The child's jawbone, a smooth fragment tinted green by long years of immersion, bobbed in the glass jar. Marla watched intently, her question still hanging in the air like a cold exhalation. She sat at her rickety kitchen table, oblivious to the stink of old food in the garbage and the buzz of flies around the overhead light. She pressed her fingertips into the jar's sides so hard her knuckles ached, waiting for an answer.
"Haruspex." The word whispered and bubbled, and the floating jaw sank to the jar's bottom, the baby teeth clinking gently on impact.
"Yes," Marla said, and closed her eyes, remembering black-flecked entrails piled messily in a succession of front yards, alleyways, and darkened houses.
Marla opened her carved wooden wardrobe, decorated with vines and snakes. The doors creaked as they opened, revealing a single garment hung on a wooden hook. Harsh geometric patterns hacked into the wardrobe's inner walls glowed blue, then faded. She took down the velvet cloak, emperor-purple lining inside, virgin-snow white outside. She fastened it around her throat with a silver stag-beetle pin, mandibles pointed down. She closed the cloak, became a white ghost. Opened it, purple as a bruise.
They called him the Belly Killer. He cut people open and let their intestines fall out, spilling onto a variety of surfaces: tiled floors, cobblestones, weedy lots, raked gravel. The police believed he chose his victims randomly. Marla had seen all his victims, seven in two months, sometimes observing their messy corpses by clinging invisibly to the ceiling, sometimes by looking through a pet policeman's eyes. She knew the victims, every one. She knew the killer did not choose them randomly.
Two things she didn't know: The killer's identity, and what he'd divined by reading portents in the steaming guts of murdered sorcerers.
Marla stood at the bar in Juliana's, sipping a special drink, a mixture made of one-quarter children’s tears to three-quarters spring water. Juliana swabbed the bar in repetitive circular patterns, rubbing a charm against lost tempers and sudden violence into the pitted wood. Noise and smoke filled the bar in equal, excessive measure. Juliana's, an underground complex of seven rooms and innumerable stone pillars, attracted the usual club-hopping nightcrawlers and a small, more specialized clientele.
"I need Rondeau," Marla said. "Is he here?"
Juliana shook her head, her eyes watchful hollows under her thatch of orange hair.
Marla laced her fingers together and let her hands rest on the bar. "I've always appreciated your hospitality, Juliana, and the free drinks—" Marla tapped her glass with one long, unpainted fingernail, making it ring. "—but I won't tolerate being lied to."
Juliana, stalk-thin and sickly, looked away. She had strange appetites, and gratifying them had weakened her. She didn't do heroin, nothing as mundane as that, but she resembled the waif-thin longtime addicts that frequented her establishment. As keeper of the eighth room she had power and prestige, but Juliana had frittered most of that away. She maintained a tenuous position in the sorcerous hierarchy. If the eighth room hadn't been as much burden as benefit, someone would have taken the custodianship away from her long ago. She couldn't match Marla.
"He's in back," Juliana muttered. She jerked her head toward an arched doorway, covered with a heavy red curtain, beside the bar. She looked up, defiance smoldering in her eyes. "You scare him. He hides."
Marla nodded, vaguely pleased. Demons seldom feared humans. Rondeau had gained great power over the years, but he still thought of her with the awe and fear of his youth. Like the way you can tie a baby elephant to a stake to keep it from getting away, she thought, and when it grows up, the same stake will hold it. Even though the full-grown elephant could tear the post out of the ground, it remembers the early failure, and remains tethered.
Marla finished her drink and went to the archway leading to Juliana's infamous eighth room. The uninitiated whispered speculations about the obscenities that must take place there, and all of them knew someone who knew someone who'd been inside.
In truth, the eighth room simply provided a meeting place for special figures, a protected place unobserved by the roaming, many-eyed Thrones who spied on the city's sorcerers, gathering evidence for some future reckoning. The Thrones could be glimpsed in the most unlikely places, recognizable to the trained eye by the crackle of static electricity jumping in their hair and the light that showed from the edges of their eyes, like the sun's corona leaking around the moon during an eclipse, but the eighth room's properties blinded them entirely.
Nothing overtly horrific took place in that room, though the quiet discussions that went on could chill blood. When demonstrably monstrous entities, human and otherwise, plotted things so terrible they could only be discussed in secret, they met in the eighth room.
And sometimes people who didn't want to be found paid a price to hide there. If Rondeau had paid, Juliana would have protected his privacy to the death. Rondeau hadn’t paid, though; he’d only asked a favor.
Marla pushed aside the heavy red curtain and stepped into the eighth room. A small, concrete-floored space, it barely held eight office chairs and a long conference table. Gas lamps burned on the water-spotted walls. Electricity (among other things) didn't work properly in the eighth room.
Rondeau, seated, stared at her, clutching the chair's arm. As always, Marla felt faintly disappointed at his appearance. His actuality never lived up to her memory. When she thought back on her past dealings with Rondeau, she remembered a man with demonic handsomeness, a debonair charm, and a cunning that surrounded him like a radioactive aura. Just one of his small magics, she knew, to make himself more impressive when people told stories about him. In the flesh he cut a nondescript figure, a dark-haired bony twenty-something, unremarkable except for his replacement jaw, stolen from a larger man and a poor match for his head, and his flamboyant blue-and-red silk suit. In films, demons are wisecracking and suave, or sinister and taciturn, but in Marla's experience real supernatural creatures spent most of their time simply trying to pass for human.
"Your jaw spoke to me today," she said, not sitting down, touching the stag beetle pin at her throat. "It told me you knew the haruspex."
Cover — Haruspex by Tim Pratt — Autoanalysis in the Reflective Chamber by Bruce Boston — Alien Sky by G.O. Clark — Speculative Fiction at the Movies: Reviews of Sin City and Star Wars Episode III
Haruspex © 2005 Tim Pratt
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© 2004-2005 Ordinary Press, Inc. and its contributors. All rights reserved.
Shadows of Saturn is a free, online publication of Ordinary Press, Inc. ISSN 1555-1261
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