Authors: Holly Black
“Someone better tell that daughter of mine to pipe down,” Grandad says, pointing at my mother as if we might think he had some other daughter here. “I could hear her all the way to the street.” I didn’t notice him come in, but he’s here, shaking out his umbrella and frowning at Mom. I let out my breath all at once, I’m so relieved.
He tousles my hair like I’m a little kid.
The minister clears his throat at the lectern and everyone slowly moves to sit down. Mom is still moaning. As soon as the minister starts speaking, she begins to wail so loudly that I can’t hear most of his sermon.
I wonder what Philip would think of his own funeral. He’d be sad that Maura couldn’t even bother to bring his son to see him for the last time. He’d be embarrassed by Mom and probably pissed that I’m even here.
“Philip Sharpe was a soldier in God’s army,” says the minister. “Now he marches with the angels.”
The words echo in my head unpleasantly.
“Philip’s brother, Barron, will join me at the lectern and say a few words about his beloved departed sibling.”
Barron walks to the front and begins telling a story about him and Philip climbing a mountain together and the various meaningful things they learned about each other along the way. It’s touching. It’s also completely plagiarized from a book we had when we were kids.
I decide it’s time I swipe someone’s flask and go sit outside.
I find a good spot on the stairs. Across the hall a different viewing is going on. I can just hear the blur of voices in the room, not quite as loud as Barron’s voice. I lean back and look up at the ceiling, at the twinkling lights of the crystal chandelier.
This is the same funeral home where we had my dad’s viewing. I remember the mothball smell of it, the overly heavy brocade of the curtains, and the flocked wallpaper. I remember the funeral director who looked the other way when envelopes of ill-gotten cash were quietly passed to the grieving widow. The place is outside of the town of Carney—it’s the one that a lot of workers use. After we’re done here, we’ll go over to the Carney cemetery, where Dad and Grandma Singer are already resting. We’ll put some of the flowers on their graves. Maybe we’ll see whoever’s in the next room there too; curse working has a high mortality rate.
My most vivid memory from Dad’s funeral is seeing Aunt Rose for the first time in years. As I stood in front of Dad’s casket, I answered her “How are you doing?” with “Good” before I even realized what she meant. It was just what you said to that question, automatic. I remember how her lip curled, though, like I was a terrible son.
I felt like one.
But I was a much better son than I was a brother.
Zacharov walks out of the viewing, carefully closing the door behind him. For a moment Barron’s voice swells and I hear the words “we will always remember Philip’s unusual balloon animals and his skill with the longbow.”
Zacharov has a small smile on his face, and his thick silver eyebrows are raised. “I am learning some very interesting things about your brother.”
I stand. Maybe I have nothing good to say about Philip, maybe I have no apologies for him, but there is one thing I can do. The least I can do. I can hit the guy who killed him.
Zacharov must notice the look on my face, because he holds up both his gloved hands in a gesture of peace. I don’t care. I keep coming.
“We had a deal,” I say, lifting my fisted hand.
“I didn’t murder your brother,” he says, stepping back, out of my range. “I came here to pay my respects to your family and to tell you I had nothing to do with this.”
I walk toward him. It gives me dark pleasure to watch him flinch.
“Don’t,” he says. “I had nothing to do with Philip’s death, and you’d realize it if you thought about it for more than a minute. You’re much more valuable to me than revenge on some underling. And you’re not stupid. You are well aware how valuable you are.”
“You sure about that?” I ask.
I hear the echo of Philip’s words from months back. You obviously didn’t grow out of stupid.
“Tell me, how is it that your mother isn’t accusing me? Not even Barron. Not even your grandfather. Would they let me walk in here if they really thought I was responsible for Philip’s death?” I can see a muscle in his jaw jump, he’s clenching his teeth so hard. If I hit him right now, his stiffness would make the blow hurt worse. He obviously hasn’t been in a fistfight in a long time.
My hand’s shaking with violence. I slam it into a vase sitting near the doorway. The vase shatters; thick chunks of pottery, water, and flowers rain on the carpet.
“You’re not sorry Philip’s dead,” I say finally, breathing heavily with raw fury that’s only starting to abate. I don’t know what to think.
“Neither are you,” Zacharov says, his voice steely. “Don’t tell me you’re not sleeping better at night with him gone.”
In that moment I hate Zacharov more than I ever have. “You’re doing a really bad job of convincing me not to punch you.”
“I want you to come work for me. Really work for me,” says Zacharov.
“No deal,” I say, but it makes me realize that by losing Philip, Zacharov has lost half his hold over me. More, even, because if I can’t trust him to keep his promises, then all his future threats become hollow. If he tells me I’ve got to do something “or else” and the “or else” happens even if I go along with him, there’s not much motivation for me to do what he says. Philip’s death cost him leverage, and as I realize that, I start to believe he’s actually not responsible. I’m valuable to him; it’s not often that a crime lord gets a transformation worker practically dumped into his lap.
Zacharov inclines his head toward a curtained alcove, one where people are supposed to go to hide their weeping. I follow him uncertainly. He sits down on the long bench. I stay standing.
“You’re ruthless, and I don’t frighten you,” he says quietly. “Both these things I like, though I would like it more if the latter was tempered with a little respect. You are the best kind of killer, Cassel Sharpe, the kind that never has blood on his hands. The kind that never has to sicken at the sight of what he’s done, or come to like it too much.”
I am chilled to the bone.
“Come work for me, Cassel, and you’ll have my protection. For your brother. For your mother. For your grandfather, although I consider him one of mine already. My protection and a very comfortable life.”
“So you want me to—,” I start, but he cuts me off.
“Philip’s death shouldn’t have happened. If I’d had people in place, watching over him, it wouldn’t have happened. Let me look out for you. Let your enemies become mine.”
“Yeah, and vice versa. No, thanks.” I shake my head. “I don’t want to be a killer.”
He smiles. “You may turn our colleagues into living things, if that helps you sleep at night. They will be just as effectively removed.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I say, thinking of the white cat watching me with shining eyes.
“It has happened. Maybe Barron made you forget what you did, but now you remember. You proved that when you undid one of your own curses.”
“That was your daughter whose curse I undid,” I say.
Zacharov takes a sharp breath, and then lets it out slow. “It happened, Cassel. You know how to work. And one of these days, you’re going to find yourself in a position where it’s going to be tempting. And then more than tempting; there’s going to be no other way out. Wake up. You’re one of us.”
“Not yet,” I say. “Not quite.” Which is about all I can cling to.
“You will think about my offer,” he says. “You’ll think about it when you realize there are people close to you that you will have to deal with eventually.”
“You mean Barron,” I say, amazed. “You’re a son of a bitch to imply at one brother’s funeral that I would think about killing the other.”
Zacharov rises and dusts off his pants. “I’m not the one who thought of him.” Then he smiles. “But you’re right—I’m a son of a bitch. And someday you’re going to need me.”
Then he goes back in to the service.
Lila finds me. I’m staring at the fabric of the bench, wondering how many people have wept on it. I’m wondering about whether the inside is crusted with salt, like a blanket that’s been soaking in seawater. I’m going a little crazy.
“Hey,” she says, holding out a cup of coffee, her mouth still bright as blood. “One of Philip’s friends is giving the eulogy now. I think he’s telling the story of the first time they held up a liquor store.”
I take the cup. I think the only thing I’ve eaten in the past three days has been coffee. I should be bouncing off the walls. Maybe that explains my nearly attacking her father. “You should go back to the viewing. I’m not—I can’t—” I shake my head to indicate the enormity of the things I can’t do. For one, I can’t tell her the truth about my feelings for her. For another, I’m not sure I can keep lying.
I want you so much that I would do almost anything to have you.
Please let me not be willing to do this.
“We used to be friends,” she says. “Even if there was nothing else.”
“We’re still friends,” I say automatically, because I really want it to be true.
“Well, good, then.” She sits down next to me on the bench. “I don’t want you to be mad that I’m here. I’m not going to jump you or anything.”
I snort. “My virtue is safe, eh? Well, thank goodness for that.”
She rolls her eyes.
“No—I understand why you came. It must be good to see him dead.” I think of Zacharov’s words about sleeping better at night, even if I steadfastly refuse to apply them to myself. “You must feel safer.”
She gapes at me like she can’t believe I just said those words. Then she laughs. “It’s hard to be a girl again—a human girl with hands and feet and clothes and school. Hard to talk when I’m out of practice. And sometimes I feel—” She stops herself.
“Like—I don’t know. This is your brother’s funeral. We should be talking about your feelings.”
I take a long, grateful swallow of the coffee. “Honestly, that’s the last thing I want to do.”
“I can be very comforting,” she says with a small, wicked smile.
“Hey—my virtue, remember? Come on, tell me what you were going to say.”
She kicks the wall lightly with one of her shiny black pumps. I can see her big toe through the opening in the front. The nail is painted a deep shining blue. “Okay. Do you ever feel so angry that you think you could devour the whole world and still not be satisfied? Like you don’t know how to stop feeling that way and it scares you, but that just makes you angry too?”
“I thought we weren’t going to talk about my feelings,” I say, trying for lightness, because I know exactly what she means. It’s like she was speaking my own thoughts aloud.
She looks at the floor, the corner of her lip tilted up. “I’m not.”
“Yeah,” I say slowly. “Yeah.”
“Some days I just hate everything.” She looks at me earnestly.
“Me too,” I say. “Especially today. I just don’t know how to feel. Philip. I mean, we weren’t close, obviously. Now that I think back on it, was he ashamed of using me like he did? Was that why he couldn’t look me in the face? But then, when it was over, it was him who couldn’t forgive me. We could have called it even—okay, not really even, but even enough, but it was like he couldn’t face anything he’d done and somehow I was the enemy. Like I wasn’t even human to him anymore. Like I wasn’t his brother.”
I should shut up, but I don’t. “And now you. You were the only real friend I had for years. I mean, I had friends at school, but then Mom would mess things up or pull us out of school for some con she was running, or those friends would find out about me being from a family of workers, and that would be that. But you. There was a time when I could tell you anything—and then I thought I killed you, and now when I have you back, I can’t—You’re—She took—”
Lila leans forward swiftly. Her lips are soft on my cheek.
I close my eyes. Her breath is warm and it would only take the smallest shift of my mouth, just a slight acquiescence, for us to be kissing. Kissing Lila would wash away my grief and pain and guilt. It’s all I want in the world.
“You’re going to get all the things you think you can’t have,” she says quietly, reaching out to rub red lipstick from my cheek. “You just don’t know it yet.”
I sigh at the touch of her glove.
After the eulogies are finished, Grandad steers me toward a black limousine. I slide in, next to my mother, who is already drinking from the minibar. Something brown, out of a heavy-bottomed glass. Barron slides in after me.
We’re quiet, riding. I hear the clink of ice cubes, the exhalation of a single ragged breath. I close my eyes.
“I don’t know what to do with all of Philip’s things,” Mom says suddenly. “Maura’s not coming to get them. We’ll have to put it all in his old room at the house.”
Grandad groans. “I just cleaned that place out.”
“You two better box everything up after the police are finished,” Mom says, ignoring Grandad, her voice threatening hysteria. “His son might want them someday.”
“His son’s not going to want them,” Barron says wearily.
“You don’t know that.” She goes to pour herself more booze from the bar, but the limo hits a bump and the liquor splashes her dress. She starts to cry, not the loud keening from before but quiet sobs that shake her whole body.
I grab some napkins and try to blot the spill. She pushes my hand away.
“You don’t know,” she says to Barron through her tears. “Look at Cassel. That’s his father’s suit.”
“Yeah, and it’s a million years out of style,” says Barron.
I shrug, playing along.
Grandad grins. “It’s going to be all right, Shandra,” he says.
Mom shakes her head.
“Save the kid from looking like Cassel there,” says Barron. “Throw the stuff out. Besides, I got a line on a guy in Princeton looking to buy a painting. I need a roper. We’ll buy a dozen silk suits.”
Mom sniffs and slugs back the rest of her drink.
The burial takes place in the rain. Barron and I share an umbrella, which means that water constantly streams down the back of my neck. Barron puts his arm over my shoulders and I lean against him for a moment, like he really is my older brother who wants to protect me. The ceremony is subdued, since all the eulogies have been given. Even my mother’s tears appear to be wrung out.