"Do you really think Daniel is dead?" Marla stared down as she swirled the brandy in her glass, watching the ripples, thinking of the sea.
"Hard to say," Artie said, absorbed in contemplation of his own drink. They were in the living room of his house in the cliff, a space that now seemed to echo with emptiness. "He can survive in tough conditions, but... old gods? Zombie apprentices? I don't know. And Jenny didn't give up on him easily. I'll send some people to poke around, see if the Bay Witch has any contacts down that way, but..." He shook his head.
"The sea is deep," Marla said.
Artie nodded. "So... how pissed at me are you?"
Marla considered. "About as pissed as I am at myself. You shouldn't have sent them. I should have gone along. I could have made a difference."
"Maybe. But you can't dwell on that. Let me be the one who dwells on failure here." He took a deep drink, though Marla didn't think you were supposed to quaff brandy, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "I think I'm done having apprentices."
"Hurts too much to lose them," Artie said. "And Jenny... I should've known she had those feelings for Daniel. How'd I miss that?"
"Dunno what we could have done about it," Marla said. "Maybe talked. Maybe that would have helped." She shifted on the couch. "It did make me wonder about the geas, though. I mean, shouldn't we feel... something? With Daniel and Jenny both gone?"
"The geas won't trigger for suicide, and with Rasmussen gone, there's nobody to kill on Daniel's behalf. The geas is smart, its definitions are narrow – it only triggers if someone willfully murders one of us. If some guy accidentally hits me with a bus, you won't have to go murder the driver. Hell, if I came at you with a sword and you killed me in self-defense, the geas wouldn't trigger you to take revenge against yourself. The spell recognizes those kinds of complexities. Of course, if you just killed me because you felt like it, without cause, your brain would start to eat itself – you'd be stone crazy and dead by your own hand within a week."
"So at least we still have each other," Marla said, only a little ironically.
"If you can stand the sight of me," Artie said.
The doorbell rang. Artie frowned, hauling himself up off the couch. Daniel?, Marla thought, and rose to follow him.
Artie opened the door, and Ernesto was there.
"Artie. Marla. I'm so sorry. I just heard. I wasn't sure if I should come, but –"
"Get in here, you bastard," Artie growled, and for a little while, they were a family again, grieving together.
But that time passed.
"It's been six years," Marla said, sipping one of Juliana's specials. She made a face. "What the hell is this?"
Juliana drifted over to Marla's place at the bar, swabbed at the sticky surface with a damp rag, and shrugged. "Spring water and orphan's tears. You said you wanted something appropriate for grief."
It was never possible to tell if Juliana was kidding. She had the emotional range of a painting of a ghost. Marla put the glass down. "Six years," she said again. "Since my best friend died right in front of me. And six years and maybe three days since an even better friend died, very far away from me. I usually spend this day in bed thinking about things I hate and people I want to kick. But today? Today I have to work."
"A dollar is a dollar," Juliana said.
"I don't do it for the money," Marla said. "I do it for the power." She'd long since stopped doing jobs for cash, having squirreled away enough savings for her meager needs. These days, when she did jobs for Felport's sorcerers, she demanded payment in secrets and techniques. She'd learned a lot. Mostly ways to hurt people, and to avoid being hurt herself. "I need to see Rondeau," she said.
"He's not here." Juliana's eyes were watchful hollows under her thatch of orange hair.
Marla laced her fingers together and let her hands rest on the bar. "I've always appreciated your hospitality, Juliana. But I won't tolerate being lied to."
Juliana glanced at Marla, then down, to the silver pin that held Marla's white-and-purple cloak closed. "He's in back," Juliana said. "You scare him. He hides."
"I know. But I've already done the worst thing I'm ever going to do to him. It's all smooth sailing from there, comparatively." She picked up her shoulder bag carefully, so as not to disturb the fragile vessel inside, glass and fluid swaddled in old clothes. She went through the dim bar to the closet that led to the secret conference room, said the necessary magic words, and pushed inside.
Rondeau sat in a chair at the far end of the room, a dark-haired, dark-eyed Hispanic boy of maybe 16, so young – though that was the age Marla had been when she first met Artie, wasn't it? Rondeau was far deeper into the world of magic at this age than Marla had been. He did regular work for Hamil, helped out Juliana in the bar, had a lot of contacts on the street, was a dab hand with a butterfly knife, and even had some peculiar and unique magic of his own, presumably related to whatever weirdness allowed him to possess the body he called his own.
"Hey," Marla said. She opened up her bag and withdrew the oversized pickle jar of greenish fluid that held the preserved arc of Rondeau's original jaw. When he saw it, Rondeau's hand went automatically to his face, touching his chin, either for reassurance or protection. She hadn't needed to bring the jaw – it wouldn't even work in here – but she knew it would seize Rondeau's attention. "Your jaw spoke to me today. It told me you knew the haruspex."
"Haruspex?" His bewilderment, even veiled by fear, seemed genuine.
Marla considered. If questioned properly, the jaw spoke to her, and it knew whatever Rondeau did. Like subatomic particles that once collide and remain connected forever, regardless of distance, Rondeau shared information with his jaw instantaneously, against his will. Sometimes the jaw even knew things before Rondeau did, an oddity that Marla accepted but did not understand.
"A haruspex divines the future by studying the arrangement of entrails," she said. He looked blank. "Intestines. Guts, Rondeau."
His eyes widened. "Him? The Belly Killer? That's why he's doing it?" He swore, an inhuman obscenity that made Marla wince. Cursing was his particular power. If he'd uttered those syllables outside the conference room's protective walls, paint would have blistered and flies dropped dead, and Marla would have endured ringing in her ears for hours afterward. "That makes a little more sense, motive-wise. Not much, but a little."
"Tell me," Marla said.
"You don't want to know. I told Carlton Spandau, and you heard what happened to him."
"Victim number six. Is the killer someone I know? Someone Carlton knew?"
"He's a nobody." Rondeau shrugged. "Never been an apprentice, never witnessed anything magical..." He shook his head. "Carlton hired me to track the guy down, and after the fifth killing, I found him. Until three months ago, the killer was just an ordinary guy with a lousy job. Then... something happened. Something that made him strong enough to kill Carlton, Mangrove, Sorenson... I don't know what, but when I tracked him leaving the murder scene, I smelled, I dunno, ozone, electricity."
Marla blinked. "Like the Thrones? The way they smell?"
He looked away. "I don't know. Maybe. I don't want any part of it, though. Way above my pay grade."
How could the Thrones be involved in the serial murder of some of Felport's most prominent sorcerers? The Thrones were just... annoyances. Self-aggrandizing supernatural pigeons. It didn't make sense. "I want to find the guy," Marla said. "Sauvage is offering a big reward."
"I can tell you what I know," Rondeau said slowly, "But you have to keep my name out of it, and I'll want something in return."
"I'm reasonable. Besides, maybe the Belly Killer will gut me, and you'll be done with me forever." She grinned.
He looked wounded. "If you died, who would take care of my jaw?" He gave her an address, and Marla put the jaw away. "Be seeing you."
As soon as she stepped outside the magic-nullifying confines of the conference room, her head rang like a bell, and she staggered and fell to her knees, barely keeping a grip on her bag. The roaring noise in her head resolved itself to a shout, in a familiar voice – Artie's voice.
It said, "I'm dead, I'm DEAD, get the fucker who killed me, you hear me, get him, get him, I'm DEAD, he cut me open and I'm DEAD."
"Oh, fuck," Marla whispered, clutching her head. "The Belly Killer got Artie." And then, more loudly: "Artie. I'm on it. I'm already after him."
"Good," the voice said, and then, in her head, there was blessed silence, broken only by her own racing thoughts.
But unless she avenged Artie, the voice would be back.
Marla went to Artie's house, just in case he'd been a victim of someone or something else, but, no: it was the Belly Killer again, the mysterious man who'd left black-flecked entrails piled messily in a succession of front yards, alleyways, and darkened houses. A man who'd killed sorcerers, men who should have been able to defend themselves. The victims had been low-level people at first, but more recently included members of the ruling council: first Sorenson, and now, poor Artie.
Ernesto was there, looking down at the body, doubtless preparing a report for the chief sorcerer, Sauvage. "Marla," he said. "You don't need to look at this –"
"I need to know all I can," she said, pushing past him. Artie had been on his couch, reading a magazine. The Belly Killer had opened him up, stirred around his insides, left them hanging messily. The corpse on the couch looked nothing like her mentor, her friend, the man who'd given her a life. Artie hadn't managed immortality after all. She looked at Ernesto. "I have to find the killer. The geas."
"Shit," Ernesto said. "Of course, I didn't think... Let me know if there's anything I can do, any resource I can give you, to help find this guy. And know we're all searching, too. Sauvage made it a priority."
"I've got a lead," Marla said. "I'll follow it." She nodded toward Artie. "He'll never let me rest until I kill the killer."
Ernesto nodded. "Sauvage's reward is good whether the Belly Killer is dead or alive."
"Guess we know which one it will be," Marla said.
Marla followed Rondeau's lead to an antique store called Jacob's Jumble, one of those cramped downtown shops that replenished itself ghoulishly from estate sales and contentious divorces. Supposedly the Belly Killer worked here, which made Marla wonder if he'd found some object of power – maybe he'd been possessed by an enchanted knife used in some long-ago sorcerer's vendetta. Or maybe he'd found an artifact. Such discoveries weren't unprecedented, as Marla knew.
The store's name was written in flaking gold and black paint on a dirty glass door, and she pushed in, murmuring a little spell to silence the bell above the door. Buzzing fluorescent tubes lit the crowded shelves, and a trebly radio played the last notes of a Beach Boys song somewhere deeper in the shop. There was a glass counter full of old tin toys, and a stool behind it, and a cash register, but no one was watching the till.
The place smelled of dust and grease, but not electricity. She carefully checked all the aisles – there weren't that many – and even looked inside a battered old wardrobe, just in case. She pushed open a door marked "Employee's Only" – that stupid apostrophe made her grit her teeth – but it was empty back there, too, just a dim storeroom filled with unsorted merchandise; it didn't look much different from the front of the store, really. A red fire door stood half open, though, propped with a brick, and she stepped through into a graffitied alleyway behind the shop. No sign of anyone... but there was a cat, freshly dead, resting on the rear steps. Marla looked at its small pale intestines, which had been pulled out of its body and spread out on the concrete steps. Had the killer seen some portent of her arrival in the arrangement of the entrails, and fled? If he could get information like that from a cat, what did the spilled guts of humans – or sorcerers – tell him?
"You missed him, he's gone," Artie's voice – or the ghostly recording of his voice, or the geas imitating his voice – grumbled in her mind.
"Shit," she said, and decided to return to Juliana's. In the secret conference room, Artie's voice couldn't reach her, and she could think about what to do next in peace. She could always squeeze Rondeau a little harder and see if any more information came out, too.
Juliana's bar was dark and empty, which wasn't surprising, as it was early in the day, but her door was always open to sorcerers. As far as anyone could tell, Juliana never slept. She never seemed entirely awake, either, though. "Juliana?" Marla called. She wanted Rondeau, but there was no way he'd come if she called.
Something moaned from the direction of the bar. Marla hesitated near the door. She didn't want to interrupt Juliana in the middle of her ugly delights. Apart from her unwillingness to see such a thing – whatever it might be – who knew what consequences would befall Juliana if her act went uncompleted? "It's me, Marla. I need to talk to you. Are you... I don't know... decent?"
Another moan, weaker this time, and then Marla caught the smell of ozone, but not the pure scent she associated with the Thrones. Similar, but threaded with a whiff of corruption, like a fried power transformer dropped in a sewer. She rushed toward the bar, holding her cloak like bat's wings, prepared to clothe herself in purple at the slightest threat.
She didn't find the Belly Killer, but she found his work. Juliana lay behind the bar, shirtless and bloodied, trying to push her intestines back inside.
"Death," Juliana whispered, blood spotting her thin lips. Her pupils were huge, nearly obscuring her irises.
"Wait." Marla started to take off her cloak – it could heal Juliana – but then she hesitated. What if the Belly Killer was here, lurking, waiting for Marla to drop her defenses? What if Juliana had been left alive as a trap? Marla didn't want to end up with her own belly unzipped.
"His death," Juliana said, gesturing at her unspooled insides. "You... He saw..." Her eyes fluttered.
Fuck it. Marla could take care of herself, cloak or not. She unhooked the clasp at her throat –
But too late. Juliana died, eyes wide open, and Marla cursed. She'd let fear make her hesitate. Not again.
Marla stood, reversing her cloak with a mental command. Ruthless strength and a desire for violence filled her. She smiled, fear diminishing in a surge of power, and with her heightened senses she scanned the room, she felt for life, but there was no one but herself, not upstairs, not down here, not – wait. A throbbing absence. A place even her potent new senses could not penetrate. The conference room. She threw open the closet door – seeing easily through the feeble illusion of a broom closet – and rushed inside.
Rondeau screamed and huddled under the table, covering his head and whimpering.
As soon as Marla crossed the threshold, her cloak reversed itself, the dark, maniacal strength leaving her. Of course. Her artifact's power was useless here. A good thing. She hated to think what might have happened to Rondeau. A quick, professional glance assured Marla that no one else occupied the room.
"Get up, Rondeau," she said, tired. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"That stink of electricity." Marla sipped a cold glass of water. Her voice seemed unnaturally loud in the empty bar. "That's what I don't get."
Rondeau sat across from her, a plate of cold nachos before him. He stirred a mound of guacamole with a chip, wrinkling his nose. "You said it yourself. Smells like the Thrones."
"It doesn't make any sense." She tore a napkin into small pieces, thinking hard. "The Thrones watch. That's all they do."
"That's all they've done so far," Rondeau said. "Not the same thing."
"Point. But even if the Thrones made a practice of killing people, the Belly Killer isn't one of them, he's just a normal man, and anyway, the smell isn't quite right. So what's going on?" Marla was frustrated. She wasn't a detective. She was a leg-breaker.
"If he's a haruspex, reading the future in guts... then what's he see? What's he looking for?"
Marla shook her head. "I don't know. I'll ask before I kill him, though." She dropped bits of torn napkin into her glass and watched them darken, soaking up water. "We have to find him. Want to come with me?"
"Ah. I shouldn't. I need to stay here. See to Juliana." They'd wrapped her up in a tarp, but that was hardly a final resting place. "And... this place is mine now. Juliana made arrangements, if she died, for me to take over. But we didn't think she'd die of... this."
Marla stared at him. She hadn't thought about who would take possession of the bar, and, more importantly, the conference room, where the city's sorcerers preferred to do their darkest business and take their most secret meetings. It was a valuable inheritance. "Were you two lovers?"
"I don't know that love had anything to do with it. We were close."
Marla nodded. "So, ah... am I still welcome here?"
Rondeau looked at her for a long time. "You never said you were sorry. For what you did to me, when I was little. Hamil told me you were, but..."
"You're right," Marla said. "You're right." She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't. And, I know it's not really any excuse, but..." She held up an edge of the cloak. "I wasn't entirely myself that day."
"Okay," Rondeau said. "Then you're still welcome here."
Stop socializing! Artie's shade snapped. Avenge me!
"I'd better go," she said.
Marla trudged through the bar with her head down, thinking about what leads she could run down next. She went up the steps to street level and turned down an alleyway, toward Hamil's place. Maybe he'd have some ideas.
"Hiya," someone said. Marla lifted her head, startled, and the smell of ozone and half-digested food filled her nostrils. Something hit her on the side of the head, impossibly fast, and she caught a glimpse of pockmarked cheeks and greasy black hair, a figure moving fast as hummingbird wings. Her hair stood on end, crackling with sparks, and the strength suddenly ran out of her limbs like water from a broken pot.
I'm dead, I'm dead, she thought, trying to flip her cloak, but her numb mind wouldn't cooperate – her mental energy had been sapped as quickly as her physical strength. This was how he'd done it, then, how he'd killed such accomplished sorcerers – hitting hard, fast, somehow draining them of power. She was on the ground now, staring up, and he was standing over her, a thin, short man, nothing special, but special enough.
Dead, she thought, and she'd never know why, or what future the killer would read in her steaming remains.
Blackness came. Then, like bright flashes penetrating her closed eyelids, brilliant geysers of pain.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 14.