Jack Mercury shook his head sadly at the body lying bloody and still on the asphalt. "Poor thing. I hope she got what she wanted. Wrecker, get the door." He crouched down and gathered her into his arms.
Tetsu still looked like he wanted to throw up, but he opened the car door so Jack Mercury could put the dead woman on the back seat. Jack leaned into the car to smooth down her dress and fold her hands on her chest. Ashlyn thought he might have kissed her forehead, but even her eyes couldn't see through or around him.
"What are you waiting for? Get in."
She'd learned not to get into cars with strangers before she could cross the street by herself, and even though she had Tetsu with her she had to will herself to open the passenger door. Tetsu got in first without being asked, sliding to the middle of the bench seat. It wouldn't help if Jack Mercury decided to crash the car, but she still felt better with Tetsu's body between them.
The engine coughed and sputtered, and shook the car alarmingly when it finally caught, but got them moving out of the parking lot.
She coughed too when she tried to speak, her mouth as dry as though she'd just seen someone get killed. "Gah. What about the blood?"
"No one has any reason to expect anything happened there, so no one will look twice at it. Even if someone does think to look, it'll be dried up and worn away by this time tomorrow." He took a right toward downtown, more smoothly than the heap seemed like it should be able to.
"Won't they come looking for... her?" Tetsu gestured uncomfortably toward the back seat. He didn't look as freaked out as before, but it didn't take magic eyes to see that he wasn't happy about the body lying behind him.
It wouldn't make Tetsu happy, but she couldn't stand not knowing her name. The glovebox was half-jammed, and she broke a nail prying it open, but insurance papers and bricabrac spilled out into her hands. "Eileen Hooper." She turned the page over. "San Fernando, California. That's in LA, right? That's the direction her coat and glasses flew, anyway. So they won't look for her up here until someone reports her car and the cops put two and two together." Jack Mercury turned up one corner of his mouth. "Except they'll never find the car, will they? Or the body. No one will ever know what happened to her." She imagined that happening to her mother, and shuddered. Always hoping she might turn up again, always wondering they might come for her...
"No." Tetsu glanced sideways at Jack Mercury. "Her family deserves to know she's dead, even if we can't give them the people who killed her."
"I know you feel guilty, son, but that's not a good idea. It won't make them happy, and it might make them poke their noses someplace they shouldn't."
"It will make them less unhappy, and sometimes that's all you can do."
If she told Tetsu how proud of him she was, he'd get all flustered and that wouldn't impress Jack Mercury -- she really couldn't think of him as just Jack -- so she just squeezed his hand. He didn't look at her, but carefully squeezed back.
"All right, all right. I'm not here to boss you around, and if this is what it takes for you to learn to observe the conventions, so be it." Jack Mercury pulled a completely illegal U-turn in the middle of a block, missing a huge SUV by inches. Ashlyn barely stifled a squeak, but the other vehicle didn't swerve or honk or anything. They hadn't even seen them.
Tetsu lowered the arm he'd stuck out in front of her. "Where are we going, if we get there alive?"
"Don't worry so much, son. Death came for you, and you're still here." Jack casually spun the wheel for a left turn at nearly a perfect right angle, throwing Ashlyn into Tetsu's side. Braced against the dashboard, Tetsu didn't move at all. "I know a good place to leave this, where someone will find it soon but not too soon. Then we can have a talk."
That was ridiculous. "'Death came for us.' So the prophecy that we would die was just a, a bad translation?" She had to bite back a hysterical giggle. "Prophecies use Babelfish?"
"You're not bound by prophecy."
She blinked. "We're not?" It made sense, that being able to see the future meant being able to change it, but in the old stories, not even the gods could avoid their fates.
In the old stories, no one ever learned about their death from dialing POP-CORN in a dream.
"Prophecy will do the best it can, but there's always a chance to change the future. Always."
They pulled into the parking garage under the civic center, spiraling down to the bottom level with a squeal of tires at each corner, and into the very last parking spot. The engine grumbled and coughed and died.
"That should hold her for a week or two." He put up his hands at Tetsu's expression. "Or until you call in an anonymous tip."
"And what about the security camera at the entrance?" Ashlyn hadn't even noticed it; she'd been thinking about how the future worked. Good thing Tetsu had been more alert!
"It didn't see a thing." Jack Mercury motioned toward the green-painted elevator block. "After you."
Tetsu slid out right after her, jamming his crowbar back into his ripped backpack but leaving it unzipped, and staying between her and Jack Mercury. Mercury started to reach between them to pick a floor, but rolled his eyes and pulled his hand back when Tetsu twitched. "Ground floor, son, unless you think it's a trap."
Tetsu sighed and took his hand out of his pack. "I've never trusted Bleeker Street, but okay."
Jack Mercury smirked. "Streets that are pinned down by names aren't the ones you have to worry about, mostly." He led them across Bleeker and over to Ortega, sliding out of the way of unheeding pedestrians while Ashlyn and Tetsu had to jump and stumble, and into the alley that let cars into the parking lot behind Between The Covers and the new Peet's. She'd walked past here dozens of times, but never noticed the empty street sign bracket on the corner of the coffee shop, probably because she'd never thought to worry about streets betraying her in broad daylight in the waking world. In fact, she would never have thought of this as a street before Jack Mercury started messing with their heads.
"In here." He gestured toward a white-painted door that blended with the side wall of Between The Covers almost at the back. Tetsu automatically reached for the doorknob first, but it was locked. "Don't break it, Wrecker. It just doesn't know you yet." The door opened easily for him, and he gestured them through into a dim space smelling of coffee and spices.
The windowless café wasn't very big, but still far too much to be hidden in the back of the used book store, which didn't make the top ten list of impossible things she'd seen today, never mind this week. The only customer was an old man with a short but scruffy white beard and a scratchy-looking brown suit wedged into the far corner behind a tiny table heaped with books, who glanced up at them through an honest-to-God monocle for half a second before going back to his muttering.
"Jack Mercury! Quicksilver Jack! Jack-Be-Nimble!" The girl sitting on the counter somersaulted backwards, flashing everyone with the incandescent pink bike shorts under her miniskirt, and landed on her feet behind the ancient cash register. She was black and scrawny and not more than twelve, with a disturbingly wide grin and braids full of clattering white beads that reminded Ashlyn of the piles beneath the dead trees in her dream. "And... new pawns? New enemies? New blood?" She bounced on her toes. "Coffee? Tea? Mermaid's blood? First one's on the house, so get your money's worth!"
"New friends, Naja, so none of your specialties. The usual for me."
Naja looked back and forth between Tetsu and Ashlyn. "What'll it be, new friends of Jack? Anything I have to drink, on the house!"
Was this fairy food — well, fairy coffee — that would trap them? But refusing hospitality would piss off fairies and just about anything else supernatural, which could be much worse. She glanced over at Jack Mercury, who cocked one eyebrow expectantly. Something normal, maybe? "Tea?"
"Tea! Wolfsbane? Mandrake?" Naja flicked her eyes toward Tetsu and her smile somehow got even wider. "Pennyroyal?"
Wolfsbane was poison, she knew, and mandrake root was a black magic thing, which didn't make pennyroyal sound appealing. "Never mind. I'll have water." Naja opened her mouth, and she quickly continued, "Bottled."
Naja deflated. "Are you sure? Mermaid blood can make you immortal."
"And make you wish you weren't," Jock Mercury interjected. "You heard her, Naja."
"Fine, fine, fine." Scowling, the girl dropped two bottles of Evian water and a paper cup of black coffee on the counter. "You'll be sorry you passed up this opportunity."
Jack Mercury scooped up the drinks and led them to the corner opposite the reader. She hesitated for a moment between sitting in the corner so she could see the room and making Jack sit in the corner so she could get away, but Tetsu pulled out the corner chair for her and sat down next to her, leaving her with a good view of the whole room and Jack Mercury, and leaving him between Mercury and the exit and between her and everything. She couldn't help smiling at him, and he glowered a little less.
Jack Mercury cleared his throat. "So. Questions?"
Millions, but before she could pick one to start with, Tetsu asked, "What's an apsara?"
"An apsara, or apsarasa, is a female Indian water spirit, famous for being beautiful and affectionate. The gods would send them to test the chastity of holy men, and the apsaras almost always won." He took a sip of his coffee. "That's what you wanted to know first?"
Ashlyn stifled a giggle. Patrick Larch might have been more self-righteous than holy, but Tiffy had definitely overcome his Mormon chastity when Denise and a bunch of other girls hadn't. Then she stopped wanting to giggle. One of the things she'd read over and over about magic was that there was no such thing as coincidence. Did someone have past dreams, the way she had future dreams? Had Jack Mercury been stalking them the old-fashioned way? He was distinctive, and not invisible to her, but he could have had someone else do it. Or maybe he had precognition and was judging Tiffy based on something she hadn't done yet. Or was being hopeful about the "affectionate" part—
"Who paid someone from Los Angeles to come here to die and kill us?" Tetsu asked.
— she had to get her brain under control. It didn't matter who Tiffy slept with, as long as it wasn't Tetsu!
"Gardeners of Rust, most likely. There are other folks who can give the countenance of Death, but LA plus death equals Rust Garden, with good odds." He held up a hand when Tetsu opened his mouth. "They call themselves that because their axis — headquarters — looks like a garden sculpted out of rusty pipes, but the important thing is they specialize in decay, entropy, death."
"Why?" Tetsu asked at the same time she said, "Who sent you?"
Mercury looked back and forth between them until she waved at Tetsu. His question seemed a little more urgent.
"Might be just to stop her from becoming their enemy, but that's wasteful." He looked calmly over his coffee at Ashlyn. "If you went into the darkness and then someone brought you forth, you might see things a bit more like the Gardeners do, and you'd be all kinds of grateful."
"If I didn't know it was the same people both times. Can they really bring back the dead? Isn't that blasphemy or sacrilege or something? No, answer that later." Could she and Tetsu bring people back? They'd been to the land of the dead, although it hadn't seemed like anyone was there.
He raised one eyebrow. "By your command, of course." She blushed and kept her mouth shut. "I sent myself when I heard what was up. Everyone's interested in a new sibyl. Everyone who matters."
"Who did you hear from, and how did they know?"
"I heard from a friend, who heard from one of her underlings watching a particular crater where things happen. And, to answer your deferred question, the Transmundane holds all kinds of ways to bring the dead back into the light, and doing it always makes someone mad. That's seven answers delivered; how will you pay for them?"
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