“Did we come at a bad time?” Cap’n Jack asked, like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
“What do YOU think?” the guy snarled at us, waving a hand at the shambles that the nightclub was in. Tables were overturned, chairs were scattered, and carts had spilled silverware all over the place. The Apex was one of the large Supper Clubs that were big again, with three floors, several large rooms, more smaller rooms, each with their own theme and entertainment (including a room where the guests paid good money to entertain each other with a microphone and small backup band; hey, it’s not MY money they’re spending…), and this was the Olympus Room, the main dining room, which was all very ‘modern’ with sterile white and gleaming brass and glass and like all that. It was not a look that mixed well with ‘cluttered mess’.
“What IS it?” I asked, craning my neck to see what was causing such a mess, like I didn’t already know. “WHOA!” I reeled back as something that looked like a cross between an armadillo and a crab, with a scorpion tail scuttled out from cover and barely avoided two of the Apex’s guys as they tried to grab it. “Goblin! Looks like a nasty one, too!”
Jack perked up and asked the guy, “So, you the boss here?”
“HEY!” the guy turned and yelled, “Stavrel! These two guys wanna talk to you!”
“What IS it?” Stavrel, a big beefy guy whose nice suit had clearly seen better days, asked as he trudged up, his chunky face flushed with sweat. He obviously needed to get a membership in the gym down on this building’s second floor, and use it. “I’m kind of BUSY, if ya ain’t blind!”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Jack said as the goblin stung one guy who tried to grab it and scooted back under cover. “So, you called for Goblin Catchers yet?”
“No,” Stavrel said, like we had Downs’ or something, “I can’t afford that! Do you know how much those guys CHARGE? And, they’d have to file a report, and the Department of Health would shut us down until a complete inspection had been made, and they nailed down exactly how that fucking thing got IN here!”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Jack said, getting into it. “I think that me and my boys can help you.”
“Oh? Maybe you guys are goblin catchers?”
“As a matter of fact,” I said, taking my pendulum, a tobacco pouch full of banishing powder, and a banishing charm out from my jacket pocket, “we are.”
Stavrel gave us a hard look, like ‘gee, ain’t it CONVENIENT, you showin’ up like this, just when a goblin pops up?’ But Jack cut him off, saying, “Look, we got five crates of empty Glenlivet™ bottles down in our car. I was gonna part with ‘em for fifty bucks all told- what YOU do with ‘em is your business,” the point being that Stavrel could fill those expensive bottles with whatever hooch- or blend thereof- he saw fit, and most of the chumps who come to places like this would never know the difference. Of course, we DID have five crates of bottles just like that. Jack knows better than to get caught in an obvious lie. “But we’d be chumps not to jump on an opportunity.” I fogged up my banishing charm with my breath and polished it on the lapel of my coat. But Jack caught my hand and said looking into Stavrel’s eye, “And we’d be chumps to do it for free.”
And from there, it turned into a haggling session between two guys who love to haggle. Stavrel pointed out that he really could just call the City Department of Metaphysical Safety, and let them handle it. Jack countered that Stavrel had already admitted that he didn’t wanna do that, as they’d tell the Department of Health, who’d shut him down for at least three days, and it was FRIDAY, so he’d be losing his primo show times. Stavrel whined about how he was getting socked left and right. So, Jack pointed out that that just meant that he really didn’t need to be shut down over the weekend. Stavrel offered five hundred. Jack countered with a thousand. Stavrel screamed bloody murder, but his scream was cut short as the goblin tried to break for the kitchen. “Tell you what,” Jack offered. “Ferget money. You cut us some of those One-Night Gold Key cards, and we’ll keep this completely off the books, nobody has to know nothing.” The ‘Key’ cards were basically your ticket past the lines in the lobby, and what card you had said which rooms you could get into, and what your credit line with the house was.
“Silver,” Stavrel offered. A silver key card wouldn’t get you into the top drawer rooms and had a $300 ceiling.
“Platinum.” Platinum keys got you into every room in the joint, including those back rooms they say they don’t have, and there’s no credit ceiling.
“Gold,” Stavrel countered. “But you can bring a date.”
“What? I thought that bringing the date was part of the price of the ticket!”
“It is- when you PAY for the key.”
“Gimme a break! Everybody knows that what you’re really selling is Snob Appeal! It doesn’t really cost you anything!”
“Hey, letting you slobs be seen here costs me an arm and a leg.”
They settled on Gold Keys, with a Date rider. Then Jack told Stavrel that there would be six of us. So, of course, Stavrel has a major attack of the cheaps, and says only three. Jack tried to get at least five, but Stavrel held firm, and Jack gave in. They went over to the register and Stavrel brought out the cardmaker and a box of blank cards. Just as Stavrel warmed up the maker, Jack nudged my wing with his. I joggled my pendulum, and let out a yelp. Predictably, Stavrel looked up to see what it was, and the goblin was surprisingly obliging by bolting just then from cover to try and get into the cloak room. As Stavrel screamed to not let it get in there, they’d never get it out, Jack snapped a remote link onto the card-maker’s secure hardline, and snitched seven blanks from the box. Hey, Jack may not be the smartest guy in the world, but he’s got more brass than a Broadway revival of ‘the Music Man’.
Then Stavrel cut three cards, and he told us to get on the job. Jack nodded at me, and I went to work as Jack got out his iCom phone and told the guys to get out the ball and sticks, we had a pickup game. I started off by carefully pouring thin lines of banishing powder (hey, that stuff is expensive, even if I do brew it myself!) to keep the goblin from scarpering off into the kitchen, and then the cloakroom, since it seemed to have inclinations in that direction.
“Hey, you really know what you’re doing, kid?” Stavrel asked me. From well over by the counter, where it was safe.
“YES, and I’m not a kid,” I said, not liking the tone of his voice, but not taking my eyes off of what I was doing either. “What we got here is what’s called a ‘Panzer Rat’. It’s not that nasty- Yet.”
“Did you see what color its eyes were?”
“Its eyes? Why should I care what color its eyes are?”
“With that particular breed of goblin, the eyes go blood-red just before it metamorphosizes.”
“It grows up into a bigger, nastier kind of goblin, depending on what it’s eaten before it changes. For instance, that scorpion tail right now is just dang painful; after it metamorphosizes, it becomes actively dangerous.”
“You some kind of wizard?”
“No, I just dabble,” I said noncommittally. “I’ve picked up a few things, this’n that, y’know? But I haven’t broken through or anything.”
“Hey, prettyboy! Does this kid really know what he’s doin’?” On one hand, there were dozens of guys like me, who ‘just dabbled’, and knew bits and pieces of magic, without ‘breaking through’ or ‘attaining the rose’ or ‘having the scales fall from their eyes’, or whatever you wanna call getting real magic. On the other hand, there were also a lot of guys, nowhere near as many as the first kind but still a lot of guys, who DID manage to ‘break through’ but knew that they weren’t all that powerful. They had just enough power to tempt people. Y’see, while practicing magic is illegal, most real magicians aren’t that scared of the Cops. And they’re only so-so worried about magician wannabes. No, the guys who really worry most Mages are other mages, especially the guys who were also starting out, who’d jack you up for your power and take everything. If you were lucky, they’d take everything, and leave you alive so that they could jack you again. If you weren’t lucky, they carved you up for components, used your skull as a bowl and your thighbone as a rattle. So, you lay low, and say that you ‘just dabbled’ and you ‘picked up a few things, this’n that’. And you make sure that nobody’s really that sure about you. Like a girl in high school, who never lets on whether she puts out or not. So, on one hand, he couldn’t sell me out to anyone, ‘cause it wasn’t worth the risk of pissing off both the mage he’d sold me out to and my buds, if he was wrong. On the flip side, he was having his club taken care of by a guy who ‘dabbled’. Or, maybe actually knew what he was doing.
Just the way that I want it. “One of the guys we have coming up is a Were,” Jack said with a wide grin on his long ‘Irish Bard’ face.
“A Were?” Stavrel obviously felt a little better about that. ‘Weres’ or ‘Therions’, to give them their anthropologically correct name, have a solid rep as goblin hunters.
“And a Kidoka,” Jack added. Stavrel really perked up. On top of being a Were, Leo’s a kidoka, one of those guys who sort of has magic, but uses it like all those martial arts guys do in the movies. Stavrel wasn’t just getting his club de-pested, he was getting a show!
But Stavrel was disappointed when the rest of the crew walked in. He had hopes when he saw Bats. Bats is big, at least 6-foot-4, and built like a linebacker, with a chin that you could use as an anvil; if a woman likes her men big and buff, she loves Bats. But Bats didn’t have the perked up cat/ dog ears that Weres have. He DID however have the wings and talon feet that all Avians have. His wings were bat-like, while mine are covered in white feathers; any guesses why we call him ‘Bats’? Lucky is also pretty clearly an Avian; Lucky’s wings got short brown hair over the shoulder. And Ace is pretty clearly an Avian. And then he settled his eyes on Leo, and he was really disappointed. Leo had the ears and the eyes and the tail. But Leo is also 5-foot-2 and maybe 120 pounds, dripping wet; he’s even shorter’n ME. “THAT’S your big deal goblin hunter?”
“It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight,” Jack said smugly, “it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Hey, Runt!” he called out, “the man here thinks that you’re too small to handle a goblin!” Leo flushed, but before he could explode, Jack lowered his voice and said with a smirk, “Prove him wrong.”
Leo grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. Jack gave me a nudge and a nod to get to work. Except for Leo, we all pulled off the ball ‘shoes’ that we use to keep our talons from getting snared in things (oh, and spooking the baselines), as to get better traction on the carpet. Stavrel winced at the idea of what claws like we got could do to the expensive rug. Ignoring the goblin scuttling around, I brought out my pendulum, watching it swing. Ace, Lucky and Bats readied their sticks and made to cover two points that I told them might be escape routes for the rat. “Got it!” I said, “Leo! You got the can?” Leo held up the goblin containment unit that we’d kludged together and assumed the position. I watched the pendulum swing and said, “Okay, Ace… it’s coming to you. It’s getting ready… any second…NOW!” Ace jabbed under the table, causing the Panzer Rat to squeak and shoot in the opposite direction. Lucky jabbed at it, but got the tines of his stick stuck in the rat, and got dragged and whipped around, being thrown into a table. The stick dragged around a bit, so Jack tried to grab it, but he got dragged off his feet and thrown into the big horned Caprine who was watching the whole thing. I headed off the rat by doing a vaulting leap over it, Bats kept it from biting the hell out of my talons, and we managed to get the railroading back on track. Jack and the Caprine got back to their feet (or hooves, as the case may be), and we had the goblin zipping back and forth between us like a ping-pong ball, too busy reacting to do anything other than shoot back and forth. It knocked Lucky into Stavrel’s stand. Then Leo practically teleported from where he was squatting, and was right in the middle of our field, and he had the ‘can’ down where the rat had been. “You bagged it?” I asked.
Leo just grinned and gave us thumbs up.
“That’s IT?” Stavrel grunted, disappointed at not getting his show.
“What?” Jack breezed, “We got the bogey in the can, it didn’t bust up the joint, and we did it quick, so you can get the place cleaned up in time for opening. What’s the beef?” Stavrel grumped a little, but admitted that it was probably for the best. Besides, hey, in its own, Zen minimalist way, it WAS pretty dang impressive. “Okay, so we got that out of the way- now, about those crates of bottles…”
Jack haggled Stavrel up to 15 bucks a crate, which was better’n we expected. As I was sweeping back up the banishing dust (hey, like I said, that stuff is expensive!), I heard Stavrel ask, all innocent like, “So, when can we expect you?”
“I’ll let you know in a second,” Jack said, pulling out his iCom and punching in a code. “Hey, Madelyn! It’s Raj!” he faltered and continued, “Roger. Roger Gideon. Remember? Last month?” And from there, Jack went on to sound a hell of a lot like a guy who was trawling in waters that were way too deep for him. As Stavrel snickered quietly over the eternal humiliation ladled out to guys like ‘Roger’ by girls like ‘Madelyn’, Jack managed to get a date by promising just shy of the world.
“High maintenance?” Stavrel asked, all amused-like as Jack hung up.
“Oh Yeah!” Jack gusted. But then he perked up and smirked in a ‘we’re all guys here’ way. “But SO worth it! Anyway, expect us next Saturday; not the Saturday comin’ up, but the next.” Stavrel tried his hardest to not smirk as he entered the reservations. But he didn’t quite pull it off.
And that was pretty much that.
We helped Stavrel’s guys get the tables set back right, and then we were out of there.
We mock-bickered in the elevator about who would be the second and third guy on the date, just in case Stavrel had the elevator bugged or somethin’. Hey, things like that DO happen, and Stavrel’s just a big enough of a rat where he’d pull something like it. But after we crammed ourselves into The Car (2 in the front, 4 in the back, thank GOD for 4-door sedans!), Jack leaned over in the front seat and asked, “So? Did you get it?”
Ace grinned and the computer visor that he habitually wears like wrap-around sunglasses gleamed for a second. “Green Light all the way, Cap’n Jack! I got their encoding scheme, their access protocols, and I even found one of Stavrel’s own backdoors, so he can cook the books without appearing to log on. The only problem will be deciding how much we wanna take him for.” Then he held out his hand to Jack.
“What?” Jack asked, puzzled.
“The link!” Jack blinked at Ace, not getting it. “The Computer Link? The one that you put into Stavrel’s computer, remember?”
Jack went pale as a sheet. “Oh… CRAP! Wings! I thought you…”
“That was YOUR job!” I insisted, “Hey, I was BUSY!”
“SHIT! If Stavrel spots that-”
Lucky cut this off with a shrill whistle that rattled the ears of everyone in The Car. Jack just barely managed to avoid swerving into an oncoming car. As we all glared at Lucky, he smirked and held up… the computer link. “I snagged this when I spotted it, after I took the header into the sales station.” He smugly handed over the link to Ace, completely forgiven for almost causing a car wreck. And that, folks, is why we let Lucky hang out with us; he is, without a doubt, the reigning KING of making lemonade. He has no real luck (if anything sometimes I think that he sucks the bad luck out of other people) but he keeps trying and he just finds ways of turning it around. That is, except when he doesn’t.
There was an all-around sigh of relief, and Jack pulled out his iCom again. “Yo! Tin-JO! Break out yer best par-tay dress, ‘cause we got places to go t’morrow NIGHT!” Then he folded for a second, and he had another discussion that eerily resembled the bogus one that he’d had with ‘Madelyn’.
Two nights later, Ace helped me get set up in the basement of the old Metro theater. I’d asked Ace because he’s a good guy to have around if things get nasty, but at the same time, he’s quiet. And when you’re setting up a major working, quiet is good. I also asked Ace because as a net jock, he gets the concept, ‘get every bit right the first time’ the way that other mundanes just don’t, and he understands that ‘fiddling around for hours’ is actual work. Also, Ace doesn’t give me a lot of shit about being a kid or a worrywart.
The Metropole is, or at least was, a grand old theater in the Bijou district, one of the seven along a five-block stretch of Buchanan Street. But that was back when there was money in running theatres. As a matter of fact, you could sort of say that you could tell a lot about the Bijou district by the history of the Metropole. The Metropole started out as a Grand Opera theater back in the 1880s, back when there was money in Grand Opera, and the Bijou was a nice respectable Upper-Middle Class neighborhood. Then in the 1910s, it became a Vaudeville theater, because there was money in Vaudeville, and the Professional class started moving out of the Bijou district. Then, when movies and radio killed Vaudeville in the 1930s, it became a Burlesque theater, because there was still money in Burlesque. Then in the 1940s, it got retooled into a movie theater, because there was money in that, by which time, the Bijou was pretty solidly working class. This lasted into the 1980s, when video tape killed off the small single-screen movie theaters. Then it changed over to a porno theater where there was still some money, and the Bijou slowly changed into a Red Light district, which lasted for a while. Then DVDs killed even that, and then it was a strip joint again and the Bijou became an even worse Red Light district. Then for years the Metropole was abandoned; that was, when it wasn’t being used as a shooting gallery.
Then, about 25 years ago, a weird mixture of working class families and artists started moving in because of the low rents, and the Metropole was turned back into an avant-garde theater. It was very… interesting for a while, with the junkies and punks and artists and working class families all riffing off of each other, all very ‘La Vie Boheme’. Of course, once it got out how ‘La Vie Boheme’ the place was, it was only a matter of time before the yuppies tried to get in on the action. They started moving in, gentrifying the place, and the Metropole was refurbished and repurposed into an exercise gym/ yoga/ martial arts/dance studio, and they jacked the rents up way out of the Artists’ reach, and there went ‘La Vie Boheme’.
Then the Nishapur Incident happened, and yuppies, being yuppies, tried to get in on THAT action. And in the process, they woke up some of things that, let’s be honest, really should be left well alone. That got really interesting for a while, and the bogies drove off the yuppies even faster than the yuppies drove off the artists. Hey, all the Victorian buildings- that were left, anyway- weren’t THAT picturesque. For a while, well, the Bijou may not have been the most haunted place in Bedlam, but, let’s just say there was some pretty stiff competition in that pageant. But the working class folks hung tough, even if the punks and pimps and junkies didn’t, and for the last ten years or so, the Metropole has been a clothing exchange, where people sell their used clothing to each other.
The point being that the Metropole is very haunted. If it wasn’t for the Landmark status, it would have been torn down years ago. Mind you, they got rid of most of the spooks. But there’s this one room in the basement, where the last fetter is, where we think a chorus singer was murdered back in the 1890s and buried under the cement, where the exorcisms simply will NOT take. Hey, as long as the walls don’t bleed, the people who run the Metropole Exchange don’t care WHAT noises come out of that room.
And haunted rooms make wonderful places to do magical workings. Cemeteries have NO privacy.
And we have a key to that room.
On the principle that nobody can rat you out if they don’t know what you’re doing, Ace and I landed on the high gable roof of the Metropole, and let myself in the door that the AC repairmen use. Yes, I have the key for that, too. Jack’s sister, Lenore, works here, and Jack also works here on and off, mostly when he doesn’t have other sales gigs going on. Which is how we knew about that room in the first place. Also, Lenore, Mahala and Ingrid, the girls who more or less run the Exchange, are scared to death of that room, so every time they hear something in there, they call for Jack and us, and well, let me just sum it up to say that we’re not very worried about them rumbling our little secret.
Still, when we got to the stairwell in the rear, we didn’t walk down the normal way. Those stairs are wooden, and over a hundred years old. They’re sound, but they creak like a rusty hinge. So we dropped all four floors (closer to six stories; they made these floors tall) down to the basement. Which sounds a lot more daring than it really is. These weird bird-legs that we Avians have aren’t just good for kicking us up into the air; they can also absorb a lot of impact. Still, you gotta land ON them; we Avians crush just as easily as anyone else from a high fall if we don’t land on our pins.
We waited for a second, just in case anyone asked, ‘what was THAT?’ Nothing. I let Ace and myself into the workroom. The workroom doesn’t look like much: four brick walls that the paint peeled off long ago, concrete floor and a raftered ceiling, 15 by 25 feet. But the creep factor is high. The only things in the room were a coffee can with five old-fashioned steamer trunks arranged around it. The trunks were out of position. Not by much, but still, they each weighed over a hundred pounds; if it had managed to move each of them that much, it had spent a lot of energy doing it. Just what we wanted. “Naughty, naughty!” I chided the spook as I shoved the trunks back into place. “Just for that, no bedtime story.” I spent the next hour and a half getting everything arranged just right, the details of which I find just as tedious as ev’ryone else, so let’s fast-forward through that, shall we?
I was going through my calculations for the working on an abacus for the third time (hey, the point isn’t to find the right numbers, it’s to UNDERSTAND what the numbers are and mean), when I got a call from Leo that he was waiting in the back alley. Ace slipped out, let him in the side door, and they slipped back into the room. Leo handed me two canisters. “So, how was work?” Ace asked conversationally, and we spent the next half hour listening to Leo’s aggravations at his job as a courier. Of course, Leo tends to gloss over the point that his main problem with his job is that his boss regards runs as a matter of getting from Point A to Point B with the package as quickly as possible, while he sees them as excuses for Parkour practice. Jack and the rest of us have tried to explain that to him, but it hasn’t sunk in quite yet.
As Leo vented, I arranged a dunking vat over the haunt’s fetter, and arranged the minor not-quite-power-gems-YET in it, and poured the accretion medium in. Then, carefully, I lowered first the canister holding the Panzer Rat that we’d used at the Apex (and a few other places) into the vat, and then the two goblins that he’d bagged (a Shadowman and a Gutter Viper from what he said). The Panzer Rat I only dipped for a 10-count. The Gutter Viper and the Shadowman, I held down until I was reasonably sure that they’d been almost but not quite completely dissolved into the liquid medium. The Panzer Rat had resale value; Shadowmen aren’t worth a dang thing on the market and the fewer Gutter Vipers out there, the better.
When the Shadowman went to wherever it is that Shadowmen go, I pulled the accretion projects out and examined them. The three sidhe stones gleamed with eldritch luster. They were our real treasures; they had real power. And it looked like the bath had done them some good. The two pearls were the size of peas (and not very big peas); it would be a while before they were really any good for anything. The green crystal chip was coming along nicely, but it would also be a while for that to be useful. The goblinstone, on the other hand, would never be as powerful as the pearls or the crystal, let alone the sidhe stones, but in its limited way, it could be useful right now. The other three projects were, sadly, duds; they’d never be anything more than lumps of pixie dust. I dropped the duds into the alchemy projects, to perk them up.
Having done that, I dumped the liquid from the vat and strained it through a catalytically treated cloth. When the liquid was through, the cloth held about a heaping double-handful of a pale silvery powder: pixie dust. I carefully spooned the dust into discrete packets, which Leo obligingly held for me.
I was washing the ritual tools in the liquid medium, when Jack called and said that he was on his way down. We waited the necessary 30-count and opened the door for him. Jack bustled in and asked, “So what did I miss?”
“Your timing was impeccable. You showed up just when there wasn’t any more work to do.”
The guys straggled in, one at a time, each bringing in a little something. Cap’n Jack and Lucky brought in packets of ‘pixie dust’, Bats brought in a geode that he said ‘sang’ to him. Hey, it sang to me, too. I’ll use it, and see what happens.
Then, only about an hour or so before we didn’t have any more to time waste, Tinjo and Denmar showed up. Tinjo and Denmar are our girlfriends. Well, at least they’ve hung out with us (or, at least Jack) since, like, Junior High, and there’s a definite BF/GF thing going on. Exactly who is BF to who’s GF, is a matter of some… disagreement? Dispute? Ambiguity? Meh. Tinjo is your basic hawt redhead, with a tall strapping body, a good rack, soft floppy wings that draped over her shoulders when she wasn’t using ‘em, and the long angular features of a not-quite fashion model with large sloe cool gray eyes, a long straight nose and a wide full smiling mouth that softened her face, which would have been a little hard without it. Denmar is a half-head shorter than Tinjo, perky and petit with ALL the right curves, semi-rigid wings with tufts of feathers along the ‘elbow’, and a perfect oval angel face with big round blue eyes, a tiny little nose, rosebud mouth, curling blonde hair and like all that. Denmar can get guys to do more with her eyes than Bats can with his fists. Anyway, Tinjo (or Tina Joanne to her mother) is pretty much agreed to be Jack’s girlfriend. At least it’s agreed by everyone except Tinjo, who has her own ideas about things. And by things, I mean she has her own ideas about everything. “Hey Jack!” she cheered at him through a bright (if kinda snide) grin, “I got an absolutely gorgeous little number that will look just fabulous on you!” She held up an emerald green draping dress on a hanger in a transparent plastic bag at him.
“So, Denmar,” she cracked, holding up a black leather vest and matching mini-skirt ensemble, “who do you think would look better in this? Bats or Ace?” Bats and Ace being the two guys who’d look the most ridiculous in it, and resent it most. But then, Tinjo has that kind of sense of humor.
“GIRLS!” Jack beamed, all smiles, “We got something special planned for tonight!”
Tinjo’s smirk cracked like a dropped plate. “Oh, I knew that it was too good to be true. You told me that you had some hustle where you got in to the Apex club for free. What did you do, Jack?” She glowered at him, and Denmar fell into step behind her glaring at him.
“TINJO! BABE!” Jack said as sweetly as he could, “We’re still going to the Apex! Not a problem! See? We got the Key Cards and everything!” He fanned out the cards for the girls to see, and ran down the hustle we’d played on Stavrel.
“I hacked the cards so’s now they’re all Platinum,” Ace explained with a grin. “It’ll get you into any room in the place, buy anything, get any service. Period. AND, I tacked on a little rider, so that no matter HOW MUCH you draw on that card, the online record will only show that you’ve ordered a dinner, some drinks and one draw of $5,000 worth of chips in the casino, and that you’re WAY under your credit limit.”
“Buy anything?” Denmar asked cagily. “Is… there a gift shop in this supper club?”
“Gift shop?” Jack smirked. “Try jewelry store, just in case someone has to make up to his girlfriend in a screaming hurry. Girls, this place is an oasis of conspicuous consumption. Just remember, girls… guys like to get presents too… nothing too gaudy… I’ll settle for diamonds… as long as they’re large.”
“Okay, enough of that,” I said, clapping my hands for attention. “Let’s get to work, ‘kay?” When I had their attention, I asked, “Okay Jack, now that we’re all here, exactly what do you want me to DO?” I swear, sometimes I think that the only reason that they let me hang with them is ‘cause I can do magic. Some. At least Jack listens to me when I talk about magic. Some.
“What do you need magic for?” Denmar asked. “I mean, you’ve GOT the key cards, right? What d’you need magic for? And why the dresses and wigs?”
“Yeah,” Tinjo agreed, giving Jack the eye. “And what about these clippings that you had us ruin our fashion magazines for?”
“And the purses?” Jack asked.
“Answer. The. Question,” Tinjo demanded, like Jack was on the stand.
“LOOK,” Jack went into a spiel, “Stavrel is a 24-karat weasel. If he can, he will do something, I dunno what, but something, to blow us off somehow. BUT, he is expecting three guys with wings to show up next weekend with three girls, presumably also with wings. What if a bunch of guys without wings show up tonight, squiring a bunch of girls, also without wings?” He finished with a big Cap’n Jack grin.
“Ah? Jack?” I bleated, feeling an iceberg form in my stomach. I really do not want to be the one who spoils the gang’s good time tonight. “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier? I can’t DO that!”
“Why not?” he demanded, “You got those sidhe stones, right? It should be a pretty simple glamour, right?”
“PROBLEM,” I spelled it out, “there’s this thing called ‘the Law of Balance’. The Universe is very big on keeping things like Male and Female balanced. If I try to glamour up six guys and two girls, things WILL go hinky. Don’t ask me how. For all I know, Tinjo and Denmar will suddenly become guy magnets, and they’ll start a small riot with guys trying to pick them up.” Tinjo and Denmar gave me hard looks. “And God knows, they already do that; they don’t need any help from magic.”
“Nice save, Wings,” Tinjo sniped.
“I simply can’t handle that kind of imbalance!” I kept at it.
GOD, you are such a worry-wart, Wings!” Jack snorted, amused. I don’t know why people are always so amused when they call me a worry-wart. “You already told me that! I came up with a great dodge!” Oh now I AM starting to worry. Jack’s ‘great dodges’ usually end up with us running for our lives. “Could you handle a mask for eight people, if they were balanced? Four guys and four girls?”
“Yeah, if I secured the images in the sidhe stones, and had one of the guys and one of the girls also wearing sidhe stones.”
“Then… glamour up masks for four guys… and four dolls.” he reached over and held up one of the wigs with his big grin on his mug.
Then the link clicked for me. “Oh no. No, Jaaaccck… you don’t mean that you want me to mask two of the guys as girls, and they go as dates for two of the other guys?”
“NO!” Leo snapped, his ears folded down and fangs bared, “No WAY! I get enough guff about bein’ SHORT, there is NO WAY that I am dressing up as a GIRL!” Tinjo and Denmar didn’t help things at all by breaking into snickers.
“Hey, I am with the Runt!” I jumped in as the youngest and second shortest. “I get enough grief from you yoyos as it is, I do NOT need you ragging me about wearing a DRESS!”
“Will you two MELLOW?” Jack breezed. “I knew that you two were gonna have a hissy, among others,” he speared a look at Lucky, who sort of has a problem with gays and sissyboys and like all that. “So, I came up with a way so’s we can decide who wears the dress, without everyone getting their panties in a bunch.” He reached into his overcoat and pulled out a cloth sack. He shook it and it rattled. Then he emptied the sack into his hand and colored marbles rolled out. “Six marbles: two red, four blue. The guys who draw the red marbles gotta do the drag. If you wanna get in on the scam, you gotta draw from the bag. Period. If you get the red marble? Well, just suck it up like a man. You get a blue marble? Give the guys who drew red a break. Anybody got a beef with that?” he looked around and got unhappy looks, but no objections.
“Guys,” Jack said, not quite disgusted, but not by much, “we’re all taking the same risk here. If we start taking turns and making exceptions and shit, it gets WAY too involved. Look, just stick your hand in the bag and take your chances, like the rest of us, so we can DO this thing, ‘kay?” He shoved the marbles in the bag and handed it to Denmar, who shook the bag with gusto, and held it high up over her head. Leo and I glared daggers at Jack in unison. “Don’t be such a wuss. See?” he reached up, stuck his hand into the bag, rummaged around a bit and-
-pulled out a red marble.
“Well, THAT puts a whole new spin on this,” I gloated as Jack gawped horrorstruck at the marble.
“YES!” Tinjo yelped and reached into her bag. “Cheer up, Jackie…” she gloated. “You just gotta be a Blonde!” she pulled a long blonde wig out of the bag and shoved it up into Jack’s face.
“Don’t be such a wuss…” I drawled as I reached into the bag and pulled out a blue marble.
Leo made a smug noise, popped up to reach into the bag and snatched out another blue marble. “Cool!” We grinned at each other and knocked the two blue marbles together in victory. Denmar shook the bag at the rest of the guys, who were obviously doing some serious mental calculus. Since Ace is the best here at math, period, he quickly figured that the odds got worse with every blue marble that got taken from the bag, so he went first, and snagged a blue marble. Thus proving that playing the odds can work.
The penny didn’t quite drop for Lucky that he’d wussed his way into 50/50 odds, no matter what, so he went for the bag like a drowning man grabbing for a life preserver. And pulled out a red marble. “AWWW MAAANN!!” he screeched.
“Well, this should be amusing,” I smirked to Leo, who grinned back at me. Lucky has a lot of wonderful qualities, but sympathy for *ahem!* ‘alternate lifestyles’ aint one of ‘em. “Hey, don’t worry, Lucky! The magic makes it feel all natural. You won’t feel weird, wearing the dress or nothing.”
“And WE won’t say thing,” Leo said through an evil grin.
“So, Denise,” Tinjo said drolly, “y’think the red for Lucky? Or the leather miniskirt?”
“Oh, I wanna see JACK in the miniskirt,” Denmar grinned.
Of course, Jack immediately launched into a spiel, trying to get Leo or me to take his red marble. “Why are you trying this on ME?” Leo snarled.
“Well, you’re the smallest…” Leo, laid his ears back and started to growl, but Jack finally managed to get around that initial brainfart, and cut a deal where Leo took the red marble in exchange for tickets to the big martial arts showdown next week. And Jack WILL get those tickets, if he knows what’s good for him.
So then Lucky started giving me the big cow eyes. “What’re you looking at ME for?” I growled at him.
“Well…” he was obviously grasping at straws, “you’d look GOOD in the dress…” If you haven’t picked up on it, Lucky isn’t exactly famous for his smooth moves. I snarled at him. “Hey, it’s not such a big deal!”
“If it’s no big deal, then YOU do it!”
But Lucky did what they always do when they want me to do something that I think is stupid: he just kept at me until I caved in. I am such a wuss. Still, I managed to talk him into trading the Morningside Route for a month in exchange for taking the red ball. Well, I’ll be completely humiliated, but at least I can look forward to making deliveries in a nice neighborhood, with good tips, and security guards who mind their manners.
Finally, Leo and I looked at the red balls in our hands. Utterly disgusted, Leo muttered, “HOW did I know that it was gonna wind up this way, no matter how much she shook the bag?”
“Maybe the fact that that outfit with the leather miniskirt doesn’t have any openings in the back for wings?” I answered his rhetorical question. I took the draping green outfit, which would allow my wings out the back very nicely, and noticed that it was roughly my size. And yet again, there’s that none-too-subtle feeling that I’ve been set up. The crew was trying to hold in their snickers, and not doing a very good job of it. I gave them the gorgon glare and said, “Just so’s you punks remember, Leo can wipe up the place with any one of you, and I can hex the whole LOT of you into body casts!”
“Not to worry, Wings,” Bats rumbled. “Nobody’s gonna say anything.” He illustrated his point by reaching over and snapping Lucky upside the head with a finger that would have been a full punch for most people. But then, Bats respects Leo. And he’s a right guy. When he’s not being a complete asshole.
Leo took the miniskirt ensemble and the shorter dirty-blonde wig, and together we trudged to the changing room. A few minutes later, we came out of the changing room up in the closed store above, looking very much, thank you, like guys in dresses. Along with the leather miniskirt and matching vest, Leo’s ensemble included a thin red turtleneck sweater and matching stockings and hairband. While Leo had to stuff those paws of his into women’s shoes, I was spared that. Due to these great honking talons we got instead of normal feet, Avians walk around on these special hard rubber ‘pads’ that our talons grip. This keeps us from ripping up carpets and like that. Leo and I scowled at the crew, and I said, “Not. One. WORD.”
“Why are you making such a big deal about this?” Jack asked.
“I don’t want people thinking that this is gonna be a regular thing,” I grumbled.
“So? Who’s gonna know? Only the gang here knows that this even happened!”
“Yeah,” Leo droned, “and that’s exactly who I don’t want getting the wrong idea!” I backed Leo up with a silent thumbs-up.
“Well, look at the bright side,” Denmar said, handing me a transparent plastic ID badge pouch with one of the hex slips that I’d made in it, along with a couple of pictures cut out from glamour magazines. “At least we don’t gotta worry about the mask getting wonky, ‘cause the guy it’s masking is eight inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier than he looks.”
“Thank you, Denmar, that is SUCH a reassurance.”
That done, we started arranging ourselves in the eight-pointed diagram, which was two overlapping squares, an arrangement that Jack had insisted on, that suddenly made way too much sense. I pulled my workspace (calling it an altar is sort of asking for it, with a stolen church chalice) together and got everything ready.
As Leo lugged the three kludged-together goblin containment cans onto my equally kludged-together workstation, Tinjo asked, “So, how many times did you double-dip with those ones?”
“Four times with this one,” Leo said, not getting the dig, or at least not rising to the bait, “but the other two I just bagged.”
“Y’know, Jack, some day, you’re gonna forget which places you have set those things loose in, and they will remember you,” Tinjo said severely. “If you are very, very lucky, they will just call the Cops on you.”
“Tinjo?” I asked archly, “Would you please stop wishing ill on us all, just as I’m prepping a major working?” On the principle that it’s best to work your way up, I started with the simplest one and just ‘milked’ one of the lesser goblins of its essence, feeding it into the bound air elemental that I’d managed to bind. Unfortunately, there’s something about the way that I bound it that keeps it from renewing its essence, even if I hang it way up high during a storm. I have to feed it essence from other places. I’m working on figuring out why that happens, but in the mean time, I gotta do it the hard way. If that goblin ever gets free, it is going to be seriously pissed at me, so I completely drained it, destroying the thing. I mangled the Gutter Viper by tearing out one of its ‘monads’, which are the spirit equivalent of an organ, and working it into the fabric of an amulet. There was a *pop!* and the thing was gone. Like I’ll miss it. Until Midnight of Saturday (which is, sadly, tonight) every time that someone looks into the eye on the medallion, they’ll forget everything that happened in the last five minutes or so. It’s a minor effect, but a useful one. I threw the remainder, along with a hefty jot of pixie dust, into an alembic with five powders in separate tubes suspended in the elixir contained inside. The goblin and the pixie dust would energize the elixir, and the elixir would energize the powders by contagion.
“Is it soup yet?” Tinjo asked snidely.
“Patience.” Still, she had a point; doing up magical doohickeys may have its technical points of interest, but watching someone else do it is hardly riveting theater. I made up eight spell slips for the effect, but deliberately left them unfinished.
That done, we all strapped our wings into the quick-release sleeves that people seem to prefer Avians to wear. Well, all of us except for Leo; he strapped on the SportWingz® that he uses to keep up with the rest of us. Then the gang all strapped their Cortical Shunts onto their heads and synchronized them. Then we re-synchronized them so we all resonated with that geode that Bats found. Leo placed the containment can in the center of the diagram and everyone stepped into their spot. I stepped into the control circle, put on my ceremonial stole, picked up the carved staff, the less-than-ideal ceremonial knife, and the communion chalice that someone had stolen from St. Mark’s church (hey, we didn’t steal it, and we’re gonna get it back to the Padre, as soon as we find a decent one of our own) and went to work.
Jack, Tenjo and I took out the pendants with sidhe stones on them and each put one on. Jack touched the canisters with what was left of the Panzer Rat and the last gasps of the Gutter Viper still in them with the ritual knife, accessing their power for the working. Tenjo dissolved one of those not-quite goblinstones into the wine in the Chalice that we did not steal from St. Bart’s (that was someone else, and we’re gonna return it just as soon as we have a decent replacement), attuning the power of the goblins and the pixie dust into the glamour that we were working. And I worked furiously with the oaken staff (okay, a mostly trimmed oak branch; what’s your point?), putting the glamour to work, channeling it into the sidhe stone pendants, powering the images that we’d set into the stones. I burned a little pixie dust in the censor, focused on the Glyph for ‘Moon’, and five minutes (that felt like ten minutes of loading bags of cement by hand) later, zippitty-doo-dah, the magic worked, and we all blurred out for a bit.
And suddenly there were eight ‘Jacks’ standing around in a circle. “What IS this?” well, varying different versions blurted, all in Jack’s voice.
“WHY do we let HIM do this?” one of the ‘Jacks’ (Lucky, I think) sneered.
“Hold on, don’t have a cow!” I said as I tried to figure out what went wrong. Well, at least the palette is set, that’s one good thing. I just have to correct the image. I burned a little more pixie dust, and when the image cleared-
-We all looked different, but it was a weird, hodge-podge affect that didn’t look like what we wanted. Or anything normal, for that matter. As the others growled at me, I furiously tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. I’d done it before… what was I doing different? Different! I slapped my forehead. “Of course! I didn’t factor in the interference from that geode that Bats gave us!” Feeling the weight of their eyes on me I waved a pendulum over the geode, figured its frequency and calculated the difference with an abacus (the point here isn’t to come to a figure, it’s to KNOW what the figure is; oh yeah, I already said that, didn’t I?). I made changes in the diagram, burned a little more pixie dust and…
When we came back into focus, we all looked different. First of all, we all looked human, without the hunchback thing from those stupid sleeves, or the weird feet, and Leo didn’t have the weird ears or eyes or tail. Oh, and Leo and I didn’t look like guys in dresses anymore. Instead, Leo looked like one of those lithe, tawny, slightly feline fashion models, right down to the artfully tousled hairdo and subtly understated makeup. As for me, instead of the pinched, dweeby, ‘hey, I’m a brainiac, amuse yourself with my tears’ face that I normally see, a sleek kittenish face of loveliness looked back from the mirror. Heavy-lidded green almond eyes twinkled back at me over cheekbones that I must have gotten from my Korean grandmother, a cute little upturned nose and full lips that just seemed to be born to smirk. The bangs of the straight black ‘Cleopatra’ bob cut emphasized both my eyes and the general triangular cant of my face for a rather general feline effect. The sleek yet curvy figure showcased by the green draping dress I was wearing (that the glamour actually made fit) made for a killer ‘bad girl’ impression.
My talons looked like perfectly ordinary human feet, shod in silvery lamé high heels that matched my dress perfectly. Our dresses, which now fit us perfectly, didn’t look like bargain-store fashions (which they were); rather, they looked like haute couture originals. But then, so did the girls’ rigs. Tinjo looked sort of like herself, only with an apple shaped face and a snub nose… well, after a few hours in the spa and a Hollywood level makeup salon. Her hair, which was, like, perfect, was now deep vivid red, instead of the roan she usually has, and her eyes were the perfect Irish green. And Denmar looked like… well, an angel, with the perfect oval face, cute little snub nose, and big blue doe eyes, with her pale blonde all in ringlets that came down to her shoulders. Their outfits were now on a par with ours, and they looked absolutely gob-stopping. Oh, and they had kicking footwear, too. The girls were always beautiful; but right at the moment, they were fucking gorgeous.
Not that the guys had turned into frogs or anything. Instead of their slick yet hardly designer threads, they were decked out in the absolutely most current cut of evening suits, with silk ascots in colors that matched their brocade vests, and gold watch chains in those vests with the funky watch-fob chain ornaments that are so de rigueur right now. The monitor visor that Ace always wore had turned into cool-guy wraparound shades. The guys themselves didn’t quite look like male models. Better, they looked good, but they had that subtle gloss, that certain slick something that suggested that whoever they were, these guys were connected. Even Bats, who normally got over on his sheer size and physique, gave out the message that he was a power in his own right, rather than a big dumb ox.
“I’ll say this for you, Wings,” Denmar chirped, handing me and Leo good sized purses after we all finished checking ourselves and each other out, “it may take you a while to get there; but when you deliver, you Deliver!”
I clapped my hands for attention again. “Okay people! There are a few things that I need to cover, in case someone forgot them. No, I’m not looking at you, Lucky, I’m looking at Ace. Okay, first, this ‘Cinderella’ effect will not drop at midnight. Yes, there are a few magical effects that will, but this one will last until Sunrise Monday morning. I have no intention of holding this magic that long, but it’s not an issue, so we won’t have to hurry to get it all done by midnight. Just so you’re all clear on that. Second, you DO have to worry about being splashed with water, being touched by an open flame, or being touched by cold iron. These things will cause the magic to imbalance, and there goes your disguise. Oh, and talking about balance, if you do manage to screw up your mask and the illusion drops, the mask on the person opposite you on the pattern will drop too. And vice-versa. There is one exception, though; since I’m the one keeping up the mask, if *I* get knocked unconscious, or, God forbid, die, then ALL of your masks will drop bang. Everybody clear on that?” There were grudging ‘yeses’ all around.
“Remember, keep these amulets Tinjo made on you at all times; they may look funky, but they’re what’s keeping the spell attached to you. Okay, you don’t have to worry about mirrors or digital image cameras; they’ll be fooled by the mask okay. Film cameras, which ARE still around, you do. Just keep an eye out for the damned things, ‘cause who knows?
“I’ve got a few packets of alchemical powders. These packets in the gray paper are ‘Essence of the Sleeping Metal’. Girls, you haven’t seen these in use yet; when you sprinkle them on something, no matter what it is, it suddenly takes on the strength and harness of metal. Sprinkle this on your cape, and it’ll act like plate armor for… a while…”
“Ahem!” Lucky said archly. “WHICH metal? I haven’t forgotten the time that I sprinkled one of those on my jacket, and it was like wearing LEAD. Soft Lead.” He finished with an accusing glare at me.
“Steel,” I replied just as archly. “Unlike some people, I learn from my mistakes.” I cleared my throat and resumed. “I have others, but the Essence of the Sleeping Metal is the only one that you guys have to worry about. Aaannnddd… that’s it.”
We were about to wrap it up, when Denmar peeped out, “Oh! Wait a minute!” she rummaged around in her purse and dug out a plastic bottle.
“Buzzkill©!” Buzzkill being an over-the-counter drug that helps you sober up quickly when you’re drunk. It also takes the edge off alcohol before the fact, too. “Hey, people go to places like the Apex mostly to drink, right? So it’s gonna look funny if we’re walking around without drinks in our hands, right? And we can’t afford to do anything stupid if we get tipsy, right? And we really don’t want Wings getting drunk, right?”
I didn’t like the implication that I’m a kid who can’t hold his liquor, but hey, when she’s right, she’s right. We each took a buzzkill tablet and dry-swallowed it. Tinjo showed that she had some mercy in that cold hard heart of hers, and showed us these nifty trick pockets in those purses. For emergencies, you understand.
“There y’go Le- er,” Tinjo faltered and stopped dead. “Hey what’re we gonna call you two? I mean, calling Leo Leo would be tempting fate as it is, but how’re we supposed to get around calling a grounder chick ‘Wings’?”
“How about ‘Leejo’ and “Staygray’?” Ace suggested.
“What about just ‘Lee’ and ‘Stacy’?”
“Too old-fashioned. Sounds like someone’s maiden aunts.”
“How’s about we call them ‘Kitty and-”
“How’s about I call you an ambulance, Lucky?” Leo snarled.
“I GOT it!” Tinjo said with a smirk, snapping her fingers. She pointed a finger at Leo. “JAZZ! Jazz, and-” she paused to think, “JINX.”
“Sounds made up,” Jack grumped.
“Of COURSE it sounds made-up!” Tinjo insisted, “They’re Club Names! They’re just the sort of things that a couple of Quaker Hill chicks would use when they went clubbing, so’s it wouldn’t get back to their private school or whatever.”
I shrugged. “I can live with Jinx.”
Leo nodded. “I can be Jazz- for a night.”
“For a night,” I agreed.
With that out of the way, we slipped on our capes (people wear capes again to go out for a ritzy night on the town), stepped out the side door into the alley and headed out to The Car. Now, as I’ve told you, that car was pretty crammed when it was the six of us. So, when the girls rode with us, they usually sat in someone’s lap. Which could be very cool, if you were the guy with an angel in his lap. Complicating this arrangement was the fact that this dress I’m wearing really couldn’t hack getting crammed in with the guys, the way that my usual vines do. So, I sat on Bats’ lap- or at least thigh, while Leo had to sit on the other one. Which made The Car less of a sardine can than usual, but it hadda be hard on the Runt.
As we drove along Buchanan Street, the main drag of the Bijou, all those old Victorian/ Edwardian buildings packed in with the Pre-War stuff, gave way to the crappy Post-War stuff that’s supposed to be so much more modern and progressive on Waverly Ave. So, the stuff on The Wave was ugly AND falling apart, and the yuppies weren’t so eager to move in and gentrify that. Finally, that gave way to the nicer buildings in the Cloisters, and then the Chancellery, and finally we drove into St. George’s Square. St. George’s, besides being the home of St. George’s cathedral, is Bedlam’s answer to Broadway. Or, at least, what Broadway was like before the La Palma Wave hit. Theater. Opera. Musicals. Revues. Fancy restaurants. Nightclubs. Dance clubs. Music halls. The economy might be a little iffy at the moment, but people are still willing to shell out good bucks for a good time. And the Apex Club is this month’s hot attraction. And we had key cards. Life is good.
While it’s primo under the hood, The Car looks like a junker; bondo city, people. There was no way that we could drive up to the Apex in that and be taken seriously. So we drove to a parking lot a couple of blocks away and we’d hoof it from there. The parking attendant gave us this ‘where do you bums think you’re going’ look as we drove up. That look vanished and was replaced by a look of confusion as we got out. Ace prowled up to him and said in the most badass way he could, “That car is a classic. I’d be real pissed if anything happened to it.”
The parking monkey had a ‘THAT thing?’ look on his face, so Jack sidled up to him and said, all confidential-like, “It only looks like a POS,” and slipped him five bucks.
With that, we paired off and sauntered down the street, looking like a TV ad for a high-end perfume. Jack hooked up with Tinjo, natch. Bats was partnered with Leo, ‘cause Leo knew that Bats wouldn’t hold it against him no-how. Ace was escorting Denmar (the lucky SOB), and I was partnered with… Lucky… Oh Joy… “If you give me any grief, any grief what so fucking ever,” I warned him, “and I will hex you so bad that you won’t be able to get out of bed without breaking a wing.”
“Why are you up in MY grill?” he asked, all upset and pained like.
“What? ‘Can I Suxcox’? He was coming on to ME!” The fact that Lucky went off on Sandy Wilcox, who may or may not be gay, doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that that excuse flies with our crew. I mean, if they’re like that with a guy who only might be light in the loafers, how would they react if one of their own in a dress?
As we strolled down the boulevard, Ace gave the Angels the need-to-know. “The thing to understand is that the Apex is a clip joint. A really fancy, high-profile clip joint, but still, deep down under all the glitz, a clip joint.”
“Like Jack said two days ago,” I cut in, “what they’re really selling is snob appeal.”
“Thank you, Wings, now let me finish, hah? Yeah, they’re selling snob appeal, and like hucksters have known throughout the ages, the people who crave snob appeal the most are the people who know the least about real quality; they just look at the label. So, everything about Apex is geared to get suckers to jump through a bunch of hoops, come in, get a little drunk, and not only shell out top dollar for glitzy junk, but go into all kinds of debt at crippling interest rates to get it.”
“Then what’s all the noise about the cards having different credit ceilings?” Tinjo asked.
“They don’t stop you from charging,” Bats rumbled. “They just charge you extra for exceeding your credit limit. While they keep taking your card, and you get drunker and drunker, and start throwing around money on stupid stuff.” Bats sounded strangely like he was speaking from experience. I wondered what that was about.
“Ah, yeah,” Ace said uncertainly, giving Bats a brief wondering look. “Anyways, there are three levels to this place, with dining rooms, show rooms, bars and shops on each level.”
“And they keep telling you that the stuff up on the next level is absolutely awesome, right?”
“Bingo. But it’s all cheap crap, probably from the same bins.”
“Then how’re we supposed to buy anything that’s worth the weight of lugging around if it’s all crap?” Denmar demanded.
“Do you girls have a TraumaCheck™ add-on for your iComs?”
“Why? You installed them, remember, Ace?”
“It’s called a ‘rhetorical question’, Denmar. Anyway, I’m sending an app to everyone’s iCom. When you pick something, aim your iCom at it and hit the ‘diamond’ icon. It’ll send out a diagnostic wave, like the TraumaCheck does, only it’ll analyze the magnetic resonance for minerals, instead of biological patterns. It’s not great, but it’ll tell silver and gold from silver and gold plating, diamonds from cubic zirconium, and real emeralds and rubies from the synthetic ones. For the silver and gold, it’ll tell you how much, if any of it is in whatever you point it at, but for the jewels, it’ll just say ‘real’ or ‘bogus’.”
“Hey Jack,” Denmar asked, “why do you think that the Apex guys are selling crap? I mean, Apex is, like, THE hot club in town? Why would they shit all over that?”
“Denmar,” Jack said very seriously, “Apex has ‘fly by night’ written all over it! Ace did some research, and found out some seriously interesting things. First, the penthouse space that Apex is renting was empty for two years before Stavrel came along and rented it, so the landlord didn’t ask any questions. The renovations cost maybe 200 grand, but Stavrel took out a 3 MILLION dollar loan for it, using some picture- a Rembrandt or Van Dyke-”
“A Rubens,” Ace corrected him.
“A Rubens as collateral. All of his hired help are scabs, not members of any of the local unions. And Ace says that Stavrel hasn’t been paying taxes, or forking over the Withheld Wages for his workers, and the IRS is getting interested in him. AND, as the piece de resistance, Mr. Arnold T. Stavrel is a well-established businessman… IN NEW YORK CITY.”
A light went on in Tinjo’s eyes, “Which since the La Palma tsunami means, ‘little mister Nobody from Nowhere’. It’s been, what? Three years? And they’re still digging bodies out of the rubble!”
“Exactly. I figure that *ahem!* ‘Mr. Stavrel’ was some petty crook back in the Big Apple, before it got mashed into applesauce. Then, one day they announce Operation: NOAH, and suddenly things get very hectic, very involved.”
“Well, that tends to happen, when you get three hours notice that a 100 foot high tidal wave is coming,” Leo quipped.
“Somehow- don’t know, don’t really care- in all the running around and screaming, this petty crook walks away with a Masterpiece in oils, and an identity packet for a guy named Arnold Stavrel, who has a LOT of money in the bank, which will survive even if nothing else in New York does.” Jack paused, as though not a 100% about the next part. “Anyway, for some strange reason, after spending the next two or so years quietly living off of Arnold Stavrel’s money, he decides to pull a high profile scam where he’s ripping off people left and right. Why? Dunno. Maybe someone from the real Stavrel’s past caught up with him. Maybe someone from his past caught up with him. Maybe he blew the money in a big deal that went south. Maybe he just blew the money; I mean, I peg him for a cheap-ass punk, and that’s what they DO with big money. Anyway, the point is-”
“The point is,” Ace interrupted him, “that suddenly, Stavrel is cutting lots of shady deals, the gist of which being that he’s putting together a LOT of hard cash. I’ll bet you that the casino isn’t so much to make money, as it is to have an excuse to have a lot of hard cash that Stavrel can set aside for when he needs to run. The Apex is a big house of cards, and Stavrel intends to be well out of town under another name before it comes crashing down.”
“How did YOU find out all of this?” Tinjo demanded, looking at Jack as thought he’d grown another head. “I mean, the cops obviously don’t have any idea that this is gonna happen, so how did YOU get a wind of it?”
“I, ah, did bit of business with the people that we’re gonna trade with tonight,” Jack assured her. “You don’t need to know. As part of that, I got wind of Stavrel, and sicced Ace on him, to find out what he was about. I ah, didn’t want to run something like this on an honest man. And I think that we can all agree that Stavrel- or whatever his real name is- has this coming, and then some?”
“Maybe, Jack,” she smirked, “But who are you really trying to convince? Us? Or yourself?”
By this time, we were across Hastings Avenue from the Whitcombe building, where the Apex club was set up. There was a line to get to the elevator, to get in line to get to the door and get inside. It was THAT hot. From across the building, Cap’n Jack addressed his troops before heading into the fray. “Okay, Crew, this is it. Now, as I sees it, our biggest problem will be snagging as much stuff without looking like we’re snagging as much stuff as we can. So we’ll send people to the different shops they got, and see what they got that’s worth taking.” He pulled out his iCom and checked Apex’s website. “Okay, Denmar, you look like a girl who’s got a soft spot for the sparkly stuff; you check out the jewelry stores. Just don’t buy too much for yerself, it wouldn’t look right?”
The girls perked up at that thought; after all, wings or no wings, a girl can never have too much jewelry. Especially if someone else is paying for it. “Why not?” Denmar gave us a sharp smile that didn’t quite set square with her ‘wide eyed innocent’ look. “We girls can just say that we got our hands on our boyfriends’ cards.”
Jack raised his eyebrows, surprised and impressed by her point. “Good. Point. Denny! GO for it. Just remember Ace’s bona fides app, hear? Lucky, you do the same for the Men’s jewelry stores, same deal. Just… don’t get too attached to nothing, ‘kay, Lucky? It wouldn’t look good if we’re flashing a lot of Spang at work on Monday mornin’, hear? Bats, for some strange reason, they got a leather goods store on the second level; you worked in that handbag store for three summers runnin’, so you’d know better’n any of us. Just nothing too big, clear?” Bats gave him a thumbs-up. “Right. Ace, they got Personal Electronics stalls on all three levels. You check that out. I figure that the only one that’s worth the trip is on the third level; either that’s where they got the good stuff, where people who can afford it will see it, or it’s all the same crap, and why bother? Wings, same deal with Amulets and Magic Charms.”
Tinjo gave Ace a look and asked, “You ain’t carrying The Gun, are you?” Our crew bought a gun a couple of years ago, nothin’ really major, what y’call a ‘wonder nine’, a knockoff 9mm semiautomatic. It’s not that we’re big badasses, it’s just that we run in some tough neighborhoods doing this n’ that, and well, being defenseless sucks. And when you need a gun, you need a gun. We usually let Ace carry it, ‘cause he has the head for it. Ace just shook his head.
“Okay, and Tinjo? You take the gift shops on the second and third floor, same deal and the Personal Electronics and Magical Charms.”
“Tinjo?” I cut in, “Check out the ‘magic charms’ they sell there, too. They’re totally bogus, natch, but I’ve found that if they’re silver or gold alloy, and not silver- or gold- plated pewter, the charms they sell make for surprisingly good ‘blanks’ for various amulets.” I dangled my ‘forget this’ talisman, which I’d made out of just such a glittery piece of crap, by way of example.
“Thank you, Wings, that’s today’s FYI tidbit of the day. Leo, they might actually have one or two places to eat in there that actually have GOOD food. You check out the dining rooms; try and to get an idea which ones have good grub, and which ones are leaning on the snob appeal. Don’t bother with the main dining room, they’re trying to pack too many in there. We’re gonna take meals when we see Jett Adore, but they always give you these tiny little portions, so we should pick up some chow afterwards, ‘cause, hey, we still ain’t payin’ for it. Stick with the third floor, that’s where the kitchens are. The dining rooms on the other floors have their food prepared somewhere else and trucked in on carts.”
“Yeah,” Ace snorted, “and Stavrel’s WAY behind on his payments to the caterers. He should be gettin’ ready to cut and run real soon, like in two or three weeks, just as soon as he has enough real green.”
“And… while we’re on the subject…” Jack hedged.
Tinjo’s good mood popped like a balloon. “I knew it! I just KNEW IT! What kind of harebrained, too-dumb-for-a-sitcom scam are you dragging us into THIS time, Jack?”
“Tinjo… Babe… chill out!”
“Jack, why is it that every time you say that, the more I think that this is the perfect time to start screaming?”
“Tinjo,” Ace cut in, as we really can’t afford one of Jack and Tinjo’s famous squabbles right at the moment, “the Key cards can buy almost anything in the Apex club- including chips for the casino.”
“Casino? They got a casino up there?”
“Yeah, that’s sort of the whole point right at the moment. Like I said, you can buy chips with these cards. You don’t even go up to a window, you just go up to a vending machine, run your card, it dings your account and it drops you a packet of chips.”
“All the better to gamble yourself into hock,” Lucky quipped.
“So… you want us to buy, like, lots of 20 grand at a clip, and then don’t gamble them away, just cash them out immediately?” Denmar asked.
“Good thought, but it’s not that simple,” Ace said. “Stavrel’s running a hustle: the chips that you buy at the machines are only good to reduce the debt on your card when you redeem them; even then they only acknowledge about 80% of the chip value, while they charge you face value when you buy. And worse, what most people don’t understand is that when they sign the contract for the key cards, they’re writing off on a credit account with an interest rate that is exactly 1% lower than Legal Usury. There are chips that can be redeemed for cash, but you only get them by playing at the tables.”
“Wait a minute,” I tried to cut in, “This is the first I’ve heard of this. How do you know this?”
“Here’s the deal,” Jack ignored me and went into hustle mode. “There is a guy who is willing to pay ten cents on the dollar for the chips that you get out of the vending machines. WHY he’s willing to pay that much for them, I dunno. I don’t wanna know. Yeah, it’s some kind of scam. But I’m willing to bet that it’s a scam aimed at Stavrel, and can you think of anyone who has a reaming coming to him more?”
“We just walk up to him with a handful of chips, and he pays us cash?” Denmar asked skeptically.
“I wish it was that simple,” Ace said with a sigh. “Somehow, he got his hands on a big chunk of those cashable chips. How he got his hands on so many cash chips?”
“We don’t know, we don’t wanna know,” Jack repeated.
“The credit-only chips are gold faux-metallic with black numerals; the cash chips are black with gold numerals,” Ace continued.
“Aaannnddd… how do you know that this guy is on the up and up?” Tinjo asked, one eyebrow imperiously arched.
“I was there when Jack cut the deal,” Ace said, “and I used Wings’ Weasel-buster charm on him, without him twigging to it. The chips are real, and he wants to make the deal- or at least the deal that he needs the chips for- work. Also, I get the impression that he’s got too much riding on this deal, whatever it is, to screw things up by cracking foxy with US.”
“Oh, like that ‘weasel-buster’ thing of his is SO reliable,” Tinjo sneered.
“Hey, it WORKS!” I snapped. “Now,” I added in a lower voice. I just wished that I’d been there when Jack cut this deal
“Besides,” Jack took the ball, “we don’t do it all in one big gulp. That would be way too obvious. Instead, we do in turns, in small batches of maybe 10, 15 or 20 thou on our end; each time, one of us makes the trade, then goes to the cash out window, and cashes the chit. Only when that guy or girl is clear with the stash, does any of the rest of us approach one of them.”
“Yeah. Our guy has a crew too. Three guys, three girls. I’m sending you their pictures, so you’ll recognize them.” He mass-mailed us all the pictures to our iComs. “By the way, that’s how you’ll identify yourself to the person you’re trying to contact: show them their own picture on your iCom, and stick out one finger for each five grand you got for ‘em. They’ll nod or shake their head, depending on whether they got the chips to cover it. They’ll be moving around a lot, so they’ll be able to restock periodically, so you don’t have to make the trade with the same one every time. And… Guys? TRY to keep it on the down-low, huh? Don’t just walk up to them and shove the chips at them; make it a little subtle?”
Tinjo was thinking it over, you could tell. “Okaaayyy… and how much of this do WE get to keep?”
“All of it.”
“Tinje, this is a major score! Each of us keeps whatever they move! That way, there’s no bitching and moaning about the cut, and the girl who hustles the most, gets the most! I want us each to move as many of those chips as we possibly can, and that’s the best way! Hey, I figure that if I play it really weenie, and only move 10 thou for one thou each time, for four times, that’s four grand, right there! Tinjo, even these days, Four Grand is more money that any of us can expect to make in a month in our day jobs! And get THIS: if we’re all in the money, then nobody’s hurting, and we can actually DO things for a change! And that’s just the weenie cut, from this one scam!”
“Besides,” Lucky cut in sourly, “the more people working our end, the less chance that those guys will get the idea that they can walk away clean if they shaft us.”
Tinjo nodded appreciatively. “Not bad, Jack. It works. I take back… some… of the things that I’ve said about you. This… this could actually work.” She raised an eyebrow in my direction and asked me, “So, did YOU think this up for him?”
“Very funny,” Jack grumped. “Look, Tinjo, I’ll take the hit and do the first exchange myself, okay?”
Tinjo gave Jack a long hard, ‘I know what an idiot you can be’ look. On the other hand, Jack does come across when he can. He wouldn’t be Cap’n Jack if he didn’t. Tinjo and Denmar did one of those silent conference things with just looks and shrugs; Denmar pretty much said ‘why not?’, and even if it went south, it’d be fun while it lasted. Besides, it was Saturday night, and they was already dressed up. Tinjo turned back to Jack and asked, “Okay, and what AREN’T you telling us?”
“What else is going on? Is Tommy the Tank leaning on you, and we gotta turn over at least fifty grand, or he’ll rip your wings off? Is there a Mage working this place that we gotta watch out for? Is Segeant Planchet at Metro breathing down yer neck? Is there some psycho bitch who thinks that you’re her one and only lookin’ for you? Omigawd, there IS? Who is she, Jack?” Tinjo glared daggers at Jack. For someone who’s always saying that they’re not bf/gf, Tinjo is very possessive about Jack.
“Tinjo,” Bats said in a ‘I’m tired of this shit’ voice, “There’s no girl. It’s just a scam. Get off yer throne, Drama Queen.”
“Tinje, there’s no hook in this,” Jack assured her. “It’s just-”
“Ah –HAH!” Tinjo grinned savage vindication at Bats.
“It’s just that these guys only have so many cash chips, dig?” Jack continued. “They don’t have an unlimited supply, capisce? When they’re out, they’re OUT, and there ain’t no more. Period.”
“Oh.” Tinjo stepped back, and if anything, she seemed a tad miffed that she didn’t get the big screaming match that she’d got her mouth all set for. “Okay, cool, let’s do this thing.” Jack let out a glad laugh and pulled Tinjo to him, like to give her a kiss, but Tinjo still wasn’t playing along.
“Wait a minute,” Denmar cut in, looking real concerned, “If this Stavrel guy is gettin’ ready to cut and run, then WHY is he tryin’ to get all those people so deep into credit card hock? That’s a scam that you stick around for, and work for as long as you can!”
That had us stopped cold. Denmar might look like a wide-eye little angel-child, but every so often she comes out of left field with a real point. Jack floundered for a second, and went in to serious quick-think mode. “He’s… ah… gonna sell the accounts!” Jack pounced on that with both talons. “Yeah! He’d have a hard time in getting the suckers to pay up, especially for the gambling debts, so he sells the accounts to someone who CAN, already jacked up to the max.” Jack finished with a smug smirk in Denmar’s direction.
“In CASH?” Tinjo asked sharply. Money in the amounts that Jack was talking about would be traded electronically, for security and convenience. If Stavrel was looking to book, he’d want folding money. Jack started yakking about behind the scenes deals, but Tinjo wasn’t having any of it.
“BULL,” she said firmly. “Alls I’m hearin’ is that you’re doin’ back flips trying to make this Stavrel guy sound like a crook, so’s we won’t feel bad about ripping him off. But if he’s so dodgy, howcome nobody’s put out a PSP contract to shut him down, huh? I checked after you called me, and as far as Golden Eagle’s concerned, he’s antiseptic!” At her day job, Tinjo works for Golden Eagle, one of the three competing Police Service Providers that keep Bedlam- er, sorry, Bethlehem- safe for decent, law-abiding people (oh, and the rest of us, too) as a dispatcher and Net Mom. If Tinjo says that Stavrel’s clean, then he squeaks when you rub him. “JACK,” she said sharply, “WHERE did you come up with all this dirt on Stavrel, huh? ‘Cause I really doubt that Ace is that good!”
“Well, the guy I’m doin’ business with came up with the bit about the jacked up interest rate and the wheeze with the payback, but-”
“Nnnrrggg!!” Tinjo let out a martyred groan. “This is that mess with Mrs. Karenski all over again!”
“He bought five cases of empty scotch bottles, so’s he could pass cheap stuff off as top drawer!”
“So? He’s got a huge overhead! So Stavrel’s running a casino? So what? Do you know how hard it is to make a good restaurant or nightclub pay for itself? There are REASONS why those things usually only last a couple of months! But your guys’ scam could end Stavrel’s run and put him in Chapter 11! And everyone who works for him will be out of JOBS! We can’t afford that kind of crap in this economy!”
“I can’t do another one of Father Pete’s penances!” Denmar squeaked as she closed ranks with Tinjo, both of them glaring at Jack and the guys.
“Hey, the only reason that I agreed to do this is that you said that Stavrel was dirty,” Tinjo snarled. “There are LINES, Jack! Before, you were toeing that line, but now, you’re WAY over it!” Jack tried to defend himself, but the girls’ Medusa Glare could stop a herd of charging rhinos.
Fortunately, Leo and I were sort of cut out of the Girl’s Glare of Death, by virtue of the fact that we weren’t exactly guys at the moment. At least not on the surface. So I used that to stave off rebellion in the ranks. “Look, Tinjo, you got some points… BUT,” I headed her off before she really got into it, “there IS a way of being sure. Businesses like the Apex run on the idea that they’re the very cream. If Stavrel is on the up and up, and he’s digging in for the long run, then the merchandise in the stores at the top level will be the McCoy; but if it’s a bunch of crap being passed off as valuables, then he’s grifting everybody, and he’s only using all the glam to pass off trash as treasure. And if that’s so, then everything else that we’ve said follows naturally, because there’s no way that an operation like the Apex is just a little dirty…”
“RIGHT!” Jack bucked right back up. “You’re a bud, Wings! If he’s honest, then in order to stay in business, Stavrel’s gotta be Caesar’s Wife! Anything dirty, anything at all, would shut him down PRONTO. But if he’s dirty…”
“Then he’d be doing everything that he possibly can to get his hands on as much cash as he can, as quickly as he can,” Denmar finished for him, stepping down a little.
“And if the stuff we find up in the stores IS the goods?” Tinjo asked, stepping down a tad herself.
“Then we just have a great dinner and see a great show,” Jack said reasonably. “We don’t buy anything with the bogus cards, we don’t go to the casino, and I tell my buyer that the scam didn’t work.” Then he deflated a bit. “And my rep takes a big hit.”
“Oh, don’t worry about living up to your reputation, Jackie,” Tinjo cooed. Then she let her Bijou accent harden and added, “You should be worried about living it DOWN.”
“Ha-hah,” Jack not-laughed, “Very funny. But I’m tellin’ you Tinjo, I’ve got Stavrel pegged. He’s a wiseass. There’s no way that a sleazebag like him ever even got into Columbia Business School, let alone graduated and worked in Commodities Trading. Y’know what he’s been doin’ since he popped up in Bedlam two years ago? Livin’ off his nest egg, that’s what. There’s no way a cutthroat capitalist like that would just kick back and live off his savings like that, not with the way the market’s been.”
Tinjo folded her arms across her chest and gave him a look like he was a side of beef that she hadn’t made up her mind about. “So… we go and check this out, and if you’re wrong, we just go get a dinner and a show, no funny business?”
“Sure! Hey, Jett Adore and the Hopeless Romantics are playing in the Everest Room!”
Tinjo and Denmar did the silent conference bit again. “Okay, Jack!” Tinjo grinned as they wrapped up. “You’re ON! Hey, if you’re right, then we get a great dinner, a show, make money, and the shopping spree of a lifetime! If not, then we get dinner, and for the show, we get to watch YOU eat crow! That’s a Win-Win situation, in my book!”
That settled, we paired up, and we went across to the Apex two by two, like we were going onto the Ark. As not to raise any suspicions, we went across the street from different directions to the lobby of the Whitcombe building. Bats and Leo went first; if anything happened, between them, they could fight their way out. Jack and Tinjo went next; if anything happened, between them, they could talk their way out. Then Ace and Denmar; if anything happened, Ace could fight their way out. Not that it would come to that; all that Denmar would have to do was bat her eyes, and any mugs who came at her would roll over and wave their paws at her. Then, finally, it was Lucky and me; if anything happened, I was severely screwed.
As soon as Ace and Denmar went into the elevator, Lucky and I gathered ourselves, adopted our best Quaker Hill manners and sauntered across the street. There was a line halfway down the block, just to get in the door to the lobby. There was a line in the lobby, just to get to the elevator. But, despite the fact that some of the people in line had been there for hours, nobody complained when we just waltzed up and flashed that Key card and were immediately shown in. After all, thanks to the glamour portion of the spell I’d placed on us all, we were living proof that this was where the action was, and that they could reach heaven, just for tonight, if only they could get up to the Apex.
I’d be disgusted by this bullshit, if I hadn’t bought into it a time or three, back in school. Stavrel should be paying us as living advertisements.
As we waited for the elevator, I let my cape slide off and gave the riff-raff a bit of a show. Proving that he’s not a complete loss, Lucky picked up on my vibe and struck a casually possessive stance near me, not quite daring anyone to make a move. The Door King nodded appreciatively and let us into the elevator first.
But when I stepped into the elevator, the walls of the elevator were lined with mirrors, and I got a good look at what I looked like, bam, right in the face. Slinky hawt chick with long legs, big green eyes and the kind of rack that made it hard to remember what color her eyes were. My first thought was: ‘whoa. I look hawt.’ My second thought was that I didn’t mind it. My third thought was that I was surprised that I didn’t mind it. My fourth thought was that I was over-thinking this, and I should really get the stick out of my ass. Lucky and I positioned ourselves in the elevator for optimum effect, and the Door King let a few others on. The others got on, and they did this lame little attitude dance where they tried to set themselves up like we had, but didn’t want to look like feebs for spoiling our act.
And the attitude only got worse when we stepped off the elevator. There was yet another line at- get this- a pearly gate to get into the club proper. And there were tables with t-shirts and other souvenirs, so you could prove to your friends that you got this far. Lucky got us past ‘St. Peter’ with a flourish of his Key card, though with our combined glamours that was just the icing on the cake.
But the second that we got past the pearly gates, Lucky almost managed to get us sent down to perdition in shame by losing his cool over one of the waitresses. But I managed to slap some sense upside his head before he blew it for us. I bustled us past the silver gate up to the next level, before any of the stink stuck to us.
It wasn’t until we were looking around at the floor beyond the silver gate that it hit me: I’d pulled that off. Not only had I managed to cow Lucky into behaving himself, but I’d had the moxie to pull it off without our whole thing falling apart. Normally, by now both Lucky and I would have big shining ‘LOSER’ signs over our heads, and the bouncers would be encouraging us to take our business elsewhere. But no, the whole thing just went away like it never happened. Then it hit me: I’d gotten the stick out of my ass, and just DID it. Like Jack and Tinjo and all the others have been telling me to do for years. Finally, I was COOL.
I relaxed and smiled, and there was this guy who was giving me the eye, and I think that he would’ve made a move on me, if Lucky hadn’t given him an entirely different kind of eye. And that didn’t bug me. I was hawt, and I was liking it. As I strutted along, it started to occur to me that the glamour might have something to do with it. Then I told the stick to get back out of my ass, and started to seriously enjoy myself.
Now, where was I?
Oh, right. Silver gate. While they had the little shopping stalls and dining and dancing rooms and cabarets and all that, the real attraction on this floor was the bigass silver-plated gate that lead to this grand staircase up to- you guessed it- the next level.
And, of course, while the stuff on the second level was, indeed, glitzier than the stuff on the first level, again the real attraction was the gleaming golden gate up to- again- the next level. I swear, there’s a Sociology paper in here, somewhere. Thank God, I’m not a Sociology major.
Lucky snagged some drinks for us as we waited on line to get through the gold gate, and I did what all glamorous, elegant ladies of sophistication and refinement did in these situations: I called my friends to tell them that *squee!* we’d gotten IN! Actually, I just checked the private forum that Ace had set up for this scam.
>>>Gingersnap32: The stuff on the first floor bites. Total Crapola<<<
>>>Gingersnap32: Ditto on the second floor<<<
>>> Darknite31: The stuff in the leather goods stalls on the 2nd floor is crap, but the stuff on the 3rd floor is very good.<<<
>>>Hawtrod31: Same for personal electronics. The stuff on the 2nd floor was junk, but the stuff on 3 that I’m looking at is top shelf stuff, and the watermarks on the seals are right <<<
>>>MrGoodeal: What are you telling me, guys?<<<
>>>Angelgrrl33: Jack, according to Ace’s thingie, the stuff in the jewelry stores is good. The gold’s gold, the silver is silver, the diamonds are diamonds and the rubies and emeralds aren’t synthetic. And the prices are pretty standard retail<<<
>>> MrGoodeal: WHAT?<<<
>>>Hawtrod31: Ah, Jack? The stuff that I’m looking at is totally legit. All of it major brand name stuff, and I can’t find any of the signs of any of it being counterfeit<<<
>>>Darknite31: Same here. Good material. First rate design and stitching, too<<<
>>> MrGoodeal: You’re telling me that this place is ON THE LEVEL?<<<
>>>Gingersnap32: Way to get our hopes up, Big Shot<<<
I checked Jack’s iCam shot. Even through the glamour mask, he looked like he’d been kicked in the balls.
>>> Angelgrrl33: Jack, I’m not ripping off any place that’s not ripping people off! <<<
>>> Kidynamite: Me Neither<<<
>>>Darknite31: There’s a LINE, Jack<<<
>>>Gingersnap32: Oh, stop pouting jack. You’re off the hook<<<
>>>MrGoodeal: Say what? You mean, the stuff isn’t real, after all?<<<
>>> Gingersnap32: Oh, it’s real. It’s real HOT. <<<
>>>TheQuill35: It’s STOLEN? How do you know?<<<
>>> Gingersnap32: The diamonds are glossed<<<
>>> Gingersnap32: Registered diamonds have bar codes etched into one of their facets, so they can keep track of them, and ID stolen stones<<<
>>> Gingersnap32: But fences can ‘paint’ a layer of diakote over the bar code and etch a phony code over that<<<
>>>Hotrod32: The Diakote is invisible to the human eye or a laser, but it pops right up to the MRI scan that the TraumaCheck uses, right? <<<
>>> Gingersnap32: Bingo, Ace. It took me a while to figure out what the TraumaCheck was trying to tell me<<<
>>> TheQuill35: What about the other stuff?<<<
>>> MrGoodeal: If Stavrel’s fencing hot diamonds, then the other high end stuff must be hot too<<<
>>> Natural7: Yeah, that works. If Stavrel’s moving hot swag, that would explain why he’s selling all this high end stuff through his club<<<
>>> Kidynamite: And he’s probably got a piece of the drugs that they always sell in hot clubs<<<
>>>Darknite31: Are you sure about that, Leo?<<<
>>>Angelgrrl33: Hey, I already saw a girl in the Ladies blitzed, and it’s only 8:30<<<
>>>MrGoodeal: Tinjo, I love you<<<
>>> Gingersnap32: That’s what you say NOW<<<
>>>MrGoodeal: That’s what I say ALWAYS<<<
>>> Gingersnap32: Yeah until the next bimbo in a miniskirt comes along<<<
>>>TheQuill35: Will you two stop flirting? IS IT GO<<<
>>> Gingersnap32: It is GO! It is GO on TURBO!<<<
>>> Angelgrrl33: Woo Hoo!! <<<
By that time, the gate opened, and we were allowed through. We were feeling so good that Lucky didn’t even flinch as he offered me the crook of his arm, and arm in arm we mounted the stair up to the highest heaven.
And, I have to admit, at night, with the different lighting, and the crowd and all, the top floor was pretty dang impressive. Online, the gang was flying fast and furious with the comments about what was available, tips for what to pick up, and requests. Tinjo had her eye on this kickass sapphire pendant, but she’d already bought a silver bracelet from that stall. Ace had, like, a laundry list of tack-ons that he wanted for the new NetPlex© personal communications node, to replace his ‘clunky old iCom’. Tech geeks are so fickle. And everyone wanted to know about the ‘Magic Charms’ stall, because, hey, I was the guy who knew about magic. So, I told Lucky to check out Matterhorn Room, while I checked out that stall.
>>> TheQuill35: Okay, heading to the Magic Charms stall. But don’t get your hopes up. Almost all of that stuff is going to be junk. There may be one or two things that I can use, but I’m not making any promises<<<
I wandered over to ‘Enchantments’, the Magic Charms stall. Like most of the other ‘stores’, it was actually more of a semi-open stall. This one was made up of four hinged wooden panels, which were elaborately carved with stereotypically mystic symbols, and a glass counter. Behind the counter was a very attractive Italian girl (I assume), trying a little too hard to look like the gypsy that she was dressed as. Now, magic is, as I said before, quite illegal; but given the rather schizoid nature of people’s views of magic, it was also quite fashionable to suggest, without actually coming out and saying so, that you might have some magical ability. So, mystic appearing talismans and amulets and such were very popular, as were other suggestive bits of apparel, though, thankfully, pointed hats still haven’t made a comeback. All in all, it didn’t really look that different from an ‘occult shop’s’ wares from before the Nishapur Incident. Things that resembled talismans or amulets dangled from racks. There were the obligatory crystal balls and tarot decks. There were slips of colored silk with ‘charms’ written on them. There were bottles and phials of colored water and figures of things that might be regarded as mystical, if you weren’t too picky. And, given that the Retro-Edwardian look is so hot just now, there were capes, and ornaments for men’s watch fob chains, and walking sticks that were tricked out so that they might be substitutes for wands or staves.
According to Ace’s mineral scanner add-on for the TraumaCheck, the ‘amulets’ were gold and silver plated, but very good gold and silver plate, and they might serve nicely as blanks for real amulets. The ‘spell slips’ were also utterly bogus, but they were silk, and the ‘charms’ were silkscreened on, so they’d come off with work, and they’d work just as well with real charms on them. The figurines were, well, tacky. There were three ‘chalices’; the TraumaCheck said that one was junk and the other one was so-so silver, but it was too cutesy. The third one, on the other hand, was a decent silver alloy, and had classic lines. It wasn’t magical, but with a little work, and maybe the premature departure of goblin or two, and it might make for a good replacement for Father Derzhavin’s chalice. Hey, call me superstitious, and we didn’t steal it or nothing, but having a hot sacramental chalice can NOT be good luck.
As I thought carefully about how I’d lug that thing around without looking weird, I checked out the scene with my Good Eye. Nothing, nothing, nothing… this stall is more mundane than Des Moines on a Tuesday night… nothing, no- hey, wait a minute, that walking stick is active!
The stick in question had a brass cap with some sort of crystal set into it, but it wasn’t as kitschy as the others. Downright understated, as a matter of fact, while still looking like it could dish out a licking and still hold up. Which, when you stop and think about it, must be a primo consideration for a magic rood. But, most of all, it had a presence that was invisible to everything but the Good Eye. I didn’t know what it was, but it was magical, and I wanted it!
I checked out the stall a bit more, picked out a few valid ‘talismans’, a couple of watch fob ornaments, a few ‘charms’ for the charm bracelet that’s a fashion must-have these days, that chalice, a deck of tarot cards, and, almost as an afterthought, that cane. The ‘gypsy girl’ smirked, wrapped them all up, ran the card, wrapped it up and gave me a ‘gypsy blessing’ that sounded a lot like ‘so long, sucker!’ in Italian.
I slinked away from the stall and made my way around the other stalls, picking up as much pelf as I could without being obvious about it. Once I’d done that, and picked up more wealth than I’d make in a year at the delivery service, I headed into the Matterhorn Room, where Lucky should be holding a table for me. The Matterhorn Room was all done up all Alpine-style with dark woods and leathers and brass and phony bare timbers on the roof. Still, the band they had playing was playing the kind of hot Glitzern music they’re playing in Berlin, and the menu wasn’t bratwurst and sauerkraut, so this might actually be a decent meal. I sashayed up to the table that Lucky had snagged, and coyly attached the ornaments to his watch fob chain. Then I presented him with the walking stick, giving him a quick peck on the cheek. As he reacted to that, I whispered in his ear, “This stick is MINE. I’m letting you hold it until we get out of here, but the second that we’re clear, it’s MINE, y’unnerstand?” I finished it with a big ol’ ‘you’ll do it ‘cause I’m a hawt bitch’ smirk.
And, God strike me down if I lie, if Lucky didn’t just gawp and say, “Well… sure!” Jeez Louise, it’s that easy?
Apparently not. Though, not by much. Lucky’s sappy smile curdled when the penny dropped for him that this was his buddy (well, sort of) Wings, not the hot babe he was reacting to. “Jesus Christ!” he snapped, “You’re enjoying yerself ain’cha?”
I gave Lucky the icy glare. “Chill, Lucky, chill. It’s all part of the ACT. Like I told you, the glamour makes it so that this isn’t uncomfortable. And, hey, this is how a slammin’ chick who looks like this would act, isn’t it? And who would you rather be seen with? Some scaredycat who’s hiding under the table? Or a babe who’s hot and knows it and likes it?”
“I think that I’d rather be on my own, where I might pick up a real chick,” he groused.
“FINE,” I snarled, disgusted, “BE that way! Then you can eat by yourself, and I hope you CHOKE! Putz!” I yelled as I slammed the menu down on the table and stalked off. He called after me, but I just flipped him off. I slinked out of the Matterhorn room to the lobby and stood there in a huff for a moment, before it hit me: I’d just told Lucky to shove it. I’d never done that before. I’d always put up with him, ‘cause Lucky was part of the gang, and I was… well, always more of a tagalong, someone they put up with ‘cause I knew something about magic. But now… now I’d told the obnoxious putz to putz off, and it felt GOOD!
I stood there for a moment, sort of just digging on the good feeling. I was starting to wonder how much of this was the glamour and how much was the role, when I noticed someone coming up on my 40. I turned around and gave him my best smartass smirk, just to see what he was made of.
And, give him this, he wasn’t fazed by it in the least. He was tall and lean, with a predatory gleam in his eye. He had this year’s stylin’ suit, and this year’s stylin’ hair, but there was something about him that didn’t suggest to me that he was just another entitled rich boy out on a trim hunt. I think that it was the way that he was looking at me. He was checking out my reactions, reading me; he didn’t have that ‘I’ll take this one, wrap her up’ ‘tood that most pushy rich boys on the make have. He didn’t expect me to fall at his feet, and he was willing to put a little work into it. Which, from this side of it, is pretty complimentary. “So,” he purred as he leaned in, “I see that you finally ditched the lox that you came in.”
“Please!” I purred right back, “A lady doesn’t ditch her escort. On the other hand, she doesn’t put up with being insulted, either.”
“He insulted you? The Cad!” he paused, “They DO still say ‘Cad’, don’t they?”
“If they don’t they should,” I assured him. “They certainly don’t say it enough. Where, oh where, are the dashing rakes of yesteryear? Those gallant blades who knew how to be complete and utter blackguards, while still remaining perfect gentlemen?”
“It’s a difficult school,” he allowed, “Miss…?” he let the inquiry dangle there for a bit.
“Call me JINX,” I said in a way that suggested, ‘take the hint; I can be bad luck’. “Look…?” I raised an inquiring eyebrow.
“Call me Flynn,” he said with a broad smile, “As in ‘In Like Flynn’.”
“Look, Flynn, I can tell that you’re in a whole other class than Chumley back there, aaannnddd… I wouldn’t mind verbally sparring with you- later. But just at the moment, I’m enjoying being pissed at Chumley too much. You know how it is when you’ve got a good bitch going; you don’t want to lose the burn. Come back after I’ve cooled down a bit.”
Flynn wasn’t letting go that easily, which was a point in his favor. He started to suggest ‘withdrawing’ to one of the intimate little ‘nook’ bars that served the main rooms (Stavrel really was trying to cover all the bases), when a huge meathook of a hand descended on his shoulder. “Miss, is this guy giving you problems?” a deep, resonant voice rumbled. Looking up- WAY up- the hand belonged to that big Caprine who’d been there when we bagged the Panzer Rat. He was wearing a suspiciously stiff evening suit (even _I_ could tell that it was armored), and a slightly incongruous ID badge that stated that his name was ‘Jogun’, and that he was Apex Security. Or, if you must, a bouncer. Well, I doubt that he could get a job at a perfume counter. He towered a good head and change over Flynn, and he clearly had mastered the all-important bouncer skill of being intimidating as all hell, without actually threatening anyone.
“Oh No, Jogun,” I assured him. “Everything’s all right. Flynn here just had a little miscue with his timing.” I gave Flynn a lopsided smile. “Try again later, Flynn.” And, give him his due, Flynn didn’t take it wrong.
“Timing… is everything. Later,” he said with a nod. Not a threat, just notice that he would show up again- later.
“Should I keep an eye on you?” Jogun asked.
“Oh no!” I breezed with my most charming smile. “I hope that he does come back- later. But thanks for being there, big guy.” I gave him a pat on the shoulder, and he seemed to appreciate the fact that I didn’t regard him as part of the furniture.
Of course, looking like this, I was wolf-bait. It was only a matter of time before some other horndog took it into his head to take a whack at me, and the next one might not be as genteel as Flynn. So, I took refuge in the Holy of Holies: the Apex’s main Ladies’ Powder Room. The Ladies’ was as grand and slightly overdone as everything else about the Apex. Besides the necessities, there were padded benches, vanity counters with those triplex mirrors, long standing mirrors, air dryers for both hands and hair, and a discreet vending machine for sundry needs. I went through the pantomime of doing into one of the stalls and ‘washing’ my hands (while avoiding the water, which would void the glamour), drying hands that weren’t wet and primping at hair that I didn’t really have. Then I settled onto one of those padded benches and tried to figure out wtf I was gonna do. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t handle any of the creeps that came on to me; my problem was that I might get kicked out of the joint along with the creeps.
My meditations were interrupted when Tinjo came in. She paused and gave me a weird look. Then she recognized me and gave me a glare, and then gave the briefest ‘get over here’ look as she stalked over to one of the makeup mirrors. She started primping and I made my way over and sat down next to her. Someone had left a lipstick on the counter, so I picked it up, twisted the tube so the color wasn’t sticking out and made like I was refreshing my makeup. “So?” Tinjo asked, like she’d… well, caught me sneaking into the girls’ room. “What’re you doing here?”
“Lucky had a homophobic hissy fit,” I answered.
She accepted that as a valid excuse. “So? What’d you do?”
“I told the asshole to piss off and left him to go homely by himself. Unfortunately, there was a wolf who was just waiting for his chance.”
“And what? I handled it. He was reasonable; I just didn’t want him hanging over my shoulder while I took care of business. I told him that I might hook up with him a little later.”
“Will you?” she kidded me.
“Maybe,” I said, dead serious. “He sounds like fun. A lot more fun than coddling Lucky’s neuroses. My problem is, what will I do in the meantime? I mean, I need to make buys without anyone catching on! And, besides the business part, hey, I’m hungry, and I wanna see Jett Adore, same as you! I mean, what are my chances of getting to see Jett Adore live and in person, normally? But the next wolf on the prowl might not be such a gentleman, y’get me?”
Tinjo gave me a surprised look, but I could see my predicament register with her. “Yeah, I could see how’s you’d want to avoid that.”
“I mean, I could handle it, but not without kicking up a ruckus that we can’t afford. I mean, you, Denmar and Le-er, Jazz have Jack, Ace and Bats coverin’ for you. Me? I’m flyin’ solo here. Or, worse: stuck with Lucky.”
Tinjo gave me another odd look, but granted me my point. Then the penny dropped for her. “Hey! Why don’t you join me and Jack at the table for dinner and the show? Okay, I should ask Jack if he wants to go along with this, but I kind’a doubt that he’ll find being seen at a table with TWO gorgeous chicks that much of a problem.”
“Jack doesn’t deserve it,” I said, then looking into the mirror and copping a pose, “but then, what mortal man DOES?”
Tinjo gave a disbelieving chuckle and asked, “WHAT? You finally found a spell to take the STICK out of yer ass?”
“Actually… I think that’s kinda what happened. The masking spell works pretty much off the associations of the people involved, especially ME. This is what I think a really hawt chick should be like, and really hawt chicks aren’t all anal; they just GO with it and enjoy themselves. You and Denmar have been hawt chicks, like, forever, so you’re used to it. Me? This is a totally new experience. But I’m learning.”
“First of all, remember what it feels like to not have the stick up yer ass, and work from there,” Tinjo suggested. “Hey, maybe after all this is over, you could glamour yerself up as a really cool, suave, happening GUY. God knows, we need one, and all’s we got is Jack.” We shared a girl-snicker at Jack’s expense. Then the look of realization struck her. “Hey, that reminds me: I spotted this wicked looking letter opener at the Stationary stall that would probably make for a much better attamee-”
“Athame,” I corrected her.
“What I said, attamee, than that POS yer usin’ now, and a big honkin’ ‘Aladdin’s Lamp’ thing that Ace’s TraumaCheck thing says is brass covered in gold plate. Y’think that might be good for your magic, Jinx?”
“Good eye on the letter opener, Tinje; I’ll remember to pick that up. The one I’m using now is a pig. But I spotted that lamp on my first go-round. It’s damn good work, but it’s stone-cold mundane. I could enchant it, but we only have enough pixie dust and goblins for one major project, and I’m already lugging around a first-rate silver chalice.” I hefted my purse. “If I added that lamp to THIS, it’d be pretty damn obvious. That is, unless you’d carry it around?”
Tinjo thought about it and gave a ‘meh’ shrug. Then a worried look crossed her face. “Ji-er, Wings, where did Ace get all that info on Stavrel?”
“I dunno,” said, trying to look nonchalant by primping in the mirror. “I only heard about it less’n an hour ago, same as you.”
“_what_?” she grunted.
“And YES, I agree with you, it smells like low tide,” I continued. “Stavrel may not be the MBA he claims to be, but there’s no way that anyone who can pulls something like all this together is a stumblebum. He’s got to be sharp enough to hide his Confidentials where no rookie like Ace could get anywhere inside a mile of it. Even if Ace went dumpster diving on him- which he didn’t, I’d know about it-”
“How’d you know about it?”
“He’d whine to get me and Leo to do it for him; you know how he is about those suits of his! Nope, there’s no way that he could come up with that kind of fix. Nyet, that was hard-core, down-and-dirty FinTel, WSJ-quality stuff. That’s the kind of info that Stavrel does NOT want known, no-how.”
Tinjo’s eyes went hard in the mirror. “The only way that Ace could know all that, is that someone told him it was there, and how to get at it.”
“In other words: the guys that Jack cut the deal with.”
“They probably left a trail of crumbs for him to follow,” Tinjo grumbled as she scowled into the mirror. “We’re being set up.”
“We don’t have anything to be set up FOR,” I pointed out.
“We can take the fall for whatever goes down t’night,” Tinjo hissed.
“I don’t think so,” I said as confidently as I could, speaking out of my ectoplasmically expanded ass as I was. “If they were putting Jack in a box, they’d either have a better leash or a better hook. They’re letting Jack fly around too freely. I think that they’re using us as a distraction for Stavrel, but then-” I waved all that off. “Screw it. There’s too much going on that we don’t know about. We’ll just have to wing it. Fortunately, we got wings.”
“So, what are we gonna do?” Tinjo asked in a flat fatalistic voice.
“Same thing we always do: we enjoy ourselves until the ratsasses pull their play, let Jack try to talk his way out, and then when that doesn’t work we let Bats and Leo try to fight their way out. Then, when we finally know what the ratasses are pulling, we do the intelligent thing and pull all their feathery butts out of the wringer.”
“And of course, Jack will never admit that we DID haul his ashes out of the fire,” Tinjo grumbled.
“Hey, he wouldn’t be Cap’n Jack if he did,” I pointed out. “And he wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun.”
Tinjo gave an amused snerk of resigned acknowledgement. Then she took off her earrings and tucked them in the secret pocket of her purse. “Tinjo, what are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m clearin’ the decks for a second go-round of the stalls. Gotta get while the gettin’s good! But we can’t be too obvious about it. The clucks they got here may not really care if Stavrel gets ripped off, but they can’t be that stupid.”
“Ooh! Idea!” I lowered my voice to be sure that none of the other women in the powder room could overhear, “Why don’t we make the rounds together? First, it’ll change our profile, so’s there’s less chance that they’ll make us. Second, we can be a bad influence on each other, egging each other to buy more and more expensive stuff!” I ended with the ‘huh?’ smirk.
Tinjo liked the idea. Smiling brightly she added, “Y’know, Jinx, we should do this more often. You’re a lot more fun t’ hang out with like this.”
Then the door to the powder room opened, and Denmar wafted in, looking like a Las Vegas showgirl. She was literally dripping in gems. She was wearing a tiara and one of those diadems that are so hot right now. Her earrings were long dangling ropes of gems, and she had a ‘dog-collar’ as well as two other jewel-encrusted necklaces around her neck. A diamond brooch that looked like a cut-glass doorknob was on her dress, she had at least six jeweled bracelets on each arm as well as a jeweled ‘cuff’ on each wrist, and her fingers had more spang than a dowager duchess. Denmar looked at us with wide tragic eyes and said in the voice of a little girl who’s just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, “I have no sales resistance. None at ALL!” Then she stripped all of that off and stashed it in the secret pouch in her bag. Slinging the clearly hefty bag on her shoulder, she went right back out again.
“Y’know, Jinx,” Tinjo said softly. “Sometimes, I worry about Denmar, really I do. Other times… I worry about the rest of the world.”