The creatures swayed in tandem with his voice. The puddle hovered in the center, caught. Ronnie took a small canister from his waist and walked up to the puddle. His fingers flickered, very fast, and he pulled a small yellow piece of paper from his sleeve. The paper fluttered onto the puddle, a small Chinese symbol written in red lying faceup. Ronnie uncorked the canister and poured its contents onto the paper in a vermillion stream.
A dark miasma surged up from the puddle and vanished, as if burned off. The nasty fluid lay placid.
Ronnie Ma smiled.
“IT’S AN ANCIENT CHINESE RITUAL,” PATRICE SAID as two medtechs fumigated me with mugwort smoke while I stood behind the salt line drawn on the floor. “Five poisonous creatures to hold the disease at bay. We know it because it was part of the Fifth Moon Festival. The Festival fell over summer solstice and coincided with hot, humid weather and a spike in infections.”
“What did he pour on the cholera?”
“If I had to take a guess, wine with cinnabar.” Patrice glanced at Ronnie Ma, still smiling serenely as two techs unsuccessfully tried to get him to exhale at the diagnostic flower. “We’ve been looking forever for someone who knows how to perform it. Do you think he would come to work for me?”
“I’d say yes. Mr. Ma enjoys being useful. Can I go? I feel fine, no pain, no discomfort.”
Patrice put her hand onto my forehead. Magic struck me. Circles swam in my eyes. My skin felt on fire. I sucked in a breath and shook my head, trying to clear it.
“Now you can go,” Patrice told me.
“Was I infected?”
“No. Just a precautionary measure. Five poisonous creatures,” she said, nodding at the five animals still sitting in their places. “They put all disease to sleep. But once away from them, it will wake up and I don’t want to take chances.”
Good to know.
I stepped over the chalk line. Around me a controlled chaos reigned as the Biohazard team swept the scene, examining two dozen mercs and taking samples of the puddle.
I leaned toward Patrice. “That puddle went straight for the drain. That implies intelligence or instinct. Either it knew the drain would lead to water or it sensed the moisture. How can a disease sense anything?”
Patrice shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m not suggesting you’re wrong. I just have no answers. I can tell you that it’s instinct rather than intellect. The organisms that caused both diseases are simply too primitive to develop intelligence. There are limits even to magic. And in this case, my guess would be physics.” She pointed to the floor. “It slopes toward the drain. The puddle may have simply tried to take the path of least resistance.”
IT TOOK ME FIFTEEN MINUTES OF QUESTIONING TO ascertain that nobody in the hall had actually seen how the attack on Solomon started. Two men saw the Steel Mary enter. He kept his face hidden. In the hall full of street bravos, nobody paid him any mind. The man crossed the floor and took the stairs up to the fourth story, where Solomon Red made his quarters. The altercation ensued there; my present pool of witnesses became aware of it only when the stranger and Solomon stumbled out of his rooms into the hallway and took a dive over the railing into the inner hall. According to Bob Carver, the man landed on his feet, holding Solomon Red by his throat. That got everyone’s attention in a hurry, given that Solomon Red was six feet two inches tall and weighed close to two hundred and forty pounds.
The fight itself was short and brutal.
“Did any of you wade into it?”
The four mercs at the table shook their heads, all except Ivera, who still had gauze up her nose. Bob Carver had twelve years in the Guild, Ivera and Ken both had seven, and Juke was coming up on her fifth. All four were trained, seasoned, tough, and worked well as a team. In the Guild they were known as the Four Horsemen. Most mercs were loners, occasionally working with a partner when they had no choice about it. The Horsemen worked the jobs that required more than two bodies and they were damn good at it.
“He’s good,” Bob said. “I stayed clear of him.”
“He didn’t do any fancy shit,” Juke added, rubbing her hand through her spiked black hair. She was probably going for frightening, with black hair and smoky eyes, but her features were too sharp and delicate and she ended up looking like a pissed-off Goth Tinker Bell. “None of the spinning whirlwind or whip qiang stuff. He slammed Solomon against the elevator and stuck the spear into his throat. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. That was it for the fearless leader.”
“It was a practiced thrust,” Ivera added. “No hesitation, didn’t aim, nothing.”
“What happened after he added Solomon to his butterfly collection?”
“The magic hit,” Ivera answered.
Did the Steel Mary sense the magic coming? That would be a hell of a trick. “And then?”
Bob looked to Ken. The tall, lean Hungarian was the group’s magic expert. Ken had a habit of sitting very still, so quiet you forgot he was there. His motions were small, in direct contrast with his lanky body, and he rationed out words like they were made of gold. “Extraction.”
“Could you explain that, please?”
Ken mulled it over, weighing the benefit to mankind against the terribly taxing effort of producing a few more words. “The man placed his hand over Solomon’s mouth.” He held his long fingers apart to show me. “He said a word and pulled his essence out of him.”
What the hell did that mean? “Define essence.”
Ken regarded me for a long minute. “The glow of his magic.” That made no sense. “Can you describe the glow?”
Ken halted, puzzled.
“It looked like a wad of bright red cotton candy,” Juke supplied.
“Glowing with Solomon’s magic. I felt it. Powerful.” Ken nodded. “The man held his essence in his hand, and then he left.”
“He just walked out of here?”
“Nobody was dumb enough to stop him,” Juke said.
And that was the difference between the Guild and the Order in a nutshell. If the cloak-man walked into the Order’s Chapter, every single knight would have to be dead before he came out.
“Her,” Ivera said.
Bob looked at her. “Iv, it was a man.”
She shook her head. “It was a woman.”
Bob leaned forward. “I saw the hands. They were man-hands. The guy was six and a half feet tall.”
“Nope, about six eight,” Juke said.