For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history.
Nine years after the ace John “The Candle” Montaño first wielded his fire powers as a teenager on the reality TV show “American Hero”, he’s landed a job as the lead investigator for a prestigious arts insurer. His latest assignment, providing security for a traveling art show featuring Satchmo’s golden trumpet, threatens to be a disaster when some of John’s long-buried secrets come calling with a vengeance.
John Montaño hadn’t been sleeping well as it was, but his last night on the Queen Margaret was a doozy.
It was early evening before the night shift, their last night aboard, and John was dreaming. He’d gotten lost in a big hospital and was wandering through the halls. Screams issued from the rooms he passed. People were trapped behind thick walls of glass. Their faces contorted as they pounded on the glass, trying to warn him. Someone had sealed them in there, and was now hunting him.
He looked to his left. His enemy stood there, face and body in shadow. John yelled—his enemy had hurled a whirling mass of glass shards at him. Then his alarm went off and he awakened to see—and feel—yellow fire streaming from his palms. His pillows were airborne; he’d attacked them in his sleep. “Fuck!”
He leapt off the bed, buck naked, as his flame struck the pillows in midair. One smacked into the wall by the bathroom and the other two bounced back onto the bed covers. Feathers scattered, trailing smoke. Flame residue dripped from his fingers onto his feet. He hopped back. “Ow!”
A fine fucking mess, Juanma.
Then his training kicked in. He marked the beat of his heart and made a wrenching twist around some corner of his mind. Spacetime spun away, carrying his body with it. Now he faced out into a different place entirely. The place where his ace powers grew.
John could still feel his body back there somewhere. His heartbeat—that meat metronome in his chest—had grown louder, and the atrial beat, the lub half, had ended as he’d twisted loose. But the ventricular beat, the DUB, came on languidly, and deepened to a pitch more felt than heard as it slowed almost to a halt. He was fully here now: outside of his body, outside of time. Now he could pause to think. To plan.
OK, he’d somehow had triggered his ace without meaning to and set the frigging room on fire. The headline sprang into his head, unbidden: “Chubb’s ace art detective fuels panic as flames spread through ocean liner.” Or, worse: “Nocturnal emissions! Candle’s nightmare flames burn down the Queen Margaret.”
He visualized the cabin in his mind. Pillows down there and over there—smoke detector up there—window there—door across the cabin. Burning feathers airborne. This called for red flame, he decided. And blue. Lots of blue.
John moved into the vast energy forest. Cables and spires of flame—reeds and bundles—columns and jets of fire sprouted up and vanished. They seemed to sense him, somehow, and moved as if responding to his attention. Or perhaps he was the one who moved. It was impossible to tell because nothing here behaved the way it should. Perhaps the flames floated in some arcane energy flow he couldn’t detect, the way kelp in an ocean current might (if those kelp were blazing-bright and multicolored, say; if they grew to the size of sequoia trunks and city ‘scrapers, and were supercharged with trillions of volts of raging energies . . .). Perhaps the cause of the movement was those unseen giants, passing through.
His first trip here had been involuntary. The virus, as it triggered, had thrown him into this inferno-world. That had been almost half his life ago, when he was a boy of seventeen in Boston. His body had lain in a hospital bed long enough to get bedsores (the traces of which still scarred his ass) and for the doctors to declare his state permanent, vegetative, before he’d figured out how to get back.
Nowadays, while here, he counted his heartbeats, as fervently as his mother had counted her rosary beads back then. He never stayed longer than he had to. For one, he couldn’t afford to. At five heartbeats, his body collapsed like a puppet with cut strings. At a hundred, his lungs stopped working on their own. Besides, this world …dimension…whatever it was…wasn’t what you’d call human-friendly. More lived here than just the fire tendrils. Beings so immense, so monstrous it was impossible to know what to call them. To even see them all in one go. He’d long since learned to shut them out.
Nope—nobody down here but us fire motes!
The tendrils, though: those he could bear to look at (some more so than others). He still wondered what had possessed him to reach out for a thread of fire that first time, when he was caught in the grip of the primary wild card infection. It had certainly saved his life. He’d still be stuck here—or, more likely, dead; long since unplugged from life support—if he hadn’t touched that first cord of flame.
It was the yellow he’d reached out to first, and its force had blasted him all the way back into his body— nearly killing him in the process. But the green had happened to be nearby and had moved into his body with him, healing the damage the yellow had done.
That first encounter with the flames had been so traumatic that it had taken John a long time to work up the nerve to try harvesting other flames. Red, green, and purple weren’t so bad—not by comparison to the other three. But without his green, he’d have been simply another wild card statistic. What followed were months and years of figuring out which colors he could touch safely and training himself to wield them. First green. Then red. Then yellow. Blue. Purple. Black. (There were flames of other colors, as well. He still hadn’t tried any of the others. Truth to tell, he was afraid to.)
Six is plenty. More than enough.
The individual fire strands peeled away from the red fire trunk he’d found and rejoined it, pulsating languidly: carnelians, burgundies, crimsons, roses. This crop looked good. He teased out a clump of cherry red, and the energy tendrils gravitated toward him: syrupy flames licking at his hands, rolling over themselves in gobs.
Red fire, despite its appearance, wasn’t hot. In fact, it was cool to the touch and easy to snare: a mild sensation, compared to some of the other flames. It was also incredibly useful; he could use it to create structures. Including, for instance, a smoke barrier to minimize damage and seal off the room while he harvested the more challenging blue to quell the fire.
John coaxed streams of pulsing cherry loose from the thicket and lured them into a swirling sheath around him as he let his life force pull him back toward his body. You had to be patient with red, though, and it took a while for the threads to find the entry point and latch on. Eventually the tendrils found the entry at the crown of his head. They tried to suck him back into his body as they flowed in, but he resisted, and hovered at the threshold. Doing so bought him more time, and while suspended partway there, he could tolerate the pain of the flames better.
They pressed through the blood vessels in his scalp and collected in pools behind his eyes, sinuses, and ears like the world’s worst migraine. They slid, molasses-slow, through his facial veins and internal and external jugulars, and from there down into his chest, lungs, and heart.
He’d seen videos. To the outside world, when he summoned the fire he looked like a man lit up from the inside. The first time, the red flames’ pressure in his face, limbs, and chest had been agonizing. He’d thought his heart would explode. “Mild”? By comparison to most of the others, perhaps. But he had adapted. Now it was little more a throbbing ache that spread through his head, chest, belly, and limbs as the fire followed the trails of his blood vessels.
Time and space continued to tug at him while he collected more of the red. His first heartbeat had just finished, quarter-speed, and a second beat was about to start. Clock’s ticking. This’ll have to do.
He shut off the flow, twisted back into himself—and shoved the red stream out through his blood vessels with the full force of the second heartbeat. As fire surged into the arteries lacing his lungs he opened his eyes—it coursed up the brachial arteries and then down, through his arms and into wrists and hands. Already, he saw, yellow flames were licking at the covers, and smoke coiled upward from bedding and floor.
He shot a stream of crimson flame from his right hand, sealing instructions into it as it left his fingers. Blazing, cherry-red tendrils spun up and encased the smoke detector in a translucent, flickering dome of light. More of the glowing red spilled out from the dome and spread across the ceiling. With his left hand, he sent a second batch of streamers to coat the upper walls: burning red snakes struck the ceiling along its edges and traveled out and down. He shot one last stream of red at the desk, coating his laptop. Then he was out of flame, and his third heartbeat had finished. Get a move on.
He twisted away again, back to the other place.
Finding a good patch of blue, as usual, turned out to be more of a challenge. The energy fields shifted unpredictably here, and distance behaved even more strangely than time did. He couldn’t simply look at a tendril and will himself over to it. Objects that seemed nearby one moment were far away the next, or would vanish entirely, while another set of energies appeared suddenly somewhere else.
He got lucky. A blue flame trunk soon moved into view: a whipping cable of eye-piercing indigo—dark brilliance, bigger around than a city block. It swung near, shedding waves of deadly blue fire. Even the other fire cables steered clear. He didn’t reach for it (he never touched the main trunks). Instead, he gestured-called-teased the crackling flame coronas that arced out from its boundary layer. Soon a large tendril budded off. He called to it and it spun out from its parent, blazing sapphire, and slithered toward him.
Blue flame here wasn’t heat. Nor cold, either, not exactly—though it certainly froze what it touched. Rather, it was a nothingness. An anti-energy. A stillness so complete it seared worse than the hottest flame.
He tugged at the tendril, backing up, nudging other cords and clumps out of his way, and the hostile blue energy surged-lurched-coiled after him. As John approached the entry to his body, the blue fanned out and enveloped him in cold fire, and the force poured in and lanced his skull. It hurt.
Blue preferred to trace its path along the bone structures, the ligaments, and tendons: it etched frigid agonies across his nasal bridge and cheekbones and jaw—pierced the tiny bones in his ears—sank icy daggers into the rotator cuffs at his shoulders, spread across his collarbone. His lungs sucked in a sharp breath. He tasted smoke in his throat, and coughed.
His fourth heartbeat had begun by now, a deep thrum in his chest, and the smell of smoke was stronger than before. Better hurry. He closed the entry point—dispelled the indigo-bright cord attached to his crown, back there—and with a dizzying yank turned all the way into his body.
John opened his eyes. Flame had taken hold at the end of the bed, and smoke was billowing up, spreading along his red barrier on the ceiling. Angry blue snakes ran the maze of his bones, demanding an exit. John obliged. He shaped the power as it spattered outward from his curled fingertips—he was forcibly pinching off the flow to control its rate; he didn’t want to blow a hole in the wall. He snared the flames in a spiral long enough to shape a sphere of blinding-dark sapphire, then released it with a snap of his hands.
The first blast struck the burning bedding and caused a flurry of carbon dioxide snowflakes to burst out in a puff. In the blast’s wake came a clear liquid stream that splashed violently onto the bedding, knocking it askew and coating it in a thin layer of ice. The stream was liquefied air, cooled to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit. It raced across the frozen covers in beads and sputtering rivulets—pooled in crannies—and then a wave spilled over and splashed onto the pillow on the floor, instantly snuffing out its flames. The last of the liquid air skittered around like manic beads on the carpet till it re-vaporized.
John had broken out all over in gooseflesh. The cabin’s temperature must’ve dropped by a good twenty degrees. He delivered a smaller spray of blue flame out to chase down the last of the burning feathers, which were still settling onto the dresser, desk, and carpet. Another snow flurry fell throughout the cabin.
He used his last bout of blue flame to make a small ice devil. It spun around inside the room, gathering remaining wisps of smoke and condensing them into a ball of soot, which it dumped onto the fancy burgundy carpet. John frowned at it. Oops! That’ll leave a stain.
He dusted ash and ice crystals from his hair and went in search of his phone. It had gotten buried under the tourist brochures for Miami, Myrtle Beach, and Baltimore, all the stops the Queen Margaret had made while on her way up from Havana to Manhattan. A Gideon Bible had fallen from the drawer of the bedside table, which had gotten knocked onto its side. He didn’t remember doing that.
He snatched up his phone and sent a text to his second-in-command on this detail, Rashida Thorne.
Can you come by? I need a hand.
While he was texting, the red shield began dribbling off his desk, as well as the walls and ceiling. It oozed down in red filaments, flame confetti streamers. They pooled on the carpet here and there but did no harm, merely flickered like dying embers as they melted away. Rashida responded.
Be right there. Uhhhh . . . everything OK?
He spent a few seconds with his thumbs over the keys before giving up the attempt at words, and just sent her a poop emoji and a shrug.
John had time to pee, tug on shorts and a T-shirt, roll the singed bedding up in the mattress pad, and drag it onto the floor before Rashida’s tap landed on the inner door. He let her in, put out the Do Not Disturb sign, and latched and bolted the door.
“Brrr! Turn your AC off, John—it’s not that hot out.” John caught a faint whiff of her hair oil as she passed. He nipped at his lower lip with his teeth. Down, boy. You boss, her employee; remember?
They were both bi (well, technically he was bi; she was pan), nonmonogamous, and . . . well, there was chemistry. She was full-figured, Black and Native American, with a background in modern dance and criminal justice. He loved her dark-skinned face and wide, freckled nose, and he loved her full-throated laugh, which never failed to disarm him. She had insight into people, and a relentless pursuit of truth that often made him feel secretly that she should really be leading the team—not him.
They’d flirted mercilessly, back before he’d been promoted, and had had a brief fling after the death of one of their team members. Once the gig was over they’d gone out for drinks to talk it through, and fallen into each other’s arms for a weekend in the sack—cried, comforted each other, and had amazing sex—and then agreed not to do it again. (Chubb was strict about coworker coitus, even before he’d gotten promoted and the power differential had entered the mix.)
She surveyed the room now. “Bad sleep, I take it?”
He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck. “Something like that.”
She eyed the scorch marks on the bed and the sodden mess of burned fabric and feather and foam on the floor. The beads of water dripping down the walls. The knocked-over furniture. The spray of soot on the carpet.
“Jesus, John.” She struggled for words; gave it up. “At least you didn’t set off the smoke detector.” She looked at him. “Did you?”
“No. You would have heard.” Probably everybody on the ship would have heard. “My bad. All my bad. Look, can we just . . . fast-forward through the color commentary?”
She laughed. “Sorry. Whatever you say. I’ll call the Beef in.”
“Not just yet. I need Arry out there with the horn till I can get this taken care of. Just because we haven’t seen trouble yet doesn’t mean we won’t.”
The gig this time was providing security for a traveling art exhibit. John led a five-member team—two aces, two nats, and a joker. Arry (“The Beef”), Ariadne Cerigo, was John’s other direct report—though you could really count her as a team of four all on her own.
Her card had turned almost ten years ago, in her mid-forties. Strictly a joker; no special powers, but a two-ton minotaur with wicked six-foot-long horns, an impenetrable hide, and a battle mace the size of a battering ram could rack up a lot of hit points pretty damn quick. Not to mention that as the mother of five, she had inculcated a deft blend of other talents: de-escalation skills and bullshit-put-up-with-which-NOT attitude, in the face of which even the most testosterone-fueled disagreement tended to resolve itself quite readily. Extra bonus points: she played a mean hand of poker and never got drunk or did stupid shit or created drama. So, yeah: her specific dietary and structural support notwithstanding, he wouldn’t trade her for a dozen aces. The fabulous needlepoint she doled out after every mission was just the lovely Maraschino cherry on top.
“So . . . feeling better tonight?” he asked. Rashida had gotten hit with a bad case of stomach crud from something she ate in Baltimore, and had been hugging the porcelain throne for the past two days. Now their watches were all out of whack.
“If you feel up for it, I’d like you to run a quick read on the room.”
“This room?” He nodded. Her brow furrowed. “Why?”
“Just a precaution.”
“John.” Ras stood five foot ten, but John was a good head taller at six foot three, which gave him the edge in a stare-down. But she wasn’t his second for nothing, and he felt his fib fraying before her don’t-fuck-with-me gaze. “What gives?”
“As your second, I have a right to know if something could be putting the operation at risk. And this”—she encompassed the room in a gesture—“qualifies. Especially if you suspect an intrusion.”
“It’s just a precaution!”
She folded her arms. Tapped her foot. John sighed. “All right, fine! Sometimes I have . . . vivid dreams. I’m partially awake when they happen. It’s a sleep disorder. It’s called hypnopompia.”
He caught her suppressing a smile. “Hypno-what?”
Ordinarily he’d share the joke, but right now, not so much. “It’s perfectly normal. I mean—it’s normal for me. But it’s never been this bad. In fact, I’ve never manifested my ace during an episode before.” He paused. “Er, except the once.”
“When it first manifested.”
“‘It.’ You mean your flames? When your card first turned?” He nodded. “Hmmm. I don’t think you’ve ever told me your origin story.”
Damn straight. “I don’t like to talk about it. Bad memories.”
She punched him in the arm. “Why didn’t you say so, dummy? But that still doesn’t explain why you want me to do a read on the room.”
He shook his head with a frown. “I don’t know, Ras . . . I’ve been jumpy as a cat since we left Cuba. Or . . . look, I was sure someone was in the cabin with me.” He thought about that tornado made of glass shards. “I just need to be sure that it was only a dream.”
“It couldn’t possibly be that we’re transporting a priceless historical artifact on an ocean liner with obsolete, appallingly bad security and trotting it out nightly for hundreds of tourists’ entertainment?”
“Oh yeah . . .” He snapped his fingers. “Whose idea was this, anyway?”
They looked at each other, morose. “Triple hazard-duty pay!” they said in unison. Ras removed and pocketed her hoops, bracelet, and rings, and looked around. “Any spots you’re particularly interested in?”
“Over there. On the left side of the bed.” That was where his attacker had come from, in his dream. “I know I’m being paranoid,” he said again.
She waved him off. “Relax. I’ve got this.” Rashida crouched. Her clothing collapsed onto the carpet as corporeal became particulate, and a cloud of shiny motes slid out of the gaps with a sandy swo-o-osh! They amassed before him, dense and glittering, and shaped Ras’s face long enough to whisper, “Be right back . . .”
The cloud drifted over to the far side of the bed and divided in three. One portion settled onto the carpet, mattress, and duvet; another gathered where the wall and ceiling shared an intersection; and the third clump settled onto the wall, headboard, lamp, papers, and bedside table.
Ras’s ace handle was Patina. She could transform at will to inorganic matter. Usually particles: sand, dust motes, glitter, pebbles, glass or porcelain beads, metal shards; things like that—though with effort she could form larger objects for short periods of time. If it didn’t have carbon in it, she was your ace—though John had observed over the two years they’d known each other that she had a pronounced preference for shiny over dull and round over spiky.
A trick she’d discovered recently was that while in a metallic form, she could pick up impressions from certain surfaces—visual flashes or auditory impressions, and sometimes both—of prior events that had occurred within arm’s reach.
Her awareness didn’t extend far, only a few hours back and a few feet away from the spots where she settled. And it only worked if she was in contact metallic or microcrystalline surfaces. She’d theorized to John that perhaps the molecules she came in contact with while in her inorganic state formed some kind of bond that held onto traces of the interactions she was detecting: she said it felt like shifts in lattice energies—tiny dislocations. Perhaps sound vibrations that had reordered the solid matrix and briefly lingered there, too faint for human instruments to measure, or some such thing. Molecular memories.
Whatever. It all sounded like New Age bullshit to him, but she’d nailed at least one criminal mastermind with it to date. Besides, who was he to judge? He spent his time harvesting power from a massive trans-dimensional cropland, in a land of hyperplex, Brobdingnagian horrors so immense and hideous he couldn’t bear to even perceive them.
While he waited, John called up the app for their on-call scene documentation and cleanup, Vigilant Response, and filled out the form.
He opened the picklist for Response Type and chose “Site cleanup,” then, with a wince, “Damage documentation.” More expensive, and he hoped the insurance company wouldn’t deny the claim as a result but . . . well . . . it was best to be sure.
Satchmo art transport detail: clean up fire damage on Queen M.
Cabin 4.045, RMS Queen Margaret
at sea, Atlantic Ocean, N 39º35¢40.30², W 73º32¢34.44²
03 – Medium (respond in 12–24 hours)
Size: ~200 sq. ft.
Severity: 05 – Low (est. <$5k damage)
John Montaño / 212-555-0062
Burned bedding. Scorch marks on bed & carpet & dresser. Soot stains on carpet & mirror.
He sniffed, grimaced, and added, Residual smell.
John shot pictures with his phone of the bedding, bed, and carpet, and took a couple of the curtains and chairs, as well. He uploaded them and noted under special instructions: Replace mattress and bedding; clean carpet and furniture. Inspect walls and ceiling to confirm no further action needed. Meet ship at Pier 88 Manhattan at 6:00 a.m. Match cabin decor as closely as possible.
By the time he had finished uploading the photos and submitted the cleanup request, tendrils of Ras-glamour were rising up from where they had settled. They all coalesced into a single metallic cloud, which swooped over and slipped back into her clothing through the various openings. She reformed, stood, and shook out her tight black curls, which lengthened and braided themselves into a neat, beaded knot at her nape.
She grimaced. “Yuck. I’m going to have to shower again.” She tucked her silk cami into her capris, straightened her linen jacket, and slipped her patent leather pumps back on.
“Nothing much,” she replied. “I picked up a visit by ship maintenance to check the HVAC system. You called them?” He nodded. “This afternoon. It went on the fritz.”
“And an argument out in the hall a while ago, but it had nothing to do with us.” She paused. “It was—well, blurry—around the headboard and on the mirror. I had a hard time getting a read.”
“What do you make of that?” Smooth surfaces were where she usually got her best information. She shrugged. “I’ve encountered it before, once or twice. Sometimes I can’t get anything.” She hesitated, then stopped herself from saying more.
“Well . . . the other times I’ve encountered this effect were around you, actually. I think it may have something to do with your ace. It feels like . . .” She paused. “Like something goes out of focus in your vicinity. Echoes of some kind.” She laced her fingers together. “It’s like there’s an interference pattern of some kind. I don’t know.” She dropped her hands. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
“Hmmm.” John kept his expression still, but wished now he hadn’t asked her to check. He couldn’t help but wonder if his journey to the other place, or the energy he brought back with him, created those echoes. He hadn’t told anyone about where he went to harvest his flame powers. He didn’t want people getting too curious; he often had the feeling he shouldn’t be there. Someone might try to make him stop, if they knew.
“Well, thanks. I owe you.”
“I’ll find a way to cash my chips in later, Candle-man. When you least expect it.” She paused at the door. “Leave a giant tip.”
He gave her a thumbs-up. She flashed him a big, gorgeous grin and left.
Six weeks earlier, ace art thief Titus “Ripple Effect” Maguire (“call me Rip”) and his newly minted accomplice, Megan “Tiffani” McKnee (actress/model, ace, and former American Hero contestant), boarded the Queen Margaret at Havana.
For Tiffani, this cruise had mostly been just a big old romp, thus far. She’d seen little of Rip since they’d boarded. He spent his days doing “reconnaissance,” as he called it, using his weird ace power, while she went on tours and visited local food fairs and craft shows. She had a spa treatment every day. With her complexion there was no point in trying to tan—all she did was turn the color of boiled lobster and get more freckles. She did enjoy sitting out on deck in her beribboned hat and bikini, though, glammed up with her own ace version of sunscreen: a diamond layer no thicker than a hair, but with enough crystalline microfractures in it to bounce the UV rays right back out. Added bonus: it made her skin sparkle like diamond dust. She would sit sipping sweetened ice tea while watching yachts and fishing skiffs float past, while gulls and herons skimmed the surface waters of the ports.
She fancied she still looked good in a bikini, even at twenty-eight. She still had it. She could tell by the way men’s heads still turned. Not as many as when she was younger, maybe, but she figured she could enjoy herself for a bit longer before landing a good catch and settling down to start a family.
She loved to lean out over the railing, showing as much of her cleavage as possible, and wave with her sun hat, shouting a friendly Yoohoo! Hi, y’all! at the smaller boats as they passed, water piling up on their bows. They’d even blow their horns at her sometimes. Boop-boop!
So all in all, good times on the old Queen Margaret. All she had to do to earn her keep was act like Rip’s girlfriend and when he returned from his daily “reconnaissance,” answer his questions about the Candle. He assumed she must know a lot about the Candle from their time on set way back when, competing in the first season of American Hero. That was ages ago, and she couldn’t see why it mattered now, but it did to Rip. Meanwhile, he would pull out maps and diagrams and mark them up, and scribble notes in his journal, scowling like a guy who couldn’t figure out what 64-down on the crossword was.
Granted, the questions got to be a bore. He’d kept at it, night after night. Tiffani knew herself to be a patient woman, but today, day five of this, she lost her cool. He hadn’t shown up for dinner so she went by herself, and when she returned to the cabin he still wasn’t back. So she set the carry-out she’d gotten for him on the desk, curled up on the bed with a pile of pillows, and picked up her tablet to get caught up on all the juicy celebrity gossip.
A while later she looked up. He was doing that thing he did: standing there inside the mirror—or a reverse image of him, anyway—staring at her and looking weird, because people’s faces always look kind of weird when they’re reversed. She let out a shriek and put a hand on her chest. “Rip, honey, don’t do that! You scared me half to death.”
His mirror image was rippling. Then for a second it was like she could see a hundred reflective panes all at once, each with a flat version of him in it. The tumbling panes spilled out from the mirror and shiny reflections spun around like an aluminum disco ball, only cylindrical—vaguely human shaped—scattering the room’s light. In a flash he was back. He strode over and unlocked his briefcase, then flipped through the papers in there. He seemed agitated.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. No answer. He wouldn’t look at her, despite her efforts to catch his gaze. “I brought you some food.” She waved a hand. “It’s over there on the desk. You should have a bite.”
She picked up her tablet and pretended to read while watching him out of the corner of her eye. He was a piece of work, this one. At the start, he’d been so sweet that sugar wouldn’t melt on his tongue. He’d been a real charmer. But something had changed after that first night, when he came back from one of his “outings.” Ever since, he’d been surly as a dog with hemorrhoids.
He spread his materials out on the bed, nudging her foot out of the way. She oh-so-slowly put her foot back where it had been, and rubbed his thumb with her big toe. Finally he looked at her. She wiggled her eyebrows and patted the mattress next to her. But he only frowned. Here we go again, she thought, and suppressed a sigh.
He said, “This time I want real answers. Details. Tell me what you observed about how he used the different flame colors. Why does he use more red, blue, and yellow? What about the other three? What exactly do they do?”
She sighed. “I told you. He uses the yellow for heat, the red to build things, and the blue to freeze things.”
“I know that. Everybody knows that. I need to know why. How they work. And what do the other colors do? Why is there no public record of him ever using the others? Did you ever see him use them on people or things? What do they do? What are their limits?”
“For Christ’s sake!” she burst out. “Rip, you’ve asked me a hundred times. It was ten years ago! He wasn’t even on my team on the show! I was a Diamond; he was a Spade. I’ve told you everything I know.”
He stared at her, leaning on his hands.
Maybe I pushed him too far, she thought. Rip was a lot bigger than she was, with his muscular chest and big arms. She said, in an even tone, “I can’t tell you what I don’t know.” A flare of defiance slipped out, despite herself. “And anyway, the episodes are all on YouTube. You can see for your own self.” She’d been going to say your own damn self, but thought better of it. Then she looked down at her tablet, trying to get her breathing back under control.
“If I can get everything I need from YouTube, remind me again why I need you? You seem to be trying awfully hard to talk yourself out of your fee.”
OK, definitely went too far.
“Let’s not fight.” She crawled off the bed and went over to give him a hug from behind, but he turned and gripped her arms, and dug his fingers deep into her biceps.
“I’m running out of patience, Megan.”
“Ow!” she yelped. “Hey!” She tried to jerk loose, but he merely tightened his grip. So she summoned her ace, and with a crack, turned crystalline, two inches deep. A flawless, faceted, diamond-like shell coated her from head to toe.
His grip slipped, throwing her off-balance, and her diamond-coated heels hit the floor with a thud. She found her footing, and straightened with her crystalline fists on her hips. Squeeze me now, asshole. “Hands off the merch, please.”
Rip laughed and slow-clapped. “So she has a backbone.” The sound carried through the crystalline coat over her ears, albeit muffled. Sort of like a bad case of swimmer’s ear. “I wondered how far I’d have to push you.” He looked her up and down. “Quite striking, I must say—much more impressive than it looked on TV.”
Way to neg a lady, jerk. She reverted to flesh and rubbed at her arms where he’d grabbed her. He returned to his plans on the foot of the bed. She quelled the urge to recrystallize her arms choke the fucker till he begged for mercy. Not a good idea. Especially not with how much she stood to make on this gig, if she kept her cool.
With a noisy sigh, she snatched her tablet up and sat down in the chair at the desk—facing him, of course; you don’t turn your back on a man with a temper. She tucked a leg under herself and scrolling in a slow progression, trying to calm herself down.
If she was honest, this gig was turning out to be a much bigger headache than she’d expected. She’d figured, you know, a nice cruise, earn some cash, give Rip a few inside tidbits on the Candle—nothing too damaging, of course; she had nothing against John—and get the hell out, a couple stacks richer. The man had been quite charming when they first met. Normally she didn’t jump in the sack with a man right away, but that first night Rip had gotten a bit weird and scary, and she’d decided she’d be better if she seduced him, to get a better handle on the situation, so to speak. Unfortunately, that hadn’t worked out all that well. Most men, you could count on them giving more attention to their little head than they ever did to their big one. Not this guy.
Oh, they’d had sex. She’d pulled out all the stops: fancy lingerie, butt plugs, the works. And he’d seem to enjoy it well enough, but he sure wasn’t all gah-gah over her all the time as a result. The minute he got out of bed his mind would turn to other things. This whole trip, he’d seemed distracted or wound up. And on a short fuse, to boot.
He also had bad burn marks on his chest and abdomen, and along the underside of his left arm. She’d asked, once, but he hadn’t answered. Maybe he was traumatized. Or maybe you’re losing your touch, that nasty little voice in her head said. Maybe he’s just not that into you.
Tiffani hadn’t gotten to know John Montaño on the show except to say hi to on set once in a while, and to pass him in the halls in the Discard Pile. They hadn’t run into each other much on-camera, either—no big encounters—which had made it easier to sell Rip on her lack of knowledge. But truth to tell, this ignorance of his powers was, well, a bit of a fabrication. She’d watched the rushes every day to keep up on who was who and what was what, and had paid careful attention to everyone’s abilities—including the gossip. So she had a pretty damn good idea what the Candle could do.
Once she’d seen him enter the bathroom limping, his face and arms cut up pretty good. She saw a green glow under the door, and a few minutes later when he came back out the injuries were gone and he was walking normally.
And then there was that evening Pop Tart had come out of his room so stoned she couldn’t find the door to the lounge, exhaling lavender lightning bugs out her mouth and nose. So Tiffani had her suspicions about that flame’s nature, too. As for the black fire, well. She didn’t know what it did, but the Candle totally had lost his shit at Spasm and Stuntman that time they’d teased him so mercilessly about being afraid to show them what it could do—and the look on his face when he turned away— the mere thought of using it scared the fuck out of him.
The Candle . . . now there was a guy who knew how to put his little head to good use.
I do mean, she thought with a sigh. Not that she herself had partaken of his charms, but most everybody else on the set had, seemed like. If they exhibited signs of life, and were into him, he’d been into them. Male, female, nonbinary, genderfluid; joker, ace, nat. It made no never mind. And a lot of guys like that are players, but not John. She didn’t know how he pulled off sleeping with so many people in such close quarters without anybody wanting to throttle him, but he just had the knack. He’d been sweet, like a puppy. A large, terrifyingly powerful puppy.
Frankly, she thought, Rip could usefully have some of that attitude rub off on him.
Well, push was obviously coming to shove with Titus-the-Rippler, here. She’d driven the dumb-bunny buggy about as far as it’d go. You don’t owe the Candle anything, she reminded herself, and this guy is tilting toward being a hazard to your health.
Still . . . Rip wouldn’t be spending all this time and money on a fancy-ass ocean cruise, days and days of his mirror-reconnaissance, and all this note-taking and map-marking, if it wasn’t going to be a big haul. Starlight Jewels in Miami had just dropped Tiffani’s modeling contract and no one else had picked her up yet; she needed the money. Maybe she should just play ball. But she wanted to know what she was getting into before she jumped.
She crawled onto the bed again, giving him a little “insight” into her décolletage. “Rip, honey?”
He looked up, irritated, so she dialed the sweet-thing routine down several notches. “Look. I know you have been frustrated with me not giving what you need to beat the Candle’s flame powers. It’s just . . . I feel sure I could help you better, if I knew just a little bit more about exactly what you’re looking for—what kind of a job you’re planning.”
“So you can remember, but only if I tell you my plans. That it?”
“Now, don’t be that way. How well do you remember events from ten years ago?” She could tell that one landed. “It’d give me more to work with. Help me visualize his fighting style, you know, if I had some situations I could picture him in to help me along.”
“I thought you’d never seen him fight.”
“Not in person, no. But I watched the show and I heard the other contestants talking. I’m sure all that would come back to me, with your help. And as you saw, I have my own ace powers. Sure, they’re not offensive, but I excel at defense. I’m hard to harm. You must have seen me on American Hero, back in oh-seven.”
He burst out laughing. “What you excelled at, darling, was betrayal.”
Tiffani bit her lower lip. She had betrayed Bubbles, her teammate, who’d had the sweetest crush on her. The memory still burned. “You have to vote people off in those shows. And I couldn’t afford to lose. My family was counting on me. I did what it took.”
He chuckled. “I’ll give you that. The fat chick never saw you coming.”
“Don’t disrespect her!”
His eyes widened at her flare of anger. Then he rubbed his face with a sigh.
“All right, fine. I presume this is an attempt to renegotiate our deal. What do you want? A cut of the profits, or what?”
“Oh, I’m just glad to help out,” she said, letting her Appalachian drawl creep back in. “Of course, if I did more to help out than just give you information, and you were satisfied with my performance, cutting me in would be nice. I mean, I’d be purely flattered . . .” She examined her nails. She quite liked the crystalline pink she’d glammed over them. “I have many talents.”
“Uh huh . . .”
His dismissive tone irritated her. “Well, you think it over and let me know, hon.” She returned to the chair and snatched up her tablet, making a big show of swiping between articles.
He watched her. After a pause, he walked over and pulled the outer door open. Warm, muggy summer air flowed in. “Walk with me.”
“In this?” The diaphanous micro-mini nightie she wore had quite the décolletage. Not to mention the matching thong, faintly visible underneath it.
“Relax. You look fine. No one’s going to care. Those that do . . .” He gave her a little smile, “Will enjoy the view.”
She eyed him, skeptical and still a bit miffed, but the compliment seemed genuine. Tiffani felt her cheeks warm, despite herself. She’d brought her best wardrobe with her but this was the first time he seemed to notice . “Oh, all right.” She slipped on her sandals, threw on a sarong, and followed him up the outer stairs to the promenade deck.
The night was humid and overcast. Tiffani brushed a damp curl off her forehead. Their cabin was near the stern, and she caught sight of the great liner’s wake roiling the water behind them. Beyond the circle of the Queen Margaret’s deck lighting, the ocean was black as pitch. She couldn’t see much of anything out there, other than sparse flecks of light on the far shore.
“Let’s check out the view from the bow,” Rip said. He led the way. She followed, hurrying to match his much longer stride, wondering what he was up to.
At the front of the ship was an open area where you could look out ahead. It was close to midnight. Not many people were out. One couple sat on a bench, engaged in some serious PDA; one or two others strolled by. On the top deck by the bridge, a couple crewmembers were chatting. A jazz tune drifted out into the night from the showroom.
Rip leaned on the rail. “I’m trying to decide how far I can trust you, Megan. We both know you’re not nearly as dumb as you act. You have your charms and your ace talent, which could be useful for what I have in mind. And I know you can be ruthless, when need be. All good. The question is . . . how loyal are you? Nobody gets onto my team who I can’t count on, one hundred percent.”
She laid a hand on his arm and brought all the sincerity she had in her to show. “Rip, honey, if we can come to an agreement, you can totally count on me.”
“That’s what I was hoping you’d say.” Rip checked his watch, and turned around to look at something. She turned, too. The necking couple had just gotten up and were walking away, fingers interlaced, eyes only for each other, leaving Rip and Tiffani along on the bow deck.
“I’ve never told you what my ace does, have I?” he asked. She shook her head. “Well then, I’m going to let you in on my secret.”
She leaned backward on the rail, propped by her elbows. “I feel flattered! Do tell.”
His lips quirked up in a smile. “Let’s just say the virus gave me an unlimited lifetime subscription to streaming videos from the future.”
“How handy! So is it like cable? A zillion channels on and nothing good to watch?”
He chuckled. “I begin to like you, Megan. I can see into the future. Fu-tures, to be exact. There are a lot of them. And I can visit them, any one I choose, and see what might happen at any point along the way.”
“Sounds useful.” Tiffani kept her tone and posture casual, though a sense of foreboding nudged at her. With that kind of ability, he would not be easy to fool. Not that she would do that, of course. Not unless she absolutely needed to . . .
“It’s not as great as it sounds. For one thing, I can only see future events in the vicinity of where I’m at when I enter the mirror.” Ah . . . so that was why they were here. She’d snooped around among his notes the other day, and found a reference to an upcoming cruise on this very ship: a cruise that the Candle would take later in the summer. Rip must need to be on the Queen Margaret now, so he could spy on the Candle’s actions here in the future. She looked at Rip with new appreciation. This here was some world class sneakiness. “I can’t directly affect anything while I’m up there poking around,” Rip was saying, “And none of it is set in stone. They’re all probable outcomes. Possible futures. Many different timelines, each with their own turning points and individual outcomes. There are an impossibly large number of them, and I can only guess which ones are more likely than the rest. It’s rather maddening, actually.”
“I can imagine.” This was the first time he’d ever opened up like this. She got a feeling he was a lonely man, under all that obsessive grumpiness.
“I can only see scenes that I’m not part of. If I try to look at any future event with me actually there? Ka-BOOM.” He expanded his hands rapidly, mimicking an explosion. “It blows up the whole causal chain. And if I make a decision here in the present that changes that future moment?” He clapped his hands together. “Implosion. Timeline collapse. Schrödinger’s cat croaks and I go time-blind till the ripple effects finish their belly roll through the multiverse. I call them causality shadows.
“Honestly,” he sighed. “It’s a huge pain. You have no idea.”
“Poor dear . . . ”
“What this boils down to is, I can see all these possibilities the future might hold, but I can’t be sure how likely each future is, I can’t see anything with me in it, and I can only see up to the point where I make a decision beforehand that affects that moment in the future. So I’m very careful about the decisions I make.”
“Why not just buy lottery tickets?” she asked. “Why all this art-thievery rigmarole?” She waved her hand. She had no idea what he was planning to steal, but he’d mentioned it had to do with a painting or something that the Candle would be in charge of guarding, sometime soon. “Just check out the lotto, hon. Get the winning numbers and make a mint that way.”
He rolled his eyes. “Wow, thanks. I never thought of that. That was the very first thing I did, and I’ve socked away quite a lovely nest egg over the years. But there are organizations out there that keep an eye on newsworthy events. Like lottery winnings and repeat offenders at casinos and the like. Too many lucky coincidences and you might get black-bagged and locked away under the desert by SCARE.” A pause. “And . . . you know? The life of the idle rich gets boring, especially if you’ve got an ace talent like mine. You want to do something with your life. You want a challenge. Me, I like to mix things up. Get creative. And, well, I’ve always been an art lover, so . . .”
Tiffani was feeling that urge to throttle him again. What she’d give to live a life of ease, spend all her days on the beach or shopping on Madison Avenue. Men and their adrenaline highs. Such a waste. But Mama always said there’s no point fighting with the lightning about where it wants to strike.
“Anyway, my gift has all these devilish constraints,” Rip said, “and I’ve had to learn how to work it in ways that help me find the best path to my goals.
“So, there you go. I’m laying my cards down, here. In some futures, you become my ally, and you could be a real help. In others, you betray me. I need to know which future we’re headed to.” She started to reply, and he gripped her arm again, hard. “Shh! Listen, for once. I can offer you a future you can’t even begin to imagine. Inconceivable wealth. Fame and fortune. The world at your feet. You’ll be worshipped by the masses.”
He checked his watch again. “Come on. Let’s head back,” he said, and continued as they walked. “You’d be able to help your family members. Help your mama get the best possible care for her diabetes. Maybe even a liver and pancreas transplant. Your Mamaw and Pampaw could get into a quality assisted-living facility. And there’s Uncle Bertie and Auntie Tamara, right? Annabelle? Charlie and Jess and the triplets.” She looked at him, suppressing a spike of fear. “Everyone you care about can join you in a life of luxury. But, as I said . . . first I have to know how far I can trust you.”
They’d reached their cabin.
“Can I trust you, Tiffani?” Rip asked. “Can I trust you to keep your mouth shut and do what I say?”
He opened the door. She’d left her phone on the dresser, and it was ringing.
“That ‘ll be Annabelle. Here.” Rip drew a crisp new five-hundred-dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to her. “Her boyfriend got picked up for drunk-and-disorderly and she needs help with bail money. You’d better pick up.”
She gave him a look of alarm, and hurried over and accepted the call.
“Hey babe, it’s me,” Annabelle said, voice tense and breathy. “Listen, can you spare five hundred bucks? Tommy got in some trouble . . .”
Tiffani went numb. She felt Rip’s gaze on her. “Sure, Belle. I’ll wire it to your account right away. No, it’s no trouble. No, I won’t tell Mama, I promise. OK, call you tomorrow. Gotta-go-love-you-bye.”
She hung up and looked over at Rip. He smiled at her. Yeah, she thought. Message received.
She drew a long, deep breath, stuffed all her thundering rage down and locked it away. She leaned against the dresser and smiled back at him, with full sincerity and not a jot of goodwill. “Of course you can count on me, Rip honey. I’ll do everything you ask.”
Two hours after setting his bed on fire, the Candle had finished dealing with the fire’s aftermath, gotten moved to a different cabin, showered and changed (Chubb security detail dress: black suit, tailored and, like all his clothing, made of specialty fabrics impervious to his flames; white or light shirt. He accessorized with a few of his own touches: a fire-opal bolo and his favorite cowboy boots, black with blackened silver studs and a subtle rainbow glaze that matched the colors of his flames). Last, he strapped on his radio, tucked the speaker into his ear, and headed up to the main deck.
It was 9:40 p.m. and the showroom was packed. Beauteous Maximus was on stage in the bar, warming up the crowd with some decent blues on harmonica, piano, and drums. A big sign next to the stage announced, “Last Onboard Performance: Tungsten Paradox, starring Pulitzer-winning jazz master Winston Marcus on Satchmo’s golden trumpet! All proceeds go to charity!”
John spotted Horace and Gil, his nat detail, covering the rear entrance. The Queen Margaret had provided their own security as well; two crew members each guarded the side entrances between restaurant and bar. In the long room’s center, below the big chandelier, stood Louis Armstrong’s instrument, encased in glass on a black base replete with hidden, deadly tech.
The trumpet seemed suspended in air within the lit sphere, flooded in a pool of light, as though it truly had the mystic powers of Gabriel’s horn. No one was looking at it at the moment, however; the passengers had all had plenty of chances to view it by now and no day visitors were around, not while they were at sea. Arry and Ras stood guard in the shadows behind the exhibit.
“Security lead on site,” he said. “Give me a comms check, everyone.” The security team all turned to look at him—Arry quite slowly (the first night onboard, she’d accidentally taken out the chandelier above the display). Their voices came through his earpiece, confirming. As they spoke, John made his way amid the crowd to the display to Rashida and Ariadne.
Rashida wore her black suit jacket with a midi skirt, a cream silk top, a single strand of pearls, and several pearl-and-diamond studs in her ears. Her hair was tied back in a braided knot. Classy and formal, but with her badge, gun, and radio as well.
And as for Ariadne, well . . . what can you do about dress codes for a two-ton minotaur? Arry was the size of an Asian elephant, and all ruminant from the waist down, with reversed knee joints, tail, cloven hooves, and luxuriant auburn fur in loose curls. The showroom’s ceilings were high enough that Arry could stand upright—just barely—without hunching over, as long as she avoided the ceiling fixtures. When she moved, the air currents shifted. When she laughed, the dishes rattled. You couldn’t ignore the Beef.
Chubb had of course cut her slack on clothing requirements: her black suit jacket was more like a jacket-tunic covering most of her torso. Beneath it she wore a black midi spandex skort, with alterations to allow her tail out. Her face, as super-sized as the rest of her, was lightly furred, with a broadened brow and nose and bovine nostrils, but her eyes and mouth were fully human. With her oversized reading glasses and her inquisitive expressions, she looked as if she’d be as comfortable in a library, surrounded by books, as on the battlefield. Her horns, though, were all warrior. They curved outward, sweeping an area six feet in diameter, and ended in metal-shielded tips. Her dark chestnut locks, a luxuriant mane, streaked with silver, tumbled down between her ears and horns, framing her face, and across her shoulders. The musculature in her shoulders, back, and chest, and her massive, elongated arms, were the envy of linebackers everywhere. She wore wrist- and hand-guards that enabled her to walk on all fours if necessary: i.e., in most nat-adapted spaces, but her hands were human. And she had a musky, pleasant herbivore scent.
Per company regulation, as were the rest of them, Arry was armed, Her battle mace jutted up at her left shoulders, harnessed against her back. When on duty Gil and Horace were also armed with handguns and tasers. John didn’t carry a weapon; his flames sufficed. The ship security team had no sidearms but had flashlight batons and radios.
John reached his two seconds. “How went the watch?” he asked Arry.
“Long! But uneventful,” she whispered, in a near-subsonic rumble. She had had to cover for John after the flaming pillows incident, which meant she’d been on duty for almost fifteen hours straight now. Her stiff posture and the shadows under her eyes told him how weary she was. Probably hungry, too; she needed to eat often to sustain her metabolism, and that could be challenging for a ruminant on duty.
“Patina told me about your exciting wake-up, dear. How did our hosts take it?”
He grimaced. “You can probably imagine,” he replied. “But we got the initial details settled. They’ve moved me to a different cabin and a cleanup crew comes in when we dock. I’m sure they’ll be glad to see our backsides tomorrow.”
“Speak of the devil.” Ras elbowed him and gestured with her chin. The musicians had just entered, with Captain Leemans escorting them.
Winston Marcus’s renown as a musician rivaled that of Louis Armstrong himself. There could be no better choice to play Satchmo’s trumpet on this tour. And his three younger siblings, the Tungsten Paradox Jazz and Blues Band, had several gold and platinum hits of their own. Jake and Lou were dressed, like Winston, in fine navy suits, and Ellie Marcus-Black wore a formal gown of midnight blue with a subtle spray of sequins across it, like the Milky Way on a clear dark night. The crowd swamped them, and they stopped to shake hands and sign autographs.
“Here come our star performers. You’re relieved!” John told Arry. “Go get some shut-eye.”
His mention of sleep triggered the yawn Arry had been trying to stifle, which emerged as a muffled roar. Silence swept through the room and all eyes went to her. Arry’s dimples appeared. She covered her mouth. “Well, pardon me, folks!”
She dropped to all fours with a thump that made the room sway. People scooted chairs back and crowded out of her way as she lumbered through the room. “Pardon me,” she repeated. “Excuse me.” A mother shrieked and snatched her child up as Arry’s enormous head passed near. “Your child is safe, ma’am,” Arry told her. “I’m vegan.”
John hid a smile behind a cough as the Beef eased her way through the double doors at the back of the bar. The ship rocked and water sloshed against the hull outside as she made her way down to her sleeping space in the hold.
Meanwhile, Ellie, Jake, and Lou approached the stage. Marcus came over to join them at the display. People were crowding around.
“Security detail, on alert,” John said quietly. “Eyes on the audience.” They confirmed.
Captain Leemans lifted her handheld mic. “Folks, please step away from the case and clear the aisles! Thank you. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to see Mr. Marcus with the trumpet.”
The room grew quiet; everybody onboard knew the routine by now.
“Rashida, you present,” John murmured. “I’ll guard.”
He scanned his badge at the panel in the back of the display case, and keyed in his code at the back of the display case. Rashida followed suit. Then she stepped around front, and he stepped back.
The sphere had two glass layers, which opened in reverse directions to allow access in a widening wedge. Rashida used a rouge polishing cloth to remove the trumpet from its glass mounting. She carried the horn over and handed it to Winston. He wiped the horn down with practiced ease, swept it to his mouth, and blew a few notes as mellow as whipped cream on mousse. The crowd burst into wild applause. He lifted his arms wide with a smile.
Winston headed to the stage, and stepped up onto it, horn in hand. “Thank you! Shall we get this party started?” Cheers, screams, stomping. It was the fifth night of this, and John still couldn’t get over it, the love the audience felt for this man and his music. Winston gestured to the other band, now standing off to the side. “Let’s hear it for Beauteous Maximus, and their bee-you-teous blues!”
The crowd clapped and whistled, and they departed. Winston went on, “Performing with me are my family. Ellie, on the flute and voice!” She played a few notes like a swirl of sprites. “Jake on bass sax!” A low, smooth progression. “Lou on keyboards and mouth harps!” Syncopated chords and percussion.
“Now, this is our last night aboard the Queen. A callout to the captain and crew!” Whistles and shouts. “And you’ve been a great audience. We dock tomorrow for one day and two nights in New York City. Tomorrow evening, we wrap up our Golden Jazz tour with a big, blowout charity event on New Liberty Island, beneath the Golden Lady herself. You are all invited! I hope you’ve already bought your tickets, because it’s sold out. All proceeds will go to help refugees escaping the horrors in Kazakhstan. So drink up! Eat up! Open up your wallets for a good cause! And enjoy the show.” With that, he lifted the horn and played the opening notes of their first song.
“Off to a good start,” Rashida said in John’s ear. He had started his evening rounds checking the room’s passive security systems. They’d tricked out the liner with the latest anti-ace-power detection and security tech. The company had a contract with Royal Flush, LLC, Clara van Renssaeler’s security software company, which had reverse-engineered Takisian science to detect different kinds of abilities. Readouts showed nominal conditions here: no unusual gravitational fluctuations, no unexpected or abnormal electromagnetic or psionic or sonic patterns detected; no megafauna or -flora or animated non-living matter showing up on radar in the vicinity. Nothing behaving outside standard parameters.
So why the hell were all the hairs standing up on the back of his neck?
Many of the audience members were older, or parents with young kids, and the crowd thinned around midnight. John and Rashida stood guard at the stage while the band members took a fifteen-minute break. By the time Tungsten Paradox returned for their second set, a younger crowd had wandered in from the casino and dance hall. John checked the readings again, and then had a few words with the guards covering the exits.
Rashida found a seat at a two-person-table near the exit while John found an empty swivel stool at the bar. He pulled out his phone and checked the monitor reads one last time, and then allowed himself to relax. He ordered a tonic and lime and leaned back against the bar to enjoy the show.
After a bit, the guy sitting next to him leaned close. “Hey, you’re that guy, aren’t you? The Candle, right? The ace from that reality show.”
John glanced over. The man was big—as tall as he was, and broader in the shoulders. Not Hollywood looks, exactly, but he had a rough magnetism. He looked to be about the same age as John, maybe a year or so younger, and in excellent physical shape. He also had a shock of dark blond hair, eyes as green as a cat’s, and a hawklike nose. And he was eyeing John with an intent focus that gave John a delightful shiver. John had always been a sucker for green eyes.
Settle down, there; he may not even be into men.
John muted the mic on his comms—he’d be able to hear the security team, but the team wouldn’t hear him. Rashida looked over and gestured: What gives? He gave her a hand signal: All clear; it’s personal; cover me for a few minutes.
“That’s right,” He set his drink down. “American Hero, season one. That was a long time ago, though; you’ve got a good memory.” He held out his hand. “John Montaño.” The other man gripped it. The touch lingered. As did the eye contact.
“Call me Rip.” He gestured at John’s glass. “Can I buy you another drink?”
“Thanks, but . . .” John rattled the ice cubes in his glass. “Tonic and lime, buzz not included. I’m on duty. Where are you from?”
“New York. A village in the Hamptons.”
“Long Island, eh?” John hadn’t made this guy out as having a lot of money. He supposed not everyone from the Hamptons was filthy rich.
Let’s see where this goes. John moved his forearm close enough to Rip’s on the bar for the other man’s arm hairs to tickle. Their shoulders were side by side. Both were playing it cool, just two guys sitting next to each other, watching the show, enjoying a casual conversation.
“And you?” Rip asked. “Where are you from?”
“Colorado, originally. Durango.” He had lost every trace of his Boston accent years ago. That had taken a lot of work. “I live in New York now. And you? What brings you to the Queen? Jazz fan? On vacation with the wife and kids? Or husband, or . . . ?”
“No, I’m single.” A sidelong glance.
The other man smiled. “I was in Havana on business. I’m an art collector.”
“Collector? Or dealer?” Art dealer was a job. Art collector was a hobby—and typically meant lots of discretionary income.
“A bit of both,” Rip replied with a shrug. So he did have money.
“Really? Cool! I was a professional artist myself for a while, before I took up the day job full-time.”
“Oh? And what business are you now?”
“Still in the art business—but as a detective. I’m an investigator and security operations lead for an insurance company.” John gestured at the stage, where Winston Marcus was playing a sexy jazz solo on the golden trumpet. “Authenticity certifications, fraud and theft investigations, transport security, that sort of thing.”
“Ah, yes. The famed trumpet I read about. Is it truly solid gold?”
“Almost entirely—fourteen carats. Though some of the working parts are ten-carat or brass, of necessity.”
“Even so, twenty million seems a bit on the high side,” Rip replied, referring to its estimated market value.
“It’s more what Armstrong did with it than what it’s made of.” At the other man’s blank look, he stared. “You mean you’ve never heard the story?”
“Wait, you’re saying—Louis Armstrong was that guy? The Black ace in the sixties who brought a bridge full of jackboots down with his trumpet?”
John smiled. “Well, something like that. They say Satchmo had the ability to manipulate and amplify sound waves. He was world famous as a jazz and blues musician, as I’m sure you know, and that had nothing to do with his powers. But when his card turned in ‘forty-six, he used his ace to primarily enhance his performances. He could make it sound like there were ten of him playing at once. Amazing, if you’ve heard the recordings.
“He wasn’t political early in his career, but in the late fifties he began speaking up to oppose segregation, and in early 1965 civil rights leaders asked him join them at the protest marches they had planned in Alabama. The state and local cops confronted the protestors on a bridge between Selma and Montgomery and tried to force the marchers to disperse, and that’s when Old Satchmo whips out his golden trumpet—that very horn, they say”— John jerked his thumb as Winston played a rising note to audience applause—“and drives all the cops back off the bridge with a blast of music. If you believe the stories, the music actually lifted them up in the air and dumped them in the river. But there’s video so we know that part’s apocryphal.
“The police regroup and so do the protestors, on opposite halves of the bridge. Then the cops start to advance again. Satchmo has a private word or two with Dr. King and a couple of the other civil rights leaders. They pass the word along for everyone to lock arms and march in place, in rhythm, and Satchmo picks up and amplifies the marchers’ footsteps with his music, amplifying it. It’s as if there are thousands and thousands of feet pounding on that bridge. The Edmund Pettis starts bucking and weaving like it’s in an earthquake, and again the cops are driven back, stumbling and falling over each other. Every time they come after the protestors, Satchmo blows his horn and the marchers march to make the bridge shake. Eventually the cops finally have to give up and let the protestors through, with Armstrong at the front with King, playing Havana jazz in three-four time to keep the beat.
“They still had to bring the National Guard in to get the state and local governments to back down, but that was a big day for the movement. Pretty soon people were saying that Gabriel himself down came down from Heaven that day with his own trumpet for Satchmo to play, in answer to the people’s prayers.
“There was a huge stink over what Satchmo did, of course. He’d been really popular with white audiences before, but whites staged boycotts of Armstrong’s performances after that, and White supremacists firebombed his house in Queens and smashed his LPs. They nearly drove him out of the music business for several years. But if anything, he ended up selling more records, because Black people spend money too, and a lot of folks were grateful to him. It was a big deal at the time.”
“And now you’re guarding the horn. Quite a responsibility.”
John shrugged. “It pays the bills. And I get paid to spend my time around lots of really cool art pieces and ancient artifacts.”.
“You said you were a professional artist. Why’d you quit?”
“I got tired of having to promote myself.” He tossed back the last of his tonic. “Besides, being broke all the time is a pain in the ass.”
Rip took a swallow of his drink. “What was your medium?”
“I was a sculptor,” John said. “Of sorts.”
John shook his head. “My medium is . . . was . . . ephemeral. I finally resorted to holographic photography, to create something that could be put in an exhibit or go out on tour. But it was a huge amount of work to try to capture them, and it was never the same as actually seeing them. So I gave it up.” On impulse, he said, “Here, I’ll show you.”
John twisted into inferno-world and harvested small bursts of the brightest hues he could find. Returning, he fed them in careful, compartmented order through his body, and from there in tiny bursts and flares into the space between his hands.
Fiery shapes blossomed there: an obsidian cliff, dark-bright fire; next, ocean waves of sapphire and seafoam and lavender, which billowed out and surrounded the black, churning at its base. At the center atop the cliff sprouted a burning carnelian lattice: a lighthouse. Yellow flames jetted up inside the lighthouse’s red frame, brightening it from within. Then the outer layers of the outcropping morphed into a mighty black crow, which spread its wings and rose aloft, trailing smoke, and spiraled up around the lighthouse. It landed atop the structure, and from its beak burst lemon-bright flame.
The metaphor was a little on the nose, John thought. Still, he was pleased with it. He held it between his hands a little longer, trickling gouts of different hues to maintain it. Rip was staring at it, rapt, his face lit by its colors.
The other man reached out to touch it, but John slapped his hand away. “Careful!” The fire sculpture dissolved with a shh-whoop! and fizzled out. “It’s not entirely safe.”
Others at the bar near them were looking over. Murmurs rose at the nearby tables, above the blues song Ellie was singing.
OK, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. The security teams at both doors were looking at him, and Rashida spread her hands with a what the fuck, John?! look.
“Impressive,” Rip said. “Quite evocative.” Their gazes locked, and John got a sudden erection. It lodged at a painful angle. He stood, trying not to grimace or squirm.
“Listen . . . I need to get back to work. Uh . . . I’m on deck five, cabin four. Why don’t you come by later? The performance should be wrapping up in a half hour or so. I have a fifth of Glenlivet single malt that needs some attention. And we can talk about”—he smiled—“art.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Rip glanced at his watch. “Say one thirty, then?”
“It’s a date.”
After Rip left, Rashida asked in John’s ear, “Care to elaborate?”
He turned his mic back on. “On what? You mean him? Just some guy. Wanted to know the story of the horn.” He got another tonic and lime and between songs, joined her at her table. She was side-eyeing him. “All right,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let myself get distracted.”
“‘Mmm hmm. Just some guy.” He felt his face warm up. She muted her own mic. “You know . . . I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do that.”
He muted his mic too. “What? Flirt with a cute guy while on duty?”
“Not that. You do that plenty. I’m talking about your flames.”
He felt his hackles going up. “What about them?”
“Well—” She bit her lip. “Don’t take this personally, but—”
“Go on. I won’t get angry.”
“You already are.” She gestured with her chin, and he followed her gaze down to his hands. Which were leaking dribbles of yellow flame from the knuckles down. Shit! He shook off the flames and shoved the yellow energy away, back in inferno-world. Then he installed a placid smile on his face and lifted his palms toward her. “I’m all good. See?”
She propped her chin on her interlaced fingers. “If you pinkie swear you won’t yell at me, or write me a bad performance review.” She crooked her pinkie at him, eyebrows raised.
He hooked her pinkie with his. “Of course not! No reprisals.” Then he sat back. “So hit me, Doc. What’s your analysis?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “When was the last time you actually had fun with your flames?”
He flung a hand back toward the bar counter. “Um, just now?”
“What was American Hero?’ Liver pâté?”
“A, that was for money. And B, that was a decade ago.”
“I’m always using my powers! ‘Hey John, could you light the barbecue for me? My battery’s dead; could you give it a quick jump?’” He snapped his fingers. “‘Hey John, let’s get high! Gimme some of that purple stuff.’ ‘Hey Candle, my knee injury’s been giving me trouble. Could you throw some of that green fire juice at my MCL?’”
She shook her head. “But that’s exactly my point! You only use your ace when other people ask you for a favor. Or for the job. Oops. ‘Scuse me.” She transformed to a cloud of beads that swooped under the table, and when she returned she had her napkin back in hand.
“But—but—what about my flame sculptures? The MoMA still has one of my holograms on display . . . ”
“That’s cool. I’ve seen some of your sculptures. They were great. But you know—” The musicians finished a song as she spoke, and people burst into applause, drowning her out.
“Well, that’s it for tonight, folks!” Winston said into the standing mic. “You’ve been a great audience! We hope to see you tomorrow night at the Golden Lady!” He held up the golden trumpet. “It’ll be a big show—we have some surprise guests who will join us there. And who knows?” He blew a tune. “Maybe Satchmo’s ghost will return and bring the house down!”
John approached the stage as the musicians took a bow amid raucous applause. Winston sat down to clean the horn while his siblings cleaned and put away their own instruments. “Give us five to clean up,” he said.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
John returned to the table. Ras was sucking the last of her soda through her straw, watching him over the rim of her glass. John sat back down. “It looks like you have more to say.”
“I do. Do you know what the art dealers I’ve met say about you? Practically every professional of standing has told me that you have enough talent for ten other artists, but that just when you were starting to build up a name for yourself, you bailed. Your output dropped into the toilet. You missed deadlines. Blew people off. So don’t try to tell me nothing’s going on with your ace.”
The wait staff were clearing the tables, cleaning them, and stacking the chairs. The showroom had mostly emptied of tourists. “There’s a much simpler explanation. The well dried up. I ran out of ideas.”
“Sure. Whatever you say.” Her tone was light, but he caught a hint of exasperation in it. “You are probably one of the most easygoing people I’ve met, John. You’re downright sweet. And smart and funny and gorgeous. If I was into monogamy, I’d snap you right up off the meat market—company rules be damned.” She tapped her fingernails on the glass and looked at him with her beautiful big dark eyes, and he shifted to ease the pressure of another erection. Dammit.
She leaned forward and tapped his temple. “Now, I don’t know what you have locked in there, but it wants out. And someday, if you don’t uncage it, it’s going to eat you up inside, and do real harm. To you or to the people you care about.” She sat back. “And now I’m done.”
“Thank God.” John waved her incipient objection away. “I know, I know. I asked for it.”
Up on stage, the musicians had finished with their instruments, and the physical security guys were gathering nearby. He stood. “Come on. Time for us to put trumpet-baby back in its cradle. It’s your turn to babysit tonight.”
“No slack for a woman just getting over a tummy bug?”
“Nope. I’ve taken the last three graveyard shifts in a row because of that bug, and you’ve clearly recovered.”
“Hey! I thought you said no reprisals.”
“I have a date with a hot blond. Besides . . .” He turned on his mic and motioned the security team up. “Rank hath its privileges.”
“That it does,” she said with a smile. “That it does.”
At precisely 1:30 a.m. came the knock. John opened the deck-side door.
Rip said, “I thought I’d take you up on that drink.”
“By all means.” John gestured for him to come in.
Rip hadn’t changed: he still wore a green button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, khaki shorts, and sandals. But he’d shaved and used some product in his hair. He smelled good, too; hair gel and something else—aftershave or deodorant. Nice.
He caught Rip checking him out as well.
John had changed to a black T-shirt, a little on the snug side. (His musculature was more long and lean than bulked up, but he worked out regularly, so he had decent pecs and abs. And he thought the shirt showed his biceps off nicely.) He was barefoot, freshly shaved and showered, and had on his favorite pair of button-up jeans. No briefs. He had laid out a few condoms in an array of sizes and types on the bedside table, as well as massage oil. Rip noticed them.
“Make yourself comfortable.” John went to the dresser to pour them each a couple fingers of scotch. If Rip sat in the chair near the door, he hadn’t made up his mind yet; if on the bed, anchors aweigh and full steam ahead. “How do you take it? Rocks or neat?”
“However I can get it,” Rip replied, so close behind him that his breath tickled John’s neck. He slipped an arm around John’s waist.
OK, option three: this guy wants to get right down to business.
John turned and handed Rip a glass. Rip downed its contents in one go, set the glass on the dresser, and entangled his fingers in John’s hair and pulled him close. They looked at each other for a second. Those green eyes. Wow. This guy was really doing it for him. John slid his hands around Rip’s nape, too, and pressed his lips to Rip’s. He flicked his tongue across Rip’s teeth. Rip moaned.
After a moment, John pulled back and ran a finger along Rip’s jawline. “You don’t waste time.”
“Making good use of time is my specialty.”
Rip pressed his hand against John’s crotch, over his jeans, and then shoved him up against the wall, causing John to spill his drink. “Packing a nice load, I see.”
John winced—Rip’s fondling was a bit much; the buttons of his jeans were pressing into a very sensitive area. “Easy, friend.” He laid his hand over Rip’s and peeled his fingers back. “Not that I don’t appreciate the attention, but the equipment only feels like it’s made of titanium.”
Rip wasn’t listening. He shoved John against the wall again, hard enough to knock John’s drink from his hand, forced John’s mouth open with his hand, and pushed his tongue deep inside.
Enough of this.
John shoved him away, and when Rip came for him he moved off to the side, grabbed Rip’s wrist from behind, and gripped his collar. With a twist from the hips, he flung the other man across the room. Rip stumbled, banging his shin on the bed frame with a curse, and went to his knees on the floor. John landed on top of him before he could rise, grabbed Rip in a half nelson, and bore down with all his strength. Rip fought, but went down onto his belly.
John sat up. He gripped the base of Rip’s neck with one hand and pinned the man’s arms with his knees.
This had sure taken a weird turn. Did he think this was rough play, or was it a fight? He was struggling silently, lurching hard enough to nearly buck John off.
“Would you calm down?” John said. “Take a breather.”
At that, the other man stopped fighting. It sounded like he laughed. “All right.” His head was to the side and John could see he was grinning. “Better?”
John planted a hand next to Rip’s head to brace himself. “You know, I like a bit of rough-and-tumble as much as the next guy, but we need to talk about our safe words.”
As John spoke, Rip slammed his head back and pain exploded in John’s face. He felt the bones of his nose go crunch. “Ow! Fuck!”
He shoved himself backward over the bed, rolled, and came up on his knees on the far side of the bed. He put his hands to his nose and then looked at them: blood filled his palms. He’d left a trail of blood spatters across the bedcover as well. Rip was watching John from his side of the bed. John rose to his feet, staggered back, and smacked against the door. Rip stood, too, breathing heavily.
John shook his head. “You do know you’re picking a fight with an ace, right?”
Rip grinned. “Just friendly foreplay.”
The pain radiating across John’s face was causing yellow flames to gather near him at the other place. He displayed his bloodied palms to Rip. “This? Not my definition of friendly.” He twisted away to harvest a gout of yellow flame and a clot of blue. Returning, he ignited both hands—one yellow, one blue—then shoved them to a spot above Rip’s head. The resulting flash-hiss-BOOM! came complete with a miniature thunderclap, lightning flash, and raindrop microburst.
Rip wiped water from his face. He chuckled. “What’s the matter, can’t take a little roughhousing?” He walked around the edge of the bed. “You’re what I call a cloacal ace. You’re nothing but chicken shit.”
John rolled his eyes. “Haha. How old are you, ten?”
“Your flames look impressive, all right. Bright and shiny. So sexy. So gay. But they’re all for show.” Rip jabbed a finger. “You were a loser on American Hero. You were a loser as an artist. What is this, your third job in seven years?”
“Odd that you would know that . . . ”
“And what kind of an ace name is ‘the Candle,’ anyway? It sounds like someone should light some incense or toke a doobie or something.”
“Maybe someone should explain to you how this works.” John called up more flame and juggled the different colors. “They call me the Candle, but you’re the one who ends up as a human torch. Or a corpsicle. Or a lightning rod. Fortunately for you, I’d never do that. Not without extreme provocation.” He flexed his hands. “But you know . . . I’m starting to feel just a little provoked.”
“Yeah? Go ahead, then. Hit me with all you’ve got.” Rip edged closer and slapped his chest with both hands. “Pussy. Faggot. Mangina.”
“‘Mangina?’ John couldn’t help it; he laughed. He clapped, and his flames snuffed out. “You were the one who stuck his tongue down my throat, darling.”
Rip went white with rage and lunged. John twisted away again, and the pain of his broken nose faded with the sound of his heartbeat. He wound through roaring towers of conflagration. Purple or black? Either would do. OK, then . . . whichever I see first.
He found and harvested a jagged bouquet of black flame. It crackled in along his spinal cord and through his somatic nerves, making his muscles twitch and jump. He turned back there again, and summoned a batch of green flames.
As he reached the threshold to his body this time, he saw something he’d never seen before. He saw movement in the gap that separated inferno-world and his own.
In his own world, his first heartbeat was ending, and Rip had moved perceptibly nearer. But he could afford another half beat. He returned his focus to the threshold’s edge. And saw light—but not flame. Something else. Light that shifted and spun, like a coin spinning in the sun. It was another world.
It unfolded under his scrutiny beyond this edge, yet another world—like nothing he’d ever seen back home, nor like inferno-world, either. Beyond the crack were many two-dimensional versions of scenes from his life—as if Flatland itself had broken into a million fragments. Or a castle of vast mirrors in a strobe light, all in black and white. Beyond the threshold, planar worlds splayed out in constant motion, in fans and branches. There were far too many to count and more every instant; new ones appeared as the older ones receded, as if each moment were shedding its past and generating new possible futures. These snapshots stacked up on one another at impossible angles, overlapping, spinning around, and spreading out and away in an endless procession.
He caught glimpses of the images nearest the gap. Strangely, the images were of him—but not the moment he’d left just now; rather, they were of a moment earlier in the evening, with him and Rashida, right before Rip had entered the showroom.
Which reminds me . . .
He did a half-twist again and the threshold to his own body came into view. The green had already begun to course through his lymphatic vessels to settle in his adenoids, tonsils, thymus, and spleen. He slid back into his body, pointed his right forefinger and middle finger at Rip, and drew the black from his spinal column. Dark agonies rippled along his nerves and John screamed as the power shot out with a crack, smelling of ozone. The black fireball (it wasn’t truly black, but there wasn’t a better word for what it looked like) caught Rip in the chest, mid-lunge. Now it was his turn to scream. He smashed into John’s midriff, stiff as a plank, and slammed him against the wall.
John caught him and lowered him to the floor—not as carefully as he might have. Pain makes a person cranky. He stared down at Rip—breathing hard, dripping blood onto the other man’s shirt. What the fucking fuck? Rip stared up, panting as well. His heart still beat, of course; black fire attacked only the somatic nerves, which controlled voluntary muscles. So he was locked in.
John allowed himself an instant of vindictive glee. You’ll be sore as hell later, and it serves you right. He pulled out his phone and snapped a photo. Then he swiped over to video, made it selfie mode with the time-date-location stamp visible, and hit Record.
“This is Johd Bodtadyo, recordi’g evidedce of ad assault od be, just seco’ds ago by”—he flipped the camera around—“this persod, who goes by the dabe Rip. I idvited hib to by roob for codsedsual sex. But he decided to attack be idstead. I’ve disabled hib, id self-defedse.”
He transmitted the photo and video to his work server, then tucked his phone away. He was still dripping blood on the carpet and the pain in his face was making his eyes water. You’re a mess, Juanma. He pressed fingers against the pressure points in his jaw and temples to staunch the flow of blood and stepped into the bathroom.
His face was straight out of a horror movie.
John pulled the green up into the flesh behind his face, tilting his head back. Emerald healing passed in waves across his face, first burning, then feeling the way mint tastes, and casting an interference pattern on the ceiling as it did its work. In its tingling wake came a massaging, bone-cracking pressure. “Ow! Ow! Fuck!”
He gripped the counter and bent over, stamping a foot to distract himself from the agony while the blood vessels and tissue in his face mended, torn flesh melded, and bones knitted themselves together.
Green healed fast, but it didn’t come with Novocain.
Finally he straightened, as the green glow under his skin ebbed and flickered out. He turned his head to both sides and checked his reflection, pressing his fingers against his nose, orbital sockets, and cheeks. Though he still looked a fright from all the blood, the nose had returned to its own shape and he had no swelling or tissue damage. Not even tenderness.
John sighed with a nod. We loves our green fire; yes, we does. He washed up, came out, and changed his T-shirt. Then he squatted next to the Pinocchio-stiff man on the floor. “You did quite a number on me,” John said. “The question now is, what am I going to do with you?”
Rip’s gaze tracked him. From the subtle movements in his facial muscles, John guessed he’d begun to regain voluntary control. Small sparks and embers of black fire still surfaced on and submerged in his exposed flesh, but with less intensity than before. Most people would stay immobile for another ten or fifteen minutes, but it varied, and Rip seemed like the type to play possum. Best not to take chances.
John worked his arms under Rip’s armpits and with a grunt, dragged him over and levered him up into the easy chair. He shoved Rip in the midsection, and the other man bent into an L shape. Then John twisted away to inferno-world to harvest more green and black. He socked the flames away on the other side and pulled the desk chair over.
“Way to ruin a perfectly good roll in the sack, dude. I gave you every chance to bow out gracefully.” John reversed the chair and sat, leaning his arms on the chair’s back. “The big question now is, are you just some rando homophobe? Or is this a professional visit?
“As you’ve discovered, my black causes your muscles to seize up. Its effects can take a while to wear off. Think of it as a fifteen-minute plank. But we haven’t got all night—we’ll be docking in New York City in a couple of hours and I’ve got other fish to fry. So I’m going to wake your body up now, to have a little chat before I turn you over to Captain Leemans.” As he spoke, John drew out the green. It coursed into his right hand, slithered over his knuckles, and blanketed his arm in a gauntlet of gouts and rivulets of lime-dark fire. He played with it, rolling it back and forth over his hand and arm, holding Rip’s gaze.
“The green fire will return muscular control, and help ease some of the soreness you’re going to have. But in case you’re feeling the need to get frisky again”—he drew out the black and swirled it around his left hand—“I’ve got more black waiting. And I have a few other tricks up my sleeve as well, because as you have probably guessed by now, this isn’t my first circus and you’re not my first monkey. But I’m hoping we can dispense with further primate threat displays and have an adult conversation instead. What do you say?”
John tucked the black flame away again and spread the green between his two hands, weaving a mesh of fire, and cast it over Rip like a fisherman’s net. As it settled over the big man, his eyes went wide. Luminous green traced patterns beneath his skin, dispersing the black. Rip’s shoulders dropped. He closed his eyes and drew a long, shuddering breath.
The last of the flames exited the top of his head in a flash of lime and a puff of smoke. He sat up and tested movement in his legs, arms, and hands. Then he wiped the spittle from his chin. The look he gave John could have fried him from low Earth orbit.
“So,” John said. “You want to tell me what you’re really doing here?”
At that, Rip burst into laughter. “You still don’t recognize me, do you, Juanma?”
John managed to keep his jaw from falling open. Barely. His answering laugh sounded hollow even to his own ears. “The name’s John, friend. Not—whatever it was you called me. I think you must have me confused with some other brown guy.”
Rip smiled. “So you’re disavowing your mother’s Irish blood now, Juanma? For shame.” He tsked. “What would she say, if she knew?”
The words fell like one ton bricks. Okay, so he’s not guessing.
Rip stood, and so did he. “She’s still alive, you know,” Rip said. “Your mom. Still in Southie. She remarried, and you have a half sister now, who just turned ten. But you probably knew that.” John stared. His fists clenched. Fury waged with terror in him.
“I visited them a while back. I thought you might have been secretly in touch. But nope, she still thinks you’re dead. She’s even built a cute little shrine for you in the living room, next to your dad’s. So touching. If she only knew what a nasty piece of work Juan Maria Montoya Cavanagh turned out to be. She probably suspected it, though, the first time you got arrested at fourteen.” Rip’s lips skinned back over his teeth. “What would she say, knowing her prodigal son is alive and well, hiding in plain sight? The big ace celebrity! While his family is barely scraping by. Would she forgive you? Or would she know you for the selfish prick you are?”
While Rip spoke, John’s thoughts were racing. Play dumb? Or blast the shit out of this fucker and dump him into the sea? John shook his head and unclenched his hands. Nah. He had plenty of options for dealing with this asshole. Just be patient, Juanma. Find out as much as you can. He forced himself to relax, and leaned against the wall. “You’ve built up quite a delusion to go along with your homophobia,” John said. “But do go on. I love a good story.”
“I admit,” Rip said, “your appearance is different enough now that it took me a long time to recognize you. Nice handiwork.” He scrutinized John’s face. “No scarring at all, not even up close. I’d assumed it was multiple plastic surgeries. But it must have been your green fire that healed you and changed you. Wasn’t it?”
Both, actually. “Sorry. Not a clue what you’re talking about.” Meanwhile he was racking his brains for a connection. Everyone from his boyhood in Boston thought he was dead. No body, but the supposed death-by-wild-card made that not an issue. And there was a death certificate and a gravestone and everything.
“They told me you’d died in the blast,” Rip said. He made air quotes. “‘Obliterated by otherworldly energy.’ That’s what they said. Imagine my surprise when I learned that wasn’t the case. That you’d run off and left me there, and started a life somewhere else.”
Finally the sneering mask peeled away. The edges of his mouth tugged down. “We were going to get out together, Juanma. We were going to escape together. And I come find you ran off alone. You left me crippled, you asshole! You let me think you were dead.”
And as he spoke, John knew. Bigger and beefier, now; he’d been a boy then, for all his height. And he, too, wore a different face than he had when they were boys. But he had the same intense green eyes, the same blond hair. The same Boston accent. And he was the only one who’d known of John’s desire to get out of Southie at all costs. Because he’d shared it. He gasped. “Titus?”
Rip gave him a thin smile. “Took you long enough. Though admittedly, I had some work done, too. Want to see more of your handiwork?”
He unbuttoned his shirt and stripped it off. A patchwork of grafts and scarring—the remnants of melted flesh—mottled the musculature of his chest, neck, and abdomen. He lifted his arms; the burns extended around into both armpits and up the underside of his left arm past the elbow. “This is what you did to me that night.”
John rubbed his mouth, covering his shock. Rip pulled the shirt back on. They just stood there looking at each other across those seventeen years. “I was in the room with you when your ace turned the rest of the way. Or whatever it was that happened, that second time they manifested.
“I came by every day to check on you after you fell into your wild card coma. Were you aware? I was waiting for you, Juanma. For months. I wanted to be there when you woke up. And I was right next to you when you exploded into flame. I saw you open your eyes and look at me, and yellow flames were shooting everywhere. I tried to put you out but the blankets caught fire too, and so did I. I passed out, and when I woke up I was in the burn unit, with burns over nearly twenty percent of my body, and you were gone.
“I spent months in the hospital, Juanma, just for trying to save you. I lost count of the operations. The hospital bills put me so far under with Fagan it was a life sentence.
“You know how skin grafts work? They strip flesh from other parts of your body, like the inside of your thigh. They patch them onto the burned areas, bit by bit. They let those patches heal and then take more. Before you know it, you’re one big walking scar. And of course there were the infections. And the multiple plastic surgeries to return my boyish looks, because this part of my face was burned too.” He laid a hand on his lower left cheek, chin, and neck. “And there were those years of physical therapy to give me full use of my left arm back. That was a barrel of giggles. When you could have healed me with your green flames at any time.”
The silence stretched. “Titus . . . I had no idea . . .”
“No. You didn’t. Because you never bothered to check.”
John pressed his lips together and said nothing.
“Well.” Rip clapped his hands together. “This has been real. And we have a lot more to talk about. But I must be going. Lady Liberty is coming up soon. From there it’s just a short way to Pier 88.” Rip checked his watch. “It’s going to be a busy day. We should both see if we can get a little shut-eye. Meet me at Battery Park, at precisely eleven fifty-two a.m. Not a minute before, not a minute after. By the Staten Island Ferry, but don’t worry, we won’t be going to Staten Island. Come alone. I have something important to discuss.”
“Why should I? Why should i do anything you say?”
Rip shrugged. “Up to you. But if you don’t show precisely at that time, I’ll release the evidence I’ve compiled regarding your secret past.”
“What evidence? There is none.” He’d made sure of it, long ago.
“None? Really?” Rip tapped his chin with a finger. “I bet if someone knew your true identity—knew who your mother was, say, and where your father was buried—it would be a fairly simple exercise to collect a bit of familial DNA to compare yours to.
“And if it comes down to that, we’ll let the public weigh the evidence for themselves. The great and powerful Candle is linked to a notorious Boston crime syndicate? He has a pretty impressive criminal record from his youth and he’s been lying about who he is all these years? Wow. Ace celebrity art cop turns out to have been a street punk all along. Should I give the story to TMZ, Deadspin, or Aces Online? They’ll eat it up. ‘Should this guy be entrusted with safeguarding priceless artifacts for the world’s top art insurer?’ I’m betting the answer is no.
“And at that point . . .” He walked to the door and laid his hand on the latch. “I imagine certain people from our shared past might get very curious about what you recall about them. And they know where your family lives, too.”
A muscle jumped in John’s jaw. “Fagan.”
“Bingo! So unless you’re up for public exposure and taking on Riley Fagan on your own, seriously consider my offer. I’m good either way.”
“Wow, Titus. That’s low.”
“When it comes to you, Juanma, I’ve had a lot of years to explore just how low I can go.” He pulled the door open. “Ta!”
He stepped out and shut the door behind him.
At five in the morning, the Queen Margaret docked on the Hudson at Pier 88. Tiffani stood at the curb in front of the pier, waiting for Rip. She wore her favorite summer cardigan wrap, a lightweight, silver-gray raw-silk weave that went all the way to her knees. Even at this hour, the air was a bit too hot for the sweater, but more importantly, it hid what she had on underneath: a pair of grease-monkey coveralls with AeroLux Airship Tours stitched on the breast pocket.
A nondescript gray sedan with smoked-over windows pulled up. The passenger door opened. Rip was in the driver’s seat. “C’mon, hustle! We’re on a tight timetable.”
She scooted in and, as he pulled away from the curb, wiggled out of the cardigan and stuffed it into her bag. Tug, tuck, glam, and roll, she thought, ignoring the gibbering animal fear in the back of her mind. She pressed a shaking finger under her nose so she wouldn’t cry. Tug, tuck, glam, and roll. I can do this.
He drove to an empty warehouse on the outskirts of Jokertown. The flatbed driver met them there, an older man—rotund and taciturn with a bald head and big ears—who let them inside. Rip called him Brody. While Brody climbed into a forklift and loaded the catapult onto the flatbed, Tiffani tied her auburn hair back in a ponytail and pulled on a baseball cap, and tugged the end of ponytail through the gap. She did some big arm circles and deep knee bends, more to get rid of nerves than anything else. “Rip, hon, are you sure I won’t need a crash helmet? Have you seen it/”
“You’ll be fine.” Rip popped the trunk and pulled out a package. “Here.” He removed a box from the bag and handed it to her.
Tiffani nearly dropped it, it was so heavy. Her eyes went wide. “Jesus, what’s in this? Gold bullion?” The box was about the size and shape of a medium pizza box. Thrust Bearing, the label said, and below it, in big red letters: URGENT SAFETY RECALL—REPLACEMENT PART.
Tiffani stuffed it into her messenger bag. Then she looked over at Rip. Not gonna ask, she thought. No point in knowing what it does. It wouldn’t change anything.
“Okay, let’s do a final equipment check,” he said. “Gloves?”
She pulled out a disposable nitrile pair from her right pocket and wiggled them at him.
“Spare turbine part.” She showed him the box in her messenger bag.
“Change of outfit?”
She felt around in her messenger bag for the items she’d brought with her, per instructions: makeup kit, heels, clean blouse, and slacks. “Check,” she said.
“All right, then. Looks like you’re good to go.”
She grabbed his sleeve as he started toward the car. “Rip—”
“Ah-ah. No second thoughts,” he said. “I’ve kept your family safe and I’ve spent a lot of money caring for them.”
She released her grip with a sigh. “I know.”
“Trust me. I’ve run through a hundred different scenarios, and this is the only way that works. I need that part to be on board the dirigible before shift change at six.” He took hold of her arms. “I’ve worked out the physics and the timing, Megan. You’ve practiced this a hundred times. Just remember.”
“I know, I know. Tug, tuck, glam, and roll.”
“OK. One last walkthrough?”
She hugged herself. “Sure, OK.”
“How do you get in?”
“There’s an outside stair. I go in through the window—after I put on my plastic gloves,” she added, holding up her hands, “so I don’t leave fingerprints.”
“And once you’re inside?”
“I find the key card in the supervisor’s office and use that to get into the airship. Leave the card on the stairs. Find the machine room.” She paused.
“Where . . . ?”
“Where there’ll be a big spherical tank next to a panel of blinking lights.”
“That’s the helium.”
“Right. And there’s another machine in back of it, that looks sort of like a jet engine lying on its side.”
He was nodding. “The thrust turbine. Next?”
“Next I swap out the pizza box by the machine with this one.” She touched her messenger bag.”
“And then hide where I showed you—”
“I know, I know—in the storage locker in the corner, just outside the machine room.”
“And you have to be out of that room and in the storage locker by what time?”
“Six oh four.”
“Six oh three.”
“That’s what I meant!”
“Don’t mess it up, Megan.”
“I won’t. I mean, you’ve seen this, right? I make it through?”
“You make it through. As long as you play it exactly the way I told you.”
“I will. Just like you said.”
“Good girl.” He laid an arm across her shoulders and they stepped out of the way to allow Brody room to finish strapping the catapult down. “Now, after they’re done with their maintenance procedures,” he told her, “they’ll fly the airship from Jersey to the Empire State Building to pick up the passengers. That’ll be at ten till noon. Then, when the airship reaches its cruising altitude, the flight attendants start serving drinks. What do you do next?”
“I’ll hear two bells—”
“That’s right, when the airship reaches a mile up. And what time is it then?”
“Twelve oh one and fifty seconds, plus or minus five seconds.”
“Correct. And at that point, your passage will be clear, for exactly one minute and twenty-two seconds.”
She nodded, and ticked the steps off on her fingers. “I get out of the locker when I hear the ‘ding-ding.’ I take off my shoes and coveralls and leave them there and put on my flats and sweater. I open the hatch, close it behind me, and quietly descend to the gondola.”
“Make sure the flight attendants aren’t looking, then walk normally through the kitchen like I belong there.”
“Yep! Then you can just join the other tourists. Take an empty seat anywhere—there’ll be several open. And relax! Have a lovely tour of the city, with free champagne and catering. Hobnob all you like. You’ll return to watch the concert from the air at sundown.
“And it’s going to be quite a show, you know.” He touched her jaw and gave her a searching gaze. “They have giant windows and you’ll be able to see the whole thing from above. Plus they’ll be broadcasting it onto big screens and speakers inside the gondola. Best seats in the house. And afterward, there’ll be fireworks.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.” She gave him a phony smile and hated herself for showing him her fear. But existential terror’ll do that to a person. Over the past six weeks, since they’d stepped off the Queen Mary from their own cruise, she’d learned way more about Rip and his proclivities than she’d ever wanted to know.
It was too late to back out now.
For my family, she thought. I can do this for them.
“That’s my Tiffani.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Now, it’ll be a long wait in that locker. Did you bring something to read?”
She nodded. The latest issues of Cosmo, Aces of Hollywood, and Rock and Gem were rolled up in the bottom of the bag. And she’d bought one of those super-chargers for her cell phone, so she wouldn’t run out of juice.
“I have to get going. You follow my instructions to the letter, just like we practiced. We’ll meet back at the hotel after the concert, and make a clean getaway.”
“Maybe I can find a way off while folks are boarding the airship. That way I can help you with the heist.”
“Uh-uh. We can’t risk being seen together. Just get the turbine part to the spot where it needs to be, get down into the gondola, and enjoy the ride.” He kissed her on the forehead and then on the lips. It was a good-bye kiss—a real one—the first kiss he had ever given her that felt one hundred percent like it came from the heart. She’d touched her fingers to her lips as she watched him drive away, and nodded to herself.
You’re over me already, she thought. But not over the Candle yet, after all these years.
And now it was a quarter past five a.m., and she sat in the flatbed cab with Brody, making their way down Hook Road in Bayonne. The truck’s headlights flashed on a sign: AeroLux Maintenance Hangar Entrance: 1 mi. Brody turned onto a gravel road that ran alongside the security fence. He shut off the engine and turned off his headlights. “Now we wait here till the security service finishes their rounds.”
The dirigible hangar was there in the distance. A car drove slowly out from behind it, shining a floodlight across the surrounding field. It looked like a cop car, but Rip had said it would be a private security company doing the rounds. The car disappeared behind the building and several minutes later, a car with the same markings passed by on the highway behind them.
“All righty, ma’am,” Brody said. “You’re up. You’ll wait for my signal, yes?” He showed her a fist, held up where she’d be able to see it through the cab window. She nodded, and climbed out and scrambled up onto the flatbed.
The catapult was a platform with handrails on both sides. The right handrail held the launch pull cord: a red triangle that dangled at its front end. She pulled her cap down tight, swung her messenger bag in front of her, and took hold of the launch pull. Then she gripped both rails. Over Brody’s shoulder, the dashboard clock said 5:32. No time for a do-over—it was now or never. She waved so Brody could see her in the mirror. He nodded. The truck started moving.
Tiffani held on tight as the truck lurched onto the gravel road. Brody sped up. She tried to stay upright, and suppressed shrieks every time Brody hit a bump. He followed the road along the fence. The road would curve away and then back as they neared the far end of the property, and they needed to be going at least sixty, Rip had said, so that by the time they swung back toward the fence, she could clear the top. Brody was in charge of making sure she jumped at the right point, at the right speed.
The bag banged against her midsection, heavy-laden with the spare part. Bits of hair escaped her scrunchie and whipped in her face. The security fence whizzed by alongside them, about a hundred feet away. Twenty feet high, with razor wire on top of that. Aw, shit.
“Timing will be everything,” Rip had said. A burst of anger broke through her resolve. I’ll give you ‘timing,’ the next time I am anywhere near your sorry ass. Mama wouldn’t believe this. Little Meg wouldn’t even climb a tree.
Here came the jump point. She could see it in the headlights through the bug-spattered windshield of the cab. She closed her eyes. Jesus Christ on a Harley knockoff—what have I gotten myself into?
Brody turned hard into the curve, and the truck’s wheels skidded, flinging gravel. Her feet slipped across the catapult platform. As he straightened out of the curve he held up his hand. Three fingers—she released the left handhold and clutched the bag to her belly; two—she crouched; one—she tensed—and go!
She yanked the triangle and—BANG!—the platform shoved her up into the sky.
Tiffani soared high above the truck as it braked and skidded around the next curve in the road. She drew her legs up and hugged them tight, with the bag between legs and belly. Her diamond coat snapped on with a crack. Four inches deep in hard-polished glam, tip-to-tuchus, she tumbled in an arc. Razor wire whispered a kiss on her crystalline-coated ass, and the world and sky spun cattywampus, till the ground came up and slapped her silly.
She bounced and rolled across the field like the world’s biggest, shiniest croquet ball, kicking up dirt clods and tufts of grass. Finally she rolled to a stop, and dropped her glam. She leaned back, knees up, gasping for air, dizzy and knocked about.
Oh my God—I’m still alive!
She felt her limbs. Nothing seemed broken. “Well, Rip honey,” she said to the early morning air, “You were right about that part, at least.”
She stood, brushed off the dirt, and slung her bag onto her back. Tug, tuck, glam, and roll. Check. The moon, a quarter past full, hung low in the west. In the east, a dull maroon glow had appeared above the line of trees. Directly before her, not a hundred yards away, stood the hangar, lit up by ugly orange sodium lights. Shit and shebangles; it was HUGE. What the hell am I doing here?
Keeping your family alive. Get a move on.
She pulled on her disposable gloves (check), hiked across the field—as light-footed as she could so as not to leave big tracks—waving away the clouds of mosquitos—and climbed up the metal stair along the side of the big hangar (check). It was at least a ten-story climb along the long back side of the hangar. And she could see right through the pressed metal stairs, all the way to the ground. Thank goodness she’d worn her good sneakers. She had to stop more than once to catch her breath.
Up near the top of the stairs, as promised, she found the window, open just wide enough for a small person like her to wiggle through (check). She shoved her bag in, scrambled across the window’s threshold, and dropped to the floor with a loud thunk.
“If you’re back there in the past watching, honey,” she said, “you really owe me.”
She used her phone’s flashlight to locate the key card hanging over the supervisor’s desk, and slipped the lanyard around her neck. Then she exited the office onto the catwalk. The dirigible sat below.
A sigh escaped her. “Oh, Rip. You didn’t tell me . . .”
It was massive. It was glorious. In the rosy, predawn light entering through the hangar’s row of high-up windows, the airship gleamed like the world’s biggest Mylar balloon. Standing here, just above its tail, she could barely see over it. It was wider than it was tall, too, and all but filled the hangar, over a football field’s length down the way. It was a flattened cigar shape with fins on its tail, kind of like a submarine. In big powder-blue letters, below AeroLux Sky Cruises, was its name: GOSSAMER SPIRIT.
Somehow, for all its mass, if she went down there to the bottom and gave it a push, she felt sure it’d float right up off the ground.
The stairway to her left went only one direction: down. It had two intermediate stops on its way to the bottom. About fifteen feet below her was a landing with a gate, and a catwalk that ran alongside the cruiser. A second landing came about two thirds of the way down its back end, maybe forty feet above the floor. That was her destination.
She descended to that second landing, and on impulse, farther down, nearly to floor level. Below the dirigible’s belly, between four squat legs, hung a long, sleek gondola. The gondola was enclosed, with big picture windows all around: a space big enough for at least a couple hundred people to sit and walk about comfortably. Through the windows, she could see a second, much smaller gondola, way at the front end of the dirigible, which must be the pilots’ gondola.
And then, through the windows in the hangar door, she spotted a pickup, headed this way. Her heart jumped. She raced up the steps.
Everything that came next felt like it was happening to someone else. Back to the cargo bay landing and open the door with the key card (check). Duck inside and close door (check). Find the machine room. Her phone flashlight showed her a door labeled Machine Room at the end of a short corridor. Before it was the T-shaped intersection Rip had told her about, with the storage unit she was supposed to hide in, a big foot-locker–type thing. She spotted a row of orange coveralls like the pair she had on, hanging on hooks above the locker. Across the way in the other nook stood the ladder with the hatch at its feet, which led down through the lower hold and into the passenger gondola.
Now that she had the lay of the land, she headed down to the end of the corridor and tried the machine room door. It was unlocked (check). She slipped inside and left it ajar.
The jet engine–looking machine squatted beside the big spherical tank. It had a big green diamond on it with numbers. Tiffani hurried over. The tank was up on a low platform, with big pipes coming out of it. She spotted the box Rip had told her to look for—it was on the corner of the platform, close to the jet engine machine.
Swap out the part, she thought. But—damn it!—the key card lanyard brushed against her arm as she set down her bag. She’d forgotten to throw it onto the stairs.
Too late for that now. She fumbled around in the bag for the part she’d brought. Her hands were shaking. Calm down, Megan. You big baby. She drew a breath, pulled out the part she’d brought, and shone her light on the original. The two versions looked identical. She picked up the original—and heard faint rhythmic clanging on the stairs, and muffled voices.
Shit, shit, shit! She shut off her light. They were right outside the hold. She’d taken too long with her little detour earlier.
In the dark, her hands held both boxes. And in that moment, she knew. Nope. Can’t. Ain’t gonna happen. She set the original box down where she’d found it and stuffed Rip’s phony one back into her bag.
Then she turned on the faint light from her phone display and made it to the machine room door, scrambled past the ladder as the outer door clanked, and rolled onto the storage locker in the nook. The lights came up as she stood, oh-so-quietly, among the hanging coveralls. She eased one in front of her face. The other coveralls were much bigger than hers. They were also dirty. Ugh. They reeked of oil and dirt and body odor. The hold was air conditioned and she tried not to shiver, pinching her nose with her hand. Two men were talking. Their footsteps grew louder.
They entered the machine room and the machine room door latched shut. She peeked out. No sign of them in the corridor. She slid down off the locker, opened it, and climbed inside.
Shoot the bolt, Rip had said, before closing it. That way the lid would fit over the rim of the locker rim, but wouldn’t latch, so she could breathe and get out later. She dug out her cardigan and put it on to stave off the chill, and then hunched over her knees in the dark.
It had been too dark in the machine room for Rip to see that she’d defied him. Could he know what she’d done? How could he know? There was no way.
Either way, though, she was dead. She’d known that for the past two weeks, since he’d told her what Plan B was.
She’d pretended this whole time—even to herself—that she believed him. That as long as she followed his instructions today, she’d be OK, and so would everybody else. It wasn’t true. He wanted to bring the airship down tonight. He wasn’t just out to steal the golden trumpet—though he surely wanted that, too. He wanted to draw the eyes of the world to New Liberty Island, with the Candle in the center. He wanted to utterly destroy him. To lay him so low before so many that he’d never be able to get back up.
And if Rip wanted her to stay aboard so bad, his intent there was clear, too. Tiffani had served her purpose. He was wrapping up loose ends.
Well, she’d foiled that part of his plan, at least. She’d saved the airship. But now she had no escape—she had to stay here till it was time to leave, per Rip’s instructions; if not, he’d have seen it and would have laid a different trap for her. Whether she liked it or not, she’d have to spend the day a mile aboveground until the show tonight.
She couldn’t even warn her family about him, even if she’d had cell phone coverage—which she did not, out here in the boonies inside this little metal box. If she contacted them now, past-Rip, again, would’ve long since seen it, and set up one of his little traps for them. She couldn’t let him see now that she was defying him, or that she knew what he was up to. Otherwise, by the time she could call her family they’d already be dead.
But one possibility sprang to mind. She’d had a chance to look at his plans that night he’d left them out. She had one single thread of hope—if not of saving herself, at least of saving them. At 11:52 a.m. today, he planned to meet the Candle near the Staten Island Ferry terminal in Manhattan. He’d had the time and date marked in one of his temporal maps. For some reason he had to be there precisely at that time. And he’d had two probability paths mapped out from there. One he’d use if he decided it was necessary to tell his old lover what his ace power was, to force his cooperation; the other, if it turned out to be unnecessary.
According to his notes, the discussion would take less than ten minutes. In that time window, he’d have to make a decision. And he’d told her himself that he couldn’t see past a decision point till after his temporal blind spot resolved.
So from 11:57 at the earliest and 12:02 at the latest to about an hour after that, a time shadow would be cast over his future-vision. And within that shadow, she had a chance to warn her family without him ever knowing. But to pull it off, she’d have to time it perfectly.
Guess he’s right, as always. Timing is everything.
John spotted Rip standing at a corner in Battery Park, just east of the Staten Island Ferry terminal. A sign on a building across the street had a time-and-temperature display, and the time changed to 11:52 a.m. as he walked up.
“Right on time. Good.” Rip looked John over. His hands went to his waist. “Wow, you must not have slept a wink. Something eating at you? Your conscience, perhaps?”
“In your dreams, Titus.”
John had slept, but not nearly enough. He’d had to get up early to deal with the cleanup of the cabin he’d damaged the night before, and then he’d run through his company’s various investigative databases to dig up whatever he could about Titus Maguire.
“The name is Rip,” the other man said.
“And my name is John. John Julius Montaño.”
“Have it your way, ‘John.’” Rip made air quotes. “Down to business.” The walk light at the intersection turned green and he stepped into the street. John followed. “I asked you out here so we could talk in private. What with your security team crawling all over the Queen and your surveillance equipment on board . . .” They’d reached the other side; he stepped up onto the curb. “Easier to arrange for a tête-à-tête outside the ring of security.” He broke off and looked to the south, across the bay. John looked, too, and saw the dirigible rising into the air across the river in Jersey, beyond the Golden Lady and the wharfs of Jersey City.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Rip said. “They’re pulling out all the stops. Tonight should be quite a show.”
John made an impatient circling motion with his hand. “Get to the point, Titus. I haven’t got all day.”
“As you wish. I’m going to steal Armstrong’s fancy gold trumpet tonight, and you are going to help me do it.”
“I figured as much. And if I refuse, you’ll reveal your ‘evidence’ of my criminal youth. Mustache-twirl, evil laugh, yada yada.”
“Well, tough break. I’m not about to lift a pinkie to help you. See, I’ve been doing some checking on you. You’ve amassed quite a fortune over the years. There is no way in hell you did that legally.”
Rip smiled widely. “All too true. But proving it . . . there’s the rub.”
“I don’t need to prove it. All I need to do is plant seeds of doubt in the right places. I know a lot of people in law enforcement. If word gets out of my youthful indiscretions, what’s to stop me from revealing yours? Maybe the IRS or the SEC would like to have me as a cooperating witness about where you got your start. Maybe they’ll take a closer look at your activities. You’re on the board of directors for three Fortune 100 companies, I noticed. I imagine they wouldn’t be thrilled if you ended up under investigation.”
“I’d sue your ass for defamation. And my pockets are a hell of a lot deeper than yours, Juanma. I guarantee it.”
The light changed and a truck honked. Diesel fumes cloaked them both as the truck splashed through a water-filled pothole nearby. The dirty water spattered John but not Rip, who had stepped back just outside its reach.
“Sue me all you want,” John said. “Hard to get blood from a stone. Either way, I’m sure the attention would be unwelcome.”
“Maybe. But I haven’t assumed a false identity. I bought my way out of Fagan’s grasp, fair and square. He has no beef with me anymore. Everything’s been on the up-and-up for my adult life, best anyone can tell.”
John scoffed. “No way you could’ve bought Fagan off. He wouldn’t let you out of his grip. We knew too much.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Rip checked his watch and glanced at the bank sign across the way. He’s waiting for something, John thought. “I’ve been debating just how much I should tell you. But the timing seems to be working out, and you know? I really want you to know. So I’m going to let you in on my biggest secret.” He leaned close. “Turns out, I’m an ace, too.”
John folded his arms. “What a remarkable coincidence.”
“Funny you should say that. Because it’s all about coincidence. I call it future-vision. I can manipulate events to get whatever I want. Hence my ace handle. Ripple Effect.” He spread his arms. “Cool handle, huh?”
John gave him a bored look. “Is that supposed to worry me? When I can fry you in a heartbeat?”
Rip glanced at his watch. “You know, I never had you pegged as someone with no imagination. Observe. I stand here.” He pointed at his feet. “Someone lives. I stand there?” He pointed at the edge of the curb. “Someone dies. That’s all it takes.”
“Uh . . . I hate to break it to you, Ripples, but we were standing right there just a second ago, and”—John cupped his hand and stage whispered—“no one died.”
“True. But timing”—Rip stepped into the gutter at the intersection—“is everything”—just as a cyclist shot out from behind the building. The cyclist shouted and swerved—“Hey!”—and barely missed Rip, veering into the intersection as Rip stepped back onto the curb.
“That’s Ripple Effect,” he said. “As in, ‘cause and.’”
John pushed past him with a gasp—a white pickup had entered the intersection as the cyclist swerved, and caught him on its front bumper. The cyclist flipped up. Rip didn’t bother to look behind him. “You g—”
But John had already twisted away. Red to block traffic. Green to heal. Purple to dull pain. For the second time, as John returned to the threshold of his own body, trailing fire, he caught that flickering of mirrors around its edge again. He didn’t spare a glance this time, only dove back into his body, pulling strands of fire in with him, as fast and hard as he could, batch by batch.
“—et it?” Rip finished.
The cyclist’s head hit the hood before John could blast a shield, and he went under the wheels. Tires squealed and blue smoke went up. John ran into the street.
The truck was screeching to a halt. Other vehicle brakes squealed too. More car crashes. Horns blared, burnt rubber and blue smoke filled the air. The cyclist rolled out from underneath the truck in mid-intersection, broken and bloody.
John whirled in the middle of the intersection, throwing up a blazing crimson barrier. Nothing fancy—no time. The red flames stacked up in mounds and pillars, like the world’s most garish stalagmites, in a sloppy L-shape, blocking all oncoming lanes. An instant later, a car slammed into the barrier less than a foot from the cyclist’s head, destroying it. John shot more red flame into the gap to repair it. Then he skidded to a halt by the young man and went to his knees, pulling the green from his lymph system.
The cyclist was white, with a long neat braid extending from under his helmet. His condition? Not good. Eyes half open, pupils blown. Right side of chest caved in. Blood was spreading across his orange jersey and mingling with the oily water on the asphalt.
John had never used fire on an injury this bad. But if even a single heartbeat remained—a single breath or brain wave—the green should work. It must.
Healing tendrils sailed out from John’s hands and settled onto the cyclist, while John pulled more green in through the entryway at his crown—and yet more. No response. He kept it up, weaving and casting, till fire jetted from beneath the cyclist’s skin and clothes, turning the young man’s body into a shamrock-bright torch. In a second or two the cyclist began to twitch. A low moan came. His voice rose in pitch, and he arched his back, keening. John could hear the bones crackling.
“Sorry, kid. Believe me, I get it.” He exhaled a swirling cloud of purple fire into his hands and spread it across the cyclist’s face. The haze soaked into his eye sockets, his ears, nostrils, and mouth, and the man slumped with a billowy, lavender-tinged sigh.
“Oh, my God. What is that?” a woman asked. John looked up to see a middle-aged Black woman, dressed in slacks and heels, by the tailgate. The truck’s left cab door stood open; she must be the driver, and she was staring in alarm at the green inferno lighting up the cyclist’s torso.
John sat back on his heels and wiped grit and sweat from his forehead. “It won’t hurt him. The green fire heals.”
“Does that green flame heal broken vertebrae? Look there.” She pointed at the cyclist’s helmet, which was cracked and holding his head at an angle that couldn’t be good for his neck. “I’m a nurse,” she said at John’s startled glance. “Got any more of that red stuff we can use to brace him?”
“Good idea! When I give the signal, lift him up.” John twisted away to harvest more red, then returned. She knelt behind the cyclist’s head. “I’m ready.”
“All right . . . now!” She lifted the cyclist’s head and shoulders as he spun out the red in a saddle shape—but flinched as flame filled the gap beneath her arms. “Don’t move! Red doesn’t burn.”
Once the cyclist was braced, she levered her arms carefully out and stood. She bit her lip, looking down at the cyclist. “He came out of nowhere.”
“It wasn’t your fault. I saw what happened. He veered right into you.”
The cyclist started making warbling noises and waved his hands languidly.
“I’m the Candle,” he told the woman. “My friends call me John.”
“Yes, I recognized you.” She laid a hand on her chest. “Samiyah Morretty.”
He smiled at her. “Glad to meet you.”
The young man opened his eyes and blinked at them, bleary-eyed. Samiyah knelt.
“Lie still, son.” Lavender fireflies sparkled in his eyes and swirled in and out with his breath. John knelt on his other side and gave him a second dose. “Lie still. You’ve been in an accident.”,
The cyclist broke into a drunken smile. “Cool . . . ”
The woman gave John a worried look. “Concussion?”
“No, thank you,” the cyclist said.
John replied, “I think it’s just the happy juice I gave him. It should wear off in a bit.”
Samiyah got a medkit from her truck, took the cyclist’s vitals and jotted some info on his chest with a black Sharpie. Meanwhile, parts of the red-flame traffic barrier were beginning to collapse and cars were creeping cautiously past through burning red puddles. On the sidewalks and along the pier, a crowd had gathered. People were taking snapshots and selfies and videos. Rip, of course, was nowhere to be seen. John added smaller red-flame lumps as flares. Samiyah pulled the smashed bike out from under her truck’s wheels, then pulled her truck into a nearby lot.
By this time a cop had arrived. He left his shop lights flashing. “What happened here? What are all these?” He poked with a toe at a nearby red-flame pillar, which had shrunk considerably and grown gooey.
“A barrier I put up to protect the crash victim from oncoming traffic.” John gestured at the driver who had smacked into the barrier, and was now using his phone to record a video through his windshield. The man waved. At least he doesn’t seem pissed off.
“You’re an ace.”
“Yes, Officer. I saw the crash and stopped to render aid. This young man was riding his bike into the intersection, there.” John pointed. “A pedestrian stepped into the bike lane right at that instant, and the cyclist had to swerve to miss him. He ended up in front of this woman’s truck.” He gestured at Samiyah, who was walking over to rejoin them. “She had no time to avoid him. Neither of them was at fault. It was the fault of the pedestrian who stepped into the street. He was crossing against the light.”
Samiyah was nodding as John had described the impact.
“Officer,” she said, “he got thrown right under my wheels before I even had time to react. He’d surely be dead if not for him.” She touched John’s shoulder. “That green fire of yours is a blessing, Candle! He used it to heal the man,” she told the cop. “It’s a miracle the Candle was here.”
John just shook his head, lips drawn taut. It wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t been here.
The cop looked around. “Where is the pedestrian now?”
“I didn’t get a good look at him,” Samiyah said.
John replied, “He left immediately after the accident.”
“Well, first things first.” The cop knelt next to the cyclist. “I see blood here. Young man, can you hear me?”
The cyclist looked up at the cop. He patted the cop’s face plate and said in a puff of purple sparks, “Nice panda.”
John told the cop, “Those purple sparks have a hallucinogenic and sedative effect. I healed him as best I could with my green fire, but the repair may not have been complete—I’ve never used it on injuries this severe. He should be checked out right away. Ms. Morretty and I rigged a neck brace for him, but it will melt in the next few minutes.”
“EMTs are on their way,” the cop replied. “We’ll take care of him.” John heard the sirens even as he spoke.
John stood. He thought of the trumpet, and his team, who would be transferring it from the Queen Margaret to the amphitheater on New Liberty Island soon. Rip had vanished, Armstrong’s gold horn was at risk, and his team had no clue what was going down. He came to his feet and pulled out his wallet.
“Officer, I’m a private investigator with Chubb Insurance.” He showed him his PI license. “We’re here on a protective detail for an exhibition aboard the Queen Margaret. I was heading to the ship on an urgent security matter when this happened and I need to get back there right away. With your permission?” He handed the officer his business card. “You can reach me at this number if you have further questions.”
The cop jotted down John’s badge number and tucked the card into his clipboard. “All right. We’ll contact you shortly. We’ll want to get a description of the pedestrian.”
“Of course. Thank you, Officer.” John accepted a thank-you hug from Samiyah, which he appreciated, but which did little to calm him down. “Take care of yourself,” he told her. Then he stalked to the cab stand across the street. People moved out of his way—probably because small jets of multicolored flame were shooting out from his head, hands, and arms.
He caught a taxi to Pier 88 and the Queen Margaret. As he climbed out and paid the fare, a glint in the sky caught his eye. The tourist airship had risen high into the sky over the harbor and was floating slowly up the river toward the pier.
As John moved toward the water taxi, a gust came up, and a fast food napkin tumbled over to land under the ball of his foot. It had writing on it in black magic marker. He stooped and snatched it up.
It had to be Titus. The message was their old shorthand from back in the bad old days, when they’d ditched school to tag buildings and subway walls, pick fights, and do other stupid and/or illegal shit. Eyeball-specs-down-arrow-sunset meant watch for instructions this evening. Presumably at the concert venue, on New Liberty Island. Dime-ghost-target was a threat: Snitches and deserters get dead.
John looked around. Longshoremen were removing sound equipment from the Queen Margaret with a portable gantry near the ship, about to load it onto a water taxi en route to New Liberty Island. But they were too far away to have caused it, and the only other people nearby were, like, eighty or something, and only had eyes for each other as they strolled toward the river walk a short ways away.
Titus could have paid someone to release the napkin. But at the precise spot it would have had to be when they released it? For the breeze to catch it at just the right angle and just the right instant for it to land under his foot, as he stepped onto the curb? When it could have could have as easily tumbled off into the water or blown off down the way?
No. The delivery method was as important as the content. Titus was nailing his point to John’s forehead with a staple gun. I can get to you anytime I choose. You won’t see it coming. There’s not a damn thing you can do about it, much less prove it was me.
The magazines were a total waste; Tiffani couldn’t find the concentration to read during her morning-long sojourn, crammed in the locker. She alternated between playing Candy Crush and staring at her phone’s clock. At precisely 12:03 p.m. and six seconds, the double tone sounded and she sprang up, pushing the lid open. She really needed to pee. She climbed out of the locker and scrambled down.
The Gossamer Spirit was airborne—she could tell by the gentle rocking under her feet—and the corridor was empty. As promised. She had a strong signal now. It was past the ten-minute window. Rip should be in his blind spot. Please. Please be future-blind.
She called her sister, Annabelle. “Belle? It’s me, Megan. It’s an emergency. Can you talk?”
“Oh, hi, honey! We got the card you sent with that last check. And all those lovely gifts! Thank you so much!”
“You’re welcome. Now keep quiet and listen. The family is in extreme danger—”
“I said, the family is in danger! I need you to call everyone. Right away. Tell them they have to be out of their houses and on the road, quick as they can. Get to Charleston and pick up Mamaw and Pampaw, too.”
“Well—OK, I’m hearing you, but—why? Are you in trouble, honey?”
“Yes, I’m in trouble! The man who gave me the money for those gifts—he’s not a good man, Belle. And I’ve defied him, and he’s going to do something terrible to the family if you don’t all get out.”
She could hear Belle’s breathing on the other end of the phone.
“What did you do, Meg?” Her tone was harsh.
Tiffani dug her manicured nails into her palms. Then she hung her head with a sigh. “I made a deal with the devil, Belle. I purely did.”
“And the bill came due.”
“Yes.” Tiffani broke down. Her body shook with messy sobs. But she gulped them back in. No time for that, either.
“Now, Meg,” her sister was saying. “That’s a big old shame. But nobody is holding us hostage. He can’t hurt us. He’s just made you fearful, or your own conscience has. We’ve all been there. It’s never as bad as it seems. You just need to leave this man. Come on home. The good Lord will forgive you, and your heart will heal in time.”
Gahhh! “No! This isn’t about my soul! It’s about your safety!” Tiffani lowered her voice with a nervous look around. “Things are not going to be OK,” she whispered into the phone. “He’s going to come after you. After everybody!” She swallowed another sob. “He’s done it to others and not gotten caught. I’ve seen it. You have to get away. Load everybody in the car and go. Please. NOW.”
A long pause. “Well . . . but . . . all right, hang on.” Tiffani heard her talking to someone else. “It’s Meg. She’s having a meltdown. Said her new beau has turned out to be a real douche-noodle, and he’s threatening the family.”
Thomas came on the phone. “Now, what’s all this about?”
Tiffani sighed. “Never mind, I’ll explain later,” she said, and hung up.
She needed to get out of here, one way or another, and her chance to go below had passed—her hand that gripped the ladder down through the hatch felt a vibration. Someone was ascending.
I get found now, she thought, and it’ll turn out he’s known since the beginning. There’ll be another trap waiting. It’ll all be over by the time the airship lands.
Her gaze fell on the cargo door at the back of the hold. Her hand went to the lanyard with the key card she’d forgotten to leave behind. The handle on the hatch turned at her feet. Well, you were ready to die anyway. Now or never!
“Fuck it,” she said. She dropped her bag and bolted for the door.
WARNING—DO NOT OPEN DOOR IN FLIGHT, the sign on it said.
A shout came from behind her. She didn’t bother to turn and look. Instead, she swiped the card and shoved at the bar latch. The door flew open and carried her out. An alarm blared and a light flashed. Her back bumped into the bulkhead. She hung on.
Cat’s out of the bag now. She looked down. A mile below her dangling feet, she could see the Golden Lady, the shining new Statue of Liberty they had thrown up after the old green one of her childhood had been destroyed in the Rox War. The amphitheater that would host the charity concert was at the lady’s feet. All around were the waters of New York Bay.
Tiffani let go.
At least try to survive. Slow yourself down. Tiffani grabbed the edges of her cardigan and flattened onto her belly, the way she’d seen flying squirrels do, and her cardigan billowed up, like a parachute, slowing her a bit. But after a few seconds it tore loose from her hands and the wind ripped it off her. The water was getting close.
She’d read once that if you fell from a plane, even to water, it would be like hitting concrete. But diamond could cut through concrete.
Get vertical! Make a knife. Feet first—point toes, arms up!
Crack! She called her ace—and ka-BOOM!—she hit the water.
Tiffani came to in a coughing fit with stabbing pain in her ears and water streaming into her nose. She coughed, and spat, and swam for all she was worth toward what she thought must be up: the glittering light she saw amid murk and bubbles still boiling from the impact. Finally, she emerged into air and treaded water, coughing till she could breathe. Fish surfaced around her, belly up. Oops. Sorry, dears.
She turned in the water, looking around. New Liberty Island was maybe a quarter mile away. I can swim that far, she told herself, though her head pounded so hard she could barely think and her limbs trembled from shock and cold and pain. Sure. Why stop lying now?
But she could tell she’d broken bones, despite her diamond armor, and was going into shock. She could barely move her arms. After a minute or two it just seemed like too much trouble. The bay closed over her head.
New Liberty Island was three times as large as the original island had been, the one that had been home to the first Statue of Liberty, before it had been washed away during the Rox War. Its five-thousand-seat amphitheater, an open-air quarter-cutout of a bowl, nestled at the feet of the Golden Lady, with the towers of Manhattan behind her. A twenty-foot retaining wall lay between the stage and the harbor bank. The water taxi had dropped John near the backstage area. From here, he could see straight through the stage and up into the stands—though people were installing panels behind the stage that blocked the view.
He headed up the slope to the amphitheater’s rear entrances. Stairs led up to the top of the stands on either side of the skybox entry. Rashida and Arry stood conferring outside the east entry passage beneath the stands. The underground secure complex housed amphitheater operations as well as equipment and machine rooms, and air-conditioned locker rooms and green rooms for performers. John’s team had co-opted the equipment room and installed further security. That was where they’d house the horn and case till after the performance.
Rashida saw John and waved. Both had their comms on.
“The horn?” he asked.
“Secure inside,” Rashida replied. “Gil and Horace are on duty with it.”
“Any surprises?” he asked, and his seconds looked at each other. Arry rumbled, “Not at all, dear,” and Rashida asked, “Why? What’s wrong?”
He released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Just wanted to be sure.”
Arry cocked her giant head as if listening to something, and Rashida touched her ear. “On my way,” Arry replied. She dropped onto her hands and lumbered down the passage to the freight door. A production company guard there opened the door for her and she moved through, tilting her head to make sure her horns didn’t gouge the doorframe. From inside the door, she turned and bent down so they could see her face. “You two could both use some rest. We gotcha covered. See you at six.”
“Thanks, Arry,” John said. “Call if you need us.” He and Rashida started along the sidewalk toward the boat.
“You get into a fight or something?” She gestured at the filth on his clothes and hands.
“Long story,” he said. “I’ll explain later. Right now I want extra security assigned to the concert. Let’s see if we can get a couple of the Queen Margaret crew out here.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
John started to reply but someone screamed near the western shore of the island. A family stood on the bay shore, staring up at the airship floating overhead. Sunlight flashed off a falling object as John shielded his eyes to look—something faceted and bright. A crystal statue? He barely had time to register its shape before it struck the bay in an explosion of water.
They scrambled down across the rocks to the shore. Out on the bay, someone’s head rose above the water. “Someone survived that?” he gasped.
“I’ll get to them. Get ready to shoot me some red!” Rashida particulated and rose in a swarm of tigereye beads, which raced out over the water toward the swimmer.
John reached behind into inferno-world and brought back the strongest reds he could find. He shoved the wine-red energy out through his body, as fast as he could, weaving the strands into a stout cable. Then he readied it, swirling it above and in front of himself. It coiled in the air like a nest of burning snakes. But when Patina reached the spot where they’d seen the person’s head, no one was there.
She shaped herself into a giant, brass, articulated hand-and-arm, and dropped into the water. A moment later, something bobbed up to the surface in a splash: a shiny, black-rubber version of that hand and arm, with a woman’s still form curled in Patina’s palm, the giant thumb, pinkie, and ring fingers holding on to her with her head pillowed at the base of the forefinger. The forefinger crooked itself at John—Throw me the rope!
John cast the red flames out as hard as he could, drawing flame and casting again and again, fighting to keep it aloft, till the blazing cable reached Patina. As the flames coiled around the massive hand, its fingers grew smaller hands, which caught hold of the cable.
“Hold tight!” he yelled, and tossed a section back for the nearby family to grab. “I need your help!” he told them. “It’s safe to touch. Pull!”
They grabbed hold. Others ran up and joined in, and soon Patina Raft-Hand and her passenger were skimming toward shore. John waded out to meet them. He pulled the raft in and Patina re-particulated to a tigereye bead cloud. John caught the woman as she sank into the water. He carried her to shore and lowered her to the ground.
Dead? No, she still breathed. He rolled her on her side—twisted to find green flames—and cast healing tendrils over her. In a moment, she coughed up a lungful of water. Her eyes opened. She looked surprised. “Well, well, the Candle. Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
John hardly recognized her through the schmutz and sodden, torn-up clothes. “Tiffani?”
“The very same.” She propped herself up on her elbows and wiped her forehead with a trembling, dirty arm. Rivulets of muddy water ran down her face. “Holy fucking hell. What a day. I must look a fright.”
He helped her sit up. For some odd reason she was wearing orange work coveralls. She had only one sneaker and her hair was a mess. She felt along her legs. “Huh. I was sure I’d broken bones.”
“I took care of that,” he said. “What are you doing here? And more to the point, why did you just fall out of the airship?”
She looked at him and then lowered her gaze. “Long story.”
He folded his arms. “I’ve got time.”
She looked up again. “In fact, you don’t.”
By now a small crowd had gathered. Some were taking photos and selfies. Tiffani scooted to the side, maneuvering so he was a barrier between her and the people trying to film her. He stood and turned around. “All right, folks. The incident’s over. The lady is fine, and would appreciate some privacy.” The lookie-loos began to disperse.
Rashida had rejoined them. Tiffani took her hands and gripped them tightly. “Oh my gosh, you saved my very life. And you too, Candle. Thank you. I’m Tiffani,” she said to Rashida. “John and I go back a ways.”
Rashida gave her hands a squeeze and released them. “Rashida Thorne. Also known as Patina. So glad you’re OK! You sure gave us all a fright. What happened? Do we need to radio the airship?”
“Please, no! The fewer people who know, the better.” She turned to John and lowered her voice. “Might I impose on you for the time?”
John glanced at his phone. “Twelve twenty on the nose.”
“Good. We’re still in the shadow.”
“Shadow?” Rashida asked. “What shadow?”
Tiffani gave her an unconvincing smile. She brushed herself off. “Listen, I’d love to stay and chat but I’ve got prior commitments . . . places to go. You know!” She stood and started to wobble off. The look on her face made the hairs on John’s neck bristle.
“No we don’t know. Tiffani—wait! I have more questions.”
“Well, I’m afraid I don’t have time right now to give you answers. I really must be off.” She was power walking—or trying to—but given that his legs were about half again as long as hers and she was missing a shoe and had just plummeted from more than a mile in the air and nearly drowned, he had no problem catching up.
“Maybe we can help you.”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Tiffani, slow down.” John grabbed her arm. “For fuck’s sake, what’s wrong? Talk to me.”
At his touch, she spun with a snarl. “Don’t touch me!” He released her. She stared at him, then covered her mouth with both hands and crumpled to the ground, sobbing great big gulping, body-racking sobs.
Rashida had caught up. She and John looked at each other. “This day just keeps getting weirder and weirder.”
John knelt next to Tiffani. “I have a feeling we have a common enemy.” She gave him a hollow look, holding her sleeve to her nose. “If you’ll just take a minute to let us in on what’s happened to you, we might be able to help each other.”
She wiped her eyes and nose on the sleeve of her coveralls, and gave him a bitter smile. “All right. I can spare a few minutes. But then I really must go.” She leaned closer. “And we should find someplace more private.”
He led the way inside the museum at the base of the Golden Lady. Not many people were around. At the gift shop John bought her a souvenir T-shirt and sweatshorts to replace her torn coveralls. While she ducked into the bathroom to change, Rashida edged closer. “You want to clue me in?”
“The short version? There’s a new ace in town. A powerful one. A total psycho. Something tells me she”—John gestured with his chin toward the bathroom, where they could hear the water running—“is connected to him in some way. I don’t know how yet.”
Ras looked alarmed. “Wait. What? A dangerous ace?”
He shushed her. “You know that guy who approached me in the bar?” he asked.
“The blond?” He nodded. Her eyes widened. “You sure know how to pick ’em.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“What are his powers?”
“He says he sees possible futures. He uses it to spy on people and manipulate events in his favor. Calls himself ‘Ripple Master’ or ‘the Rippler’ or something.”
“Ripple Effect,” said Tiffani, emerging from the bathroom. She leaned against the wall nearby. “I’ve seen what he can do, Candle. He’s deadly.”
“Agreed,” John said. “Today he asked me to meet him in Battery Park and caused a truck to crash into a cyclist before my eyes. He nearly killed the guy. And . . . this will sound delusional, but . . . I was headed back to the ship not ten minutes ago and a napkin landed under my foot.” He pulled it out of his pocket and showed it to them. “I mean, he was nowhere around. The breeze just blew it there. He couldn’t have done it. And yet he did.”
Rashida took it. “What are these symbols?”
“Just a sec.” John looked at Tiffani. “He recruited you, didn’t he? Why? For the goods on me?”
“Yes.” Tiffani’s color rose. “He wanted me tell him all the skinny I could on you, from our time on the show.” At his frown, she shrugged. “Sorry Candle, but I needed the money.
“Looking back, I think it’s because he can’t get as good a read on you as he’d like. There’s a blurring effect or something. He says your ‘fates are entwined.’” She gnawed at her lip. “He’s been threatening my family to make me help him. This morning he tried to force me to sabotage the airship. But I didn’t do it. And when he finds out, my family will be in danger. Which is why I have to go save them, now, before he can kill them all.”
“Whoa, whoa—slow down,” John said. “The people on the airship are in danger?”
“Not anymore. I didn’t switch out the part like Rip told me to.”
“‘The part?’” Rashida repeated. She and John exchanged a look.
“For the ‘thrust turbine.’” Tiffani made air quotes. “Don’t ask me, but it has to do with the helium they use to make the airship float. He wanted me to swap out the real part for one that I guess he had messed with or something. But I—I couldn’t go through with it. And now he’s going to punish me. My family, I mean. He’ll kill them first and then he’ll hunt me down and kill me. That’s what he does.” Her lips quivered again, but her expression remained impassive.
“But I mean—what’s his aim?” Rashida asked. “Why is he doing this?”
“He wants Satchmo’s horn,” John replied.
Rashida frowned. “I don’t get it. Why go to all this trouble? Why drag John into it? If he can manipulate events as he says he can, why not just arrange it so there’s a crash or flat tire while the horn is in transit, and just walk away with the goods while one guard is changing the tire and the other one’s tying his shoe, or something? That’s how I’d do it.”
Rashida was looking at Tiffani as spoke. Tiffani looked at John. “I don’t think I’m the best one to answer that,” she replied.
He sighed. “Because this guy has it in for me. Because he knows me from our childhood. Because”—deep breath—“John Montaño is not the name I was born with. It’s an alias. Like in witness protection. Only I did it on my own. He told you, didn’t he?” he asked Tiffani. She nodded. John turned back to Rashida. Her eyes had widened. “There’s no time for all the details now,” he said. “But there was a good reason.”
“Oh, hell no. You’re not getting off that easy. going to tell me exactly what’s going on, John. Or whoever you are.”
He flinched. “Ras . . . you know me. This was a long time ago. Can’t it wait?” But the stern lines in her face didn’t soften. “All right. Fine. This guy, Titus—”
“He calls himself Rip now,” Tiffani said.
“Right. Rip. He was someone I knew back when I was a kid. He was my best friend. My first love.” He felt his face heat up as he said it. “The virus hit when I was seventeen, and I entered a coma for three months before my card finished turning. And Titus, Rip—whatever—he was in the room when I came to.” He hesitated. “Unfortunately, I came out on fire and burned the ever-loving shit out of him. I gave him burns over twenty percent of his body.”
Rashida gasped. “That . . . that’s messed up.”
“Honestly, Ras, I didn’t even know about his injuries until last night. I woke up with the room on fire, and I fled.
“But I did ditch him. He’s right about that. And my mom, too—though she’d given up on me long before my card turned.” He paused. “I was a real asshole when I was a teen. A thief and a forger. A dropout. I spent as much of my teens in juvie as I did out of it. And it wasn’t because we were poor or lived in a bad neighborhood. It wasn’t bad influences. I just was pissed off after my dad drew a black queen, and I decided, Fuck it. I made a bunch of shitty choices. And this guy Fagan, he’s a crime lord, he made us all kinds of promises that we were suckers enough to believe.” John shook his head at his younger self. “He had his claws in us good and deep by the time my card turned. That was why I ran.
“So. Since everyone thought I’d self-immolated, I stole a bunch of money from one of Fagan’s dealers and got out of town. I bought a shiny new identity in Colorado. Next thing I know I’m trying out for American Hero, I’m on the show, and my future is set. No more crimes since, Ras. I promise.”
The horrified look Rashida wore shamed him. But she said only, “Is he going to try to kill you and make it look like an accident?”
“No, he wants to humiliate him,” Tiffani said. “He wants to reveal John’s past and make him out to be a criminal. He wants him alive, so he can make him suffer.”
“Well, I am a criminal,” John said, but Tiffani shook her head. “You don’t get it. He will steal the trumpet and frame you for it. And he’ll probably kill off all the people you care about while you’re in prison. Or force you to do terrible things for him . . .” She lowered her gaze. It sure sounded like she was speaking from personal experience.
Rashida put her hands on her hips and looked from Tiffani to John. “Well then, we’d better stop him.”
The clock above the cashier read twelve thirty-five. Tiffani pointed. “We don’t have much time. His power has limits. We’re in what he calls a causality shadow right now. He can’t see his own future—it sets up a feedback loop. And he can’t see what happens after he makes a decision that changes his future. Not for a while, at least. In both cases he gets thrown out on his ass and has to wait for a reset before he can go back in and future-snoop. But things’ll reset soon. We need to leave.”
“He gets thrown out?” Rashida repeated. “You mean he actually leaves the room with his power?”
“Yep! He walks right into mirrors. Anything shiny. They’re doorways for him. You can kind of see what he sees, for a second, when he comes and goes. It’s like a glass pinwheel, only bigger and stranger.”
John started, remembering his dream last night, and the effect he’d been seeing at his own dimensional threshold.
Rashida was focused on something else. “So he needs a shiny surface big enough to get through to use his power?”
Tiffani nodded. “He can see out through mirrored surfaces, while he’s up there poking around in people’s business. But where there’s nothing shiny, he can’t see you. And he has to come out the same mirror he goes in. He has some other limits too. It’s his ‘temporal physics.’” She made sarcastic air quotes.
“Oh, really?” John said. Hmmmm . . .
“Mmm-hmm. We’re in a causality shadow right now. That’s why I keep looking at the time. Up till he met up with you, Candle, he wasn’t sure he was going to tell you about his ace. He hoped not to. Almost no one knows, and I think he’ll kill anyone who finds out, if he can’t control them. That’s why you’ll be in danger, yourself,” she told Rashida, “once he finds out you know. And he will find out.” She turned back to John. “Candle, when he revealed his ability to you, I figure lots of people were affected. Yes?”
John nodded. “Absolutely. Not only the cyclist who got hit, and the driver, but everyone whose commute was delayed. And there was the motorcycle cop, and the EMTs and all the people they would have come in contact with. Plus the people in the hospital where the cyclist was taken . . .”
“Good! All those are the ‘ripple effects’ that went out from his choice.” Tiffani made spiraling motions with her hands. “The more of those the better. He’s created a humdinger of a blind spot.”
“How long do we have,” Rashida asked, “before he comes out from behind this ‘causality shadow’ of his?”
“They usually last an hour or so.” They all glanced at the clock this time. Twelve forty-five. John’s skin crawled. A few minutes before 12:03 p.m., Rip had shown John his ace. They had a maximum of fifteen minutes. It could be less; Tiffani didn’t sound all that sure about the timing. And the gift shop was filled with shiny surfaces.
Tiffani said, “I’m thinking . . . we may have a way to get away from his spying eyes, even after the blind spot ends. He said once he can only see futures for places he’s physically near—within walking distance. He has this fancy smartwatch that helps him find future versions of people by tracing their cell signals, but he has to be close to them for it to work.
“He’s already surveilled the shit out of New Liberty Island, because he knew the concert would be here tonight. So this is the first place he’ll look for us. But now that he’s hit the reset on the timeline . . . I’ve never tested this, but I don’t see how, if we’re far enough away before the shadow lifts and he doesn’t know where we’re going to be, he could surveil us.”
John massaged his temples. “This is making my head hurt.”
“How do we even know that’s true?” Ras asked Tiffani. “He could have been lying to you.”
“We don’t. But here’s the other thing. There’s no escaping Rip forever, Patina. Even if we could get away—and maybe we can; I’m not saying we can’t hide for a good while. Believe me, I’d much rather run than fight. But I don’t think we’ll ever get a better chance at defeating him than now. Each of us could run to different corners of the Earth and huddle alone like rats in a sewer drain, but it’d only be temporary. He’s a billionaire. Who can see into the future.”
“Uh, he’s a billionaire?” Rashida repeated, and John felt the blood drain from his own face. Tiffani nodded, grim.
“A multi-billionaire. He could buy a country and barely make a dent in his net worth. Hell, he’s only not a trillionaire because he doesn’t need to bother. And you know what? Even if we lived a lifetime hidden away from him, he’d still be right up here.” She tapped her own forehead. “No, thank you! I have had more than enough of Titus ‘Ripple Effect’ Maguire. I want him out of my head, and out of my life. And yours, too, Candle.” She took John’s hands, and looked right into his eyes. “You listen to me. He’s obsessed with you. He’ll never stop hunting you. And I’ve seen him at work. He can’t be stopped. No prison can hold him. We have to end him. There is no other way.”
John jerked his hands free, staring in alarm. Rashida cleared her throat. “John, a word with you?” She glanced at Tiffani. “Privately?”
Tiffani shrugged. “Whatever. But I’m getting off this island in the next five minutes. With or without you.” She went back into the bathroom and shut the door.
Rashida pulled him close. “I don’t think we should be trying to do this ourselves, John. If this guy is all that dangerous, shouldn’t we call Chubb? Or . . . the police or, or SCARE, or the Committee? Someone?”
“And what? Try to convince someone in middle management in one or more major bureaucracies that we’re being targeted by a billionaire time-traveler who can murder people using the beat of a butterfly’s wings? With no proof except some scribbles on a napkin?”
“Stranger things have happened.”
“Ras, the only two people who have actually seen what he can do are me and Tiffani. A ‘gay-ish’ guy living under a fake identity with a criminal youth, and a B-list actress-slash-model famous for being self-serving and untrustworthy.”
“Hey!” Tiffani’s head popped out of the restroom door. “Bubbles again? It’s always poor Bub-Bub-Bubbles. What about poor me?” The door slammed.
John told Rashida, “By the time SCARE even opens a file, Tiffani and I will be dead of ‘natural causes.’ Maybe they’ll eventually catch him, but I don’t want to end up as an entry in somebody’s murder book. No. Tiffani is right. Time is his advantage. Surprise is ours. We have this one shot to stop him. But”—he forced the words out—“I think you should bow out of this, Ras. It isn’t your fight, and you probably aren’t a target yet.”
“What? Oh, hell no! How could you even think that? It’s my job to protect that damn horn. And you’re not just my boss, John. You’re my friend. Even if you’re a fucking jerk for lying to me, you asshole.”
John winced. “You’re right. I’m trash. I’m sorry.”
“We’ll hash that out later. But I’m not going to stand by while you get framed. Plus, you know? Fuck this ‘Ripple Effect’ guy. He’s a hazard to public safety. He needs to be stopped.”
He gave her a grateful look. “Thanks, Ras.”
Tiffani came back out. “All righty, then. Now we need to find a place he won’t think to look for us.”
Rashida said, “You could have, you know, at least pretended not to listen.”
“Sorry. Guess I’m too riled up about getting the hell out of here.” Tiffani tilted her head toward the clock above the cashier. It said 12:53. “We need to go now.”
Rashida fiddled with her phone and swiped through some screens. “All right. Follow me.” She led the way out of the gift shop to the wharf, where a tour boat was disembarking visitors. “That boat is headed to Manhattan. If we run, we can catch it.”
With sunset came the crowds, and after sunset, a show—if not quite the one the audience was expecting. John watched from the amphitheater’s west side, just offstage, where he could see the performers and the crowd, as well as all the approaches from the amphitheatre’s west. Arry covered the approaches and stage from the east.
It was a clear night. Spotlights pirouetted across the dark sky. Twilight had not cooled the air nor made it less muggy, though the promoters had installed giant electric fans that bracketed the stands and piped the air up atop them with big ducts that blew the hot air around. The secured building below the stands had an exit in a pit that separated the stage from the audience. There they’d installed a cooling unit with a duct that came up alongside the stage and blew chilled air onto the performers from the catwalk. John, standing at the top of the stairs from the pit, was glad to be an unintended beneficiary: wearing the requisite suit jacket was sheer misery in this weather, and he was dripping sweat.
Thousands had crowded into the stands over the past forty-five minutes and now sat shoulder to shoulder, fanning themselves. Their conversations added up to a din you could hear even over the fans. City and state officials sat in air-conditioned comfort in the skybox at the back, behind glass. The airship had returned from the Empire State Building around sunset, and had sunk like a giant soap bubble from high overhead to a few hundred feet above the skybox. John looked up. New York City’s skyline was reflected on the dirigible’s near side.
Halfway up the stands, two lighting towers held spotlights that swept the crowds. The stage was cast in shadow. John wore his own earpiece, mic, and radio, as well as a walkie-talkie the stage manager had provided him so she could cue him when it was time to bring out the horn.
They hadn’t dared brief Arry about Rip’s plans, nor Gil or Horace, nor the Queen Margaret security staff, nor the park rangers, nor the police—that causality shadow had long since passed, and they couldn’t risk it. John paced in the darkness offstage till the stage manager’s voice came through on his radio handset, amid a wash of static.
His walkie-talked crackled. “Angel now at standby position.” (“Angel” was the code name they’d agreed on for the trumpet.) John acknowledged, and said into his security mic, “Bring Angel on up, Patina. Stand by, Beef. Leads acknowledge.”
“Roger that,” Arry said. “Approaches all clear from the east.”
“Roger,” Rashida said. “Angel and saints now leaving secured area.”
The seconds ticked by. John’s neck hairs were bristling again: Rip had to be watching, both at this moment and through some window from the past.
A clanking came from below. Rashida said, “Angel in the pit.”
The amphitheater’s lights shut off and a hush fell across the crowd. Onstage, a pool of light appeared, and within its triple circle stood Peregrine. Her gown of red sequins and stiletto heels of crystal tossed sparkles across the faces of the crowd as she turned to acknowledge their applause. Well into her sixties now, maturity had inflected her lifelong charisma with a commanding calm. Her hair, chestnut brown with a white streak at the temple, brushed her shoulders.
Peregrine unfurled her feathered wings with a snap and soared into the air. People gasped as she swooped over their heads, and a flurry of camera flashes chased her into the darkening sky. There she joined the searchlights’ pirouettes, and then returned and alighted, silk-soft, in the pool of light onstage. “Hello, New York City!” she said into her hand mic. The crowd sprang to their feet with applause, shouts, and whistles.
By the time Peregrine had finished her grand entrance, the security team had reached the top of the stairs and were approaching. John couldn’t read Rashida’s face, but her posture was as tense as violin wire. “Angel arriving at offstage left,” he reported into his handset. Rashida gave him a querying look. Any sign of trouble? He shook his head. Nothing yet.
“All right,” he said. “Patina, you’re running back. Horace, Gil, you’re the linemen. I want you all to stay alert. You make damn sure to cover her.”
“And I want you to draw your weapons,” John told the two men. “Got it?”
Ras grimaced at him. Really? He scowled back. Yes, really.
Gil looked surprised. “That violates protocol, boss.”
“Not when I’ve got probable cause to worry about a breach,” Candle replied. Horace and Gil exchanged worried looks. Then Horace elbowed his junior partner. “Best not argue. The Candle has a hunch.” He drew his gun and removed the safety. “At least out here there’s less of a chance you’ll incinerate the bedding, boss.”
“Haha, very funny. As a matter of fact, I do have a hunch. And it’s a bad one. I’d just as soon not lose anybody tonight. That goes for you, too, Beef.”
The Beef was leaning on her mace at the far side of the pit, at offstage right, in partial shadow. She rumbled, “Oh, you know I’m always up for a bit of a melee, dear. But I’ll be mindful.”
John acknowledged Arry’s wave and then headed around the corner with the other three. They’d decided move the horn move the horn into place by going around the outside, away from the stage crew, and taking it in through the rear entrance. This was in essence an invitation to Rip; John wanted to make it easy for him to make his move before the performance, under conditions that put the fewest people at risk. They’d have a crunch getting the trumpet back inside and into Winston’s hands on the stage director’s timetable, but taking the interior route inside the enclosure would have put dozens of people at all manner of risks: the place was crisscrossed and hung with lighting and weights and equipment; collapsing stage sets and panels; trap doors; wiring, ductwork, and cables. The area surrounding the back end of the amphitheater was restricted access, and the grounds were clear of anything Rip could use to cause “accidental” harm.
They’d also have much more room to maneuver in a fight. Down the hill to the south, behind the stage, were a concrete pad, a strip of grass, and a seawall with a gravel shoreline. There was no way Rip could pen them in here. Other than his future-vision, Rip was a nat. With no need to worry about hostages, they should be able to defend against most physical attacks.
As Peregrine alighted, the stage manager’s voice came over John’s handset. “Security, ready for Angel backstage in sixty; acknowledge.”
“Roger that,” John said into his handset. He gave the trumpet bearers the hand signal and they set out along the walkway outside the amphitheater stage: Gil and Horace in the lead with guns drawn, pointed at the ground, fingers off their triggers, and Rashida carrying the horn. John faced southwest, away from the stage, toward the shadowed stretch of land and the waters beyond. The trumpet escort trio rounded the curve toward the backstage door.
“Tonight,” Peregrine said, “we celebrate the era of jazz, and the life of a legend . . .”
A roar of applause rose and as it swelled to a deafening roar, John heard several pops in succession. He started running even before it registered that the sounds were gunshots, and reached the backstage door in time to see a scene playing out in silhouette against the faint light reflecting off the Golden Lady. Rip stood behind the backstage wall, on the concrete pad above the retaining wall. He was taking aim at Rashida as Gil crumpled. Horace was already down.
“No!” John yelled. Rip fired.
But Patina was already changing—a cloud of metal shards burst outward as the bullets reached her. Bullets ricocheted off the stage wall at her back and clattered onto the pavement. Some of Patina’s shards struck Rip and he threw an arm up belatedly to protect his face. The golden trumpet in its polishing cloth landed in the pile of her shoes and clothes.
“Ah—so we’re on that track,” Rip said, and then screamed as the shards that had struck his face, arms, and torso tore free and followed the rest of the Patina-shards into the dark sky above the theater.
Peregrine continued, “One of our greatest musical stars of the past century was the dean of jazz, wild card ace Louis Armstrong, also known as Satchmo, or Pops. Born near the turn of the twentieth century, his career spanned over five decades . . .”
John heard Arry’s voice in his ear. “What’s going on, boss? Everyone OK?”
“Beef, keep station!” John yelled, his voice hoarse. If she responded to the scene now, she was dead. Rip would have planned for it. John twisted to inferno-world to gather green and purple for his team, and a crackling blast of black for Rip, which he would stuff down that fucker’s throat. The spinning reflections at the threshold caught his attention again, and he paused for the barest second to focus on the other world beyond the gap.
This time he saw a shadow moving in front of the mirrored scenes: a two-dimensional figure of shades of black, white, and gray, in the size and shape of a man. A cardboard cutout, in effect, of Rip. The scene beyond that figure in the mirrors was from up on the stands at amphitheater’s top, looking down at the stage where Peregrine had stood seconds ago. To the right in that future-image was Arry, who stood guard with her mace, facing northwest. At the left side of the stage, he saw himself keeping watch, facing southeast. And Rashida was there with the security detail, nearing the backstage entrance.
So that’s how it works.
He twisted back into his own body—where the flames tore free from his control and ripped through him, searing nerve endings, blood vessels, skin, and flesh, outside the channels he’d trained to contain them. John buckled in agony. The flames, intermingled, shot out from him every which way.
He forced himself to his hands and knees, and saw Rip’s entry, lit by his own green-and-black-bright incandescence. It was just as Tiffani had described: a man-shaped thing—all sheets and edges of mirrored glass, rippling around a center of gravity, turning from a hall of horrors into a man. Ripple Effect stood on something shiny. From the way his feet rumpled it, Mylar. Blood streamed from Rip’s face and arms. He dodged a wild bolt of John’s black flame, and another—and dove into a rampant green blast that issued from John’s mouth. The green engulfed him and the gashes on his face, chest, and arms began to heal as he tumbled.
At the instant Rip became flesh again, John regained control of his flames. Rip dashed toward his Mylar sheet—John twisted back to pull more green in for himself and the guards. But once more, the tourmaline-green fire spewed out as if he were a sieve, from every pore and orifice. And again, he saw, Rip had turned into a spinning set of mirrored future-vision blades.
Our fates are entwined, eh? he thought. When he transforms near me, my flames go berserk. And when I go to inferno-world, his future-vision goes haywire.
Rip had re-embodied yet again. He wiped blood from his mouth with a grin at him. John launched himself at Rip—summoned black en route—and stumbled through air as the other man vanished into the Mylar at his feet. John rolled onto the pavement; his back arched, racked with seizures as the black energy slipped from his control and attacked his nervous system.
John somehow fought his way back into inferno-world and dragged more green to himself, enough sheer volume to block the black energy waves’ destructive force. Then he returned to the world and—keeping the entryway open at his crown—blazing green, with no control whatsoever—he crawled back to his fallen men. Blazing green, he ran his hands over them, trying with the misfiring flames to give them enough to heal. Not enough! So he used his whole body. He lay across Horace, who was nearer. Next Gil. The flames slowly poured into each. But they both had bullet holes in their heads and were unresponsive.
Rip walked over and picked up the trumpet from Rashida’s clothes pile, pulled out his own polishing cloth, and wiped the blood off the horn. He slid it into a messenger bag he wore. Then he walked over and looked down at John, still lying between Horace and Gil’s bodies, spewing green flames.
“Give it up, Juanma,” he said. “They were dead before you got here.”
In the background, Peregrine was saying, “. . . has come to stand for freedom. Equality. Justice. Courage and resilience.”
John’s handset had fallen off his belt and lay on the sidewalk nearby. The stage manager’s voice was saying, “Repeat, cue Angel onstage. Security lead, acknowledge! Where are you guys?”
John released the last of his green flames, spent, and rocked onto his heels as Rip knelt near him. John felt a pressure in his palm and looked down. Rip had pressed the gun into it. He also saw the sticky fluid all over his white shirt and his hands—his men’s blood, black in the ebbing green pools of flame. He shook his head to clear it.
I’m supposed to do something. I’m waiting for a cue. But half his team was dead on the ground, and he couldn’t think.
“Oh, don’t torment yourself. I made sure you couldn’t save them.” Rip pointed a finger at John’s forehead and mimicked pulling a trigger. “One shot to the head for each. And I researched their body armor, of course, and chose the weapon and ammo needed to penetrate it. Plugged them each a couple times in the chest, too. Hollow-point bullets. Not much left of the crucial organs but jelly. You really should have had them in stronger armor, Juanma. Of course . . .” He shrugged. “In that case I would have used a full-auto rifle and larger-gauge bullets. I admit that would have been more of a hassle, though.”
Rage carried John to his feet. He was still clutching the handgun; he examined it. A semi-automatic; a Glock of some kind. He glanced from it to Rip, who chuckled. “By all means.” Rip spread his arms. “Let’s see you try.”
Rashida’s voice came to his ear. “John, I’ve briefed Arry and I’m in position. We’re a go for Phase Two on your signal.”
John ignored her. He checked the safety; it was still off. He took aim at Rip through the sight. He’d never shot anyone before, but he’d trained on guns and was a decent shot. It was a requirement for his investigator’s license, with annual recertification. He’d never needed to carry one, though, much less fire it.
More to the point, John had never killed. Fagan had been grooming them for it. But John had gotten out before he’d crossed that line. He still had the nightmares.
He also remembered Tiffani’s words from earlier: You’ll have to end him. The thought made him sick. He ejected the gun’s magazine and the chambered bullet, then locked the slide back and tossed it all to the ground.
He caught the flicker of disappointment in Rip’s gaze. Interesting. Suicide-by-ex-lover? Maybe the guy was getting tired of being an evil fuckhat.
“Let’s see you step away from that Mylar.”
Rip smiled. “I’m not an idiot.”
“That’s debatable.” John gestured at the bodies on the pavement behind him. “Why, Titus? What’s the point of killing my men? They were no threat to you.”
“I had my reasons.”
“I repeat,” came Rashida’s voice in his ear, “We’re a go for Phase Two, over here. What the hell are you waiting for, John?”
“Who’s dead?” Arry demanded. “What’s going on? Is that our cue?”
“Hold fast, Beef,” Rashida said.
“Oh?” John said to Rip. “Enlighten me.”
“By all means. First of all”—Rip pointed at him—“you don’t decide who lives and who dies, Juanma.” He jerked a thumb at his own chest. “I do.”
“And tonight we have a very special treat for you,” Peregrine was saying. “To play Satchmo’s own golden trumpet, we have another music legend with us. In fact, we have four!”
He’s every bit as dangerous as Tiffani said. “And it gives you a big, juicy boner, doesn’t it,” he asked, “to play God with people’s lives? I bet you even take pictures and jerk off to them later. You always had a bit of trouble getting it up, as I recall. Is this what it takes for you, now?”
“Awww, you used to like my boner. Oh!” Rip snapped his fingers. “That reminds me. The cyclist you saved earlier? Dead. Fluke accident at the hospital. Someone gave him a transfusion of the wrong drug. Medication labeling error. A few other patients died too, alas. And after all the trouble you went to.”
John’s hands spasmed into fists and yellow fire, unbidden, engulfed them. Rip said, “Careful there,” gesturing with his chin at John’s hands. “You wouldn’t want someone to get hurt.”
John shoved the yellow back and the flames guttered out.
“Still waiting for our cue, Candle,” Rashida said in his ear. He shook his head hard.
Rip glanced at his watch. “And the cop? Died, too. A few minutes ago. A buddy called in sick and he took a second shift for him. Got called in on an armed robbery and . . . bang! Rotten luck.”
Up on stage, Peregrine was saying, “. . . personal heroes. He made his first professional recording at age eleven. He had his first platinum hit at seventeen. He has won a record-breaking ten Grammys, and is the first black musician—and the only jazz musician, ever—to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Winston Marcus, performing with his Grammy-winning siblings, Ellie, Jake, and Lou Marcus, of Tungsten Paradox!”
A rising wave of applause.
“As for the driver—” Rip held up a hand at John’s start. “Relax. Her I’ve kept alive. For the moment. See? I could tell you liked her.”
John flexed his hands and forced himself to look away, out at the skyline to the east. Calm down. Stick to the plan. “You know, that’s the one thing I didn’t expect,” he told Rip. “I didn’t expect you to become a death merchant.”
“Death merchant” was the phrase they’d agreed on to trigger Phase Two.
“Confirming, Patina go for Phase Two,” Rashida said in his ear in a clipped tone. “One minute out. Hang tight.”
“Confirming, the Beef standing by,” Arry said. “Ready on your order, Candle.”
“I was a terrible influence on you, wasn’t I?” John told Rip. “I was the one who got you tangled up with Fagan. I figured once I was out of your life, you’d get out, too. The last thing I expected was that’d you’d become a bigger dickwad than he ever was.”
Rip started laughing. “Oh, dear. Oh no. That’s rich.”
“What’s so funny?”
Rip straightened and wiped away tears. “Someday I’ll have to tell you.”
“Whatever.” John stepped toward Rip at an angle. Rip pivoted, watching him warily. “What I don’t get is all this.” John swept a hand back toward his dead team members. “It all seems so crude. Unworthy of your talent.”
John took another step and caught a glimpse of movement beneath the Golden Lady. He summoned yellow fire and held it back in inferno-world, at a safe distance. Rip, frowning, converted to spinning mirrors anyway.
“Whoa—paranoid, much? Settle down there, cowboy.” John turned his hands over for Rip to examine and gave him a peek inside his suit cuffs. “See? Nothing up my sleeves. We’re just having a conversation.”
Rip returned to human form and opened his mouth to reply—and John snapped a yellow fireball right at his mouth. Eat heat, fucker!
But it passed through Rip with a hiss as he transformed back to mirror-fans—in the nick of time—and John shoved the rest of the stream back into the other world, barely in time to avoid getting cooked himself. He wiped at the sweat on his lip and forehead with his sleeve.
But he’d seen fear in Rip’s eyes. You haven’t forgotten the yellow, have you?
“You’re only hurting yourself,” Rip replied, “trying to fight me. I’m keeping count. Each act of defiance will result in someone else you care about dying. Starting with that woman, I think: the driver of the pickup. And maybe your mother after that. Or your little sister; how does that sound?
“Or how about your lieutenant instead, Patina? Or that ridiculous minotaur with the granny glasses. The Beef, is it? Ariadne. Yes, Ariadne Cerigo.”
John gritted his teeth. Hurry up, guys. A dark shape wafted down toward them from the direction of the Golden Lady. Only another few seconds . . .
John said, “Nah, that’s not your game. You kill whoever you feel like killing, whenever you feel like it, and use their deaths to manipulate the living. Until you get bored of toying with them, of course, at which point you kill them too.” John shrugged. “So whatever. Do what you’re going to do. That’s on you.
“But back to my earlier point. Guns? Really? This from a guy who can supposedly kill with a gust of wind and a gum wrapper? Not too impressive an ace, if you can’t finish the job without resorting to a hail of bullets.”
“It’s true,” Rip replied; “I take pride in my ripple effects. I think of myself more as a death artist than a death merchant. But you know, Juanma, it’s an awful lot of effort. Money, time, research . . . sometimes it’s easier to just”—he made a gun of his thumb and forefinger, pointed at John, and jerked his hand up—“cap them. Besides, in this case, it’s all part of my plan. Which brings me to the second reason I took out your guards.”
“Which is . . . ?”
“To frame you,” he said, pulling something out of his pocket.
While he spoke, Tiffani landed on the concrete pad behind them and released the handle of the black-camo hang glider she’d ridden down on.
“Hello, Rip, darlin’,” she said.
He spun. “Tiffani? What the—how did—”
“I have hidden depths.” She leaned forward and repeated herself, jabbing him in the chest with each word. “Hidden. Depths.”
He started to reply but jerked his head to stare at John as a mellow, clear tone rose from the stage. It was a trumpet, playing the opening notes of Louis Armstrong’s hit single, “Hello, Dolly,” with Ellie’s contralto voice accompanying it.
Rip opened his pack. The golden trumpet inside dematerialized and rose in a cloud of shards, which whipped around him in a miniature tornado. He screamed and beat at them.
John ran and rammed him in the gut. Rip stumbled off the Mylar sheet and John snatched it up, and shoved it into his pocket. “Beef,” John said, “Outside south quadrant, backstage door. NOW!”
The hang glider frame and nylon had risen up in a cloud of particles when the shrapnel tornado had struck Rip. Now they and the shrapnel reunited and coalesced into Rashida’s shape as the ground began to tremble. Arry galloped up in a thunder of hooves. Boom! Boom! Boom! Two tons of angry Beef bore down.
Arry skidded to a halt behind Rashida, pelting them all with rocks. She took in the sight of her team members’ bodies, the spilled blood, the back-spatter against the stage wall. Her face contorted with anger; her arm muscles bunched and she gripped her mace handle so hard John feared it might crack. She looked at John, who tilted his head toward Rip. Arry’s bellow shook the air. Her horns began swaying. She bellowed again, and stomped her right hoof rhythmically, cracking the cement.
“YOU KILLED OUR BOYS!” she thundered.
“Stand down!” John ordered. Sorry, love. This one is mine.
“You pulled a switch,” Rip said to Rashida. “How? There wasn’t time.”
“Sure there was.” Between sure and was she had sloughed off enough Patina essence to shape a trumpet in her hands. “The real one I dropped”—she let it fall—“and caught”—she obscured it in a swirl of dust near her feet—“and carried away with me while”—she spawned a second trumpet, which she held up—“leaving the fake for you to find. In the dark, it was easy.”
In the light of John’s fireballs, which he was lobbing every so often to keep the area lit, he saw Tiffani standing back a bit. She had been looking from Rashida and John to Rip to the bodies on the sidewalk. Now it was as if something in her snapped. She stalked over and whacked Rip in the face with a diamond-crusted hand, hard enough that John could hear the crack!
Rip put a hand to his cheek. “Ow! What the hell—?”
She laughed. “I have been wanting to give you a smack like that since day one.”
He balled his fists. “You lying little shit. How dare you?”
“‘How dare I?’ Oh, honey. I haven’t even started.” Her anger was incandescent. Glorious, like a fury-filled Pomeranian facing down a nervous pit bull. “You know what my mama would say about you, Mr. Titus ‘call-me-Rip’ Maguire? That you wasn’t worth pickin’ up in the road for stew, if you was hit by a truck. You sorry son of a bitch!”
She slapped him across the other cheek. Rip put a finger in his mouth and drew it out bloody.
“You should’ve just followed my directions, Megan. Now there’ll be hell to pay.” He reached out to grab her by the arm, but Tiffani slapped his hand away, hard enough to break bone. “Don’t fucking touch me, you animal.” She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder toward the dirigible. From where they stood, the stage structure obscured all but the upper edge of the giant balloon. “You put my family at risk, to try to make me kill all those airship passengers. And you intended for me to go down right along with them.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Not true. If you’d just done what I’d asked, woman, you would have been fine.”
“Don’t ‘woman’ me—I ain’t your damn woman. Besides, no way I would have been fine! You would have had me stay on that airship with a bad part on it.”
He had something in his hand that he was fiddling with—that object he’d pulled out of his pocket a moment before. John started in alarm and lunged, but Rip stepped backward, down the slope, and tossed the device into the air. John caught it. It was a remote the size of a pack of gum. He tucked it in his pocket.
Rip was saying to Tiffani, “I’d already switched the parts out during the recall, actually. The replacement part I gave you was just a little test. I might have found a way to save you, if you’d shown any loyalty. How did you get off the airship, anyway?”
“You ‘might have’ saved me? Fuck you. You and your damn shitty loyalty tests.” Then her eyes grew wide. “Wait. You mean—”
“Correct! It didn’t make any difference to the outcome. I just wanted to see if you’d actually do it for me. I couldn’t tell in the dark whether you swapped them out. And apparently you did not . . . ?”
She only glared at him. He sighed. “I never could get a good read. Still, it was all very entertaining, watching you go to the trouble you did on that caper. Jumping over electric fences and climbing through windows, getting all grubby for little ol’ me? Your mama wouldn’t have believed it.” He laughed. “I wish I’d been able to film it.”
She balled her fists. “Titus Maguire, you’re a terrible, hateful person, and someday—if I have anything to say about it—you’ll have your comeuppance.” She turned away. John saw the haunted look beneath her anger.
“It’s like I said at the very beginning,” Rip said. “In some scenarios, you become a trusted ally, not in others. It wasn’t to be. A shame.” Without warning, he bolted and leapt off the retaining wall. John ran to the edge. Rip was staggering to his feet.
John blasted a red fireman’s slide from the edge of the retaining wall down to the gravel shore, leaped onto it, and summoned blue as he slid. Patina swooped down off the retaining wall in a cloud. John fired a raging sapphire blast at Rip’s receding back as his momentum propelled him off the slide and onto his feet.
Rip must have heard the crack of the blast’s release—he dove aside and the frigid bolt skimmed past, carrying ice chunks and boiling liquid air. The blast struck the waters of the harbor about a third of the way to the far shore, and plowed an ice wedge several yards long through the water. The force of the blast caused the wedge-shaped iceberg to rear like an unruly horse and land with a splash. Fog billowed out and carbon dioxide snow fell along the blast’s length, then vanished in the hot night air.
John’s last light globe had fizzled out, but the lights from the amphitheater provided enough illumination for him to see Rip scramble back to his feet. The Beef landed behind John with a ground-shaking boom and a grunt. Her mace flew past John at Rip. The spiked ball grazed Rip between shoulder and head, close enough to take off an ear, and landed in the mud near the water’s edge. Rip stumbled again, but he had covered most of the distance to the waterline.
John pursued, drawing more blue from inferno-world as Arry thundered past him at a four-limbed dead run, her hooves throwing mud and gravel high. She took care to stay out of his line of sight—Good play, Arry!—and he loosed another blast of blue at the spot between Rip’s shoulder blades. But he hadn’t been paying attention to Rashida, behind him. As soon as Arry had struck she’d made her own move, from the left, and a field of steel marbles now bounced across the sloping hillside into Rip’s path.
Rip’s heels struck the marbles and staggered. John’s next blue blaze caught Rip’s right arm as it cartwheeled up—but the bulk of the ice blast sailed on over his head. Rip threw his hands in front to catch his fall and his right arm snapped off at the elbow. John recoiled as Rip tipped over and bashed his head on the ground.
But he barely seemed to notice the amputation. He clambered over the handle of Arry’s massive mace and rolled down to the water’s edge, into the water—
—and at its touch, turned to spinning-mirror fans—
—and the dark water lit up in a rapidly expanding wave, revealing two-dimensional planes that spun off from that point where he’d entered—further self-spawning planes fanning from the present instant into endless futures in black and white and shades of grey—as far as the eye could see. Then all went dark again. The ripples in the water settled. Rip was gone.
John’s fists went to his hip bones. He shook his head. “Well, shit.”
“Sorry, Candle,” Rashida said as she reformulated. “You would have had him.” She was slowly growing as her Patina marbles bounced back to her and soaked in where they struck.
“No.” John rubbed his head with both hands. “I should have had a closer eye on what you were doing. Too pissed off to think clearly.” He called up red flames to build them a staircase up the retaining wall and then green to heal their injuries. Rashida floated up and reassembled next to Tiffani, who was sitting on the ground crying, while John and Arry hustled up the makeshift, burning, gooey stairs.
The stairway wasn’t a great batch of red; the flames lasted only long enough for Arry to scramble up beside him onto the platform, then collapsed in smoldering puddles on the shore. “Did you know he could do that?” John asked Tiffani, gesturing out at the harbor. “Use water as a mirror like that?”
Tiffani shook her head. She used her wrist to rub mascara off her cheeks. “It appears there was much I did not know about that man.”
“And now he has thousands of miles of continuous mirrored surface to exit from,” John said. “Fucking great.” He went over and knelt next to Horace’s and Gil’s bodies.
“Candle, hon,” Tiffani said. He looked over at her. “From what he said . . . I think the airship is sabotaged, after all.”
“What? Is that what you two were talking about?”
“Yes! He was saying he’d already sabotaged the airship himself. That whole swapping-out parts business he had me do was just him messing with me.”
John headed toward the front of the stage. People wouldn’t have noticed what had happened to the water—the amphitheater and the Golden Lady would have blocked their view—but the fireworks might have been visible from the edges of the upper amphitheater seating.
Winston Marcus said something, his sister Ellie replied, and laughter rippled through the stands.
As John came around toward the stage entry point, a sound like multiple bells chiming came from the dirigible above, and then a growl that grew louder, like a giant garbage disposal chewing metal. John looked up. First came a loud clanging and then the sound of ricochets. Black spots appeared along the dirigible’s side. Correction: in its side. The airship’s frame shuddered and it listed sideways.
“It’s coming down!” He spun. “There’ll be a panic—too few exits! Beef, you’re on audience evacs—stop a stampede if you can. Patina, rescues! Tiffani, backstage evacs! Now go! Go!”
His two seconds ran forward and Tiffani yanked open the backstage door. John followed, dodging through the clutter and commotion and out onto the stage. Peregrine and the musicians were still there, but he ignored them. Ignored the crowd’s screams, the shouting. Nothing mattered now but the airship.
The airship was maybe five hundred feet up. Tears were opening in the dirigible’s near side as well, as its front end swung around. The airship was dropping fast, coming forward. It would plow headfirst into the stage in seconds—eight, maybe ten.
John marked his heartbeat and twisted back into the forest of fire. And he caught that glimpse of spinning mirrors at the threshold of the inferno.
Oh, so you’re still around, are you? I’ll deal with you later, then. If I survive this.
Wandering among the vast, coiling energy towers, he tried to work up his nerve. Gobs and rivulets like he was used to weren’t going to cut it. He’d have to try something new. Oh, hell. His body, back there on Earth, was standing at ground zero, anyway. No point in drawing this out.
A wine-red cable swung near, blazing bright and strong, cool and pliable as he could hope for, as big around as a sequoia. One of the smaller ones, in fact, for a primary firestalk. That was some consolation. He put a hand out. Paused. Here goes.
The cable bent toward his outstretched hand. He could feel its ferocious, brilliant presence. Something there knew. Responded. Maybe sentience, maybe not, but there was a beingness. A purpose. Maybe it would understand. Couldn’t hurt to ask. “Try not to kill me, would you?” he said, and drew it in.
People were already clearing out of the backstage area by the time Tiffani got there. She ran past them and looked through the wings. “What the—!”
The musicians were still out front! She saw Peregrine loft herself up, and ran out onto the stage. Winston Marcus was shouting into his mic, trying to get everyone to calm down, but it was hard even for her to hear him over the screams and shouts of the crowd beyond the pit.
Beyond the stage, pandemonium raged. This was a losing battle—people had lost their minds. They pushed and punched and trampled each other. The airship’s downward drift was arcing more sharply into a fall. Tiffani could see the faces of the people in the gondola. Her heart rate leapt. That could have been her, up there.
Like her falcon namesake, Peregrine dove, grabbed two little kids from their parents’ outstretched arms, and carried them out beyond the walls toward the Golden Lady. Patina swooped over, cushioning someone’s fall when they got shoved over the edge of the wall as people pushed their way down the stairs.
Then the Candle, standing mid-stage, erupted in flame.
Tiffani had never seen anything quite like this.
Oh, sure—sometimes you might get a look at traces of his fire before they emerged—a glow under his skin, or flames flickering along his flesh. You might catch a fuzzy glimpse of bone or organ lit up within. Then the flames would stream from his hands—or his head or butt or wherever, if he was goofing off. Maybe he’d use the full length of his arms sometimes, if he wanted a bigger blast.
But now he was the fire. A blazing figure from which a dozen jets of burgundy flame thick as tree trunks snaked out, so bright and fast you had to shield your eyes, with a crackling roar so loud you covered your ears. The fire figure swayed and spun, flinging energies out across the stands and back. The fire cables over the stands coiled together, weaving themselves into a massive mesh. They soared up to ensnare the lighting towers—piled up along the skybox’s roof—entangled themselves in flaming knots along the front rail of the catwalk—looped and wormed along the eaves at the front of the stage.
The airship, meanwhile, grew bigger, and yet bigger.
“Holy fuck,” Tiffani said.
The airship was truly falling by now—massive, twice the size of the amphitheater. It headed toward the net nose first. People below were screaming, pushing each other. As the last gouts of red flame dripped from John’s arms, she saw him look up at the ship. He was wobbling at the stage’s front edge. Right before a two-story drop into the pit.
Shit—he’s going down. She ran all out, leaped over a knocked-down chair and music stand, and skidded to her knees—just in time to grab his belt and yank as he buckled. Instead of pitching forward, he toppled back into her lap, unconscious.
Meanwhile, the dirigible had bounced up out of the net, bowed in the middle, and with a buck came back down. Its nose struck the stage roof with a crunch that drove cracks through the ceiling and down the walls. She shielded John’s head and upper torso, and went full-on glam till chunks of roofing stopped falling on and around them. Crashes came from backstage as the backdrops collapsed and equipment got knocked over by falling debris. Up in the stands, the metal lighting towers groaned and bent as the airship settled. The flaming red safety web sagged under its weight. Screams went up again from the people beneath the airship. But the web held.
Well, the pilots are goners unless they got out beforehand, Tiffani thought. Their gondola had struck the stage roof smack in the middle on that second bounce. But the passenger gondola had by some miracle escaped being crushed. It hung at sideways at an angle now, its front pointed down, and was gradually settling toward the empty chairs of the auditorium, as the wine-colored flame mesh stretched and began to melt under its weight.
Behind her, a loud fanfare pierced the commotion. Winston Marcus held up the trumpet and spoke loudly. “Folks, I’m no ace, like old Pops, and this here horn isn’t magic, either. But music itself has power. So let’s use the power of Satchmo’s music on this historic trumpet to gather up our own courage and save each other’s lives. How about we get everybody out safely?”
Some quieted and turned. Ellie said, “That’s right, we’ll stay right here with you till everyone is safe. Y’all help your elders, now, and all those folks that need more time, who might be using wheelchairs or canes or walkers. Help those folks with younger kids and babies.”
Winston lifted the trumpet to his lips and started playing the blues number “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” to a lively beat. Ellie sang while Jake came from the wings playing his sax, with Lou on his mouth harp. People in the stands and aisles had calmed down. They started to sing, too, as they stood, helping up those who had fallen. The lines began to move.
Before she started the second verse, while her brothers kept playing, Ellie said, “Now folks, I spy Ms. Ariadne up there in Row P, and looks like she could sure use your help to evacuate some who are folks stranded in the gondola. Could we get half a dozen of our stronger and younger folks to help her?”
Tiffani saw that the Beef had braced herself on top of the seats and was reaching up as far as she could, extending the handle of her giant mace upward with both hands. This gave her a good eighteen feet of reach. The gondola door hung open, mostly downward, a few feet above that. The first gondola passenger was sliding down the handle to grab onto the joker’s horns. Patina and several nats came over to assist her down, and Peregrine came over, too. Another group of people were forming hand-swings to carry out the wounded as they were lowered to the stands.
Tiffani scooted out from underneath John and laid his head on the floor. Every inch that wasn’t covered in clothes was covered in webs of busted blood vessels, swelling, and bruises and torn skin. He looked like he’d been beat up from the inside out.
“Candle?” she said. No response. She touched his arm and he groaned. His eyes opened. His sclera were filled with burst capillaries, and blood leaked from his eyes corners. She feared he might have blinded himself. More blood trickled from his ears and mouth. His suit jacket and shirt were in tatters, and so was the flesh of his torso, where high-pressure flames had torn through him.
“Candle, can you hear me? John?” She tried to help him sit up, but no go—he emitted an anguished scream and collapsed. Tiffani bit her lip. If only he could get some of that green flame for himself.
She heard sirens. “Help’s coming. Hang on.”
She stood to see if she could find a medic, but the Candle started flailing his arm behind him, as if reaching for something, groaning. Then he was encased in brilliant green flames, and thrashing and yelling fit to scare the livestock. Winston and the others broke off and looked over, alarmed. Tiffani waved at them to keep on playing. “It’s OK! Green heals! He’ll be all right.”
Soon the Candle grew quiet, and the flames ebbed. He moaned and opened his eyes. With Tiffani’s help he sat up, and looked out at the vast, fiery mesh.
“Wow,” he said.
“Wow,” she agreed. She looked him over. His body was completely healed. “I hope you brought a change of clothes, darlin’, because we’re all getting a damn fine view. Not that I mind . . .”
The Candle looked down at himself, at his tattered, bloody clothes. “Damn. That was my best suit.” He stood and tried to drape the tatters strategically. He looked around. “Where are my shoes?”
“Your guess is as good as mine!”
“Oh well. Just—do what you can to help, would you?” he said. “I’ll be back.” He started past her toward backstage.
“Wait!” Tiffani grabbed his arm. “Where are you going?”
“I have to stop Rip before he gets away.”
She sighed. If only. “But how? He’s long gone.”
“Not yet he’s not. And I know where he is.” He dropped his earpiece and radio into her palm and pressed her fingers around it. “Tell Patina and the Beef, would you? I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
John stepped onto the concrete pad outside the enclosure. Lower Manhattan’s city lights shone across the water. A Coast Guard boat approached from the north. Help was coming for the wounded. Good.
His red flames were fading now, but they seemed to have done their work; the airship gondola looked empty. So did the amphitheater, from what he could see. People had dispersed across the grounds below the Golden Lady’s pedestal on benches or hill slopes or in clusters along the walkway that encircled the monument. Vendors were passing out ice and free snacks. It was all starting to take on a carnival aspect. Maybe the casualties would be lower than he’d feared.
A police helicopter shone a searchlight down onto the dirigible’s deflated remains. The fabric draped across the amphitheater’s front and its own damaged structure like a satin shroud over shattered bones. Arry had gotten up onto the stage rooftop somehow—Holy shit, Ma, there’s a minotaur on the roof!—and was using her mace handle and a cinder block as a lever to raise the dirigible up. A cloud of Patina particles slipped into the gap beneath.
John hesitated, then got going. He circled the amphitheater and entered the restricted area at a run, past where Gil’s and Horace’s bodies lay, to the southern seawall, and leapt down onto the rocky shore where the drop was shallowest. He crossed the sloping gravel as swiftly as he could. No one was in sight. All the helicopter and speedboat action was on the other side of the amphitheater.
How many have died because of you, Titus? How many more will?
He reached the southernmost point if the island, where the waters of the bay lapped at the shore, and lobbed a yellow fireball skyward. There it was! The iceberg, right where it had been in the image he’d seen just a moment ago, in Titus’s whirling mirror-blades future-vision. The berg bobbed along about a hundred feet out or so, headed toward the Verrazano Narrows. A small dark shape showed up against the white ice.
If I never touch red flame again it’ll be too soon, he thought, and shuddered, but still he twisted back and harvested enough to make a net with. Then he cast it out to snare the iceberg and pulled it in—and harvested-wove-cast-and-pulled again, and again, and again—till the ice scraped up against the shore nearby, dripping red flame. He waded over.
It was Rip, all right. The other man lay atop the ice, dead or unconscious. A web of dark runnels fanned out atop the ice—that must be blood from his injury. The rivulets had spread the length and width of the fifteen-foot-long ice wedge. But it was best to be sure.
John bound Rip up in red flame till he glowed like a Christmas ornament, dragged him off the ice, and pulled him the rest of the way onto the shore. He checked for a pulse. Rip was still alive.
“What the—?” Rip opened his eyes and saw John. “Well, shit.”
John said, “Guess there wasn’t as much blood as it looked like. Pity.”
With a grunt, Rip struggled to sit up. He wiped his mouth with his left hand and laughed. “Hell of a thing.” He leaned over, cradling the stump of his right arm. He’d gotten his belt around it, John saw, but blood was still dribbling out. His skin was so white it was almost transparent in the dimness, and his lips were blue. He wiped his mouth with his left hand, looked over at John. “Well . . . I almost made it.”
“You wanted me to find you.”
Rip rolled his eyes. “Uh, no . . . I really didn’t.”
“Bullshit.” Rip made no reply. “You see it, too. I know you do.”
“What, the linked portals?” Rip shrugged. “I didn’t know it was you. Not for a long time.”
“That time in the hospital room, when I came back and you got burned.”
“What about it?”
“You tried to use your own ace on me somehow, while I was lying there in a coma, didn’t you? That was why my ace finally finished its turn. That’s why the flames went out of control. I remembered seeing those mirror flashes then, too. From when you left—”
“When I returned, actually.”
“—it forced my own portal open—”
“—and I got caught in the blast. Yeah.”
“So the accident was your fault. Not mine.”
Rip gave him a sidelong look. There wasn’t enough ambient light here for John to read his expression. “I’d love to reminisce with you some more, old buddy, but I could use some of that green flame of yours right about now.”
John snorted. “Dream on.”
“Really?” Rip demanded. “Really. You’re going to let me bleed out. Come on!” John only looked at him. He slumped back to rest his head on the ground. “Well, god damn. Didn’t think you had it in you.”
More time ticked past.
“What’s your body count, Titus?”
Rip looked over. “I lost count.” He was breathing heavily now.
“I don’t believe you. I think you know exactly how many. In fact, I’m willing to bet you have a little shrine for each of your victims. A death garden you lovingly tend.”
Rip gave him a sharp look. Uh-huh. Thought so.
A helicopter passed overhead, shining its searchlight. Rip tried to lift an arm to wave at it, but he’d grown too weak. The searchlight missed them and moved on.
“Come on,” John urged him. Brag a little. You know you want to.”
“I’ve been wondering,” John said, “exactly when your ace must have turned. I remember in eighth grade when you befriended me, back in Boston, and how everyone warned me away from you. Said you were cruel. A bully. I thought they were the bullies. I couldn’t believe you’d do all the things they said. You were so nice to me, and at a bad time, after my father died.
“Did you really try to kill your little brother?”
Rip’s head drooped lower. John saw him smile. “He deserved it.”
“Had your card turned by the time we met?” Rip didn’t respond. “It had, hadn’t it?” Rip looked over at him, and John saw the answer in his gaze. It had.
“So I was . . . what? A lab experiment?”
“My first,” Rip said. “My very first.”
“Your first what? Your first love? First victim? First time you fucked a guy?”
“All of the above.” Rip shook his head, as if he were trying to stay awake. “It’s just no good, though. Not unless I can .”
“What’s no good? Unless you can what? Kill? Torment? Ruin lives?”
Rip giggled. “And they have no idea. You, Fagan, everybody. No fucking clue.” His laugh was a rattle. John leaned closer, to hear better. “Everything that happened. Those little twists of fate that kept . . . messing things up for you.” He shook his head. “Even your card turning.” He leaned close. “Even your dad’s.” His eyes glittered in the dark.
John’s hands spasmed into fists. “You caused my dad’s card to turn?”
Rip pressed a bloody finger to John’s lips.
“Shhh.” He whispered. “Wrecked your perfect little world, didn’t I, Juanma? Your perfect little family. Made you end up on the streets. Made you a criminal. A slave to Fagan. Ha! I was just a kid—and I did all that. You were my fucking masterpiece.” Another delirious giggle. “God, I’ve wanted to tell you this for so long, Juanma. But you were too easy. A perfect target. So needy! So anguished! Afraid to come out. Sure your dad would disown you. I solved that one for you, though, didn’t I?” John jerked. He wanted to choke the life out of Titus with his bare hands. “And after he died, you were so grateful for my attention . . . ‘Somebody loves me!’ And then so afraid I’d leave you if I found out you also liked banging girls. Such drama! I had you running in circles, worrying about how to protect poor, sensitive Titus . . .
“Really, Juanma, you were so much more fun to play with than Tiffani. That one . . .” He sighed. “She saw right through me, from the start.”
After a minute he looked over. “Does it feel cold to you?”
He released a long, slow breath, and didn’t inhale.
John snarled. “Motherfucker.” He gripped Rip by the shoulders—slapped his face. “I’m not done with you.” No response. “All right, we’ll do it your way. For old time’s sake.” John twisted back, drew in green flame, and returned, and gave him a few drips of it. Just enough to give him another few breaths’ worth. Rip gasped. His eyes fluttered open, and grew wide with fear. “Don’t . . .”
“‘Don’t?’ Don’t what, Titus? Don’t toy with you? The way you’ve toyed with everyone else? The way you’ve done with me?”
John shook him again, hard. Then he set his head down, gently, and sat there cross-legged, looking at his face. Seeing the boy inside the man. The blond-haired, green-eyed boy he’d given up everything for, and then given up, to save his own life.
I knew. I did know. Some part of me knew what he was. And wanted him anyway.
“Did you ever love me, Titus?” he asked. But Rip’s green-eyed gaze had gone glassy. John sighed. “Don’t answer that. It was rhetorical.”
He buried his face in his hands and stayed that way for a long while.
Finally he stood and dragged Rip’s body back out into the water, hefted it up onto the iceberg and shoved it to the middle of the wedge with more gouts of red. He harvested more ice-blue flame to seal it deep inside. Rip’s transport would need to last a good long time, to make it out to the Atlantic. John gave the iceberg a good, hard shove and a kick.
He thought about their earlier fight, and Titus’s amputated arm, lying at the edge of the water. He had an overpowering urge to go over and torch it all. Erase all evidence of Titus’s presence. But crime scene; duty to preserve the evidence. All that.
Consciousness of guilt, much, Juanma?
Rashida materialized next to him. “Well, you look like shit.”
He looked her over. “And you don’t! It’s not fair.”
“Patina hath her privileges.” She shifted her outfit into something more casual: a pink leather jacket over grey silk, charcoal grey leggings, and flats. They both watched the iceberg recede into the dark.
“I wonder if some boat is going to run into it.”
“Most likely, with your luck.”
They looked at each other. “You saw?” he asked.
“I saw. I heard.” She paused. “You going to be all right?”
John looked at his hands. His remembered them gripping Titus’s shoulders, just now, and last night, his ass. Remembered the taste of Glenlivet on Titus’s tongue then, and the faces of his own men, slackened and bloodied in death, just now. He had no words. Instead, after a moment, he flexed the fingers of his right hand, curled the fingers up like flower petals and brought a different color flame to each. They spun, little ballerinas—cherry flame, and lemon, mint and royal and periwinkle, and in the center, a will-o’-the-wisp of winged, smoky, crackling black.
All the power I can imagine at my fingertips—more yet, if I ever decided to risk it—and in the end, I was nothing more than a lover’s broken toy, all these years. He shook his head and blew the flames out. Jeez, Candle-man—no wonder you gave up on relationships. And on your art.
“I’m going to quit,” he told Rashida.
She stared. “You what?”
“I’m going to quit, and recommend you as my replacement.”
“Don’t get me wrong; I’m flattered,” she said. “But . . . why?”
He shrugged. “I . . . hate paperwork?”
She threw her head back and laughed that belly-deep laugh of hers. It summoned a smile that he hadn’t thought he had in him. “Don’t quit just yet. For one thing, I’m not sure I want the job. And second, I don’t think we’re done with all the ‘ripple effects’ left over from that evil fuck.” She lifted her chin toward the berg, now nearly invisible at the far end of the bay. “You’ll want Chubb to have your back when and if the shit hits the fan.”
“I doubt they will, anyway.”
“Oh, I dunno. We’ll see.”
John built them a staircase to the top of the retaining wall and they walked together toward the amphitheater. The statue towered overhead, casting a soft, reflected glow that lit their way. He could see the Beef’s silhouette, where she stood silent sentry over the bodies of Gil and Horace, with the trumpet strapped to her back. The edges of his mouth pulled down.
Rashida paused. He turned back to her.
“Did you mean it about leaving the company?” she asked. He thought it over. “Yeah. Maybe. I think so.”
“Well, then! Close enough.”
“Close enough to what?”
She slapped him on the arm. “Close enough to when you’re at the you-think-so-maybe-not-my-boss-anymore point that we won’t get dinged by HR. Besides which, fuck it.”
“Uh . . . I’m still not following.”
“Wow, you are out of it. Fine, I’ll spell it out. We’ll be up all night dealing with the fallout this night’s horror show, of course.” She waved her arm to encompass their fallen team members, the shredded mass of the airship, the sirens and lights. “And then you are going to authorize three days of PTO for you, me, and Arry.”
“Makes sense. Not to mention six months of company-sponsored, top-notch trauma therapy.”
She nodded. “At a minimum! And, once all that is all lined out, you’re going to grab your fifth of fancy scotch and meet me at my place. Whereupon we shall throw back a couple of drinks, snort some purple sparkly shit, and get frisky.”
“Wait. What?” He blinked, confused. ‘I thought you were mad at me.”
“That’s right, John. I’m mad as hell. And I’ll probably swear at you a lot.”
“That’s fair . . .”
“And I’ll want your life story.” She poked him in the chest. “The real version, this time. Which I’ve more than earned.”
“You really truly have.”
“But the important thing is that we’re going to fuck each other’s brains out, John. We’re going to climb into bed and fuck each other. We’re going to fuck and fuck until we forget what a horrible shitty day this has been.” She crooked her pinkie at him. “What do you say?”
He eyed her pinkie. “I dunno, Ras . . . that’d take an awful lot of fucking.”
“Exactly.” She wiggled the finger. “C’mon, Candle-man. Don’t wait till sunrise to light me up, here. You in or you out?”
He laughed. “All right. Good plan.” He lifted his own pinkie, but she pulled hers back. “On one condition. You have to shower first.”
“Deal,” he said, and took her pinkie in his.
“Ripple Effects” copyright © 2021 by Laura J. Mixon
Art copyright © 2021 by Micah Epstein