Like most of Aiko’s plans, this one started with an observation that was quite straightforward and logical, and then took it in a direction and to a degree that most people would never think to.
In this case, the first thing to note was that I couldn’t hunt down Hunter. That was just a given. Even aside from having been told as much by some very reliable sources, it just made sense. He’d stuck around as one of the most wanted people in the world for a couple thousand years. You didn’t manage that without being one hell of a hard target.
If I couldn’t hunt him down, then, the logical next step to take was the other major tactic a hunter might use. If I couldn’t find him, I had to lure him to me.
On its own, that wasn’t exactly a brilliant and innovative thought. But in this case, that tactic wasn’t an easy one to use. I didn’t know what Hunter wanted, not really. I didn’t know what might draw him out. There was the option of using myself as bait, something I’d done on other occasions, but in this case that seemed like a distinctly bad plan.
And that brought things to the point where sanity left off, and Aiko took over. What she’d proposed was, I thought, likely to work. If nothing else, it was likely to catch Hunter by surprise. The plan was so convoluted, so risky, and just so nuts that I thought it was legitimately possible that nobody had tried it in the past thousand years.
She hadn’t been wrong about one thing, though. It wasn’t something that I could do without a bit more preparation. And this wasn’t the kind of preparation I could do by just going home and getting weapons, either. This was the kind of plan that required some very specific things, and it required assistance of the sort that I couldn’t find among my minions.
So, naturally, the next step found me going where people always went when they wanted to make a crazy, dangerous, and highly dubious plan work. I went to the Clearinghouse.
The domain seemed about the same as the last and only time I’d been there. The trading floor of the Clearinghouse was a cavernous space, literally and metaphorically, an enclosed area the size of a stadium. The interior was filled with numerous levels of catwalks, bridges, and arches of all kinds, along with columns, partial walls, and ladders. Between them all, there weren’t many places where you could see more than around fifty feet in any direction, despite the large size of the area.
It was, in short, not unlike a maze in three dimensions. And, of course, if you happened to slip off the edge of the walkways, you could expect no help at all on your way down.
I didn’t know my way around the Clearinghouse, not really. Aiko did, but she wasn’t with me this time. Bringing someone with her kind of power and political importance on this trip would, in a number of ways, have defeated the purpose. Not to mention that she still had plenty of enemies who liked to hang out here, and while we could likely handle them now, it was still something to keep in mind.
So I was alone, in the Clearinghouse, having very little familiarity with the locale or the rules of the place. It was almost funny, the extent to which that didn’t scare me.
Not knowing what I was doing did, however, mean that I had to ask around. Normally I would hate that, see it as a potentially catastrophic expression of weakness. Now it was…well, still a potentially catastrophic expression of weakness, but one which could potentially also be useful. In a way, it was less bug than feature for what I wanted to accomplish here.
And, for the next several hours, that’s what I did. I talked to various vendors, and to people who were just walking by. The variety was really quite impressive. The Clearinghouse was quite possibly the most cosmopolitan domain of the Otherside, and it showed in the crowd that the black market attracted. I recognized some of them as coming from a wide variety of sources, everything from various kinds of fae to yokai, demons, and djinn. There were plenty more that I didn’t recognize at all, including some that I wasn’t entirely sure were people at all. In a place like this, telling the difference tended to be a difficult task.
I kept my inquiries vague, at first. I was looking to hire a magician, preferably a human mage or something close enough to one to make the distinction a largely insignificant one. I needed one who could keep his, her, or its mouth shut. One who was fairly experienced.
Those inquiries were…not innocent, precisely, but by the standards of the Clearinghouse, close enough. This was, after all, not a place you went to buy legitimate things. Wanting to hire someone who wouldn’t talk about the nature of their employment was hardly unusual, and while most of the people I spoke with weren’t interested in helping a stranger, enough were that I got directions fairly easily.
Once I was in the right section, two levels down and a few hundred feet away from where I’d started, I began asking more specific questions. I was looking for someone who wasn’t a part of the established clans. Someone who wasn’t afraid of the Conclave, or of the Watchers specifically. Someone who was good with Otherside portals.
These inquiries were, as such things went, still relatively innocuous. But things were now reaching the point where a canny observer, with access to a few of the things I’d said, might be able to start putting together an idea of what I was looking for.
And that, in short, was why most people would never have considered this plan. Even at the Clearinghouse, there were things you didn’t advertise lightly. This place had few, if any, rules, and they wouldn’t actually stop me. That didn’t, however, mean that there weren’t consequences for asking. Word would get out–word always got out, that was practically a law of nature–and even casual inquiries on this topic were liable to get you in the kind of trouble where death was a best-case scenario.
I was being circumspect, and my position right now was such that I was relatively safe anyway. But I didn’t kid myself that this wasn’t a risk. It was almost guaranteed that various important people would find out about this.
That was, in fact, the whole point.
Finally, after a few hours of asking around, I got a name, someone that was generally agreed to be a good person to approach for what I wanted. Jeremy wasn’t the kind of name that you generally associated with a dangerously powerful mage that skirted the boundaries of the Conclave’s rules, but people seemed fairly confident in the recommendation, so I figured I’d follow up on it. Another lengthy hike, complete with getting turned around twice and finally just jumping thirty feet from one narrow bridge to another, was enough to find him.
At a glance, Jeremy didn’t look much more impressive than his name sounded. If I were to see him on the street, I’d probably be more inclined to think of a middle-aged professor than a dangerous criminal. He was skinny in a way that looked more like someone who just forgot to ate than someone who really cared about appearances, wearing a bland grey suit.
When I walked up, he had his feet up on the table and he was reading a book. It wasn’t even a particularly ominous book. It was a perfectly normal paperback, a spy novel, I thought. He didn’t put it down when I walked up.
“Jeremy?” I said, stopping a few feet away.
“Yup,” he said, putting a bookmark in his novel and setting it aside. He didn’t take his feet off the table. “What can I do you for?”
“I hear you do good work,” I said. “The kind of work that I might be looking for.”
“You might have heard right,” he said. “And you are?”
“Call me Winter,” I said.
He snorted. “That’s a bit on the nose, isn’t it? Considering your situation.” He gestured vaguely at me.
“I’m well aware,” I said dryly. “Though I’m a bit surprised you noticed.”
“Please,” he said, rather contemptuously. “It’s a nice enough mask, but come on. Would I be worth hiring if I couldn’t see through that?” He snorted again and took his feet off the table, sitting up. “Anyway, what are you looking for?”
“I need someone for a short-term position,” I said. “Someone who’s both able and willing to do some things that the Watchers would likely take offense to.”
“I’ve been known to do some things that they don’t particularly like,” he acknowledged in a remarkably casual tone. “I’d have to know more specifics, though.”
“That’s fair,” I said, reaching into my cloak. “Give me a few seconds first. I’d rather this conversation not become public knowledge.”
Jeremy put his feet up again and watched as I pulled out a pouch of salt and began pouring it out in a circle around the table. It hummed with a quiet energy, almost undetectable unless you knew what to look for. Once I had the circle completed, I touched it and sent a quick jolt of power into the salt, triggering the stored spell. Instantly, the quiet hum of activity from the Clearinghouse shut off.
“You know that just makes you look more suspicious, right?” Jeremy said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s kind of the point, actually. I need to make sure that the people watching get exactly the right impression.”
“Expensive toy you just used on making an impression,” he noted. “That must have run you…what, eight grand?”
“Five,” I said. “I know a guy.”
He whistled. “Nice. Still expensive, though.”
“It’s worth it.”
Jeremy shrugged. “It’s your money,” he said. “So what’s so important you need to use that heavy of magic to keep out eavesdroppers?”
“It’s all about making the right impression,” I said. “That goes for what I’d be hiring you for, as well. I’m not actually interested in breaking the Watchers’ rules. I just want you to make inquiries and preparations to make it look like you are.”
“You mind if I ask why?”
“I think it will attract the attention of someone important,” I said. “Someone I can’t necessarily find by normal means.”
“Interesting,” he said. “Which rule?”
“I want you to convince him that you’re planning to summon something from the void.”
I hadn’t been entirely sure whether Jeremy would know what that meant. His reaction suggested, rather strongly, that he did. He went dead still for a moment, staring at me, then visibly forced himself to relax. He adjusted his glasses, a gesture that looked so reflexive I wasn’t sure he was even aware he’d done it, and then grinned.
“Well,” he said. “You don’t think small, do you?”
“This situation is a bit past the point where cautious action will get me anywhere, I think.”
He nodded. “Fair enough. Of course, it would entail some serious risks for me. It’s one thing to do some marginal things under the laws. It’s another to break them entirely, and especially to flaunt doing it the way you want me to. And that rule in particular tends to get worse things than the Watchers hunting you.”
“Would you believe me if I said that I was in a position to make those problems go away? With the Conclave, and the…other things.”
“Probably not,” he admitted easily. “Are you?”
I shrugged. “I think so,” I said. “But it can be hard to tell, and they do take this very seriously. Are you open to considering it anyway, or should I look elsewhere?”
“I’m thinking about it,” Jeremy said. “But it’ll take some serious payment to make the risk worth it.”
“You mentioned cash,” I said. “I can pay a quarter of a million American, up front, in cash. I’ll also give you access to my network to spend it if you’d like. I’ll talk to my contacts and see what I can do about making sure that you don’t come under fire for this, and if necessary I’ll foot the bill for a new identity for you.”
Jeremy pursed his lips. “That’s almost enough to be tempting,” he said. “I’ll also need you to cover any expenses, of course.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem, within reason. Call it another quarter of a million to pay for that. I’ve also got access to some extremely valuable information you can use for bribes, for the things that don’t take human currency.”
“You make one hell of a convincing argument, Winter,” he said. “It’s not every day someone offers me half a million to not do things.” He grinned again. “What the hell, why not.”
“Excellent,” I said, also smiling. “Let me go over the details with you.”