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Spell Games

Chapter 1

"Marlita," the man said again, standing just inside the door to her office. He regarded Marla with an expression of mingled admiration and delight, and extended his arms for a hug.

Marla Mason ruthlessly pragmatic chief sorcerer of Felport, a woman who'd recently outwitted the avatar of Death, who'd once kicked a hellhound across a room, who'd thwarted the king of nightmares, and who had even killed a god (admittedly a very implausible one) stood behind her desk and stared at him. She'd already said his name once. She didn't think she could bring herself to say it again just yet. There was a dagger in her hand when had she picked that up? and she gently put it down. "You. Here. Why?"

"Eloquent as always, little sis." He came around the desk and swept her into his arms.

"Jason." She spoke into his shoulder, almost breathing out the word. Even his smell was familiar, the smoke-and-whiskey smell of a bar's back room. She hadn't seen him in eighteen years. The time she'd spent without her brother in her life was, by now, years longer than the time they'd been close. Marla pulled away. "How did you find me?"

"You look beautiful, Marlita." He swept a stray strand of hair out of her eyes, and Marla froze. How long had it been since anyone had touched her so familiarly, so easily? Even her occasional lovers were tentative; they knew her well enough to be afraid a little, even in their intimacy. Jason wasn't tentative at all. He was family.

She grabbed his wrist, hard. "I asked you a question."

Marla was tall for a woman, but Jason had a couple of inches on her. He didn't fight, though. "A man can't visit his sister?" His voice was a perfect blend of surprise, concern, and just a hint of wounded feelings. Finely-honed. She felt instantly guilty. Jason still had the knack of manipulation. No surprise there.

Marla let go of his wrist. She took a step back and frowned, looking him up and down. He was past thirty-five now, and his lean good looks were touched with something harder, something that hollowed his cheeks and bagged his eyes. Even the marks of wear and tear weren't ugly, though. They gave his face more character, made him seem like a guy who'd seen hard times, and could sympathize with your own suffering. His dark suit fit his frame perfectly, and his eyes twinkled, bags or not. Jason could have been a politician. He wasn't.

"You still on the grift?" Marla asked.

He raised one eyebrow. "Me? A grifter? Heavens, no. I'm a legitimate businessperson now. Just like you. Nice nightclub, by the way." He sat down in one of the guest chairs before her desk.

She glanced at her friend and associate Rondeau, who had opened the door for Jason and now watched them with undisguised fascination. "It's his club, not mine."

Jason raised his hands and smiled, a smile that said, "We're all in this together," a smile that had emptied many a wallet and opened many a bedroom door. "No need to be coy with me, sis. I'm not from the IRS."

Marla rubbed her eyes. She'd had a long day actually, a long summer and this was too much. She'd rather face the literal vengeful ghosts of her enemies again than confront this haunt from her past. "I know it's not in your nature to cut the bullshit, Jason, but, really, why are you here? Do you need money or something?"

"Money's always welcome, of course, but I'm not interested in charity. I heard you were here in Felport, doing well for yourself, and... I actually have a business proposition for you." He glanced at Rondeau. "One best discussed in private."

"It's a bad idea to do business with family," Marla said. "It's a sure path to heartbreak. If that's all you wanted, I'll pass."

"Now, that's not the Marla I know and love. You were always curious, sis. Don't you want to know what I have to offer? It'll tempt and tantalize, I promise."

"I'm not sure what you know what you think you know about my business, but my situation here is complex, and I've got a full plate already. I said I'll pass."

"Marla "

She held up her hand. "Jason, you're my brother, and that gets you a lot of slack, but keep pushing, and I'll have to push back."

Jason sighed. "I can respect that. You always did know your own mind, so I won't try to change it. I've got a hotel room, and I'm here for a few days at least, depending on how my business goes. Don't suppose you could spare an hour for dinner tomorrow? Or lunch, if being your long-lost brother doesn't entitle me to a whole dinner?"

"Fine. Dinner. Come by tomorrow around six, we'll figure something out."

He stood up, started to go, paused, turned back to her. "Hey. Sister. I didn't come to make trouble for you, I promise."

"Yeah?" She wanted to believe him, but Jason... she hadn't seen him since she was a teenager, and it was hard to forget those old bad memories. Hard to believe he'd changed. On the other hand, she'd changed, rather a lot, so maybe she was being unfair.

"Really. I just heard you were here and figured I'd look you up, see if I could interest you in a certain opportunity that's come my way. Sometimes I think back... Remember when it was you and me against the world?"

Marla felt her throat begin to close. "That was a long time ago, Jason."

"Formative years." He nodded farewell.

Marla dropped into her chair.

"That was your brother?" Rondeau handed her a glass of water. Sometimes it was good to have a friend who knew you that well.

She took a long drink, glad for the excuse it gave her to delay answering. When she spoke, she felt more in control. "Yes, he is. What tipped you off? The bit where he called me his sister?"

Rondeau sat down across from her, in the chair Jason had recently vacated, and whistled. "Damn. I knew you had a brother, but I guess I figured he was dead or in prison or something."

"I kind of figured he was one or the other of those myself."

"You seem a little shaken up. You all right?"

"Sure. My brother the con man shows up unannounced after nearly twenty years, talking about a 'business proposition'? I'm great. If it was anybody else coming at me with this crap, I'd just throw them out, but he's family. What am I supposed to do?"

"Don't ask me," Rondeau said. "I'm an orphan. This shit is a mystery to me." He paused. "It's not like you don't have any choice, though. If you really want to get rid of him, you are a sorcerer. You can make him forget he even saw you today."

Marla fiddled with the scythe-shaped letter opener on her desk and sighed. "Maybe it'll come to that. But I owe him a lot, from when we were kids, when it was just him and me and mom and whatever asshole guy followed mom home from the bar on any given night. Jason kept a lot of bad things from happening to me."

"He's a scam artist, huh?"

"Just small time stuff when we were younger. Hustling pool, short counting, three card monte, convincing drunks to make unwinnable bar bets, selling fake football picks, shit like that. By his freshman year in high school he was so well known in the county that nobody would even play rock-paper-scissors with him, and he'd take weekend trips to Indianapolis to make money. But that was ages ago. Maybe he's reformed."

"Or maybe he's moved on to bigger and better scams. Did you see his suit? It was a nice suit. I know from nice suits." Rondeau plucked the lapels of his vintage green tuxedo jacket, worn over a t-shirt depicting a skeletal rib cage. "He didn't buy a suit like that with three card monte money."

"Wouldn't surprise me. He was always ambitious." Among other things.

"So... is there a reason you haven't talked to him in all these years, or do you just object to his moral flexibility?" Rondeau didn't even bother to make the last bit sound sarcastic. Marla was a sorcerer. Sorcerers were the very definition of moral flexibility.

"We had a... falling out. Or more like the scales falling from my eyes, and my seeing Jason for what he is. Or was. I don't want to talk about it."

"Sometimes people do change, Marla. You're not the person you were even ten years ago." He rubbed his jaw absently, and Marla felt the old twinge of guilt years ago she'd ripped Rondeau's jaw off to use as an oracle, and though he'd been healed by magic and she'd made amends countless times, she still hated thinking about it. "Does Jason, ah, know about you? What you really do? With the sorcery and so forth?"

"I certainly hope not. I'd rather keep it that way."

"So no telling him you're the witch queen of Felport? Or that I'm not so much a human as a psychic parasite squatting in a human body? Or that "

"Correct, nix on all that, Rondeau. Ideally you'll never see him again, so you won't even be tempted to blather things you shouldn't."

"Another Mason." Rondeau shook his head. "Damn. That's something."

"I don't even want to think about Jason right now. I'm going to go home and crawl under the covers and grind my teeth."

"Still want me to pick you up tomorrow morning so we can go to the airport?"

"Sure. But no staying up all night gambling on the internet tonight, all right? I don't want to be late tomorrow, and we're going to have a busy-ass day, so you'll need to be well-rested."

He said "You're the boss," but Marla could tell he was already playing Texas Hold 'em in his mind. She'd have to make sure Rondeau didn't spend too much time around her brother, or Jason would eventually invite him to a card game and end up owning all Rondeau's worldly possessions.

Unless, of course, her brother had changed or, rather, changed back, into the brother she'd once loved and trusted. It was a tempting thought, and because she found it so tempting, she did her best to doubt it.

#

Marla watched the thin trickle of exhausted businessmen and bereaved relatives emerge from the jetway of the redeye from San Francisco, dragging their rolling suitcases behind them like Jacob Marley's chains. When Bradley Bowman emerged toting a duffel bag, he was so wide-eyed and awake he seemed scarcely the same species as the other passengers. "Marla!" He bounded toward her, dropping his bag at her feet and giving her a hug.

"Hey, B." She couldn't get over it this scruffily cute, charismatic ex-movie star had flown across the continent to work for her. She was supposed to teach him how to use his peculiar magics, even though his natural gifts were as a seer and a psychic, while Marla herself was about as psychic as an axe handle and specialized in kicking the shit out of people, things, and ideas. But B was good people. They'd find a way to make it work. Her operation could use some charm and diplomacy to go along with the scorched earth and hurt feelings.

B let go of her, but kept beaming. "How'd you get in here? I thought security stopped people from meeting their friends at the gate these days."

"B, please. This is me. Airport security is something that happens to other people."

"I should've known. Where's Rondeau?"

"Waiting with the car. Last time I let him sneak in here, he made his way to the baggage loading area and started rifling through suitcases. After that, I revoked his conditional invisibility privileges. Come on, we'd better go to the car before he gets bored and wanders off."

"God, it's great to be here." He followed Marla through the terminal. "Don't get me wrong, being Sanford Cole's apprentice was an honor, and he taught me a lot, but these past few months..."

"Eh, he's an old guy. He can't help it if he has magical narcolepsy. Besides, after a week of working for me, you'll wish I dropped off to sleep at random intervals every once in a while, just so you could get some rest." They left the secure area, Marla giving a little wave to the security agent, who still couldn't see her.

"I've done enough sleeping," B said. "I'm here to learn, and I don't mind cutting wood and carrying water."

"Better than Rondeau." Marla passed through the automatic doors out the summer morning, which was already heating up. "He just cuts farts and carries debt."

"Movie star!" Rondeau crowed, popping upright from his lean against the Bentley's fender. "Welcome to Felport, where we hardly ever get earthquakes, mudslides, and wildfires!"

"Blizzards and ice storms will be a nice change," B said.

Marla let them hug their hellos the two of them had become quite close during a trip to San Francisco a few months back. She waited for Rondeau to toss B's bag into the car's cavernous trunk before saying, "Ride in back with me, B. I need to ask you something, and I don't want to have to twist around to see you."

"I thought apprentices were supposed to get chauffeur duty," Rondeau grumbled, and they all climbed into the car. As Rondeau navigated around dawdling shuttle buses, suicidal cabs, and bleary pedestrians, Marla said, "So are you wiped out? Need to grab some sack time?"

"No, I'm totally wired, and anyway, the plane was nearly empty, I had a whole row to myself, so I slept plenty. Don't worry about me."

"Good. We've got a busy schedule ahead of us. You're no good to me if you don't know the major players in the local scene, so in the next few days, we're going to be visiting a lot of scary, dangerous weirdos and making nice with them."

"Sounds good. But what do you really want to talk to me about?"

Marla grunted. "You being psychic now?"

"Not at the moment. You know I'm lousy at straight thought reading it gives me headaches. I can just tell there's something else on your mind."

"Well. I was just wondering. Have you had any dreams lately? About me? Any of those dreams?"

B shook his head. "Nope, no prophetic dreams about you, not since your last trip to California. Why?"

"I had... an unexpected visitor last night. I'm wondering if he's going to make trouble."

"What kind of visitor? Demon king? Dark sorcerer? Eldritch being from beyond the back of the stars?"

"Close," Rondeau chimed in from the front. "It was her brother." He paused and added "Her ne'er-do-well brother," sounding pleased with himself.

Marla smacked him in the back of the head, but lightly; he was driving, after all. "You're going to make me install one of those soundproof privacy barriers like they have in stretch limos, aren't you?"

"Huh," B said. "I didn't know you had a brother. But, no, no dreams."

Marla sighed. "I was hoping for some insight, but I guess no news is good news. If you do have any noteworthy nocturnal transmissions, let me know, all right?"

"Sure thing. So do I get to meet this brother?"

"Doubtful," Marla said, but she had a feeling Jason wouldn't cooperate. He was the inquisitive type, and if he hung around town long, he'd doubtless pry into all corners of her life. That kind of curiosity was a family trait.

#

"You're going to be staying here," Marla said when Rondeau pulled up in front of the club.

"Oh?" B said. "Huh." He didn't sound disappointed, exactly, but she could tell he was trying not to.

"You don't want to be roomies?" Rondeau said. "I cleaned out my media room for you!"

Marla snorted. "Media room? You didn't have anything in there but a laptop and an external hard drive full of porn, plus that ancient boom box, which doesn't even work."

"No, it's cool," B said. "I just expected... don't worry about it."

"Ah, I see." Rondeau shut off the car and turned around in the seat. "B wants to know why he has to live with me in my apartment over a night club when you live in palatial splendor all alone in an old hotel. That, movie star, is a fair question."

"It's hardly palatial splendor." Marla rolled her eyes. "It's an old flophouse, and only one floor is even suitable for human habitation. Anyway, there's a good reason. When I was out of town this last time to visit you, some bastards broke into my place, kicked the crap out of my mystical security system, and stole some very valuable items. I had to beef up security in the place a lot, and now nothing bigger than an inchworm can even walk onto the fifth floor, except for me. Now, I could build some exceptions into the spell, to make it possible for you to enter safely, but that shit is all DNA-based, and what if somebody killed you and wore your skin and did some sympathetic magic to trick the system and get at me? That's no good for either of us."

"Since it's only keyed to Marla's DNA, the only way anybody can get in there now is to kill Marla and wear her skin," Rondeau said, "and once she's dead and flayed, she probably won't be so paranoid about people stealing her stuff."

"Forgive me, B?" Marla said. "We'll get you set up in a decent apartment of your own soon, but I want to keep you close at first. Just not so close that you melt into a puddle when you get off the elevator. My office is in Rondeau's other spare bedroom, so I'm over at the club most of the time anyway. Go grab a shower and change into some fresh clothes, and meet me after. Then we'll start the Felport magical mystery tour."

"You're not missing much anyway," Rondeau said. "Marla's place is kind of a shithole, and the water pressure sucks."

"He's used your shower?" B said, raising an eyebrow.

"It's not what you think." Marla shook her head vigorously. "We'd just limped home from a fight and he was covered in slime-demon ichor. I got tired of him dripping on the carpet."

"Good times," Rondeau said. "We hardly ever go out together like that anymore."

#

Half an hour later, B knocked on Marla's office door, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and good walking shoes. He looked well-scrubbed and was, amazingly, clean-shaven; she wasn't sure she'd ever seen him with less than a day's stubble. "You look like a ten-year-old when you shave."

"My boyish charm has taken me a long way. Is this the part where I start learning the ropes? Should I prepare myself for some supernatural initiation? Am I gonna get jumped in?"

"Not exactly, though meeting the other sorcerers in Felport can be worse than getting beaten up by gang members."

"That's comforting. Are we taking the Bentley? I've never been a car fanatic, but that's a beautiful machine. I wouldn't mind driving it."

"Nah, we're taking the bus. First rule of being my apprentice, Bradley don't drive when you can take a bus, and don't take a bus when you can walk. You get a totally different view of the city when you're on mass transit or pounding the pavement. I only drove to the airport because it's so far out, and because I wanted us to be able to talk privately, and you never know where the other sorcerers have spies. There are eyes and ears everywhere. So while we are on the bus, keep the conversation away from matters magical, you hear?"

"I am the soul of discretion."

#

Marla and B walked the few blocks from the bus stop to Hamil's penthouse, strolling on a sidewalk strewn with blossoms from flowering trees. Marla considered their situation. She was not a teacher by nature, and having an apprentice was going to be an adjustment. She'd just have to wing it, like she did most things, and hope for the best. "When I started out in this business," she said, "I had a magical cloak and a reputation as a crazy bitch who was willing to do anything, and those were basically my only assets. My days as an apprentice weren't that productive in terms of practical magic. My mentor, Artie Mann, introduced me to the right people, but he was a pornomancer, specializing in sex magic, and I had no particular affinity for that kind of work. It's all about repression and release, and I'm lousy at the first part."

"So how did you become the well-rounded sorcerer I see before me today?"

"I've always been a magpie. I figured out early on that I didn't want to be a specialist, because I knew I'd get bored if I didn't study anything but divination or illusions or necromancy or whatever. When I was just starting out, I refused to take money in exchange for my services I'd only work for knowledge. Any sorcerer who wanted me to kick down doors or bust heads or loom around looking threatening or steal back property they'd stolen from someone else in the first place? Had to pay me with esoteric secrets. At first, when I didn't know much, they pawned low-grade stuff off on me, but as I got more experienced, I was able to strike better deals, and learn serious shit."

"Such as?"

"How to fly. How to avoid being seen, and how to become invisible and those aren't exactly the same thing, by the way. How to teleport, though I don't recommend it, since there's a double-digit percentage chance you'll be eaten by multi-limbed things that dwell in the interstices between universes every time you try. At first I was fanatic about learning powers, you know? Things I could do, which made me even more valuable to potential employers, which enabled me to demand bigger and better things in compensation. After a few years I started trading my services for knowledge instead, and I learned a lot of things that conventional wisdom says man was not meant to know."

B nodded. "I get occasional glimpses into that sort of thing myself, in my dreams. Human brains haven't evolved to even perceive some things in the universe."

"Oh, yes. I learned stuff I wouldn't have believed, stuff I still find hard to believe... I found out what really killed the dinosaurs not the asteroid, but the entities that sent the asteroid, and why. You know that giant enormous hole of nothing that scientists discovered in the constellation Eridanus a while back, a space a billion light years across with no matter inside? Some sorcerers have known about that hole for a long time, and there are two or three guys on Earth who don't do anything all day and night but astrally project themselves out into the universe to keep an eye on that hole, and on whatever might someday come out of it. Less cosmic stuff, too. I learned things like who Kaspar Hauser really was. The real facts about the chupacabra."

"The true meaning of Christmas?" B grinned.

"The sinister origins of Secretary's Day, at least. I don't like to let people in on my weaknesses, B, but I might as well tell you knowledge is my drug. I want to know everything, and I want to know it right now. To succeed as a sorcerer, you gotta be voracious. Are you voracious?"

"I'm starving. In the metaphorical way we're talking about. Though I could also go for a danish."

"Good. Because I've pulled some strings. All the sorcerers in the city pay me tribute, you know, just a little slice of their action kicked up to me, since I'm first among equals and all that. But I've made a deal with them to forego the usual cash payment this month in exchange for, well, magic lessons. For you. You're going to learn six or seven impossible things before a week is out."

B whooped. "Marla, I love you! That's fabulous. Cole was so cautious, he always wanted me to learn all the background before he let me try anything practical he's the kind of guy who'd make you take four years of music theory before letting you put your grubby untutored hands on the keys of a piano. I had a feeling you'd be more of a hands-on teacher."

"You gotta learn by doing," Marla said. "At least, I did, so that's the way I'm going to teach you. You probably won't kill yourself in the process, and if you do, hell, then it just wasn't meant to be, B." She felt a little bad, since she wasn't being entirely straight with B she had an ulterior motive for sending him to meet all the major sorcerers in Felport, and she'd tell him about it soon, but she didn't want to put a damper on his enthusiasm just now. "Here's Hamil's place. Get ready for some tea and sympathy."

#

"The art of sympathetic magic is the art of deception." Hamil held up a bagel. "You create an association between two objects, so they become magically indistinguishable, and whatever you do to one, also happens to the other." He rolled the bagel back and forth on the table, from one huge hand to the other. B had heard a lot about Hamil he was Marla's consiglieri and close adviser and had even talked to him on the phone once or twice, but his rather dry and calm voice hadn't prepared B for the enormous bald black physical reality of him.

"Like voodoo dolls?" B said.

"Generally speaking," Hamil's voice held just a hint of disapproval. "But there's so much more to my craft than sticking pins in a poppet to harm your enemies. With the right training, and practice, and luck, you can create a sympathetic link between all sorts of unlikely things. It's all about deceiving the universe, convincing reality that two unrelated things are the same, and when you've been at this for as long as I have, you'll be able to pull off some very big lies."

"Hamil says he can create a sympathetic association so strong he could throw a rock out a window and make the moon come crashing into the Earth," Marla said from the couch. "But he's never proven that boast to my satisfaction."

"For obvious reasons." Hamil held up the bagel. "This is round. It is a wheel."

"I can see how it's like a wheel " B began.

"No," Hamil said. "It is a wheel. Go to the window and look down."

B did, and Hamil joined him. The big man held the bagel edgewise on the windowsill. "It is a wheel," he said, softly, as if speaking to himself, and then rolled the bagel along the windowsill.

The right rear tire of an SUV parked at the curb popped off its axle and went rolling down the sidewalk, falling over at the precise moment the bagel did.

B whistled. "Wow. Impressive. Tough on the guy who owns the SUV though."

"How right you are. Good thing I have this." Hamil went to a bookshelf, took down a hand-sized plastic model of a car, and pulled off the right rear wheel. He went back to the window, humming, and handed B the model. "Why don't you fix it? Admittedly, adding complexity to a situation is harder than increasing entropy, but the fundamentals are the same."

"Um... what do I do?"

"Convince the universe that this toy is exactly the same as the car below. That by changing one you change the other."

"Okay. But, practically speaking..."

"Do you know how sorcery works?" Hamil asked.

"Here we go," Marla muttered from the couch.

"Quiet, you," Hamil said. "Do you want me to teach him, or not?"

"I guess he'll be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, so knock yourself out," Marla said. "I just think you anthropomorphize the universe too much."

"And I think you underestimate the potential sentience of all things. As I was saying, Bradley: do you know how sorcery works?"

"There are lots of different theories...."

"True, but most agree on one point sorcerers impose their will on the workings of the universe. They change the world just by wanting the world to be changed. And that, Bradley, is a power rooted in deception. You must convince the universe that your will is a force of nature, that your desire can no more be ignored than can the forces of gravity or the strong nuclear force. The first step in convincing the universe is to convince yourself. You must be supremely confident and certain of your power."

"Okay." B stared down at the SUV below, and at the toy in his hand, and tried to will them to be the same. He stuck the wheel back on the toy, and absolutely nothing at all happened to the car below. "Well, that didn't work."

"And it probably won't, not the first hundred times you try. But the trick is, even when you fail, don't let yourself believe you're a failure. Try again, visualizing your success. The ability to hold contradictory thoughts simultaneously is crucial for a sorcerer."

"Okay." Some of this was familiar from B's work with Cole. He went through the meditation exercises he'd learned, clearing his mind, narrowing the world to the toy in his hands and the car below, trying to make himself a conduit, popping off the wheel and putting it back on, again, and again, and again, and again

"There!" he said. "The tire moved! I didn't get it all the way on, but it moved."

"Really?" Hamil and Marla rose from the couch and came to the window. The tire had risen, wobbled, rolled a few feet back toward the SUV, and then fallen over again.

"Good job, B," Marla said. "And now you're even more confident in your abilities, so it'll work better next time."

"That's... that's... well done," Hamil said. His voice sounded oddly shaky. "Keep practicing on your own. Tonight try to, ah, create an affinity between the contents of a glass of water and the contents of a bathtub. Slosh one, and see if you can make the other slosh. Water is one of the easiest things to manipulate, because all water remembers mingling with other water in the past, and the sympathetic association comes naturally. Marla, could I speak to you before you go?"

#

Hamil shut his office door. "What's up?" Marla said.

"The task I gave Bradley was meant to be impossible. Impossible for him, anyway. I was going to let him bang his head against the wall for an hour or so, then teach him ways to enhance the sympathetic association between two objects. That toy car didn't really look much like the real one, so I was going to show him how to paint it to match, and to scrape a little paint off the real car downstairs to rub on the model, to further enhance the connection between the two. I thought maybe then he'd be able to make the tire twitch, but he got that far just on sheer force of will. He actually has potential, Marla. You chose your apprentice well. I've met more promising prospects, but not often."

Marla grinned. "Good to hear, because I'd be stuck with him at this point even if you thought he sucked. And thanks for not saying that in front of him. You know movie stars and their egos."

"With training, he could be a very valuable addition to the city. I know you don't like to discuss matters of succession, but you'll almost certainly... retire... someday, and Felport will need "

"I'm way ahead of you," she interrupted. "You think it hasn't crossed my mind?"

"I think you have a tendency to assume your own indestructibility."

"Haven't met anything that can destroy me yet. Let's not borrow trouble, fat man, or get years and years ahead of ourselves, okay?"

"Yes, all right, fair enough. But try not to scare him off, hmm?"

"Tomorrow I'm taking him to meet Viscarro. If that doesn't scare him off, I doubt anything else will. You mind hanging out with B for a while longer? It's his first night in town, and I don't want to leave him alone with Rondeau's corrupting influence yet I need him sober and not apocalyptically hungover in the morning."

"Certainly. He can keep practicing here. You have plans?"

"I gotta meet a guy."

"This guy wouldn't happen to be your brother?"

"You and your spies." Marla sighed. "I need to see if I can get rid of him."

"Don't underestimate the importance of family, Marla. My own relationship with my brothers is a source of great comfort to me."

"But they live four states away and you only see them on occasional holidays. My brother's right here. Besides, you're my family, and so's Rondeau, and so's B. But my brother? Maybe once, but at this point, our relationship is just an accident of blood."