Oct 30

Alternate Susan — Chapter Sixteen

Alternate Susan Cover

Chapter Sixteen




“Okay,” Darius said, flipping the yellow pages. “I found a place that sells cat traps, and a list of places that will silver plate it. It ain’t gonna be cheap.”

“Silver plated cat trap?” It was Thursday, my day for getting food, and I’d picked up Chinese after work. I’d had to work late, so I’d gotten the more expensive shrimp dish that Zoë liked to compensate for the fact that she had to wait extra long for it.

“For the fey? Hello! You asked me to look it up?” He opened a carton and began shoveling rice and vegetables into his mouth. Darius seemed to eat just about anything, as long as it was in large quantities.

“Yeah, I’m sorry. Right. Why silver?”

“Silver is one of those things that exist in both worlds. You know, here and in the Elsewhere. That’s why silver knives can hurt them. All you have to do is find a locator spell. For the bees.” He handed me my spellbook, bookmarked with the torn off lid from a box of mac n’ cheese. The page marked had a spell for finding lost keys, with a scribbled note in the margin suggesting it might be tinkered with to suit other purposes.

“Great. Any idea how we can get honey from a killer bee hive without getting our names in the paper for gruesome and stupid deaths?”

“Hey, I can’t do everything.”

“Go easy on the boy,” Zoë said, coming in the room long enough to snatch her shrimp special and leave again.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to ladle on the sarcasm. I’m just scared. That’s all. Thanks for calling around about the cat trap.”

Darius leaned back in the chair. He’d draped his black trench coat over the back of it, and it dragged on the cement floor. He stared up at the ceiling. “We oughta get Maggie here. She’d be good help.”

“Maggie won’t leave Celestine’s resort.”

“You found her spellbook yet?” Darius asked.

I shook my head. “I can’t even make the thing boot up.”

“Didja open it? Maybe the power supply is shot.”

“I don’t know computers except how to use them. That would be like me looking at the Daewoo’s engine to figure out what’s wrong with it. It never works.”

“Let me see. Maybe I can figure it out.”

“Oh, what, with your magic guy-powers, handed down from the brotherhood of Diana?”

“What?” Darius had apparently never seen Wonder Woman. “Just let me see it.”

“It’s in my room.”

While Darius went to fetch the computer, I checked out the notes he wrote down. Cat traps were cheap-ish. Silver plating wasn’t. This was going to set me back almost as much as the mirror had. On the plus side, if it didn’t work, I’d never have to pay the credit card bill because Nightjack would probably kill me.

“Boo-yah!” Darius whooped, carrying the computer box draped under one arm. Maggie’s computer was pre-mouse. Its highest tech add-on was a 5 ½ inch floppy drive, and there wasn’t a single thing in that beige metal box that didn’t date from before the millennium. “Told you I’d figure it out.”

“You didn’t do anything to it, and how are we going to see what’s on her computer unless we hook it up to a monitor and keyboard?”

“Don’t have to. See?” Darius loosened one of the screws on the back of the computer box and pried off a panel. “Ain’t that just like her?”

“It’s got a couple screws loose?”

“Nah, this. She doesn’t like modern shit. Didn’t make sense that she’d put her spells on a computer file.” After removing a few more screws, Darius took the beige metal skin of the case completely off, revealing a frame, a fan, some wires, and a Trapper Keeper, one of those vinyl and Velcro file-holders that were all the rage in the eighties. “Ta-Da!”

“Whoa.” The Trapper Keeper brought back a flood of memories, and not just memories of teased hair and unicorn stickers. Seeing that familiar plastic was like opening a box of Christmas ornaments. Maggie’s spellbook. Some she’d let me copy, others she’d made me read, some she wouldn’t let me look at. And now it was finally here, in my hands.

The Velcro ripped as it opened. Inside were four spiral bound folders, the color worn on the edges. She kept her spells inside the pockets of the folders, written on sheets of lined paper, napkins, brown paper bags, and envelopes. Unlike Susie’s folder, which had even the most minor spells categorized and given titles, Maggie’s directions sucked.

“You don’t look happy,” Darius said.

“We’re gonna need Maggie.”

“And Maggie won’t leave Celestine’s place until Nightjack is gone.”

“Yep.” I held my head in my hands, staring at the fried rice as though it might help me out. “Maybe Amber will know.”

Amber didn’t answer her phone, but I figured out how to unblock her number, so at least now she could call me back. Why had it been blocked anyway? Did Amber and Susie get in a fight? Oh, wait. I’d blocked it because Nightjack called me from that number. Oops.

Susie, like me, hadn’t really gotten around to entering all the names and addresses of her friends into her phone. Amber had merited a complete listing, both work and home phones, though she wouldn’t call me from work since she wasn’t there. Jess and Christopher had only a very old number. I guess you don’t get new numbers when you’re dead. And where were their graves? Jess was kind of morbid. She’d like to know where her grave was. That’s probably the first thing she would ask me when I got back and told her all about my adventures. Christopher would want to know if I still knew any spells.

I couldn’t stay here. How could I live in a place where Jess and Christopher were dead?

And if I figured out how to go home in the next day or two, there would still be time for Susie to deal with this mess. It wasn’t like I was leaving anyone in the lurch, since she was technically me.

Maggie’s spellbook told me how to make a mirror into a portal. Actually, Susie’s spellbook told me most of it, except for the part where it said ‘pour tincture over the glass’ without mentioning what was in the tincture. Maggie had the recipe for the tincture written on a scrap of oil-stained brown paper. The ingredients were simple: an herbal tea that smelled like cilantro and chamomile (Susie had a small tin of it in the kitchen), a little almond oil, three eyelashes, and a full exhalation. Susie’s spellbook said that basically meant you took a deep breath and breathed on the mixture until you had no more air in your lungs.

I took the steaming oil, tea, and breath mixture into my room, chose a foot square mirrored tile (cracked in one corner, but hey, it was for practice) and sat down at my desk to concentrate. The room still smelled like wet plaster, and a film of white powder coated everything. Zoë had been repairing the drywall that Nightjack destroyed, saving as much of the insurance money as she could, and when she sanded the plaster, you could draw lines in the dust three rooms away. I wiped a spot clear for the mirror, then wiped a second spot clear for the coffee cup and spellbook.

Okay. First. Wet last three fingers of left hand in tincture, and make a crossed circle on the face of the mirror. Visualize your target while doing this. Okay, my target was…six inches above the recycle bin. If it worked, I’d have a portal to the kitchen, so I could throw empty cans in the recycle bin without getting up from my desk.

Second. Wipe the tincture in a circle, counterclockwise around your own face, then cross it from cheek to cheek and brow to chin. Some of it dribbled in my mouth while I wiped my cheek. It tasted a little soapy, but that could have been the chamomile. I drew a line from my brow to chin, and got a little on my nostril. It smelled light green, like fresh cut herbs or some pasta in the back of the fridge.

The room started to pull away from me, stretching out of focus like an image on silly putty. Whoa. I put my fingertips on the edge of the desk for support. Something crawled across my neck, and I panicked, nearly ripping it out before I realized it was my own hair. I had hair on my arms too, tiny translucent hairs no longer than an eyelash. Had they always been there? There were pores there too. Fascinating. How had I never noticed how strange and wonderful everything was?

And where was that sound coming from? Had these noises always been there? The hum, that was the computer. And the fainter hum, the electricity in the walls. And the tapping, the window rattling. And the ceiling fan. And water running.

“Susan!” A voice came from the mirror.

Was it my voice? I looked in the mirror, and Amber’s face stared back. Whoa. I’d turned into Amber. How as I going to help Amber, if I was Amber?

“This is the only way I could talk to you without him noticing. I don’t have long.” The Amber in the mirror spoke.

“Is that me talking?”

Amber in the mirror looked angry. Did that mean I was angry too? “Susie, wipe your face off. I’m sorry I caught you in the middle of a spell, but I can’t talk to you if you’re tinctured.”

I grabbed a tissue from the box and rubbed the surface of the mirror.

“Not the mirror, your own face!”

I wiped my face, and blinked. Amber was still there. Oh. She was talking to me through the mirror. Right, she was a mage, she could do that. I daubed further, and the hallucination, or whatever it was, wore off. No wonder Maggie liked this spell so much. No wonder it was so hard. This must be why Miles had chosen the bowl of water for the other scrying spell. Not as clear, but no tincture to mess with your mind. Trying to remember what focus you wanted for a mirror while under the influence of the tincture was going to be like trying to compete in a Nascar race after you’d helped float a keg. Except for the fiery death part. I hoped.

“Sorry, Amber. I’m fine now. What is it?”

“I don’t know what your plan A is, but I want to tell you my plan B.” Amber appeared to be standing in front of a closed bathroom door, looking into what must be the mirror above her sink. The water was running in the shower. Half her eyelashes were mascaraed, and she had the mascara wand poised over the other eye.

“Okay, shoot.”

“Susie once helped Ruby banish a stickleclag to the Elsewhere. She told me that the principle for banishment was the same for any creature, all that mattered was the amount of energy you had. You already know how to banish him.”

“All I have to do is click my heels together three times and Nightjack goes home? Why did it take so long for you to tell me this?”

Amber scowled at my attempted humor. “Susie knew. We talked about it before we brought Nightjack here, but we never thought it would come to this.”

“You know how hard I’ve been looking for a way to-”

“This is still the backup plan, but I’m letting you know that it’s getting close to time to use it.” The doorknob rattled. Amber wiped a circle clear and leaned closer. “I’ll do it. I’ll be the long pig.”

“I’m confused.”

“You can banish anything if you have enough power. Human sacrifice, Susan. Me.”

“You can’t be serious!”

“I made three wishes already. I owe him.”

“But can’t you-”

“You think I like this? I’ve tried to wriggle out of it, but there isn’t a lawyer in the known universe who can get you out of this kind of contract. You make three wishes from a djinn, he gets three wishes back. Since I can’t fulfill his wishes, he owns my life in forfeit.” Amber’s voice sounded hoarse, as though she’d been screaming a lot, and she looked a lot older than she had just a few days earlier. “The only reason I’m still alive is that my second wish, the one to get out of work, technically hasn’t been completely filled. I’d wished to take a month off work and have them never notice I was gone. I have five more days.”

“I thought he was your boyfriend or something,” I protested, lamely, realizing it had taken a huge act of denial to pretend there wasn’t something horrible going on.

“What do you think he wants me for? My scintillating conversation? My sexual favors? He’ll use my death to power a spell, and when I’m tapped, he’ll throw me away. Jack’s a sick fuck. He’s been bragging about it.” Amber wiped a smaller circle in the rapidly fogging mirror, only showing the center of her face. “Swear to me you’ll do it. Tell me where to be, and have the knife ready. If I’m going to die anyway, I’m taking that bastard with me.”

“You’re insane! I’m not going to kill you!”

“Swear to me you will!” she whispered fiercely. “Because I will kill myself before I let him use me like a battery, and when I die, he’s coming for you next.”

“Fine, I swear. I’ll do that if there’s no other choice.” I wasn’t sure if she heard me, because the mirror had completely fogged over.

Crap. Five days? There was too much to do in five days. Get the honey, get the trap, silver plate the trap, bait the trap, catch the faeries, and then figure out how to feed Nightjack to a bunch of magical moths. If I failed, Amber was gonna die. Just as well the mirror didn’t work. I couldn’t leave this much responsibility to anyone, not even my alter-self. But I still needed help, magical help. I had to try to summon Ruby again.

There was only one bright side to all this responsibility. It finally gave me the impetus to do what I’d been longing to do for most of a year. I grabbed my phone and called the Hag.

“Hello, Lily? Susan Stillwater. Yeah, I know this is your answering machine, but I just thought I’d let you know I won’t be in tomorrow. Nor the day after. I quit. Mail my check to my house, along with any bonuses I’ve got coming to me. As soon as I see how big the bonuses are, I’ll decide whether or not to sue you for sexual harassment. Buh-bye.”

It probably wasn’t possible to sue the Hag for sexual harassment, but gosh it sure felt good to threaten her.





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