Authors: Margaret Ronald
This book is for all the teachers who,
in between all their other lessons,
taught me never
to give up on myself.
There aren’t enough words
in the world to thank you.
Yuen died twenty minutes after I arrived, and I was…
An ambulance drove by as I left Chinatown—no sirens, no…
I haven’t bothered dressing up to go out ever since…
The next morning Tania demanded to know why I’d missed…
I had just enough time to get to Sarah’s “community…
A draining, heavy heat lay over Boston the next day,…
I got maybe ten paces out of the Three Cranes…
The phone number Abigail had left connected to a Newton…
I stumbled to a stop, and the world slammed back…
I woke the next morning to sunlight flooding in from…
After that, the morning just didn’t fit together. A quick…
Someone had given me a blanket, possibly out of the…
I pulled myself in, expecting a passenger seat or something…
It took took me far too long to get over…
I didn’t want to leave him. “At least let me…
The Gardner Museum was built to resemble a Venetian palazzo.
I switched on my phone as I walked away from…
Nate had kept to the back alleys, but he’d been…
Moss is not nearly as nice a pillow as fairy…
Every other time I’d been in a police station, it’d…
I called Nate from the D branch of the Green…
The first sense to come back wasn’t scent, or even…
There is no world outside the hunt. You can leap…
It was early September before I finally got to try…
uen died twenty minutes after I arrived, and I was there to make sure of it.
His daughter hadn’t said anything about dying when she called with his request, and I was too startled by the call itself to question it. There weren’t many constants in Boston’s undercurrent, but one of them was this: people called Yuen, not the other way around.
What he’d asked for, translated of course, was this:
Come here, come alone, and do not tell anyone where you are going.
Nothing more, not even a mention of our usual arrangement, and certainly no explanation.
Not many people can ask that kind of blank-check favor from me, and of those who can, even fewer have anything to do with the undercurrent. I may not have been in the business long, compared to those adepts who’ve spent their entire lives soaking in the kind of magic that doesn’t just steal your soul but also goes out and gnaws on other people’s. But you don’t need to know your own ass from a summoning circle to know that not everyone with a talent for magic has your best interests at heart.
Unfortunately for me, Yuen was one of those few who could ask a favor: I owed him, and I trusted him, to whatever extent the practicalities of the undercurrent let people trust each other.
I ditched the last of my courier runs—my day job, for when I needed regular money that didn’t depend on clients who conveniently went out of town or cranks who only paid their bills in the dark of the moon. The last few weeks had been hell on my schedule no matter which job I chose, and I wasn’t about to let Tania or the rest of Mercury Courier forget it. I coasted into Chinatown half an hour after Yuen called, weaving my bike through the afternoon congestion with ease.
Yuen ran the Three Cranes Grocery and Medicinal and, more significantly in financial terms, owned the three apartments above it. He lived on the first-floor apartment, just above the basement grocery itself. When I needed to talk to him, though, we met in his shop, either up front or in the back room that was crammed from floor to ceiling with spices and strange dried things, half of which I was sure were for show. (The other half, well, I tried not to turn my back on them.) Yuen knew not to let magic too deep into his normal life.
But this time, when I pulled up (veering around a pack of pedestrians and a shopping cart that had been left in the middle of the street), Yuen’s daughter was standing on the stairs that led down over the basement entrance to the Three Cranes. She waited with clasped hands as I shucked my helmet and locked my bike to the closest fence. I slung my courier bag over one arm. “Is—er—is Mr. Yuen in?”
Yuen’s daughter nodded. She’d tied back her hair with a broad white ribbon, matching the brilliant white jacket and trousers that seemed somehow out of place on the grubby steps of the Three Cranes. The back of my own head prickled; I’d chopped off most of my hair recently, and sometimes still felt the phantom weight of it, though mine had never been as straight or sleek as hers. “My father is in, Miss Scelan,” she said, her tone as carefully neutral as always. “Come in, please.” To my surprise, instead of opening up the grocery she ascended the stairs and stood by the front door.
I cast a glance over my shoulder as I followed her, unable to shake the feeling that I was entering by the wrong door. She led me into a bright and glowing atrium much more in line with the high-rises several blocks away than with the rest of the neighborhood. My cleats clacked against the polished tile, and I tugged at my sweat-wrinkled courier gear. Yuen hadn’t said anything about looking presentable, but I didn’t usually have class insecurity when dealing with my undercurrent clients. And it wasn’t just money here, it was taste. Some people had it; I most definitely did not.
Besides, I had enough trouble with the room’s scent. Instead of the casual sterility that its appearance would indicate, the air smelled of ozone and curry, thick with a cool, clammy dampness, behind which lurked a persistent scent of ammonia filtered through jasmine. Not a physical smell, but an undercurrent one, the kind that my brain translated as scent. Which was why Yuen called me what he did.
I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the heaviness of the scent. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the warning—I’d be an idiot not to appreciate anything my nose told me, given that that sense had saved my life more than once—but it was disconcerting, like having someone always whispering into your ear.
Yuen’s daughter led me down a hall, past a kitchen that gleamed with unused stainless steel. Through a doorway I caught a glimpse of a small, gray-haired woman dressed all in white, kneeling before a tiny altar. A faint incense scent hung over the room; sticks of it had been piled up on either side of her, as had little paper figures and stacks of something that looked like money but had a fiery scent all its own, one strong enough for me to catch it even from this distance—
I jerked my attention away, exhaling sharply. Yuen’s daughter turned to look at me, and even though her expression didn’t change, my face went hot with embarrassment. When she looked away from me again, I
rubbed at my eyes and risked a glance at her. It wasn’t her lack of response that bothered me; Yuen’s daughter rarely showed emotion when I was around. But I’d always put that down to her role in her father’s business. This was something else.
She’d brought me this way for a reason, I thought. Only I couldn’t yet guess what that was.
We finally reached a set of steps down to the back entrance I recognized. To our left was the storeroom for the Three Cranes, to the right, the back alley through which most of Yuen’s undercurrent contacts entered the shop. I prided myself, or I had, on how I’d never needed to use that entrance. Yuen had always met me at the front, even if we did end up in the back room to talk.
A man spoke up ahead, and another voice answered, too soft to understand. Yuen’s daughter paused, and I stumbled over my own feet to keep from running into her. “He’s got a visitor.”
“You are a visitor too.” She said it without bothering to look at me.
I nodded. Fair enough.
Neither of the voices were ones I knew, but the scent at least told me Yuen was in. After a moment I realized the lower of the two voices was Yuen’s. He was speaking English. I glanced at his daughter. She pressed her lips tight together, but didn’t otherwise respond. “I am sorry,” Yuen said. “But other arrangements have been made.”
“It’s not like you’re even going to use them,” the other man said, and while I couldn’t see him, from his voice and scent I could get a good idea of what he must look like. Whining, just a little weasely, and with a greasy sheen to him, like motor oil and Brylcreem. “Think about it. Why let it go to waste? There are people who’ll pay good money for something like that, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg—”
“There are people,” Yuen said, and this time I knew it was him—that understated scorn was a tone
I couldn’t help but recognize—“who will pay good money for anything, including dog turds. That is no reason why I should be handing out free dog turds. Goodbye.”
I expected a protest, a last plea even, but the other man just sighed and muttered a goodbye. He stepped out into the hall, and I was professionally pleased to see that I’d guessed right. Take away the fireworks-and-rain stink of magic, the prematurely graying hair, and the defunct hermetic-symbol necklace, and you’d have a grade-B slimeball, the low-level scum that clots bars all over this and every city. He saw Yuen’s daughter and smiled, showing lots of very white teeth. “Nice dad you got, sweetie.”
She didn’t answer, but I saw her hand close into a tight, white-knuckled fist. I cleared my throat and stepped forward, trying to think of the best way to get rid of him.
The guy’s eyes flickered to me, and he went ashen. “Shit,” he breathed, “shit, sorry, I didn’t know—look, I’ll go away now, okay?” He folded into a crouch that in other circumstances might have been a bow, then made a little gesture in front of his chest that probably indicated deference—or maybe protection—in whatever tradition he ran.
Two months ago, this man wouldn’t have wasted the energy it took to sneer at me. Now all of a sudden guys like him were noticing me and, more, making sure I noticed them. I wasn’t sure which I disliked more. I eyed Yuen’s daughter, who hadn’t moved. “Out,” I told him, deciding on expediency.
“Yes ma’am, miss, Hound, sorry.” He crouched again and scuttled past us, banging the door shut behind him.
“Sorry about that,” I said.
Yuen’s daughter looked me up and down. Her fist hadn’t unclenched. “This way,” she said, and led me into the room.
This was the one room I knew in Yuen’s house. Ten
or so years back, I’d presented my credentials to him, explaining what I could do and how I did it, not yet aware of how little I knew but very aware of how little money I was making. Yuen hadn’t done anything as blatant as sponsor me, but he’d taken me in and served me tea, and he’d recommended me to a few of his customers, both those who dealt with the undercurrent’s standard weird shit and the normal people who’d never bothered with magic. It wasn’t as dramatic as hanging out a nameplate, but it was a start, and it was as good an official welcome as one got without running into the large scary aspects of the undercurrent. And back then—hell, until recently—there had been a lot of large scariness to go around.
Back then, this room had been a strange cross of an office and a living room: chairs that were more comfortable than tasteful, a pot of tea that didn’t ever seem to be empty, and filing cabinets draped with bright cloth and misaligned slightly for some feng shui reason I couldn’t fathom. Yuen had kept a single altar to Guanyin in the corner, the significance of which he refused to discuss, and she’d watched over all of our dealings with a benevolent stone gaze. Most of all, I remembered the persistent, warm scent of tea, comforting to my nose even though I hated the taste of it.
That scent was long gone, and the rest of the room had changed to match. The TV in the corner had been replaced with a flatscreen monitor and fashionably tiny computer. The altar to Guanyin in the corner was as I remembered, but all traces of incense had been swept away from the little bowl before her, and a white cloth had been tied over the bodhisattva’s face like a blindfold. That gave me the cold shivers, but I tried not to show it.
Most of all, though, the chairs in which Yuen and I had sat together had been replaced with a cheap daybed. Yuen lay on it, propped up with pillows, and he looked terrible. His skin was the color of very old paper, brittle and discolored, and his fingernails were
so dark they might have been painted. The room smelled not of medicine, but of the burgeoning unpleasantness of overripe vegetable matter.
Yuen’s daughter went to her father’s side and said something apologetic in Chinese. Yuen took her hand and patted it, murmuring in return.
I set my pack down beside the bed. “I got your call,” I said.
Yuen answered in Chinese, and his daughter took her place on a stool at his side, her face now set in a more familiar stoicism. “Hound,” she translated. “You were very nearly late.”
“I had my phone switched off,” I said, and Yuen’s daughter murmured a translation. I looked around for a chair, saw none that were convenient, and stayed where I was. “I’ve been working for the Armenian brothers. They’ve got this thing about cell phones. I can’t even have mine on in their presence.”
Yuen chuckled. “That’s nothing new from them,” he said through his daughter. “You wait until each one discovers the other’s sleeping with his wife.”
“I think I’ll stay out of that,” I said. “There’s only so much drama I can take.” Yuen grinned.
I glanced at his daughter as she related my words to him. She didn’t react to them at all; the words passed through her without leaving a mark. She kept her eyes fixed on a spot just beyond my left shoulder.
Everyone who has to deal with the undercurrent and yet remain part of society has a way to keep it at arm’s length. I had my own codes, even if they’d fallen apart a bit lately. Yuen refused to speak English to deal with undercurrent matters, or even to anyone touched by the undercurrent. Instead his daughter translated for him, acting as a filter between one world and the next. I’d always wondered how he reconciled himself to putting his daughter in danger that way, or whether he even saw it in those terms. Until now, I’d never thought of how she viewed the situation.
Now that I’d heard him speak English, I could
tell how halting his Chinese was. Yuen was second-generation at least, and though he’d taught his daughter what he knew, it was clear that the language was only for these situations.
Yuen’s daughter murmured again, not translating this time, and Yuen’s grin faded. “You saw my wife on the way in. Had she burned anything yet?”
“Not that I saw.” I couldn’t smell any smoke, and if I couldn’t sense it, a smoke detector sure as hell wouldn’t. “Is there…Is she likely to set anything on fire?”
“She won’t. Not for a while yet. She disapproves of what I am doing.” He said something more, then, when his daughter hesitated to translate it, drummed impatiently on the side of the bed until she did so. “She is in mourning,” his daughter finally said.
“For whom?” The words slipped out, but I’d had a guess. I just didn’t like it.
“For me.” Yuen smiled as his daughter translated his words.
I stared at him. The first thing that came to mind—
You don’t look dead
—didn’t seem to be the right thing to say. Yuen turned to his daughter and motioned toward the wall behind me, whispering something clearly not meant to be translated. She nodded and walked past me, reaching for a framed photo on the wall. “It is not entirely unexpected,” she translated as she followed his directions. “That is, the event itself is not. The timing of it is. I thought I would have another few weeks with which to settle matters.”
I tried to speak, made an embarrassingly squeaky noise, and cleared my throat. “I’m sorry,” I managed at last.
Yuen smiled again, though this time it was a more controlled, less happy smile, born of wisdom rather than mirth. “So am I. I am, though, fortunate that you were on hand. I would like you to verify something for me.”