, wearing more money on his back than I’d had in my hands in my entire life.

He spread his gloved hands. “May I come in?”

I took a deep breath. “Could I stop you?” I said, stepping aside.

He shrugged a little as he stepped in, tugging his gloves off. I glanced down and saw his hands. They were perfect. Smooth, manicured. Not a scratch on them.

“I’ve come alone,” he said, meaning no Bleeder. Meaning he hadn’t come ready to burn the place to the ground or make a fucking giant roach grow inside us that would eat its way out. It was a friendly call.

Which also let him avoid any attention, any publicity. An
could kill with a few words, could disappear, could make themselves fly—but it took time and blood. It took a Bleeder producing a blade, opening a vein. It took a recitation with perfect pronunciation and grammar. Even an
preferred not to have police, investigations, vendettas. We’d survived as a species because we were roaches. We stayed out of the light. Even an Archmage could be buried if enough cops came after them.

“Mr. Mageshkumar,” Amir said cheerfully. “Good to see you again.”

Mags was pressed up against the wall to the right of the bathroom door, his hands as deep in his pockets as he could push them. It was an old habit of his from the orphanage, hiding the cuts. He went back to it whenever he was afraid.

Amir walked in easy, looking the place over like we were trying to
sell it to him. He stopped at the dresser and examined the bottles for a moment, turning back to me with a grin.

“Celebrating?” He laughed. “Perhaps not.” He wagged a finger at me. “You know why I’m here?”

I nodded. The door was hanging open, but moving felt impossible. I just stared at Amir. He was mesmerizing.

“Good. Come on, then. We’re already late.”

I nodded again, then frowned. “Late for what?”

He regarded me for an uncomfortable moment. “For your appointment with Ms. Renar.” He looked me up and down. “Do you have a shaving kit?”

my skin crawl. The moment he’d shut the door, the world had disappeared, and it was just the expensive hum of the engine and low music, something classical, all strings and timpani. It was so low, I might have been imagining it. Amir had put his gloves back on to drive, which somehow made perfect sense.

Without Mags at my side, breathing in my ear, I felt exposed. And lonely.

“Are you afraid?” Amir asked.

I nodded immediately. Magicians are not
people. “Yes.”

“That is well. It will make the interview go more smoothly.” He turned to look at me briefly. “Why hasn’t Bosch released you as his apprentice? Even a mediocrity like Bosch would have more self-respect, I think.”

I nodded, thinking of the girl again. Three girls, but I only really remembered one. All three of them standing there like limp rags, shivering, and Bosch’s voice, silk and razors, telling me I knew the spell, all I had to do was show him I could do it.

years to master this spell,
I remembered him saying.
And I’d been apprenticed to that fat bastard Gottschalk for five years before
It is the limit of my abilities. Even today, Mr. Vonnegan, I
find it a difficult and challenging spell to cast. But you, you, I think, have an ability greater than mine. You already know the tongue better than I.

This was true. I’d known it even back then. The words were a code. Obfuscated, but there were rules. Once you knew the rules, you could start playing with them. I would sit in the shared bathroom on my floor, thirteen feet away from the five-by-five room I rented for a hundred bucks a week, and bleed myself to try things. It was fascinating.

Hiram would teach me a spell to create light, a floating ball of soft yellow. A minor spell; light was easy. Everyone started with light. And I would poke at it. Try it over and over, leaving out one syllable, see what happened. Add in a syllable from another spell, see what happened. It was fun. By the time I got back to Hiram, I’d pared three syllables off the spell he’d taught me and had sixteen variations: different color light, a ball of light that followed you around, a version that eliminated the ball completely and just shone light around with no visible source.

Hiram disdained my process. Called it
. But I knew he was impressed.

The girls were whores. Bosch had paid them to bleed, a hundred bucks for a pint each. They were hollow-eyed, bird-boned shells, and the first two didn’t bother me. The third was fourteen, maybe younger, so skinny it hurt to look at her. She stared down at her shoes, white Converse Chucks that she’d drawn on in pink marker, her name over and over again, stylized with flowers.

said slowly, feeling tired and calm.

Amir seemed cheered by that. “For what?”

I didn’t answer.

said, holding out his razor.
You have potential, Mr. Vonnegan. You just need to get over your . . . phobia.

I was looking at the girl. Trying to imagine who looked at her and felt anything stirring inside other than pity. I saw myself cutting her, draining off her blood into Hiram’s silver bowl—how long did it take
for a pint to pour out of a person? How long would I have to stand there hearing her shiver, hearing her sniffle?

I said,

I had made a pledge, sealed with blood, a minor magic. I had sworn to obey my
in all things, to be a servant to him, in exchange for the knowledge he would pass on to me. Hiram’s expression was almost comical in its disbelief.

Bleed them, Mr. Vonnegan,
he repeated, his voice softer, gentler.
They will not die. They have been compensated. How much easier can you expect me to make it for you?

The world had turned into darkness and wind, the buildings melting away. I didn’t like it. Too much open space, too little light, too little noise. And I could feel Hiram back in the city, a worm made of razors between my shoulder blades. Our bond was passive, but Hiram could give it a charge anytime he wanted. I liked the streetlights bleeding through my windows, the garbage trucks waking me at three a.m., the drunken arguments seeping through the walls.

I didn’t look at Amir. I was too conscious of being in a car, far away from anyone who might care about me—well, the one person who might care about me.

“I have not searched you for a blade,” Amir said suddenly, his voice muffled and distant three feet away from me. “But I must warn you to refrain from attempting to cast any of your little tricks. There will be consequences.”

I shrugged but ran through my repertoire of Cantrips and other
I used to make my living. I could blind Amir with light and send us hurtling into the highway divider. I could make things look like something similar, an easy Glamour. I could Charm him, make him think well of me, desire to please me. I could hide myself in the light, make people’s eyes pass over me. I had a dozen other pranks, all useful, but I didn’t doubt that Amir could brush them off easily enough. I imagined
the price for trying and failing to full-on
Calvin Amir was not one I wished to pay.

I could lunge over and attack him. Cal Amir was only fearsome when there was blood in the air. But someone like Amir would be
. He hadn’t survived this long without knowing how to cut himself quick and automatically spit out something devastating in under three seconds.

If you went for
physically, you went for the mouth.

BOOK: We Are Not Good People (Ustari Cycle)
5.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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