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Cold Relations

Claudette lowered her infrared goggles over her eyes and waited for the ghost. By the cash register, webs of energy, tinted green by the goggles, swirled in a loose spiral. Spectral lines tightened in time with a throbbing hum of energy.

As she walked closer, Claudette’s hair stood on end along her neck, and the scars on her left arm tightened. She wet her lips as the air thinned. The pair of obsidian capture rings she wore seemed to chill. She needed to see the ghost long enough to touch it.

If you wanted to drain energy from something, you had to touch it. Of course, you also had to be aware that energy could flow in either direction.

The ghost formed fully between one thrum of energy and the next. A stout, bespectacled man with a neat pencil mustache and slicked-down hair frowned at a receipt in his hands. He looked up toward the ceiling, already turning to go.

Claudette sidled into the ghost’s radius, plunging her hands into the center of the vortex. Ice wrapped around her. In the goggles, the heat of her hands dimmed as her life began to ebb away.

Claudette gasped, nearly choking on the prickling chill of the air. Fighting the lethargy, she brought her hands together. As her capture rings clicked against each other, a spark lit the room. The vortex changed.

It shifted from a vortex, drawing energy into itself, to an eddy trapped in one spot, spinning through the same moments. And then, almost imperceptibly, it began to ebb. The ghost’s edges fuzzed. The waistcoat lost its distinctive pattern as the rings she wore chilled to burning cold.

Claudette kept her focus as the ghost’s essence trickled into her until a tipping point opened a flood of energy.

And memories.

Standing at the cash register. Smiling at customers. Looking up and seeing the ax that will kill him. Screaming for his wife to hide. He dies not knowing if she is safe.

The last of his lingering life force settled into Claudette, burning cold.

She shuddered as the final eddy vanished. Reaching up, she pulled the night vision goggles off and the room returned to natural vision. Her arms ached and the back of her neck was tight. Tilting her head, Claudette cracked her neck.

She sighed and walked to the shop’s entrance. As she pushed the door open, a wall of humid heat slammed into her cold bones. For a moment, the heat was a relief.

Outside, her client sat on a folding chair in a circle of salt. It wasn’t necessary for this kind of magic, but government regulations required a salt circle and if she didn’t want to lose her license to practice magic in the state of Alabama, she had to comply. The client looked up as soon as Claudette stepped outside. Even sitting in the shade of a wisteria arbor, her frosted mall bangs had wilted in the heat.

“Is it gone?”

“Yes. It won’t trouble your patrons or staff anymore.” Inside her skin, the low thrum of energy beat along with her pulse. “Would credit card or Venmo work best for you?”

The woman stood, picking up a giant floral purse from beside her folding chair. She fished out an equally floral billfold from inside the bag. “Credit card, please.”

Hands still aching with cold, Claudette reached into her back packet for the small Square scanner and grabbed her cellphone out of the front pocket of her jeans. Her skin felt thin and taut with the energy bubbling below the surface.

The client handed her card across. “So what was it?”

They always wanted a story and they always wanted it to be gruesome. The ghosts usually weren’t. Usually, they were just scared or confused. Claudette refused to sensationalize their deaths. “1930s. White man. Shopkeeper.”

“You don’t know his name?”

Claudette shook her head, swiping the card through the reader. “I only get that if they were thinking about their own name at the end.”

Wrinkling her nose, the woman sighed. “I don’t guess most of them do. How did he die?”

“An axe.”

“An axe?!”

“Yes.” She waited for the screen to tell her the payment had cleared and turned it around so the woman could sign. “It was a pretty common weapon before guns were so ubiquitous. Still you should be able to research him.”

“Well, I will certainly do that.”

If she ever came back here, there would be a plaque commemorating him. Probably maudlin, since he seemed to have been the victim. Claudette nodded and returned the credit card. “Thank you for your business.”

The money was necessary but the thing of greater value was the life force of the ghost. Powering spells took energy. It had to come from somewhere and she could either siphon from a living person.

Or she could consume a ghost.

One of those choices also paid the rent.

Arriving at her studio apartment, Claudette undid the wards on her door and pushed it open with her shoulder. She had a bag of groceries in her left hand, and all she wanted was to sit down in the tub with a cup of hot cocoa. She was always so cold after draining a ghost.

She was halfway through the door, when she saw Rupert.

Sighing, Claudette kicked the door shut and redid the wards with her free hand as if her older brother weren’t sitting in her kitchen.

“Not even a hello?”

“Remind me to rekey the wards.” They were set to let him in.

“Ouch.” He sat at the table and had her cat on his lap. Bisquick purred and shoved his head against Rupert’s hand. “Bisquick is doing well.”

“Are you here to check if I’m taking my meds? I am. Or to ask for a loan?”

“Neither in fact.” He pushed an envelope across the table. “I’m here to repay you.”

Claudette set the bag of groceries on the counter and leaned against the stained Formica to face him. Rupert’s face was lean and angular to the point of gauntness. He had the square jaw and cheekbones of a model but was so thin that his skin always seemed too tight. Rupert was smiling now, dimples like they had been sliced into his cheeks, but it was his real smile. Not the sarcastic mask.

She pursed her lips and looked at the envelope. “You got a job. Congratulations.”

He nodded, tilting his head to study her. “So did you, it appears.”

She still wore the obsidian capture rings, which might have been his clue. Or maybe her hoodie, zipped up, despite the summer heat. She shrugged and crossed to pick up the envelope from the table. It was thick and heavy with a wad of cash.

In the three years since he’d borrowed money from her college fund, she had honestly hit a point of assuming she would never see the “temporary” loan again. Claudette shoved it into the pocket of her hoodie and bent down to scoop Bisquick up. “Actual cash? I didn’t know anyone did that anymore.”

“I thought the symbolic importance worth the extra trouble.” He looked at her pocket, where the envelope had vanished. “You aren’t going to count it?”

“Is there a reason I shouldn’t trust you?”

She scratched her cat under the chin as the silence lay thick and heavy with all the weight of how Rupert had needed to borrow money from his kid sister to pay the mortgage. How she’d had to drop out of college when he couldn’t pay her back in time.

She swallowed and wet her lips. Dragging up a smile that might have belonged to a grocer from the last century, she set Bisquick down and walked back to the counter. “Well, congratulations on the job. I know it’s been hard.” She pulled a carton of eggs out of the grocery bag and opened the fridge. “What is it?”

“I’m a government wizard.”

The carton slipped out of her fingers and cracked against the floor. Viscous liquid oozed out with swirls of yellow. Bisquick headed straight for the eggs, which would wreak havoc with his elderly digestive system.

“Shit.”

“Do you need hel—”

“I’ve got it.” Claudette grabbed a Swedish dishcloth from the sink and nudged the cat away as she squatted to wipe up the worst. She felt queasy. A government wizard. After what they’d done to him. To their mother. To generations of magic users. “So do you kill people on day one, or is that later in the onboarding process?”

“Don’t be like that…”

Furious, she felt the weight of the envelope in her pocket. Her hands were coated in raw egg or she would have grabbed it and flung it back at him. “You literally steal life force from people—living people.”

“Murderers. We take bad people and do something good with their lives.”

Crouching on the floor, she stared up at him. “I don’t want blood money.”

He lowered his head and ran his hands through his hair. “It’s not—and anyway, it’s a signing bonus. I haven’t even finished training yet.”

“And that’s supposed to make it better?” She stood. Dropping the carton into the sink, she shoved the tap open. At her feet, Bisquick licked the floor where the eggs had been. “That you haven’t stolen life force yet. You’re just planning to do it.”

“They volunteer!”

“Are you even listening to yourself? How much of a choice does a prisoner have? Huh? ‘We take bad people and do something good with their lives’ is a bullshit tagline to gloss over a gross misuse of authority.”

He shoved his chair back from the table. “And you’re certain being a necromancer is better.”

“They’re dead.”

“Are they?” Rupert glared at her, the angles on his face folding into a scowl. “Physical bodies, yes. I won’t touch the physical bodies of my donors either. You know what those memories you get are? You eat souls, Claudette. You. Eat. Souls. All I’ll take is energy.”

A cricket trilled outside the window, insistently pushing through the night. Claudette sank deeper into the tub, the hot water lapping around her as the sweet gingery scent of magnolias rose from the bubbles. Bisquick lay curled in a doughy heap on the bathroom mat.

You eat souls, Claudette.

Her cellphone rang on the toilet seat where she’d left it. She wiped a hand on a towel and flipped the phone over to see the number. A repeat client.

Sighing, she picked up the phone and answered it, trying to keep the sloshing of the tub to a minimum. “Brindled Cat, Inc. Claudette Sims, speaking.”

The voice at the other end shook, as it always did. “Hi, Claudette. Benny is missing again.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose, squinting against the frustration. “I thought we were going to keep him on a leash when he went outside?”

“Oh, but it was just a moment.”

“That must be so distressing for you. Did he have his collar on?”

“Of course he did. And his tags. But what happens if he gets hit by a car?”

She did not use her outside voice to say maybe this wouldn’t happen if Benny stayed on a leash, partly because they’d had that conversation before and partly because she needed the money. Sighing, Claudette tilted her head up and looked at the ceiling. Her license was only for small magics and couldn’t be applied to living things. Could she find Benny without his collar? Definitely. Would it be illegal? Also definitely.

Finding his collar, on the other hand, was fine. “Give me a minute…” She muted her mic and lay with her head resting on the rim of the tub as she stared at the water stain in the corner.

She let the amorphous shape of the stain act as a focus and she formed the spell in her mind. She paired it with the memory of his collar and linked that to Benny, who was an Australian Red Heeler with a penchant for excursions. The first time she looked for him, she had needed to touch a blanket he slept on. The second time, she’d needed a photo she’d taken on her cell phone. By the sixth time, she could find him by thinking about his sandy red coat and his erect triangular ears. She knew the way he grinned as he wagged his tail.

She released the spell and burned a bit of energy as she released it.

The memory of an axe fizzed away with it leaving a memory of a memory. She’d once remembered the grocer dying from the blow of an axe. Now she had only her own second hand memory of having once known that information. None of the visceral sensation remained.

It was a memory. Not a soul.

But what were souls made of? Claudette shook her head and followed the spell to Benny. The memory of him she had formed to guide the spell wrapped around him. No one outside would be able to tell that she didn’t look for the collar. It was a polite fiction.

Happy. Enthusiastic about the squirrel he’d caught. The satisfying grind of his teeth against the beautiful round skull.

She scrolled the vision out until she saw the yard he was in and then the street. Shifting slightly gave her a house number. She let the vision evaporate back into a water stain on the ceiling. Cupping a handful of water in one hand, she unmuted the phone.

Letting the water splash from her hand, she lowered her voice to the husky burr the clients liked. “I see him…In my scrying bowl, I see him.” Scrying bowls were bullshit, but very flashy so she took them with her sometimes. “He is under a lavender bush. There is a yellow house and…and a red bicycle in the front yard. The house is—is—Delancy Street. 8331 Delancy. He is in the back yard.”

Could she have just given the client the address? Yes. And also, if she wanted to earn money, she had to make people understand that there was a cost. They couldn’t see her burn energy, so her mother had taught her to act it out for them.

“Oh, thank you! That’s only two streets away.” Keys jangled in the background as her client ran toward the door. “I’ll Venmo you. The usual?”

“Thank you. I’m glad I’m able to help.” Claudette cleared her throat. “But you know, he’s learning that if he runs away, he gets a treat.”

“But he won’t come if I don’t give him a treat!”

There were so many things she could say. But her phone chirped with the Venmo payment landing in her account. “Of course, I understand. Give him scritches for me.”

Claudette hung up and nudged the hot water tap on with her toe. Just a little longer, to chase the last of the cold away and then she’d call it a day.

Her phone chirped again and in the process of turning it facedown so it would go on Do Not Disturb, she made the mistake of looking at the screen. Rupert had texted her. All she could see was “Don’t want to bother you. I have an alterna—”

She sat with her hand on the phone case, gritting her teeth. Then she turned the tap off and sat up. The bubbles had diminished to scattered clouds of foam at the edges of the water. He’d taken her in after their mom died. She’d barely known him. Rupert was ten years her senior and had been taken to the mandatory government-run boarding school for magicians before she was born. Things had gone wrong, yes, but he’d tried to do good by her.

Sighing, she flipped the phone face up and tabbed to see the full message.

“Don’t want to bother you. I have an alternate idea if you can’t, but I got home and can’t find my id badge. I’m not supposed to use magic outside of work during training. Would you be willing to find it for me?”

You mean burn part of a soul? She wrote it and deleted it before hitting send.“Yes. You know what I need. Bring it and the ingredients for a hot toddy.”

Rupert knocked this time. She’d had time to think about it before he arrived and had gotten annoyed all over again. How dare he give her grief for “eating souls” and then ask her to do magic for him on the same day?

When she undid the wards and opened the door, he held out a bottle of Four Roses Bourbon. “I’m sorry. I was an ass earlier.”

Bisquick trotted to the door, tail high with greeting and mrrped at Rupert. Her brother’s face softened as he crouched. “Hi, sweet boy.”

All of the angry things that were cued up on her tongue tangled around themselves. She swallowed. “Thank you. And yes. Yes, you were.”

His mouth tightened into a white slash before he held up a brown paper bag. “This is the best I could do.”

She opened the bag and peeked inside. A crumpled form. A ballpoint pen. A passport photo of Rupert. A silk tie she’d picked up for him at a secondhand shop. Claudette raised her head and lifted the tie out of the bag. “You wore this?”

He shrugged, standing. “Your taste has always been better than mine.”

Despite her intention to remain mad at him, a warm spot of pleasure softened her chest. “C’mon.” She set the bag on the table. “Why didn’t you ask them for a new badge?”

He pulled out a chair and paused with his hand on its back. “It’s…I’m new. They’re really buggy about security and I’m supposed to keep it on me at all times during training.”

“Mm…well you can make me a hot toddy while I get set up.” She went to the cupboard and pulled out the giant economy bag of powdered sage and the jumbo box of salt.

He eyed the box of salt. “You can skip the salt circle with me.”

“And lose my license by performing magic without a mandated circle in front of a government wizard?”

“Oh, come on…”

“You wouldn’t be required to report me?”

“Fine. Then I’ll just make your hot toddy.” Rupert headed to the stove, Bisquick following him like a traitor. “You know it’s 97 degrees outside today.”

“And you know I did a ghost capture this morning. That whole thing where I ate a soul, remember?” The bitter sarcastic bite of her voice slipped back to teenage habits. Claudette poured a circle of salt around his feet, pinning him, and for once her cramped studio was a bonus because she could give him access to the stove and the sink. “What, government wizards don’t get cold?”

“No. No, it turns out that’s a side effect of working with the dead.” He grabbed the kettle.

“Citation required.”

“Google it.”

“Not a citation.” She slammed the box on the counter next to him. “Of course, I wouldn’t have to look this up, if I had, you know, finished college.”

“You can—” He bit off the rest of the sentence and she knew him well enough to know that he only stopped himself because he needed her help. Again. “Do you want lemon or lime in your toddy? I brought both.”

“Lemon.” Claudette scooped out a handful of sage and used it to make a working area on the table. After a few minutes, she sighed, carefully so she didn’t scatter sage everywhere, and looked at her brother. “So blood magic is hot?”

“It’s not blood magic.” His shoulders were stooped and he was concentrating on filling the kettle with more intensity than the act required. “And I’ve only cast once in a training session, but they warned us about the temperature difference before we started.”

“Tell me your only source isn’t them.”

“Why would they make it up?”

“Seriously?”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m not saying the government is all trust all the time, but if you’re going to invent a conspiracy theory, at least have a basis for why they would make stuff up.”

“Oppression has always been popular.” She set the items from the bag on the sage, arranging them so they referenced the cardinal points. “Tell me again about boarding school?”

From the corner of her eye, she saw his shoulders collapse further with a sigh, because it wasn’t an argument he could fight. Wizards, witches, mages…it didn’t matter what you called them, magic users had a tendency to get burned or drowned or beheaded or in the modern day, regulated.

“Okay. Fair. All I can say is that the magic we captured was hot and my physical experience matched the training documents. I have not, in fact, looked further.” Rupert held up his hand to stop her. “I’ve been out of work since February so, yeah, I took the job.”

Out of work again, he meant.

“Well, let’s keep you from losing this one.” Claudette bent down and scooped Bisquick up. “Sorry, old man.”

The cat nuzzled against her as she carried him to the bathroom and set him inside. He looked over his shoulder with affront before settling down on the rug in a catloaf. She’d learned from experience that cats would not stay in salt circles. If she pulled a charge from the room, she didn’t want to risk hurting her sweet boy.

Walking back to the table, Claudette took a breath to center herself. “I’m starting the spell now.”

Rupert hushed immediately. Using her knowledge of him, she shaped the spell to activate the centering properties of the sage and the items. Holding the energy poised in her mind, she unfurled the spell. She could sometimes find things without spellwork, but it was a lot easier when she could use it as a frame… The tie in the north quadrant seemed to shiver as her spell homed in on the id badge.

Finding this was fundamentally different than finding a dog she knew. Beneath her fingers, lines traced themselves in the sage. Not a map. Not an image. Just the spectral frequencies captured in jittering lines across the dusty sage. The scars on her left arm prickled and she shuddered as a memory from the little clerk shivered out of existence.

As she spent the energy, she got a flash of Rupert’s badge in its place. She clung to the vague image and dragged her awareness towards it to where the badge lay in the gravel of a parking lot. She pulled back, looking for an identifying detail and the first sight of the duck pond placed it as North Ridge Cemetery. Claudette let the spell evaporate.

“You went to Mom’s grave? Why?”

His cheeks went red briefly. “Mowing the grass.”

“Excuse me?” She had this image of him taking a side job mowing lawns and couldn’t reconcile it with anything she knew about her brother.

Rupert turned back to making the hot toddy. “I had to let a lot of things lapse, okay, like maintenance fees for Mom’s grave.”

She stared at him. The ten years of difference in their age meant he hadn’t grown up with her and Mom. He’d still been in the boarding school when the laws mandating it had been struck down. He’d chosen to finish his last year “so he could graduate.” He’d chosen to go out on his own “so he wasn’t a burden.” The truth was he hadn’t wanted anything to do with them. They’d seen him only a couple of times before her mom got sick. And she was supposed to believe he’d been mowing the grass on their mom’s grave for the last three years? “Who are you even?”

He spun back so quickly that he scuffed the salt circle. “What does that mean?”

“You didn’t cry when she died. You barely knew her. Why…why were you mowing the grass on her grave?”

The breath huffed out of him as if she’d punched him. “I—Yeah. Right. You know. I tried so hard to do right by you and—”

“By using my college money? That my mother saved for me?”

He lifted his hands and for a moment, she thought he was going to cast but he curled his fingers into fists. “YES! Yes, because it was paying the mortgage or we were both out on the street and now I’ve taken a job with the people who fucking took me away. I didn’t cry? I cried when I lost her, but I lost her a helluva lot sooner than you did. And then I had to be the fucking adult to a little sister I hadn’t even known about until…Fuck you. FUCK YOU for thinking I didn’t mourn her every goddamn day—”

Ambient magic shivered through the broken circle. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end and the scars on her arm tightened. The air seemed to thin. This was why magic was so heavily regulated. Part of why. You had to be touching something to drain energy from it and a room and the air counted as an it.

The wizard would be fine. Anyone trying to breathe that lifeless air would not be.

Claudette held up her hands. “Rupert—stop. You’re starting to draw a charge.”

His face shut down. He pressed his fingertips to his temples, then to his heart, and then pressed his hands together in an attitude of prayer. Breathe in. He held it four a count of four and then let it out, breathing in a slow pattern she’d seen multiple times a day when she’d lived with him.

He’d taught it to her at the hospital while they waited for her mother to die.

“I’m sorry.” Claudette wet her lips. “I shouldn’t have…”

“Hopefully that doesn’t count as using magic.” Rupert’s voice was as flat and affectless as it usually was. “I’m sorry I shouted. Thank you for finding the badge.”

He walked out of the kitchen.

“Rupert, listen, I’m really sorry about—”

The door to her apartment shut with a soft click. Claudette sat in the kitchen with the hot toddy her brother had made for her steaming on the counter. The items from the spell work were still on the table, surrounded by spectral lines of sage. The tie she’d given him lay curled in the middle.

Claudette grabbed her phone and texted. You left your tie.

She held the phone for a minute, waiting for him to text back, then growled to herself and set it down. Cold still had its grips on her. She stood and walked to the counter to pick up the toddy her brother had made for her. The warmth from the mug seeped into her fingers. The bitter, sweet liquid filled up some of the empty places inside her, but not all.

Claudette set it on the counter and grabbed the whisk broom to sweep the sage into the compost bin. Theoretically, she could use it again, but she’d heard one too many stories about spellwork honing in on a residual thread. She lifted the tie out of the sage, brushing the grey-green powder from it with her fingers.

Her phone pinged on the counter behind her.

Clutching his tie in one hand, Claudette snatched the phone.

A picture of Benny the dog grinned out at her with the text. Thanks again for finding my doggo.

Nothing at all from her brother.

It had been two days, and Claudette hadn’t heard back from Rupert despite sending three apology texts and a picture of her cat. Fine. Whatever. She had other things to do and if he wanted to pout, that was on him. She shoved the envelope he’d given her into the cupboard with her supplies.

The application form for financial aid for AU tumbled to the ground. Claudette bent to pick it up, the cursive she’d tried in order to seem more grown-up looked awkward. She rubbed her eye, staring at it. She could probably go back. That was the point of Rupert taking this awful job.

She jammed the paper back into the cabinet.

What could they teach her that she hadn’t already learned on the job? Seriously, go into debt for a college degree when she was already making money with magic? There was no reason to, not if she were content with being limited to finding dogs who shouldn’t be lost and capturing ghosts.

You eat souls.

That was nothing but right-wing propaganda designed to vilify and control magic users. Most magic users wouldn’t do ghost captures or blood magic and just relied on their own energy or did rituals pulling from the ambient magic of places. Which meant most magic users didn’t do magic.

Claudette took a deep breath and crossed the studio to flop down on her bed. Bisquick lifted his head from where he was napping in a sunbeam and murped at her.

“Sorry, guy.” She reached over her head and put on hand on his warm side. Closing her eyes, she cast a spell she knew by heart and pushed some energy into her ancient cat, soothing the arthritis in his joints. As she did, memory fizzed away taking the little shopkeeper’s fear with it.

Sighing, Claudette opened her eyes and pulled her phone out of her pocket. “Hey, Google. Axe murder. Birmingham. 1500 7th Ave. N.”

Dozens of articles lit up, telling a story of four years of axe murders terrorizing the city. Her clerk was a fellow named Charley Graffeo. His wife had lived. Claudette’s head dropped back against the pillow and she stared at the ceiling. He had grandchildren who were alive today.

What would they do if she called them and told them what she remembered? What she had remembered, because the memories were blurring each time she used the energy she’d captured from him. Not thank her that was for sure.

Not help her attend college or pay her rent or keep her cat alive.

Claudette scowled and rubbed her forehead. Damn Rupert for putting the idea of ghosts being souls into her head.

She swiped to text Rupert, “A memory is not a soul. It has no will and no agency.”

So there.

Claudette was hunched over a secondhand textbook on corporeal magic and its permutations. It was full of theoretical spell constructs she wasn’t licensed to use. Nowhere, that she could find, did the authors say anything about souls.

 …The lattice of energy remaining after the dissolution of the corporeal form can be accounted for using Einstein’s theory of relativity…

She should text Rupert a picture of that entire page. Aside from the fact that it had now been three days since he’d left her apartment. She was furious with him, and also starting to worry. He could be moody, but he’d never given her the cold shoulder this long before.

She must have screwed up more than she realized. Claudette worried the inside of her lip and turned the page of the textbook.

Her phone rang. She glanced at it. It was an Alabama number, but not one she recognized so probably spam but maybe a client and Lord knew she needed the work. Sighing, Claudette marked her place before she answered the phone.

“Brindled Cat, Inc. Claudette Sims speaking.”

“Miss Sims. I’m glad I caught you.” The man’s voice, monied Southern, had a slight tenseness to it, as if he were nervous. “I’m Frederick Branson, head of the Thaumaturgy division of the FBI’s Birmingham field office. I’m sorry to call out of the blue like this, but your brother has you listed as his emergency contact.”

Claudette sat up straight. “What’s wrong?”

“I was hoping you could tell us. Rupert hasn’t shown up for work today or yesterday.”

 She swallowed, gaze drifting to his tie, shoved up against the wall on her kitchen table. “He was here on Sunday and hasn’t been answering his phone.”

Mr. Branson sighed heavily into the receiver. “I see. Do you have any idea where he might be?”

“I did a…” Her voice trailed away as she realized she would need to tell them Rupert had lost the badge. That was less of a problem than him being missing. Rupert had screwed up at work before but he’d never been a No Show. “He has a routine of visiting my mom’s grave on the weekend.”

Your mom?”

“Ours. Our mother is buried at North Ridge Cemetery.”

“I was hoping…” The man sighed again. “His badge was in the cemetery parking lot when we looked for him. His hair and skin samples are still being processed or I’d have already done a direct find.”

“How—” She stopped the question as the answer presented itself. This was why he was supposed to have the badge on him during training: so they could track him while they were waiting for his samples to be cataloged. She swallowed the remaining questions. “What do you think has happened?”

“I’m sure he’s fine.” His voice sounded like he knew it was a lie. “I’ve put in a request to get those released post haste. Don’t worry. We’ll find him.”

“I can help.” She stood, reaching for his tie. “I’ve got—”

“I appreciate it, Miss Sims, but we have procedures for situations like this.”

“Procedures. I didn’t realize new recruits went missing that often.”

He was silent for a long moment and then sighed heavily. “We’re a very old institution, Miss Sims. I promise I’ll keep you posted.”

No. She was not being shunted aside with so little regard. “How well do your procedures work without a sample? I’m his sister. You can key off me.”

Behind his silence, she could make out the hum of conversation but none of the words. After three breaths, he sighed again. “I’ll send a car to pick you up.”

It did not escape her notice that he didn’t need to ask where she lived.

As soon as she was off the phone, she grabbed the jumbo bag of sage. Claudette wasn’t sure how much time she had before the car arrived but she wanted as much information as she could get on her own. The square of sage she laid out was not as crisp as it should have been.

Bisquick twined against her leg, mrrping with concern. She spared time to pat him once on the head and then immediately regretted it as his shedding fur covered her fingers. With her luck, she’d wind up finding him instead of Rupert. She washed her hands as fast as she could.

Holding the tie, she hesitated. One object wasn’t enough. She needed to activate the cardinal directions. She placed the tie on the sage in the north quadrant. Turning back to her cabinet, she pulled out the envelope of cash he’d given her. Claudette placed bundles of bills at the south and the east. She pulled out the last bills for the western pile and a sheet of paper came with it.

Claudette unfolded Rupert’s spiky block letters.

Hi Claudette

I am deeply, deeply sorry you had to pay for my judgement. I so desperately wanted to keep Mom’s house that I made a series of bad choices. You had to pay the price for that. More than anyone, I know I can’t give you those lost years back but I will do my best to make it up to you.

With love, your brother

Rupert.

Her eyes watered. If she had read that when he gave her the money would she have been moved or would she have thrown the words back in his face? The paper shook in her fingers. Probably the latter. Now she remembered all of the nice things he did for her. Grocery runs with Lucky Charms included, even though he thought it was awful, because she liked it. Tickets to see Kill Henry Sugar when the duo was on one of their rare tours. Hospital trips when she cut herself too deeply.

Her throat hurt as she swallowed her own memories. Claudette set the note down for the western quadrant.

Letting her breath out, she focused and uncurled a spell she was absolutely not licensed to use. It was designed to find a person. Bureaucrats forbade her to do any magic involving living beings “out of a concern for public health and safety” even though a finding spell had no way of of causing harm, even without a salt circle for containment.

The sage shivered across the table. The spectral lines shifted into a spiral that tapped each of the quadrants before spinning in toward the center. Claudette leaned in, feeling the spell skip across her mind.

The tie vibrated, shifting in the sage like a snake. The icon that caught her attention though was the stack of money to the south. It shifted more southeasterly and she followed it. Her mind dipped into the spell, following the thin thread toward her brother. There was a difference in the taste of this spell, if taste was the right word for something she sensed in other nerve endings. If her joints could savor the flavors of burnt marshmallow and fresh spun wool that would almost describe the spell.

A memory shivered out of her of the little clerk running his hand over an old brass register. She used to remember the texture of the metal.

Rupert blossomed out of a web of possibilities. His eyes were closed. A cut across his right brow. Rough raw scabs stubbled his cheek like a rash. She pulled back and saw the hospital bed he was in and the machines he was hooked too. On the board by his bed, it had only a number where the patient’s name should be.

Her heart beat hard and fast, calling her back to her body, but Claudette clung to the scene and scrolled out and to the side, looking for something beyond “a hospital.”

Sisters of Mercy Hospital. Fourth floor. Intensive care.

She sat by his bed, one knee jittering up and down as she tried to read a textbook on magic. He hadn’t woken up and the room felt too much like Mom at the end. Claudette concentrated on the page, reading the words again for the third time.

The current therapies of severe Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), as outlined by the Brain Trauma Foundation show the effective reduction of cerebral edema, after TBI, using osmotic transport spellwork (OTS) with interstitial cortical calibration (ICC). OTS may be performed without stabilizing inertial dampeners (SID)…

A quick knock on the door gave her warning to look up as it opened. A narrow shouldered Korean man walked into the room and took off his sunglasses. “Miss Sims?” He stuck them in his pocket. “I’m Frederick Branson. We spoke on the phone.”

“Oh—” She hadn’t expected him to come. They’d sent the car, but by then she’d known where Rupert was and convinced the driver to take her straight to the hospital. Claudette closed the book and put it on the rolling hospital tray. “It’s, um, nice to meet you.”

He walked to the foot of the bed and looked down at the still form of her brother. “Have they said anything?”

“It looks like a random mugging.” She swallowed the imagined memories of how things might have gone if the government official hadn’t been with her. How would she have proven Rupert was her brother? Search her social media for a photo of the two of them together? “The police found him yesterday afternoon on the street a couple of blocks from the cemetery. The best guess is he wandered away and was…confused so he lay down to rest.”

 “Ah.” His brows went up a fraction of a second too late for genuine surprise. “Well, it’s a relief that he was found.”

Claudette stared at him. All of her frustration at being unable to do anything for her brother welled up and pressed against her teeth. “The thing I keep coming back to is that a random mugger shouldn’t have been able to get a jump on a magic user.”

He paused, looking at Rupert and then met Claudette’s gaze impassively. “We make it very clear to our recruits that they are not to use magic outside of training.”

“So my brother almost died because of your rules.”

Mr. Branson pursed his lips and then shook his head. “That’s—No, of course not, I simply meant that perhaps it explains why he was caught unaware. Obviously, if he’d used magic to deflect a mugger, that would have been acceptable. Even if it weren’t, surely that would have been better than…”

His voice trailed away.

“Than never waking up?” Claudette finished the sentence for him. “Is there some magic word you can say to change that? Some fancy government insurance that’ll fix him?”

His teeth looked like they hurt. “Insurance benefits don’t kick in until after two weeks of employment—”

“Get out.”

“I need to be clear that you understand—”

“Out.” She pointed at the door, the hair on her arm standing on end.

He cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. “You’re starting to draw a charge.” Branson moved his hand and the air in the room went flat. “How did you say you found him?”

The desire to grab him and suck the energy out of him filled her with white hot urgency. But a government wizard would certainly have a way to stop her. The trouble with energy flows was that they could go both ways. Claudette pressed her fingers to her temple and to her heart, then pressed her palms together to ground herself the way her brother had taught her while they waited for their mother to die.

Her voice was as flat and affectless as Rupert’s had ever been. “I got lucky. Please leave.”

Branson stopped fighting her, even though he obviously guessed she had used magic to find Rupert. When he left the room, she could feel the oil slick of all the unspoken things trailing behind him. Like, why hadn’t the government used traditional ways to find him, like checking hospitals for John Doe’s.

Had Rupert really been mugged?

And did the why matter right now? She just wanted him to wake up. Magic couldn’t heal the way it did on TV shows or in the movies. The human body was complicated. To heal someone, you had to know what to ask of the magic and that meant understanding the way the body worked. But the real catch, according to the doctor, was that even after the swelling in Rupert’s brain subsided, there was likely to be brain damage from cells that had died. Those memories would just be gone.

And the longer there was swelling, the more cells would die. He would lose more than memories. No insurance meant no magic-based healing. Claudette shoved her hand in her jacket pocket and felt the envelope, thick with money.

She wet her lips and pushed the button to call the nursing station. “Can I pay out of pocket to have magic-based healing address the swelling?”

“That’s a question for billing, I’m afraid.”

“Okay, can you go ahead and set it up while I talk to them?”

“Medical magic has to be pre-approved by your insurance provider.”

“We don’t have—That’s why I want to pay out of pocket.”

“I understand, but you’ll need to talk to billing.”

The scream built under her skin, tightening the scars on her arm. Claudette let her breathe out in a slow stream so she didn’t draw a charge. “Thank you. I’ll do that.”

She remembered how long it had taken to get anything approved when her Mom was dying. Sometimes it took weeks or months to get a referral. Rupert had spent hours on the phone—she’d forgotten that. Claudette turned her textbook over and looked at the page she’d been reading.

…studies demonstrate that in cases with severe TBI, recovery is predicated on many factors, including the location of trauma, the severity of the damage, and the length of time in a coma. However, the long-term effects of the injury can be mitigated with the Schroeder-Epstein Spell protocol, which reduces inflammation and swelling…

Claudette had a single semester of university.

Complex healing had not been part of the curriculum. But she’d done so much reading while her mom had been in the hospital looking for anything that would save her. She had been sixteen. There had been nothing she could do then.

And now? From a day spent with Dr. Google she knew a brain injury was basically a bruise. Healing bruises wasn’t a hard spell, just illegal without a license. Ostensibly because it took so much energy that you could accidentally drain yourself while helping someone else. The magic user would probably survive, but they might compensate by drawing a charge from the person they were trying to heal. Never a good look to have a pristine corpse.

But Claudette had just done a capture and had only done minor magic since. She had energy to spare.

Sliding the tray table away, Claudette reviewed the spell in her mind. She moved to the head of his bed, dodging the rails and leaned forward to rest her hands on the bare skin of Rupert’s temples. After a moment, she pulled her hands away and grabbed the overnight bag she’d stuffed full of random things before coming down.

Mostly random. Claudette extracted a giant box of salt and dragged Rupert’s bed as far from the wall as she could without messing with the equipment. She traced a circle of salt around Rupert’s hospital bed, ducking under cords and behind the headboard to complete it. The circle would dampen what she was doing, in case the hospital had a magic detection system. And also, to be safe in case someone came in while she was working.

Wetting her lips, she interlaced her fingers and pressed the knuckles of her thumbs to her forehead. Let this work. Claudette lowered her hands to Rupert’s temples. She unleashed the spell, letting it sink through the bones of his head to find the sore, swollen places.

Claudette’s spine clenched as energy eddied out of her. With it poured memories of the clerk.

He died not knowing if she were safe. Screaming for his wife to hide. Looking up and seeing the ax that had killed him. Smiling at customers. Standing at the cash register.

They stripped away as he faded back to a generic ghost with only memories of memories. Beneath his energy, she had the last scraps of a ghost she’d captured months before.

Bundles of lavender hung over a baby carriage. Wind shivered through the strands of her long hair. The teacup she loved, dropping to the parquet floor.

Rupert stirred beneath her hands. She could feel the bruising still in his brain. The damage that lingered felt stiff and raw. There was one more ghost she could burn through.

Her mother.

Wetting her lips, Claudette reached for the first ghost she’d captured. She knows she is dying and calls her little girl to her bedside while Rupert was out of the room. Her son will be okay but her daughter needs something to protect her. She needs a legacy. She took her hands and pushed, energy streaming out into her daughter so she—Claudette couldn’t remember the feeling of pushing, but she could remember warmth spreading through her as her mom chose how her life ended.

They are running through a field of clover and the fireflies are starting to come out. Her daughter is laughing like—She can’t remember the way her mother heard her laughter. The memory fizzled away, leaving only her own memory of her mother’s long dark hair loose in the wind.

Her little boy looks back at the door, eyes wide, and his hand in the grip of a government wiz—

Claudette stopped before she burned that memory. She had plenty of memories of her mother, but Rupert had precious few. Biting her lower lip, Claudette reached deeper into herself and grabbed a memory of her sixth birthday, with candles on the cake and her Mom singing in a voice that cracked on the high notes. Strawberry ice cream tasted tart and sweet on her tongue.

When working magic, you had to be aware that energy could flow in either direction. Claudette pushed the memory into her brother, gifting him with her birthday.

Rupert twitched under her hands.

Her brother was looking at her, brow creased with confusion. He tried to reach for the ventilation tube but his hand was limp and awkward. Rupert blinked and turned his head to look around the room.

Claudette could remember—she could feel how much her mother had loved Rupert, even during the long years he was gone. How much she had worried. She didn’t know or care if the tears that were streaming down her cheeks belonged entirely to her. Claudette sniffled and squeezed her brother’s hand. “You’re in the hospital. You’re going to be okay.”

He would have to recover the rest of the way on his own. When he was better…when he was better they could share memories of their mother. Soul or memory, they could share her.

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Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Spare Man, The Glamourist Histories series, Ghost Talkers, and the Lady Astronaut Universe. She is part of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo awards, the Nebula, and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Uncanny, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary Robinette, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), recording fiction for authors including Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Nashville with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit maryrobinettekowal.com.

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