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The Stringer (The Ustari Cycle)
Author:Jeff Somers

The Stringer (The Ustari Cycle)

Jeff Somers

For Danette, who I love with all my heart and who always tells me I’m a genius, despite all the evidence to the contrary.



“SO LET’S BE CLEAR,” Ketterly said, gingerly steering the ancient car onto Eighteenth Street. “This is fucking charity.”

The car was enormous. It was a box on wheels, a parade float, every dip in the road an adventure, every turn something that required the sort of math normally calculated by a team of people in a secure location. The interior was so large that even Pitr Mags looked like a reasonably sized person, and I had no doubt that if we dug in to the upholstery, we’d find the bones of people who’d become disoriented during past drives and gotten lost. It was all cracked white vinyl, the orange stuffing escaping in dusty tufts. There were no armrests, so Mags and me just slid this way and that, victims of physics.

“And we appreciate it,” I shouted, trying to make myself heard over the distance.

And we did, or would, if Ketterly could stop being an asshole about it for one moment. Things had been slim for us, as per usual, but here was a chance to regroup: Ketterly’s sketchy little investigator grift was going gangbusters—so well he was even doing actual investigations from time to time, when the mood took him—and he’d offered us a shitty deal. In exchange for coming with him to a meet with high-roller clients (in order to imply that Digory Ketterly was successful enough to have minions) and doing much of the legwork and bleeding, we’d get twenty bucks a day each and the right to sleep on his office floor.

It was a step up.

Our options were limited. Hiram was still not taking my calls or, for that matter, acknowledging my existence. There’s no wrath like the wrath of an old crook who thinks you’ve disrespected him, and the last time I’d shown up at his apartment begging for help feeding and watering Mags, he’d used our urtuku bond, the invisible thread between us, to make me hurt.

After Hiram, there was Heller and his movable feast. Heller was always happy to deal in a Trickster for a percentage of earnings, but the gig came with extra fees for everything. I’d known people who’d been working the Heller circus for years and were just breaking even, and I didn’t want to expose Mags to that scene. His hair would turn white and he’d never sleep again.

That left just the other idimustari at Rue’s Morgue. Catching one of those Little Magicians with a song in their heart and charity in their soul was like seeing a unicorn.

“When we get there, shut up,” Ketterly said, gunning the engine to make a yellow light. “The old bag’s so rich she hasn’t left the apartment in decades, and she doesn’t think people should have the vote unless they’re billionaires, so don’t call attention to yourself. Your job is to act like you’re a small part of my ‘vast network’ of employees.”

Ketterly had groomed for the occasion. Instead of his usual stained white suit, he wore a frayed brown one recently cleaned and brushed, his graying hair combed, his beard tidied, his ridiculously thick glasses polished in their black plastic frames. He still looked like a mage who used tiny spells to con people out of small amounts of money, but now he looked like a mage who conned people and took care of himself.

The building we pulled up in front of was a standard-issue brutal high-rise, a rectangle of ugly jutting up into the air. The doorman was a fat Spanish man in a faded blue uniform that looked like an ancient Halloween costume for a TV character no one remembered.

Ketterly parked in the red fire zone, turned his back on the doorman, and sliced his palm with a penknife. The smell of the gas in the air, as always, filled me with excitement and dread. Ketterly spoke six Words to encourage any cops to ignore his car, and when he turned to lead us into the building, the wound had healed into a thick pink line on his hand.

“Good afternoon!” he boomed, holding that same hand out to the doorman. “We’re here to see Mrs. Landry, in 24E.”

“Very good,” the doorman said, his face impassive and his voice neutral.

I looked at Mags. Outside of Ketterly’s tank, he looked enormous again: his blue jacket too tight, his pants not long enough. They simply didn’t make clothes big enough for him. His black hair was shiny and silky in the thin afternoon light filtered through clouds and the morning’s rain. Truth was, Mags was a damn fine-looking Indian man. Put him in a suit and wire his jaw shut, and the ladies swooned.

We rode the elevator up twelve floors in silence. Then Mags leaned over to me, his face worried. “I have to pee,” he said plaintively.

I looked at Ketterly. Ketterly looked at me like he could see our forty bucks sprouting wings and flying away. I looked back at my partner. “Pete,” I said, “if you don’t speak for the next hour, I’ll buy you a hamburger after.”