Maggie glanced over the books. First Famulus, then Implementum, Demesnes, and then Famulus again.
Rose was watching Maggie, but I had still taken the time to collect the medicine kit and a damp towel and bring everything into the living room with me. More stuff in the way, a more crowded space.
I took my time disinfecting my hand, cleaning it up where I’d stabbed it. The blood had trickled out and into the palm, collecting with the bits of rust and dirt where I’d reached into the trash can.
“Alright,” Maggie said. “You’ve got good stuff, and I admit you’ve got me hooked. You want me to be an unofficial ally, in exchange for free access to your books? I’d be down.”
I glanced at Rose. “Did you do any negotiating in the twenty seconds I was in the bathroom?”
“We didn’t propose anything like that,” I told Maggie.
“Are you trying to pull a fast one on us, Maggie?” Rose asked.
“Nah. I just figured I’d put it out there. See if it got any traction.”
“You said you wouldn’t try anything,” I said.
“No bad intentions in my heart, really, but I’ve gotta get the best deal I can for me.”
I sat there, glaring at her, but she only smiled.
“This is exhausting,” Rose said. “Watching every word you say, watching every word others say…”
I nodded. I felt a bit weary myself. Maybe having company when I was this worn out was a problem.
But an ally was an ally, so to speak. Even if that ally was grubbing for any advantage she could get.
“I guess it’s not so bad when everyone’s not trying to take you out of the picture,” Maggie said.
“Guess not,” I responded. I looked my hand over, and then set to bandaging it. I was collecting a lot of small wounds. The cuts from the bird-skull things hadn’t yet healed, and I had sliced at my fingers once or twice to draw blood.
“You’ve got something I want, I’ve got something you want. So… I can propose another deal. You loan me out some reading material, and I promise not to kill you.”
There was a pause. Maggie looked at me and Rose with a kind of expectant look on her face.
“You still have no bad intentions?” Rose asked.
“Threatening to kill us if we don’t comply?” Rose asked.
“No! No. I worded that badly. I mean, I’ll take the deal. Agree to the ceasefire you proposed at the meeting.”
“Meaning that on top of the gift of reading material, we’d be giving you the other parts of that deal, with protection from whatever might come out of our grandmother’s books.”
“That doesn’t seem very even,” Rose said.
“Supply and demand, my dear friend in the mirror. You have a demand for not being murdered. I can supply that demand.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” I said.
“Why not? Look, you want lots of a product I’m offering, called ‘not being horribly killed’. You want it badly enough that I can raise the price. You benefit, because you get lots of ‘not being horribly killed’, I benefit because, hey, I get stuff.”
“No,” Rose said, “I’m pretty sure the two of us understood that.”
“And, on the plus side, if you’re wanting to put the squeeze on the other guys, then you can get them to panic just a little when you tell them there are only two deals left before they’re outta luck.”
“Three,” Rose said. “If someone wants to take the deal where they can still come after us if they tell us who killed Molly.”
“I forgot about that,” Maggie said. “You won’t have much luck. Couple of the Behaim kids met me at school, told me that they’re going around, talking to everyone and making sure that they weren’t giving you information that might start something none of us want to start. Most people are sworn to secrecy, at this point.”
“Most? What about the others?” Rose asked.
I was sitting on the edge of the couch, elbows on my knees, hunched over. I met Maggie’s eyes. “What about you?”
“The ones who swore to secrecy also agreed to go after the people who blabbed,” she said.
“Did you agree?” I asked. I was getting damn tired of people who didn’t answer the questions they were being asked.
She shook her head. “No. But it doesn’t matter, now, does it? I could tell you what happened, but then I’m probably going to wind up with some rather angry people coming after me.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I get it.”
“We’d do something similar in her shoes,” Rose said.
I grunted noncommittally.
“That’s her stuff, there?” Maggie asked.
I had to raise myself up off the couch a bit to see where she was pointing. The duffel bag and pile of clothes was still on the floor just beneath the arm of the couch.
I collapsed back onto the cushions. “Yep.”
“Didn’t really know her that well. Saw her a few times. She didn’t show at the council meetings until the last month, and I don’t think she was game. Took her longer than it took you guys to realize you can go out and maybe not die.”
“We’ve had escorts, and promises of protection in one way or another,” Rose said.
“Still,” Rose said. “It’s dangerous. We’ve gotten hurt every time.”
“I’ve gotten hurt, you mean,” I said.
“More than your predecessor did, oddly enough,” Maggie did.
“Did she do any of the practitioner stuff?” Rose asked.
“She did. Yeah. She knew some tricks. Mostly defensive. Warding things off. Knew the essentials of how to deal with every one of the creepy crawlies out there. But knowing what you’re doing doesn’t make life easier when the Others scare the wits out of you, y’know? You don’t think straight, you make mistakes…”
“I suppose,” I said. I was trying to visualize it.
“Did you talk to her?” Rose asked.
“Once or twice. She was kind of freaked out,” Maggie said.
“You didn’t try to help?” Rose asked.
“That’s… I dunno. I’m not sure how I would’ve or could’ve,” Maggie said.
“I’ve been trying to put myself in the heads of the other locals,” Rose said. “Yourself included. I understand that they are scared. I understand that our family has a history of meddling in pretty dangerous things. But then I look at the difference between the Duchamp kids and the Duchamp parents, like we saw earlier…”
“Maybe better to not say anything there,” I commented.
“What do you mean?” Rose asked.
I rubbed at my eyes. “Might be they don’t want their actions broadcasted or gossiped about.”
“I’m sworn to secrecy about anything I discover inside this house, aren’t I?” Maggie asked.
“You are,” I said. “But betraying confidence, implicitly or otherwise, it seems messy. Bad karma, maybe.”
“Point,” Maggie said. “Change of topic then. I don’t get a lot of what’s going on, politically. I have to trade for every tidbit of information I get. Even about the obvious stuff you read about in those books. I’m kind of new here, though. New to this, to everything. I’ve only been at this for half a year.”
I nodded. My stomach was burbling just a bit. Maybe a factor in why I felt so drained. I’d given up blood, skipped meals, missed sleep. Those things had to be fundamental to personal power.
I stood up.
“I’m going to get something. You want anything?” I asked.
“Something I can legally give you.”
“Nah. I’m alright.”
I made my way to the kitchen. “Can I ask, Maggie? What’s your story?”
“My story?” she asked, calling out from the living room. I glanced, and saw she had picked up Famulus again.
“You got started somewhere.”
“Didn’t we all?”
“No games, please,” Rose’s voice came from the living room. “If you don’t want to say, you don’t have to say, but I’m on the same page with Blake about being horribly fed up with this doubletalk.”
Maggie didn’t respond to that.
Searching the kitchen for foodstuffs, I found some bread in the freezer. A little freezer burned, and showing signs of what might be mold.
Well, no use wasting it.
I cut the mold off, buttered it, cut up the remaining chunk of cheddar and layered it between the two slices before throwing it in a frying pan.
Maggie appeared in the doorway, leaning against it with her arms folded, so she had both me and Rose in her line of sight. “What do you know about goblins?”
“Ugly,” I said. “Brutish, warlike, twisted, brimming with all sorts of emotional negativity.”
“That’s essentially it. You know their weak point?”
“Iron,” I said. “They’re creatures of nature?”
“Iron. But they’re warriors, understand? They use iron. They make weapons. They’re of nature, but so is snake venom, so is cancer, understand? They’re the ugly bits. The savage, primitive, visceral, neanderthal bits. Once upon a time, it was pretty standard for goblins to give humans a hard time. Steal unattended objects, suck a cow’s udders dry before the farmer could milk them, spread plague, tangle hair, gobble up anyone who got turned around in the woods and passed by the same place three times…”
I nodded. I used a fork to lift the corner of the bread and see how it was browning.
“A few reasons they stopped. The first is that practitioners started going after their leaders. The dumbest, meanest, most savage of them got snapped up and jammed into objects or they got sealed, stuck in holes and covered up with rocks, yadda yadda. And there aren’t many powerful goblins who aren’t kind of stupid and savage.”
Rose asked something I couldn’t make out.
Maggie nodded. “Yeah. There are some scary ones out there. Even now. Real monsters. But I’m getting off topic. The second big reason that the goblins stopped picking on humanity was that we went and got ourselves modern plumbing. You know that bit, about how vampires can’t cross running water? Water is life, it’s natural, and it naturally draws out the deathly energies. Well, for goblins, metal does the same thing, and it takes a bit out of them when they pass over a place where metals are buried. More so if that metal is charged with any power.”
“Pipes under the streets?” I asked.
“The flowing water gives it some basic elemental power. They don’t like it, saps their energy when they do a little hop, skip or jump over the barrier. So they lurk around the city instead of inside it. In rural areas, other places where water service is more inconsistent. Or smaller towns, where the local infrastructure taxes them a little less for getting from A to B.”
“Like Jacob’s Bell,” I could hear Rose.
“Yep. Among other places. Redneck scumholes are sort of scumholes because goblins hang around there, you know? The little twits have their fun making paint peel prematurely, stealing a little money here or there, pulling stuff apart, making it so cars break down, and so on and so on. People who wind up in slums and scumholes find it just a little bit harder to get out, when things refuse to pick up and run smoothly.”
Rose said something. I only caught the tail end, “…fair game.”
“Open season,” Maggie agreed. “Once you fall far enough through the cracks, you start losing the protections most of humanity enjoys. The kid that locks himself in his room and never comes out, the antisocial couple, the poor schmo who loses his house and business. If the goblins manage to help someone down that path, drag them down a little further, and some other Other doesn’t go after the unfortunate soul, they get to enjoy the reward. Goblin SOP. Standard operating protocol. Making everyone’s bad days a little worse”
A memory crossed my mind. Being woken from my sleep by a beating. The mocking laughter. Never seeing their faces, because I had to cover my head, because I had blood in my eyes.
One of them had called it off. Let me limp away, crawl away when the limping proved too difficult.
They let me think I could maybe get to a busier street where I could beg for help, then kicked me one last time, hard enough to prove me wrong.
And another memory, one I had told Rose about, not long ago. Being shot with BB guns. The bruises, the way my arm had changed colors, and the fear I’d felt, wondering if I needed to go to the hospital.
There had been no laughter that time. They had lurked in the shadows, firing until they had no more ammunition, watched me struggle, then feigned like they’d reloaded and were going to shoot me again, just to see me flinch. I’d gone still for a time, and they had moved on when I looked up again.
Both memories had distorted. Spend too long without revisiting memories, and they had a way of twisting. When I remembered the laughter being a little too much, a little too high pitched from some, too deep from others, I’d told myself it was just my memory playing tricks on me.
When I remembered the mix of heights and body types of the ones with the BB guns, just one half-step outside the bounds of what one would expect from a typical crowd of people, I’d told myself the same.
Tricks of memory. Easy to believe, especially when you didn’t want to think about it.
I didn’t like it. I was already feeling like half a person, using the wrong soaps, being in an unfamiliar place, acting like someone entirely different in the heat of a fight, beating a woman -a something– to the point that she couldn’t move. This was one more straw on the camel’s back, and I wasn’t sure what was going to give.
I grabbed my sandwich.
“…aren’t immortal,” Maggie was saying. “They die like you or me. But they breed. I’d be really interested in reading a book about goblins, to see how that’s linked to their personal power, or see what keeps that in check. I’ve become something of a goblin queen.”
“A what?” I asked.
“Someone works with spirits almost exclusively? Shaman. Work with time, you’re a chronomancer. Fire? Pyromancer. The future? Augur, predictomancer, something like that. Work with demons, you’re a diabolist. Work with goblins? Goblin queen.”
“Johannes would be a goblin king, then?” Rose asked.
“Johannes is Johannes. He works with anything and everything. Others call him a sorceror, so that’s what I’m gonna call him.”
“Making you the resident goblin queen. Is that by choice or happenstance?” Rose asked.
“Yes,” Maggie said. “Former and/or latter. You wanted to know where I come from? I came from a place that was falling through the cracks. And just like goblins might go after someone who’s slipped through civilization’s secure embrace, they’ll go after a location. And it was bad. Bad enough that not all of us made it out.”
“And even though goblins did this sort of thing to you, you’ll keep their company? Work with them?” I asked. My food sat on my plate, untouched. I wasn’t that hungry anymore.
“Seal them, bind them, enslave them,” Maggie said. “You gotta own the past, don’t you? Own the bad parts as well as the good. Let it make you stronger.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” I asked.
“I always hated that phrase,” I said. “No. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”
“Weren’t you telling me the other day that you survived some bad stuff, and so you’ve got keener instincts?” Rose asked.
“I said something like that,” I said. “I’m not sure I’m stronger as a whole, though.”
My eyes darted in Maggie’s direction.
I added, “Maybe we can have this conversation another time.”
As if it was some way of fixing the unease I felt, I picked up the almost forgotten sandwich and took a bite.
“I dunno why,” Maggie said, “But it’s kind of eerie seeing you two disagreeing. I thought somehow that mirror girl was some sort of subservient vestige thing, but she’s got a real personality?”
“We’re not giving up too much information on that front, either,” Rose said. “It’s kind of a sore point. Sorry.”
“No prob. I’m not going to tell you guys my whole story, you don’t have to tell me yours. I gotta go soon, though. School, promises. If we’re going to hash something out, we shouldn’t waste time.”
“We could invite you back,” I said. “Same rules.”
“I could accept,” she said, matching me in terms of how noncommittal I was being. “We sort of dropped the first bit of conversation we were having. Figuring out what sort of deal we were negotiating. It’s not so bad. Apply a little pressure, get one person on board.”
I really wasn’t up to negotiating.
Rose, however, jumped into it, “We’re giving you a fair bit. Not to be rude, but you seem to have an awful lot of demand too. For knowledge, for books.”
“I’ll live if the deal doesn’t go through,” Maggie said. She left the other half of her statement unsaid. We might not.
“You’re really big on the unreasonable bargain,” Rose said.
“I would say I’m really big on not getting the short end of the stick. Had enough of that, thank you,” Maggie said.
“Throw us a bone,” Rose said.
“What sort of bone?”
“You’re taking knowledge out of our hands every time you walk off with a book, and you’re putting us at risk and some small inconvenience every time we accept you in, assuming you might want to do your reading here.”
“I was kind of hoping we could be friendly-ish,” Maggie said. “Give and take, in terms of enjoyment of one another’s company.”
“I’m flattered,” I said. I hadn’t meant it to sound as morose as it did. I was tired. Not functioning.
The food might have been helping, though. I felt a fraction better, having eaten. Even if it was stale bread and a bit of cheese.
“Let’s not count on friendship,” Rose said. “Take the friendship out of the equation, and we’re the ones with the short end of the stick. Having someone show up unexpectedly, occupying our time when we could be focusing on something else…”
“We need allies, Rose,” I said.
“We do,” she agreed. “But let’s call this what it is. Maggie wouldn’t be here if she didn’t think she could get something. She’s going to take a bit of our hospitality, she’s going to make use of our books. I’m thinking we ask for a little something each time.”
“A little something?” Maggie asked. She raised an eyebrow, giving me a very deliberate head-to-toe once-over look.
“A small favor, a token gift, a bit of power, some knowledge…” Rose said, trailing off.
“As what? Payment for access to a given book?”
“Essentially,” Rose said. “Everything has a price, doesn’t it?”
Maggie nodded. “It does. So. You get someone accepting your deal. Nonaggression from me. You get a little something any time I get your book.”
“Or visit,” Rose cut in.
Maggie made a face. “You don’t like me very much, do you?”
“I like you fine,” Rose said, in what were maybe the least friendly sounding words I’d heard out of her mouth.
“Uh huh. So you get the ceasefire from me, a gift of some small to moderate value for allowing me access to this house or access to your stuff. Unless you waive it? Like, if I have something really good, and you decide it’s worth a bit more than usual?”
“I think that’s fair,” Rose said.
“Good. Um. I get access to knowledge, as you permit, though I get something. I get a guarantee, too, that you’re going to do something to keep your demons from hurting me.”
“To be frank,” I said, “I dunno how.”
“What Blake means is we’ll find a way. You’ll have definite, distinct protections against anything we contract with.”
“Good enough. You’re not planning on summoning anything bad, are you?”
“No,” Rose said. “If we do anything, it’s going to be accidental.”
Rose glanced at me. I nodded.
“I so swear that we have no intention of summoning anything of the nature you’re talking about,” Rose said.
“Then promise you’ll protect me when and where you’re able, using the knowledge and tools you’ve got,” Maggie said. “I’ll settle for that.”
Vague. I wouldn’t have settled for that sort of protection.
I was too tired to look up, so I only gave a thumbs up.
“Should the deal go through, I promise that will be the case,” Rose said, again.
“Good enough for me. Yeah. That sounds pretty good. Is a verbal contract okay?”
“No,” I said.
“No?” Maggie asked.
“No,” I repeated myself. “No verbal contract. We can hash it out in writing.”
“Written contract. Isn’t that more dangerous? Room for traps and loopholes?” Maggie asked.
“Not if we keep it simple,” I said. “Which we can. After I get a good night’s sleep and talk things over with Rose. But the interior of my skull is feeling a bit slow, I’m tired, and I’m not focused. Tomorrow, or the day after.”
Maggie groaned, flopping back in her chair. “Yeah. Except it never works out that smoothly.”
“I don’t think anything is going to change in the next day or two,” Rose said. “I’m sorry, but I sort of agree with Blake. We should be careful and deliberate in anything we do.”
“You don’t think anything is going to change. What? You want a chance to spy on me? Run a background check on the local?”
“Are we going to start fighting?” Rose asked. “Because that’s a bad sign, if we descend into animosity so readily.”
“Animosity?” I asked. “Readily?”
“I’ve been reading too many of these old books,” Rose said.
“I don’t want to be animostic,” Maggie said. “I just want power. And everyone’s keeping it to themselves and making me pay out of the nose for it. I get teased with it, and it never gets delivered in full. Padraic, the North End Sorcerer…”
“Dangerous guys to be associating with,” I said.
Maggie was up and out of her seat in an instant. “I don’t have a choice!”
Wrong thing to say, wrong time. I hadn’t realized how upset she was, how its barely restrained.
“Not if I want to do something! And I don’t not want to do something because I did that when I had to watch my old neighborhood go up in blood and fire!”
“Calm down,” Rose said.
Maggie switched to a more sarcastic tone. “Oh, yeah, How often does that work? Tell someone to calm down and they chill out?”
“I don’t know,” Rose said. “But I think, given that this is Blake’s house, and he can ask you to leave at any time, and we do want to work with you, we’ll all be happier if this conversation doesn’t escalate into something ugly.”
Maggie deflated a little. “Crumbs.”
“Well put,” I said. “Do me a favor? Take a minute, we can enjoy a bit of silence, I’ll try not to fall asleep, and we start again when we all have our thoughts in order?”
“I gotta head to school in a few minutes,” Maggie said. “Don’t have a lot of time.”
“Please?” I asked.
“I’m really not a patient type, but sure.”
“Thank you,” Rose murmured.
Maggie collapsed into her chair. I took my time getting up, cleaning off the plate and putting it away in the drying rack.
I debated coffee, checking the tin. Just enough grounds to tantalize me with the possibility, but leave me short of a decent brew.
I settled for tap water, instead, and felt suitably depressed over it.
I set a glass in front of Maggie before taking my spot on the couch.
“Cool?” I asked.
“Alright,” I said. “You understand that we have to be careful?”
“Yeah. And… I did use the moment of silence to think. As apology for my outburst, and maybe a bit of incentive to get you on board…”
She reached behind her back, and she put a piece of intricately folded paper on the table. She used a flick of her index finger to send it sliding across the table.
I didn’t touch it. “What is it?”
“One tidbit I was able to pick up these past few months was about Eastern styles. India, some of Japan. See, they aren’t big on familiars and implements and demesnes. Well, the Western-influenced ones are. But they prefer to remain hands off, delineate pretty severely. Their preference is to contain, bind, leash.”
“Okay,” I said.
“We walk around with the metaphorical equivalent of a canine companion. They work with us, they help us hunt or they get our food, they get the benefits of cozy mortal living, we get the benefit of their talents. In the East, in the places I’m talking about, they prefer to leash the things. They tie their dogs to trees. Or keep them behind fences. You get my meaning?”
“I think so,” I said.
“That right there is an ofuda. Your metaphorical dog in a cage, and it’s not a big dog, but it’s still a dog. It barks, it bites.”
“A little bundle of mean. He’ll come out gnashing and snarling, so point him away from you and at whoever you want to hurt.”
I picked it up. “Amassing a bit of a collection of trinkets today. Hatchet with a ghost inside, a lock of a faerie’s hair, now this.”
I had to stand to move my sweatshirt and draw the hatchet from where I’d jammed the handle in by my hip. I needed a better way of holding it close to me.
I put it on the table beside the slip of paper. Still standing, I removed the lock of hair from my back pocket. It was only after I’d withdrawn it that I realized I’d managed to get it all in and out of my pocket without losing any. If it had been my hair, I’d be finding hair in my back pocket for weeks.
“May I see the axe?” Maggie asked.
“Look, but don’t touch,” I said. “And it’s a hatchet, not an axe.”
“Do you not live in this world?” Rose asked. “Semantics are important.”
The phrasing made me think of Paige.
God damn, I needed to interact with a familiar face so badly right now. Heck, even an unfamiliar face… it would make a world of difference to ground me, to give me a solid injection of reality and sanity.
“Admittedly true,” Maggie was saying. “They are important. And people who argue over semantics are still a pain in the bum.”
“You’ve got to explain how you lost the ability to swear,” Rose said.
“I don’t got to do anything,” Maggie said. “Unless we arrange that deal, and you agree that tidbit of knowledge is worth the loan of a book.”
I could follow the conversation, but wasn’t quite feeling up to joining in. I looked at the piece of folded paper with letters scrawled on it in ink, then slipped it into the little mini-pocket of my right jeans pocket.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
“Gotcha,” Rose said. To Maggie, she said, “That sets a bad precedent. You’ll be more inclined to hold details back just so you can sell them to us.”
I didn’t hear the rest, as I headed up the stairs.
I entered my grandmother’s room and paused, taking it in.
Nothing had changed since our conversation. The bed was made, maybe a little dusty, everything was in order. As though she had just left yesterday.
I could feel her presence here. Not in a ghostly way, but in a general way.
I looked over the top of one dresser, where her old jewelry was arranged in boxes and on stands. Modest stuff, not ostentatious. Relatively little jewelry, all things considered.
My plan was to grab a fine chain, if I had to settle for the bare minimum. Something stronger than cord or thread. I didn’t have to settle.
A locket dangled from one of the racks. Simple, unembellished. Only a rectangle with rounded-off edges. I had to move other necklaces to grab it. When I popped it open, I found a sprig of some herb, dried up long, long ago, inside.
I sniffed it.
Lavender? I could see my grandmother wearing it as a precaution against something specific.
I could also see her wearing it for the smell alone.
Very carefully, without touching it, I tapped it against the side of the dresser. It wouldn’t do to poison myself with something I was misidentifying.
I made my way back downstairs, open locket in hand. A classic container for a lock of hair.
When I reached the door to the living room, however, I found both girls looking in one direction.
The front door?
I went, then peered through the window. A moment later, I opened the door.
It was Laird, in plainclothes.
“Hello, Officer Behaim.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t realize it was you?”
“I thought you might,” I answered.
“A declaration of war, Mr. Thorburn?”
“Call it what you will. Retaliation?”
He sighed. The lines in his face seemed a little deeper. A tell? Was he hiding anger or other sadness? Or was he not a morning person?
“I’m disappointed,” he said.
“You sound like my dad used to, when you say that.”
“I’d hoped you would accept the temporary peace I was offering. We didn’t have to be enemies in the strictest sense.”
“But I can be the dimwitted buffoon that you can abandon for the Others to get, after you’d promised me safe passage?” I asked. “You can conspire against me at the meetings? You want me to accept the meager kindness and peace you offer?”
“It would be smarter,” he said.
“That’s called shaking the hand you’re offering in friendship, while knowing your other hand is balled up into a fist and you can’t wait to use it to punch me in the balls.”
“Very colorful, Mr. Thorburn. I’m not, I should stress, in a joking mood.”
“Oh?” I asked. “Did I inconvenience you?”
“Marginally. I’m more inconvenienced by the knowledge that we now have an ongoing dispute.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” I said. “You fucked with me, I fucked with you. We can leave it at that.”
“Leaving things be fails to resolve anything. You’re dangerous. Your continued existence puts my family at risk. I no longer believe you’re going to abstain from the darker subject matters your grandmother freely dabbled in. I have no reason to expect you’ll be as discreet or careful as she was. Finally, we do need things settled before the paradigm here changes.”
It might have helped that I was as tired as I was. I was disconnected enough that I was able to look like I didn’t give the slightest shit.
I saw his expression change a fraction, the lines deepening some. “I’m forced to take action.”
“Action?” I asked. The super-apathetic no-shit-giving attitude was still going strong. “You put yourself in an awkward position, setting the bar at ‘killing me’ with our first meeting. Now you’ve got to top that, which means jumping straight to fates worse than death. But where do you go after that? I mean, it’s hard enough threatening fates worse than death without sounding like a deranged fuckwit.”
“You’re not taking this seriously.”
“I’m tired,” I said. “I’m not talking tired in the sense that I’m exhausted because I’m fighting for my life. I’m tired in the sense that I want to go take a nap. I woke up early to deliver that letter, and I spent some power along the way.”
I’d very nearly mentioned the fight with the Duchamp girl’s familiar, but I’d decided against mentioning that in case it got around and bit her in the ass, then bit me back on the karma front.
“Well,” he said. “Far be it from me to keep you from your nap.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Is that all, then?”
“Two or so things, if I may? First of all, you can expect me to respond. It should be tomorrow, and you’ll notice it, even if the impact isn’t immediately clear. I’m rather confident you’ll regret getting on my bad side.”
And here we went.
“That’s a shame,” I said.
“Second, I see you have a guest. That would be… hm.” He tilted his head a little, then spoke loud enough to be heard in the living room, “Maggie Holt.”
I heard noise. Footsteps followed, with Maggie coming to stand beside me, hands jammed in her pockets to ward off the cold that was blowing in from outside.
“I wasn’t sure if it was clear,” Laird said, “But when my nephews met with you, they were supposed to hint that you should abstain from any contact with Mr. Thorburn and his vestige.”
“They hinted. You could say I didn’t get it.”
“You’re playing a dangerous game, Ms. Holt.”
“I seem to,” she responded.
He took that in, taking his time with it, as he might digest a very profound statement. His eyes found mine. “Mr. Thorburn.”
“Can we wrap this up? Unless your big plot to remove me from this world involves running up my heating bill.”
“I tell you this with no expectations. I do not want or desire what you have offered in any deals you’ve proposed, and I have sworn not to accept any such offers.”
The words had a bit of substance to them, a care that woke me up a little from my general exhaustion.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Maggie Holt is the one who orchestrated the attack on your cousin, Molly Walker. She had command of several goblins and ordered them to strike her and leave her alive. She did it at our behest, in exchange for small favors, gifts of power and offers of knowledge.”
I was glad for that exhaustion. It kept me from doing anything.
Maggie had gone very still. Eyes wide.
“I see,” I said.
“You swore you wouldn’t tell,” Maggie said. “Everyone did.”
“We swore we wouldn’t take his deal and give him that influence. I’m keeping my word,” he told her. To me, he said, “When it went as poorly as it did, we were upset. The public had taken notice, and they had alerted authorities. We fulfilled the letter of the deal, but did so by offering Ms. Holt the bare minimum we could.”
“Including a lesson on how to use… what is it, paper seals? Japanese name or something.”
“Ofuda would be along the lines of what Sandra Duchamp might know,” Laird said. “I think that was what she offered Maggie for the murder of Molly Walker.”
“Thank you for clarifying that detail.” I reached into the little pocket and retrieved the bit of paper. “With all due respect, Maggie, I’ll be returning this.”
“It was a gift, freely given,” she said, not making eye contact.
“It’s a gift with my cousin’s blood on it. Maybe in it, if the goblin in here is one of the ones who participated in the attack.”
She didn’t respond, which was answer enough.
“Take it, or I’m going to free it. Hospitality be damned.”
She hesitated, and then she seemed to realize I’d just made a statement. No maybes, no ‘I thinks’, no hedging. I was going to follow through.
She took the paper.
“It’s complicated,” Maggie said. “If I could have a minute to explain-”
“You can have five,” I said. “Ten minutes, if you need them. I’m-”
I stumbled over my words a bit. A bit of emotion, slipping through the exhaustion, and a bit of exhaustion, winning out over my body.
I drew in a little breath, composed myself, then said, clearer, “-I’m eager to hear this.”
She stood there, silent, staring up at me.
“Okay,” she said. “I thought I’d say that and you’d say no, but I could think it over and say something convincing later, but I can’t explain. Not on the spur of the moment. Like I said, it’s complicated, there was more going on. I-”
“Maggie,” I interrupted her. “You should be off to school.”
“I promised I’d go, I didn’t promise I’d be there the whole day. I can stay, we can talk this over, hammer it out. I don’t dislike you. I meant it when I said I was entering with no ill will.”
“No shame?” I asked. “No guilt?”
“Not then,” she said. “Some now, that I’ve gotten to know you.”
“You lied to my face,” I said.
“I can’t lie. I’m a practitioner.”
“A lie by omission.”
“Doesn’t count, or we’d be lying every passing second. Blake, she wasn’t even a person to me. They talked her up, big bad diabolist who didn’t know what she was doing. I only really talked to her after I ordered the attack, saw how she wasn’t doing anything except defending herself, and I realized what I’d done. I tried to call it off, but it doesn’t work that way.”
I could remember being beaten, the people kicking me, using weapons… and the connection to what had happened to Molly made it feel doubly real.
Maggie chose that moment to reach out, and I grabbed her hand, crushing it inside mine, hard enough to hurt her. I could see her reaction run through her entire body. Pain, fear.
“I’m sorry,” she said, despite whatever else she was experiencing. “That moment was when I decided I was done working with these guys. I sorta kinda wanted to be your ally, make it up to your family, somehow.”
I shifted my grip on her hand, so I held only the fingers.
I raised her hand to my mouth, and I kissed the knuckles.
“Thank you for visiting, Maggie,” I said. “I appreciated your company, even if I don’t, right this second. I appreciate the information you shared, and the gift you offered.”
“I want to make this better,” she said, quiet. “I’d really like a chance. If not now, then later.”
“I’ll take that under advisement,” I said. “But first, I’d like you to look me in the eye and tell me that your visit here was more about making genuine amends than getting your hands on some more knowledge or power.”
She met me in the eye, then looked down.
“Can I say it was fifty-fiftyish? That that’s an awful lot of wanting to make amends, when you’re as power hungry an idiot as I am?”
“I don’t think so, Maggie. That’s not good enough.”
“Ff-f-f,” she struggled. “Fluffernutter.”
“Fluffernutter,” I said. “Please leave now, before I do something I’ll regret.”
“Yep,” she mumbled. I waited while she stepped into her boots, zipped them up, and made her way out onto the porch.
“You two have a good day,” I said, monotone.
“You too,” Laird said, smiling just a bit.
I slammed the door.