I had spent the morning trying to replicate the smell, texture, and look of ambergris. If you have ever seen or smelled the rotten fish and bile substance found in whale poop, you can imagine how badly my skin stank. Our suppliers had been out of all but the tiniest bit, and I had to make the rest of the pound out of human earwax, fish sauce, and butanoic acid. If you have not smelled butanoic acid, I’d suggest sniffing ambergris first before making that kind of commitment.
The ceremony was supposed to be on Saturday. I thought we had lots of time to arrest the wizard for practicing a world-dominating level-seven curse before it tore the planet along its fault lines. I pulled up in my car to check out where the ceremony would have been in time to see the “ambergris” tumbling out of the locked box I’d put it in and falling into the bright yellow sulfur pile.
We had kept the original ounce or two of ambergris in the sample. In hindsight, it was a gaping error. The resulting explosion lit the whole sky with burning, eye-watering fumes. I was ready for whatever came out of that cloud.
After the burning sky fizzled out, the wizard and I met each other’s gaze. At least this one wasn’t some teenager. Those were the hard ones. He grinned at me, pupils blown out to large black circles.
Then he exploded in a billion, billion...billion? I had no idea. I wasn’t a physicist. I was an apocalypse stopper. Calculating how many photons contained within whatever wizard the Internet coughed up this week wasn’t in my job description. No scientist would ever read my paperwork.
I was retired from active duty. I was only supposed to administrate the real apocalypse stoppers.
And he took my company car with him.
When the apocalypse started, I felt myself getting excited that something was finally going to change.
Patrick was going to kill me. He liked things the way they were.
The cow walking alongside me looked as though nature had squared off her body. If cartoon physics were correct, her cross sections would look like T-bone steaks. The highway I walked beside stretched on ribbons, rolling over the endless hills in the high country. The cow had been following me for a while just on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. Three hours of constant adrenaline had left my fine-reasoning skills somewhat stripped, but I was fairly sure the cow wasn’t a threat. It reached the end of the fenced-in field and regurgitated some cud.
I wanted breakfast too. My back hurt, my shins ached, and the dried mud on the legs of my suit added twenty pounds to each step. My boss had even forced me to wear dress shoes to the stupid meet and greet that had turned into a scream and run.
Another red car appeared in the distance, but I didn’t get my hopes up. Because the high powers above loved to mock my life choices, the last three cars that appeared in the past hour had all been small, two-seaters, and red.
The distant car bobbed up and down on the ribbons. I had a blister on the back of my foot. I wanted to stop walking, but that would almost guarantee that the car wasn’t Patrick’s.
On the last rise, the turn signal came on, and the car started slowing down. Patrick had a meeting with one of the major charm-makers in town. He’d been worried about it for weeks. My job ended when the bad guy exploded into subatomic particles and my paperwork was filed, but Patrick’s job had endless parts to it that kept him busy even when the world wasn’t ending.
Patrick and I had been together for five years, and yet when I called him for a ride at four o’clock in the morning before his biggest meeting of the year, he lied and said I hadn’t woken him up. I would have told him the truth.
Patrick slowed down, inching along beside me. He didn’t stop so neither did I--until I took the wrong kind of step and brought the back of my shoe against the developing blister on the back of my ankle.
Patrick stopped. “Get in the car, Cy,” he said.
He didn’t even wait for me to do up my seat belt before he pulled the sports car into a U-turn. I’d been on a single-lane highway, but the tiny car had no problem completing the circle on the road with its tiny wheelbase.
The silence was worse than the million questions he had every right to ask me. He didn’t ask. I wanted to crack a window to let some of the tension out, but it wouldn’t actually affect the air pressure.
Neighborhoods surged beyond the city limits like massive muffin tops. Some groups’ subdivisions were love handles by now. Calgary needed a bigger edge to contain everything inside of it.
“Have you eaten?” Patrick asked.
“I’ll grab something at the house.”
“I’m not dropping you off at the house. I have to be at the university in twenty minutes. There’s a C-Train station there.”
My feet were killing me. I just wanted to go home, and I’d bought his fucking car. I put my head against the back of the seat. “I’ll get a cab.”
Patrick exhaled sharply. I hadn’t meant anything at all by wanting to hire a car to take me home.
“You promised me you were going to be in a supervisory position. In what role is the supervisor supposed to be involved in a standard apocalypse prevention attempt? You have minions. They should have singed eyebrows right now, not you.”
I reached up to touch my face. Mud flaked off. I would get the car detailed, but I didn’t really have the time, which meant he was cleaning up after my mess again. We’d just had that talk. I wondered if it had occurred to him not to answer the phone when I called. “As far as we knew--”
“Do not sit there and tell me that you have a clue as to what your boss knows. It’s far more like Ms. Gwen to know it was supposed to be tonight all along than it is that this was all just a misunderstanding.”
“You normally call your demon when you get into shit and you don’t want me to know about it. Was he not picking up?”
August was my sex demon. “He said his hands were tied.”
“That’s original,” Patrick snapped.
“He’s never once said no to me in the entire time we’ve been working together. If he tells me he needs the night off and not to ask any questions about it, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Patrick said nothing. He wasn’t exactly thrilled that my best friend was an incubus. Gwen had given me August at the end of a successful job back when Patrick and I had two separate addresses. It was after the house fire, so technically I’d had an address but no place to live.
Patrick and I were still feeling each other out. When I met him, his arms and legs had been too long for his body in a way I found adorable. He moved with coils of energy. In the past five years he’d left his early twenties behind and finished filling out all the way. Now everything looked in perfect proportion.
“I got you coffee,” Patrick said, motioning to the white coffee container in the two-cup holder. It hadn’t been sipped from, either. Alarm bells went off. “What, do you think I poisoned it?”
“No,” I said truthfully. But he would have had to do something to it, or he would have sipped on it on the way out of the city. Patrick hated mornings.
He grabbed it and took a big swallow. “Happy?”
Patrick did not want me to answer that question. Our hands touched when I reached for the coffee. Patrick let go as soon as we touched, so it didn’t become a thing. I took a cautious sip while pretending to drink deeply. It didn’t taste funny. I took another longer drink and kept my hands around it for the residual warmth. “I want to sleep when I get home.”
Patrick gave me his sideways glance. We both knew I wouldn’t. Any explosion that set off a Richter scale had to be reported to people more scary than Gwen. We were still thirty miles out of the city. I closed my eyes, just meaning to rest them.
We’d left the desolate high country road and were in among the morning traffic, caught at the first set of lights into the city. No one in any of the cars would ever know how close we’d come, again, to destruction.
I didn’t want to think about my job.
I looked over to Patrick. I had enjoyed Patrick’s awkwardness. That Patrick, who had been a temp when I met him, had gotten his shit together. I still needed to be picked up on the side of a highway because my car had been melted into the pavement.
Patrick sighed, wrapping his arms around the steering wheel and beating his head against the top of it. “Take the car. You’ve had a worse night of it than I have. I can take the train home.”
“Not after your first successful meeting. I’ll send August to drop it off for you.”
“I would rather take the train home alone than sit with your demon on the ride back,” Patrick said.
“Are you ever going to tell me what it is you do not like about him? He’s done absolutely nothing to you, ever.”
“He’s a sex demon,” Patrick said.
“That doesn’t make him a bad person.”
“Do we have different definitions of demons?”
“He hasn’t done anything to you in five years!”
“But he’s going to. And you trust him with your life! Not me, him!”
“I call him because I know he’s going to be up when I need him,” I snapped back. My mouth burned like I’d bitten down on a spicy pepper. “What did you do to the coffee?”
“I wanted you to be able to feel how many times in a day you lie to yourself.”
“You drank it too!” I protested.
Patrick shrugged. “I have nothing to say to you I haven’t said a thousand times.”
“Oh God. I can’t believe you put a charm on me.” My mouth burned like I’d just bitten down on a habanero pepper. Okay, maybe I could believe it.
Patrick swung into a fast-food restaurant parking lot. The drive-through had twice as many vehicles as were parked. I got out of the car. “This thing you did? Not cool.”
“At least tell me the truth,” Patrick said, not raising his voice. He knew I’d still hear him. I came around the almost toy-sized car. Patrick unrolled his window while I walked. “Why do you call him and not me?”
“I like his no-questions-asked policy,” I said.
Patrick narrowed his eyes. I shouldn’t tell him how adorable he was when he was furious. It wasn’t going to help me, and a lie unspoken didn’t count. I wanted Patrick, the one who would poison me to make a point, and not the one who wanted input in picking out a bedspread. “That isn’t because he likes you or he trusts you. He doesn’t ask any questions because he honestly doesn’t give a flying fuck what you do. Your death would complicate his life. That’s all.”
There were pancakes inside the building and an angry boyfriend out. The choice was so clear, and yet still I wanted to argue with Patrick until he wasn’t angry anymore. Knowing a task was impossible before I started had never stopped me before. “You don’t know him like I do.” I shouldn’t have stood there while my mouth burned and let him berate me at the same time. When I headed to the door, though, it was because Patrick was going to be late if I didn’t end this.
“Wait!” Patrick yelled. “I’ll ride back with your sex doll. You can have the car.”
I turned around at the door. “I do not fuck him!” My mouth, already hurting, didn’t get any worse. The first lie had felt like a jalapeño and the second a habanero. I had no idea what the third lie would taste like.
It was five thirty in the morning. Everyone in the parking lot and dining room of the fast food joint stared straight ahead to avoid the drama. That had been my strategy for the past five years. Good for temporary but not permanent problems apparently.
Patrick leaned on the horn. It wasn’t like him to draw that much attention to himself, despite driving a sleek, red, expensive vehicle. “You really aren’t?” he called.
“Is that what you’re afraid of?” I called back.
Patrick looked down to his watch. “I have to go while the moon is in the seventh house. You promise you’ll be home this morning?”
“When does your charm wear off?”
“Sometime after midnight, according to the label.”
Charm labels were notoriously unreliable, as I’m sure you well know. It could be over by lunch; it could take an entire lunar cycle. They were the cheapest form of magic in an entire magical system, but the only ones I could use.
“What was it, some kind of test to see what your charm guy could do?”
“Gal. But yeah. That’s exactly what it was.”
“It was pretty good. It didn’t have a taste or a texture, and the effects were almost immediate. If she pads her numbers by twenty percent, you can still turn a profit on her.”
We were ten feet away. Patrick could have come to me, kissed me, and gotten up to the earth science building with lots of time, but he didn’t. He drove away.
* * * *
August slipped into the pressed plastic bench and immediately spruced up the joint. People around him sat up straighter, and the food off the grill started looking like the pictures of the items on the menu board.
“Pancakes? What is this, some desperate cry for help?”
“I see your confusion. That call this morning was a desperate cry for help. These are just simple carb abominations,” I said. I stabbed my plastic fork into the pancake again.
“I told you, my--”
“You’ve always taken my calls before, regardless of where you were tied up. I changed my ringtone for you.”
“I would have come if I could.”
“Is that another sexual reference?” I asked.
“No. I really would have gone.”
“You picked a shitty day not to come when your hands were tied,” I said bitterly.
“You always make do.” August picked up the white coffee cup and sniffed the lid, but then made a long face and put it back. “You didn’t tell me you got dosed.”
“I hadn’t been when we talked,” I said.
“Who dosed you, Boss?” August asked in a tone that suggested he knew but didn’t want to say.
“That isn’t important.”
“If someone dosed me with a charm without my permission, it would be important.” August’s eyes were burning red from the inside. He hadn’t glowed in a while.
I took the white cup and gave him the McCrappy one that had come with my meal. “Step down. I just have to spend a day being honest with myself. There’s no actual torture involved.”
“Patrick dosed you,” August said and then looked down. His lips pulled back in a snarl, but he covered it with his hand.
“If you had picked me up when I asked, none of this would have happened.”
“I would have just bought you another day. You haven’t been alone with him for more than twenty minutes, and he’s worried about the two of you.”
August had a way of saying he
that left no doubt as to whom he was speaking about, though he didn’t often use Patrick’s name. I stood up, brought my tray to the garbage, and tossed everything but the dosed coffee away.
“What did he get you with?”
“Truth serum. I knew he did something. Couldn’t just accuse him straight up.”
“It would have shown a lack of trust.”
“But he did something to it!”
“I wasn’t supposed to know about it!”
“You’re a crazy fucker if you’d rather drink something dosed to prove a point you didn’t believe to begin with.”
“He didn’t know I didn’t believe in it.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Go home, try to get some sleep. Be in before noon to debrief.”
“I meant about him
“Patrick? Why would I do anything about Patrick? He has permission to feed me noxious substances. That’s what being in a relationship is all about. Letting someone do something to you that you wouldn’t let anyone else do.”
August stopped. “I’m no expert in human mating rituals that go beyond the actual mating rituals themselves, but I think you need a better working definition of a relationship, Boss.”
“I don’t want a better working definition.”
“No, you don’t want a better relationship. You want your picket-fence future with a guy you picked up in a game of chicken with your boss.”
“I tell you too many things about my life,” I said, going outside. My boyfriend drove a red two-seater, and my sex demon a dark blue one. Both of the cars were in the six digits, but Patrick’s started in the mid-300s while August had more of an entry-level ridiculously expensive automobile. I was the only one with a job I had to pay taxes on. My car was twenty years old and could seat five. Well, could have if it hadn’t been melted.
“You can’t help it,” August said, unlocking the door a moment before my hand came down on the handle. “You’re a masochist.”
“And you’re a control freak,” I snapped back.
August smiled. It was his sex-demon smile that made his eyes burn red and fire spark from the shadows of his face. The sun had risen an hour ago. There should be no way he could turn half his face dark, but he could. “You control my sublease. If you want me to be a control freak, what does that say about you?”