Haruspex (Marla Mason)

BOOK: Haruspex (Marla Mason)
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HARUSPEX

The child’s jawbone, a smooth fragment tinted green by long years of immersion, bobbed in the glass jar. Marla watched intently, her question still hanging in the air like a cold exhalation. She sat at her rickety kitchen table, oblivious to the stink of old food in the garbage and the buzz of flies around the overhead light. She pressed her fingertips into the jar’s sides so hard her knuckles ached, waiting for an answer.

“Haruspex.” The word whispered and bubbled, and the floating jaw sank to the jar’s bottom, the baby teeth clinking gently on impact.

“Yes,” Marla said, and closed her eyes, remembering black-flecked entrails piled messily in a succession of front yards, alleyways, and darkened houses.

#

Marla opened her carved wooden wardrobe, decorated with vines and snakes. The doors creaked as they opened, revealing a single garment hung on a wooden hook. Harsh geometric patterns hacked into the wardrobe’s inner walls glowed blue, then faded. She took down the velvet cloak, emperor-purple lining inside, virgin-snow white outside. She fastened it around her throat with a silver stag-beetle pin, mandibles pointed down. She closed the cloak, became a white ghost. Opened it, purple as a bruise.

She went.

#

They called him the Belly Killer. He cut people open and let their intestines fall out, spilling onto a variety of surfaces: tiled floors, cobblestones, weedy lots, raked gravel. The police believed he chose his victims randomly. Marla had seen all his victims, seven in two months, sometimes observing their messy corpses by clinging invisibly to the ceiling, sometimes looking through a pet policeman’s eyes. She knew the victims, every one. She knew the killer did not choose them randomly.

Two things she didn’t know: The killer’s identity, and what he’d divined about the future by reading portents in the steaming guts of murdered sorcerers.

#

Marla stood at the bar in Juliana’s, sipping a special drink, a mixture made of one-quarter child’s tears to three-quarters spring water. Juliana swabbed the bar in repetitive circular patterns, rubbing a charm against lost tempers and sudden violence into the pitted wood. Noise and smoke filled the bar in equal, excessive measure. Juliana’s, an underground complex of seven rooms and innumerable stone pillars, attracted the usual club-hopping nightcrawlers and a small, more specialized clientele.

“I need Rondeau,” Marla said. “Is he here?”

Juliana shook her head, her eyes watchful hollows under her thatch of orange hair.

Marla laced her fingers together and let her hands rest on the bar. “I’ve always appreciated your hospitality, Juliana, and the free drinks --” Marla tapped her glass with one long, unpainted fingernail, making it ring. “-- but I won’t tolerate being lied to.”

Juliana, stalk-thin and sickly, looked away. She had strange appetites, and gratifying them had weakened her. She didn’t do heroin, nothing as mundane as that, but she resembled the waif-thin longtime addicts that frequented her establishment. As keeper of the eighth room she had power and prestige, but Juliana had frittered most of that away. She maintained a tenuous position in the sorcerous hierarchy. If the eighth room hadn’t been as much burden as benefit, someone would have taken the custodianship away from her long ago. She couldn’t match Marla.

“He’s in back,” Juliana muttered. She jerked her head toward an arched doorway, covered with a heavy red curtain, beside the bar. She looked up, defiance smoldering in her eyes. “You scare him. He hides.”

Marla nodded, vaguely pleased. Demons seldom feared humans. Rondeau had gained great power over the years, but he still thought of her with the awe and fear of his youth.
Like the way you can tie a baby elephant to a stake to keep it from getting away
, she thought,
and when it grows up, the same stake will hold it.
Even though the full-grown elephant could tear the post out of the ground, it remembers the early failure, and remains tethered.

Marla finished her drink and went to the archway leading to Juliana’s infamous eighth room. The uninitiated whispered speculations about the obscenities that must take place there, and all of them knew someone who knew someone who’d been inside.

In truth, the eighth room simply provided a meeting place for special figures, a protected place unobserved by the roaming, many-eyed Thrones who spied on the city’s sorcerers, gathering evidence for some future reckoning. The Thrones could be glimpsed in the most unlikely places, recognizable to the trained eye by the crackle of static electricity jumping in their hair and the light that showed from the edges of their eyes, like the sun’s corona leaking around the moon during an eclipse, but the eighth room’s properties blinded them entirely.

Nothing overtly horrific took place in that room, though the quiet discussions that went on could chill blood. When demonstrably monstrous entities, human and otherwise, plotted things so terrible they could only be discussed in secret, they met in the eighth room.

And sometimes people who didn’t want to be found paid a price to hide there. If Rondeau had paid, Juliana would have protected his privacy to the death. Rondeau hadn’t paid, though; he’d only asked a favor.

Marla pushed aside the heavy red curtain and stepped into the eighth room. A small, concrete-floored space, it barely held eight office chairs and a long conference table. Gas lamps burned on the water-spotted walls. Electricity (among other things) didn’t work properly in the eighth room.

Rondeau, seated, stared at her, clutching the chair’s arm. As always, Marla felt faintly disappointed at his appearance. His actuality never lived up to her memory. When she thought back on her past dealings with Rondeau, she remembered a man with demonic handsomeness, a debonair charm, and a cunning that surrounded him like a radioactive aura. Just one of his small magics, she knew, to make himself more impressive when people told stories about him. In the flesh he cut a nondescript figure, a dark-haired bony twenty-something, unremarkable except for his replacement jaw, stolen from a larger man and a poor match for his head, and his flamboyant blue-and-red silk suit. In films, demons are wise-cracking and suave, or sinister and taciturn, but in Marla’s experience real supernatural creatures spent most of their time simply trying to pass for human.

“Your jaw spoke to me today,” she said, not sitting down, touching the stag beetle pin at her throat. “It told me you knew the haruspex.”

“Haruspex?” His bewilderment, even veiled by fear, seemed genuine. He held his chin protectively, talking from behind his hand.

Marla considered. She’d taken Rondeau’s jaw, quite against his will, shortly after he came to earth, only a few days after he possessed a young boy’s body. If questioned properly, the jaw spoke to her. It knew whatever Rondeau did. Like subatomic particles that once collide and remain connected forever, regardless of distance, Rondeau and his jaw shared information instantaneously. Marla kept the jaw locked in a lead box so Rondeau wouldn’t be privy to details about her home life. Sometimes, the jaw knew things
before
Rondeau did, an oddity and occasional paradox that Marla accepted but did not understand.

“A haruspex is a sorcerer who divines the future by studying the arrangement of things,” she said. “Tea leaves, or scattered stones, sometimes -- but usually entrails.” He looked blank. “Intestines. Guts, Rondeau.”

His eyes widened. “
Him
? The belly man? That’s why he’s doing it?” He swore, an inhuman obscenity that made Marla wince. If he’d uttered it outside the eighth room’s protective walls, paint would have blistered and flies dropped dead, and Marla would have endured ringing in her ears for hours afterward. “That makes a little more sense. Not much, but a little.”

“Tell me,” Marla said. She had a stake in this, a duty, an obligation to dead Artemis Mann, the Belly Killer’s latest victim -- but all that aside, curiosity compelled her. To know the future. Even Rondeau’s jawbone couldn’t tell her that.

“You don’t want to know. I told Carlton Spandau, and you heard about him.”

“Victim number six. Is the killer someone I know? Someone Carlton knew?”

“He’s
nobody
,” Rondeau said, seemingly affronted by the killer’s lack of stature. “Never been an apprentice, never witnessed anything...” He shook his head. “Carlton hired me to track him down, and after the sixth killing, I found him. Until three months ago, the killer was just an ordinary guy with a lousy job. Then... something happened. Something that made him strong enough to kill Carlton, Mangrove, Sorenson... I don’t know what, but when I tracked him leaving the murder scene, I smelled electricity.”

Marla blinked. “The Thrones?”

Rondeau shrugged. “I don’t know, but I don’t want any part of it.”

How could the Thrones be involved in murders? It didn’t make sense. “He killed Artemis Mann.” She spread her hands. “I have to find him.”

Rondeau nodded, understanding, but shrugged. “I won’t tell you. Carlton didn’t give me up, I assume, but
you
might.” He leaned back in his chair and looked at her warily.

“Do you want me to reverse my cloak, Rondeau?” she said softly. “Could you refuse me, if I clothed myself so?”

He clenched his jaw, so hard Marla heard his teeth crack. He didn’t seem to notice. She couldn’t read minds without great effort, and at the cost of suffering a terrible headache for days, but she knew his thoughts well enough. The last time he’d seen her wearing her cloak with the twilight-purple side showing, she’d ripped off his jawbone with a single hard twist and tug.

She relented. “Tell me, Rondeau, or I’ll tear out your jaw’s baby teeth with pliers.”

He relaxed. She’d made a serious threat, but she hadn’t stirred up his old pain and humiliation. They’d returned to almost friendly territory.

“I’ll want something in return,” he said.

“I’m reasonable. Besides, maybe he’ll manage to kill me, and you’ll be done with me forever.” She grinned nastily.

He looked wounded. “If you died, who would take care of my jaw?”

#

According to Rondeau, the Belly Killer worked at Jacob’s Jumble, one of those cramped downtown junk shops that existed to hold transitory cast-offs, replenishing itself ghoulishly from estate sales and grimy auctions houses. People like Marla visited such places, too, looking for odd bits of power, broken fragments of discarded magic.

Approaching the shop in the drizzly morning, invisible to both the stray dog ambling down the center of the trash-strewn street and the muttering man in patched fatigues pushing his shopping cart, Marla wondered if the murderer might have found an object of power at the store. Perhaps he’d discovered a rusty knife used in some long-ago sorcerer’s vendetta, and been forced by the object’s peculiar energies to continue the killing. Marla hungered for such an explanation, because that suggested the Belly Killer was an ordinary man caught up in dangerous forces, slave to someone else’s agenda, fueled by a scrap of life-force imprinted on a forgotten object. Marla could neutralize such influence, repay her obligation to gut-spilled Artie Mann, and slide out of this business without making ripples.

She stood, invisible as a thread of steam, before the door to Jacob’s Jumble, reading the store’s name picked out in flaking antique gold and black paint on the dirty glass door. The sky hung heavy, seemingly inches from the rooftops, threatening rain and maybe hail. Rondeau had cautioned her, saying the Thrones had an interest in the killer (this nobody, this unheard-of!), and that suggested he was more than a madman. Marla had no wish to encounter the Thrones, but she had to investigate. The Thrones never
did
anything, but they couldn’t be hurt, and none of the sorcerers felt comfortable around them, or enjoyed the sense of higher, judgmental powers that came with their presences.

But none of that mattered. Marla had a duty to repay Artie Mann’s death, regardless of the forces involved, and ignoring that duty would have consequences she didn’t care to contemplate. Artie’s unquiet spirit could trouble her greatly if she didn’t fulfill her obligation.

Marla opened the shop door. The high shelves, filled with rusting gears, tools, and small battered appliances, blocked her view of the store’s interior.

The door whispered shut behind her. Buzzing fluorescent tubes lit the shop, making shadows flicker on the green concrete floor. Somewhere behind the shelves a trebly radio played the last notes of a Beach Boys song, and the air stank of dust and machine grease.

But not ozone, the smell that always accompanied the Thrones. She’d half-expected to find a couple of them hanging around, standing stiffly in corners, watching.

Marla ghosted between the piled curiosities, rounding a shelf to find the tiny service counter, unmanned. A cheap black radio sat on the counter, now playing a tinny doo-wop song that Marla didn’t recognize.

She didn’t sense another presence in the shop, human or otherwise. Hissing, she hurried to the back of the store, through an “Employee’s Only” door that led to a dim storeroom filled with crates of unsorted merchandise. A red fire door stood half-open, swaying, revealing a slice of graffitied alleyway. Indications of a hasty retreat, made before Marla even entered the store.

BOOK: Haruspex (Marla Mason)
9.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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