Sometimes, getting into jail is the best way to get out of trouble. Lucky Pete – everybody knows it’s meant as a joke. Born crooked, literally, spine twisted and one leg shorter than the other. Born crooked, live crooked, Dad said. Been in jail more than out, it seems like. Comfortable place to hide, for a little while.
There’d been whispers. Heh, whispers about the Whisper. Seems like the Necromancer didn’t know that old Pete had known the location of their hideout when she let him go. Only reason he was still alive, in one piece, but now she knows and she’s got the feelers out for him. Pete’s clever though – always got some magic out there to tell when someone’s getting close. And they got close. Only thing he could think of was to throw a block of concrete through a shop window and get himself arrested for robbery.
A quick, temporary fix. But now he’s stuck in jail. Not for too long – his Voice, a clever law-genius named Petra, would be getting him out soon. Getting to be time to make himself real scarce. Maybe even get out of the whole demon business. Good money, but things were getting way too chancy.
But now he’s handcuffed to a metal table, in the kind of interview room that he’s been in so often, it’s like a living room to him. Great, someone wants to talk. And here they come.
The door opens and in walks a couple of gods. Oh fantastic…Guardia Dei. Pete scrunches down in his chair, scowling. The first one in is a goddess. No human looks that perfect, skin that pale and smooth, hair white as cotton, thick and full. And those eyes with layered, mottled colors. Everybody from Three Rats and environs knows about her. Sergeant Alma. Death Clan. Demons, this is going to be bad.
The second is a god, but it takes Pete a moment to be sure. Long straight hair pulled back in a stupid ponytail, delicate, dark features. Even the scar across his face is intriguing, instead of ugly, like Pete’s scar. Graceful, strong, looking at Pete like he’s on the god’s lunch menu.
Nobody should look that beautiful. Neither of them. Not when Pete grew up getting beaten, kicked in the ribs, a knife across the face, blinded in one eye, because he was weaker, slower than the others. He has to fight to look away from them, but it just makes him angry.
They take the chairs opposite Pete, across the bare table. Sergeant Alma looking grim. Tough. The other guy’s smiling without humor. Pete curls his lip. Like he hasn’t faced down cops a hundred times.
Her voice dry, Alma asks, “Lucky Pete?”
“I ain’t talkin’!” he bursts out, his voice pitched higher than he meant it to be. “Don’t care what it is, I ain’t talkin’!”
Blueshirt lady looks at him like she’s had a real bad day and says, “I don’t mind. For now, I just need you to listen. A friend of mine has disappeared.” She pauses, looking at him like she wants to make sure he’s getting all this. “My friend is Guardia, Mister Pete.” Taps her badge, customized like all Dei badges, a gorgeous piece of asymmetrical jewelry. “Guardia Dei. And he was taken by a necromancer who has been playing with demonic magic. You know about the Demon Act, yes?”
Pete goes pale, then looks down at the table. “Still ain’t talking,” he mutters. Wonderful. Dei looking for their fellow Dei. They’re not going to stop until they know what he knows. Rules have a way of being forgotten when it’s one of their own. He suddenly flinches, jerking his hands from the metal tabletop. “Ow! Hey…that thing’s gettin’ hot!” He glares at the ponytail guy, whose hand is resting on the table. Directly around it, the metal is beginning to glow a dull red. Ponytail cop smiles at him.
“Pay no attention to my partner, here, Mister Pete,” Alma says. “I am the one you are not talking to. And I assure you, a little heat is the least of your concerns.” She stands up, looking down at him. Like they all do. All those gods. “I want to know where the necromancer hides, Mister Pete.”
Pete laughs, but even he can hear how nervous he sounds. “You think I’m gonna tell on her? You gotta know what she did to that cop and his family down in Three Rats!”
“Her? So the necromancer is a she.” Alma walks around the table. “Very well. That’s a beginning.” She puts her hands on his shoulders, as if about to give him a massage. “You see, Mister Pete, I have a few issues to settle with her. That triple homicide you mentioned, the Soul Bomb in my station, a certain thing involving a rat…” She leans down, putting her lips close to his ear. He can feel her breath across his earlobe. “You know about the rat, don’t you, Pete?”
Lucky Pete flinches, remembering the Necromancer piercing the struggling rodent’s throat with her thumb-claw, reanimating it, and taking the trace-spell off him, a spell meant to track him surely placed by these same Dei, and putting it onto the undead rat. He knows how much the Death Clan hates the undead. Only thing they hate worse is somebody who creates undead. Or somebody who damages souls, like the Necromancer did with her soul bomb. His voice shaking, Pete says the words he doesn’t believe, “Do your worst, Guardia. You can’t hurt me anywhere near as bad as she can.”
He shivers, realizing that where he had felt too hot moments before, with the table radiating heat at his face, now he feels mortally cold. No, not physically. It is like a memory of freezing, or a foretaste, the cold of the grave. He feels it now. How will it feel, when the Death god comes for him? He who failed to help the Death Clan. Will they cast him away from the Wheel? Cast him down to Hell? Can they do that? Or will they just leave his soul ungathered, to rot with his body in the dirt?
The edge of his vision becomes dark. He lost the peripheral vision on one side decades ago. The last things his left eye saw was the knife slashing across it, then red, then nothing. When the darkness on his right starts narrowing his vision further – no, it’s not his vision. The shadows in the room are lengthening, stretching. As he watches they become at the edges hands, claws, reaching for him. He clenches his teeth to prevent a scream. Ponytail dude even looks nervous, looking at his partner like he’s on the verge of stopping her.
Shadow hands swarm up his body, and at the same time, pale white hands slide down his chest. He can feel the goddess’ elbows on his shoulders now. He cannot feel the shadow hands except as a vague pressure, but he can hear the whispers. Not well enough to make out any words, but his imagination provides them for him. Worthless. Coward. Predator. Sinner. You stabbed me behind the schoolyard. You sealed a bargain with my soul. You paid the interest with me. Do you hear us, Pete? We are screaming in Hell because of you. So you could have MONEY!
His muscles lock. It feels as if the hands on his chest are clenching, burying her claws in his flesh. He hunches his shoulders, afraid that Alma will bite his throat, like a vampire, and tear it out.
But no. The hands just rest lightly on his chest. The pain is all in his head, just like the voices. Or so he tells himself.
“I assure you, Mister Pete, that I can hurt you in many painful, painful ways,” the goddess whispers in his ear, her voice barely louder than the voices in his memory. “I can make you scream until your body gives out and even after that, I can still hurt you.”
He shuts his eye tightly, but that is even worse. He can see their faces. His father, hanging from a rope for three days before Pete came home and found him. His mother, barely remembered, young and always scared. The girl who trusted him, who showed him compassion, which just made her a target in the eyes of a teenager who’d been raised to believe that kindness is weakness, and weakness is a crime that the world always punishes, so why not get in on the action and get something out of it? “I can’t…please…don’t make me!”
“I don’t have many friends, Pete,” she says, her voice sepulchral, like something a thousand years dead. “And I really can’t afford to lose this one.”
A male voice cuts through the thick, dead atmosphere like a blowtorch. “You’ll be free of the Necromancer. She won’t be able to retaliate against you.”
Pete opens his eye, seeing the room back to normal. Heart racing, lungs straining like he’s just done a marathon, he looks up at the goddess who is straightening her stance, glaring at her partner like she wants to slap him. And ponytail boy is looking back at her, impassively, the two of them having a silent argument while Lucky Pete seems forgotten. As usual.
He finds his voice, tries to fill it with his usual bravado. “Y-you gonna hide me away? Far away?”
The guy keeps his eyes locked with Alma’s for a moment, then looks to Pete. “That’s easy to arrange. It won’t need to be for long. You give us the location, she and her whole gang go down. End of problem.”
“All charges dropped?” Pete asks. Never miss a chance at a bargain.
Alma walks around to the side and crosses her arms. She tilts her head. “An early retirement from marketing illegal goods?”
“Hey, you want me to starve?” Funny how fast it comes back.
The male Dei says, “You stay in business. But you share all your info with us. No holding back.”
Lucky Pete has never been a rat for the Guardia before. But this time there’s no real choice. “Fine. Little Falls. In the Tangle. I gotta draw you a map.”
From a pocket that doesn’t look like it could hold anything in those skintight leathers, the guy pulls out a little notepad with a pencil and hands them to Pete. As he bends over the now-barely warm table to draw, Pete notices the goddess turn away, facing the wall, head down, breathing deeply and slowly. The last vestiges of the tomb fade from the room.
Pete says, “Place is in the basement of a burned-out old building. I got escorted in a couple times.”
Alma manages a smile for him, but she looks like she’s about to keel over. “Thank you for volunteering that.”
“Hell,” Pete curses. “If I’m turnin’ on that bitch, I want you guys to take her out! I’ll tell you everything I know. Now when’s Lucky Pete gettin’ outta here?”
In the dank hallway outside the interview room, walls done in faded paint and lost hope, Alma crosses her arms and fixes her pearlescent eyes on Somrak. “What was that about? I had him. I didn’t need any help.” Her voice is cold and strained, one eye slightly narrowed.
Somrak sighs internally. “Yes, you had him. He was broken. Any further and you’d be crossing a line.”
“That’s rich coming from an off-blue,” she snaps, her voice low to prevent it carrying down the corridor.
“It’s true,” he replies after a moment, “I have done things. But they’re things you don’t need to do. That’s not a path you want to go down, if you can help it.”
“Oh, thank you for shielding me from the evils of the world, Sergeant!” She winces and puts her fingertips to her temple.
Somrak takes a step closer. “What’s wrong? Mana headache?”
Alma nods, eyes closed. “From healing Gwydion. That demon ichor is no laughing matter. I replenished myself from orbs but…”
“But it’s not enough to stop the pain from coming on,” he finishes after she trails off, wincing again. “And calling upon your sphere in there didn’t help. You did good, Alma. You got him. It was enough.”
“Still had to make a deal,” she mutters.
“I can use a turncoat against demon-worshippers,” Somrak says. “Hell, it’ll be a good prize to offer the Fencer. Right now, we need to move him. I have a place, but like I said before, the Whisper’s got people in the Guardia at all sorts of levels, leftovers from Nekh’s day. Not only that…Sky knows all my safehouses.”
Alma looks at him, Sky’s situation mollifying her. She looks away, then seems to come to a reluctant decision. “I know one. There really isn’t a reason why they would know, no matter how good their spies are.”
Somrak nods. “Let me talk to the cops here. I’ll get him turned over to us. There’ll be questions about this later, but I’ll deal with those.”
“There is a rather important one now,” Alma points out. “How do you plan to keep him safe? None of us can afford to stay with him.”
Somrak grimaces. “I really can’t call on any of my people.”
“Do not take this as an insult, but the place I am thinking of… Let us say your people would clash.” Alma exhales deeply, her voice grim. “I may have someone. Though I hate to bring this on her… But if I call, she’ll come.”
“You can trust her to tell no one?”
Alma nods definitively. “She is very reliable. You will know why when you meet her. But let us say that in the whole of the Guardia, there is no one I trust more than her.”
“You get Pete ready to go, while I get him transferred to our custody,” Somrak says. “How will you contact her? Or do we just show up on her doorstep?”
Alma snorts. “Now wouldn’t that be rude? Just let me make a little stop on the way to send the word to her. And then she’ll know to find us.”