Friday, July 27, 2018

Fiction Friday: Who Wants You? (OIA #7)

Who Wants You?

In the recreation room of the YWCA, Lamb Hutton asked, "Who wants to play Parcheesi?">
Trisha said, "Uh, no." She was the girl nearest Hutton's age. "I have a date."
"So does everyone. Except me," said Hutton.
"Even Katrina?" Katrina had only one eye and one tooth. Hutton nodded. "Damn. You have got to find a boyfriend. Or girlfriend."
"I like boys! You know, a man even wanted to marry me."
Trisha looked at her. "And what'd you do?"
"Ran away." Hutton shrugged sadly. "That's why I'm here."
They saw Katrina cruise through, her moles clean and wet-shiny. "What about guys at your work?" asked Trisha.
"I— I don't know."
"I have to go or I'll miss my bus." She kissed Hutton on the cheek and scurried out. "Think about it. You could ask them out. It's the modern age."
Hutton sighed, put away the game board and started dealing out solitaire.
* * *
"We can't wait for LaCroix any longer. Something must have detained him." Seth Markur looked at the others around him: Toomey, Hutton, and Cabot. "Cabot, because you're such a never-mind, you go first."
Cabot looked at him and then sighed. "All right. My propane barbecue exploded. I was lighting it on my balcony and boom. Gas backed up."
"You could have died!" Hutton said.
"I dove for cover. Besides, my gift cut in so the fireball went around me." Lamb smiled at him.
"Aye," Toomey said darkly. He looked around. "I was in a restaurant havin' a bottle of a nice Merlot, rich and full-bodied, when the waitress offered me a glass of water to cleanse the palate. I told her I stay away from water, but she insisted. The water kept flowing from the glass like a river, and I had to throw it against the wall to save myself. The glass broke."
"You're all right now, though?" asked Hutton.
"Aye, I am."
Markur said, "Mine is a bit different. During that heat wave, I bought a fan—haggled the saleswoman down for a decent deal because the box was clumsily resealed, so it had obviously been sold and returned. Turned it on and it ran the wrong way: nearly sucked the air from my lungs before I got it off."
Cabot said, "And Hutton?"
She shrugged. "Nothing."
"The pattern," said Markur, "is clear. Fire, water, and air. Either you or LaCroix are facing a threat from earth of some kind."
"Oh, for—" said Cabot. "How did you know, Markur? Toomey has the excuse of being a drunk and a member of faery, so he has an excuse—"
"I am not a drunk—"
"But if the air was being sucked out of your lungs, how did you know?"
Markur said reluctantly, "I was told."
"By who? Your landlady."
"No. My— My sword."
Cabot swore. "Look. My barbecue was old. It was the first time I had used it since moving to Freedom City. Markur, you say you spent the last six hundred years in Hell, so you got the directions on the fan wrong. And Toomey, you were probably drunk. I don't see a threat here."
"I'm a fae! I know magic, and the glass was—"
LaCroix entered, muttering imprecations.
"You're late," said Cabot.
"Had to take a cab."
"Car not working?" Markur said.
"Captain Thunder fighting a giant golem by my house. Golem stepped on it and nearly killed me. Car's totaled."
Markur looked at Cabot. Cabot looked at LaCroix, then at Markur. "I'll consider the theory." He stood up. "If you'll excuse me, I have real work to do." He left the board room.
Markur looked at those remaining. "The pattern is clear enough. Meant to eliminate everyone but Lamb."
"Would Lamb be protected or the real target, then?" asked Toomey.
"I don't know," said Markur. "But knowing more about her can't hurt. What about this group that kicked you out?"
"Because I was a heretic?" asked Lamb. "I wasn't really. I just didn't want to marry the pastor."
"And why?"
"He takes several wives. I'm not...I'm not pretty, like Purity is, or good at housework, like Charity is. I think it's because I was blessed by God and the prophet with powers."
"Not everyone can do what you do?"
"It's quite rare, really. Me, Faith, and Cotton are the only three alive right now."
"And is he married to the other two?"
Hutton nodded. "But it's not required."
Toomey said, "Right. Sure it isn't. What's this pastor's name?"
"The Right Reverend Hickory Wright."
Markur made a face.
"But why would they want you back after kicking you out?" Toomey asked.
"Children," LaCroix suggested. "Did the other women have children?"
"Faith is barren, poor dear," said Hutton. LaCroix nodded sagely. "But Cotton had four children by the time I left, and she had only just turned thirty."
LaCroix frowned. "Then I have nothing. Sorry."
* * *
LaCroix cleared his throat. Cabot purposely didn't look up as LaCroix cleared his throat again, and then finally said, "Cabot?"
"If it's about Markur's supposed death threats—"
"It isn't. Cabot..." LaCroix closed his eyes. Grandfather, give me strength, he asked.
You can do it, came the voice from his fetch stick.
LaCroix said, "Cabot, can you give me a drive to work until I have a new car?"
"Maybe. Where are you?"
"North side. Almost by Lantern Hill."
"Being a professor must pay well. I'm way south, nearly at Lincoln." Cabot shook his head. "Isn't there a subway stop near you? The monorail stops near here."
"That's not an issue. I can't—my insurance opts out of supervillain attacks, and I can't afford to come here by cab every day until I have a new car."
"Like I said, take the subway. It's kind of nice to have public transport—Las Vegas didn't."
"I can't. There are...there are women on the subway." Cabot just looked at him. "Some of them will be menstruating." Cabot kept looking at him. "You can't control who you touch!"
"I can't afford the time or gas. My salary isn't even as generous as yours—you still have your sabbatical pay. I don't even have that." He smiled at LaCroix. "It's not that bad. I was married, and I touched a menstruating woman. Frequently. Or keep them afraid of you. You'll get by." He turned back to his work.
LaCroix stood there for a moment. He doesn't understand, Grandfather.
Not everyone does, grandson.
* * *
That evening, Toomey was wandering through a wine store, randomly improving wines: taking the bottle, holding it, then putting it back.
"Hi," said a woman. "You look like you know wines." She had an odd accent, like Lamb's. Of course, Toomey thought, everyone has an accent here. And they looked nothing alike, besides age, height, and sex.
"I do," said Toomey.
"I'm looking for a good wine and someone to share it with. Someone to teach me about wines."
Toomey decided to cut off that line of thought. "I've been recently married...I want nothing physical, if you please, though I appreciate the thought."
"No," said the woman, and she seemed shocked by the idea. "Nothing like that."
"Ah," he said. "Tasting I can do."
"I have some time right now—"
Toomey thought about it. There was no one back at the office but the brownie, and he was a poor drinking partner. It was going to be a long night. "I'd be glad to."
* * *
When Cabot came in, Daya asked him, "Have you seen Toomey today?"
Cabot shook his head as he looked through the mail.
"He's usually in before I am. He's not here."
But no one had seen him.
In the boardroom, Markur said, "He's been killed or kidnapped."
"It is concerning he hasn't shown up," admitted Cabot.
"We should go in pairs," said Markur. "The foe is obviously powerful and skilled in elemental magics."
Cabot said, "I don't even admit there is a foe, let alone powerful and skilled et cetera. Toomey's probably sleeping off a drunk."
"He's a clurichaun. Drinking is an occupational hazard," said Hutton.
LaCroix came in. "I hope you're satisfied," he snarled at Cabot.
"What did I do?"
"You suggested I go on the subway. Well, today I tried it. And a menstruating woman brushed against me. I'm powerless! Powerless!"
"Oh, dear," said Hutton.
"Did you try being fearsome?" asked Markur.
"I— no," said LaCroix. "It was crowded. But still." He spat on the floor at Cabot's feet.
"And did you tell me you'd be powerless if a menstruating woman touched you?" Cabot asked.
"Of course. I—" LaCroix thought about it. "No. You were gone at that point. But would you have believed me if I had?"
Ignoring Cabot, Markur asked, "Is it permanent? Because Toomey's missing."
"No. No, it's a week of a special diet and meditation. A week without my grandfather to intercede with the spirits on my behalf. I'm worse than the lowest houngan right now. Because of him."
"Hey—!"
Markur held up a hand. "We have to work together right now, regardless of our feelings."
Cabot said sourly, "I'm going to my desk."
"Go ahead, power-killer."
Hutton looked back and forth and finally said, "I'm going to stay here and help find Toomey."
"Go ahead," said Cabot as he left.
How dare they? Did they realize how much he had been carrying them on the investigative side of the business? The name of the company was Occult Investigations, not Occult Incantations.
He couldn't work. He would take a walk.
Largely, he thought, it was because they were magical and he wasn't. The doctor at the hospital had said his gift was psionics, and told him it wasn't magic. Not reliable enough to be a superpower, not rare enough to be ignored, he had been saddled with it. And this job had looked like a clean break, a chance to start fresh.
Maybe somewhere else in Freedom City— He sighed. And then what?
He was near a wine store. He thought, It's near the office, Toomey protected wines when he wasn't drinking them. Maybe they saw him.
And they had. Cabot called Talithe Daya with the license plate of the cab, and headed back for his car.
A woman stopped him just before he got back to the office. She had a map in one hand and her other hand in her large purse. Cell phone, probably, he thought. "Excuse me, sir?" she said. "I need directions."
He paused. "Where do you need to go?"
"Heaven," the woman said, just before she knocked him unconscious.
* * *
Markur waited motionlessly for Cabot to come back. It was a skill he had developed waiting for campaigns to start: never let the men see you worry or fidget.
But Hutton wasn't one of his men. "I can't stand waiting." Markur didn't say anything. "I'm going to go look for him," she said.
Markur thought about the possibility that Hutton herself was doing this, that she had snapped—and then realized that she controlled only earth, not the other elements, so she was unlikely to have made Cabot's barbecue explode, and couldn't have created the magical drinking glass and the vampiric fan. No: the threat was someone else. "No," he said. "Here is safer."
"I can't sit here and do nothing!."
"Waiting is something."
"It's not enough."
"You will not leave. The pattern is clear: the adversary is eliminating people one by one so that you are unprotected. I think that people are unhurt, because then they can be used as levers to move you."
She stopped. "As long as I stay."
"Until you are threatened directly, this is the safest place for you and for them."
"What about you?"
"LaCroix and I are going to stay here and protect you. You're clearly the target."
"Thanks. I guess. You're sure they're okay?"
"I think they are, up to the point that he threatens them."
"You think it's a man?" she asked.
Markur shrugged. "Women do so many things here and now that I can't be sure. Usually I like it, but it does take some of the certainty from life."
"So what do we do?"
"We wait." He looked at the clock. "And, if Cabot doesn't answer his cell phone soon, we prepare a trap."
* * *
"I feel like I should be helping." Hutton sat on a chair on the table of the board room. The room looked like a jungle: all of the potted plants had been moved there.
"You're the goal," Markur said. "Putting you up front just makes you more of a target. Staying here with that pan of milk between your feet does just what we need." He looked out the window. "How old were you when your magic manifested?"
Hutton said, "Twelve, maybe thirteen."
Markur nodded as he threaded around the potted plants to look out the other window. "How old would Cotton's children be now?"
She frowned in thought. "The oldest would be fourteen, then twelve and two eleven, one January, one December."
"In, uh, puberty yet?"
"Oh, yes. Cotton was an early developer."
"What if they don't have magic?"
"Cotton could have more children."
"True," said Markur. "If she's alive." Hutton looked at him. "Farming's dangerous. Not as dangerous as mercenary work, but dangerous." The Newton's cradle that signaled magic started clacking. "Showtime."
"'Showtime'? That doesn't even sound like you."
"I used to say, 'To their deaths' but I haven't killed anyone since I came out of Hell." He smiled at Hutton. Then he slipped out the door of the board room to make the final arrangements.
LaCroix came in at the same time. He said, "No luck finding the brownie," to Markur. "Hey, child." He looked sweaty. "I called the police. They can't do anything until there's an altercation. I set up my cell phone to call 911 at the press of a button. If we need them, that'll get the police here. How are you doing?"
She shrugged.
"I'm going to prepare a protective vevre around you. The ritual's kind of long so I don't know if I'll get done, but I'll try." He took a bag of corn meal from his pocket and started to pour.
* * *
Markur found Daya slumped over her desk, a phone cord wrapped around her neck. He checked her breathing—still alive. He unwrapped the phone cord and left her; better that she didn't get involved in this. Back to the board room, he thought, because a three on one fight is just sensible. He put the pen-knife in his hand, ready to shake it into a sword.
The demon of the knife fell silent. Akazizel? asked Markur and got no answer. A dark-haired woman with a big shoulder bag walked in. "Oh," she said. "I was looking for the detective agency."
Markur edged out from behind Daya's desk. "We're busy right now. Can you come back later?" He thought she might have been in her thirties. Slim, fit, in slacks and a loose top, big sunglasses, memorable hat.
"Sure," she said, and opened her big bag. "I'll just give you my card—" She pulled out a saber, shook off the sheath.
Markur said, "Now the pretense is over. I'm relieved." He flicked his wrist so his pen-knife would grow into a sword.
Nothing happened.
The woman said, "Magic doesn't work around me." She lunged with the saber.
Markur batted the thrust away with the knife; metal scraped against metal. He managed barely to deflect the next cut while backing up. Then the door was against his back and he couldn't back up any more. She said, "Nothing personal. You'll get better after I leave. I've watched you that long to know about the healing." She lunged once more: the saber bit deeply into Markur's side. Adrenaline kept the pain from him, but he knew it would hurt later.
He got the door open, fell backwards, and tried to shut it on her. He failed, scuttled towards the board room. If he had a weapon with a decent length, the hallway was a good spot to fight: it was too narrow for a sideways slash. He shouted, "She's here!" then rolled into the bathroom.
The plunger! He grabbed it and stood—and the woman entered.
She shrugged and stood en garde. He knew about her; he had to be silenced.
Markur nodded and lifted the plunger. It was all he had. He held it ready.
The saber bit into the handle of the plunger, and he corkscrewed it around, trying to disarm her—but the round rubber head was too broad for him to flick the sword away. She slashed again, sending chips of wood flying, and then again. Markur pulled to disarm her.
The head of the plunger fell off.
He grinned. With one swift movement he got under her arm and flicked her wrist so the saber fell free. She was not as good as he was, for all that he was out of practice. He thrust once with the stick, knocking the air out of her, then stepped forward and thrust again. She was pinned against the door to the bathroom. She whacked at the stick with her hand.
Which is when the stick broke.
Markur swore and leaned in close, intending to keep pressuring her.
Markur felt the burning pain before he saw the darkness stroll in at the edge of his vision. He fell to the ground. "Main gauche," she said. "But you're good. And your best bet is for me to leave the building so you can heal." She nudged him with her toe. He didn't move. "Which I will. As soon as I am done.
* * *
LaCroix finished the chant.
Hutton waited until there was silence. They had heard nothing from outside after Markur's yell. "LaCroix," she said. "Gideon. Why don't men like me?"
"They like you."
"I mean like me. Toomey's got that woman in Faery, I get that, and Markur is dating Melody, but Cabot stays away from me and you stay away from me too."
"Ah," LaCroix said. "This isn't really the time—"
"We might die soon."
He watched the door while talking to her. "As long as you're ready to throw the potted plants." She nodded. "You're young. And most of us have an aversion to dating young women." Leaves poked over his shoulder. He brushed them away.
"That one girl you dated was young."
"She was an immortal cultist who looked young. There's a difference." He adjusted the branches on the plants to they wouldn't touch his head.
Hutton frowned. "How young is young?"
"Twenty-one at least. The kids say you can only date some half your age plus seven." Hutton closed her eyes to keep the tears in. LaCroix went on. "That's twenty-five for me," he said gently.
A leaf brushed against his mouth, and stayed there. He pulled on it, and his eyes got wide. He tried yelling but his cry was muffled by the plant.
LaCroix started to walk to her and couldn't without dragging the plant: it was restraining him. He couldn't get his cell phone. He forced himself to be calm, found the plant's pot, and carried it over to Hutton, stepping over the cornmeal patterns on the carpet. "Mmmmmm!" he said to Hutton while pulling at the leaves—for more had grabbed his face.
She opened her eyes and gasped. She clawed at the leaves, then tried throwing the plant against the far wall—but the stems of the leaves broke as the pot flew, so LaCroix was still covered. LaCroix sank to the floor, his hands trying to get his phone out—and she followed him, pulling at the leaves. Soon LaCroix lay there, limp and unconscious. The leaves fell off.
Hutton did not notice that LaCroix's heel had erased a part of the protective pattern.
She tried to float the earth in the pot nearest the door, and she couldn't—and then she heard a voice from outside. "I have a dying man here, Lamb. He'll get better if I leave, so save him. Come with me."
She knew that voice, and she knew why she couldn't control the dirt near the door. "Where do you want me to go, Faith?"
"Home, Lamb. It's time to get married. There was a fire, and Cotton and her children are in the arms of the Lord."
Lamb reached into LaCroix's pockets and found his cell phone. She opened it—and immediately wondered which button to push.
"I left because I didn't want to marry him," she called. She picked a button. The screen lit up but didn't place a call.
Faith pushed open the door, saber ready. She saw LaCroix lying there. "Huh. Having that girl touch him on the bus really did do something to him."
"You did that!"
She nodded, but the tip of the saber did not waver. "Guilty. Thy sins, unlike mine, are forgiven," she said formally. "Come thee with me."
"No." Hutton shook her head.
"Then he dies," Faith said. She stepped closer.
"This is a cell phone, Faith. Have you seen one yet?"
Faith nodded. "I've been watching for some time. You talk to it." She took another step forward.
"Well, when I press this button, this will call the police, and they will come. This is not magic, Faith. You can't stop it. They'll save his life and they'll put you in jail."
"You're bluffing."
"Not a lot," said Hutton.
Faith took another step. "I don't know what that means, but if you could summon them, you would have done so."
Hutton pressed another button while hoping for the right one. "I don't want to go back, Faith. I'd rather have my heart broken by a man I chose than have children by a man I rejected."
"My job isn't about what you want, Lamb. It's about our immortal souls."
"No," said Lamb. "It's about your immortal soul. I'm only a means to an end. I'm...I'm a breeding cow for him and a token of redemption for you. I'd rather die." She threw up the window and dove outside.
* * *
When Faith came down the stairs and outside, Hutton was leaning against a tree to favor her swelling ankle.
"You're just delaying the inevitable, you know," said Faith.
"So are you, Faith." Hutton sent a chunk of earth flying at her. It hit her on the leg. "Physics, Faith. After I throw them, they keep moving and it's not magic at all." Another chunk of dirt shattered against Faith's head. Faith marched ahead.
Hutton said, "See, I'm outside your range now, but you're not outside mine." Earth erupted all around Faith and met three dozen feet above her head, forming a giant of soil over Faith.
"What are you going to do, have me march around it? My power will cancel your power once I get close."
"I know." Faith marched forward, and when she came closer, clods of earth started to fall.
Hundreds of pounds of soil fell on Faith's head before she could dodge. It buried her so that only her head was left exposed.
"That was the idea." Hutton left to check her friends.
* * *
"How'd you find us?" Cabot rubbed his wrists where the duct tape had been. The warehouse was empty except for them: Toomey was out in the cab.
"Faith left a note. She didn't want to kill anyone but me, and me only if necessary. Bad for her immortal soul."
"But she's gone now?"
Hutton nodded. "She dug her way out and escaped, and I was more concerned about finding you. You folk, I mean." She smiled, and dimples appeared.
"Well... Thank you." He smiled too. "It's always instructional to be locked up with Toomey."
There was a silence. Then Hutton blurted, "I was wondering if you want to go on a date on Saturday?"
Cabot said, "I don't normally date co-workers."
"Oh." Hutton looked away and started to turn.
"But you rescued me. What time would you like to pick me up?"