The crows dove from the pregnant summer sky, sleek and hungry. Ballard hadn’t fed them in a week. I know — I used to be his apprentice. His birds dug their claws into the limestone and glass of Rite Company Shackles, 899 Louisiana Street, Houston, Texas 77002, which this morning became a subsidiary of HOLY WELL PRISON UNIFORMS AND ACCESSORIES, EVERYTHING FOR THE PRISON-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX, IF YOU NEED IT WE’VE GOT IT.
As the last one out of the building, I took my life into my own hands by standing a few feet from the revolving door. The crows wouldn’t care whether the gods made me from flesh and bone or from stone and sand and fire. They’d eat me, too, if they could. It was their nature.
Johnson circled around to my left, grabbed me by the wrist hard enough to leave bruises, and dragged me down the wide steps to the curb, where secretaries in shirtsleeves and sneakers and businessmen in their casual Friday attire craned their heads to watch the last hostility of the takeover. Johnson had hired me one week ago to the minute to stop this after his own magicians proved unable to.
How the hell had this happened? How could I have miscalculated so badly again?
Johnson kept hold of me, his blue eyes wild with fright and his dark hair plastered back from his forehead.
Perspiration beaded on his upper lip. The sign on the bank building down the street called the temperature at ninety-two degrees and the heat index made it feel like one hundred. But that wasn’t it, of course.
“I’d fire you,” he said, “if I had anywhere to fire you from.”
“I’d deserve it.” No excuses. No platitudes.
I thinned my lips. I got half my hundred thousand dollar fee via wire-transfer up-front, the rest payable only after I’d shown Ballard the door. I’d screwed up, but I’d be all right with money except for the sting to my pride. Mr. Johnson’s life, however, had radically changed forever.
“Why did I hire you?” he asked, seemingly more of himself than of me.
“Because I’m the best shot you had.”
Johnson shook his head. “He went after us just so we would hire you. This never had anything to do with my company. He wanted to go head-to-head with you, Smoke. Just you. If I’d have held on longer, I could’ve kept the place I’ve spent twenty years of my life on.”
“You’re wrong,” I said. “Not about the first part. He wanted me on this job. But the rest — he’d have taken you apart in a heartbeat.”
“For what gain?” he asked.
Maybe Johnson felt better pretending not to know. I’ve never been one to allow anyone their illusions; I had none myself. Business was business.
“For the carrion,” I said.
Ballard was a scavenger. That was all he knew how to be.
“What did you do to him to make him hate you like this, Smoke?”
I had the nerve never to have had a family of my own and to want his. I had asked his god-daughter, whom he’d raised from infancy, to marry me, and he’d made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Prove to him that I could take over the family business, that I had the magical wherewithal to take care of it and Laurel, and he would give me the business and his blessing.
I watched Ballard’s crows pick apart Rite Company Shackles one square of stone, one steel beam, one scrap of carpet at a time. I bore witness long after the rest of the gawkers wandered away, while the sun set in a gold stain behind the clouds and thunder sounded in the west. The first fat drops fell as the birds reduced the desks to toothpicks.
The last one flew away in the rain with a double-framed picture of someone’s tow-headed children in its fat beak.
* * *
I saw the message light blinking on the entry table as soon as I stepped into my apartment. I listened to the recording first, before I so much as turned on a light.
Ballard had taken up smoking again, judging by the sandpaper of his voice. Maybe I made him nervous. Or maybe not.
Sucker! You think you can outsmart me? Every time you put someone else between me and you, they go down. Every time. We’ll keep on playing this game until I’m tired of it. Then you’ll be carrion, my friend.
I’d never give up. Never.
I slipped off my shoes and socks, popped the cap on a beer, and opened the sliding glass door onto my private, wood-fenced patio. Over the tips of the boards, I saw no one and nothing but the live oak and the miniature rose bushes in crimson bloom.
The concrete felt cool on the soles of my feet. I sat in the metal glider beside the scarecrow I’d stuffed and placed there, sipping and thinking while the stars appeared and the moon rose and the wind shifted southeasterly, carrying a salty tang off the Gulf.
I thought of Laurel.
Twenty-two, hot off my B.A. with honors from the University of Texas, I took the job with Ballard. I wanted more than bit experience so I could hop to another firm after a few years. I did it for more than money. I did it for her.
She had violet eyes; that happened after so many years of heavy magic use. Yep, violet eyes and long brown hair that she wore in a French braid that flowed half-way down her back. She wore sleeveless dresses that showed off her freckled shoulders. She smelled of sunlight. Warm.
I saw her for the first time at the card game. A friendly game of hold-em in a brewery bar with a good Irish stout and too many televisions mounted high on the walls.
She smiled at me and looked away. Something in her magic sparked mine. I knew right then I’d do anything to get her to marry me. Even sign away my life.
Laurel had a hefty talent for money magic. The kind that brought her four offshore accounts full of untraceable cash by the time she reached my age. She worked for Ballard. I went to work for Ballard. Simple, right?
Ballard held the power of death. He could think you dead, and you’d follow suit. His crows would come and pick you apart until nothing remained. The only thing that held him in check? The Almighty Contract Law. One false move, and he’d be gone. Whisked away to the kind of prison built to deal with someone like him. So he put his expertise to work taking apart corporations instead of people.
The old man kept a tight leash on me. A hard first contract — a set-up — which I broke and he reported me for. Not to the proper authorities, who might’ve put me in jail — but to everyone else that mattered. Anyone who might hire me. Then he threw me out of his nest as an adult bird would a fledgling.
The bastard ruined me.
People gave me jobs. After all, I could predict the future. Ninety-nine point nine percent accuracy.
The other point one? The big problem — or so it seemed, though I’d been working on it like mad. That thing they say about practice and perfect.
Ballard wasn’t perfect. Although his decimal place stretched out further than mine, he should only have been able to beat me on my small margin of foresight blindness once in a blue moon. Not every time.
How did he do it? Why couldn’t I see it?
I looked up a full thirty-seconds before the beat of wings disturbed the air. A crow blotted out the moonlight. It dropped something silver and heavy at me. I reached out and caught it before it hit ground, and sliced my thumb on broken glass for my trouble, just like I knew I would.
The picture carried off from the company this afternoon. The blond kids. One boy, one girl in the shade of cypress trees on a river bank, water smooth and shot with sun and leaf-shadow behind them.
The crow wheeled once and cawed three times before it flew north and west, back to the home office. I knew a challenge when I heard one.
I saw a flash of the future in that moment: the sky clotted with black birds on the corpse of another company. Barberry Uniforms. The old man would buy to fifty-one percent, first thing in the morning. I could expect the call from the owner before noon.
* * *
Barberry’s small office occupied part of the third floor of the building catty-corner to the decimated Rite lot. All the blinds on that side of the building hung closed and to the floor, I assumed to blot out the eyesore. And the reminder that they would be next.
The company had one secretary, one bookkeeper, five salespeople. It shouldn’t be worth Ballard’s time of day. Yet he’d gone after them before.
Gone after them and backed off at the last minute.
I remembered the deal, though when it went down I was already on the outs with Ballard. I’d heard rumors of a war chest too big for the old man to take on. Rumors always held a grain of truth.
I met with the sole owner and magician, Ms. Glenn Wentwhite, in the only conference room, a maple credenza-and-table number that seated eight. Coffee service and a small tray of croissants and strawberries rounded out the hospitality. Ms. Wentwhite wore a rich silver suit to match her pearls and her very prematurely silver hair. She couldn’t have been more than thirty-five. Her navy pumps were scuffed at the heels. She looked overwhelmed. And beautiful.
She shook my hand and spoke with an East Texas accent so deep I could smell the piney woods. “I hope you’ll tell me what you’re doing here today, Mr. Smoke.”
“Just Smoke,” I said.
She motioned for me to sit and took the chair beside me. “I mean, I don’t know. Why you’re here, that is.”
I’d never heard that before. “You called me.”
She nodded like it all made sense.
I studied her eyes. The pupils showed a little too much. “Are you spelled?”
She set her elbow on the tabletop and wrestled with more than worried at her pearls. She didn’t answer right away.
When she didn’t answer me then, I took her non-response for a yes. People generally couldn’t tell others they’d been ensorcelled. Took all the fun and purpose out of it if everyone else knew the lowdown. Most of the time, though, magicians were better at camouflaging their work. Ms. Wentwhite gave it away so easy it felt ridiculous. It felt like an insult.
“What’s really going on here?” I asked.
“It’s a trap,” she said.
No, I wanted to say. A trap was a foresight dream that your fiancé ran into a building about to be scavenged because she thought you were inside. She went in after you only to find no one at the computer terminal outside room 3702, where she thought you’d be. Not a human being as far as the eye could see. Only handsome blonde wood desks made from some nearly-extinct South American tree. Flat screens showing various stages of documents or personal e-mail or screensavers. Fichus trees losing their leaves by the windows.
The flicker and buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead as the electricity stuttered. As the crows descended.
You, the love of her life, supposed to be there, but somehow disappeared like smoke.
Laurel died alone, in the dream.
A trap was not knowing whether this death would really happen. Whether it emerged from my own gift — or came from my for-all-intents-and-purposes father-in-law.
I wouldn’t put it past the bastard. He’d send me something like that as a test. To see if I could be scared off. To make things more interesting.
Had he done anything like that to Glenn Wentwhite? I doubted it.
She smiled. The expression not only didn’t reach her eyes, it didn’t reach her mouth. “I’d like you to stay and talk with me a while,” she said. “When we’re done, I’d like you to get up and shake my hand warmly, like we’ve agreed to work together.”
“The hell you say.”
She kept on as if I hadn’t said a word. She reached over and patted my hand, for gods’ sake. “Then I want you to step out into the foyer and tell my secretary you’ll be right back. Walk out the front door and down the hall to the men’s room. I’ll meet you there.”
I didn’t even pretend to understand. I reached out with the good sense the gods gave me to see what might happen in the men’s room. I couldn’t get any inkling. Except that this did not, of all things, stink of Ballard.
For that, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Twenty minutes’ worth. All the time I felt I could spare on anything or anyone besides beating the old man.
The men’s room in no way resembled a bathroom. No facilities to speak of. Not even a sink. Only one inch squares of brown-flecked cream tile. It smelled of cold platinum shielding, like metal on the tip of the tongue. Anti-magic shield. A room to block eavesdropping or x-ray vision or hindsight or even my own power.
Ms. Wentwhite leaned against the far wall, hands braced behind her. I had no idea how she’d got here ahead of me.
In the tic of her muscles and the shudder in her neck, I could see her work her way through whatever spell she was under. She swallowed hard twice before she said anything. The piney woods had fled. She took it so slowly, she sounded like English was her second language.
“I spell — was. Spelled. You were right.”
“I don’t handle stress well,” she said. “Or secrets. If I hadn’t done this to myself, I’d have given the game away the second I saw you. Ballard’s spies would’ve seen me somehow.”
She was paranoid. And worse, she was soft. “You said this was a trap.”
“Yes, but not for you. For him.”
“What kind of game are you running?”
She looked me in the eye. “Ballard killed my husband.”
I saw how it was now. She thought I’d be sympathetic. “You’ve heard about my fiancé.”
She had the grace to stare at her shoes when she replied. “Yes. How you’ll never see her again.”
It sounded rude. I could tell she hadn’t meant it that way. “Everyone watches Ballard. Everyone thinks they can out-maneuver him.”
“Survival doesn’t mean squat,” I said. “Not if you have to live in fear every day for the rest of your life.”
“Who cares about fear?” Her voice shook with barely contained violence. “It only matters that you stand up.”
Like she and her husband had stood up to Ballard before? “How did your husband die?”
“Emil.” His name. “Had a heart attack. After Ballard tried to scavenge us.”
I felt her words like a punch to the chest. I let it show a little. What I feared for myself and Laurel had actually happened to her and Emil. “Why did he back off?”
“He got wind of our arsenal.”
The rumored war chest. “How much?”
“A hundred million dollars in bonds and gold.”
I whistled at the depth of those assets. “This company wasn’t anywhere near carrion. You had resources Ballard couldn’t mess with. You would have used it all fighting him off. By the time he got what he wanted, the return on investment would never be worth it. That’s why he let you get away.”
She nodded. “We bought Ballard back down to thirty-five percent. It hurt. But we did it. He’s left us alone, but he never let us go. And we’ve had our problems since Emil died. Some ups. Mostly downs.”
“You’re ripe for the picking again. He’s bought up enough shares.”
“Yes,” she said. “It’ll be a hard fight again. Harder, without Emil. I don’t know if my heart can take it.”
If she had to wonder, surely she was right. “That’s where I come in.”
“I have a plan, Smoke. You’re going to become a permanent asset of Barberry Uniforms.”
A permanent asset of the company. That meant if Ballard won here, if he bought out Wentwhite and scavenged her company, Ballard would scavenge me, too.
“Why on earth would I do that?”
“It’s all in the compensation clause of your contract,” she said.
“I haven’t signed one yet.”
“You will,” she said, filling her words with almost enough conviction to convince me. “The deeper Barberry Uniforms goes into debt — the more trouble we’re into — the more you’re worth.”
And they would go into debt. On every non-liquid asset they owned. Brilliant. I’d be worth more than my weight in cash and gold.
“If Ballard wants to buy the company, he’ll have to buy you, Smoke.”
I looked at her. The stress of standing up to Ballard cost Emil his life and Ms. Wentwhite her husband. Most people would’ve folded. People didn’t stand up to Ballard the way they had.
“Do you want revenge?” he asked.
“Keeping my company whole is the best revenge.”
Her proposal made this more than a contract. More than a job. I would have to put myself on the line in a way I hadn’t done with Johnson or those other corporations Ballard had scavenged out from under me. Then, it had been all about beating Ballard. About proving myself to him.
Ballard acted according to his nature. I acted according to mine.
I accepted Ms. Wentwhite’s offer. I drew my line in the sand. All or nothing. This was it. This would be the last battle. I’d finish things, one way or another, for all I was worth.
* * *
Ms. Wentwhite and I took the limousine to see the old man. As we drove, the sun went down in a ball of molten orange, fingers of flame stretched across the sky.
Ballard’s live oaks didn’t just stand stately, they held court. The house had the biggest set of French doors I’d ever seen. And a bird barn out back that I could hear even before Ms. Wentwhite’s driver muscled me out of the car. I couldn’t hear myself think over the caws and the rustle of wings.
Ballard had always kept thirteen murders of crows. The house had no guards but those.
He waited for us alone in his office, ensconced in the comfortable brown leather chair closest to the dark fireplace. The old man hadn’t changed much in the past few years. His black hair, turning white only at the temples, fell in a wave of feathers down to his waist. His hooked nose resembled a beak, his hands talons. The eyes were the thing. Coal black, full of sly wit. Too much intelligence for his own good.
He held a brandy, motioned with it toward the decanter and empty glasses on the oak mantle. He spoke with the same sandpaper edge as the message he’d left. “Would you like?”
Ms. Wentwhite thinned her lips. “I never mix alcohol and business.”
“Your loss,” he said. “It’s good stuff. Celebratory. Isn’t it, Smoke?”
I nodded. “Ballard.”
I stood. Ms. Wentwhite sat on the red velveteen loveseat across from him.
“You know what we’re here for,” she said.
“I won’t make a deal with you,” Ballard said. “This time I’m seeing it through. I’ll take Barberry apart, just like all the others. You can count on it.”
“You won’t,” I said. “I’ve signed on with Wentwhite.”
Ballard left off sipping his brandy and narrowed his eyes.
“I’m in it until the end,” I said. “You may think the company is weak, but below the surface it’s still strong enough to take anything you can dish out for a good, long time. We can still spend you into the ground. You can try to swallow Barberry, but I promise you’ll choke on it.”
The corners of Ms. Wentwhite’s mouth curved. She didn’t look like she could help it.
I turned to her. “It won’t be him, but eventually someone will take us apart. You know that’s true. You have too much heart and not enough grit.”
“It’s got me this far,” she said.
“This far and no further. You’re at an impasse.”
She stared at me. “What are you saying?”
“You want to scavenge the company, Ballard. To make it yours. Ms. Wentwhite, you want to keep the company whole. We can battle this out, or we can try something different.”
Ballard watched me. He downed the last of his drink. “Spit it out.”
“We sell Barberry to you. Barberry remains autonomous — a subsidiary. I run Barberry, along with Ms. Wentwhite here.”
Ballard’s eyes grew wide. “You want to build the business.”
I nodded. “I mean to.”
“I would never have thought of that.”
Of course not. He was a scavenger. But I never have been.
He mulled it over. After a minute, he gave a grudging answer. “We’ll talk.”
Ms. Wentwhite folded her arms across her chest. But she didn’t get up to leave.
I had crafted a proposition that thrilled neither of them. Then again, the best business deals never make everyone happy.
Ballard set down his glass on the mantle. “Good job, son.”
I raised a brow.
“I never cared whether you beat me,” he said.
After everything he’d done, how could he say that? “You could’ve fooled me.”
Ballard rose and crossed to where I stood. “Winning wasn’t the point.”
He’d thrown me out. Ruined me. Destroyed how many lives? All because I was supposed to prove myself to him.
Shit. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before.
“I never had to prove my worth to you. I had to prove it to myself.”
Ballard put his arm around my shoulders. “You’re a little slow, son. But you’ll do.”
I wholeheartedly agreed, but I didn’t tell him that. I realized suddenly, too, that I couldn’t see how this whole thing would end up. My magic wouldn’t tell me. I’d opened a door to a lot of possibilities.
Ballard leaned in. “You know, son, just because I gave you a pass on this deal doesn’t mean I won’t take you apart on the next.”
He laughed. “Welcome to the family, Smoke. Do you want to see Laurel? She’s upstairs.”
* * *
He took me to her, into a part of the house where I’d never been, with champagne walls covered in so much tapestry you could hardly see them. Our footfalls echoed on the dusty hardwood floor. We must have been close to the birds. The rustle of feathers had never been so loud.
In the second room on the right of the hall, Laurel waited. Violet eyes. Strong arms. She smelled of the sun, still.
When we turned to look at him, Ballard had gone. In his wake a set of human footprints, and after a short distance, a set of talon marks.
“Where’d he go?” I asked.
“Out with the crows,” she said. “He does his best thinking when he flies, and you’ve given him something to think about.”
Any second now, the birds would take to the air. A black clot on the sky.
“Do you hate them?” she asked.
I thought of everything they’d torn apart. How many bones they’d picked clean. Corporations. Lives. It hadn’t been their fault. They’d only done what they were born to do. Like Ballard. Like me. “No.”
She met my gaze. “Good. Because you’re marrying into the family.”
Outside, the rustle became a thunder of beating wings.
Leslie Claire Walker hails from the lush bayous and concrete-and-steel canyons of the Texas Gulf Coast. She lives in Houston with assorted animal and plant companions, and two harps. Her short fiction has appeared in many wonderful magazines and anthologies, including Fantasy Magazine. She can be found on the web at www.leslieclairewalker.com.