I’ve always liked night markets. Something about the hustle-bustle of people doing business under the stars appeals to me. This one was situated in the ruins of a Greek temple on top of a mesa on Santa Fe Prime, and I was enjoying it—I like the desert almost as much as I like the nighttime.
“Milo! Hey, Milo Vitre!”
A gun dealer in the traditional red cloak and domino mask waved at me. He was a nine-foot steam-powered golem I’d met years ago at a monastery in High London while recuperating after a difficult case. I strolled over to his stall. We shook.
“How’s business, Boris?” I said.
The golem shrugged. “Can’t complain,” it boomed. “Say what you will about gunrunning, but I never have any trouble paying the mortgage. How is it with you? Kill anything interesting lately?”
“Assisted on a kill on an alternate Alaska last month. A xenospecies that lives on some rock near Proxima Centauri asked me to consult on an infestation earlier this week, but I don’t think I’m going to go.”
“I don’t do extrasolar travel. There are a whole lot of worlds and a whole lot of planes in this solar system and I don’t see the point of taking a ship someplace where I’ve got no authority, no prospect of backup if things go south, and I can’t even take the train home if the gig isn’t working for me.”
Fairfax was chewing on something. Normally this isn’t a problem—Fairfax can snack on rebar—but when it’s something squishy, I get concerned. I crouched down to pry her jaws apart and a fusillade of what sounded like .50 caliber obliterated Boris’ stall. I hit the deck.
Boris growled and cut loose with something belt-fed. So did a lot of his customers. A series of hissing and popping noises indicated quick, localized changes in air pressure as stallholders miniaturized fragile stock and teleported out. I ducked behind a huge sandstone pillar and peered out gingerly. A tall, thin guy in a dark red greatcoat was crouched behind an inflatable Kevlar barricade, working the crank of an old-fashioned Gatling gun.
“What’s the matter, Milo? Don’t like being on the receiving end?”
I huddled behind the column. Lucien Murdock wasn’t a troubleshooter anymore—he’d had his license revoked and his tattoos forcibly removed after he got caught taking credit for one of my kills—but he didn’t need regulated ink to be dangerous. I wasn’t going to risk sending Fairfax in after him—we’d worked together before he went bad, and he knew how the dog and I operated.
I dug a little drawstring bag that was bigger on the inside than on the outside out of the watch pocket of my jeans and rummaged around in it until I found a Thompson submachine gun and a couple of fragmentation grenades. I checked the tommy-gun’s drum magazine, risked a look around the pillar, raked Lucien’s machine-gun nest with explosive flechettes to keep his head down and lobbed a grenade over the lightweight armored wall. There was a crackling sound as his techno-magical greatcoat dedensified, rushing his body’s component molecules off to parts unknown, a muffled explosion from behind the bunker, then silence.
I sat down heavily against the pillar. This was the third time in six months I’d run into Murdock, and I still didn’t know what he wanted. The obvious answer was revenge, but Lucien didn’t think that small. Money was a possibility, but the woman he’d stolen for was dead, the final victim of The Harlequin of Tears—an Ecthros he’d assured Miskatonic University that he had personally ushered into the shadow dimension he kept in the folds of his greatcoat a week previously.
The irony had escaped no one, including Lucien. He’d had his ink forcibly removed and done five years for making a false report, but no one had had the heart to push it further than that. His lover had died an ugly death, and the general feeling was that he’d suffered enough. No one had seen him since his release.
I looked around for Fairfax. She was sniffing Murdock’s bunker. I smiled. Now that the little dog had his scent, she could track him anywhere. She turned to me and whined interrogatively. I shook my head. Murdock’s coat didn’t work like a cherub. His mode of transportation was slower than a dimensional gate or an Amtrak train’s interplanar jump booster, but much harder to follow, and I was in no shape for another fight. Instead I got out my handheld and opened a channel to Miskatonic. “Frank?” I said. “You got a minute?”
Fifteen minutes later I was in Dr. Frank Torosian’s study. As the Dean of Dark Arts, Frank is the most powerful magician alive. He’s also the host of a Tantarian Blood Demon that goes by “Isaac,” and is morally flexible to a degree that makes me uncomfortable. Frank’s in charge, though, so I smile and nod where appropriate and mostly do what I’m told.
Frank listened to my story without interrupting and steepled his fingers. “He doesn’t like you much, does he?”
“No. He claimed one of my kills, and I testified against him at the trial. But that can’t be it. Lucien is many things, but he isn’t petty. He wants something, I just don’t know what.”
Frank pushed a dove-gray cardboard box across the old mahogany desk. “Take a look at this.”
I opened the box. The device inside was long and thin, with a handle and a trigger and a long, narrow blade in the center. It was stamped with the eagle logo that proclaimed it to be Federal property, with severe penalties for unauthorized use.
“Tattoo knife. Oh, hell.” I sat up. “He wants his ink back.”
“Got it in one.” Frank got up and went to the window. It was midnight, as it always was at Miskatonic, and stars shone over the quad that shone nowhere else. “I had Amos Bridegroom give Murdock’s house a once-over after your run-in with him earlier this month. Murdock had it locked up tight and rigged it to explode if anyone teleported in. Amos, being Amos, went straight through the living room wall with that acid fog of his. He found that thing on a stand in the bedroom.”
”Hard for him to cut out anyone’s tattoos if we’ve got his knife. Nothing else can do that.”
Frank walked back over to his desk and tossed me a cardboard box identical to the first. It was empty. “He has another one,” he said. “Kill him if you can, but get that knife.” He walked to the door and held it open for me. “Don’t hesitate to call in if you need backup.”
“Have Fafnir follow me around for a while. Lucien doesn’t have anything that can stop him.” Fafnir is a dragon the size of an aircraft carrier. He takes a dim view of people who take a poke at a troubleshooter. No one knows how Frank got him on the payroll, but rumor has it that there’s a factory that clones maidens fair working overtime on Isaac’s homeworld.
“No one does. Good luck, Milo.”
The dog followed me out.
I took the Amtrak from Miskatonic to Mars Prime instead of using my cherub to open a dimensional gate. I walked the twenty blocks home rather than take a cab. Lucien and I had never been friends, but there had been mutual respect between us; we were both survivors. Troubleshooting is a dangerous job, and we’d been doing it for ten years apiece. He’d drawn The Laughing Razor into the shadow realm he kept in his greatcoat, avenging my friend Meg; I’d called in a marker with the assassin cats of Ulthar and teleported them in en masse to do battle with The Nest of Serpents, saving his life. At the end of the day, though, I do the job because it needs doing, and he did it because it provides opportunities to make dark money on the side.
I let myself into my apartment, packed a backpack, a magic kit—a small copper box full of colored chalk, holy water, blessed wire, and other tools—and a leash and squeaky toy for Fairfax. We took a cab to the Amtrak Central Terminal. Lucien was looking for me, and I saw no reason to let my neighbors become collateral damage. I bought us a ticket apiece to Neptune Alpha. I have a house there. It would be a good place to hang out under the circumstances—wide-open prairie as far as the eye can see. I could call in Fafnir if I had to without anyone else getting hurt.
The train made a stopover at Bombay Prime and the dog and I had dinner at a quiet, torch-lit vegetarian diner run by sacred cows. The place was just this side of deserted. Two thin-faced scarecrows with fixed grins and empty eyes huddled together at one end of the counter, muttering darkly about brimstone and dishonor. Every once in a while one dipped the forefinger of one straw-filled glove into a steaming bowl of blood and drew a glowing sigil in the air, where it hung for a moment, sparking and popping.
We ate, paid and went back to the train. When I opened the compartment, Murdock was sitting in the far corner, toying with a flat black handgun. Wisps of shadow steamed from his greatcoat
“Hey, Milo,” he said. “Sit down.”
I sat. “There is no way you’re walking out of here unassisted, Lucien,” I said. “I’ve got a cemetery angel on my back that says that gun’s useless, and if you pull the trigger anyway you’re going to get an Amtrak Leviathan on your ass before you can even think about firing up that greatcoat.” Amtrak is famously neutral when it comes to armed disputes—not even Federal contractors like troubleshooters are allowed to use force on a train or in a station except in self-defense without permits signed in triplicate. It employs giant magical spiders called Leviathans to keep the peace, which they do by jumping on offenders from ambush and eating them.
He turned and pointed the gun at Fairfax. “This is loaded with shadow matter from the caged singularity I keep in my coat. For what it’s worth, it’d cut through that reactive armor you have inked on your back like a knife through soft cheese, but it’s really for the dog. I don’t know for sure what it’ll do to that star in her stomach, but my best guess is that it’ll snuff it—turn her an ordinary Schnauzer. Might kill her, too, but again, this is all speculation on my part.”
I tasted copper. “What do you want?”
“You know what I want.” He produced the tattoo knife. “Tell Fairfax to go to the other end of the train and stay there.”
I turned to the little dog. “Go. I’ll be okay.”
She backed out into the hall. When the compartment door had closed behind her, Lucien produced a pair of handcuffs. “Take off your shirt and cuff your hands behind your back.”
I took off my shirt and held out my hand. He handed me the cuffs. I promptly cuffed his outstretched arm, ducked under the gun, and punched him in the nose. “Don’t you ever threaten my dog, you fucking mutt,” I growled, pulled him in with the cuffs and hit him in the mouth with the point of my elbow.
Lucien spat blood and butted me in the face with the top of his head. He hit me in the temple with the butt of the gun, stepped back as I stumbled, and slapped me in the face with the barrel. I felt a tooth break; the pain was debilitating. I went down on one knee and he pistol-whipped me again. There was a glint of light on metal, an agonizing burning in my left shoulder and I felt the little cherub tattooed on my arm wink out. I rolled onto my back as he pulled the blade out of my arm and the big blue robot tattooed on my chest leapt off of me, grew fourteen feet in a tenth of a second and punched Lucien through the bulkhead. He landed in a heap on the ground and didn’t move.
There was a blur of iron-gray fur and white teeth.
“Get back, Fairfax!” I screamed. “He’ll kill you!”
Lucien reached down, but not for the gun. He stabbed at his greatcoat with one finger, feeling for some kind of actuator. I half jumped, half fell from the train and limped toward him, sobbing for Fairfax to stay away. I needn’t have worried—in some very important ways, she’s a lot smarter than I am. She made one pass, banked off of the back wall of a Starbucks and disappeared into the hills. There was a crackling sound and Lucien’s greatcoat whisked him away. A moment later, the little dog trotted up to me. There was something silvery in her jaws.
Explaining the situation to the train’s Leviathan was tricky, but I didn’t have a choice—for the first time in ten years, I couldn’t teleport out of a bad situation. Two days later I had a fresh tattoo, a new tooth and an ass-chewing from Frank. The stunner had probably broken every bone in Lucien’s body when it blasted him out of the train, but he’d mend, and he had a cherub now.
And he could hurt Fairfax. That ate at me.
Alexander Karelis is co-founder of Writers Room DC, a boutique co-working space for professional writers of fiction and creative non-fiction and the unofficial literary nexus of Washington D.C.