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Marlita," the man said again, standing just inside the door to her office. He regarded Marla with an expression of mingled admiration and delight, extending his arms for a hug.
Marla Mason—ruthlessly pragmatic chief sorcerer of Felport, a woman who'd recently outwitted the avatar of Death, who'd once kicked a hellhound across a room, who'd thwarted the king of nightmares, and who had even killed a god (admittedly a very implausible one)—stood behind her desk and stared at him. She'd already said his name once. She didn't think she could bring herself to say it again just yet. There was a dagger in her hand—when had she picked that up?—and she gently put it down. "You. Here. Why?"
"Eloquent as always, little sis." He came around the desk and swept her into his arms.
"Jason." She spoke into his shoulder, almost breathing out the word. Even his smell was familiar, the smoke-and-whiskey scent of a bar's back room. She hadn't seen him in almost eighteen years. The time she'd spent without her brother in her life was, by now, years longer than the time they'd been close. Marla pulled away. "How did you find me?"
"You look beautiful, Marlita." He swept a stray strand of hair out of her eyes, and Marla froze. How long had it been since anyone had touched her so familiarly, so easily? Even her occasional lovers were tentative; they knew her well enough to be afraid a little, even in their intimacy. Jason wasn't tentative at all. He was family.
She grabbed his wrist, hard. "I asked you a question."
Marla was tall for a woman, but Jason had a couple of inches on her. He didn't fight, though. "A man can't visit his sister?" His voice was a perfect blend of surprise, concern, and just a hint of wounded feelings. Finely honed. She felt instantly guilty. Jason still had the knack of manipulation. No surprise there.
Marla let go of his wrist. She took a step back and frowned, looking him up and down. He was past thirty-five now, and his lean good looks were touched with something harder, something that hollowed his cheeks and bagged his eyes. Even the marks of wear and tear weren't ugly, though. They gave his face more character, made him seem like a guy who'd seen hard times, and could sympathize with your own suffering. His dark suit fit his frame perfectly, and his eyes twinkled, bags or not. Jason could have been a politician. He wasn't.
"You still on the grift?" Marla asked.
He raised one eyebrow. "Me? A grifter? Heavens, no. I'm a legitimate businessperson now. Just like you. Nice nightclub, by the way." He sat down in one of the guest chairs before her desk.
She glanced at her friend and associate Rondeau, who had opened the door for Jason and now watched them with undisguised fascination. "It's his club, not mine."
Jason raised his hands and smiled, a smile that said, "We're all in this together," a smile that had emptied many a wallet and opened many a bedroom door. "No need to be coy with me, sis. I'm not from the IRS."
Marla rubbed her eyes. She'd had a long day—actually, a long summer—and this was too much. She'd rather face the literal vengeful ghosts of her enemies again than confront this haunt from her past. "I know it's not in your nature to cut the bullshit, Jason, but, really, why are you here? Do you need money or something?"
"Money's always welcome, of course, but I'm not interested in charity. I heard you were here in Felport, doing well for yourself, and . . . I actually have a business proposition for you." He glanced at Rondeau. "One best discussed in private."
"It's a bad idea to do business with family," Marla said. "It's a sure path to heartbreak. If that's all you wanted, I'll pass."
"Now, that's not the Marla I know and love. You were always curious, sis. Don't you want to know what I have to offer? It'll tempt and tantalize, I promise."
"I'm not sure what you know—what you think you know—about my business, but my situation here is complex, and I've got a full plate already. I said I'll pass."
She held up her hand. "Jason, you're my brother, and that gets you a lot of slack, but keep pushing, and I'll have to push back."
Jason sighed. "I can respect that. You always did know your own mind, so I won't try to change it. I've got a hotel room, and I'm here for a few days at least, depending on how my business goes. Don't suppose you could spare an hour for dinner tomorrow? Or lunch, if being your long-lost brother doesn't entitle me to a whole dinner?"
"Fine. Dinner. Come by tomorrow around six, we'll figure something out."
He stood up, started to go, paused, turned back to her. "Hey. Sister. I didn't come to make trouble for you, I promise."
"Yeah?" She wanted to believe him, but Jason . . . she hadn't seen him since she was a teenager, and it was hard to forget those old bad memories. Hard to believe he'd changed. On the other hand, she'd changed, rather a lot, so maybe she was being unfair.
"Really. I just heard you were here and figured I'd look you up, see if I could interest you in a certain opportunity that's come my way. Sometimes I think back. . . . Remember when it was you and me against the world?"
Marla felt her throat begin to close. "That was a long time ago, Jason."
"Formative years." He nodded farewell.
Marla dropped into her chair.
"That's your brother?" Rondeau handed her a glass of water. Sometimes it was good to have a friend who knew you that well.
She took a long drink, glad for the excuse it gave her to delay answering. When she spoke, she felt more in control. "Yes, he is. What tipped you off? The bit where he called me his sister?"
Rondeau sat down across from her, in the chair Jason had recently vacated, and whistled. "Damn. I knew you had a brother, but I guess I figured he was dead or in prison or something."
"I kind of figured he was one or the other of those myself."
"You seem a little shaken up. You all right?"
"Sure. My brother the con man shows up unannounced after nearly twenty years, talking about a 'business proposition'? I'm great. If it were anybody else coming at me with this crap, I'd just throw them out, but he's family. What am I supposed to do?"
"Don't ask me," Rondeau said. "I'm an orphan. This shit is a mystery to me." He paused. "It's not like you don't have any choice, though. If you really want to get rid of him, you are a sorcerer. You can make him forget he even saw you today."
Marla fiddled with the scythe-shaped letter opener on her desk and sighed. "Maybe it'll come to that. But I owe him a lot, from when we were kids, when it was just him and me and Mom and whatever asshole guy followed Mom home from the bar on any given night. Jason kept a lot of bad things from happening to me."
"He's a scam artist, huh?"
"Just small-time stuff when we were younger. Hus_tling pool, short counting, three card monte, convincing drunks to make unwinnable bar bets, selling fake football picks, shit like that. By his freshman year in high school he was so well known in the county that nobody would even play rock-paper-scissors with him, and he'd take weekend trips to Indianapolis to make money. But that was ages ago. Maybe he's reformed."
"Or maybe he's moved on to bigger and better scams. Did you see his suit? It was a nice suit. I know from nice suits." Rondeau plucked the lapels of his vintage green tuxedo jacket, worn over a T-shirt depicting a skeletal rib cage. "He didn't buy a suit like that with three card monte money."
"Wouldn't surprise me. He was always ambitious." Among other things.
"So . . . is there a reason you haven't talked to him in all these years, or do you just object to his moral flexibility?" Rondeau didn't even bother to make the last bit sound sarcastic. Marla was a sorcerer. Sorcerers were the very definition of moral flexibility.
"We had a . . . falling out. Or more like the scales falling from my eyes, and my seeing Jason for what he is. Or was. I don't want to talk about it."
"Sometimes people do change, Marla. You're not the person you were even ten years ago." He rubbed his jaw absently, and Marla felt the old twinge of guilt—years ago she'd ripped Rondeau's jaw off to use as an oracle, and though he'd been healed by magic and she'd made amends countless times, she still hated thinking about it. "Does Jason, ah, know about you? What you really do? With the sorcery and so forth?"
"I certainly hope not. I'd rather keep it that way."
"So no telling him you're the witch queen of Felport? Or that I'm not so much a human as a psychic parasite squatting in a human body? Or that—"
"Correct, nix on all that, Rondeau. Ideally you'll never see him again, so you won't even be tempted to blather things you shouldn't."
"Another Mason." Rondeau shook his head. "Damn. That's something."
"I don't even want to think about Jason right now. I'm going to go home and crawl under the covers and grind my teeth."
"Still want me to pick you up tomorrow morning so we can go to the airport?"
"Sure. But no staying up all night gambling on the Internet tonight, all right? I don't want to be late tomorrow, and we're going to have a busy-ass day, so you'll need to be well rested."
He said, "You're the boss," but Marla could tell he was already playing Texas hold 'em in his mind. She'd have to make sure Rondeau didn't spend too much time around her brother, or Jason would eventually invite him to a card game and end up owning all Rondeau's worldly possessions.
Unless, of course, her brother had changed—or, rather, changed back—into the brother she'd once loved and trusted. It was a tempting thought, and because she found it so tempting, she did her best to doubt it.
Marla watched the thin trickle of exhausted businessmen and bereaved relatives emerge from the jetway of the red-eye from San Francisco, dragging their rolling suitcases behind them like Jacob Marley's chains. When Bradley Bowman emerged toting a duffel bag, he was so wide-eyed and awake he seemed scarcely the same species as the other passengers. "Marla!" He bounded toward her, dropping his bag at her feet and giving her a hug.
"Hey, B." She couldn't get over it—this scruffily cute, charismatic ex-movie star had flown across the continent to work for her. She was supposed to teach him how to use his peculiar magics, even though his natural gifts were as a seer and a psychic, while Marla herself was about as psychic as an axe handle and specialized in kicking the shit out of people, things, and ideas. But B was good people. They'd find a way to make it work. Her operation could use some charm and diplomacy to go along with the scorched earth and hurt feelings.
B let go of her, but kept beaming. "How'd you get in here? I thought security stopped people from meeting their friends at the gate these days."
"B, please. This is me. Airport security is something that happens to other people."
"I should've known. Where's Rondeau?"
"Waiting with the car. Last time I let him sneak in here, he made his way to the baggage-loading area and started rifling through suitcases. After that, I revoked his conditional invisibility privileges. Come on, we'd better go to the car before he gets bored and wanders off."
"God, it's great to be here." He followed Marla through the terminal. "Don't get me wrong, being Sanford Cole's apprentice was an honor, and he taught me a lot, but these past few months . . ."
"Eh, he's an old guy. He can't help it if he has magical narcolepsy. Besides, after a week of working for me, you'll wish I dropped off to sleep at random intervals every once in a while, just so you could get some rest." They left the secure area, Marla giving a little wave to the security agent, who still couldn't see her.
"I've done enough sleeping," B said. "I'm here to learn, and I don't mind cutting wood and carrying water."
"Better than Rondeau." Marla passed through the automatic doors, out to the summer morning, which was already heating up. "He just cuts farts and carries debt."
"Movie star!" Rondeau crowed, popping upright from his lean against the Bentley's fender. "Welcome to Felport, where we hardly ever get earthquakes, mud slides, and wildfires!"
"Blizzards and ice storms will be a nice change," B said.
Marla let them hug their hellos—the two of them had become quite close during a trip to San Francisco a few months back. She waited for Rondeau to toss B's bag into the car's cavernous trunk before saying, "I'll ride in back with you, B. I need to ask you something, and I don't want to have to twist around to see you."
"I thought apprentices were supposed to get chauffeur duty," Rondeau grumbled, and they all climbed into the car. As Rondeau navigated around dawdling shuttle buses, suicidal cabs, and bleary pedestrians, Marla said, "So are you wiped out? Need to grab some sack time?"
"No, I'm totally wired, and anyway, the plane was nearly empty, I had a whole row to myself, so I slept plenty. Don't worry about me."
"Good. We've got a busy schedule ahead of us. You're no good to me if you don't know the major players in the local scene, so in the next few days, we're going to be visiting a lot of scary, dangerous weirdos and making nice with them."
"Sounds good. But what do you really want to talk to me about?"
Marla grunted. "You being psychic now?"
"Not at the moment. You know I'm lousy at straight thought reading—it gives me headaches. I can just tell there's something else on your mind."
"Well, I was just wondering. . . . Have you had any dreams lately? About me? Any of those dreams?"
B shook his head. "Nope, no prophetic dreams about you, not since your last trip to California. Why?"
"I had . . . an unexpected visitor last night. I'm wondering if he's going to make trouble."
"What kind of visitor? Demon king? Dark sorcerer? Eldritch being from beyond the back of the stars?"
From the Paperback edition.