“Bagdad Cafe, huh?” Crapsey peered up at the sign. “What’s up with the real Baghdad these days, boss?”
“Here? I have no idea. In our world I think it’s been given over to a legion of djinn.”
Susan Wellstone, who was rather impatiently holding the door to the diner open, raised an eyebrow. “Well? You said you were hungry, so come on.”
The sun wasn’t even up yet, but there were several other people in booths and at tables inside the cheerful diner, mostly young and either tired- or wired-looking. Back home the same sort of people would also be awake at this hour – but they’d be laboring in one of the Mason’s labs or factories or collegiums, depending on their skills and ambitions. Except in San Francisco they’d be doing whatever the subjects of a jaguar god-king did with their mornings. The Mason didn’t run California over there… yet.
Susan led them to a table in the far corner, away from other customers, and sat with her back against the wall. Crapsey was used to that sort of thing from sorcerers – never put your back to the door, protect your flank, go wide when you go around corners in case someone’s lurking there, et cetera et cetera. The Mason took a chair facing the wall without complaint. She wasn’t worried about people sneaking up on her. She literally had eyes in the back of her head. Well, not literally, they weren’t actually eyes with corneas and aqueous humor and all that, but she could see in 360 degrees around her at all times. It was a cloak thing. Crapsey sat down beside her.
He’d never eaten in a restaurant before except maybe when he was a kid, and wasn’t sure how to go about it, and though the Mason had experience in such matters she was just sitting there, so he followed her lead. Susan Wellstone snapped her fingers, and a twenty-something blonde with dark eye shadow and several facial piercings approached. Crapsey gave her a big smile, which she returned perfunctorily. Maybe if he hadn’t put on the glamour that hid his distinctive prosthetic jaw she would have been more interested – she was clearly open to the idea of body modification. Susan ordered coffee and something called a crab benedict, then muttered about how it should really be called “Eggs Chesapeake” and why couldn’t any restaurant in California ever get that right, and Crapsey said, “Make that two,” because he didn’t know how you even found out what food a restaurant served, and the Mason said, “Just water,” which Crapsey knew she probably wouldn’t even drink.
While they waited for the food to arrive, and the Mason stared blankly at a spot on the wall, ignoring Susan despite all the woman’s throat-clearings and finger-tappings, Crapsey took pity on her. “Your, uh, city, it’s really nice. I never saw San Francisco before the coming of the –”
“Shush,” the Mason murmured, and Crapsey’s jaw clamped shut of its own accord – or, rather, of the Mason’s accord. She’d ripped off his original jaw the day they met, and later fit him with the prosthesis, which had certain magical enhancements… but which the Mason could also remotely control.
His jaw unlocked, and the Mason didn’t say anything further, so Crapsey figured she just wanted him to steer clear of talking about the Jaguar. Fair enough. “Um, over in my world, I mean,” he said. “The view from the boat was really something, all those lights. And the car ride over here, it was, wow…. Hills. Buildings. Trees. Really great.” He’d only been to the San Francisco in his world once, on a diplomatic mission, and the city there was mostly being devoured by the jungle of its new god-king.
“Thank you.” Susan looked at him speculatively – probably thinking she could get on his good side and develop some influence with the Mason that way, it was a look Crapsey received a lot – and then the food arrived. Crapsey leaned forward and inhaled the odors from his plate, two puffy white lumps placed on top of two golden brown breaded lumps which were in turn on top of two round pieces of bread all smothered in a yellow sauce, with savory potatoes – potatoes being the only thing he definitively recognized here – on the side. He took a bite, and the creamy-tangy-smooth-salty overwhelmed his senses. Crapsey closed his eyes and just tasted the mouthful for a long time before chewing and swallowing. He was suddenly, specifically grateful that the Mason hadn’t ripped off his tongue along with his jaw.
“Oh, Susan, this is the best food I’ve had in ages. But there’s not any crab on the plate. Or is the name crab benedict like metaphorical? I know this English guy, Rasmussen, he runs things for the Mason in the British Isles, he told me about something he ate when he was a kid called toad-in-the-hole, but it’s not even really made with toads. So is it like that?”
“No…” Susan pointed to the breaded lump. “That. It’s a crab cake.”
“They make cake out of crabs here? This place is wild. And these are, what, eggs? They seem kinda eggy.”
“Yes, poached eggs – you’ve never had a crab cake before? Or poached eggs?”
Crapsey shook his head. “Nah. I mean, I eat pretty well, don’t get me wrong, better than just about everybody else, but since my boss here doesn’t care about food it’s not like we’ve got fancy chefs or anything in our headquarters – some people call it the imperial palace, but come on, it’s a warehouse store in Felport the Mason took over, it’s not palatial. What we’ve got is this huge pantry full of scavenged and hoarded canned goods, and crates of vegetables yanked right out of the ground from the prison farms, and if you’re part of the Mason’s inner circle – not that any of us are all that inner, even me, come on, she’s like an alien or something – you pretty much just root around and fend for yourself at mealtimes. The foot soldiers have cafeterias, but you wouldn’t want to eat what passes for food in those – it’s basically just battle-optimized protein/vitamin mush.” He stopped talking long enough to wolf a few more bites, surprised to see half the food on the plate gone already. He could always order more, he supposed… Susan was staring at him. Oh. Right. Manners.
Resisting his desire to rapidly devour the rest of his food – such wonderful meals were obviously commonplace here, no need to inhale it – he put his fork down, wiped his mouth, sipped his coffee (that, at least, was just as lousy at it was in the Mason’s domain), and said, “So anyway, how’d you end up running San Francisco?”
Susan glanced at the Mason. “It’s a long story.”
Crapsey shrugged. “There’s no place I need to be. I mean, there are places I need to be, but they aren’t in this universe, so I figure I’m not going to make it anyway. So tell.”
Susan arranged her coffee cup just so on the table, then looked into Crapsey’s eyes. She had heterochromia – her left eye was green, her right blue – and it was a pretty intense spooky kind of stare, no doubt practiced for just that effect, but Crapsey spent most of his days with one of history’s top ten greatest despots, so he just smiled blandly and took another sip of his drink.
“I took over San Francisco not quite a year ago. Before that I was in Felport, on the council of sorcerers there. Marla was chief sorcerer, she still is. Marla and I, ah…” Another glance at the Mason.
“It’s okay,” Crapsey said. “Talk all the shit about Marla you want. The Mason isn’t Marla anymore. She’s been wearing that cloak non-stop for over a dozen years. There’s still some Marla in there, sure, her personality has an influence, but mostly, it’s the cloak.”
“Is she not listening? You called her an alien, you…. she doesn’t mind?”
“The Mason doesn’t get offended real easily. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’ll kill you as soon as look at you, and as for insubordination, forget it, better you don’t even think about it. But she cares about actions and results, pretty much. She’s gotten into the human habit of talking, at least sometimes, she likes a little banter, and she likes saying cruel shit to people before she kills them, but I think that’s like a consequence of the body she’s using, the shape of the brain she’s using to think with. Really she thinks most of the things humans say to each other are so much pointless babble. But, hey, we humans have to pass the time and reinforce the bonds of our social ties and exchange information and all that, so why not chat?”
“But you aren’t human.”
Crapsey picked up his butter knife and pointed it toward Susan. “Hey. That’s rude. True, technically true, but we’re talking semantics. Yes, I’m some kind of psychic parasite who can jump from body to body, but I have no memories of a time when I didn’t inhabit a human body. Whatever my true history is, poof, it’s lost to me. I’ve never known a life where I wasn’t human, with all the hungers and urges and desires a human has. So screw you, you say I’m not human. The Mason, she’s totally different. I mean, she remembers whatever came before she possessed Marla, she knows what she really is – not that she talks about it much. Besides, the Mason doesn’t inhabit that body over there. The Mason is mostly the cloak. You think you’re looking at a woman wearing a cloak, but you’re not – you’re looking at a cloak wearing a woman. Except the cloak is, you know, not a cloak. But that’s killing my metaphor so I’ll shut up. You were saying. You were in Felport…?”
Susan looked like she wanted to ask some follow-up questions, but he saw her decide to let herself be redirected. Good. The Mason didn’t like waiting, and if Crapsey didn’t get the info his boss wanted out of Susan soon, things might get nasty. “Ah. Yes.” Another sideways glance at the Mason, then she focused her attention on Crapsey again, since the Mason was displaying as much affect as a piece of painted wood. “I was living and working in Felport. Marla had been chief sorcerer for a few years. I disapproved of… everything about her. I am a very methodical, organized, patient person. Perhaps because my specialty is large-scale ritual magic, where complex procedures must be performed without the slightest mistake or deviation over long time scales – or perhaps I’m good at such magic because I’m a perfectionist. Marla Mason, however, just… blunders in. If she sees a problem, she attacks it directly, without regard for strategic planning or unintended consequences. She is rash, reckless, and stubborn. The fact that she’s had some degree of success with this approach is even more infuriating. I thought I would make a better chief sorcerer than she, and so, in the traditional manner, I, ah…”
Crapsey nodded encouragingly, eyeing the mostly-uneaten crab benedict on her plate. “Tried to knock her off. Assassination. Oldie but a goodie.”
Susan stirred around her potatoes with her fork. “Indeed. I attempted to cast a spell that would erase her from the very fabric of reality. She found out, and tried to save herself by acquiring a certain artifact that could protect her. The artifact was here, in San Francisco. She failed, I might add, but while she was here she became embroiled in local politics, got into a fight with a mad sorcerer from central America, and when all was said and done, Marla found herself in a position to help decide who the next ruler of San Francisco would be. She made me an offer – if I let her live, and let her have Felport, she’d arrange for me to take over San Francisco. As this city is in every conceivable way – climate, economy, culture – superior to the decaying rust-belt relic that is Felport, I agreed. And here I am still.”
Crapsey leaned forward. “This mad sorcerer you mentioned… Guy named Mutex? Wanted to bring an ancient jaguar god back to life?”
Susan frowned. “His name was Mutex, yes, but he was trying to summon some sort of toad goddess, if I recall, associated with the underworld. He didn’t make it that far. Marla killed him.”
“Toad. Huh.” In Crapsey’s world, Mutex had summoned Tepeyollotl – god of jaguars, earthquakes, and echoes – and the Mason hadn’t even heard about his ascension until the god was already born and consolidating his power. These days the Mason ruled most of Canada and Mexico, chunks of Europe (by proxy), and the continental US from the East Coast to the Rockies. The Jaguar ruled most of the West Coast, except for a chunk of the Pacific Northwest that was presently held by a giant fungal intelligence called the Mycelium. Of course, unless they could make it back to their universe, the balance of power was going to shift over there. Not that Crapsey was in a hurry to leave this universe. The food here alone… “You gonna eat that?” he said, and when Susan shook her head, he brought her plate over and began finishing her food, too. What else had the Mason wanted him to investigate? Oh, right.
“So your version of Marla Mason, you said she’s got a cloak of her own? Purple and white?”
“Oh, yes.” The waitress returned with a coffee refill, and Susan meticulously measured three spoonfuls of sugar into her cup and tinkered with the cream quantity as carefully as an alchemist hot on the trail of the elixir vitae. While she stirred, Susan went on. “The story goes that Marla found the cloak in some thrift store in Felport when she was, hmm, perhaps twenty? A mere apprentice, coming into possession of such a powerful artifact… Well, it gave her ideas, aspirations above her abilities, if you ask me. I daresay the only reason she rose so far and fast in the city’s sorcerous society was because she had the cloak.”
“But she doesn’t wear it all the time?”
“No, no. In the old days she wore it more often, but never constantly. Lately I hear she hardly wears the cloak at all unless going directly into a battle she might not otherwise win, and there was even a rumor that she’d sent the cloak away to be buried in some remote location, but I don’t believe that. You don’t give up a weapon so potent, even if it is, ah…”
“Is what?” Crapsey leaned forward with his chin in his hand, smiling at Susan affably. She was pretty, in a cold way. It would be fun wearing her body. He’d try to loosen her posture up a bit, let her hair down, see if her physiology would allow for the possibility of some fun.
Susan closed her eyes. “Poisonous. Marla contends the cloak is poisonous. That to wear it for too long makes her mind fade away, that she senses some… alien inhabitant… dwelling in the cloth, eager to take over her body, her soul, her life. That the cloak is a powerful artifact, but a cursed one.”
Crapsey looked over at the Mason, who’d moved her gaze up a foot or so, to a completely unremarkable different spot on the wall. “Pretty much true. Wear it all the time, never take it off after the first time you put it on, and you end up like the Mason. Which isn’t so bad if you want to be a conqueror of worlds, but if you want to, I don’t know, go dancing, or see a boxing match, or get drunk with your friends, or even have friends, or have sex, or just have a good time, or maybe have a dream… being the Mason isn’t so good for that.”
The Mason sighed, which meant she was impatient, which meant: “So let’s review,” Crapsey said. He began counting off points on his fingers. “Marla Mason is chief sorcerer of Felport. She has a cloak, the same cloak, but she doesn’t wear it often, only for like emergencies. And there’s no giant Aztec gods lurking around the west coast.”
“Okay, then – oh, hey. What about me? The other me, the alternate me?”
Susan nodded. “I don’t know him well. He calls himself Rondeau. He… doesn’t jump bodies as promiscuously as you do. I don’t think he even knows how. He’s still in that body, his original one, I mean, the first one he stole, the one he grew up in. He doesn’t have a prosthetic jaw, either.”
“Huh. Guess he didn’t meet his Marla on a bad day, then. Lucky bastard.”
Susan shook her head. “No, Marla did rip his jaw off, the first time she wore the cloak, but she regretted it, apologized, and made sure he got a replacement jaw from a psychic surgeon. Over the years the two of them have become close. Now he runs a nightclub in Felport, where Marla keeps her office, and he’s her right-hand man, essentially.”
Crapsey punched the Mason lightly on the shoulder. “You hear that, boss? You and me, inseparable across universes. We’re meant to be. It’s kismet. Destiny.”
“There’s no such thing as destiny,” the Mason said, still staring at the wall. “There can be no destiny, no ‘meant to be,’ in a multiverse where all possible things happen. There are surely infinitely more universes where we never met, and where neither the body you wear nor the body I use were ever born. But we’ve learned what we need to know. Remove her.”
“Sorry, Suze,” Crapsey said, and leapt from his body into hers.
Except it was like trying to do a cannonball into a frozen lake. The psychic spiderweb that was Crapsey’s consciousness hit a cold icy wall and bounced. He couldn’t fight his way into Susan’s mind, any more than a fly could fight his way through a closed window.
“I said Rondeau doesn’t jump bodies.” Susan’s voice dripped with contempt. “But I was aware of the possibility that he might, and since he works for one of my greatest enemies, I erected these psychic protections against bodily possession ages ago. It’s called being prepared, Mason, and being prepared is what I do –”
The Mason leaned forward and extended her hand faster than Crapsey could see – even while he was disembodied, when his senses were far more acute – and a blade flashed. She withdrew her hand, and Susan stared at her, and then her chin dropped to her chest. A tiny spot of blood began to swell on the fabric of her blouse, just over the heart, but it was a dark blouse, and probably nobody’d notice.
Crapsey slipped back into his body and shook himself. “Sorry, boss, she had a good wall up. No protections against physical attack, though? That’s dumb.”
“No, she was wreathed in protective spells. I had to use my dagger of office.”
“Ahhh.” The Mason possessed the dagger of the chief sorcerer of Felport – to be fair, Felport was the first of the many, many cities she’d conquered, and still her home base – and it was a potent artifact in its own right, if not possessed of intelligence like the cloak was. The dagger could cut through anything: steel, concrete, ghosts, magic, whatever. It was useful, though not the sort of thing you wanted to wave around too much, since you might accidentally end up slicing through all sorts of things inadvertently. “So what now?”
“If you’d been able to possess Susan like I wanted, then we could have used her body to call together a gathering of her sorcerers, killed them all, and made San Francisco our base of operations. But since that didn’t work…” She shrugged. “I say we go to Felport and find Marla.”
“Huh. You think Marla has something to do with us… showing up here, in the mirror universe?”
“It’s possible,” the Mason said. “But mostly, I just want to see her. I’m curious to see how she… developed… without my influence.”
“That’s you, boss. Curious to a fault.” The Mason did indeed enjoy turning over rocks, looking under them, and brutally exterminating the life of anything she found underneath. But Crapsey thought this was more than mere curiosity. The Mason had been very insistent about the need to find out if Marla had a cloak, if it was always in her possession, if she was likely to be wearing it, and so on, hence Crapsey’s morning of eggs and interrogations. He thought Marla herself was maybe kind of an afterthought – the Mason was interested in Marla’s cloak. “Going to Felport sounds good to me. I want to meet myself. Hell, maybe me and him can get a three-way going, show some girl a really good time.”
“You sicken me,” the Mason said.
“Right back atcha, boss.”
She stood. “Come, let’s leave before Susan’s body is noticed. If the police become involved I’ll have to destroy them, and if something too dramatic happens here, word may get back to Marla… I’d hate to spoil the surprise of my appearance.”
“Police, right.” Crapsey vaguely remembered cops, or at least trying to avoid them when he’d been a little kid, living in alleyways, new to being human, before he met the Mason and the world changed.
“Don’t forget to leave money, Crapsey. The waitress will chase us if we stiff her… and she won’t recall your flirting with pleasure if she has to pay for your meal herself.”
“Ah, uh, right, pay, sorry.” Currency didn’t have much to do with his day-to-day life, or anyone’s life where he was from, really – the Mason’s world was less a cash economy and more a beg-barter-steal economy. He picked up Susan’s little black handbag from the chair beside her body, found the billfold, and looked at the green pieces of paper inside, nearly all marked “100.” He took out three of the bills and put them on the table, because there’d been three of them having a meal, even if the Mason only ordered water, so one bill for each of them was probably right, yeah? Then he remembered something from a book he’d read once – you were supposed to leave a tip, for the waitress – so he dropped a fourth hundred on the table. “There,” he said, more confidently than he felt. “We’re all set.”
“Excellent,” the Mason said. “Let’s go steal a car.”