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The Ties That Bite

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I adjust my cap, and stroll up to the front door of the building. The plaque next to the door is tasteful and discreet: Putnam, Valence, and Goldfield, Attorneys at Law. The intercom panel is equally subdued, barely visible against the dark wood of the door frame. I hit the buzzer three times, and lean against the wall, waiting.

"Hello?"

"Whack-a-Rat Exterminators," I reply brightly, in my best dim-but-helpful voice. "You called about a mouse problem?"

"Oh, right," Nik says, going through the performance for the benefit of anyone who might overhear the receptionist. "I'll buzz you right in."

Nik spent most of last night trotting through these gleaming halls--someone has been too enthusiastic with the floor buffer--and reporting back to me on what she saw in another host, but nothing replaces seeing these things myself. I stroll into the lobby and tip my hat to Nik in the receptionist's body. Twenty dollars in a custom shirt shop got my cap custom made, and dingy overalls are easy to find in any thrift store. There are some types of fakery that are easy to set up when dealing with humans from an economic class that pays little attention to the classes below them. The trickiest part was convincing Ferro that we wanted to stencil letters on the side of the white pickup truck we've borrowed and loaded with convincing-look machinery, not carve the letters in. "Morning, ma'am. What can I do for you?"

"I'll take you to where I saw the mouse," Nik says, stumbling a little over her words. She's not cut out for subterfuge. Mimicking a human when none of that host's friends are watching, or when trying to induce a behavioral change, yes. Pretending to be the receptionist for a law firm populated by who knows what type of celestials, Soldiers, and humans who'd know the woman? Not so much. "It was over in the kitchen by the cabinets--"

"I'll take it from here, Laura," says a woman, striding into the room. She's dressed in a dark power suit that screams "you pay me insane amounts of money so that I can twist the legal system in your favor," and her graying hair is pulled back into a severe bun. "Someone needs to watch the phones, after all. And you would be...." She puts out a hand for me to shake.

I respond with the cheerful, firm grip of a working man who likes his job. "Leroy Daily, ma'am. But you can call me Roy, most everyone does, because there are two Leroys at work, and you wouldn't think it would be a common name, but there you go. I'm here to find out what kind of mouse problem you have, and what it'll take to get rid of it."

"Not too much of one, I hope," she says, and laughs in that light, artificial way that's supposed to be friendly and fails to be. "I'm Ms. Valence. We're always busy around here, but I can take you through the affected areas."

I look suitably impressed. "One of the associates for the place? Thanks for the time, ma'am. I'll try to be quick about this, not waste your billing hours."

"Sometimes it's pleasant to have a change of pace," she says, and smiles back at me in a manner as artificial as her laugh. I make a mental note of "probably not a Mercurian" and follow her into the hallways.

Law offices targeted by celestials usually mean either the Game or Judgment, and I'm not sure which I'd prefer. Judgment, maybe, for being more likely to kill my vessel rather conducing a prolonged, bloody conversation. On the other hand, the Game's unlikely to spot me wandering around with their resonance and attunements alone unless they have a Calabite on hand. It could be one of those rare instances of a matter entirely between one set of demons and ordinary humans... but how likely is that? I can tell this much: when an associate whose name is on the door outside escorts the exterminator through the building, they're either hurting for business or they don't want the wrong people stumbling into something. They don't look like they're hurting for business.

Nik wiggles in my overalls pocket, trying to make herself comfortable in the tight space. "It's probably the paralegals," Ms. Valence tells me, waving a dismissive hand with neatly-trimmed fingernails. "They don't clean up properly in the break room. Or the junior lawyers who eat lunch at their desks, crumbs everywhere. It's an untidy habit. Restaurants were created for a reason."

"Mice can get into all sorts of places when you least expect 'em," I say, and whack the bag slung over my shoulder. "That's what keeps me employed, right?"

"Right," says the woman, and gives up on the laughter in favor of a tight smile. "Here's the break room."

I make a show of examining the baseboards, and take particular note of the cupboards under the sink. The dust says those cleaning supplies haven't been moved in weeks, if not months; I can stow a device behind them and expect it not to be disturbed. "Yup, here's a few droppings. Little bastards--beg your pardon, ma'am, the little critters have been through here. Might need to have all the food moved out for a day or two, depending on how big the infestation is."

"No need to apologize," says Ms. Valence, and for once the smile seems genuine. "I hear worse language than that from my clients all the time."

I stand up, readjust my cap, and grin at her. "But they're paying you, and you're paying me, so it's best if I mind my manners. Now, is this the only place you've seen mice?"

"The only place the mouse was seen, but a paralegal reported there was a hole chewed in something she'd left in the office overnight." Bless Nik and her sharp teeth. There's a fine line between confirmation and overkill, but I figured one reported sighting and a few pieces of evidence would suffice. "That was down the hall, if you wanted to take a look?"

I nod, and check inside my bag for a clipboard and sheet of paper to take notes on. "Think I'd better take a look around the whole floor, if it's not too much trouble, ma'am. I need to make sure I get all those holes, or they'll be right back a week after I've gotten rid of them. The mice, I mean, not the holes, as holes only show up when there's mice making them. Or rats, that'd be a bigger problem, but I don't think you have rats here, only mice, and those aren't so bad compared to some." Now comes the trickier bit, as I stuff the clipboard under my arm. "Don't suppose you have any sort of floor plan I can mark up? That'll make it easier to be thorough, map out how much treatment you need and where."

The hesitation means concern over security. What are they hiding in here, that some Lilim wants to have destroyed? "I might be able to find one," she say. "Let's move along."

An hour later, I have a sketchy floor plan for all three floors, and a close, personal relationship with the parquet floor. My knees ache from all the crouching near corners. "Think I have everything on this floor mapped out," I say, stuffing a new sheet of paper into the clipboard. "Does this door go downstairs? Any sort of basement?" The doorway beside me isn't marked on the floor plan, nor are the stairs leading down, but the unlabeled square is either that or a closet that's being avoided. "Mice love the basements, and that's where they show up first. Run in, down where the pipes come in, work their way up. If you have a basement, we need to check that out."

The hesitation's longer this time. "It's only file storage," she says. "Nothing for mice to eat down there."

"But, begging your pardon, ma'am, mice will go all sorts of distance to find food, and they might have dug in down there before heading upstairs. Especially in the winter, when the cold sends them running from outside to any place warm. They'll chew paper to make nests, too." I adjust my cap, look properly deferential. "If it's confidential papers, you know, I don't go prying in customers' business. It would be unprofessional. But I should have a look, just in case, if you don't mind. Of course, if you want me to only handle the top floors, I can do that too. Customer is always right. Can't get you a guarantee on it, but I can clear those out, and maybe that'll keep them away for a while."

I'm not sure if I'm laying it on too thick. There's a certain danger to making up my explanations as I go along, but this woman or demon or angel or what have you doesn't have a high opinion of blue-collar workers; she'll believe any appearance of simple-mindedness I give, and won't research mouse facts herself. I maintain a harmless expression, vaguely concerned and polite, until she finally nods. "You must understand," she says, as she leads to the door I'd already guessed was the one, "all of our paperwork down here is highly confidential. If you need to set up any equipment down there later, you'll be supervised at all times. It's not that we don't trust you, but the law's clear on the precautions we have to take."

The law says nothing about being forced to supervise anyone walking in the general area of confidential files, I'm sure, but I nod solemnly to this and follow her downstairs.

The basement's as large as the floors above it, one giant room mazed with filing cabinets. I work my way around the edges, checking all the walls, and take a different route each time as I cross to get a "better angle on that corner there, just to check and see" until I've walked each twist of the maze at least once. "Well," I say, right as this lawyer's patience looks to be wearing thin. "Think that's everything. I can make an appointment to get this problem taken care of in a jiffy. Got all of Friday afternoon open, if you want it done then, or after that..." I flip through the cheap date book I bought and then stomped on a few times for that well-worn look. "Next Wednesday's the next earliest I have after that. Could get you in earlier if this place was a smaller, but somewhere this big? Requires a big time slot."

"Friday will do, then," Ms. Valence says. "When will you arrive?"

"The crack of noon!" I tip my hat cheerfully to her. "I'll leave the details with the receptionist upstairs, so she can call me if anything else turns up. Wouldn't want to discover, say, a roach problem too. Those can get messy. You know what they say, after the last nuclear war, the roaches and the rats will be the only ones left standing."

"So I've heard," she says, and takes me back upstairs.

I take the truck back to the motel we're camping out in for the moment. Nik's found a human host to meet me with there, pacing about the room as Ferro plays with toy cars on the floor. "Well?" she asks, the moment I've closed the door behind me. "What do you think?"

"Given the equipment, time to place everything, and no unexpected snags... it should go well." I drop down on the bed to stare at the ceiling, and Nik sits down beside me, her host's hand reaching over to hold mine. This one's a woman in her mid-thirties, wearing paint-spattered jeans and a baggy sweatshirt from some community college. "The one hiccup in the plan so far is the safe in the basement. I don't know if you saw that. It's one of those fireproof ones, and damn big. If something's so important this Lilim wants a building destroyed to get rid of it, I'll bet it's important enough to go in that safe. I'm going to need to open it, or it might well survive the blast." Nik's fingers rub along my wrist, where that Geas lingers in its unseen celestial way. "I could complete the contract by taking the building down, and if the safe doesn't go, that's their problem. But it's sloppy, and I'd rather not get the reputation for doing sloppy work that fulfills the letter and not the spirit of the deal."

"How very Trader of you," Nik says, but from her it's not an insult. "So...we're safe-cracking?"

"Yeah. Might need to sneak Ferro inside; it's beyond my skills. First I need to put in a requisition for the materials, and make sure the contact that Lilim gave me is reliable enough to get me exactly what I ask for, not an approximation. Explosives with similar ratings aren't interchangeable, especially on a job as fussy as this one." I pull out my notebook and roll over on my stomach to sketch out my final arrangement. I'm going to need a calculator. "Ideally, we stall during the extermination until I'm placing these after business hours, with you taking over the supervisor. Everyone clears out for the night, we pop the safe, ditch, set the charges off remotely, boom, done. Life is good."

"Sounds like a plan," Nik says.

"Exactly. It's not a bad plan. Not a perfect plan, but easier for knowing my parameters from the start. Tight deadline, but I can work with that. It's less chance for me to be noticed by the wrong people while lingering." I rein in my bout of self-congratulation before it goes to my head. "Which isn't to say we shouldn't be careful. Fer, I want you to come along on this trip to see the contact with all the fun toys that go boom."

"I thought I was going with you," Nik says, wiggling in her mouse vessel in my pocket as way of explanation.

"Exactly. I want both of you there, but visible backup cuts down on the chances of backstabbing. The Lilim doesn't think they would, but we're talking about a weapons and explosives dealer. Chances of running into someone from Fire or the War? Higher than I'd like. We'll be careful." I stand up, collect my jacket from where I tossed it. "This isn't complicated. Everyone good to go?"

"Simple," Nik says, and Ferro only nods, standing up in that one-limb-at-a-time manner that looks nothing like human movement. "Luck. Don't get shot."

"Wasn't planning on it," I say, and drop a kiss on her human host's cheek before heading outside.

Ferro drives to my directions, and I make up the list based on preliminary calculations on the way over. This won't be precise, but if I overestimate I can give back anything extra. The ethereal's as quiet as usual, focusing intensely on the road.

We arrive at the obligatory dark warehouse, though this one's metal roof gleams in the late afternoon sun. Ferro locks the car behind us, and stares at the roof while we approach, mouth hanging open far enough to show its pointed teeth. Strange and ever stranger, ethereals, and I'm not sure I want to know what's going through its mind. "Stay sharp, Fer."

"Always am," it replies promptly, and tears its gaze away while I rap on the door.

A man peers out of a slot at the top of the door, sunglasses worn inside under these circumstances immediately marking him as someone who's dealt with Lilim before. "What do you want?"

I lean against the side of the door, and offer him a charming smile. He's probably seen too many of those to be fooled. "I'm here to see Al about purchasing custom plastic molds. Marie said you'd be expecting me." I glance up at the poorly hidden camera over the door. "What do you want, a driver's license? Go ask."

The slot snaps shut, and I check my list again. Fer leans over my shoulder to read it. "What if the whole place has been taken over by Malakim of the Sword, waiting for customers to show so that they can smite?"

"Then it'll be a short trip." I tuck the list into an outer pocket where it won't crumble before I have a chance to use it. The Symphony hates Calabim: I have enough self-control to not disassemble things left and right, in exchange I get an entropy aura that does it for me. As if the obligatory Discord weren't bad enough.

The wait's long enough that I'm starting to get twitchy when the slot reopens. Same person as before. "You can come in," he says, and opens the door after a long round of bolts being drawn.

I step into a poorly lit back room, where heaps of cement sacks sit around trying to look like they have any purpose but to camouflage what goes on here. The doorman stands nearly a foot taller than me, and carries a weapon under his coat, yet he watches me warily. Hellsworn, not a demon. "Al's in the back," he says, jerking a thumb at one of the doors in the room. "Don't try to start anything."

"Or what?" I switch my smile from charming to winning. "Relax. I'll be on my best behavior. Come on, Fer." It says something about the confidence of aforementioned Al that this human doesn't follow us through the door.

Inside the warehouse proper, the shelves are stacked with crates marked only with numbers. Not a written label to be seen, and I'm sure the contents are fascinating. I walk down the aisle towards the light marking a shuttered interior window on the far side. Plenty of time for someone else to assess me while I get to the office and the meeting.

"They want to wake up," Fer whispers.

"What does?" I don't stop, but I slow down long enough to get an answer before we're at the window.

"Machines," Fer says, fingers twitching, and if it pulls out its vehicle-control ability here without good reason, I will kill it. This is not a good time to startle weapons dealers. "They're taken apart and trapped in boxes, but they want to wake up. Some of them out there." It smiles at me suddenly. "I had friends who would have been glad to take bodies like those. Maybe some day they'll come to the corporeal too."

"Maybe, maybe not. We'll talk about it later, okay?" This is not a good time to discuss the issues relevant to an ethereal with a grudge against Heaven and Hell alike. I wonder if bringing Ferro along was a bad idea; it is unlikely that the Lilim would go to this much trouble to set me up.

A dinky little desk with a rotary phone and a desk lamp rests against the wall beside the window. I stride on up, and wait politely for the woman sitting at the desk--a mousy secretarial sort with the fashion sense of someone who gets their clothes from missionary barrels--to acknowledge me.

She finally looks up, and I blink, control my reaction to that. The woman looks a lot like the receptionist who used to work for that one architectural company... But that was a long time ago, and that woman's long dead. "Afternoon," says the woman, and wipes her nose on a tissue. "Excuse me, got a cold. It happens. You're here to talk to Al, right? We were told you were coming. She's on the phone, but if you'll have a seat--" The woman gestures out in front of her, and then frowns, as if only now realizing there are no chairs in sight. "Um. Well, if you'll wait here, she'll be right with you."

I lean against the wall, resisting the urge to lean near enough the window to make out the conversation inside. That's none of my business. Ferro squats down on the floor, picking at bits of particle board.

"I'm curious. How do you get a job like this?"

The woman looks up from the papers spread across her desk, and wipes her nose with the tissue again. "Working for an arms dealer who happens to be a demon?" She shrugs. "Like I had anything better to do with a philosophy degree. I answered an ad. It doesn't pay too badly. Hours are good. I get a lot of reading done." She blows her nose, and tosses the tissue into the overflowing wastebasket next to her desk. "The lighting could be better, but Al has issues with lighting."

"I bet you get into interesting discussions with Habbalah."

"Less than you'd think. Most of them are too busy trying to impress me with how they're really angels." She leans forward on the desk, chin propped on one hand. "Are you an Impudite? Because Al gets personal about it if you suck my Essence. Fair warning."

"Do I look like an Impudite to you?" I spread my hands, and grin. "Don't worry. Your Essence is as safe as you can make it."

"Good," she says. "Impudites are annoying." She pauses as an intercom set into the wall by the desk flashes at her. "Okay, you can go in. Don't do anything stupid or she'll make your head explode, okay?"

"I'll keep that in mind." I wait for Ferro to stand up, and open the door to the office.

There's standard office furniture inside, and the demon behind the desk looks like no one I've seen on the corporeal before. Her hair's a shade of dark blue-green too subtly shaded to be a dye job, her skin's pale blue with what looks to be scales, and her eyes look like they've been made from black pearls. She smiles at me with black lips and bright white teeth. "Have a seat," she says, pointing to a comfortable chair, and Ferro takes another beside me. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting. Marie did give me fair warning, but I got a last minute call..." She waves at the phone on her desk, as graceful as any Balseraph, and I see that her fingernails look cut out of mother of pearl. "Some clients get impatient. I suppose you're in a hurry, too."

"I am on a deadline." I pull out the list I made, and lean forward to pass it to her across the desk, notice how careful she is not to touch my fingers when she takes the paper from me. "Think you'll be able to help?"

Al reads down the list quickly, then again more slowly; it's strange to watch her eyes move, the dim light of the room catching and spinning out different colors on the way. "I see. Taking advantage of being on an expense account? I can help you with all of this, though I have to check the numbers." She presses her lips together into a sudden smile. "I'd love to see the results. I don't suppose you'll be filming it?"

"Not being a Media Servitor... no, sorry." I shrug, smile apologetically. "And video cameras break down if I use them anyway."

"Oh well. You can't have everything." She flicks a glance at Ferro, who's been quiet so far. "If you'd like to send your companion out into the warehouse with the list, I'll have Pablo get started on the supplies. We can go over the finer details in here."

I know a hint when I see one. "Fer, could you do that?"

It nods, and stands up, snatching the list from the desk. "Sure thing, boss," it says, with a sarcastic lilt, and goes outside to bother the Hellsworn.

"So," Al says, and folds two hands together, places her chin on top of them. It's the well-practiced gesture of which the secretary's was only a feeble imitation. "Leo. Formerly of the War, formerly formerly of Fire, and now of...Theft?"

"That's how the story goes." I dig up a mild version of my own charming smile. No one used to Impudites is taken in by the full-powered version.

"Quite the career. You don't strike me as the violent sort, but, well." She waves a hand towards the shuttered window, past which Ferro is off collecting various high explosives and the like. "You never can tell."

"Though apparently you can."

Al chuckles, leaning back in her chair again. "I only received a name from Marie, but the silly little Tempter you owed had more information, and she's chatty with Wordmates." She smirks at the reaction I can't quite conceal. "Don't worry. I haven't worked directly for Lust in a long time. Endless temping for Lilim is more to my taste; you wouldn't find me selling such fun toys as these if I were still in direct service to my Prince. Personally, I find Bandmates more interesting than Servitors of the same Word. Lust in all its flavors ends up feeling much the same in the end, but there are endless variations on destruction."

I pull out a cigarette, wait for her nod before lighting it. "As you might have gathered, I'm not much of a Calabite. Sorry to disappoint you."

"Oh, but why do you say that?" She's beautiful in a semi-human way, if nothing like a Balseraph's purity of form, and every gesture she makes is precise, trained. "There's more to being a Destroyer than bodily force. Or even one's resonance, if it comes to that. Working in this business, I've grown to appreciate the more...well, let's say, the creative aspects of destruction. Sometimes all a person needs is a knife to the throat, and sometimes what they need is a destroyed credit rating, reputation, and business. Our Band is more prone to the former, but that doesn't preclude the latter. Or the use of strategically-placed explosives."

The twitch from my pocket reminds me that Nik's listening in, and I amend my response. If I didn't have to worry about keeping the Kyriotate happy... But there are more important things to do than amuse myself. "I'm not the only Calabite out there who knows how to wire a place. But, hey, I'll take my compliments where I can get them."

"Not a bad choice." She taps those shiny fingernails on the desk with audible clicks. "As long as I'm being complimentary, I'll note that you were better than some when you saw me."

"And worse than others?" I'm sure I didn't keep my expression entirely smooth; I've seen demons with weird appendages or colors from Discord before, but never to this extent. And never so nicely coordinated.

"Maybe not that much worse." She smiles lazily at me across the desk, fingers twisting in her hair. "When I first came to Earth, it was in France, some centuries ago, and the owner of the brothel I worked at--an Impudite, horrible smarmy woman--had this whole story she'd tell of my origins, before letting anyone see me. How my mother had been a pure and innocent virgin, raped by a sea monster, and I was the product of that wicked union. Poor wicked Abigail, cursed by her mother's fate to be a monster, if a beautiful one, never truly human, barred from Heaven by not having a fully human soul... Silly story, but it kept them happy, back when rational, modern men still believed in that kind of thing. The reactions I got from new clients..." She tugs a strand of hair out, and examines it between her fingers. "One couldn't get away with that these days. But there's a place for everyone, if not necessarily the place we started from. Wouldn't you say that's true?"

"I'm not working for Fire anymore. These things happen." I'm not sure what answers she's looking for here, and it frustrates me that I can't read her well enough to play my part in the script. Or maybe I just can't play it when Nik has censored a swath of my options. For the first time in months, I wish the Kyriotate wasn't here to watch me. "You used to go by Abigail?"

"It's not far from my true name. I use Al these days, which is close in another way. When I have human clients I don't need to meet, it makes them feel better to believe they're dealing with a man. As if a little dangling handle for Lust should make a person more reliable than the matching hole." The Calabite sighs, a delicate little sound, and relaxes in her chair. "But then, humans have never been very bright. Even compared to our Band and how we're judged. No one expects us to be...clever."

"Could be worse," I say, and lean back in my own chair, one hand on the pocket where Nik waits and shivers. "We could be Habbalah. No one expects them to be sane."

"True!" Al who's been called Abigail laughs like she means it. "You've dealt with them in the past, then?"

I don't quite flinch at the memory. Memories. This is not a good time for a trip down memory lane, not while I'm being polite but not-interested to a friendly Calabite with a jealous Kyriotate in my pocket and heavy weaponry right outside the door. This is what one calls a delicate situation. But I can hold out until Ferro's picked up our shopping list of supplies. "Hasn't everyone?"