Chapter 15 continues. The usual warnings apply. Thanks for reading!
“That’s sort of cool.”
“Is James on your phone?” Stirling asked pointing.
“His program is.”
“Can I see him?”
“He’s not Max Headroom, that’s the whole point. He can see out of the camera if he needs to, listen through the mic, but having a graphic interface just sucks up system resources. He’s been able to get to where he is by being small and flying below the radar. Could you imagine the headache if some antivirus company found him? No, when he wants to communicate he’ll usually just text.
Stirling leant in close and said, “Hi James.”
“Hey! Personal space, douche.” Dimitri pulled back at the same time as his phone chimed. He unlocked it with a swipe, inspected the screen the screen, and rolled his eyes. “James says, ‘hi.’ Happy?”
Stirling grinned and settled back into the couch.
“Well, you’re off shift.” said Sue looking at the time on her cell phone.
Sam glanced at his watch and shuffled to the crucible. He held out a hand over the glowing coals, and in the time it took to take a fast breath, a glowing orange salamander slithered from the coals and onto his palm. The salamander raised its head and began to explore the edge of Sam’s palm.
“This,” he said holding out the fiery amphibian, “is the trick I use to convert the heat of the crucible to magic we can use.”
“That’s a magic spell?”
“Trick,” corrected Sam. “All the cool kids say, trick. Saying ‘spell’ makes you sound like someone’s grandfather.”
“Why does it look like that?” said Stirling, pointing back to the salamander.
“I really don’t know,” admitted Sam, “When you throw a trick enough times it can start to have its own personality.”
Sam smiled and held out his other hand, the salamander flowed across the gap like water beading on hot metal. Then, for no apparent reason, it charged down Sam’s wrist, legs and tail flailing as it went. It darted into the sleeve of his robe, and Sam yelped as the hem began to smoke. “Verpiss Dich!” he shouted, and the salamander disappeared with a pop and shower of sparks. Stirling noticed then, that Samson’s housecoat had a number or other such small black holes in it. “Little bastard knows he’s not supposed to do that,” Sam said, still beating at his smoking robe.
“That’s why he does it,” said Sue.
For the first time, Stirling began to feel real heat washing his face from the crucible, the flames began to waver unsteadily, and the faint smell of smoke became stronger. Sue approached the fire and held out her own hand. As the flames wrapped around the back of her hand, an outline the shape of a bird began to appear. As the seconds ticked by, flames separated from the briquettes and colours began to appear. In under a minute there was a red and yellow bird the size of a grapefruit with flaming blue eyes roosting in the palm of her hand. She tilted her hand and the bird stepped off to nestle into the coals. By now the crucible was once again a faint warmth and the smoky smell was gone.
“Nice Phoenix!” said Stirling.
Sue made a little curtsy and beamed at him. “Her name is Matilda,” she said.
“Does your salamander have a name?” Stirling asked Sam.
“L.F. Gobshite,” he responded shortly, still examining the holes in his robe.
“What does the L.F. stand for?”
“Who wants a coffee?” asked Sue, happily shuffling to where a stove-top kettle and large French Press stood together on a small bookshelf.
Stirling had a standing rule that coffee, when offered, was never to be turned down. “I would kill for a coffee.”
“Hold off until you’ve tasted it,” said Sam with a grin. “Making coffee is an art, unfortunately, Sue never got past making Playdough wangs in art class.”
“Don’t like it, make your own coffee.”
Without the aid of any power source that Stirling could see, the kettle on the bookshelf began to steam, then whistle shrilly. On closer inspection, Stirling made out some markings along the base of the kettle that looked almost exactly like the ones inside the crucible. Sue poured out the steaming water into the glass press to let the coffee brew. The smell of coffee began to diffuse into the room and Stirling nearly groaned with caffeine-lust at the smell.
“Any jelly doughnuts leftover?” Dimitri asked hopefully.
“None until tomorrow,” said Sam. Dimitri looked disappointed.
Soon all four had warm mugs in their hands.
Stirling inhaled the steam through his nose and took a sip. It was smooth and complex with flavours that combined in his mouth like a slow, smoky, burlesque for the senses. “Oh my God. This is like slow sex for my mouth!” he exclaimed, looking down at the brew.
“Intelligentsia Black Cat, I don’t mess around with my coffee,” said Sue. “It’s a crime to put in in a press, but bringing in a decent espresso machine is like tossing pearls before swine in this place.” She made a face. “No problem at all shelling out thousands for a two-hundred-inch television or boxing on pay-per-view, but spending a couple hundred bucks on a decent coffee maker is out of the question.”
Dimitri took a sip of his cup and made a face. “Is there any hazelnut flavoured creamer?”
“Sure, you just head out that door,” said Sue pointing at the door they arrived through, “and walk five blocks to the gas station. They’ll hook you right up.”
“It’s good, it’s just a bit too cofee-e,” complained Dimitri.
“You are such a pansy.”
“I thought you had an early morning,” said Dimitri, looking meaningfully at Sam’s full cup.
“I do, but I think I want to hear why you’ve been gone for over a week more than I want sleep.” He began ticking point off on his fingers, “Gone for a week with no word, and that’s just not like you. When you do finally show up, you’re with a noob, but one who should have been sponsored over a decade ago.” He fixed Dimitri with a look. “Something’s up.”
“Dude, you really don’t want to get into this. Trust me, it’s better if you don’t know.”
“Ignorance is bliss?” Sam asked skeptically.
“Ignorance is chocolate-covered orgasms,” confirmed Stirling, nodding enthusiastically.
Sam looked at both of them, then shook his head. “No, that’s not going to work. As one of the Strangefellows char witches, I’m the one who needs to know about this stuff. If there’s a new Lesser God in town raising hell, or some big bad on the streets, I need to know, Sue as well. We’re the ones who keep the shields up around here.”
“You are the watcher on the walls?” Stirling asked.
“The fire that burns against the cold, the Strangefellows Night’s Watch,” Sue intoned solemnly.
Dimitri thought about it for a few seconds. “I’m not telling you everything because some of it isn’t mine to tell,” he said, carefully not looking at Stirling, “and I think you’d both be safer if you just let it drop.”
He looked at them expectantly. When both Sam and Sue said nothing, he reluctantly continued. “Madame Rag and Mister Bone are in town. They’re the ones who have been snatching people. James found out I’d made their list so I dropped off the grid for a while.”
There was a silence in the room, broken only by the soft sound of briquettes crumbling into ash. Sam sat heavily in the lawn chair, and Sue was still as a statue, her expression fixed, holding her mug to her tummy.
“Jesus, Dimitri! That’s terrible!” said Sue finally.
“So why are you back now?” asked Sam. “I’d dig a hole and crawl in if Madame Rag and Mister Bone were after me.”
“Aleph found me. She got word that Stirling here was next on Rag and Bone’s wish list. She had me keeping an eye on him. When they made a grab for him I stepped in. She’s going to meet us here.”