A ringing woke me. A ringing that sounded like one of those old telephones with looping cords and plastic rotary dials, made in an era when phones were for talking. A ringing that could cause a state of confusion for a man also waking to a hangover and a room that rocked like a ship in a storm.
I fumbled around for my phone and stared at the lock screen for several dizzied seconds before the synapses in my brain undrowned by Abby’s three-ounce shot glasses informed me that the call was coming from the other room.
I rolled off the air mattress and stumbled into the office. I felt my foot kick something filled with liquid, but my mind was zeroed in on landing my body in the swivel chair at the desk. Once that had been (somewhat) successfully managed, I picked up the antique phone, my father’s, making all the noise.
“Tom?” The voice in the receiver said.
“You just wake up?”
“No. Who’s this?”
“It’s Luther. Not wise to lie to me, you know.”
“No way. You can read my thoughts over the phone now?”
“Upgraded your telepathy to telephonesis, eh?”
“This line is not secure-”
“You must be a real asset to The Assem-”
“JESUS-” I moved the receiver away from my ear. “-CHRIST, TOM!”
“What?” I said with practiced innocence.
“Don’t play dumb with me. This is exactly why I hate calling you,” he said.
“That’s funny,” I said. “Because the phone is my ideal method for communication with your types. Avoids the whole issue of having my brain probed by a mind-rea-“
He hung up.
I felt a little bad, but not enough to keep the smile off my face. It was a rare moment to speak to a psy gifted with telepathy without him knowing what my next words would be.
He called back thirty seconds later.
“Are you going to behave yourself?” he said.
“I could cite you for this, you know.”
“No, you can’t. I’m not a member.”
“In fact, that’s what I’m calling you about, although now I’m having second thoughts.”
“I heard you were looking for work,” Luther said.
“You make me sound like a guy with a cardboard sign on a street corner.”
“Investigative work, Tom.”
“Oh.” Long pause. My mind still in the clouds. “I’ve got a week before for my license arrives.”
“You won’t need a P.I. ID for this. We’re looking to bring you on as an associate.”
“Oh,” I said again, unsure about the invitation. The room was still in the ocean.
“Why don’t we have a talk in person?” Luther said. “Say three-o’clock at Autonomous Coffee?”
“That the place where the nerds and the stoners rub elbows?”
“The very one.”
“Okay, see in the afternoon.”
“That’s in 90 minutes, Tom.”
“Yeah, see you then.”
“I was out of town on a job during the funeral. I tried coming by a couple of times before, but you weren’t home. I just wanted to say I’m sorry about Nema. We all adored her-”
I hung up this time. I leaned back in the swivel chair and stared at the ceiling. I felt like dirt. It was becoming a trend. Most mornings felt like dirt these days. Then again, it wasn’t morning anymore. I checked my watch. One thirty-seven in the afternoon. I took a breath and pulled myself to my feet and went into the bathroom to shower off the sweat.
The office was technically a one bedroom apartment. The living room was converted into a workspace with file cabinets and my father’s mahogany desk and old leather chairs where clients could sit. A Pulp Fiction poster of a samurai sword hung on the wall. A gift I’d given to Nema after she’d completed her first case. Looking at it now, I don’t even recall her ever mentioning that she liked the film. I’d meant to take it down since I moved in.
Nema had used the bedroom for storage. I hadn’t done much with it other than push all the boxes and miscellaneous items to the walls so I could fit the awful air mattress I bought on Craigslist in the middle. The plastic made me sweat like ice on hot sand. Sheets would probably help.
I showered and shaved and got dressed. It was fall in Seattle and from the window, the sky looked like rain. I threw on the raincoat Nema had gotten me when I graduated college. She knew I liked long coats that fell past the knees and I knew she’d spent the better part of her month’s earnings to get it. It had a sort of modern gothic look to it and a deep hood on the back. It was one size too big. Nema said I’d grow into it. I still haven’t, but it fits fine. The shoulders sag a little but my height makes it look the right length.
I gave one last look to the empty little office and headed out.
Autonomous Coffee wasn’t too busy at 3 PM. Aside from Luther and I, there were only five or six other patrons—all characters in their own right. Dreadlocks. Thick oversized horn-rimmed glasses. One guy wearing a multi-colored scarf in the freezing 72-degree autumn breeze.
Looking around, Luther and I must have been the real aberrations in the mural-fortified place. A few sets of eyes gave us quick once-overs before returning to their MacBooks and sketchpads and hemp notebooks. I’d taken off my coat once we walked in and had on a simple long sleeve shirt. Luther wore a designer blue blazer over a plain white tee and a pair of blue jeans, a look that seemed to say, I’m just chillin’, but his eyes were bloodshot and sunken into their sockets as if he had spent the past week burning the midnight oil. He was only two or three years older than me, but his attire and his fatigue added a decade to his age.
I guessed I wasn’t looking too good either because once we made our orders and took our number stands to a table, he said, “It’s been a while. You’re looking worse for wear.”
“I have allergies.”
“Next time you can choose the venue.”
“I’d choose my office.”
“Every time I’ve tried coming there you’ve been gone or hiding behind the curtains.”
“You have to make an appointment.”
“You never pick up your cell.”
“I picked up today.”
“That wasn’t your cell.”
“I’ve been busy.”
He looked like he was going to ask with what? but then thought better of it.
“Well, it’s good to see you,” he said. “It’s been a little nuts these past two months with... well, you know. The whole House has been running around with the hair on fire.”
I said nothing.
I didn’t have telepathy like Luther, but I knew where he was going to direct the conversation next by the way he surveyed the others in the room to ensure we weren’t being overheard.
“They tell you anything about the investigation?” He said.
“Not really,” I said. “They came by the morning after and asked a few questions. Said they’d be in touch. They haven’t been.”
I could never shake the strangeness of conversing with someone who I knew could read my thoughts. Even if they weren’t actively using their telepathy, unless you could tap minds too, you’d never know. If they asked a question, I’d automatically wonder if they already knew the answer. Then on top of that, I’d wonder if they knew I was wondering. Of course, typically, the psy were barred from using their abilities in public, but Luther was licensed by The Assembly and sight-psi like telepathy was generally less frowned upon than touch-psi.
Luther wasn’t anywhere near Nema’s level, however, so he’d have to put some effort into reading and it didn’t look like he was trying.
“You done much snoopin’ yourself?” he asked.
I eyed him. “Whoever did it was…” I trailed off. I almost said was one of you people. But instead, I finished with, “Was gifted.”
“So what chance do I have?”
“I don’t know. You’re the one with the detective agency. But you’re probably right. It’s a hell of a thing. They’re saying whoever shot Nema-”
I shifted my shoulder. Luther cleared his throat.
“...They’re saying your sister was killed by the same gun that killed the Chancellor,” Luther said with more care. “Meaning it was the same person-”
One of the baristas came over with our coffees—mine was plain black, Luther’s looked like Christmas and diabetes.
She gave me a polite smile and said, “If there’s anything else, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’m just a call away.”
I nodded my thanks and took a sip. It was good, but not any better than non-organic and non-fair-trade alternatives.
Luther stared at me. “Some things don’t change huh?”
“What do you mean?”
He rolled his eyes.
I wanted to get back on topic. “What else have you heard?”
“If they haven’t told you anything, I’m not really supposed to say.”
He was the one that brought it up. I wasn’t going to let it go.
“Alright, stop looking at me like that,” he said. “From what I’ve gathered they think some wildcat group did it. No idea which one though. The Assembly’s got plenty of enemies. But we never thought any of them had the strength to make a move like this.”
“Do they have any idea why the spiders went after Nema too?”
“No. I’m afraid they don’t. As far as I know in any case. But the investigation’s still ongoing. They brought in some real tough sniffers out of London. Well, you know, you met them. I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of it. I mean the freaking Chancellor is dead. The Assembly’s full might is behind this.”
Or it wasn’t. A likelier scenario was that The Assembly was divided. And each faction’s ‘full might’ was behind getting their own guy into the Chancellor’s vacant seat. And the word “ongoing” wasn’t a confidence booster either. The case had been “ongoing” for more than two months now. But who knew? If they were making headway, it was unlikely they’d share it with Luther and even more unlikely they’d share it with a giftless like myself. So maybe they were close. Hell, maybe they already caught the people who did it and just hadn’t gotten around to telling a nobody like me. She was my sister, but I wasn’t part of The Assembly. Not yet anyway.
I stared at my coffee. “Why does The Assembly want to make me an associate?”
Luther looked relieved to be changing the subject. “Right. We’ve been behind on checking up on potentials and with all the craziness going on, the Chapter House is low on manpower.”
“You want me to interview unregistered Psy?”
“We figure you already know all there is to know about us and what we look for. Making you an associate would be nothing more than a formality.”
Nothing more than a formality because I was already a familiar, someone who knew the Big Secret, and therefore on The Assembly’s watchlist.
“You run down the leads,” Luther continued. “And if you find one that looks like the real thing, we’ll send someone to follow up. You gotta understand, 99% if not all are going to be wackjobs and frauds.”
I took that to mean most aren’t worth the time of a Psy, so why not send a giftless to do the legwork?
“I thought you guys had whole databases of bloodlines to track this stuff,” I said. “Where are these new leads coming from?”
“I can’t go into too much detail before you sign on, but yes, The Assembly has all Psy bloodlines accounted for. But you know how it is, sometimes we miss something. Someone has a kid without us noticing and then they have kids, and before you know it there’s whole generations and family trees of Psy out there that we don’t know about.”
“Sounds pretty unlikely,” I said, knowing full well the extent of The Assembly’s power. Any bloodline unaccounted for would have been discovered decades ago. The Assembly even had detailed profiles on the spiders who rejected their governance and lived in hiding.
“Yes, it’s unlikely,” Luther said. “But the job still has to be done. A low-level unregistered Psy with clairvoyance might only make an extra buck or two predicting futures and betting the stock market. But you get someone with high-level telepathy or psychokinesis, and we’re talking about the birth of a new religion or world war.”
He was right of course. Someone with even a middling gift could topple a government if left unchecked, which is where The Assembly came in. From the moment they identified Nema, I had disliked them. It didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate the necessity of their existence. But could I join them?
“So that’s the job? Interviewing new leads?”
“Yes, it is,” Luther said. “You’d only need to run down leads in the quadrant. But we’d start you off in Washington first and see how you do.”
I wasn’t sure what I was worried about. Unlike Nema, I had no skills or gifts to put to extreme use.
“Lachance is okay with this?” I asked.
“It was the Lady’s idea.”
I said nothing.
“I know it’s not the most glamorous job, but it’ll be good for you. Get you out. Not a bad paycheck either.”
So it was a favor. Lady Lachance’s pity. I almost rejected him on reflex. But he was right. I did need to get out of the office and I was running dangerously low on funds.
“Alright. I’m in. What do you need from me?”
“Come by the House tomorrow, and we’ll swear you in.”
I raised my eyebrows at this.
“Oh, you know. You have to pledge your undying loyalty and all that. Like I said, formalities.”