Chapter 20: Who can you trust?
Copyright © 2016 by Brian Bixby
This room looks familiar. It’s Deecee’s bedroom. And the woman standing there, with a rapier in her hand, looks familiar, too. She’s the blonde magician who messed with me in San Francisco.
I turn to run, and almost run smack dab into Sanderson. “Aaaaahhhh!” And then when I’ve recovered myself, I say, “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
Sanderson frowns and then peers at me. “What the hell happened to you, Harry?”
Oh, my face. “Jealous woman, I guess.”
Sanderson snickers. “I bet.” She goes over to the woman and takes the rapier out of her hand. “Like my latest prize? Her name’s Þóra Magnúsdóttir.”
Oh, shit. “Thora the Assassin.” And I wanted to bed her. Talk about a death wish.
Sanderson raises an eyebrow. “Really? People call her that? I thought that was a pet name she gave herself.”
Thora still isn’t moving. We’re not dead yet. I’m happy about this, but curious. I ask, “What’s happened to her?”
Sanderson purses her lips before replying. “The woman here with the two swords, she a friend of yours?”
“Becky,” I tell her. “Don’t know her well, but she seems to be on my side.”
“Becky.” Sanderson shakes her head. “Well, Becky was trying to take Deecee to you and fight off this woman at the same time, so I used magic to freeze her in place. And then I could feel you through the star this Becky of yours drew here, so I decided it was time you earned your keep.”
Knowing Sanderson as little as I do, this still probably means trouble. “What are you talking about?”
Sanderson smiles, and walks over to the bed and sits on it, tossing the rapier aside. “Thora has taken on the job of killing me. Now I happen to think that might just make me a biased judge, just a wee little bit. And you’re supposed to be my moral guide, Harry. Tell me what I should do with her.”
Kill her. She’s a damned assassin, and I doubt she’s going to feel happy about Sanderson doing this to her. If Sanderson can kill her. So I ask, “Can you kill her . . . if that’s what I decide?”
Sanderson shrugs. “Kill her, let her go, turn her into a nun, make her a guy, you name it, Harry, I can do it. Want me to make her your mistress?” She laughs. “No, I’m ruling that one out. It would be too tempting for you.”
I decide. “Then kill her.”
Sanderson has one word. “Why?”
What, you tell me to decide and then question me? “What do you mean, ‘why?’”
“You’re supposed to be my moral guide. Explain your reasoning so I can learn.”
Abigail Lane, you didn’t tell me this was part of the job. “Because she’s trying to kill you. Self-defense.”
“Yeah, but I could just change her mind about that, Harry. Need a better reason.”
Sanderson can do that? Well, she did say she could do anything. “Can you keep her from killing me . . . or the others, as well?”
Sanderson looks over at Thora for a bit with a puzzled look, and then slowly nods before looking back at me. “I see. You two have met before. You’re quite the pick-up artist, Harry. You sure you’re not also biased against her?”
I don’t need this reminder of San Francisco. I was drunk then. “If I am biased, then you’ll need to get someone else to decide what to do with her. So I quit. Now that you’re back and Thora’s more or less out of the way, this business is concluded. Send me back home and handle your own affairs.”
“I’m not back, Harry.” Sanderson gets up and starts pacing the room. “This isn’t me, just like it wasn’t me back in my parlor the other day. I’m . . . elsewhere, exactly where I’m not sure, except it’s not on this plane of existence.”
“You look real enough. You were kind of odd, last time.”
“I’ve had time to practice, Harry. And the star I placed on your palm helps me anchor myself here more easily.”
I hold it up so she can see it. “Thanks. If I don’t get this off soon, I’ll be absorbed by the dark power behind it.”
“Really? Damn, that’s not what I intended.”
I lash out at her. “What did you intend, Sanderson? What possible motive could you possibly have for destroying me as nothing more than a side effect? ’Cause you’re not winning any brownie points with me, here.”
Sanderson stops pacing while she’s facing away from me. Without turning, she says, “I’m trying to return to normal life, Harry. I don’t know for sure what’s happened to me, but I can’t seem to undo it.” She turns around to face me, and while there are tears in her eyes there is fury in her voice. “I can destroy an entire hell without working up a sweat, but I can’t go home and be a normal person again. Don’t you understand that?”
Obviously not, and why would I? And this is not a good situation. I am in a room with a professional killer, and a woman who can obliterate reality, and they’re probably both pissed at me. I don’t want this. This is way beyond anything I understand or was trained for.
Sanderson has turned her back on me again. I can hear her sniffling. Well, good, she should suffer, too.
But there’s something about a woman crying, I don’t know what. Call it chivalry. All I know is that I’ve always tried to avoid crying women. Leaving before they wake up often works. But Sanderson is crying right now. Quietly, but still crying. It makes me realize that this is way beyond anything she understands or is trained for, too. She hasn’t even had my training.
So what does my training tell me? Kill demons. Abigail said that had shaped me the wrong way for other things. Let’s prove Abigail wrong. I kill demons because they are evil, and evil has to be stopped from working actively against people.
Thora’s trying to kill Sanderson. So she has to be prevented from killing Sanderson. But she’s a person. So we can’t commit an evil against her, or we’re as bad as demons.
“Sanderson, can you do something to Thora so she won’t hunt you down? Maybe just send her away from here or something?”
It takes Sanderson a few seconds to react to what I’ve said. She turns around and looks at me with wide eyes. And then she nods. “I can. But you’ve got to explain yourself, Harry.”
Damned demanding woman. But this time I can explain myself. I recapitulate what I’ve just thought through for Sanderson, minus the part about crying women.
Once she hears it all, Sanderson lets out a half-hearted chuckle. “We’ll make a moral philosopher out of you yet, Harry. I can do just what you ask. Heck, I can send her . . .” Sanderson stares at Thora for a bit. And then Thora just simply vanishes from the room in a puff of magic. Sanderson grins at me. “She won’t be a problem for some time to come.”
Good. “Now remove the star from my hand.”
Sanderson shakes her head. “Can’t do that, Harry. At least not until I can get it off of my own hand.”
You count on someone, you do something for them, and now they let you down. “I thought you could do just about everything.”
Sanderson looks chagrinned. “Well, I can use the power I have to do anything. But I can’t use it against its sources.”
Hmmm, that’s sort of like what Becky said. “Sources, plural?”
Sanderson holds up her right hand and turns it about. “The night feathers. The seven-pointed star.” She looks at me, puzzled. “Why isn’t the star trying to absorb me like it is you?”
I’m frustrated at Sanderson, not for the first time. So I don’t think before saying something I thought about when she threatened to kill me. “Because you’re already an evil bitch.” I immediately regret saying this.
Not immediately enough. Sanderson glares at me, and I’m knocked off my feet and fall into some sort of magic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I land face first on a floor.
“Gad, Harry, break it one more time and I don’t think even magic will save your nose.” Becky is clearly amused at my injuries. At least she helped Amelia work on them earlier, though it’s Amelia alone who has just finished bandaging me up.
“Blame Sanderson’s ill humor. I try to help her, and she slams me into the floor.” It comes out sounding a bit funny, thanks to the way my nose is bandaged.
Amelia rolls her eyes and switches the subject. “So Sanderson really got rid of Thora the Assassin somehow?”
“So she says. She didn’t explain how and where before she got pissed at me.”
“More importantly, she confirms what I figured was the case.” Becky sounds smug. “We need to get that star off both of you.”
“Come up with any bright ideas on that?” Becky’s tone inspires my sarcasm.
“Well, as a matter of fact, while you were recovering from your concussion, Miss Young and I came up with a few ideas.” Becky sits down by Deecee, who’s wearing a loose-fitting dress Becky dug out of her closet. “The keys are the jewels and the silver. Miss Young is certain that’s what kept the magic contained within the original brooch. She’d never tapped it. She thinks that Miss Sanderson tapped it, and it stuck to her by being incorporated into her hand. So all we have to do is get her to sever any magical link she has with it, and it should return to the form of a brooch.”
“Hmph.” That doesn’t sound so bad. There are ways to break a magical link. So why is Amelia, now sitting in the living room on the couch beside me, frowning the way she is?
She sees me looking at her, and tells me, “We’ve been over this while you were out, Harry. What Becky describes will work, if we’ve guessed correctly. But if the magical matrix that contained the brooch was destroyed when the star bound to Sanderson, separating the two will just unleash whatever magic is in that star, and that might leave us worse off than before.”
Deecee speaks up for the first time since I woke up. “I wish I’d thrown that thing away.”
Amelia asks, “Why didn’t you ever tell the Office about it?”
Deecee looks embarrassed. “It was the only thing I had from my grandmother. I knew it contained magic, but it never did anything while I had it. It was safe. I figured one day I’d learn how to use it and then show people what I could do with it. I’m sorry.”
Amelia gives an odd laugh. “Young, we . . . well, the Office thinks you could become a board-qualified magician in handling amulets, talismans, and the like. It’s no wonder that brooch never caused you any trouble. The question is whether you can get it out of Sanderson’s hand and restore it to its former condition.”
Deecee thinks about it a bit. “I might be able to. I had it for so many years that I remember exactly what it was like. And I owe Seffie. So I’ll do my best.”
The others nod. Okay, Amelia, I understand: Sanderson was one of her team. But I don’t know why Becky is so interested in Sanderson. And, frankly at this point, with my nose under so many bandages, I’m not so keen on helping Sanderson myself. If it weren’t for this star cut into my flesh that will ultimately destroy me, I’d give the whole business a pass.
So I go for Becky. “What’s your interest in Sanderson, really, Becky? You talk about it being magic associated with these stars,” and I hold up my palm to show mine, “but you don’t strike me as the sort of person who goes off on crusades or anything like that.”
There’s dead silence in the room for several seconds. Becky and Deecee look shocked, while Amelia nods. It’s Amelia who speaks up. “I’m afraid I have to ask the same question of you, Becky. Not that I’d be as crude about it as Harry just was, but I’m in this to rescue a colleague, as are Deecee and Harry. I don’t know what your ultimate goal is, or whether our colleague might be expendable in your eyes. And these are things we need to know, now.”
Becky looks nonplussed for the first time since I’ve met her. And then she narrows her eyes at Amelia. “That was an ultimatum, wasn’t it?”
Amelia doesn’t bat an eye. “You can call it that. I won’t disown it.”
Becky sighs. She gets up and goes over to the fireplace and stands in front of it. There are only a few embers remaining from last night’s fire. Curiously, despite all the objects tossed about by the winds earlier, the embers and ashes are all still in the fireplace.
With her back still toward us, Becky says, “First it was the motel room. And then I traced it back to Farnham. And then to one Persephone Désirée Arabia Nightfeather Sanderson, a ridiculous name for a person who couldn’t be what she seemed. So I talked with people, with her friends, with her colleagues, and with the help of some drinking, with magicians who were trying to hunt her down.
“I built up a picture of this woman. She was young, a bit headstrong, unsure of herself, and commanded powers she didn’t fully understand. And she was in way over her head.”
Becky turns to face us. “It was a familiar story. It was my story, when I was eighteen and on my first job as a magician, in a place called Vardley.”
In a low voice, as if speaking to herself, Amelia says, “Vardley. Of course. That was in the 1870s, wasn’t it?”
Becky’s eyes grow wide. “How do you know of this?”
Amelia offers Becky a wan smile. “Chance, I suppose. One of Frank McCarthy’s ‘Norns’ used to work in the Office. I would tell her stories of New Orleans, and she would tell me stories of New England. One of them was about Vardley, and it featured a young magician named Rebecca who was part of a notorious 19th century family of magicians.”
Becky replies, “If you know much about what happened then, you can understand my interest in this business.”
Amelia nods. “I do.” She turns to me. “We can trust her, Harry. Take my word on it.”
There are other people I wouldn’t trust on their word, but Amelia isn’t one of them. “If you’re good with her, Amelia, so am I.”
Becky smiles at that. “And now that we’ve got that settled, I need to get some sleep. I was up all night looking for a safe moment to abduct Miss Young before I decided to take a chance anyhow. So I’m going to turn in up there in the loft.” She stands up, yawns, and stretches. “Amelia, wake me at 4 PM. And then we’ll go hunting Miss Sanderson.” Her smile grows broader. “I think I’ve figured out a way to find her.”
End of chapter twenty
Now — back to the whole reason behind this adventure. We started out with a “demon” killing, and then possessing, people. The short-term goal was to prevent the demon from doing things like that, including getting Deecee back.
Now we’ve got Sanderson, who’s destroyed a Hell and is now tapping into the dark power of a silver brooch. And the goal is to get the silver brooch out of Sanderson’s, and Harry’s, hands, and prevent Sanderson from becoming an even darker power than she’s already become.
I have a feeling I’m forgetting something — something that was behind all this. Something that ties all this together. Something that means we haven’t just shifted from one short-term mission to another, that the current short-term goal isn’t just the side effect of the earlier one — that there’s some larger picture.
Well, maybe there is, but that doesn’t mean it’s apparent to Harry at this moment. And here’s a question you’ve not considered: why is this story being told from Harry’s perspective?
Perhaps the longtime goal loops around Harry’s raging libido? (Kidding–I think). This star, though, it’s kinda like the goose that lays the golden egg: with everyone getting stuck-fast to it. Your inspiration, by any chance?
I can’t actually recall an inspiration. At one point, thinking of Harry, I was thinking of it as the magical equivalent of an STD, though perhaps the Tar Baby might also have been in the back of my mind.
Like tar baby
Oh dear, I had no idea!!! When you said that another character from the Sillyverse universe would join us, I had Make-Love-Not-War in mind, and I was pretty sure that was the SF witch… I didn’t expect Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell. I loved her! I can’t wait to see what lays ahead. Which is easy, because due to my busy life, I’m two chapters behind 🙂 What a treat…