1. “THERE’S A GIRL IN THE tub,” Mags said.
I looked up at him. His hair was getting long. It was glossy and silky, a grand black forest of hair. His eyebrows almost met in the middle, giving him a permanently sinister expression. I could not actually pronounce his actual last name, called him Pitr Mags because it was better than calling him Pitr the Indian Bastard.
“A fifty-year-old dead girl?” I asked, thinking bones and webs, a fine bed of off-white dust lining the tub beneath it.
He shook his head, pushing his bandaged fingers into his pockets. “Recent.”
I paused in the act of tearing up the carpet. We were broke again. Sometimes it seemed like we’d done all of this before, an endless cycle of failure. The last seventeen dollars we’d possessed had been spent on Neilsson, passed over with a pinprick of gas to make it look like three hundred and forty in twenties, and all Mags and I had to our names was what was pumping in our veins.
We were fucking incompetent. In all things, we’d failed. We were wallowing in a nice, comfy pit of fucking spectacular failure, deep black and hermetically sealed, me and Mags bound together forever and ever with deep fishhooked ties of ruin.
I hauled myself to my feet. Fished in my jacket pocket, produced a fresh bandage, and began working the thin wrapper free, difficult due to the damp and soiled bandages that adorned all nine of my other fingers and the fresh slice oozing blood on my index finger. Faint sparks of pain flared from my fingertips as I worked at it.
I was careful not to let any blood drip anywhere, get smeared anywhere. Leave no mark, that was rule one. No trace of yourself. Blood was usable for only a few seconds, ten, twenty. After that, you couldn’t burn it away no matter how big the spell. Best not to take chances.
The apartment was supposed to have been a good score. We’d heard that Neilsson had a card up his sleeve, and the old drunk had a sheen of success about him. Despite floating around our social level, which should have been our first clue. But Neilsson had been a pilot, back a few decades, and he worked art, and thus had an aura of intellect and culture that was powerful attractive to men like Mags and me, small minds drenched in blood and peasant fare. The codger spoke with an adorable accent, and I never had gotten past the childish idea that all people with some sort of accented English must be fucking geniuses. When sober, Neilsson was a good operator, and he’d made some decent kosh from time to time, so we took the rumor seriously. And decided to work him the way only Mags and I could: a little bit of charm, a little bit of booze, a little bit of gas.
It took all fucking night to get it out of the old bastard. We could have bled more and settled some real voodoo on his shoulders and pushed, but Mags and me, we didn’t bleed anyone else, we relied solely on ourselves, so that would have left us too exhausted to do anything useful. So we used our usual tricks. Aside from the faked twenties—the manager would count out the drawer later and discover a stack of one-dollar bills—we used a couple of charmer Cantrips to make Neilsson like us, and then we poured whiskey down his throat until, grinning with his pink lips buried under a forest of yellow-white beard, he crooked a finger at us and told us about a wonderful score he’d heard of: the Time Capsule.
I looked around the room, holding the candle we’d found in the kitchen—misshapen, fleshlike in texture, already claiming a starring role in my nightmares for years to come—out in front of me. The room was cluttered, the furniture all curves and satin, uncomfortable to look at. I could believe that no one had opened the door or a window in fifty years. It smelled like death, and I tried to take shallow breaths. I shot my cuffs, wriggling my toes inside my wing tips. They’d seen better days. There was a thin spot on the sole, beneath the ball of my foot, that was a week or so away from a hole. It was October and if we didn’t manage something substantial in short order I was looking at a winter spent with wet feet, snow crowding in from the street and making me numb.
“Let’s take a look,” I said.
I had no idea how to monetize a dead girl in a tub, but somehow it seemed like there had to be a way to do so. Why else would the universe construct such a complex contraption if it didn’t roar into life, belch black smoke into the air, and start producing something?
The place had been locked up forty-five years before, the story went. Neilsson telling us with a slurred ruby-red tongue and a yellowed, blurred eye. The owner was a rich bastard whose parents had died, leaving this apartment on East Seventieth Street. He had it shuttered and went to California. And never came back, the apartment sitting here like an unopened oyster, growing some unholy pearl in its center, a Time Capsule of old money. Now that we were here, breathing in decades-old dust and farting into the moldy cushions, it was ridiculous. What had we expected to find? Fucking piles of jewels? Pots of gold? A helpful guidebook pointing out the valuables?
Well, I reminded myself, maybe there was a safe. We could handle a safe. I could bleed a bit more before I got woozy. And if I got woozy, there would always be the rats, if I could get Pitr to go along with it.
I followed Mags. He walked like he was angry at the floor. After a short hallway wallpapered in hideous stripes, a few framed oil paintings that might have been something special hanging every three feet, we were in the master bedroom. It was a large room, no window but a small en suite bath—which was unusual for an older apartment. A huge brown water stain had bloomed on the ceiling, the plaster dropped away and lying on the bedspread in a moldy pile. The room smelled terrible, and I figured if I pressed a hand against the ceiling, it would be damp, a tiny, persistent leak, probably when the tenants upstairs flushed their toilet. A trickle of water that had been invisible for years forming into just a damp spot at first and then just a big damp circle and then just a big damp circle turning black from mold and then one day five years ago the ceiling had crumbled onto the bed in a silent catastrophe.
I stood on the thick carpet that felt crusty and stiff under me, my throbbing fingers in my pockets, and hesitated. It was strange. No one had been in the apartment for decades, and you could feel it, the emptiness, the shock of movement forcing jellied air back into motion. The place looked like a museum, smelled like the back alley of a butcher shop, and my skin crawled.
There was nothing. Of course there was nothing. I was shaking a little, my fingers throbbing and my newest wound bleeding slowly, the bandage damp and clinging on by sheer determination. This had been our last, best idea.
There had to be something. There had to be something.
There was: a dead girl in the tub.
The bathroom was small, covered over with a black-and-white tile design made up of tiny squares, dozens of which had popped from the walls. There was more water damage in here, a humid feel, the ceiling sagging as if filled with brackish, rusty liquid. The smell was bad, trapped in the tiny space. There was an ornate pedestal sink with brass fixtures and a small, basic-looking toilet with a pull-chain flush, the water tank on the wall above it. The mirror had darkened, black spots clouding the silver, one on top of the other until it was a dark, phantom mirror, something that grudgingly reflected you but only after running you through smoke and clouds.
The tub was a big old claw-foot, the porcelain yellow, the brass fixtures matching the sink. There was no showerhead.
The girl was young and naked, lying on her side with her knees drawn up to her belly, her skin milky, blue veins visible. She had short dark hair and looked almost peaceful, curled up on the bone-dry bottom of the tub. I looked around; the place appeared deserted, but someone had been here within the last few days to drop off a body. I stood there, listening, as it suddenly seemed entirely probable that someone had crept into the place behind us.
Mags knelt down and peered at her, cocking his head. “She’s been bled, Lem.”
I blinked and looked at him. The words were just sounds, and then meaning snapped into them and I stepped over to stand next to him, looking down at the girl. He was right. She had the translucent look to her, drained cleanly, every drop of blood sucked out. I knelt next to him and reached in to push aside some of her hair, squinting down at the wound on her neck. It was clean and minimal, familiar.
Mags had the clean-slate cheer of the dim-witted. He crouched there serenely, certain that I would solve this little problem for us. That I would roll her over and discover some ancient cash, or jewels, or that she wasn’t dead at all. Mags’s faith in me was sometimes invigorating, more often exhausting. Mags could survive on rage and profanity; he didn’t need to eat. I thought of him as a pet sometimes, a monstrous kitten I’d picked up and let sleep in my pocket one night, and now—when I looked at his plump, blood-engorged face and twitchy, murderous hands, I felt a stab of horrifying affection—Mags was my responsibility.
I was thirty-three years old and I was wearing the sum total of my worldly possessions, and recently decisions I’d made when I was fifteen didn’t seem so fucking bright anymore. We all thought we were special—all of us, every fucking Trickster all the way up to the fucking enustari—we all thought we had the edge. And maybe we did. But here I was, dopey from blood loss and begging the universe for a handout.
I stood up and fished my switchblade from my pocket, pressing the button and hearing the familiar, horrible snick of the blade flashing out.
“What—” Mags said, barking the word like he meant it as declarative: What!
I unfolded my left hand and drew the blade across my palm, just deeply enough to draw a thick, slow ooze of blood. The pain, as always, shivered through me like poison, and I sucked in breath, tensing. I’d cut myself millions of times. I had faint white scars on both hands, my arms, my legs, and even my stomach. I did it immediately and without thought, letting my underbrain run the show.
Blood dripped from my clenched fist as a hot icy rash of fire spread over my palm. Closing my eyes, I imagined the glow, saw the faint blue light in my mind, and on the beat of my heart I whispered the spell. The blood sizzled away midair, consumed, and my wound was dry and open, aching.
A wave of dizzy weariness swept through me. As a damp line of blood oozed into place on my palm, my hand was engulfed in a soft blue glow that made Mags look like he was made of shadows. Puke mounting in my throat, I knelt and resisted the urge to rest my forehead against the cool porcelain of the tub. I stretched out my arm to hold the eerie light over her. Instantly, a complex pattern of symbols, like invisible tattoos, faded into visibility on her skin, covering all of her. I knew without checking that they were under her hair, too, inside her earlobes, on the webby skin between her fingers.
“Fuck,” Mags breathed, the word now a plaintive exclamation. “She’s marked.”
I stared down at the runes for another second. They were complex, and I didn’t have time to pick through them and compare them to my memories, to what my gasam had taught me. I knew a few things right away: I knew the runes would ward her from any other magic I might try to cast, resisting all but the most bloody and powerful spells, and this meant she was part of something way out of my league.
I studied her face. Sixteen? Twenty? It was hard to tell. Curled up in the tub, she looked peaceful. Young. There were old bruises on her arms. A crust of snotty blood around one nostril. I looked at her feet. Was relieved she was barefoot. For a second I remembered canvas tennis shoes, pink marker. The sound of a girl shivering, her bare arms bruised just like that.
I pushed the memory away, angry at myself. I hadn’t bled this girl. I hadn’t done anything.
I looked at Mags. His big flat face was crunched up in thought, and I knew I had to get him out of here before whoever had done this came back. I snapped my hand out like I was throwing something and the blue light sizzled away, leaving us in the faint light of the candle. I reached down and dragged him up by the collar.
I thought back to standing outside the door, half an hour before. I’d thought about turning around. A moment of crazy affection for Mags outside the door, and I’d thought maybe sleeping out in the open one more night wouldn’t be the worst thing ever. Now I knew what the Worst Thing Ever looked like. Or at least the tip of that black iceberg.
“Come on,” I said, pushing him towards the door. Mags could fold me into complex patterns and not break a sweat, but he was tame.
“What’s up, Lem?”
I kept pushing him, urging him to go faster, imagining the owner of that corpse walking in and finding us—and whoever had marked her was a fucking deep well of trouble.
We are not good people.
We rushed through the hall and back into the first room, as sealed and stultifying as ever, the candle guttering in front of us and throwing odd shadows everywhere. My heart was pounding as I urged the big cocksucker forward, almost throwing him through the door. I didn’t bother putting things back the way they were; the important thing was to not be there anymore.
In the hall, I spun and pulled the door shut behind us, my fingers throbbing. I squeezed my sliced hand again and opened my palm to reveal a nice smear of greasy blood; I wrapped my hand around the doorknob, took a deep breath, and whispered a Cantrip to replace the wards we’d broken and not noticed in our haste to get inside, the syllables—not words, really, just sounds—welling up automatically from memory. It was all about patterns, rhythms. You could find ways to cut the Words down, just like any language. You could say Please pass me the salt or you could say Pass the salt and they meant the same thing. It was the same with magic. You could cast a spell with fifty words, you could cast the same spell with five words, if you knew what you were doing.
I’d always had a way with the Words.
Another wave of tiredness settled into my bones, and I staggered a bit, holding on to the doorknob. When I’d steadied, I took my hand away. The door looked exactly as it had when we’d arrived. No one walking by would ever notice anything out of the ordinary . . . unless they had a trained eye and specifically knew to look for something.
I took a deep breath. My heart was ragged in my chest, and I felt shaky and light. I reached into my jacket and extracted an old soiled handkerchief and started wrapping it around my hand.
“C’mon, Mags,” I said, turning for the stairs.
He hustled to walk beside me. “What’s the matter, Lem?”
I didn’t pause. I could hear thick leathery wings in my head, too close. “Deep magic, Mags,” I said, pushing open the door to the stairs. “Deep fucking magic.”
We Are Not Good People
The ethics in a world of blood are gray—and an underground strata of blood magicians has been engineering disasters for centuries in order to acquire enough fuel for their spells. They are not good people.
Some practitioners, however, use the Words and a swipe of the blade to cast simpler spells, such as Charms and Cantrips to gas up $1 bills so they appear to be $20s. Lem Vonnegan and his sidekick Mags fall into this level of mage, hustlers and con men all. Lem tries to be ethical by using only his own blood, by not using Bleeders or “volunteers.” But it makes life hard. Soon they might have to get honest work.
When the pair encounters a girl who’s been kidnapped and marked up with magic runes for a ritual spell, it’s clear they’re in over their heads. Turning to Lem’s estranged master for help, they are told that not only is the girl’s life all but forfeit, but that the world’s preeminent mage, Mika Renar, has earth-shattering plans for her—and Lem just got in the way. With the fate of the world on the line, and Lem both spooked and intrigued by the mysterious girl, the other nominates him to become the huckleberry who’ll take down Renar. But even if he, Mags, and the simpletons who follow him prevail, they’re dealing with the kind of power that doesn’t understand defeat, or mercy.
Book One in the Ustari Cycle, the first portion of We Are Not Good People was originally published in an altered form as Trickster (Pocket Books).
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Posted by Jeff Somers
Jeff Somers sold his first novel at age 16. His story "Ringing the Changes" was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2006, and his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight. He's written...