Lucky Me by Ryan Deehan

My name is Ollie Fhorten, and I’m the unluckiest sonovabitch alive.
“Anne Safton, 32. She was a nurse…”
I huffed and spat as the water mingled with my own sweat and blood trickling down my face. The warehouse echoed with the sounds of late night traffic outside, his words and his steady tread as he paced around me. There was a leak in the ceiling and it dripped steadily on me. Oil stained the concrete floor I could see in the little circle of light provided by the lamp above my head.
“Mark Lafort. 21. Full ride at, what is this? I can’t fucking read this. Her handwriting is awful.”
Ah. Her. A few things clicked into place for me. If she was behind this, the names suddenly made sense. I sighed and settled back into my chair, hands bound to the arm rests.
“You gettin’ comfy on me boy?” His fist snapped my head back and sent my ears ringing, nose howling. I yelped and hunched over myself. Christ, I hate getting punched in the face.
“I didn’t pay you to beat him, Mr. Moray,” she said, her voice coming from the old PA system. I looked up blearily, and noticed the shadows in the supervisor’s office above me. She’d just been watching this whole time? “He had a full ride at NYU. Read the list.”
“That was the last name ma’am.” He dropped his hand casually to the holstered iron at his hip as he said it, and I tried to hide the rush of fear.
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“Then read it again.”
Moray sighed, and lifted his list again.
This was a hell of a way to die. There I was, minding my own business in my favourite shithole bar, when this asshole and his friends bag me, beat the shit out of me, and tie me to this goddamned chair. Then he starts calling out all those names, like they should mean something to me, (Which, now that I know she was behind this, they should) and break my damn nose. Took him an hour to call them all out.
Took another hour to do it again. The third time it only felt like forty minutes. Though I don’t actually know, I mean, it’s not like I was wearing a watch.
His fourth time around, and every part of me ached. My nose is broken and swollen, which I’m a little grateful for to be honest. This place stank of oil and sweat and rust. My throat is dry as a bone. It seems that every time I get hit with a bucket of water, I can’t catch enough in my mouth to even take the edge off.
“Joan Stewart…”
“64, she was a retired cop. I get it,” I said, my words rasping out of me. I looked up at the supervisor’s office and the shadows in it. “I get it, and I’m sorry. I know what I did. It tears me up inside every day, and I got to live with it. I wake up every day and I know. What more do you want out of me lady? You got my job, you got my money. You took my fucking power. What the fuck else do you want?”
I sat and panted in the chair, exhausted, listening to the echoes of my shouting. I didn’t really expect an answer, so it was a surprise when I heard the door open and the steady tread of footsteps, down the metal gantry and across the stained concrete floor.
I looked up at the architect of my misery as she stepped into the light. Marleen Hult wasn’t an imposing figure. Maybe average height for a woman. Her dark eyes regarded me with barely disguised loathing. High cheek bones and dark skin gave her a feline air, an angry panther, stalking her prey. She wore a conservative grey suit, and she carried a big fucking gun.
“You get it, Mr. Fhorten? You get it?” I swallowed nervously. Maybe those hadn’t been the right words. “You took everything from me. On a bet. On a fucking dare, and you thought the Far House would protect you. People like you give your kind a bad name, you know that? I marched in 56’ when the war ended to give your kind rights. You were nothing, and it kills me inside to know that in my little way, I helped to give you the freedom to do what you did.”
She was breathing hard, her cheeks dark with the righteous fury that burned in her chest.
“You think you know loss? You think I’ve taken from you?” In two quick strides she was in front of me, fingers tangled in my hair as she jerked my face up to hers. “I haven’t begun to take from you yet.”
I couldn’t pry my eyes from hers, burning with a feral intensity that scared me to the soles of my boots.
“And you won’t start today,” A familiar voice called from the shadows. The warehouse lights snapped on, bathing the entire room in harsh industrial illumination, the six men she had hired to grab me shielding their eyes,
Marleen and my eyes snapped to the newcomer, sauntering in from the street.
She stood six foot three, with thick gold hair spilling down to her elbows. Her mouth was a cruel line, suited to smirks and sneers that went well with her sharp nose and the cruel tilt of her eyes. She wore faded jeans and a leather bolero jacket, a pistol and a knife sheathed at either hip. She was a vision of cruelty, a madman’s goddess of war. She was fickle and kind, and steady and cruel. She was a nightmare you ached to have. She was Celeste Vilje.
She was my ex.
“I settled this with the Far House, shadow. I have the right.” Marleen, to her credit, didn’t quail away from Celeste. She stood with her chin high, with no fear in her voice. Her goons had more sense, and backed away with their hands well cleared of their weapons. They knew who she was alright.
“The Far House has need of him, Mrs. Hult,” Celeste said, a smirk toying with the edges of her mouth, and hope rose in my chest. She flicked an amused glance my way before speaking again. “We regret the interruption, but his condition affords him a unique ability. One that we have come to have great need of.” She held up a slim hand to halt Hult speaking. “Of course, we understand this is distressing. We have refunded half of your generous donation, and I bear the promise of the Four that I will bring him straight back to you once we no longer need him.”
What little hope that had been in me dimmed and died. Should have known better. The Far House didn’t break contract, even if they were prone to finessing them a little bit. I didn’t resist as Moray untied me, blood rushing back to my unused limbs, pins and needles stabbing painfully as I worked feeling back into my fingers and toes.
“I have your word then?” Hult said, fury simmering in her eyes.
“Yes, yes of course dear,” Celeste smiled. “I’ll have him back in no time, and you can get back to,” she waved her hand at the chair. “…this charming exercise. Come along pet.”
I ground my teeth as I stood on wobbling legs and followed her out without a backwards glance.
“See you soon Fhorten,” Hult said quietly.
I didn’t look back.
Celeste drove a flashy mustang, royal blue and louder than hell, tearing through the streets of New York like she owned the place. She ran reds and drove the wrong way down one way streets, and thanks to the Far House number plates, no one would stop her.
Hell, if people knew what she could do, no one would even look at her, and thank her if all she did was run them over.
I sat in the passenger seat and stewed in my anger beside her as she hummed along to some catchy Swedish group, city lights sliding by us. What the hell did the Far House think to get out of me now? As if I’d even do what they wanted! They strip me, fuck me, and cast me out, and they think that I was going to help them? First chance I got, I was out. Gone. Goodbye. I’ll run like I should have three years ago, go somewhere sunny and cook myself at a beach until I died.
And sending Celeste. That was just low, even for them. I snuck a glance at her, watching her soft smirk as she drove. Any woman I wanted, and I’d picked the one who treated me like dirt. The second I’d lost my status, she’d dropped me like a bad habit. I turned my eyes back to the road continued my brooding.
“Stop pouting pet, you look ridiculous.”
“I’m not pouting!” I said. “And don’t call me pet.”
She laughed. “Aw, are you mad because we stripped you of everything you owned and made you what you were and cast you out in the street?”
“Well tough shit. You deserved it.”
And there was the kicker. I did deserve it, no matter how many times I tried to tell myself it was just an accident. See, in the business, I was known as a Coin. As the Coin.
People have power. Some can control fire, or lightning, or the weather or stones or flesh. New stuff keeps coming up every week. I could control chance. Well, not control. Influence. Nudge. Enough that I won a lot of shit when I was younger and got picked up by the House. You want a bomb defused, but you don’t know how? Ask the House to stack the odds in your favour. Assassination attempt? Stack the odds. Coup? Stack. The. Odds.
Until I fucked up so bad that I got an entire town wiped off the map.
“So here’s what’s going to happen Ollie.” She pulled a cigarette out of her purse and lit it, steering one handed. “We need you. You work for us. You get the job done, we tell her you died, show her a body that looks disturbingly like you in every way. Then we send you someplace far away, with enough money that we never have to hear from you again.” She offered me her lit cigarette. “How’s that sound?”
I took a slow drag, tasting her more than the smoke. I didn’t trust her. I’d loved her and she’d tossed me away, just like all the others. The House would use me and they wouldn’t give a damn if I died or not. They’d turn me over to Hult in a heartbeat, and they wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep whether or not I thought they double crossed me.
I was drowning though, and this straw looked like it could bear my weight.
“Sounds too good to be true,” I said finally, the ember heating my fingers. I wanted to say something to her, to ask her why she’d gone, to call her a bitch and tell her she meant nothing to me. I wasn’t much of a liar though. I kept my mouth shut. “What’s the job?”
She smiled and patted my knee, shunting up a gear and blurring past a sign that said Whitestone. “We’ve a murder to solve, a killer to find, and people to save. Hope you remember Witchtown.”
I groaned and sank into the seat. Fucking Witchtown.
It wasn’t always Witchtown.
Back in the thirties and forties it had been college point. Some suburbs or something. Real white picket fence housing and happy families. After the war, a lot of those families weren’t so happy anymore. They were even unhappier when the Weapons were given rights, and unhappier still when they were housed in College Point after 56’.  The cute houses and picket fences disappeared, and bars and warehouses and brothels started to pop up. Someone decided they didn’t like the way the place looked, so in 59 they knocked the whole thing down, and lowered the ground for three miles to 40 feet under sea level. Turned the place into a fucking swamp. Of course, no one really wanted to do the work to raise it back up. So they just put everything on stilts. Bars, brothels and walkways and all.
They didn’t care about fitting in. They weren’t weapons anymore. They were something else. A lot of folks had decided that this wasn’t evolution, or psychic manifestation, or whatever bullshit the feds in lab coats wanted to call it.
It was magic.
So College Point became Witchtown. Chapels and churches sprang up, for God and gods and devils and the Devil. Some people worshipped the stars, others the spaces between stars. You could get a drink, or a high or a low, a woman or a girl. A goat, if you wanted it. You could get anything in Witchtown.
Worship and excess. That was Witchtown.
We drove as far as the asphalt road lasted, and walked when it ended. It was like walking straight into the past, going from the neatly paved streets onto boarded walkways above marshlands, thick fog interspersed with pale green lights below us, coiling about our feet.
Even the sound was different. Normally, you’re gonna hear traffic if you’re in the city. Not Witchtown. It’s all wooden creaks, animal calls, and the muted hubbub of the bars and taverns. We walked for a solid 10 minutes, more and more people joining us on the boardwalks the deeper we went. For the most part, they were pretty sensible, jeans and jackets, a few long coats. Nothing out of the ordinary for late autumn.
Then there were the not so sensible ones. I saw one guy in an honest to god robe. Stars and moons sewn onto it like he was a real wizard. A trio of teenage girls, of course it was a trio, were walking arm in arm, laughing and wearing black dresses of varying shortness with tall pointed hats with floppy brims. And as always, there were a few people walking around in full black robes, the cowls hoisted high to hide their faces in shadows for the maximum spooky effect.
Assholes, all of em’.
Celeste led me through the warren to a pub were the name sign had apparently been torn off, the doors scarred and the walls carved with names and deeds and insults.
“Nice place,” I muttered, following her in and hunching my shoulders. This was exactly the sort of place I imagined when I saw the words ‘Bar brawl leaves three dead and more injured,’ in the news. Inside was packed, robes and jeans and hoods all stuffed into whatever space they could get, shouting at the bar at the end of the low, long room. A five piece band played enthusiastically, if not well, on a small stage, trying to drown out the people. “Very dank, very homey.”
Celeste cut me an unimpressed look, and started pushing her way through the crowd. I rolled my eyes and followed her before I was left alone. Good thing too, people cursed as she shoved past them, turning for a confrontation only to see her smiling down at them.
People knew Celeste. They swallowed what they had been going to say and turned away. The amount of times I had to say, “I’m with her!” to avoid getting my ass kicked was a little humiliating. Not as humiliating as getting my ass kicked mind you.
We made it to the bar, sans ass kicking thanks to Celeste, and space quickly opened up for us. The barman took one look at who was leaning over the bar and rushed to us, his smile stuck somewhere between ‘what can I do for you’, and ‘please don’t kill anyone.’
“Ms. Celeste! So good to see you again. A drink or…?”
“I need the backroom Adam,” Celeste said, sounding bored as she slid a slim stack of notes across the counter.
“Of course, of course! Right this way.” He all but bowed as he flipped up the bar top and ushered us through. There was a warren of corridors behind the bar, sprawling in all directions. I gave up trying to memorize the route after the fourth left and just followed along. It had been a long time since I had slummed it in Witchtown, but nothing had really changed. Same idiots clinging to their certainties and their ideas. All the try hard teens and the asshole older folk, all of them trying desperately to seem mysterious and wise and intimidating.
Christ I hope no one remembers me here.
What? I was a kid once.
Adam took us into a little function room, bare walls, a table with a pitcher of water on it, and some chairs.
“Let him know we’re here please,” Celeste said, dropping heavily onto a chair.
“Of course,” Adam said, wringing his hands. “Perhaps you want food? Or something else to drink?”
At the mention of something else to drink my mouth began to water. I could kill a man for a beer. “If you’re bringing one back…”
“We’ll be fine with water,” Celeste cut me off. “Just inform him please.”
“Of course.” Adam shut the door behind him with a click, leaving us alone.
The room smelled of dust and disuse, and it had to be above the furnace because I was starting to sweat. I pulled off my leather jacket and slung it across the back of the chair beside Celeste, and leaned against the wall.
“We could be a while. You may as well sit.”
“I’ve sat enough tonight,” I said shortly.
“Fair enough.” She eyed me for a moment, an unreadable expression on her sharp face, before turning to the jacket I had tossed on the chair. A short bolero style that came to my hips. “I bought you this.”
It wasn’t a question, but I grunted in assent anyway.
“Nearly four years ago,” she murmured, stroking the shoulder. “Really pet, you need to buy some new things. Someone might think you’re sentimental.”
Again with the pet. No matter how well I thought I’d set myself for what she could throw, she always dug her way into my head. Christ I had just wanted a drink. Not kidnapped and brought to the capitol of delusion. Fuck knows who was going to walk through that door. The way my day had gone, it was probably the devil himself.
The woman who finally opened the door wasn’t really my envisioning of the devil. Brown hair in a bob cut, a smart business suit and a manila folder under her arm, her sharp face made a perfunctory sweep of the room before she shut the door behind her.
“I was expecting Franco,” Celeste said, all poise.
“Mr Franco is a very busy man, and a very well-known face. I’m sure you can understand why he chose to send me.” The woman gave a tight smile as she sat with the folder between her and Celeste. “This is the associate I presume?” She gave a tight nod in my direction.
I scowled back at her. If Celeste had told me we were meeting Franco I’d have stayed in the warehouse. He was one of the sculptors making ridiculous money turning the worlds rich and not so beautiful into considerably less rich and considerably more beautiful. The man had enough money to buy countries and he’d never let you forget it.
“He is,” Celeste said, smoothly preventing me from giving my thoughts on the man. “He has the necessary skill set I require for the job.”
The woman nodded slowly, taking in every detail of me, from my shaggy hair to the worn tread on my sneakers. I shifted, uncomfortable under the intense scrutiny.
“Very well,” she said finally, opening the folder and setting out glossy pictures. “These are the victims we are being scrutinized for.”
I leaned forward and regretted it. I’m not exactly a stranger to gore, but this was different. Each victim was splayed out, hands and feet pinned to the ground. Their chests had been opened, and excavated, ribs spread wide.
“Jesus,” I choked and stepped back.
“Any links between the victims?” Celeste said, cool as could be as she rifled through the pictures, eyes hunting details. “Any similarities.”
“They were all very rich, all young,” the woman hesitated briefly before forging on. “And they were all clients of Mr Franco. Clients who expressed, displeasure, at the final result.”
I gave a low whistle. I could see why Franco wanted his name cleared of this. You wouldn’t get much clientele when you were accused of murdering them afterwards.
“It’s not like he’s sore for cash,” I said, well away from the photos. “Sure his rep might get a little muddied, but without solid evidence nothing would stick.”
“People would remember. And no one wants to go to a sculptor they fear will end them instead of perfect them.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, but…”
“Mr Franco does not do this for money, he does it because he is an artist.” Colour rode high on her cheeks as she stared down her nose at me. No mean feat when you’re sitting down. “He does this because he needs to make art. Something as crass as money means nothing to him. If he cannot make his art he would wither away. I will not let that happen to such a great man.”
Jesus, talk about devoted.
“There is still the matter of payment,” Celeste said.
“The first instalment is paid. Check your bank tomorrow. You’ll get the second half upon completion. Now, where do you intend to start?”
“There’s a friend of mine down at Harbourside, other end of Witchtown. He has some information for me. I’ll see him and start from there.”
“Excellent,” the woman said crisply, gathering up her things and standing. “As I’m sure you are aware, this is a very delicate matter. Discretion, if you please.” She turned and strode out the door, full of purpose. I shook my head. Whatever Franco had done to secure that woman’s loyalty, it was sure as hell paying off now.
Celeste stood. “Alright. Let’s go see an old friend.”
I thought the bar we had just left was a shithole.
The Harbourside looked like a first year architects first fuck up. It leaned drunkenly on its stilts, looking as ramshackle as they come with tiles and loose boards hanging off. The guttering was overgrown to the point where a fringe of hanging greenery obscured the top floor. The windows, where the light was strong enough to shine through them, were cracked and dirty.
I closed my eyes. I could do this. I do this unpleasantness for a couple weeks max, then the House makes me disappear. I could do this.
I followed Celeste in.
The inner Harbourside was nothing like the nameless bar we had been in. For starters, it smelled like paint thinner, saw dust, and puke. There was no jaunty music jangling off of the rough walls. There was no roar of conversationalists vying to outshout one another. A rough whisper of coarse voices striving not to be heard filled the room with a susurrus that ceased when we walked in. Narrowed eyes glared from scarred faces, wonky noses and split lips paired with broken jaws and weathered skin. Everyone in the bar sized us up and dismissed us in a heartbeat, turning back to their plots and drinks.
Except one. A tall, handsome fellow in a beaten canvas jacket waved energetically from an empty table in the corner. I looked at Celeste, who only smiled and waved back at him. I followed her over to the table, trying my best to make as little contact with the floor. The carpet clung stickily to my shoes. Who carpets a bar?
“Celeste, good to see you!” He said warmly, standing to shake her and kiss her cheek. I supressed a flash of jealousy, then one of surprise when he did the same to me. “Sit, sit, I’ve been waiting forever and I’m bored out of my mind.”
I sat and looked over our host more closely. He was just as handsome close up as he had been at a distance, swarthy skin kissed bronze by the sun, his jet black hair slicked back on top and cut short at the sides. His brown eyes twinkled out of a face built for smiles, all perfect teeth and high cheekbones. I felt a little inadequate sitting so close to him.
“It’s good to see you Steve,” Celeste murmured, reaching into a pocket for a pack of cigarettes with a spinning coin on the package. She wordlessly offered one to me and I accepted it, waiting for the light.
“You know its Esteban mi querido,” he said, casually leaning over the table and lighting my cigarette with his finger. I raised my eyebrows. A pyro. That would be handy in a fight. “Now, who’s this streak of miserable you’ve dragged in with you? No, no, don’t tell me. I love a good guess.”
He narrowed his eyes and frowned at me, taking in my 3 day stubble, the recent break in my nose, the shabby state of my jacket and jeans. I shifted uncomfortably after the first minute. Celeste just watched.
“I heard Hult was on the prowl,” he said finally, leaning back in satisfaction. “I heard she was paying good money for a bad man. That she was hunting a neutered Coin, by the name of Ollie Fhorten, and when she found him she was going to rip him limb from limb. And I had heard that she found him.” He looked me up and down. “You look pretty good for a dead man, Ollie.”
“May not be a Coin anymore,” I said, feigning casual. “But I still have a little luck left.”
Esteban stared at me hard for a long moment before barking out a laugh. “A little luck and good friends no? Hard to believe that she wolf let you out of her den.”
“I saw her as more a panther,” I said, relaxing into the chair. Something about him just made me like this guy. He just wore his heart on his sleeve. It was refreshing, after the life I’d led. “It’s the cheekbones.”
He laughed again, slapping his knee. I glanced over at Celeste as I took a drag, surprised to see her smiling as well. She caught me looking and the smile slid into her familiar smirk.
“If you two are done bonding,” she said wryly. “We have a murder to solve?”
I grimaced and Esteban held up his hands in apology.
“Of course, you’re not just hear for the pleasure of my company.” He sighed dramatically and place a hand over his heart. “You only want me for my intelligence, and not my looks. It’s hard to be as talented as I am beautiful.” He leaned back and kicked his feet up onto the table. “You weren’t awfully specific in your message. What do you want to know?”
Celeste launched into her story, filling him in on Franco and the murders. As they spoke, I took a look around the room. Something was making my back itch like it was about to get a knife in it. The bartender was polishing a glass with a dirty rag, the whispers filled with place with sound and the air still stank.
The doors swung open and three men walked in. there was nothing about them that you could use to single them out in this crowd. Rough types in shoddy leathers and denim, long hair bound back with cord and scars on their faces and fists. Nothing out of the ordinary in the way they scanned the room.
Did they look at us slightly longer than anyone else? No, no I was just being paranoid. No one was looking for us, and Hult wouldn’t be so stupid as to cross the House.
She wouldn’t cross it, but she would keep tabs on me. I turned back to the table to let Celeste know.
“…rumours of a new player in town. The Abya Yala. Some kind of cult, obsessed with blood and dreams. Base members are what you expect you know, kids and mystic believers.” Esteban lit his own smoke and leaned in close. “I’ve been keeping tabs on them though, and they’ve got some real high rollers on board. A few senators, some celebrities. Even a few low level House members.”
“You think Franco is one of them?” I asked.
“Not until now. The pictures you described, the ritual nature of it, it fits with their style.”
“What are they after?” Celeste asked.
“Normal cult shit,” Esteban said. “Peace among men, worship a higher power for reward in the next life. Sacrifice material wealth here for eternal glory there. Honestly I had them pegged as just another scam until you came to me. Then I looked a little deeper and, well. They creep me the fuck out man. I went to one of their meetings, up in Jersey, and the way the higher ups look at you, it’s like you’re meat. They keep alluding to ‘sacrifice’, and I don’t think they were talking about giving up smokes, you know? They like their sacrifices with social security numbers.”
So, Franco was a cultist, sacrificing his clients for eternal reward in the afterlife? Then why the hell had he hired us to prove him innocent? And why was the Council of Four allowing it? This didn’t make any sense.
Celeste twisted her mouth into a frown. She was probably thinking along the same lines as me, and she didn’t like it any more than I did. Franco was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.
“What is he doing,” Esteban murmured, looking over my shoulder, his hand clenching.
Crap. I’d forgotten about my tail. I opened my mouth as I turned to look, and froze.
One of the tails had planted himself in the middle of the room and shucked off his jacket, revealing thick arms knotted with muscle and patterned in scars. He held his arm up, and I felt the heat pouring of off him.
“Pyro!” Celeste roared, diving across the table.
“For the Vital Blood,” he breathed. Then he exploded.
The shockwave picked me up, carrying me over the table, past Esteban and Celeste, and slammed me into the mirror behind the bar top. I dropped behind the bar, and the thick wood saved my life as the heat than followed the blast seared the air above me. The building groaned under the weight of the detonation and began to shift sideways.
I spent valuable seconds trying to get my feet under me and my wits gathered. Someone had just tried to kill us. I looked over the counter. Everything I could see was either char, on fire, or broken. In the centre of the room, where the suicidal pyro had set himself off, there was a hole in the floor. Most of the force must have gone down, directed towards the stilts that kept the place standing. I lurched over the counter, and gagged as the stench of burnt meat assaulted me. I staggered to my hands and knees as a ceiling beam cracked and crashed into the floor. And recoiled as my fingers sunk into the greasy ash that had been someone.
“Celeste!” I howled, before choking on the searing hot air. “Oh fuck, please no, please, please…”
“On your feet pet.”
I turned, relief flooding me as I saw her standing over me, gun in hand and grim determination on her face. Some of the ends of her hair smouldered, and blood ran from a graze on her skull. Esteban came from behind her and helped me to my feet. Seeing my confusion, he grinned.
“Redirected most of the blast straight down, managed to shield us from the worst of the heat. Couldn’t do much about the shockwave though. Sorry.”
I nodded weakly, the ringing in my ears dying. “Thanks.”
“Don’t thank him yet,” Celeste said grimly. “There’s the matter of the burning building to escape from.”
No sooner than she said it, the building gave a great lurch and the gradual slide became abrupt as charred and weakened stilts gave way under the weight.
I staggered and clung to the rising floor as it became the wall, scrabbling desperately for purchase.
“Get to the hole!” Celeste shouted, scuttling towards the exit as quickly as possible.
I followed her, trying to ignore the bits of bone and the burned tatters of cloth that floated in the superheated air, and the way my fingers slid on the greasy floorboards. The flames roared higher and I narrowly avoided a burning table as it slid past me, before throwing myself into the cold night air through the hole.
For a couple of weightless seconds, my heart stopped as I fell, hell burning merrily above me. Then the water hit me, and the pleasantly cool air was replaced with ice. I shocked and floundered, gasping in great lungful’s of water. I had escaped burning to drown, sinking into the abyssal cold underneath Witchtown.
Slim fingers dug under my arm pits and dragged me towards the surface. I flailed and spun, clinging to my saviour in a panic. It took me a few seconds to listen to the words she was saying.
“Ollie. Ollie for fucks sake stand up.”
I did. The water was only up to my belly. I coughed up some water that tasted just awful.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“Where’s Esteban?” I asked, remembering him behind me.
“He’s gone on ahead. He’s going to prepare a safe house, now let’s move.”
Esteban’s safe house turned out to be in Throg’s Neck just over the Whitestone Bridge. Celeste took us back to the car, and drove us in shivering silence. Dawn was just peeking over the horizon when we finally pulled into the address the Esteban had given us.
We pulled into the driveway of a little two story, surrounded by its own little wall, with a neatly manicured garden. We got out and made our way up the steps to the front door on sore and frozen muscles. I pushed open the door and staggered inside, gasping at the wave of warmth that hit me.
Esteban popped out of a doorway, hand raised and heat bleeding from it fiercely until he saw it was us.
“You took your time,” he said with a smile. “Showers upstairs. Got some clothes laid out in the two guest rooms.”
“Thanks,” I said, gesturing for Celeste to go on ahead of me. “Ladies first.”
“Gentleman,” she murmured, trailing a hand down my arm as she took the stairs.
“Coffee while you wait?”
“Esteban, if you were slightly prettier I would kiss your goddamned mouth right not.”
The kitchen was a snug little thing, tiled in white, with dishes stacked neatly by the sink, filled with the smell of good coffee.
“Place is nice,” I said, taking one of the high chairs at the island in the centre. “Little lived in for a Far House safe house though.”
He gave me a look as he took mugs from their hooks under the cupboards. “Thanks, but this isn’t a safe house man. This is my house.”
I gaped at him. What the hell was he thinking? What if we’d been followed? There was no telling what those freaks would do now that they knew where he lived! What kind of operation was Celeste running that she would let this happen?
He set a mug of tar black coffee in front of me. I butchered it with sugar and cream as he sat down across from me. I pieced some thoughts together as I held the mug.
“This isn’t a Far House op, is it?” I managed finally, savouring the warmth of the brew.
“So when she said that I was on loan to the Far House…”
“She was bluffing. She’s on her own out here man.”
I wanted to ask why. I wanted to, but I was afraid of the answer, of the responsibility it put on me. Esteban saw me struggle and spoke anyway.
“She’s out here for you. She’s been bleeding herself dry for the last three years, paying the wergild the House set for your accident. She’s broke. So she took this job, and she’s taken you. When it’s done, you’ll disappear. Together.”
“And you?” I whispered, horrified.
“I owe her a favour,” he said simply. Then he grinned. “Plus I’m a sucker for romance.”
Christ. She’d done this for me. She’d paid my wergild to keep Hult of my back legally. And now that she was broke, she was doing it illegally. All these years, I’d thought she’d abandoned me, when she was the only person who hadn’t.
What had I done to deserve her?
“You know what she’s like,” Esteban said, seeing the misery on my face. “She plays her card close. I only found out last week. Do yourself a favour, and let her tell you in her own time.”
I nodded and drank my coffee in silence. When she came down in clean clothes I went upstairs wordlessly, stripped and got into the shower, letting the hot water strip some of the bone deep tired from me. Resolve hardened within me. I’d fucked up enough in this life. I’d squandered and wallowed and plain fucked up time and time again. Celeste had given me a chance.
I wasn’t going to screw this up.
The clothes Esteban had left out for me were a close enough fit. Heavy boots, some jeans and a shirt. He even threw in a leather jacket, though this one wasn’t as short as I like them. I left it were it was.
When I came back downstairs, the smell of frying eggs and bacon reminded me that, despite the numb terror, emotional sucker punches, and general fatigue, I was starving. Esteban was chatting away to Celeste as he tended to the food. I smiled to see her smiling, her wet hair tied back in a loose tail. She caught me staring and her smile stayed put. Then it slipped into a frown as she looked behind me.
I turned and felt my guts clench. The other two men I’d seen with the suicidal pyro were marching down the street, dressed in matte black military gear, toting rifles and grim looks.
“Watch the food for me, yeah?” Esteban said, striding past me.
“Esteban wait,” Celeste stood, face sharp and cold. “I’ll deal with them. I brought them here.”
“You brought them here,” he agreed, no accusation in his voice. “But this is my house.”
I followed him to the door and watched as he strode out to meet the men, caught off guard by his smiling ease.
“Morning fellas,” he said easily. “Hunting trip?”
The one on the left licked his lips, glancing to his friend. His friend gestured him back and took a step forward.
“You could say that,” he said, glancing past Esteban to the house. “Two fugitives. Nothing about a third.”
The offer hung in the air between the men. Esteban looked thoughtful, the armed man bored. I felt Celeste’s breath on my neck as she leaned to watch.
“Well, there’s no ‘fugitive’s’, here friend,” Esteban said. “Only some old friends, yeah? Maybe you should take your boy and leave.”
The man sighed and rubbed his eyes, as though he was tasked an unpleasant job and Esteban was being difficult. “I know who you are, Pato. I’ve read your file, I know what you can do, and I know how to defend myself against you. You want to play the strutting Latino cock, that’s on you. I’ve had a long day. I’ve lost a good friend, and I’m not leaving this place without those two. So you either step down, or I put you down.”
As he spoke the man slowly reached into his shirt and withdrew a medallion. I sucked in a breath through my teeth. If he was warded, none of the fire Esteban conjured could touch him. And Esteban had no weapon outside of that. I felt a light prickle on the back of my neck as Esteban spoke, soft and dangerous.
“You mustn’t have read that file very thoroughly, friend, if you think that trinket can stop me. Last chance.”
“No, this is your last chance boy. Stand aside.”
The prickle in my neck became maddening.
“You ever hear of Pompeii?” Esteban said, the smile in his voice making my skin crawl.
To his credit, the man didn’t flinch. As soon as he understood that Esteban wasn’t going to budge, he went for his gun. He whipped the barrel up to sight, and then he was gone, consumed in a column of flame that split the street beneath his feet and rose thirty feet into the air with a cacophonous roar, dirty fire swirling for a second before it was gone, leaving only a burning after image. There was nothing left of the gunman. I watched, mesmerised as the burning soot and ash and dust all swirled gently back down to the earth it had risen from, guided by Esteban.
He looked at the man’s partner, frozen in fear.
“See it wasn’t fire that killed Pompeii,” Esteban said gently. “It was the pyroclastic flow. A thousand tonnes of burning ash and dirt. Now drop your fucking guns and get in my house.”
We ate in silence, and watched the man tied to the chair sweat.
He was a lot younger than I had first expected, his age hidden behind scars and the mask of competency that had burned away along with his commander. His scared eyes flickered between the three of us. It was hard to tell who terrified him more, Esteban or Celeste.
I finished the food, delicious and greasy, mopping up the last of the sauce with a piece of toast. Esteban set his fork down and began to make the knife in his hand dance.
“Questions,” he pointed to himself. “Answers.” He pointed to the man in the chair. “Lies.” He pointed to the knife.
The man nodded frantically, eyes wide above the gag shoved in his mouth. I stood and yanked it out.
“Yes, yes, please don’t kill me, I’ll tell you anything!”
“We don’t want anything,” I cut across him. “We want specifics. Who do you work for? Hult? Franco?”
He looked to the others, waiting for their nod to answer me. Which was really, pretty insulting. I don’t get no respect.
“I work for the order,” he babbled. Jesus. Hardened gun for hire or not, seeing someone turned to ash really took the spine out of this guy. “Alright, I’m new, only third stage acolyte. They stuck me on this because I was military before I got double d’d. I thought, you know, I’d get chicks and drugs. I didn’t want to kill nobody man!”
“What’s the order,” Esteban cut in sharply.
“The Abya Yala,” he said miserably. “They’re all about…”
“We know what they’re about,” Esteban said, frost in his voice. “What we want to know is, who hired you to go after us. Specifically.”
“I told you man, I’m new. The guy you Pompeii’d was the one the higher ups spoke too, David. Oh fuck man, you fucking vaporised him.” He started to hyperventilate. I couldn’t say I didn’t feel sorry for the poor bastard. I recalled the grease and bones in the Harbourside, and found that I could ignore my pity.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Vincent,” he said between pants.
“Alright Vincent, I need you to calm down. You answer our questions, and you won’t get hurt. I promise.”
As absurd as it sounds, that seemed to placate him. Like a child he fixed on the magic word and began to relax.
“You promise?”
I nodded. “Tell us what David told you.”
“I uh, I wasn’t supposed to hear this, you know?” He began, licking his lips nervously. “I’m no eavesdropper, but I overheard David talking to one of the big guys, about this, about you.”
“Me?” I looked at Esteban and Celeste. He shrugged and she scowled.
“Yeah man, whoever he was, he had a real hard on for you. Kept saying that we needed to bring you in alive, saying that you would be a great…” He trailed off until Esteban lifted the knife. “You would be a great sacrifice, all right? Fuck man, I just wanted to get paid!”
“How did you know we would be at the Harbourside?” Celeste interrupted. I grimaced. I wanted to know more about why I was such a great sacrifice. That was more than passing disturbing.
“David said we had intel on it,” Vincent said, wincing as he shifted in his binds. “He said one of the big guys told him.”
“Franco’s assistant,” Esteban murmured. “She must have told him and he put the hit out on us. If he is part of the Abya Yala, he must be after you Ollie. He knew about Celeste’s situation, and he knew her well enough to know she’d try and get you as well. The bastard set us up.”
“Why burn the Harbourside?” I demanded angrily. “If you wanted me to sacrifice, why did you try to kill me straight out?”
The mask he had been wearing slipped off. The panicked young man was gone, in his place a serene sculpture of a man, at peace with his fate. I felt the back of my neck prickle.
“A sacrifice without ritual is still a sacrifice,” he murmured. “For the Vital Blood.”
He threw his head back with a shriek as a taloned hand burst from his chest, skinless and grasping for me. I twisted away, and instead of grabbing my head it sank its claws into my left shoulder. I screamed with him and it shook me, horror and revulsion mixing as the abomination worried me like a dog with a rat. I dropped to my knees and felt the claws withdraw for another strike, only to freeze in place. I looked up and Celeste was reaching out, her hand commanding, her face set in a snarl of effort. The hand crumpled as unseen force smashed it backwards, slamming it into Vincent’s chest and then crushing him against the wall of the house.
“Fucking Skinners,” she muttered. “Jesus, look at you. Can you hear me? Ollie?”
I nodded weakly, leaning on her to get to my feet. I looked over at the wreckage of Vincent and swallowed the puke rising in my throat. Skinners used their own flesh and blood to augment themselves. Usually it was talons, or more muscle in specific areas, enhancing themselves. They made good soldiers. Vincent had thrown all his chips in one last toss of the dice with that arm. His regular arms and legs were withered to nothing, his chest swollen with the tissue he had appropriated from other areas of himself.
All to get me.
“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Celeste murmured, guiding me to a sofa in Esteban’s sitting room.
I let myself be guided, whatever adrenaline and shock that had kept me lucid starting to fade. I was aware of pain in my shoulder, warmth running down my chest and back making my shirt stick to me. Esteban appeared with pills that pushed the pain to the back of my mind as I sat.
“Sorry about your couch man,” I mumbled. Celeste winced as she peeled the shirt of me.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, patting my unfucked shoulder.
Time blurred as Esteban’s pills worked their magic. Celeste cleaned and dressed the punctures in me, and Esteban murmured briefly to her before vanishing out the front door. She sighed and sat on my good side, resting her head on my shoulder and holding my hand.
For a moment, helped along by the copious drugs, I could pretend that we weren’t in this messed up situation. That we were sitting in our house, that we didn’t have a cult after us, that we hadn’t been hired, and set up by the man who was trying to kill us. That we were together and happy.
Like all good moments in my life, this had to end.
“What happened to you Ollie?”
I sighed heavily. What had happened to me? Where did I even start? What could I say that didn’t sound petulant or weak?
“I couldn’t handle it,” I said finally. “I went from top to below the bottom.”
“Is that why you drank?” She asked softly.
I hesitated. I wasn’t much of a drinker. Never had been, really, until my fall. When I thought of why I drank, I always told myself it was something I did to hide from what I’d done. I sought dreamless sleep.
That wasn’t it though.
“When I drink I feel lucky again,” I said tiredly. “I haven’t felt lucky in a long time.”
She was quiet after that, for a time.
“Get some sleep Ollie,” she said finally.
I closed my eyes and ignored the throbbing in my shoulder and leaned my head back. Sleep was quick, and mercifully dreamless.
I awoke to Esteban gently shaking my leg, two more pills in his hand. I snatched them as soon as my eyes were fully open. The pain in my shoulder was indescribable, and I swallowed the pills, ready for the blissful fog.
It never came. The pain retreated to the point where I could bear it, but the sweet release was denied me.
“A lower dose, my friend. We need all our wits about us now.”
I grimaced and nodded, taking his hand and letting him haul me to my feet. I grit my teeth and followed him into the kitchen. They had cleared the body, and cleaned away most of the damage as I slept. A glance outside showed me it was fast approaching evening.
Celeste tossed me a clean shirt, and as I struggled into it Esteban gave us the low down.
“We got tonight. That’s it.” Before we could object he held up his hands. “I know, it’s shitty, but it’s all we have. Franco has people spreading rumours that it was us who scorched the Harbourside, so we can’t rely on the House for back up, and the Abya Yala has too many people in law enforcement even if they don’t suspect us. We want this to work we got to do it smart. Franco’s throwing a party for all his clients and anyone worth inviting. My guys told me there’s going to be a crowd with links to the Abya Yala there. We want to get Franco before he realises we’re still a threat, we go tonight. No one in their right mind would expect us to make a move this bold. We crash the party, take Franco, and get him to confess. The Abya Yala is implicated, they get investigated by federal powers, they get dismantled, and we don’t need to worry about reprisals when we’re sipping Mai Tai’s on the beach. Questions?”
I had plenty, but I left them unsaid at the grim certainty and determination on my companion’s faces.
Well, most of them.
“So is this party black tie, or...?”
The party was not black tie.
Esteban wasn’t coy about arming us for our little raid. Whatever he was before, he’d taken a serious amount of firepower home with him, along with a few wardrobe changes worth of tactical webbing and body armour. He kitted himself out with a vest, two sleek pistols and a sharp looking carbine that was in no way legal. Celeste turned down all he had to offer, aside from a little knife she clipped onto her belt.
As for me, he slung a light leather rig about my shoulders.
“This here is a docker’s clutch. The guns under your fucked shoulder, so you can still draw, and it won’t look as obvious as it would on your hip, ok? Practice a few times for me.”
I stood there like an idiot and practised drawing the German engineered killing machine from my armpit until it was as smooth as putting my hands in my pockets. Still, Esteban frowned.
“Man, I’d be a lot happier if you wore a vest. Hell, I’d be happier If you stayed away from this operation altogether.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Celeste said, striding in. “I won’t leave him for Hult’s people to snatch up. I was just talking to one of my people in the House. She called my bluff and she knows I snatched Ollie from her.”
“She’ll be turning the city upside down,” Esteban agreed glumly. “And the kind of money she’s tossing about, yeah. No way we could leave him put.”
I was getting a little insulted at the way they spoke of me like I wasn’t even there.
“Also maybe I have a personal stake in this? Maybe I want to come and I’m an adult and I make my own choices?”
“Quiet pet, professionals are talking.”
Well, if that didn’t shut me right up. More so because, and It hurts to admit this, she’s 100% right. She and Esteban were combatants. They had seen violence, from tightly controlled military discipline to assassinations and guerrilla street fighting. Until today, the worst violence I’d seen was in bar brawls. That I’d usually started.
I checked the draw on my fancy new gun again. Not too bad. And I had to admit, I liked the look of the rig against the white of my shirt.
“Go over the plan again.”
“Jesus, Esteban, we’ve run through it a dozen times already!” Celeste said, impatient to get this over with. I couldn’t blame her.
“And we’ll do it again,” he said firmly. “We need to know what we’re doing here Celeste. Babysitting aside, there’s going to be some heavy security at this gig. We fuck up, we get riddled. That simple. Go over it again. Ollie, go.”
“Fine. Franco’s estate backs onto a forest park ways. There’s a ridge on the northern side. We go there and wait for you to take care of the guards you think can spot us. When you give the signal, we follow you down the ridge and over the wall into his property. After that, we make our way through the house. We find his room and wait for him. When the nights over, we grab him and we get out. Get him to confess on tape and get our names cleared. Simple.” I practiced my draw again. Smooth.
“We have no safety net here,” Esteban warned us. He hefted his backpack. “We do or we die, it’s that simple. You guys ready?”
I nodded, my mouth dry at the premeditated madness we were about to commit.
“One second,” Celeste said, hurrying into the kitchen. When she came out, she was holding my jacket, the one I’d thought ruined under the Harbourside. “I got the worst of it cleaned, and Esteban helped get the rest. You’re too skinny for his jackets anyways.”
I grinned as I shrugged into it. Like a favourite pair of shoes, it fit just right. I popped another of Esteban’s pain killers and nodded more assertively.
“Let’s do this.”
An hour north on the 684 took us to where we needed to be. Franco’s house was a pretty fancy affair, even for a multi, multi-millionaire. His front lawn stretched out a good half mile in front of his house, terminating at the Muscoot Reservoir. Fountains and statues decorated it tastefully, giving the partygoers something nice to look at on the long drive to the house itself. A three story stone mansion, it sprawled luxuriously, dominating the top of the garden. Two sets of stairs swept up into the house proper, around a central courtyard sporting a fancy fountain.
You know the kind. With goat men playing pipes. That sort.
Unfortunately we didn’t get to enjoy that view. Esteban parked us a half hours walk down some country lane, and by the time we reached the ravine behind his house it was full dark. Celeste and I waited impatiently for Esteban when he crept ahead, and sighed in relief when the signal whistle reached us.
You ever climbed down a ravine and then over a wall with your shoulder mangled? I popped a few more of Esteban’s happy pills and ignored the wet seeping down my back. I must have burst stitches.
Esteban was waiting for us, calm and quiet, a living part of the darkness around him. There was blood on his face, and I knew that it wasn’t his.
“We’re in luck,” he said. “Guards are all wearing leather jackets, not suits or uniforms.” With a curt gesture, he beckoned us to follow him into the garden.
Say what you will about the man, Franco wasn’t shy about spending money. Regular hedges weren’t good enough for him, no he paid artists to trim his private topiary, men and women made of leaves and branches, cavorting in ways that would make a sailor blush. Pretty obvious the man loved the human form, male or female.
Twice we had to stop, freezing in the shadows of arboreal lovers as their flesh and blood counterparts staggered past us, looking for a quiet place to emulate them. Thankfully most of the partygoers were inside, or in the main courtyard, striving to be seen without being seen wanting to be seen.
I checked the gun in my holster, and checked it again. Was it cold? Why the hell was I sweating so much?
Right, the terror. That was why.
The doors to the kitchen were outlined in the light from within, swinging open sporadically to
“Hold up,” Esteban whispered, dropping his pack and shrugging out of the military style jacket. A quick wardrobe change, and he was another hired guard in stylish leather. “We go through the kitchens. Steal a bit of food. Maybe feel up one of the girls. Blend in.”
I nodded. Celeste turned a cool gaze to me, and I shook my head. Shook it emphatically.
With a smirk she took my arm and led me into the kitchen after Esteban.
Organised chaos assaulted my ears as we dived in to the light. Delicious smells filled the air, even as cooks and servants bellows reverberated through the place. Pots and pans rattled and hissed as chefs and servants rushed about in a panic, trying to keep up with the thirsts and appetites of the social elite above them.
Esteban followed his own advice, plucking an entrée from under one scowling cooks nose even as he grinned knowingly at a pretty serving girl, her hair done up in elegant coils on her head. She was wearing an off the shoulder white robe, belted with gold around her waist. A Greek theme. Original.
I followed him, doing my best to look bored as my heart hammered at my ribs, insisting on exiting my chest. They were either too busy, or plain didn’t care enough to stop us. We left the kitchen and walked up a set of servants stairs, emerging in a cramped corridor. Right in front of Franco and his assistant.
Talk about luck.
For a split second, no one reacted, all of us caught in the frozen moment of shock.
“Celeste?” Franco said, taken aback.
Like a spell broken, we surged into motion. Celeste had her hand flung out threateningly even as Esteban slammed forward, clamping his hand over Franco’s mouth and shoving him into open bedroom behind him. I followed suit with the assistant, cursing as she struggled and bit my hand. She quietened down soon enough, after Celeste closed the door and shoved her hand in the woman’s face.
Holy crap, we might actually do this! This could work!
Franco stood before us, affronted and proud. He was a tall man in his early forties, his thick chestnut hair swept back and silvered at the temples. His lean face was clean shaven, and indignant grey eyes glared at us above his noble nose.
“What is the meaning of this?” He hissed. Of course he wouldn’t be afraid, he was too damned arrogant to be afraid. “Celeste have you lost your damned mind?”
“Shut your mouth,” she said softly, hand swinging back to him. “Or I’ll do it for you.”
He paled and took a step back. So, not too arrogant to be completely stupid. He looked at me when I snorted, and his eyes narrowed.
“So, its money is it? I told you you were being a fool. There was a reason the wergild was so high girl! You weren’t meant to pay it! And now you think taking my money will buy you the rest of his years? You haven’t thought about what happens after, have you?”
“This isn’t about money,” Esteban cut across him. “We know, Franco. Drop the act.”
“What act? And if it’s not about money, then what is it about?”
“The murders,” I spat, drawing my weapon. Smoothly. “We know you’re part of the Abya Yala, we know you killed your clients, we know you sent us so you could get to me, and you’re going to confess everything you know. Every. Damn. Thing.”
I couldn’t help myself. It just felt so good to be right, to have everything right where I wanted it, all my cards lined up nice and neat, waiting for that ace to make my royal flush.
“What are you talking about?” Franco said, mystified.
That was not my ace.
“I’m afraid they’re talking about me, dearest,” his assistant said, her fear and panic sloughing off her like snakeskin.
We all turned as one, stunned at the woman’s revelation. She smiled benignly.
“Alice? But why?”
“I do it for the Dreamer. For the Vital blood.”
I felt a prickling at the back of my neck, and I began to shout, but she was already moving. Esteban roared as his gun exploded in his hand. I drew on her, but was too slow. One hand pushed my gun up and to the side as she sprang forward, driving a shoulder into my chest, sending me backwards. I heard Celeste curse as I stumbled into her, then Alice’s other hand was driving up toward my gut, knife gleaming in her hand.
I braced myself for the pain, but it never came. Slim, strong arms wrapped about my chest and spun me around, away from the blade. I screamed as I heard Celeste gasp weakly, the wet rip of Alice’s knife sinking into her again and again as we all tumbled to the floor. Alice screamed with me, furious at being denied her target. Quick footsteps and I felt Alice being torn off of us, Esteban shouting, Franco shouting with us.
I twisted underneath Celeste, her head slack on her neck. With all the care my shaking body could muster, I eased myself onto my knees, holding her against me. I barely noticed as Alice kicked her way free of Esteban, spinning away and sprinting out of the room, him in hot pursuit.
“Easy, easy,” I panted. Oh fuck, there’s so much blood. “Easy I got you, it’s ok, it’s going to be ok.”
She looked at me, calm in her ice blue eyes. I tried to smile but my teeth were clattering together under the adrenaline. She opened her mouth and I shushed her.
“Don’t speak, please, just save your strength.” I looked up, and Franco was there by our side. “Help her!” I snarled. He was the Skinner, he could fix her, she would be fine, we’d be fine. We would be fine.
“There’s nothing I can do,” he said after a moment, chin sinking to his chest. “Alice poisoned the knife. She’s not going to…”
“Shut up! Shut your fucking mouth and help her!”
“I’m sorry, Oliver. There’s nothing to be done.”
Nothing to be done. I looked at her, desperate and helpless. This was my fault. She was here, dying in my arms, because she had tried to save me. I wanted to tell her I’d have died a thousand deaths under Hult’s thugs if she had lived. I wanted her to live. I wanted.
Blood curled out of her mouth as she give a burbling sigh and spoke her last words.
“You’re worth it.”
Then she was gone.
Something rang hollow within me. Usually there was something in my chest. Fear. Anger. Shame, misery. Something. Some feeling. I watched the last breath leave the only woman I’d loved, the only person who’d really loved me. I watched her die, and she took most of me with her.
Not all of me though.
Something took root in the bleakness under my heart. Something cold and hissing, some serpent like beast that demanded punishment for those who had hurt her. Those who had hurt me.
Alice. The Abya Yala.
I hated.
Franco was saying something. I tuned it out. I didn’t care what he had to say. I laid Celeste’s hands on her breast, and wiped the blood from her face. Some part of me twisted in agony as I shut her eyes, and I took the pain and embraced it, fed it too the beast awakened. I picked up my gun where I had dropped it, and pulled the knife from her belt.
Sounds of fighting throughout the house reached me. Gunfire and screams, roaring gouts of flame and sharp cracks of thunder. Crunches of ice.
“…you going? You can’t just leave me here!”
I turned to Franco, and he blanched at what he saw in my face. “Stay here,” I said softly. “Make sure no one touches her. I’ll be back.”
And if I wasn’t, so much the better. I walked out of the room, in search of Alice.
What I found was war. Men and women, sprawled in fancy dress and guards jackets alike, some ridded with lead, others rent by the elements. I followed the trail of destruction through lounges and hallways, past bedrooms filled with corpses. I followed the fighting, and yearned for it. Either I would find Alice, and tear her apart, or I’d be killed. I was content with either.
On the second floor I found Esteban. He had rounded up a squad of guards, and they were busy exchanging fire with someone on the stairs to the third floor. He snapped around to face me at the sound of my footsteps.
“Ollie I,” he trailed off as he saw my face. “Oh Jesus. I’m sorry Ollie. I’m so sorry.”
“Where is she?” I growled, voice tight. Whatever this killing cold in me was, it wasn’t going to last much longer. Like the last of the winter ice above a waterfall, I was about to break. I needed to get this done, fast.
“She’s on the roof,” he grimaced. “She had a whole bunch of Abya Yala goons snuck into the party. She must have hit a silent alarm, because shit has been hitting the fan. We picked up one of their radios. I think they have a chopper coming in to lift her.”
A chopper. Escape. Unacceptable.
“You could climb out a window and up the south wall,” one of the guards offered, pointing the way. “Lot of hand and footholds all the way to the top.”
I nodded and turned to set out. Esteban grabbed me by the arm. He didn’t flinch when I glared at him.
“I’m not going to stop you man,” he said quietly. “But you need to know, Alice? She’s a Coin. Jammed my gun and fluked her timing. Killed three guards on her way out. Be careful.”
A Coin. Great.
“Just keep them busy,” I grated.
I walked to the south wall and flung open the window.  The guard was right, vines and crenulations gave me plenty of purchase. I began to climb.
The top of Franco’s mansion was nice and flat, ideal for a chopper to make a landing. Alice stood with one of her men, facing the access door, oblivious to me coming up behind them. Maybe twenty feet between us. I lined up my shot, and blew his brains out over the door and started to run for her.
Alice spun with a curse. I felt the back of my neck prickle, even as her first bullet smashed into my bad shoulder. It didn’t stop me. Her second creased the ribs on my right side.
She didn’t get a third.
I slammed into her, and took her to the ground. My neck ached, the skin feeling like it was trying to crawl off of me, and I understood. When they stripped me of my power, they must have left me sensitive to others using theirs. She was trying to warp chance to give herself an edge on me.
I growled as she dug her nails into my face, reaching for my eyes. I ducked my head into her face, the cold hissing in delight within me as I felt her nose break. She howled and I reared up, smashing my good fist into her chest, driving the air out of her in a pained wheeze. I fumbled for Celeste’s knife, and held it to her throat. She froze, looking up at me with huge eyes. Then she spoke.
“They promised me. They said if I killed you they would let me be with the Dreamer. One of his Chosen.” She licked her lips. “You weren’t supposed to live. She wasn’t supposed to die. I was supposed to kill you and then they would let me ascend.” She moaned, anguish plain on her face. “I killed the others but they weren’t enough. It had to be you.”
“The Abya Yala are done,” I spat, rage suffusing me. “You hear me? I’m going to track down every fucking one of you, and wipe you out.”
She smiled as the sound of the helicopter reached us. “Good luck.”
Whoever they had on the chopper was either a hell of a shot, or luck was favouring me again for some reason. The bullet took the knife straight out of me hand, leaving it stinging. I roared and grabbed Alice by the throat, hoisting her up and dragging her with me to the edge of the roof. I could hear sirens in the distance, too far to do my any good now.
I looked down at the courtyard below, and put my lips to Alice’s ear.
“Not all luck is good.”
Then I threw her off the roof.
I watched her crack her skull on the stone lip of the fountain. The cold within me hissed in pleasure. I looked up at the chopper bearing down on me, closed my eyes and spread my arms.
“Send me to her.”
I felt the first shot ruffle my hair. The second kicked up dust at my feet. The third hummed between the fingers of my right hand. The fourth, my left.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
Before there was a fifth, I heard Esteban, his gun roaring as he poured fire into the chopper, forcing it to back off. He had finally broken through. I turned to him, the cracks deepening in my icy resolve.
“Jesus Ollie,” he said, dismayed. I walked past him, hearing the sound of sirens pulling into the courtyard below. I walked downstairs and back to the room I’d left Franco with.
He’d covered her with a blanket.
“Get out.”
I dropped to my ass beside her, and pulled her head into my lap, throwing back the sheet. She looked serene. I half expected her to smirk and wink, to sit up and kiss me, and tell me about the beach we were going to live on.
She didn’t.
Time passed. Someone threw a blanket over my shoulders, and shooed away medics when they tried to move me. Esteban. He stayed by my side, a bloodied guardian angel, tired and sad.
“Everyone out.” A familiar voice this. I heard Esteban murmur a protest, and a hissed reply. Then we were alone. The three of us.
I looked up, neck aching. The man in front of me stood ramrod straight, staring down at me with cold eyes. Karl Eisen. One of the Four. The door opened.
Marleen Hult walked through.
“He’s yours again. Vilje acted outside our authority. She paid the price for it, agreed?”
Hult watched me a moment. “The terms are acceptable, Honoured. Thank you.”
Eisen nodded brusquely, and strode out the door with military precision.
“You gonna kill me?” I asked dully. Though it was really more of a request.
“I was planning on it,” she said, pulling a seat over and sitting in front of me, looking down. “I was going to skin you. I’ve heard it’s excruciating. Get a skinner to patch you back up, then try something else. Maybe give you a year blind, deaf, and paralysed. Now that I see you, I almost want to put a bullet in you and be done with it.”
I closed my eyes and waited for it.
“I like seeing you like this.” Hult snarled, grabbing my face and pinching cruelly. “You feel like I felt. Something you love has been ripped from you, and I’m not going to just let you die and escape it. You’re going to live you fuck. And when I think you’ve had enough, I’ll put the bullet in you.” She shoved me away and stood, wiping her fingers on a handkerchief before tossing it away. “Live, and know that you killed her. Enjoy your life, Fhorten.”
The door shut behind her, and the resolve that kept me going crumbled.
I held my dead love and wept.
I watched the news.
Esteban was a hero now. They loved showing him in his military uniform, chest spangled with medals, the newest of which he was rewarded for preventing the ‘failed kidnapping’ of Franco.
Yeah, that’s what they were calling it.
Esteban was a hero, the Far House’s reputation was bolstered by his new status, and Franco was looking for a new assistant.
Me? I’m ok. Sort of. Hult was good as her word. She got her thugs to drug me and drag me to some fancy private hospital, stitched me up good as new. Mostly. I was in and out for a few days, but I made a full recovery.
I went to Celeste’s funeral. Her family didn’t want me there. They knew about me. I respected their wishes and hung back, out of sight. Esteban stayed with me. He’s a good guy. A good friend. He let me stay at his place for a while.
The Abya Yala? There’s been no mention of them. Esteban’s kept me informed pretty well. After this fuck up they had withdrawn most of their public faces. They were keeping a real low profile.
Another couple of weeks and I’d start hunting them. I’d hunt them down and let them know why. They’d rue the day they heard my name.
“Another drink Ollie?” The bartender asked.
“Sure, why not? I’m feeling lucky.”


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