“Mmm. Your terms are acceptable. I’ll see you then. I look forward to our conversation. I don’t usually talk to insects before killing them, but I’m curious –” The Mason frowned, held the phone away, and looked at it for a moment. “The woman hung up on me.” She placed the phone back down on Marla’s desk.
“Some people are so rude.” Crapsey sprawled on the couch with his arm thrown over his face. “No wonder you want to exterminate all sentient life.” After they broke into Rondeau’s nightclub – which had pretty insane magical security, but nothing the Mason couldn’t circumvent – he’d taken a shower in Rondeau’s cramped bathroom and scrounged up clean boxers and a comfortably worn bathrobe. Wearing another man’s underpants was kind of weird, but since the other man was just another iteration of himself, Crapsey decided it was okay. The next step in his plan was to curl up in Rondeau’s surprisingly neat bedroom and sleep, but he’d wanted to stay awake for the Mason’s last murder of the day. The phone call from Marla had interrupted the fun. “So Marla’s back in this universe? Is she coming over? If so, I’m gonna need some of those uppers we talked about, because I am beat like a disobedient gimp.”
“No. She wants to meet in the morning, in the conference room downstairs – the one with the anti-magical properties. As if I’d be stupid enough…” The Mason’s mouth quirked slightly in what might have been a smile on another face. “She says they’ll bring the coffee, but we’re in charge of bringing the bagels.”
“Ha,” Crapsey said. “Gotta admire the chutzpah. So what’s the plan?”
“I will speak with her. I am curious about many things – mainly how she resisted the cloak’s power, and how she travels from world to world. If she has the cloak, we will kill her when I’ve finished speaking to her, and take it away. If she does not, we will torture her until she tells me its location.”
“Torture? You know torture’s no good for getting useful intelligence out of people, boss. Besides, you can set up a ritual to rifle through the contents of her mind, right? I mean, I know that can destroy her mind in the process, but I don’t get the sense that’s a problem for you.”
“Of course. All true. But I enjoy torture.” She slid back in her chair. “But executions also have their place.” She began tugging on the drawers in Marla’s desk. “Ah,” the Mason said, sliding out the bottom drawer on the left. “Come look at this.”
Crapsey groaned and pushed himself up off the couch. The Mason had cured his major injuries in the park, but plain old muscle soreness remained, though he knew she could’ve fixed that too if she wanted.
The drawer in Marla’s desk was less a drawer and more a black iron safe on rollers, the lid etched and filigreed with designs that twisted like optical illusions viewed on hallucinogens. “Very potent,” the Mason said. “As well-fortified as Viscarro’s own vaults. In effect, it is his personal vault, rendered in miniature. Beautiful work. Viscarro had a reputation as nothing more than a hoarder, a stealer of magic crafted by more talented hands, but his skills in certain areas were impressive.”
The Mason drew her dagger of office and began cutting into the drawer like she was opening a can of creamed corn. Once she’d sliced through the metal, she prised up the lid and tossed it to the floor with a dull thunk. Crapsey and the Mason peered into the small space revealed.
“That’s disappointing,” the Mason said. “I’d hoped she might keep the cloak here.” She leaned her face close to the drawer, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “And she does, though not now. I suppose she took it with her when she went off to our world. ”
“At least we know she didn’t put it in a box and send it off to get buried at the top of a mountain.” He nodded toward the drawer. “So I figure the wooden box probably has Viscarro’s phylactery in it, right?”
“And what about the little silver bell?”
The Mason shrugged. “There is nothing magical about it at all. It’s just a bell. I can’t imagine why she put it in here, unless it has… what do you people call it? Some kind of value?”
“Sentimental value. And watch the ‘you people’ stuff. I’m an inhuman monstrous parasite too, you know.”
“Noted.” She removed the little teakwood box and set it on the desk, flipped open the lid, and revealed the faintly glowing pebble-sized red gem inside. “There. Just like it was in my world. Viscarro’s life. If an ordinary person touched this object, Viscarro’s personality would rush in and try to take control. Of course, that doesn’t work on me.” The Mason lifted out the gem, and the dim light inside brightened and began to flicker more rapidly. “That’s him trying to take me over. I’ve never been sure whether he can hear me in there, if he’s conscious, but if he is…” She put the gem close to her lips. “Viscarro. I’m killing you. For the second time. But this time, I’m going to devour your soul.”
The Mason dropped the gem on the desk blotter, held her dagger of office like a chef’s knife, and began to dice up the gem as if mincing a clove of garlic. Her hand moved in a blur, and within seconds the gem was reduced to a fine pink powder. The Mason scooped up a pile of the powder on the edge of her knife blade. “Here goes.” She raised the blade to her nose, pressed one nostril shut with her free hand, and snorted the powdered phylactery of Leland Viscarro.
She closed her eyes, leaned back in the chair, shivered all over, and released a long, slow sigh.
“Damn, boss. Seems pretty nice. Can I get a hit of that?”
“Your puny mind couldn’t bear it.” The Mason’s voice was serene. “Oh, oh, oh, this is so interesting. Viscarro was always a collector of secrets, and now I know them all. His entire life’s essence is dissolving into my mind like a spoonful of sugar into a cup of hot tea.”
“Ha. Many things. Most have no bearing on our present situation, but… according to Viscarro’s sources, Marla Mason despises Rondeau for murdering her little friend Bradley Bowman and stealing his body. Apparently she forced Rondeau into exile – he’s been living at the Blackwing Institute. Viscarro was quite confused when Marla and Rondeau – as he believed us to be – attacked him, because he thought they were firmly on the outs.”
Crapsey frowned. “But Hamil said Marla took Rondeau with her to the other world. Sworn enemies don’t usually travel together.”
“Hamil also said he wasn’t sure how Marla managed to go from one world to another… and it stands to reason that Rondeau had something to do with that passage. She’d travel with an enemy if he was the only means of transportation.”
Crapsey grinned. “So you’re saying I’ve got undiscovered badass reality-destroying powers?”
The Mason snorted. “Hardly. Rondeau is in Bradley Bowman’s body, remember, and by all accounts, Bowman is a powerful psychic and oracle generator. Perhaps he can summon some sort of being that opens a passage.” She sighed. “If I’m right, that means I’ll need to procure Rondeau’s services in order to access the multiverse. Once he realizes the alternative is a hell of endless pain, I’m sure he’ll agree to work for me.”
“Cool,” Crapsey said. “Bringing Rondeau over to our side will be sweet. Somebody to play cards with. And, you know, steal bodies with.”
The Mason shook her head. “According to Viscarro, Rondeau can’t possess anyone voluntarily. He’s only done it once that he remembers, quite accidentally, when he murdered Bradley Bowman. What a waste of talent – but Rondeau never had me to teach him, of course.”
Crapsey nodded. “He’s probably a lot less bitter and fucked-up than I am, then. The beatings, and screaming, and being locked in a dark windowless box with no food and water until I managed to leave my body – that stuff left the kind of marks you can’t see by looking.”
“Made you stronger,” the Mason said simply, and then snorted the rest of the powdered Viscarro. “Mmm. He knows a bit about Marla’s history, but not much – he didn’t pay attention to her until after she’d acquired the cloak, when she left her apprenticeship with Artie Mann and began working as a mercenary. How did she end up working for the pornomancer instead of the spider? What single point of divergence could have led to such different outcomes?”
Crapsey yawned. “If you’re going to get all musing and rhetorical, can I go?”
The Mason nodded. “You should sleep. But sleep lightly. It’s possible Marla will stage a surprise attack in the night.”
“As long as she doesn’t interrupt any good sex dreams,” Crapsey said, and shuffled off to bed.
“You sure wearing the cloak is a good idea?” Rondeau climbed out of the car they’d borrowed from Langford, balancing a cardboard tray holding four take-out coffees.
“I need every edge I can get.”
“So do we knock, or…” Rondeau squinted in the bright morning sun as they stood before the door to his club.
“Screw that. It’s your place.” Marla went to the door and pressed her palm against it, disengaging the magical lock –the Mason had circumvented the lock without breaking it, showing an annoyingly deft hand – and pushing it open.
Someone was waiting in the dim club, leaning against one of the load-bearing pillars scattered at irregular intervals around the dance floor. “Good morning,” Crapsey said. He stepped into the illumination of the house lights and grinned. He was wearing one of Rondeau’s purple zoot suits – tight across the shoulders, but it basically fit – and yet, the outfit wasn’t the most striking thing about him.
“Bro, that jaw is sick,” Rondeau said. “When I got my jaw repaired, I just got stupid flesh and bone. What are those, like fangs?”
Crapsey kept grinning, but this time, he looked like he meant it. “I can bite through freaking steel, dude. Steel tastes lousy, but still. How come you still look like me – you – us? Didn’t you steal a new body?”
“Yeah, but I got an illusion to keep my old look, because sure, Bradley Bowman was a movie star, but that doesn’t mean he looked better than me. I’m stuck wearing these boring-ass borrowed clothes, but since you raided my closet, you can see I’ve got better fashion sense than this.”
“Your threads are sweet,” Crapsey said. “You could use a little bulking up, though. Hit the gym every once in a while.”
“Don’t those steroids shrink your balls?” Rondeau said.
Crapsey winked. “They’re still plenty big though. You should know.”
“Two Rondeaus,” Marla muttered. “Gods save me.”
Crapsey looked her up and down. “I’ll never get used to seeing the cloak in white. Just looks wrong to me.”
“Fascinating,” Marla said. “Where’s the purple bitch?”
Crapsey jerked his head toward the stairs. “Up in your office.”
“Not in the conference room?”
Crapsey laughed. “You kidding? She spent the night erecting magical barriers and fields to make entering that room totally impossible.” The conference room was a magical dead-zone, and Marla knew from experience the cloak didn’t work in there – if the Mason stepped inside, the battle would have been over before it began. “I mean, Marla, we are from Felport. We’ve got one of those rooms on our side, too.”
“Worth a try,” Marla said. She’d never expected the Mason to enter the room, but she was hoping the ploy would make them underestimate her. And, hell, it had been worth a try. “Did she at least get bagels?”
“Ha. You kinda remind me of the boss. Yeah, I fetched bagels, they’re up there, a nice little variety on a tray and everything. She won’t eat any – she barely eats at all, and when she does, she likes meat – but you can help yourself. Is one of those coffees for me?”
“Sure.” Rondeau passed him one of the cups.
Crapsey took it, lifted the lid, and sniffed. “I guess I should ask if it’s poisoned?”
Rondeau didn’t let himself stiffen or grimace or wince. He shrugged instead. “You can ask.”
“But it’s a stupid question,” Crapsey said. “Since poisoning me would just annoy me and make me take over Marla’s body, and neither of you wants that. Is there sugar in this?”
“No.” Marla shook her head. “Rondeau said you’d want like ten sugars, the same way he likes it, but I said you’re from a totally different world –”
Rondeau wordlessly took a wad of sugar packets from his pocket and passed them to Crapsey, who nodded and walked over to the bar and began methodically ripping open the packets and dumping the contents into his cup.
Marla rolled her eyes. Rondeau handed her two of the coffee cups and said, “See you when you get done.”
“If shit gets crazy, you run,” Marla said. “All right?”
“Don’t worry about him,” Crapsey called. “He’s like another me, and I’m a major fan of me, so he’ll be all right. You, though…” He shrugged. “I’m sure you and the boss have lots to talk about. Rondeau, come over here and let’s shoot the shit, what do you say?”
“Planning to pump me for information on behalf of your evil overlord?” Rondeau said, strolling over and taking a bar stool next to him.
“I was thinking more about comparing sexual conquests,” Crapsey replied. Then he took his first sip of the coffee Rondeau had prepared for him, and doomed himself.
Marla stepped into her office and shut the door behind her. The Mason was seated behind her desk, face shaded by the hood of her purple cloak. Marla put the coffee cups down on the desk, slid one toward the Mason, and picked up a plain bagel. She sliced it in half with her dagger of office, glanced around, and sighed. “No shmear? No lox? You world-devouring monsters are cheap.” She sat down in one of the crappy visitor chairs, took a bite of the bagel, chewed for a moment, then decided she’d have to make the opening move, since the Mason wasn’t moving at all. “All right, let’s get a look at you.”
The Mason leaned forward and pushed her hood back, and the face revealed wasn’t much at all like the one Marla saw in the mirror, really, despite certain broad similarities.
“Gods,” Marla said. “Was I ever that young? I know my skin was never that smooth. Don’t you have any pores?”
“I’ve kept this body in the prime of its physical perfection.” The Mason’s voice was curiously flat, but Marla was relieved it didn’t sound like the voice of the cloak in her own head. “You should be jealous.”
“Yeah, because never changing at all is totally awesome. So. You murdered half my council.”
The Mason nodded. “So far.”
“But you wanted to have a little chat with me before taking your punishment? Here I am. What do you want?”
The Mason laced her hands together on the desk. “Tell me, Marla. How did you like my world during your visit?”
Marla shrugged. “Didn’t see much evidence of you there. Looked like a big Jaguar god was in charge to me.” She started to lace her own hands together, caught herself, and settled for cracking her knuckles instead. “Of course, I killed the Jaguar. He was bothering my friends.”
The Mason raised one eyebrow. “You defeated Teyepollotl? My, my. I had that penciled in for the winter. Thank you for sparing me the trouble. Now I only have to roll up Sanford Cole and his ragtag band of rags and tags, which will be much simpler.”
“You’re never going back there. This world is your last stop. Today is your last day.”
“Such confidence! What if I attacked you now? Stabbed you with a knife?”
“I’ve got a knife too, lady. And a cloak, in case you didn’t notice.”
The Mason nodded. “Yes. The cloak. How long have you had it?”
“I’m supposed to answer your questions now?”
“Unless you’d rather begin trying to kill one another.”
“Tempting… but okay. I’ll play.” Marla was curious, too – why had this alternate version of herself been so weak and fucked-up that she’d allowed herself to be dominated by a haunted bit of Renaissance Faire costuming? “I found the cloak in a thrift store on my twentieth birthday. Just felt… drawn to it. So I bought it for myself as a present.” In truth, the memory of that day was kind of vague, like any memory a dozen years old would be – had she been at the store alone, or with a friend? She couldn’t recall, but it didn’t really matter. “I tried it on, and it healed, my, ah…”
“Infected rat bite,” the Mason said. “Yes, I cured the same thing for this version of –”
“Uh. No. I had a urinary tract infection. From too much dirty teenage fucking, I guess. You’re saying Beta-Marla over there got bitten by rats? That’s messed up.”
“The divergence point between our worlds is obviously much earlier,” the Mason said. “You were an apprentice to Artie Mann.”
“Viscarro was my master,” the Mason said. “I was just one of many apprentices. He took no particular notice of me – of Marla, I mean, but for convenience, I will say ‘I.’ It’s easier, since my host’s memories feel like my own.”
Her host. Marla fought back the urge to tear her own cloak off her back. This is what the cloak wanted to do – make her into a conveyance for a pompous alien shitbag. No amount of ass-kicking power was worth that risk.
The Mason went on. “I don’t think Viscarro had any opinion about me, until I found the cloak. I was just part of the scenery, though the way I joined his service was… peculiar. When I first came to Felport, I was hungry – starving – and I saw a young man hurrying alone down an alleyway carrying grocery bags. I struck him over the head with a brick and stole his bags. I expected food. Instead there were golden eggs, nestled in straw. The boy I killed was one of Viscarro’s apprentices, a courier, delivering some magical items. Viscarro’s people found me later, and made me an offer: I could die, or I could take over the route of the courier I’d killed. I got the sense they were terribly overworked, and I never knew if Viscarro had authorized the offer, sensing something formidable in me – or if the apprentices had just decided to spare themselves the trouble of taking over the dead boy’s route and recruited me on their own authority.” She shrugged. “Such was my introduction to the hidden world. I learned what magic I could – apprentices have a great deal of freedom in the Bank of the Catacombs to study ancient texts and explore – and we all taught ourselves a little, and occasionally Viscarro would conduct a lecture or a series of tests to weed out the weak. It was a hard life, but I made friends, of a sort. I did not have any… filthy teenage sex, though. I – this Marla – found the idea of human intimacy almost as repulsive as I do.”
“Okay, table that for a minute.” Marla had taken on the role of interviewer, somehow, but she didn’t mind. Apparently the Mason really wanted to tell her story – or maybe some vestige of Beta-Marla, inside the Mason, did. “What happened when you found the cloak?”
“I put it on, and my rat bite was cured. So I stole the cloak from the shop. I thought the artifact was my ticket to becoming Viscarro’s right hand – that once he saw what I possessed, he would take me seriously, and teach me.” She scowled. “Instead, as soon as he saw the cloak, he said it was his. That as an apprentice, I had no right to property, that I had no self. I was merely an extension of his will, and I would hand over the cloak immediately, and he would have me beaten for daring to suggest I could own such a thing.”
Marla nodded. “And let me guess. A little voice way down inside you whispered the word –”
“‘Turn.’ And the cloak turned. To the purple. I killed Viscarro – well, his body. Truly killing him happened a little later. And then I went out walking, in the flush of my new power, and it was glorious. All fear gone. Never again would I be ordered around. Never again would I be touched against my will. Never again would I suffer any humiliation. Then I saw an interesting little boy, who wasn’t a little boy at all, and ripped off his jaw to use for an oracle. Eventually I renamed that little boy Crapsey, and made him my apprentice, of a sort. I’m not a very nice master, but I’m no worse than Viscarro was.” The Mason shrugged. “From there, I plotted my rise to power, and everything went well until you tried to save your dead friend Bradley Bowman and brought me here.”
“Yeah. I’m starting to think that was a mistake. It’s okay. Everyone’s allowed to make one mistake in a lifetime, right? That was mine. So. Let’s trace this shit back. You ran away from home in Indiana and made your way to Felport, right?”
The Mason nodded.
“But you didn’t get a job working as a topless waitress? That’s how I met Artie Mann.”
The Mason shuddered. “A place where men would… ogle? Grope? No, no, I would never.”
“Okay, but why? What happened to make you so freaked about sex?” Marla had certainly had brushes with creepiness in her youth, including a boy who’d assaulted one of her friends and tried unsuccessfully to come after Marla. And of course her mom’s various drunk boyfriends had made passes at her, at least until her brother Jason had his little talks with them, usually helped by his friend Mr. Baseball Bat.
“You don’t remember uncle Devlin?” the Mason said.
Marla frowned. “My mom didn’t have any brothers, not in this world –”
The Mason shook her head. “Not a real uncle. Mom’s boyfriend. He… did things. To me. To Marla.”
Devlin. Devlin? There’d been a guy, maybe… “Sideburns? Truck driver? Except maybe an out-of-work truck driver?”
The Mason nodded. “Yes. He lived with us for many years, in the trailer, and every night after mom drank herself to sleep…” She shuddered. More and more of the other Marla was showing through. The Mason was having trouble separating herself from her host, it looked like.
“I remember some kind of big fight, I was only maybe eight? My mom and my brother Jason screaming at each other, Jason was only eleven or twelve but he was saying the guy had to go, if he didn’t leave forever Jason was going to burn the whole house down –”
“Your brother?” the Mason said. “Jason?”
“Yeah. He’s an asshole now, sure, but when we were kids he was the great protector, I never found out until later all the stuff he did for me, and he could play mom like a violin, never had any trouble making her do whatever he…” Marla trailed off. The Mason looked stunned.
“In my world,” the Mason said, “Jason was playing in the yard one day when a drunk driver lost control of his car and veered off the road onto the grass. Jason was struck and killed. He was four or five years old. I – Marla – was just an infant.”
Marla stared. Her brother, who’d shot Rondeau in the gut and thus indirectly killed Bradley Bowman; who’d embroiled her in a scam that ended in the death of an innocent, if hapless, millionaire; who’d never forgiven her for refusing to help him cover up a murder he’d committed as a teenager; who’d not so very long ago shot and tried to kill Marla herself, an attempt that would have succeeded if the cloak she was wearing now hadn’t healed her injuries…
Jason was the divergence point. He was the one who’d made all the difference. Because before he’d become a heartless con artist, he’d been a big brother, doing his best to take care of his little sister. He’d taught Marla to fight, and to scam, and to survive, and to be strong in herself. And he’d kept her from being repeatedly molested by a drunk out-of-work trucker, it seemed.
Without Jason, she would have had all the same anger, the same hunger for knowledge, the same bull-headednes, the same will she possessed now, but without the skills to cope with those feelings and direct them toward achieving her own ambitions.
Without Jason, Marla would have been the kind of person who put on a magical cloak that made all her decisions for her, and who thought that was a nice change.
If she ever saw her brother again, she might not try to kill him after all.
“I remember hearing about that accident,” Marla said. “Mom told the story, though Jason didn’t remember it, how he almost got killed. If the car had struck just two feet to the right, it would have landed right on top of him…” Marla reached over and touched the Mason’s hand. “You poor thing,” she said. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. It’s no wonder –”
The Mason – and it was definitely the Mason again now, all hints of humanity in her expression gone – jerked her hand back. “Don’t touch me, vermin,” she said, and drew her dagger.
Here we go, Marla thought, and – because she really didn’t think she had a chance against this psycho alien otherwise – she reversed her cloak to purple.
Less than two seconds later, she reversed it back to white, and ran away as fast as she could.