“I don't know why I'm doing this anymore. It started as a cheap book to cash in on some interesting stories, but ever since meeting a succubus and getting a god crammed in my brain, that old life seems a little lackluster. It's tough to summon any excitement for regular old felonies when the memories live alongside that time I accidentally had sexy thoughts about the seven-foot-tall personification of hatred.
Which is the problem. I'm really not supposed to talk about this stuff. Umbras are a huge secret that everyone I meet already seems to know, but it all still has to stay under wraps for regular humans. So we sneak and use glamours and do everything in the mystic handbook short of wearing a trench coat to hide my wizard's staff. And hey, that’s cool. I’ve spent my whole life lying, so keeping the biggest secret in the universe shouldn’t be hard. So why then am I still writing this? Until I come up with a better answer, I'm saying that I'm too proud of the punny title to give it up. Plus, there's always the chance the publishing companies won't mind that it’s ninety percent rambling trash that can't possibly be true. A pretty good chance, actually, given the state of things.
But while I am going to leave the first half as it is, you should know that it’ll be different from here out. Not necessarily better, just more current, I guess. And I hope you didn't come looking for concrete answers about magic or Umbras or the Ether, because I genuinely don't think there are any…apart from those we create for ourselves. It turns out reality is way more subjective than I ever gave it credit for. So just take this second act for what it is: a journal that I'll try to make as fun as possible between bouts of insufferable whining and world-altering revelations. It'll be fine.”
Introduction to Chapter Eleven – CONscience
Gabe threw a hand up to block the lights of the oncoming car, then took a step back to avoid being splashed as it pulled in front of him. He had never been great with makes or models, but it was black and shiny with the rain, and it looked like the kind that wanted to seem more expensive than it really was. It rolled to a stop as the tinted passenger window slid down to reveal a middle-aged guy with heavily coiffed hair and a fashionable brown leather jacket. He fixed Gabe with a hard stare, probably taking in the damp, disheveled nobody persona that Gabe had put on that evening, then he nodded to the rear door and rolled the window back up without saying a word.
Gabe happily obliged and dropped his umbrella to the floor as he slipped into the warm, dry interior. The rain was getting heavier outside, but the sound faded to a soft patter when he shut the door, and soon the loudest noise was that of his own squelching against the faux leather as he took off his hat and adjusted his coat. Soon, the driver had them merging back into evening traffic.
"Teddy, right?" Gabe asked the passenger, pegging him for his contact. “At least it's not snowing, huh? Thirty-eight degrees in Minneapolis in January...after where I've been the last four months this feels like the Bahamas.” He chuckled. “The only snow I want to see anytime soon better come in a cone!”
The passenger turned without replying and tossed a pair of heavy headphones into Gabe's lap, then he followed it up with a black plastic device with a single red button beneath what looked like a speaker. Gabe looked up to find both men putting on similar headsets, so he shrugged and pressed the button—only to drop the thing like a scorpion when a painfully loud static burst out. He quickly pulled on the headphones and the assault lessened to a dull whoosh.
"Probably should have done that the other way round, friend," the passenger said through the headset.
Gabe reached up and found a thin microphone arm along the right side and bent it down to his mouth. "Big red button. What did you expect me to do?"
"Precautions, Gabe. Everybody's wearing a wire or something these days, gathering intel for themselves, or the cops, or a rival. That stuff used to be confined to the movies, but now every goddamned person on earth has a cell phone that makes the best recorder from even five years ago seem like a speak-n-spell. Makes it tough to do business. This loud little bitch keeps things civil. And yeah, I'm Teddy."
“Very cloak and dagger.” Gabe said, then leaned forward to hold out his hand. "Nice to meet you. James called ahead?"
Teddy stared at the offered hand for a second, then looked back up without taking it. "He did. Said you were an asshole, but a trustworthy one. So you meet the first of my two criteria for clients. Any guess what the second is?"
Gabe nodded. He sat back and slowly reached into his interior coat pocket to use his index finger and thumb to pull out a fat envelope. He held it up to show it wasn’t a weapon, then flashed the contents. "Asking price and a little more," he said. "If I'm happy, the whole thing is yours."
Teddy smiled appreciatively at the glimpse of the hundred at the front of the stack and the size of the envelope. It looked like double the two-thousand he'd asked for, and Gabe folded it shut before he accidentally revealed that it wasn’t. Most of the extra bulk was about twenty dollars in ones, but he had also slipped in a few expired car wash coupons to really pad the thing out. Part of him even hoped the guy found those before they parted ways so he could use the joke he’d queued up about laundering the money. He felt like that was worth about fifty bucks on its own.
"You want to do the trade and get this over with?" Gabe asked.
Teddy shook his head and turned back to face front. "Naw, I don't take that stuff out with me. That’s asking for trouble. We're going to pick it up now."
Gabe glanced out the window and saw that they were indeed headed deeper into the city, cutting into an area of Minneapolis that he wasn't familiar with. "I don't remember a second location being on the agenda? James said this would be a quick swap."
Teddy shrugged. "Plans change. I've got a little heat on me lately, is all. Got to keep my nose clean when I'm out and about. You should understand that, from what I’ve heard." He turned back to give him a toothy grin. "Besides, you're not going to mind when we get there. Promise."
Gabe had no idea what that meant, but the time to argue would have been before getting into the stranger's car while unarmed and outnumbered. Now the best he could do was minimize the information he gave away for free. And given his propensity for rambling, that meant shutting up entirely.
They pulled up to Ma Damn's about seven minutes later, and Teddy signaled that Gabe could shut off the white noise. Then the man pulled off his headset and got out, leaving Gabe no choice but to reluctantly follow. They were met at the curb by a huge bouncer who nodded to Teddy and held out an umbrella for him, which reminded Gabe of his own umbrella just as the car pulled away behind him. He stood watching for a moment as the taillights faded into the dark sheet of rain, then he turned and jogged to the shelter of a deep purple awning where the other men were already waiting. The umbrella went down and Teddy immediately reached up to check his hair while the bouncer moved to Gabe and gave him a brief, professional pat-down. A moment later, the black door swung open and they were ushered into a whole other world.
Gabe was fresh off of four months of relative quiet and peace in the Canadian Rockies, and he was still getting used to the normal bustle of regular society. So when the wave of loud music, pink light, and moist smoke washed over him, it felt like an actual assault on his senses. His head immediately went a little fuzzy, and he had to blink a few times just to get the images to resolve into something understandable. Only taste and touch were left out of the atmospheric ambush, but that made sense in a place where they would almost certainly be for sale behind a bar or a curtain.
He'd always referred to places like this as "gentleman's clubs" but life had taught him that there were many flavors to choose from, and gentlemen almost never played a part in any of them. Ma Damn's was closer to a burlesque than anything else, and it showed clearly in the eclectic decor and colorful patronage. Men with top-hats and canes were interspersed in the crowd among the more common hoodies and sweat-stained polos, and a few women were even sprinkled throughout to help push the vibe a notch farther away from exhibition and closer to the theatrical.
Two women in corsets and heels were on the center stage, playfully tugging on either end of a feather boa wrapped around a man wearing a bustier and nylons, and they all moved to the rhythm of some brassy jazz number blaring over the speakers. By the rise of the music and the reactions from the crowd, it seemed like they were nearing the climax of their little skit, and Gabe was immediately intrigued to know how it ended. But Teddy was already moving past toward the back of the room. The man nodded and shook hands here and there as he cut through the club, but even as the music blared and the crowd started whooping and clapping for whatever the finale had been, he seemed to barely notice. The guy acted like someone who had seen it all before and was only checking in to make sure the machine was running smoothly—like he owned the place.
They pushed through a side door and took a flight of stairs up to an office that sat above the bar. Two men were playing cards just outside the room, and Gabe noticed the telltale bulge of weapons stuffed beneath their cheap jackets as they passed. Inside, it was as garishly decorated as the rest of the club, and one whole wall was made up of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the main stage and seating areas. Teddy crossed the room to sit behind a large desk made from what might have once been a pipe organ, then he pulled a key from his breast pocket.
"Have a seat," the man said, gesturing to two purple suede chairs. "I'll get the stuff."
Gabe nodded, but didn't sit. Instead, he turned to look out through the glass to the stage where a male performer was now blowing fireballs out over the delighted crowd. It seemed like a ridiculous thing to do indoors, let alone in a place so full of taffeta and latex, but it did certainly seem to be a crowd-pleaser. Then three female performers joined him onstage, and he turned to blow a quick stream of flames vaguely in their direction just as they tore their tops off as if they'd been burned away. It wasn't a very convincing trick, but no one in the audience seemed to care about not being fooled.
"You've got quite a place here," Gabe said, managing to turn away from the show before things heated up any more. "Definitely unique."
Teddy was bent over to rummage through a drawer, and he chuckled without looking up. "Yeah, well, I got tired of all that cookie-cutter bullshit, you know? Thought I should do something different. This place just kinda happened. I started providing a little bit of everything for everyone and found a niche."
Gabe nodded. "So you're legit. Why the side jobs?"
The man looked up in annoyance, then tapped a button on his desk before turning back to his drawer. The music from the club immediately came over speakers in the ceiling to drown out all but the loudest conversation. "Precautions, remember?" he said, pitching his voice just loud enough for Gabe to catch. "The side jobs are how I keep this place alive, man. You think a co-ed burlesque club in the upper Midwest has me rolling in dough? Shit, it's Friday and the place isn't full. You should stop by on a Tuesday. I could offer a free shrimp and blowjob buffet and it'd still be a ghost town."
"Got it," Gabe said, doing everything in his power to not imagine that. He watched Teddy rummage for a while longer, then he finally sat down. "Is there some kind of problem?"
Teddy lifted a huge folder from the drawer and laid it on the desk. "No problem. I'm just assembling. I don't keep everything in a nice, tidy, incriminating packet. You want to hide stuff? Slip it into the middle of a stack of daily bar inventories. That shit might as well be on the moon for all anyone's ever going to find it."
Gabe watched as the man worked, but the wooden lip at the back of the desk prevented him from seeing any of the documents clearly. He might be assembling the right paperwork or he might be shuffling around receipts for pasties and chest oil. It was impossible to tell. "How about a drink?" he asked. "I've been out of touch for a while. I wouldn't argue if a pretty girl served me up a stiff one."
Teddy cracked the intended smile at the terrible joke. "Sure, man." He picked up his phone and raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Jack and Coke," Gabe said, "hold the Jack."
The man shook his head a little at that one and ordered before quickly going back to his work. A few minutes later, the server entered and placed Gabe's drink on the low table at his side. Gabe turned to leer at her, dressed in what must have been a uniform corset and heels, and he exaggerated the motion as much as he dared to make sure everyone involved noticed. She turned to leave and he grunted appreciatively, then he reached out to take her hand just before she could step away.
"Hey, thanks," he said, casually slipping a five dollar bill into her palm. He looked up to her eyes for the gratitude, but found only annoyance. "Okay, so that's probably 'no' to a lap dance then?"
She made a noise of disgust and slapped his hand away before turning to stalk back to the door. It seemed like an overreaction considering she’d kept the five and he’d only inappropriately grazed her thigh the one time. "I'll take that as a maybe!" he called as she left. The finger she gave him at the exit suggested an alternative sexual outlet for the evening.
Gabe looked back to find Teddy watching him with a wry smile. "New girl," the man said. "I hire them for their personalities as much as their looks. You don't get a very good show out of the boring ones, and my clientele tends to like a bit of sass."
"Understood," Gabe said, rubbing his hand as if the slap had truly hurt. "Are we about there?"
Teddy nodded and leaned forward to pass over a thick envelope. "I think that should do it. Feel free to look everything over."
Gabe opened the packet to find dozens of documents within. The two passports looked about right, and the IDs were passable. The credit cards were anyone's guess until he could test them out, but most of the rest of the contents were completely unrelated to the identities he'd asked to purchase. "What's this stuff?" he asked, holding out a library card under the wrong name.
Teddy was pouring a whiskey for himself and waved the question away with his free hand. "Pocket litter. Random junk to make you seem legit. Only criminals go around with a passport and nothing else."
"I get the concept," Gabe said, "this isn't my first rodeo. But the name is wrong. On most of this, actually. I carry this junk around and I'm more suspicious, not less."
Teddy knitted his brows and reached forward to take back the documents. "Shit," he said. "I must have gotten the files mixed up."
He rose and downed his whiskey, then crouched back in front of his drawer. "Sorry, man. I'll get this sorted in a minute. You want something to eat while you wait? We do a clam and sausage platter here that’s actually way better than it sounds."
Gabe stood and picked up his drink, then took a few slow steps toward Teddy's side of the desk. He kept it casual, but he made sure the movement was obvious enough to notice. As he'd feared, the man looked up sharply for just an instant before composing himself again as if nothing had happened. Anyone else might have missed the flicker of fear there in that moment, but the professional con artist caught it like an underhand pitch.
"Something wrong?" Gabe asked, letting his voice curl up ever so slightly at the end.
Teddy smiled but flicked his eyes down quickly toward his drawer, giving the answer away as surely as if he’d said it. Gabe opened his mouth to speak again, to try to draw the man out a little more, but the next micro-expression he caught made his heart skip a beat. Only one thing ever followed desperate resolve: danger.
Gabe flicked his hand forward just as the pistol came up, and the icy drink splashed into the man’s face. Teddy reeled back, and Gabe used that instant to round the desk and clamp his hands down hard on the gun before it could come up to bear. The strength he'd gained at the cabin served him well in that first burst of struggle, and the barrel stayed pointed toward the floor. But Teddy had the leverage and position and the trigger beneath his finger, and all the man had to do was move the weapon a few inches to line up a shot. Gabe pushed with everything he had, then instinctively groped for his magic to augment his strength. But all he got in return was the now-familiar stab of pain and general impression that he wasn't doing it right. The gun began to rise.
"Get in here!" Teddy screamed.
Gabe suddenly remembered the two guards outside and realized he only had a second left to change the situation. He tried to twist far enough to use his shoulder to slam Teddy against the desk, but the man was wiry strong and held him fast. And even worse, the movement also cost him precious leverage and let the gun shift closer to his stomach. Another inch and it would be over.
Right on cue, the door to the office burst open and quick footsteps crossed the room behind him. Gabe couldn't turn to face them without letting go of the gun, and he couldn’t let go of the gun without probably dying. Plus, when it came down to it, he wasn't sure he wanted to see it coming anyway. The meeting hadn't gone as well as he’d hoped, and it wouldn’t improve his mood to watch the fist find his face. So he simply girded himself for the pain and waited for the depressingly familiar embrace of unconsciousness. At least that was something he was relatively good at.