A Night in Electric Squidland
by Sarah Monette


Some days, Mick Sharpton was almost normal. Those were the good days, the days when he did his job and went dancing after work, days when he enjoyed eating and slept well and sang in the shower.  Days when flirting with a good-looking man was fun, even if it didn't lead to sex, and he didn't lose his temper with anyone unless they deserved it.  Those were the days when he liked himself and liked his life, and some months there were more of them than others.

The bad days were when the world wouldn't stay out of his head, when everyone he looked at wore a swirling crown of color, and everything he touched carried the charge of someone else's life.  Those days were all about maintaining his increasingly precarious control, snarling and snapping to keep anyone from getting too close.  Trying not to drown.  Sometimes he succeeded; sometimes he didn't.

Today was a good day.  He could almost pretend he wasn't clairvoyant.  His head was clear, and he felt light, balanced.  He had not remembered his dreams when he woke up, and that was always a positive sign.

Mick and his partner were wading through a backlog of paperwork that afternoon.  The sheer monumental bureaucracy was the downside of working for a government agency like the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations; left to his own devices, Mick would have let it slide, as he had always done with schoolwork, but Jamie had a stern, Puritan attitude toward unfinished reports, and it was useless to argue with him.

It was always useless to argue with Jamie Keller.

But the perpetually renewed struggle to find the right words--where 'right' was a peculiar combination of 'accurate' and 'decorous' as applied to descriptions of interrupted Black Masses and the remains left on the subway lines by ghoul packs--was both tedious and frustrating, and Mick was positively grateful when the phone rang, summoning them to Jesperson's office.  Jesperson would have something for them to do.

"It'll just be more paperwork later," Jamie warned.

"Oh, bite me, Keller."

"Not my thing," Jamie said placidly.

When they came into his office, Jesperson was leaning over a ley line map, spread out on the big table and weighted down with a fist-sized chunk of the Tunguska meteorite, two volumes of the Directory of American Magic-Users, and a lumpish pottery bowl with a deep green glaze, made for him by his daughter Ada and used for keeping paperclips and sticks of red chalk in.  Ada lived with her mother in Seattle; Jesperson saw her for one week each year, at the Winter Solstice, and nothing was more sacred in the office than Jesperson's annual week of vacation, even if most of his employees politely pretended they had no idea why.

Jesperson looked up and said, "There you are," as if they should have known to be somewhere else, and waved at them impatiently to sit down.

They sat; Jesperson stalked over to stand between them and glowered at them both impartially.  "What do you know about Electric Squidland?"

"It's a nightclub," Mick offered.  "Goth scene.  Lots of slumming yuppies."

"And?" Jesperson said, looking from one to the other of them.

Mick had told him all he knew--Electric Squidland had always been too trendy for his taste--and it was Jamie who finally said, reluctantly, "They get into some heavy shit on the lower levels."

"You've been to Electric Squidland?" Mick said.

"Used to work there," Jamie said and became unaccountably interested in the backs of his own hands.

"You worked at--"


"Yes, sir.  Sorry, sir."

Jamie said, not looking up, "This is about Shawna Lafayette, ain't it?"

"It might be."

"Who's Shawna Lafayette?"

"A young woman from Murfreesboro.  Three years ago--just after the Carolyn Witt scandal, if you remember it--she disappeared off the face of the Earth."

"Just like that?"

"She went into Electric Squidland," Jamie said in a low voice, "and she never came out."

"Vanished without a trace," Jesperson said, "and now it's happened again.  Maybe."

"Maybe?" Jamie said.  "You mean somebody sorta disappeared?"

"Actually, yes," Jesperson said and allowed himself a small, crooked smile at their expressions.  "What we have are the remains of half a person."

"Um, which half, sir?  Top?  Bottom?"

"The right half, I believe, Mr. Sharpton."

Mick and Jamie looked at each other.  "Well, that's a new one," Mick managed after a moment.

"Quite," Jesperson said dryly.  "We got a tip this morning.  Anonymous, of course.  Here."

He pressed the play button on the tape recorder that sat, as always, on the corner of his desk, and a woman's voice, drawling with a hard nasal edge, spoke into the quiet room: "There's something y'all need to see.  Right now it's out in the Sunny Creek Dump in a big black garbage bag, but I don't know how long it'll be there, so you better hurry.  And if you wanna know more about it, go to Electric Squidland and ask 'em what happened to Brett Vincent."  A solid clunk of metal and plastic as she hung up the phone, and Jesperson pushed the stop button.

And then both he and Mick were staring as Jamie lurched to his feet and said in a strangled voice, "I'll be right back."  He almost fell against the door on his way out.  Mick glanced at Jesperson for permission and followed him.

Jamie hadn't gone far; he was leaning against the wall next to the water fountain.  Dark-skinned as he was, he couldn't go pale, but he was definitely gray around the edges.  "Jamie?" Mick said, half-expecting his friend to slide to the floor in a dead faint.

"Sorry," Jamie said.  His eyes were closed, and Mick thought he was doing one of the breathing exercises he'd learned from practicing yoga.

"About what, exactly?  Are you okay?"

"I'll be fine.  Just wasn't expecting . . . ."

"Well, I wasn't expecting any of it, so I'm not sure how that gets you out here in the corridor looking like you're about to have a heart attack.  You're not, are you?"

That got Jamie's eyes open.  "Mick!"

"You look bad enough.  And if you are, I want enough warning that I can call down for a gurney or something."

"Christ.  No.  I am not going to have a heart attack.  I just wasn't ready for . . . . "

"Oh," Mick said, feeling like an idiot.  "You knew the guy, didn't you?  Brett whatsisface?"

"Vincent.  Yeah, I knew him."  Jamie smiled, but there was neither mirth nor pleasure in it.  "All too well."

After a moment, Mick said, "I didn't know you were bisexual."

"What I am is monogamous," Jamie said--mildly enough, but it was a clear warning to back off.

"We're going to have Jesperson out here in a minute," Mick said obediently.

"Yeah," Jamie said.  "You go on.  Lemme get a drink of water.  And, yes, you can tell him about me and Brett."

"Okay," Mick said, touched Jamie's shoulder lightly, awkwardly, wanting to give comfort but knowing he was no good at it, and went back into Jesperson's office.

"Jamie, um, had a relationship with the deceased," he said to Jesperson's raised eyebrows.

"Did he?" Jesperson said, and added just as Jamie came through the door, "Then perhaps he can identify the body."

*           *            *

An hour ago, this had been a good day.  Now, it was beginning to feel more like a nightmare.

Mick and Jamie were in the BPI morgue.  Cold, echoing, the lights harsh on gray tile and metal, the psychic residue of death like dirt on every spotless surface.  Mick hated it.

He hated it more today, watching Jamie's grim impersonation of a hard-as-nails, ice-cold BPI agent.  He wasn't fooling his partner, and Mick doubted he was fooling himself, which meant he was hanging onto the act because it was either that or go off in a corner and have a meltdown.

Mick spared some hate for Jesperson while he was at it.

He understood the logic, and Jesperson wouldn't have been competent to run the BPI's southeast hub if he didn't grab every advantage he could get and wring it bone-dry.  But knowing that didn't make it any more bearable to watch the way Jamie's hands, carefully clasped behind his back, tightened and released against each other again and again, like the beating of some murderously overworked heart.

The morgue staffer seemed to catch the mood, for she was silent as she led them to the autopsy table, and remained silent as she pulled the sheet back.

Mick had to turn away.  Even the mental images conjured up by the phrase 'half a body' had not prepared him for the reality: the raw, ragged edges of bone and skin; the way what remained of the internal organs spilled untidily out of the body onto the table; the way that one staring dead eye was somehow even worse than two.

Jamie regarded the body for a long time, perfectly silent, then said in a level, almost uninterested voice, "Yes.  That's Brett Vincent.  I recognize him, and he's got the tattoo."

"Tattoo?" Mick said; his voice, unlike Jamie's, was a wavering croak.

"We went and got 'em together," Jamie said, touching Mick's shoulder to get him to turn around.  He did, carefully not looking at the table, and saw that Jamie had rolled his right sleeve up, was indicating the bend of his elbow, where the Wild Hunt who rode in somber, frenetic glory the length of his arm broke like sea waves to either side of a design clearly the work of a different artist.  For a moment, Mick couldn't make sense of the lines, and then it resolved into a circle made of two snakes, each biting the other's tail.  Without knowing he was going to, Mick reached out and touched the tattoo gently, as if it might still be sore all these years later.  His finger was shockingly white against Jamie's dark skin, and they both pretended they couldn't see how unsteady it was.

Jamie said, "Anyway, that body's got Brett's tattoo right where Brett had it.  It's him."

"I'll write up the report," the morgue staffer said.  "Thank you."

Jamie was unhurriedly rebuttoning his cuff.  "And I guess we go see what Jesperson wants us to do now."

*           *            *

Jesperson wanted them to go to Electric Squidland.

"Never thought I'd see the day when the Old Man would send us clubbing," Jamie said when he picked Mick up that evening.

"Never thought I'd see the day when the Old Man would send us on a date," Mick countered, and was delighted when Jamie laughed.

They left the Skylark three blocks from the nightclub and walked the rest of the way, enjoying the mild night air.  At 10:07 p.m. (Mick noted the exact time from force of habit) they walked into the Kaleidoscope, the first level of Electric Squidland, mirrors and colored lights everywhere, and were greeted with a loud cry of, "Jamie!  Lover!"

Mick stared disbelievingly at Jamie, who winced visibly before turning to greet an extremely pretty young man who was making the most of his Hispanic heritage with a pair of pale blue satin toreador pants.  Mick, observing the pretty young man with the eye of an expert, saw that he was not as young as he was trying to appear, and he would be prettier if he admitted it.

"Ex-lover, Carlos," Jamie corrected, but he let Carlos kiss him.

"Oh, nonsense, darling.  Once I let a man into my heart, he never leaves.  But who is your Marilyn Manson here?  This your new flame, sweetie?"

Mick opened his mouth to say something withering about blue satin toreador pants, but Jamie's abashed, apologetic expression stopped him.  He swallowed his venom, said, "Mick Sharpton," and endured Carlos' cold fish handshake.  He and Carlos understood each other very well.

"Mick's never been to Electric Squidland," Jamie said, adroitly avoiding the issue of whether Mick was or was not a 'flame.' "So I said I'd show him around.  Suzanne working tonight?"

"Is it Wednesday and is the Pope Catholic?"  Someone across the room was trying vigorously to attract Carlos' attention.  He said, "We'll catch up later, sweetie.  When you're not so busy."

When you've ditched your gothboy, Mick translated and was not sorry to see the last of Carlos.  "I'll assume Carlos has hidden qualities," he said in Jamie's ear.

"Me-ow," Jamie said, and Mick felt himself blush.  "C'mon.  We won't find what we're looking for up here."

"What are we looking for, exactly?"

"Gal who has the Wednesday night show in the Inferno."


Jamie grinned.  "The two lower levels are Members Only.  And I don't think Jesperson's going to let us put membership on our expense accounts.  But Suzanne can get us badges, if she has a mind to."

"And will she?"

"Will she what?"

"Have a mind to?"

"Oh, I think so," Jamie said, and there was a private joke in there somewhere.  Mick could feel it, and it made him a little uneasy.  But only a little.  He trusted Jamie, in a way he'd never been able to trust a partner before.  He'd wondered sometimes, the first two years he was with the BPI, why he kept torturing himself, spending his days--and sometimes his nights--with a series of agents who disliked him, distrusted him--some of them had openly hated him, and Mick had hated them back, fiercely and with no quarter given.

He had expected Jamie to be more of the same, Jamie with his bulk and his heavy hands and his deceptive eyes.  And he still didn't understand what was different about Jamie, massive, gentle Jamie with his night-dark skin and his tattoos like clouds--didn't understand why Jamie had decided to like him and made that decision stick.  Mick was painfully aware that he didn't deserve Jamie's liking--ever a proponent of 'hit back first,' he had been unconscionably nasty to Jamie in the early days of their partnership, until Jamie had proved, immutably, that he would not be nasty back.  So whatever it was Jamie was waiting to spring on him, he knew it wouldn't be too bad.

He followed Jamie obediently from the Kaleidoscope down the open corkscrew staircase that was the centerpiece of Electric Squidland's second level, the Submarine.  The Submarine was classier, the level for those who fancied themselves Beautiful People.  No disco balls here, and the music was dark, very techno, very European.  Mick bet the bar on this level went through a lot of synthetic absinthe.

Jamie used their descent of the staircase to reconnoiter, and at the bottom, he grabbed Mick's elbow and said, "This way."

"Your gal's here?"


"Is she drinking synthetic absinthe?"


"Never mind."  By then, he could see the woman Jamie was aiming for, a petite woman with long plum-red hair, dressed in trailing, clinging black.  The liquid in her glass was lurid green, and Mick moaned quietly to himself.

She looked up at their approach.  Her eyes widened, and then she said, with apparently genuine delight, "Jamie!  A very long time, and no see at all!"  And then she gave Mick a once-over, seeming to take especial note of Jamie's hand on his elbow.  "Are you attached to this delectable creature?"

"At the hip," Jamie muttered, only loud enough for Mick to hear, then said, "Sorta.  I'm showing him around tonight."

"Well, you can just leave him to me."  Suzanne extended a hand, the nails as long and black as Mick's own, and said, "Hi.  I'm Suzanne."

"Mick."  He did not let Suzanne's hand linger in his, although he knew he probably should have.

"Sit down, please," Suzanne said.  "How have you been?"

"Oh, fine," Jamie said.  "Listen, Suzanne, I really want Mick to see your act tonight."

It was hard to tell in the Submarine's dim lighting, but Mick thought Suzanne blushed.  "Jamie, how sweet of you."

Jamie kicked Mick's ankle; resigned, Mick picked up his cue:  "Jamie's told me the most amazing things."

She was blushing.  "He's probably exaggerating.  But . . . ."  She looked at them, an expression in her eyes that Mick couldn't read.  But whatever she saw pleased her; she smiled and said, "I'd hate to let you down.  Let me see what I can do."

She left with a generous sway of her hips, and Mick leaned over to hiss in Jamie's ear, "She can't think I'm straight."

"I'm sure she doesn't."  He shifted guiltily.  "Suzanne, um.  She has a thing for . . . ."

"She's a fag hag," Mick said, several things falling into place; Jamie winced, but did not dispute the term.  So that was Jamie's private joke.  Mick grinned.  "You son of a bitch.  And you want me to--"

"Jesperson wants information.  Of the two of us, I'm the one who knows where to look, which means you get to play distraction."

"But do I have to distract her?"

"You can distract her.  And if you're distracting her, I can tell the bouncer at the Inferno's side door I'm running an errand for her, and he's likely to believe me."

"Your plan sucks," Mick said.

"It's the only one we've got.  And anyway, she's coming back, so it'll have to do."

"Your leadership technique also sucks," Mick said and forced himself to smile at Suzanne.            Suzanne had brought them two pin-on black badges, each saying Inferno in fiery letters.  "I've got to run and get ready," she said.  "Sit where I can see you, and I'll talk to you after, okay?"  It was clear to both Mick and Jamie which one of them she was talking to, and Mick only barely managed not to sigh audibly.

"Be glad she brought two badges," Jamie said, then hesitated.  "Suzanne's really not that bad.  She's like a lot of the kids here--thinks it's exciting and sexy to work in a nightclub with a reputation.  She doesn't know what goes on in the Neon Cthulhu."

"And you do?  What did you do, when you worked here?"

"Chief bouncer for the Inferno.  Adler called me Cerberus and thought he was being funny."

"You must've been good at it.  Why'd you quit?"

Jamie smiled widely, mirthlessly, the same smile he'd had when he'd confessed to knowing Brett Vincent.  "Because they were gonna give me a promotion."

"Most people," Mick said, cautious now because he didn't know this mood on Jamie, didn't know which way Jamie would jump, "don't find that offensive."

"They wanted to put me on the door of the Neon Cthulhu, the lowest level.  And I wasn't stupid enough to be interested.  Inferno's bad enough, and it's really just play-acting."  He held up one broad palm, anticipating Mick's objection.  "Nothing illegal in the Neon Cthulhu.  Leastways not out in the open.  It's all consensual, and they got a license for public occultism.  But it is nasty shit.  I was only down there once."  And he shuddered, as if even the memory made him ill.

"Jamie?" Mick said uncertainly.  "You okay?"

Jamie shook his head, a weary gesture like a bull goaded by flies.  "Don't like it here," he said.  "Lot of real crappy memories."

"I'm sorry," Mick said helplessly, and was relieved when Jamie smiled at him, even if the smile was thin and forced.

"Not your fault, blue eyes.  C'mon.  Let's go to Hell."

*           *            *

Suzanne, it turned out, was a class eight magician; her act was very good, very smooth.  She had a rather pretty young man as her assistant, and looking at him, looking at Suzanne, Mick saw his own twenty-year-old self and understood what Jamie had been trying to say about Suzanne.  So eager to be wicked, but with no clear idea of how to go about it, so ready to admire anyone who seemed to have the secret information she lacked.  He was able to relax a little, though, more confident that she would not turn out to be the sort that would try to get him into bed.

After her curtain calls, Suzanne came and sat at Mick and Jamie's table, instantly making them the cynosure of all eyes; she preened herself, and Mick felt his patience with her slip another notch.  Jamie, with his customary talent for evading the spotlight, went to get drinks, then muttered something about the restroom and disappeared.

Leaving Mick alone with Suzanne and several dozen interested spectators, including her seething pretty boy.  Mick knocked back a generous swallow of his screwdriver, and offered the first conversational gambit, asking a simple question about how she accomplished one of the effects in her act.

An hour later, he was wishing Suzanne's pretty boy would just go ahead and slip strychnine in his glass, because it would be less excruciating than this.  The boy was hovering, green with jealousy; Suzanne, well aware, was flirting with Mick in a way he could have put paid to with a few pithy words, except that he was supposed to keep Suzanne distracted until Jamie got back, and where the hell was Jamie anyway?

Shouldn't have let him go running off to play James Bond on his own, Mick thought, while acknowledging ruefully that there was nothing else he could have done.  He smiled at Suzanne--a little too hard, but she wouldn't notice in the dim light--and choked on his screwdriver when she asked, a trifle too nonchalantly, "Have you been Jamie's partner long?"

The coughing fit was merciful; by the time he recovered, and Suzanne was saying, "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you," he'd realized what she meant.  She thought he and Jamie were lovers; her curiosity was prurient, not professional.

"You just surprised me," he said.  "I didn't realize you ..." and as he hesitated, trying to decide what he ought to say, whether he ought to play along, or whether he ought to tell her about Jamie's girlfriend, the image crashed into his mind, brutal as an SUV through plate glass--blood, black in lurid green light, and the harsh scent of cedar incense.

"Shit!" he said, setting his glass down hard enough to slop orange juice and vodka onto the table.  "Jamie's in trouble."

Suzanne looked as if she couldn't decide whether to be offended or alarmed.  "What, are you psychic or something?"

"Yeah, actually.  Three-latent-eight."

She and her pretty boy stared at him with identical wide-eyed expressions.

"And I mean it," Mick said.  "Jamie is in serious trouble.  Will you help me find him?"

"But where would he . . .?"  She twisted around, and only then seemed to realize that Jamie was not lurking anywhere nearby.

"Fuck," Mick said between his teeth.  But Jamie needed him, and he knew he'd never find his partner without help.  He gambled on the truth.  "We work for the BPI.  We're investigating the death of Brett Vincent, who was found out in Sunny Creek this morning."

"BPI?  Jamie Keller went to work for the BPI?"

Mick wondered tangentially what Jamie had been like when he had worked here, and if that was why he'd been so unhappy to come back.  "Yeah."

"And Brett?"  Her eyes had gone even wider, and under her makeup, she'd gone pale.  "Brett disappeared a week ago.  Adler said he'd taken vacation, but Brett hadn't said anything about it, and that's not like him."

"Jamie identified the body.  It really was him."

Suzanne thought a moment, her teeth worrying her lower lip, then turned to her pretty boy and snapped, "Give him your Cthulhu badge."

"But, Suzanne--"

"Do it!"

Pouting, frightened, the boy unpinned the badge--black like the Inferno badge, but with Cthulhu written on it in lurid green black-letter.

"Trade," Suzanne said.  "Nobody wears both."

Mick did so quickly, lucky to avoid stabbing himself to the bone with the pin.

"Good.  Come on."

"You don't have a badge," Mick said, getting up to follow her.

"I've worked here for years.  They won't stop me."

Neither the bouncer at the top of the stairs nor the bouncer at the bottom seemed at all inclined to argue with Suzanne.  This was the job Jamie wouldn't take, Mick remembered and showed his Cthulhu badge.  The bouncer waved him on with no further interest, and Mick felt a pang at how completely Jamie would have been wasted on this job.

He got out, he reminded himself fiercely.  And you'll get him out again.  Get him out and not come back.

Then he got his first good look at the Neon Cthulhu.  Mick was no stranger to S&M, and although he was not himself a magic user--and had no desire to be--he had been trained to recognize the more esoteric byways of the various disciplines.  But the Neon Cthulhu still rocked him back on his heels--almost literally--and it took him a moment to realize Suzanne looked as shocked as he felt.  He remembered Jamie saying she didn't know about the Neon Cthulhu, and it appeared that had been the truth.

"Stop looking like you're about to puke," he said, low and fierce.  "C'mon, Suzanne.  Pull yourself together."

"God," she said.  "I mean, I knew it was a heavy scene down here, but--"

"It doesn't matter," he said, resisting the urge to shake her.  "Help me find Jamie, and then you can get the hell out of Dodge."

"Okay."  She took a deep breath and said it again, more firmly, "Okay.  But where ..."

Mick looked around, a quick, comprehensive glance.  "That door," he said, with a jerk of his head toward the only other door that had a man on guard.  "Can you distract the bouncer for me?"

"Can I . . . ."

"For Jamie," Mick amended hastily, and that seemed to steady her.  She nodded.  "Good.  Then pretend like this is all part of your stage act, and let's go."

That got her spine straight and her face, finally, settled, and they stepped away from the door together.

Having gone through all the stages from raw newbie to elite inner circle at more than one goth club, Mick knew perfectly well that the second most obvious sign of a tyro--after the wide-eyed gape--was the overdone look of blasé nonchalance.  The trick was to look appreciative but not shocked, and he could manage that if he pretended strenuously to himself that the occult signs and mutterings and bits of ritual were just exceptionally impressive window-dressing for the S&M scenes being enacted in cages and on altars at various points around the room.  He also reminded himself that Jamie had said Electric Squidland had a license for public occultism, and thus nothing going on here was illegal.

They stopped by a cage in which an ecstatic young man was being flogged by an Asian woman whose long braids snapped around her like another set of whips, and Mick pretended interest while Suzanne sashayed over, all hips and sex appeal, and engaged the bouncer's attention.  Mick ghosted forward, aided by a sudden rapturous scream from the man in the cage that turned everybody's head for a split-second.  Then Mick was at the door, wrenching the knob with clammy fingers, and then he was through, the door closed behind him, feeling his way down a much darker staircase, the bite of the cedar incense almost enough to make him cough.  And he knew Jamie was close.

He could hear voices; as he reached the bottom of the stairs, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, he realized that the stairs were masked from the room beyond by a curtain.  Green-tinged light seeped around its edges, and he drew close enough to make the voices come clear.

". . . he must know something, or he wouldn't be here!"

"Could've been just listening to the rumors again.  You always were a gossip, weren't you, Jamie boy?"  A heavy thudding sound and a grunt: somebody had just kicked Jamie in the ribs.  Mick's hands clenched.

"He's a threat, Adler," the first voice insisted.

"And I'm going to deal with him."

A beat of loaded silence, and the first voice said, appalled, "You're not going to give him to Brett's--!"

"I really don't think it will care."  Adler sounded amused.  "He certainly won't.  At least not for long."

"We're not ready," the first voice said.  "After last night . . . ."

"Oh, Jamie will keep.  No one's likely to come riding to his rescue."

Wrong, asshole, Mick thought with considerable satisfaction, listening as Adler and the other man, now discussing logistics and supplies for what sounded like a very complicated ritual, moved away from the stairs, growing distant and more muffled, until finally, with the click of a closing door, they became inaudible entirely.

Mick pushed the curtain aside only enough to slip through.  The room beyond would have seemed ordinary enough--a waiting room with benches and chairs along the wall--if it had not been for the terrible greenness of the light, and Jamie Keller lying like a foundered ship in the middle of the floor, wrists bound, ankles bound, mouth stopped with a ball gag that could have been borrowed from any of the scenes going on in the Neon Cthulhu's main room.

There was blood on Jamie's face--it looked like it was from his nose, and Mick was cursing Adler viciously under his breath as he dropped to his knees beside Jamie and fumbled at the buckle of the gag, trying not to pull Jamie's already disordered braids, trying not to hurt him more than he'd already been hurt.

He eased the ball out of Jamie's mouth, and Jamie took a deep, shuddering breath, and then another; Mick hadn't been the only one with visions of asphyxiation.  Then Jamie let his head roll back on the carpet as Mick started working on his wrists, and croaked, "How'd you find me?"

"Had a flash," that being Jamie's term for the times when Mick's latent 8 blindsided him.

"No shit?" Jamie sounded amazed and delighted, as if Mick had given him a birthday present he'd always wanted but never dared to ask for.

"Yeah," Mick said, and the leather thong around Jamie's wrists came loose.  "But enough about me.  What happened to you?"

"Being a Grade-A Prime fool, I walked slap into Mr. Henry Adler on my way back to the stairs."

"On your way back?" Mick said, untying Jamie's ankles.  "Did you find out--"

"Yeah," Jamie said, his voice tight with the pain of returning circulation.  "Only let's get out of here before we have Story Hour, if you don't mind."

"You could hardly have suggested anything I would mind less," Mick said and braced himself to help Jamie up.  Jamie was perfectly steady on his feet, and Mick hoped that meant he had not been hurt too badly, despite the blood.  He was glad to let Jamie take the lead as they proceeded cautiously into a positive rabbit-warren of storerooms and access tunnels.

"You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike," Mick quoted uneasily.  "Where the hell are we going?"

"Back door.  Heck of a lot easier than trying to get out the way we came."

"And where's it gonna get us?  Atlanta?"

Jamie laughed, and Mick was ridiculously glad to hear it.  "Alley in back of the Kroeger's on Lichfield."

"That's three blocks away!"

"Halfway to Atlanta," Jamie said dryly.

"Adler can't own everything between here and there."

"Steam tunnels.  Hell, Mick, you know how this city is.  Everything's connected underground."

"Fucking ghouls."  Much of the undercity of Babylon had been constructed in the late nineteenth century by a series of Reconstruction mayors who had preferred the local necromancers' money--and at a choice between the necromancers and the carpetbaggers, Mick wasn't entirely sure he blamed them--to the safety of their citizens.  It was the ghouls, though, who kept those tunnels clear, as patient and industrious as moles.

"Works in our favor this time," Jamie said, and a voice said in answer, "It might."

Mick and Jamie both whipped around, and then Mick shied back, right into Jamie's unyielding bulk.  He might have screamed; later, he could not remember and could not bring himself to ask.

The thing that had crept into the corridor behind them had once been human.  It might still be able to pass, to anyone except a clairvoyant, although the way Jamie's arms tightened around Mick for a breath-stealing moment before letting him go suggested otherwise.  Mick could see the broken wings it dragged behind itself, black as tar and shadows, and the way its eyes glowed fitfully sodium orange in the dim light.  But the way its voice blurred and doubled, as if it were neither one person nor two, but perhaps one and a half--that, he thought, registered on the material plane, where Jamie could hear it just as well as he could.

And then there was the way it crawled, like a spider or a crab, and the fact that its legs ended in stumps where the ankle bones should have been; even if it could have passed for human, it could never have passed for normal.

Jamie said, his voice unnaturally steady, "You used to be Shawna Lafayette, didn't you?"

"'Used to be'?" Mick said, hearing the shrillness of his own voice.  "Then what the fuck is she now?"

"I am ifrit," the thing said, its eyes flaring brilliantly, its voice warping and splintering, and it raised itself up like a cobra preparing to strike.  Then it sank back again, the light in its eyes dulled.  "And I think that, yes, this shell was once called Shawna.  Much is lost."

There were several thousand questions demanding to be asked, and Mick couldn't find the words for any of them.  Jamie cut straight to the heart of the matter: "What do you want?"

"I am hungry," the ifrit said in a plaintive, unconvincing whine.  "I am hungry, and I am tired, and I am starting to lose my grip on this shell.  You carry pain with you.  You could release it to me."  It licked its lips, not like a human being, but with the darting, flickering motion of a snake.

"No, thank you," Jamie said.  "I did figure out what they're doing with the Neon Cthulhu, you know.  You got all the pain--and all the sex--you ever gonna need."

It hissed, again like a snake.  "It would be better this way.  Brighter."

Mick suddenly figured out what they were talking about and lurched back into Jamie again.

"He is eager," the ifrit said, its voice warbling with its own eagerness.

"He is scared out of his mind, thank you very much," Mick snapped.  "Jamie, what--"

"Shut up, Mick," Jamie said, and very gently put him aside.  "I have a better idea," he said to the ifrit, advancing slowly.  "Why don't I help you let go of that body, before things get really ugly, and then you can go your way, and we can go ours?"


"Shut up, Mick."

"You will not kill this shell," the ifrit said.  "You know its name."  It sounded certain, but it had backed itself against the wall, and it was watching Jamie with wide unblinking eyes, very orange now.

"And if you understood thing one about human beings, you'd know that's why I'm willing to kill you.  That body's in misery, and it used to be someone I knew."  He stopped, just out of arm's reach, and stared down at the ifrit.  "It'll be quick, and then this whole clusterfuck will be over."

"I do not want . . . ."  But the ifrit's voice trailed off, as if it could no longer be certain what it did want, or didn't want; Mick remembered for no reason that mongooses were supposed to mesmerize their prey by dancing for them.

"Hold still, Shawna," Jamie said, his voice terribly kind, and then he moved.

Greased lightning had nothing on Jamie Keller, and Mick was still shocked at the idea that anyone so big could move so fast when he realized that small dry noise he had heard, like a twig breaking, had been Shawna Lafayette's neck.  The body was just a body now, slumped and broken.  The ifrit was gone.

"Is it dead, too?" Mick said hoarsely.

"Fucked if I know," Jamie said, and it was clear he didn't care, either.  "Shawna's better off, though.  I'm sure of that."

*           *            *

They reached the Skylark half an hour later, without another word being exchanged; Jamie folded down into the driver's seat with a sigh of relief and reached for the handset.

Mick caught his wrist.  "Tell me first--are you okay?"

"Yeah.  Adler got me down with a hex, not a cosh.  Hadn't gone face-first, I wouldn't even have the bloody nose."  He sounded disgusted at his own clumsiness.

Mick hadn't really meant physically.  "Jamie . . . ."

"I'm fine, Mick.  Let's report in and get this over with, okay?"

Mick couldn't argue with that, although he had a vague feeling he should.  He listened as Jamie called in; neither of them was surprised when Jesperson's voice interrupted to pepper Jamie with questions.  Jesperson really didn't sleep, and he almost never went home.  The first was the result of being a class nine necromancer–a necromancer dux, they called it in Britain--even if officially non-practicing; Mick often wondered if the second was as well.

"Did you find out what killed Brett Vincent?"

"Yes, sir.  And Shawna Lafayette, too.  Well, part of Shawna Lafayette, anyway."

"I'm not going to like this, am I?"

"No, sir.  Because Adler's hosting ifrits."

Jesperson's vocabulary became briefly unprintable.  "Are you sure?  Adler's only . . . ."

"Class four, yessir.  That's what happened to Shawna Lafayette.  And Brett Vincent."

"That . . . oh.  Oh, bloody hell."

"Yessir.  Adler and his boys, they're talking 'bout it like a ritual, and I know for a fact Henry Adler ain't got the math.  He can't figure a tip without a calculator."

"I like this even less than I thought I would.  How long do you think this has been going on?"

"Dunno, sir.  But I know what happened to Brett Vincent's body was on account of them getting the phase wrong, and the stupid bastards didn't even know the word."

Becoming aware of Mick's goggle-eyed stare, he covered the mike with his palm and hissed, "What?"

Mick just shook his head, and Jesperson said, "'Brett Vincent's body.'  You don't think--"

"I think Brett Vincent's been dead for a long time.  Same way I would've been if Echo hadn't come and got me out."

"Yes, what was November Echo's part in this evening's escapade?"

"Echo was invaluable, sir," Jamie said, and elbowed Mick hard in the ribs to make him stop laughing.

"Good," Jesperson said.  A pause, probably while he wrote something on one of the legal pads that littered his office like shed snakeskins.  "How many ifrits do you think there are in Electric Squidland?"

"There can't be that many," Mick said, and now it was Jamie's turn to look goggle-eyed at him.

"How do you figure that, November Echo?"

"Yeah," Jamie said.  "How do you figure that?"

"Well, you said it yourself--and how did you get to learn so much about necromancy, anyway?"

"I don't spend my off-hours fornicating like a bunny rabbit.  Go on--what did I say?"

"That they didn't know what they were doing.  I mean, I don't either, but if they had to repeat the spell every so often--?"

"Yeah.  'Bout once every five years.  Ifrit starts losing its grip, and that ain't pretty.  Well, you saw."

"Yeah.  And they've fucked up twice that we know about in the last three years--they can't be maintaining an army of ifrits, or we'd be up to our asses in Missing Persons."

"They must've lost the person who knew what they were doing."

"Carolyn Witt," Jesperson said, startling them both badly.  "She was part owner of Electric Squidland.  Sold her share to Adler just before her arrest.  And she was class seven.  I think a word with Ms. Witt might clear up a great many questions."

"Yessir," Jamie said and yawned.

"Go home, November Foxtrot and Echo," Jesperson said, and for a moment the rasp in his voice sounded less like irritation and more like concern.  "You can finish the paperwork when you've got some sleep."

*           *            *

The BPI raided Electric Squidland that same night, discovering things in the rooms beneath the Neon Cthulhu that would keep the state Office of Necromantic Regulation and Assessment busy for years.  Suzanne Parker was not among those arrested; she had taken Mick's advice and gotten the hell out of Dodge.

At 11:34 the next morning, Mick set two cups of coffee on the desk he and Jamie shared, and sat down opposite his partner.  Although his head was clear this morning, and the world was coloring within the lines, Mick had a gloomy feeling today was not going to be a good day at all.  They were facing a mountainous stack of paperwork, including the closing of a file on an seventeen-year-old boy named Daniel McKendrick who had disappeared from a Nashville suburb in 1983.  His fingerprints matched those of Brett Vincent.

Jamie pushed back from the desk, stretching until his spine popped.

"Lila going to forgive you?" Mick asked.

"Maybe," Jamie said dolefully.  "She hates my schedule."

"That's because you don't have one."

"Bite me."  Jamie took a generous swallow of coffee and said, "Do you think we're right to say that body is Daniel McKendrick?"

"It is Daniel McKendrick."

"Not like that.  I mean, his family's gonna be notified, and they been thinking he's dead all this time, and now they get half a fucking body to bury?  Aside from which, Daniel McKendrick has been dead all this time--or at least most of it.  That body was . . . . somebody else, if it was a person at all."

"You mean, you think when you were sleeping with him . . . ."

"Oh, I'm sure of it.  Because he didn't give a shit when Shawna Lafayette disappeared, and now I know why."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Mick asked, red-faced at his own stupid clumsiness.

"No, but I'm gonna have to put it in the report anyway."  Jamie sighed, took another slug of coffee.  "It's the reason I quit Electric Squidland.  Well, one of the reasons.  Shawna was a waitress in the Kaleidoscope.  She caught Adler's eye, because she was pretty and not very bright, and I was worried about it--because she was pretty and not very bright.  And then she disappeared, and nobody cared, and I asked Brett if he didn't think there was something strange about it, and he essentially told me to mind my own business.  And, you know, I'd seen him talking to Shawna before she disappeared.  Talking to her a lot."

"Persuading her."

"Seducing her," Jamie corrected.  "And I don't know how many other people he seduced like that, or why he didn't try it on with me."

"Jamie, you're not helping yourself--"

"You know, that's the worst part.  He let me go."


"He let me go.  Oh, he tried to make me stay on, but when I wouldn't, he was okay with it.  He never used magic on me, or tried to get me to play Adler's little games.  Hell, he never even asked me to go down to the Neon Cthulhu with him, and he must have known I would have.  I think about the shit he could have pulled on me and the fact he didn't pull it, and the fact that he fucking let me go, and ...  Well, fuck it, Mick, I don't know.  Was I just not worth it?  Or do you think ifrits can love?"

"I don't know," Mick said, wanting desperately to give a better answer but simply not having one.  "I really don't."  And hesitantly, almost cringing, he reached out and put his hand over Jamie's, feeling the warmth and the strength and the roughness of Jamie's knuckles.  And Jamie turned his hand over, folded his fingers around Mick's hand.

They sat that way for a moment, saying nothing.  Jamie squeezed tighter, then let go and said briskly, "This ain't getting the paperwork done."  But his eyes were clearer, as if some of the pain knotting him up had been released, and Mick returned to his share of their report feeling better himself.

Today might turn out to be a good day after all.



About the Author:

Having completed her Ph.D. in English literature, Sarah Monette now lives and writes in a 99-year-old house in the Upper Midwest. Her first novel, Melusine, was published by Ace Books in August 2005; the sequel, The Virtu, is scheduled for July 2006, with two more novels to follow: The Mirador (2007) and Summerdown (2008). Her short fiction has appeared in many places, including Strange Horizons, Alchemy, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and has received four Honorable Mentions from The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror. Visit her online at www.sarahmonette.com


Story © 2006 Sarah Monette.