The meeting, second half

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 master’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.

“Drinks?” he asked in English.

“I do speak Russ­ian, or Greek, if you prefer.”

“English is the lan­guage of busi­ness today, yes?” he said. “Almost 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.”

“If you like,” I said. “Vodka for him, please. I’ll have water.”

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. “Very nice,” he said. “Your hos­pi­tal­i­ty is always excellent.”

“I am always hap­py to have you visit,” Petrakos said. “It’s been a while. Not since that busi­ness with the horses.”

“I get busy. You know how it is,” 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. “If 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.”

“Of course, of course,” Petrakos said eas­i­ly. “Forgive us.”

Valentin start­ed to rise out of his chair; I shook my head. “No rea­son that you can’t hear this. You can con­firm that I can hold up my end of things.”

“And what is your end of things?” 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.

“Alex Petrakos,” I said. “’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?”

“Is it impor­tant for you to recite my biography?”

“Absolutely. 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.”

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.

“You will have to explain to me why you think we can do business,” said Petrakos. “If every­thing you have said is true, than what do I have left to trade? I have sold my soul, yes?”

“Not your soul. Your place in the world.”

Petrakos sat very still. Valentin, stand­ing at the bar, looked at Petrakos, then me, then back to Petrakos. “His what?”

“His place in the world, secured by his name,” I said. “There are pow­ers who don’t belong here – ban­ished, or for­bid­den, what­ev­er it may be – and they’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, I’d say.”

All of the light­heart­ed­ness and good humor had evap­o­rat­ed from Petrakos’s expres­sion. “And if such a thing were true, what would you have to offer?”

“A way out.”

Valentin shook his head. “There is no way to break a deal like that.”

“There isn’t,” I agreed. “But there’s still a way out.”

“And what is that way out?” said Petrakos.

“A con job,” I said. “When the…pow­er that holds your leash comes to col­lect you, it’s won’t be you any more. And my peo­ple will be wait­ing to neu­tral­ize it. You’ll be free.”

“And how do you think you would do this? You have spells pow­er­ful enough to dis­guise me?”

“Petrakos,” I said, “you tried your mag­ic on me before. Do you know who I am, now?”

“I guessed who you were before you set foot in my house.”

“Then you know that I can do what I say I can do.”

“No, I don’t. I know that you’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 you’ve hid­den it some­where else for pro­tec­tion. Per­haps inside a nee­dle in a duck’s egg in a chest on an island hid­den very far out in the sea.” He smiled. If he felt any real humor, it didn’t reach his eyes.

“Wrong power,” I said. “No, my name is not hid­den. It’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.”

They looked at each oth­er, then at me. “Who?” said Valentin.

I sighed. “Sorry. It’s an idiom.”

“Ah.”

“And when we’re done, then you go on your way, with every­thing you bought but didn’t pay for.” I spread my hands. “As I said: a con job.”

“And what do you get out of this?” Petrakos asked.

“I want to retire,” I said. “I have a very high stan­dard of liv­ing. It means I have to work con­stant­ly, and the kind of work I’m good at is dan­ger­ous. You pay me what this trick is worth and I can quit.”

Petrakos smiled. “Can you? I won­der if you can. You might work less, or per­haps give up more dan­ger­ous jobs, but quit the game com­plete­ly? I don’t think you could. Do you gamble?”

“Not unless I can throw a hex on the game,” I said.

“Ha! Very good. You know bet­ter than to rely on luck. But you’ve seen peo­ple who do. The ones who hit a jack­pot, do they take their mon­ey and retire?”

Valentin snort­ed. “Are 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.”

“Exactly,” said Petrakos. “The mon­ey, for them, is not real­ly some­thing that will sat­is­fy them. It is a token that allows them to play the game.”

“A few of them don’t go back,” I said. “They under­stand that if they stay, the house will get it all back.”

“You think you will have the strength to walk away from your lucky streak?” said Petrakos. “We’ll see.”

“What hap­pens to me after­ward is not real­ly your prob­lem, and it’s not part of our deal.”
“Of course not. This is mere­ly my advice to you, freely given.”

It was my turn to laugh. “Nothing we do is free, Petrakos. There’s always a price, whether or not you know you’ll pay it.”

“Well, con­sid­er it an advance on what I will owe you, then, if you like.”

“Done,” I said. “For all the good you think it will do me, which seems to be very little.”

“Done,” said Petrakos. He sprang from his chair and extend­ed his hand. I grasped it; I don’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. “We’ll talk again soon?”

“Of course,” Petrakos said. “We 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.”

“That would be fine,” I said. It didn’t mat­ter where we met next, and we all knew it; this was just Petrakos’ way of let­ting me know that he’d been ask­ing around about me, and that he’d got­ten some answers. That’s unusu­al, unless I’m let­ting myself be found. Which in this case I very much had not been.

“Your pos­ses­sions will be wait­ing by the front door. Do you want me to have the boy show you out?”

“No,” Valentin snapped.

I took a step back­ward. I didn’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. “Ah, to the dev­il with you,” he said in Russ­ian. He glared at me. “If you’re done I want to get out of here.”

“I’m done,” I said. I turned to Petrakos. “How will I con­tact you?”

“Call my assistant,” 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 didn’t take the card from him, he said noth­ing. It dis­ap­peared back into its case. “I’ll call you in a few days,” I said, “and we’ll arrange for a meeting.”

“I look for­ward to it,” he said.

Valentin shoved past me. “We know the way out,” he said. “Come on.”

I nod­ded to Petrakos, then turned to fol­low Valentin. I didn’t look back.

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