Amber wouldn’t answer her phone, and I didn’t know where she lived, so the only way to find her was at work. After all, in my universe, she worked in accounts payable, and I still had the same job, so why shouldn’t she?
Amber wasn’t at her desk in the morning, she wasn’t there an hour later, and she wasn’t there just before lunch either.
“Have you seen Amber?” I asked one of the loan officers, who happened to be walking through.
He looked at me as though I’d asked a really stupid question. “Her desk is right behind you.”
“Yeah, but she’s not here. I haven’t seen her all morning.”
“Well, she’s been here. I’ve seen her working hard all day.” He gave me a glare, as if to suggest that I ought to be working half as hard as Amber was.
I went to her desk and drew a line in the dust that covered the top. She’d been here, had she? Curling bamboo grew out of a coffee cup next to her computer. The water had evaporated, leaving a rime of salt and a few parched roots. She had a comic-a-day desk calendar next to the plant. I reached for it, and one of Susie’s memories wormed up. Susie had tried to read several days ahead on the calendar, and Amber had screeched at her. One a day, only. No more, no less. I followed the memory, looking for more. Amber changed her nail polish every week, and she did them herself. Susie used to tease her about it. She kept her nail file in her desk drawer. I reached for her drawer and tried to pull it open, then dropped my hands as a horrible feeling of unease flowed through me.
Cursed. She’d cursed her desk to make people feel bad when they snooped. Good spell. I’d like to know that one.
“Susie!” The Hag screeched from her office. “Do you have those documents yet? Quit pestering Amber! She’s working hard enough, don’t you dare dump your files on her!”
I sighed, did enough real work to keep the Hag off my back, then went back to Amber’s desk. Jess once said (again, Susie’s memories) that the trick to working through an unease curse was just like getting around the pain of bikini waxing: grin and bear it. It beats me why Amber even bothered with the curse. The only things worth stealing in her desk drawer were two snickers bars and a manicure set. That left her computer.
Which proved to be Susan-safe. I tried every login and password I could think of, and got denied access every time. Then, the whiff-whiff of corduroy slacks alerted me that someone was approaching. I ducked under the desk just in time to avoid being seen. Whoever it was opened the door to Amber’s office and dropped something on her desk. I reached up and felt around for it, then slid the envelope off.
Wrong to open it, of course, but when you’re about to be killed by the MIB or torn limb from limb by a djinn, the fear of getting fired loses its sting. Amber would have been horrified to see me rip it open with my index finger instead of using a letter opener like a civilized woman.
Amber made pretty good money, a lot better than me, and she earned just as much vacation, not that she’d taken any days. Waiiit a minute. No vacation days, no sick days taken. So where was she? Not one, but three bonuses, each nearly two paychecks’ worth, and an extra day of vacation as reward for employee of the month. This month? She doesn’t even show up for two weeks and she gets enough money to pay rent for the summer? What the heck was going on here? Maybe she was blackmailing someone, or sleeping with the CEO?
No, this was magical. A wish? But that would make three wishes for her. If she made three wishes, she was in big trouble.
The envelope had a plastic window. I flipped the paystub over. It had Amber’s address, which was dumb, because they always hand-delivered them, but for once I didn’t mind bureaucratic inefficiency. I stuffed the paystub in my pocket and quietly left Amber’s office, only to run into the Hag in the hallway.
“Susie, what are you doing here?”
“Just came to ask Amber something.”
The Hag could see the empty office behind me, but she didn’t even blink at that. “Well, hurry up with those documents. I want them all out before the end of the month.”
“Almost done,” I lied.
“Fine.” She scowled at me. “Oh, and Susie, are you still dating Jason Adler?”
“Networking is the key to success in business. If you don’t network your way into a few new accounts for us, there’s not going to be much of a quarterly bonus for you.” She made ‘networking’ sound like something that leaves lipstick on a man’s genitalia. Usually, I’d just complain about comments like that to Chris (an excellent listener), but not actually do anything about them. Funny, having my life threatened had changed me.
I poked The Hag in the chest, and when she tried to walk away, I stepped in front of her, blocking her path. “That’s sexual harassment, and I don’t appreciate it. I’m not your whore.”
I sauntered back to my office, feeling pretty cocky. Two hours for lunch would be plenty of time to visit Amber. Technically I was only allowed thirty minutes, but why not? I’d alienated Susie’s friends and gotten her house wrecked, why not get her fired as well?
Amber lived in a one bedroom apartment in a complex that looked like it had been built in the eighties; stuccoed, boxy, and neither old enough to be quaint nor new enough to be trendy. Someone had propped open the outer gate with a pop can, and a paper plate pointed towards the pool. I passed by it on the way to Amber’s apartment. Several very pink children splashed in the water while their parents fanned themselves and tried to pretend that a summer barbecue could be fun even when it was a hundred and five in the shade. The rest of the apartments hummed quietly with air conditioners and the faint clink of a bamboo windchime. The air smelled of lighter fluid and chlorine.
The curtain flickered when I knocked, but I put my finger over the peep hole so she wouldn’t see it was me. If you stop and think about it, not being able to see who’s knocking should mean that someone is dangerous on the other side, but most people can’t bear not knowing. Curiosity kills more than just cats.
Not that I was going to kill her. I wasn’t even wearing my gun.
A man opened the door. I knew him. He felt vitally familiar, almost like my brother, or a lover, or someone I saw every day and talked to frequently. He had tanned skin, and sculpted, angular features, like a model, but without a pretty-boy pout. He squinted as though it were his permanent expression, like a man used to searching every day for something small and important.
“I uh, I’m looking for Amber …” Enter, or back away? Was this Amber’s boyfriend? Wasn’t she dating Jason? He reminded me of Jason. Maybe they were cousins?
“Susan Elizabeth Stillwater. Don’t you remember me? I was beginning to think you didn’t care anymore.” His voice, deep and smooth as caramel, made his harsh angularity seem sexy. He wore tailored pants and a brown oxford shirt, unbuttoned a little, like Derek wore when he got off work in the evenings.
“Is Amber here?” I caught a whiff of cologne too, something smoky and burnt, like musk or patchouli. “Cause if she’s not, I could come back.”
“You want to come in.” He pulled my by the elbow into the apartment and shut the door behind me. “You should have come by a long time ago.”
Amber reclined on a dark leather couch in the living room, idly flicking through television channels. At the sound of the door closing, she clicked off the television and stood, turning to face me as if her entire morning had been nothing but killing time until my arrival. “Susie?”
“Hi, Amber.” I waved weakly, and since I couldn’t think of anything better added, “How’s it going?”
“Oh.” For a few heartbeats, she just stood there looking at me, hands hanging at her sides. Then she rushed forward and pulled me into a hug. She held tight, as though she hadn’t seen me in years. The man cleared his throat, and she released me suddenly. “Have you met Jack?”
The man grinned as though she’d made a joke. “Have a seat, Susie. Stay for a spell.” He slid over the back of the couch unto the seat, then patted it. He stared at me lasciviously, and I squirmed, embarrassed for both of us that Amber’s new boyfriend was flirting with me.
Wait a minute. Stupid, Susan. That wasn’t her boyfriend, that was Nightjack. He must have changed his face, because he looked completely different. Felt different too. Sexier. Wait a minute. Was she dating Nightjack?
“Amber, can I talk to you alone?”
“Jack and I share everything these days,” Amber said, with a carefully neutral tone.
Nightjack stared at the television without turning it on. He couldn’t have posed a more obvious picture of an eavesdropper if he were hanging from the rafters. I tugged Amber to the kitchen and helped myself to a Diet Coke from her fridge. I so dearly wanted to tell her what was going on, but the djinn didn’t need to know my secret plan.
“What is it you wanted to talk about?”
I tapped my nails on the top of the can before opening it. Susie had picked up that habit from Amber. “I came to apologize.”
Amber blinked. “For what?”
“For going out with Jason.” I stared at her, looking for a reaction. She had some intense emotion going on, but it wasn’t jealousy. What was going on with her? “He asked me out, and I wouldn’t have said yes if I knew you were still seeing him. I told him I wouldn’t sleep with him if he were still dating you. I’m sorry. I guess that’s the reason you won’t talk to me any more.”
Amber relaxed her jaw. “Oh, that’s what you wanted to talk about?” She glanced back towards Jack quickly. Man, there was nothing more annoying than subtle hints about something important, especially when you didn’t know what the hell the other person was talking about. “I thought you were angry with me, since you blocked my number.”
Blocked her number? Did Susie do that? “I’m sorry.”
“I meant to call you, you know, about our worst case scenario plan? I think it’s time to do it. I can’t do this anymore. Please. Don’t let him take me there. I-” she had been speaking in a low whisper, but with a glance at Nightjack she switched to a conversational falsetto. “How’s work?”
“Everyone at work thinks you’re doing a great job.” I tapped on the can again, then made myself stop. “How’d you manage that?”
“Oh, Jack’s helped me with all kinds of things. He really cares a lot about me.” She sounded happy, a newly-in-love woman. Somehow I didn’t believe it.
“I could help you too, Susie,” Jack offered, walking into the kitchen. “Success in business, permanent vacation. You could hang out with us. It’s more fun with three.”
That was so obviously a sexual innuendo, but instead of getting angry, Amber just gave a weak smile.
“You know, I have just enough time for a quick sandwich before going back to work. Why don’t you come with me? They still have that low calorie salad pita at the deli down the street.”
“Oh, I don’t worry so much about dieting anymore.” She gave Nightjack another smile. “But Jack and I haven’t been out for a few days. What do you say?” Her glance asked him for permission.
“I actually meant just you, Amber. You know, girl talk.” I gave Jack one of Amber’s weak smiles. “No offense or nothing, but I haven’t seen her in a couple weeks. We’ve got catching up to do.”
I almost missed it, the flash of surprise on Amber’s face, Jack’s thin-set smile. Then their masks came back, and Jack took Amber’s arm.
“Not this time.” He patted her arm, but he was looking at me. “Maybe later, when I’ve gotten to know you better.”
“I’m sorry,” Amber blurted, and it sounded like she wasn’t talking about not going out to lunch. “I’m really sorry about that whole thing with Jason. If you want to date him, I’m fine with that. I’m not angry or jealous at all. You know I’d never wish you harm.”
Jack narrowed his eyes. “I’ll walk Susie to her car.”
He insisted on holding my arm all the way down the stairs and out to the parking lot. He felt strong, supporting me without pulling me off balance, and he smelled a little like Tyler, the first guy I ever fell in love with. What was the name of that cologne? I started to lean closer, then pulled away. Even if he weren’t evil and icky, what kind of a ho was I? First I went out with Jason, and now I was trying to sniff Amber’s new beau? A supremely evil beau at that?
“You can’t hold out forever,” Jack said, as we were walking past the pool. The kids had finished splashing, and were sitting in the shade eating hamburgers. “I think this new form of mine will weaken you. It weakened Amber. She can’t resist me now.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I tried to pull my arm away, but he wouldn’t let go.
“Oh, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t think I don’t know your game, Susie.” He grabbed my face with both hands. “You want to play hard to get, but I won’t do that. You’ve already indebted yourself. You only choose whether you get a second or third wish before I take you home in payment.”
I pushed his hands off my face. “You’re disgusting.”
“I can be whatever I need to be,” Jack said. He had a smile both masculine and cruel, and he held my arm tightly. I jerked away, but he spun me closer, into a dancing embrace. Then he lifted my shirt and drew his nails lightly across the small of my back. “If you cross me, henna won’t be enough to save you.”
I tugged for my bulla, but it wasn’t around my neck anymore.
Jack smiled, staring into my eyes as though searching for thoughts, for weaknesses. I let my mind empty of everything except emotion; concern for Amber, and yeah, a little fear. He was a djinn who’d nearly killed my best friend.
Maybe Jack saw more, because he had a knowing smirk as he let me go.
“Run along now. I’ll see you soon.”
I ran to my car and sped on the way back to work. I had to figure out how to save Amber.