I heard him at the door. He didn't knock; he would have seen my car in the drive, so he knew I was here, and apparently felt no need to request permission to enter. I sat with my back to the door, and didn't turn around as I heard him come inside, I only raised my glass for another drink. He came into the little kitchen, walked past me to sit at the chair opposite me at the small table.
"Good morning," he said evenly. Properly polite, of course.
"Hey," I answered. "Glad to see you're up and around. No ill effects, I hope?"
"I'm quite well," he said. I saw his eyes take in the bottle in front of me. Unless he had paid particular note to the liquid level in it night before last, he couldn't know how much of that was missing now. He might have reason to suspect, though. "You … were gone when I awoke."
"Uh-huh. Had some things I needed to take care of."
"Yes, I'm sure." His gaze was steady on me. "I was, was concerned, at first. But, your vehicle was gone as well, and there was no sign that you had packed for a permanent departure, so I concluded at last that you had left voluntarily and would return in due course."
"Hmm." I thought about that. "When I got back and you were gone, I figured you might have decided you were all done here. But, now here you are. So does that mean you were out looking for me?"
He shrugged without looking away. "I checked at your place of employment. And at the Howsten Publishing offices, and in the vicinity of Clarissa Howsten's home address … I had some, some concerns, as regarded her well-being."
That brought a smile, but I doubt that it looked pleasant. "I'm pretty sure she has nothing to worry about." I looked at him. "I mean, we killed the demon, right?"
His response was immediate. "I wasn't thinking about the Tlak-mengu." He watched to see how I took that, nodded when I showed no surprise. "Yes, as I said, I had some concerns about Ms Howsten. My main reason for leaving your house, however, was that I had calls to make, and it seemed … discourteous, to use your phone when you were to be the subject of my enquiries."
I took another swallow from my glass, then picked up the bottle and poured myself a few more fingers' worth. "Ah. Very considerate of you." I tilted my head to one side. "Or, you could just ask me."
He sat silently, studying me with that characteristic reserved control. "In time, perhaps. First, I believe I would prefer that you hear some of my findings regarding you."
"I'm all ears," I said to him. "And nowhere else to be right now."
"To begin with, you have not ever undergone a legal change of name." He made a vague, dismissive gesture. "Furthermore, your professional career was just as you described it to me, so you have not been the beneficiary of the excessive good fortune and extravagant success we have seen with the other women. There is, in fact, no evidence of any factor that would rank you among them. And yet …"
"And yet," I finished for him, "your demon showed up looking for me. Treated me as a target, just like them."
Giles's eyebrows rose. "I hope," he said carefully, "that you are not intimating that I was responsible for that."
"Not what I meant." I shook my head. "But go on, you're on a roll here."
"I did most of yesterday's research from my own materials," Giles said. "On reconsideration, however, it seemed to me — and I confirmed it, on checking — that your copy of the Dichaltus Compendium does in fact contain a brief introductory overview of the Tlak-mengu species. That is … an extremely unlikely coincidence."
I smiled at him over the top of my glass. "We do seem to be overflowing with coincidences around here."
"This is not a laughing matter," he said with some heat.
"Am I laughing?" I shook it away. "Look, I was serious. If you have questions, go on and ask them."
He nodded, set his hands flat on the table between us. "Were you part of a compact with the dead women?"
"Not by any knowledge I had or any choice I made." I felt my mouth hardening. "They weren't particularly nice people. I wouldn't have wanted to have anything to do with them."
"Really? They seem to have been well regarded by their peers."
"Maybe what their peers saw wasn't the real truth."
He was right on top of it. "And the real truth?"
I was tired of dancing around the edges, but despite what I had said, not quite ready yet to go straight at the underlying facts. "This demon that was going after the women," I said to him. "The one they used to give them a boost into the high life. What would somebody have had to do to make that kind of bargain with that kind of demon?"
He frowned at that. "A summoning ritual would have been relatively simple, though of course one would need to exercise certain cautions, to keep from coming within the creature's reach." He thought about it some more. "To effect such an extensive, long-term contract, however, particularly one upon which the Tlak-mengu would collect so forcefully once it was able to do so …" He shook his head. "That would require a casting of considerable power and exacting formulation. I … haven't the texts that would provide more explicit information."
"I wasn't asking for a user's manual," I told him. "Just raising the question. So, okay. Fifteen years ago I was already at the newspaper, and when my career goals didn't work out, I made a lateral shift to the morgue. And, working with the archives, organizing them and footnoting them so I could tie things together and retrieve them in the proper context if anybody needed something, I built up a pretty good sense of the overall sweep of things in this city."
"Yes," he said. "You explained all that upon our first meeting."
"Just bear with me. Anyhow, about six years ago there was a brief item that passed through the paper — never got any traction for some reason, there was never any follow-up so that's all there ever was — about some old properties being torn down to make room for a parking garage, and inside the trash in the basement area of what had once been a coffee house, the workers found a skeleton. A human skeleton." I stared into my drink. "A very … very small skeleton. A newborn."
Giles sighed, heavily. "A blood sacrifice, an infant sacrifice. Yes, that could have been used to leverage a quite advantageous contract with one of the Tlak-mengu …" And then he stopped, his face stiffening as his eyes came up to meet mine. "Oh, dear God."
"Funny thing," I went on. "I'd been something of a regular at that coffee house, years before. I was still trying to make it as a reporter then, and I didn't have much of a social life … there were these girls, five of them, just a few years younger than me; two worked there, and the others lived nearby, they'd banded together to make it in the big city, and I had that in common with them even if not much else. We never got close and I never really wanted to, but sometimes it was just nice to have somebody to talk to. Especially when I had to deal with a … particularly difficult personal situation."
"Your abdomen," Giles said. He had gone ashen. "When your robe was open, when you were exposed —"
He'd seen the stretch marks, yes. "Now, this wasn't the Fifties or even the Seventies, there were resources available. Still, I was alone then, and I wasn't coping too well, and I hated having anyone look at me like I was a victim. And Betty said the hospital where she worked part-time had a policy that a newborn could be dropped off anonymously, no questions asked, and they'd handle it from there. You heard about that kind of thing back then, and I think some places still do it: another resource for women who don't feel like they have any choices. So I set it up with Betty, and I gave birth in my little apartment, and I cleaned the baby — it was a girl — and wrapped her up and handed her over to Betty, and walked away without ever looking back." I shrugged with deadpan nonchalance. "And then I spent a year or so drinking more than I should have, and had to give up on my first career choice, and I finally came to terms with things and found a niche where I could make it all work. And then, years later, this little partial news item drifts past me, and suddenly I'm seeing a lot of things in an entirely different light."
"They … used your child as a sacrifice?" Giles whispered. "You're positive?"
"Checked through the hospital," I said, nodding. "It wasn't really legal — confidentiality issues — but I had favors I could call in and strings I could pull, and they're not as militant about protecting what isn't there. Which it wasn't, because no infant, newborn or otherwise, had been left at that hospital within six months of my delivery date."
He'd already had a general hint in the right direction, courtesy of the Tlak-mengu's appearance in my home, but now he was assembling the pieces. "You tracked them down," he said. "And you killed them all." Then he paused. "All but one."
I let that pass. "If you can believe it, finding was the easiest part. It was the names that did it: they had to give their names to get the contract, and names are power for demons, you know that, but they'd figured a way around that. They had it set up in advance and filed the name-change petitions as soon as the deal was made, and the demon couldn't find them after that. Ingenious, actually, even if I wouldn't have wanted to bet my own life on it. But they weren't hiding from the human legal process, so once I got that far, I was able to work out the rest." I gave him a tight smile. "It took me a lot longer to figure out why they'd done what they did, and then how. But, like I told you, by then I'd started to learn some of what goes on in the shadows; plus, back in the coffee-house days, Clio — she was one of them — was heavy-duty Goth, talking about Black Masses and the Spirits of the Interregnum and things like that, and she'd do things occasionally to show off … At the time, I passed it off as stage tricks for the gullible, but that gave me a clue once I knew enough to look." I stopped long enough to take another drink, a solid belt this time. "And the really hard part was finding the right demon: the one they owed, the one that wanted them. That, by itself, took me more than four years."
He was nodding. "I … appreciate the difficulty. But, what sacrifice did you need to make, in order to establish your own contract with the Tlak-mengu?"
"Nothing," I told him. "I didn't have to do a damn thing, and you want to know why? It was because I wasn't asking for anything. I was the one giving service to him. Giving him something he was hungry for."
"The names," Giles said. "You provided these women's current names, and then sat back while they were butchered —"
"Oh, no, that wouldn't have worked at all." He gave me a Really? how so? expression, and I explained, "I turned over one name. And then waited for that woman to be taken, and news of an unidentified body to surface — because he'd sucked away from her everything she'd used my daughter's blood to build — and then I started planting the right stories, and then I summoned him again and passed over the next name."
"I see." He was regarding me levelly, with something very like understanding if not agreement. "You wanted them to know, to know that doom was coming. That was the reason for the stories, and …" He drew a breath. "And for working with me. To continue, subtly, to spread the realisation of just what was happening."
"I wasn't sure who you were," I said to him. "Or how much you knew, or how able you might be to mess it up if you learned too much. It seemed like a good idea to keep you close so I could … steer you, while the rest of it played out."
"Hence the sudden shift in timing," he said. "My very appearance prompted you to accelerate the schedule. You manipulated me at every step." His expression went deceptively mild. "So, it was all of it a ruse, then?"
No. "Yes," I said flatly. "Every part of it."
"But, still, you allowed my presence to disrupt your scheme, at least a bit." He must have seen that I didn't understand, because he went on. "You miscalculated, overplayed. Somehow you let slip your own identity to the Tlak-mengu, and it came to collect you before you had completed your vengeance."
"Actually, I figure Betty did that. She was always sharp, and with the other four gone she'd know it wasn't any of them aiming their demon back at them." Or maybe I had let some of my personality seep into the warnings I'd sent, or not completely covered my tracks in the anonymous tips to police or news organizations … "No, she would have had the most reason to remember me, so I'm pretty sure it was Betty."
"Currently known as Clarissa Howsten." He shook his head. "You must know that I can't permit you to kill her as well. I belong to an organisation, however, which will be more than willing to bring her to account for such a terrible crime —" He stopped, because I was laughing. "I have … said something amusing?" he asked.
"You can't know," I said to him. "Look, these women … they changed. Fifteen years of climbing the ladder, fifteen years of accumulated glamor … or glamour …" I shook my head. "My point is, I hadn't really known them well before, and once they started to make the news under their new identities, I didn't recognize them. I had to follow the paper trail, and the paper trail started with the name changes, and … Do you remember what I said, a little bit ago, about there being a lot of coincidences?"
He nodded cautiously. "I do recall, yes."
"Well, I got smacked with a doozy right at the beginning. I remembered five women, but I found six name-change petitions clustered together, in that same time period. Clarissa Howsten was the first one … but she wasn't one of the five, she had nothing to do with it. Just pure, crazy coincidence."
He didn't like that, regarding me with wariness. "You're … quite certain?"
"I wasn't, not then. And I wasn't willing to take the chance, there might have been a sixth woman I hadn't known about. So the first time I summoned the Tlak-mengu, I gave it her name. And it didn't work, the thing couldn't touch her because she didn't belong. She wasn't part of the bargain that had been made."
His mouth was tight. "And, having ascertained this, you placed her name on the list you wrote out for me. As a red herring. Which … which means that, when I tested for residual energies at the Howsten offices, the positive result was because of you, from your dealings with the demon." (Bingo! Which would also mean his distraction beacon had been less than useless. Not that it mattered much, by that point.) He was shaking his head slowly. "If the last woman sent the Tlak-mengu after you, that means she's still alive, and now that we've killed the original demon, your assassin is no longer available to you." He sat back. "I'm sure one as determined and, and resourceful as you are, could arrange some other means, but you won't be allowed the opportunity. I shall make the necessary calls and insist that wards and warnings be placed about you immediately, and I intend to oversee your activities personally until I know those strictures are in place."
"Be my guest," I said to him. "Only, the thing is … Just as I was getting back to my house, I heard the first report on the radio, and more details have been coming in since then. It seems that Simone Fontenay — the actress, she's built up a solid resumé over the last dozen years or so, I heard talk of an Oscar nomination for her role in Callie's Heart — well, she was killed by a hit-and-run driver while she was out jogging this morning." I shook my head regretfully. "They say she'd been in seclusion for the past week, ten days, but apparently she'd had enough of that and felt like getting some fresh air and exercise. Tragic."
His expression was set, but I couldn't have begun to describe what I saw behind those eyes. "Hit and run," he repeated carefully. "The vehicle used would, would certainly show the marks of such a collision."
"You're probably right," I said. "Of course, the car might have been stolen, hot-wired, and then abandoned after it hit Fontenay. The driver would have had to be careful about fingerprints, but …" I shrugged.
He slumped in his chair, and seemed to … age, a bit. "Simone Fontenay," he said at last. "Betty?"
"I believe the profiles do say she was born Betty Munt. I don't blame her for going with something more impressive; looks better on a marquee." I took another sip. "They'll probably use the newer one on her tombstone."
He stood up from the table. "I shall make my report, as I told you," he said heavily. "My superiors may feel it proper to initiate action against you. I won't specifically recommend that, but I … won't have the heart to argue against it. You clearly fall within their purview: you systematically killed five women, and used supernatural means to bring about four of those deaths, so —"
"Oh, I did more than that," I broke in, looking up at him. "You know I said I didn't want anything from the demon, when I called on him? That's not completely true." I could tell Giles wanted to look away, but I wouldn't. "I didn't want anything from him … but I did ask him to take his time with them. To make it slow, to make it last, to make it hurt." I laughed thickly. "He loved that part, he really did."
Giles leaned toward me suddenly. "Why?" he demanded, voice hard and eyes fierce. "Why do you say this? Why have you told me these things?"
There was something real there, like the first time I had touched him and felt yearning leap up inside me, and it jolted me out of the ugly flippancy I had been directing at him till now. "So that someone will know," I answered softly. "They're all dead now, they're gone, and I want someone to know. What they did. How they paid for it. How they deserved to pay." I shook my head. "What it all meant."
He looked down at me, troubled, the anger fading. "In your original plan, you would have been the only one to know, would you not?"
"I would," I agreed. "And I was ready to live with that. But this is better."
He stood silent. I had no more to say, it was all out there now. "Those above me," he said finally, "will judge your case and … will do what they decide to do. I truly don't know what that will be, but it is, is not what most concerns me now." I didn't look up, but he went on insistently. "The Nietzche quote I referenced earlier … before the warning about the results of staring into the abyss, there is another line just as well-known: 'When you fight monsters, take care that you do not become a monster.' "
"Okay," I said. "Little late to be worrying about that now."
"That is precisely what I fear," he shot back. "These women did a terrible thing, and I do not sorrow for them. They deserved everything that befell them, and more, and I freely admit that I would have been … offended, if they had received only such punishment as the laws allow. What you did to yourself, however, in meting out to them the retribution they fully merited …" He drew a long, unsteady breath. "Some doors, once opened, do not close again. Some injuries do not heal. In following the course that you felt necessary, you … marred yourself, scarred yourself, did dreadful damage to your very soul. This is not a price I would have wished to see you pay."
He wasn't reproaching me; that was genuine regret I heard, and something like grief. For me. We had worked together and fought a common foe and saved one another's lives, and I had lain next to him in my solitary bed and ached for all that had never been and would never be, and I looked up at him and said the only thing I could say:
"Worth it." I locked his eyes with mine. "Worth it, and worth it, and worth it. Whatever it took, whatever it cost, I'd do it all over again. If there were a dozen of them, I'd still be killing." My mouth was stretching into something ugly, and I turned away from the horror I could see in him, but the final words came out low and hard and defiant. "It was worth it."
He stood there another moment, then he stepped around the table and walked past me. I heard the front door open, and close again behind him, and I picked up the bourbon bottle and filled my glass to the rim.