When Marla dragged herself upstairs to her room and opened the door, she groaned. Daniel was lounging on her bed, flipping through a big hardcover book, looking relaxed and cool and not at all battered, sweaty, or defeated. "Off. Out. Get. Go. Sleep now."
Daniel closed the book and looked at her from beneath his long eyelashes boys always did get the best eyelashes, Marla's brother was the same way. "How'd your aptitude tests go?"
Marla walked to the bed, grabbed hold of his ankles, and jerked him off the bed onto the floor. He never lost his grin, even when his head thumped on the carpet. Marla climbed into bed and pulled the covers over her head.
"That well, huh?" he said. "I know you're tired, but are you sure you don't want to change into some... other sleepwear?"
Marla rolled over and gave him a glare containing all her strength which, alas, was not very considerable at the moment. "You left that lacy crap for me? In your dreams, Daniel. I'm not that kind of girl."
"Can't blame a guy for hoping. Or dreaming. Sleep well, Marla."
"Be lucky if I sleep at all, sore as I am," she said, though her eyes were already drooping.
He reached out and touched her head. "Poor you. Wouldn't want you to miss out on your beauty sleep."
At first, she thought his hand was wet, that he was pulling some sophomoric prank and dumping water on her head, but then the coolness of his touch spread down her spine and through her limbs, and where the cool touched, her aches ceased. She wasn't numbed the pain was just gone.
Marla sat up fast and batted his hand away. "What did you do?"
Now his grin faltered. "Just gave you a little jolt of life, and undid all the damage you did to your body today. No need to thank me "
"Idiot," she said. "Don't ever do that again. Don't you know anything about exercise? I'm supposed to be sore. I pushed myself hard today, and my muscles are full of little microtears from the effort. Those little tears get filled in with new muscle as they heal and that's how you get strong. And you... you just poofed it away with magic and undid my whole day's work! I won't be any stronger tomorrow than I was this morning!" And given that she hadn't accomplished anything but physical exertion today, the loss of that tiny bit of conditioning was even more disheartening.
"You know, Marla," Daniel said evenly, "You can be kind of a bitch."
"Sure." She felt less sleepy now probably another side-effect of him giving her "life." Whatever that meant. Where did he take the life from? "A girl who doesn't giggle and flip her hair when you walk by is a bitch, right? You can get by on charm and long eyelashes and a cute butt, but we don't all have those gifts. Some of us have to fight and kick and claw to get along in the world, Daniel."
He shook his head. "You don't know what I've had to do to get here, Marla. Don't think you do." He started to leave, but paused in the doorway. "Your butt's not so bad, by the way." He turned off her light and shut the door after him.
It was, she thought a little sadly in the dark, probably the nicest thing a cute boy had ever said to her.
The next morning came too soon, but at least Artie didn't roust her out of bed before dawn. She went down to the dining room, where a few bagels and a plate of burnt-to-charcoal bacon awaited her. Artie was eating a breakfast burrito as big around as a mortar shell and reading a racing form, Jenny was picking at half a grapefruit, and Daniel, as far as she could tell, was living on air and coffee. They mumbled good mornings.
"So what's on the agenda for today?" She poured a cup of coffee and took a sip. She'd had worse, but only once, at a truck stop outside Chattanooga. Give this pot another hour of sitting on the burner and it would win the prize. "You all take turns hitting me with oars from a canoe?"
"Nope. You got a driver's license, Marla?" Artie didn't look up from his form.
"Sure. Rollo made it for me."
Artie snorted. "You know how to drive though?"
"Good. You and Daniel go out to the airport." He passed a piece of paper over to her. "Flight number's there. You're picking up a friend of mine, guy named Lao Tsung. Bring him back here."
"Sure thing." Gofer work. Ah, well. Chop wood, carry water. "Where's the car?"
"Daniel will show you. Just don't let him behind the wheel."
"I could drive," Daniel said.
"Not after last time." Artie glanced at his watch, an ostentatious thing of chunky gold. "Okay, Jenny my dear. You ready?"
She nodded and stood up, and Marla whistled. Jenny had on a white blouse, which would have been conservative if it hadn't hugged her boobs so tight, and a plaid ruffled skirt and knee socks. "Are you starring in some schoolgirl porn or something?"
Jenny rolled her eyes and nodded. "I know, right? There's a Catholic school, and they actually dress like this, for serious. I'm, ah " She glanced at Artie.
He shrugged. "Marla's in the family now, you can tell her. But the short form, we gotta get going, and so do they."
"I'm going undercover at St. Luke's. I'm a senior, apparently." She dropped a cursty. "The new librarian there is a sorcerer from out west, traveling incognito, and Artie wants to know why he's taking a job at a private Catholic school. Maybe there's some old text hidden away in the library or something, who knows?"
"Maybe he's just got a schoolgirl fetish," Marla said.
"Nah, that's more my speed." Artie wiped his mouth and tossed his napkin onto the table. "We're gone. You two." He pointed at Daniel and Marla in turn. "Be polite to Lao Tsung. Respectful, even. He doesn't have a sense of humor like I do. I'll see you all back here in a few hours."
They left, and as soon as the elevator trundled up to the ground level, Daniel said, "Give me the keys."
"Blow me," Marla said.
"I think that's my line."
The car was the Bentley again, tucked away in a garage not far from the front door, but so cunningly built against the hill and into the landscape that it was barely noticeable if you weren't looking for it Marla wondered if there was some magic on the place to deter the eye.
Marla started it up, sighed, and reversed out of the garage. She didn't like driving, and hadn't done it much. Things went by too quickly behind the wheel of a car. It was hard to pay attention to anything but the bare necessities of staying on the road, not crashing, and obeying traffic laws; the peripheral became a blur, and she worried, always, about missing something that mattered.
Daniel directed her toward the coast road and north, the bay a vastness on one side, forests soon appearing on the other, the city left behind. "I understand why I'm being sent to fetch someone," Marla said. "I don't know how to do anything yet. But why aren't you out committing crimes like Jenny?"
"Oh, the same reason Artie won't let me drive. I'm being punished." He stared out the passenger window at the water, and she envied him the sustained view, which she could only see in quick glances.
"Punished for what?"
Daniel shrugged. "I sorta drove off a cliff."
"Okay. Totally. Totally off the cliff. Just up here, actually, see where there's a new shiny length of guardrail? That's because I broke through the old faded guardrail."
The spot he pointed out wasn't in a curve, or at the bottom of a hill, or anything, just an unremarkable place in a straight length of two-lane blacktop. "Was it an accident?" Marla asked.
"No, I did it on purpose. Artie was with me, I knew he wouldn't let us drown. I wanted to see how he'd handle it. He's always testing us, so I figured, it was only fair, I'd test him. Just jerked the wheel hard and off we sailed." He smiled a little. "There's a moment when you feel weightless, when momentum keeps you in the air. Then gravity takes hold."
Childish, Marla thought, though she could see the appeal of messing with Artie. After what he'd put her through yesterday, especially. "Since you're not dead and the car's still here, I guess he saved you. What did he do?"
"I don't know, exactly. We busted through the guard rail and fell toward the bay, all that gray water rushing up at us, and Artie just, like, sighed. He said I shouldn't waste his time, then thumped me on the side of the head not hard, must've been some magic in his fingers and I woke up soaking wet on the sand about three hours later with some kind of crab nibbling my toes. But when I hiked back to the house, the car was there, not a drop of water on it, so Artie did something."
"Should've made it look like an accident," Marla said. "I would've acted like the brakes weren't working, and I would have crashed through up here, where the road curves, see? Like it was unavoidable. Then Artie might not have knocked you out."
"Not bad. But it's easy to point out the flaws in someone else's plan."
"It doesn't sound like you actually had a plan. You just... did some shit."
She glanced over at him, and his eyes were narrowed, and he looked pissed off, and she thought, Okay, he's that kind of guy, but then he laughed. "Yeah, yeah, touchι. About ninety percent of what I do I just do on impulse. Not you, huh? Gotta figure all the angles first, right?"
"I have impulses." She considered jerking the wheel and going off the cliff just to prove Daniel wrong... except she didn't have that much faith in his magical abilities. He could probably make the car glow green and drive itself without the engine running, but she had doubts about his ability to make it fly.
"Do you ever have... impulses... about me? Dirty ones?" He waggled his eyebrows, and Marla had known enough boys to guess he'd pretend to be joking if she laughed at him, but if she showed any interest...
"Do you harass Jenny this way and I just don't see it? Or are you afraid she'll set you on fire?"
"Jenny?" He made a thppt sound. "She's like my sister or something. Not my type, anyway."
"Blonde, pretty, capable of levitation? That's not your type? And I'm supposed to believe I am?"
"Look, I like Jenny I love her, she's basically family after the months we've spent together but she's got pretty much zero sense of humor, and even though she's a lot more... mentally together than she used to be... most of her conversations still revolve around fire, or Artie, or setting stuff on fire for Artie. I can tell you're smart, you ask good questions, I don't know, I'm just interested in getting to know you better."
"Really? Because I got the impression you were mostly interested in sleeping with me. The lingerie, the innuendo, doesn't seem like you wanted a meeting of the minds, Daniel." The road curved away from the bay, turning inland, and the forest gave way to fields.
"Okay, I was a little crass. What can I say. I don't do subtle. I like watching you beat stuff up. I like how you move. Makes me wonder how you'd move if you weren't beating stuff up."
"I'm flattered. I am. But dial it back a little, would you? You piss me off some, but you don't bore me, so call that part a draw. And you're not bad to look at. I don't know how I feel about touching, though. My life is pretty complicated right now. I'm... adjusting."
"Fair enough. We've got a long time to get to know each other better. But if you ever want to give in to your impulses and just make out for a while, you know where to find me."
It was, Marla decided, an option to keep in mind.
They parked the Bentley in the short term lot and loitered near the departures area, Daniel holding up a sign that read "Lao Tsong." Eventually a man came toward them, lean and sinewy with black hair in a ponytail and vaguely Asian features. He was no taller than Marla, probably about 40 years old, and wearing travel-rumpled black casual clothes. A nasty-looking hand-rolled cigarette hung unlit in the corner of his mouth, and he stopped in front of them for a long moment, then tapped his forefinger on the sign. "Spelled wrong. It's 'Tsung,' with a 'u.'"
"Ah, sorry," Daniel said. "Artie didn't spell it for us."
Lao shrugged. "It's okay. I'll kick your ass for it later, we'll call it even. Where's the car? You better get me to Artie's before I need to take a shit. I hate public toilets." He walked toward the outer doors without waiting for them to lead, or even follow.
Marla looked at Daniel, who shrugged, and they went after him. "How was your flight?" she asked, and then added, "sir," because of what Artie said about respect.
"Sir?" Lao said without looking back, striding through the crosswalk against the light. As Marla hurried after him, narrowly avoiding death by taxi, she realized Lao didn't have any bags. She also realized he was walking unerringly toward the spot where they'd parked the car. He'd probably been here before, knew where the short-term parking was, but still, it was a big lot...
"Sir! Don't sir me. What's Artie been telling you? He knows I turned down that knighthood. Death to the monarchy!" He reached the Bentley, patted the roof with his open hand as if greeting a beloved pet, and turned. "My flight was shit. The only thing worse than flying across the ocean in an airplane is flying by magic." He shook his head. "You kids better be worth all the trouble Artie's putting me through."
"I'm... what?" Daniel said.
"I'm here for you," Lao said. "To toughen you up! Teach you a thing or two! Put hair on your chests!" He eyed Marla. "Not yours. Probably. We'll take it on a case by case basis." He played a rapid drumbeat tattoo on the roof of the car. "Give me the keys, and let's roll till the rolling's done."
"Oh, we can drive," Daniel said, "You must be jetlagged, you don't want to drive when you're tired, your reflexes "
Marla barely saw Lao move, but Daniel was flat on his back, and Lao was kneeling beside him, one hand cupped on the back of Daniel's head, holding it half an inch above the pavement. "Reflexes. You see those reflexes? Knocked you down and kept you from cracking your skull. Those are my jetlagged reflexes. You just wait."
"Artie said to show you respect," Marla said. She tossed the car keys, which Lao snatched out of the air without rising, or even looking up. "Respect."
"You, I like." Lao stood and prodded Daniel's ribs with his toe. "You, I don't like so much. But you can get up."
Daniel rose, gingerly, as if unsure whether or not all his limbs were still attached.
"Huh," Marla said, going around to the passenger side; no question in her mind she would be riding shotgun. "Usually nobody likes me. Usually everybody likes Daniel."
"I'm a contrary motherfucker," Lao said, and climbed into the car.
"Lao is an expert in... well, fifteen, twenty thousand different things." It was evening, and Artie was in an expansive playing-host mood, sitting on his overstuffed white couch with a cigar in his hand. Lao sat cross-legged on the teak coffee table in the center of the conversation area, smoking a disgusting handrolled cigarette, which, by the smell, was more ditchweed than tobacco. Jenny who had a bruise on her forehead Marla was curious about was in an armchair, fluorescing a little in her schoolgirl outfit, her fiery aura resonating to the tiny little sources of flame. All we need is for Daniel to start puffing on a corncob pipe and set off the smoke alarms and this will be loads of fun, Marla thought.
She was beside Daniel on the couch with Artie. Lao Tsung was facing them but not, apparently, paying them any attention, dividing his time between contemplating the ceiling and examining his cigarette for signs of paper fatigue.
"But right now," Artie went on, "Lao Tsung is here in his capacity as an ass-kicking expert. Master of every martial art from aikido to, fuck if I know, zen-fu, whatever. He's gonna teach you three how to throw a punch and take a punch and, if you're good, maybe some fancy shit like how to punch a guy so his testicles explode ten minutes later."
"He's a self-defense teacher?" Daniel said. "But we can do magic at least, Jenny and me can, no offense, Marla. Jenny can make a guy's testicles explode without punching him, and I can... well. You know what I can do. Why should we waste our time learning to kick people when we could be learning the inner secret sacred mysteries?"
"Why?" Artie leaned over and tapped a chunk of cigar ash onto Daniel's knee. "Because sometimes magic doesn't help. Because you're tired. Or because you're up against a sorcerer who's as good as you are or better. At this point, kid, most of them are better than you, believe me. You try and do some spell and they just brush it off like a cobweb and start working up a little magic of their own, and you're screwed. But if you know how to hit them in the throat so they choke on their own windpipe, they can't exactly finish the incantation, can they? I want you three to learn to fight because most apprentices don't, and being able to sweep the leg and kick the ass will give you an edge a lot more often than you think."
He sat back and regarded Daniel, benignly to all appearances, though Marla wondered. "Now, I explained that to you because I believe in an open and honest dialogue about our thoughts, feelings, hopes, and ideals, but really, the only reason you should need is, 'Because Artie says so.' If it weren't for me... You know where you'd be, Daniel. Your hillbilly relatives would've put a stake through your heart and stuffed your mouth with garlic and cut off your head and buried you at a crossroads, and the only reason they wouldn't have shot you with silver bullets is because they couldn't afford the silver. Am I right?"
Marla had never seen Daniel furious before. Peeved, sure, sarcastic, certainly, but now his eyes were like dying embers and his mouth was set in a hard line that was less frown and more a barely contained snarl. Marla tensed up in unintentional sympathy.
Then Daniel sighed. "You're right, Artie. Sorry." And some of the tension bled out of the room.
Marla said, "So you're a secret martial arts master too, then, Artie?"
"Fuck no. I can hit a guy with a pool cue when he ain't looking, but beyond that, I don't fight. That's why I've got apprentices who know how to fight, see?"
Daniel laughed. "So when do we start this ass-kicking training?"
"Now," Lao said, and launched himself off the table.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 6.