Marla floated in a space the color of wet newsprint, the air around her hissing like static. Was she dead? Was this her crappy afterlife?
Presences manifested, coalescing out of the static.
Thrones. Three identical, derelict men with fright-wig hair, dressed in cast-offs: suspenders, untucked flannel shirts, cotton pants fraying at the seams. They hovered, bobbing slightly, electricity crackling around them, eyes wide and luminous. They wore their human bodies badly, unable to conceal the light inside.
They spoke in concert, haltingly: "You... Death... His death..." Repeating Juliana's last words, and Marla wondered if this was pure hallucination, a last firing of synapses before the Belly Killer finished her off.
Then the Thrones inhaled together and spoke clearly, still in concert. "You must help us. Our agent has slipped from our control. We gave him power to act as our instrument, but he kills for his own reasons."
"Oh, you are shitting me," she said, and they winced. "The Belly Killer's working for you?"
"We... our duty... we... our obligation... We can only observe your kind until..." A pause, a clicking sound like a bolt sliding shut. "... a later date. We chose a servant to act for us on Earth, since we cannot intervene directly, but he no longer heeds us. Once given, our powers cannot be withdrawn. We may not we may not we may not move against him directly. You must stop him."
Marla sensed a note of desperation. Did the Thrones report to a higher power? If so, were they trying to cover up their mistake, throw her at the problem, and hope for the best?
What the hell. She was trying to stop the Killer anyway. She still said, "What's in it for me?"
"If you help us, you will be... absolved."
"That's reassuring," she said. "How about some practical, tactical help? I wouldn't mind being able to spit lightning and sap strength like he does.
"We cannot trust you with such power," the Thrones said. "We made that mistake once. Mortals make poorer vessels than we supposed. You lack pure motives. Given strength, our agent killed recklessly. Given the power of divination, he became obsessed with personal matters."
Marla wondered what he was divining. Stock market trends? The winners of horse races? "You have to give me something, here, guys."
"We will give you a small gift. Not strength, not power, but... something." They flickered, fading out. "Stop him, and we will absolve you." They blended with the static, finally disappearing entirely.
"Absolve yourselves, assholes," she said to the emptiness. The static darkened to black.
Marla woke to pain. Not her stomach, which felt whole, but her face. She pushed herself up, and black spots of agony swam before her eyes like gorged flies. She tried to whisper a painkilling spell, but something was wrong with her mouth. She was on the table in a brightly-lit, antiseptic room, all chrome and porcelain. Torture chamber?
Rondeau appeared in the doorway, in the company of a thin, serious-looking man in a lab coat, wearing little round glasses. He seemed familiar, but Marla couldn't place him, because she couldn't think, because she hurt.
"Shit, she's awake," Rondeau said.
"She's strong," the other man said. "That's good." And then the man was beside her. "You're hurt. This will help you rest." He held a hypodermic needle.
Marla tried to say "No!" but her mouth still didn't work, and she reached up to touch her chin, but instead her fingers went too far, and sank into softness, and she screamed. Her jaw was gone. A moment later everything went black, from the pain or the needle or both, and either way, she welcomed it.
Marla woke in a hospital bed. Her jaw ached, but
She sat up and touched her chin. Opened her mouth, experimentally, and it all seemed to work, though it was aching, and tender, and the teeth didn't feel right.
"Hey, you're up," Rondeau said, walking in. "How's the new jaw?"
"How did you... do this?" she said.
"You know Langford, the biomancer? I brought you to his place when I found you because he's the closest thing to a doctor I know. He got you hooked up to an IV, replenished your fluids, stuff like that. He also took some of your skin cells and accelerated their growth, made new skin crawl over a framework of titanium or something."
"So this isn't my jaw? I'm, what, a cyborg now?"
Rondeau snorted. "Well, turns out Langford did all that work for nothing, because during the night, while the new skin was growing, that cloak of yours somehow grew you a new jaw. That's some serious mojo you're working, Marla. Langford came in this morning to do the surgery, attach the new jaw to your face, and saw it wasn't necessary. Says you owe him for the new jaw anyway though. And you can keep it as a spare."
Marla nodded. "Thanks for helping me, Rondeau." She wouldn't have died without him, not with the cloak's magic, but if some mugger had rolled her and stolen the cloak off her back...
He shrugged. "I was just walking by, saw you in the street, what, I was going to leave you?"
"After what I did to you, it would've been understandable."
He grinned. "Well, to be honest, I did feel a little warm fuzzy at seeing you got your jaw ripped off. What happened?"
"The Belly Killer. But why my jaw instead of my guts?"
"Maybe he wants to keep tabs on you. Hell, if he knows how, he can make the jaw tell him anything and everything you know, right? And use it to keep tabs on you."
"Yeah. I was afraid it might be something like that."
"You'll be going after him," Rondeau said. "I just want you to know, I'll help you."
"I don't know if there's anything you can do." She swung her legs off the bed, feeling a little shaky, but not too bad. She followed Rondeau out the door, into the clean room Langford's lab, she supposed. The biomancer was there, examining Juliana's corpse, which rested on his exam table, her guts coiled neatly to one side.
"The patient awakes," Langford said, barely glancing up from his work. "How are you feeling?"
Marla didn't answer. She stared at Juliana, or more properly at her intestines coiled beside her, a meaningless spill of gray, like the alphabet disarranged.
But only disarranged. She could read the letters of that alphabet, just not the mussed message.
"The tapes," she said, turning to Rondeau. "We have to go to the bar, to the office, and looked at the security tapes."
"You're the boss," Rondeau said.
Juliana's security equipment was surprisingly high-tech, and Rondeau knew how to run it, so soon Marla was peering at a frozen image of Juliana's spilled guts in their original, portentous configuration.
Marla could read the message there. The Thrones had given her the gift of haruspicy. Not quite as impressive as the ability to sap strength and spit lightning, but it was something.
Except the thing she was reading in Juliana's intestines was bullshit.
"I can read this," she told Rondeau. "It says I'm the Belly Killer's only chance at survival. Except I've got every intention of killing him."
"You're a woman of many talents," Rondeau said. "That explains why the guy didn't kill you might explain why he took your jaw, too. If you were my only hope, I'd want to keep track of you, too."
Marla rubbed her chin, her sense of violation returning. The Belly Killer could find out anything she knew. Of course, he had to ask the right questions, but he was practiced in divination, so he probably could.
"You know," Rondeau said, "I can still feel my jaw." He pointed east, in the general direction of Marla's apartment. "I could walk straight to it, I bet." He grinned.
Marla stared at him, then concentrated, trying to feel... There. To the west.
She grinned back at him.
Ernesto had investigated the earlier murders once they realized they had a supernatural serial killer on their hands and he sent over the crime scene photos. It didn't take her long to discern the Belly Killer's theme.
"So what does the future hold?" Rondeau asked, straining for casualness. "Cataclysm? Alien invasion? Are hemlines dropping this spring?"
Marla shook her head, her own hopes for a grand revelation already gone. The killer was interested in the merely personal, as the Thrones had said. "The Belly Killer doesn't care about that. His divinations have one purpose: To find out the details of his own death."
Rondeau gaped. "That's it? He killed Sorenson and Mann and Chandler to find out how he's going to die?
"What else matters?" Marla asked.
Marla walked west, thinking. The Belly Killer read the future, and those readings spelled out a multitude of possible deaths. Hed seen futures where he died at Sorenson's hands, Chandler's, Arties, all his victims, and still more who hadn't been killed yet, who the Belly Killer would surely target soon. Artie Mann's entrails named Juliana as a threat, and so the Belly Killer took steps to remove her. Marla couldn't imagine Juliana hurting anyone unless they tried to get into the conference room without permission.
The weight of the rifle hanging on its strap over her shoulder shifted uncomfortably.
The Belly Killer did what no ancient priestly haruspex had ever done. He attempted to change the future, eliminating risks and reading the new future in the guts of the old. As a result of those murders, every sorcerer in the city was gunning for him now. If he hadn't killed his first sorcerer, the city's secret masters might never have noticed him, but now he'd trapped himself in a snare of recursive causality. But why the hell did Juliana's guts name Marla as his salvation? She had to kill him it wasn't optional. The geas demanded it.
She turned down a side street, homing in on her missing piece, her torn-off jaw broadcasting like a communications tower engaged in the transmission of pain.
After another hour of walking, she found the Killer in the parking lot of dead supermarket. Newspaper covered the building's windows and half the letters in the store's sign were missing. A single shopping cart lay upside-down in the center of the yellow-lined lot like the skeleton of an exotic dinosaur. The big mercury lights didn't work, as defunct as the store itself, but Marla's eyes could do wonders with the moon and starlight.
She settled, invisible, in the shadow of rusty dumpster full of jagged wood, remnant of some attempt at reconstruction. She watched the Belly Killer, who stood in the center of the parking lot, hands at his sides, Marla's bloody jaw tucked carelessly into his back pocket like a boy's slingshot.
Hard to miss at this distance, she thought, quietly slinging the rifle over her shoulder. She wasn't much of a shootist, but her brother had taught her the basics of handling a long gun, and from here she was confident of her ability to put a bullet in the Belly Killer's head. He'd turned her arms and legs to sacks of concrete last time, so lethal action at a distance was the more prudent choice.
A long dark car purred into the parking lot, and Marla lowered her gun. What was this?
The front doors opened and two burly men in ill-fitting suits got out, moving off to either side to flank the Killer. The car's back door opened, and a stout, well dressed man got out. Marla recognized him instantly. Sauvage, the chief sorcerer, a man with a reptile's patience and no tolerance for fools.
Marla had read his name in the remains of Sorenson's corpse.
"Let's see it," Sauvage said.
The Belly Killer nodded and took the jawbone from his back pocket, holding it up.
Mine, Marla thought fiercely, leaning forward. Why would Sauvage want her jaw? He knew she existed, she had a certain reputation, but
"That's not Cochran's jaw," Sauvage said flatly.
The Belly Killer giggled, a long, weird titter.
It was a trick, a lure to bring Sauvage into the open. Cochran was Sauvage's chief rival, so of course he'd come personally for the man's jaw his necromancers could interrogate it for all kinds of secrets. Marla hadn't even heard Cochran was dead the Belly Killer was keeping himself occupied.
Sauvage waved his hand and the goons lunged for the Belly Killer, who still held up the jawbone like a proud child displaying a lumpy ashtray made in arts and crafts. One of the thugs struck the Killer solidly, knocking him over. Marla winced as her jawbone fell. Sauvage bent and picked it up, turning it in his hands. The goons aimed kicks at the Belly Killer's stomach.
The air changed, becoming heavier, crackling, reeking, and the Belly Killer sparkled with greasy light. Tentacles lashed out, pure energy gleaming like razorwire, and slit the goons' stomachs deftly, spilling their secrets to the asphalt as they fell to their knees, looks of stupid surprise on their faces. The Belly Killer regained his feet and peered down at their guts.
All this happened in an instant, before even Sauvage could react. Marla lifted her rifle, but the Killer was still sparkling with electricity, and she suspected any projectile that hit his aura would vaporize.
Damn it, she was going to have to fly. She hated flying.
Marla dropped the rifle, murmured the ritual insult to gravity, and her body was propelled skyward. With a wrenching twist she got control of her trajectory, arrowing down toward Sauvage, hooking her hands under his fleshy armpits, hauling him into the air without looking back, straining under the weight. She imagined the Belly Killer streaking through the sky after her like a comet, like malevolent ball lightning, and made herself go faster but the Killer didn't follow. He was still reading the guts. Hell, maybe he was finding out her destination in them.
Sauvage, surprisingly calm for a man hurtling through the air away from near-certain death, said, "Marla, right? Thanks for the assist. Care to tell me what you were doing back there?"
"Of course. If you make sure not to drop that jaw."
Rondeau surprised her again by not arguing. "Sure. Count me in." He took Sauvage aside, making him a drink from the private stock in Juliana's office. No, his office, Marla reminded herself. Rondeau even acted like he belonged there, like he'd inhabited the space for years.
Marla examined her jaw critically. Scraped, bloody, the gums already drawing back from the teeth. An incisor cracked, and a canine missing entirely. Still, even damaged and redundant, it felt good to have her missing piece back. She wrapped it in a handkerchief and tucked it into Rondeau's wall safe.
"How long before he gets here?" Sauvage swirled ice in his empty glass.
"I'm not sure. If he can fly like a Throne "
"Time enough for another drink, at least," Sauvage said, and turned back to the liquor cabinet. He handed Marla a glass, and lifted his own. "Sorry for your loss, Marla. To Artie. He was a filthy old fuck, but I liked him."
"Hear hear," Marla said. "And ditto."
Rondeau hung a handwritten "Closed for Renovations" sign on the front door to keep customers away, and Sauvage and Rondeau took up residence inside the magic-nullifying conference room. "You could just stay in here, too," Rondeau said. "Why take the risk of hitting Mr. Lightning-face head on?"
Marla shook her head. "Can't make it look too easy the Belly Killer might suspect a trap. We should make at least a pretense of protecting Sauvage." Really, she just wanted another shot at the guy. He'd sucker punched her last time, and besides taking her jaw,
he'd dinged her pride, too.
She left the conference room leaving the door ajar and leaned against the wall facing the door, waiting.
Half an hour later, the door swung open, and the Killer entered, giggling.
He was short and scrawny, with greasy black hair hanging past his ears. Pockmarks made braille of his face, and he grinned crookedly, teeth speckled with green and yellow, and similar stains covered his white t-shirt and frayed khakis. Nevertheless, there was about him that sense of power, of crackling electricity, and the smell of lightning in the air. He giggled almost spastically, a vocal tic. "Sauvage. He's here. Let me have him."
"How about I just tear you to into fun-sized pieces instead?"
He shook his head. "You won't. You're my salvation."
"We'll see about that," she said, and reversed her cloak.
The Belly Killer took a step forward, and the energies surrounding him became visible, white primary shapes rotating and revolving. A fire-spoked wheel. A translucent blue ball of lightning. A coruscating pinwheel, spinning wildly around his head. He lifted his foot, sparks crackling from the sole of his sneaker to the floor like lightning streaking to earth from a thunderhead. The Killer licked his lips, blue fire sparking where his tongue touched. "We can be friends. I'll tell you secrets. Important things."
Marla looked on him through the eyes of the cloak's alien intelligence a gaze of weights and measures and came to a conclusion: Overconfidence. The Belly Killer had never been beaten, or even bloodied. But he'd never faced something like her before. Marla launched herself at him, claws of shadow sheathing her hands.
The Killer giggled, and waved his hand, and Marla felt a faint tingle in her limbs he was trying to sap her strength again, but the attack slid off the cloak's defenses.
His eyes widened, and he gasped. A net of flashing light wrapped around Marla and caught her in mid-air. She clawed through, teeth snapping, mouth full of spectral fangs. The Belly Killer's fiery lace parted under her onslaught and she scrambled at him, snarling.
He shouted "No!" and, in his surprise, he simply kicked at her. He might as well have kicked a buzz saw; he drew back his foot, howling, having lost his shoe and most of a toe. Marla tossed the shredded remains of both aside and went for his throat.
Remembering his power, the Killer struck with glowing tentacles and hurled her aside. She hit the wall, bounced, and shot to her feet, going for him again.
He grunted, throwing up a barrier, and Marla clambered over, heedless of the burning damage done to her hands. The cloak would heal her the pain was meaningless. Moreover, he wasn't trying to strike with lethal force, because he thought she was going to save him somehow!
She came over his barrier, clawing for his face, and pinned him to the ground. "Mine," she said, and the purple even changed her voice, made it a low and dusky growl of menace. Marla raised a hand gauntleted in razored shadows.
"Daniel," the Killer said, his reeking breath on her face, and Marla paused.
Kill him, the cloak whispered in her head, and "Kill him! Kill the fucker now!" Artie Mann's voice shouted with it, but Marla hesitated.
She reversed her cloak, because she wouldn't be able to stop from killing him if she remained in the purple. She closed her hands around his throat, but loosely. "What. About. Daniel."
"I saw. In Cochran's guts. I asked how to make you help me. The guts told me, 'Daniel.'" The Belly Killer grinned. "He's alive," the last word in singsong, "uhh-LIE-vuh."
"Ask me tomorrow," he said, and then flung Marla across the room on a sparking surge of lightning.
When Marla came to, groggy but thanks to the cloak's healing power not dead, Artie was howling at her. "You HAD him, you let him GO, you're going to pay for this, you can't "
"Shut up," she muttered, and when she entered the conference room, his voice cut off in mid curse.
Sauvage stood holding the baseball bat in one casual hand. Rondeau prodded the Belly Killer's unconscious body with his foot. "Worked just like we wanted," Sauvage said. "He came in here all spitting plasma, but as soon as he crossed the threshold, pfft. Magic go bye-bye. I just cracked him across the head with the bat."
"He's not dead," Marla said. If he had been, Artie's ghost wouldn't have been screaming at her.
"Not yet. You can do the honors. Slice open his guts, see what the future holds, if you want."
Marla hesitated. Should she? Cut him open, and try to divine whatever it was he knew about Daniel? But what if it didn't work? Divination was tricky, you had to ask exactly the right questions in exactly the right way. And if she didn't get an answer she could use in the killer's guts, what then? Would she start stalking alleyways, cutting up hobos to find the answers? This was about Daniel. It had been years, and she'd done a good job of burying her pain and loss in work and violence, but if he was alive, if there was a chance he might come back to her... She couldn't trust herself not to descend into a dark and ugly obsession.
Which left the other option.
"He can be useful to you," Marla said. "I mean, a captive haruspex? Keep him in a cage somewhere, use him for... whatever. Lottery numbers. You know?"
"What about your geas?" Sauvage said.
Marla did her best to shrug nonchalantly. "You know. I can deal with it. There are ways to break a binding like that, right? Even when one of the parties is dead?"
"Sure, but they take a long time," Sauvage said. "Months, maybe years if the geas is strong enough. Even in the best cases, there's still a low murmur, like obscene tinnitus. And the rituals don't always work. I'm not saying I couldn't use a pocket prophet, but..." He nudged the body with his foot. "You sure?"
"I'm sure," Marla said. "I just... can I meet with the Killer tomorrow? Ask him a question?"
"Ah," Sauvage said. "Good, there's an ulterior motive. That's reassuring. It's okay, I don't care about the details. I respect secrets. Sure. Come by my place tomorrow, you can interrogate him." He cleared his throat. "You can also, you know. Start working for me."
Marla looked up from the Belly Killer, to Sauvage. "Really? For you, directly?"
"You showed me some stuff tonight," he said. "I want you on my payroll. Personal legbreaker and aide-de-camp. Assuming you can cope with Artie screaming in the back of your head. You interested?"
"Hell yes," Marla said.
"Now we've got that all settled," Rondeua said, "Can we get the greasy fucker out of my club?"
"One thing." Sauvage squatted down and tore open the Belly Killer's shirt, exposing his pale and pimply back. He drew a dagger, the hilt wrapped in red and black bands of electrical tape, and spat on the blade. Then, deftly, he cut a complex design into the Killer's flesh, making him stir and moan. "Nullification by scarification," Sauvage said. "Cut a grounding spell right into his flesh. Maybe his line into the Thrones' power source is cut off now, but better safe. Belt and suspenders, right? This'll keep him from using any zappy powers once we get out of here."
"What about his power to read the future in guts?" Rondeau said. "Will he lose that?"
"Doubtful," Sauvage said. "Power is one thing, and knowledge is something else. Spitting lightning, that's power. Reading portents, that's knowledge. It's hard to take away knowledge once it's imparted. Not impossible, of course. We can do amazing things to people's brains. It's easier to take knowledge away than put it in, though, or I'd be able to speak French and fix cars a lot better than I do."
Marla was examining the Killer's new scar, which seemed to twist as she looked at it. "You know how to draw runes like that, what, just off the top of your head?"
"That's why I'm chief sorcerer," Sauvage said. "Also: magic knife. For that matter, magic spit. It helps." He picked up the Belly Killer, slung the man's body over his shoulder, and said, "See you tomorrow."
Marla dropped into one of the room's chairs. She didn't hurt the cloak had healed her injuries but she was tired.
"Artie's ghost is going to plague you," Rondeau said after a moment. "It could take months, years, to dissolve the geas."
"You're not contributing to my general feeling of triumph here, Rondeau," she said.
"I just wanted to say, if it gets too bad, and you can't stand it, you can come to this room. Get a little break from the noise. Free of charge."
Marla stood up, and put her hand on his shoulder. She didn't kiss him, but she thought about it. "Thanks, Rondeau. I appreciate that."
She left the room, and as soon as she cleared the doorway, Artie Mann's voice hit her like a hammer, making her wince. " bitch, you swore, you promised to avenge me, you'll never sleep again, you'll suffer "
And then his voice stopped abruptly, with a click like a deadbolt turning. She heard a many-throated hum, an irritatingly dramatic celestial chorus, which quickly faded.
A Throne stepped out of the darkness, ragged and disheveled as always. "Absolution," it said, lips not moving. "As promised. Your geas will not trouble you."
"Shit," she said, marveling at the silence in her head. "I guess you weirdos have some real power after all. Power to do something other than just fuck up, I mean."
"We have been... called away," it said. "Called... home. For... discipline. For our hubris. Our mistake. We will no longer be... observing... in this city."
"Don't let the pearly gates hit you in the ass on the way in," she said, and strolled toward the door, not even bothering to watch the Throne disappear.
Absolution, she thought. She'd accumulate new sins soon enough, she knew, but in the meantime she'd enjoy the unaccustomed lightness of grace. Maybe even add to it, a little, by giving Rondeau his jaw back. If she needed to get information from him in the future, she could just ask, couldn't she?
And tomorrow. Tomorrow she'd talk to that giggling bastard and find out what he knew about Daniel.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 15.