by GR "Maya" Cogman
"I get so weary following this old road.."
I let my voice trail out along the notes, the piano behind me tracking in harmonies like nets of ivory and ebony. The hum of conversation was a backdrop to my duet with the piano, the shuffle of feet and the tinkling of bottles a low percussion.
"When I look back, what do I find?"
The piano ran up a cascade of notes as I drew the last word out, the wood of the frame vibrating slightly. I let my head tilt back, showing the line of my throat and allowing my hair to fall over one shoulder, adjusting the position of a leg so that the edge of a tattoo showed.
"Got evil in my bones and bad luck following behind."
The piano's harmony chimed into stillness again, and a ripple of applause shifted through the room. As the volume of talking rose again, one of the waiters brought me over a glass of amber liquid.
"From the Boss, Miss Lily." His eyes were wide, fear in them. I could feel his nervous perspiration, the clenching of his muscles. So Raum had frightened him, had he? Not surprising, really. I wondered vaguely what cocktail of drugs he was on this time, as I took the tumbler and sipped at it.
The waiter scurried backwards, disappearing into the evening-coated mass of the crowd again. I leaned against the piano, resting my weight on it. The piano player had closed the lid and was resting his elbows on it, head bowed. A patina of sweat marked his head and the back of his neck, from the temperature. The speakeasy was crowded tonight, jumping with action, and every man in it packing heat. The women, too. I shifted my leg again, feeling the bite of my holster.
A man drifted towards me at the piano. He had the bulk of a bodyguard, his suit badly cut and the shoulder holster peeking into view, stubble beginning to show on his face. I waited for him to approach, trailing a hand through my hair.
"You're the one they call the Calla Lily?" he muttered. "Mr Langoni would like a word."
My voice was light and uninflected. "I don't speak to private customers. I just sing."
He stretched a hand out towards my bare left arm. "The boss don't like it when the hostesses play hard to get." His voice was shifting towards a growl, and he moved closer in to me to hide the gesture.
I let my teeth show as I moved off the piano towards him, feeling the bite of his fingers in my arm as I let my free hand fall. He began to grin, thinking me compliant, as I slipped the stiletto from under my dress, and laid it against his groin. Then his jaw dropped.
My lips peeled further back. "I'll send you back to him with it stuffed in your mouth. Now let go."
His hand dropped away, as he took a cautious pace back. I slid the stiletto back beneath my dress into its sheath, letting my smile pale and fade away.
A presence at my back, approaching: I recognised the swirl of clogged emotions, baffled frustration and fractured needs. Raum. I let myself turn slowly to face him, ignoring the retreating gorilla, and flicked my ash-blonde hair back off my face.
Raum had at least chosen a reasonable Vessel: he looked like an upper-class version of the thug who had just been approaching me, and his suit was far better cut. He muttered, low, "What do you think you're playing at, Caliah?"
I shrugged, leaning towards him and feeling the ache radiate off him. "I'm here to bodyguard, not to whore like some Lilim of the Prince of Lust. If that's what you wanted, you should have gone to Shal-Mari and picked one up there."
He growled. "It might have been a damn sight easier."
I toyed with a length of hair. "Oh, come now. You know perfectly well that I'm an attraction. If I started working like one of your other "hostesses", you'd lose the edge, and I might be absent when you needed me."
He made a small noise in the depths of his throat, refusing to admit anything.
I shrugged. "Where are Alekos and Vespers?"
He let his gaze pan across the room, from the bar to the talking throng, hostesses drifting through like coloured flecks of paper. Eventually, he said, "Out dealing. They've got word on a shipment of whisky that none of the big boys has an option on."
I tapped a finger against my glass. "It has to be better than this trash. Where _did_ you get it?"
Raum made another small noise, his eyes roaming the room. Something in me twitched, as a new note entered the atmosphere, and I glanced sideways at him. "You feel it?"
"Nope. But I felt you feel something."
It was my turn to make a thoughtful noise, as I stroked my glance across the room. My body postured automatically, dipping eyelashes and tilting an arm as I reached out for the whisky. Yes, something was offbeat. Violence was beginning to spike in a group by the door, one man jostling another, and the tension growing. Nothing significant, though, nothing the bouncers couldn't handle. I shrugged, pushing away from the piano.
"Serious?" he asked, voice still low.
I shook my head, letting my hair sift back into place in a fall of silver-white. "Think I'll cruise the bar. See who's round."
He shrugged, appearance bland and unrevealing. "The whisky won't be any better."
I disregarded him, moving down to make my way through the tables. My sandals were an oyster-white to match my gown and hair, and I took care not to step in the puddles of spilt alcohol that dotted the floor. I could feel the eyes following me, drifting over my body, and I tilted my shoulders in unconcern. Weak, so weak.
The scuffle near the door subsided, and there was a shout and a slam as somebody was thrown out. The breath of cool air made my hair flutter, again, and I turned my head in time to lock eyes with the dark man slouched at the end of the bar.
He was gaunt, lean in build, and was stooped over a half-empty glass. As he looked up, I saw that his eyes were dark slate, hooded as he watched from behind some barrier. His hair was short but untidy, as dark as his eyes but flecked with iron grey; he wore a suit like that of any other man here, his trenchcoat draped over his shoulders. Thin fingers curled round the glass, lifting it to drink as his eyes remained on me, and gold light flashed in the brandy.
Interesting. I drifted in his direction, dress whispering, and placed a hand on the empty barstool beside him. He was clearly a solitary drinker. "Is this taken?"
He shook his head.
I slid onto the seat, the slit in my gown baring leg and showing the edge of my tattoo again: black scrawl on white skin. He didn't look at it, watching the swing of my hair.
"You're drinking," I said.
"Perceptive." His voice was faintly gritty, as if strained in the past.
I tapped on the bartop, and Mack slid a glass of whisky along to me. Alekos would have been quicker about it, but nothing's perfect. The alcohol lapped against the sides of the glass in tiny waves, and I raised it to take a sip.
"It's rot-gut," he said, analytically.
"You're drinking it," I replied.
He shrugged. "I'm not drinking to enjoy myself."
I tasted his emotions. An arcing fire within, driving urge to act and be: wrapped around it were the clouds of doubt of self and others, a feeling of abandonment, loss.
A drop of whisky spilled over the edge of the glass, and I licked it off my lips. "Why, then? Most people are here to drink."
He rapped on the counter, and had his glass refilled. A few people cast glances at us, then looked away. "You a hostess?"
I turned the glass in my hand. "I'm the one they call Calla Lily."
He shrugged again, a ripple of shoulders under the trenchcoat, and I caught a taste of emotion that said clearer than words he didn't care.
Then I _heard_ it: another Celestial, using Essence. The glass quivered in my hand in sympathy, and I set it down on the bartop. Raum wasn't in sight. Beside me, the man's hand had closed round his own glass, the translucent crystal throwing the callouses and tiny scars on the hand into relief.
Oh, no, I thought, with part of my mind. Please don't let him be hearing it too. Don't let him be one of us.
The door slammed open, and cold air scythed across the bar with a rattle of machine-gun fire. Men and women screamed, high thin tones mingling with lower cries, and I was rolling from my stool, plucking my pistol from its holster. The world paused for a snapshot photograph of the action: that was Vespers in the door with the gun, spraying fire with a frantic smile on his face, someone else in the shadows behind him. He yelled, "Scaglioni forever!" as a bullet took one of Capone's supporters in the chest, whiplashing him back into an overturned table. The dark man had dived over the bar, and I caught a glance of him heading along behind it for the door. I sent my Resonance before me, catching at Vespers' mind and pouring hopelessness into it. Fear would just have tipped him into more gunfire, counterproductive.
I saw the dark man's head peer over the end of the bar, judging elevation: he'd have a few yards before he managed to reach Vespers from there, and he'd be right in the field of fire. Estimating the odds, I threw the reins of despair around Vespers again, and felt him begin to buckle, as I snapped a shot at the figure behind him. I winged him in the shoulder, whoever it was, but he ducked for cover.
The dark man came over the bartop in a fluid rush that screamed of power, even with the Symphony writhing around me from the wounded and dying humans. Blood smeared my pale gown and dappled my hair. He tossed a glassful of something that took Vespers squarely in the face, then hit him in a flying tackle, sending the machine-gun from his hands as they both went rolling on the floor. I snapped another couple of shots at the figure behind them, but he was already running: I felt Essence being used, vibrating in the Symphony as he vanished into a blur of motion.
Vespers' head was getting pounded into the ground, repeatedly. I tucked the pistol away, stepping over bleeding bodies and ignoring the whimpering humans as I headed for him and the man sitting on him. Raum staggered into view, looking decidedly spent and sucked upon. I flicked a "status?" query at him, and he waved a "not now" back at me.
I planted a foot next to Vespers' head, where it was being slammed into the floor again. "A moment. We need some answers."
His eyes were slitted as he looked up at me. "Do _we_, Punisher?" His right hand was free, hovering as he watched me. "What answers could you possibly have that would interest me?"
I took a chance. "Someone got away: you know that. This whole thing stinks of Factions. You really want some Servitors of Factions loose in Chicago with things as they are?" We had both lowered our voices. Raum was approaching. "As it is, we'll be lucky if we haven't a few revenge shootings by morning."
He eyed Raum, then me. "And you expect me to believe a Djinn and a Habbalite - two demons - are going to care about that?"
Raum loomed. Possibly his weakness was only perceptible if you knew him, or if you were like me and born to watch for weakness. "I'm running a business," he grunted. "We need it stable at the moment. Caliah?"
I nodded. "Not much choice." The "demon" stung. No matter. I knew what I was.
The dark man looked between us. "You're talking alliance?"
I trailed bloody fingers down my pale arm. "We both want them out. You can come after us with half the hosts of Heaven if you want afterwards, but for the moment they're a more serious target. Or don't you agree?"
I could read the struggle in him. Half of him wanted to destroy: that constant burning in the hearts of Malakites, that sheathes their hands with red. The other half forced quiet on him, made him consider my words. Oh, yes, he was strong.
I murmured to Raum, aside, "Alekos?"
He rubbed a fist against his hip. "They sent him after me. He's looking at his Heart at the moment. I want these bastards."
The Malakite eventually looked up. "Till we've dealt with them. Then you're on your own."
Raum curled a lip. "Caliah can go with you. I'll be trying to smooth things over here." He glanced at where the hostesses and bouncers were trying to handle wounds and furious men. "I've got the address that Alekos and Vespers were going to."
I nodded. "Give me a moment to find a coat. And some more clothes."
The dark Malakite looked me up and down. "Punisher, of.."
I smiled. "The War. Caliah. And you are?"
He rose, leaving Vespers sprawled and bloody. "Faber. John Faber Smith. Malakite of Eli."
Fascinating: a Servitor of the Absent Archangel of Creation. I nodded towards the office. "Give us the address, then, Raum, and we'll be off and about. Lock the doors behind us and don't let the Game in."
Faber muttered, "Nor the bloody Judgment, neither," as he followed.
There was a sheen of rain on the pavement as we stepped outside, glinting in the light from the streetlamps. Cars growled as they passed on the main street: we waited for a moment in the alley, and Faber raised a hand to pause me as he slid along the wall to look to either side. I approved. At last, a companion who knew what he was about.
He glanced back, giving the sign that all was clear, and I slid after him. I'd changed my clothing for a plain suit in dark grey silk, so as not to be too obvious. He had sponged the stains off his suit, and cleaned his hands. So easy for him to dip them in a bowl of water and wash the blood away, but I could taste something deeper in him as he frowned at the reddened bowl. Was it the resonance of being a Servitor of Creation? Perhaps.
I had watched him as he raised a stained finger to his lips and tasted the blood.
I stepped into the main street, and glanced to either side myself. Clear. We had the address that Vespers and Alekos had been bound for, a high-class brothel that lay a dozen blocks or so away. We'd agreed to head there first to investigate, then backtrack along the route if we couldn't find anything relevant.
I hadn't told him what Raum had told me - that it was currently under the management of a Servitor of Andrealphus, though heaven only knew what Vessel he would be in. With any luck, I could handle that bit of questioning and avoid any major disruptions of the place.
He stalked along beside me, back as stiff as if he'd swallowed a sword. His eyes were fixed resolutely ahead of him.
"We're going to have to talk, you know." My voice was neutral.
"What's there to talk about, Punisher? We find out what happened, take the Factions down, and then get back to things as usual."
"The name is Caliah."
"Punisher," he spat.
I shrugged. "If you must. So, when we get there, I question the owner while you scout the place a bit? In a quiet, unobvious, non-furniture-breaking way?"
He actually smirked, faintly. "I can handle myself, doll."
I blinked. "Doll?" I felt my lips peeling back. "_Doll?_"
"Oh, yeah. Punisher. I forgot."
I took several more steps, ignoring the amusement in his stance. "All right. Let's start again. I question the owner because I can probably sense more about his emotions than you can. You scout the place because you're the trained PI."
We reached the next streetlamp before he replied, "Okay. Caliah."
The rain had picked up, and was slashing thin lines through the air, rattling against the lit windows of stores. The streetlights were like candles stretching down the street. It was almost beautiful - that, and the sensation of purpose, direction. The Servitors of Fleurity were weak fools who pampered to humanity's lust for self-degradation. There was a purity to this Malakite's nature like hammered steel, flame quenched in blood. It felt like cool water on a hot day, to be near such a strength.
"This is our turning?" he asked.
I nodded, and we turned into the side-alley together. A hobo was curled up near the door, propped in the shadow of the waste bins, clutching at a brown paper bag with a bottle-neck protruding from it. I stepped over him to give the correct rap on the door.
A sliding panel opened at eye level. "You got a problem?"
I smiled, tilting my head so that the raindrops glittered like crystal on my hat and veil. "We're here to see the show."
He nodded, and slid the panel shut again: a moment later, there was a click as the door swung open. Faber stepped in first, flicking a glance to left and right before he would let me follow: the doorman hulked there, watching him blandly.
"It's all right," Faber muttered at last.
I sighed. "It's a cathouse, Faber. We are going to see scenes of orgiastic revelry. I'm just grateful you're not under Mistress Dominique."
He snorted. The doorman smirked. I resettled my hat, and opened the inner door.
A gust of music hit us, brassy saxophones. Three girls were doing an enthusiastic strip-show on the stage, and the crowd was cheering them on. Hostesses and whores hung over the men at the tables, sipping from their glasses and nestling on their laps to murmur to them. Faber's nostrils flared, and he murmured, harshly, "This is _using_."
I tapped his elbow. "You check the bartender, I'll speak to the owner."
He nodded, reluctantly, and headed in that direction. A girl tried to attach herself to his arm, but he shook her off, muttering something I couldn't catch.
I cut a waiter out of the crowd, as he began to circle for position with a tray of glasses full of some cheap pale liquid that passed for champagne. "I need to speak to Mr Vincenzo."
He looked me up and down, not quite discourteous but assessing quality, then nodded. "The boss is busy, miss, but I can ask. You want to wait by the door over there?" He nodded to a side door not too far from the bar.
"Sure." I gave my body a certain sway as I wandered over to wait, feeling the eyes of men moving from the prostitutes on the stage to follow me. Faber was leaning over the bar, eyes fixed on the flinching bartender as he spoke at length, occasionally making some small but descriptive gesture with his free hand.
The door opened, and a voice called, "Come in, sweetheart." It had a strong Italian accent, and a drift of cigar smoke came with it: cigar smoke strong enough to be smelt even in the outright fug that filled the room. The women on stage had got down to star-spangled underwear. I stepped in, and raised my hand to ward off another gust of smoke.
A burly man in a flashy suit was sitting behind a well-made walnut desk: the room was quite well-appointed, with erotic etchings hanging on the walls, and a humidor full of those damned cigars on a corner of the desk. He chewed on the cigar currently on his mouth, eyeing me up and down. "Not bad, sweetheart. You strip as cute as you dress?"
His face was fresh, with an edge to it that might have charmed if I hadn't known what he was, and he projected one of those bluff, friendly facades. He had dark brown eyes, like the wood of the desk, and well-manicured hands. I found myself watching them for a moment. Servitors of Lust do have their little tricks.
I closed the door behind me, firmly, and said in the demonic tongue, "Avicinis, I believe?"
His teeth closed on the cigar, and he rose to his feet, leaning on the desk. "You are?" he replied in the same language.
"Caliah." I began to draw off a glove as I walked towards him, peeling back the dark silk. "Habbalite of Baal, and looking for some information."
He waved at a chair near the desk. "Take a seat. I hadn't known you were in town."
I slipped onto the chair, folding one hand over the other, pale flesh against dark cloth. "Fairly recent. I'm looking for information about two people. Servitors of Fleurity."
He smiled broadly. "I'm sure we can manage to help each other."
My smile in response was cool. I could feel the eternal frissons of desire that run through his kind, wanting and hungry, and considered satisfying them to get his cooperation. No, probably too risky: one never knows how skilled such creatures are, and we were short of time. "Did you know that there was a Servitor of Eli in town?"
That got his full attention. "Where?" He absently discarded his cigar, snatching a new one from the desk humidor. "Does he know about this place yet?"
I turned my free glove in my hand. "Vespers, Alekos: two Servitors of Fleurity, a Balseraph and an Impudite."
He glowered, but with that sultry edge to it. "Describe them?"
I did so, sparsely. The room was quiet, only the faint echoes of the racket beyond sifting through the thick walls. Such effective soundproofing would have to be a custom job: I decided not to ask why it had been necessary.
He frowned, managing to make it look like a sulky child. "Yeah, I remember that pair. Talking with two of Biska's lot. Went out with them."
"Know anything about Biska's lot?"
He broke the cigar between his fingers, and picked out another. Calabite, I was fairly sure of that. "They're on the move a lot. Been on the edge of quite a few deals. Heard a rumour they're to be at a deal tomorrow."
That fitted with the little I'd heard. "Where and when?"
He fitted the cigar into his mouth, sucking thoughtfully at it. "Who's this Eli-fool?"
I smiled. "Malakite. Where and when?"
He didn't answer my question. "Can you give me a location and ID?"
Slowly, I stripped the other glove off my fingers. "No."
He shrugged. "Perhaps you've got something else to offer me?" His eyes followed the lines of my hands, desiring. I imagined the touch of flesh beneath my hands. The emotions of lust had seeped into the walls of this place, hungry and empty. What would it be like? It would be a condescension. Even the Malakite was stronger than him.
"Fleurity's people would owe you one." I kept my voice neutral, neither promising nor offering. "They and you could manage something profitable to you both, I'm sure."
"Mm." He spat out the remains of the cigar, and selected another.
I shrugged. "The Red Dice, twelve blocks down and the second alley on the left, knock twice and say you were sent by "the boss". When you get there, ask for Mister Rogers. I'll pass the word to him once I'm done with this business."
He considered a moment longer, then nodded. "You got a deal. It's at two in the morning, objective tomorrow, at the LaQuenne Steelyards. They're dealing with the Verrond bootleggers, who've got some stuff coming in."
I nodded, slipping from the chair. "Deal."
He got up from the chair, moving more smoothly than one have might expected, and escorted me to the door, an arm hovering near my waist. "Care for a shot?"
Well, assuming that Faber had left anything of the bar. "Sure, but I can't stay long."
The door swung open. Faber was slumped at an end of the bar, over the traditional glass. He looked up as I came out, and his glower changed to a scowl as he saw my escort. His eyes narrowed. I could feel Acivinis tensing beside me. Faber's glass shattered in his hand, and I heard the Symphony tremble, heard Essence tingling in the air. The bartender flinched, ducking for cover.
I let my hand slide to where my stiletto rested.
Faber snarled, rising to his feet: flecks of blood and whisky were marked across his hand and sleeve. "Hey, Calla Lily. You still on the job with me, or got a new boy?"
A couple of the hostesses hovered up behind him, as though attached by convenient wires. One was in red silk, the other in white lace.
Acivinis grinned, in my peripheral vision. "Play nice in here, boy, or I have you put out the door, however much my girls like you."
I slid a step between them. "Smith, we've got business, so you can't hang here all night." I tipped a glance over my shoulder at Acivinis. "Thanks for the talk."
Faber dropped off his stool, and took three hungry paces, drawing level with me. "Still got some business here, Calla, I guess. Guy with a big mouth, needs to have it filled with something. Scrub it out with soap, or with some of this piss he calls booze."
A girl in black leather miniscules attempted to press herself against Acivinis. He shoved her off, sending her staggering, with a mutter of, "Not now, Dominique. Got to teach this guy some manners."
Faber's jaw dropped. He looked at the girl, who was a pretty enough blonde in black leather that made her bulge artistically. "Dominique?"
She pouted at him. "That's _Mistress_ Dominique to you."
Faber began making small strangled noises. I looped my arm in his and spun him towards the door, away from the advancing Acivinis who had found another cigar to suck. "Got to go. Places to blow up, people to kill, you know how it is." The crowd began to sift out of our way.
Dominique wriggled up against Acivinis again. "You're twice the man he is, honey. Don't let that snot-nosed little punk get to you." She stroked his cigar, meaningfully.
I dragged the still-choking Faber to the door, hissing, "Mission. Mission, remember." We actually managed to get outside before he stopped turning interesting shades.
"Dominique," he said, resettling his hat and glaring at the door. "Dominique. Wonder if she does photos."
His mood took a plunge as he heard that we had to wait till two in the morning the next day. The sky was paling with the edge of the coming dawn. He shoved his hands into his pockets, frowning, apparently not eager for the Essence he would soon be tasting.
"We could always just go our separate ways till the evening," I said, mildly, to watch his reaction.
He snorted, predictably. "I'm not entirely stupid, Caliah. Neither of us is going to trust the other one enough for that, are they?"
My heels clicked on the pavement. I had let him choose the direction that we were walking in. "Well, you can sleep above the Red Dice, if you want. Not too much noise, booze on the house."
His reply was quieter than I expected. "I may be able to trust you, but I don't know that I'd trust your friends as far."
I turned my head aside, as a car passed us. "Hardly friends. I was assigned to them."
"And you went meekly?"
I shrugged. "Orders are orders. So what do we do, buy tickets for an all-day movie showing?"
We walked another half-block, then he said, "I've got an apartment. You can have the bed, I'll have the couch."
I tilted my head. "This from a Servitor of Creation?"
I could feel his teeth gritting, the sense of the _unthinkable_ thing that I had suggested. His words came out clenched and harsh. "We're about agreement, Punisher. About joy for both people. Love. Sharing. Creation. Not like that damned nest of soul-hungry rats you just pulled me out of. Don't you remember at all what it was like to be an angel?"
My voice was sharp. "I am an angel."
"You live in Hell."
I looked up, at the pale sky, the smoke and the towering blocks. "You live in Chicago."
He was silent, face lined as he walked on.
A while later, I said, carefully, "I accept your offer of shelter, and thank you."
He nodded. "Two blocks further. It's the third floor. I hope you're not expecting anything large."
I managed a faint chuckle. "I expect bottles, unwashed shirts, and cockroaches."
His mouth curled. "You're in luck."
We walked in silence again, till we came to his apartment block. The stairs were narrow and smelt of cabbage. His rooms were everything that he had said of them.
"Have you a phone?" I asked.
He threw his hat across the room, and it landed on a pile of shoes. His tone was cautious. "Yeah. Mind if I listen in?"
I shrugged. "Just to let Raum know I'm still alive and working. You know how people panic."
That got a faint chuckle from him. He moved some files out of the way to show a phone sitting on the corner of the desk. "All yours."
I picked up the earpiece, and dialled the private number. Raum answered after two rings, with a neutral, "Who's calling?"
"Caliah." I kept my voice uninflected. "Safe line?"
He grunted faintly. "Should be."
"Got half a track, will be pursuing. Don't expect anything definite till tomorrow morning.Vespers any use?"
"Nope. Still out of it. You okay, Caliah?
Faber was hanging up his trenchcoat as he listened. "Yeah, fine. Watch your back." I put the phone down, turning back to him. "That innocuous enough?"
He chose not to reply to that question. "Need to eat or drink?" Faint light edged the blinds on the window, laying a fragmented pattern across the desk and floor.
I shook my head. "Just somewhere to put my feet up while you breathe the dawn air. Have you a coathanger?"
He blinked. "Coathanger?" Yes, I could well believe that invention had completely passed him by. He eyed me with the air of one who expects strange perversions.
Slowly, I said, "Suits last better and develop fewer wrinkles that way. If you want me to be able to pass for decent society, I need a coathanger."
He nodded at the bedroom door. "Good luck."
I opened the door carefully, peering inside. Bed, one, unmade. Cupboard, one, with the door jammed open and coathangers piled on top, unused. Bottles, empty, several. Space, minimal. A small window that overlooked the street outside, with a screen that would block most of the sun. The air was reasonably fresh.
"Sleep well," I said.
"You too." He had walked over to his window, and pulled aside the blind to look out. Dawn light touched his face, throwing the planes of it into relief: a dark mask of hammered metal, the eyes molten steel in the morning glare. I imagined wings of shadow at his back, imagined the certainty and strength in him.
I closed the door behind me, and carefully hung up my suit before curling up in the bed. There were faint creaks from the other room, then a sound of abused springs, and finally silence.
A hammering on the door roused me from my half-meditation, half-doze. I rolled on the bed, turning to face the door, one hand slipping to my stiletto. I could hear Faber rising from the couch with a groan, and calling, "I paid for this month, dammit!"
A louder bang, and a cut-glass voice called, "Open this door, in the name of Laurence!"
I lay on the bed, listening to the noise and gauging my distance to the window. Better not to butt in unless Faber couldn't handle it.
The door came open with a slam. "Awright, what kind of .. Shit. You."
The cut-glass voice said, "Yes. Us. Surprised to see us, Faber?"
He gave a snort. "You're about as welcome as shotguns in springtime, but come in before you scare the neighbours."
Three pairs of feet followed him back in. I was tense. Angelic Servitors, and now I was seriously outnumbered. I kept my breathing low and steady, lying amid the disordered sheets, curled up and ready to spring.
A new voice said, more placatory, "We were just calling by to check that you were all right. This city isn't safe, Faber, and it's not as if you had that many contacts among the rest of us."
One pair of footsteps kept prowling round the apartment: Ofanite, probably. I could track that one's position mentally, circling round and round some central point that was probably Faber, and I imagined his tracks wearing a rut in the carpet.
Faber sighed. "Want a drink?"
The cut-glass voice sneered, "Certainly _not_. Such lowering of yourself to mortal habits is no more than might be expected from one of the servants of your lax, dubious..."
There was a sound, as of a body being swung into a wall. I winced slightly in sympathy. "You _don't_ talk like that about my Archangel, boy. Not unless you want your pretty sword stuffed up your tight ass."
The placatory voice coughed. "Faber, let him down. He's new." The Ofanite had stopped his circling. A faint choking drifted through the wall.
A thump. Faber's voice still had an edge to it. "No shit."
The cut-glass voice said, somewhat raspily, "Mutinous dissonant traitor."
There was a pause, then Faber said, a deadly quietness to his voice, "Alvla, shift this idiot out of here, or I will not be held responsible for my actions to anyone up to and including his Archangel."
A new voice said, at a tangent, "I can smell perfume."
I imagined a finger being pointed, as the cut-glass voice declaimed, "See! Consorting with human women! Lax and sex-crazed, all the Servitors of.."
Scuffling feet, and the door opened, then shut abruptly.
The room was silent for a moment, then the quieter-voiced one said, "Sorry. He's new out of Heaven three days ago. I thought I'd try and show him round, give him a chance to meet the friendlies out here."
A clink of glass on glass, and the gurgle of liquid. "He's not going to be doing a good job of keeping them friendly. You taken him round to that doll of Novalis' who's working the charity hospitals yet?"
There was a faint sigh. "Not yet."
Faber chuckled. "You're in for a treat."
"Is anything the matter?"
"Nah. Just working on something."
Another pause. "Hunting demons again?"
His laugh was without mirth this time. "Kinda funny, how you always think that's what I'm doing."
The sound of someone shifting position. "You're a Malakite, Faber. It's what they do."
"Yeah." His voice was numb.
"Look. If you're working on something, that's fine. If you could use some help, I've got a number you can call. We're working with the Untouchables."
Faber snorted on a mouthful of alcohol. "L-Men?"
The other sighed, as though he had been hearing that joke far too often. "Whatever. Look, you need anybody, you call Chesapeake 4-2888, right?"
"Okay." Faber's voice didn't sound as if he'd do it, though.
There was another rapping at the door. The Ofanite's voice called, "Alvla? Jonas says how long are you going to be in there? We should be moving!"
Alvla called back, "Coming!" There was a pause as he opened the door. "Faber? Watch your back, okay?"
The clink of an empty glass being set down. "Always. You too."
The door closed again, and feet retreated down the stairs outside.
I moved my hand away from my stiletto, uncurling slightly as the bedroom door opened. Faber stood there looking down at me, his shirt open at the throat, jacket and tie discarded, with a dreadful stillness in his eyes. One hand was curled round the edge of the door, scarred dark flesh against pale battered wood.
I didn't look at his emotions, or my own. I did not want to see what he was feeling, or even to touch the edges of it. I rolled off the edge of the bed, and walked the few steps to him, reaching up to take his face in my hands and tilt my head to kiss him.
He returned it for a moment, too briefly, before bringing his hands round and clasping them around my wrists. "I don't need gratitude."
I returned his gaze, conscious despite my wishes of his presence and nature. "It isn't gratitude."
"I'm a Malakite," he said, his hands still on my wrists. "I kill demons. It's what we do."
"Your hands are hot," I answered him. They were, pressing against the thin bones of my forearms.
"How many people have you punished?" he asked, not releasing me. His eyes were like iron in the forge.
"Does it matter? If I punished one or one hundred thousand, I would be just as guilty or innocent." What matters is the intention, not the deed. I am a Punisher of God. I would not beg for him, I would not plead for him, I would not be weak for him. My hands are steeped in blood.
There was nothing weak in him as he bent his head to kiss me.
I watched the sunset light lie like red gold across the room, seeping around the screen. Faber's breathing was steady, and he had not moved for an hour or so now. His arm was half-thrown across me, and I spent a while considering the tiny traceries of small burns and white scars that laced across his hand, wrist, and forearm: a map to some creative pain.
"Your breathing shifted," he said, but I did not think that he had moved his head to look at me.
"You could get rid of the scars," I replied.
"They're like your tattoos. Part of what I am."
I was surprised at his understanding.
He was silent a moment, then extended his other hand to touch my hair. I did not turn my head to look, but I could imagine his dark fingers folding around a pale length of it.
"You shouldn't be pale," he said. "You should be like steel, brilliant."
"I thought I was." I could feel the faint pressure of his hand, stretching my hair taut, not quite on the edge of pain.
"These are Vessels." He spoke as if by rote. "You know that."
I felt myself smile faintly. "You sound like a Servitor of Judgement."
He snorted. The sounds of traffic drifted in from outside, and the streak of red light moved across the pair of us, illuminating hollows and curves.
"How early do we want to be there?" he asked.
I considered. "If principals are meeting at two in the morning, then the guards will be there at one or so to scope it out, and probably a single watcher or two before that, after sundown."
"We want to be there at eleven or so, then." His hand was still wound in my hair. "Get an idea of the area and what we're dealing with."
I made a small sound of agreement. "Likely a Balseraph, at least. Maybe another one or two. Probably some soldiers, or at least mortal followers."
I felt his body move in a half-shrug. "Take out their leaders, panic the others..." He trailed off, as though not wanting to think about after that. After that, yes - he would have a demon beside him, and he was sworn not to suffer evil to live. I could feel him ordering his thoughts to avoid that, planning only so far and no further.
He would not bend for me: I could not yield to him. The light faded, and we lay in the dusk, waiting for some moment to break the silence, for one of us to say, "We should be going, if we are to be there in time." Neither of us did.
The silence broke when he arched his back, reaching over to where he had discarded his clothes. The bed creaked, and he said, "Lie still," his voice flawed by something.
"What for?" I did not move, though, as I heard the slither of leather against metal. He shifted position again, and I felt the brush of steel against the back of my neck; my hair strained taut, then a lock parted under the touch of the knife, and he let the rest fall free to sift over my shoulders.
"It's only a Vessel," I said.
"I know," he replied.
A light mist lay in the air, and drifted in thin tongues around the streetlamps, wreathing the higher stories of the buildings above us. I was leaning in the shadow of a doorway, conscious of the guard who loitered at the end of the street and nursed his cigarette. Faber had already slipped inside, and was surveying the area while I kept watch. I was coming more and more to think that the coin he had called the toss with had been double-headed. So much for Malakite honour.
A car purred in the distance: no, two, and a third behind them. I slitted my eyes, remaining still as the sound drew closer and the guard jolted into liveliness. Faber would have heard them too, and would be taking cover - but if this was our prey, then they were far, far too early. Avicinis had got it wrong, or had misled us deliberately.
The cars growled as they turned the far street corner, and came to a halt at the edge of my vision. Three men unloaded themselves from the first, hands hovering near barely-concealed guns, and took stance to watch the intersecting streets: another couple of men headed into the Steelyards, heads turning and step careful. A large man withdrew himself from the back seat of the third car, then held the door open for a thinner man in the best-cut suit I had seen in the last few days, followed by a girl in black suit and hat. She had the swing of hip that one associates with Lilims designed by the Prince of Lust, and a loose enough jacket to be hiding a gun. I couldn't risk getting any closer to check the other two, but the thin man's bearing suggested a slumming Balseraph, if I were to be prejudiced. I felt distinctly like being prejudiced.
Another five men wriggled out of the last car, and grouped around the trio from the middle car to escort them into the building. I felt quite confident that Faber would have found somewhere safe to watch from, but I couldn't try and follow till I was sure of doing it unseen.
The situation was not looking good. Our information was at least partly faulty, we were distinctly outnumbered in Celestial terms, let alone that of men with guns who could wreck our Vessels, and I would have to give it at least ten minutes before sneaking in. I couldn't risk using a Song and alerting those Servitors to my presence.
A thought came to my mind. The doorway that I stood in was that of a reasonably well-off house, one likely to contain a phone. Slowly I turned, barely visible in the shadows, and inspected the lock.
Two minutes later I was inside the house. It was silent, the owners fast asleep upstairs, and yes, they did have a convenient phone on the hall table. I picked up the earpiece, and dialed Chesapeake 4-2888.
The answer came within two rings, and I recognised the Ofanite's voice from earlier. It was ridiculously loud in the quiet house, and I stuffed the earpiece further into my ear, wincing as I tried to block any spillover with my hand. "Yes! Yes, this is us. Can we help? Who is that?" He paused. "That is, Donald Vyers here. Can we help you?"
I lowered my voice. "Er, I guess so, mister. This guy Smith said to call the number, to tell someone called Alveller about something?"
There were rustling noises on the other end of the line, then Alvla's voice. "Who is that? And what did Smith tell you?"
I kept a nervous tone in my voice. "Look, mister, he said to say that his name was Faber and that he could use a hand if you guys felt like giving it. Something about a guy called Molfuss."
There was a pause, and I imagined a frantic discussion at the other end, with someone keeping their hand over the mouthpiece. "What about a guy called Malphas? And who are you?"
I put a note of virginal indignation into my voice. "My name's Kelly Sowans, and I'm a good respectable working girl. Your _Mister_ Smith, he didn't go badgering me like this! I made sure he was one of those government agents, what with his manner and all." Apologetic noises drifted down the line, together with requests to continue. I had to hurry, before they got the Seraph listening in. "I'm at the LaQuenne Steelyards, and I saw him go in there just fifteen minutes ago. Then these guys pulled up in cars, mister, and they went in after him, and I haven't seen him come out neither."
The Seraph's voice came through, with the sound of banging doors and running footsteps behind it. "Where are you now, er, miss..."
I paused artistically, then gasped. "Oh, no! Look, I gotta get out of here..." The sound of imploring voices drifted away as I snapped the phone back into position.
Outside, the guard had slackened their wariness a shade. I figured that I had about ten minutes before the L-Men turned up: more if they tried to approach quietly. That should be enough. A pale ghost among the shadows, I slipped past one man as he coughed and spat into the gutter, and stepped into the Steelyards.
Within the gate, there was a large open area, interspersed with machinery and props. Rust was smeared across exposed metalwork, and the ground was stained with ashes and dirt. The sound of voices drifted to me, vague in the distance and incomprehensible. I set my back against the wall, drifting round towards the noise and movement.
Between one step and the next, a low voice became audible. "... not sure this is a good idea."
"Relax," another voice cut in, smooth baritone. "We've set this up, remember. When they show we can take them out, and put the blame on Capone's mob. Then we wait for the other contenders to jump him, and we step in after the fighting's all over." His voice carried a smooth persuasiveness to it, reasonable and sensible.
There was a clatter, as if somebody had kicked a can, and the first voice grunted, "Still think it's pushing it. We can be fingered as being here, after all."
The smooth voice sighed. "Yes, yes. _After_ the massacre. We turn up and discover the bodies. I've lined up witnesses."
I peered around a chunk of hauling machinery. The well-dressed man was lighting a cigarette for the woman, slightly turned away from the brawny man. The seven other thugs were drifting about, some looking for places to conceal themselves. There was no sign of Faber.
The brawny man grunted. He leaned back against a large post set into the ground, eyeing the surroundings with a dead, flat stare. Djinn, at a guess.
Hmm. I could try and take down one of the demons, but I might not be able to do it with a single shot, and then I'd have the pack on my tail. Of course, that'd leave them blind to Faber, who'd have an open field. Shooting a human would just set off jangles throughout the Symphony and alert them clearer than day that an angel or demon was on their tail, so that was to be avoided for the moment.
Something clattered the other side of the group, hidden in the shadows and shapes of machinery, and jarred to a stop. It might have been a cat, or a can blown by the wind, or it might not. Faber, I hoped, as the brawny man pushed off the post that he leaned on, and gestured for three of the men to follow him. Their feet were quiet on the ground as they disappeared behind rusting hulks.
The woman drew on her cigarette nervously, and it glowed like a gem as she sidled backwards, glancing around.
I stepped closer, perhaps ten yards away behind the concealing chunk of machinery. Her emotions were a riffle of unease and anticipation, nervousness and edge. The Balseraph - yes, that was what he was - was calmer, his thoughts a warm comfortable gloating and security. My fingers twitched, and I took a hold of my stiletto.
There was a faint rumble of cars, and she turned back towards the Balseraph. "They're early."
He frowned a little, then shrugged. "No problem. We can handle it. Cover, everyone." He gestured to the other men, and they eased guns from various holsters as they moved to hide: two had machine-guns, and I marked their positions.
The woman stepped round my piece of machinery, with an air of relief. My blade took her neatly in the lung, and I ran it up into her heart, my free hand going over her mouth as I stepped from just behind her. I felt her desperate intake of breath against my skin, and her attempt to bite as I twisted the blade inside her, hot blood running out over my hand. Her desperation beat against me like burning butterflies, screaming soundlessly and hopelessly. The droning of the cars grew louder, and she jerked once more, then went limp, the wings of her last anger and hatred fading and falling away.
I eased the body to the ground silently. In a sudden harsh rattle, gunshots cracked out from where the Djinn had gone: the Symphony screamed in answer, as some Song or use of Essence lashed through it. That had been Faber, then. I left the woman's sprawled corpse behind, slipping round sideways to the next piece of machinery.
Cars squealed as they crash-braked outside, and I heard the sound of machine-guns from that direction as well. Wonderful. Diversion right on schedule. Where was that Balseraph? Five of the men had risen from cover and were running for the gates, guns loose in their hands, and two were still holding their position. The knowledge of battle ran across my skin like tiny knives, my master's gift to the Punishers in his service, and I felt the air cool in my lungs and on my skin.
A gunshot slapped against the rusting metal two feet ahead of my face, and I ducked and rolled, pulling out my pistol as I did. My returning fire took the gunman squarely in the throat, and I felt the Symphony deform again as a human died. Oh well, too late to care about that now. The ground was wet under my hand as I paused, balancing, to glance to left and right. More shots, settling into a regular pattern of exchanges.
The smooth voice called, to my right and ahead, in the celestial tongue, "You're out of your depth! Stop now and we can cut a deal!"
I centered on it, curving a circle through the damp-smelling hulks of metal.
He called again, "Lucine? Mark three and reply?"
How nice, they even had plans for battle. He came into view as I turned a corner, and his eyes flicked towards me.
"Drop it," he said. "You're surrounded." His voice carried conviction. I might almost have believed it if I hadn't known where his men were. Metal crashed against metal in the direction that the Djinn had gone.
I let my mouth curve, showing teeth. The stiletto was in my hand again, and I measured distance, calculating the angle that I would need to take him in the eye.
"You've been betrayed." He took a step towards me, trustingly, and my stomach twisted. "It was a set-up. We didn't expect you to be so trusting, though."
I remembered the blinding pulse of hatred in Faber when he had his hands on Vesper, that burning desire to destroy. How could I have believed that he would work with me, even for a moment? He'd set it all up. I was supposed to be killed here with my fellow demons.
He took another cautious step. "We've had our differences, but we're going to need to work together to get out of this one." Someone screamed, high and thin, and shots rattled again. "I don't know who you're working with, but..."
My teeth met in my lower lip. No, he didn't know, he couldn't know who or what Faber was. What did I believe, a Malakite or a Balseraph? Honour or lies? Who could I trust in the end, a demon or an angel?
My hand fell, and he took another step forward, beginning to relax.
The stiletto took him in the eye, and he raised his hands with a gasp of pain, stumbling forward the last few steps. His hands closed on my shoulder as I swung sideways, bringing my knee up hard into his stomach, then smashing my elbow into his kidney. We rolled to the ground together, him trying to get a grip on my throat, me trying to reach the handle protruding from his eye. Something jagged poked into my back as he settled on top of me, using his weight, and blood from his eye dripped down to slick my throat as he dug his thumbs into my jugular. I slammed my arms into his elbow joint, and as it went slack and he bowed forward I brought my right hand directly up, squarely at the stiletto handle.
His body arched backwards, spasming, and I forced myself upwards underneath him, locking my own hands round his throat. We jerked like a pair of blood-spattered puppets, and I tasted his pain in my mouth, all his murder, all his hope turning to ashes. His good eye opened fully, and he exhaled in a single long breath, the life and definition flooding out of the Vessel like blood. I knelt over him as I slipped the stiletto free, watching for movement in the yard.
A single figure stalked into the light of the entrance, between two volleys of gunfire. He didn't even try to take cover, and there was a hauteur to his pose that said "slumming Seraph". His grip on the revolver was reasonably professional, and he turned to point it at me, bringing it up. "Demonic bitch. We heard your disturbance in the Symphony."
I stroked one finger down my cheek, feeling the blood that rouged it, and smiled as I rose. He tracked me with the gun, obviously not quite sure what to make of my reaction. "Your time has come."
Fear, I whispered, feeling Essence run through me. Be afraid, little one. You are so young, so easily broken. I will paint you with your own blood and take you apart, twist you till you beg me to stop, till you are grovelling in your own wastes and know precisely how pitiful you are.
His gun shook in his hand. I took a step towards him.
"Stay away!" It was almost a gasp, as he levelled the gun at me again. Light danced on the barrel as his hand trembled.
My resonance chimed about me like a thousand tiny bells. Each step of mine towards him was the cut of a knife into his soul, and I smiled as I watched him fall to his knees. Such pride, such a fall.
His gun clattered to the ground. I barely noticed that the shooting outside had slackened off. He was biting back tears, his fingers raking at the cement as he tried to stop gasping for air, tried to control his fear.
"Beg me." I put my pistol to his forehead, feeling the barrel jar against his skin. Moonlight tracked the tear that ran from the corner of his eye, a silver trail on his young face.
I felt Faber's presence at the corner of my awareness, like seething iron against my flesh.
The Seraph choked on something, struggling to get words out past terror. I reached out delicately with my free hand to touch his forehead, smearing the blood that gloved my fingers in a hot dark track beside where the gun dug into him. "Beg me."
This is what I am, Faber. I will not lose myself, for I am as strong as you. I will not lose myself, even for you.
The Seraph broke. "Don't..."
Faber came crashing into me like a rush of hot wind, and the gun spun from my hand, flying into the darkness. I could still hear the Seraph's sobbing as we came apart from our tumble, both grasping at the iron palings we had fallen among. There was no pause, no pause at all as metal danced against metal: he swung his piece like a staff, I parried and lunged with mine like a spear, he turned out of the way and returned the blow.
Fresh blood was splashed across him too. The light from the entrance washed across him for a moment as he turned briefly in that direction, and he seemed to be wrapped in it, a dark iron sculpture: then our dance faced me that way, and I saw my hand knotted around the iron of the paling, pale as ivory or as the flesh of angels. In, out, move again, as we maneuvered for position, both of us bleeding from minor gashes now. He was focused like a thousand candle-flames, as though this were some kind of creation and he the artist. I fought to kill.
Outside it was silent, as I parried half a breath too slow and felt the shock of the paling going into my chest. My hands were too slack to keep a hold on my own weapon as I collapsed, and my own struggle for breath seemed to blend with the Seraph's choking as the ground struck me, and Faber threw his weight on the iron, pinning me like a butterfly. The fog wrote an inscription across the sky, but I could not read it, and the drumming in my ears grew louder. Faber's presence was a clear heat that burned where I touched it: the blood ran into my eyes, and my hands clenched, then fell open again as my breathing stopped.
I opened my eyes. Fabric covered my face, something dull and thick, and the room was silent. My body moved smoothly as I opened the covering of the bag and slid out of it, feeling warm thick air on my naked body. The ceiling was sloppily whitewashed, smeared in irregular strokes, and the wallpaper was peeling away.
I checked the wardrobe in the corner. Yes, they had brought my clothes. I began to change, examining the spare Vessel in the mirror as I did so. Short-cut black hair now, slightly Arabic looks, and a smaller build. Still attractive enough, though.
The mirror was flawed, and shadows seemed to move behind me in the room. I imagined a wiry frame for a moment, hot eyes, a presence like flame, but I did not look behind me. There is no going back.
Piano music and the sound of talk drifted up the stairs outside. Raum had clearly moved the entire establishment, sensibly. I made my way down the stairs, adjusting to the step and build of my new Vessel. As I opened the door, the smell of human beings struck me like a blow: sweat, alcohol, cordite, blood.
Raum was hovering near the bar. He caught sight of me, and waited for me to join him. I could feel him fighting back the edges of tension and concern. When I was near enough, he muttered, "What happened?"
I shrugged, a loose motion, and collected a glass of whiskey. "Got them. He got me. Good thing I had the spare Vessel stowed. New place?"
He nodded. "Cleared the old site. Nothing to track by."
I sipped the alcohol, and felt the bite on my Vessel's tongue and throat. "I promised a favour on your behalf to Avicinis of Lust. Needed the information on where to find the Factions."
I glanced over at the piano. The pianist was the same tattered-looking man, dressed in a waistcoat that glowed with colour and dark battered trousers and shirt, idly picking out melodies in a wandering key. "You got a new singer?"
He shrugged. "Get to it."
I wandered over to the piano, slipping through the crowd, and brushing aside the odd grasping hand. One part of my mind wondered how long this would last, this world of need and urgency and Prohibition, guns and alcohol and desperation. It seemed almost too close to the yearnings of Hell, and the weak who cried out there for pity.
"Play me some blues," I said, as I leant against the piano.
His hands stroked an arpeggio from the keyboard, and I was reminded of Faber's hands, scarred and dark. "Blues coming up, lily lady. Then we go on to something else. Got to play the dawn in for a new beginning."
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