Also, please remember that while I'm sharing it here, it is still copyrighted by me, Richard Raley, and be kind enough to link back here instead of copying and pasting the whole thing on some other part of the Internet.
Can’t say I’m a fan of getting arrested.
Ain’t nearly as bad as a woman claiming you da baby daddy, but it’s up there.
. . . What?
It only happened twice!
The tests proved it wasn’t me.
Shit, one was black and the other was a ginger, couldn’t have possibly been mine.
Wasn’t worried at all.
Not one bit.
No, I did not call a doctor’s office afterwards to ask if there are temporary five-year vasectomies.
What was I talking about?
Not a fan.
Even when it’s two of my former classmates carrying out said arrest.
Estefan Ramirez and Miles Hun Pak both started sucking on the Asylum’s massive, studded, authoritative cock right after graduation. Estefan sucked it so hard, long, and with such oral dedication that he was even promoted to Senior ESLED agent a few months back. Still every inch the pretty boy, still expects the whole world to give way with just a smile, me included. Seriously, you just strut into King Henry’s Nerd Nirvana and expect the man himself to slip on some handcuffs like he’s the good ‘ittle boy he ain’t never been?
Okay . . . gonna do it eventually, cuz when you’re fighting the Curator, the Divine Court, half the Were Nations on the planet, and the Mancy only knows who else, you don’t want to pick a fight with ESLED too, but who does Estefan think he is? Maybe the suicidal thoughts were finally showing up. Got married at twenty-one. Got no life ahead of me. Debra already wants kids. What did I do? What was I thinking? If King Henry kills me I won’t have to live with my poor decision making skills.
And Miles . . . Miles Fucking Hun Fucking Pak! Dweeby ass Miles with his dweeby ass glasses and his dweeby ass bowtie. Wardrobe makes T-Bone’s sweater-vest look like badass motherfucker apparel. BAMF on the belt buckle just like McCree. Who does Miles think he is coming into my shop with Estefan, backing up his partner and best friend like that? You stop the guy jumping off the roof, Miles, you don’t help him up the stairs!
Okay, okay . . . so they were respectful.
Okay, okay . . . so they said right off the bat that they didn’t want to do it, but they were ordered to do it and you know how things are with orders. No, I fucking don’t. King Henry Price is not an order-loving kind of guy. Not a guy into doing sex acts with any type of authoritative cock. Or authoritative clit. Don’t start, ladies, first minute of this tale and I’m already getting arrested, don’t need your asses screaming misogyny already, do I? Be it cock, clit, or some type of blood tentacle, I hate whatever shape authority takes.
Proven it time and again this last year.
Started me down this path when I was fourteen, still the beat of my drummer to this day.
Gonna get my ass arrested.
Gonna get me a Guild of Artificers paid-for trip to the Pit.
Got me a day in court gonna end in a spankin’ for the naughty boy.
It’s all according to plan.
Until the plan inevitably blows up in my face.
But that’s like days away!
So . . .
Even as mankind begins its latest failed attempt at halfheartedly saving itself from Climate Change, electric cars ain’t so common as you’d wish them to be. What electric cars are about are sedans and tiny little foreign motorboxes. You’ll find one outside of King Henry’s Nerd Nirvana all the time. Brand new Tesla. Looks like sex. Looks like the future; future mankind will never reach because greed got in the way, but at least they tried for the Hail Mary.
The Tesla in question belongs to one of the store’s owners.
Guy I’m proud to call my best friend. Once upon a time we were the only two Ultras living in Fresno; so we didn’t have any choice when our friendship started. Started rough, but somehow it ended up working fine, became something real, upgraded us to business partners. One day I’ll have to be the best man at his wedding.
Me, I’m the short, pugnacious white guy in the brown coat. He’s the tall, plump black guy in the sweater-vest. Artificer, Stormcaller. Rebel without a cause, civilization incarnate. It all works out somehow. Six months since the Ouroboros and we still hadn’t dissolved our business partnership. If anything, business had never been better. Life would be nice and simple and blissful if we only worried about business. But as it was . . . business was pretty far down the bucket list.
And since it’s me, that bucket smells like horseshit.
The new electric vehicle just arrived outside of the shop was a rugged looking SUV, all black and modern. Had little doubt it belonged to the Asylum, better known as the Institution of Elements, Learning Academy and Nature Camp. SUV was part of the Borg fleet; just like all the rest, going to assimilate your ass. Cares about the past and the Way Things are Done just as much as it cares about the future.
Electric vehicle pulls on up and people take notice. Electric SUV arrives and you happen to be in the One-in-a-Million World, you know exactly who’s come by to give you a ‘hello.’ Not a ‘hello’ with an accompanying friendly reach-around neither. Not many accompanying friendly reach-arounds in the One-in-a-Million World. If you do get one, odds are you should be wondering about what the other hand’s about to do with your butthole.
T-Bone—that’s what I call Tyson in my head and sometimes to his face; cuz it’s funny, it is, I know these things, trust me—and I were in the back of the shop. The real part of the shop. The non-comic, One-in-a-Million part of shop. Not my Artificer workshop, which was below our feet, but the room where T-Bone kept his tidily maintained computer servers and the industrial AC unit that kept them from exploding under the summer heat. Also kept his master battle-station with a bunch of monitors all stacked side-by-side and on top of one another.
And not one of the things gets porn cuz he blocked all those sites out, so what are they good for?
Suppose they were connected to the cameras T-Bone had installed around our building, so they had that going for them. If any good has come from me telling T-Bone all the truths I’ve learned, it’s that I’m not even close to being the most paranoid one between the two of us.
“We aren’t ready for this,” T-Bone said as we watched the pair of ESLED agents exit their SUV in all their tiny, high def, LED screen glory.
“Twenty-eight,” was my reply.
“Stop saying it.”
“We aren’t ready for this! That’s ESLED here to arrest you!”
“About time, right? Started to think I might have to go out and actually kill a hooker to get their attention. Or a politician, probably screws more people than the hooker ever did, right?”
“This is insane. Even for us . . .”
“Too late to put the baby back up the coot coot, ain’t it? You agreed when I told you what I was planning.”
“I did not! I said the exact same thing I’m saying now.”
“Yeah, but you stopped saying it after a few days and I just took that as agreement.”
“We’re insane if we go through with this.”
“Could go outside, shoot them, and bury them in the back if you want,” I offered. “Ain’t no one better at burying a body than a geomancer.”
T-Bone switched cameras to get a better look at the ESLED agents. Complaining was part of T-Bone’s being, but he always pulled through when I needed him. Always had my back no matter what crazy thing I planned to do. To be fair . . . what I planned to do over the next week was some Isabel Soto level of crazy. Couldn’t disagree with him there. Calling the Crazy. Begging the Crazy Planning the Crazy. But it’ll work . . . has to work. Only way to steal me some truth. Might get burnt a little, but when that ever bothered me? Even like it if it’s the right girl doing the burning . . .
“They look too young to be ESLED agents,” T-Bone commented on the video feed. “ESLED agents are supposed to be old men, not younger than I am. Plus, only the two of them. I assumed they would send a Guild representative along. Or a full strike team. With machineguns. I really hate machineguns . . .”
Gave a little chuckle as the two ESLED agents nervously approached the front door of King Henry’s Nerd Nirvana. August in Fresno takes no prisoners, over a hundred degrees every day. No place to be caught in one of those trying-to-fake-being-FBI black suits ESLED likes to call a uniform. Men in Black, they just ain’t hunting aliens so much as Vamps, mancers, Weres, and the occasional feral C.A.C. You got to watch out for them feral C.A.Cs. They’ll go right up your ass before you even know what’s happening.
Fresno in August. Can fry an egg on any of those car hoods, electric, gas, or diesel. Six months since the last time the Crazy came calling. Came calling in the form of a helping hand ended up getting me into deeper shit than any of us ever expected. The Ouroboros Hotel and Casino, the Eternal Order, Isabel Soto, Obadiah Paine, Three Queens, shit just kept on flowing. Added up to a dead classmate, two dead enemies, a desire to steal some answers, and a new girlfriend. Just not a girlfriend for me that time around.
Whole other unimportant story really, but Vicky Welf had found her way to Fresno not long after the Ouroboros, got herself kicked out of home, and was living in sin with T-Bone. Judging by the twenty pounds he’s dropped, they been doing a whole shitload of sinning with each other too.
No girlfriend for me this time around. In fact, last girlfriend was located where I wanted the ESLED agents to take me. Meanwhile, even the concept of a new woman in my life wasn’t anywhere to be seen or explored. Nothing like that for King Henry Price. He’s just working. Just focusing. Just planning. Building up his business. Redesigning every artifact he’d ever made. Mastering the Mancy as never before. He’s up to something, yes he is. He’s preparing, but preparing for what?
Here’s a hint: it all starts with those two morons roasting in that bleak Fresno sun. The one with the power tie was Mexican-American, built like a soccer player with a just under six-foot frame. Also had a chiseled face with an ever present, world-conquering smirk, topped with prettier hair than any man should ever have. You spend more than three minutes on your hair in the morning and you’re doing it wrong. One of the best parts about being a man . . . that and ya know . . . the whole peeing while standing thing.
Second ESLED agent was Korean-American, skinny but in an athletic, eats-too-nutritious-for-his-own-good kind of way. Face wasn’t nearly as perfect as his partner’s, covered with thick glasses, and had nothing but a simple conformist bob of straight black hair on top.
I knew them.
Knew them pretty damn well.
Spent four years sleeping in the same communal bedroom.
“Estefan Ramirez and Miles Hun Pak,” I said aloud.
T-Bone glanced a bit of confusion over his shoulder before turning back to squint at the two miniature agents. “Wait . . . they sent two of your classmates to collect you?”
“Keep telling you the Guild’s full of petty cocksuckers. What you want to bet that they’re arresting me for every charge they can too, not just the ones they can prove?”
“They aren’t arresting you.”
“They sent ESLED agents to collect me, they’ll put me in the Pit, they’ll make me sit in front of whatever governing body they scramble together and say I’ve been a very bad boy while spanking my ass with some ceremonial, studded paddle once spanked the ass of Isaac Newton. Sure sounds like getting arrested.”
“You wanted this to happen!” T-Bone reminded me. “Also . . . Isaac Newton was a spectromancer, not a geomancer.”
“Want or not, I can still be pissy about it, right?”
“They’re not arresting you; they’re . . . bringing you to account for your actions as a fellow Artificer.”
“I’m naked in a chair without a seat and we all know what’s coming, T-Bone.”
He wiped some sweat off his brow, despite the frigid temperature of the industrial AC. “We aren’t ready for this. I’m not ready for this.”
“Thirty and you’ll do fine. Just stick to your half of the plan. I’m the one doing all the stupid shit while my nuts are open to the ravages of a rope knot.”
T-Bone busied himself by saving pictures of Estefan and Miles in some database he’d set up. Pretty slick stuff. Bit too authoritative for my tastes, but I think we’ve already been over that one. Guess if you don’t have any particular power to wield, then spying to protect yourself ain’t so bad. His idea was to take photos of every visitor, run a background check, and to keep records on them. Paranoid or not, practically it helped us track of all the Weres, Vamps, and mancers who came through the shop these days.
“Tell me about them?” T-Bone asked.
“Estefan Ramirez; married to Debra Diaz. ESLED agent, has one of our SDRs . . . Mk 2, I think. Electromancer himself, so try not to get too buddy-buddy with him, okay?”
“We aren’t that bad.”
“If he was sticking around instead of arresting me, one of you would be sitting on the other’s lap by the end of the day. Force me to give Vicky a call so she can reclaim her man. Only you’d take Estefan’s side cuz of all that electromancer bond shit. Argument breaks you up and Vick moves back home to Welf Manor . . . then she marries a Kennedy cousin about a week later. Seven kids, each whiter than the last. Nothing but tragedy and it’s all cuz you couldn’t tell the anima inside of you to fuck off with all that electromancer cuddle juice.”
T-Bone gave me a look that had no cuddle juice in it whatsoever. “Is it Anima Personalization that’s making you a huge dick today or is it just because you want to be one?”
Just shrugged, since I never had been sure one way or the other. “Miles Hun Pak, sciomancer. Good with shadows, but not with the scio-blades. Nerdy, not like you’re nerdy with the video games, but like good-student-even-likes-Math-class nerdy. Estefan and him were best friends at the Asylum; same clubs, played soccer, stuff like that. Don’t know who he’s with now, but he dated Eva when we were teenagers.”
“You . . . you haven’t heard from her lately, have you?” T-Bone asked with a bit too much interest as he typed in the info on Estefan and Miles.
Why I usually didn’t mention her. This time it just slipped out. “One girlfriend ain’t enough for you?”
“As I have told you plenty of times: it’s not like that! Stop trying to make the love triangle thing happen! Normal people care about other people without sex playing a part in it!”
Yeah, it was me making that happen. “Your big, sympathetic heart torn in twain by light on one side and shadow on the other, just poetic, ain’t it?”
I chuckled some more as the LED versions of Estefan and Miles opened the front door and came on through to the chilled AC goodness of the Nerd Nirvana. Still rocking the fake comic book store, with memorabilia and the like, all ran by my favorite employee, Prunella Lin-Loeb.
Favorite employee cuz she’s your only employee.
Camera feed on the LED changed. The Employee greeted the ESLED agents with a smile, asking them some bit of movie or comic trivia like she had a habit of doing to everyone who walked through the door. Girl’s an encyclopedia of useless shit that surpasses even Wikipedia once you’re five or six clicks down the rabbit hole.
“Eva’s good,” I finally answered T-Bone’s query. “Learning Council still ain’t letting her do the superspy shit, but they have her back on the normal ESLED rotation. Mostly, they’re making her reprove her loyalty now that she’s got all the Were anima in her.”
“She almost dies for the Asylum and she has to prove she’s loyal to the Asylum?” T-Bone outlined the catch twenty-two.
“Who knew bureaucracy was so stupid, right? Also, she’s the reason I knew these two bozos were coming today, so . . . they’re not exactly wrong about her, are they? Just ain’t Weres they got to worry about, it’s all them clean bricks in the walls and the shiny cogs in the machine ain’t surrendered to their fate yet.”
“I would’ve liked to have seen her,” T-Bone grumbled over an argument we’d had off and on for months. “So would Vicky.”
Eva had come down to Fresno once Miss Strange cleared her, announcing Eva as of sound mind and body after about a billion tests that had taken the better part of four months. I could have used the opportunity to hook up with her. Eva was always up for an adventure. Old me would’ve. Old me from as nearby as six months ago. But not now. Too focused. Too consumed.
Even if it was the old me . . .
Felt wrong too.
Eva and me just didn’t fit that way anymore. Different puzzle pieces, different key for the wrong lock . . . no fitty in the emotional poke hole.
“Not a good idea,” I eventually gave the excuse I always gave, “especially Vick. Eva don’t like spectromancers so much.”
Wears sunglasses everywhere she goes. Not so much manic pixie dream girl as a silent, stalking wolf. Two inches too tall, twenty pounds too heavy. Blackhole with a rainbow made of anima trapped at her heart. Lady might have brought her back from a coma, Fines Samson might have sacrificed himself to keep the rainbow heart beating, but she ain’t the Eva Reti of old.
“Everyone likes Vicky,” T-Bone rebutted.
“Sorry, am I destroying your threesome dreams with these reals over feels?”
He gave a tortured sigh. “Love triangle isn’t happening, King Henry. If you want to see one so bad then why don’t you go get your own?”
“I don’t even have a love . . . line.”
Instead of pushing, T-Bone only grunted.
“I haven’t said anything the last few months, but I can read a map, you know. The Guild of Artificers is in London.”
“Valentine is also in London.”
“Oh . . . yeah. I guess she is,” I tried to keep any hope I felt over that fact under wraps.
“Please promise me that you’re getting arrested for the right reasons and not as a chance to be in the same city as your ex-girlfriend.”
I seized on a distraction from the current topic of conversation. “Look at that, you’ve finally admitted I’m getting arrested. I should go out there and get about finalizing that, right?”
“In addition to map reading, I noticed that you didn’t answer too!” he called after me.
Why is it he expects me to know why I do all the stupid shit I do? “Probably won’t even see her the whole time!” I called back defensively, “Now you need to stop focusing on my love dot and focus on what you need to do once they cuff my ass.”
“We aren’t ready for this,” T-Bone grumbled to himself as he kept tapping at his computer keys.
“Thirty-one,” I counted, heading for the door out onto the comic book floor.
And sure we’re ready . . . I am, at least. You got the easy job, T-Bone. You get to watch, wait, and listen as all the rest of us risk our lives. I did what I needed to and I’d have some truth. Pocket and Jesus did what they needed to and I’d have some leverage to survive the fallout.
And maybe—just maybe—my ex-girlfriend might drop by to see me when I’m in the Pit.
Maybe, just maybe, I can finally say three little words.
“Here we go! Time to get my ass arrested!”
By the time I walked through the doors, Estefan was already talking up Prunella. Not in the mind of cheating on his wife, just in the mind that if a woman is around then Estefan has to do everything in his power to make said woman fall in love with him. Prunella was giving him a hard time, being that she had more in common with Miles, who student nerd or not, was still nerdy. Plus a sciomancer like Prunella—even if she was only an Intra—and then they had that Asian connection going.
Cuz all Ching Changs are the same, ya know.
Prunella and Miles. That’s all I’d need to deal with, another one of these relationship things in my dot of a life.
My life has way too much high school drama bullshit in it for the kind of stakes that are at play. But, hey! At least I’m not drunk off my ass throwing shit at T-Bone or drunk dialing Miranda Daniels this time around. We call that character growth! Or a tumor . . . could be a tumor . . . shaped like a penis . . . just like the butterfly.
Did throw something at the ESLED agents, but it wasn’t shit this time around. “Catch, Pak,” I said as I tossed a small plastic box at his twerpy chest. “And stop flirting with the Employee, Ramirez.”
Estefan’s smirk morphed into a smile that proclaimed everything a misunderstanding. This happens all the time, officer! Let me explain. Also, that taser won’t work on me, so don’t even bother. “Not flirting, just friendly conversation. Should try it some time, Foul Mouth.”
“Neat!” Miles exclaimed when he opened the plastic box and saw the copper SDR with his initials marked on the top: MHP.
“SDR Mk 4,” I told him while pointing at the ring. “Latest product line: two charges and twice as quick to get zapping. Ton better than the old shit Estefan has on his finger.”
Miles slipped the ring on. “Neat!” he repeated.
For once Estefan’s pretty boy face squinted with some intelligence. “How’d you know he would be here to have the initials ready?”
“Just had it lying around in the back waiting for the next shipment to ESLED,” I lied, giving a wink to Prunella. “They ain’t sexually harassing you, are they?”
“Nothing you haven’t done fifty times before, Boss.”
“Hey, you trying to get me arrested?” I complained, pointing at the fake FBI badges hanging out of the ESLED agents’ jacket pockets.
Prunella returned my wink. She left her place at the counter, crossing to the other side of the store so she could restock a shelf while I did some conversing of my own, none of it friendly.
“Don’t ever get an employee, they’re horrible,” I told Miles and Estefan once she was out of earshot. “Especially if there’s only the one of them and they have all the power over you. Maybe I should hire a new girl to fire a few weeks later, might instill some discipline . . .”
Estefan cleared his throat.
I blinked at him, playing the situation all up like I was clueless. Helps that I am clueless most of the time. “What are you two in town for anyway? Next shipment ain’t for another week.”
“For which ESLED, as always, thanks you for your cooperation,” Miles said, “and hopes that it will continue—”
“Blah, blah, give us our goodies. Got that, but I never had an in-shop pickup with actual agents, so I’m guessing it’s not that.” I motioned at the city outside the Nerd Nirvana’s door. “Ain’t Detective Ribera trying to get a warrant again, is it?”
“Listen, Foul Mouth,” Estefan tried to explain, “we didn’t want this assignment—”
“It’s not about me selling the SDRs to the Coyotes, is it? Cuz I’ve tried to get out of that deal and Vega won’t hear of it and as a peace-loving citizen of this supernatural world you must admit that selling to the Coyote Nation just like I sell to ESLED shows that we place Weres on the same ground as we place our fellow mancers and I think that’s an important step to an actual alliance between our factions, don’t you?”
Estefan searched for the words. Miles tried to help, “That’s a very nice thought, but it’s not why we’re here. As Estefan said, we didn’t want to come, but—”
“It’s not about the sex toys I sell to the Vamps, is it?”
“You . . . you,” Miles stuttered as his bowtie wilted. “You sell sex toys to vampires?”
“Who knew a cryo-anima injecting cock-ring would sell for one-hundred grand, right?” I bragged a bit. “Got one customer who even asked for SDR-level electric nipple clamps. Vamps are into some downright freaky shit. You guys ever heard of the Nine-Headed Spitting Dragon?”
“It’s not the vampires!” Estefan shouted while trying to blink away the mental image of electric nipple clamps and cryo-anima cock-rings.
Right now you’re wondering if I was just bullshitting them about that stuff. Would King Henry really do that? Even for that much money? And the answer is: deniability!
“Then what?” I asked, still playing dumb.
“Listen, Foul Mouth,” Estefan tried to explain again with the same rehearsed speech, “we didn’t want this assignment, but it was decided by the top brass that we would be about the only two people in ESLED who might have a chance at completing it without resorting to violence and before I even tell you what’s about to happen, please understand that ESLED isn’t the body responsible for this, we’re only doing our duty.”
Gave him some canine grin. “Bet you practiced that the whole way down to Fresno. Best you could do was an argument that got plenty of Nazi’s hanged back in the 40s?”
Estefan rolled his eyes and pulled out his wallet to throw Miles a twenty. “Thanks for being predictable,” Miles told me with a grin.
I turned to Estefan like he’d insulted me. “You didn’t think I’d go Godwin? Really?”
“People keep telling me you’ve grown up,” Estefan complained. “How dare I believe them, right?”
“I mean, I won’t kick you in the balls or nothing, but I’ll still go Godwin and I’m still gonna call you a ‘fucktard’ if you do what I think you’re about to do.”
“Foul Mouth,” Estefan kept on trying, “promise me that when I say what I’m about to say that you won’t do something stupid.”
“Something stupid as in kicking both of your asses out of my shop?”
“Something stupid as attempting to,” Estefan rebutted with a bit of bravado that both of us knew was paper thin.
Do love me some shit-talking, made my canine grin spread to the rest of my face. “I have my own electromancer friend in the back and his dick is massively bigger than yours, Pretty Boy. Not that I’ll need to call him, but ya know, maybe I’ll have him come out and teabag your face after I knock you out.”
Miles grabbed Estefan by the shoulder and pulled him back into a corner. Heard ‘asshole’ and ‘prick’ and few choice words from Estefan, but eventually Miles seemed to calm him down. When they walked out of the corner it was Miles out front while Estefan hung in the back looking like he might zap my ass. “Let’s start again, shall we?”
“Sure, all friends here, right? Buddies, chums, wouldn’t fuck each other over for women, money, or power?” I kept on needling. Sure, I wanted to get arrested but that don’t mean I was happy about two of my classmates bowing down and doing the job. Also don’t like thinking about how it might put us on opposite sides one of these days.
“You’ve been antagonizing the Guild lately, yes?” Miles asked with the pleased expression of a man who has facts on his side.
“Always do it, just gotten really good at it lately.”
“The contract with the Learning Council allowing you to license your work as that of an independent Artificer has a clause in it. This clause gives to the Guild the power to make you account for your actions, especially to ensure you haven’t broken any mancer laws,” Miles explained.
“Of which I haven’t.”
“Bullshit you haven’t,” Estefan growled under his breath.
“They disagree,” Miles said loudly enough to cover it up. “The Guild contacted the Learning Council activating the clause. The Learning Council in turn has tasked ESLED to escort you to London.”
Pregnant pause shit as they prayed and hoped I wouldn’t try to kick their asses—or the reverse of it.
It’s what you wanted, you dumbass, I told myself. It’s what you’ve worked for. Why you so pissy the moment it actually happens?
All about strings still.
Gave the Guild one and here it is. Sure, I poked, I prodded, I forced their hand, but still wasn’t me pulling the string. Was them. Just reminded me of all the other strings still at my back could make me dance the puppet. Accepted some of them now—did do some growing up whether Estefan believes it or not—but this clause wasn’t one of the accepted few. Didn’t choose it. Was a string I grabbed while drowning, grabbed without hope of ever breathing free air again. Bunch of them like that, still, from when Ceinwyn won me some independence as an Artificer, if not the complete freedom I still fought to earn.
By the time all this was done I wanted the Guild string cut or I wanted my own wrapped around their balls so tight I could make them squeak by giving it a tug. Make them squeak out the Nutcracker every time they start to piss me off.
“You’re arresting me?” I finally clarified.
“Lucky we aren’t cuffing your dumbass,” Estefan said under his breath. “Tell me I have a little dick, who does he think he is?”
“We wouldn’t use that term,” Miles said loudly to cover yet again. “Escorting or protecting sounds better.”
“Can I not go?” I went Socratic.
Miles shook his head. “Orders,” he apologized.
“Then you’re fucking arresting me.”
“Of course we’re arresting you!” Estefan finally exploded. “You’re selling artifacts to the Weres, you made a stupid golem, you—”
Miles pushed Estefan out the front door before he added anything else; I could still hear him yelling outside. “Man takes his dick size really seriously, doesn’t he?” I quipped, knowing T-Bone was listening in on it all.
Prunella walked back to her counter just then, expression disappointed. “Where’d the pretty one, go?”
I shrugged at her.
“Boss! You called him a ‘fucktard,’ didn’t you?”
“You think Miles is cuter anyway, admit it,” I goaded her. “You crave his tiny Korean dingle donger.”
She blushed furiously, punching me on the shoulder before she went over to fiddle with another display. Really should have had little sisters over big sisters, would’ve been better at that job, I considered.
Miles walked back inside alone. “We’re arresting you, but we can’t say we’re arresting you, as that would be illegal,” he admitted. “Even you can’t get out of this one, King Henry. It’s the Council, it’s ESLED, it’s the Guild. It’s politics. So please stop giving us a hard time and give them a hard time, okay?”
I faked thinking it over for awhile. “Have to go right now?”
“In the next hour.”
“Not if you go willingly.”
Now with the first potential problem area of my plan, would suck if it all goes wrong at the start, wouldn’t it? “Even though you just sprung this on me and all—and even though I had a long night of doing nothing planned—I’d like to go willingly. It’s just . . . well, lot of people who want to kill me, ya know?”
“Hence why we’ll protect you.”
Let a bit of the pissed-off drop from my face, giving Miles some actual concern. “Yeah, that’s the thing, ain’t it? Just won’t be me in trouble if a Vamp or the Curator tries something. Be you guys. Know you’re still single, hint-hint Employee—” she threw an action figure at my head “—but Estefan has Debra. So me cuffed up and castrated . . . don’t think that’s a good idea. For me or for you guys.”
“I just promised we won’t cuff you.”
“Right . . . and when you hand me over the Guild they’ll throw my ass in the Pit, but I’ll be safe there. It’s the in-between I’m worried about . . . and about whether once said in-between is over, if the Guild will be a dick to me or not. So I’d like to take some of my artifacts with me, just in case, but I need the Guild to promise me they won’t steal them when I arrive there, that I get to keep them as my property. Legal assurances and all that. Kind of stuff that might have stopped this from starting if I was smart enough to ask for them.”
Miles frowned a little bit. “You’re saying that if I let you keep some artifacts to use for your protection—on the slight chance something happens during the trip—that you will come without any trouble or further complaint at all?”
“See?” I said. “Might still make dick jokes, but I ain’t so bad anymore, am I?”
The frown disappeared and instead Miles beamed like he’d won the lottery. “Give me half-an-hour to make some calls . . . and for Estefan to calm down. Then we’ll be out of here.”
“Get to keep my artifacts?”
“If the Guild isn’t actually arresting you then I think you still have all the rights of a free mancer,” Miles decided.
“You would think,” I agreed, barely keeping the sarcasm in check over how full of shit I found this whole arrest-that-wasn’t-an-arrest.
“Just a disciplinary hearing,” Miles decided some more.
“No reason to cuff you or take the property from your person.”
“Right.” Just a disciplinary hearing that involves locking me up in the only prison capable of holding mancers on the planet. A prison connected to the Guild, a Guild even older than the Asylum. Hundreds of years old. Knows all the secrets. Got themselves an unbreakable prison, so how could anyone ever steal those secrets from an even more unbreakable vault? Under the ground, surrounded by guards and golems and Guild members, no access to the Mancy in the Pit . . . would be impossible.
Right, impossible, could never happen, I told myself while giving Miles another canine grin. “I’ll just go get my artifacts and tell my business partner what’s up then, okay?”
“No problem,” Miles said. “I’ll be standing here when you’re done.”
“Last chance to get his number,” I whispered to Prunella as I walked by her.
She brandished another action figure. “You want it down your throat or up your butt?”
“Be safe when I’m gone,” I told her seriously.
“What are you up to, Boss?”
“No good,” I gave her another wink, “Like always.”
Prunella ain’t the emotional type, so all she did was nod at me, but you could see that deep down she thought about maybe hugging me. Or she thought about sticking the action figure up my ass again.
One or the other.
Gonna go with the maybe hugging.
One college girl’s thumb rocked my world, don’t even want to think about what an action figure could do.
Especially if it’s the Hulk.
“You need to let the dick joke go, man. T-Bone’s cock is at least in the ninety-ninth percentile, if not the ninety-ninth of the ninety-ninth percentile. He’s the Bill Gates of Cocks. It’s okay to not be favorably compared against it.”
Estefan just glowered at me from the driver’s seat. I was in the back like a good ‘ittle not-technically-a-prisoner. “Can you please not talk about cocks the entire way to London?” Estefan eventually begged me. “It’s a double-digit flight.”
“Sure thing,” I told him, probably lying. Not saying I was planning to make any more cock jokes, but it’s me . . . so, odds are: Cock Jokes, Dead Ahead! “Hey, if you need to prove your manhood, we could always drop by a strip club on the way to the airport. You know, fondle some glittery ta-tas, eat some buffalo wings, jerk off into the cum-stained bathroom corner. Manly kind of shit.”
“I can’t believe you promised not to cuff him,” Estefan whined in frustration.
“Your problem is with his mouth and restraints wouldn’t stop that,” Miles said.
“And I promised to come along peacefully, not to come along silently about the fact you two assholes are arresting me.”
“Put your seatbelt on,” Estefan ordered.
I stared at him. “Really, Mom?”
“I’m not getting demoted because you died in a car crash on the way to the airport,” Estefan told me.
“He’s a senior agent now,” Miles filled in.
“Even more reason to celebrate at the strip club! Sure Debra will be fine with it,” I said. When he didn’t answer, I kept pushing. “Hey, she try to make you go on the knock-her-up-vacation yet?”
“Please shut up, Foul Mouth,” Estefan whined some more. Mommy, he’s touching me again!
“Holy fuckballs! You didn’t volunteer to escort me just to miss out on baby-making time, did you?”
He just sighed like a wounded animal.
“Was just joking about the strip club too, only strip club is way out of town. We’d be late to my date with the Guild and we wouldn’t want that, would we? Besides, they’re Fresno stripper ta-tas, you know what those things look like? Ain’t enough glitter or tattoo ink in the world to cover up all them stretch marks.”
Estefan clicked on the radio.
It was a Taylor Swift song.
I tried again to mend fences. “Even if your dick is small, Debra still likes it and that’s all that matters, right?”
He turned the radio up even higher.
“This is cruel and unusual punishment!” I yelled over the pop music about how horrible men are, especially our love of glittery, stretch-marked pap-bags.
Neither of them turned around. Miles started fiddling with the GPS to get directions from my shop to the airport. Wasn’t a long drive. Would be a long flight. Done it before, after all that shit with Annie B and the Divine Court. Ten hours stuck on a plane, thinking about what I would say to Ceinwyn.
Said some stupid shit.
Right from the feels I usually repress.
Waste of ten hours thinking, that’s for sure. Spent the next few days after the fight in a hotel room with Val, living off of room service. Liked that part of London. Only part I saw, since anytime either of us thought about going out and exploring the city, the other one would drag us back into bed.
Had a feeling this trip to London would be different. Less hotel and more jail cell.
Locked up in the Pit and at the mercy of the Guild. Just got to hope they’re as arrogant and out-of-date as I think they are. Had to hope that the Tsar’s info on what kind of security they had in the Pit was still up-to-date. Ten fucking SDRs and a brand new Adamantine Coat, first one off the production line, even I don’t have one for myself! Better be good or I’m strangling the shifty bastard when I break out.
If I can break out.
Adamantine Coat. I started letting T-Bone name all the new products and they were selling even better than the old ones. Shows what I know about advertising. Come down to King Henry’s Nerd Nirvana for fifty percent off your first vampire sex toy purchase! Been a profitable six months if not an easy six months. At the end of it all and I’m not the least bit exhausted by the marathon I’ve run, just pumped up and ready to rumble at the finish line.
My knuckles itched to smash faces. My mind went a million miles an hour trying to work every angle, make every joke, distract threats and dispose obstacles. My thirty-minute anima pool waited, unsure if it would be needed, unsure if it would still be there when I entered the Pit, the whole blob of precious geo-anima torn away from me.
Had new toys to play with too. A steel-link chain around my neck that ended in a fat teardrop, engraved with clouds. T-Bone called it the Necklace of Confusion. Not so sure if I’m okay with wearing a necklace but the description is apt. When activated it spits out miniscule amounts of random anima around your person; invisible to most unless they’re really focusing on sensing your Mancy type, but if you happen to have some Anima Detection Lenses it fucks with them really bad. Means you can’t use the things in a fight to get an edge over whoever’s wearing the necklace. Necklace . . . but like there’s any more manly name for something that goes around your throat—collar, ribbon, choker—all the pretties are for the ladies, ain’t they?
Reason why I know it fucks with Anima Detection Lenses is I got my own pair now, made off of Guild design documents that the Tsar had also procured. A pair of his own and two-hundred thousand dollars in cash nearly gave T-Bone a heart attack, the feathery fucker. Still, it was worth it. Anima Detection Lenses are so rare and expensive that families pass them down. Case in point: Heinrich Welf has a pair from one peasant-raping grandpa or the other. Of course Welf has his own pair—rich, friend-zombiefying douchebag that he is.
SDR on my finger, of course, not renamed. HSK’s brought back into the fold after the redesign process and renamed by T-Bone as the One Second Blade; smaller, lighter, easier to hide on your person, but just a single flah of cutting before you needed to refill them with hydro-anima. Only one Magic Little Ball, which had turned into a Magic Wand as T-Bone forced me to call it. One end spit out light and the other darkness, both using my anima reactor core process to hold the natural element equivalent.
Made a Flame Wand too. Shit was just dangerous. Needed to figure out a way to focus the fire in a line, been thinking about using nozzles or maybe even real pyro-anima with a geo-anima focusing matrix—do I sound pedantic as fuck or what? Such is my life. Here’s hoping I get to stop with the thinking and start with the punching sooner rather than later.
No Flame Wand on me, no GOB with no Mini snuck inside it this time around either, that artifact was back to experimental testing. Besides, little shit has a golem to live in now. Ain’t exactly the final product I want to design for him one day, but he’s happy enough to be clunking about pretending to be an eccentric Roomba that looks like a chubby knight without his horse. Or his sword. Which ain’t happening no matter how often Mini asks for one.
Give a gnome a sword and send him off into the world, that’s asking for trouble, ain’t it? Your robot stabbed my dog! Yeah, well, your dog sexually assaulted my robot!
Did give Mini a tiny shield, which he uses to write his messages on. Works okay. Didn’t look too crappy. My first try at a golem, so back off me!
Also found myself in the spectro-portrait business as of late. Angering the Guild and the Circle of Light, I’m a smart man, yes I am. Too bad I can’t piss out Slush or I could add in the Rejuvenation Society for the hat trick. But Vicky needed spectro-portraits for her art career and the Guild design was the usual hammer-into-nail crap job, so I did a few days updating and the occasional afterhours work to keep her stocked. Being as Momma and Papa Welf ain’t footing the bill no more, my help was about the only thing keeping her career afloat.
Fucking propriety and manners, man, it’s a mess. Imagine you care about your social standing so much that you tell your kid she can’t come home cuz of the guy she’s dating. Victoria von Welf dating a Second Tier, First-Generation Ultra, the horror! He runs a computer business! For mundanes!
Guess it does happen in the mundane world too, lots even, but fuck . . . given my own life and the serious reasons my family split apart, just seems like a shitty thing to do. Welf started showing up a few months back, dropping off clothes and some of Vicky’s stuff from the Manor. Think if Vicky keeps holding out she just might win, though Moira von Welf is known to hold a long grudge.
Just ask Catherine Hayes.
Stupid or not, the whole thing had given me a new understanding for spectro-anima. It’s a light touch, har har, and having a spectromancer around to talk to about it has helped, especially a spectromancer with the best senses for anima I’ve ever seen. Vicky Welf, she’s a walking pair of Anima Detection Lenses. Necklace of Confusion doesn’t mess with her though, just gives her a headache.
Other than that . . . had artifacts in the works like always, but nothing I could use now. My poking of the Guild and my plans for the next week had outpaced my creativity. Too few epiphanies about artifacts, I guess. Too few epiphanies for everything else too. Here’s hoping I’m saving up, cuz I could use a few this week.
Still . . . what I got on me is enough to get the job done.
Oh, right . . .
Brought my World-Breaker with me too.
The Jinshin Ken of Hiroto Arashi.
Don’t leave home without it.
Cuz you can’t leave home without it.
“You cheap bastards don’t even have your own plane?” I complained once we arrived at the airport and I found out we’d be traveling commercial.
“Unlike the Recruiters, us poor, hardworking ESLED agents don’t have private jets in our pockets to hand out to every other agent like they’re lollipops,” Estefan did his own complaining about the Asylum’s biggest interagency rivalry.
“Know a few Recruiters if you’d like me to give one of them a call,” I attempted some false sincerity.
Miles opened the SUV’s door to go scan the perimeter. “Remember: no killing one another,” he told the both of us before he popped out.
Estefan sighed heavily, glancing my way like he might go through with it, even with all the paperwork. “Always have to be an asshole, don’t you?”
“What else do I have to do? You guys even took my phone away from me.”
“Should have bartered for your phone over your artifacts then.”
“One call and we have us a private jet, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Miss Dale isn’t talking to you, Jason’s dead, and you broke up with Boomworm, so who are you calling exactly?” Estefan asked.
“One: I’m the one not talking to Miss Dale. Two: Val broke up with me. Three: Jason’s only kinda-sorta dead,” I corrected the record.
“Yeah, after pulling that move, Welf might be even more of an asshole than you are,” Estefan agreed.
“See, we’re bonding, man. Just like the old days at school. You flirting with all the girls like you’re some Golden God, me making the jokes about how you ain’t a golden god, just a guy with a fake smile and hair too pretty for a man.”
“Didn’t hear anything about how we’re getting a private jet in all that bullshit . . .”
“Yeah, I’m full of it. I really just want the phone for when you snap and start beating on me. Recording police brutality and ending up on CNN is all the rage these days. Just imagine the views we could get if the cop in question has lightning bolts coming off his hands, know what I’m saying?”
Estefan sized me up again, judging my mood and whether I actually would cause problems for him. “You seem calm enough, calmer than usual even . . . despite the fact you won’t shut up.”
“ESLED have a pool on whether I’d go quietly?” I asked.
“What you bet?”
“I don’t bet on pools, only friendly stuff with Miles.”
I snorted in disbelief. “Official Asylum pastime and you didn’t partake?”
“Debra doesn’t like it. She’s very frugal.”
“Takes a lot of cash to raise a family,” I finally couldn’t help myself.
He exited the SUV just then, leaving me alone. A few seconds later I heard him kicking the tires. Had to smirk a bit over my handiwork. Not too hard to rile Estefan up. He can be engaging and even charismatic, but he’s also easy to throw off his game, either with words or by something not going his way.
Whole situation wasn’t going Estefan’s way.
Going my way.
He was right about the phone though. Who would I call? T-Bone knew what was up, Ceinwyn and Val would learn about it all through the rumor mill. Pocket and Jesus would already be on their way to Fresno to help out T-Bone with his side of things. So . . . who else was there? Either you were far enough into my inner circle to be in on what’s happening or you very much weren’t.
JoJo? Hadn’t included her in the plans. Include her and you include Vega. Have to include Vega and well . . . would cost me more than even the Tsar charges. Plus, Little Sis was very fucking pregnant. Seven or eight months, I lost track of the due date. Knew it was a boy like Vega had wanted. No chance of the kid being named Joseph after my dad. Would be named something from Vega’s family. Long as it’s not ‘Hector,’ that’s all the world needs is another fuck-up with that name. Being the kid is half Price, odds are he’ll have plenty of fuck-up in him already.
My dad . . . there’s a call that would be fun. Actually got JoJo to go back home to Visalia a few months back, have dinner with him and Marge. JoJo just sat there the whole time, silent for once. Made me and Marge do all the small talk. JoJo finally blew up when dad asked where her husband was. All I need, having family dinner with Horatio Vega at the table. Family: it never unfucks itself, just gets more twisted and gnarly as it ages.
Call Old Man Price and tell him I’ve been arrested and I’m being sent to London for some sort of trial. Shit, why not tell him I can do magic while I’m at it? I’m sure he’ll take it as well as T-Bone’s socially-adjusted parents did. Won’t be no screaming or yelling or fighting. Might even throw in the fact that his daughter turns into a coyote once a month. Be buckets of fun.
No one to call.
Wonder what Ceinwyn and Val will do when they hear the news?
No one to call.
They were either helping or they were on the outside looking in.
Like Estefan glaring at me through the SUV window.
I rolled it down. “What’s the problem?”
“You look like you’re planning something,” he accused.
“Always planning something . . . just don’t involve you, Magic G-Man.”
ESLED might be too cheap to use private jets, but at least they had enough pull to force the airline into giving them first-class tickets when they ferried prisoners. Not that I’m a prisoner, of course. Back in the gray area again. I was an ‘informant.’
“Don’t informants still have to wear handcuffs?” an inquisitive stewardess asked when we took our seats at the very front of the plane, just behind the pilot’s cabin. Wasn’t a big plane. Wasn’t a long trip. First class, yes, direct flight to London, no. Had us a stopover in Los Angeles at LAX.
Really does make a guy wish for some random violence to spice things up. Some Vamps, or one of the Queens, hell, I’ll even take a normal terrorist. Shit, might even take an overly drunk guy trying to grope on the stewardesses.
Instead I just had toying with Miles and Estefan for my entertainment needs. Miles had the seat beside me; Estefan had the one behind me. There was no unlucky soul beside Estefan. Other passengers did give us looks . . . and ‘why me’ faces over the fact there seemed to be two FBI agents on the plane. No Three Queens, no Vamps, just a family with two teenage kids heading for Disneyland and a trio of businessmen look like they want to foreclose on grandma.
Turned to Miles as my first salvo. “Don’t suppose you’ll hand me my wallet back so I can buy booze for the three of us?”
“FBI agents drinking on a plane wouldn’t look right,” Miles answered with his usual pleased-with-the-world smile. “Other agencies are nice enough to give us cover, we don’t like to embarrass them.”
“Would feel pretty good though,” I mumbled. Hadn’t been drinking as much lately either. Too busy for that shit too. Too busy for everything fun. Fighting, stealing, fucking, and smoking . . . in that order, I remembered something I said as a kid. First two are still going strong at least. Having a mission in life is a pain in the ass, let me tell you. Better to go through life just flipping the bird at everyone. Caring. Making a difference. Solving the puzzle. For the birds, and not the one that flips.
Curiosity might not get me killed, but it sure as shit is getting me locked up in the Pit.
Not so good with copious amounts of free time on my hands. If the family ever had enough money to get psychological on me I’m sure I’d have been diagnosed with about twenty attention deficit disorders. As it was, it was weird to spend six months with never enough time in the day, followed by my first break where I couldn’t do a single thing, wasn’t allowed to do a single thing by my guards, not even drink. Weirder still that after this forced break I’d be in the Crazy deeper than I ever had been before.
Estefan made a phone call to Debra.
Miles called into ESLED headquarters to inform them that we’d boarded. “Make sure you tell them I was a good boy and that I’m on my very best behavior,” I reminded him.
He ignored me.
Pulled out the airplane magazine, flipped it through cover to cover, put it back in its place. Now I’m wishing for Annie B to pop up just so we could do our usual dance while waiting for the plane to land, but I guess that’s even less likely than seeing one of the Three Queens. Don’t have to be Catherine, I’ll settle for Teresa or Mary . . .
Estefan and Miles weren’t actually that bad. Never really hung with them much at the Asylum, but we worked okay in groups. About as well as I worked with anyone in groups who wasn’t Val, Miranda, Raj, Pocket, or Jesus. The three of us just had different priorities. Estefan and Miles both knew they wanted to be part of ESLED from the beginning, or near enough to the beginning. Both ended up joining the Junior ESLED Club that first month. Other clubs too. They really were the perfectly average Asylum students, moving from ten to twenty in class-rank, never too high, never too low.
Estefan excelled at sports, Miles went along for the ride, and wasn’t too bad at the non-contact variety. Miles dated Eva for a couple years . . . way before I got involved with her. Looking at him now it was hard to figure out the connection between them. But then, maybe my views on Eva had shifted too.
Lighteater, I thought of her fairy title. New title, along with a few others. Didn’t have confirmation of it, but when Samson died I was pretty sure Eva became the new sciomancer Maximus. If she could only remember more of the dream she had, maybe I could be positive.
Part of me expected the Learning Council to come out and tell her what she was now, but they didn’t. More secrets, more truth to steal in the next few days. Eva and I had a long conversation when she first visited Fresno, mostly me doing a lot of the talking. With the way the Asylum was questioning her loyalty, she wasn’t in the mood to spill the beans on everything they’d told her during training. Just confirmed I was on the right path to figuring some of it out, which is enough for me. As far as fairies and Realms, she was more clueless than I am.
Are there holes in her education because they didn’t bother to fill them, because they don’t know themselves, or because they’re trying to bury the truth? Or worse . . . have forgotten the truth. What will I do if after all this I’m still in the dark? What will I do if the Divines or Meteyos really are the only sources old enough to know . . . well, whatever it is they know?
Cross that bridge when I arrive at it.
Had another bridge in front of me.
It was two plane flights away.
Guild of Artificers.
Finally, some truth.
Stolen truth, not gifted truth.
No chance for lies, no chance for closed mouths.
Straight from the sources locked away in all those big, bad vaults.
My bridge I’ve been building, been preparing for these six months.
Got your wish, Massey, got ESLED to carry me all the way to your doorstep. Gonna have yourself a nice dog and pony show, a trial, make me look like a fucktard, whatever you want. Six months I’ve been flicking your ear and you finally snapped. Think you’ll ride me down. Think you’ll break me.
But I’m King Henry Price.
I’m the Dirt King.
I don’t break, neither bad nor good.
Am what I am and you’re about to learn the truth of that.
‘Way Things are Done’ is about to get an iron fist to the jaw.
Hello, Fate, you Bitch-Queen.
This time I’m calling the shots.
This time I’m the one tying you down.