In one short week, Jeff Somers new Ustari Cycle series hits shelves with TRICKSTER (Expected publication: February 26th 2013 by Pocket Books), a gritty new urban fantasy series about a conscience bound mage in a world where blood can make magic. Chris’s review will be posted later today. Be sure to check out the exclusive excerpt below and then enter the giveaway at the bottom of this post to win one of two copies. And if you’re feeling adventurous, click on over to www.WeAreNotGoodPeople.com
from Book 1 in The Ustari Cycle
© 2013 by Jeff Somers
Playing cards at one of Heller’s parties, room 37 of the Starlight Hotel—a desolate hole on Route 1/9 in New Jersey—I felt hot and weak. I’d been bleeding myself a lot, and half the cash piled up in front of me on the table was speckled with my blood: singles, gassed up to look like twenties, fifties, hundreds. Most of the blood boiling away as I cast, leaving behind crumpled dollar bills. I was pushing it, but desperate times called for desperate measures. The booze wasn’t helping; I was thin and half the liquid pushing through my veins now was liquor, light brown, searing.
The room was crowded. Heller lived his whole life this way, moving around, motel to motel, always seedy and off the highways, always cheap. He set up shop and threw a party. His customers came to score some weed or coke, meth or ecstasy, and they brought friends. Working girls showed up like magic, like fucking magic, like there was a wireless network only whores could see that announced things like drugged-up assholes in a motel. More likely, Heller passed the word for a cut of the action. Music played softly, a throb at the edge of perception, bubbling under the fuzz of voices. The room had been transformed. The beds removed, tossed into the parking lot. Tables brought in for cards, chairs set up. Heller went all out for his High Rollers, who followed his game. The whores followed the High Rollers, and the Tricksters, we followed everyone. That was the natural food chain.
People moved constantly. As I sat there trying to concentrate through the distant pounding of surf in my head, the crowd beyond swirled and shifted. Girls in short skirts and torn stockings, their makeup reapplied so many times this one night that they looked like ghouls, their hair stiff and their hands papery from hand sanitizer. Guys who didn’t blink, their pupils the size of pins, still nodding at something they’d heard an hour before, leather jackets steamy and skin red and angry. The swells, in their ugly, expensive suits. The dealers, in their sneakers and jeans and fanny packs. It all swirled around. It smelled like feet in the place. Smoke and sweat and vomit and blow jobs all swirled together into something you didn’t want to breathe in.
The Bar kids worked the room on an honest tip. Or semi-honest. They ran around, taking orders. They were Heller’s kids, recruits. Mostly Hispanic and Arabic kids from his home neighborhood. They came with him and did waiter service and made more money in three nights than they could in a month at any straight part-time job. Then on Monday they were back in school, tired and wired, but flush. Everyone left the Bar kids alone and let them earn their tips and steal as much as they could without being obnoxious about it.
And in the midst of it all were my people. Idimustari. Some of us were just as badly off, just as tweaked out, and just as desperate. But mostly we were better off. A little sallow and anemic, maybe, but clear-eyed and sharp, our little weasel noses twitching, smelling money. All the Normals were our marks. If you couldn’t smell the gas in the air, if the Words didn’t make you prick up your ears, heart pounding, then we worked you, and worked you hard. Some of us worked the whores. A Charm Cantrip was good for a lot of things. A freebie, if you didn’t mind being ninth in line that hour. Bleed a bit more and put a few more words into it and she’d be tithing her take up to you all night long, slipping you half of what she got every time she went to the bathroom with some guy.
Some of us worked the High Rollers. Like me and Mags, playing cards. Prick your thumb under the greasy table and you could win every hand. Be a little creative and lose every hand but somehow end up with the pot anyway. Go easy all night and no one would notice. They were all used to losing anyway.
Some of us worked the dealers, some of us worked the bodyguards, some of us worked the adventurers who’d found their way by accident. We all worked somebody.
No one worked Heller. Heller was one of us. He was just organized. And the booze was free.
This particular motel reminded me of my father, picking me up from Cub Scouts one night after I hadn’t seen him in months, kidnapping me. Literally. He was waiting outside the meeting and didn’t smile when he saw me, just gestured me over and told me to get in the car. I was excited, I was happy. Looking back now, I could see he was drunk. We drove for hours, hours and hours, and I gave up being happy halfway through and just sat glumly in the front seat.
“Hey, hey,” the fat guy across the table from me barked, snapping his fingers at my face. “You fucking sleeping? It’s fifty bucks to you.”
I blinked, my eyes feeling like they were shrouded in sandpaper, and made a show of looking at my cards. “You snap your fucking fingers at someone, they might get bitten off, Magilla.”
I glanced up in time to see him grin and snap his fingers at me one more time. I nodded, letting my cards drop back down. I tossed a real fifty on the pile. “Call.”
I was using a Glamour I’d learned a few years ago to win. It was a nifty little spell, compact and efficient, and didn’t need much gas to keep at a simmer, though I was keeping the wound on my left palm open under the table to feed it. The beauty of it was, you didn’t try to make every card look like what you needed, or try to make every hand look like a winner. It was similar to a Charm Cantrip: You made everyone at the table think you won, and let them supply the details. They just saw whatever winning hand they preferred. It was elegant. Elegance was lost to most of us. Most of us learned rough spells that got the work done but took too long to say, wasted the gas with inefficient rambling. It didn’t take much to study the logic of it, the patterns, and find faster ways. Elegant ways.
The bet went around again, and my mind wandered like smoke. There were six of us aside from the Bank. The Bank had been the only constant in the game since we’d gotten there, an old man with deep bags under his eyes, wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt and paint-splattered work pants. He didn’t appear to be breathing. His big, spotted hands dished the cash in and out of the strongbox in front of him and he never twitched or blinked or seemed to care who won or lost.
The rest of the game had been evolving. The current slate had been steady for about three hours:
Fat Boy, who had a thick gold chain around his neck and a big gold ring on his left hand, thought he was bright because he kept ordering vodka on ice from the Bar kid and letting it melt, untouched. Something he saw in a movie, staying sharp. He’d arrived recently, strutting about in his polo shirt and loafers, looking angry.
The old woman with her hair like a cloud of unnaturally colored blond wire rising from her head had taken her seat at the same time I had, back in the misty past when I’d merely been dog-tired and desperate. Her lips were smeared almost purple, her eyes done up in a thick, dark blue mascara. She played with hundred-dollar bills that were crisp, unwrinkled, and uniformly dated from twenty-five years ago, extracted with ritualistic precision from what was apparently a tote bag full of them.
The twitchy kid in the shit-brown leather coat and sunglasses who was five minutes from stroking out in front of us or going bust, whichever came first, had been a resident for a few hours.
The unnaturally tan, thin gentleman in an Italian suit and a gold watch that flopped sinuously around his thin wrist, face half hidden behind huge round dark glasses, had logged six hours so far and hadn’t had a drink or taken a piss in that time. His lips were in a permanent purse, pink and wet, seemingly unaffected by the height of his stack.
And the Truck Driver, fat and black, with a belly that forced him to sit forward, elbows on the table as he sweated, growled, and moaned through every losing hand. Which was every hand. He’d been sitting there so long I’d started to recognize the different inflections and pitch of his horrified grunts, like a little language of misery. When he lost he would tug on his baseball cap and grunt, and he reminded me of my father that way.
Dad had a lot of tells, too.
I saw the old motel again, Dad pulling the old beater into the parking lot and bringing me into the office with him, like luggage. I remembered him paying the rent, thirty dollars, most of it crumpled singles and fives pulled laboriously from his pocket, and then the key in his hand with a green plastic tag on it. He didn’t take me to the room; we walked fifteen feet to the small, dark bar that was part of the motel’s compound, and he lifted me up onto one of the stools, bought me a Coke, and ordered a Jim Beam with a beer back. I remembered his drink order because I heard it about twenty times that night.
I startled as a roar went up around me, but it was just Fat Boy winning the hand. I smiled thinly at him as he shot me a triumphant look, became for a moment a Fat Man leaning forward with some effort to gather his winnings. This was on purpose; it wouldn’t do to win every hand. You paid a little tax now and then and lost one, and that supported the Glamour, gave it some structural integrity. Some of the bills in the pot were painted with a drop of blood that hadn’t burned off yet, but he wouldn’t notice until later. I glanced at my winnings and estimated maybe three or four thousand dollars. Enough to get Mags and me a roof and a meal or three, enough to rest up and recuperate a little, make a plan.
On day one, the cops showed up, always, usually about three hours in. It was a game; Heller paid off the motel manager, the desk clerk, and the cleaning staff, and then the manager, the desk clerk, and the cleaning staff turned around and sold the tip to the cops for an extra bump. Heller took the cops into the bathroom and five minutes later they left, happy, pockets bulging. They had a system going.
By day two, Heller’s parties had become little societies. Orbital card games cropped up. People started living there, sleeping anywhere, waking up and toasting up and then passing out again. People cabbed over from the city, paying off hundred-dollar meters so they could hang out and soak up the atmosphere, just because the circus came. And we came with the circus to hustle and run little scams and pay Heller a tithe for the privilege.
Fat Boy cut the deck as someone nudged my elbow. I blinked and tossed a fifty into the pot as ante. Fat Boy was still smiling at me. “Maybe you should sit out a hand, Sleepy?”
I started to shake my head, then paused. Was I really going to let Fat Boy fuck with me? I was tired. Three days without sleep, bleeding myself like I enjoyed it. I nodded and plucked my fifty back. “You’re right, Magilla. Deal me out.”
I scooped up my cash and stood up. I went light-headed for a moment, but took a deep breath and headed for the door, staggering a little. The music and voices swirled, and then Mags was there, putting his arm around my shoulders buddy-style so he could steady me without embarrassing me.
“You okay, Lem?”
I nodded. From behind us, Heller’s voice, deep and booming, cut through the noise.
“Lem fucking Vonnegan,” he shouted. “You ain’t walkin’ out with a pocket fulla kosh without kissing me good night?”
I turned and managed a smile at Heller, sitting there at the kitchen table, a glass of water and a closed briefcase in front of him. He was maybe fifty years old, tall and lanky, with a huge belly—the body of a big, strong man allowed to eat and drink whatever he wanted for forty years. He wore huge Elvis sunglasses and his head was shaved to a nice round ball, red and peeling. I raised a hand.
“Never in life, Mr. Heller!” I shouted, trying hard to make it sound hearty. “Just taking the air. I’m right outside, you need me to give you a hand job.”
Heller laughed, his teeth green and yellow pebbles. He was, I knew from unfortunate experience, covered from his ankles to his neck in black and blue tattoos. Heller was shit as a Trickster, marble-mouthed and slow with the Words, but he ran his movable feast as tight as anyone I’d ever known. I turned away and let Mags help me.
There were too many people. Everything blurred together, the music slowing down while the crowd sped up, moshing this way and that. There was no air. It was just exhalation, just carbon dioxide and smoke. I hung off Mags and let him lead me. People put their hands on me as we staggered, slipping them into my pockets and feeling me up for whatever they could find.
I looked up and squinted around. We were in the kitchen.
“Jesus, Mags,” I breathed, “wrong way.”
A skinny boy in full makeup and skintight, low-riding leather pants, his long, silky black hair tied into a thick rope, held a red plastic cup out to me. “Drink this, beautiful,” he said. Behind him people were leaning over the countertops, straws in hand. A brick-shaped woman in a red jumpsuit was hunched over the sink, vomiting so loudly I imagined lungs and spleen clogging the drain.
I smiled at the kid. “What is it?”
He grinned, jerking his chin at the red jumpsuit. “Ask her.”
Mags reached out and put a shovel-like palm against the kid’s chest. Pushed with what appeared to be a tenth of his innate strength, sending the kid sprawling back into the stove, cup and thick brown liquid flying. Then I was in the air as Mags scooped me up and carried me, barreling through the crowd without a word of apology. People dived this way and that, cursing and shouting, but all you could do against an unstoppable force was get out of the way.
And then we were out in the parking lot. The noise was halved and the smoke and smell gone. Mags set me down and I sat on the curb of the paved walkway that circled inside the motel’s rooms, right next to a gleaming black BMW, brand-new, a gem. I breathed hard, sweating freely.
“Fuck him,” Mags said, lighting a cigarette and pacing in and out of my peripheral vision. “That little fuck. I’m fresh, Lem, I’ll give you the gas and we teach them all a fucking lesson.”
I froze and reached up to grab him hard by the arm, pulling him down to my level. Mags squawked but let me do it. “Don’t ever fucking say that again, Mags. I don’t use anyone’s blood but mine.” my heart was pounding.
“C’mon, Lem,” he whined, wide-eyed. “I didn’t—”
I looked up at him. Wanted to cut him some slack, but couldn’t do it. I gave his arm a yank, making him lose balance and stumble away as I let go. “Ever. That goes for you, too, or you can go fuck yourself.”
His face suddenly opened up, a flower blooming, and instead of the perpetually angry big bastard people avoided on instinct, I got that rare glimpse of what a little Pitr Mags had looked like: almost handsome, innocent, eager. “Jesus, Lem, I didn’t—I mean, I wasn’t—” His expression changed again and he was in agony, heartbreaking. “oh, shit, Lem, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. Honest. I’m just tired.”
I felt bad. His desperation to be forgiven ate at me, and I gave him a smile and a nod. “I know you didn’t, Maggie,” I said. “I know. I’m tired, too.”
His relief made him handsome again for a moment, jovial and happy. “Ah, thanks, Lem. I’m sorry, I just get mad.” His face darkened as he returned to the source of his current mood, and he was Mags again, the sort of man who punched walls on a regular basis. “They think they’re so fucking smart, but we’re the smart ones, and they don’t even know it.”
No one was with me to appreciate the joke of Mags calling himself smart, so I kept my smile private.
I looked around the parking lot. I remembered walking out of the bar, my father sleeping soundly on his stool, the bartender satisfied to leave him there for eternity. I’d wandered into the parking lot in my Cub Scout uniform, and the old man was standing there in a white suit, white hair, white shoes. Oldest man I’d ever seen.
I would never, I reflected, know that old man’s name, but I would never forget him. I could still see him, pulling out the ornate knife with the pearl handle and slicing his hand open with a sudden, practiced jerk. I remembered stopping in shock as he smiled at me, and I remembered how he’d made a fist, blood dripping onto the asphalt, and I remembered how he’d risen up, an inch at a time, as he muttered something I couldn’t quite hear. When he was floating a foot or so off the ground, he grinned at me, toothless. And I’d run back into the bar.
I startled again. I was falling asleep where I sat. “Sorry, Mags.”
“You hear that?”
I paused and listened. A rhythmic pounding noise, and a muffled . . . voice. I stared up at the black car right next to me.
With a groan I pushed myself up to my feet, Mags there instantly to steady me, and walked around to the back of the car. I paused to look around the parking lot, trying to be sure no one was around, and then I pulled the handkerchief from the infected wound on my left hand. Infections were constant. More than one of us had died from blood poisoning over the years. You had to let the wounds heal naturally, because healing spells on open wounds usually backfired gruesomely. Something to do with burning blood to cast on blood—it just never worked.
I took a dab of blood on my right index finger and flicked it at the trunk, muttering three syllables my master had taught me years ago.
The trunk popped open, rising up on hydraulic hinges. Mags and I leaned forward and looked down into the trunk and found a girl, hands and ankles tied tightly together. She stared up at us for a moment, eyes wide and shining. I blinked, and she surged up against her bonds, thrashing and bucking. Screaming against the very effective ball gag. Her eyes were locked on me, and stared at me unblinkingly.
Then she went still, but her eyes remained on me. She still didn’t blink. Her eyelids twitched and quivered, her whole body tense.
“Fuck,” Mags whispered, making it a modifier suggesting wonderment. Mags’s sole talents were an indifference to pain, strength beyond normal men, and the ability to conduct entire conversations using one word. He could have recited the entire works of Shakespeare using just fuck with subtle alterations of volume, stress, and accent. Assuming he could read, which I was not entirely certain of, having never seen him do it.
Giveaway provided by Pocket Books
Two copies of Trickster by Jeff Somers
Available on February 26th 2013 by Pocket Books
From master storyteller Jeff Somers comes a gritty new urban fantasy series starring a pair of unlikely heroes: low-life blood mages caught up in a violent scheme not of their own making.
Lem has ethics in using his magic. Therefore Lem is hungry and broke most of the time.
Ethics in the world of blood magic, however, is a gray area. While Lem willgrift his way through life by using small glamours to make $1 bills appear as $20s, enabling him and his none-too-bright pal Mags to eat, he won’tuse other people’s blood to cast. Stronger spells require more blood, and hardcore magicians use Bleeders or “volunteers” to this end. Not Lem.
So when these down-and-out boon companions encounter a girl kidnapped and marked with magic rune tattoos, it’s not at all clear that they’re powerful enough to save her…or themselves. Turning to his estranged Master for help, it quickly becomes clear to Lem that not only is this beautiful, strange girl’s life all but forfeit, but that the world’s preeminent mage had big, earth-shattering plans for her—and he and Mags just got in the way.
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