July 13, 1977Unlikely Orpheus ...


The Java House was quiet when I got there a little after three o'clock. Roberto was sitting behind the bar, reading Chavez'sAutobiography of La Causa”. A tiny old woman with a shocking mane of white hair was doing a crossword puzzle, two teenagers sat by the window not looking at each other, and Susan was sitting at a table in the back with an empty cup of coffee. Gato Barbieri was on the stereo, doing his thing.

I really hoped Susan wasn't going to ask me to meet Zee. It would have been so nice to just sit there and rap with her while Barbieri played his sax. I never got those moments anymore. I could feel this city coming to a boil. It was an almost constant thing. There was tension everywhere. The big money was leaving town in a steady trickle, cutting jobs by the hundreds. Street kids were getting militant, but in all the wrong ways. There was a river of hard drugs running through the city from New York and points southward. And the spooks were coming out of the woodwork. Lately my biggest problem was feral Skin Dancers coming up from New York. The Dancers were feeling the same way everyone else was, and some of the radical Dancers had started saying it was time to declare open season on humans. So far the local alphas had been keeping the newcomers down, but it was only a matter of time before someone strong enough stepped up to lead the ferals into open warfare.

God help us all if that happened.

I waved to Susan and stopped by the bar to get coffee and a quick word with Roberto.

“What's up, Jimmy?” He gave me some skin. “Man, I hope you ate your Wheaties today,” he told me quietly, passing me two steaming mugs. “She's been here since twelve, and she looks like she's ready to kill somebody.” He seemed genuinely worried.

“I hear ya,” I nodded. I didn't want to tell him that was exactly what she wanted to do. I walked over to the table, nodding to the crossword lady as I passed her. She murmured a greeting. If she was intimidated by me, she didn't show it, being totally preoccupied by her puzzle. She was doing it in pen. People like that knock me out. It gives me hope sometimes.

“What's up, Susie Q?” I said, setting one of the mugs in front of her. She favored me with a sharp look.

“I want you to tell me how to find Zee,” she said by way of a greeting. Right to business.

“I already told you in the park, I can't do that,” I said.

“Why not?”

I gulped my coffee. I don't like to let the stuff get cold. Susan, I noticed, hardly looked at the coffee. She was as focused on her goal as the crossword lady had been.

“Because Zee is a very dark man that I wouldn't introduce my worst enemy to, and you are a good person and sort of my friend. You don't need that kind of creature getting involved with your life, believe me.” I took another gulp of coffee.

“Then can you help me yourself?”

“When we say help, what do we mean exactly? You want me to talk to this guy?”

She was about to snap at me, but seemed to pull herself together at the last moment. She shook her head and said quietly, “Talking to him won't do any good. We're way beyond that.”

I was stalling, obviously. I pretty much knew what she wanted me to do. You didn't ask to see Zee if you needed to give someone a stern talking-to. And I had asked around about this guy Mike. He was bad business. From what I heard, Susan had the right idea. He needed to be dealt with. Only problem was, I had a geas on me. I couldn't magic him up, or attack him by mundane means, or even tell someone else to do it, unless he happened to threaten me or my own. It was a “clear and present danger” kind of thing, and it was not open to interpretation. I had zero leeway.

It was a moral issue, but it was also more than that, because magical power is influenced by morality. If I crossed the lines, I would be summoning a firestorm that I probably wouldn't survive. Not only that, but it would make trouble for the rest of the Sisterhood.

I couldn't explain all this to Susan, though. I could only tell her, “I'm not allowed to do anything else, Susie. I'm like a deputy sheriff. I can't go outside the law.”

“Well, that's just great for you, Grasshopper,” she hissed. “He beat her up, damnit. For going to the movies with me. For fucking Star Wars!”

There was a buzzing ache in my head, and little jagged lines across my vision, as I told her, “I can't kill him for that. I couldn't even beat him up unless I knew for a fact he was going to do it again.”

“Then god damn it, I need to see Zee!”

Two things happened at once. My coffee cup exploded, sending shards of handmade pottery zinging around and the dregs of my coffee splashing on the painted surface of the table, and the crackling auras dancing in my eyes went batshit. The whole right side of my field of vision went black. In about five minutes I was going to have one of the worst headaches of my life.

“Do not, under any circumstances, say that again,” I told Susan, looking around the Java House. The other clients were all glancing our way with startled looks, and Roberto was hesitating about coming over to check on us. I shook my head, tried to smile and gave him a little wave to say that we were cool. He didn't much like it, but he trusted me, so he stayed behind the bar. I started to wipe up the mess we had made, handing Susan a napkin for the splash of coffee on her chin. Luckily, none of the pottery shrapnel had hit our faces.

Susan didn't say anything. Maybe she thought I had squeezed the mug too hard, or maybe she was just stunned silent. I didn't care.

“What do you know about Zee, Susan?” I asked grimly.

She wiped her chin and shrugged. “Nobody tells me much. I know he's a bad motherfucker, if that's what you're asking. I'm not stupid. But I also heard he would help you out if nobody else would. And it seems like that's where I am now.”

“A bad motherfucker,” I repeated. “Well, you sure got that right. But this is not Shaft we're talking about, Susie. Do you have any idea what kind of person Zee is?”

“Some kind of voodoo wizard?” she guessed, not sure if she believed it or not.

That was our first problem. She didn't really believe in spooks, even while she sat there asking me to introduce her to one. She had no idea what she was asking to get into. She didn't know the source of Zee's power. And she clearly didn't know that when a desperate person calls on a magical being three times, especially a being as twisted as Zee, shit starts to happen. Susan was a smart girl, but she knew zip about magic. She needed a crash course.

Well, at least I got to finish my coffee.

I stood up, collecting some of the pottery shards. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“Gonna visit some friends of mine,” I told her. I handed Roberto a couple of bucks to pay for the cup I had broken, and we walked out of the Java House. The afternoon sunlight switched on a jackhammer inside my head. The one thing I can't make better with magic. I get migraines every couple of months. They hit me out of the blue, completely random. And when they do, I can't even think about magic.

Behind the jitterbugging auras and dark clouds that were nearly blinding me, I made out a bulky form leaning against a streetlight right outside the door. I blinked a few times and looked around us to get a sort of composite picture from my peripheral vision, and the subject of the composite was a heavyset, short woman with flaming red hair, wearing a leather jacket in ninety degree weather.

I knew her. She called herself Rhiannon. She had named herself after the song, and you never saw a girl that was less like a Rhiannon, but that was the least of her problems. I called her Stevie sometimes, to see if it would piss her off, but stopped when I figured out she thought it was a compliment. Probably lucky for me. Rhiannon was powerful, nearly invulnerable, and had a temper like a beaker of nitroglycerin.

It was almost funny, that just a few minutes ago I had been thinking about the possibility of a suitably strong and crazy leader coming forth to lead the feral Skin Dancers in a rebellion against the Federation's conservative leadership. Because if anybody had organized a betting pool, I would have put all the money I had on Rhiannon to be that leader. Ever since she had blown into town on a Harley last fall, she had been nothing but trouble. Offhand I could think of only maybe half a dozen pack leaders who could take her down in single combat, and they all lived in Boston or New York. Her day was a'comin', sooner or later.

I figured I could probably survive a fight with her on a good day, if I was alone and holding the right tools. Not beat her, but hurt her enough to make her back off. But on a day like today, with a migraine pounding my skull, and a civilian friend that I needed to protect, the girl would shred me like pulled pork. I dug in my pockets, but it was the middle of the day and I wasn't carrying any kind of weapon that would hurt Rhiannon.

I looked again, staring around the migraine auras until I could verify that, yes, she was pissed. It might have had something to do with our patrol last night. I had thought the guy was a loner, but I should have guessed he'd been one of her packmates. They were all wild freaks like Rhiannon. She looked like she was about ready to charge. Her lips were curling in a snarl that would burst out any second.

I tried to get my head together, to focus on calling up a defense in between jackhammer blows. It wasn't working. And then, Rhiannon froze, and the lip curl disappeared, the snarl stillborn.

Hugely confused, suspecting a trick, I looked cautiously behind me. It wasn't a trick, though. Rhiannon was staring at Susan, and the fight had gone out of her.

I played it as smooth as I could under the circumstances.

“Hey, Rhiannon. What brings you out this way? Long way from Westville, girl. I'm sorry – Rhiannon, meet Susan, old friend of mine. Susie Q, this is Rhiannon.”

“I know,” said Susan. “We've met.”

“Good. Wait, what?” I stammered.

Hey, I never said I was really smooth.


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