I gently pushed Valentin ahead of me. He plodded dutifully after Petrakos and I trailed after him. Adrenaline made my hands shake. I took deep, slow breaths, willing myself to calm. I can hurt and kill when I have to, but I am not a brute like Valentin; the fear I had pushed off in order to interrupt the house’s spell was hitting me hard now. I felt like my stomach would turn inside out. I wanted to sit down and put my head between my knees until my body realized the threat was gone, but Valentin would have noticed. The more dangerous he thought I was, the better. Right now he’d watched me strangle a man nearly to death just for obeying his masterâ€™s orders. If he saw me trying not to puke afterward, he’d have second thoughts about just how much of a threat I was. That was something I couldn’t risk.
The hallway was short and led to a narrow spiral staircase with no railing. By the time I reached the bottom step, I was steady again. Petrakos glanced back at me and, I hoped, saw nothing out of the ordinary. I waved Valentin to follow.
The staircase opened into a sort of sitting room. I’d expected that he would have outfitted his offices in a brass-and-oak office, like an expensive English club, or perhaps with the pseudo-traditional Japanese furniture that was so popular lately in America. Instead, to my surprise and unease, it was cozy. It looked like it had been decorated by a favorite aunt, admittedly an aunt with a lot of money and excellent taste. The chairs were wide and well-stuffed. A cheerful fire crackled in a fireplace. The tables were made of blonde wood. The carpet, swirled with bright, abstract patterns, was soft enough to swallow your shoes. There were a few paintings strategically placed on the walls, all showing happy pastoral scenes. It took me a moment to realize that there were no windows.
Petrakos waved to chairs near the fireplace; Valentin and I sat dutifully where he directed us.
â€œDrinks?â€ he asked in English.
â€œI do speak Russian, or Greek, if you prefer.â€
â€œEnglish is the language of business today, yes?â€ he said. â€œAlmost a waste, to learn to speak so many. Two hundred years ago we would have been speaking French. We are here to discuss your proposal, so English it is.â€
â€œIf you like,â€ I said. â€œVodka for him, please. I’ll have water.â€
He nodded and moved to what looked like a cross between a wardrobe and a rolltop desk. Cut crystal bottles were arranged on a green marble counter. He poured our drinks into a rocks glass for Valentin and a taller glass for me and handed them to us. I wondered if his butler would have performed that task, had I not almost killed the man, or whether Petrakos simply didn’t want any of his staff present to overhear us. He took his time mixing himself a darker beverage, something with ice and bitters. He pulled one of the chairs over to us and seated himself. I noticed that our chairs were evenly spaced, as if we were each at at the point of a long triangle, with Petrakos at its apex. I felt nothing amiss, but I was glad I wasn’t drinking anything stronger than water.
Valentin drank down half his glass in a swallow. He seemed to be coming back to himself. â€œVery nice,â€ he said. â€œYour hospitality is always excellent.â€
â€œI am always happy to have you visit,â€ Petrakos said. â€œIt’s been a while. Not since that business with the horses.â€
â€œI get busy. You know how it is,â€ Valentin said. I didn’t need any magic to feel the tension between them, but I couldn’t tell if it was because Valentin was angry about the trap Petrakos had set for us, or something older, some other deal that had gone sideways long before I showed up. I had thought that Valentin and Petrakos were on good terms, and that I was using Valentin as my goodwill ambassador to get at Petrakos. Now I was starting to wonder if I, too, had been played.
I set my glass on an end table, just loud enough to remind them that I was still there. â€œIf you gentlemen have other business first, I would be happy to leave you to discuss it privately, but I’d like to discuss the other matters first.â€
â€œOf course, of course,â€ Petrakos said easily. â€œForgive us.â€
Valentin started to rise out of his chair; I shook my head. â€œNo reason that you can’t hear this. You can confirm that I can hold up my end of things.â€
â€œAnd what is your end of things?â€ Petrakos asked.
I gave him a long, appraising stare. It was the same look I’d give a mark when I was deciding how much I could take him for. I assumed Petrakos knew it. If it made him angry or defensive, that was fine.
â€œAlex Petrakos,â€ I said. â€œ’A man of modest origins, risen to prominence through his uncanny ability to predict the world’s financial markets. While far from a recluse, he has declined to serve on the boards of any number of international corporations, preferring to run his own enterprises. He gives generously to charity and is a common sight at many prestigious social events. He has never married, and whilst rumor has linked him to any one of a number of famous and beautiful women, there has been no proof to suggest that any of these relationships is more than friendly.’ That’s from the London Times, I think. Shall I go on?â€
â€œIs it important for you to recite my biography?â€
â€œAbsolutely. But only the part that isn’t in the newspapers. Here’s more: Alexei Petrakos gained his power through a pact with certain powers. Rumors vary on whether his dealings are with the rebellious jinn who refused Allah’s command to bow to humanity, or with certain still-living gods seeking an expansion of their powers in this world, or possibly even demons trapped by Solomon son of David himself. It’s not really important. What I do believe, based on all I know, is that your pact traded great power for seven times seven years and seven days, and that your time is almost up.â€
My throat was dry from talking. I drained my glass while Valentin stared at me and Petrakos kept a completely neutral expression on his face. Some of the story I’d made up, of course, and some of the things I knew to be true I kept to myself, but there was enough that he would know I knew more than he’d like, and perhaps more than I wanted to share with Valentin.
Petrakos said nothing. Valentin got up and refilled his own drink.
â€œYou will have to explain to me why you think we can do business,â€ said Petrakos. â€œIf everything you have said is true, than what do I have left to trade? I have sold my soul, yes?â€
â€œNot your soul. Your place in the world.â€
Petrakos sat very still. Valentin, standing at the bar, looked at Petrakos, then me, then back to Petrakos. â€œHis what?â€
â€œHis place in the world, secured by his name,â€ I said. â€œThere are powers who donâ€™t belong here â€“ banished, or forbidden, whatever it may be â€“ and theyâ€™d be willing to bargain to assume the place in the world that rightfully belongs to our host. That would be worth quite a lot of power. Seven times seven years plus or minus, Iâ€™d say.â€
All of the lightheartedness and good humor had evaporated from Petrakosâ€™s expression. â€œAnd if such a thing were true, what would you have to offer?â€
â€œA way out.â€
Valentin shook his head. â€œThere is no way to break a deal like that.â€
â€œThere isnâ€™t,â€ I agreed. â€œBut thereâ€™s still a way out.â€
â€œAnd what is that way out?â€ said Petrakos.
â€œA con job,â€ I said. â€œWhen theâ€¦power that holds your leash comes to collect you, itâ€™s wonâ€™t be you any more. And my people will be waiting to neutralize it. Youâ€™ll be free.â€
â€œAnd how do you think you would do this? You have spells powerful enough to disguise me?â€
â€œPetrakos,â€ I said, â€œyou tried your magic on me before. Do you know who I am, now?â€
â€œI guessed who you were before you set foot in my house.â€
â€œThen you know that I can do what I say I can do.â€
â€œNo, I donâ€™t. I know that youâ€™re called nameless, that you have no name anyone can find or catch. That could mean that you have a particularly clever spell to conceal it, or that youâ€™ve hidden it somewhere else for protection. Perhaps inside a needle in a duckâ€™s egg in a chest on an island hidden very far out in the sea.â€ He smiled. If he felt any real humor, it didnâ€™t reach his eyes.
â€œWrong power,â€ I said. â€œNo, my name is not hidden. Itâ€™s gone. Nobody else knows how to do that trick. So I do it again to you, but instead of erasing your name, this time I sort of borrow it. When your power shows up to collect you, the name brings it to me. Then we eliminate the power and give you your name back. Tinker to Evers to Chance.â€
They looked at each other, then at me. â€œWho?â€ said Valentin.
I sighed. â€œSorry. Itâ€™s an idiom.â€
â€œAnd when weâ€™re done, then you go on your way, with everything you bought but didnâ€™t pay for.â€ I spread my hands. â€œAs I said: a con job.â€
â€œAnd what do you get out of this?â€ Petrakos asked.
â€œI want to retire,â€ I said. â€œI have a very high standard of living. It means I have to work constantly, and the kind of work Iâ€™m good at is dangerous. You pay me what this trick is worth and I can quit.â€
Petrakos smiled. â€œCan you? I wonder if you can. You might work less, or perhaps give up more dangerous jobs, but quit the game completely? I donâ€™t think you could. Do you gamble?â€
â€œNot unless I can throw a hex on the game,â€ I said.
â€œHa! Very good. You know better than to rely on luck. But youâ€™ve seen people who do. The ones who hit a jackpot, do they take their money and retire?â€
Valentin snorted. â€œAre you kidding? They turn around and spend it again, on gambling. That is why casinos treat them so nicely. They lose it all over again.â€
â€œExactly,â€ said Petrakos. â€œThe money, for them, is not really something that will satisfy them. It is a token that allows them to play the game.â€
â€œA few of them donâ€™t go back,â€ I said. â€œThey understand that if they stay, the house will get it all back.â€
â€œYou think you will have the strength to walk away from your lucky streak?â€ said Petrakos. â€œWeâ€™ll see.â€
â€œWhat happens to me afterward is not really your problem, and itâ€™s not part of our deal.â€
â€œOf course not. This is merely my advice to you, freely given.â€
It was my turn to laugh. â€œNothing we do is free, Petrakos. Thereâ€™s always a price, whether or not you know youâ€™ll pay it.â€
â€œWell, consider it an advance on what I will owe you, then, if you like.â€
â€œDone,â€ I said. â€œFor all the good you think it will do me, which seems to be very little.â€
â€œDone,â€ said Petrakos. He sprang from his chair and extended his hand. I grasped it; I donâ€™t know what I had been expecting, perhaps something smooth as marble, perhaps a crushing grip meant to show me who was the greater, but his handshake was firm and professional. I imagine he must have practiced on hundreds of important people. People with well-known faces. And names.
I stood up. Valentin looked at his half-finished drink, glared at me and then put his glass on the bar counter. â€œWeâ€™ll talk again soon?â€
â€œOf course,â€ Petrakos said. â€œWe will have to discuss your fee. I understand you are often in England these days? I will be there on business soon, if it is convenient for you.â€
â€œThat would be fine,â€ I said. It didnâ€™t matter where we met next, and we all knew it; this was just Petrakosâ€™ way of letting me know that heâ€™d been asking around about me, and that heâ€™d gotten some answers. Thatâ€™s unusual, unless Iâ€™m letting myself be found. Which in this case I very much had not been.
â€œYour possessions will be waiting by the front door. Do you want me to have the boy show you out?â€
â€œNo,â€ Valentin snapped.
I took a step backward. I didnâ€™t think Valentin would be stupid enough to attack Petrakos, but if he did, I wanted to be well out of range.
Valentin waved his hands as if driving away a fly. â€œAh, to the devil with you,â€ he said in Russian. He glared at me. â€œIf youâ€™re done I want to get out of here.â€
â€œIâ€™m done,â€ I said. I turned to Petrakos. â€œHow will I contact you?â€
â€œCall my assistant,â€ he said. He produced a polished silver case and extracted a business card the color of fresh cream, which he offered to me.
I glanced at the number on the card long to commit it to memory. If he was surprised that I didnâ€™t take the card from him, he said nothing. It disappeared back into its case. â€œIâ€™ll call you in a few days,â€ I said, â€œand weâ€™ll arrange for a meeting.â€
â€œI look forward to it,â€ he said.
Valentin shoved past me. â€œWe know the way out,â€ he said. â€œCome on.â€
I nodded to Petrakos, then turned to follow Valentin. I didnâ€™t look back.