Authors: J. C. Nelson
Ace Books by J. C. Nelson
J. C. Nelson
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An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2015 by Jason Nelson.
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Ace Special ISBN: 978-0-698-19211-9
Ace Special edition / January 2015
Cover art: Empty street at night © Nejron Photo / Shutterstock; Brunette girl with gun © S-lama/Shutterstock.
Cover design by Danielle Abbiate.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
It turns out the Fairy Godfather was right; there is in fact a mathematical formula for the likelihood of getting a tattoo. You can basically take age in years under thirty, multiply it by number of shots of dwarven liquor in one night, and divide by proximity to a tattoo parlor. At two shots and twenty paces, I was doomed the moment I walked out of the bar.
I’m not entirely clear what happened to Monday. I recall collapsing into bed on what was technically Sunday, and the next thing I knew, a woman was sitting next to me, screaming, “Marissa, wake up.”
I covered my ears, scrunched up my eyes, and tried to make the world stop spinning.
“Marissa.” Now she hissed like a snake, or at least my brain claimed she did. She halted the hissing and switched to shining a fifty-billion-watt spotlight into my eyes. “I know the rule about not opening your bedroom door, but I was worried when you didn’t show up for work.”
I felt in my mouth to try to dig out the cotton balls and found only my tongue, easily the size of a whale. “Stop shouting.”
The aforementioned shouting voice belonged to Ari. Arianna Thromson, my full-time best friend and part-time assistant. Ari walked to the door and clicked on the light, stabbing my eyeballs with sixty watts of blinding light. “It smells like death in here. Oh, sweet Kingdom, what happened in the trash can?”
“Couldn’t make it to the toilet.” I sat up, watching the world ripple in waves.
Ari wrapped a pink scarf over her nose and mouth, mercifully muffling her voice. “And the cat bed?”
I slumped back over. “Couldn’t make it to the trash can.”
“Get in the shower, or else.” Ari pointed to my bathroom, her arms crossed. Her strawberry blond hair hung to her shoulders in tight curls. The white outfit she wore only served to make her freckles stand out that much more.
I considered her threat. “Or what? You’ll dump cold water on me?”
“Lighter fluid, Marissa. If I were going to guess, it’d be the only thing that could remove that smell. If you want to try soap and water first, that’s your call.” She grabbed me by the arm and shrieked. “What happened to your wrist?”
I looked down at the huge purple bruise that flared out, blue and red at the edges, fading to green and yellow. “Don’t know. Shower.”
Ari left and came back wearing my kitchen gloves and carrying an empty box marked “priority mail” that I’d stolen just because the sign said not to. “I’m going to dispose of these the responsible way.” She lowered the cat bed and trash bag into the box.
“Don’t flush while I’m showering.” I stood, testing to see if, in fact, my feet were still attached to my legs.
“Flush? I said responsible. I’m going to have it incinerated and the ashes buried in the desert in a lead-lined coffin. What were you drinking?” Ari might have been actually shouting.
I stumbled into the shower, trying to recall everything in the bar that night. A few minutes or hours later, I emerged, damper, redder, and hopefully less smelly. When I made it out to the living room, Ari handed me a pair of sunglasses and a set of earmuffs. “You’re a day late for work. Grimm is ticked.”
Grimm. The Fairy Godfather. Occasional boss, sometime partner, full-time scrooge. He’d avoided me in the bathroom mirror (I did not appreciate being peeked on), but no doubt he’d be watching from anything shiny enough to hold a reflection. It was his agency Ari and I worked at; though since I made partner, I supposed at least part of it was mine.
“Grimm, come on out to play.” I figured it was now or later. Might as well be now.
He appeared in the mirror above the fireplace, glaring at me over black-rimmed glasses. As always, his charcoal silk suit appeared flawlessly pressed. Only his eyes gave away anger or concern. “My dear, while you are welcome to personal days, I would appreciate being notified. What’s the point of owning a magic bracelet or a cell phone if you can’t be bothered to use either?”
I sat down at my bar and poured a bowl of cereal. “Sorry. I was celebrating, and I’m fairly certain someone spiked my punch.”
Grimm sighed. “I already checked the auguries, Marissa. None of your drinks were tampered with. What have I told you about dwarven liquor? I don’t want to have to arrange a liver transplant before you are thirty.”
“She got into a fight with something.” Ari walked over and grabbed my arm, waving it for me. “Check this out.”
Grimm’s eyes narrowed, and he faded away.
“Hurry up. We’ve got to get into the Agency.” Ari handed me a spoon and a carton of milk.
I poured, and clumps of milk fell out, settling on top of the cereal like vanilla pudding. Ari and I had worked a lot of late nights in the past few weeks. I might have forgotten to check dates. “Let me finish my yogurt.”
“Marissa, we need to talk.” Grimm spoke from the metal spoon, completely ruining my ability to eat with it. “What have I told you about drawing on yourself in permanent marker?” He switched to the mirror and looked at Ari. “Arianna, it is a tattoo. Indicative of a brain injury, perhaps, but not a physical one. I’ll see you two when you get in.”
• • •
After what had to be the longest bus ride in history, featuring the largest number of noisy, smelly freaks ever assembled on the transit system, we finally arrived at work: the Agency, a twenty-story building, of which three floors belonged solely to Bastard Grimm, the Fairy Godfather, and one floor mostly belonged to me. I went in through the front door, pushing through a crowd of people begging, crying, and pleading with our receptionist.
That would be Rosa, a Hispanic woman I believe came with the building when we leased it. My standard advice to folks was that if they needed a miracle, go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Pat answered prayers more often than Rosa, and he didn’t taser those who got out of line.
“Morning, Rosa.” I nodded to her.
She mumbled back, a phrase that according to her meant “Good morning.” For Christmas, my boyfriend bought me Spanish lessons, which, while not great, taught me enough to know what she said involved my parents, a dairy cow, and a sexual act. For Rosa, that bordered on friendly.
“I’m getting a wish, even if I have to kill someone.” A man’s voice. A large, heavy man, judging from the tone. An ignorant man. He strode through the lobby looking like he drank fresh-squeezed testosterone for breakfast with his three-dozen-egg omelet. He stood more than six feet tall, with golden stubble on his head and chin.
“No wishes. Fill it out.” Rosa handed him a clipboard and pen, despite the fact that it looked like a toothpick in his hands.
“I need it now.” The man lowered his voice, staring down at Rosa.
Rosa, from my experience, had her fear, compassion, sense of humor, and dignity surgically removed as a child. In fact, I believed that she’d gone in for an appendectomy and come out with eighteen anuses. It was the only possible explanation for the sheer amount of crap she gave me. She stared right back. “No wishes.”
The man flexed his arms. When he did, it looked like a boa constrictor coiling as muscles that you’d normally see only on a skinless cadaver rippled and slid. “I’ll kill someone to get a wish.”
Rosa glanced over in my direction and grinned. “Start with her.”
Like a mountain of flesh, he turned toward me, sending the crowd behind me skittering for the corners.
My head ached. My
ached, and even the whispers of the crowd still sounded like the end zone section at a New York Giants game. “Pick a fight in here, and the only thing you’ll get granted is a death wish. Take a number, sit down, we’ll get to you when we get to you.” I put my hands on my hips, wondering what was taking Ari so long. As soon as the man turned his back, Rosa would hit him with the stun gun.
Or not. Rosa sat at her desk, entering a form and completely ignoring me.
Mighty Beefcake Man leaned over, his oily skin shining under the fluorescent lights. “Little girl, get out of my way. Be nice, and I’ll give you my phone number.”
If I could stand on the pile of mistakes in that statement, I’d be taller than him. “I’m a woman. Twenty-six. I have a boyfriend, and if you are lucky, he isn’t in the office today. Going to be hard to tone those glutes if he rips them off you. Be polite, or I’ll tattoo your prisoner number on your forehead before I drop you off at the police station.” I had to look up at him, but it wasn’t in my nature to back down.
He swatted at me, meaning to push me away, I’m sure. That would have worked if it weren’t for the last eight years I’d spent practicing self-defense. Five foot eight doesn’t scare anyone, so I tended to let my actions speak. In this case, my action was stepping just out of the way, pulling on the arm he swatted at me with, and delivering a blow straight to his solar plexus.
The mountain of man went flying back, crushing terrified bystanders and smashing into the wall. A shooting pain burst from my arm, leaving me barely able to stand, as the office doors exploded.
“Marissa!” Ari came out, a dog-control pole in her hands. She marched past me, looping it over the man’s head, and wrangling him over. “Are you okay?”
“Broken,” the man gasped.
“Not you, idiot.” She looked back at me. “M? What did you do?”
I held on to my arm until the pain passed and I could breathe. “Just punched him.”
Ari gave Rosa a glare, then handed the dog pole to one of our contractors. “Walk him out to the curb. The police will pick him up shortly.” She looked back at me, then her eyes went wide. “M, come on.”
Through the staff door and down the hall she dragged me, straight to Grimm’s office. He’s not there. Well, really, he’s not anywhere, but his office held a desk with a full-length mirror in the chair behind it.
“Grimm, look at Marissa’s arm.” Ari shoved me up to the desk, pulling back my sleeve.
The tattoo, which I now vaguely remembered agreeing to, covered my wrist and spread almost to my elbow.
“Arianna, how may I help?” Grimm swirled into view, then his eyes locked on my arm. “Take her to the Visions Room.”
I yanked my hand back and wandered out of his office, managing to stop at the kitchen and grab a cup of coffee to go with the migraine medication I kept there. A Visions Room, incidentally, allowed normal folks, such as myself, to see things that weren’t normal (such as almost everything at the Agency). The crystal prisms that covered the walls tinkled as I stepped inside, and a moment later purple light bathed me.
“See?” Ari stood outside, looking through the window at me. As a seal bearer, the daughter of a royal family chosen to care for a realm seal, Ari didn’t need the Visions Room to see magic. On the other hand, she didn’t see it very well, and the Visions Room acted as a pair of magical bifocals.
I was going to make a snide comment about her need for contacts when I glanced at my wrist. In the spirit light, the entire tattoo glowed purple, with spidery veins reaching out from the edges up my arm. And it moved, like something alive. Something growing. “Grimm, what is this?”
“Another bad decision, my dear.” Grimm’s tone left a chill in my stomach. “What exactly did you tell the tattoo artist?”
I sat on the bench, starting with what I did remember. The weekend began with me introducing Liam, my boyfriend, to a trio of dwarves. Once they’d done the normal manly boasting about who had the larger forge or longer hammer, they took to drinking. Then losing ten straight rounds of poker to me. And that would be the point at which I started drinking. I vaguely recalled claiming that I’d own Liam’s skin if he kept playing. Oh, right. Liam claimed he was going to get my name tattooed on his— “I remember.”
“Why couldn’t you just get a barbwire bracelet?” Ari opened the door and came in to sit beside me. “Or some kanji for ‘Live free and die hard’?”
“Because most of the time the kanji says something like ‘Free fried rice with order.’ I wanted something that actually represented my life.”
Grimm sighed. “Tell me they changed the needles between you and Liam. Tell me that, Marissa.”
My boyfriend turned out to be harder to tattoo than a greased Russian wrestler. I mean that literally, since the Russian wrestler was fairly easy to tattoo, once I knocked him out. He’d carry around “I am an asshole” written on his forehead the rest of his life for groping me. Liam, on the other hand, couldn’t be tattooed with normal ink, a side effect of a curse I might have been responsible for giving him.
“Honestly, I’d rather catch whatever Liam’s carrying than anything else in that shop.”
“That’s fae ink, Marissa. Completely illegal to possess, and absolutely dangerous to someone like you. What was it supposed to be? Liam’s name?” Grimm crossed his arms.
“A bruise. I figured I get so many of them, I might as well have a permanent one. I’ll go get it removed.” Whether it was my hangover, my first encounter of the morning, or the lights in the Visions Room, I was done.
“Hardly, my dear. That’s fae ink, as I’ve said. Did you know you broke eight of that man’s ribs?”
I stepped outside, glaring at Grimm. “I didn’t see you stepping in to help.”
“I did exactly what needed to be done. I called the police and expected you to simply stall him until they arrived. My point is that what you did defies physics even more than common sense.”
Ari stepped out after me, looking at the cloud of ink on my arm. “I think it’s shrinking.”
It was. Easily three inches smaller. As the moments ticked by, I watched a freckle emerge on my arm, as if the ink slowly receded. After another ten minutes, the bruise was roughly the same size. Maybe a little larger.
“Fascinating. Marissa, I would like to arrange a test of my theory, if you don’t mind. It may require a few moments to prepare.” Grimm rubbed his chin.
“If it will help get rid of this, bring it on.” I walked down the hall to my office, turned off the light, and sat in the dark.
A few minutes later, Ari knocked. “Fairy Godfather says this man would like to speak with you.”
Beside her stood a portly man of Middle Eastern heritage. His beard, his wrinkles, the fact that he smoked a pipe despite our “No Smoking” signs, they all said one thing. Djinn. “The old man said you would grant my wish.”