Sunshine, p.24
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       Sunshine, p.24

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 24

 

  "Yes," I said. "Mel, d'you suppose anyone is exactly who they say they are?"

  "Charlie, maybe," he answered, after a little pause, of surprise or consideration. "Can't think of anyone else. Hmm. " I watched his hand lift off the table and rub one of his tattoos.

  Maybe I should have been thinking about tattoos myself, but there's a real big drawback to them. Any charm can be turned against you, if you run into the thing it's supposed to be protecting you from, and the thing is enough stronger than the protection. A powerful enough demon adept or magic handler can overwhelm one too, although that's serious feud stuff and not common. A tattoo feeds itself on you, so tattoos do tend to be a lot more stable and longer-lived than the ordinary charms you set around and hang up, including the ones you wear next to your skin; but a charm that isn't living off you can be destroyed a lot more easily if it does go - or is sent - rogue. A rogue tattoo can eat you up. It happens occasionally. Before five months ago I didn't figure I needed any heavy warding. Now that I did, tattoos were the last thing I was going to try.

  "Charlie," I said. "I can't think of anyone else either. " Not Mel. Not me.

  "Not Mrs. B," said Mel, smiling. "Sunshine, I don't like metaphysics unless I'm drunk, it's only three-thirty in the afternoon, and I'm working tonight. What's up?"

  If Mel had really been trying to pass as a motorcycle hoodlum, his tattoos wouldn't be as beautiful or as elaborate. Lots of sorcerers go in for a superabundance of tattoos, but they mostly keep them hidden - they're harder to rogue that way. Hence the long enveloping robe and deep hood technique with inked-up sorcerers when they're actually handling magic. (For day-to-day, walking-the-dog, doing-the-shopping use, a lot of sorcerers disguise the real shape of their tattoos with cosmetics. Long sleeves and high collars are hot in the summer - and there are favorite sorcerer tattoos that go on your lips and cheeks and forehead too. But - I love this - magic can apparently be a bit perfunctory about certain things in the heat of a transaction. Any tattoo a sorcerer wants working while he or she handles magic can't be distorted with face paint or pancake foundation because it may turn out to be the apparent figure that performs. Or doesn't. )

  My dad didn't have any tattoos. That I remembered. But I didn't remember my dad very well, and not all sorcerers have tattoos.

  But sorcerers are sorcerers. Tattooists mostly make their livings punching charms in leather, not live skin, and they'll try to talk an ordinary member of the public out of it if you already have, say, three magic-bearing tattoos, even little boring ones, and they'll tell you why. In vivid detail. It isn't just the rogue possibility: a lot of magic-bearing tattoos can sort of unbalance you. You start not being quite sure where the real-world lines are with a lot of tattoos whispering in your dreams. Of course having lots of magic-bearing tattoos is one way of saying you're a tough guy - first because the implication is that you need all that charm and ward power, and second because you're hardy enough to bear the drain and the disorientation.

  But there are better ways of showing you are a tough guy than having lots of tattoos, partly because no tattooist who wants to keep his or her license is likely to cooperate, and the ones who don't have licenses are too likely to make a mess of it. There is only one small secondary quarter-circle's difference between a ward against drunkenness and another one against eyestrain, for example, and the latter won't get you home safely with a load on. And that's one of the common, simple wards, and most of Mel's tattoos weren't common or simple. But they were magic bearers, not ornamental. You could smell it, like ozone when a storm is coming. And besides, nobody who had any pretensions to hanging out with a biker gang would dare have ornamental tattoos. Ornies are for wusses.

  Mel couldn't be a sorcerer - sorcery isn't something you can successfully hide for long - but he did have a lot of tattoos. It was typical of him too that when he had come to talk to Charlie about a job the first time he had his sleeves rolled up above the elbows and his shirt open at the neck, in spite of the fact that it was January and freezing. Although maybe he just had a good take on Charlie, who in his affable, openhearted way, enjoys Charlie's reputation as a place slightly on the edge.

  I said, "Mel, who are you?''

  Mel picked up both my hands and kissed them. His lips were warm. When he laid them back on the table he didn't let go. I watched the sunlight twinkle among the fine hairs on the backs of his hands, and the red and gold and black of the tattoos there. Both the hairs and the tattoos had an unusually bright red edge, as if there was firelight on them. Or in them. His hands were warm too. Human temperature. The temperature of the fire of human life. Speaking of metaphysics. "I'm your friend, Sunshine," he said. "Everything else is just static on the line. "

  I wondered if he'd heard what Pat had said. I wondered who had done his tattoos. Maybe what I thought I knew about magic-bearing tattoos was from the same script as the disquisition about how masturbating will make you blind and a cretin. (Even 'ubis don't damage your sight. ) Maybe I should ask him. But then I'd have to tell him why I wanted to know.

  Even if you could successfully hide being a sorcerer, Mel still couldn't be one. Sorcerers are loners - they don't do things like get jobs as cooks in coffeehouses, or jive with their old motorcycle gang - occasionally they hang with other sorcerers, but usually for some specific and time-limited purpose. Sorcerers are too paranoid to have ordinary human friends and too competitive to have sorcerer friends. The street version about sorcerers is that they are basically not to be trusted: humans aren't meant to be that mixed up with magic. Not even magic-handling humans.

  Where did sorcerers get their tattoos?

  Maybe I didn't know anything any more.

  I drove home thinking about that Watch your back. I was already watching my back, and Pat knew it. Was he warning me to watch my back against SOF? Was a loyal - if partblood - member of SOF warning me that SOF itself was not to be trusted? Okay, lately I'd heard about partbloods needing to stick together for mutual defense, and I'd heard a long time ago about the goddess of pain, and I knew none of our SOFs liked her; but I thought - I assumed - this was only because she was a hardass bitch who was more concerned with her own career path than with making humanity safe from the Others. Was Pat suggesting something more ominous? And if he was, was he suggesting it about one overambitious gorgon with skewed priorities, or about a treacherous vein, you should forgive the term, running through all of SOF?

  Gods and angels, wasn't Bo enough?

  At a stoplight I flipped open the glove compartment and looked at the clutter. A few of the charms twitched. Poor Mom. At least she was trying. I realized that I was grateful for the useless tangle, even if it was useless. Because she was doing something. She hadn't averted her eyes from the fact that I needed help. She merely had no clue how much help, or what kind. Only Con really knew, only he didn't know, because he wasn't human, so he didn't know what he knew. Or something.

  When I got home I sat staring at the shadows the leaves from the trees threw on the driveway. They glinted and did strange things with perspective like all shadows did now, but they were beautiful and they didn't mean anything. They were what happened when light fell on leaves. It wasn't late summer any more; it was autumn, and the leaves were beginning to turn. A pale yellow one like a big flat blanched almond skittered across the hood of the Wreck.

  I opened my knapsack and swept the thatch of charms into it, including one spark plug, quite a lot of string, and a few rubber bands, from back in the days when the glove compartment performed the usual function. I was pretty sure I felt a tiny penetrating buzz when my skin connected with one of the charms, but I had no idea which one. Then I went and knocked on Yolande's front door.

  She opened it almost at once. "Come in," she said. "I have spoken to my old master. "

  I sighed. I followed her in. She took me to a room I had not been in before, next to the kitchen, also overlooking the garden. I knew at once that not many
people came here - first because if she wished no one to know that she had been a wardskeeper, or at least to believe she was a retired wardskeeper, this room would give the show away; second because the privateness of it radiated from everything in it, like heat or light. I brushed one hand across my face, as if it was a veil I had difficulty breathing through.

  She noticed this and said, "Oh! Pardon," and lifted something down from over the door we'd come in. The sense of private space invaded lessened - sank - like water. I looked down, bemused. The shadows on the floor were very active.

  She laid the thing she had moved down on the desk. I sat in the chair in front of it, I leaned forward, held a hand over it: something beat at my palm. It wasn't heat any more than my dark vision had to do with my eyes, but it was perhaps related to heat, and it manifested itself a bit like heat against the skin. I moved my hand and looked at the thing. It was a tiny round piece of what looked like stained glass. I could see the leading of it, but I could not see if the fragments made up a picture, or if any of the bits were painted. The shadows swam in it very strangely.

  Wardskeeper. It sounded so. . . solid. Even if you blew up the occasional workshop, at least you knew you were in training, and for what. Your master told you what to do, what to do next.

  Yolande, watching my face, said, "I'm sorry, my dear. I know this is one of the last things you want to hear, but I think you are in over your head in exactly what you are best suited to be in over your head in - my grammar grows confused - and you are doing very well. "

  She was getting almost as bad as Con. What happened to random chat? I wanted to say, "All I wanted was to bake cinnamon rolls for the rest of my life," but I knew it wasn't true, and besides, I was tired of whining. So I didn't say it. I picked up my knapsack, out of the seething not-wetness still roaming about the floor, and set it on her desk. As I lifted it I had felt the charm-thatch inside it scrambling to stay away from the not-wetness; as I set it down, it seemed to be trying to escape contact with the top of the desk. Well, I thought, I guess at least one of them is live.

  Her eyes widened, and then she frowned. "Lift it up again, if you would," she said. I did, and she took something out of a drawer, and spread it out, and then gestured for me to put the knapsack on it. I did. Whatever was going on subsided.

  "What have you brought me to look at?" she said.

  I opened the knapsack, but had a sudden reluctance to touch the charms. "Wait," she said, and brought something else out of another drawer: a pair of wooden tongs. They had symbols scrawled up their flat sides. I groped around, grasped an end of the tangle, and hauled it out. It seemed to have half-unraveled itself: it came out looking like crochet gone very, very wrong. As it came free of the knapsack one end snaked around as if seeking something, and then began climbing up one arm of the tongs. Toward my hand.

  "Drop it," said Yolande sharply. I dropped. It landed on the desk; there was a hiss and a bad smell - a really bad smell - and then there was a forlorn little heap of bad crochet work (plus one spark plug) with a torn-out hole in it, edged by a purply brown stain. The stain writhed.

  "Ugh," I said.

  "Ugh indeed," Yolande said mildly. "That was no ward; that was a fetch. Where was it?"

  "In the W - in my car," I said.

  "Do you keep your car locked?"

  "Not here," I said, cold needling up my spine.

  "No," she said. "If whatever had placed this had come here, I would have known it. "

  "Then it - they - someone - something can get into a locked car," I said, the coldness continuing to climb. Something, I thought. No, wait - vampires didn't do fetches. Did they?

  "Where do these other items come from?"

  "Oh - since I was missing those two days, my mother has taken to buying charms for me. They're supposed to be wards. It occurred to me to ask you if any of them was, um, live. "

  "Have you no wards on your car at all?"

  "Only standard issue - the axles, the steering wheel. " Every car manufacturer in the world had a ward sign worked into its logo, and every car company in the world stamped the center of its steering wheels with its logo. "I did have the door locks warded by the guy who sold it to me, but I guess it didn't work. " I scowled. Oh well. Dave had never claimed to be a ward specialist: he only promised the Wreck would run. "And the car is fifteen years old - they hadn't invented the alloy yet. " Which enabled car manufacturers to ward almost everything. There was a big difference in used car prices pre-and post-alloy. Some of us, including Mel, Dave, and me, thought that the alloy was the latest vehicular version of those skin creams that guarantee no wrinkles, those diet plans that guarantee a figure like this year's reigning vidstar in thirty days.

  Lately the commercial labs were working on a ward that would dissolve in paint, like salt in water, and make every painted surface warded too. When they got it there would be a huge advertising campaign, but it wouldn't be that useful really. Like salt water. If you needed to melt some triffids it was great, but there hadn't been a triffid outbreak in generations. If you had mouth ulcers or a sore throat you were better off with alum or aspirin. If you had vampires the paint on your car might give them a few friction burns, but it wasn't going to stop them breaking the windscreen and dragging you out.

  Your best traveling ward unfortunately was still the motion of traveling itself. I didn't like it that Yolande wasn't saying the usual things about the warding power of motion, not to worry, etc. , etc. Well: but we'd just proved there was something to worry about. That fetch sure hadn't been undone by riding around in a car.

  Yolande had picked up something that looked a lot like a knitting needle - it even had a tiny hook on the end - and was poking at the mess of crochet. There was one pale blue bead that still had a bit of glimmer to it. "I think some of these were live quite recently," she said. "I think what they have warded is the usefulness of the fetch, which has worn them out. You don't have any idea when you acquired it, I don't suppose? How long have you been stuffing charms into - ?"

  "The glove compartment," I said absently. A fetch was usually roughly the shape of the thing to be fetched - something that was trying to find or fetch a person was often a sort of elongated star shape, with a bead or a crystal or a chip at its center for the heart, and smaller beads or crystals or chips for the head, hands, and feet. I was sure I would have noticed my mother giving me a fetch. . . and besides, she wasn't that stupid. Eight years with my dad had made her less easy to fool than most ordinary people about anything to do with magic, and she was constitutionally hard to fool about anything anyway.

  When had I noticed that the clutter, including eight or a dozen loose charms, in the glove compartment had turned into a matted snarl? I'd opened it - when? - to look at a map. I'd been sitting in the driver's seat. Several things had plopped out onto the floor. I'd heard them rustling around, the way charms will, and, still looking at my map, I'd groped around on the floor for them. I picked up one or two, but I could still hear the rustling. They were creeping across the floor under the passenger seat, humping themselves over the drive shaft, and one or two of them had made it under the driver's seat, which was fast moving for charms. I still hadn't paid a lot of attention. I'd scavenged around under the driver's seat and pulled out anything that squirmed, and shoved the whole lot back into the glove compartment without looking at any of it.

  But if there'd been a fetch under the driver's seat, then the wards would have mobbed and then tried to disable it.

  That had been a day or two or three after I'd taken that inconclusive ride to No Town with Pat and Jesse.

  Watch your back, Pat had said.

  "SOF," I said in disbelief. No, in what I wished was disbelief. In a belief that made me feel like I'd been dropped down an elevator shaft into icy water. "Someone in SOF did this to me. In SOF. " And whoever it was wasn't going to like it at all that it hadn't worked. No genuinely innocent member of the human public should be able to denature a f
etch.

  "My dear," said Yolande. "Large organizations are inevitably corrupt. The more powerful the organization, the more dangerous the corruption. When I was young I wanted to belong to one of the big wardcraft corporations - Zammit, or Drusilla, if I proved skillful enough. Several of my master's apprentices went to such places, and he was always gloomy and preoccupied for weeks - months - after he'd 'lost' one of us. That was always how he'd describe it - that he'd lost Benedict, he'd lost Ancilla. I was lucky; I was a slow learner. By the time I was ready to choose how I would pursue my vocation, I was ready to stay where I was, and go on working with my master. There were only three of us for many years: Chrysogon, Hippolyte, and myself, other than our master, and a few apprentices who came and went. "

  Note, I thought, the next time I meet someone with a really strange name, ask them if they're a wardskeeper.

  "It is still better that SOF exist than it not exist. One must also earn a living; there is no equivalent in the SOF world for my master's small group of wardskeepers. "

  She was right there. The Sentinel Guild are pretty sad and the Vindicators are worse.

  "The SOF fellow who came here once: he is your friend. "

  "Pat," I said. "Is he?"

  "He is not perfect," she said. "But nor am I. Nor are you. Nor is your dark companion. But yes, he is your friend. He wishes the defeat of the evil of the dark, as do we all. "

  Depends, I thought, on what you mean by the evil of the dark. Or maybe by "we. "

  "Pat is not only interested in - in what you can do for SOF. Or for his career. "

  "Don't forget my cinnamon rolls, which make strong men weak and strong women run from the bus station in high heels over our cobblestones to get to Charlie's in time. If you know all that, can you tell me who planted the fetch?"

  "No, I'm afraid not. I know about Pat because he sat in one place waiting for you for twenty minutes once, and that place happens to lie under the remit of one of my more ambitious wardings, and it went on taking - er - notes as long as he sat there. "

  I doubted I could persuade the goddess to come sit quietly under the oak at the end of Yolande's drive for twenty minutes.

  "I told you I had spoken to my master about you. I also spoke to Chrysogon. We believe we can create something for you but it would be better, stronger, if - "

  "You want blood," I said, resignedly. Most wardcrafters made do with something like a dirty apron, which I was sure was what my mother had been using. A few of the more determined or well-established ones will ask for hair or fingernail clippings. But there's an enormous black market in things like hair and fingernail clippings and the more you're likely to want a charm the less safe you're going to feel passing out bits of yourself. Blood's the worst. Not only is it blood, which is by far the most powerful bit you can hand over for all sorts of purposes, but any concept that contains "magic" and "blood" together makes the majority of the human population think "vampires" and freak out. This is actually totally stupid, since vampires aren't interested in teeny wardcrafter vials of blood, and a vampire that wipes out a ward-crafter's shop isn't going to jones for you because they've had this tiny hit like an ice cream stand flavor-of-the-month sample and cross continents till they've found you and had the rest of you. But the paranoia behind the general principle is valid.

  "Yes," said Yolande.

  I'd never met a wardskeeper, though, let alone had one do up a personalized ward for me. And as concepts go, one that contains "Yolande" and "black market" is going to disintegrate on contact. So that should be fine, right? Except I have this thing about blood, and Con's little healing number on me hadn't helped it.

  "Um," I said.

  Yolande was smiling. "You may close your eyes," she said.

  "Okay. "

  "If you would hold out your hands palm up, and extend both forefingers, and then I am going to prick the center of your forehead. "

  The chain round my neck had begun to warm up before I closed my eyes, and I could feel a gentle warmth against both legs as well. Oh, gods, guys, I said to my talismans, isn't this way below your dignity? I flinched at the sting in my forehead, but the fingers were easy, even for me.

  I touched the warm chain with one hand, and fished in my pocket with the other. "Maybe you can translate something else for me. I found this at the bottom of a crumbly box of old books at a garage sale. "

  "Well! How extraordinary. This is a - a Straight Way: very clear and plain. Clean and - old - very untainted for a ward so old. It represents the forces of day, of daylight. The sun itself is at the top, then an animal, then a tree. Interesting - the animal is a deer, I think; usually it is a fierce creature, a lion is the most common. This is not only a deer, it has no antlers, and is therefore perhaps a doe. And then round it, round the edge of the seal, do you see the thin wavy line? That is water. With these things you can resist the forces of darkness, or they cannot defeat you. Of course this is only a ward. "

  "The peanut-butter sandwich you throw over your shoulder at the ogre," I said. "So maybe you'll make it over the fence if he stops to eat it. "

  "But this found you. That is important. The forces of day is not a very uncommon ward, but this is simply and exquisitely done and - it found you. Keep it near you and keep it safe. My heart lifts that this thing found you. It is good news. "

  Don't tell me how much I need some good news, I thought. "When do you think your, um, ward will be ready?"

  "Soon. Please - please ask your dark ally to wait till it is ready. It will not be more than a day or two. "

  Back to the bad news. Yolande and her wardskeeper friends thought Con and I were going to face Bo that soon. Well, I suppose I thought so too.

  Later. Upstairs. The balcony door open; candles burning; I sat cross-legged, hands on knees. I wasn't going anywhere. I just wanted a word.

  How soon.

  Not tonight. Not. . . next night. Then. . .

  No sooner. Yolande. . . ward. . . me

  It was going to take a lot of work before this alignment business replaced the telephone. But I wouldn't be around to see it, since it looked like I had two days to live.

  And I'd been complaining about waiting.

  So, what do you do when you know you have two days to live? Wait a minute, haven't I been here before? No. I was only pretending, last time. I hadn't known that I was sure Con would save me, last time, till this time, when I knew he wouldn't. But I had been here before: I was still finding out I had more stuff to lose by losing it. And I already knew I thought this was a triple Carthaginian hell of a system.

  So, where was I? Right. What you do when you know you have two days to live. Not a lot different than if you didn't know. Six months you could do something with. Two days? Hmph. Eat an entire Bitter Chocolate Death all by yourself. (Actually I bombed on this. Mel had to eat the last slab. A pan of Bitter Chocolate Death isn't very large, but it is intense. ) Reread your favorite novel, the one you only let yourself read any more when you're sick in bed. I might have enjoyed this more, since I'm never sick, if death didn't seem like a very bad trade-off. Buy eight dozen roses from the best florist in town - the super expensive ones, the ones that smell like roses rather than merely looking like them - and put them all over your apartment. I bought five dozen red and three dozen white. I have one vase and one iced tea pitcher, which has regularly spent more of its time holding cut flowers than iced tea. After I used these, and the two twinkly-gold-flecked tumblers and two cheap champagne flutes plus the best of my limited and motley collection of water and wine glasses, I emptied out my shampoo bottle - which was tall and rather a nice shape, even if it was plastic - into a jam jar, and put a few in it. I cut most of the rest of them off at the base of the flower and floated them in whatever else I had that would hold water, including the bathtub. I decided this had been one of my better ideas. The last three - two red, one white - I tied together and hung upside down from the rear-view mirror of the Wreck. Better
than fuzzy dice.

  Take a good long look at everyone you love - everyone local; you've only got two days. And don't tell anybody. You don't need to be surrounded by a lot of depressed people; you're already depressed enough for everybody.

  Of course in my case I couldn't tell anybody because either they wouldn't believe me or they'd try to stop me.

  I thought about being rude to Mr. Cagney. It was something I had been longing to do for years, and I somehow managed to be behind the counter on the second morning when he needed someone to complain to. But I looked at his scrunched-up, petulant face and decided, rather regretfully, that I had better things to do with my last morning on earth. So I said "mm-hmm" a few times, refilled his coffee cup (which he changed tack to tell me was cold: okay, I'm not Mary, but it was not cold) and left him to Charlie, who didn't know it was my last morning on earth, and was hastening over from cranking down the awning to stop me from being rude.

  Other things I didn't do included waste any time trying to find out who'd planted that fetch on me. Yolande did a sweep on the Wreck for me and didn't find anything but two new wards tucked under the front bumper and a ticker behind the rear license plate. She was quite taken with the wards, saying she was falling behind on research faster than she knew, that they were a whole new design of traveling ward and by far the most effective she'd seen. They had to be SOF too. An example of a large corrupt organization getting it right. She left all of them alone.

  I had been hoping to see Pat. I could promise anything he liked for tomorrow or the day after that. But he didn't show up, as he mostly hadn't been showing up since the night we blew out HQ. He must be getting his cinnamon roll fix by white bakery bag. In a world where I was less and less sure of anything, I was sure that that jones was real. I was sorry not to have a chance to say good-bye, except of course I wouldn't have said good-bye. When Mary came into the bakery to ask if there was anything hot out of the oven she didn't know about to tell Jesse and Theo I said, carelessly, "Oh, I'll bring it: I'll try my new whatever-these-are on them. " I liked the idea of inventing a new recipe on my last day on earth, and I've always liked to see my guinea pigs' faces when they first bite down. I said, "So, say hi to Pat for me," and they both looked at me as if there was a hidden message, which there was, although I doubted they were going to guess it. They were distracted quickly enough by the whatever-these-were: I'd have to do the unthinkable and write out the recipe, so Paulie could have it. And maybe Aimil would come up with a good name. Sunshine's Eschatology. Hey, my eschatology would have butter, heavy cream, pecans, and three kinds of chocolate in it.

  I'd miss feeding my SOFs: they were good eaters.

  I'd miss being alive.

  I had been due to work through the early-supper split shift but I decided I wanted to see the sun set from my balcony once more so I wheedled Emmy into it. Didn't want her to lose all her bakery skills just because she'd been made assistant cook next door - Paulie was going to need her. I'd already bent Paulie's arm into a pretzel till he'd agreed to take the dawn shift tomorrow. The Thursday morning system had broken down so completely I no longer remembered if I owed him some four a. m. s or he owed me some. The confusion was probably good for him. He was about to have to learn to be chief baker real fast.

  There were some people it was too difficult to say good-bye to, so I didn't try. Mom, of course. If I'd made a point of going into the office to say good-bye to her that day, however casually, she'd've been calling the cops and the hospital before I got the words out of my mouth. Once a mother, always a mother, and I'd have to have some spectacular reason for breaking the awkward but practical truce that we never spoke to each other unless on specific coffeehouse business. Kenny was bussing tables; we exchanged "Hey"s. I'd never said goodbye to Kenny and this wasn't the time to start. I had seen Billy for about two-thirds of a second earlier in the afternoon, when he blasted into Charlie's long enough to fling over his shoulder at the nearest parent the information that he was spending the rest of the day with the equally hyperactive friend accompanying him. He did not acknowledge me; I was part of the family backdrop. What was to acknowledge? My importance lay in the availability of the eight muffins and two-each-from-every-bin-and-four-if-they-were-chocolate cookies they took with them as they blasted out again.

  Mary and Kyoko I said "See you" to. I waved to Emmy, who was in the main kitchen looking harassed, but I was beginning to suspect that her harassed look was covering up the fact that she was having a really good time and didn't quite believe her luck. I always checked out with Charlie, to make sure there weren't any last-minute gaps I might be able to fill, to make sure our schedules for tomorrow matched. I'd told him about the swap with Paulie; I only said I was tired, and I know I looked it. We didn't say good-bye either. Our ritual went, "See you tomorrow, Sunshine," and "Yeah. " I said "Yeah", as usual. Even on days off he said "See you tomorrow" because even on days off he usually did.

  I hadn't realized that I never said good-bye to anyone about anything.

  Mel. He was on break when I left, and he wasn't jiving with some guy or guys in greasy denim about overhead cam shifts through hot pastrami or meatloaf sandwiches - or for that matter discussing world news with one of our more coherent derelicts. Mel was leaning against the corner of the building drinking coffee and muttering to himself. I knew what he was muttering about: he'd given up smoking ten years ago but he still wanted a cigarette every time he drank coffee, and he drank a lot of coffee. Sometimes his fingers twitched, not from the caffeine jag but from the memory of doing his own roll-ups. This made him drink more coffee. One day he was going to wake up and discover he'd turned into a coffee plantation, and then Charlie's would have its own fresh home-grown beans even if we had to replace our chief cook. There are worse things to wake up and discover you've turned into. A vampire, for example. Although the books say you'll know it's coming.

  Mel looked up and saw me, and his face eased into his good-old-boy smile. Mel used his charm as deliberately as laying an ace on the table, so you could see exactly what it was. It was one of the good things about him. Whatever he might not be telling you, what he did tell you was the truth. I'm your friend, Sunshine. He still looked like someone who should be wearing greasy denims rather than an apron, although the tattoos confused the issue: greasy denims and a long hooded cloak? Hmm. I wondered if sorcerers ever used food splotches instead of cosmetics.

  "Hey Sunshine. "

  "Hey. "

  "We still on for Friday afternoon?"

 
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