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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 23

Interlude: On The Beat

The evil green blade was about a foot above Mina’s head when the Monkeyman wielding it was struck on the arm by a nightstick. Hard. His arm muscles twitched involuntarily, and he lost his grip on the sword, which dropped onto Mina’s polymorphed body.

“You have the right to remain silent,” said Harry Novoa’s dry, harsh voice. “Anything you say can and will be used against you. You have the right to fair representation in a court of law...”

The two officers with Novoa, spectacularly uninterested in either procedure or the rights of the accused, pushed impatiently past the detective to noisily subdue the rest of the young gang, most of whom were trying to flee. Novoa knew the only reason they were bothering with an actual serving-and- protecting call was the chance to exercise a little police brutality. It still pissed Novoa off.

“Book this guy,” he snapped, pushing the Monkeyman he’d collared at the Rookie.

“Oh, thank you so much!” babbled the puny rich kid who’d almost been skewered, fumbling for his moneypurse.

“You’re welcome,” Novoa forestalled him from contributing to the RCPD habit of taking money for public service, and shoved him out the door and into the street.

Leaving just one loose end.

Mina Paris moaned, and rolled over on her side. The winery’s meager lighting was enough to make her wince when she opened her eyes. She found herself looking into the ugly face of Rimbor City’s only honest cop.

“Well, well. Ebreth Tor. Looks like you owe yours truly one.”

Foreshadowing: Tails You Lose

The green man had left O’Reilly’s pub almost an hour ago, if the somewhat wifty day-shift waitress was to be believed. Frisking down the bar where his drinks had rested, Rani eventually gathered enough of an impression to track, and she was in the process of following it out into the street when a man suddenly appeared in front of the Rat Pack, blocking their exit.

Or perhaps he wasn’t actually a man.

“Greetings,” he announced. “My name is Mr. Chair.”

“Yeah, and I’m Pee-Wee Herman,” said Rani. “Move it, sit-upon, I’m on a case.”

“Hold,” Mr. Chair commanded. “I come with a warning for you about the future.”

“I understand!” cried the Rat.

“Zhlay,” muttered Rani, pulling out her casebook in aggravation. “Now what?”

“Fear not,” Mr. Chair said soothingly. “It does not concern your current quest. In all probability, it will not impact any of you for some time. Interestingly, probability is what my warning entails.” He took out a silver coin. “I have tossed this coin 99 times. 99 times it has landed tails. If I toss it a hundredth time, is it more likely to land heads or tails?”

“Heads,” opined the barmaid. “Heads is due.”

“Never bet on anything that’s ‘due,’ you fool,” scoffed John Tucson, a talented gambler. “The odds are 50% of either heads or tails, independent of previous tosses.”

“No, wait!” said Jack. “It’s more likely to land tails.” He turned to the Scorpion. “Do you know what the odds of a coin landing tails 99 times in a row are?”

“He’ll tell you, too,” Rani warned.

“One in about 6.23 to the power of 29,” said Jack. “That’s six hundred and twenty-three billion billion billion. In other words, it’s a billion times less likely than all the weird coincidences the Rat Pack has encountered combined.” Even Rani was impressed into silence by that idea. “It’s much more likely, statistically speaking, that something’s wrong with the coin. The heads side is weighted, or something. If it’s tails ninety-nine times, it’ll be tails the hundredth time. Tails, right?” he said to Mr. Chair.

“You are correct, sir,” said Mr. Chair. “But consider this,” he added, slowly spinning the silver piece, “perhaps weight is not the gimmick you allude to. Perhaps both sides are tails. Ask yourself: what would the heads side of such a coin look like?” He tossed the coin at Ebreth, who caught it reflexively. Then Mr. Chair had folded in on himself and was gone.

“You know,” Ebreth said, after a beat, “if I never hear another prophecy again, it’s too soon.”

“Bet you’re a mean-ass poker player,” Tucson said to Jack.

Dirty Dancing: The Princess Saves The Day

Thalia edged away from the developing brawl and towards the back rooms, shaking her skirts to retrieve a few of the gold coins that had gotten caught in the fabric when Marty had emptied the pouch over her head. She caught the eye of a nearby employee and tossed one of the coins over.

The woman sauntered over and draped herself over Thalia. “My name’s Trixie--what’s yours?”

“Thalia, and please stop that.”

Trixie pulled back her hand. “So, what’s your pleasure, hon?”

“I’d like you to retrieve that man,” she pointed at Garal, “from the fighting and get him over here.”

“I don’t get it, hon. If all you want to do is do it with your boyfriends, why’d you come here?”

“He’s not--” Thalia broke off. “Miss, you’re getting paid, what difference does it make?”

Trixie shrugged. “Hey, ‘the customer’s always right’...” She slipped through the fighting with the ease of experience and tugged on Garal’s arm. Garal looked a bit bewildered and shook his head. The prostitute tugged again insistently and pointed at Thalia. He let her lead him away.

Trixie grinned. “Safe and sound, hon. Anything else?”

Thalia tossed Trixie another gold coin. It wasn’t like it was her money anyway. “There’s a rift somewhere in this building. It might have sucked some people in. Could you please lead us to it.”

“Hey, I’ve had some kinky requests in my time...”

For the first time that evening, Thalia’s gentle manner started to fray. “Just do it!”

Trixie flinched. “O-kay! It’s back here.” She led them past several rooms from which noises came that Thalia didn’t even want to identify until they came to one with a sign on it marked “out of order”.

Thalia peeked in the door and saw another rift like the one in her father’s castle. She handed Trixie the remaining gold pieces. “Thank you, Trixie. You’ve been a tremendous help.”

Trixie somehow made the coins disappear into a dress that didn’t look like it could conceal a piece of gravel. She made no move to leave. “Mind if I stick around? This, I’ve got to see.”

“You mind an audience?” Thalia asked Garal.

The halfling blushed nearly as darkly as Thalia had at the bar. “Um, I ...”

Thalia sighed. “For shutting down the portal, Garal.”

“Oh, uh, no, not at all.”

The princess took Schneider’s magic mirror gently between her slim hands as Garal held the rift for her. Last time Rani had been there to activate the Orb, but this mirror seemed like a straightforward enough item. She frowned and summoned up the image of her older sister. Telerie was sitting up in the bay window of the insane asylum, sharing a drink with that nice Princess Kristin and watching the rain fall. Thalia hoped fervently that she would recover from her dementia. It wasn’t Telerie’s fault that she’d killed the Good Blue Fairy during the Madness. Bane made a lot of people do terrible things.

She felt a strange tugging at the mirror then, and looked up to see a multicolor glow--fainter than the one the Orb had produced, but still quite dramatic--swirling from the mirror and into the rift as Garal pulled its edges slowly and firmly together. The mirror shivered but didn’t break, the light wavered but didn’t cut out, and then a surreal explosion of color filled the room, washing out every shadow, including the blackness through the rift. “Whoa,” breathed the prostitute.

Garal pushed the edges of the rift together, until it was a crack, then a seam, and then it was gone.

***

“Shouldn’t we be more concerned with our goal of destroying the wormhole? It is foolish and pointless to expend our energy at other than our directed purpose.”

Vickie shrugged at Kingfisher. “Ask me after I’ve finished kicking butt.”

Kingfisher frowned. Vickie Dare was neither calm, nor directed. On the other hand, she fought with an aggression that impressed even the avatar of Grendel.

“We’re, uh, done!” Garal shouted from the entrance of the room.

“Ah, poop,” Vickie sighed.

Meetings, At Last

There were 364 brass studs rimming the ceiling of the Ducal Suite in the Augustine Arms.

Skitch had counted them all. Twice.

Khyrisse was lying on her back with her legs propped up against the wall, an ungainly but apparently comfortable position that made her look much more pregnant than usual. Evidently she’d stopped caring. She was rememorizing the few spells she’d used so far today just to have something to do. Val was asleep.

“Milady,” Vas broke the latest silence, with a regretful sigh, “perhaps we had best get back to the others. It doesn’t seem our good Octavian is going to be favoring us with his presence after all.”

Khyrisse muttered something in Impish and slammed her spellbook so hard Valende woke with a little gasp, her hand going to her sword.

“Ill dreams, sister?” joked Vas.

She shook off her catnap ruefully and got up from the sofa. “Just... nerves,” she said quietly, looking around the richly appointed hotel suite. “I don’t like this place. If Rani were here she’d be going crazy. Even I can feel the impressions in this room.”

“You’re reading a bit much into a bit of baroque interior decorating, Valende.”

Khyrisse had her mouth open to agree with Vas when a deep voice interrupted her.

“Actually, your sister has the right of it,” Octavian said, stepping out of concealment near one of the windows. “You should be more wary in this place. Ugly things have happened here.” A sardonic smile flickered briefly in the shadows of his hood. “But then, I imagine you already knew that.”

***

“Um,” said Jack, tapping the green-scaled man with the tail protruding from his trenchcoat on the shoulder as politely as he could. He hadn’t responded to vocal overtures the first few times Jack had tried them. “Excuse me--Mr. Coomara? A, uh, five-eyed guy sent us to talk to you...”

“Why do you let him do your interrogations for you?” John asked Rani. She waved him off and put a hand on the bar to steady herself, lifting the other one to the bite on her neck. Rani was pretty sure there was no poison in her system. She was excellent at detecting such things in her own body, and Aithne had cast cure poison on her anyway. In Rani’s experience, that left three possibilities: it was psychosomatic, she had a fucking allergy--damn those inbred Diari--or she’d been saddled with some bizarre curse.

“Well, have a seat then, laddie,” boomed the fishman, “and stand us a round!”

Aithne hurried anxiously to the creature’s side and proffered the diary from the dolmen, bowing her head. “I find your book,” she said. “Here is book.” Then, as if it had only just occurred to her, she spilled into rapid Ancient Gaelic. Coomara responded in the same tongue, his tone genial or at least not noticeably vengeful, and patted her on the shoulder as he took the daybook back. Rani jotted a couple of notes in her book under “Aithne=Eithne?” She wasn’t at all sure she trusted this girl and her innocent act.

Jack was trying to get the surly bartender’s attention, without much success. Rani leaned over the bar and yelled “Hey, dickhead! A round on me!” The barman waited for her money first, muttering to himself under his breath, and then started drawing ale. Rani’d been here a couple of times, she thought, but the place had never stood out for much. “To your health, lassie!” said the green guy, raising his glass.

“Thanks,” she muttered. It was getting close to her time of the month. Maybe that was all it was. “Look, you wanna tell us what the hell is going on with John Tucson’s soul? Five-Eyes says you know what it’s doing in Rimbor.”

“More’s the curse, that I do. Sit down, the lot of ye, and let me tell ye the story.”

Rani sighed and slid onto the barstool, bracing herself for the inevitable exposition.

“This all started when yon laddie fell overboard and drowned,” Coomara started, gesturing at John. “Well, I snatched his soul, as is mine by right of the Teind, you understand. And all was well for years, but then this February some scamp of a lad opened one of me lobster-traps, and the soul got loose. It happens every few years.” He sighed and took a long pull on his drink. Aithne looked down, embarrassed. “Well, to make a long story short, the boy escaped, and while I was out chasin’ the little wretch, the soul washed ashore in Diaria. Naturally I never go there if I can help it--”

“Naturally,” agreed Rani.

“But to leave me souls lyin’ about where any man and his dog can get ahold of ’em is bloody poor form, don’t you know, so into the blasted country I went, and four days it was without a decent drink ere I found what became o’ the bloody thing.” Coomara tilted his empty glass meaningfully. “Another round!” shouted Rani. Coomara grinned with sharp conical teeth. “Thank ye kindly. So as I was sayin’, me soul had been pinched by a miserable lot of thrice-damned Diarians. No offense, lassie.”

“None taken. Were they called Hajhizae Hasfur, by any chance?”

“That I know not, for they’d spirited me wee soul off to Rimbor, an’ I didn’t stay to chat with ‘em.” The fishman drank heartily. “So I’ve followed it here and I’m trackin’ it down, that and catchin’ up on all the spirits I’ve missed. Has old Five-Eyes found it yet?”

“Not yet,” said Ebreth hurriedly, winning a moment’s struggle not to rat Schneider out to the water-spirit.

“Arrrrrrrrr. Well, I’ll have it back soon enough. Tell me, what be yer interest in the thing?”

“I want it back,” said John Tucson. “I’ll give you two other men’s souls for it.”

“Do I look like the Rimbor City Soul Exchange, laddie? Coomara keeps what’s Coomara’s.”

“The Fiend said the soul was tied into the dimensional substructure of Rimbor,” Jack prompted.

“Aye, that it is. Be so good, I’ve run dry again...”

“Barman!” hollered Rani. “Just keep ‘em coming, will you?”

“That’s a good lassie. Anyway, the bloody Diarians seem t’ have attached me wee soul to the matrix of the city, to what end I know not, but sure an’ they’re up to no good. They’ve been openin’ some rifts about town; perhaps they’re usin’ me soul to power that somehow.”

“Except they’re the one group in town who hasn’t been following the thing like a pack of dogs in heat,” Rani muttered to herself. “What the hell is with that?”

“I know not, lassie, but if ye can find a way to get the soul loose from the city, I’ll take it below wi’ me and it’ll not be botherin’ ye again, on me mother’s wet grave I do swear it.”

“Answers,” sighed Rani, “but mostly more questions.”

“Tis the way of the world, lassie. Bottoms up.”

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