The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 8

    Adrenaline is an amazing thing. So is anger. Put them both together and you can perform awe-inspiring acts. Unfortunately in a lot of cases that will turn out to be “acts that are awe-inspiringly horrible for your body.” Running from the fire proved to be one of those “horrible acts”.  

    My lungs were a wreck from the smoke that I’d inhaled but I was too pumped up to notice. I raced across the street to the fire escape that Way had used and nearly flew up the stairs to follow where she’d gone. It wasn’t until I hit the roof and paused to catch my breath that I found I couldn’t.

    With the oxygen in my lungs used up, my vision started to swim and my balance went right out the window. The world spun and I discovered I was too dizzy to stand when I felt my shoulder hit the roof. By the time I was able to suck some much needed air into my lungs Way was by my side.

    “Easy, just breathe.” she said. She had my feet propped up on the top step of the fire escape and was cushioning my head with her right arm.

    “What happened? Did you find him?” I gasped out. Blacking out, or even coming close like I had, feels awful. My body had been perilously close to running out of a necessary resource, so it was going to make sure I was miserable enough not to push myself like that again all too soon.

    “Yes. Take a second and get your breath back though.” she urged me.

    I sighed and let myself relax. The medical facilities of this world were primitive compared to what I was used to. Worse, I couldn’t just dream myself up a fresh set of lungs. What I could do though was argue a bit with the world on how badly damage I was.

    Any exposure to a fire is bad for your lungs, I reminded the world. Also for all my physical fitness I hadn’t trained in low oxygen settings. I was used to working with a nice rich air. It made sense that even a little smoke in my lungs would knock me for a loop.

    As I breathed in I felt the tightness in my chest loosening. My lungs weren’t singed, and as fresh air replaced the smoky air I’d breathed in I felt the strength returning to my limbs.

    “I couldn’t get them all out.” I told Way.

    “I guessed. I felt your magic. You were pushing it close to a fracture but it looks like you backed off in time.”

    “How about you? You caught the shooter?” I asked.

    “I did. We fought and I disabled him, but he had a partner.” she said. The distance and chill in her eyes spoke volumes about why she didn’t have him in tow.

    “I heard a crack while I was in our building. That was a gunshot wasn’t it?” I asked.

    “Yes. A second shooter. He was watching the other side of our building. When he saw that I’d disabled the gunman on this building, he shot him.”

    “To keep him from talking.” I guessed.

    “I’m sorry.” Way offered.

    “It’s not your fault. There shouldn’t even be one professional assassin in this mess, much less a team of them.” I reached my hand up to cover hers. “I take it the second shooter got away?”

    “I believe so. Once he’d shot his partner, I took cover and he didn’t take any more shots. I think he may have fled immediately once he was sure he’d hit his target.” she said.

    “Why didn’t he shoot at you?” I asked.

    “I don’t think he had a clear shot. I was holding his partner up. There weren’t any clear angles from the building he was on, so he went with the next best option.”

    “We should get out of here before he comes back with more help, or the police get here and start asking questions.” I said.

    “Are you ok to travel?” Way asked.

    “I’ll have to be.”

    “I could carry you?”

    “It’s not as easy as it looks.” I told her, thinking of the struggle I had with carrying the woman out of our building. “You need your hands free too, in case we run into the shooter again. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. ”

    “Ok, but we shouldn’t go back down the stairs you came up. Too many people can see them. There’s another set over here.” Way said, leading me to the adjacent side of the building. The stairs there lead to the back alley that ran behind the apartment building. Apart from some trash and probably a rat or two,  it was empty.

    “Wait, before we go, there’s something you should see.” Way said, and lead me to side of the building that overlooked our still burning apartment. I saw fire trucks arriving, but that wasn’t what Way was directing my attention towards. She was pointing at the body that was slumped behind a small shack that stood on the roof.

    “Shot in the chest?” I asked, looking for the bullet wound.

    “Yes. With the available light it would have been the best shot. I searched him for a wallet or any IDs but his pockets were empty. What I did find though was this.” she reached down and pulled back the sleeve of his coat to expose his wrist.

    An intricate tattoo had been drawn on his forearm well above where the cuff of his shirt would cover. The tattoo showed seven snakes, their tails all joined at a point from which they radiated outwards to form a circle. Each serpent’s body was twisted to form a question mark shape with the head of each biting into looping body of the next one over.

    “It looks like a weird variant on the Ouroboros.” I said, thinking of the image of the snake swallowing its own tail.

    “Want to place a wager that the second shooter had the same tattoo?” Way asked.

    “I’d give a hundred to one odds in favor of that being true.” I cursed. “So we have an insane secret society to worry about too.”

    “They might not be related to the dreamweaver.” Way said, though it was clear she didn’t believe that anymore than I did.

    “I think we’re going need to deal with them whether they are or not.” I said. I looked towards the ruin of our burning building to underscore my point. Way grimaced and nodded.

    It wasn’t part of our (quasi-official) mission or our general mandate to interfere with the purely mundane problems on Earth-Glass. We were able to looking in Mcintyre’s disappearance because the dream lord who had noticed it as important, our friend Kari, had discovered that there were reality fractures relating to it. They’d been tiny ones, but even small cracks could lead to big problems. If the secret society the shooters were a part of was related to the fractures then we could take them apart however we wished. If they weren’t, we’d be treading on thin ice if we disrupted what they were doing.

    I looked at the burning building again. Sometimes it was walking on the thin ice.

    Turning away from those thoughts, and the dead body, I followed Way to the stairs down to the alley. We descended at a more leisurely pace than I’d climbed the building, which helped prevent any further dizzy spells.

    “I don’t suppose you have any more disguises?” Way asked when we reached ground level.

    “No, but if we tuck the cloaks and masks away we might not need one.” I said.

    “Where do you want to go next?”

    “Off the streets, whoever these guys are they seem pretty determined. Let’s not make it too easy for them to pick us off.” I suggested.

    “Someplace public?”

    “They don’t seem to be concerned about collateral damage.” I pointed out.

    “The Blue Star then? It’s public enough that we’ll be able to see them coming, and the people there aren’t the sort that its wise to draw a gun on.” Way said.

    The Blue Star was one of the “all night diners” on Fairbank Island. Despite its reputation, Fairbanks wasn’t actually the lawless wild west, except in certain places and at certain times. The Blue Star at night was one of those places. We were going to draw attention going into there, but we had two things in our favor. First we were dressed like locals, so it would be clear we weren’t looking for trouble. A pair of young women aren’t expected to be looking for trouble though so that would only take us so far. The second thing in our favor was that if trouble found us we were each more than capable of putting it in its place.

    It took us a little while to get to the Blue Star. We traveled by alley as much as possible to stay out of the line of fire from any of the buildings we passed.  When we arrived we were greeted with the expected crowd of drunk men horsing around in the parking lot.

    A liquor license was beyond the reach of a place like the Blue Star. That didn’t stop from them from serving it however; it was just billed as a “health tonic”. From the swaggering and excessive volume of the crowd, the Blue Star had been doing a brisk business in “health tonics”.

    “Want me to get us in?” Way asked.

    “Let me. We want any hitmen who come looking for us to have to go through them first.” I said as we left the alley and headed towards the Blue Star’s entrance. We made it across the street and two steps into the Blue Star’s lot before someone noticed us.

    “Look at this. Who ordered the entertainment?” a drunk guy the size of a linebacker said. The rest of the crowd was too busy watching another pair of drunks argue loudly that “city hall just don’t care” to notice us though. I couldn’t blame them. The argument was fascinating to listen to. From their tone and volume it sounded like they were ready to tear each others’ heads off. Their words were just the opposite though. I hadn’t run into people being in “violent agreement” often but the drunk debate was a textbook example of the phenomenon.

    “Girls, somebody sent for girls!” the drunk who’d noticed us said, smacking a guy beside him on the head. The promise of “girls” was more effective than the smack on the head. More than a half dozen heads turned to face us and the argument died down in favor of a new sport; us.

    “Looks like we got some lost little sheep here.” a brown haired drunk with a chin like a shovel said. He rolled his shoulders and pushed off the post he was resting against to lean forward and leer at us. I scanned the crowd observing their body language. His interest in us was mirrored by all the rest of the men there. None of them were shifting to back him up though. There was a distance between the loud mouth and the guys around him that was telling. He had the crowd’s voice for the moment, but not their loyalty. In fact, I told the world, there was a decent chance more than few in the crowd would enjoy seeing him brought down a peg.

    Looking at the assembled faces I could see what they expected. Two girls, alone and unprotected, read as ‘prey’ given the way women were still regarded on Earth Glass. They expected us to be nervous. We’d either not say anything and try to hurry past them or insist that we weren’t lost, letting them control the direction of the conversation. Either way they’d keep pushing and escalating until they were sufficiently “amused” or something else distracted them.

    That wasn’t how the game was going to play out though. The moment he started speaking, I whipped my head around and looked Mr. Shovel-chin directly in the eye.

    “We’re only lost if this place is out of ‘health tonics’. You fine gentleman leave any beverages for the rest of us?” Language can act as both a weapon and a shield. It’s not usually terribly effective at either when dealing with drunks or idiots but even a dull knife can be dangerous if used well.

    “Well that depends sister, how are you going to pay for ‘em” Shovel chin said as he swaggered to intercept us. He looked at me, briefly, when he spoke, but his eyes were fastened on Way. To be fair, she is a lot prettier than I am, but in this case it was as much as matter of racism as anything else.

    “Got a pocketful of wooden nickels.” I told him, stepping in front of Way and not backing down. “Think they’ll take ‘em or would the teeth of a guy who hassled us be better?”

    That got a few chuckles from the crowd. None of them took the threat seriously, but a little girl like me mouthing off to a big lunk like Shovel Chin was amusing enough to keep them entertained. Even Shovel Chin was in a good mood, if not a particularly smart one. I pushed on that a tiny bit with dream magic, suggesting that the alcohol and the camaraderie had left them as “happy drunks” rather than mean ones. They weren’t “nice guys” so I couldn’t push that too far though.

    “Ain’t safe to travel with money around here. You should let us hold onto what you got.” Shovel Chin suggested. Because being a “happy drunk” for him meant merely suggesting robbery rather than yanking my satchel away directly.

    “You’re already holding my money for me.” I told him.

    “What do you mean?” he asked all drunken confusion. The crowd wavered too. This didn’t fit how they’d expected the exchange to go.

    “Come here I’ll show you.” I told him.

    Drunk and confused can be a nightmare to work with. Drunk, confused and suggestible though? That was a joy. I pulled out a change purse, opened it up and turned it upside down and inside out to show there was no money in it aside from a single wooden token.

    “Here, hold this.” I told him and placed the wooden nickel in his left hand, folding his finger closed over it. “That’s my special nickel so don’t lose it.”

    “What’s so special about it?” Shovel Chin asked, thankfully not too drunk to take the obvious bait.

    “As long as you have that, you never run out of money.”

    “That’s impossible!” he said. The other drunk guys had gathered closer to see what was going on. Way, meanwhile, had stepped back to give me room to work, and to keep the crowd from getting to any of the spots where they could see through the routine I was setting up.

    “No it’s not. Turn your right hand over and make a fist.”

    He did, staring at his hands like they were going to turn into lumps of gold.

    “Now say the magic words.” I told him.

    “What’s that? Alakazam?”

    “What? Hell no. Try ‘I need a beer’.” I said. That got another round of chuckles.

    “I need a beer.” he said flatly. Nothing happened.

    “Pff, that’s magic words to you? Say it like you mean it!”

    “I need a beer!” he bellowed at me. I slapped the back of his right hand as he said it and put my left hand under it to “catch” the two coins that fell out. The clink of the coins hitting each other drew everyone’s attention.

    “This enough for a beer around here?” I asked, flourishing the two shiny coins.

    “Waitaminute! How did you do that?” Shovel Chin asked.

    “Do what? You’re the one who wanted the beer.” I said.

    “Do it again! Do it again!” the drunk that had noticed us first said from the audience.

    “Sure. Close your hand.” I told Shovel Chin.

    “I Want A Beer!”, he shouted as soon as he closed his fist. I was ready for that – audiences can be fairly predictable sometimes – and had the next two coins ready for the second “drop” in time. It still amazed me that all it took was the clink of coins for people to think they’d fallen into my hand. They wanted to believe though and some of them were too drunk to see straight which helped a lot.

    “Oh my god! You can make money!” a balding drunk said, pointing at Shovel Chin.

    “Again! Again!” came the cheer from the crowd.

    “I WANT A BEER!” Shovel Chin screamed.

    I hit his hand again and this time nothing came out.

    “Huh, gotta be careful using magic while you’re tipsy boys. Stuff can wind up in all kinds of places.” I said turning his hand over and back as though I was looking for where the coins were hidden.

    “Ah I bet I know.” I said and cuffed Shovel Chin on the side of the head. I had my other hand near his opposite ear to “catch” the coin that came falling out.

    “How come there was only one in there?” Shovel Chin asked. He didn’t think to question that there was money falling out of his head, just that it wasn’t as much as he’d been hoping for. So very human. Fortunately it was the perfect lead-in to the big finish.

    “Oh, they can wind up all over the place.” I told him. “The good thing is, you can use one to find the other.”

    I started waving the coin around him like a dowsing rod. It flicked up and down slowly around his head, then a little faster around his chest until I brought it down to his waist where froze and pointed at his right side.

    “Ah, here it is!” I said and yanked at his belt to drag forth a long stream of cloth which unfurled into a pair of white boxers with pink hearts on them.

    “Well that’s daintier than I would have guessed.” I said and produced the “missing coin” from the top of boxers waist band. That got a full on round of laughter from the crowd. Shovel Chin actually blushed in embarrassment despite the fact that he had to know I wasn’t holding his boxers.

    “You guys can try it out now. I going to get that health tonic.” I told them as I slipped a few more coins into Shovel Chin’s pockets so that they’d have something to find to keep the magic trick going.

    “Or you could let the nickel rest for a bit. It gets tired sometimes. Usually needs a good night sleep after that before its lucky again.” I added, thinking ahead to when the coins ran out.

    Predictably none of them cared about that. They started lining up for a chance to slap Shovel Chin’s hands and collect their loot. Or his face, or whatever. They weren’t going to beat him to a pulp and he was drunk enough that slapping him silly wouldn’t take long either. The important thing was they were all focused on him and his Lucky Magic Nickel. That left us free to head into the Blue Star without further hassle.

    The patrons inside the Blue Star weren’t much different than the ones loitering outside it.

    “What do you want?” the middle aged waiter who was working behind the counter said when he saw us.

    “Food, and something to drink.” I replied.

    “Pick a table or a seat and I’ll get to ya.” the waiter said.

    The Blue Star was less than a quarter full so there were plenty of options, including a booth that was towards the back of the “L” shaped diner and away from the other patrons. Way and I settled into it and opened the pair of menus that had been left on the table. I’d eaten breakfast on my Earth, but “The Amazing Jin’s” belly hadn’t benefited from that.

    “That was some interesting magic you did out there.” a man who stepped up to our table said.

    I assumed he was another waiter and replied without looking up at him.

    “Just some simple sleight of hand.”

    “That’s not the magic I was speaking of Ms. Smith.” the man said.

    I felt my heart freeze in place. The Amazing Jin’s last name was “Lee”. No one on Earth-Glass should have known who I really was. Or the kind of magic I’d really been working outside.

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