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Black Alice II: 6) Honey, I’m Home

Climbing into our cab was a relief. The shadow stretched out into the ambient darkness as the cabbie pulled away from the curb, and I felt my shoulders loosen as she spread out, the sensation like exhaling after holding my breath for too long. I actually had a tension headache pinching behind my eyes. She purred in my head at the meager freedom and commenced cataloging the myriad of upsetting tastes and scents ground into the upholstery and footwells.

“Where to, sir?” The cabbie twisted in his seat to look at us. He was a young man, hat on backwards over short bleach blonde hair, which looked odd with his very Arabic face. His eyes were red and sleepy, and he gave me a big, lazy grin.

Image by Daniel Haaser via Flickr, Creative Commons License, Click to View Source“Corner of Concord and Lambert,” Irish replied, settling in beside me and putting one arm around me. I settled in against his side, pretending I was cold for the look of the thing. I didn’t even bother to ask how he knew where to go. Instead, I had to smile at what my shadow had found in her explorations. The cabbie had two plastic baggies full of what tasted like very good weed crammed under the driver’s seat, and we could feel and taste the residue coating the inside of the car like a shimmer of oil on the surface of a puddle.

“Got it.” He turned left, barely making it through a yellow light, apparently not stoned enough to forget to start the meter. He turned the radio up, filling the car with Lady Gaga and plenty of bass. Bad Romance, one of the shadow’s favorites. The speakers and windows resonated with the beat, and the shadow thrummed along with the melody, occasionally referencing the back of my head for the meaning of a particular lyric, but mostly riding the vibrations like a surfer rode the waves at the beach.

Well, at least he wouldn’t be listening in. To be sure, I had the shadow divert some attention to breaking up any of the sounds coming from the back seat.

I was a little surprised at how well Irish and I fit together. I was a tall woman, more on the skinny side of the scale than the statuesque, and Irish was a large man, all bulk and mass. With the camp chair, there wasn’t a lot of extra room in the back seat, but it was surprisingly comfy. Irish shifted, pulling me a little closer and his mouth twitched up, a quick smile at my bemused expression. He leaned in a bit, his voice a low rumble in my ear as he said, “You’re still at the Packard plant, right?”

Not quite what I was expecting to hear. “Yeah. It’ll do until I find a good spot to open a new shop.” I glanced towards the cabbie and caught him grinning at us in the rear view mirror. It occurred to me that Irish and I probably looked pretty cuddly. I wondered if stoner cabbies were lip readers, and my shadow obligingly frosted over his rear-view mirror. He swiped it with his thumb and turned up the heat, but it kept hazing over.

“What did you think of him?”

For a second, I thought Irish meant the cabbie, before I realized who he meant. “Jean-Luc?” I looked up at him and smirked. “Total manslut.” Irish cracked a grin at that and I went on, “But watch him. He had some clever tricks back there.”

“Oh, aye. He’s been in a fight or two before. He likes to be underestimated, I think. Smarter than he acts, and he likes makin’ other people look like fools.” Irish paused, his eyes darkening as his expression took a grim turn. “He seemed pretty interested in you, too.”

“Well, female,” I began, but Irish cut me off.

“No, more than that. He barely batted an eye when he realized who I am. But you…” Irish shook his head. “He all but gushed over you.”

I snorted. “That’s all you’ve got? Seriously?”

He shrugged. “That one is careful with his words. But if you like, you can call it a hunch, then. One of my hunches, at that. I didn’t like the way he looked at you. Seemed awful keen to meet you, too, considerin’ how much your Arcana loves hollowmen.”

I shook my head slightly. “That’s pretty thin, Irish.”

“Is it? Leonard let you live, when his own laws call for your execution, or imprisonment, like that Owen fellow. That can’t have been a good move for him, politically. He likes you that much?” Irish arched a skeptical eyebrow at me as I turned a sharp look up at him. “Or is he letting on he’s got you tamed, like Owen? Doesn’t that make him pretty powerful, then? It seems to me that if he left you alive and unleashed, he’s revealing a weakness to the other Major Arcana. And if he is pretending to control you, he’s making himself look like a threat to the others.”

“What are you saying? Are you…” I stopped myself, forcing myself to think it through. Politics aren’t really my thing. I was aware of them, sure, but it was a game I didn’t have a lot of interest in or practice at. I’d spent most of my life flying under the radar, which meant I hadn’t taken part in much of that garbage.

“Where’s Laurent from? Who did he work for before Leonard? Why’d he move here? He didn’t seem all that impressed with Detroit, did he? After Paris? Hard to see that as an upward promotion, isn’t it? What if he took Leonard’s offer because someone else has an interest in you, Alice?”

I chewed my lip, forehead crinkling as I considered it. I felt the shadow, slithering around my thoughts, stroking them, easing herself through the shape of them. Her curiosity was a cold spark tangled up in my thoughts. She wasn’t following the particulars, but she did grasp that we might be in more danger than we’d thought we were. Somewhat unsettlingly, the idea pleased her.

“So what if he is?” I finally asked. “Maybe he’ll make me a good offer.” I actually felt Irish tense.

“You’d leave Detroit?” His tone was casual, but his eyes were sharp.

I had intended to say something flippant, but something about the way he asked made me seriously consider it. Detroit was my territory; I’d fought hard for it. That said, it really wasn’t much of a prize. I could probably do better for myself. “Maybe. Who knows? If it’s a good enough offer…” Hell, if it was a good enough offer, I might even be able to convince the shadow to let me leave. I glanced up at Irish again to find a hint of dismay in his eyes.

“You don’t want to do that,” he said softly.

Admittedly, I kind of didn’t. Even as I thought it, I felt the shadow snatching at my thoughts, her alarm raking down my nerves. “Not really,” I agreed, ridiculously gratified to feel him relax again next to me. Even so, the shadow’s concern itched in the back of my mind, a crawling, worried little hum that shivered down my spine.

“We’re here,” the cabbie announced, turning the radio down. “Looks nasty out there, folks. You want somewhere specific?”

“The curb’s fine.” I sat forward, feeling my skin cool with the sudden absence of Irish’s body heat. It occurred to me that it would be real damn easy to get used to having him next to me like that. I found my wallet and paid the cabbie as Irish got out. I scooted over, stepping out of the cab and standing up.

I lit a cigarette as the cabbie pulled away. “Up that way,” I pointed to the empty, ominous hulk of the old Packard plant, a vast decrepit shape full of broken peaks and skeletal towers blotting out the glow of Detroit behind it. “We want that first building on the left.” Broken windows looked down at us, and none of the security lights were working in this area. I’d shot a few of them out myself.

“I remember.”

“France,” I mused out loud as the shadow filled the darkness before us, feeling out the clearest path. I moved confidently through icy trash and debris, avoiding the slippery patches. Irish, wise to this little stunt of mine, followed behind me. Or maybe he just liked the view. “Damn, I can’t remember who’s over there. A lot of the Majors have influence in Europe, but there are a few big boys. Your two, the Tower and the Heirophant, but I’m not sure who else.”

“They aren’t ‘my two.’” Irish’s voice was an angry growl. The Tower and the Heirophant had allied centuries ago, even before the Arcana had coalesced into a real organization. To collect as much mystical power as they could, and to eliminate any others who might pose a threat to them, they’d built a secret society of their own: The Order of St. Heinrich. Witch-hunters. Assassins. Later, when they’d been accepted as two of the leaders of the first global coalition of magicians, they’d used their rank and position to aim their bred-from-birth Inquisitors like smart bombs, removing still more of the competition. Irish had been one of their agents for most of his life – and not even one of their best. He’d been stationed here, in the Midwest, and had largely been ignored by his superiors. Considering the reputation he’d built, so impressive that even the rumor of his name was enough to make ancient vampires and powerful witches pull up stakes and leave the state, I’d hate to face one of the Order’s finest alone in a dark alley.

Hmm, poor choice of words. If I had to meet one of their heavy hitters, a dark alley would probably be my venue of choice. I do well in the dark.

“Okay, granted. They’re not yours. You were theirs.” He bristled, but couldn’t really argue the point. “The tricky bit is who to ask.” I flicked ashes as we wandered into the pitch black shadows filling the alleys between abandoned buildings. “I could check some of the online registries, but they’re notoriously unreliable. I don’t know anyone who would know who wouldn’t also want to know why I was asking.”

“Ask Laurent.” Irish put a hand on my shoulder so he could keep track of me. I couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but I didn’t need to. Through the shadow, I could feel my way along. Irish, on the other hand, was just blind. Sometimes that didn’t bother him. Tonight, it seemed to.

“That’s a bit obvious, isn’t it?”

“Don’t see how it matters. If he’s here to make you an offer, then it won’t matter if you caught him out and want all the details, right? And if he’s not, then yer just bein’ curious, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, but what if he isn’t here to make a friendly offer?” I ducked through a sagging door frame into a building that had once been part of the most modern car factory in the world. “Mind your step.”

“I guess if he gets too pushy, we’ll need to teach him a lesson, eh?” His hand tightened on my shoulder as he stumbled over a piece of former ceiling. “Shite – Alice, wait.” He pulled me to a stop just as I put my arm across his chest to stop him.

The shadow stretched, shifting through the garbage and debris. This part of the factory had once held the world’s most advanced assembly line, so it was a big, wide-open space, broken up by heavy support columns made of steel I-beams and crumbling cement. The ceiling was coming down in big chunks, littering the floor in plaster, insulation, and concrete. The shadow oozed through the freezing wet mess, chasing rats ahead of her, slithering over slimy patches of mold and around rotting mattresses, through drifts of leaves and trash. We knew the layout of the plant very well, after a month of living here. Well enough that we could recognize even small changes since our last time through here. We could tell there was some fresh graffiti on the west wall, that the rats living in the broken desk down the hall had just had a litter of babies, and that someone had recently driven a car through here, probably from the east entrance, the one I usually used. The exhaust still hadn’t completely cleared from the enclosed ruins.

“There’s a car,” I whispered as Irish said, “Someone’s here.” He stepped to the side, pulling me with him, out of the doorway, where we’d have been framed in the feeble light coming from outside.

She was already inspecting the car we’d found. It was parked right next to mine, where a moldy and half-collapsed hallway led into some long-abandoned office spaces. It was a small, sleek car, sporty, low to the ground and wide, built for taking sharp corners at high speeds. My Barracuda probably looked like an old Soviet tank next to its more modern fiberglass and plastic cousin. I wasn’t entirely displeased with that comparison. I’d had to do some combative driving last month, and I’d made some modifications to the Barracuda for next time. ‘Tank’ wasn’t far off the mark anymore.

“Car?” Irish prompted, voice quiet, just a breath of sound. He shifted me a bit to the side and a bit behind, putting my back to the wall and himself ahead of me. He kept one hand on my shoulder, heavy there and warm, to keep track of me.

“It’s a little sports car.” I frowned, considering the shape of it. “Ferrari, maybe. It’s got that swoopy shape to the front, low seats and a dual exhaust. Sound familiar?”

“No. Expensive, though. Feist?”

“Nah, he likes BMWs.” The shadow explored the hall, finding it empty save for some skittering vermin. At the same time, she was embracing the strange car, slithering into it, seeping in around the windows and doors. “It’s parked right next to mine.”

“What, really?” I nodded. “They shouldn’t have been able to do that,” we said in unison.

There was a gadget just in front of my car, that I’d made from a dissected adding machine, a metronome, and some cricket parts. Also about two thousand dollars’ worth of gold wiring, that I’d cobble-jobbed into a junction box against the wall. The metronome was silent – and I know it’d been active when I’d left. The steady ticking of it generated an air of dread and nervousness, a sort of ‘haunted house’ vibe, that kept scavengers away from my car.

As soon as my shadow penetrated into the car I could taste the driver, smell his skin. The driver’s seat was soaked in his scent and flavor, the smell of his cologne and the hotel soap he’d used to wash with, the scent of the gun oil he preferred, the kind of gum he liked to chew. I recognized it – him. And the recognition did not soothe me even a teeny little bit. “Oh, shit.

“What is it?” Irish’s grip tightened on my shoulder, catching my attention, and my eyes focused on his dark shape in front of me. “Who is it?”

“Have I ever told you about my ex-husband? The second one?”

“You mentioned him once. The one you divorced?” I could hear the confusion in Irish’s voice.

“Did I ever tell you what he does for a living?” The shadow was reacting to my alarm. I felt her drawing on me, stealing my warmth and energy as she flung herself into the natural darkness, filling as much of it as she could. Ground floor – clear. Basement storage areas – still mostly flooded, collapsed, and empty – clear. Second floor – what she could feel, also clear. We seemed to be alone. If she weren’t so hungry, she could have spread herself out even farther, but for now this was the best she could do. Even this was taking its toll on me – I was getting the tactile, olfactory and taste-laden input of the better part of an entire city block. It made it a little hard to concentrate on my own senses, and I wrapped my hands around Irish’s wrist where he was holding my shoulder, to anchor myself.

“No…” Irish said slowly, voice now full of a dawning concern at my reaction. “No, you did not.”

“He’s, ah, well…” I swallowed. “He’s a professional hit man.”

“There was a long moment of thoughtful silence. Then, “Was he any good at it?” Irish asked, with mild curiosity.

“Yes.” There was no one out there, not for as far as the shadow could reach. But Dillon’s car was right there, so he had to be around here somewhere.

“Good enough to find ye, at any rate,” Irish murmured, thinking out loud. “But he pulled right in here and parked next to you, so he’s not trying to hide. Was it a friendly divorce?”

“Pretty friendly, yeah.” I grinned in the dark, remembering our post-divorce night on the town. We’d gone to Vegas for the divorce, to mirror the wedding. It had turned into a post-divorce weekend. “We didn’t hate each other. It just wasn’t working out.”

“Maybe the Order tried to hire him, and he’s here to warn you?”

“Maybe the Order did hire him, and he’s counting on ‘friendly’ to get him close enough to take a shot.” I countered. “We can’t find anyone here. No one’s around.”

“Let’s get inside then.” He took a step away and let his breath out in an annoyed snort. “Does it need t’be this dark?”

“You did see all those windows on the west side, didn’t you?” I put my eyebrow up and smirked, a wasted effort since he couldn’t see my face. “I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I were going to snipe somebody, that’s where I’d be, and we can’t reach out there to check.”

“Dammit…” He pulled in a deep breath. “I don’t like letting you go first.”

“What, are you kidding? I’m in the basement, and most of the second story. I’m coating the walls, and blocking the windows. I’m in the sports car, and I’ve already gone down the hall checking for bombs and lurkers. I always go first. Come on – just follow me and give a shout if you feel like someone might be getting shooty.”

“The room was big, but not that big. I could have made it to my front door in a minute by myself, without so much as a stumble. I could feel the entire room against my skin, the shape of it and position of each piece of junk laid out like a map in my head. I knew exactly where my feet needed to go. For once, Irish was slowing me down. He had to walk with more care, feeling his way along, which was odd, now that I thought of it. I’d seen him fight in the shadow’s darkness. Well, I’d felt him, at any rate. Either way, the man turned blind-fighting into a goddamn art form. He sure the hell didn’t need to see then.

I’d noticed that about him before, though. It was like his abilities worked better when he didn’t think about them. He’d said something like that up on the roof, too, hadn’t he? They don’t just happen at will. I have to sort of, well, get into a certain frame of mind and wait for them. The whole process seemed dreadfully ass-backwards to me. Every trick I knew I’d had to put the work and effort into learning – years with different mentors spent learning magic, every minute of my life practicing with the shadow. An ability that only worked well when you were expecting it to in the same thoughtless way you expected your lungs to keep pulling in breath struck me as incredibly alien.

But really, who am I to criticize?

“Wasn’t your first husband a cop, or something?” Irish asked, apparently feeling the need to fill the darkness with small talk.

“A district attorney. Also an asshole.”

“He died?”

I laughed, a short bark of hilarity. “Eventually, yeah.”

“And your second was a hit man. Gene, he was a monster hunter.”

“And an accountant.”

“Accounting was what he did. Hunting? That was what he was.” I grunted, ceding the point. “You do seem to like powerful, dangerous men, don’t you?”

I gave the metronome a tap, setting off the steady ticking that would repel looky-loos from finding my little home-outside-my-home. “I’m no pushover myself,” I pointed out, my heels clacking on the floor tiles as I led Irish down the hallway. The floor was spotlessly clean. Gene must have swept recently. “Maybe the soft-spoken kind of guy just doesn’t feel that they’re in my league?”

We reached the third door on the left, the only office door that still boasted an intact frame and wasn’t sagging off its hinges. I scuffed a toe of one my shoes over the floor. “No ashes.”

“Ashes?” Irish stepped up behind me and I felt my wards sputter in his presence.

“Yes, ashes. If someone tried to force their way in here, they’d be in for a short, hot surprise.” I opened the door and the hall light spilled out in a warm, yellow glow. The shadow poured through, pulling herself in from all around in her rush to get inside where it was warm. I reached in and flipped the light switch just inside the door, and the defensive wards powered down with a gentle whine. “Come on in.” I ushered Irish in and followed him, switching the wards back on and shutting the door.

The door clicked shut, I turned the lock, and a tension I hadn’t quite realized I was carrying drained out of my shoulders. I let out a slow breath, glad to be home again and safe.

I turned to find Irish blinking in the light, glancing around, still a little put off by the fact that we’d just stepped into a Southern plantation home instead of the empty, falling down office he might have expected from the door. It was still dark outside – the front parlor windows looked out over a wide expanse of overgrown lawn, cypress trees, and encroaching swampland. It was a lot warmer, though. Upper sixties, low seventies, maybe? Quite a change from Michigan’s bitter ten degree weather that we’d just left.

The shadow flowed past us, the lights dimming as she drank. I didn’t usually let her eat the house supply – I do have an electric bill to pay, after all – but after tonight’s fun and games she was starving, and she’d been so good I hated to deny her. There was a fire burning in the kitchen fireplace, and she writhed happily along the floor, seeking the warm flames to dance in and drink.

I put a hand on Irish’s arm and lifted a foot to pull my high heel off. He caught my arm to steady me and I glanced up at him to find a smile on his face. I put an eyebrow up at him, recognizing the smile as that grin men get when they catch their women doing something cute. I let myself return the smile, a little voice in the back of my head pointing out that I had him alone in the house and all to myself for a bit, and it might be fun to see where that went.

And that’s when the shadow reached the kitchen and found Dillon sitting at the island, a cup of coffee and a deck of cards in front of him, Gene standing across from him. My grip on Irish’s arm tightened as he turned, possibly realizing at the same time I did that we weren’t alone in the house.


Book One | Table of Contents | Chapter Five | Chapter Seven

Image by Daniel Haaser.