Category Archives: 4.01

Collateral 4.1

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“We’re nearly there, Mr. Thorburn.”

I startled awake.

My heart rate had jumped into high gear with the sudden voice, the realization of where I was and what I was doing kept it going at the same pace.

“Do you have any questions, Mr. Thorburn?” my driver asked me.  He was a thirty-something man with a stylish, tidy haircut and a nice suit that fit him well.  He hadn’t said a word from the moment he’d shown up with the car, bags situated in the back seat with a new set of boots, three changes of clothes, a jacket, and a bag of toiletries.

I hadn’t asked how they knew my boot or shirt size, the waist and leg measurements for the jeans, or my brand of shaving cream.  I was happy in my ignorance, right now.  Happy to have nice boots on and know that the rubber boots I’d ‘borrowed’ were on their way back to the owner.

I tried to get my brain into gear.  I was tired, and my body was now apparently trying to get what it needed by force.  I was ravenous, my emotions more raw, and slumber had crept over me with a surprising speed and very little fight from me.  My head ached where I’d pressed it too hard against the window of the car as I’d slept.

Going by what I could see in the rear-view mirror, Rose wasn’t in the car with us.  I didn’t have her to turn to.

“I am under the impression,” I said, very slowly and deliberately, buying myself time to think while I tried to structure my thoughts, “that by asking questions, I’m agreeing to pay for the answers.”

“Some answers, yes.  But some answers come part and parcel with the bargain you struck.”

Fuck me, what were the exact terms of the deal?  I struggled to recall, but I’d been too busy looking out for danger, too tired.

“What answers are those?” I asked.  “Or is that cheating?”

“Right now we are engaged in a transaction.  As a client, a customer or a contractor, however you might want to look at it, you’re entitled to any assistance we can reasonably give.  There is no ‘cheating’,” he said.

“I see.”

“Before I say anything else, we have reached out to the Lord of Toronto on your behalf.  He does not know who you are, and views you only as a new practitioner who wants to abide by the rules.  He has agreed to let you return to your home and that agreement will give you some security.”

“Okay,” I said.  I couldn’t remember him talking.  Tired as I was, I was pretty sure any noise along those lines would have woken me up.  “That some kind of magical communication?  Lawyer telepathy?”

He turned his head and tapped his left ear.

Right.  Bluetooth.  Obviously.

He said, “The offer he made, does not mean that he is offering you protection.  If a resident of Jacob’s Bell or a local tries to hurt you, he won’t do a thing.”

“But he’s not going to come after me?”

“Not for the time being.  Others will be seen as presumptuous if they go after you in the meantime.  I would expect the least significant players and the allies of the Lord to wait for a cue or an excuse before they act.  When it’s convenient for him, he’ll reach out and arrange a meeting.  The meeting will decide his stance towards you, and any stance the lesser powers can and will take.”

“What does one typically do, for these sorts of meetings?” I asked.

“A token offering.  Deference.  Depending on the local power dynamic, the other powers may expect something small.  Respect will often do, and it will serve here in Toronto.”

“Any idiosyncrasies?” I asked.  “Who is the Lord and how should I approach him?”

“The Lord is an incarnation of Conquest.  He’s a sapient embodiment of a concept, and he’s been here for some time, in one form or another.”

“I wouldn’t imagine Conquest is a great fit for Toronto,” I said.

“It was, once.  The English presence in North America is young, and Others can be very old.  For some, it wasn’t long ago at all that we wiped out the Aboriginal people and took their land.  It wasn’t long ago that there was war over what European country would claim sovereignty over this land.  Toronto was a site in the war of eighteen-twelve, and Conquest continued to gain power after it was released, with immigrants coming in to reaffirm the invader’s claim to the land.”

“A living manifestation of conquest?” I asked.

“I would hesitate to say ‘alive’.”

“He’s the horseman?  One of the four riders of the apocalypse?”

“Yes and no.  There are other Conquests, who take different forms based on their history and the eras and events they drew power from.  For all intents and purposes, you can consider incarnations to be powerful spirits, often ones with human hosts or an attachment to an object of particular design, an implement without an owner.  Some agencies contrive to bring these incarnations into being to suit their devices.  Is there an agency invested in the apocalypse and Conquest’s part in that?  Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking.”

“What way, then?”

“The apocalypse is an idea with some traction, as are the four horsemen.  Some want to use that traction.”

“Ah,” I said.  “I think I get what you mean.”

“Such agencies want a narrative, and an Incarnation of Conquest arising from Toronto is a weak narrative at best.  If such things come to pass, speculation suggests that another, greater Conquest would find, best, and absorb all its lesser kin for strength before taking action.”

“And nobody’s about to remove the local Conquest from the picture, to keep that from happening?”

“There are bigger things at play, and an Incarnation isn’t a monster you defeat with a sword or gun.  It is an idea given life.  You support it and feed it through certain ideas, and you defeat it by taking the strength from that idea.  Most often, you accommodate them.  But anything powerful enough to become sentient and sapient isn’t something that’s going away anytime soon.”

“But if there’s no war-”

“He isn’t War, but Conquest.  Massed forces, takeovers, forced change.  He continues to find power in other ways. Yes, he prefers warfare and bloodshed, but he can draw power from the steady expansion of civilization into nature, from real estate, from business takeovers, government, law, and other small forms of tyranny.  As an Incarnation, he can invest his power.  Where Death might bring death to things by touching them, or Love might strike a couple through their hearts with a metaphorical arrow given form, Conquest can do the same.”

“So he’s like a god.”

“He is like a god,” my driver said.  “And we could go into a deep discussion of the common elements between gods and incarnations, the abstract versus the straightforward, but that’s outside of the bounds of your agreement with the firm, and I believe we’re on your street.”

I turned to look.  Sure enough, I was home.

Hopefully Joel hadn’t evicted me.

“In terms of safety, after I’m in my apartment…”

“I’ve got that handled,” Rose piped up.  “I think.”

I turned to look to my right, stupidly, then looked at the mirror.  Sure enough, she was situated in the back seat, next to where I’d be if I had a reflection.

There was a stack of books beside her, I noted.

“I’ll take you upstairs,” my driver said.

I gathered up the bags, while Rose grabbed her books in the mirror, and the driver opened the door for the both of us.

He had a book tucked under one arm.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.

This favor the lawyers were doing me wasn’t free.

“After you,” my lawyer told me, opening the front door of the building.

“Do I open the door to something ugly if implicitly invite you into the building?” I asked.

“No,” my driver said.  “Even if you did, it would be too late to do anything about it, as you implicitly invited us into the building when you asked for an escort to your apartment.”

I nodded.

“This is a stable area, Toronto is,” my escort said.  “I wouldn’t worry too much about trouble.  You know who your enemies in Jacob’s Bell are, and you should focus your efforts on those fronts.  You wouldn’t go amiss with a border around the apartment.”

“A border?”

“Something geometric.  There are two schools of thought in binding.  There is like binding like, and then there’s binding with the antithesis.  The former requires more raw power, but you generally won’t upset them so much.  I say generally, but some beings like conflict, and there are any number of other rules.”

It was kind of eerie, to see that the driver had personality.  Even to the point of geeking out about something.  I said, “I think I saw something about that in the Barber’s entry, in my grandmother’s books.”

“I read that.  Yes.  Good memory.  It’s easier to bind them with something that naturally opposes them.  In this case, you’d want something geometric and man-wrought to oppose beings that are more disordered and natural by their intrinsic natures.  Which is most things out there.  The more powerful they are, the more you’ll want and need in terms of protections.”

“Okay,” I said.

“That takes care of one of the local threats.  I might suggest a protective sign on the ceiling, for another.  And a ritual sprinkling of water at the perimeter of your apartment, on a regular schedule.  Doesn’t really matter how often, but it should be at a set time or set times every day, and you can’t miss a day or it won’t have an effect.”

My eye fell on the door to Joel’s apartment.  I really had to let him know I was okay.

But I focused on the man who was guiding me to safety.  “Is there an explanation for any of this?  Who or what it might be that I’m protecting myself against?”

“I’m already bending the rules by saying this.”

“Why?” I asked.  When he didn’t give me a response, I asked,  “Why tell me this?  You don’t have to help like that.”

“I’m new to this.  I’ve only been at it for- for a little while.  I’m bound to make mistakes.”

“Why did you pause there?” I asked.  “How long have you been at it?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve lost track of the years.  Smart phones weren’t a thing when I started, though, if that’s any clue?”

I nodded.  “More than five years, then.”

“Five years,” he said, nodding slowly.  He looked up at me, “You wanted to know why I’m sharing details?  I like you, Mr. Thorburn.  I feel bad for you, we haven’t exactly talked much, but I think you’re one of the good ones.  Me taking you for a one-and-a-half hour drive into Toronto, getting stuck in traffic?  It’s a nice break.  It puts me in good spirits.  I think they know it puts me in good spirits, and they divvy up jobs like this to keep the newbies sane.”

“During your centuries or thousands of years of enslavement to the firm,” I said.

“Yeah.  From the clients who aren’t so fun.  Clients who hoard and have places packed from floor to ceiling with knick-knacks and body parts, clients who deal in pain and suffering like a banker deals in cash, or who do things that would have turned my stomach, back when I had compunctions.”

“I see,” I said.

“You really don’t.  But you might,” he said.

“You’re assuming I’ll take the offer your firm is making?” I asked.

“I honestly don’t know if you will.  That wasn’t what I was saying.  There are a good few people out there who try dealing in the real powers, the scary ones your grandmother trafficked in.  Maybe a third survive, like your grandmother did.  Another third, they meet bad ends and they probably take people with them.  The last third, they get offered a way out, and they take that offer.”

“Like you did,” I said.

“I dabbled, I got in just deep enough to get into trouble, and get into debt,” he said.  “It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is the firm would like me to tell you the bill for the next deal you make with them.”

“The next deal?  They’re looking into the future?”

“Nothing so complicated.  This,” he said, handing me the book he held, “Is your payment for the supplies, the ride, the guarantee of safety and the arrangements we’ve made with the local Lord.  This is how you’ll pay us, the next time you make a deal.”

He handed me a piece of yellow paper.  Carbon paper.  I read it over.  A duration, a name, a two day duration, as well as notes made for any expenses being covered…

“An errand,” I said.

“Call it an internship,” he said.  “Carrying out the sort of job you would be doing if you accepted a deal with the firm.”

“Like you did, driving me,” I said.

“Very possible,” he said, smiling a bit.

“Or like one of the jobs you regularly do for the messed up ones, the real diabolists you and Ms. Lewis seem so damn relieved to get away from.”

“That is also very possible,” he said.

“So you don’t even know what the favor I’d be asking is, and you’re telling me how I’ll pay you back, in exchange?”

They are, yes.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I stayed silent, folded up the paper, and stuck it in my back pocket.  I stopped walking.

“This is your apartment?” he asked.

“It is.”

“There’s no particular rush to finish the book.  I believe the threat of a deal ignored and the impact to your karmic balance is enough incentive to follow through.”

I looked down at the book he’d given me.  Black Lamb’s Blood.

From the goat’s skull on the cover, the black leather and the script in shiny gold lettering, I knew it was a book on diabolism.  This was my payment for the services the firm had rendered me.  I had to read it, nothing more, nothing less.

“No traps?  No deceptions or situations where reading the wrong word will harm me or cause demons to leap out of the page?”  I already knew the answer, but I had to ask again.  The situation worried me too much.

“It is plain text, nothing more,” he assured me.  “You may or may not like what that text says, but I don’t think you’ll suffer.”

“It’s propaganda,” I said.

“Perhaps a little bit.  Your grandmother knew the author and was quite fond of her.  Had she been alive as the book was released, your grandmother would have paid for a copy to be delivered to her, and it would have a place on her bookshelf.  She would have no cause to warn you about anything inside.  It’s even one of the tamer books.”

I nodded, frowning.

A gateway book?  The thought made me think of some dumbassed campaign like ‘don’t do drugs, read!’.  Except books were more dangerous than drugs, in this world.

“Once you’re inside, I’ll be on my way,” he said.

I let myself into the apartment, feeling a secret relief when the key turned successfully in the lock, and I turned to face my escort.

“Goodbye, Mr. Thorburn.  Best of luck.  Remember what I recommended, protection-wise.”

“You seemed decent enough,” I said.  “Thank you for the tips on self-protection.  I hope you get more easy jobs.”

“So do I, thank you.  Five hundred and seventy three years, four months, and four days to go, if I don’t make partner at some point.  I’m bound to get some of the easier jobs.”

His smile made it look like he might chuckle at his own joke.  Caught off guard by the sheer volume of years he’d presented, I couldn’t bring myself to match him smile for smile.

He gestured, tipping his nonexistent hat, and then turned to go.

Leaving me alone and relatively unprotected.

Move, I thought.

I headed for the dining room, which I rarely used for dining.  Set beside the kitchen, it served as storage for all the boxes and kits I had no space for elsewhere.

I found my toolbox.  A loaner-turned-gift when a friend’s boyfriend had gone overseas and decided never to return.  Actually two toolboxes stacked on one another, with two rugged wheels for all terrain at one side, like luggage, it held all of the bits and pieces I’d collected while working.

Top toolbox was tools.  Hammers, saws, awls, hole-punches and far too many screwdrivers.  Not what I needed.

The lower toolbox was knick-knacks and materials.

Three rolls of painter’s tape and… there, a drywall t-square which had been abused and coated with plaster to the point that I could barely make out numbers.

I ripped a section free, then went to work.

I set to drawing out a border around the edge of the apartment.  Turning the apartment into a magic circle, or a magic rectangle, whatever.

I wasn’t sure how far my tape would go, so I went the simple route.  The t-square let me quickly define triangles, which I taped out.  Triangles were a sturdy shape, right?  Architecturally sound?  Three points, three sides.

I was winging this.  Doing what I could.

Who were the other threats?  Laird?  I wasn’t sure what he’d throw at me.  Sandra?  That meant Faerie.

Too many possibilities to consider.  I’d collapse in a nervous heap if I considered all of the threats arrayed against me.

One thing at a time.  I was good at working mindlessly on a task.  I enjoyed it, even, being able to set my body to something repetitive and easy, while letting my mind roam.

Something crude I could use against Faerie.  Assuming the building didn’t count as something crude and roughshod, where could I get a natural sort of barrier untouched by human hands?

What other trouble could I run into?  There was enchantment, enchantresses.  If the Duchamps wanted to screw me over, they could do something with the connections to me.  One of them had already done something to sic Aunt Laura and Callan on me.  How easy would it be for them to attack me here and drive me out into the cold again?  Causing trouble for Joel until I had to get kicked out?

I moved my futon, dragging it across the floor, and set up the tape at the base of the wall.

Steadily, I made my way to the far right of the living room, taping as I went.

“Blake,” Rose called out, from the other room.

I stood, stretching where being hunched over had made my back kink up, and I passed by my bedroom to reach the bathroom.  There wasn’t any glass on the counter or the floor, but some lingered at the edges of the frame.

“Hey Rose.  We need to get you some mirrors.”

“He was playing you, you know.”

“The lawyer kid?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s what my gut says,” she said.  “All of that, even the information he gave you, it’s part of a long term scheme to win you over.  They’re obviously doing this with some strategy in mind.”

“Obviously.  Making me read the book, setting me up with a young lawyer I can identify with.”

“They’re looking forward enough to figure out what they’re going to ask you for next time, and letting you know now so you can convince yourself it’s not so bad, and maybe ask for help a little more quickly next time.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I get that.”

“You okay?” she asked.

“Tired,” I said.  “But I want to get at least one layer of defenses up before we go any further.”

“I’ve been bringing some books over, trying to do my part.”

“From the house?”

“Yeah.  No problem getting past the barrier.  I either don’t pass through the barrier, or I move so fast that being slowed to a fraction doesn’t make a difference.”

“Bring some books,” I said.  “Not too many, okay?  We know some Others can reach into the mirror, and besides, we don’t want to lose access to the books if we can’t get to this apartment again.”

“Shit.  Good point.  Maybe if I carry them with me?”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Did you hear that bit in the car?  About the safeguards we’ll need?”

“Some.”

“We’ll need a protective sign on the ceiling.  And this wasn’t his recommendation, but it’d be good to find a way to stay off the Duchamp’s radar, and deal with any Faerie they send our way.”

“Okay,” Rose said.  “I can get on that.  We’ll need something crude?”

“Mm hmm,” I said.

“And we’ll need-”

A sharp knock interrupted me.

“Conquest’s messenger?” Rose asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “That’d be a pretty fast arrival.”

“Go,” she said.

I went.

It wasn’t the Lord’s herald or anything like that.  It was my landlord.  Joel.  Heavy without being fat, bald, with hipster glasses and bushy eyebrows, he had a way of looking perpetually worried.

He looked especially worried right now.  With me.

“Hey you,” he said.  “I thought I heard furniture moving, and I couldn’t think of who it might be.”

“Just got back,” I said.  “You get your car back?”

He nodded.  “Police returned it.  I’m sorry it broke down on you.”

I shook my head.  Not your fault.

“What happened?  I did a search online, you were local front page news, there.  You inherited a house?”

“A very valuable house, yes.  And the town’s residents summarily evicted me,” I said.  “For all intents and purposes.”

“You look like you’ve been through hell.  It’s only been a week.”

“Has it?” I asked.  “Damn.”

“I can’t help but think of the pictures of U.S. presidents before and after they take office.  They look drained, aged by years.  You look like that.”

“Probably fitting,” I said.

“Some of the others have been asking about you.  They’ll want to see you, hear about what’s happened.”

My first instinct was to leap at the chance.  My second was to say no, to take the time to prepare.

“Great,” I said, going with my first and third instincts.  “I’m exhausted, though, I won’t be very good company.  If you want to invite people over, maybe we can keep it short, keep numbers down?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “We can definitely do that.”

“Also, I don’t have much, except what I had in the fridge.”

“When you didn’t show after a few days, I cleaned out the perishables, and I cleaned up your bathroom while I was at it,” he said.

Had it been anyone else, I might have been offended.  “Thanks.  Did you keep the glass?”

“It’s in a bucket under the sink, why?”

“I’m in a strange frame of mind,” I said.

“Does that include talking to yourself?” he asked.  When I gave him a look, he said, “Thin walls.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Talking to myself, I guess.”

“And taping up the floor?”  he asked, pointing down the length of my apartment hallway to where I’d abandoned the taping project.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t know if I could explain, even.  Something for peace of mind.”

“I’m not judging,” he said, “But your reaction before you left, talking to yourself, this tape project just after you got home, the damage you did to your bathroom-”

“One mirror,” I said

“One mirror,” he agreed.

We let the silence hang in the air for long moments.

“I’d like to think I can roll with the punches,” Joel said, in response to my silence.  “And you know the others can too.  When Natty had trouble-”

“I know,” I said.

“We adapted.”

“I know,” I said, again.  “I hear you.  I’m thankful, but it’s mostly stress, and it’s me dealing the way I have to deal.”

“You’re not going to put paint on those hardwood floors, are you?”

“No paint,” I promised.  “Not if I can help it.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Lemme call up the others.  You want me to tell them to show for a specific time?  Have you eaten?  Should I bid them to bring snacks, drink, foodstuff?”

“I ate, but I could eat a live horse right now,” I said.  Against my better judgment, I added, “They can show whenever, bring whatever’s easy to bring.  Just let them know I might have to run.”

“Run?”

“Appointment, could happen at any time.  Five minutes from now, or a week, I don’t know.”

He nodded, then extended a hand, keys in the palm.

“Thanks Joel,” I said, as I grabbed my bike keys.  “You saved my life, giving up your car like that.”

“You shaved a year off mine,” he answered.  “Showing up like you did.  Freaking out when the lights died.  Take care of yourself, eh?”

“Eh,” I said.  “I’m trying.”

Joel left, and I took ten minutes to rinse off, get myself shaved and get presentable, changing clothes so I wouldn’t smell of sweat.  I stowed the diabolism book in a drawer of clothes, then set to getting dressed in the clothes the lawyer had brought.  Fresh outfit, minus the sweat and bits of Glamour.  Nicer than anything I owned, but it suited my style.

Eerie.

I pulled the locket from the pocket of my jeans and, after a moment’s debate, wound it around my hand as I had before.  Positioning it so the locket itself was bound in place, the thin chain uncomfortable.

I stuffed June Cleaver’s handle down my pants leg, so the side of the blade pressed against my hipbone, the blade itself pointing forward, and pulled my shirt down around her so it was covered.  Leonard-in-a-bottle found a spot on top of the fridge, out of easy reach.  But if I wanted him, I could hop up and grab.

I found blue-tack, and I found the bucket of mirror-shards, and I began setting them up, sticking the larger pieces to walls at Rose’s eye-level.

“Who’s Natty?”

I kept my voice lower, this time.  “Was a friend of the group for a while.  Split off when she dated and broke up with certain people, found another group of friends.  See her from time to time, no problems.”

“Were you one of the ones she dated?”

“No,” I said.  “I haven’t dated or done much of anything since high school.”

“Since before you ran away.”

I nodded.  “She started hearing voices.  Joel’s not-so-subtly telling me that if I’m in the same boat, well, precedent says they can deal.”

“Oh.”

“Which is cool,” I said.  “Might be easier to let them think I’ve lost it, so long as I can assure Joel that the rent will keep getting paid.”

“I’m sorry, that you’d have to do that.”

I shrugged.  I put up another piece of mirror.  “How’s that?”

“It’s okay,” she said.  “Not great, but okay.  Is this wise?  Inviting people?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “No clue at all.  But I’m drained, and if I’m supposed to recover personal power, reaffirm my identity and refuel myself where I was drained, well, getting my bike keys back made me feel a hundred times better than any night’s sleep I’ve had this past week.  Maybe seeing my friends will help.”

“I can get behind it, if that’s your reasoning,” she said.  “Since I’m obviously not socializing, I can sit and read.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Please do.  But if you happen to want to look up from a book, and if you maybe want a bit of a clue about who I am and where I come from… at least now you can peek.”

“Alright,” she said.  “That’s… really nice of you.  But maybe we should get the defenses up.”

I looked at the unfinished border of tape.  I was tired enough I wasn’t connecting dots.  Doing too many jobs, leaving each one unfinished.  Getting ready, preparing things for Rose, the defenses, trying to get my story straight in my head, and talking to Rose.  It seemed so natural while I was doing it, but I was fucking up.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” Rose asked.

“Blake!”  The cry was followed by a squeal, or a ‘squee’, as the slang went.

Amanda.  My least favorite member of the group of my favorite people.  Which wasn’t to say I disliked her.  Only that she didn’t ‘get’ boundaries and I liked my boundaries.

I’d left the door open, and both Amanda and ‘Goosh’ had let themselves in.  Goosh was busy restraining Amanda with one arm around Amanda’s shoulders, so Amanda wouldn’t throw her arms around me in a violent, sudden hug.  If she did, it wouldn’t be the first time.  And if she did it with enough force that her head cracked into my ear, that wouldn’t be the first time either.

Goosh was a little taller than me, which put her above average height for a full-grown male, her blond hair cut short, cut badly, and tousled, her lipstick a little too red for her complexion.  She was also a perfect counterpoint to Amanda, in personality and frame.  Amanda, petite, was like the little dog that absolutely adored everyone and everything, her enthusiasm bubbling over to infectious degrees.  Goosh was more like the mama bear.

Where Amanda would crumple at the slightest criticism, Goosh would tear heads off.

“You’re a millionaire!”  Amanda said.

“Ah, you read the news.  No, I’m not.”

“Almost-millionaire!” Amanda squealed.

“Not even,” I said.  “I would be if I could sell the house, but I can’t.”

“Soon?  Eventually?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Hi Goosh, sorry about the show setup.”

“It’s okay.  I one hundred percent understand,” Goosh said.  “Joel told us about your cousin, my condolences.”

Oh yeah,” Amanda said.  “Shit, I’m sorry.”

I nodded.  “Thanks.  Your show went up without a hitch?”

“Small job.  I wound up hiring the Sisters.  Every time, I tell myself it won’t be so bad.  Every time, they convince me otherwise.”

I nodded.  I’d had to work with the Sisters several times on bigger projects.  Stage setups for a play, a framework for an full-room art installation… they meant well, but they were people who couldn’t take criticism, and who acted like they sought out reasons to be offended.  Worse, they played off each other.  Get one a little upset, she’d turn to her sister, who would build up that negative emotion until it reached a critical point.

Friend or enemy, you walked on eggshells around them, and you dealt with a minimum of one nervous breakdown or tantrum per project.  But they were one of the only resources we had on hand.

“Blake!” a guy greeted me from the door.  He was black, hair cut short to the point it was barely a shadow on his head and wiry, and he didn’t try to hide or take shame in his body type.  He wore a suit jacket that was a bit tattered and skinny jeans with gray smudges on them.

“Hey Ty,” I said.

I was right, it was right.  Friends, familiarity, faces I knew.  I felt more at ease.

More like me, even with that big fat ‘practitioner’ piece jammed in the middle of the puzzle that was me and my identity.

“Beer?” he said, holding up a case so I could see over Amanda’s head.

“Beer!” Amanda’s eyes lit up.

“Fridge,” I said.  “Should be lots of room.  Thanks.”

Goosh let go of Amanda so Amanda could go get beer and talk to Ty.

“While they’re busy,” Goosh said, stepping closer, without intruding into my personal space.  “Want me to run interference?  Fill people in on anything, so you don’t have to keep answering the same question?”

Did I?  Yeah.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m not a millionaire, not like that.  I’m stuck looking after a house that I can’t sell, a house that a lot of people want me to sell.  And it’s ugly.  There was talk, I’m pretty damn sure, down at the police station down there, that my cousin’s death wasn’t an accident.”

“No,” Goosh said, her voice a hush.

I shrugged.  “Like I said, I don’t know.  But for now, I’m laying low.  I’ve got to go back in a few weeks, maybe sooner, to wrangle some stuff.  I-”

“Hey, Blake,” Tyler interrupted me, from across the room.  Amanda had attached herself to him.  “What’s the tape thing?”

“It is what it is,” I said, too tired to come up with better.  “I was doing that, it was sort of meditative, I stopped halfway.  Was going to do all around the apartment.”

“Can I finish it?” he asked.

“Yeah, if you use the t-square to get the lines perfect,” I said.  “And if there’s enough tape, maybe you could do triangles inside of triangles?  If there’s enough.  It’d look ugly if only half was done.”

And it would disrupt the border’s effectiveness.

“Eyeballing it, I’d say there’s enough tape.”

“Go for it,” I told him.

I heard him tearing tape free from the roll.

Hooray for artist friends.

“You’re going back, you said?” Goosh asked.

“And I’ve got stuff to wrangle here, and… I dunno,” I said.  “Honestly, my life’s been turned upside down, and I barely even feel like me.”

“You know we have your back.”

“I wouldn’t want to involve you, get you embroiled in the ugly parts of it.”

“I don’t think many of us would mind.”

“I think you would, once you got the full picture.  A lawyer I was speaking to… she told me that she thought I was a goner.  The police chief hates me and my family, biggest most influential families have it in for me, a lot of people want the house sold so the town can expand, and I couldn’t even go shopping without getting in a fight.”

“So you get more bodies on the ground.  They’re not going to go after you if you’re in a group.”

“Wanna bet?” I asked.  “They hate me.  For no reason.”

“Heyyy!” someone cried out, behind Goosh.

“Hey Joseph,” Goosh said, smiling.

I couldn’t match Joseph’s enthusiasm, but I did smile, and it wasn’t forced.

“The carpenter resurrects, only it takes him a week,” Joseph said.

“Says ‘Joseph’?” Goosh asked.

“I’m more a handyman than a carpenter,” I said.  “And I’m not middle-eastern.  But I’m damn glad to be back, whatever I am.”

“No worries,” he said.  He bowed his head, presenting a plastic container.  “I humbly offer cupcakes as a token of worship.  You saved me from diabetes, because I was totally going to eat the entire tray myself.”

“Beer and cupcakes,” I said.

“You don’t want?”

“I’m not having beer,” I said.  I had to fight to avoid being negative.  “And I am more than happy to help save you from diabetes.  I’d love one.”

“I am having beer,” Goosh said.  “And I’d love one too.”

Joseph cracked open the container and provided each of us with a cupcake.  I wasn’t sure what the figures on the top were.  I supposed they were video game characters, but I hadn’t really played a video game in years.

“Lemme fill you in,” Goosh told him.

I took the opportunity to break away, taking it all in.  Amanda and Ty working on the tape, Goosh talking to Joseph.  More people coming in the door, waving at me, before listening to what Goosh was saying.

I took in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly.

I felt at ease.

Standing in the corner, the mirrors lining the walls to either side of me, I nibbled on the cupcake.

“I’m jealous,” Rose told me.

“Sorry,” I murmured, holding the cupcake up so people couldn’t see me talking to myself.

“I don’t really have friends.  You have this.”

“A lot of them are odd,” I said.  “Some are more acquaintances than friends.”

“I don’t even have acquaintances.  But you have connections, ties.”

“I hear you,” I said.  “But I meant what I said.  We’ll get you out, and maybe I can introduce you to my friends and acquaintances.”

“That’d be nice,” she said.  “Are you worried?”

“About?”

“Getting them involved.  If some Other comes in…”

“Don’t even talk about that,” I said.  I took a bite of cupcake and waved at Joel as he made his way in.

I glanced at Rose, and I saw her staring at the group.  She was barely blinking, her eyes on the people who were coming and going.

I looked, too.  Used the Sight to make sure that there weren’t any connections to things that there shouldn’t be connections to.  No objects on their person that might point to something odd.  Sure, they could hide it if they wanted to, but short of Laird trying to do to me what I’d done to him, I had trouble imagining a situation where one of my friends would be an Other or practitioner in disguise.

“You think it’s likely?” I asked, after I’d swallowed.

“The families are going to be mad.  Behaims, Duchamps, the bit players who wanted you dead.  Maybe Mara, maybe Johannes.  I don’t know.  They’ll send trouble your way, somehow.”

I nodded, taking another bite of cupcake.

“You need a third win.  Three strikes, Laird’s out.”

“You don’t think he broke my streak, pulling this?”

“Different battlefield, that.  But in terms of public perception, in terms of the murder, and reputation?  He’s struck out twice.  One more time, you’ve got him out.”

“I feel like I need to make a bigger play than I have, to make it count,” I said.

“Probably.”

I saw two more people enter.  One strange looking girl I didn’t recognize.  Her eyes were small, her nose broad, shoulders drawn in.  I looked at the connections, and she had a very odd connection to me.  Nothing like any of the connections I had to my friends.

She stopped at the edge of the cluster where Goosh was, on the other side of the apartment.  She only opened her mouth to say something small, maybe ‘hi’, and then Goosh pointed.

Her eyes fell on me, and I saw the connection fill in.

It had looked odd because there had been no recognition.  She knew of me, recognized me, but she didn’t know me?  I didn’t know her?

My hand went to my waist.  The hatchet.

Why the hell was she in my apartment?

She broke away from Goosh’s group, very awkwardly making her way through the crowd, avoiding eye contact, apologizing for every accidental bump.

Then I saw the person who had brought her, and it made sense.

The shortest person in the room, faint red dots of acne at the edges of her hairline, despite the fact that she was two years older than me, and the telltale bumps where she’d covered other spots with makeup.  She wore her jacket indoors, and I wondered if she did it because it made her look bigger than she was.  Her black hair was in dire need of conditioner, and the winter hadn’t been friendly to it.  I suspected it had been wet when she’d left her place and it had frozen.

I liked the little flaws.  I could somehow look at an attractive girl, someone like Amanda, or that Penelope Duchamp girl, and on some basic level, they didn’t rate as high in my estimation.  They didn’t look interesting, their dark blue eyes didn’t have more of a hold on me because I spent every second I looked into them wanting to study their faces and figure out what it was that made me find her attractive despite the imperfect details.

She knew everyone, everyone knew her.  She held her friend’s hand.  Her girlfriend’s hand?  Led the girl to the futon, where people automatically made room for the pair.  She smiled easily, but went out of her way to cover her teeth with her lips, bit down to keep her lips in place, even, as she turned her head away to hide what she was doing.  When she laughed at something Joel was saying, she almost doubled over, in part because she was really laughing that hard, in part because it meant nobody could see her face.

I was relieved to see that she was safe, her friend was safe, and they weren’t part of this whole business with Others and magic and whatever else.  A glance at their connections told me they were safe.

“Blake, you going to stand in a corner for the entire night at your own party?” Joel asked.

“Was thinking,” I said, approaching the gathering of people at the one side of my living room.

“Think less, drink more,” Joseph told me.

“I’m not drinking tonight,” I said.  “Already said.  I might have to run.  I’m all tied up in this bullshit drama that’s been going on this past week and a bit.”

“Are you going to be able to manage?” Joel asked.  “I know people.  Lawyers, mostly tied up in renter’s rights and tenant-landlord disputes, but it’s not a big jump to real estate.”

“Real estate’s only a bit of it,” I said.  “It’s fine.  I’ve just got to handle my own stuff.”

“Goosh was saying you didn’t sound fine about it,” he said.  “You sounded pretty down.  You still sound down.”

“It’s-”  I very nearly said ‘it’s fine’, but it wasn’t, and a lie here among friends was still a lie.  “I am.  I’m going to strive to avoid being a wet blanket, though.”

“If you need to vent, or gripe-”

“I do,” I said, “But I also need to pretend I have a semblance of a normal life, and I don’t want this to be a pity party.”

“Come on, give us a taste of the griping.”

This from the shortest girl in the room, smiling wickedly even as she tried not to smile.

“Leave him be, Alexis.”

“A taste?” I responded.  “I’m seriously wondering if someone’s going to try to kill me.”

I saw the shock on their faces, the stunned silence, but for Alexis’ sputtering coughing.

“When Goosh said you’d said your cousin’s death wasn’t an accident, I thought you meant it was a suicide,” Joel said.

“I’m almost certain it wasn’t,” I said.

“Because of the house?” Joseph asked.

“Because of what the house is, and power plays, and… I don’t even know all of the motivations at work,” I said.  “But I’m spooked.”

“You should talk to someone,” Joel said.  “Police?”

Police are part of the problem.  “I’m waiting for a word from someone on the subject of my personal security.  Local guy, knows who’s who, can probably point things in the right direction.  Or leave me fucked.  Which is why I might have to run any minute.”

There were nods.

“Whatever you need to do,” Joel said.

Still coughing a bit, Alexis asked, “Hey, Blake, can I smoke?”

“You most definitely can not,” Joel said.

“Who’s bright idea was it, inviting the landlord?”

“The landlord invited you,” Joel replied.  “I have a hard enough time resisting giving you noogies, don’t tempt me by being a brat.”

“Give me a noogie and you die,” she said.

The brief silence that followed was pointed and awkward.

“Sorry, Blake,” she said, wincing.  “That was in bad taste.  I haven’t even had a drink yet, so I don’t have an excuse.”

“None needed,” I said.

“Go out on the balcony,” Joel said. “Have your smoke.  You’ll be less irritable.”

“It’s cold out there,” she groused, but she stood.

“Want company?” I asked.

“Yeah.  But before I go… Blake, meet Tiffany.  Tiffany, Blake.”

“Hi Tiffany,” I said.  I offered my hand for her to shake.  She shook it.

My surface impression was that she was the least ‘Tiffany-ish’ Tiffany I’d met.  Shy, awkward, quiet.  I usually associated Tiffanies with blonde cheerleaders.

“I really like your tattoos,” she said, looking at my arms.

I smiled a bit.  “I do too.”

“Color’s odd,” Alexis said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You get them touched up?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“I haven’t had a chance to get a decent bit of shopping done this past week, let alone go to a tattoo parlour.”

“Damn,” she said.  “That’s going to bug me.”

I opened the patio door for her, and she hurried through, with me right behind her.  I shut it quickly before the people inside could get too cold.

The snow had piled up on the balcony outside my apartment, in uneven heaps, packed against one side.  I took the spot that left me standing in a foot of snow, so she would be clear.

She lit the cigarette, used her jacket to wipe the railing of snow, and folded her arms over the top of it, resting her rather pointed chin on the back of one hand, cigarette in mouth.

“Tiffany seems nice,” I said.

“Yeah.  She does splatter paintings.  Mostly figures.  She’s good.”

“Is she homeless?  Or was she?”

“Lacks a home, but not homeless,” Alexis said.  “Bad time of it, back there.  Abuse.  You know you don’t repeat any of this.”

“I know,” I said.

“Never had family, never had friends.  So no, she didn’t have a home, even if she had a roof over her head.  She’s in the building, now.”

I nodded.

“She saw a picture of you, on my phone.  She thinks you’re devastatingly handsome.”

“I’m not,” I said.

“You’re not.  But you’re handsome.”

“She thinks I am, which is apparently what’s important,” I said, so I didn’t have to agree.  “Are you trying to set me up with her?”

“Sorta.”

“You know where I come from.  You’re the one who got me from there to here.”

“Yeah.”

“You know I have… hang-ups.  You probably know better than anyone.”

“Yep.  I know.  I have some too.”

“It presents an obstacle,” I said.

“She and I have obstacles too.”

She and I?  “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Just putting it out there.  We’re beautifully fucked up people, and sometimes it’s only the fucked up sorts who’re going to understand, you know?  She has a thing for you.  I know you had a thing for me, not so long ago.”

“Now I’m really not sure what you mean.”

She puffed on her cigarette.

“I’m not a therapist or any of that.  But she needs to break out of her shell, and this is the first thing I thought of.  I’m doing the relational equivalent of banging stones together until stuff works.”

“You want us to… bang?”

“I want- yeah.  That sums it up.  It’s up to you, with your hang-ups in mind, obviously.  Knowing you’re going through a lot of crap.  But if it’d help you unwind more than it wound you up, that’d be cool.”

“Me and her?”

“And me,” she said.  “I figure she needs a bit of hand holding, and we’re reasonable, adult human beings.  We put jealousy aside and… it’s so dark I can’t make out your face and I can still tell you’re blushing.”

I did what she was doing, folding my arms on the railing, except I rested my forehead against my arms.

“Fuck, aren’t you cold?  Do you need to go inside and get a jacket?”

“I feel cold,” I said, “And my face is hot, and I feel awkward, and all of that’s a hell of a lot better than I’ve felt this past week, feeling numb and terrified.”

“Well, if you say it’s good, it’s good,” she said.  She puffed, looking out over the city.

It dawned on me that I wasn’t within the boundary of tape, but that wasn’t enough to drive me inside.  Being here was good.

“If I didn’t accept the deal, would you find someone else?”

“Probably not.  I’d figure out another way to get her more comfortable with people, break her pattern.”

I nodded.

“You’re thinking no?” she asked.

“Hang-ups,” I said.

She nodded.  “Damn.  But you know yourself best.”

“I want to, I-”

“You don’t need to apologize or explain.  I know where you came from.  You know where I came from.”

“-I still like you,” I finished.

“Ah… crap.  Now I feel like shit, offering you that, knowing-”

“No,” I said.  “Putting it on the table.  So believe me when I say I want to.  If circumstances were different, I’d take that leap.  I’d trust you to… if circumstances were different.”

“But they aren’t, and I’m piling more garbage on your plate,” she said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “The offer is appreciated, on a lot of levels.  Maybe another time, if things somehow quiet down.”

“I dunno, knowing how you feel about me makes it weird.”

I turned to look at her, and I could see her in silhouette, smiling, holding back her laughs.

Not hiding her fucked up teeth from me.

I elbowed her, and she elbowed me back.

“Say the word,” she told me, “and it’s a done deal.”

“For once, it’s a deal I’m happy to have on the table,” I said.

“Hm?”

“Nevermind.”

“You really okay?” she asked.

“In terms of the big picture, I’m less okay than you can imagine.  And-”

“You impugn my creativity.”

“Even with your amazing, brilliant creativity and your amazing tattoo abilities, I’m less okay than you can imagine.  But this, right here, talking?  It helped.”

“Yeah?”

I stood, stretching, and nodded, “Yeah.  But I’m also cold, so I’m going back inside.”

“I’ll be in in a minute.”

I nodded, turning to the patio door.

Rose’s reflection, faint, was visible there.  She was pointing, looking deadly serious.

I let myself back into the apartment, and then ducked into the bathroom.

“There are nine people in the apartment,” Rose said.

“And?”

“I watched people come in the front door, trying to commit names to memory, figure out who your friends were.  Nine people came in.”

“And?” I asked.

“Ten people in all, if you count Alexis out there on the balcony.  Every time I count heads I see nine, but when I go from person to person and count names, the total comes up eight, and I can’t find the person without a name.”

I nodded, stepping out into the apartment.

I did as Rose had done.

Joel, Goosh, Ty, Joseph, Amanda, Nick, Tiffany, and Stephen.

Then I counted heads.

Nine people, spread out through the apartment.  Ten if I counted Alexis, smoking on the balcony.

I used the Sight, and I found the man with no name, sitting on a chair he’d turned around at the end of the dining room table.  Older than anyone but Joel, light haired, wearing a white coat.  A polished, silver-platinum gun rested in his lap, where he occasionally picked it up or turned it around.

I approached him slowly, then leaned against the table.

“I didn’t want to interrupt anything,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Is now a good time?  The Lord would like to see you.  The other local powers will be in attendance.”

“Just give me one second,” I said.

He nodded.

“Tiffany?” I asked.

She looked up at me.

“How much for one of your paintings?”

“Two hundred?” she asked.

I thought of the allowance the lawyers had given me.  “I’ll pay you five hundred for your best one, but I need one now.”

“Y-yeah,” she said.

I looked at Conquest’s messenger, “We can pick that up on the way?”

He nodded.

Tiffany at my side, oblivious to the man with the gun, we strode from the apartment.

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