§1 Time Share
All right, all right Jean, I’ll tell you the story. Right from the beginning, from the day Anisette came pounding on my door. Yes, my friend, every last thing I can remember. For all the good it will do. What was it, four years ago? Hard to believe. Yes Jean, for the hundredth time this is really Oct speaking. No, you’ll just have to trust me. Just let me get on with it, ok?
It was a morning like any other, at least if you’re me that is. Waking up, voices arguing in my head, and the sweet and acrid tang of metal in my mouth. I was half awake, half dressed, and the apartment stank of cigarettes and diet soda. Adam. Right, Adam. He wasn’t the worst of my internal tenants, not by a long shot, Jean, but still. The place was a wreck, and so was I. My head was pounding, and my fingers stank of soggy ashes and that awful artificial butter, (can you even call it that?), you only find on microwave popcorn.
“My apologies, Mr. Wells, but Mr. Woods insisted on speaking to you directly,” said Andrews, her voice taut and clipped in the back of my mind. Well, at least that’s how it seemed I guess. I don’t really hear them, exactly. Yeah, she is the one that runs herd over the lot. Was an executive assistant to some robber baron or another back in the 20s, “just a secretary” hah yeah right. Now spirit guide, ghost broker, call it what you will. I am sure she secretly ran the show back then, just the same way she probably runs it now.
“Uh, sorry Oct, I just kinda lost track of time,” came a rather sheepish voice in my head. Adam. Young, maybe early 20s. No, Jean, I don’t always see what they looked like. Sometimes I dig up pictures when curiosity gets the better of me. Adam specifically asked me not to when we first contracted, so I never have.
Adam Woods killed himself maybe thirty years ago. Bipolar was the diagnosis, although you see, I suspect he was just undiagnosed ASD. Seriously gifted kid. Math. Old-school coding. Drawing. Obsessed with model gliders. Not exactly aces with people though.
I looked down at myself, at the apartment, fully aware that Adam was watching along with me, doing a slow pan across the whole mess. Cigarettes ground out in a coffee mug, popcorn scattered across the hardwood floors, an unrecognizable orange stain on my white tank top, pizza box teetering on the edge of my sofa. I ran a hand over my unshaven face.
“Dude, I know I should have tidied up a bit, taken a shower. Look, Oct, I am really sorry, man!” he said. I could feel him starting to get really stressed out, which caused a slight frisson of cortisol to pass through my own brain. But only a trickle. I always wonder how they manage to get so upset without an endocrine system. Habits of a lifetime I guess.
“Set an alarm, next time, Adam,” I said. Or said, I suppose.
“Okay, I will, I promise. Really sorry, Oct,” Adam said. I could feel his relief. He could probably feel that my annoyance was not that deep. Or he could have it he had thought about it. Which I really doubt he did.
“Miss Andrews said you wanted to talk to me about something?” I prodded. I could feel her impatience somewhere in there. Something else, too. Perhaps some of the others were tuned in, enjoying the scene? There was a faint but fierce whispering, just always around the corner, out of earshot. Laughter? Who knows. You took your entertainment where you could as a ghost.
“Ah, yeah, Oct, uh,” he hesitated, afraid of upsetting me again, ”It’s Game of Thrones. There is only one more episode! I, uh, can I watch it? Please?”
Game of Thrones. No, I’m not making this up. Jean, listen, this guy saves up like eight hours of uninterrupted body time over the course of the last six months or so, sole possession time, and then he uses it to binge watch HBO. I am telling you, Jean, I bought that thing just to entertain the tenants, I never watch it myself. But it sure is a hit with them – even the ones from like 500 years ago get glued to it like toddlers. Keeps them out of trouble I guess.
“He was informed of the going rate, Octavian,” said Andrews. Ten hours to one. That’s what it costs to borrow time you didn’t have, time worked for time lived. Yeah, you are right, my father would have been horrified. Any spirit possessing him, the best deal they ever got was fifty to one, and that was in advance. But he didn’t wrap it around the clock like I do, Jean, he didn’t have the strength. Or the stupid either, maybe. Some days I do feel a bit stretched out, worn thin and smooth like sea glass.
“Tell you what, Adam. I will cut you a deal. For 15 hours, not only can you watch the last episode, but you can clean up this mess, take a shower, and make me some damn coffee!” I said.
“Fifteen!” he said, upset.
I waited. Then waited some more.
“Okay, Oct, that’s fair, I guess. I’ll do it,” said Adam.
I removed it from my mouth. The Obol of Mnason. I turned it, three times, holding the eidolon in my head, imagining the symbols and lines until I could feel them resonate with the coin in my hand, until I felt the Obol grow slightly warm and slippery. Then I put it back under my tongue. No, Jean, I don’t have to say anything these days. Twenty years I have had that little silver coin in my mouth. It knows me now. And I know it, I think. At least a little.
“Alright I am out, Adam. Enjoy your show,” I said, my awareness already slipping away.
“Thanks, Oct,” he said. I could sense his surging excitement. Then, oblivion.
I woke to a woman burning on the screen, and a ferocious pounding on the door, a pounding that echoed cruelly in my head.
“C’mon, Oct, open the damn door!” came a woman’s voice from outside, a voice I knew. Anisette? I remember thinking, how odd.
Adam, who is pretty much, you know, hikikomori, a shut-in, had already fled the scene. No one else was obviously about – I had my mind rather shockingly to myself.
More pounding, maybe with a slightly desperate edge, although I could be injecting that after the fact, I guess, given what I know now.
Flicking off the TV with the remote on the couch, I grabbed a thin striped gray and white button down shirt from where it was draped on the recliner, and fastened it slowly, one button at a time. Thinking. Trying to wake up. How she had found me was obvious, given the artifact she Guards. The question was, why?
Wham! Wham! Wham! “Octavian, c’mon, it’s important!”
Shaking my head, and briefly running my fingers through my hair, I walked over and opened the door.
“Finally!” Anisette exclaimed, glaring at me a bit before relenting and giving me a big hug as she stepped inside.
I looked her over, approvingly. She was wearing a black concert t-shirt with a three eyed smiley face – Hieroglyphics? Jeans. A short leather jacket to deal with the chill of the City. For luggage she had only a shoulder bag. Always blend into your environment, draw no attention. She had learned the lesson well. Although no one who has ever seen Anisette would exactly say she “blends in”.
You’ve met Anisette, Jean? No? Then I will describe her.
The first thing that strikes you when you see her is her skin. The color alone, a burnt copper, would be enough to turn your head. But it is not just the color that pulls your attention, it is the glow, the radiance. Her health is palpable, a force. Her eyes, emerald…
You laugh, my friend? You listen to too many rumors. I was never anything more than her teacher. Well, that, and maybe her friend. But she might tell it differently, I guess.
“Wow, retirement really suits you, Oct. Papa John’s? What happened, Atelier Crenn all booked up?” she said, looking around in disbelief.
“Sometimes you just have to treat yourself, An,” I replied, grabbing the box from the sofa, and bringing it up to my nose for an exaggerated sniff. It smelled like wood chips and dying cows.
She snorted. “Nora?”
“Adam,” I replied.
I gestured grandly to the leather recliner, maybe the only clean piece of furniture in the room, then picking up the empty popcorn bag and the still smoking coffee mug, retreated into the kitchen.
“Coffee?” I yelled from the kitchen, running some tap water into the cup to extinguish it, then splashing a good deal more of it on my face.
“Already had three!” came the muffled reply.
I threw some beans into the grinder, then grabbed a fresh mug from the dish rack. Filling it with water, I put it into the microwave for a bit. Why had she tracked me down after I had specifically asked her not to? The microwave dinged, and I dumped the whole lot in my Aeropress. There had to be a good reason, I was sure.
I’ll confess, Jean, the only hypothesis I could come up with was that she was on the run from Enigma, that she had upset the Council, somehow. She certainly has taken no pains to conceal her views on the ethics of our “inactivity”. Perhaps they were afraid she would break her oath? Oh, you smile at this. Yes, you’re right, I would have helped her, at least to escape, if nothing else. Had I not in essence fled myself? But I did not share her desire to bring magic back to the world. I have never been that young I think, even when I was twelve, when the Obol first passed from my father to me, and I became a Guardian.
I pressed the coffee slowly, then, grabbing the mug, went back to the living room.
Speaking of coffee… Ah, Jean, you are too kind. Yes, drip is fine, my friend. No I will follow you in, I can regale you from the kitchen table while we wait. Ok, so where was I?
“To what do I owe this unexpected, pleasure, An?” I said, leaning back in the couch, smiling at her faintly over my coffee mug.
“I am sorry, Oct. I know you didn’t want to be part of this any more. But no one could find you. So…” she hesitated.
“They called in Finder Girl?” I asked.
“I was fifteen, Oct!” she said.
“I always thought the sequins on the mask gave it that certain je ne sais quoi,” I said.
“You stink, Octavian. You really do,” she said. Which I suppose, thinking back, was literally true. Adam had never actually taken that shower.
Her expression turned from playful to serious.
“You know if it wasn’t urgent I would have said no, Oct,” she said.
I nodded, gestured for her to go on.
Ah, thanks, Jean. No, it smells wonderful.
“It’s the Guardians, Oct. They’re vanishing. Poof. A dozen so far that we know about. No one knows what is happening, or why,” she said.
I sat up.
“Someone had to warn you. I have been travelling for a day and a half, crappy food, plane delays, just to save your privileged white ass,” she said.
“When? When did this start happening, An?”
“About three days ago. You should have left a number, Oct. An email address. Something. Anything,” she said, shaking her hands at me in frustration.
I said nothing, looked away.
“We need to go back to London, Oct. To figure out what is going on. Everyone is being called in. Even the recluses and occasionals. Most of them are already there,” she said.
Before I could reply, however, the door to my apartment suddenly swung open. Without any hesitation, three men I didn’t recognize filed in, filling the doorway. Their movements were slow, almost casual.
I looked at An, and we both stood without a word, her expression fierce. She grabbed her bag and moved to stand next to me, her hand just inside its opening.
I turned to face them. Two of them extremely large and blonde. They didn’t look American. Dutch? I never found out. Their coats were strangely bulky, like they wore some kind of body armor beneath. Professionals of some sort, was my guess. They looked relaxed, perhaps even bored.
The third man was something else altogether, most likely a practitioner of some sort, or someone who wanted to be. He was smaller, and dressed in an ill-fitting blue suit, which he seemed uncomfortable in. His face was chubby, as was he, and he had a lamentable full and ragged red beard, and an even more lamentable pork pie hat. You know the type, Jean. He basically looked like a hipster showing up for a temp job at some awful Silicon Valley startup. He stepped in front of the other two, and addressed me.
“Mr. Wells, I take it?” he said, looking straight at me, ignoring Anisette altogether. American I think, or he had really worked on his accent.
I nodded, once. Nothing on the table would function as a weapon that I could see. Hopefully An had something more than pepper spray in that bag. The situation did not look good.
“And, who, may I ask, are you?” I asked.
Chubby smiled for a second, and then said, ”You don’t really need to know.” This brought brief knowing smiles to the faces of the other two.
Looking back, Jean, I wonder if there was something else I could have done at that point. Another way out of the box. But at the time, it seemed like the only chance we had. Probably was. But still.
“Andrews,” I said.
“Could you track down Mr. Evans? As quick as you can, thanks,” I asked internally.
“Here this last ten minutes, Octavian,” she replied. I felt something like a smirk.
“Jesse?” I queried. I did not sense him.
“Well, hey there, Oct. Been awhile,” came the slow drawl inside my head. It’d been years, actually, Jean. Many years.
I rotated the coin under my tongue, just once, bringing him closer.
And then I felt it. That grin. Felt that hardness come into my eyes, that uncomfortable, crushing hardness.
We looked at our guests, standing there, confident and unaware, the beginnings of a laugh on the edges of our mouth.
“Just one question, Oct, before we get started,” said Jesse. Knuckles crackling.
“Killin’, or no?”