Hace Matthews. Solday, Pisces 13th, 2351. 8:37 AM. Arroyo Athenaeum (North Faculty Tower – Fitzgerald’s office).
“You’ll basically be playing ‘don’t think of an elephant,’” Fitz said. “If you stumble on an obvious question in front of the wrong person, the whole thing comes down like a house of cards.”
Hace, Detective Wren, and Fitz reconvened around the coffee table in the front part of Fitz’s office on Solday morning. He had spent last night reviewing a heavily edited copy of the Black Lotus case file, memorizing names and faces of persons of interest, as per Wren’s instructions. Fitz warned him that memorization would be the easiest part of his training for the mission though, and ever since the Archives incident, her sense of humor had been MIA.
“I’ve had to lie without lying my whole life, Fitz,” Hace said, chuckling.
“Really. So you’ve got all the answers figured out for tomorrow. Are you an actor? How long have you been acting? What are your career goals? What was the last movie you’ve seen? What did you think of the performances?”
Hace gestured acquiescence and fell quiet. He could contrive truthful answers to a most of those questions easily enough, but given her mood, he decided it was best to quietly indulge the lecture. An obvious revelation struck him: She’s scared shitless about this. His irritation with her softened somewhat. Hard to be mad at somebody who’s worried about you.
“The goal of today is to equip you with the technical truths that will get you through tomorrow evening. The most basic rule of improv is your best friend: always push the skit forward. Say ‘yes,’ or otherwise answer questions to keep the conversation moving.”
“To begin with, I’m going to have you read at least a chapter of each of these books.” Fitz placed her hand on a small tower of books with titles like All the World a Stage, The Actor’s Craft, A Primer to Performance and so on. “That should give you enough to carry a conversation and truthfully say you have read them. Memorize the titles and the authors. Form opinions and write them down so you are prepared to talk about them.”
Jesus. That’s a lot of reading. Next,Fitz placed her hand on a laptop incanter and slid a piece of paper forward
“When you’ve finished reading, you are going to hit the arcanet to watch trailers and clips of these recent releases. Shows and movies. Again, the goal is to just say that you have watched them, but to make sure you can talk about them intelligently, you will read a synopsis of each clip you watch. Again. Take notes to make sure you can keep them straight in your head.”
“Anything else?” Hace asked.
“That’s just your warm-up, Red. After lunch, we’re going to roleplay. We’ll be taking fifteen-minute breaks in between hour-long sprints, so you can say that you’ve had multiple lessons with your ‘coach,’” she gestured to herself.
Hace nodded, but he was taken aback by how much she expected him to accomplish before noon. Wren cleared her throat.
“Before you begin your other preparations, I’d like to familiarize you both with the tools we’ll be using to communicate.”
Wren placed her black briefcase on Fitz’s coffee table and opened it, revealing a set of jewelry. There was a necklace of navy-blue gemstones, a matching pair of stud earrings, a black ring made of smooth stone, and a white ring that appeared to be made of polished bone. Hace couldn’t detect any magic coming off of them until he prodded them with his wyrd. After nearly a full second, Hace detected the enchanted energy.Normally, enchanted objects would ‘bleed’ a small amount of magical energy, but the spells were so artfully interwoven with the materials that they seemed innocuous even to trained wyrds. This is legit super spy shit!
“These are Whisper Earrings. The right stud broadcasts what the wearer sees and hears to the person who wears the necklace, and the left stud allows the necklace wearer to telepathically ‘whisper’ to the earring wearer.”
“I assume this is just for the party,” Hace said. “Once I’m in the Faed, artifice and technology will go haywire.”
“Normally, you’d be correct,” Wren said. “But if two akrasiacs wear this Whisper set, the interference is tolerable. For that reason, Master Fitzgerald, we are hoping that you would be willing to act as Hace’s handler during this operation.”
Fitz gestured ‘obviously’ and then nodded at the rings.
“What do those do?”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a way for Hace to telepathically communicate back to you that the Fae wouldn’t detect; outgoing communications are more obvious than incoming communications. But these telegraph rings can be used for binary communication. Touching the white ring with your thumb translates to an affirmative response, while tapping the black ring is a negative response. The rings are also your panic button. If you touch both rings for three seconds, we will send in the cavalry.”
“Got it,” Hace said.
“Just keep those options in mind as you train him, and I think everything will go swimmingly,” Wren said, closing the briefcase back up and standing from the couch. “Tomorrow, we’ll get you appropriately attired and walk you through more specific mission details. And with that, I will leave you to your preparations.”
Fitz and Hace both stood, exchanging handshakes. As soon as Wren had left, Fitz turned to Hace and shot a glance at the books and incanter.
“Get to it.”
—8:00 PM. (Boy’s Declared Dorm, Eld)—
Hace collapsed onto his bed the moment he got home. His sprint through acting theory and Hollywood’s latest releases, followed by six hours of trying to lie to a woman who could already seemingly read his mind, was the most exhausting gauntlet he had endured in the Athenaeum to date. He had learned a lot, and he was glad she had prepped him so rigorously. But god damn. It’s like you’re punishing me just for wanting to help.
Before he could doze off, his aging, cracked symphone buzzed to life in his pocket. He briefly considered letting it ring, but given the oddly specific timing, and his fast-approaching operation, he decided it was better to be safe than sorry, and answered:
“Mr. Matthews. This is Senior Detective Yvahn Wren. I was hoping I could have a word.”
“Oh! Uh. Good evening, detective. Sir. Is something wrong?”
“Everything’s on schedule and I just received final clearance on the paperwork. We’ll have five ventures, as well as your mentor, monitoring your progress and ready to move in once you give us the signal. How did your training fare?”
“I think it went fine,” Hace said, sighing. “Pretty sure Fitz is still convinced I’m going to get myself, or somebody else killed.”
“It’s only natural. She clearly cares about you. But what about you? Feeling nervous?”
“I mean, a little bit? I feel like you’d have to be a fool to be completely calm, given the stakes. But honestly, I’m more excited than anything.”
“That’s very good to hear. I’m reaching out because I have a proposal for you. An opportunity for some extra credit, so to speak….”
—Lunday, Pisces 13th . 10:08 PM. Hollywood Hills (Gryfard Nixon’s Estate)—
There was a small traffic jam outside Gryfard Nixon’s house when Hace’s ride dropped him off. Similarly-aged people stepped out of rideshares, limousines, and cabs, joining a line of about twenty kids trickling down a long driveway. The drive had two gates; one at the sidewalk, and one apparently leading to the house proper. Both were open, but the gate leading to the house was guarded by two big guys dressed in black pants and tee-shirts, who inspected a clipboard and nodded people in.
Hace stepped into line, making a point of scanning the crowd. He didn’t recognize anybody from his briefing, though there were a few vaguely familiar faces in the line. People he’d seen in commercials, or possibly symvision shows. Then again, I don’t watch a lot of symvision. Even fewer movies. These people could be super famous and I’d have no clue.
In about three minutes, he was at the head of the line. He greeted one of the guards, a muscular Black dude wearing a pair of mirrored silver-dollar shades.
“I’m new. Here on behalf of Glianna Garfield,” Hace said.
The bouncer frowned.
“Glianna’s dead, man.”
Hace did his best to look desperate.
“I know, but I heard about the salon through her.”
The sides of his head flashed with tension. Not outright pain, but the sort of discomfort that prefaced irreversible injuries. That’s about as far as I can stretch that truth. Before he could think of something else to say the bouncer continued:
“You’re supposed to come with the person who recommends you on your first time.”
“I know, but like you said, she’s dead. What was I supposed to do?”
“You know anybody else here?”
“No. But she—” Hace’s voice caught before he could claim that Glianna had given him the lims. Instead, he held up a hand, reached into his jacket, and extracted the bag of lims. “Look. I already have my party favors. I just want to audition.”
The bouncer sighed heavily, then gestured for him to shut up, and called to a girl two spaces behind Hace in line, chatting with another girl.
The girl apologized to her friend and flounced forward.
“He’s new. Sponsor couldn’t make it. Can you show him the ropes?”
The girl looked up at Hace and a smile like a slow burn spread across her face. She was incredibly cute. A pixie-petite Latina who stood about five-five. Her hair—done up in two small buns with long, symmetrical bangs framing her face—and her eyes—almost cartoonishly large and long-lashed—were glamoured in a matching magenta-to-violet gradient. She wore black leather pants, and a white, midriff-baring, off-the-shoulder crop top.
“Definitely” she enunciated with naughtiness.
“Oh my god, you’re a life-saver,” Hace said, then emanated lustful thanks: “And I am extremely grateful.”
“Hace. Stay focused.” The weight of Fitz’s warning voice in his mind gave him an instant migraine. I get it! Fuck! Hace repeatedly tapped the ring on his right hand with his thumb to signal emphatic acknowledgment. Do you want me to play the part or not?
Cheva presented her arm, Hace took it, and they started to make their way to the door.Beyond the upper driveway gate, Nixon’s house had a circular drive filled to capacity with expensive and exotic cars. The building looked like a house as designed by a supercar manufacturer; all sleek steel, smooth concrete, and needlessly angular edges with lots of glass.
“Are you an actor?” Cheva asked.
Ha, right now? Definitely. Hace gestured the affirmative:
“My name’s Hace Matthews. And like, I say I’m an actor, but. Well. I mean, I’m very new. I literally just had my first acting lessons the other day, but my coach thinks I have what it takes. She’s new too though, from the Bay Area, so maybe she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But I feel like I was born for this.”
“You certainly have the face for it,” Cheva said. “If you have trouble landing work, I can definitely set you up with some modeling gigs. Just never do any porn, no matter how good the money is. Totally destroys your chances. I know two girls who got glamoured up and used stage names, but no agency or studio will touch them now. It’s like they can smell it by just looking at their headshots.”
“Good to know,” Hace chuckled. “You an actress too?”
“Commercials mostly, so far. But my mentor is getting me into talks for a Hallmark rom-com. Not exactly prestigious, but it’s a decent money and a foot in the door.”
They came to the door where a guard, even bigger than the pair out front, was waiting. Hace spied the outlines of a shoulder holster beneath his too-tight black suit. He nodded politely at Cheva as they walked in.
The front doors opened to a gallery-like space dominated by nude art. A massive black and white picture of a buxom woman reclining in ribbons of film hung beneath the balcony of a second story. Pedestals with similarly risqué statues and busts in marble and bronze dotted the ground floor. I wonder if wealth is drawn to tackiness, or money actively erodes your sense of taste.
The first thing Hace noticed were the masks. Most of the older attendees—judging by their builds—wore black and gold enamel masks in the shapes of animal faces. Well, fuck. That’s going to make eyeballing people difficult. There were also a few slightly younger figures wearing white rabbit masks. Unmasked, uniformed servers ferried champagne and hors d’oeuvres to people mingling in the space as a small classical band of young people played an acoustic cover of “Come As You Are.”
Everyone was dressed to the nines. Jewelry. Designer label clothing and accessories. In the space of a minute, Hace beheld more wealth than he had ever seen in one place in his entire life. And I’ve been to the Valmont Estate’s ball five times. The LAKF had dressed him in a tailored midnight blue suit with black accents, a French cuffed shirt, and a smart tie, and he still felt nakedly under-dressed. People can smell poverty. And they will use it against you if they get the chance.
“Quite a party,” Hace said.
“Yeah, Nixon always goes all out,” Cheva said. She plucked two champagne flutes off a waiter’s tray, handed one to Hace, and offered a toast. “Clinkies!”
Hace obliged, but only pretended to drink.
“Did it occur to you that the drinks at a Hollywood rape party might be drugged?” Fitz’s voice asked. Again, Hace tapped his right-handed ring with his thumb to indicate the affirmative. Give me some fucking credit, Teach. Hace turned to Cheva:
“So this sounds dumb, but I don’t actually know the uh, protocol. Aside from like, meeting people and auditioning for spot on the Salon list.”
“Don’t stress too much about the audition. Like, obviously, give it your best—the better you do the more it will help you—but if you get in the door, you pretty much get on the list. Unless you do something to offend somebody. Then you wind up on a different list.”
“Gotcha. The people in the masks are the mentors, right?”
“The black and gold masks are mentors, yeah. The white rabbit masks are chaperones. This first part of the salon is the most useful, really. Talk to as many people as you can while being polite. The mentors, but also other proteges. Helps to have friends in this city, the more the better. Don’t interrupt any other conversations, but don’t be shy either.”
Hace nodded and asked Cheva to continue.
“Around eleven, the party starts to get intimate. If anybody with a mask taps you on the shoulder, follow them, and just… do what they say. That simple. It isn’t always fun, but it really isn’t as bad as people make it out to be.”
I really hope I don’t have to blow some dude to keep my cover. The plan, if Hace was approached for sex, was to act coy and lead the mentor into a private room, sedate them with magic, and wait out the party until the auditions started. The plan got considerably murkier if the mentor made a fuss when Hace requested privacy.
Fortunately, he had access to six anima for the first time in his life. His licenses were disguised to look like normal asfalis dress licenses featuring only one slot apiece, but two more were hidden inside the cuffs. The two visible anima were both gyves; flexible power that he could put to barriers, bindings, or almost anything. Two were specially made anima for sedation; fast acting and long-lasting. The last two orbs were electric and metaphysical respectively. The undercover licenses also dampened his truly monstrous ambient wyrd to merely above-average.
“And the auditions?”
“The auditions happen at midnight. The chaperones will make an announcement, and they’ll show you where to take the lims. If you’re ‘entertaining’ somebody when the announcement is made, finish up with them first, then find the chaperones.”
“Roger that. Could you uh, introduce me to some people?”
Cheva took another sip of champagne and took stock of the room, then nodded toward a large man wearing an impressive, snarling lion mask. He was speaking to one of the younger women in the white rabbit masks. As Hace watched, he realized that the masks had a mild glamor enchantment to make their hollows and eyeholes obscured by an impenetrable swirling darkness. Illegal magic for personal use. Permitted for movies though, and easy enough for people to obtain.
“Let’s go talk to Mr. Lion,” Cheva said, then added: “Always address mentors by their mask animals. Mr. Lion is Nixon, but using a mentor’s real name is strictly against the rules. Well. Some people don’t care, but others really do.”
Cheva stood by with Hace as Nixon finished his conversation, and then stepped forward when he beckoned her for a hug.
“Cheva, my jewel. How are you?”
“Very well, Mr. Lion.” She kissed the maned cheek of his mask. “I’ve found you a Salon virgin, who was very eager to express his thanks. Hace? Meet Mr. Lion.”
“It’s a pleasure sir,” Hace said and made a gallant bow.
“Ah. It is so refreshing to see young people with a sense of decorum,” He turned to Cheva and pointed at Hace. “People often ask me, what makes a leading man? And yes, there are many answers. Charisma, character, but really, it is decorum that makes a man.”
Fitz emanated revulsion and made a retching noise in Hace’s head. But I see an opportunity. This guy loves to talk.
“What do you mean by that, sir?” Hace asked.
“I’ll let you gentlemen get better acquainted,” Cheva said, and dipped out before she had to endure the ensuing lecture.
“Decorum, my boy, is the ability to read a room, and act appropriately. It sounds simple enough, but it is everything in this business, and everything in any enterprise worth pursuing.”
“I’m not sure I’d say I’m that astute,” Hace demurred.
“Nonsense! You are new. It is impossible to read the room. So what do you do? You look to your seniors. You make friends. You are polite. That is absolutely good decorum. Tell me, what is your craft?”
“I’m an actor, sir,” Hace said. “Well. Aspiring actor, I should say.”
“See? Like I said. Leading man material. Where do you study? Or rather, what is your current occupation?”
“I have a private coach. And I’m still a student, like you guessed.”
“No, that’s good. I was going to say, it’s a pity you’re getting such a late start, because with those looks you could have already had quite the career!”
“Gee. I wonder if he likes them young,” Fitz muttered.
“You are entirely too kind,” Hace said. “I have to say though, I worry I’ve chosen a bad time to break into the industry. What with Glianna, I mean…” Hace shook his head and sighed.
“Positively dreadful business. She was actually a member of the Salon, did you know?”
“Yes! I heard of the Salon through her.”
Intense discomfort squeezed Hace’s head again, though it was slightly milder than the first time.
“Were you friends?” Nixon asked.
“We weren’t close. But I’ve seen almost everything she’s been in. She was actually the one who actually got me interested in acting.”
“Careful, Red. Don’t get cute, and don’t volunteer what you don’t need to.” Fitz scolded. Hace tapped his white ring.
“Well, I am sorry for your loss. She was a wonderful girl. Very passionate,” Nixon said. After a respectful pause he inclined his head to Hace. “I’m afraid I must excuse myself for a while; many hands to shake, many people to see. Again, decorum. But please, find me later tonight. I think I might be able to give you a bit of a head start.”
“I will, sir. Thank you very much!”
Hace continued to drift through the party taking faux-sips of champagne. He did his best to eyeball each attendee—the necklace Fitz was wearing was capable of recording up to four hours of video, and he wanted to give the LAKF as much material as they could possibly use. He thoroughly explored the obviously public areas of Nixon’s house. There were more thugs standing at attention by certain hallways that appeared to lead deeper into the house, though he noticed that mentors and chaperones could pass through without comment.
Who the hell are these chaperones anyway? They were all women, so far as Hace had seen. From what he could see, they were younger than the mentors, but older than all of the proteges. Of everybody, they were the most detached from the party. For the most part, they stood observing, out of the way, or glided around whispering to mentors and giving staff instructions.
Hace eyed them carefully and weighed the benefits of approaching one for conversation when a familiar name snagged his attention.
“I heard they’ve already replaced Glianna in Final Girl.”
Hace turned to spy a trio of girls. Blonde. Brunette. Redhead. It’s like a bar joke. The brunette was the oldest of the group; a tall young woman in a black cocktail dress who was around Hace’s age, give or take a year. The redhead was similarly aged, and wore flowy black pants with a gold halter. The blonde… looked uncomfortably young. She wore a skirt and top comprised of interlinking blue scarves, imitating waves. An extra long scarf was coiled around her shoulders and wrists, hanging to the small of her back.
“Ironic,” the brunette said, looking into her phone.
“Sad, more like,” the redhead said.
“Wait, how is it ironic?” The blonde asked.
The brunette pointedly looked up from her phone to stare at her friend like she was an idiot:
“You know what Final Girl is, right?”
“It’s a horror comedy based on some comic book,” the redhead said dismissively.
The brunette closed her eyes and sighed.
“Okay. So. Final Girl is like… about this support group for chicks who survived horror villains killing all their friends. And at the end, all these ‘final girls’ kill their serial killers or something.”
“Ohhh, that is ironic,” the blonde said.
“I still think it’s just sad,” the redhead said. “Glianna was nice.”
“Do you know who they re-cast?” Hace asked. “Sorry to cut in.”
“No, no! The more the merrier!” The blonde said, even though the brunette looked ready to knife her. “I don’t remember her name, but I recognized her picture in the article. I’ve actually seen her at the Salon before. That’s why I brought it up. She’s like, got dark hair, and she plays the cello.”
“Oh yeah, I think I know who you’re talking about,” the brunette said, nodding.
“I still can’t believe that this curse is killing people, a hundred fucking years later,” the redhead said. “I’m so scared for Ezi.”
“You know Esmine Carter?” Hace asked.
The redhead nodded pleasantly.
“We had the same acting coach. Ezi’s super talented. I’m usually not big on procedurals, but I actually really like her in M&M. And now I hear the showrunners are already talking about ‘contingency plans.’ And she isn’t even dead yet.”
“Oh my god. That’s awful,” Hace said. “Sorry, I’m being rude. My name’s Hace Matthews. I’m… new to this whole scene, so the Black Lotus stuff kind of blows my mind.”
The brunette looked him up and down with a smirk, and asked:
“That obvious?” Hace winced and smiled.
“Oh yeah. But don’t worry. You’re pretty. You’ll do fine.”
Hace gestured thanks and asked:
“Do you guys know who the chaperones are?”
“Why?” the brunette asked, flatly.
“Careful. She’s a spitfire.” Fitz observed.
“I was just curious. Like, the mentors are here to mentor, and we’re here to…” Hace almost said ‘learn,’ but settled for “…do what we do.”
“I’ve never really thought about it. I just figured they were like. Staff,” The blonde said.
“Then why bother with the rabbit masks, Kadie?” the brunette asked.
“Oh my god, I just said I didn’t think about it, Aviada!” Kadie said defensively.
“Never your strong suit anyway,” Aviada muttered.
She stepped forward, ignoring her friends’ offended reactions, and grabbed Hace’s tie so abruptly that he had to keep himself from countering as if it were an attack. He sort of croaked in surprise and fell in step behind her, following her to the concrete and grass terrace next to the infinity pool. Even Fitz was surprised. “Wow. Can’t wait to find out where this is going.”
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Aviada asked, exasperated.
“It’s too late for you, dude. It’s too late for me.”
“I’m sorry,” Hace repeated, and grabbed the back of his neck. “You’ve lost me.”
She rolled her eyes, muttered something to the effect of ‘for fucks’ sake,’ pulled out a cigarette and lit it. After a long drag, she offered it to Hace. He had smoked once before and enjoyed it enough to recognize it as an existential threat, abstaining ever since. He declined with a polite gesture. Aviada took another drag, then continued, leading him to the backyard’s railing, away from the rest of the crowd:
“Look. The older you get, the less you get out of this. And honestly, you are old enough to know better. Unless this is, like, your fetish.”
Hace shook his head and shrugged.
“I just heard it was a way to get ahead in acting,” Hace said.
“How long have you been at it?” Aviada asked after another drag.
“Not long,” Hace said weakly.
“You have any credits? Commercials? Ever been an extra?”
Hace shook his head, trying to look crestfallen.
“Then give up on it, and go the fuck home. Look, I don’t know how to tell you this so you’ll believe me but… It’s not worth it. Okay?”
“Why are you here then?” Hace asked.
Offense flashed across Aviada’s face. But she exhaled and nodded:
“Fair question. I am here because I don’t have a choice anymore. I need to make rent. But that shiny big break? Your name up in fucking lights?” She scoffed. “I know I’m never catching that carrot. I am too normal to stand out in an audition, too old to be novel at these parties, and too shrewish to be somebody’s pet.” She shook her head, and added. “Also, Kadie is like. Fourteen. Figure I can at least make sure she makes it home alive.”
Hace considered her seriously.
“Has anybody ever died here?”
“Ask Glianna Garfield,” Aviada said dryly.
Aviada shook her head.
“No. I mean. I don’t know. But it doesn’t look good, does it? Glianna was our goddess. She was ‘the success story.’ And they still fucking…. Look. You’re…” she gestured at him lazily. “Really fucking hot. Like—maybe you’ll win the lottery—but for most of us? It’s just straight whoring.”
“I’m sorry,” Hace said, unsure of what else he could offer.
Aviada gestured for him to forget about it, then nodded across the pool at a woman in a red pantsuit, face obscured by a bunny mask.
“You wanted to know about the chaperones? That’s me in two years. If I’m lucky.”
“What do you mean?”
“The chaperones are girls who’ve graduated from whoring to pimping. Like, the mentors are the ones who run the show. The mentors and their ‘Fair Friends’ have all the power. But the chaperones recruit, instruct, coordinate… Vectors that turn other people into vectors, you know?”
“Forgive the observation, but you’re not exactly selling this,” Hace said, smirking. “Not much of a vector.”
Aviada laughed. Hace liked her. Already. A lot.
“I invited Aspen. The redhead. And she invited Kadie.” Aviada said, voice tinged with regret. She stared at the city lights for a long moment then shook her head. “Shit. I’m already doing their job and getting none of the money. All I need is a mask and the fucking money.”
“Who is at the top of all this? Nixon?” Hace asked.
“I don’t know. Does it matter? The fae occasionally mention a ‘producer,’ or ‘the producer,’ but I just figure that’s whoever’s throwing the party this week.”
“Back off, Red. Ask her any more questions, and she may find an angle. Get back to mingling.” Hace tapped acknowledgment via his white ring, and was ready to excuse himself. She seemed to sense it though, and forestalled him:
“You know… It’s not a sure thing… sometimes a mentor will just force you into a three-way… but if you’re already with somebody when the fucking starts, sometimes they just leave you alone.”
Hace froze. Aviada was gorgeous. And she reminded him of somebody. She had this effortless attitude, a punk rock grace about her. And my god, that body.
Fitz’s voice was like an icepick in Hace’s temple. “Hace. I will bring Kimiss Knight your balls in a bloody paper bag.” Hace gulped and opened his mouth to answer, but Aviada simply smiled and shrugged.
“The offer stands. But I’d still get the hell out of here if I were you.”
The orgy started at eleven on the dot. Hace didn’t see the preamble, but the next thing he knew, a thin woman in a horned mask was riding a young Black protégé on a leather couch. Jesus, they are really just… going at it. Other attendees raised their glasses and cried out with celebratory cheers. As Hace watched, he felt somebody approaching from behind. He turned just as Nixon put a heavy hand on his right shoulder. Fuck.
“Ah, Ms. Gazelle,” Nixon said. “She does so enjoy her black stallions. Tell me, Mr. Matthews. Do you have a preference in partners?”
“I’m generally partial to women sir, but I’m here to… broaden my horizons.”
The statement came easily enough; apparently too vague to qualify as an outright lie. Nixon chuckled, emanating amusement and pleasure.
“Is that so? Well. I would very much like to become better acquainted. Indulge me?”
“Oh! Uh, of course. I’m… That’s… very flattering, Mr. Lion,” Hace said.
Nixon chuckled again, squeezing Hace’s shoulder.
“Stay calm, Red. Stick to the plan.” Hace didn’t bother responding with his rings. I’ve got this. He had learned to keep an excellent poker face over the years. Withholding emotions you would otherwise emanate did not qualify as lying, though trying to emanate emotions you did not feel was right out.
“Let’s have a seat,” Nixon said, urging Hace gently but insistently towards an unoccupied leather recliner.
“Could we find a more intimate spot?” Hace asked. “This is my uh, first time. With a man, I mean. I’m just feeling a little shy.”
Nixon’s lion mask stared at him for a second and emanated consideration. Finally, he inclined his head.
“Of course. First times should be special, after all.”
Nixon guided Hace through the surreal scene. Many attendees were still speaking and enjoying drinks, but now the conversations were interrupted by gasps, moans, and the wet sounds of sex. He spotted Cheva enthusiastically sucking off a man in an owl mask, as two other mentors looked on intently, their empty gazes inscrutable. On the balcony, a crocodile, or perhaps a dragon, masturbated as two very young women kissed and fondled each other’s breasts.
Enjoy it while it lasts, you twisted fucks.
Nixon led Hace up the stairs to the second story and turned down a hall guarded by a bouncer, passing by without objection or comment. Hace could hear bedsprings behind the first room, while the second door was quiet. He made a point of looking at every picture and poster on the hall, but didn’t see anything that appeared to be obviously relevant. Finally, they arrived at a guest suite that looked out over the lights of Hollywood.
“A fitting venue for a stunning debut, I believe,” Nixon said, closing the door behind them.
Hace nodded, taking stock of the room, pretending to be awed by the view. It looked like a hotel room. There was a small writing desk with a house plant, a bedside table with a clock radio, and a few novels on a shelf, but nothing that seemed pertinent.
Nixon’s hands fell heavily on Hace’s shoulders. He didn’t quite flinch, but his shoulders did tense.
“Relax,” Nixon purred, and started to slide off Hace’s suit jacket.
Hace complied, already visualizing the arcane syllables necessary for the sedation contract. Nixon started to snake his hand beneath Hace’s waistband, muttering something that was probably supposed to be suggestive.
Just before his molester could reach ‘the goods,’ Hace caught him by the wrist and sent the spell surging into his body, reinforcing the anima’s power with his wyrd to accelerate the its effects. Nixon froze and then swayed as if he had been struck by a hammer. Hace let him fall to the floor, though he could have easily redirected him to the bed. I hope you concussed yourself.
“Nice work, Red.” Fitz’s voice flooded Hace’s head with emanations of approval. He glowed inwardly, happy to have made her proud and took a small but exaggerated bow. Fitz laughed. Hace locked the door, flipped the light switch off, and then sank into the chair at the writing desk.
“And now, we wait.”
—Marday 14th, 12:02 AM—
Time passed surprisingly quickly. Hace made sure to call out every new protégé who appeared on the terrace, which Fitz confirmed back to him. He even caught a glimpse of a mentor who unmasked to go skinny-dipping with a girl who, to Hace’s eyes, looked like she was no older than an Athenaeum second-year.
“This is going to cause one hell of a shake-up. I think that guy’s won three Academy Awards.”
Before Hace could think of a witty response, a bell rang, and a voice amplified by exempt contract magic called out to the crowd downstairs.
“Hello artists and patrons of the Salon,” A few cheers. Some whistling and clapping. “We would like to thank Mr. Gryfard Nixon for the generous use of his property this evening, and hope everyone is having a marvelous time.” More cheers. “At this time, we would like to invite our Salon hopefuls to the wine cellar for the chance to audition for permanent membership.”
“That’s my cue,” Hace said.
Hace closed the door behind him and sent a pulse of kinetic energy to simultaneously lock the door and break the mechanism, so it couldn’t be opened easily from either side. Then he started to retread his steps toward the main party area, only to pause.
“Tell Wren I’m going for the bonus objective.”
Hace answered as he started to move around the hallway’s curve, away from the entry area:
“Wren spoke to me last night. After we finished practicing. She asked me to slip an intrusion shard into any incanters I find. If I can get us into their network—”
“I am going to kill that bitch.”
Judging by the bone-chilling emanations accompanying her voice,Fitz meant it. Good thing Wren’s in a different van.
“Easy, Teach. I agreed that I would only do it if everything was going smoothly and the opportunity presented itself—”
“How is this an opportunity!?” Fitz demanded, irate.
“How is it not?”
Like, literally. I am already past their security perimeter. I have a reasonable excuse for getting lost—especially if I act drunk, or roofied or something. Hace braced for Fitz’s rebuttal. A menacing threat. A scathing remark. Something. But nothing came. And that was far worse. He tried to shake off the chill it gave him and remain focused on the mission. She’s still not saying anything. Part of him wanted to check if she was still there, but the rest of him was too proud.
Better if I’m not talking to myself anyway.