Authors: S M Reine
By SM Reine
Copyright © SM Reine 2012
Red Iris Books
istory won’t remember
one of the most important meetings to ever occur. It was organized over secure phone lines by a third party, who selected a time and public location at random, and gave each attendant a day’s notice to travel there—little enough time to ensure they could not prepare surprises in advance.
Nevertheless, James Faulkner was seated at the Pledger Bistro fifteen minutes early. He declined the offer of wine so the waiter wouldn’t disturb him, then tipped his head back because holding it up was too much effort. Even though he had washed and shaved in a train station bathroom, there was no hiding his gaunt cheeks and trembling hands.
The man who approached the table at three o’clock had the slim, dangerous appearance of a concealed pistol. He studied James from beyond arm’s reach.
“My name is Alain Daladier. I’ve come to meet the greatest kopis.”
James sat up. “A pleasure to meet you. I’m James Faulkner.” The collar of his shirt was loosened to expose a white scar on his chest, and the sleeves were rolled back to show fresh pink skin at his wrist where he had been bitten.
Alain observed these details without changing expression. “Show me the sword.”
“Would I have brought it to a restaurant?”
He flicked back the collar of his shirt. Once Alain leaned forward to glimpse the leather-wrapped handle of a falchion strapped to his back, James concealed it again. “Satisfied?”
“I’m told you have two.”
“Not today. Will you sit?”
Alain responded by stepping outside the restaurant. He was replaced by a grizzled man whose thick neck was offset by white hair and a designer watch. “Call me Mr. Black,” he greeted, taking the seat beside James. They shook hands. His grip was surprisingly light for someone resembling an aged bodybuilder. “Alain says you’re the greatest kopis.”
“And I’ve heard you’re not far from the greatest yourself. You went to quite a bit of effort to arrange our meeting today.”
“Oh, yes. But it’s worth it, to meet the greatest kopis… James Faulkner.” Mr. Black covered a smirk with his hand. His brown eyes glowed with mirth. “Faulkner… hmm.”
The waiter returned with menus and placed napkins in their laps.
“Yes, that’s my name,” James said once they were alone again.
“What do you know about ethereal artifacts, Mr. Faulkner?”
“As much as anyone else. The information is limited. Angels had only a minimal presence on Earth before the Treaty of Dis was forged, and they’re scarce now. Why do you ask?”
James sat back in his chair. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“I wouldn’t have spent this much time and money tracking you down for a private chat if our conversation wasn’t important. Humor me. What else do you know?”
“Very well. Ethereal artifacts have three primary properties: They can be separated, but not broken; they are inviolable; and neither humans nor demons can use their power—which is immense.” The scar on James’s chest ached. He massaged it with two fingers as he spoke. “Angels don’t make them anymore.”
“Good, good. I’d bet a lot of cash that you know more about the subject than the average person. Would you recognize one if you saw it?”
Mr. Black studied his menu. He was still smiling, as though he found James’s answer amusing. “I bet you could. I’ve been searching for one particular ethereal artifact for some years now. It’s in the shape of a bowl with notches around the edge. It looks like it’s made of ivory, but it’s not carved from the bone of any animal I’ve killed.”
“I’ve never seen it.”
“Didn’t say you had, did I?”
“Then what are you expecting? If you need a lecture on the properties of ethereal craftsmanship, you could ask someone who is much easier to reach than I am.” He fell silent when the waiter returned to the table with a basket of bread. Mr. Black ordered the duck. James’s stomach was a gnawing hole beneath his ribs, but he said, “Nothing for me, thank you.”
“Come on, now, you’re practically a mummy. I’ll pay for your dinner. You’re my guest, aren’t you?”
“No. Thank you.”
“He’ll have the fish,” Mr. Black said, and the waiter left. “I know you’re hurting for money, Mr. Faulkner. It’s hard making ends meet sometimes, isn’t it? But you don’t need to starve.” He took a piece of bread from the basket and smeared garlic butter across its surface. “What were we talking about?”
James watched his teeth sink into the baguette. “The bowl.”
Mr. Black took his time chewing and swallowing. He wiped crumbs from his mouth with the napkin. “Right. I’ve discovered this bowl’s location.” He leaned forward and locked gazes with James. “I want it.”
“Then you should go get it.”
“Not many kopides survive to my age. I’m past my prime. I’ve left the pursuit of justice and saving humanity to younger men. I bought a nice piece of land down South, I’ve got a summer home, and I run a few businesses that employ a lot of folks. I’m doing pretty damn good, if I do say so myself.”
James realized he was still rubbing his scar and forced himself to stop. Retired? Kopides and aspides never retired. The best anyone could hope for was dying in the service of mankind. The idea of being able to settle down was equally tempting and disappointing, since he knew it was something he couldn’t have. He couldn’t afford to eat on many days.
“What’s your interest in this bowl if you’ve retired?”
“Call it… sentimentality. This bowl is difficult to reach, as you would expect. I need a young kopis—a great kopis—to retrieve it.” Mr. Black’s teeth were very white when he grinned. “I said I’m doing well, didn’t I? I’ll pay a good chunk of cash to have this piece added to my private collection.”
“I’m not a mercenary. My services aren’t for sale.”
“That’s fine. I don’t want
services. You are powerful, Mr. Faulkner, I won’t argue that. Alain felt you coming miles off. But you’re not the greatest kopis.”
James stiffened. “What—?”
“You’re wasting my time. I hate having my time wasted.” That smile had grown fixed on his face. Without making a single motion, Mr. Black suddenly appeared much more deadly. “Where is he?”
Trying not to glance over Mr. Black’s shoulder was pointless. By the time James ducked his head, the motion had already given him away, and Mr. Black turned to point Alain across the street. As soon as he went through the door, a young woman sitting at a table under a tree abandoned her espresso and entered the restaurant, invisible to Alain’s searching gaze.
The waiter moved to intercept her, but she pushed past him and dropped into an empty chair at their table. The look of disbelief from Mr. Black as he took in her girlish face and brutally short curls almost made James laugh. She was hollow-cheeked, too young to be out of school, and wouldn’t have blended in at a supermarket, much less a fancy restaurant. If James was a mummy, then Elise was barely more than a living skeleton.
“This is Elise Kavanagh,” James said. “Elise, this is the man who has gone to so much trouble to find us.”
“You can’t be serious.” Mr. Black wasn’t smiling anymore.
The waiter was red-faced. “I tried to stop her, but—”
She kicked her feet up on another chair. Her hiking boots were covered in chunks of dried mud.
James waved the waiter away before he could go apoplectic. “She’s with me.”
“With all due respect, sir, we do have a dress code, and she’s—”
“We won’t be long.”
Mr. Black snapped out of his reverie. “It’s all right.” He waited to speak until they were alone again. “Miss… Kavanagh, was it? This must be a joke.”
“I’m afraid not,” James said.
“But this is a girl.”
“Female kopides are uncommon, not nonexistent. I believe there are currently three. She is the strongest of them. In fact, she’s the strongest of all of you. You wanted to meet the greatest kopis. Here we are.”
“How does a teenage girl become known as the greatest demon hunter above hundreds of men? No offense.” Which meant, of course, he was absolutely trying to be offensive.
Elise arched an eyebrow split by a white scar. When she didn’t reply, Mr. Black looked askance at James, as if they were old friends and she had intruded on their dinner.
In fact, two things had elevated Elise to that status three months prior: Defeating the previous title holder in a formal sparring match, and then outliving him. Those were publicly available facts. The Council of Dis, however, also credited her with the deaths of twelve angels, which no other human had done in recorded history. Nobody else knew this. James thought that was for the best.
“Her father serves on the Council as a touchstone.” James shrugged. “He must have recommended her.”
Mr. Black gave no sign of hearing him. “All right. If the council thinks you’re great, you’ve got to be pretty good. Are you mute? Dumb?”
James cleared his throat loudly to stop him. “Mr. Black wants to hire you to retrieve a dangerous ethereal artifact. I’ve explained that we’re not mercenaries and not interested.”
“We’re not?” Elise asked.
“Lord in Heaven, it speaks.” Mr. Black rubbed his hands together. “But let’s be fair. I wouldn’t describe this bowl as ‘dangerous,’ strictly speaking.”
“Anything made by angels is dangerous by virtue of its very nature. Men aren’t meant to possess these things, and if you think obtaining one for your ‘personal collection’ is benign, then you must be an idiot—or think I am. If you want to be fair, let’s be fair. You have something planned. We won’t have any part of it.”
Elise wasn’t listening to him. Even though she lounged between her two chairs, there was tension coiled in her muscles. “How much?”
Mr. Black faced her. It was as though James had disappeared completely.
“You can walk away from this restaurant with ten thousand dollars. When you bring the bowl to me, I’ll round that out to—say, twenty-five thousand? I want this bowl, and I’m willing to pay fairly for its safe deliverance.”
“Fifty thousand. Cash.”
James reached a hand toward her, but thought better of it. He liked having both of his hands. “Elise—”
Mr. Black laughed. “Are you trying to negotiate with me, girl?”
She replied in French. James didn’t understand the language, and he wasn’t sure Mr. Black would, either. Yet the older man’s fake smile vanished. When he responded, it was in also in French, and Elise’s hands clenched into fists.
James was certain he had just missed something important.
She stood, gave Mr. Black a sharp nod, and left. Both men gaped after her.
“We won’t do it,” James said weakly.
Mr. Black finished his slice of bread and washed it down with wine. He patted his mouth with a white napkin. His fingers were shaking. “Can I give you some advice, Mr. Faulkner? As a friend.”
“You better get the hell away from that girl. I think she might be the death of you.”
And that was how one of the most important meetings in history concluded. James was never quite sure why that was true, but then again, he also never spoke French.
ames found Elise
waiting on the train platform with a hood pulled up and her hands shoved into her pockets. She could have been any other young traveler commuting home after a day out with friends.
He reached her at the same time the train arrived, and she got on without speaking to him. He took position at the yellow pole behind her.
The train leaped forward. He caught a glimpse inside her hood when she swayed. Elise was usually hyperalert and watching her surroundings for an attack, but now she was drawn inward. She seemed troubled.
Together, they made several short transfers and walked erratic paths through the city streets. James thought he saw Alain following them at first, but they lost him after a few blocks. This was nothing surprising. Unholy things often tried to follow Elise and James, so elusiveness was routine.
When they got on the final train, they had an entire car to themselves. James let a moment of dizziness overtake him and sagged against the window. He barely had the energy to lift his head.
His ribs itched, so he reached under his shirt to adjust the straps of the spine sheath. It barely fit. He had lost too much muscle from malnourishment in the last few weeks.
“Elise,” he began.