Debts Outstanding 5.1

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I was awakened by trumpets the day the gods came to town.

 

Waking someone up with music isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. Done right, it can actually be quite pleasant.

 

This was not done in that way.

 

It started with a fanfare, a literal fanfare like you would expect to hear when royalty visits or something. It quickly progressed from one trumpet to what sounded like a dozen, backed by maybe twice that many drums. Again, nothing intrinsically wrong—except that they were playing at about a million decibels and it was way, way too early in the day for that.

 

By this time, Snowflake had her head stuck between my knees and was covering her ears with her paws. Because at least one of us had to be paying attention, I poked my own head out to see what was going on.

 

Needless to say, there were no musicians in my laboratory. This did not appear to perturb whoever was responsible for the music.

 

Exactly as I stuck my head out, the music concluded, all the instruments coming to a massive crescendo that wrapped up with a cymbal clash that left my ears ringing.

 

Before I could really adjust to the lack of sound, it started up again. More specifically, Morgan Freeman started talking, in cinematic surround sound. He said:

 

“I present the Harbinger of Chaos, the Crafty in Lies, the Prince of Destruction, the Master of Disaster; by the grace of himself King of Jotunheim, of Midgard, and of Niflheim; Duke of Utgard and Hyperborea; Sultan of the frozen seas; first among giants; sovereign of the most honorable and most renowned Order of the Serpent, sovereign of the most noble Order of the Mistletoe, and sovereign head of the most illustrious Order of the Small But Extremely Numerous Pointy Objects; the Father of Beasts, the Son of Lightning, His Lowness Lord Loki.”

 

I sighed and put my head back down. Of course it was. Who else but Loki would, given the kind of power required to do something like this, actually use it to do something like this?

 

As the echoes of his introduction were fading, Loki himself appeared in the center of the room. Even knowing, insomuch as any mortal really can, what he was, it was still disturbing. There was no sound, no flicker of motion, no brush of magic against me, no gate to the Otherside, nothing. One moment there was no one there, and then the next there was, and in between? Nothing.

 

“Rise and shine, everybody!” he roared, somewhere between “psycho drill sergeant” and “grumpy camp counselor.” “Drop your cocks and grab your socks, folks, it’s time to go kill something!” Thus settling that particular dichotomy, I suppose.

 

There was a pause, during which no one seemed particularly inclined to do any rising or shining. “What are you doing under the table?” Loki asked a moment later, his voice returned to what I thought of as his normal. Which is to say that it was light and happy with, in this case, a touch of curiosity underneath. Loki always sounded amused to me, and also always had this edge of madness somewhere beneath that that made it impossible to be near him without being afraid.

 

But you never let them see you flinch. And, more to the point, at the moment my life depended on Loki’s continued amusement, which meant no groveling, and in fact no expressions of respect or fear at all. That would just bore him, and in many cases a bored god is worse than an angry one. At least all the angry gods do is kill you.

 

Thus, rather than anything you would expect of somebody dealing with a terrifying old god, I shoved my head deeper into the pillow. “At the moment,” I groaned, “I’m mostly regretting the sleeping I’m not doing, thanks very much for that.”

 

“And you’re sleeping under a table because…why, exactly?”

 

It being apparent that he wasn’t going to give up and go away (I didn’t expect him to, but a guy can dream, right?), I lifted my head enough to glower at him. He was wearing what I thought of as his default body, a tall Nordic man with rugged good looks, reddish blond hair, and eyes that resembled more than anything else a forest fire in progress. “If I leave the cot in the middle of the floor,” I grumbled, “I keep having to move it around. Here it doesn’t get in the way.”

 

Loki considered that a moment. “You’re sleeping,” he said slowly. “On a cot, under a table, in a laboratory. At noon. And your only blanket is actually a dog.” He stopped and thought some more. “You know,” he said eventually, “I would love to make that more pathetic for you, but I’m not entirely sure how. I don’t suppose either of you has a suggestion?”

 

I glowered some more. “It is way too early to deal with this,” I said to him, Snowflake conveying wordless agreement in my head, and put my head back on the pillow.

 

“Winter. It’s noon.”

 

“Yeah?” I muttered. “That means I’ve had less than five hours of sleep. Come back around four and maybe we can work you in.”

 

“Oh,” he said, clearly amused. “But, as I’ve already said, it’s time to rise and shine. You know what that means, right?”

 

“No, but I’m afraid I’m about to.”

 

“It means,” he continued as if I hadn’t spoken, “that if you aren’t standing and out from under that table in nine seconds—both of you—I will stand you.”

 

I didn’t want to find out how he planned to do that. Snowflake and I both made it to an ambulatory state in record time.

 

“What are you doing here?” I asked, snagging my cloak of shadow from the table and throwing it on over my tank top. I didn’t much care about formality—Snowflake had, obviously, seen it all before, and something like Loki would probably have a hard time even telling the difference—but I kept the cloak’s quasi-pockets loaded, in case I needed to run for it some morning. Given that Loki was present, I figured I couldn’t be too paranoid.

 

“You owe me,” he said brightly, opening my various cabinets and looking through them idly. They were locked, and warded, and in a couple cases also booby-trapped. He showed no more notice of my protections than I would of a spider web. Actually, that’s not accurate; I brush spider webs out of my way, and Loki didn’t even seem to realize that something had gotten in his way. Scary.

 

I considered pointing out that the favor I’d bought turned out to be rigged, and had in fact seriously endangered both my life and Aiko’s. Then I reminded myself that pissing off the Harbinger of Chaos, et cetera, was a very bad idea. “I need a little more information than that,” I said instead.

 

“Sure,” he agreed. “I’ll show you.”

 

I knew what was coming after that, and I tried not to blink, but I didn’t have the choice. It wasn’t even a matter of that whole eyes-drying-out stuff that makes you blink all the time. No, my eyes just closed without my brain getting involved at all.

 

When I opened them, as I’d expected, we weren’t standing in my lab. Where, exactly, we might be was a question I wasn’t prepared to ask. I hadn’t felt a thing, so we must have used the same means of transport that Loki relied upon for screwing with me. Strangely, it wasn’t any clearer what had happened when I experienced it than when I watched it from the outside.

 

So, essentially, saying where we were was impossible. I had no idea how far we might have traveled in that instant, and there weren’t any landmarks that I could see to orient on.

 

The immediate vicinity was a little easier to place. It looked like a parking garage, one which was eerily empty. Nobody likes parking garages, and I’m no exception. In fact, I like them less than usual, because I can sense the aura of fear and distrust that inevitably sinks into them clearer than most folks. Nobody really feels safe in a parking garage, and over time so much thought and emotion becomes a part of the walls and the air.

 

It also wasn’t hard to see why the place was abandoned, or why the aura was nastier even than most places of the type. I mean, parking garages aren’t expected to have the nicest ambience, but there are still certain things you expect. Generally speaking, for example, you expect that regardless of how scary all the dark corners and strange angles might be, nothing bad will actually happen while you walk to your car. To help reinforce this impression, you expect that you won’t stumble across the evidence of somebody else who wasn’t so lucky.

 

The blood would make that pretty hard here, I think. I could smell it like a physical presence, reminding me uncomfortably that I hadn’t eaten yet, and not even a human with a human nose could ignore the reek of blood. It was pooled and spattered on every surface in sight, including parts of the ceiling. Fresh, too; a few hours old at the very most, and I was guessing more like minutes or less.

 

The source of the blood, likewise, wasn’t hard to figure out. I mean, generally speaking when you have that much blood and that many corpses together, it isn’t hard to say that the one goes with the other. I counted nineteen bodies, arranged in various poses. Most of them looked rather ignominious.

 

Death, I reflected, often was.

 

“Why do I need to see this?” I asked, staring at Loki and trying to pretend I couldn’t smell the blood. About that time, I finally got my head clear enough to notice that only the two of us had been transported. Snowflake, presumably, was still at the lab.

 

He grinned, taking no more notice of the macabre scene than if they’d been ants. “Because I’m retaining your services,” he said brightly, as though it were so obvious he wasn’t sure why I was actually asking.

 

“No.”

 

“No?” he asked, curious.

 

“No,” I repeated firmly. “Our deal was that I got to choose what form the favor would take. I’m not interested in this. Ask for something else.”

 

He nodded thoughtfully. “You are, of course, correct. If that’s what you decide, so be it.” He pulled a pack of chewing gum out of a pocket that hadn’t existed before he reached for it. It smelled like artificial flavor pretending to smell like fruit of some kind. Loki popped a stick into his mouth and glanced at me slyly.

 

I sighed. “What?”

 

“Well,” he said, chewing the gum. Loudly. “I have a bit of a philosophical question for you. I’ve been wondering, if somebody thinks you’re working against them, does it matter that you actually aren’t? See, they think they’ve gotta defend themselves against you. Except then you have to defend yourself against them, right, because otherwise they’ll paste you. So, essentially, you actually are working against them. You see what I mean?”

 

I did. I mean, it wasn’t hard, right? “You son of a bitch,” I sighed.

 

He grinned. “Well, naturally. So, as you might have guessed, I’m appointing you my representative in this matter. And, while you are of course free to decline this position, I think it’s only fair to tell you that you’re pretty much the last to know. Which means that everybody else already has their sights on you. And, I’ll give you some free advice here, these aren’t the nice kind of people, if you know what I mean.”

 

I glowered some more. I’m not much of a morning person at the best of times, and this was approaching a new record for the worst way to be woken up after too little sleep. “I don’t suppose you could tell them you changed your mind?”

 

He grinned. “Well, sure. But really, would you believe me if I said something like that? Yeah, didn’t think so.”

 

I sighed. It was, of course, entirely possible that he was lying. He was Loki, after all; lies were kind of his thing. But I didn’t think he was. This whole setup reeked, in addition to fresh blood, of exactly the kind of casual cruelty that Loki would find hilarious. Besides, I believed him when he said that he usually found lies less useful than truths. Once you see through a lie, it loses its power over you; the truth doesn’t have that weakness. “All right,” I said reluctantly. “What do you want?”

 

He grinned. “I thought you might say that,” he said, seeming to have no difficulty with the fact that he was blowing a bubble at the time. Maybe he’d forgotten that a normal guy needed to use his mouth to speak. “It isn’t complicated, really. There’ve been three murders now in Colorado Springs, I’ll give you the details later. I want you to find who’s responsible—in the proximate, I mean, not like who’s cosmically responsible or something. Do that, and return anything stolen from the victims to me, and we’re even.”

 

“Three?” I asked, looking around again. “What about these guys?”

 

He looked around as if puzzled, and then laughed. “Oh, right. Nah, this was a gang fight in Mexico. I just brought you here for, you know, atmosphere.”

 

I sighed. How very…him. “Do I get any more information?”

 

“Of course,” he said happily. He reached into his coat pocket Somehow, from a pocket barely big enough to fit your hand into, he pulled out one of those big manila mailing envelopes—without, I might add, any folds in it—and handed it to me. “There you go. That should be everything you need. Remember, all the stolen goods are returned to me directly. Mess it up and I’ll flay you with a butter knife.” He winked, tipped a cowboy hat that didn’t exist until he reached for it, and snapped his fingers once.

 

It sounded closer to a firecracker than a normal snap. I recoiled instinctively, blinking, and when I opened my eyes again the smell of blood was gone.

 

I hate him. Snowflake was rubbing her head against my thigh as though to reassure herself that I was actually there.

 

“Me too,” I sighed, slapping the envelope down on the table. “Looks like we’re seeing some more action.”

 

More? Don’t we get to wait a while? I mean, it’s only been three weeks. That’s a little much, don’t you think, even for you?

 

“Yep. Tell you what, how about you go find Loki and tell him so?”

 

She sniffed, but didn’t respond otherwise, which I was calling a victory. I opened the envelope and pulled out a bunch of papers, paper-clipped into three groups. The first two were both brief, unsatisfyingly vague dossiers, complete with photos.

 

I gave them a cursory glance-over, pretty much just reading the names and looking at the pictures. It was still a bit early in the day for me to be doing any serious analysis. I hadn’t even gotten dressed, for crying out loud.

 

As I finished each page, I set it down on the floor for Snowflake to read. She was still adjusting to the loss of her right eye (and the burn scars ensure that she gets more looks when she goes out undressed than I do), but she wouldn’t have much difficulty reading a few sheets of paper. She did pretty much the same thing I had, albeit with a little more difficulty turning the pages, making the occasional interested noise.

 

Then I got to the third stack, and stared. It was just like the others, a thin stack of documents detailing a man’s life in the vaguest terms possible. I didn’t read it, because I froze as soon as I saw the name at the top, Humberto Rafael Escobedo. It wasn’t the sort of name you forgot, and I knew it, even though I’d only met the man once or twice. It also wasn’t the kind of name you saw every day, and I didn’t think I needed to worry about it being a duplicate.

 

Humberto had been a werewolf.

 

Loki, whatever else he might be, has impeccable timing—absurdly so, even. Which is why I wasn’t surprised when, just as I started to swear at that realization, the phone rang.

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One Response to Debts Outstanding 5.1

  1. Emrys

    This is an author’s commentary written after the completion of the series. Spoilers are in a rot13 cipher; if you aren’t familiar with that there are a number of very easy deciphering websites to use. These spoilers may cover the full series, not just this book, and they may make reference to major plot points and character development. You have been warned.

    When I think of this series I divide it more or less into three sections. The first four books are the early section, which is distinguished mostly by being pretty bad. They’re formulaic, derivative, barely even flirt with continuity or an overarching story, have extremely dense and clumsy exposition…I could go on, and I have, so I’ll stop now.

    This is the first book of the middle section. It’s also the first book that I’m reasonably satisfied with, in hindsight. Those are not unrelated. This was the first book of the series that was written with the expectation that I was actually going to take the books somewhere, that I should perhaps actually try to make the series as a whole decent rather than just amuse myself by writing individual books.

    That, in general, is what I would say the distinguishing characteristic of the middle section of the series is. There’s more continuity, more character development, rather than trying to make every book stand as a separate thing. They still have discrete stories, and they weren’t planned out in exhaustive detail, but there’s some structure tying them together.

    As to this specific chapter, there’s not a whole lot to say. It’s one of my favorite openings, possibly my favorite in the series. I think what appeals to me about it is the contrast. Again, it’s about juxtaposing the silliness and pranks with this very gory, very harsh stuff. I was trying to get a sort of contrast where things seemed lighthearted on the surface but if you really look at it, if you think about the implications of what’s going on, the world suddenly seems a whole lot darker. That was a general thing in this series, and I think this chapter captured it pretty well.

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