IT SHOULD HAVE WORKED. It did work, right up until it didn’t.
“You got your trained bear on a leash, Vonnegan?”
I looked up and stared at Heller, his shaved head flaking into drifts of off-white skin that settled on the shoulders of his black fur coat. The big oversized sunglasses were studded with rhinestones, some of which had fallen off. He looked like he probably smelled, but I wasn’t going to test the theory. He didn’t appear to be wearing a shirt under the coat, though I was fucking relieved to see pants emerging from under its hem. Two kids, Asian and skinny and smoking cigarettes, stood on either side of him. Heller didn’t go for muscle. Heller went for speed.
Next to me, I heard Mags literally growling. I reached up and put a hand on his shoulder. I was slowly starting to realize that Mags had somehow bonded to me in unholy matrimony, and I was beginning to make long-term life plans that involved him.
I took a deep breath. “Listen—”
Heller held up a hand. “Save the bullshit, Vonnegan. You owe me thirty thousand fucking dollars, and you told me you’d have it tonight.”
I leaned back in my chair and let my hand slip off Mags’s shoulder. I decided that if the big guy went nuts and killed Heller by accident, I would allow it. Around us, Rue’s Morgue flowed and buzzed, populated by a big group of slummers from uptown who’d somehow found the bar. The extra humidity and noise was straining the environment beyond its capabilities, and everything had become smoky and dense, the air getting thicker as more drinks were poured.
I’d never had much energy for bullshit. When I started a lie, it got heavier and heavier until I couldn’t hold it up anymore. So I just went for brutal honesty.
“I don’t have it,” I said, spreading my hands. “I had a line on something, but it . . . didn’t work out.”
I pictured the ustari who’d brought me to this state, her and her lone Bleeder. She was a bottom dweller, going after her own kind. And that meant I wasn’t even a bottom dweller. I was fucking underground.
Heller smiled. His teeth were little green pebbles in his mouth, and I didn’t like looking at them, but I forced myself to smile back. We were equals, I told myself. I’d had ten years of apprenticeship that had gotten me nowhere, and a lot of the . . . people, the magicians, who hung out at Rue’s were way ahead of me, but I was learning fast. Heller acted like he was some sort of fucking Lord of the Shitheads, and I told myself that was an illegitimate position: No one had elected him.
“I don’t give a fuck what worked out or didn’t work out: You owe me fucking money and you don’t have it.” He nodded, once, as if coming to a sudden decision. “Go touch your fucking gasam for it, right? Enough screwin’ around.”
Thinking of Hiram and his hot, musty apartment and his tendency to believe that verbal abuse was a fine motivator, I shook my head. Gasam had been one of the first Words I’d learned: teacher, Master. The implied bondage in the Word hadn’t sat well with me. That should have been a sign it was all going to hell sooner rather than later.
I shot my cuffs and thought. Anything to not have to crawl back to that fat little thief and beg him for help. Anything. In service to the grift, I’d even tried to improve my look by investing in a fifteen-dollar suit from St. Mary’s thrift store; it fit like it had been made for show and possibly out of cardboard. But thirty thousand dollars, I’d recently discovered, was a lot more money than I’d thought. It was turning into an impossible amount of money.
Keeping my smile in place, I shook my head and pursed my lips. “Isn’t come to that yet, Heller,” I said. “Give me a couple more days.”
Heller’s smile widened and he gestured, vaguely, in the air, with one hand. Rings glinted on his wiry fingers. I had a second of anxiety, then the weird sense of blood in the air. Then I was being pushed down into my chair by an invisible force, so hard I couldn’t breathe.
“I could Charm ya out of it,” Heller said, stepping over to take hold of an empty chair and dropping it next to me. I could move my eyes but nothing else. Someone behind me, casting spells.
My heart was pounding. Next to me, I could hear Mags, caught the same as me, straining against the spell, trying to launch himself from the chair. I hated Heller, suddenly. He’d seemed vaguely ridiculous before, running his games, dressing like a porn producer from the 1970s. But now I owed him thirty thousand dollars, and I hated him. And I’d come so close to getting out from under him, too.
It should have worked. It did work. Until it didn’t.
GASSING UP MONEY was harder than it seemed. When I’d made the break with Hiram, the round man yelling, telling me I was making a mistake and that when I came crawling back it would be too late, I’d been pretty sure I’d be able to make a living. When you could cast a Charm, gas up a dollar to look like a hundred, blind someone—all with a slash of blood and a few Words—how could you lose?
It was simple: Blood plus the Words made things happen. Magic. It didn’t have to be your blood, but for me it always was.
But Charms faded, and when they faded, people came looking for you. And if you misspoke one Word, shit fell apart and you got a feedback smack for your trouble. If you bled over and over again, cutting yourself to fuel the spell—because magic was greedy, magic was the universe taking your life and spending it elsewhere, using up your lifeblood and aging you prematurely—you wound up half dead, too weak to stand. The more blood; the bigger the payoff. And if you fucked it all up, no one was amazed. If you fucked it up, they came looking for you just like any other grifter losing his touch.
And if you decided to just try and find another ustari, begging them to take you in and show you a few more things, just to get some polish, they took one look at you and told you they could see your still-intact bond of urtuku and refused to have shit to do with you. The other ustari wouldn’t teach you one fucking Word if you were bonded to another one of them.
So you had to be creative to survive. I was proud of the scheme. As far as I knew, none of the other grifters that hung around Rue’s had ever thought of something like it. It was fucking elegant. It wouldn’t take much gas, and if it was labor-intensive, why not? I had time on my hands. Best of all, it didn’t require Pitr Mags to do much. The success or failure of any scheme, I was coming to realize, depended inversely on how much Pitr had to do to make it work.
The idea of ditching the big man had occurred to me. It was the smart thing to do. Pitr made it impossible to be inconspicuous, he was expensive to feed, and if I relaxed for a second he tended to inflict property damage. He whimpered in his sleep and followed me around with a single-minded intensity that made me think that I was going to someday wake up to find him cheerfully killing me in preparation for using my skin on some sort of Lem Vonnegan–shaped doll. He went through periods of asking me endless questions I couldn’t answer; he seemed to have the idea that I’d become his gasam somehow—that Hiram had given him to me. Hiram had certainly scraped Mags off his shoes in my general direction, and so skillfully I hadn’t even noticed him doing it. I didn’t recall a bill of sale or a deed being transferred; leaving him would have been smart.
But I couldn’t do it. And it wasn’t just the fear that an irate and betrayed Pitr Mageshkumar would track me down and crush me—weeping uncontrollably the whole time, of course—and would then carry my skeletal remains around like some sort of lucky charm for the rest of his life. Alone, Mags would die. From simple fucking loneliness. And when I imagined him sitting sad and alone somewhere, shrinking, I couldn’t just walk away from him.
So anyway: the suit. Black, shiny at the elbows and knees, two mismatched buttons—but it was the first suit I’d ever owned, or worn. Like a sign from fucking god, there had been a matching one that just about fit Mags. Not really fit. You could hear the seams groaning and protesting every time he moved—but close enough. As a man who’d dreamed and then confirmed that magic was real, I was ready and willing to pay attention to signs.
I didn’t have a cute name for the scheme. A lot of the con artists—the Tricksters, the idimustari, or “little magicians”—that hung around Rue’s had stupid names for every con they pulled. The Hail Mary. The False Friend. The With Two You Get Robbed. Every single con they pulled, they had a playbook for it. Whole conversations, fucking mystifying.
I hadn’t bothered with the cute name. I was just proud of the mechanics. The same way I’d been proud when I’d put together my first spell, making a pencil float off Hiram’s desk with a pin in my index finger and two Words, just three syllables, and Hiram looking at me with something that was almost respect. Or, if not respect, newfound interest.
It worked like this: Hit the newspaper want ads and the internet boards, look for house sitting. High end, nice places—but not so nice the owners weren’t nosing around to save themselves some fees and stay away from a service. Show up and nail the interview, maybe a little gas in the air to smooth things out. Or, if you’re hungover, unshaven, and smell a little bit like you’re living in an abandoned car with your oversized platonic companion, bleed out a lot of gas. Then, once you’re living there and the mark is out of the country or wherever, you rent the fucking place. Two months in advance. Cash. From as many people as you can herd in there.
We’d found our mark easy enough. Four HOUSE SITTERS WANTED ads and finally there he was: the Fat Man. Overfed and soft, out of shape, and of the opinion that expensive clothes hid it. Cut as well as clothes could be cut, they did hide his gut through the simple expedient of his jacket hanging like a fucking muumuu, though this also made him seem to glide across the floor as he moved. He had ridiculously tiny feet, too, like little pegs at the end of his legs, which he encased in wasted Italian shoes, beautiful little things that creaked and split under their load. I loved him. He walked into the coffee shop and I sliced my palm, but as I was making him fall in love with me, I was falling in love right back. He had an apartment in Hoboken. Nice place. Two thousand square feet of cherry floors, marble countertops, and polished nickel handles. Six dogs, who needed to be kept alive during the two weeks he would be out of the country. I bled and smiled and Mags hovered, unnoticed, and the Fat Man pursed his slippery lips and considered my grooming and elocution. And then he offered me two thousand dollars for the job, plus, of course, full use of the apartment and the building amenities. Payable when he returned.
I could have poured the gas on and gotten everything up front. I didn’t want to be greedy, and I didn’t know how much blood I could spare, given my half-starved state.
Mags didn’t quite understand the idea. For three days he had a frown of Intense Concentration on his face as we waited around town, scarves tight about our necks, hands in our pockets, the fucking suits I’d been so proud of as costuming to impress our marks proving too thin for the winter making me shiver all the time. My shoes were new, at least, the soles thick and the leather shiny, strapped on my feet like they had been made custom, and these gave me hope, made me feel like I had time to figure it all out. Hiram had told me I was going to come crawling back, but my shoes said otherwise.
I walked Mags through it over and over. But he didn’t quite get how we could rent a place we didn’t actually own. When the day came and we collected the keys and went on up to begin our work, I told him to hide in the second bathroom with the dogs, with the door locked. I knew he would fall asleep. And he did, the animals curled up next to him on the floor.
I did the whole Realtor thing. I put a tube of cookies in the oven. I set out some flowers. I tidied up. I cut myself to get a good bleed going and cast a soft, diffuse sort of Charm. The Charm Hiram had taught me had been a blunt instrument, focused squarely on an individual, and the only control you had with it was the amount of gas you poured into it. But casting, I had figured out, was all in the Words. If you swapped out the specifics for the general—if you cut it and cut it until it was a fucking Zen koan that meant whatever the fuck you wanted it to—you could soak the whole place with an easygoing Charm, and everyone who walked in was your friend.
They started coming five minutes later. Mags chased the first couple away by emerging from the bathroom to inquire after the cookies he smelled. I plopped the whole half-baked roll into his hands and he retreated to his hiding spot, tossing it from hand to hand and hissing at the pain.
The next couple went without a hitch. Two guys, young, maybe gay. Who the fuck knew, and who the fuck cared? They hadn’t brought any cash, but after a tour through my haze of Charm (I kept the wound open on my hand with a flex every few minutes, a whisper sending a jolt back into the universe to keep the Charm fresh), they were positively eager to promise to go to an ATM and bring back a few thousand dollars. While they were out, two more couples came. No one had brought any cash. It was a cashless world, and I’d never rented an apartment before in my life. Or had a job.
None of them came back. So I called Mags out of the bathroom. He was sticky, so I cleaned him up with a dish towel. I gave him a job, and he started escorting potential renters to their ATM machines, feeding out a little Charm of his own.
From that point on we had a system worked out. I gave the tour, their eyes glazed. Mags walked them to the bank and returned with a few grand in an envelope. We went through five groups, forty-five minutes.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s cut our losses before someone sobers up and comes back.”
Mags grinned, patting his coat pocket where the cash resided, and then, from behind us, a voice.
“Aw, shit, this was just gettin’ interesting.”
I looked at Mags, whose eyes had bugged out of his head. Fucking useless. Arms the size of tree trunks and I’d seen him use them for real violence, but if you scared him even a little bit he went limp. Not for the first time, I wondered what in hell I was feeding him for.
I turned, and there was a man and a woman in the living room.
She was sitting in the deep easy chair, black leather so soft and dimpled it looked like it was snoring softly there on the deep-pile cream carpet. She was neither old nor young, an in-between face that was tight and lined but not precisely elderly. She wore too much makeup, applied inexpertly, like someone had loaded a shotgun with cosmetics and taken a shot at her. She was wearing what looked like a formal party dress, black and torn, and a smart-looking half jacket. Her yellow hair was piled up on her head in a mass of curls that was either complex or sloppy.
The man was fat, tall, and wearing a gray sweat suit, loose and stained. He was bald, and his head was one single puckered mass of scar tissue. Scars on scars, fat pink lines of cuts, his face so swollen and distorted he looked almost blind. In one slack hand he held a simple folding penknife, poised over his bare forearm.
“He your Bleeder?” She thrust her chin in Mags’s direction. “He’s big enough. But he won’t beat Terrance to the draw.”
I blinked, looked from her horrible face to Terrance, who stood there with all the expression and intelligence of a load-bearing column.
She sighed. “Okes, this was fun. We dummied up invisible when you walked in, wanted to see what you were running. Interesting grift. Like it. But here’s your lesson for the day, kiddo: Always make sure you’re actually alone in a clamshell like this, or someone’s gonna take your pearls. Dig?”
My blade was in my front pants pocket, an old razor attached with electrical tape to a toothbrush. I gave Terrance the slow look. He didn’t seem fast, but he had only one inch of space to cover. Behind me, the front door of the apartment beat at my back like a black wind, and I imagined I could feel all our suckers storming the elevators, their Charms faded, coming with bulls in tow to make us hurt.
“Mags,” I said slowly, “if that little piggie cuts himself, throw him through the window.”
I prayed Mags didn’t look entirely moronic. All I needed was blank-faced and his single angry line of eyebrow would do the rest. I wondered if I’d managed to clean all the cookie dough off his face.
Our interloper looked him over for a long moment, and hope leaped in my heart. She couldn’t be certain, I could see that. Mags was terrifying if you didn’t know him. If he didn’t speak. If nothing startled him. And then sometimes he was actually terrifying, almost murdering people by accident. Sometimes I felt like I’d been given a bear fresh from the forest and been told to teach him to dance, without having my arms torn off in the process.
Then she snorted. “Come on, then, hand over the kosh and we part friends, okes? Play dumb and I’ll teach you a lesson, you fucking idimustari.”
Little magician. I hated the fucking words.
I pushed my hand into my pocket.
Terrance slashed his arm.
The woman sang out a song of Words.
Literally, a song, melodic, a fucking earworm, her voice light and pretty. I had a feeling I would remember that song for the rest of my life. I had my blade in my hand when the feeling of peace and happiness settled on me, soaking into my skin and filling me with a warm sense of satisfaction.
“Tha’s better,” the blond said with a smirk that was adorably cynical. “Now, laddie, the kosh, so we can be on our way.”
I turned to look at Mags. He stared at me with simpleminded confusion on his face, and I smiled at him. Dear, stupid Magsie. “Give the nice lady the money,” I said. It was just cash. More where that came from.
Mags squinted at me, as if unsure he’d heard correctly, and I nodded, reassuring him. “Go on.”
I knew I’d been Nuked. I knew I’d been Charmed. Cast on. Something. But I didn’t care. Mags slowly extracted a bulging yellow envelope from his pocket and held it out. Our blond friend stepped over to him. Her bleeder, big and pink and rubbery, followed her with a shuffling sort of walk. His mouth hung open slightly, and he held his arm up in a curious curled pose. I had a vision of Terrance, slow and dumb as a brick, and maybe he was one of those people for whom bleeding for a living was a fucking promotion.
“Thanks,” she said, opening the envelope and flipping through the bills. “Pleasure robbing ya. Like I said, it’s a nice scheme. Next time you’ll know to canvass the place first, right?”
I smiled. “Right!”
She smiled back. It took ten years off her.
HELLER RAISED AN eyebrow. “Lemme guess,” he said. “You don’t have my money. And let me get yer next line ready: You ain’t gonna be able to get my money.”
“Fuck that,” I said, feeling a flush creep up my neck. “I had it today. I’ll have it again tomorrow. Jesus fucked, just wait.”
“I been waiting!” Heller shouted, and the crowd noise died for a moment. “You fucking kid, fuck the wait. You either grease this palm right now or you’re working for me.”
I strained against the spell but couldn’t budge myself out of my chair. I forced myself to relax, breathing deeply and taking a moment. “What does ‘work for you’ mean, exactly?”
Heller glanced up over my shoulder and the invisible weight lifted. He smiled and dropped into the chair he’d placed next to me, leaning in close.
“That’s more like it,” he said, sounding genial again. “Reasonable. I’m a reasonable man, see, and what I like to see in other men is a similar sense of camaraderie, see? We’re all in this shitty boat together, I say, and everyone’s got to take a turn rowing. Why do people haveta always stir shit up?” Without turning, he reached out and grabbed the arm of a waitress as she hurried past us. She was heavyset and breathed through her mouth as she walked, her hair dyed something meant to be red. She stopped with a squawk, rounded on him, and then went quiet when she saw his leer.
“Two drops of brown, sweetheart,” he ordered, then released her and turned back to me. “ ‘Work for me’ means I need a Fixer for a job I’ve got in the can.”
I ran the word around a little. Since I’d hooked up with Hiram and convinced him to make me his apprentice, I’d heard a lot of fucked-up, crazy words used without a hint of embarrassment. Never this one though. “What’s a Fixer?”
“I got something coming through the docks. I got people handling the pickup, handling customs. I need someone who can cast and who can think, to be there and fix anything that goes wrong.”
I hated the sound of this. “Fix.”
“Cast, if necessary. Talk, if it works. Whatever the fuck. Someone sees something they shouldn’t, you fix it. One of my people gets sticky hands, you fix it.” He held up a hand to forestall any more questions. “I’m not what you would call a micromanager, Vonnegan. I don’t give a green turd how you do it. All I know is, my shit gets to me on schedule, in full, with no problems. Anything happens to threaten that, you fix it, you cunt.”
I processed this. “And we’re square?”
He shrugged. “And then we’re square. Only if there are no fucking problems. Think of it this way: You’re responsible for my shipment. It goes south, so do you.”
I leaned back and watched the lumpy waitress return from the bar and drop two thick glass tumblers of whiskey onto the table. I reached out and took mine between my thumb and forefinger. Saw my father, years ago, doing it exactly the same way. As if examining the glass, thinking profound thoughts. I looked around. The place was full of mages, ustari, but it was just like every place my father had dragged me to as a kid. Stale. Stuffy. Strangled.
All I knew about Heller, really, was that he had People. A lot of them were kids, pulled out of school to run his errands. But he also had Bleeders. And others: hangers-on, flunkies. If Heller came after us, what did we have? We had Mags’s angry expressions, the dozen or so spells I’d figured out, and my Disaster Sense, which had been ringing for so long and so loud I’d come to ignore it all the time.
Something gave way inside me. Fuck it.
“All right, I’ll be your Fixer,” I said. “And then we’re square.”
Heller grinned again, like a mouthful of peas. “And then we’re square.”
SOMEONE HAD CUT the fence. One of Heller’s people, wearing a voluminous black raincoat, lifted the chain link and waved us through. The rain was coming down hard, a single gray sheet broken up into tiny bullets that stung and burned. Black Raincoat led us through a maze of ugly trailers that led to a maze of ugly shipping containers stacked three or four high, creating canyons of primary colors. Black Raincoat then led us to a small trailer, up on concrete blocks and wired up for electricity. He pushed the door open and waved us through, then slammed it behind us.
It was a cramped, depressing office. Three metal filing cabinets, an ugly desk that appeared to be made of sheet metal and oversized screws, a watercooler, a coffee machine, and a sense of gloom that was almost a physical thing. Sitting at the desk was a short black man wearing a newsboy cap and smoking a cigarette. He looked at me and smirked. Then he looked at Mags and he frowned.
“Holy shit,” he said. “You’re my minders, huh?”
I looked at Mags. I’d coached him to always look mean, no matter what. We had spent a few hours in the car flipping through the catalog of Mags’s inner world, and we’d settled on hungry for his mean expression. It was working okay, actually. I’d taken the precaution of not feeding him that morning.
I looked back at the black guy. “Minders?”
“Shit, you know, make sure I stick to my end of this shitheel deal I got dumped on me. Make sure I don’t get cold feet. Make sure Mr. Heller Sir’s shit comes through here nice and smooth like a greased turd.” He plucked the cigarette from his mouth and spat on the floor. “Don’t worry. You got easy duty today. I got the message. Ain’t nothin’ gonna go wrong. Have a cup of coffee. Relax.”
I looked around the tiny office. There was nothing about it that hinted at even the slightest bit of relaxation. The walls were clad in a fake wood paneling that had been cribbed from some terrible past crime against style, the floor was soft in a disturbing way that hinted at a sinkhole beneath us, and the lights flickered and rattled and were too white, too clinical. All in all, I made a mental note to come back to this place whenever I was ready to kill myself.
Heller had told me there was one container coming in that would skip customs inspections. He’d made his arrangements, greased the wheels. I had the tracking number of the container for confirmation but no idea what was inside it—and I’d been told to keep it that way. Fair enough. If nothing went wrong, this was the easiest job ever. If something went wrong, I was supposed to simply make it go right again. When I’d asked Heller for some advice on how, exactly, to accomplish that, he’d reminded me that I was one of a small number of people in the world who could conceivably cast a magic spell on a situation, using a tone that had a lot of negative implications concerning my intelligence and gumption.
I looked back at the guy at the desk. “What’s your name, then?”
He didn’t look back up from the pile of pink carbon paper he was sorting through. “Charlie.”
“Well, Charlie, my name’s Lem. This is Pitr.”
He looked up. He pointed his cigarette at Mags. “He tame? He kind of looks like I killed his puppy when we were kids and he’s just now remembering.”
Mags’s face collapsed into a mask of damp terror. “You killed a puppy?”
For a moment Charlie and I just stared at him.
Used to teaching people how to ignore Mags in social situations, I walked over to the coffeemaker, asking, “What do you make for letting Heller’s shit pass through here?”
He took a moment to answer. “Enough. Heller’s good business.”
The coffee machine was crusty and ancient, the carafe cloudy with coffee sediment from previous decades. There were no extra mugs, so Charlie appeared to have the office to himself. “How long we got to wait?”
He sighed and I heard the rustle of paper. “They’re unloading. Could take an hour, could be here in fifteen minutes.”
“How’s it getting out of here?”
There was a pause. “By fucking truck, how else you get a fucking container off the dock?”
Magic, I thought, but Heller wasn’t going to bleed people to do something a truck could do for him. “So the container’s on the boat still?” I asked. I had no idea how containers and docks worked. I’d skipped that class since I couldn’t have imagined myself standing here, not in a million years.
I turned. “Come on. Take us.”
Charlie squinted at me. “You’re fucking kidding me.”
I shrugged. I owed Heller thirty thousand dollars. To get out from under, I had to make sure he got his delivery without a problem. I wasn’t going to sit in an office and drink charred, cancerous coffee while shit happened two hundred feet away and sank me deeper. Heller hadn’t put this on me out of charity. If all it took was sitting in a fucking office, he didn’t need Tricksters to do it.
“Up,” I said, “or I’ll have my friend here treat you like a chew toy.”
Charlie twisted his lips to the side and glanced at Mags, weighing the possibility that he wasn’t nearly as mean as I’d trained him to look. Then he sighed and stood up, plucking a huge ring of keys from his desk. “Fine. You want to get soaking wet, ain’t gonna argue.” He stepped around the desk to the door, where a blue parka, still damp from the rain, hung. He slipped into it and opened the door. “Come on.”
“I’m already soaking,” Mags whispered unhappily, and I had to swallow a smile of pure love.
We followed him into the gloom and the damp, back into the maze of man-made canyons and the stinging rain. I wondered what was in each of these containers, where it was headed, how much of it had been brought in by mages like Heller—or more powerful than Heller—using a Cantrip here and a Ward there to slip something past everyone. I was slowly coming to understand there were more ustari in the world than I’d ever realized. I’d spent years searching them out. When I’d found Hiram, when I’d stumbled on him stealing pastries and other small things with a pinprick of blood and some whispers, I thought I’d found something rare. But they were everywhere, now that I knew how to look. Like rats, but in disguise.
We emerged into the wide, flat dock area, where a dirty-looking ship roughly the size of Texas and boiling over with the multicolored containers waited. Big cranes swung what looked like complex bridges over to the boat, where they were lowered in slow, graceful increments until they settled on top of a container and clamps snapped into place along the edges. Then they swung gently up and away, lugging it like a brick into the air. A weird-looking truck with dozens of wheels that made it look like an insect sat parallel to the ship, and one of the containers was being lowered precisely onto its back.
Charlie produced a handheld device with a cloudy screen and worked the buttons. “Your Mr. Heller’s container is third in line after this. It’s gonna be a few minutes, like I said.”
I nodded. My hair was soaked and my feet felt damp. But I just stood there and nodded, because I was Lem Vonnegan, tough guy. Who liked to get into poker games with other Tricksters without realizing it; who thought he was the only bright boy in the world who’d ever imagined using simple, dumb tricks to fleece people out of money.
I’d been spending too much time with Mags. I was getting his stupid all over me.
Charlie looked back at me, expecting us to head back to shelter, but I ignored him until he gave up and settled in for the wait.
Watching the containers be unloaded was hypnotic. It was like some huge, real-life video game—the containers monumental blocks, a giant claw trying to snare them from the pile. One, two, more of the big metal boxes were clamped onto by the big crane and gently lowered onto the waiting tractor and motored off. The industry on display, old-fashioned and honest and accomplished without a single cut or drop of blood, was exhausting. I imagined working this hard and didn’t like it. Three saganustari, one cut above Hiram in skill and willingness to bleed people to death, could have unloaded the boat in minutes. And they would have needed nothing more than a few people to bleed dry in order to do it.
I’d once asked Hiram how he found volunteers for the bleeds. He just laughed, so I should have known right then. Four weeks later, I was out of his house.
“Here she comes.”
It looked like every other container. It was yellow with orange edges, as a guide for the crane operator, with black lettering peppered all over it.
“Lem,” Mags whispered.
I glanced at him without moving my head. I was getting to know Mags’s body language a little. He was like the Eskimos in that he had a thousand expressions, all of which meant the same things, like hungry or confused. This one looked more like scared.
“There’s something wrong here,” he said in a whisper loud enough for everyone to hear.
I nodded and looked back at the container. Nothing about it looked unusual at all, but I was filled with a sense of heavy foreboding. As it hovered framed against the gray sky, I tracked it as it rose up and up and then sank down and down, and my heart pounded, my stomach turned. I’d had the same feeling once or twice when I was looking at something with a spell cast on it. Like I could sense the magic but not see it. Hiram had told me it took training to see Runes and Wards and the like; he’d taught me a “witchlight” for the time being, which lit up magical things in an eerie glow like a black light. I remembered being amazed by how much of the world had been marked by magic.
I stared at the container as it hung, suspended in the air.
A moment later a vehicle approached the loading area. It wasn’t the bizarre tractor that had collected the previous containers. This was a full-on tractor trailer, a truck ready for the highways.
“Mr. Heller made arrangements,” Charlie said. “Got a crew and everything. See, they’re standing ready to pull the pins and get it secured to the bed.”
There were four big guys in orange overalls standing ready, smoking cigarettes and talking among themselves. Heller had a fucking empire rolling here. The swelling ball of anxiety in my belly got a little bigger with each breath, but I couldn’t justify it. I watched Heller’s container slowly lower to the truck bed, and as the four men in orange stepped forward to work on it, I started walking. “Mags, with me,” I said.
“Not cool!” Charlie shouted, leaping in front of me and slapping his hand against my chest. “It’s—”
Mags took hold of his arm and with an almost casual yank sent him skidding face-first across the wet concrete. As we walked, Mags stared back at Charlie, his unibrow menacing, and I reflected that there were advantages to having him around. I hadn’t had to exert myself in a long time. As I walked, I tugged at my coat sleeve, blinking rain out of my eyes.
“I’ll do it, Lem,” Mags said, twisting his torso to remove his own jacket.
“The fuck you will,” I snapped. “You bleed one drop and you can go fuck yourself.”
“We talked about this, Magsie,” I said. “We fucking talked about it.”
“I know, I just thought—”
“Do me a favor and don’t.”
Mags had been just as horrified as I was at the whores Hiram had hired to bleed. But Mags was as afraid of Hiram as he was afraid of everything, and he’d forgotten most of it by the next day, requiring me to remind him every time: If he cast off someone else’s blood, we were not friends anymore. You could get Mags to do just about anything by simply threatening to not be his friend anymore.
I gritted my teeth, took my little toothbrush razor, and slashed my arm just deep enough. Blood and pain burst out of the wound.
“Back up!” I shouted at the four guys. Three of them stopped to look at me. The fourth guy, who appeared to have eaten a fifth guy earlier in the day, turned to me, his face scummed with beard, his nose flat and crooked from about a dozen punches.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked in a thick accent.
I thought about that for a step. “I’m the Fixer,” I said. I put five Words in my head. They weren’t complex.
Scum Beard hesitated as I walked past him. I didn’t know if Heller had used the word Fixer to him or if it was the sheet of blood coursing down my arm. The gas in the air was easy to sense, a sizzling band of instantly fading energy, there and gone.
“Step the fuck back, buddy.”
I saw Scum Beard in my peripheral vision. Pulling at the gauzy threads of gas like Hiram had taught me, I spat out my five Words, felt the bitter drain of the spell using me as kindling, and didn’t bother to turn and watch him punch backwards with a grunt of pain, hitting the slick concrete and rolling into a ball. I didn’t watch him lay there moaning, either.
I looked at one of the others. “I said: Back up.”
They backed up. I was getting used to that look when people saw magic for the first time. Hiram had repeated the lesson over and over again: We survived by staying in the shadows. Ustari couldn’t survive if the whole world came after us. As powerful as some Archmages were, as easily as we tricked everyone around us, if the whole straight world came after us in force, we’d be plowed under. The old saying: You can’t cast your way past a bullet. I felt exposed. I felt eyes on me, and I wanted nothing more than to get out of there. But I had thirty thousand dollars hanging around my neck. And something was tickling me with the idea that I wasn’t going to be paying off that debt anytime soon.
Stepping close, I worked the wound on my hand open again. They always healed up, shallow and burning, but closed. Somehow when you pulled the gas out of yourself you healed up halfway, although a lot of times you still got an infection, angry and red. Tearing the thin scab open, a fresh wave of warm, thick gas hit the air: myself, dwindling away.
I stood there for a moment, running my eyes over the surface of the container, somehow seeming smaller and more manageable up close. And there, along the top and the bottom, almost lost among the black lettering, small holes about the size of a dime each.
I remembered, twenty years before, my father. Coming home with that box with holes all along the top and the bottom, and I remembered thinking there was a puppy inside. Or a kitten. Dad had gotten me a puppy or a kitten. Or a turtle. Dad had gotten me something and it was alive and therefore needed air holes. For days I waited patiently for Dad to give me whatever it was. The box never moved, and I eyed it covetously from the kitchen table, where Mom served us meals in silence and Dad sat stewing in hangover fumes, renewed daily. And I worried that he wasn’t feeding it, whatever it was, that he wasn’t taking care of it. And so one night I crept downstairs in the dark and went into the kitchen and opened the box. And inside was a scrap of newspaper acting as a lining, and absolutely nothing else.
That was Dad. Drunk all the time, he did shit that made no sense and forgot about it five minutes later. My childhood was littered with bullshit like that: rides out to the middle of nowhere, being told to pack a bag at three in the morning, all of it resolving to nothing. I remembered the box because of the moment of hope it had given me, and I remembered those air holes, and they had looked exactly like these.
I stepped back and gestured at one of the other guys in orange. “Open it up.”
The three guys still standing exchanged looks, then turned to look at the first one, back on his feet. I noticed Charlie had disappeared. The first guy studied me uncertainly for a moment, obviously unsure. Then shook his head while rubbing it with one hand. “We got orders,” he said. “We got clear instructions: Do not fucking open anything.”
I nodded and smiled, mumbling softly. When using a Charm, it was best to do some of the heavy lifting by being nonthreatening. The Charm itself was six syllables, my own invention, and it settled on Baldy like syrup, smoothing out his face and slumping his shoulders.
“Come on,” I said, still smiling. “Let’s just take a peek.”
Baldy smiled, a twitchy thing that flickered, died, and then bloomed on his face. In an instant he became a teddy bear, shy and gentle. He nodded, then looked past me. “It’s all right, boys, we’re just gonna take a look.”
The other two looked at each other again, then stepped back, wanting nothing to do with it. Rain was getting inside the collar of my coat and making its freezing way down my back, and my hands had gone numb and stiff even though it didn’t seem that cold out, overall. Baldy followed me around to the rear of the truck. The container looked pretty solidly on there, like every other truck you saw on the highway. Baldy pulled a set of cutters from his pocket and cut off two metallic-looking tags from the locks, then worked the levers and pulled the doors open.
For a second, it was impossible to see inside. As gloomy as the day was, it was darker still inside the container. The rain created a screen between my eyes and everything else, and so it wasn’t until they started moving that I realized the box was full of people.
They were dark-skinned and wearing rags, packed in so tight they were just leaning against each other, exhausted, barely alive. Baldy muttered a curse and stepped back, dropping the cutters. I stared into the gloomy interior of the space. At first I felt nothing. Then a tiny voice spoke in my head, faint and unpleasant, asking, What does an ustari need with dozens of people?
And the answer came involuntarily: Blood.
Someone had hired Heller to get them a lot of fucking gas for some bitchin’ Ritual. And Heller had sent me in to make sure anything that went wrong, got fixed.
“Fucking hell,” I whispered, looking down at my shoes. I reminded myself: We are not good people.
If I fucked it up, Heller was coming after me. If I let it slide, sixty-odd assholes who’d done nothing as far as I knew were going to be bled like pigs. Not for the first time, I wished I’d started drinking much, much earlier in the day. Or, perhaps, died in my sleep.
“Close it up,” I said roughly. “Can you replace those tags?”
Baldy didn’t reply right away. “Maybe. It’ll cost.”
“Close it up,” I said. “And fuck the tags, I’m broke.”
I looked up and Mags was there, peering into the container. “Aw, man,” he breathed.
The rain pelted us, wearing us down.
As Baldy started swinging the doors shut, I felt rather than saw Mags turn towards me. I cut him off. “We can’t afford to help them, Magsie.”
I reached up and pushed rain out of my hair, slicking it back. I stood there feeling my heart pound, knowing that seconds were ticking by and I was running out of room to maneuver. I felt each dollar on my shoulders, strangling me, crushing me.
I looked at Mags. He was still staring at the container like he could still see the people inside through the metal. For a split second I hated him, resented this. This was not my problem. These people were not my problem. I hadn’t kidnapped them, I hadn’t paid for them. And if it hadn’t been for Mags and the spotlight of pure, unadulterated fucking goodness he beamed around like a goddamn weapon, I’d have shepherded this steel box from point A to point B and gotten back to zero. Which was where my life was now, struggling to get back to zero.
I had a sudden vision of waking up the next day with Mags gone. He would just leave, no note, no explanation, and creep back to Hiram’s, who would take him in, box his ears, and set him to cleaning the grout in his bathroom for the next ten years as punishment. And I would know that Mags had ditched me. Because I was an asshole, and a coward. I told myself it was one thing to get rid of Mags on purpose. It was something much worse to have someone with a brain the size of a pea decide I was a waste of his time.
And I knew if Mags gave up on me, then I was truly fucked. I wouldn’t survive it. It would eat me alive, losing that pure faith and stupid affection. I had a Moment of Clarity. My Moment of Clarity told me that every decision I’d made in the last few years had been about hanging onto Mags, my last and only friend.
“You know any good Glamours, Mags?”
He kept staring at the container. “Nope.”
I closed my eyes. “Then we’ll have to lose them.”
FOR ONCE, IT worked. Mags was no fucking help. But it worked. And I lived up to my title. I Fixed it.
It was expensive.
First, I had to bleed on a fresh Charm for Scum Beard and his buddies. Made their eyes roll back in their heads and come out smiling and happy, agreeable. Then, on top of that, because I’d found that layering spells on top of each other made both spells more effective, I gassed up six singles from my hollow and cobwebbed wallet so they looked like crisp hundred-dollar bills. This left Mags and me with seven dollars in the Disaster Fund, which meant we would all just have to hope against hope that whatever disaster we faced would involve dollar tacos at the joint on Sixteenth Street.
Scum Beard and his friends were happy to accept a bit each in exchange for rigging the back of the container and loaning us one of their cars. They finished securing the container to the truck while we watched, and then offered me loopy thumbs-up gestures as they climbed into the cab and fired her up.
I walked Mags back to Charlie’s office in the rain, feeling half-dead from blood loss, asleep on my feet. We found Charlie back at his desk, exactly as we’d first seen him. He looked up as we stepped inside, dripping and shivering.
“We good?” he asked. “I figured it might be best the less I saw. In case I was asked to describe the scene later on.”
“I’ll handle the gate myself, then,” Charlie said in a distracted, competent way, “so there won’t be any record when they drive out. Clean. No records anywhere, and Mr. Heller can rest easy. You tell him I was helpful, huh?”
I nodded. “Sure, sure. We’re taking a car out, too, right behind the truck.”
Charlie hesitated for one still moment. “Okay.”
We had reached the Event Horizon of Charlie’s curiosity on the matter. I nodded again. Nudged Mags and we went outside, to stand in the rain rather than smell the burnt-coffee stink and exchange stares with Charlie. I had a feeling Charlie had been here long before Heller and the rest of us Tricksters had found him, and would be here long after we’d all been bled dry and buried in lime pits somewhere, gas for some enustari’s Ritual.
We stood in the rain and I reviewed my lessons from Hiram. Few and far between, but there had been lessons. At the pace he’d been teaching me I would have expected to achieve the rank of ustari by about age seventy-five, likely followed by a massive coronary and Mags, old and withered, weeping by my grave. Hiram had taught me all about perception. What people believed to be true was true, at least when backed by a little gas. Even mages. My head was sizzling with weariness, and I wobbled a little on my feet. Mags reached out and steadied me, silently, with a hand on my shoulder.
I was just a con artist. The realization bled into me, slow and cold. I’d spent my childhood hating my dad, my family, the dull, boring life they’d doomed me to live. Then I’d found magic and I thought: Here’s what I am. I’m fucking special. So I went looking, and I found magic, and I’d spent ten fucking years with Hiram, learning—but here I was, just a fucking con artist. I was a con artist with an edge, was all. And I was woozy from blood loss and broke and I owed Heller thirty thousand dollars and despite being a con artist with an edge I had no way to pay him back.
Zero. Getting back to zero had become my goal.
Outside the gate, a small brown car pulled up and one of our Charmed guys in orange overalls emerged. He looked around as if appreciating the rain and leaned against the car with his hands in his pockets, waiting.
The truck faded in from the screen of rain, lurching towards us in bouncing, heavy slow motion. As I watched it, it seemed likely the trailer would snap right off and tumble down into the mud, or that our not-quite-properly-locked rear doors would pop open. Neither happened. The truck rumbled up to the gate. Charlie emerged to squint at it, then returned inside, and a moment later the gate began to crank open. I tapped Mags on the shoulder and we walked through the gate to the brown car, the owner of which was a good-looking kid with dirty blond hair too long for his own good. He looked delighted to be giving us his car, and walked off into the rain as Mags and I climbed in, all jaunty.
I drove. Mags had never learned. He was this side of feral.
I let the truck ease in front of us and then drafted it, not allowing anyone to get between us. Ours was a stick shift, and it had been years since I’d driven a manual, so the first few miles were laborious, with stalls and sudden stops and jackrabbit leaps forward. I started to pray the clutch survived long enough, but had no confidence.
Mags began humming to himself. At first I thought it was just a random, nerves kind of humming, but as I listened it became clear that it was an actual song, a melody. I couldn’t place it. When he reached the cadence he absentmindedly spun back to the beginning and went through it all over again, a distinct pattern of verse-chorus-verse.
I waited until we were downtown, people everywhere in heavy traffic. Without signaling, I steered us into the left lane and hit the pedal, pulling up in front of the truck. Settled in for a second at the same speed, counted to three, then thought to look at Mags.
“Jesus,” I said. “Put your seat belt on.”
It took him nearly a minute, finding it hard to move in the cramped space, his shoulders up against the roof of the car. When he was finally strapped in, I took a deep breath, feeling my heart take a leap in my chest and my head clear a little. Then I hit the brakes with both feet.
The truck smacked into us and sent us rocketing forward into an old station wagon; the impact made my teeth click together, jerked me forward and smashed my forehead into the steering wheel. We half spun and came to rest wedged between the truck and the car in front. For one second I sat there in relative silence, listening to the engine click and Mags’s whistling breath. There was gas in the air, and after a moment blood dripped from my nose onto the steering wheel.
“Come on,” I said, my voice like rust. My door wouldn’t open. I summoned three Words and felt the blood in my nose burn off, the spell blowing the windshield out. I climbed out onto the hood, lost my balance, and slid backwards, hitting the wet pavement with a painful jolt. The passenger door exploded outward and Mags leaped out, the torn fragments of the seat belt clinging to him like a vine. He reached down and lifted me to my feet, then held me in place for a moment.
I nodded. “Okay, come on.”
He kept one hand on me as I limped down the length of the truck. Baldy was still in the cab, a radio handset in one hand, and he didn’t look at us.
In the back, as planned, the container doors had popped open. With me pretending to look worried, we circled around the back . . . and I wiped blood from my eyes and said, “Fuck.”
They were still cowering in the depths of the container. Every one of them. They stared back in silent motionless . . . what I wasn’t sure. Shock? A compulsion spell? I was very tired, but I was still bleeding from my scalp, so I took a deep breath and tried to think of something useful. A little mu that Hiram had used to jolt me out of bed when I overslept came to mind. Obnoxious, effective, and cheap in terms of gas. Four Words, too many for something so small, but I didn’t have time to rub it down and polish it. I had to add two, even, to expand its target. So I muttered six Words and felt the icy fingers of the universe reach in and scoop out a little more from me, and then every person in the container screamed and jumped.
A second later they were pouring out, leaping down onto bare feet, dressed in rags, and running. They went scattering in every direction, eyes wide, skeletal people with brown skin and matted dark hair. I watched them all run until the last one had hobbled around a corner. Then I looked around at all the people who’d gotten out of their cars to stare, all of them standing in the same pose, one arm propped up on their open car doors.
Everything was shimmery, and I floated. I’d never been this low on blood before. It was like being high, in a way, everything slippery and a constant tingling under my skin. I reached up and grabbed at Mags.
“It’s okay, Magsie,” I said. “They’re gone. I fixed it.”
“YOU’VE GOT TWO things going for you.”
Miserable, I looked up from my whiskey at Hiram. Fat, red-faced Hiram who had slapped me in the mouth and called me a “fucking wretch” when I couldn’t remember something he’d mentioned in passing months before that had suddenly been revealed as a crucial lesson in my magical training. Hiram, who had set me to cooking his meals and making his tea and mending his trousers. Hiram, in red suspenders and a black belt, a linen suit just an increment too tight on him, standing over me with a gin and tonic in one hand.
Hiram, our savior.
“Hi, Hiram,” Mags whispered next to me. He sounded like a small child who had been caught peeing his bed.
Hiram glanced at the huge man for a second and then looked back down at me. He took a deep breath. “One,” he said in his booming bad actor’s voice, rich and pompous, “Heller may be a bottom-feeder, but he’s a mage. He’s part of us, and he obeys our customs. You’re my urtuku. He won’t kill you without my permission.”
My guts squirmed. I thought I’d been under Hiram’s loathsome thumb before.
“Two,” the old man continued, “I’m not personally in the mood to kill you just yet. I’ve got too much invested in you. And you have too much potential.” He sighed theatrically. “And I still hope that someday you’ll see the error of your ways and return to your training.”
Hiram, the lying fuck, would have gladly sent me to Heller’s wolves, but he’d negotiated some small gain for himself, I could tell.
HELLER HAD KNOWN. Of course he’d known. The second I’d called it in, I could tell he wasn’t buying any of it. But he toyed with me. He showed up in his stinky, ratty fur, his shaved head covered in a henna ink spiderweb drawn in a shaky, unsure hand, his glasses huge and black, making him look like some horrible fly. He’d inspected the truck, the crash scene, the tags. He’d grunted to himself, breathing hard, trailed by a gang of his kids and two Bleeders, a man and woman who were superskinny and scratched at themselves constantly and who had agreed, for various reasons, to cut themselves and bleed to provide blood for any spell Heller wanted to cast. So that he wouldn’t have to bleed himself. Not much by way of Bleeders, but so far above my level it was fucking intimidating.
He’d pretended to consider the possibility that I was an innocent failure, scratching his chin and humming thoughtfully. And then he’d gestured and someone bled and he’d cast, and I was paralyzed, frozen in place, and Heller was right in front of me, breath like acid in my face, melting my skin.
“You,” he hissed, “are a fucking cunt. You know who you just screwed over, Vonnegan? You fucking piece of shit? Not me. Nossir, not me.” He smiled. “You just fucked over a goddamn enustari.”
Archmage. The top of the heap. I’d already figured that out, of course. The only people bleeding whole bodies for their spells were the superpowerful mages. Enustari. The people who’d started wars and set off plagues just to collect the blood they needed for their spells.
“Fancy bitch building a new house up north,” Heller muttered, whirling away. “And now when she asks where her fucking sacrifices are, you think I’m gonna hesitate a second to tell her your name?”
But he wouldn’t. Even before Hiram had strolled in, looking disappointed and gouty, fatter than I recalled, I’d known Heller wouldn’t tell his client anything. He’d find another batch of people to send up there, he’d get some other asshole in debt to him to be a Fixer, and he’d eat the loss.
Or, more accurately, he would make me eat it, eventually.
"WE HAVE COME to an arrangement,” Hiram said, fanning himself with his floppy hat. “Mr. Heller and I. Mr. Mageshkumar will return to my . . . stewardship. And you are to go work for Mr. Heller. He is setting up a . . . concern in New Jersey. I do not know the details of Mr. Heller’s business and don’t care to—you owe me a debt for forcing me to associate with that distasteful man so much today—but I know he will be relieving people of their money in ways augmented by tiny spells. You will be set to casting those tiny spells—a sad, menial task, which I have assured Mr. Heller you are capable of performing.”
My heart was racing. I opened my mouth to protest, but Hiram talked over me in that old, familiar way.
“You will earn a percentage of your ‘take,’ as the charming Mr. Heller put it to me. A very small percentage. When you have paid him back his losses, he will release you back to me.”
“Mags,” I said, standing up. “Mags comes with me.”
Hiram looked at me, cocking his head and smiling. “Why, Mr. Vonnegan. You have adopted him!”
I had. The idea of venturing onward without the criminally stupid, insanely violent Indian was horrifying. I realized, in a moment, that I would gladly do anything to keep Mags with me, because no one else knew how to take care of him. No one else knew that he was afraid not of the dark, but of the incremental moment before true darkness set in, when everything was gray and indistinct. No one else knew that he would eat anything unless informed of its ingredients, which always contained at least one thing he would refuse to eat. And no one else knew that Mags was the only person in my life who had ever stopped someone else from hitting me.
“Mags,” I repeated, holding the old man’s eyes. “He comes with me. Or you and Heller can go fuck yourselves.”
Hiram looked from me to Pitr, then smiled at me. “Heller will insist that he does not add to your percentage. But he will have no other objection, I do not think.” He started to turn back, to where Heller sat with his urchins and a huge glass of liquor, staring at me with his greasy mouth set in a smirk, but then hesitated. “Mr. Vonnegan, I wish when you were in trouble, you would think to—” He stopped himself, looked down at his white shoes, and then turned away, shaking his head.
I collapsed back into my chair. I was shaking. The whole day I’d been dancing on a razor blade, about to be cut in two.
“What just happened?” Mags asked, leaning in to whisper thunderously in my ear.
I sighed and took hold of the waitress’s arm as she appeared. Might as well, I thought, get a drink in on Heller’s tab. I pictured it: card games and drugs and hookers—and Heller, lording over it all. I’d heard about his forays into the wilds of New Jersey, far away from the police who knew him too well, a movable feast of horror and scams. For one second I had a twinge of guilt bringing Mags to that, a being of pure mind and soul.
“We’re joining the circus, Magsie,” I said, and a hesitant, uncertain grin spread across his broad, flat face. “We’re joining the goddamn circus.”
The underground few who practice blood magic—casting with a swipe of the blade and a few secretive Words—are not good people. Lem and Mags live in this world, and they try to be good, try to skate by on Cantrips and charms and scratch out a meager existence without harming anyone…much. But when a massive debt forces Lem into the role of Fixer, he’ll learn exactly what down and out really means.
This ebook story also contains an excerpt of the forthcoming We Are Not Good People, out June 3, 2014.