"That's an artifact all right," Artie said, gazing down at the cloak, which was spread out on Marla's bed and looked as ordinary as a white-and-purple cloak could.
"You don't need to, I dunno, make a special artifact-identifying tincture and put a drop in each eye and see its magic revealed?" Marla said.
Artie shrugged. He was about two feet from the foot of the bed. He didn't seem inclined to go any closer. "I could. But I've been doing this a long time, and you develop a certain sense. A thousand tiny little details, all adding up, I couldn't even tell you what all of the things I'm noticing are, but my brain notes them all. Like, for instance, what's it feel like?"
"Sorta silky... woolly... cottony... I dunno. It changes."
"But look, you can't see any weave, any stitching, it's of a piece, like it's a sheet of leather or plastic or something. There's no seam where the hood's sewn on. It's like it just grew that way." He shook his head. "And you actually wore it?"
"How was I supposed to know? I just thought it was a cool cloak. I don't have all those years of experience. I didn't get any kind of eldritch vibe." Or had she? The cloak had certainly seemed to call to her, to demand her attention, and since she normally thought of clothing only as a boring necessity, that was noteworthy. "At least, nothing that made me afraid to put it on," she amended.
"And it healed your, ah..." He gestured vaguely crotchward.
"Yeah. I thought then maybe it was enchanted, something out of a sorcerer's estate, wound up in a thrift store, you know?"
"Sure. Until you figured out the mental command to make it switch colors, and then..."
"Then I went crazy, and attacked a kid, and who knows what I would have done if I hadn't made it switch from purple to white again."
Artie stared at the cloak for a while, then said, abruptly, "Okay, here's what we do. We pick this thing up with some tongs or something, put it in a special suitcase I've got – it doesn't nullify magic, but it sorta shields it – and then we'll take it down to Viscarro, find out if he's ever heard of anything like this, and either way, we'll get him to tuck it away into a little vault until –"
"No," Marla said, surprising even herself. "Artie, it's mine."
He looked at her levelly. "That's true. But it doesn't have to be. I don't care how powerful it is, Viscarro can contain it. He doesn't do anything but think about hoarding artifacts. I'm not saying we give it to him, sell it to him, anything like that, just hire him to hold it for us until we can figure it out –"
"You've got an artifact, so why can't I have one?"
Artie shook his head. "Does that cloak still have its hooks in your brain? I've got half an artifact, and sure, it's powerful. It'll change your sex, or your gender, or both if you make the mistake of sticking it in one of your orifices, and it's done weirder stuff too – but your cloak talks to you and tries to make you into a killing machine. You see the difference?"
"Sure," Marla said. "But it was better the second time."
Artie stared at her. "You put it on again?"
"After Hamil tore me a new one on the phone. I cast a time-release sleeping spell on myself just in case, and then I went down to the beach, away from any people, and put on the cloak, and told it to turn. I got that clarity again, and the power, and sure, I got to thinking of everybody in the world as nothing but a disposable game piece on a board, but I knew what was coming this time, I kept myself in control. I think I built up a kind of resistance, after wearing it once. I didn't have any trouble changing the cloak back to white, and I was back upstairs in my own bed before the sleeping spell hit me. It's safe, Artie."
"At least it wants you to think it is," Artie said. "You shouldn't underestimate something like this. There's no telling where it came from, what it wants..." He sighed. "But I'm sure there's a reason you're the one who found it."
"What, like I've got a special destiny?" Marla said.
Artie smacked her on the back of the head, lightly. "No. Destiny. Shit. We've been over that. There's no destiny, just likelihoods, just narrowing of possibilities down into certainties. No, I don't mean fate. But things like this, artifacts, they're objects with a point of view. They're things with intentions. No, you don't have a destiny. But this. This has plans for you. Maybe they'll be good for you. Maybe they won't."
"It's a tool," Marla said. "It's something I can use. I don't have what Daniel has, what Jenny has, that inborn power, I can't reach out and manipulate the world like they can, it's hard for me. This could make things so much easier. I could go far."
"You can use it," Artie said. "Just never forget for a minute that it's also using you." He turned to face her and put both hands on his shoulders. When he spoke, his voice was gentle. "If you're going to wear that thing, Marla, I need you to move out of my house."
She was surprised at the jolt of dismay that went through her gut. Over the past years, Artie's house in the cliff had become her home, the only home she'd ever cared about. "What? You're throwing me out? Why?"
"Because that thing's older than me, and probably knows more than I do, and I can't be your master if you're learning from it too." He patted her on the shoulder. "Don't think I'm throwing you out. It's more like I'm pushing you out of the nest. I'm not disowning you or anything. After what happened with Ernesto... That was bad. He and I both behaved badly. I don't want that kind of bad blood between you and me. You're welcome here, you can visit anytime, and we'll keep all our oaths and promises to one another. I'll steer work your way, I'll vouch for you, all that. But you won't be my apprentice anymore. You'll be freelance. A consultant." He smiled faintly. "What Sauvage calls a 'wand for hire.'" He glanced at the bed. "Just, when you come over, leave that thing locked up at home, would you? And get a good magically-protected wardrobe or something to keep it in, you don't want it falling into the wrong hands."
"What if I don't want to go?" Marla said.
He shrugged. "I call up Viscarro, and he studies the cloak, tries to figure out what it is, probably ends up locking it in a lead box below the surface of the Earth for as close to forever as we can manage. Most sorcerers are cautious about stuff like this, Marla. For good reason. But it's your choice."
Marla picked up the cloak in her hands, the smooth substantial fabric warm in her hands, the white so impossibly pure, the purple as dark as blood pooling in a bruised cadaver. "Locking it away... Artie, that would be such a waste."
"That's it, then," Artie said. "You want me to tell Daniel, or will you?"
"I bought you an artifact?" Daniel said, helping to carry Marla's bags to the Bentley. "That's kinda like loaning a guy a buck so he can buy a lottery ticket, and then he wins the jackpot."
Marla slung a bag into the backseat. "What are you saying? You paid for it, so it should be yours?"
He held up his hands. "Whoa, hon, not at all. Don't want it, wouldn't take it if you offered it. I can make birds fall out of the sky by looking at them. I can live indefinitely off the life energy in a field of grass. I'm good." He went to the passenger seat – his driving privileges had been restored, but Marla driving them was habit, though she still didn't like it much. She climbed behind the wheel, and he went on. "Besides, I wouldn't trust myself with something like that. Something magical you have to wrestle with, a test of wills every time you use it? I don't know that I'm up for it. But you? I don't worry about you."
Marla tried to hide her smile. "Well, of course. Why would you worry about me?" She started the car and began the drive south to her new place.
"So what are you going to do?"
"Artie's putting out the word that I'm available for freelance work. Legbreaking and bodyguarding and general menacing and stuff like that mostly, at first anyway. Courier work. Nothing too glamorous."
"Weird that he's making you leave. Seems like with the cloak you'd be an even bigger asset."
"To be totally honest, I think the cloak kinda freaks him out." She reached over and patted the folded fabric, where it rested on the seat between Daniel and herself. "He wouldn't even touch it. He did say he might have work for me soon though. And let me tell you, Danny boy, freelance rates are way better than what he's been paying us."
"But I get room and board in the cheesy porn castle, and you have to pay your own rent."
"Ha. Artie hooked me up there, too. We looked at some places yesterday, and one of them, I just fell in love with. Artie knew the owner, and he sold me a whole apartment building, and it only cost me damn near every penny I've saved."
"You bought a building? Why? You planning on renting out the other apartments?"
"Nah, it's an old flophouse, been closed down for years, but there are a couple of apartments in good repair where I can stay. It hasn't found a buyer before because it's a little bit haunted. Lots of old folks died in there, left some nasty psychic residue, but that's mostly on the lower floors. But Daniel: it's got gargoyles. Somebody actually stuck gargoyles on the place! It's awesome. And I like the idea of having all that privacy. Believe me after, growing up in a trailer park where your back yard is somebody else's front yard, this place is a dream come true. " She glanced at him. "And we can make just as much noise as we want."
"And we don't have to worry about Artie pressing his ear to the wall next door, listening and wishing he could jerk off," Daniel said. "That does have a certain appeal."
"It's a shithole," Daniel said several hours later, sitting up on the futon in the living room of her fifth-floor apartment. "But I could get used to playing house here with you."
"Who says we're playing?" Marla planted a kiss on his lips. She pulled the covers off him. "Now get in the kitchen and make me some eggs. And put on that little apron I bought for you while you do it. Hey, stop that! Did I say anything about putting your pants on first?"
Daniel stayed over three of the next five nights, but otherwise, Marla had the place to herself. She worked some magics to keep the roof from leaking, and cast some protective wards to keep the place from burning down or being burglarized, and then went antique shopping with Jenny Click. Together they picked out a lovely old wooden wardrobe, carved all over with vines and flowers, and had it delivered to Marla's new apartment. They spent a long afternoon hacking various protective runes into its wood and imbuing them with power. If anybody other than Marla tried to open the wardrobe they'd burst into flame, and that would be the least of their problems.
They were sitting on the futon, enjoying the view of dirty rooftops from the window across the way and drinking dirty martinis, when Jenny said, "Oh, Artie wants you to come to a meeting tomorrow night."
"This that business he was talking about?"
"Yeah." Jenny sighed. "It's Rasmussen again."
Marla put down her drink on the old wooden orange crate she was using as an end table. "Oh you're fucking kidding me."
"Nope. You ever meet his apprentice, Pritchard?"
"Weasel face, red hair?"
"That's the one. He's switched sides. Says Rasmussen has totally gone off the deep end. I don't know the details, but apparently Pritchard's terrified, and came to Artie for help."
"So... what? I didn't hire on to be an assassin. And I know Daniel can theoretically snuff out life, but I don't think he'd go for it, either."
"I doubt the three of us together could take down Rasmussen, even with Artie's help," Jenny said. "I don't know what he has us to do. If I had to guess – da dum! – I'd say we're going to be sent to steal Rasmussen's half of the artifact."
"So what you're gonna do," Artie said, "is you're gonna go and steal Rasmussen's half of the artifact." He inclined his head toward Pritchard, who sat twitching on the far side of the table in the conference room in Juliana's club. "We got our inside man to supply us with keys and codes and spell-picks. The artifact's in Rasmussen's office. The asshole himself is on site, too, but Pritchard's going to distract him and get him out of the house for a while. In exchange for a lot of dough, and my help setting him up with a new life underground, once this little job is done."
"When's this happen?" Daniel asked.
"Tomorrow," Artie said. "You leave for England tonight." He glanced at Marla. "The terms acceptable to you, freelancer?"
"If you've got the money, honey, I've got the knife."
"Good. Pritchard will give you the details on the plane. I chartered you guys a jet." He paused. "And Marla. Be sure to bring your cloak. I hate that thing, but it could come in handy."
"This is too easy," Daniel said, subverting the locks on one of the numerous back doors at Rasmussen's estate.
Marla stifled a yawn. She'd slept on the plane, but not enough, and the jet lag was playing hell with her –
Wait. She suddenly felt better, rested and re-oriented and tip-top. She took a fold of the cloak's white cloth in her fingers and considered it. Had the cloak sensed her complaint, and... healed her jet lag? It was a bit disturbing to think the cloak could read her mind, though in retrospect it wasn't surprising – she'd experimented, and she could reverse it to purple if she just thought the word "turn" with the proper intent.
"There," Daniel said as the dark wooden door popped open and swung inward. "With the hair and flesh samples Pritchard gave me, I was able to make my life force mimic Rasmussen's. The house thinks I’m him now, and you're my guests, so we should be good."
"Too bad," Jenny said, holding up her hand where a little wreath of flame sparkled. "I was hoping for plan B." Plan B was burning the whole place down and finding the other half of Artie's artifact in the ashes. The artifact wouldn't burn.
They slipped through the door, which led into a mud room. "We should have the place to ourselves," Daniel whispered, "but be on alert anyway. You have the map, Marla?"
"Memorized it," she said. "Let me lead." She took point, consulting the blueprints in her mind. If they were here, then the office where the artifact was located would be...
They moved through the dark house, all murmuring spells to amplify their night vision so their eyes could suck up every particle of stray light. The effect was a bit greenish and gritty, but they wouldn't trip over any antique ottomans or topple any decorative suits of armor. Rasmussen's estate was pure old English country, with heavy dark wood furnishings, swords and axes and tapestries and animal heads on the walls, and lots of elaborately framed portraits and paintings of hunting scenes – though the one painting Marla looked at closely had huntsmen and hounds pursuing not a fox but a naked woman. She shivered. Rasmussen was a weird bad dude.
They went up the broad uncreaking stairs, down a hall, and there at the end was the entry to Rasmussen's study. She reached out her hand for the knob –
"Wait," Daniel hissed. "Somebody's in there, trying to conceal their life-force, but I got the edge of it. Shit. We're blown. We should –"
"Come in," said Rasmussen from inside the office, and the door swung open of its own accord.
"Might as well now," Jenny said. "At least have some news to take back to Artie. If we make it back."
Marla and Daniel shared a glance, then both nodded. They stepped into the room.
Rasmussen wore a black robe and far too much silver jewelry, and sat behind his broad desk before an oversized mortar and pestle, grinding something, making the occasional grunt of effort. "Ah, yes, Artie's three stooges. How nice to see you all. Sent you to snatch my artifact, did he?"
"Just a routine surveillance mission," Marla said with a shrug.
"Hmm. Not what Pritchard told me. After I flayed him earlier today."
Marla did her best to show no reaction. "Torture's a lousy way to get information out of somebody. They'll say anything to make the pain stop."
Rasmussen smiled, faintly. "I didn't torture him to get him to talk. I tortured him as punishment for betraying me. After he was dead I had a necromancer interrogate his skull to find out the precise nature of his betrayal. I knew he disapproved of my current occult pursuits, but to go to Artie, that clown... Most disappointing."
"Why don't you give us your half?" Daniel said. "You said it yourself, you don't care about Artie anymore, you aren't trying to complete the artifact, so why not let him have it?"
"First, because immortality would be wasted on him. Second, because the artifact is no more." He tipped up the mortar to show them what rested inside.... and there it was. Part of it, anyway. A semi-circle of reddish-black stone, marked much like Artie's stone phallus. Once it had been a whole circle, but Rasmussen was halfway done crushing it to powder.
"Bullshit," Daniel said. "It's a fake. You can't smash up an artifact like you're crushing a bunch of pills!"
"You can when it's another artifact doing the crushing," Rasmussen said. "This was Baba Yaga's mortar and pestle. It can crush anything. I needed to reduce the artifact to a more... ingestible form... to aid me some other matters I'm pursuing. Crushed like this, it's reduced to pure powdered power." He picked up a silver letter opener, scooped up a portion of the artifact dust on the blade, lifted it to his nose, and snorted. His eyes flashed red, and when he smiled, coils of smoke emerged from between his teeth. "Oh, that's good," he said. "That's very, very good. You have no idea the things I can see now, the languages I can read, the incantatory phrases I can pronounce..." He frowned. "Now scurry back and tell Artie to piss off. I have nothing he wants anymore. We're shut of each other forever. I should kill one of you just for the sake of good form, but then he'd switch his obsession from immortality to revenge, and this has all grown too tedious already. Now go."
"We're not going anywhere," Marla said, but Rasmussen merely snorted, and spoke a few slippery words, and everything went black before Marla could even think about thinking the word "turn."
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 12.