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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

They Promised Me The Gun Wasn't Loaded

James Alan Gardner

Tor Books

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1


Deimatic Behavior

I’M THE SMARTEST ACTUAL human on the planet.

Also the strongest. And the fastest.

But despite my best efforts, I’m not the drunkest. This stupid airplane hasn’t stocked enough booze to do the job.

It doesn’t help that I’m competing for alcohol with three Darklings up in first class. My hearing is (of course) the best a human’s can be, and I can hear quite clearly that they’re having a drinking contest.

I saw the Darklings when I got on the plane: a vampire, a werewolf, and a demon one-off whose hide is a patchwork of human skin, mammal fur, bird feathers, and insect chitin. That’s only what I could see on her face and hands; under her Armani, she likely has an entire zoo’s worth of integument. Fish scales. Tortoise shell. Jelly from Cnidaria. Maybe tree bark and vegetable rinds, too. Even stuff from extraterrestrials.

I should ask if she’d let me examine her—I need a project for Biology 399. But she’d likely tell me to go to hell. I’ve never met a Darkling who wasn’t a mean drunk.

All three Darklings sound like drunken assholes. They’re loud enough that even the normal people around me can hear them. At this moment, the Darklings are hassling the cute guy who’s playing air host for first class.

On major flights like New York to London, the airlines know that first-class attendants will have to deal with obnoxious Darklings, so every attendant gets an amulet or psi-shield to defend against magical mind-stomps. But gadgets like that are ungodly expensive; on pissy little runs like this one from Edmonton to Waterloo, the staff are expected to resist through sheer force of will.

Yeah, right. Even back here in sub-sub-economy, I can feel the Darklings flaring their Shadows. Every passenger on the plane is staggered by the effect—faces pale, hands trembling. A couple folks are puking into their barf bags.

The first-class air host is probably hyperventilating into an oxygen mask. But I can’t tell for sure—the curtain is drawn between the first-class cabin and ours. Still, it pisses me off.

Oh, look, I’m up on my feet.

I’m not immune to the force of Darkling Shadows, but being a superpowered Spark, I have a dollop of mental resistance. On a scale from zero to shitting myself, walking toward the Darklings matches what I felt when my academic adviser told me I was close to flunking out. Or maybe more like before a hockey game, when our team is up against strong opposition. I just tell myself that fear won’t improve my game, so I go on offense.

Like I’m doing now.

I force myself forward rather than running back to the bathrooms—partly because a crowd is already stampeding to bathroom-land, but mostly cuz I’m a heroine, fighting fuckery wherever I find it.

Also I’m half-drunk and making bad choices. So there’s that.

I push through the curtains and enter first class. It’s empty except for attendant-dude and the three Darklings. Two other seats have a lived-in look, with their TVs displaying a business channel and with hastily discarded copies of the Financial Post covering damp spots on the upholstery. The occupants of those seats are nowhere in sight—probably locked in the up-front washrooms.

Good. It means I don’t need to worry about bystanders. I just have to figure out what I’m going to do.

Aw, fuck this, I’m drunk. I’ll wing it.

“Yo!” I say. “What’s holding up my drinks?”

The Darklings turn their eyes toward me: vampire red, werewolf green, and the demon’s one-brown–one-composite. The werewolf is already furry. Thank you, baby Jesus. Actually seeing a werewolf change is enough to make your bladder crawl out of your panties. If that part is done, the worst is over.

I’m assuming, of course, that the Darklings won’t actually fight me. That’s a reasonable assumption: the Dark are as rich as fuck, so they don’t like getting their hair mussed. Usually, they pay other people to do their rough tough dirty work. Besides, these Darklings probably own stock in this airline, so they won’t want to cause costly damage. On the other hand, they may be drunker than me, if only because first-class passengers get all their hooch for free.

After a moment of silently staring at me and wondering, “Who the fuck is this bitch?” all three Darklings amp their Shadows in an attempt to turn my brain into pudding. In Bio 370, we called this deimatic behavior: attempting to intimidate other creatures by physical displays, like cobras flaring their hoods or poison frogs inflating their butt cheeks. Most normal humans would collapse under the psychological onslaught. However, it’s common knowledge that alcohol makes some people immune to Darkling Shadows. I won’t endanger my secret identity if I pretend not to feel their mental mugging.

More interestingly, the hottie air attendant doesn’t seem too crushed either. His skin is a perfect black—I mean really black, and also perfect, making me want to rub my face all over his body—so the guy will never go pale, no matter how frightened he gets. But despite being here at ground zero of the Darkling auras, Mr. Dude only looks a bit shaky. He hasn’t even retreated behind his coffee cart.

Maybe the airline did give the guy a defensive talisman. Or maybe he’s the one-in-a-million human with natural resistance to magic. Or maybe, like me, he’s just numbed himself with C2H6O, which makes perfect sense if you know you’re going to spend a three-hour flight rubbing elbows with the Dark.

“Miss,” the attendant says, “please return to your seat.”

I say, “I will, but not empty-handed.” I’m surprised the words come out anywhere near intelligible—the Darklings are still trying to make my brain cells shrivel.

With every passing moment, retreat gets more attractive. I came up here because I thought the Darklings were making waves without adult supervision. Now that I see Mr. Hottie isn’t jabbering in panic, I’m okay with letting him deal with the situation. It’s his job, after all; and while I happen to be the most tactful, diplomatic human on the planet, and therefore a better smoother-overer of Darkling jackassery than Mr. Air Host Cutie Dude, I’m also hella respectful and would never undermine his authority by trying to do his work for him. I’m also not so completely in the bag as to ignore the chance that me and the Darklings are gonna brawl if diplomacy fails. Since a three-on-one Darkling-slash-superhero fight is a bad idea at thirty thousand feet, I’m prepared to retire graciously without further ado.

As soon as I get another shot of Captain Morgan.

Or Smirnoff.

Or Johnny Walker whatever-color-is-cheapest.

“I’ll have what they’re having,” I say to Cutie Boots. I point to the row of single-shot bottles in front of the Darklings. “They have way, way more than they’ll ever need. Consider this redistribution: down with r, up with g, one for you and three for me. Or else I’ll just drink these three job creators under the table and prove that a real human’s tolerance for alcohol poisoning beats candy-ass magic every time.”

The three drunks stare at me for a long, long moment. Then the demon with the patchwork skin gives me the Morpheus Matrix hand gesture. Come on, little girl; show us what you got.

“You want to join the contest?” the demon asks. She sets an unopened bottle on the seat tray in front of her. “We’ll deal you in.”

“About fucking time,” I say. I plop myself in the big comfy chair at the end of their row. “Hi,” I tell them, “I’m Jools.”

* * *

AN HOUR LATER, WE begin our descent into the Region of Waterloo International Airport. The airport is only “international” by the skin of its teeth—once a day, there’s a round-trip to Chicago, and most weekends, you can catch a flight to Cancun if you’re sick of imported tequila. Otherwise, the airport’s traffic stays exclusively in Canada, mostly between Waterloo and Ottawa or Alberta.

I’m okay with that. My family lives in Edmonton, and I went to see them for Christmas. Ten days of R&R with my father and four snoopy sisters. Fortunately, their questions were all “Do you have an actual boyfriend yet?” rather than “Have you accidentally acquired superpowers?”

So I didn’t spend my vacation telling lies. Still, I’m glad it’s finally January, and I’m coming home to Waterloo.

Weird to say it straight out like that. But yes, Waterloo feels like home. And when you’re as drunk as I am, everything you feel is the absolute truth.

How drunk am I? Well, I won the drinking game with the Darklings. Okay, technically I only beat the demon and the werewolf. I tied with Karthik the vampire, but that’s still a moral victory. Vamp hearts don’t beat and their fluids don’t circulate, so when they drink, the liquor just sits in their stomach, immobile and chemically unreactive. Basically, vampires are undead wineskins: alcohol doesn’t affect them, but it fills them up volumetrically. The cutoff point is when the booze rises all the way up their throats and reaches their epiglottis. Any more after that and it drains into their lungs, which burns like a son of a bitch even if vamps don’t have to breathe. Turns out Karthik and I had identical fluid capacities, so the match was a wash.

That means I won. Toss-ups always go to the human, right?

As for Marie the werewolf and Iza the demon, they gave up the moment they tasted bile.

Tsk. Wusses.

Mark, the air-host dude, makes me go back to my seat when the pilot says, “Prepare for landing.” Mark ought to have sent me packing an hour earlier, but he realized my sparkling presence had pacified the Darklings and kept them from scaring other passengers.

BTW, Mark asked for my Snapchat ID. Ka-ching! Of course I gave it to him. It’ll be a novel experience to sleep with someone who has a job.

* * *

I’M JUST GETTING BACK to my seat when a voice speaks inside my head. «Hey, girl, you there?»

It’s Grandfather. Not my personal grandfather, but the primal granddaddy of the human race: the first male Homo sapiens, born more than a hundred thousand years ago. At least that’s what he claims. He might be a deluded old coot driven batshit by whatever glowing meteor gave him superpowers. Or he might be a wily old coot who uses the Grandfather persona to grease his way into your confidence. He makes you feel he’s your favoritest relative; you can trust him with your wallet and your secrets.

I’m able to hear Grandfather’s voice thanks to a communication ring I’m wearing. It’s a telepathic doodad I got from a Spark known as Invie. “Invie” is short for “The Inventor”; what he invents are gadgets above and beyond physics. They’re what we call “Cape Tech” because “Mad Genius crap that defies the laws of God” sounds judgy. Anyhoo, Invie divvies out comm rings to anybody he thinks suitably heroic, giving us a super chatroom where we can share info, call for help, and generally shoot the shit.

«What’s up?» I ask. I wonder how I’m coming across. If I spoke to Grandfather with my actual mouth, my words would be a slur of drunken mumbles. But speaking straight from my brain has to come out more clearly, right?

Yeah, Jools, clear as fucking crystal.

Hope I didn’t think that out loud.

«You got trouble,» Grandfather tells me. «Are you on a plane?»

«Yup.»

«Then you’re going to be arrested the moment you land.»

«Arrested? Why?»

«Don’t know,» Grandfather says. «But Invie listens in on official comm chatter. The folks at Waterloo airport just went into a tizzy because a couple Mounties put the place on security alert.»

«Mounties? Weird.» The Royal Canadian Mounted Police operate differently in different parts of the country. Back in Alberta, they’re the official provincial police—you see them all over. But Waterloo is in Ontario, and the province has its own separate police force. Mounties don’t have much presence here, except to handle big-ticket stuff like drug trafficking and terrorism.

«I’ll tell you what’s weird,» Grandfather says. «We haven’t heard anything about this on normal Mountie channels. Either they’re using some new comm network that’s off Invie’s radar, or this isn’t the real RCMP.»

«But what does this have to do with me?» I ask.

«These Mounties, or whoever, gave airport personnel the following description: twenty-one-year-old female, short brown hair, brown eyes, five-eleven, athletic, probably drunk … »

«Did they actually say that, or are you editorializing?»

«I’m saying it sounds familiar,» Grandfather tells me. «And they gave the name Julietta Walsh.»

Well, shit. Apparently, Grandfather knows my real name. But I should have guessed he’d find out eventually—he saw me using powers before I got a proper costume, mask, and code name. There’s a wonky pseudoscience effect that prevents people from connecting your Spark identity with your normal human ID, but it doesn’t protect you if you do superstuff in your civvies. It might have been inevitable that Grandfather would figure out who I was, but I’m pissed off it happened so fast.

He says, «If it’s any consolation, they aim to arrest your everyday self. Nothing in the message about you being super. So this may just be a follow-up on the lab explosion thing.»

That doesn’t make me feel better. My three roommates and I got superpowers a few days before Christmas, thanks to a fiasco at the University of Waterloo. Lucky for us, the mess was mostly caused by a bunch of Darklings, so the Dark establishment hushed up the whole thing. In exchange for not being prosecuted, my friends and I signed nondisclosure agreements promising we’d never spill a word about what happened.

That was supposed to be it: everything finished, case closed, buh-bye. But now I’m about to be arrested? What the living fuck?

«That’s all I got,» Grandfather says. «Invie asked me to warn you so you don’t do something stupid if you’re caught by surprise.»

«Do something stupid? Moi?» But yeah, drunken me might react on impulse if I suddenly got armlocked by police. That would be bad.

Except now that I think about my being a reckless drunk, I’m not nearly so swiggered as I was. I still have a three-beer buzz on, but considering how much I drank with Karthik, Marie, and Iza, I should be a puddle of drool. I have the gift of super-healing, but it isn’t supposed to handle alcohol; booze is the one toxic substance I can’t shrug off. But apparently my gift of regeneration isn’t all-or-nothing: it’ll let me get moderately plastered while saving me from complete and utter collapse.

Good to know.

«Well, thanks for the heads-up,» I tell Grandfather. «I’ll be on my best behavior when the gendarmes put me in irons.»

«Don’t be too meek and mild,» Grandfather says. «If you literally let them put you in irons, we might never see you again. I’ve heard of magical restraints that nullify superpowers. There’s even some that blank out your brain and turn you into a zombie.»

«Noted,» I say. «If things get too fugly, I’ll call on my besties for help.»

«You do that,» Grandfather says. «I’d hate to lose a granddaughter.»

I think, «I’d hate to be lost.» But he’s already hung up.

* * *

THE PLANE LANDS SMOOTHLY. I’ve been on flights where the passengers applauded a safe landing, but our group is too chill for that. Instead, there’s just a flurry of thumbs on phones despite the flight staff’s warnings that the plane will go up in a fireball if anyone turns on an electronic device before we’ve come to a complete stop outside the terminal.

Me, I don’t start texting. Or Facebooking. Or whatever it is that my fellow passengers have to do so fucking urgently. The only people I might want to contact are my roommates, and if necessary, I can telepath them through my comm ring.

But despite what I said to Grandfather, I refuse to tell my roomies I’m in trouble. They’d come running to save my ass, and that would really piss me off.

The others think I’m helpless, the weak link on the team. No, wait, it’s more than that. They think I’m stupid.

My powers make me smarter than the three of them put together. But they still think of me as the clueless fuckup who failed every course last semester.

That was so ten days ago. Now I’m the Chuck Norris of human intelligence. The Richard Feynman. The Beyoncé. Maybe I’m not as hyperastronomically clever as one of those Sparks whose IQ is a superpower, but I’m equal to the smartest humans in history: Newton, Einstein, Mozart, and …

Nah, I can’t be bothered to make a culturally diverse gender-balanced list. But I could. Cuz I’m Just. That. Clever.

Me and Socrates are BFFs. Me and Confucius get together to discuss analects and shit.

Yet my friends still think I’ll end up working at Mickey D’s. Well, screw ’em; I won’t call for help. Not yet, anyway.

And yes, I know this is a loser-girl move, purely because I’ve talked myself into a sulk. But I’m drunk and that’s my excuse. Just like always.

* * *

WE TAXI TO THE terminal. Then we begin the chaotic hassle of debarking, with everyone dragging thirty-kilo suitcases from the overhead compartments. Since it’s January 2, most passengers are university students coming back after Christmas break. Their luggage is crammed with enough clothes and parentally supplied dental floss to last the whole winter term. Without thinking, I find myself helping everyone around me wrestle down their bags. I’m a Spark and I’ll come to your rescue whether you want me to or not.

I’m not literally super-strong, but I’m maxed out on everything a normal human can do. When it comes to lifting weights, I’m a perfect match for some four-hundred-pound dude named Boris who set the world record at the last Olympics. Unless you’re a Spark or a Darkling, I’m stronger than you. So I sling luggage around with abandon, until I notice the dirty looks I’m getting. In these cramped quarters, people can smell the alcohol on my breath, and for some unfathomable reason, they’re pissed that a drunk is smearing her fingers all over their dainties.

But even when I see them getting mad, I have trouble stopping. I just keep thinking I can patch things up if I try really hard. It’s the logic of someone who’s well and truly in the tank. Mark, the air-host guy, finally taps me on the shoulder and suggests I leave well enough alone.

He doesn’t look so charmed by me anymore. Oh well, he was probably a creep anyway. Shame on him for chatting up a girl who’s blitzed.

Now he’s giving me the stink eye. Maybe he’s received word that I’m wanted by the Mounties. The cute Mr. Mark has started wondering if I’m a drug mule or the hench-wench of some supervillain. Or else he just sees me as a stupid drunk slut who deserves to be locked away from decent people.

Great. Now I’m depressed.

I slump along with the crowd toward the plane’s exit. My Darkling drinking pals are long gone from the first-class cabin. They were ushered out ahead of us sweat-stained plebeians. I picture them being driven in gold-plated golf carts to some superfast baggage claim. Meanwhile, the rest of us clog up the exit of the plane like gunk in a Drano commercial.

At least it gives me a chance to see what awaits me outside. We don’t go straight into a terminal like in upscale airports; it’s down a ramp to the tarmac, then across a stretch of pavement before actually entering a building.

And look! Two persons of lawful authority stand at the foot of the ramp: a man and a woman, both in dark blue suits and their forties, imbued with officious dude-i-tudes. People keep a nervous distance, as if the pair of them are bristling with poisonous spikes. I’d bet dollars to dachshunds these two have spent years drinking blood from some Darkling master. It’s made them into Renfields: strong, fast, and wrong in the head. Even if they look superficially human, they give off monstrous vibes that creep the hell out of normal people.

Renfields are almost as intimidating as Darklings. However, I can tell that these dudes are only minions, not full-on members of the Dark. Why? Because their suits came off the rack from Moore’s—specifically the Kenneth Cole Awearness line. (Yeah, I know shit like that. One of my not-quite-superpowers is that my brain automatically downloads useful trivia when I need it. I call it WikiJools: instant mental access to all public knowledge.)

The point is, true Darklings wouldn’t be caught undead in mass-produced clothing. These two Renfields may be serious heat, but they’re not the biggest flames in the furnace. On the other hand, they’re probably stronger than I am: not just human, but superhuman. I have to assume they’re faster, too, and maybe tough enough to take bullet or two without getting mopey about it.

I ask myself if I should reassess my decision not to call for help. I’m looking at Mulder and Scully’s evil twins; I may be in over my head. But hey, I’m a Spark. Even if these heavies are stronger and faster than me, they won’t be nearly as smart.

Cuz I’m brilliant now, right? And Renfields have the IQ of Styrofoam. When you drink Darkling blood, what you gain in muscle, you lose in intellect and independence.

I can outwit these dudes. My inebriated brain says it’ll be fun.

So down the ramp I go. And yes, they’re definitely Renfields: the stink of blood surrounds them like the haze around Pepé Le Pew.

It proves they aren’t honest-to-artery vampires. You never smell blood on vamps—that’s part of their magic. As inexplicable as the ability to suck a person dry through two piddly holes in the neck.

Fucking magic is so semantic. I mean, if I were going to suppress the smell of blood, I’d have to think about scent molecules and blocking olfactory receptors. Reams of biochem and anatomical analysis. But with magic, it’s just, “Blood, smell, block,” and it’s done. That’s offensive, is what it is, especially to those of us who pissed kidney stones to squeak out a 52 percent in organic chemistry.

The Dark has no respect for mundane reality. Neither do the Renfields waiting for me; I can tell that just by looking. They’re plasma-scented tools of the powers that be: not just ordinary po-po, but members of some vague yet menacing government agency that does dirty deeds for the Darklings who run our country.

RCMP? It is to laugh.

The male minion blocks my path as soon as I hit the tarmac. “Julietta Walsh?” He plumps up his aura of intimidation to add more butterflies to my fluttering stomach.

FYI, I hate people who call me Julietta. It’s like dealing with one of those ATMs that read the name on your card and then repeat it umpteen times during the transaction. “Welcome, Julietta! You’re broke, Julietta! Stop crying, Julietta! If we actually let you have cash, you’d only waste it, Julietta! Have a wonnn-derful day and come back soon, you bankrupt trash bag … oops, we mean our precious respected customer, Julietta!”

So I don’t acknowledge the name and I don’t acknowledge the man. That just means I get buttonholed by his partner. She flashes a card. “RCMP. Would you come with us, please, Ms. Walsh.”

“Whoa,” I say. “Show me that card again.”

The woman looks taken aback. I’m supposed to be cowed by the megajoules of magic pounding my brain with “Respect my authoritah!” But passengers from the plane are waddling all around us, and dozens are within easy earshot. Whatever this run-in eventually becomes, these two Slytherins want to appear legit, at least for the time being.

So the woman lets me look at her ID again. She allows me plenty of time to admire the ornate seal of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police embossed on plastic-coated card stock. There’s a photo of the woman labeled STAFF SERGEANT BARBARA L. STEVENS. It looks very official … except inside my head, WikiJools does a download to brief me on Mountie minutiae.

Staff Sergeant Barbara L. Stevens, you’re busted.

The card the woman showed me is a perfect reproduction of what Mountie IDs used to look like. Just one problem: the format changed eight months ago. The new cards have embedded RFID tags, similar to the EMV microchips on bank cards.

Staff Sergeant Barbara L. Stevens is chipless. With her outdated card, she couldn’t even get into a Mountie parking lot.

She’s Fakey McFakeface. I give her a smile. Set kid gloves to Off.

Of course, I don’t do anything rash. I’m supposed to be a normal university student, not someone in the know about Mountie IDs, and definitely not the type to cause a fuss with the police. Besides, I don’t want to endanger the innocent people around me. If I get rambunctious, who knows what will happen?

Anyway, I want to see where this game is heading. What are these fakes up to? And why with me?

So I don’t resist when they parenthesize me, one on either side. They take my arms, but their grip is light; they don’t try to cuff me or use those plastic restraint strips that make you feel like a freezer bag. The word “arrest” never burbles into the air. I’m simply going along with the nice pseudo-Mounties for purposes we’re all too polite to mention.

It occurs to me that a normal girl would ask, “What’s this all about?” So I do.

“We can’t talk here,” the man says. “It’s a confidential matter.”

Uh-huh. It’s so confidential that this dude hasn’t even showed me his ID. I believe I will christen him Staff Sergeant Bobby L. Stephens. That way they can be Stevens with a “v” and Stephens with a “ph”—like Thomson & Thompson in Tintin, but without the comb-overs.

To be fair, Stevens & Stephens don’t look alike, despite their similar suits. Stephens (male) is the same height as me, but built like a bulldog. Or a fireplug. Or whatever your favorite simile is for someone denser than seawater. Stevens (female) is a few inches shorter, but just as blocky as her partner. She has bottle-blond hair and a reddish complexion that is either windburn from skiing or … oh, fuck, my brain just downloaded a medical encyclopedia full of skin diseases.

Barf. It’s not the first time this has happened. I hope it’s the last.

I look away from Stevens-female and back to Stephens-male. His skin color is Mediterranean. Dark brown hair. Bloodshot eyes. He’s wearing green-iris contact lenses, and he’s had them in too long.

But why does he need contacts? Renfields usually have super-acute vision. I’ll bet this dude has been drinking Darkling blood for so long, his eyes have mutated to look nonhuman. He needs contacts to hide the degeneration. Maybe Lady Stevens’s reddened skin has a similar cause.

As I thought from the first, Stevens & Stephens are longtime Darkling suck-ups. That makes them more powerful than run-of-the-mill Renfields, but also more mentally unstable. Like the original Renfield from Dracula, they may eat bugs in private or have even less savory hobbies.

Ooo. Yummerific.

* * *

STEVENS & STEPHENS GRAB a porter and order him to take my carry-on to the main Arrivals area. They march me off in a different direction, into the terminal building and through nondescript corridors until we reach a door labeled AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. We go another short distance, then reach a door that clashes with the glass-and-chrome ambiance we’ve seen so far in the airport. The door is solid mahogany, oiled and polished, busy with intricate carvings of devils.

When Stevens & Stephens open the door, the first thing I see is utter blackness: like a curtain hung just inside the entrance, but so blackity-black-black, it eats photons for breakfast and never bothers to shit them out. I’ve seen its like before—it’s a blinder wall. A magical privacy barrier that Darklings use to block prying eyes. High-quality blinders can’t even be pierced by sorcerous scrying or superpowers; they cloak clairvoyance and X-ray vision, to make sure that shenanigans go unseen.

Stevens & Stephens escort me forward. There’s a moment of total sensory dep as we pass through the blinder, then suddenly we’re in a brandy-scented gentlemen’s club straight out of 1890s London. We’re talking actual gaslight. Oak paneling. A genuine fucking hearth with a genuine fucking fire, and over the mantelpiece, a huge painting that to my alarmingly expert eye looks like an authentic Watteau. (Two rosy-cheeked women are reading in a forest. “Ooo, chère Hélène! Let’s put on impractical gowns and walk in the woods, so we can read dirty bits from the Decameron while deer look over our shoulders!”)

Screw Watteau. I turn my eyes toward the bar: specifically toward the bottles of booze, each of which would cost a year’s tuition just to sniff the cap. Whiskies and brandies and gins, oh my! And no bartender in sight. As if you can just walk up and fill a glass from whichever bottle you fancy. I’d say it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven, except that with a free, open, and expensively stocked bar, I might simply die without heaven being involved.

The only features that clash with the room’s decor are the people who currently occupy it. Two paper-pale women sit with mugs of blood on the table in front of them. A dude with the head of a jackal eats a plate of I-seriously-don’t-want-to-know. And a human-shaped mass of flies is reading The Wall Street Journal. As one does.

For lo, this must be the luxury lounge where the .01 percent wait for their Learjets to get refueled. Every person here is a multimillionaire, rich enough to afford the Dark Conversion. Every person is also a festering bleed of mystic corruption … which is why the ceiling is cobwebbed, the paneling is cracked, and tribes of deathwatch beetles peek out from the upholstery.

It’s the same wherever Darklings gather. Airport staff must try to keep this place free of decay, but unless they scrub continuously 24/7, the rot sets in. No doubt some first-rate wizard has cast a preservation spell on the Watteau, but otherwise the lounge is allowed to molder. Darklings don’t mind—they find decrepitude homey. But every few months, the airport must have to trash all the bug-infested wood and rusted metal, then start again from scratch.

Well, heck, why not? Darklings can afford it. They openly enjoy conspicuous waste. What they don’t enjoy is intruders. A moment after we enter, one of the vampire women rises from her padded leather chair and addresses my escorts. “Were you looking for someone?”

She has to know that Stevens & Stephens are Renfields. If they smell bloody to me, a vampire must be able to sniff them from thirty miles away. And if the woman knows they’re Renfields, she can deduce they have a master: some Darkling who supplies them with blood and calls the shots. To the vampire woman, Stevens & Stephens are someone’s personal pit bulls. So why are they here, off the leash?

Meanwhile, the woman doesn’t give me the tiniest glance. I’m not even as important as a Renfield; I’m beneath her interest.

But I’m interested in her. For one thing, she looks old. If she were human, I’d put her in her fifties. That’s unusual, especially for vampires. Lots of vamps are trust-fund kiddies who Convert on their eighteenth birthdays. That leaves them stuck forever looking like high schoolers. And vamps who convert when they’re older get younger as they feed—not all the way back to eighteen-year-olds, but usually to their early thirties.

So every vamp I’ve ever seen looks to be in the age range from eighteen to thirty-five. What does it mean when a vampire looks fifty? Either she’s incredibly ancient—so old that the power of blood can only get her down to middle age—or else she’s made herself look older with a magical glamour.

Another thing I notice: her British accent. I’ve only heard her speak a single sentence, but I can already tell she’s rocking Received Pronunciation. Or so WikiJools informs me. For a long, long time, RP was considered the apex predator of accents—the difference between the hoi and polloi in Oxford and the BBC. Attitudes have mellowed in recent years … but RP is still the accent of choice for people whose first language isn’t English but want to hide that fact.

It takes work to replace your native accent with something more posh. The people who go to that effort do it because RP sends a message: I. Have. Class.

One way or another, this woman is not your run-of-the-mill vampire. Maybe she isn’t a vamp at all, despite her Kleenex-white skin. She could be a different type of Darkling: one of the many called demons for lack of a better name.

Maybe she’s something exotic from non-Western folklore. Apart from her pallor, she looks Southeast Asian: dark Pacific Rim eyes and straight black hair that’s unfashionably long for someone her age. Her lips are ebony, and I don’t think the color comes from lipstick. In fact, she’s not wearing much makeup at all. That’s atypical for Darklings—most are obsessed with the way they look, and I don’t just mean the women. Whether or not a Darkling aspires to be conventionally attractive, every single one of them wants to look striking.

I can’t help noticing this woman wears a loose full-length dress. Black silk with gold embroidery. From the waist up, she looks like a normal woman—trim and well built for someone her age. But from the waist down, under that dress, she could look like anything. My drunken brain imagines her slurping around on octopus tentacles like Ursula in The Little Mermaid.

“Well?” the woman says to Stevens & Stephens. “For whom are you looking?”

“Sorry, ma’am,” Stephens says, “I can’t answer that question.” Both he and his partner have tensed up like cats who’ve run into a Doberman. The Dark Pact says Darklings can’t hurt humans except in self-defense; but Stevens & Stephens are Renfields, and to a Darkling, they aren’t people, they’re just property. If the woman in black decides to get pissy, she can smash them however she chooses. The only penalty she’ll pay is reimbursing their owner, like when you accidentally break a neighbor’s window.

But the pale-skinned woman doesn’t resort to violence. Instead, she only cocks an eyebrow. “Your patron must be formidable if you’re willing to annoy so many of us. Your patron is also a boor to deem this a suitable place for meeting with your kind and this mortal. However, I won’t punish you for obeying orders. I will hold my disapproval until your master arrives.”

The woman gives one last glare at all of us, then returns to her seat. The other Darklings in the room give us scowls of their own. (Well, at least the ones who have faces.) Then they all turn away pointedly, and pretend we deplorables don’t exist.

I’m left with nothing to do except stare at the bar with saliva-filled longing. I wonder what Stevens & Stephens would do if I went over and got a drink. Maybe something from the Highlands and older than my father. Would the bar have something like that? Not bloody likely. This may be a luxury lounge, but Waterloo is a backwater. I’d expect to see quality hooch, but nothing world class.

The bottles are calling my name. Jools! Jools! Wrap your lips around us and suck! But if I take one step toward the bar, Stevens & Stephens will … no, forget what they might do, the woman in black will turn me into a newt. Or a vole. Or some other animal whose name is fun to say.

I can feel her watching me now. She’s pretending to read: a fat red morocco book whose cover has faded with age. I think it might be a codex, written by hand instead of printed. The woman moves her finger along the page—not left to right but downward, as if the writing is Chinese. But she’s not really reading. She’s eyeing me with an unblinking stare, hiding her gaze under her eyelashes.

For all I know, she could be casting a spell. Maybe she’s hexed me and I can’t even tell. Legally, Darklings aren’t supposed to use their mojo on mortals without consent … but legally, people aren’t supposed to shoplift nail polish and that happens all the time. Specifically, every Sunday afternoon around three thirty at the Shoppers Drug Mart in Waterloo Town Square.

Maybe I’ll ask the woman right to her face why she’s checking me out. But before I can muster the nerve, there’s a kerfuffle in the hearth. The flames go agitato, and a dude balloons out of the fire.

It looks like he’s inflating. He starts as a dot among the embers that fills with hot air and puffs up into a full-sized man. A full-sized man holding a big fucking scythe. He wears robes from head to toe, with the fabric a shade of dirty gray that might have been chosen so that fireplace ash doesn’t show too noticeably.

The robes have a cowl, and all I can see of the dude is his face. Surprise, surprise, it’s a skull.

The hands on the scythe are skeletal, too. Don’t ask me how the finger bones don’t fall apart into separate carpals, cuz as far as I can tell, Scythe Dude has no ligaments holding his pinkies together. But that’s magic for you. It doesn’t have to make sense physically, as long as it works as a story. Concept: living skeleton. Done and done.

I glare at Scythe Dude as he strides from the hearth, tracking soot over the genuine Persian carpet. I say, “Really? Really? Doesn’t J. K. Rowling have a patent on that?”

“Belief is a lubricant,” Scythe Dude says. His voice is predictably sepulchral, like James Earl Jones wearing a Darth Vader helmet while standing at the bottom of a well. “When the public believes in a particular type of magic spell,” drones on Scythe Dude, “casting the spell becomes easier. Thanks to Harry Potter, travel from fireplace to fireplace takes far less effort than other forms of teleportation.”

“So it’s also easier to fly on broomsticks now?”

“Yes,” says Scythe Dude.

“But it makes you look like a memek,” mutters the woman in black.

Memek. WikiJools tells me that’s an Indonesian vulgarity. Or should I say “vulvarity.”

Well, that’s informative.

Scythe Dude ignores the woman and turns to me. “Are you Julietta Walsh?”

“Call me Jools,” I say, striding forward and extending my hand. Behind me, Stevens & Stephens lose their shit as they realize I just slipped from their grip like soap in the shower. Scythe Dude seems equally taken aback as I grab his bony fingers and give a hearty shake.

I know I’m supposed to be retching into my Reeboks in his presence. I feel his Shadow trying to stroke its bony fingers up my sides and make me shiver. But between my buzz and my resistance from being a Spark, this Death dude doesn’t scare me. And as per always, I’d rather make a splash by leaping forward than hanging back with the girls who behave.

“Pleasure to meet you,” I tell Mr. Scythe. “Gonna tell me your name?”

“You may call me Reaper,” Scythe Dude says.

Me and the woman in black both snigger. I mean, really. Before this dude bought the Dark Conversion, he had a name like Bernard Skank-Huffington the Third. Now, he’s christened himself Reaper? That and the scythe and the robes and James Earl Jones are enough to make Freud say, “I told you so.”

Look, if Scythe Dude wasn’t compensating for feeling like the bottom man on the broomstick, he’d wear regular clothes, use his real name, and avoid entering rooms through the fireplace. He def-o-lutely wouldn’t try to impress me by having his flunkies bring me to the luxury lounge, and he’d carry a regular briefcase instead of a farm implement.

The only message this bullshit sends me is that Reaper is a Darkling loser: the unpromising son of wealthy parents who paid for the boy’s Conversion in the hope he’d become a badass Death Lord. Instead, all they got was the bass guitarist for a Black Sabbath tribute band.

“So what’s this all about, Reap?” I ask, maxing out my volume and bonhomie.

I can almost see wheels turning inside Reaper’s head. (Whoa, now that I think of it, if the dude really did have wheels inside his head, I could see them through his eye sockets. That would be awesome! But all I see are empty air and shadows. Sad!) Reaper turns this way and that, scoping out the other Darklings in the room. I guess he’s debating whether they have enough security clearance for hearing whatever top-secret horse crap he has to say. Finally, he makes a decision. “Ms. Walsh, would you follow me, please?”

“Why the heck not?” After all, he said please. I know he’s taking me somewhere where shit can transpire without witnesses, but I just can’t work up much concern. Reaper, Stevens, and Stephens are too Yakko, Wakko, and Dot to make me sweat.

But as the four of us troop from the room, I look back at the Darklings lounging in the lounge. They’re ignoring our group with an air of “I’m pretending you were never here, fa-la-la.” All except the woman in black, who stares at me without blinking.

Her eyes meet mine for a moment of meaningful I-don’t-know-what. Connection? Interest?

That’s not good. Attracting a Darkling’s attention is playing with fire. Considering how powerful the woman likely is, maybe it’s like playing with plutonium. Still, I’m tempted to stick out my tongue at her, but there’s not enough booze in the world to push me over that line.

Aww, fuck it. I give her a wink. She doesn’t wink back.


Copyright © 2018 by James Alan Gardner