Category Archives: 4.06

Collateral 4.6

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I’d seated myself so the crowd was at my back, with the idea that I’d be able to see the window, hopefully spotting danger, or seeing if and when Rose turned up.  I felt the absence, and I felt a bit of mounting pressure alongside it.

“So,” I said.  “I dunno about you, but I’m wracking my brains, trying to think about what to talk about, and I have no idea.  Family’s off the table, we talked about occupation, I don’t think either of us are really in a place to look beyond the immediate future…”

“I’m doing the same thing.  Except maybe not thinking about it so much as not thinking clearly about anything particular.”

“Sorry,” I said.  I couldn’t say if it was because of her just being the way she was or if it was because of my influence.  It was too similar to how I’d felt near Pauz.  Radiation?

“But I don’t mind just being here.  Having company.”

“No?”

“No,” she said, avoiding eye contact.

“I, uh, don’t think I’m very good at this,” I said.  “Generally speaking.”

“I think this is the first time I’ve ever been anywhere with a guy.  Unless you count the time I was in fifth grade and I had a boy friend I liked to imagine was a boyfriend.  And I made a fool of myself and his mom was there and… I don’t know why I’m saying this.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Is this your first?  Erm, your first time being out with a girl?”

“No.  I’ve been out a few times.  Some back when I was in school, friend of my cousin.  Some later, there was a girl I hung out with on the streets, until she decided to steal my stuff.”

“Oh, oh wow, I’m sorry.”

“No worries.”

“Did that scare you off dating, or- no, stupid question.”

“I don’t think I’d even care, if I ran into her now.  Sucked at the time, but I’m glad she broke it off, so to speak.  Um.  There have been a few girls that Alexis introduced me to, after I started putting my life together.  The singer, the architect, the big sister.”

“Big sister?”

“I’m still not sure what was going on.  Whenever we spent time together, it was always revolving around these kids, her little brothers and sisters that she was taking care of.  She had her hands full.  We never even broke up.  We just… kind of made less and less dates until I realized it had been two months since we’d last connected.”

“Oh.  How old were the kids?”

“Three and five, if I remember right?”

“Maybe they were hers?  She could have been lying?”

The thought caught me off guard.

“Damn it,” I said.  “You’re probably right.  I didn’t even think about it.”

“I shouldn’t even be asking about this.”

“I don’t mind,” I said.

“I mean- um.  This is a date, right?”

I shrugged, hunched over my coffee and the table, so the steam was in my face, and my face was closer to her, allowing me to hear her in the general noise of the University coffee shop.  I was covering one hand with the other so the locket wouldn’t be the first thing she saw when she looked down.  “Yeah.  Kind of?  Let’s call it the best of both worlds.”

“Can we do that?”

I smiled.  “Why the hell not?  If it works out, then we call it a date.  If it doesn’t, we were just out as two people with a mutual friend, who might become friends.”

“I’m doing it all wrong, either way.  I shouldn’t be asking about exes.”

“I don’t mind.  I think it should be allowable, provided there isn’t any dwelling on the subject, unresolved love, or any of that, and there definitely isn’t, here.  Talking about it lets us share some horror stories, break the tension, maybe even subtly hint at what not to do.”

“What not to do?”

“Well, now you know not to bring your kids if we have a date in the future.”

She laughed, a short, surprised, nervous ‘ha’.  “Not a problem.  No kids.”

“Well that’s a relief.  See?  And I could say the thing with the singer was a horrible comedy of errors, including me having an ear infection for the better part of the so-called ‘relationship’, meaning I couldn’t really hear her when she did a show, and I tried to bluff my way through it.  Then she wasn’t considerate when I wanted to take things really, really slow, on the, er, intimacy front, and I got upset.  Maybe ‘comedy of errors’ is the wrong term.  It wasn’t funny, now that I think back on it.”

“Alexis sort of mentioned some things.  I wasn’t sure if I should bring it up, or how to ask, or if I should.”

“See?  The ex topic isn’t a bad thing, since it lets us gently bring up this sort of thing, right?”

“Yeah.”

I wasn’t able to maintain eye contact, so I looked down at my coffee instead.  “If we were doing something date-ish here, I might say that that thing about me wanting to take things slow is still true.”

“Sure.  I… kind of figured, already.”

“Figured?”

“I mean… even your posture, before?  Here?”

“If you’re talking about those… guys, before, that’s something more complicated.”

“I’m talking about the party, and the way you’re sort of tense now.”

Tense?  I looked at what I was doing, leaning over the table, both arms resting on the surface, coffee in front of me.  I could maybe see how it might read as guarded.

I shifted position, pulling my chair closer to the table, sitting up straighter.  I forced myself to relax some, though I remained very aware of the people going this way and that behind me.

“Don’t- please don’t change what you’re doing, on my account.  I’ll feel bad.  Do what makes you comfortable.”

“It’s cool.  I’d rather not look like I’m being defensive, because that tends to make people think they can pick on you.  Might explain a few things, really.”

“The stuff that’s going on with your grandmother’s house, that you haven’t really explained?”

“That stuff,” I said, “along with the stuff related to it.”

“Which you don’t want to go into detail about,” Tiffany said.  “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You aren’t hassling me about it, or prying.  I’m not looking forward to when the other guys start losing patience.  Joel’s already sort of frustrated with me.”

“Who else is the type to pry?  I don’t really know everyone that well.”

“Alexis.”

“Really?”

“Alexis is cool.  She can be pushy.  She’s a nice pushy, a well-meaning pushy.  I love her for it, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t push things.”

“I haven’t run into that.  She’s helped me out lots.”

“Because she’s helping you get from a bad place to a good place.  Both in terms of where you actually are and in terms of you physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually, if you buy that stuff.”

“I don’t, really.”

I nodded some.  “But things change when you’ve reached that good place, and she keeps wanting to help.  Get you from that good place to a better place.  Which sounds awesome, except, you know, it can be awfully nice to just enjoy that good place for what it is, after so much bad.  Sometimes you don’t want that extra push.”

Sometimes, I didn’t say, you didn’t want to be matched up with some singer or architect, or you don’t want that offer of a casual three-way.

Tiffany was nodding, but she looked concerned.  “I think I see what you mean.  Are you- are you angry with her?”

“No.  We’ve had fights, some of the most intense arguments I’ve had in my life, and I’ve had some good ones, believe me.  But elaborating on that means talking about family, and I don’t feel like talking about family.”

“Me either.”

“We were talking about Alexis.  I’ve had moments where I was angry at her, after those crazy intense arguments and it took me a while to realize why I was so upset.  She wants me to emerge from my shell, but shells exist for a reason, you know?”

“Yeah,” Tiffany said.  “I definitely know.”

“Don’t get me wrong.  Alexis is in the running for my favorite person in the world.  I owe her… pretty much everything I have that’s good.”

“Yeah.  I know,” she said.

Was that an agreement, because she felt the same way about Alexis, or something different?

Tiffany continued, “She- I’m afraid to ask, in case it’s embarrassing or private between you two, but-”

“Did we date?”

“No!  God, no, that’s not what I was asking.  I don’t… I’m not even sure if I want to know or if I don’t care.”

“We didn’t,” I said.

“Oh,” she said.  The nervous energy or anxiety dissipating in a flash.  “Okay.”

“What were you going to ask?”

“I… just wanted to know if she did your tattoos.”

Without thinking, I rolled up a sleeve.

My heart might have skipped a beat.  I’d been too caught up in this, too caught up in the normal.  I was being careful not to lie, but I was forgetting the things that were different.

The birds that were perched on the branches on my forearm were… a little worse for wear.  Feathers sticking up, dirtier, the glint in their eyes was glintier.  The background had more red to it than it should have.

“It’s more intense than I expected,” she said.  “The detail is beautiful, though.”

I changed tacks, to distract myself, and to distract her.  “I think you’ll probably have some kind of conflict with Alexis.  Take it from someone who’s been there, she means well.  Take that for what it is, take it in stride.  In my case, I try to give things a shot, let her help now and again, but I have to establish the boundaries with some regularity.  Remind her where I stand, nice and assertive.”

“I’m not very good at taking things in stride.  Or being assertive.”

“How do you handle things?”

“Not… well?  I tend to crumple, or do stupid things.”

“Well,  in an ideal world, I’d say I’ll be there to keep an eye on Alexis and help out if she gave you a hard time, but I don’t-”

A crash nearby startled me.  I was out of my chair in a second, back to the wall, as two guys wrestled.  Trays had scattered all over the floor by the door, knocked off the top of one of the trash cans.  A shove or an overly aggressive friendly bump between two guys in hoodies had started it, and it looked like violence was going to finish it.

I’d hoped the animals would be the only things affected by the radiation, had told myself that Tiffany’s outburst against the Sphinx was a reaction to an authority figure, but this…

Dismissing it as a coincidence seemed dangerous.

Some people around us looked a little too upset at the fighting, at being bumped and having their meals disturbed.

“Tiffany?” I asked.

“You want to go?”

“If we can duck out without getting caught in this,” I said.

She nodded.

I stood by, waiting, watching as someone got bumped a few too many times by the two guys and stood.

Heads were turning.  The brawl had everyone’s attention.

My attention, however, was on the door.  I watched them struggle, slightly back and forth, convinced that the moment I tried to head for the door, they’d stagger back, hitting me or Tiffany, and getting us caught up in the chaos.

I saw them lurch one direction, waited to make sure it wouldn’t switch to another crash into the trash can, and hurried past, getting the door, holding it for Tiffany.

She ducked under my extended arm.

Damn.  Two incidents.  I could only hope that I hadn’t made the University donut shop the site of a brawl, just by being there.

I really hoped I hadn’t started a riot.

I really, really hoped this would end soon.  I’d stepped in shit, I was tracking it everywhere.

“That was crazy,” she said.  “Man, I do not like that sort of thing.”

“I can understand that,” I said.

I glanced at a shop window, half-expecting to see Rose there, sharing some silent commentary on what had just happened.  She still wasn’t there.  How easy it was to get used to mirror-dwelling people-figments.

“You were sharing some personal stuff, about the ‘bad’ we’re trying to move on from?  That’s my sort of ‘bad’.”

“Fighting?  Violence?” I asked.

“Yeah.  It… really makes me feel like I’m seven again.  Helpless, frustrated.  Really… I’m not an angry person, you know?”

I started to respond, then forced myself to stop, reconsidering.  Saying something like, ‘I didn’t think you were’ would be a lie, since I had thought it.

“It wasn’t my impression of you,” I finally said.

“I’ve never been in a fight, not… not that sort of fight.  But it makes me angry.  Makes me want to hit them, beat them senseless for being so stupid that they’ll beat each other senseless.  And now I’m worried I sound like a freak, or an idiot.  I’m not sure which, or if it’s both.”

“I’m not here to judge you, remember?” I asked.

“Sure, it’s easy to say that, but then I say something stupid like that, there’s no way you don’t judge me a little.”

“A good rule of thumb is to assume that people aren’t nearly as fussed about anything you’re doing as you think they are.”

“I keep hearing that, but that doesn’t make it easier.”

“It will.  Look, without getting into detail or treading on sensitive territory, I assume you’re looking to change yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“How many years did you travel down to this point?”

“My whole life, so… nineteen?”

“Nineteen years.  Okay.  Why expect an overnight change, then?  Isn’t that being unfair to yourself?”

“Maybe.”

“I’m… I know I’ve frustrated some people, by being slow to change.  But I think it’s worse to betray myself and expect too much of myself in undoing a solid lifetime of bullshit.  Excuse my French.”

“Ce n’est pas grave.”

“Ah, a French speaker.”

“It’s a bilingual country.”

“I’ll rephrase.  Someone who seems remotely fluent, and who didn’t forget the little they learned in High School.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, but she smiled a little as she said it.  A little praise going a long way.  Praise, perhaps, that she couldn’t deny.

It didn’t hurt to try taking it a step further.

“Take this for what it’s worth, Tiffany… I think I can see why Alexis likes you.  I’m starting to like you too, insofar as I’ve gotten to know you.  I think you’re pretty cool.”

“Oh god.  Don’t start saying stuff like that, or I’ll die right here.”

“Go easy on yourself,” I said.  “I think I would continue to enjoy your company if you didn’t change from the way you are now.  But if you are going to change, give those changes time, to work against nineteen years of history.  Yeah?”

“I’m- I’m sort of worried I’ll get lazy and fall back on old habits if I don’t work at it.”

Which was an indirect, unintentional stab at me.  Criticizing my way of handling things.

“Do what works for you,” I said.  “That’s all it comes down to, once I’m done making it complicated.”

“Okay.  I can do that.”

I saw another window, absent my reflection or Rose’s.

The worry was reaching a critical point.

“Listen, I’m sorry for doing this-”

“You’ve got stuff.  Serious stuff, from what you were hinting at last night.”

Serious stuff.  Yeah, that summed it up.

“Yeah.  Is it alright if we do this again, in the future?”

“Maybe,” she hedged.

“Maybe?”  I hadn’t expected that.  She was interested in me.  I had a hard time grasping why, beyond our common ground, but she was so nice and generally passive that I hadn’t expected anything other than a yes.

“Maybe…  But I need some promises,” she said.

“I’m sort of leery of promises, at this point.”

“Okay.  Well, hear me out, first.  The first promise would be that you have to forgive me for mucking this up and making it into more of a therapy session for me than anything.”

“That’s not what it felt like to me,” I said.  “Sorry if I made it into that for you.”

“No.  I don’t know.  Yes.  But I didn’t mind.”

“Well, I already said I would strive to look past any of the minor snafus, or something in that vein.  I have no problem with that promise.”

“Okay.  The second is, well, I need you to not demote me to some label like ‘the singer’ or ‘the big sister’.  Because I’m really afraid of what that label would be.”

“That’s not- I didn’t do that to demote anyone.  Not intentionally.”

“That’s- I don’t think you’re the sort to do that in a mean spirited way, and it didn’t feel mean, but I don’t want to be the Weird Girl or the Shy Girl or the Girl Who Takes Way Too Long To Eat A Donut Because She’s Nervous.”

“Did you?”

“I felt like I did.”

“I didn’t notice.  I hereby swear that you will not, should I be able to help it, become the Donut Girl in my estimation.”

“Oh god.  Donut Girl,” she said.  But she was smiling.  “That statement sounded so important and meaningful when you said it like that.”

“It is,” I said.  “Hey…”

I reached out, hesitated, then took her hand.  I held it between both of mine.  “I’m not very good at this part, but… I enjoyed this.  It did a lot more for me than I can safely put into words.  I’m, uh, not really the sort to make that leap to kissing a girl after a nice first date, and I’m not sure if we’ve agreed it was one, but if I were, and if we did-”

“Oh,” she said, her eyes dropping to the ground.  “You’re back to saying these things.”

“-I’d give you a chaste, quick kiss right now.”

She turned pink.

“Sorry,” I said.  I squeezed her hand, then let it go.  “Another time?  Something I don’t have to cut short?”

She nodded, very quickly, unable to maintain eye contact.

We parted ways.

Immediately, I shifted mental gears.

This had been silly, mundane.

But I’d needed this, much as I’d needed the party the previous night.  I’d eaten, I’d touched base with me, in a way, done as much as I could to recharge that supply of personal power.

I was getting more of a sense of what was going on with my tattoos, though.  They were a barometer of sorts, a kind of representation of what was affecting me on a mystical level.

I wasn’t sure if that went anywhere, if they could keep going down that road, or if there was more to it, but there was no way that the tattoos and Pauz’s effect weren’t related on some level.

Rose had told me that I was pale, before, that I’d been diminished, when my personal power was drained, my defenses low, at the same time my tattoos were brighter and more intense.  My defenses hadn’t yet recovered, so Pauz had been able to affect me all the more.  Had I changed here as well?  How would I change, under a demon’s influence?

I could picture my hair sticking up, like the birds were, my face settling into a natural glare…

Hm.

Hard to link that to the dialogue with Tiffany.  She’d been nervous, but no more than her usual self.

I rolled up my sleeve again, checking the bird closest to my wrist.

It was hard to say.  I hadn’t been paying attention to this particular bird… but maybe it seemed a bit less ‘intense’ than it had?  Was that because I was bleeding off the conflict and radiation, donating it to innocent dogs and people in donut shops?

Or was it because I’d bolstered my personal power on a level?

The other possibility, I couldn’t deny, was that it boiled down to wishful thinking coupled with imagination.

I headed for the apartment.  Not far from the University.

Rose would be recuperating, hopefully, while grabbing and researching the various books pertaining to diabolic bargains.  My job would be figuring out how to draw up a quick, effective circle, using the tools I had at hand.  I’d also need a way to protect myself.

No way was I letting this radiation get worse.

Thinking about tattoos gave me other ideas.

I debated the ideas until I’d reached the apartment.  I let myself in, and made my way up to my place.

With the walls being somewhat thin, I didn’t want to shout, so I did a patrol, walking around the perimeter, my eyes on the various mirrors.

No.  She wasn’t here.

Okay, that wasn’t a huge shock.  What were the rules?  She could only be around me or be in the Hillsglade House.

I checked the time.  The idea was to be there ‘tonight’.  Our deadline was midnight.

We still had to take the bound being to Conquest.

Rose and I had hours to get ready.  Hours to hammer out a good contract.  But too much of it was up in the air.

I fished in my pockets for the subway tickets I’d bought, placing them on the dining room table.

I’d been on the subway at eight fifty, I’d arrived at nine forty.  Thirty minute walk factored in…

Roughly an hour and a half, once I added additional walk time or other distractions.

What was the latest I could possibly leave?  How long would the negotiation over the contract and the following ritual take?  How long would it take to get to Conquest afterward, with Pauz in tow, without having him declare the deadline past?

I ran through the numbers in my head as I pulled off my sweatshirt and t-shirt.

I got bleach from under the kitchen sink.

Zero idea if this would work, but I was operating without books.  Rose was the one with the reading material, and she was AWOL.

I laid out the shirt flat, smoothed out the wrinkles, and set to work.  A droplet of bleach on the underside of a glass, a nail, and gentle scratching of the fabric.

The bleach marked lighter lines in the fabric.  Lighter lines were joined by other lines, carefully measured, geometric patterns, shapes…

Pauz was an imp of things foul and feral.  A being of wanton chaos, of overturned order.  He was weak enough that he could be subdued by ‘like’ elements – fur, blood, and shit, in his case.  It was why the rabbit circle had worked.  But Rose had told me, essentially, that the preferred way to go was to fight with opposing qualities.

Bleach, I hoped, or the aftermath of bleach, was ideally a material that opposed him.  Man made to contrast the focus on the natural, purifying, to contrast the focus on rot, foulness and stagnation.

I stuck with triangles bounded by circles, to lay out the design across the shirt.

It took time, but that was okay.  Time meant Rose could get back to me, find me and give me the lowdown.  If she wrote up a contract to bind Pauz, I’d have to copy it over, which was more time.

When did I start worrying?  Seven thirty seemed like a safe time to leave, but how long did I have to take to copy the contract?

I didn’t really want to think about what happened if Rose didn’t show up.

I was starting to regret not figuring out more about the mirror world, or Rose’s interaction with it.

I finished etching lines in the shirt, bullshitting something that looked like a magic circle, then started on a pair of black slacks.  The clock ticked on.  An early lunch with Tiffany and a short walk back had put the clock at twelve thirty as I’d made my way back.

I watched the clock hit two as I put the slacks down, the inside of the pants etched with an even denser image.  The coarser, thicker surface gave me more freedom, and I was getting a hang of the task.

I had no idea if it mattered or if it did any good.  I’d imagined that the framing of it and the way that the lines and triangles pointed towards the openings at the bottom of each leg would make it stronger, but now I wondered if it would only serve as a weak point.

When building a bridge, was it better to simply use the strongest elements available, or did one try to anticipate the stresses, accommodate the terrain?

No.  I was overthinking it.  Besides, it was done.

My hands hurt.  My knuckles were white and standing up against the skin where I’d been holding my hand in the same position, clutching the nail.

I clenched my fist, and felt the joints pop.  Still shirtless, chilled where the cool air had touched the sweat on my back, I headed for the bathroom, cranking the shower to ‘hot’.

While it heated up, I grabbed my one dress shirt from the closet and hung it up by the shower.  Humidity, steam, heat.

Hot water didn’t really kill germs.  Water hot enough to kill bacteria would generally be scalding.  But hot water could be symbolic, and as long as I was pulling countermeasures out of my ass for the upcoming confrontation with Pauz, I was going to treat myself to a second hot shower for the day.  Wash away the filth and radiation.

Maybe.

When I was done the shower, I shaved for a second time.  I took my time grooming, trimming my nails and body hair, brushing my teeth, flossing, then taking far too long trying to tame my generally uncooperative hair.  The mop.

For long moments, I debated just shaving it off.

I reconsidered.

My enemy was all about challenging the natural order.  I embraced the trappings of civilization.  I used the file on the back of the nail clippers to fix up the rough edges of my nails as I paced nervously to the back of the apartment, then returned to the kitchen.

Grooming was baseline.

But the rest of the trappings of civilization would have to wait.  In boxer-briefs only, I headed for the toolbox.

Acrylic paint, watercolor?

No.  I didn’t trust the effects of the paint, didn’t trust that I wouldn’t have an allergic reaction.

I gathered up every pen in my place.  The clock on The Shitty Little Stove, as I’d come to unfondly regard it, told me it was three.

Keep it simple.

The pens in a pile, I drew a series of lines beside the still-angry wound on my hand, working around the chains of the locket.  One line for each pen.  I very carefully laid the pens down in order.

I waited a minute, taking the time to sketch out what I wanted to do.  My figures were horrible, but I only needed a basic sketch.

No time for anything complex…

Have to work in physical limitations

Wetting my thumb-tip with my tongue, I ran it along each of the lines.

I picked out the winning pen.  The one that had dried most effectively, streaking the least.  Bold black lines.

Compass, protractor, some finangling to get the pen into the compass, and a pink nub of eraser ripped off a pencil

I drew a circle around my heart, off-center in my chest, using the eraser-nub with the compass so the little needle wouldn’t prick me.

Liver, pancreas, bellybutton…

Lines joined it, helped by a set-square, and each line was subsequently joined by an impression of cold metal against skin.

Three twenty in the afternoon.

Still no Rose.

She’d shattered two windows.

One frozen pond had taken the strength out of her.

Two windows, though… one after the other…

I hadn’t seen anything suggesting she was still there.  And if she’d destroyed the windows, she’d destroyed the very reflection that was allowing her to be there.  The way she’d described shattering the pond’s ice, she’d been shunted to another location.  Forced to the nearest safe ground.

So… why hadn’t she found her way back to me?

A triangle, carefully measured, not with right angles, but still very carefully drawn.  The lines didn’t match up, forcing me to make the ensuing line thicker and avoid it being broken up.

The line across the small of my back was harder, slower.  I cheated, leaning against the dining room table until I’d left an impression in my skin, then using the set-square to keep it straight.  Spent far too long trying to get the ruler in place again when the line wasn’t a hundred percent there, after I moved it.

The diagram called for a triangle across my back, pointing up at the nape of my neck.  I debated if I’d have time…

Then, seeing the residual ink on the set-square, I gutted the pen and soaked the edge of the metal ‘L’.  Very carefully, I pressed it against my back, rolling it back and forth to get it into the grooves and recesses.  I checked the end result, then did it again.

Four o’clock.

Legs, arms, hands, feet, including the soles.  Faster due to their location, but my speed at figuring out the process was balanced by the awkwardness of some of the angles, and the fact that I needed the use of the very limbs I was working on.

Rose hadn’t appeared to demand to know what the fuck I was doing to myself.

She hadn’t shown up, shrieked at seeing me in my underwear, drawing on myself.

I was now well past the point where I was worried.

Clothing…

I donned the t-shirt, smoothed out the wrinkles on the button-up shirt, and buttoned it up over the t-shirt.

No horrible burning.  Good.

I put on the hatchet-holster, then pulled the slacks on.  I’d placed open spaces at the knees, so I wouldn’t rub away the image or transfer too much bleach on my skin, but I still worried about the other areas where it might rub.

Not exactly top notch, but it felt like a step in the right direction.

Tie, yes.  I picked a red one.

I wished I had the goblin flute and the paper goblins, but they hadn’t been mine to keep.

I had to be selective in terms of what I brought, this time.  Only so many pockets.  I chose the basics.  Pens, cord, the hook-screws.

Five o’clock.  Five o’clock and I would take action.

I cooked some pork chops, brussel sprouts, and grilled up thick slices of sweet potato, more to keep myself busy than anything else.  Healthy body, covering all of the bases, to counteract the demon that upset the natural balance of things.

Four twenty.  I’d hoped it would take longer.

I fidgeted, then decided to bite the bullet.

The drawer in my bedroom whisked open.  I collected the book.  The only one I had.

Black Lamb’s Blood.

Fuck.

I opened it, and I started reading, book open in my hands while I paced.

Halfway through the introduction, I stopped to go to the fridge and rescue another cupcake from the plastic container within.

I resumed reading, finishing the introduction.

I didn’t read the rest of the book.  I skimmed, looking, hoping for charts, for something concrete.

But it wasn’t a magical tome.  Not really.  There were no rituals within.  No charts, nor ingredients or diagrams.  No proper terminology for bullshitting contracts in an hour.

Not what I needed, even in the slightest.

I needed Rose.  I needed her help to establish a game plan.

I watched the last few minutes tick forward on the analogue clock of The Shitty Little Stove.

It ticked past five o’clock.  I watched until five oh one.

“Rose Thorburn,” I intoned.  “I summon you.”

Nothing, not even a flicker.

That disquieted me.

A vestige was fragile.

Rose had already been abused, hauled into a strange Conquest dimension, chained…

I fidgeted briefly, messing with the chain on my locket-hand.

“Rose Thorburn, by the tie that binds you to me and vice versa, I call you.”

Nothing.

“Rose Thorburn, you are me and I am you, one step apart, I call you.”

I’d had more luck with Leonard, my drunk ghost in a bottle.

“Rose Thorburn, by all your frustration with me, by the oaths I have sworn to you and the oaths you have sworn to me, I bid you to return to my side.

“Rose Thorburn…”

I didn’t know how to finish.

“God damn it, Rose, I need your help.  Don’t leave me hanging.”

I picked up the tome, started reading it again, then put it down.  Ten minutes later, nervous, I picked it up again.

I debated calling the lawyers for help.

Had they expected this?  Had they helped it happen?

It would be so fitting if they were somehow in league with Conquest, if they were orchestrating this entire thing to put me on this road.

I had to obey Conquest or he’d murder me and Rose.

Obeying Conquest put me on this road, forced me into a situation where I had to beg for help, accept the deal.  Working for another diabolist.

Where would that path take me?

But if I didn’t take the offer of help?  Where did I wind up?

Dead, probably.

Would the diabolists step in to save me?  They wanted me on board.  They were going to lengths.

I pulled on my gloves with care, the ink and locket in mind, alongside the cuts and gouge that hadn’t yet healed.

The coat was next.  Not quite a suit, but the coat was meant to be worn with a suit, and it looked good.  Suitlike, only it hung longer.  Only closer inspection would see the absence of the suit jacket underneath, or the t-shirt beneath the dress shirt.

I smoothed down some of the curls of blond hair that were escaping  their prison of hair styling glue, knowing they wouldn’t stay down.  I moved my mouth around, stretching my skin to make sure I didn’t have any patches of hair where I’d missed shaving.  Never mind that I’d shaved twice today.

If I was going to armor myself in my own self and identity, I’d damn well stick to my preference of being clean shaven.  I’d spent too many weeks with wispy teenaged beard growth while I’d been on the streets.  I was going to be the best Blake Thorburn I could imagine.  The sort of Blake who could look good in an almost-suit, but still pull off his button-up shirt and start working on framing a new art installation, or do prop work for the theater, or something.  I’d armor myself in my personal ideal, hold it up to give myself courage in a situation where I had very, very little.

The inked out magic diagrams across my skin couldn’t hurt either, as armor went.

Probably couldn’t hurt.

I adjusted my tie.

I was procrastinating.  It was seven.  I had no idea what the evening had in store for me, now.

Rose had removed herself from the picture, Conquest was fucking with me by using that chain to remove her from my company, or something else entirely.

I filled my nicer backpack with essential supplies – the tome, the papers, some of the working pens, and other basic tools that it didn’t hurt to keep, slung it over one shoulder, and left.

No dogs barked at me while I made my way to the subway.  I heard crows caw, but I couldn’t say if they were taunting me or just being ordinary crows.

On the subway itself, no fights broke out.  No disasters happened as a result of the radiation.  There was only the crowd, the late rush of people who had been working until dinnertime.

I hesitated as long as I could, waiting for the telltale Blake in Rose’s voice.

When the doors started to slide shut, I hurried through them.

I walked down suburb streets until I started seeing the telltale signs of Pauz’s influence.  Crows, and watching animals.  Every house had curtains drawn, every light on, otherwise.

The Dowghty house was the only one that had no lights at all.  Flocks of crows took off as I approached, but they didn’t attack me.

I reached into the backpack for the yellow lined paper and the tome, drew out a pen, and then tossed it aside before stepping onto the driveway.

The door opened as I knocked.  The inside was as cold as the outside.

Filthier, oddly more wilderness.

Stray branches, dirt, trekked in mud and snow, frozen in tracks.  Dung and offal, bones.

The smell was enough to make me want to gag.  Cloying, animal, dominating the senses until it felt like throwing up would be a relief, cleaner and less gross than enduring this.

I used the back of the tome as a surface to rest the paper on, making my way through the house.  Store-bought meat and the packaging for meat littered the floor in adjacent rooms.  Cats and rodents hissed and growled as I passed too close to their food.

He was in the room opposite the front door, at the far end of the house.

A broken old man, clearly malnourished to the point that he should be in a hospital.  His reactions were delayed as a cat hopped up into his lap to nibble at something that really didn’t look like it belonged on a dinner plate.  Not cooked, barely taken care of.  His arms were pocked with injuries where animals had nibbled on him and he’d been too slow to react.  Some looked infected.

He smelled like he’d shit himself, sitting there.

A table laid out for a banquet, except the banquet had gone to rot.  The guests remained, lurking at the edges of the room, on and under furniture, staring.

Pauz perched on the back of the chair, just behind Dowghty’s shoulder.

“It looks like it’ll be just me today,” I said.

“I know,” Pauz responded, confirming suspicions I hadn’t even allowed myself to voice.

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