Authors: Ferrett Steinmetz
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Urban, #Thrillers, #Supernatural
or Uncle Tommy
, who made me want to write
And for Rebecca, who gave me the spark to finally do it well
You kids play nice together
the exact price of everyone’s pants in this nightclub. His own pants were a shabby APO Jeans knockoff ($17), purchased in a muddy alley from a toothless Chinese man, that Julian had hand-stitched with needle and thread ($2) until they’d pass casual inspection.
On any other night, Julian would feel like a fraud in this glamorous world of $275 jackets and $180 jeans –
fake it ’til you make it
– but he’d smile like he was a rich businessman’s kid, not the son of an $18,000-a-year drycleaner who was dealing coke to pay his tuition ($38,439 per semester). Any other night, he’d be discreetly swapping out his water ($6 a bottle, plus a splashy-generous tip) with a smuggled flask of Popov vodka ($16.99 per gallon), drinking to muffle this horrid idea that maybe – just maybe – being rich was something in the blood, and you could never ever buy success no matter how many deals you cut.
But tonight, he’d snorted Flex. And Julian saw numbers
Hot lights flickered over bodybuilders draped in velvet, each flexing into new hypermasculine poses at set intervals – an experimental art exhibit he and Anathema had stumbled into, lured by tumbling streams of statistics. The gallery patrons plucked toothpicked pieces of brie ($1.50 apiece) off of silver trays ($49.95 from Williams-Sonoma). Each tray had wasplike blurs of probabilities hovering over them – the secret knots that tied the future together.
Magic. He had snorted crystallized magic.
“I can’t believe you got me
,” Julian told Anathema, grinning dreamily. He rubbed the gritty residue from his nostrils, then licked his knuckle clean. It was a cloudy G-46 – supposedly low-grade by ’mancer-standards. It still made his tongue spark like electricity coursing through a fresh piercing.
Anathema had yet to name her price. If she could set him up as a Flex dealer at Addison Prep, Julian would never worry about tuition again. His father had believed in the value of hard work, spending fourteen-hour days scrubbing soup stains off of rich men’s ties at his dry cleaning store, proud that he owned it. His dad had also eaten nothing but chicken broth and vitamins to make ends meet, and eventually the bank had seized his business anyway. The lesson: become a banker.
But how? Julian had applied to hundreds of scholarships to wrangle his first semester at Addison Prep – but the Addison Prep crowd was infamously sharklike, cliquish. That was Addison’s strength; those who survived the boarding school’s humiliating rituals emerged wreathed in that nouveau-riche scent, Wall Street’s Chosen Ones. To his fellow students, as to Julian, poverty was the sign of a character flaw: his Dad’s simple faith in mankind’s goodness had doomed him.
And so Julian hid his poverty, shamefully stirring crackers, ketchup packets, and hot water together in his closet to make Poverty Soup, knowing that if anyone caught him, he’d be lucky to get a job dry cleaning.
If Julian could convince Anathema to be his supplier, then his $38,439 tuition was a given. His
was a given. His
Anathema unpeeled a vulpine smile. Her teeth were yellowed with meth-mouth – but unlike most meth-heads, she’d filed them sharp. Was Anathema a model turned junkie? That would explain her wild, middle-aged ex-beauty-queen look, half starved and disdainful.
Nothing explained the tiny rat bones sewn into her dreadlocked hair, though.
She elbowed him hard enough to bruise. “Which useless socialite will you cull from the herd?”
She jerked her chin toward the bodybuilders. “You think this art display is as stupid as I do. See their muscles trembling as they maintain those poses? The artist’s trying to represent strength wrapped in velvet. Bah. Imagine wolves bursting past the bouncers, yellowed teeth slicked with saliva; they’d corner these soft, steroid-fed prey in the bathroom, tear those swollen biceps off the bone.
strength. No. You don’t want art. The Flex led you here to complete your obsession.”
Anathema made Julian feel like a drycleaner’s kid. How the hell did you
to that? Was this how people spoke when they tripped balls on Flex?
Flex was beyond him. Flex was distilled magic, gifted to ordinary people by ’mancers. And no one understood magic.
Julian could handle the local dealers: twenty-something burnouts who sat in cat-piss-stained apartments, lording it over the ignorant teenagers who begged them for coke. But Anathema had crept through his dorm window at night, claiming she had supplies for the right kind of dealer.
That offended him. Julian wasn’t a dealer. He only sold to friends. So what if he made friends by selling dope?
Still, he had to suck up to her. She had Flex, and edible ’mancy was nearly a rumor. Most ’mancers went crazy, got Unified, or blew a hole into the demon dimensions… and the survivors rarely felt like bottling ’mancy for sale. All ’mancers had an obsessive-compulsive fixation so strong, their desire bent the universe around them. The one in a thousand crazy cat ladies who tipped over the edge into felimancy didn’t want steady incomes. They wanted housefuls of cats.
Julian finally understood why ’mancers didn’t care about money. Anathema was right: this art was bullshit. Yet a noseful of magic had changed tedious pretention into dazzling flitter-blurs of statistics. All the patrons here were wreathed in mesmerizing flickers of potential futures, interlocking rings shrinking as their decisions contracted to a single point of action.
“Come on, little lamb.” Anathema smiled, then smiled wider when she saw Julian flinch. “The wolves must feast. Choose your devourer.”
“You know,” Anathema purred. This reassured Julian not at all; Anathema was so comfortable with this Flex high, it made him wonder how many times Anathema had ’mancy-tripped before. ’Mancy was illegal, a terrorist attack upon the laws of physics.
Julian started to protest that no, he did
know what Anathema was talking about, when he noticed the woman his eyes thirsted for.
She was a brunette in her late thirties, a lush body housed in a provocative green cocktail dress – but sagging slightly in that MILF way that Julian found so cock-achingly appealing. She sipped a martini ($14) with a staid grace, so thoroughly bored by the exhibit’s pretentiousness that she was ignoring it all to read an eight-dollar book of Margo Lanagan poetry.
Julian’s heart was devoured.
All-male Addison held mixers – but the school supervisors treated women like they were nitroglycerin, packing everyone in tight so no one could react; strictly slow-dance affairs. Oh, Julian had gotten laid thanks to the coke, but it had been a sorry thing: fevered orgasms in broom closets. And the women? Sad, yelping inheritance kittens who waggled their asses to Flo Rida and giggled at Tosh.0.
statuesque beauty laughed at only the cleverest of jokes. The odds swirling around Green Dress told Julian exactly how unlikely he was to impress her. She’d been hit on by callow boys all her life; her affections could only be won by a man of intellect, spirituality, confidence. The sort of man who genuinely deserved Wall Street.
Why hadn’t he read
The Great Gatsby
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Anathema clutched his shoulder, her meat-flecked breath hot in his ear. “Even in this artificial hellhole, the laws of nature still apply: to fuck is to conquer. You want to ejaculate her full of your hollow desperation. And for one night, I’ve given a little lamb the teeth of a
great – big – wolf
.” She flicked calloused fingers towards the opal brooch on Green Dress’s chest. “’Ware her protection.”
Who speaks like that?
But Anathema was right: the opal ($6,999 at Tiffany’s) signaled both caution and wealth – real opals were rare, as most shattered black in the presence of ’mancy. Julian loved Green Dress’s willingness to protect herself.
Julian grabbed the bartender’s arm. “Two of your best.” ($36, plus tip.)
The bartender dropped the drinks on the table, did not push them over. The risk of him asking for Julian’s ID contracted to a certainty. Enwebbed in those potential futures were the probability fields of the bouncers, the patrons, the musclemen–
– the musclemen–
Julian squeezed probabilities; a muscleman shifted into a straight-armed lunge, accidentally punching a waitress. Expensive drinks flew into the air.
The bartender moved to see who was hurt.
Julian snagged a martini and headed over. Green Dress looked up with a grimace.
“This is the tough part,” Julian stammered, trying to remember the Pick-Up Artist books he’d read. Her cool gaze squeegeed them from his mind.
“What is?” she asked.
He swallowed. “Breaking the ice.”
Green Dress put down the book. Her opal brooch danced upon on her pale cleavage. “Look, kid, I’m flattered, but I’ve got a boyfriend.”
“You did, yes.”
Distracting the bartender was one thing. This change flexed
, a shark thrashing on the end of a fishing line.
Julian needed this. He needed
. He bore down, strangling uncountable odds until they condensed into one necessary future.
The opal cracked from shimmering silver into jagged black.
The woman’s cell phone rang ($499 plus a twelve-month Verizon contract). She plucked it off the table. “Why are you calling me here, Kenneth?” she asked, then paled. “You – you slept with
Anathema pulled Julian away as he reached out to comfort Green Dress. Anathema’s grip was stronger than the bodybuilders; he was being hauled back to the bathroom by hungry wolves…
“You don’t have enough Flex left to break
odds.” She pushed Julian into a cushioned seat. “A full-scale breakup? On command? That’s a frontal assault.” She batted him on the nose. “Why waste precious energy going for the throat when you can dig traps?”
Julian flushed. He hated the way Anathema made him feel… well, as naïve as he
“With the Flex comes the
. Your desire, lent might by this reality-corroding poison, pushed some serious probabilities around. Now the universe pushes back. You need to let bad things happen to bleed off the good.” She sized him up, green eyes glittering. “Can you? Can you let the bad things happen for me, little lamb?”
The numbers flew backwards now, a countdown to a bomb, offering horrible outcomes. The headmaster’s wife chatted in the corner; she could suspend him for being out on a school night. A chicken croquette crawled with salmonella.
And behind it all, swelling like a blister, the biggest, baddest possibility:
she could notice her opal is broken
“Give me more Flex,” Julian moaned. “I need ’mancy or she’ll leave…”
Anathema scowled. “You
to do ’mancy?”
Julian scrambled to placate her. “Is that a bad thing? I, I… don’t know how ’mancers act. I’ve never met one… I don’t think I’ve met anyone who
She bared those sharp meth-teeth again. “’Mancers are scum. Sinkholes in the universe. They’re going to destroy the world as you know it.”
She clapped a calloused palm over her mouth to smother her laughter.
Julian was near panic when Anathema shoved a paper sack into his hand. The cloudy Flex crystals glowed faintly, covered with tiny, rippling hairs. Flex wasn’t true ’mancy – only a ’mancer could wear a hole in the universe through their obsessions – but a ’mancer could distill their magic, gift it in bastardized formats to mundanes. Julian crammed the crystals into his mouth, crunching them to powder; by the time he’d choked down the Flex, Anathema had slipped through the crowd, exiting with a fluid grace.
Green Dress grabbed him. Her languid beauty had transformed into haughty fury.
“Still wanna break the ice, preppie?”
“Then let’s do this.”
She assaulted him in the cab, kissing him like she was dispensing revenge. He felt her breasts, palming the broken opal, ditching it under the cab driver’s seat.
It should have been his life’s climax, getting head in the back of the cab. But horrid potential futures squeezed his temples: the taxi’s front tire could blow. A cop could pull them over. A traffic jam could bring her to her senses.
Julian used the new Flex to push the old flux away. It was like trying to pay off credit cards with other credit cards; debt accrued.
Did it matter? He was kissing a woman who never would have noticed some pimpled kid working at a dry cleaners.
She hauled him up to her apartment. He wanted lovemaking; she fucked him angrily, like a porn star. At her instructions, he came all over her beautiful face, then sent her ex-boyfriend photos of her smeared cheeks.
“Can I sleep here?” he asked.
“Whatever.” She rolled over.
He’d fucked her, and she’d barely noticed him. He slid his arms underneath her in supplication… and when she sighed and settled reluctantly back, acknowledging him, Julian shivered in unknowable bliss.
What he’d done was wrong. He knew that. But her tolerating his presence felt like a benediction, a sign he deserved
place among the wealthy and beautiful, and oh God, he’d lied and was going to Hell.
And as Julian thought about Hell, the thought swelled in his head like a blister. Something popped, and all those terrible possibilities flooded in.
The gas main beneath them exploded.
A million-to-one chance
, the inspectors later said. But that was no consolation as the flame filled the apartment, fusing his skin to hers, her shrieking in pain, him shrieking as he realized what he’d done. The last thing Julian saw was the numbers fading, returning to zero, burning up along with his flesh.
Julian had been good at counting costs.
Just not good enough.