“Friends with Benefits”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb


Caren hadn’t been able to sleep that night.

Her dreams were too full of Luke. And snow.

And a darkness, blooming out of some dank, shuttered corner of her mind. A thing she couldn’t yet name.

She shook her cigarette pack—just one left.

Mental note: Make a trip to the supermarket.

Caren released a drag, watched it droop beneath the weight of the moist morning air. Gripped the rain-dewed fire escape railing, eyes absently trailing the dingy brick alley her apartment wall shared with a dozen-ish others.

A lanky amber-skinned girl about twelve scampered into the alley from around the corner, giggling and typing on a phone. A boy a little older chased after, trying to grab the phone out of her hands. She dodged him. He threw his arms around her, picked her up and spun her. She kicked and shrieked and laughed.

Late afternoon sun from the window lay in streamers across Caren’s bed, dappled by trembling tree-shadows. She could feel the light, soft and warm on her skin.

Max Bemis was crooning “Every Man Has a Molly” from Luke’s laptop on her dresser.

“What do you want more than anything else in the world?” Luke asked.

He lay on his back next to her in her bed, fiddling with the ties of his hoodie, making the little frayed ends touch each other like he was completing a circuit. He always did this on lazy days—asked Caren random silly questions.

Caren stared at the ceiling. Picked at one of the scabs on her knuckles. “I dunno.”

“C’mon, tell me. Anything you want. I’ll get it for you.”

Caren rolled her eyes and shoved him. “Don’t be fucking dumb. You can’t.”

“Can too. Wanna bet?”

They both fell silent at the sudden sound of screaming from the bedroom at the end of the hall, and furniture slamming so hard it shook the house. Caren balled her hands into fists—started punching herself in her thigh, zoning out on the fan blades whirring overhead.

Luke sat up suddenly and reached for his laptop. Cranked the music up till Mom’s and Vince’s voices were all but drowned out.

“C’mon. Tell me,” he urged again, flopping back and rolling to face Caren.

“I dunno,” Caren mumbled. “I want…lots of things.”

“What kinda things?”

She was silent a moment. “I want Vince to go fuck off and die.”

Luke got his phone off the nightstand, recited out loud as he started typing: “‘Murder Caren’s mom’s boyfriend.’ Got it. What else?”

“Boobs. Not too big though. Like a B cup maybe. C at most.” Caren rubbed her upper lip. “Also not to have this fugly crustache.”

“You don’t have a ‘crustache,’ Jesus. Your whole face is as smooth as a baby’s ass.”

“I have to shave it every day now. You can totally see the stubble.”

“I never see any stubble.” Luke lunged forward and placed a peck on Caren’s upper lip; sank back, beaming his heat lamp of a grin. “You’re, like, so super goddamn cute, and you have no fucking idea.” Caren gazed at him, dizzy. “What else?” He resumed typing on his phone, his long fingers flying.

“I wanna be a fucking badass,” said Caren. “Like you.”

Luke’s grin widened. “Really?”

“Yeah. No one ever fucks with you, ’cause they know they’ll get their ass kicked. I want agimat of my own. I wanna know how to fight.”

“Caren.” Luke put down his phone, curled up in a ball, cuddling her extra pillow. “Agimat kinda suck, you know? Like, getting them implanted really hurts. And they throw off your whole mana system for a while. Sometimes permanently, if you don’t work with them super diligently during the adjustment period.”

“I don’t care if it hurts. And I’ll be diligent as fuck.”

Luke smiled at her in that way of his that always annoyed her, like she was only five years old. “…Maybe when you’re older?”

Caren scowled. “You just said whatever I want, you’d get it for me.”

Luke chuckled. “I’m an idiot, you know that. I say a lot of fucking shit.”

Caren once more started punching her thigh. “If I could kick ass like you, none of the Academy kids would fuck with me, ever again.”

Luke suddenly looked scary. “Tell me who’s been fucking with you. I’ll make sure they never fuck with you again.”

“And if I could kick Vince’s ass,” Caren went on, “he’d sure as hell never call me a fag again. ’Cause the next time he did it I’d break all his fucking teeth. And pull out his tongue. And sew his eyelids to his knees.”

“Vince is a fucking shitbag,” said Luke. “I really will fucking kill him if you want me to.” He reached for Caren, wrapped her tightly in his arms—an irresistible, sheltering vise-grip.

His voice came low in her ear:

“…Do you want me to?”

Caren’s heart thump-thump, thump-thumped against his chest.

Caren rubbed her throbbing breastbone. Stamped out her cigarette butt on the rusty metal floor of the fire escape. The girl and boy had darted back out of sight around the corner. The alley was empty now—silent and overcast.

She headed back inside, her eyes taking a moment to adjust to the relative darkness. Kicked off her slippers, sloughed off her jacket, let it spill over her IKEA desk chair that was already unrecognizable as such under its perpetual burden of dirty clothes and towels and other random things.

Now down to her HIRS t-shirt and pajama pants, Caren sank down on the edge of her futon. Gazed at the slight figure barely visible thereon under all the motley blankets.

…Felt a stroke of panic when she couldn’t detect motions of breathing.

“Um. Hey. Hey!” She gave the human-shaped lump a panicked shake.

Peri Sauvage’s cow-licked, maple-hued pate surfaced out of the depths, her Coppertone-girl face screwed up in a groggy pout. She rolled slightly toward Caren; gave her the stink eye. “The fuck, Care,” she slurred. “I was deep asleep.”

“Dude…sorry.” Caren burrowed under the blankets, gathered them up to her chin.

With any luck, Peri would chalk up her shivering to the cold.

“What’d you want?” said Peri.


“So you shook me awake for no reason?” Peri rolled all the way face-up and propped herself on her elbows, squinting at Caren. “You okay?”


“You sure?”

“Yep, just…bad dream. Thought you were someone else.”

A pause. “Luke?” Peri asked.

Caren’s chest ached.

After a moment, “It’s fucked up, right?” she muttered. “Him being gone is so normal it’s boring. So why the fuck is it…” She grabbed her phone, fiddled with it. Thumbed around between apps.

Opened Luke’s text feed.

Still unread.

Tossed the phone aside.

“…fucking you up so bad?” Peri supplied.

Caren threw off the blankets and stood up, paced a little, beating her fist against her thigh. Saw the grisly photos pinned to her cork board, of the heads of the eleven Martial Magi.

In Langit’s case…the head was actually the only part not found.

Saw Luke’s head, detached, grinning on her pillow in her childhood bedroom.

“Like, now that I know I’m never gonna see him again,” she ground out, pain radiating through her ribcage, “I just…keep seeing him everywhere.” Her hand flinched toward her coat, toward the pocket that contained her Marlboro pack. Nah, bitch. Only one left. Save it. “It’s just…it’s bullshit. It’s pissing me the fuck off.”

“It makes sense,” said Peri. “Luke was the love of your life, wasn’t he?”

“Oh, please, Imperia. That’s some YA-novel bullshit.” Caren decided to go for her last cigarette after all. “You’re, like, the best relationship I’ve ever had, and it’s ’cause you and I both know that shit is fucking horseshit.”

“Of course it is. But it was formative—you-slash-Luke. You grew up with him. You were more attached to him as a kid than you were to your parents. Just because we know where all our brain bullshit comes from doesn’t mean we can just snap our fingers and make it go away.”

Caren released her first drag, closed her eyes, shifted her weight back and forth. “It’s fucking stupid. I fucking hate it. Fuck feelings.”

Her phone buzzed on the bed.

She dove for it, nearly dropping live ash on the sheets.

“What the fuck,” said Peri.

The text was from Grenville:

Roll out of bed yet? 🙄 Any luck getting closer to SDM? On fifth crime scene now, not a lot of new info so far. Pls keep me updated

Peri eyed the screen from over Caren’s shoulder. “How’s it going so far with the Boy Wonder?”

“All due respect”—Caren flung her phone back down; resumed her puffing and pacing—“I really don’t know what your old man was thinking putting that toddler on the case. He’s about as savvy as a newborn fucking seal.”

Peri arched her eyebrows. “Yeah…I really wouldn’t knock ’im till you see what he can do.”

“Don’t tell me you, too, are all hype about the ‘unprecedented forensic capabilities.’”

“Oh, sure, that. But also, Ashton Grenville is deadly as fuck.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it. Kid’s scared to death of women, cigarette smoke, and diner food.”

Peri laughed. “I mean, he’s pretty sheltered, sure. His dad’s been wheelchair-bound ever since the alchemical explosion that killed his wife.”

Caren paused. Nursed her square. “Yeah, he mentioned something about that. Shit’s super fucked up.”

“No way is Scipio Grenville ever gonna produce another heir, so he’s overprotective of the one he’s got. I peer-mentored Ash for a few months when he was first starting out with the Alchemists’ Guild. Honestly, he’s not a bad kid, for a Mercurii brat.”

“Fraternitas Mercurii’s disgusting.” Caren stubbed her cigarette out in the ash tray on her desk, so roughly she almost singed her fingers. “I’d like to wipe every one of those Old-World toxic-male assholes off the face of the Earth.”

Peri gave a mighty yawn, stretched her sapling limbs. The blankets slid off her, exposing the spare arc of her torso. “Oh, now, Care. Don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel.”

Naked Peri was an archetypal vision—flawlessly architected flesh and bone. Sleek hair strands streaming in rivulets over faint points of breasts.

Caren clambered onto the futon, which groaned loudly in protest. Curled an arm around Peri’s waist.

Peri caught Caren’s chin firmly in one hand. “Down, girl.” Her lips were smiling, but her eyes left no space for argument. “We had our fun last night. I should really be getting back to Arcadia.”

Caren made a pitiful sound but promptly let go, sat back on her haunches. Peri got up, grabbed her tote bag from the floor beside the futon. Ran a brush a few times unnecessarily through her hair; laid out her neatly-folded clothes and started to dress.

Caren’s phone gave another buzz. She grabbed it.

Some idiot part of her kept half-hoping, half-fearing it would be a text from Luke.

Of course, it wasn’t.

That said, she wasn’t altogether disappointed at what she saw:

Oh hell yeah wow so good to hear from you!!!! Of course we can meet up that would be so dope

Caren felt Peri’s chin alight on her shoulder. “Well, well. Who’s ‘Sylvan’? Another of your boy-toys?”

“Mm. You know how it is.” ur place? Caren texted back.

“You, my girl, are afflicted with a bottomless thirst.” Peri shrugged on her houndstooth wool coat. “Can’t say I’ll ever understand the guy thing…” She flipped her long mane free of the collar, scrunched her button-nose. “Boys are G-ross, with a capital G.”

“Yeah,” replied Caren, absently. “Can’t say I really understand it either.”

“Oh, hey. Before I head out, got somethin’ for ya.”

Caren looked up. “Ooo. Goodies?”

Peri rooted around in her bag. “Made you a couple more lunaria flares.” She handed Caren one box, then another, which she paused to tap with her finger. “These are pretty fucking cool, if I do say so—Morphean miasma bombs. Good way to drop someone without killing them, if you can keep them trapped in the cloud long enough and avoid breathing the fumes yourself. Then there’s my new personal favorite thing I’ve ever made…” The third box she opened, revealing to Caren a stack of long, dark cylinders. “I’m calling these ‘lightning sticks.’ Hollow fulmenine alloy—pretty brittle, so be really careful with them. You break one of these, it’ll release an electrical charge, and make a pretty loud, freaky sound too. And finally.” She produced a small pill bottle. “Saturnine capsules. I think I finally got these pretty much odorless and tasteless—as long as you don’t put the powder in unseasoned grits or something, no one’ll ever be able to tell it’s there.”

“Damn. You went all out this time.”

“Well, you know.” Peri shrugged slightly, became very intent on rearranging the contents of her bag. “Some scary shit going on out there. A ratcatcher’s gotta be prepared. It is fucking frigid in here, by the way. Did you forget to pay your gas bill again?”

“Not forgot. Just didn’t have the money.”

“What about your Lenny money?”

“That was for the fucking nursing home payment. Which is hella late too.”

Peri got out her wallet. “You need me to spot you?”

Caren grimaced. “Put that fucking thing away. I’ve got a big advance coming for the Lex case. It’ll be fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Please. Keep your smelly Old-World money.”

“If you say so. I’m going.”

Caren stood.

Peri grabbed her face and kissed her. Slapped her lightly on the ass. “Seeya, bitch.”

“Bye, bitch.”

Caren watched as Peri headed for the door, battling a sudden overwhelming urge to say something—anything—to keep her from walking out.

“Hey,” she blurted, just as Peri was pulling the door shut behind her.

Peri poked her head back in.

Caren blanked for a moment, then said, “Just—you know. Be fucking careful out there. There’s a murderer on the loose. Targeting Martial Magi. And you’re the Master-General’s daughter.” She hesitated. “Maybe I oughtta walk you to your—?”

“I can take care of myself, Care,” Peri cut her off, with a tight little smile. “I’ll text you…okay?”

The door latched with a terminal click before Caren could reply.

The silence was crushing. The pain in her chest suffocating.

Caren wished to fuck she hadn’t smoked her last cigarette.

She turned aimlessly in place for a moment, then checked her phone.

A new text from Sylvan: New place!!, accompanied by an address.

Caren put on her high school throwback playlist and cranked it up as loud as she could stand it. Pieced herself together as quickly as she could. She hadn’t spent any serious amount of time home alone since the night of the solstice. The sudden emptiness felt full of ghosts.

The shower water was cold—she’d forgotten no gas meant no hot water, too. She’d hardly slept, felt half-delirious by now. She was shivering so hard she kept making little buzzing noises through her teeth.

There was no bath towel on the rack, only a hand towel crumpled on the floor. Caren scrubbed her body with it, whimpering, halfheartedly singing along to “Bodybag” by Hit the Lights. Trying to contain this weird obsessive idea that had started creeping into the corner of her mind, that Luke was about to darken the bathroom doorway while she was standing there freezing and naked. Not warm, alive, familiar Luke. Dead Luke—changed and foreign.

And pissed as hell that she was living on without him. Pissed that she hadn’t found his killer yet and kicked the living shit out of him.

Pissed that she hadn’t yet recovered his missing fucking head.

She saw Luke’s head on her pillow again, smiling his dimpled smile.

Everything I do is for you, it said.

But you left, was the knee-jerk reply that flitted through her mind.

Followed by a frantic, penitent, I didn’t mean it.

The sudden rush of tears fucked up her carefully applied eyeliner. She had to start again from scratch. It was next to impossible to pull off wings with shaking hands, but she was determined to look her best. Hard to say if Sylvan was looking to fuck; he was more of a sentimental dumbass, not necessarily all about the sex. Either way, looking cute served Caren’s purposes. And hell, if it came down to jumping in the sack with him, she’d do what she had to. It was a small enough price to pay.

“I’m gonna fucking get to the bottom of it, okay?” she murmured out loud to ghost-Luke. “Whatever it takes.”

Her first stop after leaving the apartment was the “supermarket” (as the sign out front billed it) on the corner across from her place—a cramped, garishly lit convenience store offering a thoroughly random-ass selection of processed foods.

…And, more importantly as far as Caren was concerned, Marlboro Reds.

She housed two squares before hopping the bus to the address Sylvan had texted. Another after getting off at his stop.

“Jesus, Sylvan,” she muttered, slowing to gape as she passed by a Whole Foods on South Street. “Guess you got kinda bougie since the last time I saw you…”

She arrived in front of the well-kept three-story brownstone. Double-checked her texts again, sure she must have gotten the address wrong.

But no mistaking, it was Sylvan Zachry who answered the door. For all his apparently having dramatically improved his fortunes, Caren’s old hookup-slash-contact looked as scruffy as he ever had—same patchy stubble, same exact hair: ash-blond bangs hanging limply in front of his narrow gray eyes. Same snub nose, same boxy chin. Caren never had thought Sylvan was hot, per se. But he had kind of a nice smile. A puppyish appeal.

“Caren fucking Navarrete.” He wrapped her up in a bear hug, a little too tight. “How the hell’ve you been?”

“Eh—you know,” Caren grunted to his shoulder.

“Yeah, wow. I was like…super surprised to hear from you.” He released her, grinning from ear to ear. “Come on in.”

He stood back and waved her through the door, locked and deadbolted it behind her. Led the way through the little vestibule into the house proper, bare feet slapping on hardwood, long cargo pants dragging.

“Damn. This is your new digs? This is fucking nice.” Caren took in her surroundings—a high-ceilinged vestibule, a spiral staircase leading up two floors, a spacious open-floor-plan living area with a kitchen, dining area, and bar, most of which was covered floor to ceiling with rune-inscribed mirrors of all shapes and sizes. Basins full of crystal-clear water lined every wall. “Dude…since when are you so into mirror scrying? What happened to all your herbology and alchemy shit?”

“Oh, uh. Well, actually, you know, I just can’t be around that stuff anymore.” Sylvan pocketed his hands in his pants, shrugged. “Like. Finally got clean. So not taking any more chances.”

“Oh, dude! That’s rad!” Caren put on a big grin. “I kinda thought you had more of, like, a sparkle in your eye and a spring in your step.”

Sylvan chuckled. “Fuckin’ right, my girl. Six whole months sober.”

“That’s fucking awesome!”

“Thank you, thank you. Go ahead, have a seat! You like…want something to eat or drink?”

“Like…just water would be super chill. Thanks.” Caren settled into a wing-backed upholstered chair and stuffed her hands awkwardly between her knees; gazed up at an antique obsidian mirror on the ceiling right above her, on which was superimposed a silver-inlaid magic circle with a many-armed vortex converging on its center, swirling off into infinity.

Sylvan hovered for a moment, grinning blankly, then shuffled off around the bar to the kitchen. Caren watched him as he stood for several seconds staring into the well-stocked fridge before closing it again, washing a dirty glass in the sink, and filling it with water from a Brita pitcher sitting on the counter. He then scanned the contents of the freezer briefly before returning to Caren with the glass.

“Hope room temperature’s okay.”

“Yeah, totally fine.” Caren took the glass, clutched it in both hands.

Sylvan dragged another chair over, sat on its edge leaning forward, facing her. “So, wow. I mean.” He gestured aimlessly, grinned with all his teeth. “I, uh, I have to say, I didn’t think I’d ever hear from you again. How the hell’ve you been, girl?”

“Oh, you know…same old.” Caren took a deep breath, a little sip of her water. “Look, Syl, I can’t lie. I really came here for business as much as pleasure.”

“Oh.” Sylvan raised his eyebrows. “Sure, sure. That’s just kinda how it’s always been, right?”

“I seem to remember you run black-market alchemy shit for Meillassoux. Isn’t that right? Or used to?”

Sylvan chuckled weirdly, looked down, rubbed the back of his neck. “That’s, uh—yeah. That’s a definite used-to.”

“Okay…well, do you still know how to get in touch with him?”

Sylvan hesitated. “Can I ask why you wanna be getting in touch with Meillassoux’s people?”

“Dude. I wanna get in touch with Meillassoux.”

“He’s a dangerous fucking guy, Caren.”

“I’m a dangerous fucking gal.”

Sylvan chuckled, rolled his eyes. “Hard to argue with that. Look, I can give you the contact info I have. But you sure as hell don’t wanna tell him I sent you. Like, leave my fucking name out of it. Okay?”

Caren frowned. “Yo…seriously? Why? What’d you do, go and piss him off?”

“You…could say that.”

“Dude! How?”

“Uhhhh.” Sylvan grinned, ran a hand through his hair, slumped forward with his elbows on his knees. Fidgeted briefly. “You, uh. You know, Care. You remember how it was when I was like…still dealing with my problem.”

Caren hesitated, nodded. “I mean—yeah. You know I do.”

“Like, I barely knew which way was up. All I could think about was getting my next fix. My fucking business, my whole life was falling apart. You know.” Sylvan was quiet a moment, staring at the floor. “Things were…pretty touch-and-go for a while. Even after I got better there was just…so much debt. Motherfuckers coming around every day trying to collect.”

Caren frowned. “Syl…what did you do?”

Sylvan sighed, laughed, again raked his hand through his hair, which flopped right back down in his eyes. “Um. Well, see, Megyesi came to me. Or I mean, technically he sent someone. Anyway, he…kinda made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”


“You know. Kingpin of the Wyrms.”

“Dude. I know who Adrian fucking Megyesi is.”

Sylvan stared off, nodded vaguely.

“Sylvan,” said Caren.

Sylvan blinked as if waking up. “Yeah…I, uh. I mighta…kinda…sold out Meillassoux to Megyesi.”

Caren stared at him. “Sylvan.”

“The money was fucking good, Caren. You have no fucking idea.”

I wasted my fucking time coming here… What the fuck.

“…And Meillassoux’s still alive? And he knows it was you?” said Caren. “Dude, how the fuck did I not hear about this?”

“I guess it’s been kinda like, overshadowed by those Martial Magus murders.”

“Wait. So you’re telling me this just now happened, since the solstice? Like, within the past two days? You’re certain Meillassoux survived…right?”

Sylvan swallowed audibly. “Oh, yeah. He survived. Got a little scratched up. But I saw him escape with my own two eyes.”

“Dude. What the fuck are you doing still in town?”

“I’m actually leaving today. My flight leaves in just a few hours. And…I’m really sorry, Caren. I, uh…I lied to you. This isn’t my apartment. I’m just hiding out here. It’s actually an ex-girlfriend’s who happens to be out of town right now. I still had a key.”

Caren gaped.

Sylvan chuckled bleakly. “Caren…it was…it was so fucked up. It was so…” Again, he swallowed. “I set the whole thing up—told Meillassoux it was a secret meeting with a corrupt Khmun bigwig I used to run for, a lady Meillassoux’s been wanting to establish ties with. Anyway, so these supposed Khmun people show up, but really it’s Megyesi’s people. If you can really even call them people. I tried to get out of there before shit went down, but Meillassoux just kept fucking talking to me, wouldn’t fucking let me leave. Then, finally…” Sylvan looked pale. His eyes glittered through his bangs. “I mean…Caren. You know what House Megyesi does, right?”

Caren just nodded.

Sylvan shook his head slowly. Stared off, haunted. “It was a goddamn blood bath.” He dropped his face into his hands, spoke muffledly through them. “Meillassoux’s most trusted advisor was the first to go down.”

Caren rubbed her temples. “Sylvan.”

“I know. I know. I should have just gotten out of Philly to begin with. Left all my debts behind, started over somewhere else. I thought I was in trouble before… Now I’m fucking finished in this town.”

Caren’s chest throbbed. “Dude’s gonna be wanting your head on a platter right about now. That’s for sure.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m still in town tomorrow morning, I’m dead fucking meat.”

Caren lifted her gaze, let it settle on Sylvan. Stared at him long and hard.

“Look, Care,” he went on, “I’m really, really sorry I can’t help you out more. You have no idea how sorry. But here: I’m more than happy to give you all the info I have.” Sylvan grabbed his phone, thumbed the screen briefly. In her coat pocket, Caren’s own phone buzzed. “Like, it won’t get you much of anywhere, pretty sure, but you may as well try. Just, you know…for your safety and mine, for the love of God, don’t bring my name into it.”

Caren zoned out on the floor. “Yeah…of course.”




This was my best shot…

It’s gonna take for-fucking-ever to get close to a gang boss now, unless Des turns up something extremely fucking good.

Caren started banging her fist against her thigh. Chest throbbing dully.

Heart: Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

“You okay, Caren?” asked Sylvan.

“Yeah,” said Caren, not really hearing him.

Caren. Everything I do is for you…

“Well, look,” said Sylvan, “I’m really super glad you called. It was…nice to see you one last time before I fuck off forever.”

Caren felt sick to her stomach.

I’ll make sure they never fuck with you again…

“I hate to say it, but…I really should think about getting going,” Sylvan went on. “Give myself plenty of time to get through security. Really don’t wanna miss my flight.”

“Right.” Caren got numbly to her feet.

Realized she was still punching her thigh. Flexed, relaxed her hand.

Found it once more forming into a fist.

“Well,” she said. Cleared her throat. “Good luck, Syl. I hope things work out for you.”

Sylvan took her curled-up hand, clasped it between both of his. “Yeah, thanks. That really means a lot. Lemme walk you to the door.”

Caren’s phone buzzed again.

She got it out, glanced at it.

Besides the contact Sylvan had sent her, there was a new message from Grenville:

Update?? I’m done with crime scenes. Nothing new to follow up on yet, but some info stored for later. Met a mundane who’s a little too savvy, not sure anything he told me was useful. Got what I could out of him, gotta have him mind wiped now

“‘Info stored for later’…?” Caren muttered. “Fuck.”

“What was that?” said Sylvan.


I really will fucking kill him if you want me to.

“Hey. Syl?”


Caren looked him in the eyes. “How’s your kid been doing lately? Samantha?”

Sylvan shook his head, rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m—oh God, Caren. Like. You know how it is. I’m fucking keeping my distance, right? Like. C’mon. Take a look at my life.” He gestured vaguely. Grinned. “Girl’s better off with no dad than with a dad like me.”

…Do you want me to?

Pain shot lightning spider limbs through Caren’s chest. “Listen, I’m…really sorry, dude.”

“Eh. What have you got to be sorry for?”

Caren fired up her super-speed agimat.

Sylvan never saw the baton coming.

Seconds later he was prone on the floor, his hair sticky with blood.

Caren’s hands shook violently as she cleaned the baton and stowed it.

Snapped the bracers in place.

Uncorked the bottle of Morphean miasma.

Clumsily soaked a rag and held it over Sylvan’s nose and mouth.

Gripped his wrist. Timed his pulse as it slowed.

Warm blood thump-thumping in the veins.

What felt like decades later, Caren straightened.

Lit a square. Took a drag.

Got her phone out. Hands still shaking.

Dialed the number Sylvan had sent her.

“Who’s this?” came a velvety baritone.

“I wanna talk to Soren Dreyfus-Meillassoux.”

A pause. Once again, “Who is this?”

“Caren Navarrete.”

Another pause—then the faintest of snorts. “The ratcatcher?”

“Yep. Tell Soren…” Caren stared down at the prostrate form of Sylvan. Heart thump-thump, thump-thumping in her ears. “…I’ve caught him a rat.”


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