19 Fifty-fifty

August 31st, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Ridge Town

Jill slipped around the motel door and cringed at the slight squeaking of the hinges. The sun was just ghosting the horizon with color. The new moon was high. The increasingly cold nights of approaching autumn had merited a jacket this time. Jill leaned on the balcony a moment, watching the eastern sky.

Eventually she dug into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out her old flip phone. Not for the first time she silently blessed its durability in a tight bind. She left it powered off most days, but now she waited for it to boot up as she watched the horizon, and wondered what would happen next. They were, after all, approaching the capital. Fred had suggested they enter through the suburbs and cross the poorer side of town next where, at least during the daytime, there was less likely to be tight security. Like anywhere around Central City these days, most of the homes here in Ridge Town were emptied, some forcibly.

Her phone beeped with quiet insistence. Fully awake to the world and immediately hungry for attention, she thought ruefully. She spent a few moments with her elbows propped on the balcony of the second floor walkway, reading over old text messages and frowning as she let them sober her. Most of them were from Fred. Doctor appointments, dinner reservations, questions about whether or not he needed to pick up groceries. It was getting harder to find what she’d been so upset about. Even so, she reminded herself, it would never work. You couldn’t raise your children in the peace of the gods if you were married to a pagan.

<Heathen, not pagan,> read one of the messages. <Don’t want to cramp their demographic.>

She stared at it a moment, wondering at its fittingness for her thoughts, then held down the power button to shut the device off. Could you even think about raising children these days, part of her said reproachfully. It was the principle of the thing, said the part still performing for the audience, lest they pick up those angry pitchforks.

“Are you free to talk?”

She turned so fast she stumbled backwards.

“Oh no, I’ll hold,” said the Slight Twice King. He stood on the balcony in front of the next room over, leaning just as she had on the concrete rail, his suit worth more than the entire floor—perhaps the entire building.

The Slight Twice King tucked the smartphone against his lapel and turned his head with a small inquisitive tilt.

“Well, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” he asked.

She couldn’t move

“Don’t worry,” he added. “You’re dreaming. I can prove it—See, the sun hasn’t moved and it’s been like, an hour.”

“Dreaming?” she echoed. It had been about ten minutes.

Into his phone he said, “I’ll call you back,” and flipping it once in hand, he strode over. Within a few seconds he was in her space and with him came his aura, a genial yet giddying thing. It made her feel like a child who had eaten too much sugar. It was a headache but also a rush. He said, “There’s my girl,” and patted her cheek.

Jill screamed inside her own head not to cringe. It was a little easier not to scream out loud, with that aura of glamour muddling the air all around her. She fought with the part of herself that seemed grateful.

“You know I’ve been worried, love,” he said. “I do worry. I worry about people. I’m a huge worrier. You’d think with this job I wouldn’t, that it’d get old, but it doesn’t.”

Jill knew she had to speak. She flinched and fought herself to keep from pulling away. She glanced at the door of the motel room. “I’m sorry I worried you,” she said. She watched him, wide-eyed like a rabbit. Had he brought the gun this time? Fred once said they worked in threes. Was this the meeting that would kill her?

The Slight Twice King narrowed his eyes. He dropped the phone into his suit pocket behind a handkerchief. Again, he patted her cheek. Again, her skin crawled. There was something odd about him, the way the world seemed cookie cut wherever he stood, like reality had to be snipped away to make room for him. Under the icing of that glamour was hidden something like broken glass. Now he cupped her face in both hands.

“You look so nervous. I’m so sorry you’re nervous. I never meant for you to be nervous. You were my helper. You’ve been so good to me. You’ve been my little star.”

The thoughts, Good, I won’t die and Gods, get him away, chased each other around in Jill’s head until she felt dizzy. She pulled her eyes away to look at the horizon.

“The sun’s coming up,” she said, trying to sound confused, to feel confused, to be something that his hands wouldn’t kill.

“No it’s not,” he said. There was that smile again, the one from her bedroom, the one that made her stomach hurt because strangers weren’t allowed to wear it and he did, like a thief, like he stole everything. “You’re dreaming again. Nothing in dreams really happens. The sun’s not coming up. You’re not awake. It’s fine. Mr. Spade?”

This last to someone behind him.

Only then did Jill see the other person standing on the walkway like somehow he’d always been there. It was like the name had revealed the invisible. He was tall, pale, and too handsome to be human. He was also smiling pleasantly, but his aura was snakelike. Her mind stumbled at a glittering in his eyes.

“Mr. President,” the man acknowledged, and then called him something else. Jill’s ears couldn’t hear it, or her mind couldn’t remember it, she wasn’t sure which.

“You’ll help the rest of them?”

“We’re not important,” Jill whispered.

The King shook his head—

Then struck her down hard with his fist.

Jill crumpled on the concrete walkway, her eyes watering, her ears ringing, the world spinning on the way down. For a moment she couldn’t think to right herself. She cringed against the balcony wall.

The King sat down on his heels. He was a big man. It was a slow movement. He reached out and lifted her chin.

“This is a dream,” he repeated, reciting, like a lesson. “Now, did I just hit you?”

Jill couldn’t move. The ringing in her ears wouldn’t stop. She was dimly aware of the man called Spade closing the distance between them. He raised a long fingered hand and rapped his knuckles on the door. He pressed his hand over the small viewing hole that would make any part of the balcony visible to those inside.

Jill felt her eyes being forcefully turned away from watching him. The Slight Twice King’s smiling face filled her vision again, that smug, frog-like face. That face that stole fathers’ smiles.

“Did I hit you?” he asked again.

“I…” The world started to tilt.

“You’re a smart girl. Answer the question.”

“No,” she answered, ducking her eyes, staring at the pavement, until that hand took her chin again to force her to look up. The one called Spade was waiting at the door, rolling out his shoulders.

“No answer,” he observed, opening his jacket to reach for something.

“Call them,” the Slight Twice King said to Jill. He put an arm around her and lifted her to her feet. She felt herself crash into his chest. His suit smelled of laundry soap and too much cologne. “Go ahead, call them.”

She stared at both men, still dizzied by the blow, by the glamour, by the twilit skies and the cold. “What?” she asked shakily.

“Your friends,” said the Slight Twice King. “What’s a show without an audience? You know your line.”

“I…” It sank in slowly, what he meant. There was a throbbing in the side of her head full of heat and pain. It made her feel top-heavy. She looked at the door, looked at the waiting Mr. Spade, his hand still in his pocket. “They’re sleeping,” she stammered.

The King sighed a little. “How about, ‘Rose’? Or maybe ‘Fred, dear Fred’? ‘Pastor’? What an odd name. People give their kids such odd names these days. Kids don’t know what a real name is. What kind of name is that?”

Jill felt herself growing colder with every word. “I… I can’t…”

“Of course you can,” said the King. “It’s only a dream. You can do anything in dreams. It’s all gone when you wake up.”

Maybe he meant her to, or maybe it was just her own mind, but Jill suddenly thought of her mother with her magazines, of her brothers and their schoolwork.

“R… Rose?” she said quietly.

“They can’t hear you like that,” the Slight Twice King said teasingly. “The first performance is always the hardest, but this is your second time. You’ll be good at it, I promise. I believe in you.” He gave the man Spade a nod and the knuckles rapped a second time. “How about, ‘I left my key. Let me in.’

Jill croaked, swallowed, and tried again.

Suddenly the chain rattled, the bolt turned, and the door opened. Arthur Spade ducked the swing of an iron ax and the flying splinters as it stuck. Nimbly as a cat he stepped aside. He reached out, took the younger man by his hair, and slammed one foot hard into the side of his knee. Fred screamed, but turned, the ax still raised. Spade hefted what he’d pulled from his pocket and swung the butt of it down hard. It clipped Fred in the side of his skull and he went down, blood bursting from his temple, shouting in pain. The ax dropped.

At this, Spade smiled his handsomest smile, took aim, and shot Fred in the stomach.

She stopped crying and screamed.

“Jill!”

Rose was in the doorway, her coat over her bed clothes. The Slight Twice King smiled as she stared down in horror at the blood pooling on the pavement, then at Fred writhing on the ground in it.

“Good morning, Ms. Thorne,” said the King. He let go of Jill. Jill hit her knees, her breaths coming and going in gasping sobs.

Spade raised the gun and waited on his liege.

Rose dug a hand into her pocket. She stared at Fred. She stared at Jill.

Then she pulled the silver coin out and turned it in her fingers. Then, to the surprise of them all, she flipped it.

The hand that snatched it out of the air shook. With careful, ritualistic simplicity, she turned the coin onto the back of her hand.

“Tails,” she muttered loudly.

She shook her head. She flipped it again.

“Heads.”

She dug into her pocket, looking absent, lost, miffed.

“What… are you doing?” the King asked.

She pulled out a clasp knife. Spade cocked his gun, but Rose dropped her knife hand and only flipped the coin again. The two immortals watched in perplexity.

“Heads.”

She opened the knife, dropped it uselessly again. Another flip.

“Tails.”

She sighed. Another flip.

“Heads.”

She lashed the blade out suddenly at Spade’s neck, driving forward at a run, shoving, slashing. She had him at the wall, the blade in and out of his throat in a moment. She turned away as he dropped the gun and fell.

The King only smiled. He shook his head. “A bit of steel isn’t going to help anything,” he said. He trailed off as he noted she wasn’t paying attention. Once again, though trembling all over, she was fumbling with that coin. There was blood on her knife now, but it was dripping off and turning into tiny rubies as it sprinkled on the ground. She flipped the coin.

“Tails.”

She tried again…

“Is it true?” Jill heard the King whisper.

“Tails….” Her face was a silent curse. “Tails.”

Spade was pulling himself to his feet. He put one hand to his mending neck, then stared down in annoyance at his bloodied suit.

The King said, “They say your brother died. Dion, was it?”

“Tails…”

“That you haven’t been the same.”

“Tails.” Rose shook her head irritably, not sparing him a glance.

“Get the blind one,” the King snapped at Spade. “Don’t let him look at you.”

Spade paused in his adjustments, then groaned with some irritation. Jill felt her eyes moving on their own, between first Rose, then Fred, then Pastor as he was dragged from behind a bed and roughly punch in the stomach.

“What are you doing, Rose?” Jill demanded, her voice pitched and strange in her ears. “They’re going to kill us!”

“Heads.”

She put the knife away. The blood was gone from its blade, all useless rubies on the floor now. Then…

“Heads.”

She put the coin away.

“If you want me, I’m here,” Rose said to the King, and raised her hands.

The King turned back his wide shoulders and recovered his smile. “That’s very rude, what you’re doing,” he began.

But she looked annoyed now. She dug for the coin again. Flip.

“Heads.”

She put it away in her coat. She hurried over to Fred, pulled off her jacket, then her pullover. Shivering in a t-shirt and shorts, she balled it against his stomach.

“Fred…?” she whispered.

The King narrowed his eyes. Jill looked up at him. Something… flickered… in his appearance. The seams of the world he’d stitched himself into pulled awkwardly. He fumbled, incongruously, at his pocket for his phone.

“Young lady…”

Rose ignored him.

Spade returned, Pastor struggling against him. As soon as he’d stopped outside the door, Spade turned the gun up against his captive’s throat. The struggling stopped, but a cold anger stole over Pastor’s face. He smelled the blood, heard Fred’s moans. Surely he’d heard the gunshot, Jill’s scream… He turned his head, looking for the King, who was hastily looking away, his phone now turning over and over in his hand, fingers ticking to unlock it, pull up the dial pad, punch some kind of call…

“Look at me now, Rosalinda Thorne,” said the Slight Twice King. “My lord of arms here could kill your friend.”

Spade forced Pastor to his knees. He held the blindfold in one hand and now pushed it at Pastor’s fingers, sticking the nose of the gun against the back of his neck as a warning.

“Put it on, witch,” he hissed angrily.

“Fifty-fifty, Rose,” Pastor whispered. Spade drove the gun against his skin again and he fumbled to fold the band of cloth obligingly.

Rose sat back on her heels, pressing Fred’s hand, then put on her coat. She dug out the coin again, standing when her pocket proved too deep, placing herself, Jill noted vaguely through her dizzying panic and disbelief, between the Fair Folk and the unconscious man in the same motion as if by accident.

The ritual again. The King’s smile snapped in half. The coin spun. He waved his hand sharply—

A hundred coins spun, suspended in the air, silver flashing in the golden dawn, throwing bits of shattered light every which way. They began to slow, but they did not drop.

Rose stared, her eyes wide, first at one, then another, as if, Jill thought in dismay, trying to figure out which one to catch.

“No more games,” the King said, “you poor, broken thing. You really do have no wishes?”

Rose started counting, touching a finger to the air, first here, then there.

The King eyed her with the focus of a snake. “Nothing I can do for you?”

“…seventeen, eighteen…”

“Nothing you want?”

“…thirty-two tails. So one, two, three…”

The King pressed the call button on his phone. Jill stared up at him in surprise. He glanced down at her and his smile returned. “Someone’s trying to steal the spotlight,” he said. He reached down, wrapped his hand around her arm hard and picked her up.

“Sixty-eight heads.”

“Rose, are you crazy?” Jill demanded.

Fred moaned, coughed blood.

“Heads. I surrender,” Rose said.

Spade’s smile disappeared. The King’s stare narrowed. Ninety-nine coins disappeared. He put his phone away.

A single disk of silver dropped to the ground at Rose’s feet. She stooped and picked it up, then raised her hands again. “I surrender. Don’t waste your time with these.”

The King didn’t waste time, but his smile said she wouldn’t like why. “Take them to the van, Mr. Spade.”

Jill screamed despite herself, pulling away—and failing to get away—to reach Fred. “You can’t,” she stammered. “What about…? You can’t leave him… He’ll…”

To Spade the King said, “It seems there’s a reason to stay?”

There were four more shots fired into the ground—

Each one through Fred.

He didn’t move again. Jill screamed and didn’t stop.

“So much for heroes,” said the King.

Advertisements