Chapter 11: Women are not pals
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
It turns out that getting out of the realm of the dead isn’t a simple matter. Sanderson wants to go where Deecee Young is, but doesn’t have the ability to find her yet. Abigail Lane doesn’t know Deecee, so she can’t help. Eventually, Abigail agrees to help Sanderson send the two of us back to the normal world to Deecee’s San Francisco apartment.
We arrive in the kitchen. There are maybe a dozen demons in the room. They aren’t goliaths, but they’re still formidable. They eye us. I whip out my bowie knife and look over to Sanderson. “It would be really helpful if you’d turn into a gigantic silvery bird right about now.”
“Well, since I can’t, let’s try something different.” Sanderson holds up her right hand. The feathers have returned to their black color. She turns her hand to show the feathers to the demons.
The demons cower.
Sanderson turns to me and smiles. “Let’s kill some demons, Harry.”
We make quick work of them. By the time we’re finished, we’re both covered in demons’ ichor. As is the entire kitchen. You kill enough demons, and that’s what happens to you. Especially when you do it with your bare hands, the way Sanderson did it. The floor is covered in decaying demon corpses, and more ichor.
I look over to Sanderson, who’s staring at the floor, and say to her, “The demons seemed to be scared of you.”
Without looking at me, she says, “They damn well better be, now.” She kneels down and places her right hand deliberately in a pool of ichor. A wave of magic sweeps across the room. Before my eyes, the ichor starts flowing along every surface, even the ceiling, even my clothes. It’s all being pulled into Sanderson’s hand, where it vanishes in her feathers. In less than a minute, it is done. There is no ichor anywhere in the room anymore; even the demon corpses look desiccated.
This is not good. In fact, I would normally say that it’s very bad, because it should mean Sanderson is a demon, or at least possessed by one. Those are the only two classes of beings I know of with an affinity for demons’ ichor. But I know demons. And she is definitely not one, whatever else she is. Nor is she possessed.
She stands up and gives me a smile. But it’s not a smile I like, not at all. Sanderson looks shadowy, dark, as if all the ichor she has absorbed has somehow made her a demon. And then she turns and heads into the other room.
I follow after her into what’s clearly a bedroom. There’s a picture of Deecee Young with Sanderson on one wall. So this definitely must be Deecee’s bedroom in San Francisco. It looks as if it’s been ransacked by someone in a hurry. Things are overturned, drawers have been pulled open and their contents dumped on the floor. Sanderson is looking around, as if she’s lost something.
Lacking anything more constructive to say, I ask, “What are we looking for?”
Sanderson replies in an abstracted way, “Something really personal of Deecee’s. There’s a jewel in this room somewhere, I think, if the demons didn’t happen to get it first.” She turns, goes over to the tall dresser, rummages around the stuff emptied out of its drawers, and comes out with a brooch. “This.”
It’s a brooch, a seven-pointed star in silver with jewels at its points. And then I notice that it’s not just an ornament. That thing has a significant magical charge on it. What it’s for, I don’t know. So I ask. “Why that?”
“She’s worn it for years. It’s the only thing that came down to her in her family that she still has. It means a lot to her.” Sanderson’s been staring at the brooch, but now she looks at me. “I once found a cat just by holding something that belonged to it. I can find Deecee with this.”
“That thing has a lot of magic in it,” I point out. And I’m wondering why the demons didn’t take it.
Sanderson eyes it a bit more. “All the better. It’s bound to her magically as well as by possession and ownership.” She closes her eyes, holding the brooch tightly in her right hand. The feathers on the back wave about a bit and then flatten out. “She’s a long ways away.” Sanderson opens her eyes again. She’s looking at me, but it’s not as if she’s seeing me. There’s not a trace of emotion on her face, either. “That doesn’t matter. No demon can hide her from me now.”
Abruptly she comes out of her rapt state, pockets the brooch in her jacket, and gives me a smile. “Good job killing demons, Harry. I’ll tell Amelia or Val when I see them, okay?”
Well, thanks, but . . . “What’s next?”
Sanderson’s smile goes away. “I’ll go east, alone, to hunt Deecee and her demon. You should probably report into your organization’s San Francisco office.”
I am not getting tossed aside, even if Sanderson feels suicidal or stricken with passion for Deecee or whatever. “You can’t go after her alone, Sanderson. That demon took out four of us the last time. You’ll need help. We can get hold of the team in Farnham, even get reinforcements from the San Francisco office, whatever we need.”
She shakes her head. “That was before I knew what I was. Now I’m doing things my way. And I’m doing it alone.” She looks down to the floor, and in a lower tone of voice adds, “Besides, your people won’t want me.”
She tries to walk past me, but I grab her by the arms and spin her to face me. “What is that supposed to mean? In fact, what the hell is going on with you, Sanderson?”
Sanderson looks so dark and threatening, I almost release her and step back. In a deadly quiet tone, she says, “I can break both your arms in seconds, Harry.”
But you haven’t, which means you’re still willing to talk. “Breaking one should be sufficient,” I tell her, “if you’re trying to make some sort of point. Or you can tell me just what’s going on with you. What happened to the girl who pulled me out of a parking lot because she wanted to be part of the team?” I let go of her to try to show some sort of good intentions. Also because I don’t want my arms broken.
She considers just what she wants to say, then holds up her right hand so I can see the night feathers. “See this, Harry? It’s the mark of Black Hecate. It’s dark magic, black magic. Your organization wants something like that for an ally?”
No, I’m pretty sure we don’t. But that’s the wrong answer in this circumstance. Think fast, Harry. “So what? The head of the Office for over twenty years was a black magician. We’re an equal opportunity employer.” I don’t mention that Frank McCarthy is no longer part of the Office, but runs his own damn group of scientific magicians.
Sanderson doesn’t seem impressed. She shakes her head. “Nice try, Harry. I’m leaving. Try to stop me again and I will break your arm this time for sure.”
She heads off through the decaying demons on the kitchen floor to the outside door. I don’t follow. Sanderson was nice enough to reduce the number of my arms she threatened to break from two to one. I don’t want to test her any further.
For once, Val doesn’t seem to be mad at me. She listens impassively as I report on my recent adventures with Sanderson. The only other person in the video conference room in the San Francisco branch is Tyra Holden, the branch’s . . . well, I guess you could call her the branch’s reference librarian of the occult. She’s also the only Office agent to go into a hell alone and come back out again alive. Marge Winter may be an ice queen, but Tyra operates at levels approaching absolute zero. Compared to her, even Val comes across as a sympathetic character.
I finish my report. On the screen, Val is leaning back in her chair and looking up at the ceiling of wherever she happens to be. She doesn’t say anything for several seconds. And then, without changing positions, she asks, “The jewel, or whatever it is?”
Tyra responds in her clipped monotone. “SF branch knows nothing about it, so she presumably was hiding it from us.”
“And from the demon possessing her, too, or so it would seem. But not from Sanderson, who’s apparently not interested in being part of our organization anymore.” Val’s voice carries just the slightest hint of disapproval.
Tyra hesitates, and then says, “You brought the two of them together.”
Val stops staring at the ceiling and sits back upright in her chair. Her gaze locks on Tyra Holden. I look over at Tyra and am shocked to see that she’s trembling. She’s scared of Val! I mean, any sensible magician should be scared of Val, but Tyra? I didn’t know she was afraid of anything. In a voice that hardly sounds like her own, Tyra’s barely able to get out the words, “I didn’t mean to, ah, imply . . .”
Val interrupts her. “That I’m incompetent? Or that SF Office is?” She leans back in her chair and stares at the ceiling again. There’s a long silence before she speaks again. “We have not covered ourselves in glory on this case so far, Holden. No one gets to make excuses, not even me. Not even me, and certainly not you, either. Get that straight. Now, Black Hecate.”
Tyra returns to her usual monotone, although I can detect a bit of a quaver in it. “Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems to be the source of the English language phrase. It made it into certain early twentieth century hybrid versions of black magic and voodoo in Chicago and New Orleans. The mark designates an agent of vengeance and destruction. There is no explicit connection to anything resembling night feathers, nor seven-pointed stars.”
“Insufficient. Contact Elijah in Boston, and get a necromancer to haul Eva Laveau out of her grave in New Orleans. Somebody has to have a clue. Dismissed, Holden.” It all comes out of Val with just the slightest touch of annoyance.
Tyra gets up and leaves without a glance at me, but I can tell she’s been shaken by Val’s attitude. On the screen, Val’s still staring at the ceiling. I debate whether I should wait for the blow to fall, or hasten my doom. Mulishly, I decide to do the latter. “So what reprimands do I get, Val?”
Val brings her gaze down to look at me while still leaning back in her chair. There’s a peculiar smile on her face as she says, “I wouldn’t waste my breath, Harry.” She sees the surprise on my face and laughs out loud. “God, Harry, use your brain. Give it some exercise before it dies from neglect. I know what kind of person you are. So, you tell me, what could I say to you that would make a difference?”
“You could pay me a compliment,” I suggest.
That sends Val into a fit of laughter. When she’s finished, she smiles at me and says, “Okay, my compliments to you on your adventure with Sanderson. You killed demons, you escaped a hell, you brought back valuable information, and you sensibly decided not to risk Sanderson breaking your arm. All to the good.”
Val laughs one more time, and then the smile drops from her face. She leans forward in her chair. “Now that we’ve dealt with you finer points, on to your less fine ones. I’ve read Amelia’s report on you, Harry, and it’s about as bad as I feared it would be. I opposed your transfer out there to the boondocks because I knew you’d go to pot out there, and to pot you have gone. At the moment, you’re more a liability than an asset to the organization, and if Ops and Personnel were to have their way, you’d be fired and magically neutered.”
I’m stunned. They want to kick me out of the Office and prevent me from ever being able to use my magical powers ever again?
Val interrupts my thoughts. “Good, you understand the seriousness of the situation. Then understand this: you’re not supposed to know this. Get it?”
Because the Office is hardly going to warn a magician that they’re going to magically neuter them. That I get. But why is Val telling me this? Because she doesn’t want it to happen. And that is a shocker all by itself. Skipping the fact I thought Val doesn’t like me, she has undoubtedly just broken a whole slew of rules, first to save my neck and then to tell me this. Well, she’s Valerie Thompson, and I know it’s far from the first time she’s broken some rules. But why me? Why now? So I say, “I understand why you’re telling me this. I just don’t understand why you’re doing it.”
Val gives me a wolfish smile. “It’s not out of any affection for you, Harry, if that’s what you’re wondering. This case is going south so badly that it’s giving me opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise. You just happen to benefit. So, get yourself a shower and a decent change of clothes and get back out to Farnham, ASAP. We’ve finally turned up the demon’s newest victims, and have shipped them all to the motel there.”
That’s puzzling. “Why are you turning the motel in Farnham into a morgue?”
“We’re not. The newest victims are alive. We just don’t understand what happened to them yet. Marge Winter could use your help.”
Oh, great. Send me back to spend more time with Marge. “Shouldn’t I be helping hunt the demon?”
Val shakes her head. “Officially, the rest of the Farnham team is pursuing Young and the demon using some trick Polly Joshi worked out. She’s ingenious, I’ll grant her that. But just between you and me, the team is not going to succeed. Underneath that awkward personality, Young is far too clever and too powerful, and with that demon possessing her, she’ll run rings around them.”
Val is looking intently at me, as if she expects me to say something. I feel like I’m about to walk into a trap. So I do. “Then why did you bother assembling that team, Val?” I can’t believe myself as I put a note of sarcasm in my voice. “It’s not that I’m questioning your judgment.”
Val nods, as if I’ve said something she expected to hear. “That’s my Harry, questioning my competence while denying it. I did it because it was expected, Harry, and because there is an off chance they may yet succeed.”
“You make it sound as if there’s someone watching our actions.”
“That demon didn’t change its m. o. in Farnham just by coincidence, Harry. Sanderson had that much right, even if she guessed wrong about the target.” Val leans back in her chair and stares at the ceiling again. “No, we’re going to have to go about this another way. Don’t worry about being left out of the action, Harry. Before this is over, there will be plenty of demons to kill in Farnham.”
I have one question. “Sanderson guessed wrong? I’m not the target?”
Val’s voice sounds remote. “Of course not. Sanderson’s been the target all along.” She closes her eyes. “Get to Farnham, Harry, before Sanderson returns there. Because she will return there, and she will bring death and destruction with her. Dismissed.”
End of chapter eleven
Oh, nice ending there. But then you are becoming the master of hangers (while I work mostly with carrots). And with the subtle exposition you slip in when no one’s expecting, you don’t need to append the supplements. Next week, please. And one must ask–and know full well one will not be answered, yet–why does big nasty demon want to kill Sanderson Blackfeatherhand?
I do aim to avoid the “deadly threat to the main character who of course will not be killed” type of cliffhanger becoming too frequent.
Next week is going to have some more exposition, which I hope glides by as easily. But I doubt it.
Who says the demon wants to kill Sanderson? NOT Val Thompson, whatever you think you just read. (Heh, heh, heh.)
You . . . .
If it makes you feel any better, you’ve just anticipated one element of the next chapter.
Oh, I do feel so much better.