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Table of Contents

those Wicked Talons – an Average Foot –

Those wicked talons blackly shining relax their hold, lift, stretch, and he leans back, hands up in abeyance, as they resettle about the wooden dowel, rasp and clack, two curled about the front of it, and two behind. The insistent buzz of the electric lantern by his knee. He leans in close again. Wrapped about the knobbled yellow-grey leg above those talons a bit of olive canvas, and with great care he pinches it, the gleam of a brass snap winking in the shadow of his thumb. His other hand up to gently steady the feathered bulk looming above. Somewhere up there a shining eye, blinking, unconcerned, and the black curl of a wicked beak.

Setting the buzzing lantern on a rickety table of old grey boards, a crumpled leather notebook there beside it. That olive strap in his rough-edged palm, and pinned to it a dented metal capsule of that same olive color, absurdly small against his fingertips. Head tipped back and a breath sucked through his teeth, he sets to carefully unscrewing the wee top of it.

A bit of yellow ribbon just a couple inches long, unrolled, weighted down at either end with pennies, and tiny symbols scratched in brown ink down the length of it. He’s squinting at them, writing pairs of characters on a leaf of the notebook, IS, LK, CI, GF, FO. Off in the shadows back behind him cages creak, a rattle of chains, claw-clacks and the fluffs of settling wings. He’s circling letters, sketching arrows and lines from this one to that, then lifts the pen, looks up, peers down at the floor there by his booted foot. He’s returning to the page when it happens again, the faint knock somewhere below, but then there’s the crash of breaking glass.

“Come on, Moody,” says the man in the chocolate-chip camouflage anorak. “You honestly telling me you can’t pick that rinky-dink thing?”

“I can open any damn lock made by man,” says the man in his worn surplus jacket, kneeling there in the doorway, and “Shyeah,” snorts the old man wrapped in a filthy thermal blanket, leaning back against the storefront’s unlit window. Moody spares him a glance from under the brim of his black leather hat, and then looking up, over his shoulder, to the man in the anorak, “So maybe this one wasn’t made by man,” he says.

A scuff as the man in the anorak steps in, swings a hand, knocking that black hat off Moody’s head. Moody surges to his feet, but then the fourth of them, the kid leaned up against the fender of the old pickup truck, says “Maybe there’s a doorbell,” a bit loud, and then, when they’re all looking at him, “since we’re being so polite.”

“Kid’s got a point,” says Moody, with a chuckle. “Told you he was sharp.” He scoops up his hat from the sidewalk. “Jasper, if you would?” to the old man, who pulls a crowbar out from under his blanket and slaps it in Moody’s hand, and then quickly steps away from the window.

“Oh hell no,” says the man in the anorak, and Moody favors him with a sharp smile, “No?” he says, an elaborate shrug, crowbar a-dangle. “You are the Executive Officer.”

“Just get us inside,” mutters the man in the anorak.

That first shivering crack hits under the arcing painted letters that say George’s, just above where it says Shoes Repaired. Crouching Moody slings the crowbar back for another blow, crash right through a broken ringing jagged guillotine blades of it dropping smash, whooping, “Hah!” belts Moody, jabbing with the crowbar to knock out this dangling shard or that.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” says the XO, waving them on.

The dark front room within, glass crunching underfoot, Jasper’s blanket snagging on the window frame, “Shit,” he’s saying, yanking, more glass crashing. Moody’s stepped right up to the counter, dropping the crowbar, clang, he’s hauling himself up and over. The XO, over by the front door, squinting at the lock, and the fourth of them, the kid in his grimy sweatshirt, hood of it up about his head, he’s just standing there, in the middle of it all. “The fuck,” says Moody, picking something up, dropping it in the shadows. “Shoes.”

“It’s a shoe shop,” says the XO, his hand held over the knob of that door.

Jasper’s picked up the crowbar, he’s leaning over the counter, trying to jam an end of it into the drawer of the cash register, blanket slipping from a shoulder. “And none of ’em pairs,” Moody’s saying, “buncha goddamn orphan garbage shoes,” hurling off another, and another, shoving a pile of them all at thunderous once. “Hey,” says Jasper, looking up, “there’s maybe five bucks in here.”

“So take it!” snaps the XO. “Nobody ever said he was any good at this shit. Fuck it up! Break shit! Come on!”

The kid’s squatting over a battered, lop-tongued work boot, that’s landed on the broken glass before him. The toe of it scuffed and sharply creased, drily flakes of pale brown leather, emptied eyelets, the heel of it almost pulled away entirely, there, where brightly worn nail-tips glint in the streetlight. It jumps as the cash register topples to the floor, a ringing, jangling crump, and the kid tugs the hood of his grimy sweatshirt down about and over his face. One dark hand comes down, reaching out, has almost taken hold of the boot, when the lights come on.

“Shit!” yelps the XO. Jasper’s already legging it, crunch of glass and his blanket lofting as he leaps out the broken window. At the back of the store a dark hand flat against the wall by the light switch, a beaded curtain parting about the bulk of him in a T-shirt yellowed with old sweat, bare head darkly bald above a circle of crisp white curls, and a dark electric lantern in his other hand, and he’s glaring, ferociously, at the kid, who’s jerked to his feet, whose hood’s fallen away, who’s staring, wide-eyed, back.

“Moody, dammit!” the XO’s yelling.

Moody kicking shoes away’s swooped right up next to the bald man and a gleaming silver length of knife held right up under the bald man’s chin. “Moody,” the XO’s saying, “come on, man, this is outside the scope,” but Moody’s shaking his head, “No,” he’s saying, “no, he knows just what the hell this is, and what happens if I,” and then a lurch, as the bald man steps close, as Moody jerks back, that knife-tip pressed again against the loose skin of his throat. The beaded curtain clattering to a close. “I wonder,” says Moody, low and quick, “do you know, already, which bone it’d be? Something from the foot, I bet. All those metatarsals and cuneiformes, seven thousand fucking bones in the average foot, and does it ever bother you? Walking around on a goddamn shattered Ming vase, sewn up in a leather sack?” But the bald man steps up again, and stepping back Moody stumbles over the tumbled shoes and falls back thump to his butt on the floor. Shaking out his arm the bald man lets something drop through his fingers, a flare of light a rod of metal whump the head of it hitting the floor, a crown of flanges nicked and gleaming hefted looping tightly swung about and up to catch Moody right in the grunting belly doubled bang back against the counter and down, coughing, groaning, the knife still in his useless hand.

“Oh, hell,” says the XO.

“Get,” says the bald man, lifting his mace, “out,” pointing it at them all, “of my. House!”

Table of Contents

Harsh Light on Steel – it Should be Looked at – Perquisites – “Just hope it’s enough” – what One does –

Harsh light on steel, his blade the length of it broadening from pointed tip to palm-width ricasso, there about the flatly cruciform hilt held lightly in both his gauntleted hands, hers a shorter, slender thing, needle-whip and wick about in her one hand netted by the glittering silver guard of wiry strands, thrust and thrust and slipping slice, and each assault brushed off by the merest twitch of his long impassive blade, that here and there tips forward, a simple riposte, wildly batted back, and every steely strike another clang wrung from some antique carillon.

She steps back, away, around, feet bare on polished concrete. Restlessly jagged slashes at the air. Her free hand in a fingerless cycling glove held up against her chest, her plain black T-shirt, her black tights, her wine-red hair. His bootheels click a stately tempo toward her, his blade held up and straight ahead, the flat of it parallel to the floor, tip of it squarely toward her eyes, one of his elbows crooked up at an angle, tight white tank and brown jeans and his cap of black hair shining. Jo springs right, jogs left her shoulder dipping, swing and up a thrust he bats aside with a slight twist, his sword still high, still flat, still stepping toward her, click and click as she scrambles back. “You let me control the field,” says Luys.

Another long step back and right again a straight hard thrust scraped off the tip of his blade turned to parry, to slice past, to poke at her. A leap back, her back toward the big white SUV parked near the wall, her blade up at an angle, guarded, “Like a goddamn tank,” she says.

“At least make me work for it,” he says, “my lady,” click and click, blade up, elbow cocked.

She bounces up on her toes arm high a cut over the top at his head and he yanks his grip up to catch with the forte of his blade but she pivots her cut licking under, a thrust that shoulders dropped he dodges just head back arm snapped straight, a riposte, and “Shit!” yelps Jo skidding a stumble-step back her shaking sword swept around and up, and trembling up between them. His blade still high and flat, his elbow cocked, eyes dark over his impassive mouth.

“Does it hurt?” he says.

“Yes!” she snaps, blade dipping, jerked back up again.

He nods. He claps his hands together, stepping close, tugging one of his big cuffed gauntlets free to slap to the floor. He reaches out to take her arm as her blade-tip dips, drops, and his bare hand peels back the sleeve of her T-shirt, careful of the darkly trickling blood. She hisses. “It doesn’t look so bad,” he says. “Come, let’s sit you down.” Leading her back toward the SUV, and the low-slung car beside it, reddish-brown, with a black stripe along the side. She lays her sword on the roof of the car, and he helps her up to sit on the hood. He’s let the other gauntlet fall, and in his hand a plastic baggie, an eggshell’s worth of golden dust. “You’ll need to take that off, my lady,” he says. “Your shirt.”

“Just,” she’s saying, fingers curled to tug finickily at the sodden sleeve, hissing, “work this up,” and “It’s too high, on your shoulder,” he says. “Take it off. I can help,” and “No,” she says, “no,” a hand up, “give me a sec,” sitting forward, wriggling the T-shirt up and over, “shit,” she says, T-shirt clutched to her chest, blood seeping darkly down her arm. “Go on,” she says.

He leans close, a scoop of shining dust in his fingers that he presses to the hole in her shoulder. She sighs, a long and settling breath that leaves her slumped on the hood of the car. He lifts his hand, gently brushing a wisp of something from the smooth unblemished skin. The blood already drying.

“My lady,” says Luys. “Let me see it.”

She lifts her head, and something of a glare.

“My lady, please.”

“You stuck me, just so you’d have an excuse – ”

“No,” he says, quickly. And then, “Please,” but she’s already dropping the shirt to the floor as she sits up straight, and running up her belly from the waistband of her tights a faintly puckered seam, pinkly pale and up, up to where, canted in the middle of her breast, an ovoid pucker maybe about the size of a thumb, sheened with a faintly rainbowed slick against the rippled skin about it. “Well?” she says. “What do you think? Any bigger? Smaller? Well?”

He straightens, steps back. “You should have that looked at,” he says.

“Yeah?” says Jo. “You got somebody in mind? A quicksmoke specialist? Good with parasitic shit from before the dawn of time? Give me their number, I’m all ears.”

“You must take care,” he says, turning away.

“We were just banging around with live steel!” she says. “You stuck me,” her hand on the tacky blood on her arm, “less than a foot away from that thing? That’s taking care?”

He looks back with a small, tight smile. “My blade goes where I will it, lady. We were in no danger.”

She grabs his hand, yanks at him, “So you did stick me on purpose!” she says.

He takes her hand. “An opponent,” he says, “will make a cut like that to weaken you, and distract you with the pain of it.”

“I’ve been cut before,” she says, wryly sour. “Once or twice. I know what it feels like.”

“But this time,” he says, her shoulders in his big hands, “you raised your blade up after, ready for what I’d do next.”

“Yeah, I did, didn’t I,” slipping from wry to sly. “And that over-under feint!” His elbow, in her gloved palm. “I finally got you with that.”

“I could not parry it, but I did dodge it,” he says, as she tugs him closer.

“You had to stick me to get me to back off,” she says, her hand on his hip.

“That you did, my lady,” he says, just before she kisses him.

“Your grace should not be skulking in a basement,” he says, stooping to reach for his jeans.

“Well I wouldn’t call this skulking,” she says, sprawled naked on the hood of the car.

“You should have a hall,” he says, stepping in one foot, the other, “for sparring, for revels, and for holding court,” tugging them up about his hips.

“I don’t know,” she says. Tearing open the velcro on one of her gloves, “It’s actually,” she says, resettling it, closing it up again, “I like it down here. It’s, oddly, it’s private. In kind of its own way. We can do the Apportionment stuff down here. And Bruno doesn’t mind me using his office, when I need it. And we can, spar here, whenever,” sitting up with a stretch and a flash of that pearly scar, and a very contented grin. He’s tucking in his white tank top. “Any other revels, I mean, really, that’s more Ysabel’s department?”

“You’ve revels of your own to keep,” he says, buttoning up his fly. “With your men.”

“I wish,” she says, sitting up abruptly, scowling, “you wouldn’t,” feet on the bumper, and then the polished concrete, “you know,” she says, grabbing her T-shirt from the floor, “they aren’t mine, Leo’s the one who – ”

“You are the Hawk, now,” says Luys. “You’re the Huntsman. You are Southeast, lady, and her men are yours.”

She closes her eyes at that, she opens her mouth. She bites her bottom lip, and a deep breath in, “I,” she says, “am starving.” Picking up her tights. “What about some breakfast. Jam, up the street.” Stepping into her underwear, pulling them up. “Waffles,” she says. “I’m buying.”

Stepping out of the shower stall, drying his armpits, crotch and thighs, his buttocks and the small of his back, up to ruffle what’s left of his hair, and then wrapping and tucking the white towel about his hips. Opening the medicine cabinet, reaching past a blue plastic pillbox for the shaving bowl, the safety razor in its plastic case, when he stops. Closes the cabinet up again. Eyes his reflection, fingertips rasping the stubble that darkens his cheeks.

He slips through the white curtain drawn about the toilet, the sink, the glass-walled shower, out into the white-painted loft, and the clerestory high above, shining down the length of it. At the far end by the bed in all that light there’s Pyrocles, pulling on a blue shimmer of jacket over his dazzling white shirt, “Oh,” says Becker, resettling the towel about himself, tucked below his bit of belly sucked in, “you’re not working the garage today?”

“Unrest, between North, and Northeast;” says Pyrocles, as Becker pads toward him through all that falling light, “my lord has called for his gentlemen.”


“Bluster only, and again, but we are to meet on it, nonetheless.” Pyrocles smiles, and those pewter weights at the ends of his mustaches sway as he shakes his head. “I’m only in danger of boredom.”

“You can’t, you can’t wear that suit,” says Becker, frowning. “I had it out, I was gonna make a run to the dry cleaner’s on my way,” but Pyrocles holds up a hand, “It’s all right,” he says. “It’s all taken care of.”

“Huh,” says Becker, stopped there at the foot of the bed.

“Yours, too.” Pyrocles smooths lapels, checks his cuffs.

“My clothes?”

“All taken care of,” says Pyrocles. “Something of a perquisite.” Stepping close, a hand to Becker’s shoulder. “And there’s breakfast on the counter, if you’d like,” and he leans close for a kiss that Becker distractedly returns. And then he’s off, pale shoes clacking, past the kitchen nook, the white curtain about the bathroom, to the loft’s door, that mighty thing of beams and planks.

“Breakfast?” says Becker, frowning, to himself.

A thready stream of smoke pulled up and up till there, up there, just out of reach, a sudden curl, a spill of it seeped in a light-struck haze that can’t relieve the gloom. “Why come to me?” says the man leaned back against the desk, his vest and trousers of an understated plaid.

“Well,” says Jo, laid out across the sofa, pillow under her head against the slatted wooden arm, “I figure, if he’s got a phone, you’ve got the number.” Lowering the cigarette to her lips for a long slow crackling drag.

“Your grace,” and he takes in a hiss of a breath, weighing words. “It’s not so simple.” On the desk by his hand a tumbler of ice and brown liquor. “To go to such trouble yourself, in such a matter? It would seem,” and he picks up the glass. “Unseemly,” he says, and sips.

“A phone call,” says Jo. “So, what. I should have Luys do it?”

“Much the same? He does speak with your voice.”

“Neat trick, that,” mutters Jo. And then, hiking up to look over the arm of the couch at him, “Are you seriously telling me, Bruno, that one of the, ah, my guys, my knights, I can’t just, call him? On the phone? When I need to tear him a new one?”

“There are protocols, ma’am,” he says, with a shrug. “People will talk.”

“I want people to talk about this.”

“You want them to tell the right story,” says Bruno, and another sip. “If there were a function, you were both to attend? So that the arrangement of the meeting doesn’t overshadow the reason for it.” Setting the glass back down. “The Samani would’ve been ideal.”

“Yeah, or, I could go down to the Devil’s Corner, maybe buy a drink, bump into him coming out of his office except, wait a minute,” she sits up, “oh, yeah – we fired his sorry ass.”

“We had our reasons,” he says, brushing down the front of his vest. “Perhaps,” looking away, “if your grace were to unfold a few more particulars?”

Jo stubs out the cigarette on a flower-rimmed saucer scarred with old burns. “I need to find out exactly what he got up to, with the dancers, while he was running the club.”

Ice clinks as he lifts the glass again. “The usual, I suppose.” And then, as she looks at him, “Your grace is hardly naïve.”

“I’m not a chump, either.”

“Of course not.”

“The Starling,” says Jo, still giving him that look, and his glass halfway to his lips, “told the Queen,” and that glass droops, “that the Harper came to her, once.”

“Came to her?” Up the glass again, and this time he drains it. “What does that mean?”

“That’s what I’m gonna ask him.” Standing abruptly, “Tell you what,” she says, checking the time on the screen of her phone, tucking it away in the pocket of her jacket. “Her majesty dropped this in my lap, so I’m gonna drop it in yours.” Heading past him, toward the door there, lit with a stippled pane of glass that says, reversed, Bruno’s. “Tell him whatever you want, he’s won the fucking lottery, I don’t care, just get the Harper in a room with me by, let’s say, tomorrow night?” She opens the door. “Call me when you’ve got something.”

He’s looking down, hands on the edge of his desk, and a judicious nod. “Of course, your grace.”

On the screen a photo, Jo and Ysabel, cheek to cheek, black curls trapped lopping over the upturned collar of Ysabel’s white coat, and she’s almost smiling sidelong at Jo, her short hair brown and tufted up every which way, her eyes crinkled, smiling wide, directly into the camera, out of the phone she’s holding in her hand. The clock over their head says 15:48. Tuesday, April 10. She thumbs it, and the screen goes black, and she tucks the phone away again in the pocket of her butter-colored jacket. An elbow on the standing table that runs the length of the sunstruck store window, and a big red cup of cappuccino, the leafily patterned foam of it already disturbed. “Hey,” says somebody behind her, but gently. “How’re you doing.”

He’s tall, the man behind her, not looking at her but back, over his shoulder, at the rest of the sparsely dim coffee shop, the long wood tables, the quietly hulking coffee roaster in the corner there, and sacks of beans about it. He wears a beige fleece pullover, the half-zip open over a blue-striped shirt, and his dark hair’s slicked back, and he looks down at the heavy gold watch about his wrist before offering up a wryly tossed-off smile.

“David Kerr,” says Jo. “Boy Wizard. How’s it hanging.”

“I really,” he says, stepping close, “really,” elbows on the table, “don’t like that word. Wizard. Makes it all sound like some kind of roleplaying game which, I assure you, it is not.”

“So what would you,” says Jo, “I mean, what even is it that you do?”

“What the hell does anybody do? I try to stay comfortable. But you,” he sucks his teeth, “you make me uncomfortable.”

“It’s a gift,” says Jo, lifting her cup. “But now I’m wondering why you came over to say hi.” A sip, that he watches intently, following the cup back down to the tabletop. “How is it,” he says.

“The cut?” she says. “It’s healing. It’s healed, pretty much. The quicksmoke?” and Kerr looks up, sharply, at that, looks about, over his shoulder, “It’s, fine, it’s, you know,” she says, “it’s not leaking, or whatever. Nothing’s, gone, nobody’s gone.”

“Due respect, Duchess,” says Kerr, “but you’d never know. Whatever this shit touches, it’s not just gone. It’s like it never was. You could’ve walked into that warehouse with a whole crew backing you up and if they caught even the slightest wisp of that stuff,” he looks down at his watch, and up again at her, “it never happened like that. They’re gone, they never were, and you always went in there alone, and nobody’d ever be able to tell the difference because they. Never. Existed,” his knuckles knocking the table lightly with each word, “and no one could ever know otherwise.”

“Except me,” says Jo.

“Well,” says Kerr, after a blink or two. “You’re the shell. It’s not gonna eat you until it’s done, and ready to – ”

“No,” says Jo. “I mean,” and she lifts a hand, wrapped about in a fingerless glove, reaching for something, a moment, “when,” she says, “he dumped the stuff, the wizard, on the bridge – ”

“Lier,” says Kerr.

“Lier,” says Jo. “It took him. And Ysabel. Before it,” her gloved hand, closing in a fist, “got stuck, in me,” that fist, over her heart, “and for a while, it was like that, like she’d never been. Nobody knew. Except me.” He’s looking her in the eye now, and he’s frowning. “But she went somewhere,” says Jo. “They both did. A place, and, I, went there. And we came back. And everything went back to how it’d been.”

“So that’s why you’re so complacent?” says Kerr.

“I’m scared out of my fucking mind,” says Jo.

“Okay,” says Kerr. “Okay.” Leaning down, shoulders hunched. “Have you seen Keightlinger, since then?”

“Who, the one with the beard?” Kerr nods, and Jo shakes her head, “No,” she says, “no, thank God. What the hell did you do to him?”

“Something stupid,” says Kerr. “Just hope it’s enough.” Straightening, stepping back from the table, from her, “Look, here, let me,” he says, “in the, ah, just in case. If you, find you need help. Just, say my name. I’ll, I’ll be there.”

He’s turning to leave, but “David,” says Jo, and he looks back, “Well,” he’s saying, “actually,” but “Thank you,” says Jo. “For shutting him down, but also. For being there. To call Luys. Because I, I never think, about backup.”

“Yeah,” says Kerr, stepping away. “Well.”

Grunt and grunt and a guttural “shit” and a bubbling squeak of a giggle. Reflections flicker in the glassy dead expanse of a television screen in time with the shrilling jounce of bedsprings. There’s two in the room, queen-sized, heads against the wall there, and the one over closest to the window with its curtains drawn has piled atop it boxes small and glossy black, printed with swirls of stylized smoke in different neon inks, chartreuse and orange, leafy green, magenta, teal, and scattered among them plastic clamshells that seal up ranks of little amber vials, Red Tobacco, say the haphazardly pasted labels, Matcha Menthol, Grand Reserve Gold, Seabreeze Mojito. The grunting’s a groan now, low, drawn-out, the giggling a squealing breathless round of “Yes!” and “Yes!” and “Yes!” Chilli’s flat on his back on the other bed, eyes grimaced shut and blond hair dank with sweat, one hand knotted in the sheets and one hand up, holding tight the arm of the woman astride his hips, her blond hair bouncing in squiggled curls, a babydoll nightie slipping from her shoulders, “Shit,” he’s saying, “shit,” and “Oh, yes!” she cries, wide-eyed, but she stops with a jerk looking over her shoulder half-turning hunched up on a knee, “Hello,” she says, smiling brilliantly. “Shit!” roars Chilli, kicking scrambling back up the head of the bed, the weight of her gone, she’s gone, “Shit!” he’s yelling, swiping at the air, at the filmy stocking drifting in languid folds to his lap, the glossy page torn from some magazine he bats way, “shit,” he’s saying, “shit,” sitting up, bent over, panting.

“Harper,” says the man at the foot of the bed, a sword in his hand.

And screeching something incoherent Chilli naked uncoils to his feet the room lit up in a burst his hands above his head bring down the heavy blade of his short sword with a “hup” from the man who ducks to one side, his own blade coming up from under, piercing Chilli’s chest. He lets go, steps aside as Chilli blunders past to crash into the dresser, and the enormous television wobbles. He turns about, that blade stuck clean through, the elegantly simple hilt of it maybe a half a foot out from a wetly yellow wound, and rising and falling with his ragged breath. “Disarmed yourself,” he spits, but that man’s pulling a handkerchief from a pocket of his understated plaid vest, and as he steps close Chilli drops his sword from fumbling hands, reaches for that shuddering hilt, but that man’s pressed a hand to Chilli’s chest, the handkerchief wrapped about the base of the blade, and Chilli’s hands slackly fall as shove and a grating scrape the blade’s yanked free. Chilli slumps back against the dresser, and the television wobbles again. “You’re pathetic,” says the man, wiping his hands on the handkerchief.

“Bruno, come on,” says Chilli, panting. A hand up to that wound. “You didn’t have to do her like that.”

“You didn’t have to do it at all.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Chilli pushes past him into the space between the beds, falling to his knees. “Ever since that bitch –

“Harper,” says Bruno, quiet and cold. “Every time you’ve been given some responsibility, an opportunity, you’ve pissed it away. Come to find out today that the Duchess was right to demand your ouster from the club;” and, as Chilli looks back with a jerk of his head, cheeks angrily mottled over his yellow beard, “you only went and diddled the Starling,” says Bruno.

“That’s,” sputters Chilli, turning about on his knees, “that’s what you do!” The wound oozing stuff like honey, spun the color of milk, unheeded down his ribs to plop on his bare thigh. “It comes with the office!” In his hand that torn page, crumpled, thin and glossy.

“Not the Queen’s favorite, you blasted fool,” says Bruno. “Now. Here is what you will do.” His narrow shoes step close. “The Duchess has taken to sparring in the mornings, with the Mason. At the residence. You will go there, tomorrow, around ten of the clock. You will throw yourself at her feet, and you will take what you have coming.” Those shoes step back, away, leaving behind a faint imprint in the ecru carpet. A door opens, closes. Chilli’s spreading flat that page, smoothing the crinkles, a sumptuous boudoir, a woman, knee up on an overstuffed footstool, a brief nightgown, squiggles of blond hair, the words about her, lace-up corset-style, daring, dramatic, adjustable straps, matching panty, imported nylon.

Table of Contents

Six of them – Milo, Dub, Jonesy & Goose – a Capital suggestion – no Shout, no Cry, not a Word – Who He is –

Six of them in the room, and him, slouched in the doorway, hands tucked in the pockets of his grimy sweatshirt. “That you spend time,” the withered old man is saying. “And I pay money, for that time.” A low, incantatory growl, a bellows-rasp of breath between each phrase. “That I buy, your time. How. How can I, buy time.” Sunlight glowers behind heavy ruddy drapes drawn over a picture window. “Hand me some time. Put, in my hands, an hour of your day.” He’s sitting in the big brown leather recliner, leaning forward, soft shoulders warmly wrapped in an old quilt. “See what good,” he says, and under the quilt a hand jolts, and another wheeze of breath, “it does. Either of us. Some of you.” One of those eyes squinted shut by a snarl of wrinkles, radiating from that sunken nose. “Think it’s your effort. Not time, but labor. Work. That if you try. That if you strive. That’s what I want. That’s what I pay for. But I don’t. Pay you. What I want. What I want.”

The XO’s there, across the room, frowning around the stiffness of his scar, and three men on the couch, the two of them at either end upright, elbows on knees, the one in a soft plaid workshirt, a steaming cup in his hand, the other in a brown and blue down vest, empty hands scraped rawly red about the knuckles, and between the two of them Jasper, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, grizzled head in his hands. “We, built,” the CO’s saying, from his recliner, “the finest country, the shining city, our green Jerusalem. We did that.” One hand springs from the quilt, clawed in a fist. “No one paid us. No one. Paid. Us.” There in the corner, Moody sips his coffee, watching the XO, who’s watching the CO. “We built it. It was ours. Until the others came, and took it.”

At that, he pulls his hood up, ducks back around the doorway, away down the unlit hall. Back in the sunlight, Moody smiles over his cup. “Even so,” the CO’s saying, that hand of his drooping, “even so. With every advantage, in their grasp. The, laws. The rules. Politicians. Media. The, the,” and he pulls that hand of his back under the quilt. “The rules,” he says. “The rules.”

“The banks, Dad,” says the XO.

“The banks!” spits the CO, trembling, coughing. “The banks,” he says, again. “Even with, all this. Even with every advantage. Our country, in their hands. Smirking. Laughing, at us. Even with all that, it’s, still, there. We can.” That hand, working its way free of the quilt again. “Pay you?” he snarls. “Your time? Your labor? You take it, you take it and you go out, and you take it! You build it up again! Rip City!” That hand of his, upthrust, a fist, and after a moment over on the couch a raw-knuckled fist is lifted, and the hand that isn’t holding a cup is wadded, help up, and a nudge for Jasper between them, who shakes his grizzled head. “Go and get it!”

A general exodus from the couch, bump and stumble and one or the other of them helping Jasper to his feet, the XO waving them over, rubbing his chin. Moody’s looking across the room to that unlit hall beyond, but the CO’s reaching up out of the quilt about him, grabbing at Moody’s sleeve, “Where is everyone?” he says, his voice gone querulously thin. “What happened?”

“It was a fine speech,” says Moody, plucking at that hand. “Very inspirational.” The XO’s jabbing a finger, making a point, looking from the one man to the other, as Jasper opens the front door, a blare of daylight. “Where is everyone?” the CO says, again. “The jefes? Where is everybody?”

“They’re here,” says the XO.

“Where was Milo?” says the CO. “Where was Double-Dee?”

“Dub was, Dub was here, Dad,” says the XO, kneeling by the recliner. “Dub just left,” but the CO’s saying, “Where’s Jonesy? Where’s,” and “Jones,” says the XO, taking his hand, “Dad, who are you,” as the CO says, “where’s the Goose?”

“Dad,” says the XO. “Goose died, like, two years ago. Two and a half years ago.”

Down the unlit hallway, out onto an awkward corner landing, Moody cup in hand is careful of the plywood ramp laid over the steps down into the kitchen. Through that, down another short flight, a door at the end half-open, and sunlight falling from a small window set high in the wall. “Hey. Shizzt,” says Moody, setting his nearly empty cup down by a limp black duffel. “Hey,” he says again, nudging open a louvered door, a small closet, and there’s Christian in his grimy sweatshirt, sitting on the floor of it, beneath a mirror pasted over with stickers. “Weren’t thinking of sneaking out, were you?” says Moody, and Christian hunches further under his hood. “You always was smart,” says Moody, hunkering down in the doorway. “You know this is your best play, you know this is where it’s going, and we all know you’re gonna help us get there. So I know you know better than to go walking out in the middle of a sermon, yeah?” His thin lips curl companionably as he tries to peer under the margins of that hood. “He ain’t talking about you. You get that, right? You get he’s talking about the Russians and the Vietnamese, he’s talking about the fucking Mexicans, for Christ’s sake, he ain’t talking about you. You’re smart. You’re good – ”

Christian’s hand catches Moody’s, that was reaching for that hood, “The fuck you know,” he growls.

Moody yanks his hand free, standing, stepping back, and his reflection in the mirror lapped by the peeling stickers on the glass, black and grey and here and there some red, and the letters on them white and silver and black, shaped like blades, like bolts of lightning, like letters from old Bibles, the Boreads, they say, and Sheriff Pain, Article XVIII, Hróðvitnir. “I know you’re pathetic,” he says. “You’re weak. You never had the guts to go join a gang of your own. Your mother never had to get around to kicking you out of the house. This is all you got now, and I’m the only one here who’s got your back. So. Get up off that skinny black butt and get upstairs and make yourself useful, that’s what I know.”

He opens the glass door off the sidewalk, steps inside, a wall of mailboxes, six of them, dully stainless steel and sharp corners and scuffed plastic over handwritten box numbers, and around the corner a short flight of steps up to a landing at the base of a steep staircase, and Jo, sat there, her sword in its scabbard across her lap. “My lady,” says Luys, all in browns. “I had not meant to make you wait.”

“No,” says Jo, “no, you’re fine,” and sighing, looks up the switchback stairs. “Chrissie’s here.”

“What, again?” says Luys.

“Still,” says Jo, getting to her feet, her red Chuck Taylors, her baggy black jeans, her tight black T-shirt. “Let’s get to it.” Swinging her sheathed sword up to rest on her shoulder. “Unless you’d rather skip straight to waffles?”

“As my lady wishes,” says Luys.

“One of these days,” says Jo, headed for the door, “I’m gonna get you to admit you want something I don’t wish.”

Outside, and the wall of the building rising white and green beside them, and across the street the dark empty windows stretching up, plastered with signs, Now Leasing, The 20 on Hawthorne, Units Available. Jo up under the latticed fire escape is saying “So how do you know?” Looking back over her shoulder. “What gives it away? Nine times out of ten I can’t get you to bite on a feint. What’s my, whaddaya call it. Tell.”

“I couldn’t say,” says Luys, with a bit of a smile.

“You couldn’t, you couldn’t say. That’s some good teaching, there.”

A shrug of those broad shoulders. “I merely know, my lady, when you mean to strike, and when you do not.”

“Okay, so, wait, so yesterday,” says Jo, planting herself, reaching out to stop him, “did I really get you with the over-under? Or did you just not take the block so you could set up the cut?”

“My lady,” says Luys, nodding at something past her, behind her. Jo turns. Down at the corner there’s a garage door, set at an angle, a couple of recycling bins blue and olive in a slice of shade. Beside them a boy’s leaned back against the wall, brown bomber jacket and his brown hair in a wilting pompadour, an arm crooked over the hand-truck there beside him, loaded with a large plastic tub, a couple of pink boxes, a pallet of water bottles and atop it all a tray of paper cups of coffee. “The hell?” says Jo. “Sweetloaf? What is all this?”

“Hey, boss,” says the boy, pushing off the wall, “sorry, yeah, I don’t have a fucking key for the big door, and I didn’t want to try to wrestle this fucking thing through that fucking little door there, and,” but Jo’s talking over him, “No,” she’s saying, “no, Sweetloaf,” and then, to Luys, as he stoops to unlock the garage door, “Is this your idea?”

“It’s none of mine,” says Luys, hauling up the door.

“So there’s towels,” Sweetloaf’s saying, with a kick for the plastic tub at the bottom of the stack, “for sweat, I guess, or if you spill any fucking water,” a slap for the plastic-wrapped pallet of plastic bottles, “lots of water, and hey, Mason, I know you like those fucking Staccato donuts, but my connect’s with Voodoo, and these are fucking good, fucking primo,” and Jo says, “Hey, Sweetloaf,” but he’s saying, “and of course coffee, can’t fucking go without coffee,” and “Sweetloaf!” says Jo. “Why. Did you bring. All of this. Here?”

“Shrieve said to,” says Sweetloaf.

“But there’s just the two of us,” says Luys, frowning, as Jo says, “Bruno,” and then “shit,” and then she’s headed off under the door, down the ramp within, “My lady?” says Luys, and “There fucking better be more than just the two of you,” mutters Sweetloaf, but there’s a clangor echoing down there, steel on steel, and Luys starts running after Jo, “Gallowglas!” he’s yelling, “Gallowglas approaches!”

“Can I,” says Sweetloaf, “a little fucking help, here? Hello?” Lifting the tray of coffee cups with one hand, grunting as with the other he leans the handtruck back and wrestles it around, trundling toward the ramp, “No, seriously,” he’s muttering, “fucking thanks.”

Around and down the precipitous curl of the ramp the garage opens and stretches out under the length of the building above, fluorescent lights, polished concrete, the SUV and that low-slung, muscular sedan. Milling about there, half of a dozen turning, lifting fists and weapons in salute, a burble of “Your grace” and “Duchess” and “My lady!” as Jo stalks toward them, “Okay, so, ah,” she’s saying, stepping into the midst of them all, “gentlemen, ah, folks,” a blink, “I’m guessing the Shrieve told you guys to show up?”

“And a capital suggestion!” cries a man in a blue-and-white striped sailor’s vest, whipping his rapier back and forth, and “A dash of finality to spice our play,” says a shirtless man, the sleeves of his orange coveralls tied about his waist, and a short wide-bladed sword tipped to his forehead.

“Yeah,” says Jo, still looking about.

“Is there some concern, Duchess?” says the burly woman looming over them all, her long hair dyed a watery green, and a barbed harpoon leaned up against her shoulder.

“What?” says Jo. “No, Peg, no, we’re all,” and then, raising her voice, “there’s refreshments, everybody, avail yourselves, and I guess there’s towels? I dunno. Sweetloaf!” Beckoning him over, and he sets down the coffees as the knights, murmuring, laughing, approach, and hustles through them, followed closely by Luys. “Get upstairs,” she says, quick and low in his ear, “and make certain Iona is with the Queen.”

“What?” he says, too loud, alarmed. “Boss, why?”

“Just do it.”

“What is it, lady?” says Luys, as low and close, as Sweetloaf hustles off.

“Chilli isn’t here,” she says. “But he will be. I need to know who in this room is with him.”

“He’s much on the outs, since the robbery,” says Luys. “The Cater and his cronies,” he’s nodding at the man in the sailor’s vest, raising a paper cup of coffee to them, “have made their disdain clear.”

“Well somebody’s up to something,” says Jo. “Watch my back.”

“My lady,” says Luys, with a disarming chuckle, “no one would dare.”

“Hey, Astolfo!” Jo’s calling, and she lifts her sheathed sword from her shoulder. “You want to show me how those shield-thingies work?”

“Is her grace quite certain she doesn’t mean Medoro?” says the man in grey sweats, sipping carefully from the cup in his bucklered fist, and “No,” says Jo, “my grace does not, Medoro’s the Axle,” and the man in the grimy T-shirt lifts an exaggerated hand to his breast, “and you’re a fucker, fucking with me. C’mon, let’s go!” One hand on the hilt of her sword, the other about the beaten metal throat of the scabbard of it, as amidst laughter and claps and backslaps he steps out into the open space, tightening the straps on his bucklers, the one on his left hand edged with a sharp polished rim, the one on his right bossed with spikes. “But wait,” says Jo, and he stops. “You got the ante?”

“Ante, ma’am?” he says.

“A pinch of owr,” says Jo, “or thereabouts, in case you poke me. Can’t have a Duke bleeding all over the floor now, can we?”

“But, your grace, that’s hardly fair,” says the Cater, stepping up with a broad smile to temper his stern judgment. “We pay to cut you, but if we are cut instead – we’re done for!”

“Don’t think of it like that, Connie,” says Jo, turning to him. “Think, instead, that I will lose a knight – which will hurt me quite a lot, seeing as how I’m so fond of all of you.” Luys stifles a chuckle at that, as the rest of them turn from one to another, uncertain, hesitant. “So, what, too spicy, folks?” says Jo, drawing her sword. “Come on! Try to get as close as you can without touching – anybody trust their skills enough to play?”

Luys says, “Perhaps, my lady,” but the Cater laughs, a sharply cornered bark, “Mason!” he cries. “You’ve had her every morning of the week! Let the rest of us have our,” but he stops, brought up short by the tip of Jo’s sword, lifted in a sweeping arc to wind up there, an inch perhaps from the end of his nose. The chuckles of the knights behind him turn to whistles, cheers, a booming “Ha!” from Peg. His smile widens, his eyes flash, his rapier whips up whick-whack knocking her blade aside and a hasty riposte that sends her leaping back. She stoops to lay her scabbard on the floor, then steps back again, to the side, leading them both out into the open space. “So tell me,” she says, “Connie, how long you been fencing?”

“Why,” he says, twisting to follow her prowling steps to one side, then the other, “I cannot remember a day I’ve not held this hilt in my hand.”

“Well I’ve only been at it about, six months,” but already Jo’s lunging, high over his blade twitched around and under as he lifts to parry the feint and whooping he skips back, slashing the air with his rapier. “So go easy on me,” she says, settling into en garde with a grin.

“Of course, your grace,” says the Cater.

Whick and snick thin scrapes and snap his needled blade against her slender steel, the wisht of his rope-soled espadrilles on polished concrete, the squeak of her red Chucks. He’s pressing her, quick thrusts that lick at her quartered parries, rapid enough she doesn’t have time to riposte, retort, reply, a constant clash till back she steps and back again and he doesn’t take what she cedes. He lowers his blade, guardedly, and a quirk of a smile. “Six months?” he says.

She shrugs.

“Who’s next, then,” says Luys, “to try her grace’s hand,” but even so the Cater’s blade-tip loops high and then a lazy fillip about Jo’s frantic parry to hitch back under and plunge home, canted at an oddly hilt-high angle, and gasps about as breaths are caught. Jo looks down the length of his steel to that needlepoint plucking a belt loop of her jeans.

“The distracted hunter,” says the Cater, stepping back, “might be caught in her own snares,” and lifts his rapier in a salute.

Jo coughs up a wry chuckle, “Okay,” she says, “okay,” whipping her sword back, shaking out her wrist, “point taken.” And the eruption of laughter at that, which she joins, after a moment. “So who is next?” she yells out over the ruckus, “who’s gonna give me another pointer?” But even as she bites her lip looking off away at that with a wince they’re all turning away, squeak and rustle in the fallen hush, and the clink and faintly chime of weapons gripped more tightly, swung about and hefted, at the ready. No shout, no cry, not a word is spoken, but there he is on the rise of the ramp where it swings out of the garage, one foot forward, lower than the other, and his hip slung back, his empty hands at his sides, his white blouse open at the throat, laces loose a-dangle below his big blond beard, his matted tangle of blond hair, Chillicoathe, the Harper.

“Shit,” says Jo, under her breath.

“Hey,” says Chilli.

That growl’s coming from the throat of green-haired Peg. “You,” snarls the Cater, there behind Jo.

“Me!” cries Chilli. “Am I not a knight yet in this company, and as game to play as any of you?” and his empty hands spread wide.

“Oh, it’s not play we’d be about,” says the Cater, and he points his rapier past Jo, up at the Harper, and Jo’s looking from the Cater, to the Harper, to Luys. “Who would you have as your second?” the Cater’s saying. “Oh, but who here would stand as second for the likes of you?”

“My second?” cries Chilli, with an overabundance of alarm, as the Cater steps past Jo, his sword still up and out, “You’ve disgraced this company,” he’s saying, “your weakness, your cowardice insulted our Duke, our Queen, and I would see it proved upon your body,” and a slash, at the air, and another, “as I should’ve done, weeks ago!”

“Well if that’s the matter,” says Chilli, looking about at the rest of them, “what say you, friends? Anyone willing to help the Cater out? To step up, and stand as my second? Gerlin? Medoro? Peg Greentooth? Anyone?”

The man in the orange coveralls steps out of the little crowd of them, his short wide sword held low, and a nod as he heads past the Cater to the Harper’s side, “Pwyll!” says someone, Astolfo with his bucklers, but the man in the coveralls holds up his free hand, “I do this office,” he says, “that we might see this done,” and Chilli welcomes him with a sweep of his arm, “I thank you nonetheless,” he says, still smiling. “Hold up,” says Jo.

“Who then will stand for me?” cries the Cater with a showman’s flourish, and even as Astolfo, and Medoro, as Gerlin and Peg lift up their hands and weapons, “Hold it,” says Jo, louder, “that’s enough, you guys, okay,” stepping out between the two of them, “enough!” Standing before the Cater now, her free hand out toward Chilli. “We are not having a fucking rumble today, is that clear?”

“Your grace,” says the Cater, “I must insist,” but “My lady,” says Chilli, “his insult will not be borne,” and “it is an affront to” and “demand satisfaction” and “stood there like” and “blade and body” and “sneering clown” and “here and now” and “Enough!” bellows Luys, off to the side of all of them. “Gentlemen. The Duchess has spoken.”

“Your grace will not deny me satisfaction, surely,” says Chilli, waving him off.

“You and me, in a minute, Harper, we’re gonna have words. Until then, shut the fuck up.”

“My lady is yet young,” the Cater says, “and as new to the reins as the hilt. Let me shoulder this odious chore – I’ll cut him down, to the size he would affect!” But even as he’s lifting his rapier again, Jo’s glaring at him over the shoulder of her sword-arm, “I hunt for the King,” she says. “Don’t you ever even think you can tell me what I have or haven’t done,” and he’s blinking, his face goes blank, “Ma’am,” he says, “I would never,” but his sword’s still pointed past her, at Chilli, who lifts his hands and claps them together in a flash of light, to draw out between them his short and heavy sword, one hand now wrapped about the golden-pommeled hilt, the other stroking the flat of the blade of it down to its tip and off. “My lady, please,” he says, and his shaggy yellow head is slowly shook. He looks up to her. “Do not ask me to set this aside.”

“I ain’t asking, I’m telling,” says Jo. “Christ, Chilli, this is one hell of a long way to go to get out of talking to me. Put it away. Put them all away!” Swinging about to encompass the lot of them, that glowering arc arrayed behind the Cater, swords and bucklers and steel rod and harpoon a-bristle. “Lower your goddamn weapons! This is not how we are doing things today!” And her own sword droops. “I swear!”

“Please, my lady,” says Chilli then, behind her now, quite calm, his sword held high. “Let me show you who I am.”

Jo looks from the Cater to Chilli, then, and “Not like this,” she says, but “Villain!” cries the Cater. “Reprobate! Cack-handed milk-sodden fustilarian!” And Chilli, swelling up with a great breath, lets it out all at once, “I want my coat!” he roars, and leaps in swinging.

Table of Contents

20 or 30 floors Below – “Is that a good thing?” – something Nice –

Twenty or thirty floors below the river a sheet of noontide gleaming, bridges marching out into the brightness until, far-off, the great arch of the northern freeway, laden with crawling traffic, and off to the left a cluster of towers, stepped red brick, high and white with darkly narrowed windows, glassy and green-clad, topped by a slanted deck of solar panels, and away beyond them all one lone tower of coppery pink glass framed with pinkly amber stone, stood up tall against the green hills beyond. “It is a matter of some delicacy,” says Agravante, somewhere back behind him. “Hence, the apartment.”

“My lord?” Pyrocles turns away from that wall of glass, the city below, his brow quizzical. “There is some issue with the construction?”

“No, no,” says the Viscount, shaking his head, white locks brushing the shoulders of his slate-grey suit, “all is well here, finally. No; our matter is for elsewhere, and tonight – but its delicacy dictates that our meeting not be marked.”

Pyrocles in his pale blue blazer looks about the empty room, the sweep of glass, the stretch of glossy dark wood floor to the clean bare kitchen island there, between him and Agravante. “How would it be that meeting m’lord in his new tower might go unmarked?”

A nod from Agravante then, and something of a smile. “It’s always been a source of some small consternation, that you are sworn to Southwest, yet live three blocks north of Burnside.”

“An accident of geography, m’lord,” says Pyrocles, “the garage, is – ”

“Of course, your garage,” Agravante holds up a hand, “I do not mean for you to lose your garage. But you are one of my, grandfather’s, finest and most true of knights. You deserve an address within the demesne,” and that upraised hand swings wide, encompassing the space about them both.

“You would have us move, here,” says Pyrocles, still frowning.

“If you like,” says Agravante. “Keep the loft as a pied-à-terre,” he says, setting a ring with a single key on the island, clink. “Or stay there; use this for entertaining. The occasional night away from your boy. I’d have it known: the care I take, of those who serve the Hound. The Sapper’s just across the hall,” he says, “and the Trident a few floors down. The Serpent, too.”

“He’s not a boy, m’lord,” says Pyrocles, stepping toward the island.

“Not a boy?”

“Becker,” says Pyrocles. “Is not a boy.”

“Of course,” says Agravante. “Your very own Gallowglas. Well!” Pushing the key across the island toward Pyrocles’ hand. “Now that our reasons for meeting are established. I’ve work for our low friends, and arrangements for you to make.”

“But delicately,” says Pyrocles, without reaching for the key.

“Anvil,” says Agravante. “Pyrocles. I know you’ve no taste for skulduggery. I assure you, were there any other way,” and he elaborately sighs. “The insult to the King, the Queen, but most of all our new Princess, Annisa – and in my own house! My very sitting room! But made by one without the niceties of our court – ”

“Who,” says Pyrocles, taking up the key.

“Medardus, the Lake Baron,” says Agravante. “I will tell you what must be done.”

“You should come away upstairs,” he says, the scabbard in his hand. He leans close, and after a moment sitting there on the polished concrete she looks up. “Yeah,” she says. “Okay.”

“Leave it,” he says, but she shakes him off and picks up the slender glittering curl of bone, a rib, tarred along the edge there with something thickly black. Looking about as she gets to her feet, turning away from the hand he offers once more. The garage about them empty, otherwise.

Down there in the open room, Iona all in yellow, and Chrissie a shimmer of white there beside her, and also Ysabel, looking up as they step through the door, “Jo!” she cries, but Luys’s arm’s about her shoulders, he’s steering her through the kitchen, into the short dim hall, pushing open the door to her room, and the daylight cooled by white curtains. She wavers in the doorway, his arm still about her. Before them the sword, sunk half the length of its whorled steel blade in the wall, and the gleaming hilt of it even now seems to thrum. On the floor below it the painted skull-mask, tipped over on the black coils of its mane, grinning up at them with those crudely chiseled teeth.

“Does this,” says Jo, “I don’t get it. Does this mean. Did I, is that, is that a good thing? Did I break it? Is it done for? Is it gone?”

Luys kneels there to pick it up. “It merely fell, from the wall,” he says.

“So I just, it,” says Jo.

“You hurled your sword away with such force,” says Luys. He holds up the mask to her hand that reflexively takes it, and as she looks down to see what she’s holding, he stands, he seizes the hilt of her sword there, “If you don’t mind, ma’am,” he says, bracing his other hand holding the scabbard against the wall, and pulls it free with a clatter of bits of sheetrock.

“Don’t,” says Jo. The mask falls to the floor with a soft clack. “Don’t call me ma’am,” she says, turning away, the futon there, sinks to her knees on it. The bone she’s still holding, glittering, stained.

“As my lady wishes,” says Luys. He holds up the sword, angled to peer down the flat of the blade in the light, turning it over. “Don’t,” she says, “call me,” as he’s wiping the length of it clean on the sleeve of his T-shirt. “Just,” she says, but there’s Ysabel bursting into the room, stooping by the futon, reaching for Jo’s hand, “What happened!” she cries. “What’s wrong, Jo, talk to me, are you hurt,” and Jo says, simply, “I killed somebody.” Luys slips the sword into its scabbard, and leans it there against the wall.

“The Harper?” says Ysabel, a hand on Jo’s shoulder.

“Connie,” says Jo.

“Conary, the Cater,” says Luys.

Ysabel looks from the one to the other, and neither of them looking back at her. “What did he do?”

“Nothing!” says Jo. “Not a goddamn,” as Luys is saying, “He stood against your grace with steel in his fist, and did not put up when told.”

“He shouldn’t’ve,” says Jo, leaning forward, away from Ysabel, “I didn’t have to,” as she sets the rib-bone down on the nightstand, clack. “I know,” she says, “we’re not, gonna call the cops, for this sort of, but, so, I mean, your brother?” Looking back, over her shoulder, at Ysabel in gauzy white, a gown loosely draped about her white satin shift. “Only I’m the one he calls, when he needs to, when somebody, and I have to, but I can’t, so, I mean, who do we call?”

“Jo,” says Ysabel, gently, “I don’t understand what you – ”

“I murdered him,” says Jo.

“Forgive me,” says Luys, “but your grace did no such thing.”

“There wasn’t,” Jo’s saying, “I didn’t,” lifting her hands to her face, “they were just, fighting each other, I told them to stop but they were striking at each other, around me, and I, I just,” her hands pushing up and back, through her wine-red hair, “and they all just stood, there, all of them, staring,” and “I’m sure it was an accident,” says Ysabel, stroking Jo’s cheek, but Jo starts back from the touch.

“Your grace is Gallowglas,” says Luys then, “the Huntsman of the Court, the Hawk’s Widow, and the Queen’s Champion. You are the Duchess, ma’am. You are Southeast. Sunward of the river, below Burnside Street, your word is law. Your sword is law. What you do, is law.”

Jo blinks. “I can’t, just,” she says, as he steps away from the wall, toward her, kneels beside her. “Yet you have, my lady,” he says, taking her hand.

“Christ,” she snaps, jerking away from him, “can’t you just, listen, for once,” pushing up to stumble off the futon, away from both of them, “and talk to me, like a goddamn, normal,” looking wildly about, heading abruptly for the door, the hall, Luys lurching to his feet but stopped, suddenly, by Ysabel’s hand laid softly on his arm. He looks down at her, those green eyes, those lips flatly determined, and then he looks away, he steps away, but doesn’t follow after. Out there, a door slams.

A pale hand waved before his face, and nicked about the knuckles with old cuts, a dozen or more, red and dead-skin white and tiny and precise, and something older, darker, a burn healed long ago, perhaps, down by the wrist, close to the face of a heavy gold watch. So Becker sighing sits up, leaning with the motion of the bus, thumbs something on his phone, plucks the buds from his ears as Kerr swings into the seat next to him. “So how’s Intro to Early Education and Family Studies going, huh? Did you get Washington, or Lopez? Because I hear Lopez can be a real hardass.”

“I hadn’t said your name,” says Becker. “Not once. So whatever you think is going on – ”

“Can’t I see an old friend who happens to be on the same bus and just come over and say hi?” Kerr’s grin is sharp, his eyes bright, his curls coming unsprung in his slicked-back hair. “Geeze,” he says, loosening the knot in his bright green tie. “So paranoid.”

“I don’t know what you think you, you’re getting, out of this stalker bonhomie, but trust me,” says Becker, “it’s counterproductive.”

“I told you,” says Kerr, and that grin softens, slips. “I need you for something. It’s a good place to be – my heart has only your best interests in mind.” His grin’s become a smile now, for Becker, Becker by the window in his soft plaid overshirt, his rusty red T-shirt. “And you, chasing yours – I gotta admit, I was wrong. It’s been good for you.” And then what’s left of Becker’s hair stirs as Kerr hauls himself to his feet, steps aside in the aisle, “Your stop’s coming up,” he says.

“Shit,” says Becker, grabbing a blue knapsack, climbing out of the seat. Kerr grabs his arm as the bus snorts itself to a stop. “Go ahead and grow the beard out,” he says. “It’ll look good.” Letting go. Becker backs away a couple of steps toward the door as others are getting up, shifting about them. “And treat yourself!” Kerr calls after him. “Something stupidly nice, okay?” The doors open, front and back. “Do that,” says Kerr.

“Well it’s a question of goddamn logistics,” says the XO, throwing his hands in the air. “This has to be done tonight?” And Pyrocles nods, there in his pale blue blazer, hands clasped behind his back. The XO leans forward, elbows on the table, his sleeveless workshirt, his red cap that says Game Redneckognize Game over the bill. “Why,” he says.

“The Viscount wishes it,” says Pyrocles. “Do you mean, then, to say you cannot do it? Or you will not?”

“Can’t, won’t, shit,” says the XO. “I got a street address. I ain’t never been there, I don’t know the ins and outs, I don’t even know what the guy looks like, I mean – ”

“You will know him, I am certain,” says Pyrocles.

“You know,” says Moody, over there, other side of the table, “a lot of people call this the Stars and Bars? But they’re wrong.” His back to them, he’s looking at that great flag pinned to the back wall of the cabin, a red that’s bright even in the shadows, criss-crossed with star-spangled bars of blue. “That was a flag looked so much like the ol’ Stars and Stripes they ended up shooting themselves, both sides, Second Battle of Manassas, you can look it up. So Stonewall Jackson goes and asks his right-hand man, one G. Gordon Georges, what’s the way to prevent such an unfortunate occurrence from ever occurring again, and Georges, see, he used to be second in command on the Monitor – ”

“You got a point, Danny?” says the XO, and a peevish look over his shoulder.

“He doesn’t like this,” says Moody, still looking up at the flag. “He doesn’t approve.” Turning then, and looking straight at Pyrocles, and he isn’t smiling at all, under the sharp beak of his nose. “He doesn’t want it done, at all.”

“What I wish is immaterial,” says Pyrocles.

“And this was a naval flag,” says Moody, a thumb over his shoulder at the flag now behind him. “Which, I mean, we’re on a boat. The house, at this address. Got a front door?”

“It does,” says Pyrocles.

“And is it right up on the street,” says Moody, “or set back, or,” and Pyrocles says, “Off to the side. There are trees.”

“Well there we go,” says Moody. “Easy-peasy!”

“That’s getting in,” says the XO. “How the hell we getting out?”

“It’s Lake fucking Oswego,” says Moody. “They won’t be looking for white boys pulling a home invasion. They’ll be looking for African-American thugs,” and he archly turns the phrase. “Hell, we got the truck – they’ll be looking for feral Mexican gardeners! We’ve got this,” he says, to Pyrocles.

“Whoa, hold up,” says the XO, leaning back from the table. “We ain’t got nothing, not a damn thing, not until we talk specifications, and payment. This shit is well outside the scope.”

Pyrocles loosens one hand from behind his back to set in the middle of the table a thick roll of bills wrapped about with a rubber band, and the XO eyes it, but doesn’t reach for it. “Same as with the shoe guy?” he says. “Smash shit up, take whatever’s valuable?”

“The house is to be burnt to the ground,” says Pyrocles, “and everything in it. No one is to be, killed. The man is to be beaten, but you are not to cut him, and do not strike him about the head.” He delicately tips the roll of bills over, toward the XO. “Another will be brought to you,” he says, “when it is done.”

“Well, shit,” says Moody. “Guess we’re gonna need some, whaddayacall it. Accelerant.”

Table of Contents

Dust & Darkness – at This hour – a Handful of City – 20 Fucking minutes –

Dust within, and darkness, the lights from the parking lot outside barely reaching the stack of drywall, the buckets, the mound of garbage there beyond, gutted boxes, shucked plastic clamshells, shriveled and crumpled plastic and paper wraps. They look about as they file in, one by one, Pwyll in his long embroidered coat, and Medoro in his work jacket, Astolfo in his sweats, Gerlin with a stained apron about his belly, Peg Greentooth, her hair gone black in the shadows, and bringing up the rear in his short brown jacket Luys, who closes the scuffed glass doors.

Out across the darkness of that great empty space a single light, a desk lamp back there, perched atop a lone, mostly intact filing cabinet, dimly illuminating a twisted tangle of torn metal and some great fallen bell, and Jo, in her black T-shirt, her black jeans, sitting on an upended drawer, smoke curling from the cigarette in her hand. “Come on,” she says, leaning down to stub it out, then flicking the dead butt away as she stands. “Over here. Careful of the pictures.”

Scattered over the filthy concrete, the edges and the corners of them caught in the weak light, a thousand photographs, and another thousand, and more, and they pick their way across the room from one clear spot to the next. “You’re gonna step on some,” says Jo. “Can’t be helped. It’s okay. Just, be careful. Okay,” she says. “Okay. I ain’t Leo,” and she’s looking about them as they look from one to another, “I think we’re all pretty clear on that,” and it’s nothing like laughter, or even smiles, but still the rustling, the relaxing, the settling that spreads among them, and “I don’t know you,” she says. “I didn’t come up with you. We never hung out together. I never did what you do, and you don’t do what I’ve done. I don’t know you, and that’s,” she’s looking away, aside, “I’m not your Duke,” she says. “I’m the Duchess. I stand with the Queen. I hunt for the court.” Her hands, wrapped in fingerless cycling gloves. “A couple weeks ago,” she says. “Here.” She looks up, at them all. “I was about, the King’s, business. And I thought I had it under control, but. Things got out of hand. I cut the Devil down. And then, this morning.”

“My lady,” says one of them, Peg, but no more.

“This morning,” says Jo. “I thought I had the situation under control. It got out of hand. And now the Cater’s gone. What I brought you here to say,” and then she shakes her head, “what I mean to say, to you, is it won’t happen again. You, have, my word.”

And Luys says, after a moment, “Of course, my lady,” and the rest of them, following after, my lady, your grace, yes, yes, my lady, of course.

“Now, the pictures,” she says, and they step back, look down, rustle and crumple. “Something the Devil was working on. And I don’t know, maybe whoever it is who owns this place, maybe they’re still trying to figure out what happened here, maybe they don’t give a shit, maybe they haven’t even noticed, I don’t know. But we can’t just leave ’em here.”

“Ma’am?” says Pwyll, the Cinquedea.

“So I’m gonna ask the Mason to get these all together and hauled away back to the, ah, residence,” says Jo. “Don’t, worry about keeping ’em in any kind of order, we just want to get it all out of here, but, I mean, if they’re too, burned, or something, just, just leave ’em, we’re not trying to wipe out any trace,” she’s looking past them now, “just, get as many as we can,” a wave out over them all, those scattered, fallen photos, and then she starts off, walking away.

“Does your grace mean,” calls Medoro, the Axle, after her, “for us to pick these all up?”

“That’s kinda the idea, yeah,” says Jo, looking back a moment. “Might want to see about getting some light, first? And some boxes?”

Luys says, “All right, of course, I’ll have Sweetloaf round up some otherwise idle hands. Spread out, to size up the scope of this task, and then Spadone, you’ll negotiate a crew with the Soames.”

“Shouldn’t we ought to run this through Bruno?” says Gerlin, in his stained apron.

“The Duchess didn’t ask the Shrieve to meet us here tonight,” says Luys. “We’ll handle it ourselves.”

Jo’s lighting a cigarette, off toward the doors there. She looks up as Luys comes close, photos crackling under his feet. “It’s not what you had in mind, I know,” she says, softly, snapping off her lighter.

“There are people, for this sort of work,” he says, quietly. “If you’d let me know.” And then, “What can you possibly mean to do with all of this?”

She sucks the coal of her cigarette to life for a moment. Blows out a cloud of smoke.

“Are you well, my lady?” he asks, and then, quickly, as she looks away, “I only ask because you left in such a temper, this afternoon.” And then, his hand laid gently on her arm, “I worry about you, Jo.”

She looks at him then, in the darkness. “Don’t,” she says. Stepping away, from his hand, from him, from the rest of them muttering back there in the shadows, away off toward the doors.

“A cool head,” he says, and then from his knobbled fingers that tiny scarlet figure trembling drops, straight to the tiny frozen waves of the sea below, clack and tumble. “Though a steady hand,” he says, “is also of some use,” and he reaches down to pluck it up again. Frowning over the board spread out upon the low table, the ocean before him, the mountains rising a rumple of snowy grey on the other side, the forest, the desert, the river between, and all stitched together by a dusty road. “Clothilde,” he says. Two cities, each made up of cunningly joined hexagonal tiles of tiny palaces, temples, arcades, favelas, the one there scarlet, where the river flows down from the mountains, the other a soapy viridian, spread along the margins of the bay. “Read me again, his last move?”

“The Poet, Grandfather,” says the woman curled in the brown leather armchair opposite, peering at the sheet of onionskin in her hand, “to one eight nine point nine, thirty-seven aught, north by east.” Her feet tucked under her thighs, and a lacey shawl about her shoulders.

“Blasted Rufer notation,” he says, reaching along the thick wooden frame of the board, carved with obscure characters, a sentence, or an equation, twining through a repeated pattern of egg-and-dart. He flips a switch with a hefty thunk, and tiny white lights blink on, a grid spread across the board, shining in the blue, the yellow, the green, the grey and the brown, though here and there a point is dimly amber or entirely dark, and one of them there by the red city’s winking, on and off. “Umf,” he says, his hand, that little scarlet figure, hovering over a yellowing ridge, dithering between two pinpricks of light, “there,” he says, setting it down amid other figures red and green and Ah, me, sighs a scratchy voice from the speakers set in the board’s frame, the only Emperor doesn’t glitter. “What were his rolls, again?” Wrapped about in a dark blue dressing gown, and his curls are stiffly grey, swept back from his forehead. Five dice are laid on the table by the board, three of them glossily black with white pips, one glassily clear, the pips but chiseled notches, and the last is larger, an angular icosahedron, bright red, its triangular faces printed with astrological symbols.

“Three, one, four, a six, and Ninurta,” she says, reading from the onionskin.

“Then I do have it right,” he says, looking them over. “Now: we must formulate our response. And I must admit, the temptation to reply in kind to such a cheeky provocation,” his hand trembling over that grouping of red figures, a Tinker-Prince, a Hedgewych, a couple of Jugglers and leading them all the red Poet, there on the slope of the ridge held by a lone green Beast, “is overwhelming, but one must be wary of the pitfalls of intemperate overreaction. Thus, the cool head,” but off back that way somewhere a simple descending chime rings out, and he frowns. “I wonder who that could be,” he says, as Clothilde gets up out of her chair, “at this hour?”

“Good lord,” says Becker in that brightly empty room, his reflections turning with him, a confusion of light in the sweeping wall of night-struck glass.

“Yes,” says Pyrocles, there by the clean bare kitchen island.

“I mean God damn,” says Becker. “And back there?” Pointing to the darkened hallway on the other side of the island.

“Two bedrooms,” says Pyrocles, “one with a view,” and Becker’s already dashing off that way, and Pyrocles with a sigh and a small wry smile heads after him.

Through that doorway a narrow hall jogs back, past a couple closed doors to open on another big and empty room, unlit, and the sweeping wall of glass looks out on the lights of the city beyond, the ruddy shine of a main thoroughfare, paralleling the dark river below, and the lines of lights of streets stretched out beyond, and here and there the bright white shine of this intersection, or that, and off to the left there the winking lights of construction cranes, and the bridges streaming red and white, and the blazing towers of downtown.

“Oh,” says Becker. “Wow.”

“Do you like it?” Pyrocles, his footsteps cushioned by thick white shag, his arms coming about Becker’s waist.

“We’d have to never turn the lights on,” says Becker, his face in the shadows brushed with amber and with gold and blue, and his eyes. “So we could always see this.” And then, “Oh, but I like the loft.”

Pyrocles, his chin on Becker’s shoulder, murmurs, “Did you see the bathroom?” and Becker, turning to look at him, says, “No damn curtain?” and Pyrocles smiles. “A proper door,” he says, “and a full-length tub, and a gym, a pool, the rooftop garden,” the weights on his mustaches gleaming.

“And this is closer to Sylvania,” says Becker, “just a bus ride down,” and then he laughs. “No,” he says, “it’s just, I saw David again today, David Kerr. On the bus,” and as Pyrocles stiffens behind him, “oh, but it wasn’t, he was an ass, yeah, but it was like he was apologizing? Or conceding something, I don’t know. But he said, he told me to treat myself.” Settling back again against Pyrocles. “So. What do you think.” Looking up, and back. “Should I grow a beard?”

“You would look,” says Pyrocles, smiling again, “in your plaid, like a lumberjack.”

“The lumberjack, and the knight,” says Becker. “In our metropolitan penthouse.”

“We should go,” says Pyrocles, after a moment.

“No,” says Becker, “no,” looking back for a kiss from Pyrocles. “We could see just how soft this carpet is,” and another kiss, and Pyrocles loosens his grip about Becker’s waist. “You always get so sleepy, after,” he says.

Becker turns to face him, to hold him in turn, “You worry so much, about me,” he says. “I can worry, too. I’ve got a pill with me. In my bag.”

Pyrocles says, “You do.”

“Always,” says Becker, and a kiss. “You never know,” he says, and another.

“Shizzt!” the bellow, from deeper in the house, “My drow!” and “Yeah, yeah,” mutters Christian in his grimy sweatshirt, the hood of it up, and his hands stuffed in the pockets. “You got this?”

Halfway up the spiraling cantilevered stairs, all hand-painted tile and wrought iron, Jasper wrapped in his filthy blanket nods, a revolver loosely in his hand. Sitting at the foot of those steps the old man in his dark blue dressing gown, the tall woman shivering in her lacey wrap, and their hands bound up in clumsy mitts of clingfilm. Another bellow, “Shizzt!” from off that way, and Christian heads back through a kitchen white and terra cotta tile and a smashed bottle of something pink and sticky puddled on the floor, down a few steps, past a pool table, into a cozy library, intricate rugs and orderly volumes lining built-in shelves and a rich brown leather sofa and Moody, standing over a low table. “This asshole,” he says. “Look at this. This asshole plays D&D. Really fucking fancy asshole D and goddamn D.”

The board laid out on that table, thick frame carved with its egg-and-dart, the bas-relief land within, mountains and ocean, forest and desert, cities and river, red and green.

“Moody, man, we gotta finish up,” says Christian.

“I read about this,” says Moody. “Only fifty of ’em ever made.” He grabs a figure from the board, a green Beast, and the speakers set in the frame let out a scratchy roar. Moody jumps, startled. “Based on drawings from the Book of Voynich,” he says, and whips the little figure away.

“Please don’t,” says old Medardus, in the doorway behind them.

“Shit,” says Christian, “fucking Jasper,” but “Don’t what?” snaps Moody, and leaning down he snatches up a handful of figures, and the board lets out a muddled yowl. Medardus starts away from Christian, “Please!” he cries. “I have been playing that game for seven years now,” wincing as a little red figure bounces off his shoulder, “with the King of Fountains,” and another figure, green, plaps his chest there, bared by the loosening collar of his gown. “Please,” he says, lifting his plastic-swaddled hands.

Snarling Moody turns and slams a hand onto the board, grinding crunch of porcelain snap of wood and splintering plastic hauling up the tiles of that green city, and a piece of water with them, turning to hurl them but “No!” wails Medardus, jerking forward, fumbling over the back of the sofa feet kicked up and groaning rolling over. Moody laughing steps aside, leans over to rain bazaars and fortalices down from his fist until a lurching thrash knocks him back unsteady bang against the table pieces clattering away. He sits abruptly, and smashes the board with a dying squawk from those speakers.

“Shit,” says Moody, and then another laugh, “you stupid son of a bitch,” he says to Christian, still stood there, hands in his pockets, “you’re about as useless,” and then Medardus howling flips up Moody’s legs with his swaddled hands, sends Moody over and whooping off the table, crash, Medardus up on his knees now face a rictus breath a keening rasp, those bound hands rising and falling like a club, “Whoa, hey, whoa,” Christian hopping over the back of the sofa, squeak of leather, Medardus falling as Moody growling pushes up and a steely flash, mirror-bright, but then out that way somewhere shouting and a sudden loud bang. They all stop. Medardus his legs held by Christian rolls heavily off Moody, flat on his back and panting, and letting go the handle of the knife that pins the dark blue gown to Medardus’ breast.

Staring at the hilt of it wrapped about in glittering silver wire Medardus, his eyes wide, whispers, “You are not mortal.”

“I know what I am,” grunts Moody, “and I know what you are,” then looking up, over his shoulder, at Christian on his feet and backing away. “But what the hell are you?”

“I’m just, me, man,” mutters Christian. “I’m just me.” Raising his voice, eyes wild, “You wanted me in all this! You did!”

“The hell you got in your pocket, boy,” says Moody, but before Christian can do more than stuff his hands back in them there’s the XO in the doorway, gas can in his hand, “Let’s go!” he’s yelling, “It’s lit!” But his face falls as he looks over the sofa sprawled there Medardus and Moody, the knife, and as he steps into the room, “The hell,” he says, it’s then that Medardus coughs, a thick wet gag of a sound, and Moody scrambles back, and the knife drops to stand an instant on its tip before slowly leaning turning falling softly clink to the rug by a glittering bit of bone, and it’s then that Christian springs away, past the XO, running, out into the thickening smoke, away.

“It smells of cooking meat,” says the man at the head of the booth, his suit a windowpane check in grey, his ivory vest striped with blue, his face hidden in the shadows from the lamp hung low over the table, the low dark room behind him, amberly dim and almost empty, a lone couple dancing too slowly there to a languid calypso beat, the crooning fragrance on the wind, could be as exquisite as this. “Sit, if you’re gonna sit,” says Chilli, his arms folded, and a not-quite empty glass before him.

The man in the suit swings himself into the booth, sits himself down, leans forward into the low light, Bruno, an elbow on the table and his thumb to his teeth. “We could’ve met at my offices. There’s a couch. It’s perfectly safe; she doesn’t have anyone watching it.”

“It’s not her I’m worried about.”

“Don’t hint,” says Bruno, sharply. “I can’t abide hints. Say what you mean, or let go.”

Chilli leans close, light swooping over his yellow beard. “You sent me in there to get got. Only a miracle of incompetence that I’m still here to lift a pint.”

“Here,” says Bruno. “Not out by the airport, sweeping rubble.” But before Chilli’s frown can find a question, another arm slips into the light, burly, tattooed, the hand of it setting a fresh glass on the table filled with thin cool gold, and Chilli lifts the almost empty, drinking off what’s left. “You want anything?” he says, setting the glass down with a thump. “I’m buying.”

“I’m not thirsty,” says Bruno. And then, as the empty glass is whisked away, he says, “One of the differences between us, Harper, is I make a point of knowing when I’m not invited, and to what.” Looking off out the window there, the parking lot beyond, lit up a garish red by some enormous neon sign. “I’m a businessman. Nothing more. I sent you there because it was asked of me. But because I am a businessman, when something happens, I look for the best angle to play. And because I am a very good businessman, I have the resources to play any angle very well indeed.”

Chilli takes a thoughtful sip. “So if it’d been me, instead of the Cater, you’d be having this conversation with him.”

“It would’ve been more brief,” says Bruno. “He already worked for me.”

Another pull from his glass. “Yesterday, you told me every time I got something, I fucked it up.”

“Well,” says Bruno. “Now there’s two of us, hoping I was wrong.”

The showerfall cuts off, and he whoops, a sound much too loud for the space. The slender door pops open, pebbled glass of it wobbling in the frame, “Fuckin’ A, man,” Sweetloaf, leaning out of the shower stall, groping for the white towel neatly folded on the little countertop right there. “Just, pouring hot water over your fucking head? For, like, twenty fucking minutes?” Patting down his narrow chest, vigorously rubbing his thick wet hair. “Fucking vacation, man.” Holding the towel up before him, looking about the cramped trailer, curtains drawn and only two lamps lit, up there in the little dining booth in the nose of it, and back behind, over the low bed in its alcove, and Luys laid out on his side, atop the umber comforter.

“Ah, fuck,” says Sweetloaf. “Not again.”

Luys propped up on an elbow shrugs his meaty shoulder, his grin rather pleased with itself, and his cock a startlement of brown against the black curls there, the tip of it discreetly peeped from out its cuff of foreskin.

“I know,” says Sweetloaf, “you and Mom are having some issues, but – ”

“You oughtn’t to call her that,” says Luys, and his smile sours.

“And you ought to tell me where my fucking pants went. Sir.”

“Your pants,” says Luys, sitting up, “were filthy, and your shirt was filthy, your jacket was filthy, and your shoes,” and another shrug. “They will be clean in the morning. You might as well relax.”

“Relax,” says Sweetloaf. “Yeah. Right.” Letting the towel drop, and his own cock already stirring. “Not that I’m saying no, mind. But I just had a fucking shower. You’re gonna get me all filthy, and sweaty, and sticky,” and “You should feel free to take another shower, when we’re done,” says Luys.

“I don’t know, sir,” says Sweetloaf, a knee up on the bed. “I don’t fucking know. Two fucking vacations in one night,” as Luys pulls him down.

Bare knees on the unfinished floor, “ticket,” he’s muttering, “placket,” arms spread wide, head tipped back, dark hair unruly with curls, “racket, rickets, rickety tacky, pocketa ping, pocketa pocketa queep!” and hung in the air before him a heavy golden watch, shining in the cold light somewhere off behind him, a piercing silver shine that strikes bright gleams from the blankly empty windows lining the far-off walls, “Tin,” he says, “Rin Tin, Tintin,” and his sweat-sheened chest jerks hauling him up, “Tiki Tiki!” he cries, “Tiki Room!” and then sitting back on his heels again, slumping again, “a lady’s hat,” he says, “slack, slacker slake slacking, no slacking, slack,” and again he jerks upright, up on his knees and shouting at the ceiling, “Please! No slacking, please!” falling back down, and his arms drooping, and his fingers brushing the ash-dusted floor, and all this time his eyes are closed, and all this time the watch hangs steady before him, fixed, unmoving, gleaming in the bright white light, “United,” he says, “ain’t really,” and then, muttered quick, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, don’t lose that number, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, you’re so fine, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, mongoose is gone, won’t be coming ’round, and the organization,” he opens his eyes, “ain’t really organized,” and one hand whip-quick leaps to catch the watch as it drops.

The room is dark.

“Shit,” says David Kerr. “Okay.” Breathing heavily. Leaning over to crush a burning ember with his fist. “Okay,” he says, again, and he fits the watch about his wrist. The hands of every dial on its face point down, at six, at six, at six. “I guess we’re doing this,” he says.

Table of Contents

the Jingle of the Bell

The jingle of the bell over the door, and the whole crowd filling that front room turns, green work shirts and blue, brown coveralls, uniforms in black and taupe and white, breast-pocket insignia and badges and nameplates, here and there a plain white T-shirt, or dark blue, and styrofoam cups in every hand, and they’re staring at him in his grimy sweatshirt, the hood of it up, his hands in the pockets of it, the door propped open against his shoulder, and the street behind him filling with morning light.

“Come in if you’re coming,” says Gordon, stood behind the counter laden with almost-empty donut boxes and a couple of platters and a box of coffee. Christian steps inside, the door closing behind him, and shakes off his hood. “You already got the window fixed,” he says.

“You here to kick another hole in it?” And then, “Hold up, hold up,” as a muttering murmuring unrest sweeps through them, “let him be, let him be.”

Christian looks warily about them all, shifting and looking away from him, a sip here, a cough there, and then a woman in blue coveralls, her hair under a kerchief, lays a hand on the arm of the man beside her and steps back, gently urging him back with her, and across from her a burly little man in a boilersuit steps back, and yanks the elbow of the much taller man beside him, until an aisle is cleared through that small front room, and chest swelling with one great breath and both hands still in his pockets Christian steps along it up to the counter, and then with some effort tugs from the pockets a shoe that he sets down by a platter still holding a handful of pinwheel sandwiches. It’s a simple, well-made shoe, of shining oxblood leather, closed with a single monk strap.

“What’s that,” says Gordon.

“I figure,” says Christian, “you got a shoe shop.”

“Where’d you get it,” says Gordon.

“On the MAX. It was just, right there, on the seat. And I knew it, I figured, I better pick it up and, keep it.”

“Train,” says someone behind him, and “A road,” says someone else, and “What time was it?” and “Train station,” says somebody, “more like a crossroads,” and “What time of day?” says the tall man, again, looming over Christian’s shoulder.

“Dawn,” says Christian. “First train of the day. Well? This mean anything?” And then, looking about, “I got bad people coming after me. You know what I mean. So what does this do? What does it get?”

Gordon steps heavily back around the worktable mounded with shoes, back toward the beaded curtain there, and the wall lined with shelves, partitioned into cubbies, stuffed here and there with mismatched pairs of shoes. Runs his hand down a column, works a pair free, comes stumping back up to the counter. Sets them down: a wedge-heeled leather pump the color of a decent-enough cognac, and a shining oxblood monk-strap.

“That’s it?” says Christian, as Gordon lifts the pump away, tosses it to the pile behind him. “The other shoe? Man, they don’t even fit!”

“Welcome to Portland,” says Gordon, gruffly, and Christian starts back, “Fuck you,” he snarls, and then leaning in again, a fist on the counter, “welcome to Portland, I been living here most of my damn life!”

A snort then, behind him, a chuckle, a titter, a chortling guffaw, an outright hoot, all of them now, shaking heads, a stomp of a foot, slap at a knee, laughing, laughing at him.

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