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I

The air hummed, oily golden liquid condensed out of sparkling haze, and a demon took human shape across the kitchen table from Albert Johansson. The thing stood at an angle to the world until it put one glowing hand on the scarred Formica tabletop and twisted to vertical without apparent movement, as if concepts of up and down were optional and it had to locate itself in space. It smiled. The smile showed too many teeth for comfort. Large needle-pointed carnivore teeth, suitable for ripping flesh—living or dead, human or other, it didn’t matter.

Albert froze. He sniffed. Nothing. No brimstone, no incense, no arctic chill or furnace heat or moldy damp earth-smell of the unquiet grave. Nothing. And he trusted his sense of smell, closer to hound than human. His nose told him that the form, those teeth, weren’t even there.

Then, as if he’d asked for it out loud and the demon thought to add another sense and more reality to the scene, an ozone tang of nearby lightning spread through the room and stung his eyes.

Albert tore his gaze away from those teeth and stared at the hand instead, wondering if now the plastic would begin to smoke and bubble and char. Or maybe freeze and shatter with bitter cold. You never knew with demons.

Nothing happened. The hand continued to be a golden hand with the dull luster of true pure metal. The table continued to be a table, no more worn and scratched and battered than it had been before, pale green plastic-laminate top with a pattern of faded almost-daisies to disguise spills and stains, zinc edging with the dings and dents of fifty years of abuse.

More nothing happened.

Albert blinked three times and took a deep breath, feeling ice settle into the pit of his stomach and spread chills out to his fingers and toes. He’d been minding his own business, building a sandwich at his kitchen counter and listening to Bach’s solo cello suites, intellectual and sensuous at the same time. Home-baked dark chewy rye—baking bread cost time rather than money, and he had a lot more of the former than the latter. Besides, he enjoyed baking bread—the smooth warm resilient touch of kneading the loaf, the earthy living smell of first the damp flour and then the rising yeast followed by the baking. It never got boring, even after a few hundred years.

He was passionate about good food and good music. Damned little else, and his apartment reflected that—peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster, stove and refrigerator and furniture that had seen better decades or centuries rather than just years. But he couldn’t quibble with the rent. His family owned the place.

He should have been safe and private, savoring first the thought and then the deed—fresh-baked rye bread just cool enough to slice, parchment-thin salty dry Westphalian ham layered with nutty Emmenthaler cheese, fragrant and full of holes, brown stone-ground Raye’s ginger mustard from a century-old mill powered by the giant tides in the Bay of Fundy . . .

The room had hummed around him and he glanced up and this golden ectoplasm materialized next to his kitchen table and took the shape of a man. Demons, angels, spirits, djinn, whatever you called them—they didn’t usually waste time with doorbells. They didn’t have to. At least this one hadn’t felt the need to manifest with a clap of thunder and cloud of brimstone smoke. Or blast the apartment door into cinders and flinders for the dramatic entry of a desert whirlwind.

He’d seen that sort of thing in his long, long life. It stuck in his memory. He had forgotten a lot of things, important things, over the centuries, but that sort of thing he remembered. Demons had that effect on people.

It didn’t seem to care whether Albert knew its true nature. It didn’t bother with clothes. Neither male nor female, no visible genitals, no nipples on a chest shaped halfway between pectoral muscles and breasts. No bellybutton. “Man” as “human.” Sort of. Or at least that was what it showed to him. Other eyes might have seen other forms. A burning bush, maybe, or wheels within wheels within wheels.

Or maybe they wouldn’t have noticed anything at all. Sometimes Albert saw things that others thought weren’t there, heard words that other ears ignored. It was part of being what he was.

Whatever that might be.

He took a couple of deep breaths. He blinked and felt cold sweat breaking out along his spine. The demon was still there. He cut the sandwich in half and put it on a plate and offered it. The demon grunted its thanks, pulled out a chair and sat on it without even singeing the wood, and Albert started to build another sandwich.

Thoughts spun through his head. What the hell am I supposed to do now? Fall on my knees and genuflect and pray? I’m not sure there is a fixed etiquette for such meetings. If they want you to take off your sandals because you stand on holy ground, they’ll tell you. If they want to rip your head off and crunch it for an appetizer, they’ll go ahead and do it.

One did just that to Johannes. Brother or not—from what Mother told me, the damn fool asked for it. Elaborate suicide. I’m not that bored with life. Yet.


He’d lived long enough to see plenty of weird shit. He’d seen friends die in agony or wish they could, had plenty of enemies try to kill him and fail. He’d had a few centuries of practice in keeping calm under pressure.

Sometimes it helped. But his hands shook enough that he had to concentrate on spreading more mustard, layering more ham and cheese. Angel or devil, it didn’t matter. Long history said that visitations from either tend to be rough on the neighborhood.

He stopped working on the sandwich and studied the knife in his hand. He loved good food, good music, and good iron. Iron and steel and him, they understood each other. They talked to each other.

Most people would look down at him and sneer at the idea that he was a master smith—him standing maybe five foot three on a day when he was feeling tall, and no more muscle than most people his size. But good smithing, that wasn’t a thing of forcing metal to do what you wanted. It was more a discussion and persuasion, not domination but partnership. He did blades and fine-work and didn’t need a lot of bulk to heave cart-horses around for shoeing. He just had to set his anvil a little lower than some others in the craft.

His kitchen knives had been an experiment—nickel-iron born from a meteor’s corpse, to give each blade the flaming magic of steel pulled from heaven to earth by the implacable drag of gravity, steel worked and folded and folded again at the forge, carbon infiltrating the grain of the metal from a reducing fire, thoughts and words of making until the steel took meaning from his hammer, a shape and meaning that maybe could skin and gut a god and chop him into cubes for stew meat. The blades could slice a tomato paper-thin as well, or bone a slaughtered cow, and he only needed to sharpen them once a decade. He wondered what would happen if he leaned across the table and stabbed this knife, this living knife, into the body of the demon.

But he wasn’t about to try.

He finished building the second sandwich, sliced it in half, and put it on another plate. He grabbed a bottle from the refrigerator—dark Shipyard ale, strong-hearted enough to keep company with the sandwiches—waved it in the direction of the demon and got a smile and nod of acceptance. At least its mommy had taught it not to talk with its mouth full. If demons had mommies . . . .

So he opened the bottle, poured straight down the middle of a glass to let the bubbles breathe into a good head, and opened and poured another for himself. Before his knees collapsed under him, he sat down. Sat down on a worn scarred wobbly-legged blue-painted wooden kitchen chair, about as mundane as it gets, across his battered 1950s yard-sale kitchen table from a demon. With a ham sandwich and a beer. Surreal. It had rattled him enough that he’d forgotten the pickles, had to get up and open the refrigerator again and look a question at the demon. Again, it nodded that it would like one. Strong sharp Kosher dills.

Kosher. Like ham and cheese sandwiches maybe slipped past Leviticus? But that’s why he kept thinking of it as a demon. Legend said that angels kept Kosher, demons didn’t. Albert wouldn’t know. He’d only met two, maybe three for sure, never had offered one a sandwich, and the last was more than a hundred years ago. He knew the theory, but half-remembered legends didn’t compare with smelling ozone in his kitchen and then sitting down across the table from the Other.

He couldn’t even tell if there was a real difference between angels and demons, or if that was just a label we put on a mirror that reflected what we found inside ourselves. Taxonomy of the spirit world got awkward. It was too . . . other.

Anyway, it ate the sandwich and the pickle in alternate bites, drank the beer, belched. Albert wondered if he should ask some priest or rabbi or mullah whether it had to shit afterward. As far as he knew, spirits didn’t need food, but this one seemed to enjoy the snack. It belched again. Maybe it wasn’t used to beer.

Or maybe it hung out in a society where belching after a meal offered compliments to the chef. Albert knew such places, such people, from centuries of travel.

“Simon Lahti, I thank you for bread and salt. A blessing be upon this house.”

Albert twitched at the name. He’d used dozens, maybe hundreds, moving from place to place down the years. It got to the point where he had to concentrate, remembering just who he was supposed to be this year and city. That name went way back. And then there was the angel/demon thing again. Demons were supposed to go in more for curses than blessings. Maybe it was trying to keep him off balance. If so, it was doing a damned good job.

Its voice sounded . . . peculiar, again neither male nor female, but with a hollow resonance that didn’t seem to fit that pseudo-chest, more like the echo of an oracle’s cave. It stopped there and looked at Albert as if expecting some kind of ritual response. The man nodded and looked a question. His tongue didn’t seem to be working right just then.

“Simon Lahti, we wish you to act for us.”

A heap of coins formed out of nothing and clinked together on the table. They looked like gold. The ones Albert could see looked like old U.S. “eagles” and “double eagles”—ten- and twenty-dollar gold pieces, last minted in the 1930s. He picked up a palm-full. Heavy, heavy, heavy in his hand, the way metal money used to mean something serious, and it took him back a ways. Some fives and even tiny ones mixed in. Different dates—1880s to 1920s—different designs, different scratches and dings and level of wear, as if they’d come from a real hoard rather than minted fresh by magical imagination.

A large heap—somewhere between five hundred and a thousand dollars in face value, he guessed, more money in one place than he’d seen in years. Hell, in decades. Sold piecemeal to collectors, he could eat well for years off that pile.

Living in fuzzy shadows of the modern world, using borrowed names and forged papers, he’d never make that kind of money in a daylight job. That’s why he lived on the fourth floor of a slum that wanted to collapse into its cellar, eating beans more days than not.

Cassoulet with lamb sausage, chili in a hundred variations, home-baked beans, no reason they had to rank as fodder. His brain chased after that tangent to avoid thinking about the demon. Yellow-eye beans soaked overnight, add chopped-up onions and garlic, a good chunk of salt pork, molasses, ginger or mustard, sometimes sliced Greening apple. Slow-baked, all day in the oven blending those flavors and perfuming the air, and the pizza joint downstairs paid for the gas. Served them right—lousy pizza, skimped on the sauce and cheese . . .

He dragged himself back to present danger. What he did next probably wasn’t smart. He did things like that now and then, things that gave him the total shakes when hindsight kicked in. Then he’d start thinking about his brothers, the ones he knew about, and his sister, and how their stories all ended with them seeking death. And finding it.

He stood up, walked over to the old gas stove, and dropped three coins into a cast-iron skillet he’d left out to dry over the pilot light after washing up from breakfast. Clinkety-clinkety-clink, the proper sound of gold hitting iron, they bounced and rattled and settled and stayed put. They didn’t vanish with a sizzle and puff and a stink of rotten eggs when they touched cold iron. Not fairy gold.

He picked them up and turned back to the table. The demon’s “face” looked vaguely amused. Or maybe not—Albert didn’t have that much experience in reading demon expressions.

That’s the point where second thoughts kicked in and he realized the chance he’d taken. He could have ended up as a smeared layer a molecule or two thick, adding fresh stains to the peeling wallpaper, for insulting his visitor. He wished his brain worked faster, but he’d never claimed to be a genius. Just slow and steady and persistent to the point of pig-headed. Mind or body, he wasn’t built for speed.

He bulled ahead, his usual move when he stepped in that kind of shit. “Who wants to hire me? What do you mean by act?”

“Our name is Legion. One of your kind has been abusing our companions. We wish you to stop this abuse.” Companions. Albert sorted through memories of Mother by gaslight, or did that flickering yellow gleam in her eyes come from a candle, an oil lamp? A fire at the mouth of a cave to keep the dire wolf and saber-tooth at bay? Tales in the drowsy fog before sleep, anyway, tales of the land where she was born across the sea or under the mountain or in flying castles above the clouds.

Too many tales, too many words, with no proof that any single word was true. Mother could weave a tale that made you smell the spilled guts of fresh-dead corpses on a battlefield and hear the rustle of raven wings over the groans of the dying, then the next day tell another story with the same heroes very much alive ten years or ten centuries later.


Companions. Companions to spirits, demons, angels—not pets, as such, not something owned. Not something equal, either.

Elementals.

Sprites of earth, wind, water, fire, not things of thought and speech and reason. The heart or soul of the grove, the spring, the stone, the mountain cave, the deep and darksome tarn. Blue flame dancing free of the coals of a dying cook-fire.

And someone had been . . . abusing . . . them. This could get messy.

“Why don’t you deal with the problem yourselves?” Hey, King David or Elijah or some other Bible guy got away with arguing with God. This was just a demon.

Mother had warned Albert to never trust a demon. Legends again, most cultures—demons didn’t care what happened to mortals, and they seemed to enjoy playing tricks. Plus, they twisted language for their own amusement, seeming to promise one thing and then delivering something quite different. Nasty different.

The demon squinted at Albert, as if it read his mind. Maybe it could. “Your kind created the problem. Your kind must deal with it, or face the consequences.”

Talk about guilt by association. “Consequences”—Albert didn’t like the sound of that. Brought up images of Sodom and Gomorrah, it did. Another example of why he didn’t really care whether he was talking to an angel or a demon. Either could be just as rough on innocent bystanders.

Not really. His brain ran off on another tangent, still trying to dodge. Angels generally get the worst of any comparison. Demons tempt or torture individuals. Angels visit the Wrath of God on whole cities or tribes or nations and they don’t bother to file an environmental impact statement first.

“Why me?”

As soon as he said it, he realized how silly that sounded. He’d meant it as an actual question rather than the classic whine of Job goosed by God’s fickle finger. Why do they want to hire me, rather than a detective or some wizard or perhaps a priest? I’m just a maybe-man who has managed to live a long, long time, and forgotten most of it.

Detective, wizard, priest. In all the various and nefarious ways I’ve earned or stolen a living, I’ve never been a detective. Outside of a special bond with iron and steel, I don’t have enough magic in my whole body to light a match without striking it on the box. I’ve never been able to sort out the true Word of God from the lies men spin as easily as they breathe. Like I said, why me?

At that point he decided he needed another beer. Maybe the demon wanted another, too. He had no idea what effect alcohol had on the spirit world. If he’d stopped to think about it, the vision of a drunken demon probably would have pushed him over the edge to run screaming down Main Street. But the demon nodded when he waved another Shipyard in its direction. Albert pulled a fresh six-pack out and set it on the table between them, no reason to stint. Hell, he might not live to finish another.

The demon smiled. Albert thought it was a smile. It still showed too many pointed teeth and a hunter’s eyes, like a leopard or wolf shape-shifted into human form. “You see things that others do not see. You hear things that others do not hear. You do not seek dominion over men. We know that you respect our companions.”

It gestured toward the living room on the far side of the kitchen doorway, at the old fireplace that used to be the sole heat of the room, back when Albert’s family first bought the pile of crumbling brick and dry rot fronting on South Union. Four fireplaces on each floor, originally, one drafty pitiful heat-waster for each of the front and rear rooms of this deep narrow row-house apartment, with a long cold tunnel of space in between. Say what you want about the sad decline of civilization and the golden Elder Days, Albert thought central heating and flush toilets were grand ideas.

He’d had a mason reopen and line one fireplace and flue when he had the whole apartment torn apart for renovations about fifty years ago. He didn’t like to let strangers past his door, but roof leaks had gone far beyond the drip-bucket stage and he didn’t mess with gas lines and electricity. They bit.

Yeah, I don’t like strangers in my lair. More to the point, skilled work costs money. That pile of gold—I pinch every penny that comes my way. I have to. I can earn a dollar here and there by day labor, but a steady job, paying good money? With every piece of official paper forged? Not likely. My driver’s license, the other documents, they’re good enough by themselves. But I can’t afford the kind of paper that stands up to a serious check.

Sell my blades? Custom knives and swords bring real money, but you need to be a public person to make the sale, fair to middling famous in the collector’s world. I don’t dare walk that path.


He couldn’t even wave a birth certificate under some official nose. As far as Immigration was concerned, he was another illegal just arrived from Canada or Mexico. Sure, he’d lived in the U.S. for over a century and a half. Fat chance on proving that to a judge. Only reason he didn’t get hassled more, his blond hair and blue eyes made him look like he belonged. Except for being short, and even that made the cops ignore him. Short people, especially short people walking with a cane and limp, aren’t seen as a threat.

So, most repairs, he did himself or did without. Besides the money problem, too many awkward questions could come up, like the almost-human skeleton in tarnished silver chains bricked up inside an offset in one wall. He could remove that one and dump it, bone by bone out on the river or in the woods, but he couldn’t guarantee that the bones would stay separate and dead . . .

He shivered at the memory. There were other memories of this place that could give him the shivers too, but now he let salamanders come and go and play in the fireplace, kept dry wood laid on the hearth for them. He’d come back to the place in the morning or late evening and find cold ashes where he’d left wood, sometimes felt and smelled a difference when he started a fire himself to give life to the space. Elementals of air and fire helped clear out the ghosts, the must and dust of old wood and plaster, made the air smell fresh and clean and friendly, and they respected the limits he’d set for them.

His eyes stung. He took a deep swig of beer, probably drinking too much too fast, or not—considering he had a demon sitting just across the table.

Yes, a lot of bad memories tied to this place. Still, bad memories or not, every time he’d given his feet to Mother’s wanderlust, turned nomad and gone on walkabout for twenty or fifty years, somehow he ended up back in this same room. He’d come back to find everyone he knew and cared about had vanished, or been replaced by grave markers.

Even Mother. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead. Or something else.

“Simon Lahti, we know that you respect our companions, and you do not trust powers that are beyond mortal control. We know of this.”

That . . . name . . . repeated a third time as a charm. Icy fingers ran down his spine. “Simon Lahti” was not his name, neither the name on his current driver’s license nor the name he was known by many years ago, but it said things about him he’d prefer that no one knew. Not even demons.

Sure, in theory, he knew that Others lived all around him, not seen but seeing. He knew this, but he was just as capable as any man of forgetting it for years at a time. Now Legion kept rubbing his nose in it.

But that had nothing to do with finding out who abused elementals. The past was gone, and often had little connection with any particular future. And he couldn’t change it. The future, now, sometimes he could change that. What he could do . . .

Dangerous. Likely fatal. He refused to think about it. He got up from the table, surprised that his knees seemed willing to hold his weight. Crossed the kitchen to the front parlor, to the old oak roll-top desk that held those papers connected to his current name and station in the world. Found the nerve to pull out the bottom drawer on the left and took from that a linen bag, lurking alone in the solitary space it wanted, hand-loomed fabric brown with the grease of generations of fingers, smelling of time and graves.

II



A stream of yellow-brown dice spilled into his palm, small bone cubes hand-cut and less than perfect, the scratches and chips and grime of centuries not masking the runes slashed across the faces of each die. They’d belonged to Mother, and she’d left them when she vanished. Where she got them, God alone knew. But which God?

Sometimes they’d speak to him. He didn’t know how. Their magic lived inside them, came from the songs and smokes and potions and whispered spell-chants of whatever forest-witch or desert shaman had formed and smoothed them centuries ago. If they spoke, they spoke true.

Generally, they didn’t speak. No use at all for the stock market or picking horses. He didn’t know why. His small powers didn’t run that way.

He rolled them clicking in his cupped hands, looking off through plastered brick walls into the distance rather than at them. He thought about their number, twenty-seven, three-cubed of cubes, probably important and if he lost or cracked one they’d never speak again, or would speak gibberish. He thought about the demon, behind him and making the skin crawl up and down his spine. It had manifested small, no larger than Albert and he was practically a dwarf by modern standards. He knew that it could grow to the size of a mountain in an eye-blink if it wished, or shrink to a gnat and fly up his nose to eat his brains out from the inside.

He cast the bones on the floor, against the baseboard so they bounced and muttered and rattled on the broad pine boards. Out of that rattle, he heard a word, syllables and sounds in some language he’d never heard on any human tongue. But he knew what it meant.

Refuse.

Nothing vague and Delphic about that. He shuddered. Saying “no” to a demon . . .

He thought about the heap of gold on his kitchen table, wealth enough for lots of good food and good music, even a stereo or refrigerator newer than the last ice age. He got by, just barely, by not owning a car, not paying rent, staying away from medical care. His palms itched for that gold.

He found it hard to think straight with gold in the room. It wasn’t just money, that heavy soft rare metal. It seemed almost like a drug to him, sensuous in the way it called, the way it blocked sense and self-preservation—lust and envy and covetousness and the rest of that list rolled into one. Sort of like sex to humans.

But when the cubes spoke at all, they spoke true. He gathered the cubes into a pile in his hands and cast them again, this time staring at them, at the spin and bounce and tumble of the runes, hoping against hope that the bound spirits or whatever would change their minds. Six letters formed among the runes, Roman characters, and then vanished again as soon as he’d noticed them.

REFUSE.

All capitals. The magic thought it needed to shout. He decided he didn’t want to try again. After all, the bones just told him what he already knew.

Never trust a demon.

As he thought that, the letters flashed again before fading back into dark runes cut into yellow bone and shaded with what looked like ancient blood. Runes he couldn’t read, runes he’d never seen in any book or museum in all his years and wandering. Maybe the magic itself had made them, for just this one set and purpose.

He shivered again. He gathered the cubes, dumped them rattling into their bag, and tucked the bag into its drawer, to wait in darkness for the next time someone called them, whether that someone would be him or Mother or some stranger that the magic first called to itself. He had a general idea of what would come next. Not specifics, no, but he had been getting bored with life.

His brothers and his sister finally hunted for their deaths. His kind couldn’t count on age or disease to find them and give them rest.

But evidence said they weren’t immortal. Which might be just as well.

He stood up. He faced the demon.

“No.”

The demon lifted its right eyebrow, just the ridge of “skin” over “bone,” no hair—Albert noticed for the first time that it didn’t have any hair at all. That oversight told volumes about how his brain was working. Or wasn’t. Fire spread from Legion’s fingers, coating walls, floor, ceiling, wood and plaster and brick alike, scorching and curling the faded wallpaper and boiling centuries of varnish and paint off wood. Black smoke filled the air, biting deep in Albert’s lungs and throat, and when he lifted his hand to cover his mouth he saw his skin blister and char. The pain hadn’t hit him yet, but heat drove deep into his flesh and bone, the demon raising the fires of hell to torment him.

“Breaker of guest-law!” He coughed the words out and tried to hold what little breath remained behind them. It had been easy to be philosophical about death, until he looked it straight in the face.

The burning froze. The demon walked through the flames to stand in front of him, frowning, a curl of smoke hooked in one nostril.

“Yes, your kind would use those words. And we accepted bread and salt from you, even if you did not bind us with peace-words in the giving.”

It gestured, and the flames vanished. The damage vanished. No smoke, no heat, no charred flesh on the hand in front of Albert’s face, no sense that anything at all had happened in his rooms. No pain.

Demons.

“We obey ‘guest-law.’ This house and hearth are sacred. But we will find you in another place.”

Which could mean the instant Albert stepped out of his door, or ten years or a hundred years from now, on the far side of the world. Who knew what time and space meant to a demon? Nothing, most likely . . .

The demon had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He decided that maybe he wasn’t ready to die yet.

“Where and when has this abuse happened? What can I do to stop it? Can I call on your kind and your companions for help?”





Time grows short. A week, two weeks, as mortals measure time. The demon had said that. Already, we feel change. Your kind broke the balance, opened the path. Repair it, or this world shatters.

The demon wasn’t telling him everything. Albert knew that. He headed down the stairs anyway. Down through the dark abandoned third floor of drifted musty dust and peeling wallpaper and chunks of age-broken horsehair plaster gritty on the wide-plank flooring, avoiding the first and fifth and eighth treads of the stairs—he didn’t invite people home, and anyone who fell through those worn old cracked boards should never have been there in the first place.

Shatters, and becomes what? “World” as universe, or planet, or laws of physics, or society? Repair what? This isn’t just about “companions.” This was a demon speaking, maybe lying, maybe twisting double-meaning words into something hidden, very different. Armageddon? Ragnarok? Or some demonic joke?

He stepped into the second floor, fancier with varnished hardwood flooring and plaster moldings around the ceiling but just as abandoned and stale with last year’s air, the old gaslight fixtures still in place, dust-furred gray sheets shrouding mahogany Victorian furniture: monstrosities bought new at the height of fashion back when Mother invited strange men home and lightened their pockets of excess gold. They’d owned this building for something like a century and a half, through a corporate fiction that didn’t draw official notice if it lived forever. The pizza joint’s rent paid the taxes these days, successor to a dozen similar greasy spoons or beer halls in the past.

He paused at the fireplace in the front parlor where a marble mantel and columns framed a blackened brick hollow that hadn’t felt heat in decades. Stooping, he left a pint of vodka, a brick of dark chocolate, a wedge of Emmenthaler, and half the remaining loaf of rye on the hearth. They wouldn’t be there when he came back. He didn’t know what happened to the empty bottles, or want to know.

Most people ignored the hearth-spirits of their homes. Mother had taught him the price of that. They’d take their due without the gift, and you’d never know why you lived under an unlucky roof. He’d give a pint of cheap vodka any day to keep those little . . . friends . . . out of his hair and cupboards. If they held drunken midnight parties with punk-rock music cranked up to “ten,” they did it in some pocket universe where he couldn’t hear.

On his way out, he picked up his cane where he’d left it next to the parlor door. He kept almost-innocent things like that scattered around his home, always in the same places where he could find them in the dark, a habit of long survival in dangerous places. Most people wouldn’t see a cane as a weapon, especially an orthopedic cane—rubber grip and rubber tip and what looked like a shaft of brushed aluminum. Sign of a cripple, not dangerous . . .

That’s why he carried it. He hefted the cane, stainless steel, much heavier than your eye would suspect, just in case. Enough weight to break a wrist, a knee, a skull—he’d done all three. Like many small people, he was much stronger than he looked.

He let his hands and the steel remember each other and loosed a twist he thought only his peculiar brain could work. The cane separated below the grip, unsheathing a foot-long blade of laminated steel, a fighting blade much more complex than his kitchen knives. The sight of it woke memories of smelting the raw ore, furnace panting like a live animal, carbon blending with iron under the blue-flamed red bank of charcoal. Then time outside of time at his forge fold-welding yellow-hot sparking metal again and again and yet again to judge the grain of the metal by its bending, wrapping keen brittle steel around the tough heart that made it strong, forming, grinding, heating, quenching, polishing to bring out the grain of watered silk—as keen and deadly a blade as his centuries of skill could conjure out of iron.

His city wasn’t a nice place. He didn’t live in a nice part of it. He didn’t think he’d ever lived in a nice place.

If the cops got nosy about why he always carried a cane, even if he walked like he was perfectly healthy, he could point to the sole of his right shoe, built up more than an inch—that leg was shorter than the left and not quite straight. Result of a tangle with a freight wagon, so Mother said, when he was two or three and playing where he shouldn’t. Medical care being what it was, or wasn’t, back then, he was lucky to have two legs. Another bit of his past he’d have to take her word for. He’d always limped from it, as far back as he could remember.

He headed down another set of dark dusty stairs, another set of treads that creaked their warning if he put a foot wrong. No, he hadn’t booby-trapped the place. He’d just learned to guard himself with what was available. Obvious traps were harder to explain to curious policemen than “accidents” and the wear of age.

The demon wasn’t telling him everything. He wondered, though, whether the things it did tell him were truth or lies. Why would a demon need his help? If it could flick its fingers and turn his apartment into hell’s inferno, it could do the same to whatever mortal was “abusing” its companions.

Or were those flames illusion? They’d looked real, felt real, smelled real, even to him. The demon wasn’t using metaphor when it said Albert could see things that others did not see. His senses weren’t human. He could see beyond the human range, into infrared and some into the ultraviolet. Likewise, he could hear above and below the human normal range. His nose twitched at scents that eluded most people.

Those were not blessings without price. They helped in working metal—judging fuels and fluxes and ores and the metals they become, judging heat, listening to the metamorphosis of iron becoming steel under his hammer—but he couldn’t stand crowds. People stank, and the modern world screamed noise at him from near and far.

Why would a demon need human help? Or mortal help, anyway, given that best guess says I’m not human? Maybe it has a bet down with its buddies? Betting on me, for or against?He froze, one foot up in the air, and then put it back down on a safe stair tread. Another possibility had flitted through his head. He needed to examine it before he stuck his head into the noose.

If there was more than one demon involved . . . not bets, maybe, but either pranks or deadly warfare. Mother had told him that demons—angels, spirits, whatever—they didn’t get along any better than mortals. Just study Loki and his chummy relations with the other Æsir.

One demon was enough, more than enough. Getting involved in demon politics could be suicide. But did he have a choice? He didn’t. He chased that idea down at least five dead-end alleys. Legion would kill him if he didn’t play its game, whatever its game turned out to be. Probably kill him in a way that took five days. The demon had made that plain. If Legion said “Shit!”—the only questions it allowed were “How much?” and “What color?”

Those thoughts got Albert nowhere, as well as to his front door. He checked the sidewalk through his peephole, unlocked, unbarred, and stepped through. With another twist of thought he reset it all from outside—that door was a lot stronger than it looked, a burglar would find it easier to break in through the brick wall to either side, and that was two feet thick.

He didn’t want visitors.

A gesture to convention and any watchers, he touched the crosses that marked and guarded both jambs of the doorframe, invoking God on this journey. He looked right and left, checking for threats again and then freezing like a suspicious rabbit. Dusk had crept in, somewhere during his encounter with the demon.

He didn’t know why or how, but they screwed up time as well as space. He’d been making lunch at noon. A few minutes later, he stepped out into late spring twilight heavy with the scents of threat and promise—a whiff of sweetish smoke from the opium den across the street mixed with the tomato and oregano and baking crust of the pizza joint, roasting coffee from the warehouse district, traces of coal tar from the gasworks and the paving.

Albert shook his head. Demons.

He walked across town as the town grew dark around him. Yes, walked. He knew it wasn’t normal, marked him as different, but he didn’t own a car. Beyond the budget problem, he didn’t trust cars. He should, he supposed, they were just clever metal-working on a larger scale, but he kept looking for the horse or team that wasn’t there. Besides, most machines felt . . . empty to him. Worked metal should have a heart, a soul, the trace and memory of the smith who’d forged it and woke life in it. Machines made by machines lacked that.

Irrational, maybe, but that’s what you got when you brought an old mind into the modern world.

He still twitched when one of those new electrics or hybrids whispered up behind him, not just horseless but without the rumble and whine of an engine to warn you it was coming. He didn’t have a phone, either, or a computer or a lot of other modern magic. Airplanes? He still remembered the first one that droned over his head, a kite of sticks and wire and cloth and an engine reeking of burned castor oil. You couldn’t make him fly in one for his weight in gold.

He walked in and out of the pools of light, through the reek of humans and their lives, past whores and street-side drug peddlers offering strange deaths. As always, he saw the city as the outsider he was, wondering why laws forced a man or woman into the risk of buying and selling on the street, the traders of flesh or chemicals working corners and alleys rather than a licensed house. He shuddered, remembering some of the published lab tests on street drugs, some of the rates of blood-borne and venereal disease in street whores of either sex. Make prostitution legal, allow it in designated areas, and neighborhoods wouldn’t be plagued with the crime. The sex workers would be safer, healthier, and so would their clients. Make drugs legal, they would cost maybe one percent of the black market price and wouldn’t kill the users anywhere near as fast. No legal house would risk its reputation on the psychos currently running the business.

Sanction and license the drug house across the street from his apartment, you’d pay a lot less and get exactly what you paid for. Content and dosage certified by independent lab. If you wanted to fry your brain, at least that way you fried it the way you wanted and sank into oblivion or hallucinations with a sober guard covering your ass.

But then the criminals and the cops and the politicians wouldn’t get rich off the transactions. Albert had grown cynical with age.

Flesh and drugs didn’t tempt him. Maybe that was part of not being human. Temptation did reach out and try to grab him by the ears, a whiskey-rough blues voice wafting down a side street from a bar he sometimes visited. Two blocks further on, a snatch of saxophone reached out to him, first clear and then fading back to a whisper even to his ears as a door opened and closed, split-note and trill followed by a smoky sultry glissando, and he froze in his tracks. He knew that sax, a tone and style unique to one blind jazz genius escaped from the slums of São Paulo, but the short phrase wasn’t on any recording or broadcast he’d ever heard . . .

He’d never seen Lula perform live, hadn’t known he was in town. The jazzman never booked gigs. He just showed up sometimes at a bottle-club door for a one-night stand, no publicity, take it or leave it, and word spread like wildfire among the fans. Live music was so much better than any recording, almost a different species. It was, well, it was live.

By whatever God you recognize, he was tempted. Another night he would have followed that sound, his own peculiar vice. He stopped and listened for a few minutes, there in the electric darkness, even turned. The demon’s chore could wait. Then he thought about what he knew of demons. Odds were, Legion wouldn’t just kill him, it would burn down the whole block with Lula and the audience and a hundred random strangers added to the toll. Sodom. Gomorrah. Pillars of salt optional.

Or maybe not. Never trust a demon.

Albert winced, remembering his apartment and the flames of hell, remembering the sudden searing heat and his flesh turning black in front of his eyes. He walked on. That same hell kept his appointment book, and he had already decided he didn’t want to die just yet. Add that missed jam-session to the “bad” side of Legion’s karma account.

Did demons have karma? Damned if he knew. Maybe literally. First a whiff, then stronger—cold char rode the evening air, not smoke but the memory of a fire not long dead. Not the resin smell of wood in a fireplace or stove, not sulfurous coal or greasy sooty oil, not the burned-rope of hemp smoke—a dead building. Most humans couldn’t tell the difference, but Albert could. A stench of death hung over and after a building fire, a mix of smoldering wood and cloth and plastic and tar and hot metal, all quenched by the fire-company’s cold hoses. He could have followed his nose to find it, rather than searching for the address Legion had given him.

This neighborhood was bad. Albert stopped and scanned the shadows, weighing dangers. He lived in a slum, yes, but borderline in the many grades of slum. Now he’d walked through three, maybe four levels straight down in the economic strata. Gaps opened out along the street, places that had burned out or just lost their battle with gravity and weren’t worth repair. He passed under dead streetlights, saw candles flickering behind broken windows patched with cardboard or plastic sheets, smelled drifts of trash and burned-out cars and moldy mattresses in the weeds of vacant lots.

He hadn’t walked this neighborhood in maybe twenty years. Too dangerous. But Legion said to go there, so he went.

And then Albert stood in front of it, a burned-out shell with blackened ragged holes for windows and door, an old ill-kept frame building surrounded by fresh yellow plastic “Fire Line” tape. He searched his memory. Paired six-pointed stars flanked the gaping doors. He remembered plain-dressed gray-haired men with beards and black hats or yarmulkes, Orthodox Jews long ago. A synagogue.

He smelled something faint within the char—a whiff of sandalwood, almost a trace of incense. His nose pulled him along those drifting traces, past the yellow tape and inside. Salamander? That made no sense, no sense at all. The Star of David, Solomon’s Seal on the doors, should have kept it out.

He thought about the decaying, no, decayed neighborhood. He thought about the peeling paint and cracked clapboards even where the fire hadn’t touched. Had they abandoned the building when they couldn’t raise a minyan? Without the living faith, the stars would not have guarded. He smelled something else, something of worked iron there, old and beyond old, heated and broken by the fire or by something else. It had a touch of Other about it . . .

White light blazed in his face, sudden pain behind his eyes. He struck at it without thinking. His cane rang on metal and sent the light spinning, sparking, into darkness. Another swing, shaft thudding on flesh-padded bone, crook of cane grabbing, pulling, a thrust into body and grunt of breath; upward jab and switched grip and clunk of shaft on skull; rustle of falling cloth, silence. He spun away, staggering toward the faint light of the door, heard movement and muttered oaths behind him. Light flared again, searching, stabbing, light that missed him as he dodged. Light that found him, followed him.

“Halt! Police!”

A snarling voice, female but no way feminine. He ducked and turned a corner. Bullets whined off brick and stone, followed by echoing booming gunshots.

Running now, panting, he grabbed at another corner, winding deeper into the labyrinth of alleys and courtyards, hoping against dead ends. Each turn blocked sightlines, trajectories from that gun . . .

He’d just attacked a policeman, maybe killed him. At least one cop still lived back there, a cop who had seen Albert’s face. Up close and well-lit. Defy a demon and follow up with that?

Albert had had better days.

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