“Any luck on finding your mom?” Zoë asked. She was sitting on the couch, watching reruns of some home improvement show with the sound down low. She must have run out of money for renovations, because she was wearing a leather bra and her popcorn bowl rested on black leather pants instead of her paint-stained jeans. Zoë’s corset rings in the back had a black silken ribbon lacing them, but the puckered flesh with metal under it grossed me out too much, so I averted my eyes.
“No. Went by her trailer, but she hasn’t been back.” I debated for a moment before leaning back against the couch, then decided that my shirt wouldn’t wrinkle too badly. “Do you know anything about Nightjack?”
“Nightjack? What’s that?” Zoë somehow managed to eat popcorn without smearing her black lipstick.
“I don’t know. It’s something Jason said. He brought it up, then pretended he hadn’t mentioned it. Susie talks to you about nearly everything, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, but nothing about Nightjack, not even the night you, I mean, the night she came home crying.”
“When was this?”
“About a week ago.” Zoë stuck her finger in her mouth. “Friday, I think.”
“Why didn’t you mention this before?”
“She never said what was wrong. I figured it was personal, so I didn’t pry.” Zoë shrugged, and leaned forward as she concentrated at the pneumatic nailing technique being demonstrated on TV.
“Does Susie keep a journal?”
“I wouldn’t know. Not that she’s ever told me.”
I leaned back against the couch with a sigh of frustration. Zoë’s respect for my privacy was one of the reasons we got along so well, but I wished she had been nosier.
My phone rang, playing a midi version of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin.’
“Hi, Amber,” I said.
“Hello, Susan Stillwater,” said a masculine voice.
“I’m your best friend, Nightjack. You can call me Jack if you want. No reason we shouldn’t get personal. Have you thought of your next wish yet?”
The djinn. So now I knew who Nightjack was.
“A wish?” Tempting. I could just wish myself home again, and leave this mess for Susie to clean up. Just because she was careless enough to get her brother and sister killed didn’t mean she could steal mine. Very tempting. But no. Not before I knew for sure that Maggie was safe. “No, not yet.”
“You’re going to want one, you know. Your life may be fine now, but things have a way of changing. Something might happen to a friend, a roommate, a pet maybe, and you’ll want me to do something about it.” He said it in such a calm way that at first I thought he was referring to Susie’s wish to see Jess and Christopher again. It took a moment for the implied threat to seep in. Time to get the gun out of the safe?
“Stay the hell away from me,” I snapped, more scared than angry.
“You summoned me. I have only your best interests in mind. Didn’t I just offer you a wish?”
I hung up on him. Then I blocked the number so he couldn’t call again.
“Bo?” Zoë asked.
I pinched my fingers together, pulling them apart, then made rising open handed gestures, as though I were lifting a pair of bowls. The gesture seemed automatic, and nervous, like pushing my bangs back with my hand when flirting. I forgot about the gesture until much later, when I realized what I had inadvertently done. “No, it was the djinn.”
The commercial came on, and Zoë turned around. “The djinn? What djinn? The one Susie got a wish from?”
“I can’t imagine there’s more than one.” I was still angry and shaky from being threatened.
“What did it want?” she asked.
“He’s trying to get me to make a wish.” I exhaled and ran my hand through my hair. “I know it sounds stupid, but something doesn’t feel right. I mean, why should he care if I make a wish or not?”
“He gets something out of it,” Zoë said. “That’s the only explanation.”
“Like what? Money? Magic power? But that’s what djinns give us, so that doesn’t make sense.”
“There’s got to be a catch,” she said, turning back towards the renovation show. “If there weren’t, people would summon djinns all the time.”
“Then again,” I said, remembering what Amber told me about the MIB. “There’s also that summoning djinns is illegal.”
“It’s probably illegal for a good reason. You want my advice? Don’t have anything to do with him. No wishes, nothing. Not until you know what it’s going to cost you.”
I nodded. Exactly what I was thinking.
Zoë turned around again, looking me up and down as though seeing me for the first time. “You’re dressed nice. Got a date tonight?”
I’d put on a blue faux suede dress that was too hot for this sort of weather, but hugged my curves like a lover. Since the matching shoes were painful, I’d set them on the floor instead of wearing them. “Yeah. Jason. I think he and Susie are friends, but I don’t know if they’ve dated much. I googled him. He’s rich, owns his own business. He’s been in the paper often, mostly for business deals. Guy’s worth millions.”
“Susie didn’t like him.” Zoë frowned at the popcorn, and stuck her finger in her mouth.
“I do. He flirted with me.”
“And you don’t think maybe he’s after more than just your body?” Zoë stuck both fingers in her mouth and appeared to be trying to remove one of her teeth.
“What do you mean?”
“Cute guy, single, likes you, rich, shares common interests. Sounds perfect. So why did Susie never date him?”
“I guess I’ll find out,” I said. “Why do you keep sticking your finger in your mouth?”
“My piercing keeps getting popcorn stuck in it.” Zoë pulled out a ring from the underside of her lip and set it on the table. She gave a grin, showing teeth no longer obscured by a metal hoop. “At least the tongue piercing is fine.”
I tried not to wrinkle my lip in disgust. Zoë had pierced just about every part of her body that could have a hole safely punched in it. She claimed that it was to advertise the wares of her shop, but sometimes I thought Zoë did things just to see how much she could make me squirm.
“Susan,” Zoë began, in a more solemn tone. “Who did you have to spray the other night?”
“What?” Sometimes I couldn’t always follow Zoë’s train of thought.
“You had to pepper spray someone. I smelled it on your clothes. Someone attacked you, and you haven’t told me about it, which means that you’re scared enough to not want to worry me. I don’t know much about this mage business, but if you need my help, you know who to turn to.” Zoë stuck her finger in her mouth again.
“I need to know if Susie’s a demon-worshipper.”
“Susie would be pissed at the accusation.” She shook her head. “It’s so strange to hear you talk about Susie like she’s another person.”
“Yeah, but she’d probably also be pissed off if you said she was a bit plump, but that’s true, isn’t it?” I held up my arm and touched the flab hanging down. Bat wings. Yuck. Being chunkier than usual had started to bother me. Before, I think it didn’t because it didn’t feel like it was really me. “Who is this goddess of hers, and is she evil?”
“I’ve hardly met anyone who was really evil.” She rolled her tongue in her mouth, then stuck her finger back under her lip before continuing. “The only one who deserved it was this guy I used to get drugs from. I’d bitched about a bad batch he sold me, said I was going to narc on him, so he sent one of his friends to rape me and cut my face up.”
“Holy shit, did he…?”
“He sure as hell tried. I had a really tough boyfriend at the time, and luckily he was staying over that night. Pissed me off. I got some friends of mine to rough him up so he’d never try again. That’s part of why I got these.” She pointed to the crested head of the dragon on her left shoulder. “Look carefully along the dragon’s spine. I had protection incantations tattooed there.”
I gently touched her milky skin with a nail, lifting the edge of her leather bra to read the inscription. “Magic words? Do they have real power?”
“I don’t know for sure, but the intent is there. It’s like a ‘back off!’ sign.” She popped more popcorn in her mouth, and offered me the bowl.
I hesitated. I’d put on full make-up in anticipation of Jason’s arrival, and popcorn would make my lipstick smear. Then again, he was late. What time had he said he’d arrive? Seven. Now it was 7:15.
“Well, since I don’t know how to summon my goddess, demon, whatever, and I’m not going to make any wishes, I’ll just find Maggie on my own.”
“It’s not that easy,” Miles scampered up the side of the couch and unto my arm. I jerked it back in surprise, and nearly flung him across the living room.
“Miles? You scared the crap out of me! How much have you overheard?”
Zoë turned the volume on the television up, and leaned forward, intent on the directions for tiling a cement floor.
“You can’t just decide not to ever summon her again. The bonds you formed with your goddess go deep, and can’t be sundered on a whim.”
“Oh yeah? Watch me,” I told him.
“How are you going to find your mother without magical help?”
I shrugged. “I’ll manage.”
“You haven’t even found Susie’s spell book yet, have you?”
I frowned and stared at the television, feigning an interest in mastic and grout. “I did magic before without help. The scrying, for example.”
“That’s because I told you what to do. If I knew more magic, we’d have found her already. I don’t know where Maggie is. I can’t help you find her. For that you’ll need your goddess.”
“And when I ask for help, what’s she going to demand in return?” I plucked him off my shoulder and set him on the brown slipcover of the couch.
In a flash, Miles had run off the sofa, across the floor, and up the side of the television set. He clung to a corner of the screen, a lizard silhouette against the brick red wall of a historically restored Queen Anne. “How are you and Susie going to switch places again without her help?”
“Down in front, Miles,” Zoë snapped at him. Unlike Darius, she didn’t seem to care what Miles had to say, but she did care about waterproof sheetrock and how to cut around pipe fixtures, and a lizard on the TV got in the way of that.
“If you won’t invoke her, I will,” Miles threatened. “By the light of breaking morn/Goddess fair of shape and form/Bring your daughter—”
I couldn’t hear him after that, but his blue throat pulsed, and his tiny mouth seemed to form words. “Don’t,” I told him. Surely he was faking, right? But I knew that incantation too, knew it well, could say the words as well or better than all those ABBA songs I’d memorized once upon a time.
“What’s he doing?”
“Don’t you dare summon a demon!” Zoë roared, and lunged for him. The popcorn bowl spilled off her lap, and Zoë half caught herself with a heeled boot before falling.
I instinctively reached forward to grab her, and just as my fingers touched the black ribbon lacing the rings in her back, the couch cushion slipped off and I fell forward. The dragon tattoos, neatly bisected by the black leather of her bra, seemed to twitch and blink, winking at me as though we shared an inside joke. There was a smell too, something like ozone, something like fresh mown grass, and the feeling of anticipation. My fingers got caught in the ribbon, and I felt the hard rim of metal under her skin. I cringed at the texture of it.
And then the rings pulled free, snapping through her skin one by one until Zoë had fallen away from me and I stared at the ribbon tangled in my hand. Miles had scampered to freedom, and Zoë was cursing, trying to come to her hands and knees without crushing too much popcorn into her new wood floor.
But there wasn’t any blood or gore. Zoë’s back was nothing but a smooth expanse of white skin between the bellies of the dragons.
“She made her will known,” Miles said from somewhere in the room.
“Help me clean up this popcorn, will you?” Zoë rotated her neck and put her hands on her waist as she stood up.
“Zoë?” I held up the ribbon. The black ribbon had fourteen stainless steel rings laced on it, dangling at the bottom of the silken clump. “Sorry.”
I showed her the ribbon. Neither one of us could speak for a long minute, staring at the ribbon, her unbloodied back, and the shocking miracle of fourteen free rings.
She touched her back, held her fingers before her eyes, then touched it again. No blood. No scarring. It could have gone wrong, could have been a gruesome accident, but instead something strange and miraculous just happened. But why?
“Fuck me.” Zoë kept staring at the bloodless rings hanging from the black silk ribbon.
“I don’t know I did that, or if it was even me,” I said.
Zoë said nothing.
“Are you mad at me?”
Zoë shook her head. The hand holding the ribbon trembled slightly as she stuffed the rings in her pocket.
“Your goddess did this for you,” Miles said.
“I didn’t ask for her help. I don’t want to keep racking up debt.” I raised my hand as if to smack Miles, but he scampered under the couch where I couldn’t reach him.
“It doesn’t work that way,” came Miles’ muffled reply.
“The hell it doesn’t. I’m sorry, Zoë.”
“You’re a thaumaturge, Susan, as much or more of one than Susie was.” Zoë couldn’t quite meet my eyes. That was a first.
I didn’t want to answer that, or even look at her. Susie made her own choices, choices that involved worshipping demons, letting herself get fat, and hanging around with losers who had commitment issues. I was made of sterner stuff. The clock said 7:47. “Jason’s not showing up. I’m going to the climbing gym.”
“You are? You don’t have any gear.”
“I’ll rent some tonight and buy some this weekend.” If I was going to be here for a while, I was going to do whatever I wanted with this body. “And if you see Jason, tell him to piss off.”
At the climbing gym, I found another girl who’d been stood up by a man, and we agreed to belay each other. She didn’t talk much, except to tell me her name (which I forgot) but she and I stayed at the climbing gym until close. The people who worked there were the same ones who worked at the gym back in my reality, but none of them recognized me. Susie’s body was a pile of sludge compared to my old one. I hadn’t lost my technique, and managed to scale 5.8s without falling, but when I tried the 5.9s, Susie’s puny arm muscles couldn’t cope.
When I got back home again, Jason still wasn’t there, but he had left a message on my phone. I deleted it, then decided to call him anyway.
“Susie, I came by and you weren’t there. Where were you?”
“You think I’ve got nothing better to do with my life than wait for someone who can’t be bothered to show up on time?”
“Is this how you think you can act with me? It would have been better for you to ignore me. Asking a girl out on a date and then not showing up is about as clear of an ‘I don’t respect you’ that a guy can make, and I’m not going to put up with it.”
By his tone of voice, Susie had never talked to him this way. Maybe she should have. It was clear by how exhausted I was that Susie didn’t take good care of herself. That probably included her personal relations as well. My stomach chose to growl at that moment, loud enough he could probably hear it.
“What about dinner tonight? You still want to go?”
“I’m not hungry. Good night.” Susie’s body could afford to miss a meal or two.
It would have been the most satisfying “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” kind of dissing I’d ever done, had Jason not ruined it by sending me roses at work. Three people asked me if it was my birthday. Even the Hag asked me who sent them. When I told her “Jason Adler” she went to her office, googled him, and came out five minutes later informing me that he was a big customer and I had to lure him away from First National Title so that she could get the closing bonus next month. Just my luck that Jason Adler was into real estate.
I ignored her request. I ignored his calls. I spent my afternoon alternating between working furiously so I could go home by six, and surfing for any business in Sansouci with a connection to a woman named Celestine.
The next day he sent me another bouquet of roses, in a different color even, so no one would mistake them for the ones I had taken home. (A truly self-respecting girl would have thrown them in the compost rather than keep them, but really, how could anyone throw out perfectly fresh flowers?) The second bouquet had a vase inscribed “Please say yes?” which had several people winking at me and asking when we were going to pick out a ring.
The third bouquet was of stargazer lilies, as ludicrously large as a potted palm tree, and with such a strong fragrance that the Hag began to sneeze. She told me they stunk every time she came in my cubicle. Annoying my boss in passive-aggressive ways is something of a hobby of mine, but Jason’s note let me know he’d played this out.
Tomorrow I will send you a singing telegram, and the next day I have a clown with balloons lined up. If you’d rather not have them, please meet me at Folles at seven tonight for dinner. I have information about Maggie that I want to share with you. I promise I won’t be late.
I didn’t really believe he had information about Maggie and I told myself I only went because of my clown phobia, but really it was because Folles was one of my favorite restaurants, and I couldn’t afford to eat there very often. It had another name back in my reality, but there was no mistaking the large patio garden, the outdoor firepit, the quaint downtown location, or the exquisite menu.
Jason wore a well-fitting olive green suit with a narrow black tie. I showed up in my work clothes—drab but professional—and felt mildly affronted at being out-dressed by my date.
Jason pulled me into a hug before I could react, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Is this a real date, or are you going to criticize me for standing you up and then leave before the entrée arrives?”
“You have to be straight with me, Jason.” I followed him to the bar, feeling my animosity fade away. Sure, he was a jerk to stand me up, but at least he tried to make amends. And after all, it was a nice evening. A fountain trickled behind me, some roses still gave off a delicate perfume, and the merry sounds of diners laughing drifted like music from the rest of the garden.
“Have you talked to Amber?” he asked.
“No, but you know, phone lines go in both directions. You have a phone, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” he replied, falsely affronted, as though he expected this accusation and planned his response in advance. “She isn’t taking my calls.”
“You must have really pissed her off. Have you gone to see her?”
“Yes, but she won’t open the door. I know she’s there, because her car’s there and the lights are on, but she won’t even talk to me.”
“Been stalking her?”
“Susie, you just got here. Can’t we have a nice chat before you start tearing into me?” He ordered drinks from the bartender, and gave him only a tip’s worth of cash. Good. I wasn’t in the mood for the ‘fight for who pays for what’ dance that we modern feminist women had to go through.
“All right. My boss asked me to woo you over to our title company, by the way.”
“Oh?” He smiled coyly. “I might be persuaded. What’s it worth to you?”
“Nothing. She’s stingy with sharing her bonuses, and I like to piss her off. I didn’t realize you were in real estate.”
He shrugged and looked away as though embarrassed: the false modesty of the self-confident. “I dabble a little. I have some investments.”
Some investments, yeah right. He owned half a dozen apartment buildings, and had put a bid in on a new strip mall in Chandler. I smiled at him over my drink. Modesty in a guy is a big plus. Why hadn’t Susie dated him? Was it the lack of punctuality? Maybe that was enough. That was kind of a pet peeve of mine.
Since Jason was too modest to chat about his financial exploits, that left only movies and magic. I was too afraid to mention a movie that hadn’t come out in this reality, so when we finally got our table, I asked him what kind of magic he was doing lately.
Jason looked at me oddly. “Susie, what do you mean?”
“You know, magic. What are you working on?” That was the only thing we had in common, wasn’t it?
“Well, uh, I haven’t gotten very far with the exercises you gave me.” He rubbed the back of his head. Real modesty this time. “None of my spells seem to work right.”
“It takes practice,” I said, feeling like a liar because all of Susie’s abilities had pretty much been handed to me for free.
“I know. I’m just busy, that’s all. Speaking of which, did you ever do that spell I asked you for?”
I had no idea. Had I? I just looked at him and played with the napkin on my lap, hoping that the flickering candlelight on the table wasn’t bright enough for him to see how clueless I felt. “Well, that depends. How about you do your part?”
“Yeah, I know. I shouldn’t keep asking this for free. It’s just that my funds are kind of tied up right now.” He gave me a puppy look. “You still mad about that thing in September?”
“Let’s just forget about it.” I said.
“I won’t do it again,” he said. “And I’ll practice what you taught me so I can do my own spells. I can already see the fey better.” He pointed up above our table, to a wooden arbor hung heavy with grapevines. The vines had no fruit: likely they’d been sprayed unfertile to keep the bees away. Jason moved his finger in a small spiral, and a trail of faintly glowing blue sparkles followed the path of his knuckle. Moments later, small winged creatures appeared. They looked like miniature gryphons, as though some whimsical mage had crossed sparrows with mice, and then given them nearly-human, expressive faces. They chattered at him.
“Hey, those are, uh…” Damn, the name for them was on the tip of my tongue.
“Bramblemaes. They don’t like people looking at them. They’re shy that way,” he said. “Maggie taught me to summon flamespreys. They’re tricky. Pretty too, I don’t know if you’ve summoned one, but they look a little like falcon-sized harpies with flames for wings.”
“Yeah, of course you would have. Stillwater daughter, magic’s in your blood.” He smiled at me. “Not good for much except entertaining people at parties, but they’re good practice. Someday I’m going to summon my own djinn.”
“Technically you’re not supposed to summon anything larger than a mouse if you only have a thaumaturge license.” I loved it when Susie’s memories gave me the information in time to act like I knew what was going on. Jason had tried to get a license, but it involved actual study and book learning, which he didn’t excel at. Susie could summon anything legal.
“Always gotta rub my face in that.”
“Aren’t you worried about the MIB?”
“Djinns are never legal.” He scoffed and flipped his wrist. “If I’m breaking the law, why not break it all the way? Besides how are they going to catch me? I summon it, I ask for my three wishes, it leaves. No witnesses, nothing for the MIB to trace. That was your problem, no offense. Too many people knew about your plan. They’re tracing you on rumors, you know.”
“Like maybe a certain Mr. Adler has been flapping his trap?”
“Hey.” He pouted and tried to look stern. “That’s not true.”
“If I get imprisoned because you squealed, I’m going to narc on you.”
“Nice to know who my friends are. Don’t worry about it anyway, once you and Maggie finish making your wishes, Nightjack will go away.” Jason sounded confident, but Susie’s memories told me that his concept was deeply wrong.
I frowned, unsure how much I could say without giving myself away. “I’m not sure it works like that. What if Nightjack doesn’t leave?”
“Why wouldn’t he? The fey leave when you dismiss them.”
I pointed overhead at the grape arbor, and raised my eyebrows. Those fey weren’t going anywhere.
Jason shook his head. “That’s different, they live here.”
Only one table stood between us and the garden wall, and when that couple left, we could see the people walk past on the sidewalk. A car pulled out of one of the metered spots, and moments later, a black Camaro took the space. Out stepped a rail-thin blonde girl wearing a halter top and a skirt so short it could stand in for a belt. Her date wore an ASU tee shirt showing the Sun Devil logo. Jason watched the girl as she bent over to fix a strap on her stiletto heels. I didn’t fault him for staring. Some of these coeds wore outfits more appropriate for a strip club than campus.
Just as they were passing by our table, an older man intercepted them, blocking their path and shaking a handful of brochures in their faces. He had heavy jowls and large, wire-rimmed glasses. He wore an oxford shirt with a bolo tie, and his belt had a matching silver-and-turquoise buckle. He looked familiar.
“You wear the sign of the devil,” he informed them earnestly. “Your soul is in peril!”
The underdressed blonde studiously ignored him and tried to pull past, but her date paused. “What?”
“The sign of the devil!” The canvasser shook his brochures at him. He wore a metal-banded watch on his wrist, which had made the skin raw.
The red mark on his skin triggered a memory. Susie knew this man, even if only by sight. There was something about him. He was dangerous, but also pitiable. How would she know someone like that?
“Do you want your school known as the university of demon worshippers? Sign this petition to change the mascot.”
“Ah,” the student looked about to sign, just to get the canvasser to be quiet, but his underdressed date tapped her high heels and raised a thin eyebrow. He took her hand and gave the canvasser his back. “No thanks, man, no time.”
The canvasser turned, but no one else happened to be walking past him, so his eyes fixed on me and Jason. He stared at us for a long, uncomfortable moment. My heart beat faster. Did he recognize me?
“Is there a problem?” the waitress asked, as she leaned over to light the candle on the table.
“That man out there, he’s harassing people,” Jason told her.
“Oh, Bible Ed? I’ll get the manager to run him off again. What is it this week? Forcing alien abductees to wear yellow stars?”
“I think he’s trying to get the Sun Devil mascot changed.”
She shook her head. She had an expression used for an annoying but harmless neighbor. “Let me take your order and then I’ll ask him to leave.”
She didn’t have to, because Bible Ed chose that moment to walk towards Mill Avenue. It was getting towards the party hour on Mill, and the nightlife crowd was coming out in force. I used to hang out there when I was a kid, back when only locals stayed in summer. These days, most of the nightlife were students drinking away their checks from mom and dad. Bible Ed was going to have a hard time converting them.
“Did you see the way he looked at us?” I asked.
“Yeah, what a freak. Some people have too much free time. Canvassing the streets on a Friday night, pushing a petition to get ASU to change the mascot it’s had for decades.” Jason snorted with derision. “Can’t stand religious kooks. Ought to be illegal.”
“Asking people to sign a petition isn’t a crime.”
“I’m surprised you’re so tolerant of him, considering what he did.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Jason gave me an odd look. Oops. Wrong reply. “I know you just put up with him for Charlotte’s sake. I wouldn’t, if it were me.”
“Yeah, well, Charlotte’s one of a kind.” Who was Charlotte? “And I wouldn’t call Ed a kook, exactly.” Once again I was guessing, but trying not to make it sound as if I knew.
“If you harass people on the street because your imaginary friend wants you to, you’re a kook.”
“And if you sweet talk women into doing magic to make your real estate transactions go better, what then? Is there a name for that sort of people?” I set the menu down and steepled my fingers.
“Susie …” By Jason’s expression, he wanted me to back down, to say “nevermind” or to simper and flirt. He and Susie had history between them, maybe not sexual (I had no memories of what he looked like with his clothes off) but history nonetheless.
He gave a mock hang-dog look. I’d seen it on men before; it was a pre-apology warm up. “Then you agree with what Maggie said about me?”
Ah ha! Now we were getting somewhere. “About what, specifically?”
“That I shouldn’t make a wish for more money, because it would only cause problems?”
That sounded like something that Maggie would say. I idly reached up to tug at the bulla hanging under my blouse. I’d been putting energy into it for several days, and something told me I might need it by the end of the night. “Do you?”
“Do I care too much about money? Shouldn’t I? Would you be on this date with me if I didn’t drive a nice car?”
I couldn’t very well claim I didn’t know what kind of car he drove, and I couldn’t lie to myself that rich guys weren’t more desirable than poor guys. “I agreed to go out on a date with you because you have a nice body, because Darius wants us all to get along, and because you’re the kind of guy who visits his aging grandmother.”
“Oh, right. Grandma does get lonely.” He raised his water glass. “That matters to you?”
“I like a guy who cares for his family.” I tore bread into pieces to keep from eating it. Stupid to think about dieting when you were at a nice restaurant and someone else was picking up the tab, but there it was. “You know me, Jason. You know how important family is to me.”
“I’m sorry, Susie. I miss Jess and Christopher too.”
The waitress arrived, saving me from thinking of a response. Somehow the wait staff in the better restaurants all act psychic. Jason discussed our entrees as though it were concluded that we were going to share, and he didn’t pretend to be knowledgeable about wine. His friendliness and lack of pretension was getting through to me. He didn’t act like a guy who made million dollar deals weekly. He acted like a guy who had just scored a date with a woman he’d long admired. Yeah, so he had stood me up. Nice body, good with family, rich, likes me. Why hadn’t Susie dated him? Was he gay? Did he snort coke? Did he have a small penis? A nice car could make up for that, at least.
“You said you had information about Maggie,” I asked, around a mouthful of exquisite pate. “Do you?”
“I have a theory.” He coughed and straightened his tie, then looked down at his plate before continuing. I wasn’t sure if it meant he was lying, saying something uncomfortable, or merely readying a rehearsed speech. “Here’s my theory. After our fight on Monday … I admit, I missed the summoning. I was in the middle of a really important business transaction, and there’s no reason why you guys couldn’t have delayed the summoning until I got there. Maggie was too mad to hear my apology even if I had been in the mood to give it. I think that Maggie decided to get out of town for a few days. Since she’s too cheap to spring for a Motel 6—“
I laughed, because it was true. Jason rewarded me with a smile before continuing.
“She decided to couch surf with old friends, and knowing her, she’d couch surf with mage friends, or at least those who are magic friendly, so that she’d be able to talk shop. If she’s not with me or Amber, she must have called Celestine. You know how Maggie is. It doesn’t matter that Celestine is a psionic snob who runs a hoity-toity resort, she’s still a mage, and Maggie thinks therefore she’s practically a sister, especially since they’ve known each other since way back. What I think happened is that Maggie called Celestine to ask if she could crash with her for a few nights, and Celestine made it impossible for Maggie to leave.”
“How could she do that?”
“There are ways and there are ways. You know she’s got a seca guarding the place?”
“A what? Is that what made me thirsty after I scried? Miles was afraid of it, but he didn’t tell me what it was.”
“I sensed it, but didn’t scry close enough to get attacked. It’s a gnosti. Not quite as weak as a flamesprey, not as strong as a wolverwer. I’m surprised Maggie didn’t tell you all about them. She told me she made you memorize the names of gnosti as part of your training.”
“There’s just one problem with your theory, Jason.” I took a sip of my Diet Coke for a dramatic pause. “What on earth would Celestine get out of kidnapping an old friend?”
At this, he laughed, a laugh somewhere between genuine amusement, and bitter cynicism. “What does she want? She wants a wish, same as anyone else.”
“She wants a wish?”
“Yes of course she does.” Jason’s phone buzzed. He reached down, turned it off, and set it on the table next to him. Wow, didn’t take the call. Bonus points for him. “Just because Celestine is shrewd enough to make a buck with her psionics doesn’t mean she’s thaumaturge enough to summon a djinn. Besides, why would she risk running into the MIB? She’s not like you and Maggie, she’s a real professional, with a business to run.”
“Oh, you did not just say that.”
“What? I didn’t mean … oh come on, Susie. Don’t take it the wrong way. I just meant that it’s one thing for you or Maggie to go up against the MIB, the Stillwaters are kind of known for dangerous witchcraft.”
“Not making it any better.”
“But Celestine has a reputation to uphold, and if—“
“Asshole.” I put my purse on the table and slung the strap over my head as though I were going to leave.
“Susie, wait.” He reached forward and caressed the webbing between my first and second fingers.
I pulled my hand away, startled by the physical reaction his touch caused. Maybe Susie hadn’t been laid in a long time, because I suddenly wanted him intensely, so intensely I could practically taste the salt of his skin. It was a wicked feeling too, knowing I wasn’t in my own body, in my own life. I could sleep with him, and then when I went back I could let Susie deal with the fallout on her own.
“I’m sorry. Look, I’ll go with you to Celestine’s compound, okay? We’ll sneak in, see if Maggie’s there, and if she is, you can stop worrying about her.”
I sat down, and put the purse strap back over the chair.
“I really care about you, you know. I’ve wanted to date you for a long time. I was so excited when you finally agreed to have dinner with me.”
So excited about it that he stood me up? I was beginning to understand why Susie didn’t date him. On the other hand, he was hot and rich, and he did say he was sorry. “What about Amber?” I asked.
“What about her?” His phone rang again and he silenced it without looking at it. Okay, more bonus points. Taking calls on a date is a no-no.
“You and Amber are a couple.”
“Then you just sleep with her.”
“Is that a problem?” he asked, just like so many other men I’d dated.
I leaned forward. “You’re wooing me, Jason. You asked me out, you sent me flowers, even now you’re dusting off your best lines and gestures. I’m not going to say it will work. I’m not going to say it won’t. What I am going to say is that if you sleep with me, you sleep only with me. If you can’t handle that, then find someone else. And make sure you take care of any other issues before the situation comes up.”
“You’ve changed, Susie.” He furrowed his brow. “What’s different about you? Darius said you had a memory problem, but there’s more than that, isn’t there?”
God bless skilled waitresses, because she appeared with the dessert tray and kept me from having to diffuse that topic of conversation. I chose a chocolate and coconut truffle cake—diet be damned—and asked for some espresso. Jason must have been distracted by his cheesecake, because he let me direct the conversation to something lighter.
After dinner, Jason and I decided to walk around downtown. It was a nice night for it. Teenagers were cruising up and down Mill Ave, just like they did back home. Couples walked up and down the street. People drank beer on sidewalk patios. We followed the sound of drumming to a small courtyard. Half a dozen young men, shaggy hippy types with dreadlocks and ponchos, sat on a Mexican blanket and played a rhythm on doumbeks. Barefoot women with bead anklets and wild sandalwood-scented hair danced around the drummers, caught up in the music and each other.
Jason and I had been watching them for several minutes before we were attacked. Later, Miles would say that my senses must have been dulled by the earthy sex magic of the drums and dancers. I hoped Jason thought that too. The truth was, I saw Bible Ed approach long before I said or did anything. He wasn’t stealthy; he walked straight at us from the parking lot on the other side of the courtyard. He still had his pamphlets and the petition under one arm. I’m sure that’s what everyone remembered. After all, there was no reason for a civic-minded fundamentalist to carry a flail into a drum jam. There was no reason for him to stop, raise it, and let fly.
At me. A six inch line of agony appeared on the inside of my arm.
Someone screamed. Jason later said it was me. All I know is that as soon as Bible Ed swung the flail a second time, I dropped to the ground. Once there, it became apparent that a person on the ground is just as easy to hit as a person standing, so I got to my feet and was about to run, except that Bible Ed chose that moment to grab Jason.
I’m not saying I’m proud, and for a moment I considered just leaving him there. This wasn’t my fight, this wasn’t even my world, and Jason was just a guy that Susie knew. But Bible Ed was practically frothing at the mouth as he swung his flail, and as he stepped forward to get a clearer shot, I found a piece of heroism and brained him with a doumbek.
“Hey!” protested the drummer whose instrument I’d just used. Then his voice changed from anger to alarm, as Ed jumped in front of him with the flail raised. “Hey, you’re going to knock someone’s eye out with that thing!”
Pandemonium was well underway before Bible Ed hit the drummer. Jason saw his chance and ran back towards the street, grabbing my arm on the way.
“Why didn’t you cast a vit against him?” he demanded.
“What?” I’d worn heeled shoes, and was having a hard enough time running in them fast enough to keep my arm in my socket without Jason distracting me.
“Why didn’t you do something when you saw him? You know he’s crazy!”
“No, I didn’t!” I jerked my arm away and came to a stop. “And if you don’t want people to think that you’re guilty of something, stop running.”
“He’s after us,” he whispered, tugging at my arm again. “Do you want to get whipped again?”
We’d paused next to one of the bar patios. Bouncers were checking everyone’s ID to get in, and the line snaked down the sidewalk. The patio area was blocked off by a waist-high metal fence and brick pillars.
“Follow me,” I told him, and jumped over the fence when the bouncer wasn’t looking. Once inside, I pulled Jason by the arm straight to the back.
Five monitors played music videos, each with a different song, and the drinkers trying to speak over the music made a roar. It was dark, and packed, with the dirty greasy feel that you only get in bowling alleys, skating rinks, and bus stations. The walls had been graffittied over, perhaps intentionally, and the restrooms had hip-hop cartoon characters identifying the gender. I yanked Jason into the men’s with me and latched the door behind us.
And wouldn’t you know it, this window was too small to exit out of either.
“What were you thinking?” he asked. “He almost got me with that thing!”
“And you’re welcome, for saving your ass. I got the job done, what are you complaining about?”
“And what were you thinking, jumping the fence without casting an obfuscation first?”
“Hello, it worked, didn’t it? And now we wait here for a few minutes, then exit and walk back to your car like nothing happened.” I looked in the polished metal excuse for a mirror, but didn’t touch up my make-up or wash my hands. I’d seen public parks with cleaner bathrooms.
“At least tell me you’ll be smart enough to disguise yourself when we go to Celestine’s compound. I’m not talking about a wig, either, I mean full indigo. Even I can do that much.” He grabbed both my shoulders and shook me. “Promise me!”
“Don’t shake me.” I gave him my best steely glare.
Jason let go. “I’m sorry.”
“And don’t yell at me.”
“I’m sorry again, it’s just that …” He took my shoulders again, gentler this time. “Susie, I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Oh, Susie, my sweet precious girl …”
And before I could answer that, he kissed me, pulling us hard together, as though he’d just feared me dead and found me new-risen.
I tried not to respond, but he was hot, and he wanted me, and I felt as weak in the face of that as I had been with chocolate truffle cake. His back was warm from running, and slightly damp with sweat. I slid my hand between his jacket and shirt and raked my nails along the small of his back. Jason made a fist in my hair, pulling and releasing the unruly locks which some guys had been kind enough to call sexy. He nipped at my lower lip, gently, and leaned forward to inhale the perfume behind my ear.
“Jason, please?” I murmured. I wasn’t sure what I was asking. Take me home so we can do this in style. Get me out of this filthy bathroom. Start a new romance to make up for this scary dangerous life Susie left for me. Stop now before I make a slut of myself.
Jason exhaled like a sigh, fingertips sliding down my front, barely tickling my skin through my blouse. He undid the first button of my blouse and slid his hand inside. His right hand pulled my hips up against him, and his left circled my nipple, drawing it slowly to attention. He pushed me back against the sink. I’d never been the kind of girl to have sex on a first date, or on any terms other than my own. It was wrong, it was dirty, it was totally unlike me, but my fingers found the waistband of his pants. I wanted him. I wanted him to pound me right there up against the sink in a filthy men’s bathroom of a bar.
When the manager knocked on the door, Jason and I gave each other knowing glances, like two kids who’d been saved from a dangerous dare they were too proud to back out of. He smiled, and let his fingers trail down to my waist, but didn’t say anything as we left.
I picked up my self respect on the way back to my car. What was I thinking? I hadn’t really been about to have sex with a guy in a men’s bathroom, had I? No, I’d given him the ‘monogamy or bust’ talk, after all. Sure, he was attractive, but he’d still stood me up on the first date, and he yelled at me.
But all my talk didn’t stop me from thinking about him when I went to bed that night.
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