Wings Over Bedlam (Part 4)
Wings Over Bedlam
The Kunlun Room was a ‘chinoiserie fantasy’ theme room, which pretty much means that it was decorated by Anglos who don’t know anything about China, not by Chinese. Lots of red lacquer, lots of tassels, lots of repeating designs that might or might not mean anything, lots of porcelain and jade, big leafy plants in pots everywhere; pretty much a blown-out, expensive version of every tacky Chinese restaurant you’ve ever been in. I looked around and immediately figured out why they chose this restaurant: between those stupid leafy plants, whatever they were, and the silk screens, there was so much cover between the tables, that there almost wasn’t any way to tell who was at the next table. I caught sight of Tinjo’s head looking around for us. I led Lucky and Jogun over to that table.
We stepped up to the table. There, sitting next to Tinjo, hidden by all the shrubbery, was the black snake-lady, her bald (occasionally) skull-faced boyfriend, and…
What the hell was Jett Adore doing with these creeps?
Then I noticed a stocky, well-dressed middle-aged guy who sort of had ‘business manager’ stamped all over him, sitting next to her. Well, Tinjo did say that they wanted to do business. Lucky sat down and made like the enigmatic silent man of mystery. Remembering as best I could how that Japanese thing went, I stood right next to his chair, and Jogun just backed us up, doing a damn good impression of a mountain.
“What is HE doing here?” the guy, what’s his name… ah, right, Dimanche asked, looking at Jogun. I just gave him a sly ‘what, you honestly thought we’d come here without backup?’ smile. Then I crooked a finger at Tinjo for her to join us. Tinjo got up, but the Snake-babe kept her down with a hand on her shoulder. Very matter-of-fact-like, Jogun reached over, peeled Snakely’s hand off Tinjo’s shoulder and gently guided Tinjo over to a chair next to Lucky. Tinjo shot us both looks of totally uncharacteristic gratitude.
[Okay, score one for you,] Jack said sourly in my ear. [Now, let’s hear what they got to say. And don’t get fancy again!]
Dimanche started saying a bunch of really cryptic, ‘I know that you know that he knows’ stuff. Jack summed it up as: [He’s fishin’. He wants something, but he wants us to make the first move. Whatever that is]
I agreed. As Dimanche was in the middle of one more oh-so-mysterious utterance, I cut in and said, “So. Where’s Stavrel?”
Snake-lady took over. “Exactly where Mr. Stavrel is at the moment is a matter of great importance. While the Rubens isn’t a factor at the moment, there is the rather awkward matter that he has both the money that we did bid for the painting and the money that we didn’t bid as well!”
“Good luck getting the second part back,” I said. “Nick Scratch has it.”
‘Nick Scratch?’ went around the table. “Why would Nick Scratch have that part of the money?” Snake-lady looked around the table. “Are he and Stavrel in this together?”
“Maybe,” I said noncommittally. “Nick Scratch killed the three men in armor who staged that phony shooting. And considering that Stavrel set up his two bodyguards to get shot and killed by not having them wear body armor while he was, and loading their guns with blanks, it’s not that much of a stretch to see where he might set up the three guys who knew that he murdered his own men, by siccing Old Scratch on them. But then, they may just have blundered into Scratch in the hallway. Either way, Scratch has that part of the money.”
“How do you know that Scratch killed those three gunmen?”
“Because, less than half an hour ago, with my own eyes I saw Old Scratch slit Hatch’s throat with a straight razor. Those three thugs in the hallway had their throats slit. They were wearing MilSpec body armor, and carrying machine guns; but as you said, they died in mortal terror, by having their throats slit. I could be wrong, but how does it add up for you?”
“Hatch is dead?”
“Blood all over that nice white suit of his. You gonna miss him?”
“Not really,” she admitted, “but suddenly there’s the matter of some three million dollars that’s just floating around, not belonging to anyone.”
[Three MILLION?] Jack gawped, [For a PAINTING?]
I gave Snakelips a tense smile and looked over to Jett Adore. “First of all Miss Adore, let me say that that was a truly KICKASS set earlier. I’m really looking forward to the studio version. And, with that out of the way, WHY are you here?”
Miss Cobra started nattering away again, being all oblique, like Dimanche was, something about observing niceties and the nuances of ownership and a few bits of Lawyer drivel. [She’s trying to get us to commit to something] Jack said in my ear. [And I think I know what she’s up to]
I leaned over and whispered into Lucky’s ear, “Well, don’t keep it to yourself, Jack.”
[Ace says that there are two parties on either side of you that are listening in through the greenery real hard. One’s a white guy, Sixties, receding hair, looks like a school teacher. He’s got backup. The other one’s black, Forties, chubby but not soft, and he doesn’t look like he needs backup, but he’s got it anyway. Oh, and they’re packing]
Oh I’d been wondering what happened to those two! Okay, actually I hadn’t really given them any thought, but now that they popped up, it occurred to me that I really should have wondered. I nudged Lucky to whisper something in my ear, and then turned to Snakelips. With an arch sphinx smile I said, “So you’ve decided to put the Rubens on the table. Well, since we’re doing that, why don’t you invite the others to the table? They must be getting rashes on their ears from rubbing them on those ferns. Professor Pickford? Why don’t you join us? And, ah, I’m sorry but I never did get your name? And while you’re at it, why don’t you put your guns on the table? Jogun here takes his job here very seriously, and there have been way too many guns wandering around the club tonight. It makes it look like Security isn’t doing their job.”
Pickford and his boys stepped around the divider sheepishly, and two component guns were gingerly laid on the table. Pudge walked out by himself with a straight face and did likewise. They sat down and Pickford and Pudge sort of glared at each other. “I’m not a professor,” Pickford said like he was gonna give us a lecture. “I do however hold doctorates in Fine Arts and Art History. I represent the Foundation for the Recovery and Restoration of Lost American Art Treasures. The Duchess of Vosges is the legal property of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met has given our Foundation the authority to recover the Duchess. The Duchess is the Met’s legal property, and it must be turned over to me for verification and return to its legal owners.” He took a small folder from his jacket pocket and handed it to me. The ID more or less said that he worked for that Foundation. The rest was up for interpretation.
Pudge took a folder just like that and buzzed an ID. “My name’s Powell, and I work for the Greater Atlantic Mercantile Trust Bank. Stavrel put up that painting as collateral for a very large loan, which he used to finance this club. Somehow, Stavrel managed to sleaze the physical possession of the painting back. Until that loan and all interests have been repaid, that painting is the legal property of Greater Atlantic Mercantile.”
Figuring that Jogun deserved to know more about the mess that his boss had landed him in (hey, I promised him, and Jogun isn’t the kind of guy that you flake out on), and cut off Pickford’s rebuttal, telling him, “Prof- er, Doctor Pickford, why don’t you tell Powell here about the other maneuvers that Stavrel has been pulling?”
Pickford stopped dead and gave me a weird look. Then he spelled out pretty much what Jack had told us, and included a few other wrinkles that added a two or three more million to the total, but didn’t really change things. Behind me, I sensed Jogun tensing, and I heard something that may have been his teeth grating. Then Lucky nudged me and whispered, “So what?” into my ear. And, to be honest, for once I agreed entirely with Lucky.
Pickford and Powell were bickering away, so I cleared my throat. Repeatedly. Then Jogun snapped, “Chill out! The lady has something to say!” That shut them up (well, wouldn’t you?)
“Thank you, Jogun,” I said as graciously as I could. “I’m sorry, one and all, but we can’t help you. We have nothing to do with the Duchess of Vosges. As a matter of fact, I’d never seen that painting before tonight, never even heard of it, and to be honest, I’m sorry Doctor, but I wasn’t very impressed with what I saw. And while I agree that Stavrel has a long overdue appointment with a massive concussion, and maybe a few broken teeth, we have no information on where he or the painting are just at the moment. And, since we’ve done what we came here to do, and there are various parties running around that make staying here actively dangerous for us, I think that the best we can do for you is to simplify things by removing ourselves from the equation. Jogun, would you be so kind as to call us a cab, and see us out of the building?”
[No! No! What about Denmar, Leo and Bats?]
I leaned over and whispered into Lucky’s ear, “We can have Security find them and tell them to turn on their phones. Now isn’t that simple?”
But it wasn’t that easy. It’s never that easy.
“Stavrel isn’t why we asked you here,” Lady Slithers said. “And we know where the painting is. That’s why Jett is here.” Jett’s manager (I guess) put a briefcase on the table. “YOU are here because we have a rather awkward situation. Each of us has something that someone else wants, but unfortunately, there’s no basis for any simple trades; no one has what the person they want to trade with wants. We’re bringing you into this, hoping that even if we don’t close the circle, at least someone will get what they want.”
I gave them a snide smile. “Ah. So it comes down to that again.” I reached into my purse (amazing how easily that’s coming to me now) and pulled out the emerald. I laid it on the table. “So. What do any of you have, that’s worth THAT?”
Eyes around the table popped. “How did you get THAT back?”
“I didn’t,” I said and looked significantly at Lucky. Lucky just gave them another sphinx smirk, happy to be in the spotlight for a change. And to be honest, he earned it. I still don’t know how he got the damned thing.
[WHY are you so dead set on getting rid of that thing?] Jack wanted to know.
I was about to lean over and whisper into Lucky’s ear again, but the Snake-chick surprised me when she said, “As tempting as that is, that’s not the reason why we called you.” Oh, and I just told everyone that I had the stupid rock again, when I didn’t need to. Somebody just shoot me.
Lucky shot me a nasty look and then gave the other people at the table a ‘you just can’t get good help these days’ look of resignation. He waggled a finger at me to bend in close and he quietly said, “Yutz.”
Surprisingly, Jack may not have been supportive, but at least he was constructive. [Look, it’s not as bad as it looks. Just get the deal back on the rails. Jinx, get them to show you what they’ve got, and keep them talking while if figure out what they really want]
Surprising myself as much as anyone, I actually managed to get them talking about what they were putting up. The Pud-er, Powell lead off by putting that gold-plated brass lamp that Tinjo had spotted.
Color me underwhelmed. That thing’s just a knickknack.
“Now, I don’t know anything about magic, and that’s just the way I like it. Normally, I stay the hell away from the Hoodoo stuff. But it looks like that’s the order of the day tonight, so be it. You remember back at Stavrel’s auction, how that cat-chick was pushing that horn, saying that she was willing to sell it, and a few other choice bits? Well, from the way that Hatch and Havelec were going at it over this, I’d say that it was one of the pieces that Miss Kitty was offering, before… whatever happened to separate her from it.”
Hatch tried to snatch that? Busy boy! And Havelec? Who the hell is Havelec? I’m having a hard enough time keeping straight all the people that I’ve pissed off myself tonight! Don’t confuse me even more by dragging in people that I’ve never even heard of before!
Dimanche nodded and said, “Yes, that is one of the pieces that the girl was touting. And it is a potent talisman.” WHAT? It’s a talisman? Dimanche wouldn’t admit that it was a talisman if he didn’t accept that everyone knew that it was a talisman. Everyone but ME! Awww MAN! “But the real question is, is it the key?” The key? What key? “She was not very informative on that point.” He gave Lucky a sharp look. “Unless you have some information that you’d like to share?”
[Get them talking, make them give up more. Bowlin’ ball won’t give up anything yet, so ask what the Perfesser has to offer.]
“Not just yet,” I hedged. “And what about you, Dr. Pickford?”
Pickford leaned back in his chair, reached past the divider with his walking stick and dragged a large satchel over to our table. Hefting it up to his lap, he opened it and displayed bundles of cash in various bank wrappers. “As for where Mr. Stavrel is, I’m sure that he’s still somewhere on the premises. He’s gone through too much, crossed too many people, broken too many laws for this, just to leave it behind.”
“That’s Stavrel’s bag of getaway money? How’d you get that?”
“I think that we can all agree that it’s been a busy night. For everyone.”
“How much is there?” Jett’s manager asked with a sharp look in his eye.
“Twelve Million and change.”
“I see that there’s a good-sized chunk of the cash missing,” Powell noted.
“I set aside an amount equal to the Foundation’s money that Stavrel made off with,” Pickford said primly. “This way, I can return both the painting and the money entrusted to me.”
[Yeah, and maybe a Mil or two for hisself, ‘cause who’s gonna know?] And this is a bad strategy how?
“This painting is appraised at being worth somewhere between 4 and 5 million,” the manager sneered. “Do you honestly believe that we’re going to accept that you’re going to hand over 12 million for a 5 million dollar painting?”
“No, I plan to offer Mr. Powell the 3 million that his bank loaned to Stavrel, plus a million and a half for interest, and maybe a million or so to Mr. Powell personally, for… considerations. I offer 5 million to you for the painting, and the rest I’m willing to put up to act as… lubricant for the other deals at this table that will obviously have to clear in order to make this one work.”
“You’re really just going to walk away from 12 Million dollars? For a pretty picture?”
Pickford gave the manager a sour glare and said with a voice that had icicles on it, “In my line of work, I’ve had the mixed fortune to meet and observe many men like Stavrel: greedy, selfish, crass boobs who think that money is the magical cure for all their ills. They come and trade magnificent masterpieces for cases of green paper or numbers on a balance sheet, thinking that the money will somehow protect them. What they don’t understand is that much loose money is like blood in the water, drawing the worst sharks to them. And even if they survive that, their lives are just as cold, hard, lonely and hollow as they were before; only the props are better. And, since the money isn’t connected to any form of real capital, as Dorothy Parker put it, ‘It’s like snow. It melts in your hands.’ In time, their money fritters away and they have nothing, because they don’t treasure memories.
“The Duchess in one of Rubens’ lesser works, but it’s still an example of a true master at the height of his powers. Setting aside such academic matters as technique and theory of light, Rubens provides… a statement, of how he sees the world, what he thinks is important. He gives us… context. He gives us history, context, passion, respect for both talent and discipline, insight… in a word, MEANING.
“Have you ever wondered why rich, powerful, ruthless men in their later years, so often turn to either Religion or Art? It is because you can’t buy or steal Meaning. Only Religion and Art can give you Meaning. And Art doesn’t ask you to give up Wine, Women and Song, or go kill infidels. Artists like Peter-Paul Rubens light candles for the ages; men such as myself, who cannot be artists, can but merely shield those candles from the storm.
“Men like Stavrel will always be alone, hollow wretches without meaning. I, on the other hand, have the love of my family, the respect of my community, the esteem of my fellows at the Foundation, and true meaning in restoring such treasures as the Duchess to the world. Trade all that, to become a thief like Stavrel? There isn’t enough money in the world.”
[Well, I’ll give him this. That was a primo piece of bullsmeg. I’ll bet you that a least half of that is counterfeit]
And Jack wasn’t the only one thinking that. “And how do we know that there really is 12 Mil there?” Powell asked.
“After all, we know that Stavrel has a very good source of counterfeit,” the Snake Chick reminded us. “We’re not saying that you’re trying to pass bad money off as good; just that Stavrel might find it useful to have a decoy, and the false lead that he’d stay in the building, when he’s over the hills and far away with the real cash.”
Pickford held up the satchel and offered it to Powell. Pudge rummaged around and drew three bundles out from deep inside the bag. He ran his iCom over each of them and handed them back to Pickford. “They’re legit. And if Stavrel had a source of bogus cash that good, he’d have better things to do than pull this petty ante ripoff bullsmeg.”
Okay, so nobody’s batting a thousand tonight. Hey, when you fall on your face as much as I’ve been, you gotta take what comfort as comes to you.
We all pretty much turned and looked at Dimanche, to see what he was bringing to the table. He cleared his throat and spoke for himself again. “Among the talismans that the catgirl was offering, besides the horn and that lamp, was a bottle, a tall bottle with remarkable properties. I’ve heard tell that you might have that.”
[Go ahead, put it on the table. Well, at least own up that we got it. It’s not like we can really use it, and with all the heavy hitters who’d be after us for it, we might as well try to move it for something that we can actually USE] Oh, like a couple of million in cash, maybe? Jeez, we’ve already got a case of money that will have every thug in the city out after our collective asses, now he wants a case that’ll have the entire POLICE FORCE looking for us? And Tinjo is right here, where she can’t slap some sense into him!
Oh well, it’s not like we could just up and leave, even with Jogun there. I made with the act of leaning into Lucky’s ear for orders. “If you wheel and deal us into a hole, I’m siccing Tinjo on you, Jack!” Getting back to the table, I said, “Brown glass bottle, yea long, yea wide, flattened, red leather jacket with brass filigree, long neck, lead stopper?”
Dimanche nodded, like he was saying that he wanted that bottle. Okay, that’s what Mister ‘I’m so voodoo’ wants. But what’s he putting up for bidding? That look went around the table. Dimanche nodded again and reached into his jacket. He produced a thick envelope, stuffed with slips of paper. He pulled one of the slips out, and showed the sort of scorch mark on it. “These are markers, signed, sealed and delivered to… Nick Scratch.”
Those are Nick Scratch’s markers? Well that would explain why Old Nick is here tonight. On the other hand, it doesn’t explain why he was looking for Lucky, or fracking with Tuxedo Mary, or that scene with Veles and the Fat Man. Okay, maybe he thought that getting the power stone would give him an edge in getting his markers back, but why isn’t he hounding Dimanche? I mean, I’d think that Old Nick was a first things first kind of guy!
[This is bad. If Bowlin’ Ball over there can get those markers away from Old Scratch, then he’s a lot heavier duty than I thought. Wait a minute- how do we know those markers are for real? And for that matter, even if they’re the McCoy, how do we know that they aren’t markers that have been paid off, one way or another? For all we know, those are empty debit cards]
Good point. I repeated it for the table. And hey, I’m not good enough to check that, and there isn’t a lot of unbiased talent at the table.
This sort of stopped the conversation for a bit. Dimanche was asking for a lot of trust from us, and after the night we’d all had, trust was in short supply.
“I believe that that’s my cue to enter,” said a rich baritone voice from the rear. Looking around, I almost had a heart attack. Six-fingered Staretski! He was clearly digging on the fear that was just dripping from the crowd as he took that marker from Dimanch’s hand. He ran fingers over the paper and he smirked. “It reeks of brimstone, and the connections are still valid. And, on top of that, I recognize Scratch’s childish scrawl. This is the real thing.” The smirk dropped and the cold blasé sneer that I associate with Staretski came back. “Now give me the envelope, and the rest of those things. Naughty children such as yourselves shouldn’t play with dangerous toys. Someone could get hurt.”
As Staretski reached for the envelope on the table in front of Dimanche, Jogun grabbed him by the wrist and snarled into his face. “Oh please!” Staretski sneered, and he gave him the Wizard’s Gaze with both barrels. The Wizard’s Gaze is that big hellfire in the eyes bit that makes people stop stone cold, when it doesn’t make them piss in their pants.
Usually, anyone getting in the way of it just lock up; but Jogun just snarled and bopped Staretski in the nose. “WHAT?” Staretski yelped, “Boys, take this gorilla and-” his two goons popped almost out of nowhere with hands going for their guns.
I cut Staretski off with a sharp ‘hailing a taxi’ whistle. “Newsflash, Staretski: Jogun here doesn’t work for us. He works for the Club. He’s Security. And the rest of Security not only knows that we’re here, but they’re following this. Y’see, they’re just as interested as we are in laying hands on Stavrel. And if you’ll check your iComs’ target spotter apps- and don’t tell me that you don’t have them- you’ll notice that you’ve been painted with about a dozen dots. And Staretski? Look up.” I pointed up to the ceiling. Staretski looked, and he spotted seven Security drones hovering overhead. “You’re outnumbered, outflanked and outgunned.” I grinned.
[NO! Do NOT ratsass him! He’s a named wizard! He can’t afford to be shamed! Offer him a place at the table, as long as he minds his manners!]
Okay, that was an uncharacteristically sensible and cautious suggestion for Jack; considering how much we bust his chops for going in half-cocked, it would be a good idea to listen to him on this one. Jack may actually have some of the chops that he thinks he has. “Still, if you’re willing to mind your manners, and you actually bring something to the table, you’re welcome to sit in and cut a deal.” Sounds of ‘wtf are you DOING?’ came from around the table. “Look, as long as he doesn’t pull that playground bully grabbing all the toys crap again, he’s got as much right as anyone to cut a deal.”
Staretski just shrugged and said, “Bad Habits,” like it excused anything. “BUT,” he snapped his fingers and gestured at a table behind us, “I do bring things to the table.”
Oh, and by the way- I suddenly noticed that, except for us and a few people sitting at that one table, the room was empty. [Woops. Sorry Jinx- Ace really should have spotted that for you]
Four guys and a girl in a hooded cloak got up and walked over to the table. Hey! One of those guys is… FLYNN? He brought the chick over, and pulled the hood back. It was Denmar, who was standing there, looking very shaken; I think she finally ran into guys she couldn’t twist around her little finger, and she was trying to get a handle on that. “Now, I admit that I was going to use the young lady as a bargaining chip. But since we’re being civilized about this…” he gave a gesture, and Flynn let Denmar go. Dennie stood there for a moment, squeaked and then skittered over to Tinjo, who gave her a big reassuring hug.
Once Denmar was seated, Starteski continued, “And here is what I’m bringing to the table.” He reached into a pocket and lay down on the table, right next to the emerald-
-another emerald, almost identical to the one I’d put up.
Suddenly, we were getting ‘what are you trying to pull?’ looks from around the table.
[aaahhhh…] Jack was clearly locking up again, so I bought myself some time by making like Lucky and I were having a quiet confab.
Then, feeling myself walking into yet another door, I winged it with everything I had: “We offered this stone in good faith. I would never suggest that a respected player like Mr. Staretski would wittingly bring a bogus stone to the table. And, let’s be honest, trying to prove which stone is the genuine article, and who got swindled by whom, isn’t really the point. The point here is that in order to be sure that they get the real power gem, the bidder has to acquire both of these stones. It’s the only way to be sure. It seems, Mr. Staretski, that we aren’t competitors, but rather partners.”
[What are you doing?] Jack howled.
Staretski raised his eyebrows in mild surprise, nodded, and- and I never thought I’d see this- smiled. “We support each other’s bids, regarding the stones?”
“We are, in essence, selling the same item; no matter how it settles out, the buyer has to take both stones, so undercutting each other is pointless and counterproductive.”
[What?] Jack bleated, [You actually pulled that off?]
“Hey, hey, hey!” Powell hollered, “No teaming up!”
“Why not?” Staretski said with his usual chilly tones. “You and the good doctor seem to have already made a deal; why shouldn’t we? Besides, we won’t be in cahoots in everything. For instance, besides this stone, I offer… THIS.” He pulled out a gold filigree medallion and dangled it from his hand. Dimanche immediately perked up a bit. My Good Eye could tell that the dingus was magical, but past that? WAY out of my league. But that seems to be the way the whole night has been going.
From there, the trading got very deep, very involved, and as cutthroat as Jogun would allow. I’ll spare you the details. Between them, Dimanche and Staretski managed to weasel that ‘Lucky’ put up both that bottle and the horn on the table. Powell accepted that bringing back a power gem would be at least as good as bringing back the Bank’s money plus a hefty profit on the investment. Of course, Staretski was interested in that packet of Old Scratch’s markers, but for some strange reason, so were Jett Adore and Dr. Pickford. And, just as the arrangements were getting settled, Jett threw a real cat among the pigeons when she brought in something new. After a brief conference with her manager, Jett reached into her purse and took out a small molded leather satchel, the kind for carrying gear in, just large enough to hold in two hands. She opened up the cover and took out a brass clockwork dingus that sort of resembled an astrolabe, with concentric moving rings, a sliding cursor, and two styluses, and stuff like that. It was a piece of wonderful craftsmanship, the kind that the Swiss make noise about, and the only reason that I didn’t want to give up everything we had for it, was that I knew that I had absolute NO CLUE as to how it worked. Or even what it did. “I think, and I really want you all to understand that I just think this, there’s no way that I’m sure about it, that this might be that ‘Key’ that you all were talking about. But I do know that Nick Scratch wants this, very badly.” She put the dingus on the table. “I’m willing to put this up, and I hope that one of you can use it to send him back to Hell, where he belongs.”
Staretski, Dimanche, and Dr. Pickford were all interested. [So… exactly what IS that, Jinx?]
Using Lucky as a blind again, I whispered, “What it is, is too big for us, Jack. I say that we settle for that gold medallion that Staretski is offering, and trade it to Dr. Gabriel for considerations.”
[Dr. Gabe? I completely fergot about Dr. Gabe! We could-]
“Keep it simple, Jack. Let them win. The only way they’re gonna let us walk away, is if they win. It sucks, but there you are.”
[NO! Listen to me now, that’s loser talk! THINK about it, Jinx! Look, we’ve sold them on Lucky being this big mysterious wheeler-dealer, right? But what big shot wheeler-dealer lets himself get stuck with chump change? And that’s what settling for the medallion would be: chump change. We bring 3- or, at least 2½ - major pieces to the table, and all’s we walk away with is that one dinky medallion? If after all that roar, we just squeak out of here with that, they’ll think that we’re pushovers, and they can muscle us for everything we got! Or worse, they’ll think that we’re gaming them somehow, and they’ll get after us to figure out what we pulled! And that could get very messy, am I right?]
As much as I hated to admit it, Jack had a point. And, as much trouble as he’s dragged us into, Jack still gets the whole wheeling-and-dealing mindset more than I do. Okay, so Dimanche admits that he wants the bottle, and Jack says that Staretski seems to have his eye on the horn; that leaves the lamp. And, okay, I’d really like to know why Dimanche says that it’s a potent talisman, when I thought that it was just junk.
And it’s wheel and deal some more, but eventually the time came for us to make good on our offer. I whispered to Tinjo for her to head out to get the stuff from Jack and Ace, but to take her time and use her iCom to find them. But when she got up, there was some pointed debate on exactly who would go and get the goodies. Powell and Dimanche were just stirring things up to see if they couldn’t shake anything loose, but Pickford definitely seemed to be trying to figure something out, and I got the distinct impression that Staretski was working an angle.
And Jogun? Well, Jogun’s been a damn right guy for me so far and I’ve tried to do right by him, but let’s get real here: his first priority is finding Stavrel. And I’m just a mouthy broad trying to play for some very high stakes, when his paycheck- and the operating funds of this whole place- may have gone dancing out the back door. He’s not my knight in shining ogre, and I’m not a damsel in dis dress. Right now, he needs to either find Stavrel or get control of that satchel of cash. But Pickford has guys, and he might have more guys hiding in the background (as a matter of fact, I let slip to Jogun than I knew for a fact that he had a few more guys- and a couple of girls- who I haven’t seen lately), and just grabbing the cash just might set off a small war. Worse, it might set off a war where Pickford or Powell might wind up dead; they’re both men with important backers who have a lot invested in what happens tonight, and if they caught bullets, someone would have to take the fall for it. And he was in a primo position to be the fall guy. A grab for the cash was simply not in the cards.
It settled down (with vigorous prodding from Startetski) that I’d go get the bottle and horn, and that Flynn would keep an eye on me to see that no ‘unfortunate coincidences or merry mix-ups’ happened along the way.
We walked a ways, as Jack nattered directions in my ear. Eventually, Flynn said archly, “So, you’re back with Chumley?”
“It’s business,” I snipped back. “And Chumley may not be Prince Charming, but he’s certainly not Six-Fingered Staretski!”
“I don’t work for Staretski!”
“You’re doing this for free? That isn’t exactly an improvement, Flynn.”
“’Complicated…’ That’s practically the mantra of this entire night.” I gave him a sharp look. “So, you picked me up under orders?”
“NO,” he said carefully. “I was just supposed to watch Chumley. But there were a few guys watching him, and I figured that watching you from up close would be more fun. And, if it makes you feel better, I had to beat three other guys to the punch.” Don’t ask me why, but that did make me feel better.
Navigating by Jack’s directions, I led Flynn to one of those little hole-in-the-wall bars, where you can drink the same liquor as everywhere else, but in something vaguely resembling privacy. Jack and Ace were sitting on stools a couple of seats apart, trying to look like they weren’t sitting together. Jack looked over with a confident grin, which sort of stumbled for a minute. He looked at Flynn funny and then he blurted out, “You brought HIM? He IS your boyfriend?” Oh, just what I don’t need…
Flynn just snorted back and sneered, “You mean these two clowns are your backup?”
“Guys, can we keep this at least a little civilized?” I asked, sounding too much like my own mother, “We don’t have a lot of time, and you know what we need, so just hand it over.”
“What?” Flynn hooted, genuinely surprised, “You mean these two are the ones that have been feeding you instructions?”
“Jinx,” Flynn said to me in that voice that your grade school teacher used to give you when she was taking away yer favorite trading cards, “you and your pals have been driving us nuts, trying to figure out what game you’re playing, and what angle. But you’re just a bunch of amateurs, bouncing around like loose cannons going off randomly trying to get out of this in one piece!”
Now that was just hurtful. Right on the money, but hurtful.
“You’ve been relying on pure dumb luck, and the chaos factor has been working for you.” Flynn went on, “But luck always runs out, and expertise eventually clamps down on the loose cannons. Just give me the horn and the bottle, and you can three can walk out of here without getting hurt.”
“And what about Ti-er, the others?” I asked over Jack and Ace’s screams of indignation.
“I’m not in charge here,” Flynn said coldly. “I don’t get to make that call.”
Jack was gearing up to give Flynn a big slice of Bijou-style rancid rage, when I noticed a movement off to the side. Namely, the bartender ducking behind the bar. And despite what Jack might think, he and Ace aren’t really ‘clear the saloon’ type badasses. Bats and Leo maybe, but not Jack and Ace. Looking to the door of the bar, there were two large, thuggish guys standing there, blocking the exit.
“You don’t get to make this call either, Slick,” came a familiar voice from behind us. Looking behind us, somehow Fats, Big Bad and the China Girl were on the inside of the bar, guns drawn.
“Who’s this?” Flynn asked.
“Old Business,” I said with a sigh. “Yo, Fats! Or whatever your name is… you had your chance for the gem. But you decided that it was more important to suck your thumb. That boat has sailed, and if you don’t want to jump off the pier into water with some very nasty sharks in it trying to catch a boat that’s sailed, you’ll just have to be a big boy and get OVER IT!”
“It’s bad for business to let yourself get ripped off,” he growled. “And don’t think for a minute that I buy that crap about you four being poor innocent schlubs who’re in way over their heads! You set me up for Veles!”
“What’s HIS problem?” Flynn asked me.
“Paranoia hates to be wrong,” I muttered back. And, give him this- Flynn got what I was saying, right off the bat. “Hey FATS!” With a sneer, I gave him the malediction sign, hexing his gun. Big Bad was holding the 9mm that I took off Stavrel’s dead goon; he figured that it was probably less likely to jam than the component gun that he was carrying. But it was loaded with blanks, so he’s not a threat. And from the size of the purse that she’s lugging around, I have China Girl pegged as Fats’ magicker, so she’s probably not that big a threat with a gun. So Fats is the only real threat on this side, and his boys by the door haven’t drawn.
Okay, it’s not checkmate, but then Fats’ big move isn’t the slam-dunk that he thought either.
“Barlow!” China Girl snapped, “She just did something!” So, China Girl is Fats’ magicker; just my luck, to be proven right, the worst possible way.
Fats, or Barlow, or whatever, tried to fire, but sure enough, his gun jammed. And because it was a large caliber piece with a bunch of finicky parts, when it jammed, it stayed jammed. China Girl and Big Bad wasted time reacting to the gun jamming. Flynn, on the other hand, popped two wooden nightsticks out of his sleeves on slides and went for China Girl, probably figuring that she was the most dangerous of the three. Jack and Ace jumped over the counter and behind the bar. There was some scuffling while Jack and Ace dealt with the bartender.
I took Big Bad completely by surprise by going for him. He was aiming for Flynn when I clocked him upside the head with my purse. When I dug into my purse, he wasted a couple of rounds trying to shoot me with blanks.
Y’know, now that I think about it, I really DID sort of assume that he hadn’t checked the clip and reloaded it with live ammo. Okay, lucky this time, smarter next time.
I really puzzled him when I pulled that big bottle of Chanel No. 5 out of the purse. He was so puzzled that he gave me time to crack open the seal on that bad boy and splash him right in the face with very expensive perfume. Perfume which, despite all the hoity-toity extras and fancy-schmancy PR, is still mostly wood alcohol. And he took that right in the eyes and up his nose. And Weres, especially Canines, are very sensitive in the nose. While he was reeling over, trying not to scream, I clunked him on top of the head with that big heavy thick glass bottle- after stopping it up again to keep from getting sloshed.
While I was doing that Flynn had taken out both China Girl and Barlow with a flurry of moves that looked very painful. Oddly, it took Flynn longer to take out China Girl. I think that Barlow has been letting other people do his fighting for him too much. When Flynn finished off China Girl (not permanently, I hope- she was a reasonable chick, and working with an asshole like Barlow must have been a pain), he turned for Big Bad. I held up the bottle, copped a coy pose, caressed it, and purred, “Chanel No. 5- for when you absolutely HAVE to knock a man off his feet…”
Flynn chuckled, but our little moment was spoiled when a bullet splatted into the booth beside us. Barlow’s two goons at the door had managed to get their guns out. Or at least one of them had; the other was sort of wrestling with a handset for some reason. I ducked to the floor, but Flynn sort of crouched and held his left arm against his chest. A transparent disk formed, like some sort of spectral shield in front of him. A couple of rounds caromed off his shield, and he charged at the two goons. Or, rather, he sprang into action; literally. He gave a charging leap that carried him the entire distance of the bar, and he took down the gunman with the sheer force of his attack. He distracted the guy with the handset with a snap kick, and concentrated on putting the gunman down for good.
I took advantage of the opening to take Barlow’s gun, wallet, money clip, phone, watch chain with suggestive ornaments, and that flashy-thing he used in the storeroom (oh, and a very suggestive set of hard keys), and China girl’s gun, purse and VERY interesting charm bracelet. I was turning to pat down Big Bad, when he snapped to. With a snarl, he grabbed me by the wrist and drew the gun that had real bullets in it and pointed it at me.
I was just starting to frame my excuses to St. Peter, when four drones dropped down from above (not how I saw guardian angels, but who am I to quibble?); two of them sprayed him with an antipersonnel spray, and two of them zotzed him with tasers. He folded like he got caught with a pair of Threes.
Then Jack popped up from behind the counter with a shotgun, which he pointed back and forth, trying to cover both ends at the same time. But by this time, Flynn was putting down handset guy. When handset guy went down, Ace popped up and gloated, “HAH! That’s what you get for flying straight out of the box, ponk!”
“Down, Sundance, DOWN,” I griped at Jack. “The gunfight’s over!”
Flynn dragged the two goons further into the bar, checking out the scene.
“SO!” Jack said, puffing himself up, “Still think that we’re just a bunch of amateurs?”
“As a matter of fact, YES!” Flynn snarled as he pushed those escrima sticks back into his sleeves. I got the impression that that shield thing was a magic bracelet of some sort. “This?” he waved a hand at the bodies on the floor. “Look, if you do something stupid, and it works, it’s still STUPID! You just lucked out, and the people running around tonight may not pick up on that on the first turn, but they WILL pick up, and it will be fatal! Just give me the horn and the bottle, and GO. It’ll be safer all around.”
“But... but Tinjo…” Jack objected, fingering that shotgun in a way that made me very nervous.
“LUCKY…” I cut in with my best ‘Tinjo telling Jack off’ voice, “He’s RIGHT!” Jack startled, and started to object, but Thank God, he picked up on the fact that I called him ‘Lucky’. “We’re way out of our league here. We’ve been out of our league all NIGHT. Just take this stuff,” I handed him the things I’d taken from Barlow and China Girl, “and give him the bottle and horn.”
With a pout on his mug, Jack handed over the bottle and horn. “I’m glad that you’ve got more sense than your friends, Jinx,” Flynn said. “I’m sorry that it has to end like this, but it really is for the best. There are things going on tonight that you have no idea about.”
“What about Tinjo and Denmar?”
“I’m sorry.” And, he really did look sorry.
“Flynn? So am I.” I dangled the Forget charm in front of his face.
“What?” Jack peeped.
“DOWN!” I shoved both of them down behind the counter.
As Flynn startled back to awareness, I cooed the one thing that I knew would get a man to stop asking questions: “You were magnificent!”
I bustled him out of the bar ‘before Security shows up’ (actually, so Jack and Ace could get out of there before Security showed up), and hurried him back to the Kunlun Room, cooing in his ear about who wonderful he was, how he took out Fats’ whole squad by his lonesome while I stood by helpless, screaming and vaporing, and planted the suggestion in his very confused mind that China Girl had thrown some powder in his face. I pretty much had him sold on that scenario when we got back to the Kunlun Room. I was worried about how Tinjo was handling the negotiations, especially since without a link to Jack, the others might notice the difference in ‘Lucky’s’ negotiating style.
But when we got to the table, Tinjo was draped over Lucky’s shoulder with a pussycat smirk on her face, Lucky was sitting there with a ‘Oh Yeah, I’m the Man’ smug glow, and Denmar was pretty much running the show. “-and then you got divvy out the cash so that nobody gets any ideas that they’re getting shafted. I’d say that 7 Mill for one of the emeralds is a fair price and”- she went on like that, rattling off stuff, bouncing whole new angles at guys and getting them taken as givens as she hurried along to the next point. The guys at the table all had that sort of glazed over look men get when they try to cope with Denmar. Now, in all fairness to Jack, the problem that Denmar has is that her style is sort of like a spider’s web: lovely, ensnaring, and it can completely wrap you up while you enjoy every minute of it. BUT it’s also delicate, and it only works while the chump hasn’t caught that he’s being played. The second that they wise up, it all goes *poof!* and people can get VERY nasty when they figure out that they’ve been played. “Oh, HEY Jinx! Everything okay?”
“We had a run-in with some old friends. But Flynn handled them, no problem.”
Unfortunately, that gave Lady Slithers, who’d been giving Denmar the stink eye, her opening. “This is all very nice, but we can’t make any real commitments with ANY of this, until we have a better idea as to which of these things is The Key that the catgirl spoke of, that is if ANY of them is The Key. We are willing to put up 10,000 dollars for any solid valid information as to what The Key is, and I urge the rest of you who don’t know, to admit it, and contribute to that fund.” She finished with a certain something that was sort of like banging a gavel, only without the hammer.
Denmar blinked and said, “Well, if this KEY is so important, why don’t you just ask the catgirl?”
“You know where she is?” Snakelips sneered.
“Tall Were, maybe half a head taller’n I am, long chocolate brown hair, tuxedo coloring, dark blue synthetic silk wraparound dress that looks like she bought it at a Discount ‘Fashion Outlet’, three big old brass bangles on her left wrist, on a budget but cleans up good?” There was a general nodding to this, “Yeah, just before this guy grabbed me,” she jerked a thumb at one of Staretski’s goons, “I spotted her going into the Kilimanjaro Room with some chunky sleaze ball.” Powell showed her a JPEG of Stavrel. “Yeah! That’s him!”
Suddenly, Staretski just wasn’t there, and his two goons charged out of the room like it was on fire. There was some hurried looking around, Dimanche also disappeared, and for the rest it was like Third Grade at the end bell for the last day of school. There was a general grabbing at whatever was at hand, but I grabbed both of the emeralds (Staretski left his) and the Lamp. Which left the crew, Flynn, Jett Adore, her manager, and a guy I hadn’t noticed before who had all the marks of a bodyguard, standing around looking at each other.
The manager, who was tucking six thick bundles of cash and a nowhere as thick clip of Nick Scratch’s markers into his jacket pocket, asked Denmar, “So… did you really spot Stavrel and that catgirl up in that club?”
“Nope!” Denmar chirped. “I just figured that it was getting too tight, and we really needed to wrap it up before anyone got antsy. This way, nobody figures that they got ripped off, and you know how people are, they always-”
“Great thinking, Denmar,” I cut her off. Hey, we only have so many hours in the night. I gave Flynn a sharp look. “What? You’re not going along with your boss?”
“He doesn’t own me,” Flynn said, sort of defensive-like. Then he turned to the manager and said, “So, did you get what you need?”
“Some,” the manager (hey, he didn’t give his name, and we didn’t exactly have the time for formal introductions) said as he handed Jett the bottle and adjusted the fit of his clothes. He turned to Lucky and said, “There’s some unfinished business that we have to wrap up before we leave. Doing that business here wouldn’t be very smart. But I have a room ready. Care to come with us?”
Lucky pocketed that amulet that Staretski had been waving around, stuck his elbows out for Denmar and Tinjo and said, “Let’s!”
The manager took Jett’s arm, and Flynn offered me his. As we exited the Kunlun Room, Tinjo checked Flynn and me out, smirked and said, “What? He’s your boyfriend? MAN, you work fast, Jinx!”
Oh, this again? “He’s. NOT. My. Boyfriend,” I ground out through gritted teeth.
“What did I do?” Flynn asked, baffled (as he had every right to be)
“If you don’t know, then I’m not telling you,” I pouted, miffed (which I had NO real right to be) And, YES, I actually said that. I’m not proud of it, but there you are. Then something occurred to me: “If you’re working for Jett’s manager, then how did you mange to attach yourself to Staretski’s crew?”
“Like I told you, it’s complicated,” Flynn growled.
Jett’s guy led us up the stairs to the second level, and used a key card to get into yet another private corridor. There is something seriously whack about Stavrel’s design priorities with this place. Come to think of it, there’s something seriously whack about Jett’s manager. I mean, usually celebs like Jett have entourages the size of small armies. But all Jett has is the manager and that one bodyguard. And why were they at that swap meet?
I felt a little better when we got into the room. It had that ‘VIP Lounge’ vibe, and there were a bunch of guys waiting for us. That entourage that I was expecting, probably. None of the usual handler types, but that’s to be expected. The hair stylists and personal assistants and other professional hand-holders are probably back at her digs.
Lucky accepted a drink from one of the entourage and settled into one of those very comfy looking chairs. I took my mouthpiece position beside Lucky, and was about to ask what this ‘unfinished business’ was, but then Tinjo’s iCom went off. So, of course, we hadda hold off while she handled that. It wasn’t Jack, she didn’t have that reaction, so it was either Leo or Bats. But as Tinjo was keeping it as cryptic as possible, while still managing to get whatever she was trying to say understandable to Leo or Bats, I was having a problem of my own: for some reason, that one of those guard-types was bugging the hell out of me. He was a pretty average looking guy in a dark gray evening suit with a black shirt and a silver lame tie. He was wearing a blue brocade vest with a pocket watch with a shark’s tooth, a fake jade 4-leaf clover charm, and a large gold dingbob that might have been some sort of anti-bullet charm on the chain.
Wait a minute: pocket watch with a shark’s tooth, a fake jade 4-leaf clover charm, and a large gold dingbob that might have been some sort of anti-bullet charm on the chain? I looked again, and while his face didn’t have the focus or animation that I associate with him, that’s Hatch! Okay, to be honest it was that he wasn’t wearing that white suit that really threw me at first, but that’s Hatch!
But Hatch is dead!
Suddenly, that lack of focus and animation makes a lot more sense. Sick, disgusting, just plain wrong sense, but sense.
I carefully studied Jett’s other guys in the room, and sure enough, one of ‘em was Rankin (or Green Lantern, if you gotta), and two of them could have been twins, so I’m guessing that they was those nastier-than-goons of Scratch’s.
“What?” Tinjo screeched, “Tuxedo Mary? What would Tuxedo Mary be doing here? The Kilimanjaro Room? You’re kidding me, right? Go! Get him OUT of there! Why? Because any second, it’s gonna be a BATTLEFIELD, that’s why!”
Tinjo suddenly became very aware of the room, and shut down her iCom. “uhm, an emergency’s just come up. We have to get up to the Third Level, and like NOW,” she said very carefully. “As much as we’d-”
The Manager grabbed the purse that Tinjo was reaching for and kept it away from her. The guy standing beside Lucky shoved him back into his chair, a guy stepped up to Denmar’s side, and Flynn pulled my purse from my shoulder. “Be calm,” the Manager (okay, Nick Scratch, who’s fooling who?) said. “We’re going to finish our business here. There’s no use in you going to go help your friends. You were quite right; that’s going to be a battlefield, and you wouldn’t be able to help your friends any and you’d probably get killed in the fracas. And, as I said, we have business. So, why don’t you just relax, finish that drink, and we’ll get down to business?”
“LUCKY!” I snapped, “Don’t Drink It! He’s Nick Scratch!”
Lucky, who had, lucky that way, not drunk any of it but had his lips pursed to do just that, stopped and looked at the drink and then the manager.
“MAN, you just live to spoil my fun, don’t you?” Scratch dropped his mask and pouted in my direction.
I looked at Flynn and said in my best disappointed mother’s voice, “You work for Nick Scratch?”
“Wow, you got screwed over by a good-looking guy already?” Tinjo cracked, “That’s got to be some kind of record, Jinx.”
“He has my Marker,” Flynn growled, in what I guessed was as much annoyance at Old Scratch as at me.
“He has your marker? What IS this? A Damon Runyon story?”
“I HAVE to do what he tells me to,” he said very carefully, looking straight into my eyes.
“Yeah, and you better remember that, Slick,” Old Nick said as he rummaged through Tinjo’s purse. “What IS this? A jewelry heist? A cheap jewelry heist?” Tinjo growled like an annoyed cat at him, and promised seven different kinds of pain with her eyes. “So, aside from those two, who’re probably going to get trashed in the K room, was there any sign of any backup for these four?”
“Not so much as a shadow,” Flynn said. “Like she said, there was a big dustup at the bar where she had the stuff stashed, six guys who she ran into somewhere, and I had to take care of them all by myself. If she does have any backup, then they’d be more of an asset as hostages than a threat. And I checked her purse; just some more cheap jewelry, a weird electronic gadget, a few bits of this and that, and a bottle of perfume.” For some reason, the ‘bottle of perfume’ seemed to trigger a response with him.
But Old Nick didn’t notice and grinned with evil glee. “Well then! Let’s get down to business then!” With a wicked gleam in his eye, he drew and opened that straight razor with a vicious click. But Flynn reacted to that. Apparently Scratch’s hold wasn’t as total as advertised. But Scratch noticed that as well. “hmm… Why don’t you… go watch the door? The hallway door, so no one comes in unexpectedly? There’s been a rash of that lately.”
Mulishly, Flynn let go of my arm and went through the door. “Now that that’s done with,” that evil grin was back, “let’s have some FUN!”
He held up that razor and went right for Lucky. “Let’s start with YOU…” Nick gloated. He grabbed Lucky’s face and held the razor right under Lucky’s eye. “You know what I want…” Stumbling, Lucky handed his walking stick over to Nick. “IS THIS SOME KIND OF SICK JOKE?” Scratch demanded and tried to crack the Luckster’s noggin, but only broke the stick on the back of the chair. Fumbling around, Lucky dug into one pocket and handed over Staretski’s gold medallion. “Ah… now that’s more like it…” But the grin dropped off of Scratch’s red face as he studied the medallion. “Well, of course…” he muttered to himself, “That’s the only way that that tightass would part with anything, even in a swap meet.”
He tossed the medallion to one of his goons. “Hold this.” Then, he took a deep breath, let it out and bucked up. “Now… who’s next?”
Denmar let out a squeak of panic, which was just the sort of thing that’s music to Scratch’s ears. He turned around to follow the sound, and again, I don’t know where this courage is coming from, normally I’m a 14-karat wimp, but I put myself between Scratch and Denmar, yelling, “Hey, hey, HEY! Leave her alone!”
“Oh, of course!” Old Nick drawled with treacly delight, “you…” He went at me with the razor. But just as I was wrapping my head around the fact that he was gonna cut me with that thing, he stopped, reached over and pulled the lamp out of my hand. “Now…” he said, with fire dancing with hellish glee in his eyes, “the emerald. You can’t possibly use it, and you’ll only get in all sorts of trouble if you try to keep it. So give it to me. Now.”
He placed that razor against the skin of my face, and it was hot, and all that bravery that came from God only knows where just rushed out of my body. I fumbled around and handed him the emerald. “BOTH of them.”
“Please…” I whimpered as I went for the second gem, “please don’t hurt me…”
“Oh, I won’t hurt you,” Nick promised with such syrupy sweet sincerity that you just knew he was lying. “I promise, I swear!”
I handed it over, and the stone tingled slightly in my hand as I did it.
Grinning even more widely than before, Nick placed the two gems together. Both were flat on one side, like they was two halves of the same bigger jewel, and they sort of stuck that way. Holding the joint emerald in his left hand, he raised the razor in his right to take a whack at me. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me!” I screamed.
“And you believed me?” he cackled. He chopped downwards. I tried to dodge, but the razor cut me in my breast and I screamed with pain. I fell to the floor, clutching at my breast as-
-hey, wait a minute! I don’t have breasts! These are illusions, what I’ve been using as pockets!
Oh, it’s that stupid mask tripping me up. The same glamour that told me I was a hawt chick was telling me that my boob had just been cut and it hurt like hell. Once I realized that, it didn’t hurt anymore. Still, that knocked me out of the panic I was in, and I sensed that Old Nick was right over me, probably bracing for the killing blow, and only waiting because Tinjo and Denmar were screaming like teakettles, and he just digs the hell out of that.
Of course, Old Nick doesn’t know it, but he’s in the absolute worst position to be in, when facing an Avian. We Avians don’t kick-fight very much, ‘cause between these powerful legs of ours and the big honking talons on our feet, we could disembowel a man, and that just weirds the hell out of Pounders. But if I disemboweled Nick Scratch, all’s anyone would say is, ‘Give ‘im another one’.
The pad on my feet kept Nick’s entrails from strewing all over the place, but he still went flying, shedding the lamp, the stone and his razor in the process. And in yet another example of Jack’s uncanny ability to show up right after all the hard work is done, he and Ace burst through the door, guns drawn. I hit the floor, as none of our crowd is exactly famous for spending hours upon hours at the shooting range. Instead of shooting, Jack threw Lucky that walking stick, the one with real bite, and Ace tossed Tinjo one of the component guns we’d taken from Fats’ crew.
Tinjo. With a gun. Yes, it has gotten just THAT bad.
Ace yelled at me, “Flywheel!” Okay, it took me a long moment to realize that he was talking about the flywheel component in my purse. I scrambled for my purse and slid it across the floor to him.
Then Jack opened up with two guns, one in each hand, like he sees on TV, and for the fiftieth time that night, I was wondering how I was gonna explain wearing a dress to St. Peter. Then Hatch, or at least Hatch’s body lurched forward and advanced on Jack and Ace. “Don’t waste your ammo!” I yelled, “He’s already dead, you can’t kill him anymore!” Rummaging around in my cleavage, I managed to find the packet of green paper, which had the Essence of Wood in it. Like most of the Elemental Essences, it had several uses, but what I was going for was that it really messes with the Walking Dead. Unfolding the packet, I blew the powder around the zombie’s legs, and it stopped, rooted in its tracks. Literally, rooted.
Seeing that Hatch was stopped, Jack yelled, “Run for it!” Ace, who had managed to slap the flywheel into the gun and get it going, covered Tinjo and Denmar as they ran for the door. Lucky pounded his way around the goons with the rood, and got to me. But Old Nick wasn’t having any of that. With a loud growl, he stretched out his hand, and his razor slid into his hand from a good ten feet away. He picked himself up into a crouch and came at Lucky and me with a vaulting leap. Going for the boob-vault again, I pulled out a packet of, well, anything, and lucked out. It was a packet of Essence of Water, and it hit the hottest thing in the room square on.
Old Nick went up in a cloud of steam and hit the floor all wrong. He was (literally) boiling mad, but Lucky and I managed to get out the door with the rest as the steam clouded over the entire room (and probably played absolute hob with the wallpaper). Barely pausing, I sprinkled my only packet of Essence of Earth across the threshold of the door. Anyone crossing the door would find the going slow and tiring, like slogging through a heavy mud. Well, at least it would until Old Scratch dismissed the effect. Which would probably take him less time that it did to say it, but still he’d have to stop and do it, which would cost him more time than it took me, and every second’s valuable.
Especially when a roadblock like Flynn is standing right there at the door to freedom.
We came to a screeching halt a foot in front of Flynn, who was standing there, and I knew that he was at least good enough to take out either Bats or Leo one-on-one, and either of them could handle the rest of us without raising a sweat. He looked right at me and said, “I’ve been told to guard this door, and I will guard this door. I have no choice.” Then a sneaky smile crossed his lips. “I was told to let no one come IN this door. Nobody said anything about keeping anyone from going OUT.” He stepped aside.
Jack barely paused to say, “Yer a dude!” on his way out the door.
“Come with us!” I told Flynn. “If you’re not here, then Scratch can’t give you orders, and God knows, we’re gonna need the backup!”
“Doesn’t work that way,” Flynn said with real regret. “I gotta guard this stupid door until Scratch gives me other orders.”
“But if you’re here, the first thing that Scratch is gonna tell you is to find us and KILL us!”
“Maybe… but of course, there’s nothing that says that I have to do a good job of finding you, now is there? I mean, obviously, you’re going to hide in the alley out back, right?” he finished with a big wiseass grin.
I thanked him with a kiss and was out the door.
Yes, I kissed him. It was the right thing to do. Get over it.
And, as soon as we were on the other side of the door and into the second level lobby, Lucky was all, “So, he IS your boyfriend?” in my face.
“Will you graduate from Second Grade already?” I snarled back.
“Enough of that crap!” Tinjo snapped, hurrying us along. “We gotta get to the Kilimanjaro Room, like NOW! And will you put that stupid rifle thing away? The last thing we need is for Security to come down on us now!”
“Hey, Security has bigger things to worry about than-” Ace started. Then the link clicked. “Hey! You mean… that wasn’t a shuck to get out of there?”
But Jack saw the larger, sicker horror of it. “And Leo has a huge thing for Tuxedo Mary. There’s no way that he’d let those clowns try to shake down Tux to make her give up something, especially not after what happened with Alvarez in the Andes Room!” Something happened in the Andes Room? And who’s Alvarez? “And Bats would never let Leo down. And once anything got started, Leo’d rather die than back down in front of Tux, and Bats doesn’t know HOW to back down!”
Denmar’s eyes went wide and she peeped, “oh crap.” Does it make me a bad person that I’m gratified that EVERYONE seems to be falling on their faces tonight, even the ones who normally just sail on through without a hitch, and not just me?
We started for the stairs, but Tinjo, probably remembering our escape plan from earlier, tugged us in the direction of the emergency stairs. No alarms went off, at least none that we could hear, but we still took advantage of being alone for a change, to jump up the two flights to the next floor and get out, before anyone could answer that (probable) alarm.
When we got to the Kilimanjaro Room, my first thought was that the club manager must be having full-grown mountain lions. There was a squad of Security types huddled out front of the Kilimanjaro Room, weapons drawn and looking way too much like a Police cordon. And the Third level was the club’s gravy boat, so they were disturbing the Prime Customers. Of course, considering that they were trying to nail the guy who’d most likely tried to waltz off with their paychecks, the Security guys probably weren’t that worried about Customer Relations just at the moment.
One of them peeled off to deal with us as we walked up, but he squawked when he saw the Linac gun, and suddenly we were looking into a LOT of guns that were in the hands of people who actually knew how to use them, and a couple of them had obvious targeting wire. Since that seems to be my designated function tonight, I held up my hands and whooped, “WHOA! Chill! We’re here as backup.”
“Who sent you?”
“Where’s Jogun? He can vouch for me. I’m the one who clued him in.”
One of them flashed me for a picture with an iCom, and buzzed it over to Jogun, who apparently sent back a provisional okay. “Why are you here, and what’s with the cannon?”
“The Gun?” I paused and waved that aside. “We don’t have the time. The short form is that two of ours are in there, and if it goes pear-shaped, they WILL be in the middle of it. Oh, and one of them practices, ah… ‘The Art’,” I mimed a ‘kung fu move’ to illustrate. “If she’s there when the dreck hits the fan- and if the people who I think are in there are in there, it WILL hit the fan and hard- she’ll kick up the mayhem by at least two notches. BUT if, um, He and She,” I pointed to Jack and Tinjo, “can go in there and try to talk a little sense into them, and maybe get them OUT of there before the blood hits the wall, then maybe we can keep the havoc down to a point where we won’t have to call in SWAT?” Well… it could happen? Couldn’t it?
“Which ones?” the Security guy, a Caprine with some regrettably goat-like horns that went along with an even more regrettably goat-like face that he probably didn’t like being reminded of.
“Big guy, square jaw, slight shelf brow, good suit, matching brass-tone silk cravat and brocade vest, and a small chick, like up to his chest, short blonde hair, black leather miniskirt-and-vest combo, pink turtleneck and matching stockings? She was very hot on the dance floor, about two hours or so ago.”
“Any chance that she’ll be able to talk him out of there?”
“Problem,” Tinjo cut in. “SHE’S the real problem. She has the temper, she’s got something to prove, and she’s the Kidoka. And he will probably do everything he can to back her up once she blows her top.”
Billygoat grimaced, and I felt for him. “Who’s your ramrod on this?” I asked.
“Jogun,” he grunted, jerking a thumb inside, as to say that the big guy was inside, on the spot and all that jazz.
I was about to ask something, when I was cut off. “-so the carrier wave is designed to combine both control and recharge functions, while not interfering with comm bands for any other system. This means that the taser and dazzler functions can recharge without shutting down the remotes. And, each unit has an 8-shot reservoir of whatever mace alternative you happen to have. Now, I think that if we group-” then he noticed that we were all glaring at him. “WHAT? I was just showing how we can back up the house drones, and-” Only Ace would try to mack on a Security chick, using tech-spiel as a come-on.
Then again, only Ace could mack on a Security chick using tech-spiel as a come-on, and get her interested.
Billygoat was gruffing into his iCom and then said to me, “Jo-man says those two can go inside and do their thing, as long as they keep it low-key. And he wants to see you inside, too.”
“ME?” I squeaked, “Why does he want to see me?” Hey, you could get SHOT in there!
“He says that he wants to have a nice long talk with you later, and he doesn’t wanna havta go lookin’ for you. Besides, he says that you know so much about what’s goin’ on, you might know what’s gonna happen, and he wants you on the spot, right along with him.”
THIS is the downside of people taking you seriously; they take you seriously enough to think that you’re dangerous.
Carefully tucking guns where they won’t show if you don’t look too hard, Jack, Tinjo and I pulled ourselves together. I handed that stupid purse over to Denmar and, like jumping into a really cold swimming pool, we went in.
What can I say? I was a disco. A top-end disco too, with lit floors, strobing lights, throbbing music, trim athletic young bodies throwing themselves around to the latest hits. You couldn’t really see that much of anything, what with all the flashing and strobing and throbbing, which made it hard to get a good look at who you were dancing with; which was probably a good thing for your chances later on. But it sucked for my chances of getting TO a later on, given who’s out there in the constantly shifting shadows.
Fortunately (or whatever) Jogun stood head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. And the discreet space between him and everyone else helped. Tinjo made sure that our iComs were linked, that we could follow each other if it came down to that, and shoved me off in Jogun’s direction. As I walked up to him, Jogun grunted, “So, the Lady in Red arrives. Or green, or whatever. Alright, what the hell is really going on here?”
Oh frack, why not? “Ask Suzy Midnight,” I groaned. “Look, my crew came here to do a job. None of it landed in your lap, so that’s none of your business. We should have been out of here an hour ago. But then Suzy Midnight got involved, and hilarity ensued.” Jogun snarled. “It gets worse. Not only is Nick Scratch on your patch, but now he’s got that lamp and the bottle AND both of those emeralds. Get this: you put them together.” I mimed just that.
Jogun winced. “It’s time that someone tied that forked tail of his around that scumbag’s neck and hung him from it.” Then he looked at me. “So, what do you think Suzy Midnight’s up to?”
“Not a clue, Hoss. Whatever it is, it’s WAY too complicated for me, with moving parts that I don’t know about, and I’m willing to bet that the real hook is something that neither of us even know exists. As soon as we talk some sense into those two, we are OUT of here!” Yeah, I know, I know; I keep saying that. And I keep meaning it. If only the rest of the world would play along. Looking around, I asked, “So, how does this all add up?”
“The Mexican Cantina,” he grunted, by which me meant it was like that bit in all those bad old Westerns that just won’t up and die like they ought to. All the players in whatever shmebuggle the movie’s about are all in the same saloon or cantina, and everybody’s on edge, but nobody wants to make a move, ‘cause the first one to do anything will probably get the smeg shot out of him by all the others. And, well, there you are.
“Where’s Stavrel?” I asked. Jogun pointed to where the sleaze in question was, at sitting at a booth with two guys who could have had ‘hired gun’ tattooed on their foreheads. I noticed that for some reason, Stavrel was very calm, kicking back and enjoying himself. Which was odd, when you consider how many people who want to roast him slowly over a fire are in this room.
“He’s pulling something, I can feel it,” Jogun snarled. “He’s a wiseass, and he’s about to pull something big, and he’s gloating, ‘cause we can’t see what it is, and he knows it.”
Near the booth, Tux and ‘Jazz’ were talking with Jack, who was trying to cut some orders, but Leo wasn’t listening, and Tux wasn’t helping. I couldn’t hear, but the body language was speaking loud and clear. Jack was trying to get Leo to leave with him, but Leo was so wrapped up in whatever mess Tux was involved with that he’d rather die than let her down. And Tux didn’t know what ‘Jazz’ was about, but she wasn’t gonna wise up a chump when said sucker was putting herself between Tux and a whoopin’.
I spotted Tinjo talking to Bats, and while there wasn’t the ‘this is MUTINY I tell you!’ vibe with them, I could tell that it was heading in pretty much the same direction. “Oh, this is gonna be ugly,” I groaned.
Then I noticed that ‘Jazz’ was lugging around two purses: the one that Tinjo gave her, and a bulky squarish one. That squarish purse did not go at ALL with Tux’s outfit, and I got a very bad feeling about it.
Then Stavrel noticed something, and his attitude changed. Slightly. He got up, adjusted the fit of his jacket, and ambled over to where Jack was talking to Leo, and pulled a thick envelope from his jacket pocket. Every eye (more or less) on him, Stavrel handed the envelope to Tux. With the air of a man who’s seen his duty and done it he strode out into the middle of the dance floor, punched something into his phone, and disappeared down a trap door, leaving his two bodyguards behind. His bodyguards sort of gawped at the trap door. I kind of get the impression that Stavrel gets off on backstabbing his own people.
And it was Mexican Cantina, the firefight stage, as all the players went nuts.
And the weird thing is, I kinda doubt that the disco dancers even noticed. They just kept dancing like nothing was going down. And while Staretski may have been way off his turf, being 60 stories up, what with all that darkness and those shifting shadows, he was right at home. All he needed was some spooky mist, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the club didn’t have a fog machine. Staretski was there, being guarded by his two goons, and he concentrated, and the shadows came alive. And the dancers never picked up on a thing.
But Leo and Tux saw the creeps heading for them, just like Staretski wanted, and Tux was obligingly freaking out at the sight. But apparently Leo saw something that poor Mr. Jacobs never picked up on: the creeps were sort of bound to the ground, or floor or whatever. They tended to lie real low. So Leo scooped Tux up in his arms, jumped up and literally walked on the dancers’ heads. As they went past Staretski, Leo gave him a good kick on the chin, and stomped down real hard on his head on the way over.
As Leo got Tux out of the creeps’ path, the other players converged. Even in the dark, I could make out guns being drawn. Firearms, in a crowded discotheque; yeah, that was Jogun’s reaction too. He snarled something very police procedure-ish (Tinjo would know better; it was just a lot of numbers and letters and brief words to me) into his iCom and waded into the fray.
And me? Hey, I’m no hero, and I’d been bitten on the ass by trying to be brave tonight, a bunch of times. This time I did the smart thing and ducked under the table of an unused booth, where it was (comparatively) safe. Giving myself a moment to pull myself together, I started furiously thinking about what I should do. Okay, yet again, our prime move is to get the frack OUT of this loony bin! Now that I had that squarely in my head, the first obvious step in getting there was getting the crew together. Again. Going out there and trying to find anyone was just asking to get creamed. Hey, there are guys out there who actively want to hurt me, and the wimpiest of ‘em could take me out without raising a sweat! I ain’t leaving this booth without backup! So… backup. When I say ‘backup’ the first name that pops into my head is Bats. Well, here’s hoping that he hasn’t gotten himself shot or anything. I knew that his iCom was on (he’d called Tinjo), but I hadda give his unit that ‘hey you got an emergency call hanging!’ buzz a couple of times before he picked up. [WHAT?]
[I’m BUSY here!]
“Bats, we gotta get the crew together, and I’m counting on you to bring ‘em in, one at a time. I’m in the second booth on the right. No, the second booth on the other right. Yeah, that’s me, I’m giving you a flash, see it? Cool. Get out of whatever you’re in, and get over here.”
[You got something, Jinx? ‘Cause I’m up to my ass in alligators here, and getting bit hard!] He sounded scared. Thank God, he actually understood how deep in it we were.
“Yeah, I got something, so get over here, and I’ll have it ready for you by the time you get here.” And, by the time that he got there, I’d figured out which packet was what, and I did have it ready for him. “You got gloves?”
“Put ‘em on, and slip your cravat over your face. Yes, it’s important.” As he did so, I explained, “Essence of Sleeping Metal. And YES, it’s Steel.” Bats nodded his understanding. The powder would give all the cloth he was wearing the hardness and stopping power of steel, but not weigh anymore. For the next few hours, he was for all practical purposes wearing a suit of plate armor. He was even wearing steel knuckle dusters. I blew the powder on him, and he changed his bearing. He rapped a knuckle on his sleeve, and gave me a thumbs up. “Okay, first things first: We get Tinjo over here, then Jack, and then, if Leo’s still in the disco, we get him. If not, we get out of here, and track him down. But first, we get Tinjo, ‘cause if nothing else, we can trust her to talk sense to Jack.” I checked the locator on her iCom. “She’s over there… by the light column.” Bats gave me another thumbs-up and waded through the fray.
I thought about following how Bats’ was doing with my new netplex, but then I remembered that the netplex, and the cinespex, the multitool and all the other cool stuff that I’d bought- and the money, and the jewelry, and damn near everything else was gone, and all that I had was this stupid purse full of, well, pricey perfume, some nice undies, and a smegload of jewelry that I wasn’t sure was worth anything or not. But the thing that really burned my biscuits was losing my magical tools! I even had Blowhard, an air elemental, and the only spirit that I’ve actually managed to bind so far in there!
Willing myself to shove that aside (mundanes have no appreciation for how much work goes into making a decent set of magical tools), I settled on using my iCom. That netplex would have given me access to a whole range of sensors in that area, and I could probably even filter out the music and other background noise to hear what was going down. But I’d have to settle for the iCom, which would amplify the light and filter out all the distractions, so I could at least see what Bats was up to.
From the way that Bats was holding up one hand to his eye as he made his way through the crowd, I got the idea that he was doing the same thing I was, more or less: using his iCom to navigate. We Avians have great distance vision, but in the dark, with all these distractions? Not so much. And the mask was fracking with his directional sense, too. With Bats squarely on his way, I buzzed Tinjo to let her in on my plan and Bats was coming.
But even after a few angry buzzes, she didn’t answer. Using the locator to find peg her, I spotted her with my iCom, and found out why. It was hard to spot, but Tinjo had gotten cornered by two guys. Or, more accurately, by this one slick-looking customer with a smirk and a guy who had the slightly blasé look of paid backup. Slick had Tinjo backed into a corner, and he was giving her a look that reminded me uncomfortably of a bunch of guys back in school who liked to get me alone in a corner like that and make me sweat, whether they beat me up or not. And they beat me up often enough to really make me sweat. To be honest, I couldn’t quite get whether Slick was trying to work Tinjo for something, macking on her, just bullying her for the jollies, or some weird combination of any or all of the above.
And why wasn’t Tinjo ripping him a new one?
But even as I framed the question, the answer came to me: Tinjo was a very good judge of badass. She knew who was bullsmegting and who could make good on their threats. Which meant that Slick or his backup, probably both, had shown her that they could handle her without upsetting the crowd. Of course, the fact that it was two-to-one helped, but then it always did.
Then Bats stepped up, and unfortunately it took him about three seconds too many to size up the situation. Slick got up in his face, and I noticed a third guy sort of melt out of the darkness on Bats’ blindside. Oh, and I noticed that Slick was fiddling with his right wrist in a way that kicked up my paranoia something fierce.
Having nothing better to do at this range, I gave Slick the Horns of Malediction just as he was bringing whatever it was on his wrist to use on Bats. Whatever it was went off wrong, and instead of hitting Bats, it got the guy who was coming up his 40 and got him bang in the face. Now Bats may have been a tad slow on pegging Slick and his crew, but he wasn’t stupid. He ignored Slick and did a nasty footstomp- gutshot-headcrack-kneesmack combo that took down Slick’s wingman just like that. Slick was fast enough to give Bats a wicked punch to the jaw, but he wasn’t expecting to hit the equivalent of plate steel. As Slick reeled and coddled his aching hand, Tinjo took advantage of all that to pull out a can of Mace and spritzed him in the eyes with it.
Bats got Tinjo out of that and towed her to my booth. As he was doing that, I called Jack. But again, he didn’t answer my buzzes. I had a very bad feeling about that. Using the locator, I nailed down Jack’s position, and I managed to spot him with my iCom’s visual function. He was talking very intently with a tall, very hawt redheaded chick in a very stylin’ red mindress. The thing is that while she was, like, ohmigawd hot, she was also, ah, how shall I put this? … buff…? Like she might be a better match for, say, Bats, ‘cause she might just hurt Jack? VERY physical. While she pulled it off very well, and she probably got a lot of action in the gym, she was a bit too, ah, Amazonian for Jack’s usual tastes. They were talking very intently, and I had a sudden feeling that if Tinjo got mixed up in this, it could get very nasty.
Bats got Tinjo to the booth and I dragged her under the table. “Jack’s over there, and he looks like he could use a hand,” I told Bats. There, that covered everything, while being vague enough that it wouldn’t set off Tinjo.
“Why’re we under the table?” Tinjo demanded. As if in answer, someone hit the floor face-first about five feet in front of the table, and was dragged off into the darkness. And the dancers never noticed a thing. “Okay, good call,” she admitted.
“Once Bats gets back with Jack, we go together to get Leo,” I explained. “If you and Jack can’t talk him into coming with us, we drag him out of here, and get the hell out of here before anything else drops out of the sky.”
“Good plan, Jinx,” Tinjo said. “Nice, simple, straightforward, right to the point. But there’s a problem.” She pointed out into the crowd. “Why isn’t anyone picking up that there’s a fight going on? Nobody gets that much into dancing. Especially a piece of bubblegum crap like that.”
Damn. She was right. “One of the Wizards doesn’t want Security cribbing his play. As long as Security’s trying to keep the crowd from panicking, the Wizards can pull off almost anything.” As I turned to keep tabs on Bats and Jack with my iCom, I changed the topic, “So, what was the deal with Bond, James Bond? I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to pick you up or shake you down.”
“What?” Tinjo waffled, “You’re the only one who can pick up a cute guy?” I gave her a warning ‘don’t make me tell Jack’ glare. She gave a low annoyed groan and gave up, “Okay, I was on my own, he was cute, well-dressed and had a class act going down. We flirted- you know how it is, Jinx- and then it comes out that he was interested in that emerald thing, and he saw me with you and… it sorta went downhill real quick. When that creep Dimanche and his crawly girlfriend came along, it seemed like a step in the right direction.” She paused like she was a little confused. “But just now… he was like it wasn’t just business, that he was, y’know, really trying something. But I don’t get why I couldn’t scare him off.”
“Ah, Tinjo? Glamour or no glamour, you ARE a babe, y’know.”
“Yeah, but I could always get rid of the creeps, no problem, but it just wasn’t working with him?”
Wait a minute… glamour… “The mask! You manage to get rid of guys, ‘cause you know how to back up what you say with the right body language and all like that. But the glamour is covering up all of that, so you were saying one thing, but your face and body language were saying another.”
Tinjo winced and groaned, “And that’s the surest way to get an asshole to think that you’re playing flirt games with him!” She slumped at the thought, looked ahead just to think of anything else and snapped to. “What is that bimbo doing with Jack?”
From what I could tell through my iCom, Bats had tried to convince the redhead that Jack had to come with him. There seemed to be some misunderstanding, and Red gave Bats a sweeping crescent kick to the jaw that sent the big guy reeling. Oh crap again. That move, along with her gym-rat physique, don’t just suggest, they kind of spell out that Red practices ‘the Art’, which is that turbo-charged, Ki-empowered near-magic Kidoka stuff that Leo practices. Bats has a very good chance of getting his ass kicked, Essence of the Sleeping Metal or not.
Now, I’m not a big martial arts buff (hey, when you study Magic, you can’t afford to just dabble, a little of this, a little of that, you gotta FOCUS!), but I got the distinct impression that Red either practiced Capoeira, that Brazilian martial art, or at least worked big parts of it into her personal style, ‘cause her moves were very heavy on spins, kicks, legsweeps and complex moves, and she seemed to have a fondness for those really high kicks. Mind you, with those legs, in that dress, I was not complaining.
Then to make it truly surreal, the DJ hit them with the spotlight, and Red went into showoff overdrive, getting her dancy pants on as she smacked the hell out of Bats. A circle formed around them and the other dancers encouraged Red on to new heights. Can’t say that I blamed them; if my buddy Bats wasn’t getting his ass handed to him, it’d be a great show.
Seeing that the other fights were calming down some, Tinjo and I crawled out from under the table to watch the fight. “Why isn’t Bats handing that bitch her ass?” Tinjo asked. “She’s farting around too much; he could just close, get a grip on her and end this!”
“’Cause she’s a chick,” I pointed out. “Bats was always big, even before his wings came in. He can cut loose on a guy, ‘cause that’s what it comes down to. But a chick? He’d never hit a girl, not even a girl who was whaling the hell out of him. He’s trying to get a grip on her that won’t hurt her; she knows it, and she’s using it.”
“But she’s beating the crap out of him!”
“Doesn’t matter. That’s the code he lives by. He’d rather get the crap pounded out of by a girl in public than break his code.”
That quieted Tinjo some; let’s face it, for all the Feminist yap about being equal, there aren’t many women who think that a taboo against hitting women is a bad thing. “Why don’t you DO something?”
“Like what? I’m open to suggestions here.”
“Well, HEX her or something?”
“Hex a Kidoka?” I shook my head. “Bad Mojo, big time. Besides, I don’t know enough about that level of fighting. A good hex has a clear idea of what you want to do, and if you try to do something impossible or just wrong, you wind up making the situation worse. And a blind hex, without any definition? In something like this? Recipe for disaster. Bats has enough on his plate.”
Tinoj grumped at me, but then she spotted something in the crowd, and got all bristly. “Who’s that with Jack?”
Looking where she was giving the stink-eye, I saw Jack. “Oh, that’s Tuxedo Mary. I guess that he’s trying to get her away from all the people who want to grill her.”
“That’s Tuxedo Mary? DANG, she cleans up good!”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “but that’s not really the thing: Where’s Leo?”
My question was instantly answered as Leo, or Jazz, or whoever did a Spiderman jump over the heads of the lookie-lews, into the circle and pretty much took over the fight from Bats. Leo spent too much time in the ring, sparring with women who’d kick his ass if he went easy on them, to go along with Bats’ code of chivalry thing. And Bats was indeed getting his bell rung something fierce. Besides, Leo doesn’t just practice The Art- he LOVES to mix it up.
Leo caught Red’s leg as she was in the middle of one of those crescent kicks, and spun her into an awkward throw that spilled her onto the ground. Red gave Leo a growl, and it was on like Donkey Kong (whatever the hell ‘Donkey Kong’ is). The crowd let Bats out of ‘the ring’ and cheered on the new addition to the act. Jack and Tux helped Bats through the crowd, and Tinjo and I managed to catch their eye without drawing the attention of any of the jackals.
Or at least we thought we did. As Jack walked Bats and Tux over to where we were (where we could duck under the table if things got nasty), Tinjo’s recent good buddy ‘007’ sidled up out of the crowd and grabbed her by the arm, holding something that looked suspiciously gun-like at us. “Well, darling,” he purred, like he was trying to be debonair or something, “DO-”
I didn’t wait to hear whatever bad movie line he was gonna use; I just hexed him from the far side of Tinjo. His ‘gun’ backfired on him, spraying what looked to be some kind of anti-personnel mist into his face. Tinjo, always quick on the uptake, immediately took the ‘gun’ from him, and Bats had recovered enough that he simply decked the asshole. Bond James Bond went down, and Tinjo pressed the gun against him. From the way he jerked, I’d say that he sprung for a handshocker as well as a mace sprayer.
“’DARLING’?” Jack growled dangerously, like he was champing at the bit for one of their famous knockdown-dragout screaming matches.
But Tux beat him to it. Spotting me, she blurted out, “YOU? Who ARE you people?”
“We, ah, met a while ago, under rather stressful conditions,” I explained. “The situation hasn’t improved much,” I added.
“Like I told you,” Jack said to Tux, rising to the occasion, “we’re just people who happen to have, right at this moment, a vested interest in seeing to it that you get out of here.” Jack shot us a look that said that if Tux got out, then Leo would agree to leave, and then WE could leave.
Of course, that would also mean prying Leo loose of the catfight that he was clearly digging the hell out of.
But then Dimanche strolled up out of the darkness, all badass, with his skull-face showing and a big mass of snakes that were like ropes of darkness with red eyes and flashes of fangs crawling all around him. Pointing his skull-capped cane at us, he demanded, “Give me the envelope.” To back up her man, the Snake-chick slithered out of the darkness, packing a good-sized automatic which she looked like she could handle just fine.
Tux looked at the envelope, did some serious mental calculus, and came up with ‘wtf?’ With a shrug she tossed him the envelope. Dimanche tucked his cane under his arm and carefully opened the envelope. This was a serious demerit on his ‘smooth operator’ rating card. He should ‘a known that that envelope was sucker-bait by the way that Stavrel handed it off, just before he went poof. The envelope went up in flames the second that Dimanche opened it, and a cloud of smoke that reamed my nose and stung my eyes all the way from where we were came out. As Dimanche and his girlfriend were reeling from that, Lucky came out from left field and conked the chick on the head with that cane. Bats took advantage of both of those things to plow through those snakes and take Dimanche down with a nasty combo.
And then, the whole thing went totally nuts.
After we pushed back the first wave of too-many people, there was a pause, as they checked each other out, trying to figure out how to make their move without tripping over everyone else. Staretski was there, and Professor Pickford, and the Pudge, er, sorry Powell, and even Bing and Hope.
Oh and both Barlow and Veles and their crews were there, including Ed the Horse. Maybe Tinjo’s right, and this glamour IS making me smarter. I grabbed the briefcase that Jack was still clutching, and I let out a big traffic stopping whistle. “HEY! VELES!” I yelled, “HERE’S THAT THREE MILLION DOLLARS! SORRY ABOUT THE MISTAKE!” And I scooted the briefcase in his direction. Of course, someone intercepted the briefcase. If there’s anything that you can depend on in this world, it’s that there’s always an idiot.
There was another explosion of chaos, but this time, the chaos wasn’t centered on us. Or Tux, at any rate. Jack gave a ‘heroic leader calling the charge’ let’s-go and as a group we pushed past the mass of furiously fighting opportunists, and broke through the ring. Jack grabbed Leo by the ear and dragged him out of the ring. Big Red stumbled out of the spin she’d been in, ‘cause Jack took her totally by surprise. “HEY!” she yelled, “No Fair! This isn’t over!” But she was wrong- it was. A drone dropped down and spritzed her with anti-personnel spray, and as she dealt with that, two more dropped down and zotzed her with tasers.
“Aw MAN!” Leo whined as we bustled him through the crowd, “And I was WINNING!”
“Maybe, but now we’re Leaving,” Cap’n Jack said, setting down the chain of command.
“I beg to differ,” Staretski said with that icy snarl that he does. “Just hand the girl over; you couldn’t keep her, and you couldn’t do anything with her, even if you kept her.”
“Staretski,” I cut in, “she doesn’t know anything, and besides that, you’ve got worse things to worry about: Nick Scratch has the lamp and that bottle that Dimanche was so interested in, AND both of our power gems! And get this! They’re two halves of a bigger power gem! We were both offering the real thing!”
“Don’t bother me with trivialities,” he sneered as those crawly creep things came scrambling out of the darkness at us.
I reached for a packet of Essence of Wood. The way the elements work is that each of the elements sort of ‘feeds’ one other element, and a bunch of other stuff. The element of Earth feeds the element of Wood, for obvious reasons. Also the element of Wood tends to be rather entangling, for less obvious reasons. My working theory was that the Essence of Wood would tangle up the creeps, and maybe even Staretski, and all the effort they put into tearing themselves free would only feed the wood-snare. And I’d really like to know if that theory would work, ‘cause I got the wrong packet. Old Scratch had trashed my last packet of Essence of Wood. Instead, I wasted my last packet of Essence of Water.
Interestingly, because Earth doesn’t feed Water, almost exactly the opposite, there was a burst of energy, and the creeps were sort of mired down in their own muck, but there was an almost opposite effect on everyone else: a slick formed on the floor, and everyone had to scramble like hell or fall. And finally, another thick (though very cold) fog filled the disco.
Tux pulled at Jack and said, “I know another door out of here!” She pointed off to one side, where, sure enough there was a lit ‘EXIT’ sign.
“Nice idea,” Tinjo sneered, “but how are we supposed to get over that?” she gestured at the mass of slipping and sliding people.
Jack took only a minute, showing that he might actually have some leadership qualities. “Up’n Over!”
“Hah?” Tux grunted.
“Right!” Ace pulled that vertigo thing that he ripped off from Barlow from his jacket and flashed Tux. As she reeled, he picked her up and did an Up’n Over, over the heads of everyone, using the mist as cover. And of course, the rest of us followed suit.
Not that it was that easy. We regrouped and advanced on the exit, but then a large figure stepped in front of the door. Ed the Horse blocked the exit, his hooves wide, his stance ready, and his gun drawn and aimed squarely at Tinjo. Tinjo looked at the gun and locked, and Jack wasn’t doing much better. Bats and Leo both looked like they were getting ready to do something stupid.
I admit it, I briefly, very briefly considered hexing Ed’s gun. But Ed’s got reflexes like you don’t see without some sort of augmentation; I dunno if he’s wired or not, and I don’t wanna risk Tinjo’s life that he’s not.
“Just. Stand. Still,” Ed said through clenched teeth. “Veles just wants to know where Stavrel is. All he wants is his money back, and that young lady is our best lead.”
Veles? Hearing that Jack was coming up empty again, I had an idea. I stepped forward and said, “Let me make you a counter-proposal.”
“I don’t remember making a proposal. It’s not for you to agree or disagree on; you just stand there, while the man gets here.”
I slowly reached into my purse. Ed abruptly shifted his gun to my center mass. Cautiously, carefully, I sorted through the junk in my purse and found the hard keys. I lifted them out of the purse and shook them. “These are the hard keys to the locker that Barlow rented. He and his crew tried to jump us a little while ago, and I, ah, took possession of these. With these, you have Barlow’s entire shipment, and there ain’t smeg he can do about it. If Veles gets these, he’s got what he came for, AND that two and half mil… if he’s managed to keep a hold of it. With these, you can give them to Veles… or sell them to him… or sell them to someone else… It’s none of my business… IF you let us pass…” With an evil smirk, I jangled the keys.
Still holding the gun on me with his good hand, he grabbed my hand and held it still. As he focused on the keys, I added, “Like I said before, Post, I know your reputation; you won’t pull any rip-off dreck. But on the other hand, I also know that if I pull anything with you, you won’t stop until you track me down and make me pay. I’m not stupid enough to cross you, Post.”
But Ed was only listening to this with one ear. His real attention was on the keys. Finally, he decided that they were the McCoy, and let go of my hand. With a wide horse grin, he said, “I like your style, sweetheart.”
I dropped the keys in his hand and he stepped aside.
As soon as we were in yet another service corridor, and the safety door was closed and barred, Tux told us, “Stavrel. We’ve got to find Stavrel. They’ll just keep dogging us, unless we can hand them Stavrel.”
“You know where he is?”
She nodded. “I know. He doesn’t know that I know, but I picked up that he’s got his escape route set up in the Mauna Loa room on the second level. But there’s a big hula show going on, and he’s got to wait until that whole mess is over and done with to get out. Which means we’ve only got a few minutes before he’s out of here!”
Then she shook her head, “Wait a minute… how DID we get out of the disco?”
“THIS way!” I held up the Forget charm.
“What’s that?” she asked, looking at it puzzled.
I shook the charm. Nothing. I checked my watch. It was 12:24. The medallion’s charm wears off at 12 Midnight. My, how time flies when you’re crawling over broken glass with your zipper open.
“Screw this,” Tinjo said, and she sprayed Tux with that antipersonnel mist that she got off ‘007’. As Bats caught Tux, Tinjo said, “This uses Benziprol™, a Rohypnol successor- y’know that ‘date rape drug’ they used to use? The Cops use this ‘cause it causes retrograde amnesia, by making short-term memories fade almost immediately.” She paused and mulled something over. “By the way, I never told you that. Cops hate civilians knowing they can do that.”
By the time that we were down the back stair and out of the service corridor on the second level, Tux was awake again. Confused as hell, but awake.
As she shook the woofles out of her head, Tux demanded, “Why aren’t we going to the Mauna Loa room?”
“We are,” Jack said as he checked his iCom. “But first, we gotta hook up with a couple of ours that was covering our 40. Smeg,” he muttered, shutting down the iCom. “Story of the fracking night. Let’s go crew; maybe we can at least keep this one short…” Breaking off into pairs (or a trio, with Leo and Bats on Tux), we wandered separately over to where our iComs told us Ace and Denmar were.
It was yet another of those little side bars. I was getting a very bad vibe about those bars. Way in the back, Ace was standing there, glaring daggers at this guy who could ‘a been Tinjo’s buddy ‘007’s’ frat brother. Same slick tailor, same go-to-the-gym-three-days-a-week build, same ‘gee, I’m SUCH a smooth operator’ ‘tood. He had Ace’s linear accelerator hefted pointed up in his left hand, and Denmar’s chin in his right. Denmar was giving him the evil eye, while Ace had his arms held by two more guys from the local Rent-a-Thug outlet. “Now really darling, is what I’m asking so much?” he said in a low rich velvety voice that he must have learned watching old movies. “All that I want is-”
Jack interrupted that by just walking up and putting a gun to the back of his head. “Oh, PLEASE,” the douche sneered. I’ll give him this- he had good reflexes. Couldn’t say much about his brains or judgment, but he was quick. He threw four bouncy-balls, two against either wall. Bouncy balls, which I may have mentioned, are small, golf ball-sized packets of memory plastic that absorb the knocks they take and expand, going from a small hard ball to a big gooshy bag bigger’n a man if they go far enough. They make for good takeoff aids, and if you throw ‘em right, they can save you from a nasty fall, so we Avians have a lot of experience with ‘em. So much experience that Leo caught two of ‘em, Jack caught one, and Tinjo got the last one, all on the fly, before they could get too big. Leo compressed his two in the right way and bounced them against those walls so’s they didn’t expand, but put all the recoil into hitting harder, and they did just that against douchebag’s head and gut.
His two boys dropped Ace’s arms, and went for their guns. They stopped when they looked into a wall of guns from our side. Yeah, it’s been that kind of night. Our patience with this kind of crap was whittled down to a nub. Ace took the guns from their holsters, ejected the magazines, and handed the guns back. Then he took his linear acceleration gun back, and douchebag’s gun, wallet and a few other trinkets, and we were on our merry way.
As we exited the bar, I asked Denmar, “’Darling’? What was all that about?”
“Oh, it’s all about YOU,” she snipped back.
The Mauna Loa Room was basically the Kunlun Room, but with ‘Hawaiian’ décor and a floor show. Lots of Tiki-tacky, potted palms, faux-grass huts, and a vigorous hula show by girls who may or may not have been Polynesian; my money was on the latter. For extra kitsch, the show even had a luridly masked ‘witch doctor’ dancing around. The hula show was going down out on the terrace, protected from the seasonal cold wind by the pigeon baffles. Stavrel was sitting at one of the tables, kicking back with a drink in a carved coconut cup, and really enjoying himself more than a man who’d managed to piss off a lot of very dangerous people (including his own Security) had any right to. Then again, maybe it was a really good hula show; God knows, the place was packed.
Clustering around Ace, who had that linear accelerator gun of his close to his body, as to hide that gun and keep from setting off a panic, we made our way through the crowd. As we approached Stavrel’s table, I kept wondering exactly what the hell his scam was. Did he have something up his sleeve, or did he have someone working the hula show who was his ticket out of the building somehow?
Stavrel didn’t even blink an eye when we walked up to his table en masse. What he and Tux said between them was so bland that I won’t even bother with it. The gist of it was: so what? Stavrel just sat there, like we didn’t have guns on him. He summed it up with, “So? What’re you gonna do? SHOOT me? Kill me, and not only will you commit murder in front of a hunnert or so witnesses, but you’ll never know where the money is. And all the badasses running around will think that YOU know where the money and everything is. And just think what they’ll do to you to make you talk.” He finished with a smirk and sat back enjoying our confusion.
But give him his due, Jack wasn’t playing along. “Man, the old ‘my balls are bigger’n yours’ scam? Shoot you? Why would we need to shoot you? All’s we gotta do is drag you out into the hall, and let the first badass what comes along have you. Go ahead, yell yer head off. All that will do will get this over quicker. C’mon guys, let’s get this mess over and done with.”
“Now, now,” tutted a deep mellifluous voice, “there’s no need to get nasty. Just hand the old boy over to us, and everything will be okey-dokey.” Turning around, we saw Bing and Hope standing there, smirking at us. Bing had a large bore gun right in Ace’s side, and Hope was handling the linear accelerator gun at us.
“So, you thought that we were a couple of cheap boobs, huh?” Hope jeered through a victorious grin. “Well, lemme tell ya, these boobs cost top dollar!”
“I don’t think so,” said two voices in near unison as two pistols appeared at Bing and Hope’s head simultaneously. “What?” Bond James Bond and the Douche chorused at each other, “What are YOU doing here? This is MY score? You are ALWAYS copying me! You never had an original idea in your LIFE! YEAH? Well suck on THIS!” Again, in perfect unison, with the hand that wasn’t full a pistol (both were packing Heckler & Koch 9mms), they both produced identical triangular charms with a coiled snake in the design. “But he said that it was custom made for ME!”
As the Ian Fleming twins were wrapping their mirror-image heads around this, two massive arms wrapped around their throats and took them down faster than it takes to read it. The two massive guys belonging to the massive arms looked like a Pro Wrestling Brother Act, trying to enter high society. They had mullets with long braids down the back and slightly different beards, so you could tell them apart. A third brother, who was just as massive as the other two. He took the linear accelerator gun away from Hope, and nabbed the pistols and talismans as well. Dangling his pelf from his massive hand (yes, I know I keep saying ‘massive’, but believe me, it’s the only word that really fits), the third brother sneered, “SO, you thought you shook us, didja Slick?” in Jack’s general direction.
“oh… crap…” Jack whispered flatly.
“Who are these guys?” Tinjo almost added ‘Jack’ but had the cool to avoid it.
“You don’t wanna know,” Jack muttered.
“NOW, where WERE we, when you just upped and ran away screamin’ like a girl?”
There was a thudding sound, and a deep yet feminine voice snarled, “You say ‘Girl’ like it was an insult.”
“oh crap,” Jack repeated, but this time he whispered it in the voice of pure wide-eyed terror. Big Red had woken up, she was pissed, and she had backup. She stood there over the fallen body of one of the Massive Brothers, hands on hips, looking very hawt and very pissed, with two other, also hawt, chicks looking very militant. One was a Latina in blue-and-white zig-zag tube dress with short dark hair, who had two arrays of written spell slips fanned out from both hands like cards. You didn’t need the Good Eye to see that the slips burned with visible magical power. The other one was a slammin’ black chick in an electric blue halter-top dress, with her hair pulled back into a chignon, and lit optical cables threaded through it that flashed on and off. In her hands, she had not one, but two machine pistols with belts of ammo that trailed out from her purse. Forget about how she got those things through Security; what I don’t know, and don’t want to know, is WHY she brought those things into the club in the first place!
Big Red sashayed up to the loudmouth Massive Brother with a sort of ‘give me an excuse to open up this big drum of whoop-ass I got here on you’ something, and took the talismans from him. She handed the talismans to the magic-using chica. Then she handed the linac gun to the gun bunny. The pistols, she just sort of tossed to the side.
Big Red scowled as she checked out the Massive Brothers, and then Bing and Hope. But her face lit up when she saw us- or, more accurately, Jack. But that sweet look instantly went sour when she saw Tinjo hanging on Jack’s arm. “Who. Is. SHE?”
“No,” Tinjo snarled back, not listening to that ‘badass sense’ that I was talking about earlier. “Who the hell are YOU?” They did that ‘two cats glaring at each other, getting ready to get nasty’ thing that chicks do sometimes, and it was looking worse than nasty.
Then a familiar voice graveled, “Okay, enuf of that.” Looking over, I saw Jogun, backed up by his Security team, reach over and take those burning-hot looking spell slips from the Latina’s hands. Okay, I knew that Jogun was tough, but I didn’t think that he was THAT tough… He strolled over to the gun bunny and very pointedly took the linac gun from her. Then he took the machine pistols, to which the gun bunny voiced some loud complaint. “SHADDAP!” he roared. “You have NO IDEA the kind of night I’ve had!”
“Oh, Thank GOD!” I said loudly. Finally. Sanity had arrived.
“And don’t you start!” he snapped at me.
“What?” I yelped, “What did *I* do?”
“You SAID that all you wanted was to get your two friends out. You started a fracking RIOT!”
“Hey, that was NOT us!” I stood up for my crew. “That was all HIM.” I pointed at Stavrel. “And, speaking of which, I think that you wanted to have a few words with your esteemed employer, right?”
Jogun calmed and focused when that aspect of the situation kicked in. He opened his mouth and was about to say something, when someone rudely just stepped all over him. Well, verbally, anyway. “I’ll say that I have a few words to say with that man!” Dr. Pickford and his backup came steaming into the room. I noticed that somehow he’d managed to hold onto that satchel of cash. I was impressed. “And foremost among those words is THIEF! He has a painting that was stolen from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is a major national art treasure. The brazen crook has the painting RIGHT THERE!” And, sure enough, a pressurized case very much like the one he’d pulled that Pigeon Drop with, was right there next to his table, along with another case. Stavrel just gave Pickford a blasé ‘why are you yelling at me?’ look.
“And that painting is the legal property of the Greater Atlantic Mercantile Trust Bank!” Powell yelled as he and his two backup marched in.
“I thought you two had an understanding,” Jogun grumbled.
“Not until someone hands over the balance owed,” Powell said at Pickford, not Jogun. “Come across, and we’ll back you up, 100%.”
“That’s a little difficult, just at the moment,” Pickford pointed out.
Then a bunch of drones dropped, spraying Jogun and the Security guys with anti-personnel spray and zapping Powell, the Massive Brothers, and Big Red’s magical backup with tasers. “Don’t look at me,” Ace muttered, “Not me. My drones are out of spray and low on juice.”
“Nobody move!” Ed the Horse and two other guys advanced in with guns drawn, and one of them took over the linac gun. When they’d secured the room, Veles and Lorelei marched into the room.
“Veles?” I yelped, “What are you DOING? I gave you your money back, and you’ve got the keys. You’ve got what you came for and a huge profit. WHY?”
“It’s bad form to let yourself get ripped off,” Veles growled in Stavrel’s direction. “It sets a bad precedent.” Stavrel just gave him a ‘meh’ shrug. “Besides, it’s not like I’m not making an even bigger profit,” Veles added as Lorelei took the satchel of money away from Pickford. The Horse allowed himself the luxury of rolling his eyes. Oh. Veles fell down and got a boo-boo on his pride. No wonder women are always bitching about men.
Of course, the problem with upping the ante on violence is that other players will see your ante and raise it. As Lorelei eagerly pried the talismans and control units out of Jogun and Veles’ drone wrangler’s hands, someone said, “Yeah, it IS bad form to let yourself get ripped off.” Three guys who all had Linac guns rushed in and sprayed Jogun, his security team, Big Red, Pickford and Powell’s teams, and Veles’ squad, including (hell, especially) the Horse with near-silent gunfire. I had the horrible notion that I was a witness to a mass murder. I mean, even Big Red wasn’t that big a bitch!
Then I noticed the ‘shells’ on the floor were actually screws. It looks like Ace wasn’t the only one to come up with that idea. Ed and Jogun were probably battered and bruised all to hell, but if they didn’t do anything stupid, they’d probably live to complain about it.
Barlow (y’know, the fat guy that Flynn laid a smackdown on, earlier?) marched in with Big Bad and the China Girl at his side. And keeping in mind that while the people who’d come in earlier on this hit parade hadn’t had anything against ME personally, Barlow did, and he struck me as the sort who held a grudge, long and hard. I ducked under Stavrel’s table before he could catch sight of me, and drag me even further into this mess.
China Girl took all the swag away from Lorelei, and added Veles’ briefcase full of buckskins. She handed the cash over to Barlow, who looked like he was about to say something snide, when suddenly snakes of darkness coiled up from the floor and wrapped themselves around the entire crew, taking them out in less time than it takes to say it. Dimanche strolled into the room, fiddling with that horn that Staretski had been so keen on. Madam Hiss followed one step behind, and it turned out that he had backup besides her, two goons and three regular guys. He’d just been slick enough to keep them on the sidelines until they were needed. Lady Slithers took all the swag from China Girl, and gave Lorelei the kind of ‘hah!’ look that suggested that there wasn’t any love lost between them. Dimanche’s guys pried away the linac guns. Not bothering to gloat over the huge amount of cash he’d just come into, Dimanche strolled up ominously over to Tuxedo Mary. “The time for games is over, girl,” he declared. “Where are they?”
And the lights in the room went dim. “Not Quite,” corrected a cold voice that seemed to come from everywhere. Shadow-creeps erupted into the room and you know the drill, took control and snatched up all the goodies. Six-Fingered Staretski strolled in, all badass (that seems to be a requirement for this kind of entrance) and took the horn from Dimanche’s hands. Then he smirked, “NOW the time for games is over.” Then he turned to Tux, who was silently smegting a brick. “But the question remains: where are the rest of the power items that you’ve been brokering?”
The whole thing had been getting on Tinjo’s nerves. She yelled, “Well, is there anybody ELSE? This is getting tedious, people!”
“I AGREE,” said another, unfortunately familiar voice from everywhere. “This IS getting rather tedious, isn’t it? Well, the final ace has been played; it’s time to trump you all.” And on some cue, everybody that hadn’t been a part of our parade of ambushes, and I DO mean everyone- the diners, the waiters, the busboys, the hula dancers, the musicians, everyone- all got up and pulled a gun from somewhere and trained those guns on all the badasses. Even Staretski didn’t have the nards to pull anything in the face of that much overwhelming firepower.
Okay, I gotta admit. That really was a very sweet ambush.
And Nick Scratch ambled in with that magic bottle tucked under one arm, not doing so much the badass stroll as just sort of wandering in amiably, with a big ‘gotcha suckers!’ grin on his red face. He sauntered over to Staretski who was giving him the cold glare from an icy hell, and took first the horn, then Staretski’s walking stick, and then some sort of stickpin from Staretski’s lapel. Then Old Nick snapped his fingers and said, “Jump to it, we don’t have all night.”
As Scratch smirked into Staretski’s face, Flynn, Rankin and a couple of other very competent (if not terribly eager) guys got up from various tables and did the whole ‘shake down the suckers’ bit, though Rankin apparently knew enough to pry the walking stick away from Lucky. Rankin handed the walking stick to Old Scratch who tapped it to his forehead to Staretski in a mocking salute. Then, idly twirling the walking stick as a baton, he strolled over to Lucky and Tuxedo Mary. Looking at Lucky, he said, “Well, I still don’t know what they hell YOU are about. But that’s for later.” He gave Lucky a nasty crack on the side of the head with the cane.
And, out of sight under the table, I was very glad of the protection that that table gave me, even as I was very aware of how flimsy that protection was.
As Lucky staggered to his feet, Old Nick looked Tuxedo Mary up and down. And like I’ve said, Tux cleaned up real nice. “Well, give old Sourpuss his due, the question for you is: where’s the rest? I’ve got everything you brought: the lamp, the bottle, the horn and the rood. I’ve even got Suzy Messup’s power gem,” he tossed the emerald with one hand. “BUT, I know that you’re not stupid enough to bring everything you’ve got. No, these delightful little toys were just to whet our appetites, right?
“Well, I’m always hungry. And you’ve been able to weasel out from under my control so far, but you still led all these suckers into this trap.” Control? But when we found them in that corridor, she fought Scratch tooth and nail for the bottle, and she sure as hell wasn’t under his control, or even influence, then. So, when did Scratch nail Tux?
Oh right. When she took the horn from his hand. Which I sort of helped along. Ew. Well, what can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time.
“You’re going to give me everything eventually,” Scratch went on with a snarl, “so save yourself the headache and me the bother of breaking you like a china doll. Which we both know I can do. So be a sweet little kitten and give me what I want. And later, I’ll scratch you behind the ears,” his voice went soft and seductive and he stroked her cheek with a finger. “And pet you… and stroke you… and other pleas- URK!”
Now, there was no way that Old Nick could have known that he was hitting on Leo’s crush right in front of him. Hey, Leo looked like ‘Jazz’, and Scratch had too much going on at the time. Well, if he’d known, Scratch probably would have anyway, just to be evil, but he would have taken reasonable precautions. When Scratch stroked Tux’s cheek, Leo let out a creepily feline shriek of nitro-charged rage and went for the sadistic frack.
And the place freaking exploded.
Guns went off. GOD did guns go off! But even in a space that cramped, well Scratch’s thralls didn’t really want to shoot anyone, and most of them weren’t very good shots to begin with, and after one or two shots, their self preservation instinct beat Scratch’s influence, and the chumps dove for cover themselves. And the ones that could shoot purposely aimed their guns at targets that were wearing body armor, and almost all of them were carrying small-bore pistols. Most of the rounds went off the open terrace, and were stopped by the pigeon baffles. There was a lot of collateral damage, but Stavrel’s only reaction (from what I could hear over the shooting) was, “Man, that’s gonna cost to clean up.”
After the first fusillade, the fighting shifted to mostly hand-to-hand. Safer that way. Even so, I was lucky that I’d ducked under that table, ‘cause the competition for cover was something fierce. Bing and Hope tried to crawl under the table with us, but we managed to successfully kick them out. “Hey, those two are heading for the door!” Denmar said peeking out. “They made it! So are Havelock and his douche buddy, and the fat guy!”
“Why isn’t anyone shooting at them?” Tinjo asked, looking out.
“’Cause they’re not threats,” Ace said, furiously working his visor. “They made their play, and now all they want is out. It’s simpler for Scratch to simply let them go, and focus on Dimanche and Staretski.”
“And I’d say that fits us too, right about now,” Jack said, all hunched over. “So, everyone head for the door. We regroup at the door, and recover anyone who’s taken a hit.”
“What about Leo?” Bats demanded, “We got in this in the first place, ‘cause we wasn’t gonna leave Leo behind. We go through all this, and we still leave the little guy in the lurch?”
“Wait for Ten,” Jack said sagely. “10- 9- 8- 7- 6-”
“And he’s down,” Ace said flatly, reading off what he was seeing in his visor. “He’s pretty beat; not hurt, but he’s out of the fight for sure.”
“Well, that’s what happens, when you spar out of your weight class.” Jack chambered a round in to his pistol. “Bats, when we head out, you grab the Runt and bring him with. The rest of us will cover you as best we can. Jinx, you got any tricks up your sleeve- or whatever- that can cover for us?”
“Jack,” I said as a felt the two-ton weight of a sacred obligation drop on my shoulders, “I can’t! Flynn… the guy who let us out of that room when Scratch had us boxed in? He’s out there! Scratch has his marker, and if we don’t help him, Flynn’s screwed! Either Scratch will use him like toilet paper winning this fight, or Dimanche or Staretski will mash him down on general principles!”
“Okay, he’s a nice guy! But we gotta get OUT of here!”
“So GO!” I said. “Look, you can go, but I… I OWE him. A solid, a real solid. He came through for us. You know how it is! You don’t just leave a right guy you owe a solid to, twisting in the wind!”
“Okay, but what can YOU do?”
“I… I dunno…” I admitted, feeling a lead sinker in my stomach. “No! Wait! There are still a couple of cards that haven’t been played yet! Scratch has forgotten about me, and if I keep under his radar, maybe I can jump in and tip over his applecart or something. At least, I might find a way of helping Flynn survive… whatever…”
“Jinx, you’re a better girlfriend than I am,” Tinjo said drolly.
“What’s THAT supposed to mean?” Jack and I asked in synch.
“Okay!” Jack snapped. “Fine! But we are NOT WAITING for one more slowpoke! We have wasted too much time as it is!”
“Not me,” Lucky said, all cool and resolute-like.
“Look, Scratch doesn’t give a smeg about you guys. But he knows Jinx and me. He’s got unfinished business with us. If we go with you, he’ll send people to bring us back. But if you go without us, who cares? Besides, to pull off her… whatever… Jinx’s gonna need someone who knows their ass from a hole in the ground.”
“Wouldn’t that mean that ACE stays behind?” I shot back acidly.
Jack looked around the underside of that table for any sanity, but there wasn’t any in the store. “Okay… FINE! We’ll wait for you on the first level… for a few minutes… but after that, we are OUT of here, with or without you!”
Ace watched the lay of the land through his link to the security system, and then he said, “Okay, we have an opening coming… on your marks… get set… GO!” And as one, they were out from under and sprinting for the door. Bats snagged Leo, who was coming to what senses as he had, and got him to the door. There were a few potshots, but by and large, it was ‘the fewer in the mix the better’.
We settled down and listened to the sound of the battle for a bit. “So…” Lucky asked, “what’s your big plan?”
“Dunno, I’m just winging it,” I admitted as I poked my nose out from under the table. I looked around and spotted Jogun, who was struggling to get up off the floor. “BINGO!”
“Jogun! The big goatboy over there?”
“He looks like he’s just about out of steam.”
“He just needs a power-up, and I got just the thing! Now go get him and bring him here!”
“What about you? That guy is HEAVY!”
“Time is of the essence, and I need to fix the power-up. You wanted to help, so help. And Lucky?”
“Don’t get shot.”
“Yer not gonna kiss me, are you?”
“Don’t flatter yourself! Just GO!” I shoved him out into the open, and snagged a glass of water from the table. Lucky had a few near-misses, but he managed to get Jogun and moving in the direction of my table. By the time they got back under the table (which was not easy; Jogun is not built to squeeze under tables!), I had the drink mixed and the other packet ready.
“What are you up to” Jogun asked me groggily.
“I don’t leave friends in the lurch,” I said. He gave me a shaky glare. “AND, I have an idea that might drag this situation out of the crapper it’s fallen into.” Jogun looked heavenward in a ‘give me strength’ way. “Here, drink this.”
“Just DRINK,” I told him, giving it a touch of the Tinjo edge.
He must have had a strict mother; he drank up like a good boy. Halfway through the glass, his eyes popped open, and he stopped to take a look at the glass. “What IS this?”
“Essence of Water. Alchemically, Water gives rise to Earth and-”
“And Earth is the patron element of Caprines, I know that part,” Jogun finished it for me. He belted down the rest of the glass.
“So, you willing to listen to the rest of my idea?”
“I’m out of sane options, so I might as well go with the long shot,” he said sourly. “Go for it.”
“Look,” I opened, “the key to all this is the markers that Old Scratch is using to keep all those chumps in his thrall. I happen to know that at least a few of them are in his wallet, in his left breast inside jacket pocket. Get those markers away from him, and he goes from being large and in charge to the guy without any friends in the room. Even if those aren’t ALL the markers he’s using, the odds are that he’s keeping the markers of the people he really wants under his thumb, the real asskickers, like my friend Flynn out there, in his wallet, where he can exert influence directly. He loses those guys, and it might not turn the battle, but losing Scratch’s best hitters will give Skullface and Staretski the opening they’ll need to get his ass in a vice.”
“What do I have to do with the markers, once I’ve got my hands on them?”
“Not sure,” I confessed. “I’d say that burning them would be the best option. Fortunately, we’ve got tiki torches, an open barbeque, and a couple of flambé trays. Just get them wide and open so you’re not trying to burn a brick, and chuck them in the nearest flame. That should do it.”
Jogun nodded grudgingly. “I’ve heard worse. Problem: Sneaking up on him is almost impossible, and if I charge him, they’ll cut me down like grass. Even turbocharged on this, there’s no way I’ll get close to him.”
“Solution:” I held up the gray packet. “This is Essence of Sleeping Metal. It’ll give your suit the hardness, but not the weight, of tool steel for a few hours.”
“There’s a bad news?”
“You’re so charged with Water energy that you’ll ‘rust’ the steel. If you wear that suit too long, first it might lock up on you, and then it may fall apart.”
“How long before it starts to rust?”
“A half-hour, maybe an hour; I’m guessing here. Your caprine Earth nature might factor in, I’m not sure.”
Jogun let out a martyred sigh. “It’s the best idea I’ve heard all night. And isn’t THAT a sad thing to say? Gimme the spell witchiepoo.”
With the appropriate phrase, I sprinkled the dust on his suit. Jogun rapped his knuckles on his sleeve, and was agreeably impressed. He breathed deeply, hands pressed together, eyes closed to focus. When he was ready, he put himself on his mark. Just as he was about to go, we heard Stavrel’s voice call out, “Stupid idea, departing on runway 5!”
“And people say that I’m a troll,” Jogun grumbled. Still, figuring that the only thing worse charging into a rumbled surprise was hanging back and being a pussy, he dashed out from under the table and went hell for leather at Nick Scratch. Ten feet isn’t a lot of distance to build up speed, and with those hooves, Jogun wasn’t anywhere even close to quiet, even on the carpeted floor. Old Nick was as ready for him as he could have asked for.
I wish that I could say that it was a rousing fight. I really do wish that, for Jogun’s sake. But to be honest, the closest thing that the big guy got to a break was that the Essence of the Sleeping Metal lived up to its advertising, and the gunfire bounced off him, letting him plow into Old Scratch. Past that, it was a cluster fuck. Jogun almost got his hands on Scratch. Almost. Not quite. And we all know what that’s worth. Scratch’s devils jumped up right in his way, just as he almost had his hands on Scratch’s lapels. They slowed him down, and Scratch’s worse-than-goons stepped in. After they bruised their knuckles on his suit, they quickly learned that his face wasn’t armored.
Give him his due, Jogun gave them a fight. If it had been one-on-one, he would have kicked ass. But it was three on one, and the three guys had billy clubs. As Jogun went down, I heard Stavrel mutter with the compassion and sensitivity that he’s renowned for, “Doink.”
And the worst part was that it was all my plan.
But still, almost despite me, a part of my plan still worked. Scratch, showing that under all the sadism he really IS a coward, had pulled all of his devils and goons from other fronts to deal with Jogun. Staretski quickly marshaled his forces and had them form a protective circle around him. When he was secure, he pulled that brass compass-thing that Jett Adore had offered out of a pocket and did something with it as he sort of aimed it at Old Nick as Nick watched his boys pummel Jogun. He fiddled with it for a bit, and then a look of grim satisfaction crossed his face. “Nick Scratch!” he boomed, “Your time to pay for your crimes is NOW!”
Wait a minute… he got that from Jett Adore… And Jett’s manager was Nick Scratch in disguise. And I just spotted Jett among the crowd shooting at Jogun’s security team. And I don’t think that I told Staretski about Jett’s manager! Not that we were on chatting terms, mind you. I started to lean out from under the table as to warn him, but Lucky pulled me back. “Let the man make his play,” Lucky said. “He’s a Wizard, he knows things!”
Staretski pointed at Scratch and yammered something that as a good Catholic, I’m absolutely sure is NOT Latin, Church or Vulgate. And one of Scratch’s goons spasmed and writhed, and a fiery figure rose up out of its host, and dissipated upwards, giving up the ghost as it were. The host dropped and looked very crispy. “Oh, is THAT my repayment?” Nick snarked, drolly underwhelmed. “Man, all those sleepless nights fer nuthin’!” He grinned evilly at Staretski. “I spotted that crocked amulet that you tried to finesse onto me, right off. So, I had… what was his name, anyway? I had someone else, who was bound to me hold it, so they’d be your target. So, is that the best that the terrible Six-Fingered Staretski can manage?”
But Staretski wasn’t even fazed. “You shouldn’t have let this out of your hands!” He held up the brass dingus and aimed it at Scratch again, “I’ve figured out how it works!” He said a brief phrase, again I have no idea what language it was in, and the dingus flew out of his hand, into Scratch’s.
And all of Staretski’s creeps, which formed the outer ring of his circle of protection, just sort of flowed over to Scratch and kind of boiled around him. “You were supposed to,” Scratch gloated. “Let’s see how tough you are without your shock troops. And while we’re on the subject-” he pointed the dingus at Dimanche, and the snakes that had coiled around him and his partisans, also flowed into the mass around Scratch. “THERE! Finally! I’ve got it ALL! And now I can do THIS!” Scratch danced around as he sort of crammed the devils, the creeps and the snakes into the metal-chased horn, and used the cane (or rood, as it was being used for an entirely different usage than helping someone walk) to thread the alloyed mass from the horn into the bottle, and from there into the lamp, which glowed red hot. After a bit, a fire erupted out of the spout of the lamp and took on a decidedly dragon-ish form. As the dragon-form writhed over Scratch’s head, he took out the joined emerald, and tossed it up into the dragon’s head, where the stone split in two again, and formed the dragon’s eyes. The dragon roared as it staggered into a semblance of awareness. Scratch let out a nasty laugh, and said, “Well, now it’s time to FEED my little pet…”
“HEY, HEY, HEY!” objected (of all people!) Stavrel, who stood up to Scratch. “You’ve got your stuff, you’ve got yer little pet, and you’ve got these yahoos under wraps! You’ve got everything you want! Now wrap up your little horror show and go home! We had an agreement, and this is still my club!”
“Your club?” Scratch snorted. “Newsflash chubs! This is MY club! This is MY town! Everyone in it is MINE! With this, I am THE power in this open-air insane asylum! First, I’m gonna devour those two’s power and make it my own! Then I’m going to make them my thralls and send them to infiltrate their organizations as my agents. Then, using this club, I’m gonna enthrall more and more of the city’s elite, until I OWN this town! And then I’m gonna show everyone what a REAL WIZARD can do!”
“By that, I take it you mean caper around like Mickey Mouse in a rehash of Fantasia?” sneered a dismissive female voice. The ‘Witch Doctor’ on the stage removed her mask, revealing that she was Suzy Midnight. How she hid that hat and veil behind that mask, I’ll never know. “Well, Nick, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to pan your act. Here’s your review.” With a negligent flick of her wrist, she threw a parchment at Scratch.
The paper hit him, bounced and fell to the floor. “THAT was your big move?” Scratch asked ingenuously. “Wow, talk about getting by on your REP!”
Suzy Midnight was well and truly flatfooted. She gawped at the paper, for once without a witty wisecrack on her lips.
“Oh!” Old Nick gasped, making out like he was just putting it together, the wiseass smegheel. “You thought that I’d broken my promise to Stavrel that, no matter what, the Apex would still be HIS club?”
I couldn’t see Stavrel from where we were, but I could tell that he had a big gloating grin on his face. “I LIED. I never owned this club. From the very beginning, I was Nick’s front man.”
I didn’t see it, but I heard Suzy Midnight scream, and I had the distinct impression that that dragon was involved somehow. It did not sound good for Miss Suzy.
“Okay, so much for that bitch,” Stavrel with finality. “So, I’m cool to go?”
“Sure!” Scratch said amiably. “You held up your end of our bargain and more, and I’d be a fool to break our contract at this point. You’re free to go and take whatever you can carry. I won’t stop you or send anyone to interfere with you in any way, shape or form, in person or by proxy, by direct or indirect action or inaction. Go on, get out of here, have a life!”
“Cool!” With that, Stavrel picked up the case containing the Rubens (what else would it be?) and walked out, pausing only to grab Pickford’s satchel and Veles’ briefcase full of money from the pile of swag. At the door, he stopped, looked back and said with a voice full of gloat, “So long, Suckers!”
As the door closed behind Stavrel (or whatever the hell his real name is), Scratch said fondly, “Y’know, I’m gonna MISS him. He’s a mean-spirited, nasty, money-grubbing, lying, cheating, treacherous piece of smeg who’d double-cross his own mother into slavery. And I respect that!
“Y’know,” he went on, “when Arnie told me about your big dog-and-pony show plan to fob that pact stone that you so generously donated to be the eyes of my dragon off onto me, it all clicked together! Really, Suze, I couldn’t have done this without you!”
Wait a minute!
That emerald is a Pact Stone?
Pact Stones are power gems that are enchanted (don’t ask me how, that’s way above my head) so that they act as the crux of a binding Sorcerer’s Contract. When I handed over the emeralds to Scratch, he promised to not hurt me, and there was a tingling. And then he went right ahead, and the only reason that I’m still alive is that he hacked at a piece of anatomy that wasn’t really there. When you break a Sorcerer’s Contract, you get HUGE bad luck, just ask anyone. And the pact stones that sealed the contract that he broke right out of hand are now the eyes of his big power construct.
I checked my bra. All I had left was two packets of Essence of Air. That was IT. If I survived this, we’d need one of the packets to get the hell out of here. Which meant that it boiled down to ONE packet, against a Named Wizard, who probably knew that I was hiding under this table, and was letting me think that I was safe, so he could make me sweat out ‘being discovered’. Either he knows I’m coming, or he doesn’t. Whatever side the pancake lands on, this one’s for all the marbles. I briefly considered a prayer to St. Jude, but decided to not jinx it by framing this as a lost cause.
I took a deep breath and set out. Lucky tried to stop me, but I got past him. Hey, like I said before, if you gotta go out, go out as a class act. “WELL,” Nick said jovially, “You finally- WHAT?” he yelped, finally surprised, as I did a power leap over his line of goons and thralls. Hey, I’ve got a packet of Essence of Air; I can always claim that’s what pulled this off. Nick was genuinely surprised; he barely recovered in time to just miss dodging my downward kick. A kick from an Avian leg, on the bottom of a 15 foot drop, folks. That kick could have broken a mahogany 2x4, but Old Nick was just dazed. Whatever else that son of a bitch may be, he is damn tough.
He recovered from my kick just as I recovered from the drop, he almost beat me to the punch as I grabbed for the lamp. Holding onto the lamp with both hands for a second, we tried to pull it away from the other. Then, holding onto the lamp with one hand, Scratch reared back the other hand and formed a vicious-looking ball of flame in it. As he pushed that ball of hurt at me, I threw that packet of Essence of Air onto the flame of the lamp.
Now, in all honesty, what I was expecting was a nastier replay of what had happened earlier, that Old Nick would be thrown up in the air, and he’d hit the pigeon baffle. Either the pigeon baffle would knock him for a loop, or he’d be thrown over the balcony, preferably both, and he’d drop, unconscious and unable to use magic to save himself, a deadly 60 stories (or is it 59?) and *splat!*
A good, sound plan, one that had several endings where I don’t get roasted.
It didn’t work out that way.
Instead, Old Nick rose up on a column of flame that joined with the dragon. But the dragon somehow merged with the pigeon baffle, and it resulted in a runaway arcing of electricity that fed directly into Scratch in a gratifyingly Old Testament style display of Divine Retribution upon the Unholy. Lightning from the heavens (or at least the power supply) coursed through Old Nick, setting every nerve on fire. He spasmed and twitched in midair and started to smoke. Through his mask, I heard his teeth chattering so hard that I feared (or maybe hoped) that he’d break them. Wisps of magic blue smoke escaped from various parts of his body, where his watch, iCom, and other pieces of personal electronics (and other nastiness) went *pfft!* Patches of fire erupted where his various pockets should be, and inside his sleeves, suggesting that other non-electronic nastiness had also gone up in flames.
Finally, the celestial pyrotechnics died down and Old Scratch lowered back down to the floor. The lamp landed next to him with a clatter, set upright and a flame popped up out of the spout. The bottle also landed safely, as did the horn and the rood. The two emeralds fell, bounced, joined together on the fly, and landed as a single stone. Old Nick teetered for a moment, saying nothing. On some unknowable reflex, he pulled out his razor and opened it with a flick. Then he dropped it. With a final totter, he fell on his face.
The room was as silent as a tomb. Everyone was looking at Nick and me.
Having seen far too many bad old horror movies with scenes like this, (haven’t we all?) I wasn’t fool enough to get too close to him. Rather, I gingerly moved the razor well away from his hand with my foot. When it was far enough away to avoid the ‘last minute surprise spasm of violence’ cliché, I picked up the razor and tossed it over the railing of the balcony. The pigeon baffle didn’t stop it.
“WELL!” I said with an exhale, “Isn’t that how the world turns? One day, you’re the big dog in the yard; the next, the bone.” Not bothering to check to see if he was breathing, I turned Scratch over and checked his pockets, finding a very nasty looking red leather gris-gris bag that wasn’t scorched at all. That quickly joined the razor over the edge, and I briefly savored the image of Nick Scratch trying to recover those from some remote ledge on the building- without any magic.
“Okay, enough of that,” I said aloud. “Down to business. First things first.” I pulled out his wallet and fished out the markers inside. I touched the markers to the flame from the lamp, and the paper went right up in flames without leaving so much as ash. I also found a big wad of cash, which I did not burn. Looking up at the crowd, who were still staring at me silently, I spotted Flynn. He had a look like a strangle cord had been cut from his neck. There was a sense of profound relief from some of the crowd, and very wary concern from the rest. Rummaging through his pockets, I found that clip of markers that he’d tucked away, and a thick manila folder, full of documents on club stationary. I burned them as well, and they also disappeared.
Then I noticed Staretski. And Dimanche. And Suzy Midnight. All of them looking at me, cautiously, weighing what I was doing, figuring their odds. And I remembered that I was dealing with three of the most powerful wizards in Bedlam. They were all weak. For the moment. But they’d recover. And wizards aren’t exactly famous for their grace or gratitude.
I picked up the emerald from where it was laying. There was a strange fire trapped inside the emerald. It would be just like Suzy Midnight to have a trap within a trap. And to try and profit from it, and weaken Nick Scratch at the same time, if he somehow managed to walk away from this. I hefted the stone and said, “Well, not quite according to script, but then improvisation IS an art unto itself, no?” I tossed the emerald to Suzy. She caught it and gave me an amused chuckle.
I picked up the rood and tossed it to Lucky, who caught it with panache. Hey, always keep the suckers guessing.
I picked up the horn, and gave Staretski a significant look. He paused, considered, and nodded. I tossed him the horn. There would be peace between us. I did the same with Dimanche and the bottle. Peace in our time.
Finally, there was the lamp. I picked it up, stopped the flame and tucked it into the crook of my arm. I gave the general assembly a silent challenge for anyone to contest my claim. I had no takers.
Then Flynn walked up, visibly pulling together his panache. “Okay, now that that’s all taken care of, let’s see who this sick creep really IS.” He leaned over and pulled at the mask, trying to rip it off Scratch’s face.
Scratch’s eyes popped wide open, and he let out a blood-curdling shriek. As we jumped back, justifiably creeped out, he kipped up to his feet, and was over the railing and into the night sky before anyone could do anything. When we rushed to look over the railing, there was no sign of Nick Scratch.
Well, I can hope that he was sidewalk splatter, now can’t I?
Seized by a sense of the proper moment, and for once having the perfect thing to say, I turned to Flynn and said, “Well, Flynn, it’s been fun. Let’s do this again sometime.” I kissed him goodbye and sashayed over to Lucky who was waiting for me with my purse. I took the purse and he offered me his arm. Arm in arm, we passed Jogun, who was awake if still groggy, gave him a chipper salute and left the room, the perfect picture of sophistication and elan. We strolled past the Security cordon at the door, and made a grand exit down the grand staircase.
The crew was waiting anxiously for us at the bottom of the staircase. Halfway down the stair, Lucky and I, by unspoken mutual agreement, broke out into a full run down the stairs. Hey, a good exit is one thing, but waiting around for someone to work up the nerve to try something was just plain stupid!
Now our crew may not be a bunch of rocket scientists, but we are not stupid. The second that the Luckster and I hit a sprint, they did likewise, and they cleared a path for us to the emergency exit stairs. Bats and Leo gave us legs up to hop up the stairs to the third level in no time flat. Once Bats and Leo were back with us (which they did immediately, which makes for a very nice change of pace!), we opened the door to the terrace of the Olympus Room.
Thank you, gentle Jesus, meek and mild! Not only wasn’t there anyone on the terrace, but the Olympus Room was empty too. Well, everyone probably thinks that all the real action is going down on the second level, and I say let them think that. We helped each other out of those stupid wing sheathes that we’ve had to wear all night, and I shook some blood and feeling back into my wings. Having rigid wings, it took me and Ace the longest to get our fins back into working shape.
“Okay Crew!” I clapped my hands together for attention. “The plan was that I’d use some Essence of Air and that air elemental that I bound, and a few bouncie-balls I brought along to get us up and out. BUT, we’re gonna have to make do. Leo, did you keep those bouncie-balls you caught?”
“Here,” Denmar said, handing me a shoebox.
“It’s your stuff! Your magic stuff, that you were carrying around with you in your purse.”
“What?” I repeated, aghast.
“In the Ladies, you was real upset, so I switched purses with you,” Denmar said with perfect wide-eyed innocence, “and checked all your stuff in at the hatcheck, like I did with the stuff that I bought.”
I looked at the shoebox. “Annnddd… what about all the money? And jewelry? And the other stuff that I had in my purse?”
“Oh that?” she chirped, “Oh, I FedExed that to your address, just like I mailed all my stuff to me. I mean, what kind of dingbat goes around, dragging that much swag around with her in her purse?”
“Good question, Denmar,” Tinjo said stiffly, clutching her (very heavy) purse to her.
I gave Denmar her purse, and as I sifted through the shoebox for the stuff I’d need, she went through that purse and handed me the various talismans and junk that I’d picked up along the way. “Hey! What happened to my Chanel No. 5? It’s almost half gone!”
“You’re exaggerating, Denmar,” I said uncomfortably. “It’s just off the top.”
“Jinx, if you’re gonna hang out with us, you can’t be the kind of girl who borrows other girls’ perfume, and goes around drenching herself in Chanel No. 5! Do you know how expensive this perfume is?”
I looked wearily at Tinjo and muttered, “Fear for the world, Tinjo. Definitely, fear for the world.”
It only took me a minute or so to get the air elemental woken up and ready to blow. I gathered the crew together, and blew a big cloud of Essence of Air over them, so they’d be lighter and fly more easily. God knows, the way that some of us were weighted down, we’d need it. Bats and Leo both had one bouncie-ball pumped up to the size of a pumpkin, just big enough to make an easy target, but small enough to still have some real bounce. Bats and Leo gave us each a big alley-oops up into the air, ‘cause the more you hit the ball with, the bigger the bounce you get, and the higher you go. First Denmar and Tinjo went up, and Blowhard gave them a ride into the updrafts, then Lucky and Ace, then Jack and me, and then Leo gave Bats an alley-oops up. Then Leo kicked the two beach-ball-sized, read-to-pop bouncie-balls over the side to get rid of the evidence and power-jumped up on his own steam. Leo was wearing his Sportwingz™, which have a mechanical way of duplicating the bioelectric effect that gives Avian wings an effective wing surface area that’s 16 times larger than it really is, so he could keep up, no problem.
Two, four, six, seven, eight, and finally we were OUT of there, home free!
As I hit the cold brisk upper air, a wave of relief and the exhilaration that you feel when you survive a near-death experience washed over me. I let out a loud whoop of sheer joy, and I wasn’t the only one. We Lived! We didn’t get killed or crippled or even badly injured! Okay, Bats and Leo were a little banged up, but that was par for the course. We’d live to see another day! And probably do something just as stupid.
Normal conversation doesn’t do that well way up high, so Jack gave a shrill carrying whistle that we knew meant to head on over to the Birdcage, a 200-story arcology that’s only 1/10th built. Which took a little longer than it usually did.
But we managed to find a nice stretch of support beam that was shielded from the wind by one of those tarps that guys stretch to do just that, and settled in. There were high-fives and big hugs all around. YES! Got away with it! As we settled down, Ace asked, “Okay, now that that’s finally done with… What the FRACK was going ON back there?”
For some strange reason, they all looked at me. So, I winged it. “Okay, I really doubt that we’re ever gonna know everything that went down- or, for reals, we’ll be lucky if we never find out everything but here’s what I think it was. Basically, it was a fight between Suzy Midnight and Nick Scratch.”
“But Suzy Midnight could tie up Nick Scratch without breaking a sweat,” Tinjo said.
“Yeah, but she wanted to sucker him into one of her famous ‘Boy, are YOU a shnook’ stories, so’s he’d be too humiliated to come back and bother her,” I explained. “Somehow, don’t ask me how, Nick Scratch got his hooks into Jett Adore.”
“Riiiggghht…” Tinjo drawled, “Old Scratch had hisself magicked up to look like a manager or somethin’, and he was with Jett in the Kunlun Room!”
“Yeah!” Denmar jumped in, “And the papers was sayin’ that she was in this big hot romance that went sour, and she couldn’t write or nothing!”
“Yeah, but they never said who the bad boy was, now did they?” I pointed out. “And somehow it took long enough for Suzy Midnight to find out about it that Old Nick picked up a taste for the high life, and the idea that he could pull his strongarm number somewhere besides the gutter. Somehow-”
“’Somehow’, you keep saying that,” Jack sniped.
“Oh, YOU have all the answers?” I shot back, “Somehow, Old Scratch hooks up with Stavrel, and between them, they cook up that Apex Club bit. Think about that whole ‘Funhouse from Hell’ scene they had going on with trick doors, secret passages and rooms, peepholes, and hidden cameras and mikes, so Stavrel could record meetings and like all that. It was literally designed so that Nick Scratch could play his nasty games on people.”
“That’s what that whole thing with those freaky key cards was really about!” Bats jumped in. “The whole idea was that they’d get people to come in and spend a lot of money they didn’t have, and then Nick Scratch would have his hooks into hundreds of people!”
“You’re on the right track, Bats,” I nodded, “but you’re not thinking nasty enough. The real hook was the casino, where only rich people with connections could get in. When I searched Scratch’s pockets, I found a packet with a bunch of paper sheets in it. The sheets were the signature pages from the contracts that people sign when they apply for their gold key card; the pages had been signed and sealed as markers by Nick Scratch. He had his hooks into everyone who went up into that casino and didn’t pay off every last cent of the debt on the cards.”
“Which is where all those people in the Mauna Loa room came from,” Ace pointed out. “They fit in as customers of the Apex Club, because they WERE customers of the Apex club, and Old Scratch probably provided all the guns they used, too!”
“Yeah,” Lucky sneered, “the Security in that club sucked, but it didn’t suck THAT bad!”
“Why’d Scratch have those markers on him?” Lucky asked. “I mean I’d think that he’d want to keep those safe, no matter what.”
“I figure that Scratch needs to have those markers on him when he puts the squeeze on someone,” I said. “In order to have all those people for that big mob scene, he needed practically everyone that he had any hooks into.” I paused. “Now that I think about it, I still don’t get why Stavrel had a crew of regular guys like Jogun as his Security. I mean those Security guys didn’t have any idea what Stavrel or Scratch where up to. You’d think that a setup like that would have real tough guy leg-breakers as bouncers.”
Tinjo tisked, “And you was doin’ so well. The problem with having the kind of scumbags who’d go along with that kind of crap is that they ACT like scumbags! There’s no way that Stavrel would be able to sell the Apex as a class act joint with that kind of sleaze hanging around!”
“Good point, Tinjo!” I nodded, “Full marks for you, young lady!”
As Tinjo beamed at that, Ace offered, “And the bit with Stavrel taking a powder is Scratch’s way of getting Security under his thumb; Stavrel makes off with the payroll and a whole bunch more-”
“Hey, it’s not like Stavrel must have liked working for Nick Scratch!” Bats cut in. “I mean, it can’t be easy, working for someone who sees you as one of the Four Basic Food Groups!”
“Right,” Ace went on. “Suddenly, there’s NO money, and the club’s gonna close down, and the economy is in the dumper, and along comes this nice guy whatever he was gonna call hisself, and he offers to buy out the club, but only if they’ll sign this nice, simple CONTRACT!” Ace finished with an evil grin. “And then Scratch has them by the short and curlies.”
“How did Staretski and the black mojo man figure in?” Jack asked. “I mean, the word is that Miss Suzy don’t like Six-Fingers that much.”
“I don’t think that Named Wizards are that chummy with each other in general,” I said. “It seems to come with the territory, all of ‘em wanting to be the top cat and all like that. But Old Scratch was making a major power play, and I’d say that keeping that asshole down in the gutter where he belongs was something that Miss Suzy and Staretski could agree to work together on. And Dimanche was there because that’s where the action was.”
Then Leo asked, “And how did Tuxedo Mary get involved in all that?”
“My guess is that Tux somehow got her hands on a bunch of magic items and went to Suzy Midnight to sell them,” I said. “Suzy picked those magic items that she figured Scratch would jump on to form that big badass dragon whatever it was, so he’d overextend himself making it, so she could pull the chair out from under him. And she sent Tux to Stavrel to act as magical protection for his auction, so she could get those magic items where Scratch would hear about them, and being Old Nick, he’d jump on them like a hungry dog on a T-bone.”
“And on her,” Ace cracked. “I mean, DANG she cleaned up nice!” Leo growled at Ace a bit but didn’t take it any further.
“But Scratch gets wind of it somehow,” Jack got in on the action, as he would eventually, no matter what, “and he sends his buddy Stavrel to Miss Suzy, going ‘waa, waa, that nasty old Nick Scratch is trying to take over my nice club, boo-hoo’. So Suzy brings Stavrel in on the con, and Stavrel sets it up so the whole sting goes down in his club, where he and Scratch are really in control of everything.”
I nodded, “Yeah, that works. Miss Suzy gives Stavrel that power gem, which was a Pact Stone that would magically seal any agreement made while you was holding it, and told him to finesse Scratch into agreeing to not take the Apex away from him. I think that that bit about the two halves was that they’d come together when the pact was broken and rip off a big chunk of the oathbreaker’s power and keep it inside the stone. But Stavrel and Nick never made that agreement, so it was Miss Suzy on the hook, not Scratch.”
“Then why did they let that power gem go bopping around the club like that?” Lucky asked.
“Well, all that, and most of the other nonsense that went down, was just Suzy and Nick gaming each other: Miss Suzy was trying to get Old Nick so hot to get the power gems and all the other stuff that he wouldn’t be looking for any signs of a backstab. And Old Nick was going through the motions so that Miss Suzy wouldn’t figure out that he was onto her, and to rope Staretski and Dimanche into the scam as well.”
“Okay,” Lucky agreed, “that makes sense- but how the hell did WE get dragged into all that mess?”
Tinjo shot daggers at her partner in crime, Denmar. “Because SOMEONE had to be a Big Shot, and show up that snake bitch Lorelei on the stage, and gave Suzy permission!”
Denmar cringed and gave a big guilty grin, and whined, “Weellll… it all turned out okay, now didn’t it?”
Now how could you be angry with her, with her lookin’ at you with those big blue angel eyes? We all pretty much said, ‘Yeah, okay, no harm, no foul’. Denmar gets away with more dreck that way.
“Okay, so much for that,” I said. I reached over and snapped my fingers under Lucky’s nose.
“The Rood, I mean, the cane.” I snapped my fingers again. “Hand it over.”
“But it’s MINE!” he wailed, clutching it to him.
“No, it’s MINE,” I shot right back at him.”I found it, spotted it for what it is, and bought it with my card! I just handed it to you to hold! Now cough up!”
“But it’s MAGIC! I kicked some serious ASS with this!”
“Yes, it’s magic, and if you go swanking around with that, someone’s gonna spot it, someone magical, and we’re ALL in deep smeg!” Lucky pouted, but handed over the cane.
As I checked out the rood, I noticed something on the head. There was some tacky on the stone in the cap, like a sticker had been put on it and pulled off. That clicked in something, and I took the lamp out of the shoebox. “What’re you up to, Jinx?” Jack asked.
“I noticed this lamp earlier in one of the shops, but despite the fact that I know that I checked it out, I didn’t make that it was magical. But this thing is POWERFUL! I think I have an idea what happened.” I turned the lamp over, and there, on the bottom was a transparent sticker with a pattern in silver printed on it. I peeled the sticker off and checked it out. Yep, the lamp glowed a really heavy magical glow. “There! This must be a magical charm that masks a magic item’s aura, so’s it looks mundane. The sticker on the rood must have worn off when some customer checked out the cane.”
“Stick-on magical charms,” Tinjo groaned. “Fear for the future.”
“Okay, and now that that’s settled,” Jack reached over and snapped his fingers in front of me.
“Hand it over.”
“Hand WHAT over?”
“The big bundles of CASH that you took from Nick Scratch’s pockets?” Jack said with a smirk. “We was watching your big show over Ace’s NetPlex.”
“Oh, did you see the big KISS she gave that guy?” Lucky said with a nasty smirk.
“Bats,” Jack droned. Bats reached over and flicked a finger upside Lucky’s head, *pang!*
“What happened to ‘you keep what you make’?” I demanded.
“THAT was for the credit card scam and the casino chip exchange,” Jack pointed out. “That is a whole ‘nuther score, and we was in it with ya all the way, and we get a cut.”
Okay, he has a point there. I couldn’t have made it without the crew. I reached into my bra and pulled out five bundles of cash. Yes, I know that ‘Jett’s Manager’ tucked SIX bundles into his jacket. What’s your point?
Jack riffled through the bundles, “Oh Yeah! Fifty grand a bundle! We scored BIG, boys!” Then Tinjo reached out her hand and snapped her fingers. “What?” Tinjo just reached over and took a grip on two of the bundles. Jack gave her a ‘why should I give you 100 grand?’ glare. Tinjo shot back with a ‘because we’re GIRLS’ smirk. Jack handed over the bundles. Then Tinjo handed me one of the two bundles.
“WHAT?” Lucky yawped, “Why should SHE get fifty grand all to herself?”
“Star turn money,” Tinjo said certainly. “She took the biggest risks, she made the biggest play, so she should get the big money.”
“WHAT? I wasn’t the one who told everyone to turn off their phones, and made that whole mess!”
“Oh? Did you smack down Nick Scratch, all by yourself?”
Lucky wilted and that was the end of that. As I tucked the money into my shoebox, Tinjo added her share of that to the money in her purse and snapped, “Frack. We made too much money.”
“HOW?” Lucky hooted, his mind clearly blown by the very notion, “Do you? Make? TOO MUCH? Money?”
Tinjo gave him the beetle-browed ‘idjit!’ scowl and spelled it out: “Look, we don’t have enough money to move to another city. In order to move, you gotta have either a job, or a business, or a LOT more money.”
“Why would I want to leave? Everyone I know is here in Bedlam!”
“That’s sort of my point, Leo. But if we stay here and spend this money, then Sergeant Planchett at Metro finds out about it, then he’ll lean on all of us for a big slice of this.”
“How would Planchett find out about this?”
“It’s what he does,” I growled.
“And five minutes after that, he’ll sell the info to Tommy the Tank, and the Tank will take ALL of what’s left, and torture us all, just in case anyone’s holding out!”
“Sooo…” Leo drawled uncertainly, “What do we do with this money?”
Tinjo looked at Jack and Jack looked at Tinjo, they looked at me, and I looked at them, and finally Tinjo said, “We sit on it. For at least a year. And we don’t sell the jewelry we got, for at least a year.”
“SELL IT?” Denmar bleated, clutching the jewelry she had to her protectively, “Nobody said nothing about selling it!”
“Look,” Tinjo kept going, “We peel off say maybe seven grand each, and make it look like we made one of our usual penny-ante scores. Not enough for anybody to get any ideas. We keep our day jobs. We go to Boston or Philadelphia or maybe Atlanta and have a wild weekend there, where nobody knows us, just to get it out of our systems. We pay off our debts in dribs and drabs. And we look for something real to do with the money. Then we make it look like we got financial backers from somewhere, so no one asks where the money came from. What I’m really saying, is we don’t go and BLOW the money, we don’t go showing off our fancy spang, we don’t brag about how we blew the roof off the Apex. Guys… just DON’T get crazy, ‘kay? Think about it- for us, seven grand is a major score!”
There was a general nodding to this, and Jack pulled Tinjo to him and kissed her, and I wondered yet again why I couldn’t get something going like Jack and Tinjo had. Then Lucky crapped all over it by reaching into my shoebox and pulling out a bundle of cash. “What’s THIS?” he demanded, redfaced.
“Oh that? That’s counterfeit.” I explained. “Stavel had a source for some pretty good funny mo-ohmigawd… Ace! Download an app to check for counterfeit bills!”
“Stavrel was mixing a lot of bogus money in with the stuff that was floating around. He used funny money for that Pigeon Drop, and I’ll bet that he mixed a bunch of that counterfeit among the money that he paid off to the betters in the casino. What can I say? Stavrel hates to miss a trick.”
“What about these?” Jack held up one of the bundles that we’d just divvied up.
“Nah,” Tinjo sneered. “Those are the ones that Scratch took from that Satchel that Dr. Pickford snagged. Those are full of the money that Stavrel was keeping for hisself.”
“Scratch… ripped off his own partner?”
“Hey,” I pointed out, “Scratch only promised Stavrel that he could leave with whatever he could carry. He never said anything about not messing with the stuff before Stavrel carried it off.”
Ace got his download and used the app on one of the bundles of cash he got for the chips. “Smeg. At least 20 of these bills are bogus.”
“LATER,” Tinjo said solidly. “Share around that app, Ace, and you guys check all your money- LATER. When you’re sure, put the money in an envelope, write your name on it, and give it to me. Golden Eagle pays a penny on the dollar for bogus money. I’ll turn it in, and share what I get for it fifty/fifty.”
“OR, we could just keep the funny money and pass it ourselves,” Lucky pointed out.
“BAD IDEA,” everyone said in chorus.
“Won’t they ask awkward questions, what with you turning in that many bogus bucks?” Ace asked.
“Not if I do it right,” Tinjo said with a smirk. “Doing the run with the counterfeit to the Bunko department is a grunt job. I’ll just take it on myself to do it every day, and drop off a packet or two, regular as clockwork, and pay myself out of refund. If anything it works out better this way; we can stretch it out by doing it in dribs and drabs, and well, I just never have to pay for my lunch out of my own pocket for a long while. And no more catering truck lunches for THIS girl!”
Jack gave Tinjo a big hug, that went a wrong when the pistol he was packing jabbed him in the side. He pulled it out, snarled and said, “Frack, it’s always something… okay guys, who still has one of those guns we took off… whoever?” The only ones who didn’t were Leo and Denmar. “Okay, break ‘em out and break ‘em apart. We gotta dump ‘em.” That did not go down very well with the troops. “GUYS! We’ve been through this, when we got The Gun! We are not tough guys! We are not badasses! If we try to be, we’ll get our asses handed to us! It was a good call with The Gun, and it’s a good call now.” Even Tinjo had a hard time arguing with him on that one. “Ace, pick one of these things that you think is the best one.” Ace picked a .38 that broke down into three pieces, which looked like stuff that he’d be packing around. But then, Ace is the one who carries around a lot of stuff anyway.
We thrashed out a few more details, just so everyone was on the same page, and there wasn’t anything that would rise up and bite us on the ass. Then Jack shut it down with, “OKAY! It’s getting late-”
“What late? It’s only 1:30.”
“Late enough. We gotta be in church t’morrow, so it looks like we had a normal boring Saturday night. We split up, and one by one, we meet up at O’Malley’s for a last drink, just like we always do after a night of this ‘n that. Tinjo, you come with me. Ji-er, Wings, you and Leo head over to the Metropole, and change. Nobody head for O’Malley’s until Wings drops the masks. And remember- it was just another boring night of nuthin’ really special happening.”
And with that, Leo and I lifted off, only too glad to finally get out of these freaking dresses.
Jogun came into the opulent Owner’s office wearing his normal street clothing and looking like he’d been through a hay bailer. Sitting down without the seat being offered, he asked Meade, “So, how bad is it?”
“How’s your suit?”
“So’s the budget. It would be quicker to list all the dirty tricks that Stavrel didn’t pull. The only bright side to all this is that Stavrel didn’t bother to be subtle, so he didn’t try to lay the blame at anyone else’s feet, so we can’t be blamed for any of this. We’re still out of jobs, but since there’s nothing in the payroll accounts, there’s no way for the club’s creditors to garnishee that. At least we can grab the money in the casino cashier’s and-”
“No good,” Jogun rasped. “Most of it’s counterfeit, and what’s left isn’t worth taking.”
“What about the bodies?”
“What bodies?” Meade gave him a really dirty look. “They were nobodies. I stashed them where they’ll be… processed. As far as the Bronze is considered, they just dropped out of sight.”
“People know that there were shootings here tonight. The Cops will put Two and Two together.”
“We’ll get a visit from someone at Metro, but unless they got a body, or a name and Social Security Number of someone who’s gone missing, they won’t bother with the paperwork,” Jogun said. “And the PSPs won’t do dreck, unless someone files a specific report, or hires them to do it.”
“So,” Mead said uncomfortably, “Any idea what really went on here tonight?”
“Wizards playing wizard games. Isn’t this modern age wonderful?”
“And where did that chick in green that you were dealing with fit into all this?”
Jogun chewed that over. “Dunno. She was working the situation, but for what? For who? I have no idea. Half the time she seemed like she was on the up and up, and knew what she was doing; the other half, she was scrambling around for a map to find her own ass.” He waved the whole thing aside. “So, sum up. Does Nick Scratch own this club?”
“It’s closer to say that Stavrel’s ownership is so compromised that Scratch could have walked in and taken over, IF he wasn’t hideously wanted. Right at the moment, there’s so much red ink that anyone with any money could come in and take over.”
“Anyone. Jogun, let’s be realistic. The Apex was a good gig while it lasted, but we just had the Titanic of Saturday nights. Once the word gets around that this is Nick Scratch’s club, NO ONE is going to come anywhere NEAR the place, no matter who we get to play in the rooms. That is IF we can get any one to play in the rooms; you know how superstitious musicians are! AND, they’d want money up front, ‘cause no one wants to take a check from the Devil Himself. Jogun, we hit an iceberg. It’s time to break out the lifeboats.”
“No,” Jogun said decisively. “This is a good gig, and there are a lot of people besides us who are depending on this place to stay afloat. We can make this happen. I’ll MAKE it happen, no matter what.”
“What are we gonna do? Pray that some angel comes along and bails us out? Then we’d have to shoot that angel, ‘cause the only one who’d come anywhere near here is Nick Scratch.”
Jogun thought it over intently for a few minutes. “We got two problems, but I know one lady who might have answers to both of ‘em.” He wrestled himself stiffly out of the chair. “Man, and I was hoping that it would be an early night… Meade, hold down the fort. I gotta track somebody down. Tell everyone that we’re going to clean up Sunday, and start up business as usual Monday. What happens Friday night should settle everything.”
“What if Nick Scratch shows up?”
“Stall him. Let me know, and keep him here until I get back. I got an asskicking with his name on it.”p
“What’s the matter, Wings?”
“I am getting the weirdest feedback from this rood!”
“Why are you using that thing? We’re 1,000 feet up!”
“What use? It just kicked in! I gotta go down and figure out what’s going on with this thing, or it’ll make me wipe out in the side of a building or something!” Okay, we was in the general area of the Bijou, on the far side of The Wave, so there weren’t a lot of 100+ story buildings around, but still, when you’re sliding along at 1,000 feet up in the air in unpowered flight, you do NOT want things messing with your sense of balance.
We touched down, and Leo looked around nervously as I checked out the rood. The rood was acting like a divining rod, sort of pulling in one direction. I followed the rood, and Leo followed me, looking around frantically, and pulling the cape around him. “What’s the matter, Leo? You smell something nasty?”
“No, I just don’t want anyone to see me dressed like this.”
“Leo, you’ve been running around like that all night!”
“Yeah, but that was where there wasn’t anyone I knew who might see me!”
I was about to make a nasty crack about how lame that was, when it hit me that I should feel exactly the same way. And why wasn’t I feeling that way? I mean, we were wearing the same mask, more or less, so… why?
That got me off my mark enough that the rood almost jumped out of my hand, and I had to jump to keep it in my hand. Following the line of the rood, I spotted it. “Bingo!”
“What?” Leo asked.
“A spirit! This thing is reacting to the presence of a spirit!”
“There!” I pointed at the pale wispy thing slipping around the corner.
“I don’t see anything,” he said flatly.
“What? But Weres are great spirit hunters, and you’re better’n most, Leo.”
“I don’t see nothin’, and I’m not getting a whiff of anything, neither.”
“Okay, now I gotta find whatever that thing is, or it’s gonna drive me nuts, trying to figure out what it is.”
We followed the rood for a bit into the far side of The Wave, and some of the crummier buildings there. Then Leo stiffened, and sniffed at the air. Then, even through the mask, I could see him get all bottle-brushy. “What’s the matter, Leo?”
“I just got a whiff of it.”
“It’s a ghost.”
“JACKPOT! What a night!”
“Oh please! You’re not gonna go after it, are you?” Leo asked, almost mewed. Don’t tell him that I said that.
“Of course I am!”
“What is your problem, Leo? You hunt goblins all the time!”
“Those are goblins, this is a ghost, that’s why!”
“All the better!” I said, almost licking my lips, but not quite.
“You’re not gonna EAT him, are ya? That’s DISGUSTING!”
“What? Ghosts are my meat! You don’t know what you’re missing!”
“Just let them go WEST, fer the luvva Christ!”
“If it was goin’ West, then I couldn’t get my claws into it, now could I?” Hell no, I wasn’t letting this one get away from me! I’ve eaten two ghosts so far, and each time, I was absolutely certain that I was gonna break through and gain my power. And the third time’s the charm. And both times, I had magical power to use. But it burned away, like I’d swallowed some pixie dust. So, even if I don’t break through, I’ll have an edge in dealing with all this magic junk.
As you might have guessed, despite being a kickass goblin hunter, Leo gets creeped out by ghosts in general, and really squicked out by the thought of Avians eating them. Still, give him his due, he followed me after the ghost, no matter how bristly his ears got.
Finally, I got the ghost cornered, in a really cold dark and dank corner of a ruined building that they hadn’t gotten around to clearing out. Or, rather, it was like he’d decided that this was the right place to pow-wow. He stopped and faced me. He stayed kind of wispy, but his face got clearer, more in focus and, “Mister Murometski?”
“Hah?” Leo honked. Weres can’t see ghosts like Avians can. Smell them, feel them yeah, but not see or hear them.
“It’s Elijah Murometski, y’know, Old Lige?”
“Old Lige? I didn’t even know that he was sick, let alone dead!”
“Me neither,” I admitted. I was about to tell Leo that Old Lige hadn’t been sick, that someone had ripped a big hole in his chest, when Old Lige himself spoke to me in a hollow echo of a voice. He rattled off a bunch of short poems, maybe 5 or 6 lines each. And, in the grand old tradition of such things, you couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The Reader’s Digest version of it goes:
‘I was betrayed’
‘My own heart stole my heart’
‘She wants my treasure, but she can’t have it’
‘I wanna go West, but I can’t’
Some Riddle poem that completely escaped me
Another bit of argy-bargy about ‘Arks’
Another bit that kind of sorted out as ‘if you get revenge for me, I’ll give you my treasure’
And another piece of nonsense about locks and keys and troves and all that Treasure Island crud.
Trust me, it’s better this way. Whatever Old Lige was, he was not a poet.
Having said his Catechism Class piece, Old Lige, or his ghost, or whatever, went wispy and drifted down through a crack in the concrete.
That is one DAMN sophisticated ghost!
Jogun found her in one of those nasty little converted-garage after-hours clubs that serious musicians work very hard to keep the culture vultures from finding out about. She was seated in a dim corner, watching three kids and two old men try to fuse two very different styles of music into something new and exciting. Exactly how successful they were is a point of considerable debate.
For a moment, Jogun wondered if she really liked this stuff, or if she wanted to be alone, and she could be certain that the noise would drive off anyone in her set.
He strolled over to her table and stood there. Suzy Midnight, the Queen of St. George’s Square looked up and chuckled, “I suppose that this is where I make a remark about the joint going to the dogs.”
“You trashed my club tonight,” Jogun grated, hating the fact that he had to play her game by her rules.
“No,” she chided him, “I trashed Nick Scratch’s club. Indeed, Scratch trashed his own club. That was sort of the whole point of the exercise.”
Jogun bit off an angry remark about wiseass wizards who played stupid elaborate pranks that got people killed, and ruined lives. Playing word games and running mindsquick was playing on Suzy Midnight’s terms. He remembered someone saying that when your opponent is subtle, to be direct. “I’m keeping the Apex open.”
“Because it has the chops to be a great club, even without all of Stavrel’s crap. Hell, especially without all of Stavrel’s crap. It already has a reputation for being the kind of venue for talent the Cotton Club had in the Roaring Twenties and the Hungry Eye had in the Beat Era. It could-”
“WHY?” Suzy cut him off with a tone of ‘why are you wasting my time?”
“Because it employs over a hundred people, and there are dozens of contracts that will default, and there could-”
“WHY?” she repeated with the stony tone of, ‘You’re beginning to annoy me, little man’.
Jogun clenched his fists and held onto his temper with every ounce of self-control he had. “Because,” he grated through clenched teeth, hating her for making him say it, and hating her even more for knowing it, “the Apex is the best thing that’s come my way in years. It… it gave my life meaning. It was a great club. I hate Stavrel for making something that great, just as a fracking cheat. I hate Old Scratch for tearing it apart, just so he can be a badass. And I don’t like you much, for knocking the whole thing apart that way, and just walking away like it was nothing.”
“Better,” Miss Suzy purred, waving Jogun to take a seat. “So, how do you intend to keep the Apex going? Stavrel walked off with as much money as he could arrange to, and he pretty much double-hocked everything he possibly could; well, when he couldn’t triple-hock it.”
“It’s not as bad as it might be,” Jogun said. “Nick Scratch intended to step into the ownership of the club, just by showing up saying ‘I’m your white knight!’ That means that despite how it looks, the club is still very sound. Meade, our accountant, says that all the outstanding debts are specifically and personally in the name of Arnold Stavrel, but the Apex Club is an incorporated entity distinct from Stavrel himself. Which means that the Club doesn’t owe the banks anything.”
“Oh, Stavrel missed a trick,” Suzy tisked. “He will be cross when he hears that.” She leaned back and gave him a searching look. “And why are you telling me this?”
“You know why.”
“SAY it. Unspoken understandings are usually misunderstandings.”
“I need your help.”
“Well, that’s a beginning. Exactly what sort of help do you need from me?” Suzy cocked a questioning look through her veil.
“First of all, I need the stink off the Apex club. News of what happened is already making the rounds. I need for… something that will make people come to the club again. Once they’re there, what we’ve got will get them coming back. But first, they’ve got to get past the bad PR.”
“Oh, and for an encore, maybe you’d like me to part the Red Sea?”
“You can do it. It’s what you do.”
She gave a ‘what is there to say?’ shrug. “AND?”
“And, I need time. I need the banks and IRS and repo agents off my ass long enough to get the Apex back on its tracks.” Suzy pulled out an iCom, flicked open a few files, pressed a few buttons and then snapped the iCom shut. “Next?”
“I need Stavrel.”
“I need the money he stole,” Jogun snarled. “That much money back in the Apex’s accounts will solve 99% of our problems. Personally, I’d love to hand the man himself over to the vultures, so they can fight over who gets to tear his eyes out, but I’m willing to settle for burying his carcass out in a swamp somewhere.”
“What makes you think that I can find Stavrel?”
“I saw how you looked at Stavrel when he pulled his ‘so long suckers’ exit. Yeah, he blindsided you. Yeah, you were pissed. But you weren’t helpless. You needed to slap down Scratch first, but you were already planning exactly how you were going to make Stavrel’s life a living hell.”
Suzy gave a ‘well, of course!’ shrug. “And if I give Stavrel to you, I’m going to have to give up those very gratifying plans!”
Jogun gave her a hard look. “That’s what I want. Now, what do you want?”
Suzy mused on it for a while. Finally, she said, “Value for value. You want three wishes from me, so I want three wishes from you.”
“I’m not a goddamn genie!”
“And neither am I,” she returned equitably. “Three Solids. Three favors that you WILL repay, when I ask you to, no matter what.”
“And what are these favors?”
“I can’t tell you; I haven’t decided yet. You want very specific favors, but you want them right now. I’m willing to wait for my repayment, but I insist on a blank check. That’s value for value.”
Jogun stared forward with a stony blank face. He was working hard to keep his temper in check. “No. I won’t give you a blank check. There are things that I won’t do. I’ll do things that most people say they’d never do, but most people will do things in a crunch that I’d rather die than do.”
“Oh? And what are these things?”
“I never bothered to write them down. That always struck me as a stupid thing to do. I just know them when I trip over them.”
“So, you’re a man of honor?”
“No,” Jogun said with an even more stony cast to his face. “Samurai and fancy gentlemen and poncy flakes have honor. I just have things that I won’t do. Does that wreck this deal?”
Suzy laughed merrily. “Of course not! You are a man of honor, Jogun. You just don’t subscribe to the storybook sort of honor that most people who make a big noise about it do. The thing is, I’ve noticed that the people who make a big noise about how honorable they are, have very… convenient… definitions of honor. They define their honor, so they can lawyer their way around it, when it gets inconvenient. When I call on people like that, I have to twist their arms to get them to keep their word. But people like you? You’d rather die than break your word when it was given. Well, I’ll tell you this, Jogun: whatever it will be will be difficult, probably very dangerous and violent, and more than likely illegal. BUT, I will honor your precious scruples.” The eyes behind the veil went hard, and so did the voice. “But know this, Jogun: if you suddenly find yourself developing untimely scruples that you didn’t have before, I will get my price out of your hide.”
Jogun looked her square in the eye and stuck out his hand. Suzy took his hand and shook it. And Jogun felt a sense of a solid commitment being made.
Then Suzy reached into a tote bag by her chair and produced a metal cashbox. Inside the cashbox were a hard print photograph of Stavrel, an official form that included a handprint and fingerprints, a used condom inside an old baby food jar, a phial of blood, and a bag with hairs, nails and a few other things. Suzy unfolded a large blank sheet of off-white paper and sketched out a design with her finger. Following her finger, a line of silvery fire traced that design on the paper, creating a pentagram inside a crescent moon, with various words and names written along the circumference of the moon. Suzy crossed Xs over the eyes on Stavrel’s photo, and placed a lit red candle on top of his face. Then she produced something in a small brown paper bag. She squashed the bag with the flat of her hand on the photo, and there was a wet noise of something being crushed.
“There,” Suzy said. “Stavrel’s had a streak of bad luck, and wasn’t able to make it out of town tonight. And for the next seven days, one full week, Stavrel won’t leave town. It won’t be that he can’t leave, simply that it won’t occur to him that he should leave. He’ll keep finding better things to do. He can still run and hide, but the idea that he should or even can actually leave Bedlam simply won’t register with him. Not until this time, next Sunday morning.”
“Is that the best you can do?” Jogun asked.
“I never promised a certainty. There are always complexities with this sort of thing. There will be competition for finding him. But the important thing is that he’s not on a plane or car out of town. You can FIND him. You have one week. You can find him; the rest is up to you.”
“That’s all?” Jogun asked, with a disgruntled grunt.
“No,” Suzy Midnight smiled sweetly. “There’s more.”
Monday morning, before work, I checked in at the office. The ‘office’ being the Old Bakery coffee shop, which used to be connected to the old Bethesda bakery. The bakery closed down, but the coffee shop kept going. Denmar’s day job is a waitress there, and the corner booth is more or less the crew’s regular table. The corner booth was packed, so I sat in the booth right next to it. Like usual. “So, what’s with all the newspapers?” They had copies of all three local dailies, and they were going through them real close.
“We’re checking out what they’re saying happened at the Apex Saturday night,” Tinjo answered.
“MAN, are they putting the babies on this!” Leo chuckled, ‘putting on the baby lights’ being the current euphemism for what they used to call ‘spin doctoring’.
“Yeah,” Lucky said with a smirk, “they are building a GREAT ‘Suzy Midnight’ story around what happened, and Nick Scratch is the poor asshole what it happened to. He’s never gonna live this down.” His smirk went vicious. “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
“Yeah-up,” Jack said with amusement, “with primo bulldreck like this, you just know that Miss Suzy wants the Apex kept alive.”
“WHY are you reading newspapers?” Ace asked, sort of annoyed.
“Like we just said-”
“Why newspapers?” Ace cut Jack off. “There was buzz on the internet on what happened at the Apex, starting five minutes after we left the roof! I mean, why are there even still newspapers AT ALL? They’re smegging obsolete! So why did we kill three trees to find out what we already knew?”
Tinjo shot Ace an annoyed look. “Why are there still brick and mortar stores? Online shopping was supposed to make those obsolete too. But you always go shopping for your new doodads in person, Ace. Why?”
Ace shifted uncomfortably. “’Cause you can’t trust online retailers, everybody knows that. There are rip-offs everywhere, and they’re always changing their names and sites, so’s it’s almost impossible to keep track of who’s legit and who’s a scam. And the name-alike crap makes you even wonder about the legit sites. And even if the place is legit, all kinds of things can still go wrong, and getting it straightened out takes forever and is a pain! And… going and doing it yerself at a brick’n mortar’s just faster, easier, and… well… more fun.”
“And there you are. It’s the same thing with news. You ever try to sue a blogger? Even if you can nail down the little weasel to an actual person, what’s the use? They’re this little nerd in a cubicle, whose only joy in life is crapping on people online. This newspaper? You can find the people and you got hard text of what they say. If they get it wrong, you can SUE them. So, they check their facts. You want buzz? You go online and take yer chances. You want the facts?” she shook the Register. “And we need the facts. We need to know what people think happened Saturday.”
“Hey Wings…” Lucky drawled, “It looks like the gossip columnists and like that are making out like it was all Miss Suzy’s game, and they’re writing you out of it completely. How does that make you feel?” He finished with a nasty smile in my direction.
“Just fine,” I said as Denmar brought my usual. The Old Bakery may not have the selection they had back when everyone was a coffee snob, but they still have what I like. “Nick Scratch is still out there. He may not be quite as nasty as he was at the Apex- he’s probably back to being a jumped up street punk- but he’s still way nastier than I wanna deal with. If people are laughing at him ‘cause they think that Suzy Midnight made a fool of him, then he’ll be pissed at her and not ME.”
There was a gratifying general murmur that this was good thinking, and I think my stock went up with the crew a couple of points. I mean, after last night, my stock was pretty good, but when you’re as marginal a member of the firm as I am, it’s always good to have a few more points.
“So, Wings,” Jack asked, “Why didn’t you show up at O’Malley’s?”
Before I could make an excuse, Leo said, “He found a ghost.”
The crew turned and looked at me. “You found a ghost?” But it wasn’t ‘omigawd, you found a ghost, tell us all about it’; it was ‘you found a ghost- and you didn’t share?’ And I felt those points drop.
“Yeah, I found a ghost, but I didn’t catch it,” I tried to salvage what I could of my standing. “It got away.” That didn’t help my standing much. “After Leo and I changed, I went back to the lot, and tried to find it. I couldn’t find the ghost, but I did find its body.”
“Yeah, that’s why I was such a zombie in church,” I explained. “I got, like, three or four hours of sleep that night. And MAN, did I need sleep!”
“Okay,” Tinjo said, all forgiving like, “that explains why you were such a creep and cut in line for Confession; you needed to get out and get back to bed.”
“That and I wanted Father Pete to tell the Cops about the corpse. Hey, I don’t want the Cops knowing that I’d ever been anywhere near a dead body.” There was a general nodding of heads on that account. A point or two back up. “And, I was also hoping he’d go easy on the Penances.” Hey, being a parish priest must be very boring, what with hearing the same sins, over and over. Father Pete is a bit of a prick, and I figured that a little excitement couldn’t help but sweeten him up a bit.
“Oh,” Jack said, a little miffed. “I was thinkin’ it was because I returned Father Derzhavin’s chalice.”
“It couldn’t have hurt, Jack.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the talisman. “Anyway, after getting another five hours of perch time, I spent the rest of Sunday checking out all the doodads we picked up from one yahoo or another. Most of it’s pure crap, and most of the stuff that’s not crap I don’t really understand, but that is a pretty generic anti-bullet charm. It won’t stop a bullet, but it’ll make it a lot harder for anyone to draw a bead on you. Jack, you’re the one that’s most likely to get shot at, so…” I handed it to him.
There was a general chuckle at Jack’s expense, but Lucky leaned over and leered at me. “You’re ducking around the real thing here, Squirt. You say that there’s a ghost out there?”
“I wouldn’t go after that ghost, Lucky.”
“Hey, you blew it! That means that it’s fair game!”
“No, Lucky, I’m telling you there is something very weird about that ghost!”
“So, it got away from you? So what? That just means that it wasn’t the ghost of a retard!”
“Lucky, it talked to me.”
“What?” That really stopped the conversation
“But…” Tinjo tried to wrap her head around it, “But that only happens on TV! Ghosts aren’t really people! They’re what’s left of people, when they pass on!”
“WHEN you guys let them pass on,” Leo muttered. Leo’s not alone in that reaction. A lot of non-Avians get squicked out by the thought of us eating ghosts.
“I mean, they’re the magical debris of a person! Usually, they’re the very worst of someone!” Tinjo continued. “Honestly, people should thank us for taking care of that for them!”
“It TALKED to you?” Ace lowered his net visor and checked me out.
“Not only did it talk to me, it spoke poetry.”
I recited what the ghost had told me.
“You’re just making that up.”
“Please! I may not be Shakespeare, but I can sure as hell come up with something better than THAT!”
“MAN, he sounds pissed!”
“Well that tends to happen, when you tear someone’s heart out.”
“They TORE HIS HEART OUT?”
“He’s got a TREASURE?” Jack asked, his eyes a-glitter.
“Don’t get too amped, Jack,” I warned him. “Remember, we’re talking about a ghost here. ‘Treasure’ could mean a lot of things. It could mean his collection of baseball cards, for all we know! And Jack- I recognized him. It was Elijah Murometski. Y’know, Old Lije?”
“Old Lije is dead? I didn’t even know he was sick!”
“We’ve already been over this, Jack.”
“Don’t look at me,” Leo begged off. “I was there, but I didn’t see or hear a dang thing.”
I was about to tell them a few other important details, when a looming shadow fell over the booth. Looking back over my shoulder, I almost wet myself. The guy was fracking huge. He was a Caprine with a pair of shortened horns, wearing an Alaska State Trooper leather blazer, a red-and-black plaid flannel shirt with what I’m guessing was a reaction plate vest under it. The right-angle of the butt of a large caliber pistol jutted out, barely visible on his belt. He had hands that could wrap around my head. He had a binder holding together a nasty split in his lip, one eye was almost closed with swelling, and he had a splint over his nose. He looked like he’d been through a bailing machine.
But that wasn’t what scared me.
It was Jogun.
Luck-er, Fortunately, he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at Cap’n Jack. I scootched over, so I stayed out of his line of sight. Okay, I know I’m being a wimp, but seriously, my luck really does run in weird ways like that. I mean, how the hell did Jogun track us down?
Jogun stood there, looking at Jack and said, all reasonable and polite-like, “You Roger Gideon?”
One good thing about Jack: he always remembers to keep his aliases straight. “Yeah, that’s me. What’s the matter?”
“Name’s Jogun. We met last Friday at the Apex Club, when you were cleaning out that goblin?”
“Ah, right. Panzer Rat. I remember.”
“Anyway, you may have heard that there was some big noise at the club last Saturday; don’t worry, we’re still open and everything. As a matter of fact, that’s why I tracked you down. Due to… complications… we had to take down the entire key card system and do a complete re-issue. But the boss, Stavrel cut you these cards without you signing anything or giving any contact numbers. So, I hadda find you to give you these personally.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out three gold cards. “Same basic cards, same $300 bucks each on the accounts.” He handed them over to Jack. “See you Saturday night. Give my best to Madelyn.” With a smile he sketched a salute, and strolled out of the coffee shop.
There was a pause, and then Tinjo asked, with a snarl and blood in her eye, “WHO’S MADELYN? And WHY are you taking her to the Apex Club?”
Instead of rising to Tinjo’s bait, us guys all broke out in groans. “AWWW… MAAAANN… Why’d he have to go and do that?” and variations thereon.
“What?” Denmar bleated, looking at us confused, “What did he do? What’d I miss?”
“He’s gonna keep the Apex Club open,” Jack said through the hands over his face.
“We know that Stavrel ripped off everything he possibly could,” Ace explained. “The only way that they could reopen the Apex is if someone- and by someone, I mean Jogun- finds Stavrel and separates him from that cash. Oh, and maybe his arm and a couple of legs as well. And the competition to find Stavrel’s gonna be fracking cutthroat. He’s carrying around millions in cash, AND he’s got a Rubens that’s worth at least as much.”
“By him dropping off these cards and making good on Stavrel’s promise- especially when we turned that around the way we did- now we OWE Jogun,” Bats went on. And with a nod in my direction as I was the last one to make a noise about this, “And you don’t let a right guy twist in the wind when you owe him one.”
“We gotta help him,” Leo agreed with a groan. Then he perked up. “Hey, I’ll bet you Tuxedo Mary’s involved with this somehow!”
There was another annoyed groan from the assembled, which I cut off. “It gets worse.”
“Y’know Wings, I am really starting to dread it when you figure things out,” Jack said. He let out a heavy sigh. “Okay, what is it?”
“He cut a deal with Suzy Midnight. That’s the only explanation for all these made-to-order reviews and comments in the papers. It’s Miss Suzy at work.”
“So? It couldn’t exactly hurt the big guy’s chances of finding Stavrel in time, having a Named Wizard in his corner.”
“JACK, Suzy wants US to help Jogun. No matter what we want.”
“Jack… HOW do you think Jogun FOUND us in the first place?”