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Blood Engines

By:T.A. Pratt

Marla Mason crouched in the alley beside the City Lights bookstore and threw her runes. The square of royal-purple velvet spread before her on the ground was covered by a scattering of objects—a garlic clove, a withered cigarette butt, a two-headed novelty quarter, fingernail clippings, and the stone from the head of a toad. She studied the pattern the objects made for a long time, then sighed. “It’s no good. This alley isn’t any better than the other two places I tried. I don’t know where all the lines of force are in this city, so I can’t interpret the scatter worth a damn. I thought I could triangulate, but even then it’s too vague. There’s something or someone of power over there”—she gestured vaguely eastward—“but I don’t know if it’s the guy we’re looking for. I’ll have to do a wet divination.” The air smelled faintly of piss and coffee, but not even those familiar urban smells set Marla at ease.
Her companion, Rondeau, stood slurping rice noodles from a waxed-paper box. “I guess guts never lie,” he said, prodding the noodles with his chopstick and plucking out a morsel of chicken. “What are you planning to eviscerate?”
Marla wrapped up her velvet cloth and divining tools and stowed them in a leather shoulder bag. She stretched her arms overhead until she felt her joints pop, then sighed. She’d missed her morning workout, then spent several hours cramped in cattle class during a cross-country flight, and her body was feeling uncooperative. “If I didn’t have such high moral standards, I’d do a human, just because it’s more accurate. Then again, this isn’t my city, so it’s not like I have a responsibility to protect these people.” She was kidding, of course. Murder for mystical purposes incurred a nasty karmic debt, and it was wasteful besides. There were better uses for people. “I don’t know. A cat, maybe. Or a chicken. Nothing too advanced. I doubt Lao Tsung is trying to hide from me.”
“Why do we have to look for him anyway? Why didn’t you let him know we were coming?” Rondeau wiggled his fingers around his left ear. “Ever hear of a telephone?”
Marla snorted. “He’s not the kind of person who has a phone number. There are ways to get messages to him, but it would take a few days, and there wasn’t time for that. I’m in a hurry.”
“I gathered that,” Rondeau said, wiping his mouth with a wad of napkins. “I think my first clue was when you busted into my place, told me to pack a bag, hauled ass to the airport, and hustled me onto a plane. You didn’t even let me sit by the window.” His tone was aggrieved. “My first time on a plane, and you stick me in the middle beside a fat guy with sweat stains. He was smelly.”
“Oh, you noticed that, too? I think it’s your keen powers of observation I value most.”
“You know, I kept hoping you’d volunteer the information, but since you aren’t—what are we doing in San Francisco? What’s so important that you have to see this guy Lao Tsung right now? And why did you need me to come?”
Marla considered. She and Rondeau had saved each other’s lives far more often than they’d threatened them. Keeping secrets was a useful habit, and deeply ingrained, but it paid to remember she did have a few allies she could count on. “It’s Susan Wellstone,” she said, and found herself reaching almost superstitiously for the comfort of the daggers up her sleeves.
Rondeau’s eyes widened. “Really? Her? Of all the movers and shakers in Felport, I never thought she’d be the one to move on you. Gregor, maybe, or Viscarro…” He tossed his empty noodle carton in a garbage can.
Marla shook her head. “Gregor would stab me in the back if I ever gave him the chance, and Viscarro will be there to steal the jewels and gold fillings off whatever corpse falls first, but Susan’s the only one willing to make an opportunity, instead of just waiting for one. She knows that if she loses, I’ll destroy her. But she’s a perfectionist. She doesn’t intend to lose. She means to overthrow me.”
Rondeau frowned. “So why isn’t she hanging upside down in a vat of acid right now? What are we doing on the other side of the continent? You can’t be running away.”
“I better not have heard a little upward lilt at the end of that last sentence, Rondeau,” Marla said, crossing her arms. “I know you weren’t asking if I’m running away.”
Rondeau held up his hands. “I know better. I’ve seen you duck from the occasional social obligation, but never a fight.”