It was a beautiful day for everything in Cincinnati that didn’t belong to Malcolm Crowe. After our morning negotiations I walked as far as my stolen legs would take me, hoping to put a little space between myself and the gloom of the Twin Saints offices. Even once I was past the edge of the ever-present clouds and bathed in the morning light I could feel the shadows behind me.
After a mile and a half I realized I’d spend my entire break wandering aimless unless I forced myself to stop so I grabbed breakfast while I waited for our meeting. I sat at the window, restless, nothing but cheap eggs and grungy magazines to keep me company. Groundcars roared in the street outside and a little girl ran ahead of her parents. A chill rippled through me. It would take so little force to ruin that family. So little time.
A few short hours later it was time to return to Crowe’s office to touch base with the others. Curt was waiting with Malcolm when I arrived, a green tea and a cold mineral water both waiting on the table. I swiped the water. “How’d you know?” I asked. My cells sang for joy as pure, clean water filtered through them. Maybe it was time to go easy on the drinking.
“Didn’t need to,” Curt replied. “You got the jalapeno poppers?” I patted my bag and nodded. The morsels inside were as psychoactive as they were repugnant, regurgitated by the lanky data-monster born from RADFRONT’s old archives. Curt nodded with approval. “Malcolm here doesn’t believe they taste as bad as I say.”
Crowe held a glass of dark liquid in front of his face. “There’s nothing a well spiced rum won’t cover up.”
“Won’t help,” Curt replied breezily. “Though it might be good for the headache.”
Malcolm sighed. “I miss reading. Speaking of.” He reached backwards to produce the notebooks I’d delivered to him that morning. “I got copies of these back from Lily about an hour ago. Interesting stuff. Almost makes up for the fact that you botched the actual mission objective.”
Curt and I exchanged a look. “History will vindicate us,” he said.
“Damn straight. We’ll be greeted as liberators.” I raised about a dozen phantom fists into the air before realizing that nobody could see them.
Soon after we were joined by Yaritza. She arrived in her butterfly form, thousands of butterflies swarming from the vent in Crowe’s office to make a human-shaped swarm in the middle of the room. Even before all of them had assembled they started melting together into feet, legs, torso, arms, face. “Sorry for the wait,” Yaritza said. “Malcolm, you were right about the ghost meadow. Mind if I pass a pollen sample down to Barleycorn?”
“Go ahead,” he replied.
She looked down at the tea steaming on the table. “For me?” She plucked it from the saucer and took a sip. “Wow, perfectly steeped. Good work, Agent.”
“Enough small-talk, folks.” I pulled the info-popper and info-pastry from my bag. I placed the pastry on Yaritza’s saucer, “For the birthday girl.” I placed the popper in Malcolm’s hand, “for the… you.”
“Thanks,” they replied in completely different tones.
“Make sure you’re seated somewhere comfortable before you dig into those,” Curt warned. “You’re going to drop out of your surroundings just as the flavor becomes unbearable. Try laying down on your side in case you throw up.”
Crowe sat at his desk while Yaritza curled up sideways on the couch next to Curt. “Bon apetit,” he told her.
“Bon voyage,” she replied. She scarfed her morsel down, wincing only slightly.
Malcolm was less stoic. “Great gristle of Golgotha,” he hissed through cheddar-drenched teeth. He filled his mouth with rum, swished the mix between his cheeks, buckled over with eyes bugged out and pounded on the table as he made one final heroic swallow. “Glack!” he cried. He fell face forward. His head thunked the table and he was out.
Curt and I shot the shit for an hour or so while Crowe and Yaritza were trapped in their data-dreams. We managed to stick to safe topics- weather, sports, which secret prisons the Executive kept various ex-wives in. Typical chit-chat. Between two spies that was no easy feat. It takes concentration to say nothing.
Before long we were greeted by dry heaving from Yaritza and much wetter heaving from Malcolm. “Zut alors!” Curt cried with a start. He pat Yaritza gently on the back while black rum and depleted queso splattered on Crowe’s desk. “You okay, Flutterby?”
“Don’t get so friendly, Agent,” she managed to choke out. “Bring me a fucking pencil.”
“No, no, don’t mind me,” Malcolm muttered once his guts stopped spasming. He rang the buzzer on his desk. “Lily, get me clean-up and a pitcher of lemon water.” He looked down and made a disgusted sound. “And another tie. One with a happier skull on it.”
Yaritza scrawled into her journal with the same mad drive that had gripped Curt and me earlier. Malcolm was in no such hurry. “What’s the hold-up?” I asked.
“It’s Malphas. He… stole the vision, for lack of a better word. Let me keep the nausea, of course.” He spat a bit of vomit into a nearby trash can. “He must be mad that I signed a contract without consulting him.”
“Why would you need to do that?” Cash asked. Yaritza mouthed words to herself as she stared wide-eyed at her paper.
“We’re legally entangled at a metaphysical level. Any law that binds me binds him and vice versa. If I go to prison in the material world, he gets sentenced in Bird Hell.”
“I thought he ruled Bird Hell,” Cash protested.
“Nobody’s above the law in Bird Hell. Otherwise, what’s the point?” He shrugged. “I’m communing with him tonight anyway. I’ll have to get the details then.” A sly smile took his face. “It would do to have some company. Litework, you could probably use some more first-hand experience with magic.” Smooth. Now I’d have cover when I came back in the evening to finalize the contract to save my sister’s soul. No sense letting the others catch on to our arrangement.
“I’ll be there,” I replied.
Not long after a pair of janitors came in to clean the vomit from Crowe’s desk. With them was Lily, Malcolm’s secretary, a stern-eyed succubus with a pitcher of lemon water. Crowe thanked her with unusual politeness while she directed the janitors in their chores.
Shortly after they left Yaritza reared up from her notebook, blew out a huge breath of air and finished her entire cup of tea in one go.
“YOUTHFRONT!” she cried, tea dribbling from the corners of her mouth. “It’s what they’re calling that project in Westchester. Some kind of… super-teen internship. Doc Zeno’s running it.” She held her notebook out and I plucked it up with a phantom hand. “Seems she was accessing files on three of the kids before visiting Gammon. Codenames Slumberjack, Wunderkind…” She cupped her face in her hands. “…Torchbearer.”
Malcolm laughed. Cash just looked confused. I scanned our earlier notes for context. The Torch had been dormant ever since the New Years Eve attack. Most folks assumed it would never find a new host. There was an entry about it in the schematic I’d written after my popper-vision. “Looks like the Torch lit itself up in RADFRONT headquarters the same day P!ss Frog defeated the Decoherence Strategy.”
“Right. And just one month before that, Mac Stevens’ heart disappeared from storage,” Malcolm added.
“Damn, nobody’s mentioned a thing about that at VICEFRONT,” Curt said. “They must have covered it up.”
“Of course they did. If these are connected then Gammon’s inside woman was behind it,” I replied. “Which means we need to figure out who she got that heart to.”
“Have we got anything else on the super-interns?” Crowe asked.
Yaritza snatched back her notes and flipped through them. “Slumberjack and Wunderkind are both unusual cases. I’m not even sure if they technically count as supers. Wunderkind’s profile lists no powers or artifacts. Slumberjack’s mentions something called an ‘Othernatural Dermal Substrate,’ whatever that is.”
“Ahhh, a skinjob!” Crowe said with delight. “That was one of ours. Beautiful concept I developed with Dr. Dale.” He poured himself another glass of lemon-water. “We’ve got ways of turning a man into a suit, body and soul. Very handy if you’ve got a super-criminal you can’t rehabilitate, or if you just want the benefits of a power without committing to an infection.” He smacked his lips after a long sip. “I’m amazed to see one finally get deployed.”
“I don’t want to ask this,” Curt began, “but what do you mean, turn a man into a suit?”
Crowe shrugged. “You know,” he mimed the act of skinning a man with a knife, injecting just a bit too much detail into the performance. “Hollow ‘im out, keep him alive and semi-sentient with a bit of magic, then slip him onto a loyal soldier or valued customer. It’s very promising work. Theoretically, you could steal anyone’s powers… so long as they’ve got skin, at least.”
Yaritza gave Crowe a hard stare. “…That vision. I saw a place. People cut up and covered in zippers. You did that?”
He shrugged. “Like I said, joint effort. What about the other kid? Wunderkind?”
Yaritza seemed reluctant to speak. Then Malcolm did that thing where the corners of his eyebrows curl up like the Grinch and the temperature drops in the room. Ice twinkled in his lemon water. Yaritza pressed on. The temperature returned to normal. “Wunderkind farms ghosts, basically. Uses old videogame servers like beehives for dead Vikings. A kind of virtual Valhalla.”
“Derivative,” he snorted. “Not to mention lowbrow. Regardless, it sounds like we have our \ next steps. We’ve got to figure out where Mac Stevens’ heart went and get Malphas to choke up my vision.”
“There’s names in my notebook we should track down as well. Any one of them could blow this wide open,” I noted.
“All in due time,” Yaritza said. “We’ll nail assignments down after Malcolm has his midnight meeting with the bloody crow.”
“Agreed.” Malcolm said. Then, looking at me, “see you tonight.”
* * * * * * *
Malcolm had instructed me to meet him in the sub-basement where the New Pandemonium villa lay. He had arranged the entire floor into an artificial town, complete with plasma screens on the wall and ceiling to simulate an open sky. The whole town was arranged in four blocks with a black dome sitting at the center of the crossroads. Since the Twin Sants offices were themselves situated at the middle of a crossroads that made this dome a crossroads within a crossroads, perfect for communing with devils.
A few Twin Saints employees allowed me inside, a sasquatch with a hand-held metal detector and a human being in a hazmat suit with a strip of paper attached to the forehead. Therein I saw a massive black crow laid out on its side, about eight feet across at its breast. Around it was scrawled the Pentacle of Malphas in what appeared to be a mixture of ash and some kind of fat. Malcolm stood nude by the bird’s massive throat, two live crows tied to chains around his shoulder and a silver blade in each of his hands. Overhead hung another artificial sky, this one showing different constellations from the one right outside the dome.
“Welcome to the astrologenius,” he called. “The stars are right and the sacrifices are ready.”
For a moment I simply scanned the room, taking in the scope of Malcolm’s conjuration scheme. This was what happened when you dove into the occult with full industrial infrastructure and corporate backing. It seemed so involved. And somehow even more sacrilegious. “Is this the only way to summon him? Earlier you said you can do that on command.”
“I can, if we want him and not an avatar of him. We don’t want that. We really, really don’t want that.”
“Gotcha.” I nodded. “Then let’s go.”
I took a seat inside the circle while Malcolm recited a dark prayer in some patois of ancient tongues. The crows chained to his shoulders cawed wretchedly and flapped as hard as they could. Their chains pulled taut as they screamed. Malcolm wound his arms in semi-circles to reel in the struggling birds.
When they were close enough, he slit one crow’s throat with each knife before scraping the blades against each other. Their blood mingled together and he plunged the blades into the top of the giant crow’s breast. He yanked them down with all of his weight, producing a great gash that rained blood over his head.
Once he was painted head-to-toe in blood he took a step back. Something inside was moving. From out of the giant crow’s wound stepped two figures. The first was scrawny, hunched and bald all over. It staggered on long yellow talons and held warped arms to its chest. They were bent and crooked like birds’ wings stripped of feathers. It was only when she looked up and gasped, green eyes framing her ragged mouth, that I recognized Roselia.
We embraced. The crow’s blood was hot and sticky against her skin but I didn’t care. I kissed her cheeks and forehead. She first tried to hold me in her twisted bird-arms before pressing them against her chest and leaning into my shoulder. Phantom arms gripped her tight, as many as I could summon without crushing her. I wanted so badly to have arms with flesh and bone of their own. She shook. Short screeches burst from her throat, but her eyes made no tears.
“Oh sis,” I whispered. “You’re free.”
Her eyes were so much older than I remembered. “I don’t think that’s how it works,” she rasped. Her voice was a dry, tortured sound. An animal choking.
Then, more stirring from inside the fallen beast. Ribs and meat parted as the devil prince Malphas stepped through. He was massively obese, nearly twice the size of me, five hundred pounds of flesh in a coat of bloody back feathers. His beak curled sharply downwards, seemingly too crooked to even open, yet open it did to let loose his terrible voice.
“Beware, girl-ape.” It was the same sound I’d heard before in Malcolm’s office, someone sawing meat at the bottom of the world. “You bargain with sin.”
Roselia tensed even more in my arms. “It’s not worth it, Lucilla.” Malcolm smirked to hear my name. “Nothing is.”
I filched a pack of cigarettes from Malcolm’s coat, folded at the edge of the summoning circle, and brought it to my lips. “ That’s right, corkscrew. Your boy here already signed on the dotted line.” I stared Malphas in the eye. “So you’d better not fucking disappoint me.”
Then, in defiance of all geometry and aesthetics, the blood-drenched crow bent its beak into a smile.