Marla crept out of Daniel's room around 4 a.m., and found Artie sitting cross-legged in the hall, reading a tattered copy of National Geographic doubtless one of the issues with topless tribeswomen. "Ah, hell," she said.
Without looking up from his magazine, Artie said, "I'm a pornomancer, kid. You think I wouldn't notice it happening in my own house?" He raised his voice. "Daniel. Come out here!"
After some shuffling and rustling, Daniel emerged wrapped in a sheet. "Uh, hey Artie, we were just "
"Making the beast with two backs," Artie said. "Bumping uglies. Riding the baloney pony. Filling the taco. Hiding the salami. Pearl diving. Shooting the rapids."
Marla glanced at Daniel, who was blushing. Marla wondered if she was. She tried not to squirm uncomfortably, but this was like listening to your dad tell dirty jokes.
Artie kept up his euphemistic soliloquy. "Pinning the butterfly. Doing the two-bear mambo. Buttering the love muffin. Pulling the beef bus into tuna town. Conjugating the verb. Stuffing the ballot box."
"Okay, we get " Daniel began, but Artie just spoke louder.
"Dipping the wick. Laying pipe. Breaking off a piece. Feeding the kitty. Boinking. Cream cheesing the bagel. Greasing the weasel. The horizontal mambo. Romancing the bone. Fucking." Now he looked at them. "You know why there are so many different ways of saying what you two did? Because human beings are obsessed with it. It's both the most common and the most sacred act in the world. The basic human needs are food, shelter, and security, but people will give up all of those in order to get at sex. It can wreck families and bring down careers and topple empires and it can also make life worth living. Once you're sexually mature, for most folks, fucking is the secret puppetmaster lurking in your brain, the hormonal hijacker, the reason for intellectual rationalization and desperate excuses. Do I mind you two are fucking? No. Not inherently. But I have a question: Were you careful? And I don't mean about each other's feelings or avoiding unsightly bruising."
"This is your house, Artie," Marla said. "There are condoms all over." Along with other things, the precise uses of which sometimes eluded her, though she was sure she'd figure them out. "We were safe. I've got no intention of getting pregnant."
"I can also, ah, sap the life out of my... you know." Daniel gestured vaguely downward. "My swimmers. Like... magical spermicide."
Marla wrinkled her nose at that, but didn't speak.
"Okay," Artie said, "but don't rely on the magic. You'll only know if that's really working the time it doesn't work. Put your faith in latex, I always say. Now I've got a command." He stood up, and once again Marla saw past his schlubby persona to the steel and will underneath. "Do not let this screw up your work. If I see your studies slipping, I'll separate you, and I mean I'll put an ocean between you. And if you get goo-goo-eyed at each other in the field, you'll probably die, so I won't need to punish you then. And I know right now you probably think this is the one true forever love "
Both Marla and Daniel started to make sounds of protest, but he bulldozed over them.
"But if you two decide to stop banging each other like screen doors, don't let it mess up your teamwork." He sighed. "Though that's probably me telling water to run uphill. This could make you work better together, improve your rapport, and I'll hope for that outcome. You hear me?"
They both nodded.
"And if you two do make a going concern of this... keep it quiet. I've got enemies, which means you do, too, and if those people find out you care for each other, they'll try to use one of you against the other. Keep the public displays of affection to nil. But, with those caveats: enjoy." He shook his head. "Gods, to be seventeen again, when you think you invented sex. Hell. Because you did. Everybody invents it every time. I'm so jealous of you two, you can't imagine. Go back to bed. The day starts in a couple of hours." He tromped off down the hall.
After a moment, Daniel said, "So, I guess you don't have to sneak back to your room now, huh?"
"And it's still two hours until breakfast," Marla said, and slapped his ass through the sheet.
They had an all-hands meeting scheduled for the afternoon at some bar south of the river the first such meeting Marla had been invited to but that wasn't for a few hours. Daniel was out doing the shopping, as he was still the de facto cook, and Marla went out onto the lowest deck in the house, the one close enough that you could sometimes feel the spray of the bay hitting rocks when the tide was in. The weather was glorious, the heat cut by the wind off the water, the view breathtakingly devoid of boats, nothing in view but the sparkle of the water.
Marla, who'd grown up in a doublewide trailer, felt a little thrill every time she stepped through the sliding glass doors and into this view.
Jenny Click sat in a chair with her feet up on the railing, reading a fat paperback novel. Her blonde hair blew back from her head and fluttered in the wind, and she wore a short white dress and oversized sunglasses, and Marla figured she could pass for a goddess, even without her halo of flame. But I'm the one who got laid last night, she though, and felt a little better.
She dragged a chair over closer to Jenny and put her own feet up. The two hadn't spent as much time together as Marla would have liked. Jenny was usually out doing Artie's business, whatever that was, but the times they did spend together were some of Marla's favorites, without any of the sparring tension or one-upmanship that sometimes sparked between her and Daniel.
"Marla," Jenny said, lowering her sunglasses. "You're smiling. I don't think I've seen you smile once before the occasional nasty grin right before you knock me over in martial arts class, maybe, but not plain old happy."
"Sometimes life is good," Marla said, suddenly embarrassed, looking down. "I mean, I passed my apprenticeship test..."
"It's more than that." Jenny reached over and touched Marla's chin, tipping her face up to look into her eyes. "You and Daniel finally quit your weird passive-aggressive version of flirting and just did it, didn't you?"
"Last night," Marla said, pride and shame warring within her, and all that topped with annoyance at herself for feeling such clichιs of emotion.
"Your first time?"
Marla glanced around like somebody could have sneaked up on them and nodded. "Yeah. I mean, I've done stuff, back home when I was still in school, but it was the first time I've done... all of it."
"Stand up," Jenny said, rising, and Marla did. Jenny put her arms around her and hugged, and Marla hugged back, thinking that, even though Jenny was barely a year older than her, she was like an older sister, still worldly and full of wisdom. Jenny released her and said "You are a woman now" in a deep and serious voice, and they both started laughing. They sat back down again. "Did Artie give you hell?"
"A little bit. How'd you know he knew?"
"He's Artie. I think he can tell when fish are fucking in the water under the deck. Daniel's been into you for a while, Marla. I hope things work out for you two. I don't know a lot about Daniel's past Artie does, but he's good at keeping secrets when they matter but he's got some demons. Be careful with him?"
I've got demons too, Marla thought, but said, "Don't worry. We'll be careful with each other. I think... we can help each other. It's sweet, though, you being worried about him. He cares about you, you know. He told me you're like a sister to him."
"That means a lot," Jenny said, and then they both sat in silence and looked at the ocean, Marla's mind running over the night before in pleasurable reminiscence, and Jenny doubtless thinking thoughts Marla could not divine.
Ernesto arrived late afternoon in a wheezing dirt-colored pickup truck, and Jenny and Marla squeezed in tight beside him, Jenny in the middle. Ernesto drove south of the river to a cruddy neighborhood full of check-cashing places and corner convenience stores, the kind of area where even the fast-food restaurants had bars on the windows. They were meeting Artie and Daniel at a place called Juliana's, which was almost entirely unremarkable, just an unlit sign and a door in a windowless gray wall. Ernesto knocked a complicated rhythm on the metal front door and it popped open of its own accord. "Ladies first," he said.
"We're not ladies, but okay." Jenny led the way into the club. There was a bar off to one side, and a dance floor, and it was all sort of forlorn and dirty-looking with the houselights on.
"Hey Juliana," Jenny said, waving toward the bar, where the proprietor leaned. She had short carroty hair, skin as pale and unhealthy-looking as weevily flour, and bags under her eyes so heavy they looked painted on with stage makeup.
Jenny angled away toward the dancefloor, and Marla followed, whispering, "Is that woman okay?"
"Don't know. She's always looked like that, every time I've seen her, like a junkie halfway through detox. Artie says the rumor is she's an addict, but nobody's sure what she's addicted to something magical that's killing her really slowly, maybe, or maybe something she's been using so long she needs it to stay alive." Jenny shrugged. "She was supposed to be a pretty hot young sorcerer in her day, but now she's only important because she runs this place."
"And what's so important about this place?"
"That," Ernesto said, drawing up alongside her and pointing at a door that Marla had assumed led to a closet. He stepped forward and performed another complex knock a different one, this time and the door popped open.
Revealing a closet. Mop in a bucket, couple of brooms, shelves of cleaning supplies and toilet paper.
"In we go," Jenny said, and stepped inside. She passed through the mops and shelves as if they were fog, and disappeared from sight.
"Ah," Marla said. "It's like that." She went into the closet, willing herself not to flinch or try to step over the bucket, just striding through like Jenny had, and apart from a faint chill and a whiff of acetone, walking through the illusion was much like walking through air.
Beyond was a small conference room with a rectangular table and a few wheeled officechairs beneath an incongruous low-hanging pool-hall light. Artie sat in a chair at the head of the table, Daniel seated on his right. Artie gestured and said, "Sit, let's talk."
Marla hesitated for a moment should she sit next to Daniel? Across from him? As far away as possible? then decided she was being dumb and sat at the foot of the table facing Artie. Ernesto and Jenny took seats of their own, and Artie leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and lacing his fingers together. "Welcome to the most valuable room in town."
Marla looked around. The room didn't look like much. It looked like a storeroom with a table jammed into it. "How's that?"
"This spot, where this room was built, nullifies magic. Nobody knows why. You can't work spells in here. And it's, like, insulated. A telepath standing right outside the door can't hear the thoughts of someone inside. Same with clairvoyance, clairaudience, hell, clair-smelling. None of it can penetrate this space. So it's the safest place in the city on this coast for sorcerers to have meetings in secret, or for guys who hate each other to meet without fear of killing each other. Magically, anyway." He nodded toward the door. "Sorcerers paying rent to use this place, that's what keeps Juliana out there comfortable."
"Okay." Marla glanced around at the others, who looked bored, presumably having heard all this before. "So why are we here? What's so secret?"
"Let me fill you in on the background real quick. I've got... let's call him a rival. I'd call him an enemy, but we're not quite at the point of setting each other's houses on fire. If I saw him at a party, we'd be polite to each other, you know? But we've got some conflicting interests. Namely, this." He snapped his fingers, and Daniel passed over a roughly cylindrical object about ten inches long. "Take a look." Artie rolled the thing down the table to Marla, who caught it before it could hit her in the chest. She turned it over and examined it.
"This is a penis made of rock," Marla said. "Are you guys hazing me? Is this a gag gift?" Even as she spoke, she knew it wasn't. The stone was oddly warm, and the sinuous carvings along its reddish-black shaft squirmed when she tried to examine them.
"It's an artifact, Marla. Incalculably old, incredibly powerful, and nobody knows if it was made by a sorcerer or dropped by a passing god or if it just sprang into existence spontaneously. Sacred stone phalli aren't that uncommon they appear in lots of cultures, there's even a Festival of the Steel Phallus that still happens in Japan, but this... this is different."
Marla stared at the thing, and it occurred to her that the stone phallus was heavier than it should have been, and that as she looked at it, she had the oddest feeling it was looking back. "What does it do?"
"It's... unpredictable. Let's just say you wouldn't want to use it as a sex toy it might impregnate you with a demon baby, or turn you into a man, or give you visions... same thing if a man slipped it into one of his orifices, though demon pregnancies are harder on men."
Marla put the thing down on the table, resting upright on its flattened base, mushroom-flared head pointed upward. "Doesn't sound like it's much good, Artie. I mean, it's pretty, and it's weird, but... it's not useful."
"That's because it's broken," Artie said. "It's half an artifact. There's a stone yoni a symbolic vagina, though it doesn't look much like a vagina, really. An intricately carved curving thing, that that phallus fits into, like the pedestal of a statue. Only when the two pieces are combined is the artifact whole, and an object of greater power."
"What power's that?"
Artie smiled, his face oddly shadowed by the hanging light. "The power of immortality, kid. How'd you like to live forever?"
Marla thought about it. The possibility of her own death had never seemed very close, even in her desperate homeless days. But, practically, she knew the day would come, and she didn't think she would welcome it. She'd read enough cautionary fantasies to hedge her response, though: "I guess it would be okay, as long as you didn't age too much, or lose your mind."
Artie nodded. "That's it exactly. There are ways to live forever well, we say forever, but what does that mean? Immortality just means you haven't died yet, and don't expect to -- who knows what happens if you stick along until, say, the heat death of the universe? But eventually, after enough centuries, all the sorcerers who've extended their lives start to go crazy. I don't just mean they forget what it's like to be human, start to view everybody else as no more important than beetles hell, less important than dust mites. That happens, too. But I mean crazy. They become monstrous. They see things that aren't there or maybe things that are there, that you can't see unless you've lived five thousand years. They behave erratically. They start to remember the future and forget the past. And, eventually, they kill themselves, or other people kill them, or if they can't die, they find a way to sleep. And we all hope they'll never wake up." He pointed at the statue. "But the stories say, if you use this artifact, you can maintain your humanity and sanity forever -- that you can become, pretty much, like a god. Sounds good, huh?"
"It does," Marla said.
"Glad you think so. Because we're probably going to have to kill this motherfucker to get it." He slid a photograph to Daniel, who passed it to Jenny, who passed it to Marla. It was a black-and-white headshot of an older, handsome man with a strong nose and white hair swept back dramatically from his forehead. He had the kind of profile that belonged on coins. "Clive Rasmussen," Artie said. "A big-shot English sorcerer, though he's been hanging out in the states entirely too much for my taste lately. We've been going back and forth for years, each of us offering to buy the other's half of the artifact, never coming to an agreement. But he's up to something now, and I want to know what. Especially since he sent somebody to my town to steal something from right underneath my nose."
"The librarian at the Catholic school, the one Artie sent me to investigate?" Jenny said. "We're pretty sure he was working for Rasmussen." She touched her forehead. "I caught him trying to steal a book, and he cracked me on the head, but..." She shook her head. "He didn't get away."
"He's just a soot stain on concrete now," Artie said, "and I've got the book. Not that I know what good it is. It's an old travelogue from an 18th-century naturalist, mostly about some megalithic ruins down in the Pacific islands, in Micronesia. Basically a whole artificial city built who knows how long ago, these huge basalt slabs rising out of the ocean. I dunno what Rasmussen wants with that place, but I'm gonna find out."
"Why don't you two just, I don't know, cooperate?" Marla said. "Bring your halves of the artifact together so you can both be immortal?"
"No way," Artie said. "Having that son of a bitch around for eternity would totally spoil my enjoyment of forever. But I am arranging a meeting with him, to sell him this book, after making a copy of my own, of course. We're getting together in a couple of days, in this very room, each of us bringing just one apprentice to help with security. And you, Marla, are going to be my apprentice. Think you can stand around and look menacing?"
Marla shrugged. She didn't care much about looking menacing. She just wanted to be capable of causing mayhem. "Sure. I guess you want me there because magic doesn't work in this room, and I'm better at breaking faces without magic?"
"There's that," Artie said. "But Daniel, Ernesto, and Jenny are going to be busy, breaking into Rasmussen's mansion while he's here in faraway Felport."
Marla laughed. "So they're going to steal the artifact?"
Artie shook his head. "I doubt that. If they happen to see it lying around, sure, but he's probably got it under locks and keys like you can't imagine. They're mostly going on an information-gathering mission to rifle through his office and figure out what he's got planned. Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with me, but right now, Rasmussen and I are pretty evenly matched, and I don't want him getting any more powerful not powerful enough to knock me down and take my stuff, anyway. Getting the other half of the artifact... that's the ultimate goal, but we're playing a long game, and I don't expect to win this year or even necessarily this decade. When the stakes are immortality, I can be patient."
The rest of the meeting was given over to blueprints and logistics and poring over documents for the part of the plan that had nothing to do with Marla, but she paid attention anyway, because it was better to know things than not. When they were done, Artie tossed her the keys to the Bentley. "Me and Ernesto gotta go visit a guy. You drive home. Don't wait dinner I'll be back late."
After they departed, Jenny said, "You guys want to have some fun? Maybe hit the boardwalk, eat some fried dough, enjoy the last dribs and drabs of summer?"
Marla glanced at Daniel, wondering if he was thinking what she was. "That sounds fun," Marla said, "but you guys are flying off to England tomorrow, and, uh..."
"We thought maybe, you know, we might spend a little time together, the two of us..." Daniel said, reaching over and putting his hand on Marla's shoulder.
"Fucking like greased bunnies?" Jenny said. She rolled her eyes. "Fine. I'll make my own way home. More fried dough for me."
After Jenny left, Daniel moved his hand somewhere a bit more interesting than Marla's shoulder and said, "How fast do you think you can get us home and into bed?"
"Why go home first? The Bentley's got a big back seat."
"I like the way you think. I wish you were going to England with me."
"Me too. Just don't get eaten by a guard dog, okay? I want you to come back to me."
"I'll always come back, as long as you're what's waiting for me," he said.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 8.