“A king?” Pauz asked.
The birds settled, landing on the snowbanks all around us. The dogs sat.
Fuck. I didn’t want to see him listening.
“Ix-nay the ealing-day ith-way evils-day,” I muttered.
“Thirty languages of mankind,” Pauz said, his voice far too deep for how small he was. When he stood, he used the claws on his hands to perch. When he moved forward, he used the claws to keep his balance, with the oversized head and heavy slouch. His blind eyes were heavily lidded, as he glared at me. “I have learned from each host that I have taken. But I do not know this tongue?”
“For real?” I asked.
“For real,” Pauz said, deadly serious.
“My companion doesn’t want me to deal with you, Pauz,” Rose said. “He thinks it’s dangerous.”
“Then he is right,” Pauz said. “I am a danger to you.”
Was it bad that a very small part of me wanted to laugh in response to that? Rationally, I knew he was in no way harmless, but… so tiny.
“You are,” Rose said. “You’ve made that clear, here. But you have a goal, don’t you? Standing orders? I wasn’t too far off when I assumed you were acting against the natural order?”
“Mm hmm,” Pauz said.
“Upheaval, disorder, sowing seeds. Doing damage that won’t ever be repaired. The animals here are never going to act completely normal again, are they?”
“No,” Pauz said. “They are mine, and so are the people. I have my claws set in them, and already, I rend these people, strip things away, and change them.”
“Building a foundation,” Rose said. “So you can climb the ladder, access the greater powers, and more important people. Turn them upside down as you have with the animals.”
How would that work? A politician or CEO made feral? Savage? Falling from power, doing as much damage on the way as they could?
Pauz’s head turned. A car was approaching from the end of the street. The animals all moved simultaneously, crows alternately flocking closer or flying away, dogs slinking into the shadows or recesses where they could hide between cars and snowbanks. The birds descended on the disemboweled rabbit carcass I’d discarded, then took to the air, flying with the carcass carried between them, rending it, tearing, savage.
The car slowed as it approached the airborne flock, which only made it easier for them, when they dropped the dead rabbit onto the windshield. The glass cracked but didn’t break.
The car skidded to a stop. There was a pause, where the driver and passenger looked at me, the whites of their eyes showing. They started moving again, crawling forward, and then turned into a driveway.
Were they going to comment? Wonder why I was standing in their neighbor’s driveway? Force me to leave, and abandon the safety of my improvised circle?
They backed up, accelerated, then braked hard. The tattered rabbit corpse slid over the hood and onto the driveway, just in front of the garage.
They fled the car, glancing at me, then hurried into their home, leaving the corpse where it was. The car locks were activated after they were inside.
Pauz climbed up the side of the car, onto the hood. One strike of his claw punctured the window where the cracks already spiderwebbed out from the impact site, leaving a hole I could maybe have fit my head through.
The imp hopped onto the roof of the car, while a skeletal dog climbed up and wormed through the hole in the window, the edges of the glass slicing it here and there.
I could see the dog through the car windows, moving in between the driver and passenger seats, into the back seat of the car. Not sitting there, but hiding on the floor of the car.
Something told me it wouldn’t act until the car was well in motion.
No. I had to pay attention to the birds, the dogs. It was a fundamental problem, a change in the overarching dynamic of how they operated. They were cooperating, acting in sync, according to Pauz’s more malign interests, but working against the system that was our ecosystem.
If a politician was brought under the influence of Pauz the way the animals here were, then they might do as Pauz wanted them to do, while working against civilization and society.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about what kind of damage someone could do, given zero compunctions, an imp on their shoulder, and a powerful position.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about what Conquest would do, given the same.
“This isn’t going to work the way you want it to, Rose,” I said, speaking under my breath.
“We don’t have much of a choice,” she said. “And we’ve got him listening.”
“Remember the nuke analogy? He’s the equivalent of fallout, the radiation, pollution, whatever you want to call him. Handle with fucking care, Rose.”
“I know. Back me up? Trust me?”
I had to think about it for a second.
“Yeah,” I said. I’ve demanded the same of you too often to do anything different. “I’ll hear you out on this.”
“Pauz!” Rose called out.
“Mm?” Pauz responded. He was watching crows tear apart the rabbit.
“You’re not getting very far, are you? You’re seeding your malignancy here and there, but something’s going wrong, isn’t it? You keep changing hosts. You’re not getting traction. I’m offering you a shortcut.”
“You’re offering me a king.”
“Yes. Someone with power, with clout.”
“The Lord of Toronto. An Incarnation of Conquest. He thinks he can use you.”
“Does he?” Pauz asked.
“We can set you up with him, so you’re in a better position than ever.”
“The why is easy,” Rose said. “We’re not exactly on good terms with the local Lord. As for how… I’m going to need you to play along. We’re going to bind you.”
“Trickery,” Pauz said. He made his way across the roof of the car, his claws scratching and poking through the metal as he did, eliciting nail-on-a-blackboard screeches. “Deception, lies.”
“A little more subtle than that, Pauz. I’m thinking… If we simply bind you and release you, it’s too obvious. He’ll bind you himself, whether you agree or not. But if we give the contract a time limit.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m on the same page as the Imp here. Hm?”
“If we did the binding now,” Rose said, “and I’m not saying we should, we’d give it a time limit of sixty hours. Then you’re free. No fanfare, no announcement, nothing overt changes. We could even mock up a fake connection or binding to hide it, in case he bothers to check… but I don’t get the impression Conquest knows the ins and outs of demons and devils. He wouldn’t be dealing with this or relying on us if he did. You’re in our service and in our power when we turn you over to Conquest, as payment, the time limit runs out, and you’re free to do as you see fit, positioned right next to him.”
“With him there and listening,” Pauz said. “Easily swayed.”
“And,” Rose said, “If we can manage it, you’d have distractions.”
“You’re thinking about the other two,” I said. Fuck me, Rose. This isn’t playing with fire. This is playing with the big red button.
I’d almost protested out loud, but she’d asked me to play ball. I’d asked her to play nice enough times… I supposed this was where we really were the same person, or were siblings. It was only natural the tables would be turned, that she’d reflect my own personality traits.
“Yeah, I’m thinking about the other two,” Rose said. “We have to deal with them one way or another, anyhow. Let’s use them.”
“I’ll need time to consider,” Pauz said.
So do I.
“We can give you that,” Rose said.
“You can return tomorrow,” Pauz told us. “The Dowght home. My realm.”
“No,” Rose said. “Tonight, not tomorrow. We’re on a schedule.”
“Tonight,” Pauz conceded.
“Neutral ground,” I added.
“My realm,” Pauz said, his eyes narrowing. “You’re ‘on a schedule’. It is where you’ll find me, diabolists.”
“We’ll also need a promise of safety, for my companion, when he leaves this circle,” Rose said.
Pauz didn’t reply.
“The deal is off the table if you don’t,” Rose said.
“If I don’t,” Pauz said, “You die. You’ll get colder, others will ask you to move. Something will force you from that meager defense. Then the crows take your eyes, and the dogs eat the softer bits of you.”
“Not me,” Rose said. “My companion? Sure. But you’d only really get one of us.”
“Hey,” I said.
“I suppose it’s up to you, imp of the fifth choir,” Rose said. “One more death at your hands… or a chance to manipulate Conquest itself, possibly affecting this whole city.”
“Or,” he said, “I ask what you’re willing to give me.”
“You’re trying to extort from me?” Rose asked.
Pauz didn’t reply. He left his question hanging in the air.
“My name is Rose Thorburn,” Rose said. “Your kind knows of my blood. Demons greater than you have dealt fairly with us, insofar as there is ever a fair deal. What will they think, if a mere imp were to disrupt that arrangement?”
“Depends who you asked,” Pauz said. His voice was a low growl, tense and wary.
“I’d ask the big names,” Rose said. “Shall I say them? Shall I speak the names of the higher members of the fifth choir? I’d need only say them once, and we would have their attention. Say them five times, and I could negotiate with one of the entities you answer to.”
Pauz was tense.
“You’re not even a pawn to them, Pauz,” Rose said. “You’re not even a pawn on their pawn’s chessboards, so to speak. You’ve been largely forgotten, and I don’t think you want to be remembered. Not when you’re in the act of spoiling a longstanding working arrangement. Not when I could ask them to remove them from the picture as a bargaining point they wouldn’t even think twice about.”
“Brave words, from the woman in a mirror inside a very fragile circle,” Pauz said.
I had only a split second to think about it. I stepped out of the confines of the rabbit-gore circle, passing the threshold, moving closer to Pauz.
Radio static. Outside of the circle, I could feel his presence. It was like radio static in my head. White noise that wasn’t pleasant to listen to, fuzzing around the edges. Prickling at my skin, making me irritable, hypersensitive to everything that might bother me otherwise. The nip of the cold, the discomfort where the hatchet’s holster bunched up my boxers beside my balls, and the feeling of sweat-soaked clothes pressing against my shoulders and back.
Senses in overdrive, distracting white noise.
I could smell him, now. Feces, hot garbage, and blood. More of the same, a physical representation of a presence that was radiating into the area.
I wondered how different this would have played out, without the circle. Would the meeting have opened with a hit of static and stench that would have rocked my senses, kept me from maintaining my senses?
Despite the distractions, I still advanced closer, kept my shoulders square, chin up, my gaze level. I couldn’t react to anything I was experiencing; I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get my bearings and remain stoic in the face of it all.
I had to move around the snowbank that separated the two driveways to draw closer. My hand involuntarily clenched as the sense of distortion built up. The noise of it steadily increased, dissolving my thoughts now. No longer did I have that one concrete line of thoughts, all the other thoughts at the edges, cross-checking, comparing, searching for ways to expand or elaborate the thought.
Just one, one idea plodding along, and everything outside of that one line of thinking was noise and chaos, working against instead of with.
Dimly, I was aware that what I was doing was stupid, walking headlong into the radiation. I heard flapping nearby, the crows drawing nearer.
The idea became an action, singular, an impulse.
Rose spoke, and I wasn’t entirely able to make it out. The flapping continued, but they weren’t drawing nearer, now.
Somewhere along the way, I crossed another ten feet, reaching the car at the end of the driveway. I had the hatchet in my hand as I looked up at Pauz.
I thrust it out, into the side window of the car. The top of the hatchet’s blade punched through the glass, and frost spread out from the impact site.
Pauz moved back a half-foot as the frost spread along the car’s exterior.
I stayed there, arm extended, hatchet sticking through the shattered window of the car.
I wasn’t able to do much else, besides fight the pressure.
Rose said something else. “Do I need to say a name? Baph-”
“No,” Pauz interrupted. “There is no need. Go, diabolist.”
The word was enough. The order, almost. Still stiff-necked, back straight, I turned to leave. I fought the urge to stop when I saw the animals waiting, clustered on the snowbanks, at the edges of driveways, lurking in the shadows beneath and beside cars. Dogs, crows, rabbits and cats, all in ill-health.
“Blake,” Rose said, when we’d left the imp behind.
“No,” I replied.
I could still feel the effects of being so close to the Imp. It was hard to piece two and two together, much less string multiple words along. “No… not now.”
Not with the animals still here, watching.
We were almost at the subway station when I started to feel like I was getting back to normal.
My heart was pounding, I realized, my mouth was dry, and the adrenaline was making my hands shake. I felt pumped, but it wasn’t a good kind of pumped.
It was the rush that lingered after the flight or fight instincts had kicked in. I’d experienced it enough times. If I could go my entire life without ever experiencing it again, I’d die content. Fat chance.
Well, maybe not, now that I thought about it. The way things were going, with the estimations people kept making about my life expectancy, dying soon might not be out of the question.
“Okay,” I said. I took a deep breath, as if that could help with the vaguely sick feeling and the way my heart was still beating out of sync with what my body, mind, and emotions were doing.
“Okay?” Rose asked.
“I’m… up to talking, and I don’t think he’s got any animals that close by.”
“Okay,” she said. “Thoughts?”
“Still reeling,” I admitted. “That last bit was unpleasant.”
“I don’t think either Pauz or I expected it,” she said. “Why?”
“Because my mind turned off, and because… I don’t know. I was sort of trying to show we weren’t to be trifled with, and I wanted to break the car window.”
“When they see the damage, they’ll look,” I said. “It’s… close as I can figure, the only way they’re going to see the dog that’s inside the car. Maybe they’ll shit themselves when they walk over to the second broken window and the dog starts barking and snapping, but at least they won’t find out about the dog while they’re driving on a busy road and it bites their arm or throat.”
“You were thinking about all that?”
“I was going with my instincts,” I said. “Which is apparently the only thing you can do when you’re face to face with him.”
“Until he starts perverting your instincts,” Rose said.
“What the hell?” I asked.
“Him? That? That was not what I was expecting.”
“What were you expecting?”
“Something more feral. Something more like the barber. That was more like a goblin, and… it wasn’t stupid. There were times it seemed eerily human.”
“The books warned against using labels, putting things into tidy category of goblin and demon and whatever else. So maybe Pauz is more on the goblin-ish side of the spectrum.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Except goblins, as far as I know, don’t involve the metaphorical radiation we’re talking about.”
“And it’s a parasite. Remember what it said about the languages?”
“It knows thirty, but somehow it skipped Pig Latin.”
“It’s moving from host to host. And it’s taking something away from each one. Bits of personality, bits of knowledge. Piecing things together. It’s growing, I’m sure, with each one. Remember, it’s a spark. It’s trying to become a fire. Consuming, devouring, growing to a point where it’s out of control.”
“Which is why it’s been stopping and starting again?” I asked.
“No. I don’t think that’s why,” Rose said. “We won’t know for sure, until we meet this Dowght person he’s infected, but I think he’s killing them by accident. Think about what the women described. Dowght is feeding wild animals, drawing them to the area, then abandoning them to remain here, starving and vulnerable to Pauz’s influence. He’s living in filth, hoarding…”
“He’s maybe starving at the expense of feeding the animals?” I asked. “Or he’s getting bitten, or scratched, or diseased… so he dies in a little while, of an infection he’s not taking care of because Pauz has sway over him. Pauz moves on, starting the cycle anew, a little stronger each time, a little more human, as he collects bits of his hosts. Fanning the flames, until the blaze you’re talking about finally takes.”
“I think so,” Rose said. “It’s what I imagine, when I picture the situation and the relationship between the imp and its current host. That thing doesn’t seem like it would take good care of someone it’s using, not if it’s not taking care of the animals. If we extrapolate… I don’t think it considers events beyond the present.”
“Which is why you’re offering the deal you are?”
“In part,” Rose said. “It might be easier to deal with the two of them than it is to deal with Conquest and Pauz separately.”
“Unless they get along,” I said.
“Let’s hope they don’t,” Rose told me. “Because this is the closest thing I can come up with to a backup plan.”
“Next to orchestrating a mutiny?” I asked.
“Next to a mutiny,” Rose said.
I trudged on in silence, resisting the urge to fidget and burn off more of that lingering adrenaline. I pulled my gloves off and wrung my hands, then cracked my knuckles.
“Heads up. I won’t be able to reply in a few seconds,” I said, “Approaching the subway, don’t want to be seen talking to myself.”
“If we got a phone,” Rose said. “You could hold it up to your ear.”
“Kid on the subway saw you,” I said. “I’m not sure people wouldn’t hear you, too.”
“There was one thing that bugged me, by the way,” Rose said.
“Hm?” I grunted. I was uncomfortably close to a bystander, a guy standing just inside the subway entrance to smoke. Which was illegal, but still.
“You ask me to trust you, cool. I’ve made that leap, knowing a hell of a lot less going in than you knew going into this. But I ask you to trust me, and you hesitate?”
I rounded the corner as I descended the stairs. There were people on the platform below, but not in earshot.
“Dealing with demons,” I said, “A little different.”
She didn’t reply. I supposed it was because the mirror pendant gave her a view of the people in front of me.
We need to find a way to pull all this together, I thought.
A growl behind me made me whirl around.
It was an older lady, carrying a small dog that wore a jacket. The dog snarled, as my eyes met his. Or hers.
“Shhh, honey,” the old woman said.
The dog yapped, lunging in an effort to get out of its owners arms. Never mind that it probably would have hung itself, the way the leash was coiled up.
“I’m so-” the woman said, stopping as the dog tried to lunge again. “Sorry!”
The yapping, growling and struggling grew more intense.
“He never does this!”
“It’s-” I started.
But the sound of my voice seemed to tip the balance. The dog bit its owner, tiny white teeth disappearing into the meat of her fingers, exposed gums meeting flesh as blood welled up.
I fled, backing up, moving to the far end of the platform. There was nothing I could do.
Only distancing myself.
“Man,” a guy standing near me said. He smiled a little, “You always wonder about those owners who put their dogs in little jackets.”
I couldn’t bring myself to react, nor respond.
No doubt in my mind. This was our metaphorical radiation.
I could only hope it wore off soon.
I caught the train, not in the direction of home, but the University.
Crows in nearby trees called out as I walked down the broad footpath. Taunting me. Maybe threatening me.
The buildings were old, or as old as buildings got, in a country that only dated back a couple hundred years. Stone, stately, majestic.
The Sphinx’s domain.
I’d received no help from Fell or the Lord, but I did need to reach out, and this was the only place I could think of to start looking. Problem was, the university was probably two or three times the size of Jacob’s Bell, especially when the various residences and student buildings were taken into account.
It was a starting point, but it was damn nebulous as starting points went.
Well, the most obvious solution was often the correct one.
I headed straight for the visitors center, entering a building with a stone exterior and great white pillars framing the glass turnstile door.
Students milled this way and that, most in winter gear. A desk at the back had staff waiting, but it also had lines.
My eye fell on the table with campus calendars, and the two computers that stood on either side. Each computer, it seemed, was set up with a basic search engine for campus information.
Isadora, I tried.
I looked for a list of professors instead.
Phixopolous, Isadora, Professor of Ethics
Not even trying to mask it. She apparently wasn’t concerned about other practitioners finding her.
I dug a piece of paper from my pocket and wrote down the name and then found the building for the Ethics department, and a map to get my bearings.
I left the visitors center and headed for the building in question. Odds were good that she wouldn’t be there, but that was ideal.
Trouble presented itself before I was halfway there.
One at first, then – I saw him wave over some others out of the corner of my eye. A whole group of college-aged guys peeled away from a cluster in the open area just beside the university center. Following me. They moved in twos and threes, but they formed a general group of about eight or so. The connections between them and me marked their interest in me.
A few seconds after I’d noted the connection, some girls joined the group. I got a glimpse of them all as I rounded a corner, doing my utmost to keep from tipping them off.
The girls hadn’t joined the group after all. Instead, they walked on the very periphery of it. Each girl was independent, while the guys were a herd.
The Sphinx’s people?
No. The connection seemed fairly feeble, as such things went. As far as I could tell, without looking over my shoulder and letting them know I was on to them, they had no tie to the ethics department I was headed to.
“Rose,” I said, under my breath. “People following me.”
“What can I do?”
“Get a feel for them. Hop to any nearby reflections, see if you can’t get a better look at what I’m up against, come back and fill me in?”
It was a long walk, one that gave them chances to catch up. The girls were pulling ahead, more athletic in general, more given to the pursuit.
“I don’t know who or what they are,” Rose said.
“I’m wondering if they’re just susceptible to whatever effect is sticking to me after that talk with Pauz. Drunk people, more in tune with their baser instincts…”
“I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think that’s it. I don’t really have any senses, outside of sight. I can look at them, and they’re boys from college, talking, bumping shoulders, joking around, walking with arms around each other’s shoulders. Some drinking surreptitiously.”
“But… I feel like there’s an energy there. I don’t know if I feel it or if I’m seeing stuff I can’t put my thumb on. Like, they’ve got a vibe, good looking, they’re high-energy, naturally outgoing people, and they get people swept up in their attitude?”
“And the girls?” I asked. I didn’t even care that some people gave me quizzical looks. The guy talking to himself.
“Yeah, Rose. There are girls there too.”
“Be right back,” Rose said. She sounded as if she were saying it while in the process of making her exit.
A few seconds later, Rose reported in. “Yeah, there are girls.”
“I know there are girls.”
“They’re more predatory somehow? They remind me of Ellie.”
“Our older cousin,” I said. Rose’s comment was on the mark. From what I remembered of her, Ellie could play at being charming, if she wanted money or favors. Ninety percent of the time, however, she defaulted to a low intensity glare, like she hated you and hated life, and she needed no excuse to switch to a more intense attitude of ‘I hate you and I’ll hurt you if you get in my way.’ No filters, no impulse control.
“They’re with the boys, but not with them. Yeah, they’re the ones you want to worry about. Not quite so harmless looking as the boys.”
“The ‘boys’ didn’t look harmless to me,” I said.
“It’s part of that vibe I get from them, I dunno. Like, the air they give off. The friendly, slightly immature sort of guy who wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “You’re, like, saying ‘like’ a lot. Twice that I remember, in the last minute.”
“Am I? I am. Fuck,” Rose said. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Try to hold off regressing to your hormonal teenage years,” I said. “Because I’m pretty sure they’re closing the distance.”
Was there a point where I’d need to break into a run?
Could I outrun them?
I wasn’t sure what I was dealing with. Nice guys with a more pleasant sort of energy, and more dangerous girls?
I was in the middle of trying to figure out a game plan, when I saw someone raise their hand. A small wave.
A guy I didn’t know, heavy and sporting the sort of beard that had been grown for length more than style, and a girl I did recognize. Tiffany. Alexis’ latest rescue, the artist who’d put together the gift I’d given Conquest.
She said goodbye to the guy and walked over to intercept me.
“Hey, Blake. I didn’t know you went to University,” she said. She smiled.
“I don’t,” I said. I stopped in my tracks, knowing how dangerous it was. “Hey, can we talk while we walk? Or brisk stride? I’m in a hurry.”
“Um, sure,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Meeting someone?” she asked.
“Hoping to,” I said. I turned to look at her, offering a little smile. My motives were twofold. Putting her at ease was one fold, getting a glimpse of the group behind us was another.
They’d slowed down, but they were fanning out. One of the lead guys and two of the girls were talking, and something about the intensity of their looks and the changing nature of the connection between us said they were adjusting their approach.
I could hear crows cawing at me, mocking me, reminding me of what was going on.
Fuck. Between the radiation and the heaps of bad karma my bloodline had, I was a walking disaster area.
How could I tell Tiffany to get the fuck away without really upsetting her? Without upsetting Alexis, too, and my other friends in the process?
“I’m not walking you away from where you need to be?” I asked.
“No. I’m- I could do whatever.”
Damn. I glanced at her, and saw she was averting her gaze, looking down at the ground as she walked. It wasn’t just the here and now. It was the way she was. No personal confidence.
“You’re going to school here, huh?”
“Alexis helped me apply for a scholarship. I have no freaking idea what I’m doing next year, but even one year of University is more than I ever thought I’d do. My family doesn’t have a lot of money. Or any money, really, and I kind of have a little learning disability, not a big one but I actually have been postponing a visit to the disabilities center to talk about my exams and… I’m saying all the self-pitying stuff that I’m not supposed to tell people the first time I meet them.”
I looked at her, and I was able to see the group in the reflection in a window. Rose was there too, looking about as worried as I felt. Which was a lot.
“You know all that helpful, well-meaning advice they’re giving you?” I asked.
“I’m really bad at following it, personally. So I want you to know that with me, you don’t have to sweat it, okay? I’m absolutely going to take it in stride, or I’ll try to.”
“Alexis said you’d be like that.”
“Alexis is pretty awesome,” I said.
That earned me my first really wide smile. Common ground, a safe subject.
“She really is,” she said, followed by, a second later, another unprovoked hit to confidence. “I feel like a bit of a pet project sometimes.”
“Take it from another pet project of hers,” I answered, “Don’t sweat it. Joel was just telling me earlier, it doesn’t all have to be equivalent. Take the good, don’t question it, and be glad to give what you can back. They’re a good bunch of people, just… enjoy them.”
“Yeah, just take it in stride, relax,” I said. “Speaking of giving, the painting you sold me might have saved my life, last night. Thank you.”
“Really? You paid too much for it.”
“I truly believe it was worth what I paid. More than, even,” I said. “I needed a gift, for a… very eccentric guy. A bottle of wine wouldn’t have worked, and I needed to get in his good graces. It got a good reception from just about everyone present.”
“Really. Like I said, a lifesaver.”
“The eccentric guy liked it?”
“He wasn’t sure he liked it until everyone else started saying it was good.”
“So he didn’t like it.”
Another look at Tiffany, more pointed, another chance to see where the group was by way of peripheral vision.
They were flanking me. Two of the girls, one on each side of me. Like lionesses working together.
It caught me off guard enough that I forgot to say what I was going to say.
“He really didn’t like it?” she asked, taking my silence for something else.
“I meant what I said,” I told her, my eyes straight forward now. “If I were to judge solely by the decor of his front hallway, I might say he doesn’t have a real sense of aesthetic, taste, or consistency. He needed other people to chime in before he could decide for himself, about your painting. But it did end up doing what it was supposed to, and a good number of people did like it. Really. Many of whom know what they’re talking about. Take that for what it’s worth.”
She didn’t take her eyes off the ground, but I saw her expression soften, tension disappearing. She unconsciously reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear.
I was so busy looking I nearly missed it. Right there, to Tiffany’s right, the ethics building.
The group following seemed to be expecting me to go further down the path, to have more time to flank me or cut me off.
“This way,” I said, quickening my pace, “Sorry.”
Tiffany, however, slowed. “I might have to catch up with you another time. You’re obviously in a hurry, and I’m not a fast walker.”
If she stopped, however, the other guys would catch up with her-
They, I noticed, were reacting to my change of direction, realizing they wouldn’t be able to catch me.
“Coffee,” I blurted out.
“One errand, I’ve got,” I said, walking backwards, mixing up my words in the hurry to get the idea out, “And I’ll treat you to coffee?”
She looked startled, deer in the headlights. For a second, I thought she’d back up, fleeing my presence, right into the approaching group of eight or so guys.
But she nodded, quickening her pace to catch up with me again.
Still too slow.
The two of us reached the front door of the building. I side-stepped to open it for her, and a hand stopped it from opening.
I turned, and saw the group was clustering around us.
“Hey!” one guy said. Brown haired, wearing a dark green scarf, a letter jacket and skinny jeans. He smiled wide, and made it look genuine. “Been a little while, huh?”
A little while?
Oh. He was one of the guys from last night. One of the ones who’d been with the drunkard.
Followers of Dionysus on a University campus?
Fuck. I could start to put two and two together with that. The predatory women at the fringes of the crowd…
In my catch-up reading last night, I’d read about women that drank wine and blood both. Tore men to shreds in violent, drunken revels.
“I actually have somewhere I’m aiming to be,” I said.
“Don’t be unfriendly, man,” he said. “Come on.”
The guy was uncomfortably close. The smell of him was too. Weed and booze and guy smells and sunshine and hay.
“Who’s your friend?” another guy asked. “Hello, miss.”
“Hi,” Tiffany said, her voice quiet. She looked as if she were caught halfway between her complete lack of self confidence and the presence of the guys.
“Want to come to a party? We’re pretty damn easygoing.”
“I was just at a party last night,” she said, glancing at me.
“Perfect,’ he said, not missing a beat. “Parties every night, it’s how University is supposed to be.”
“Hey, man,” the guy in front of me said. I could feel his breath in my face. “You don’t need to worry about her.”
Then, under his breath, he said, “Worry about yourself.”
Worry about myself?
“I gather your cult leader has a problem with me?” I asked, loud enough for Tiffany to hear.
“Cult?” Tiffany asked, her eyes widening.
The guy I was talking to gave me an annoyed look. “That’s not exactly fair. Or appropriate.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “How would you describe it?”
“More like a frat,” he said. “Minus the initiations and douchebag stuff. Very laid back.”
“With an emphasis on the laying?” I retorted.
His eyes narrowed. “See, now you’re upsetting me a little, and I’m a really hard sort of guy to upset.”
“Great,” I said. Trying to sound upbeat, not nearly as intimidated as I felt. “Your fault, really. You’re the one who approached me. You’re keeping me from leaving.”
“Now you’re being argumentative,” he said. He flashed another winsome smile. “Don’t do that.”
“Where’s this discussion going?” I asked.
“We’re chatting, friendly-like,” he said.
“What’s the goal?” I asked, “What are you after?”
“Well, I figure maybe your friend could come with us, and you, me, and some of my lady companions here could go have a private chat.”
The lady companions. They weren’t even trying to look like any private chat we had wouldn’t end up with me bleeding or dead.
“I don’t know,” Tiffany said. “We were having a nice chat, and we were going to go out for coffee.”
“Coffee with friends can happen any time,” one of the guys said.
“Tiffany,” I said, “Cult.”
The idea seemed to knock some sense into her.
“I’d like to say we’re more like a frat minus all the stuff that makes frats unpleasant,” another guy chimed in. “Question is, how often do you have a number of rather attractive young men expressing interest in you?”
I could see Tiffany trying to process the idea, as if it was a first-ever.
Fuck them, toying with her. Tiffany seemed pretty cool. I was not going to see her thrown to the wolves. Or whatever animals these guys were.
“I don’t think you’re getting the message, here,” I said.
Physical contact was not a thing I really did, but I reached out and found Tiffany’s hand. I gripped it, then pulled her closer. When she was beside me, I put my arm around her shoulders.
She kind of froze, more than anything else.
“We’re going out to coffee soon, because I think she’s cool, and I’d like to get to know her better. You’re being exactly the kind of douches you’re professing not to be.”
“Let me at him,” one of the girls said.
The lead-guy looked at me, “You know who she is?”
“I think I know what she is,” I said.
Which sounded pretty bad without context.
“I’m having a really hard time thinking of why I shouldn’t just let her at you,” he said.
Fuck. With Tiffany right here? I couldn’t do anything with her nearby. I-
The window five feet to my left shattered violently. Then another.
The group reacted, and the guy with his hand on the door moved it.
My arm still around Tiffany, I hauled the door open, forcing his gloved hand to slide rather than hold it shut, and hurried inside.
Coming face to face with Isadora. Human, but her face and hair were very much recognizable.
“Hi,” I said.
“Bringing trouble to my doorstep, Mr. Thorburn?” she asked. “And… female guests?”
“She’s the one who painted the thing you saw last night.”
“Mmm,” she said, “It was good. Not my style, but good. One moment.”
She walked past me, approaching the group of young men and women, who were on the other side of the door.
They backed away a bit as she stepped through. The door clicked shut.
I could only barely hear her. “Certain oversight at this University has been gracious enough to allow you to prowl on this campus. If you would like to make an issue of it-”
“No, ma’am,” the lead guy said.
“Behave, and don’t overstep your bounds,” she said. “Or privileges can be rescinded.”
The door opened. “A window was broken.”
“Wasn’t us,” Tiffany said. “It just happened. I didn’t see how.”
“I’m sure,” Isadora said. “I know what you’re going to ask, Mr. Thorburn.”
“You don’t have a sense of the big picture. Or just what it means when you come to my doorstep, smelling like… something foul. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“He… doesn’t smell,” Tiffany said. “You don’t have to be such a bitch.”
Wait, what? This wasn’t the Tiffany I’d been talking to just seconds ago.
“There’s an irony in those two statements being paired together. Nonetheless, I’ll cut this short, so you can be on your way. No. Not with the sort of business your family has done. If you try anything, I’m going to work against you, if anything.”
“If you could put me in contact with some of the other locals-”
“No, Mr. Thorburn, and goodbye.”
With that, she was gone.
All for nothing.
“What was that about?” Tiffany asked. “What a bitch.”
“I’m not sure why she reacted like that,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. Sorry about all that.”
“The arm over your shoulder-”
“It’s- that’s more okay than the rest of it,” she said, eyes dropping to the ground. She stammered a bit. “I don’t- I’m not sure that makes sense.”
“It does,” I said. “Listen, I did promise coffee, and it looks like I’m clear.”
“Yes,” she said, and she smiled in a shy way that made her eyes squint.
I could see why Alexis had connected to her. Tiffany and I were similar in some ways, different in others. Alexis hadn’t been completely off her rocker when she’d considered introducing us. Only just a bit off her rocker in the how of it, maybe. This wouldn’t be an obligation coffee, or a rescue-coffee. I was pretty confident in that, now.
I just wished I could feel half as confident about the radiation and its momentary influence on her.
Or about Rose, who might have suffered for those two windows she’d broken.
Or the deadline, and the Imp we had to figure out how to bind.
Or anything, really.