Christabel had come to love cold, snowy London nights like tonight. Faint shadows cast by dim red lights faded behind the soft white curtain that had fallen over the city, and snow on the night of the Winter Solstice seemed to her a versatile perfection. The night was surely perfect for lovers to seek refuge from the cold together, as Christabel suspected Morgan and Naomi were doing tonight given the manner in which they had upstaged her. It was a perfect night to be as alone as Christabel was at the moment, sitting in the back of a limousine that Isaac Magnin had chartered for the night as its thorium engine idled outside her house in Crouch End. Since nobody was around to see, it was the perfect night to stage one's own murder.
It was safe for her to relax now. The curtain had fallen on this act in the lives of Morgan, Naomi, and Christabel. Crowley's Thoth had given its swan song, and Christabel herself had given her final performance. Now she needed only relax, stretch her legs, and enjoy her cognac as Isaac played the role of a one-man stage crew and set the scene for the overture to the next act in lives that would no longer be her concern even as the apparent violent end of her own impacted theirs.
/At least Isaac had my body double stuffed in the trunk instead of making me ride with it,/ Christabel reflected as she sipped her liquor. /Having to stare at it as we drove down here from the afterparty would have been just a bit unsettling./
The performance had begun in earnest the morning before the Winter Solstice, as Christabel rehearsed with the others the day before their show at the Royal Albert Hall. They had finally gotten the headliner slot, and Christabel wanted them to be as perfect as the hair of a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic's.
And of course, Morgan had stepped out in between songs only to return a minute later. "Christabel, I'm sorry, but that was Saul. There's a situation in Shenzhen that the local office can't handle."
"Let me take your stick," said Naomi. As Morgan lifted the strap over his head and surrendered his instrument, she asked, "Was it another angel? Doesn't the Society have other einherjar who can handle it? What about Tetsuo, since he usually works out of the Tokyo office?"
Morgan shook his head. "It's not an angel. It's Tetsuo. I don't have the details, but apparently he went rogue. He already took out one Adversary."
"Well, kill him and get back here as fast as you can," said Christabel. "We really don't have time for you to rush off and play the hero right now."
"I appreciate the vote of confidence," said Morgan, leaning in for a kiss goodbye that Christabel relished denying him. "They're sending a car around to get me, and will send me to Shenzhen by suborbital. I should be there in a couple of hours. Hopefully I'll be back in the morning."
Once Morgan had left, Naomi had turned on her. "You know damn well Morgan isn't off playing hero. He's doing his job. And Tetsuo is not only an old friend of Morgan's but the closest he's got to an equal."
Christabel had been well aware of this; she still got updated dossiers, and she had entertained a fond and secret hope since Isaac had provided Munakata's dossier as well so she could prepare for today. "With any luck Tetsuo will do Morgan a favor and kill him."
"That's your idea of a favor?"
"Oh, please, Nims." It was important to get the contemptuous tone just right; laying it on too thick might let the other woman dismiss what Christabel meant to say next as sarcasm, and it was imperative that Naomi believe she was speaking from the heart. "Dying young is the best career move somebody as worthless as Morgan could possibly make. Of course, it's usually an overdose or a plane crash, but /finally/ taking on a fair fight will do nicely. That it might be a friend who does him in is a lovely garnish."
Naomi's face had reddened, and she had her fists clenched at her sides. Her mouth was a white line, and Christabel imagined she could hear the other woman grinding her teeth in outrage. It was a long moment before she finally spoke. "You're lucky we've got a show to put on, Christabel. I can't believe Morgan hasn't slapped you around yet. It's years overdue."
"He doesn't have the balls to lay so much as a finger on me in anger."
"Neither do I, but that lack isn't what stops me." Bunching Christabel's cardigan in her fist, Naomi pressed her against the studio wall. "As weary as I am of watching you mistreat that man, he can fight his own battles. I've stayed my hand out of respect for /him/, but this is the end. After tomorrow's show, I'm out. Attempt to bring a breach-of-contract suit against me and I'll file a hostile work environment complaint with the Phoenix Society."
"Why not just quit now?"
Naomi's tone sweetened until it dripped rancid honey. "Why should I give /you/ the satisfaction of seeing me throw away decades of professionalism? You're not worth it."
Releasing her fistful of Christabel's cardigan, Naomi packed up her keyboard. "I'm going back to my room to practice my parts. I'm sure a musician as skillful as you needs no accompaniment."
When Christabel finally left the studio, Isaac Magnin was there awaiting her. He leaned aganst a lamppost, smoking a cigarette. He flicked it skyward as she approached him. Once it had reached its apex, it burned to ash in a flash. A gust carried the ash away to soil some mere mortal's clothes. "I saw Naomi leave in tears earlier. What /did/ you say to her?"
She shrugged. "Just burning bridges, as your telemetry should have indicated. I thought it would be better if leaving the band was her idea."
"What will you tell Morgan when he returns?"
"Don't you mean if? I understand Tetsuo is his equal."
That got a rare chuckle from Isaac. "Tetsuo wants to believe he's Morgan's equal. He will learn otherwise."
"Fine," said Christabel. "Why not help me decide what to tell him in bed? It's been years."
"Time for another fitting?" said Isaac, smirking as he used Christabel's euphemism for their illicit assignations.
"No." Reaching into her pocket, she produced the keycard for the hotel room she had gotten to be closer to the Royal Albert on the day of the show. "I want everybody at the hotel to see me taking /you/ to my room. Let's give people something to talk about, shall we?"
They had given people plenty to talk about, Christabel recalled as she finished her cognac, and Isaac had sent her off to the Royal Albert Hall thoroughly satisfied. She had found Naomi in her dressing room, but Morgan's was empty. Going back to Naomi's, she had knocked on the door. "Where's Morgan?"
The face Naomi showed over her shoulder was one purse-lipped and pinched with worry. "He isn't back yet. I checked with Saul at the Phoenix Society, and he says the Shenzhen office doesn't have any information on Morgan's status."
"Maybe he's dead."
"Maybe you'd like that," said Naomi. She crossed the room in a few long strides, and wrenched the door from Christabel's hand. "If he died over there, then I will spend the night singing his requiem."
"You think he'll give a shit? He'll be dead, remember? If there isn't an afterlife he won't hear you. And if there is then your voice won't reach whatever hell awaits him."
"Loving you as long as Morgan has was a labour worthy of Herakles," said Naomi. "Now piss off. We've got a soundcheck in twenty."
Soundcheck came and went without Morgan, which suited Christabel just fine. It gave her time to slip into his dressing room, grab all of his clothes, and consign them to a dumpster out back. If he did come back, he would have no choice now but to take the stage in uniform, thus breaking his promise to her that he would keep his life as an Adversary separate from the life he lived as a musician. It would give her the excuse she needed to break up with him and fire him from the band while acting the wronged party.
Meanwhile, Naomi was busy explaining to the band's management, the venue's management, the master of ceremonies, and anybody else concerned that Crowley's Thoth would take the stage no matter what, and that Naomi was sure that Morgan would return from his emergency mission in time. It was an unpleasant duty Christabel was happy to shirk.
Band after band played, and Morgan remained missing. It was not until the last set before Crowley's Thoth was scheduled to play that Naomi burst into Christabel's dressing room, her expression suffused with relief. "Morgan's suborbital just touched down. He's on his way."
"Charn just started their set. No way he's going to get here in time," Christabel was sure this would be the case; the Tube was running on a reduced schedule on account of the holiday, and getting a cab today would take divine intervention.
"He'll be here," said Naomi. "He said he'd run the whole way if that was what it took."
"A blizzard just came in off the North Sea. He's going to run all the way here in /that/?"
Naomi reached down and scratched Mordred behind the ears. In the years since the cat had first adopted Morgan, he had grown to the size of a sheepdog. "If Morgan were still in Shenzhen, this fluff would have found his way to his side already. You know how he just shows up."
Christabel certainly did. The damn cat—the damn /rakshasa/, to use Isaac's name for the beast—invariably showed up whenever Morgan was away from New York more than a few days. She had no idea how a cat this big could bypass hotel security, let alone that of the Royal Albert Hall, but here he was purring and licking his chops like he had just gotten back from the Tower of London after eating a raven or two. Claire had insisted the cat could walk through walls, damn her and her reading. It was most likely her fault, Christabel thought, that Crowley's Thoth ended up doing concept albums about Frankenstein and that monk who had buggered off to India with three demon bodyguards to retrieve a scroll of scriptures or something.
Before Christabel could say anything else, the cat perked up. He sprang to his feet, turned his back on Christabel, and gave her an eyeful of arsehole as he sprang away with his bushy tail held straight up and quivering.
He soon returned, padding beside Morgan as if he were a faithful hound. Morgan himself looked rather the worse for wear; his armored greatcoat was battered and covered in blood. Morgan himself smelled of blood, sweat, gunpowder, and burnt ozone. His cheeks were hollowed out, there were dark circles under his eyes, and he was grimacing with every bite of the emergency ration he was nibbling.
Christabel couldn't resist a quip as she and Naomi followed him into his dressing room, "Well, look what the cat dragged in."
He looked down at himself. "I'm sorry. Is there time for me to take a quick shower and get changed?"
"No," said Christabel, "Incidentally, whatever arrangements you made to get your clothes brought here didn't work out."
"You look like you clawed your way up out of Hell to get here," said Naomi. "Are you sure you're up to performing?"
Morgan shrugged. "We've got an audience waiting, don't we? Don't worry; I won't fuck this up."
"You're not going on stage looking like /that/," said Christabel. "You're still in uniform, for fuck's sake."
Morgan took another bite of his emergency ration, which more closely resembled something he ought to flush instead every time Christabel looked at it, and favored her with an appraising look. "I'm pretty sure that was your doing, judging by the trouser legs I saw sticking out of the dumpster when I came in through the back door."
Despite Christabel's protests, Morgan had taken the stage in uniform, though he had laid aside his weapons and the battered greatcoat that Naomi had given him a decade ago. Despite looking like shit warmed over, he had given the performance of his life beside Naomi.
/Then there was the afterparty,/ thought Christabel, and reached for the cognac. Rather than refill her glass, she drank directly from the bottle and thought herself justified in doing so. She still could not believe that she had been upstaged so thoroughly. This time, when she and Isaac had arrived at the afterparty at the stroke midnight they had found Morgan and Naomi standing beneath the mistletoe.
Naomi had looked directly at Christabel before slipping her hands into his hair and drawing him into a kiss. When they had finished, Morgan had addressed the crowd. "Naomi told me earlier that she had taken the hardest decision of her life. Now it's my turn to take hard decisions of my own."
He looked to Christabel first. "I'm quitting Crowley's Thoth, and you and I are over."
"W-what about Naomi?"
Morgan shrugged. "She told me she had had enough of your shit." To Isaac, he had said, "Find somebody else to do the Phoenix Society's dirty work. I've had enough and I want out."
"I can't believe I fucked it up so badly," said Christabel to nobody in particular. While the driver still sat up front, he had his partition closed and would not have heard anything unless she engaged the intercom.
However, Isaac must have heard her, for the first thing he said as he opened the door and slipped into the seat beside her was, "You did well enough for my purposes. Morgan is adrift now."
"He's probably balls deep in Naomi right now."
"I had to knock on her door to get the key to yours. He's sleeping on her couch, too much the gentleman to accept a guest bedroom, I suppose."
"Well, fuck him. Is everything set up?"
The smile with which Isaac favored her was rich with self-satisfaction. "Oh, I've no doubt it will be a delightful show."
He held out his hand, and a sealed manila envelope dropped into it out of nowhere. He handed it to Christabel and said, "I'd invite you to watch it by my side, but I suspect you might be busy resuming your old life. But perhaps I could schedule the occasional fitting?"