“Out, everybody out, we’ve got to talk.” Marla made shooing motions at Rondeau, Hamil, and Langford, while Beta-B sat wild-eyed and staring on top of the desk.
Rondeau paused in the doorway. “Should I, uh, bring him some water, or –”
“Out,” Marla said, in that I’m-about-to-shove-you tone of voice, so Rondeau went.
Langford immediately walked over to Rondeau’s little kitchenette and began peering into cupboards, looking for who-knows-what, and Rondeau suppressed the urge to snap at him. There were certainly plenty of times Rondeau had poked around the shelves in Langford’s lab without permission, and Langford possessed things a lot more delicate than stale saltines and cans of clam chowder past their sell-by dates.
Hamil considered one of the rickety wooden chairs beside Rondeau’s scarred table, obviously decided they weren’t up to supporting his weight, sighed, and settled for leaning against a wall. From inside Marla’s office came muted voices, punctuated by occasional shouts, but there was a basic privacy spell that kept any of the conversation from being intelligible; it sounded kind of like Klingon.
“You just went along with this?” Hamil scowled at Rondeau. “You didn’t think to… try and talk her out of it?”
Rondeau shrugged and sat in one of the chairs Hamil had spurned. Considering how the chair creaked under him, the big man had probably made a wise choice. “Since when can anybody talk Marla out of anything? Besides, I did a bad thing, and I wanted to make up for it, you know?”
“Last time I checked, kidnapping didn’t cancel out manslaughter,” Hamil said. “Interdimensional kidnapping at that. Who knows what the consequences of such an act will be?”
“You know Marla doesn’t worry about consequences. I mean, she knows there’ll be consequences. She just figures, whatever they are, she can deal with them. She’s usually right.”
“Usually,” Hamil said. “I’m going downstairs in search of a bottle of cognac. Might you have such a thing in your bar?”
“I keep a bottle just for you.”
Hamil grunted and went down the stairs, leaving Rondeau alone with Langford, which was kind of good. Langford was fiddling with the hot plate to warm a kettle so he could make tea from a desiccated bag of Earl Grey he’d found someplace.
“So, Langford,” Rondeau said. “Have you had any luck working on that, uh, thing I talked to you about?”
Langford was apparently experimentally testing the assertion that a watched pot never boils, staring intently into the pitted and dinged-up shiny convex surface of the teapot. “Hmm? Oh, you mean the fixative? Yes. Very interesting problem.”
“I’m so glad you find it interesting. Does that mean you have a potion I can take or something?”
Langford looked up now, and his eyes behind his glasses were, as usual, a million miles away. “It’s not that easy. I don’t even understand what you are. We call you a ‘psychic parasite,’ as if that means something, or as if it’s a relevant classification, but you’re unique – as far as we know, anyway. And you want me to create something that negates your essential nature, the ability to move to a new host body when your old host dies. How do you stop a creature from finding a new habitat when its old habitat dies?”
“Cutting its legs off would be a good start,” Rondeau muttered, tracing his fingertip over one of the scarred channels left in the tabletop over the years.
“Yes, but you don’t have legs. I do wish I could have been present when you left your old body and took over Bradley Bowman’s – I’d be curious to see what you really look like, if there’s a physical aspect to you at all, even if it’s just a scattering of weakly-linked molecules, or if you’re a purely energy-based form, or –”
“Sorry I didn’t invite you over. I got gut-shot on short notice.”
“Yes. But it would help me to understand your nature more. And you don’t think you’re capable of, ah, leaping, I suppose you might say, at will?” Langford tapped the side of the teapot, and though it wasn’t whistling yet, apparently deemed it hot enough, and poured some water into a chipped coffee mug that said “The Bitch Is IN” on the side. It actually wasn’t even Marla’s mug. It had been here in the cabinet when Rondeau moved in.
Rondeau shook his head. “Haven’t tried. Don’t want to try. The whole point is I never want to ‘leap’ again! The last time I did I killed one of my two best friends in the world. Worse than killed. Consigned to oblivion. Eradicated his soul. B was just erased. So I want to stay in this body, thanks, forever, and if this body dies, I want to go with it.”
“Hmm. Well. It’s that last part, really, that’s the trouble. How can I link the death of a mysterious, possibly immortal, psychic force to the death of the body that force happens to inhabit? It’s a difficult problem. But if you just wanted to be stuck in that body, well…”
Rondeau looked up. “What? You’ve got something?”
“There’s a Turkish/German company that’s created something they call ‘liquid glass.’ They make many claims, for instance that this glass can be sprayed on clothing to make it permanently stain-resistant and eliminate the need for laundry detergent, that it has antibacterial qualities, that their ‘nano-scale glass coating’ bonds to surfaces through some unspecified ‘quantum forces.’ I don’t know how true any of it is – what I’ve read is PR material, not scientific material – but it did get me thinking about your plight. I think I could create a sort of… sealant, you might say. A magical equivalent of liquid glass I could coat your body with, to make it impossible for you to ‘leap’ to a new host.”
“That’s perfect! Let’s do it!”
Langford stirred his tea and shook his head. “But if your body dies, I have no reason to think your consciousness would end. Instead, I suspect you would be trapped inside the corpse, still aware, unable to communicate, and unable to free yourself – like a moth trapped inside a jar, wings beating furiously against the glass.”
Rondeau slumped in his chair. “You aren’t usually so poetic. That… doesn’t sound ideal.”
“It is certainly not optimal in the long-term, no. But if I can figure out what you are, and how to kill the essential psychic core of you, then perhaps that, combined with a magical sealant, would grant your wish to be, if you’ll forgive me, a ‘real boy.’ One who lives in but a single body and dies at some unspecified time, just like every mortal human on Earth.”
“That’s the goal. Call me Kid Pinocchio. So, what, you want to do some more tests on me?”
“You know I love doing tests, but it’s difficult to test methods for killing you without the risk of, well… killing you. But I’ll continue to study the problem. I remain interested, and anyway, Hamil is paying me well on your behalf.”
“He’s been a good friend to me,” Rondeau agreed. Hamil had taken him in after he killed Bradley, and couldn’t stay with Marla during her rage. Hell, even earlier, Hamil was the one who’d replaced Rondeau’s jaw, which Marla tore off the first time she used her creepy-ass battle cloak, and the one who made sure Rondeau got as much of an education as he had, and the one who’d set Rondeau up with meaningful work before he became Marla’s right-hand guy. And now, by helping Marla kidnap Beta-B, Rondeau had disappointed Hamil. Living in an intricately interconnected social framework sure sucked sometimes.
The office door opened and Marla poked her head out. “Where’s Hamil? He better not have –”
“He’s just boozing it up gentleman-style downstairs,” Rondeau said.
“Well, get him back up here,” Marla said. “I need to borrow his private jet.” Then she slammed the door, disappearing back into her office.
After Marla finally got Rondeau, Hamil, and Langford out – she thought for a minute she was going to have to literally kick them out, they moved so slowly – she turned to Beta-B, who was pulling his stinky button-down shirt back on. Marla went around her desk, dropped into her chair, and said, “Welcome to Felport, B. Do you mind if I call you B? I’m Marla Mason.”
His eyes widened at that, just slightly, but Marla was good at reading faces, and she wondered why her name meant something to him. Maybe he’d heard it in his psychic reverie. “I guess you can call me anything you want,” he said, sitting down in front of her chair. “You’ve brought me… where is this place?”
“A city on the East Coast. Felport.” She coughed. “In, um, another universe. Not your universe, I mean.”
“I know that much. I had some terrible dreams, and I didn’t understand everything I saw, but… I got the idea that I’d been taken from the world I know to another world. I just don’t know how, or why.”
“This isn’t just a different world, it’s a better world.” Marla leaned forward. “For you, anyway. Look, I don’t know exactly what your circumstances were back there, over there, whatever, but there are opportunities for you here.”
Beta-B crossed his arms over his thin chest. “So this is, what, an interdimensional save-the-children type thing?”
“You weren’t chosen at random. In this world I met a man named Bradley Bowman in San Francisco. He was a former actor, a psychic, and he knew he had powers, but he was lost. He didn’t understand about magic, he didn’t know any sorcerers, he’d never been taught anything. We helped each other, became friends, and eventually he became my apprentice. There was… a terrible accident, a few weeks ago… and he died. I thought, if I could find a version of him that I hadn’t met, one who was still lost and confused, I could do the same thing over again – teach him, teach you, about magic, offer you a job.” She sighed. “I didn’t expect miracles, I know you aren’t exactly the same Bradley, I know our relationship will have to develop differently, but, even if you’re from the universe next door… give me a chance?”
He shook his head. “You got the wrong guy, lady. I’m psychic, yeah, and more than that, but I’m not looking for a mentor. I’ve known about magic for a while – where I’m from everybody knows magic is real, the whole world’s divided up into fiefdoms and kingdoms, it’s all witchocracy all the time. The sorcerers went public half a dozen years ago, and took over. I was living in the Free State of Northern California, one of the benevolent countries, though we got taken over by some nasty sorcerous types earlier this year. And besides, I’ve got a mentor. I live with dozens of other sorcerers, everybody I know these days is a sorcerer, practically. And we’re doing important work. We’re in the middle of something. Whatever you did, undo it.”
“This is fucked up,” Marla said. “I told the possible witch to bring me a version of Bradley that was miserable and unhappy, not one that wanted to stay –”
Bradley laughed, and it wasn’t exactly her Bradley’s laugh, it was harsher, more bitter, a lot more dark. “Oh, I’m totally miserable, lady. My life sucks. I wish I could say I can’t remember the last time I ate, but I can – it was a week ago – and worse, I remember what I ate. I sleep in a sewer. Literally. In a sewer. But, see, I’m working hard to be less miserable. The world I’m from is bad, it’s seriously broken, but that doesn’t mean I want to leave it, Miss – Marla. It means I want to fix it. And I’ll be damned if you didn’t choose almost exactly the worst time imaginable to steal me away. You need to get me back. And you need to get me back tonight.”
“Why? What’s so important about tonight?”
“Because tomorrow we’re going to kill the Jaguar,” Beta-B said.
Marla waited a moment, then said, “I kinda feel like you expected there to be some kind of dramatic movie ‘duh Duh DUH!’ music when you said that, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. You have to kill… a car? Or do you mean a big spotted leopard thing? You have to murder a cat?”
“No. I need to kill a god.”
“Oh,” Marla said. “Huh. Okay. I think I can get behind that. Want a hand?”
He blinked. “You’re offering to… help me?”
She shrugged. “I went to epic crazy lengths to have a shot at getting back a relationship that was important to me. Bradley was my friend. You’re Bradley. So, the law of a plus b equals c says you’re my friend. I don’t have many friends. I help the ones I have.”
He stood up, and got shouty. “I’m not this guy, your B, okay? Maybe we look the same, maybe we have some of the same history, but –”
Marla stood up too, but didn’t shout. She said, “Except you are. You are Bradley. Just… a Bradley emerging from different conditions. And I’m not totally clueless about what you’re going through, about your world.” The bit about sorcerers going public and taking over the world, that threw her – whose idiot idea was that, and why hadn’t anybody killed the indiscreet moron? Life was so much easier behind the scenes and in the shadows. Still, she could dazzle this new B with some knowledge, maybe impress him a little. “Let me guess. About a year ago a crazy sorcerer named Mutex summoned the jaguar god to San Francisco and your life went to hell. Or, more to hell. Am I right?”
“Did you read my mind? How can you know about the coming of the Jaguar if it didn’t happen in this world?”
Marla shrugged. “In this world, it wasn’t a jaguar god. It was a toad god. And I killed it. I’m a little curious about why I didn’t kill it in your world, but I guess it was just coincidence that I happened to be in San Francisco in time to stop Mutex anyway, so I can see how it might have happened differently. So anyway. Let’s go kill this god of yours. A jaguar could be tougher than a toad, but whatever.”
Beta-B sat back down. “I’ll take your help. We need it, and I… have reason to believe you’re formidable. But just because you help me, that doesn’t mean I’ll become, whatever, your friend, your apprentice, or that I’ll want to come back to this world with you. I have a life, okay?”
“Understood,” Marla said, but what she thought was, We’ll see. She went to the door and yelled at Rondeau to get Hamil for her, then went back inside to B. “Tell me, you ever fly on a private jet before?”
“Yeah. I used to be –”
“A movie star,” Marla finished, “I know, for a few years, when you were like 20, 24, whatever. Before you started seeing demons everywhere and got kicked off a set for trying to tear an invisible monster off your director’s neck, which looked to the untrained eye like assault and battery. See? I do know you, B. Shame you never met me in your world. I bet we would have hit it off.”
Beta-B stared at her for a moment, and then began to laugh. He laughed so hard he squeezed his eyes shut, and tears rolled from his eyes, and Marla – who got annoyed when she felt left out of something – gritted her teeth and said, “What’s so damn funny?”
“You have no idea, do you?” he said. “I have met you, in my world – well, not met you, but I’ve seen you, from a distance, through a sniper-scope, because over there you’re totally immune to psychic viewing. But yeah, I’ve seen you. There are even rumors that you’re funding the resistance organization I’m part of. But personally, I hope that’s not true.”
Marla frowned. She tried to imagine a situation in which she would fund freedom fighters being oppressed by a jaguar god in California, but it was tricky. “Oh? Why’s that?”
“Because as horrible as the Jaguar is, Marla, there’s someone in my world that’s even worse, even more hated, even more cruel, even more dangerous.” He pointed his index finger at her face. “And that someone is you.”
Before Marla could react to that – and how exactly was she supposed to react? – Hamil rapped at the door and opened it. “What’s this about a jet?”
“Your jet. I need to borrow it. We need to get back to San Francisco ASAP, and one commercial airline flight in twenty-four hours is plenty for me.”
Hamil sat on the couch. “You’re leaving? Again? You just got back! Marla, there are things here that need your attention –”
“Whoa, big man, you’re the one who said I needed to repatriate Beta-B here –”
“Beta-B?” Beta-B said, either horrified or amused or both.
“– if he wanted to go back, and he does want to go back, so what, now you’re arguing with me? The doorway to other worlds isn’t here, it’s in San Francisco, so get that jet of yours gassed up, all right?”
Hamil pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes in the classic “I-have-a-terrible-headache-and-its-name-is-Marla” gesture. “How did you even know I have a jet?”
“I’m the boss of Felport. What I don’t know about the other sorcerers on the council could maybe fit into an acorn.”
“The jet’s not even meant to be used. Do you have any idea how bad private plane travel is for the environment? It’s so wasteful!”
“So… why do you have it then?” Beta-B said.
“He’s a sympathetic magic guy,” Marla said. “So in order to be successful he –”
“Needs to look successful,” Beta-B said, nodding. “Five-thousand dollar suits, fancy apartment, nice cars, private jets, like that. Because in sympathetic magic, you are what you seem to be.”
“Indeed,” Hamil said. “It’s also why my… girth… is so impressive. Magically speaking, fat is a sign of prosperity. I stay prosperous by seeming prosperous. It’s not easy for me, either. Naturally my body leans towards more of a runner’s physique – lean and strong and metabolically overclocked. At least I have magic to regulate my blood pressure, or I wouldn’t risk eating the way I have to.” He looked at Marla. “This isn’t your Bradley – our Bradley – but he’s smart, and I’m willing to concede he’s a Bradley. So, fine, yes, borrow my plane, and take him home, but please, Marla, get back here as soon as you possibly can. The city needs you.”
“I know. And I want to sleep in my own bed sometime soon, really. I just need to take care of this.”
“Can I go with?” Rondeau said, leaning in the doorway.
“We could always use another set of hands,” Marla said.
Beta-B stared at Rondeau. “Wait… wait. I didn’t notice that before, I was distracted, but…” He turned back to Marla. “You said I was dead. But he –” now turning to point an accusing finger at Rondeau – “Looks exactly like me, only a little more well-fed, under that admittedly pretty good illusion he’s wearing. So what the hell is going on here?”
Marla sighed. She’d hoped to avoid this part. “Beta-B, I’d like you to meet Rondeau. Your murderer.”
“Uh.” Rondeau shuffled a little in place, looked like he might bolt, didn’t, cleared his throat, and said, “So, man, how’s it going?”
“I’ve been better,” Beta-B said.