Naomi looked up from her third glass of wine for the night, and found Edmund Cohen sitting to her left. When the bartender finally got around to him, he said, "Whisky on the rocks for me, but not the cheap shit. And no more wine for the lady. She's had enough for now."
"Seriously, Cohen? I don't work for the Phoenix Society any longer." It had been a couple of years now. A couple of years of joining promising bands hoping to get in on the ground floor, only to see one band after another implode around her. The keyboardist and composer of one band had wanted to date her, but she had refused only to be fired for it and publicly called out as a selfish prima donna. In another band, the lead guitarists were engaged until one thought the other had a thing for her—and never mind that they had both been gay their entire lives. The latest one had been some shit-for-brains A&R manager's idea of a good gimmick: an all-woman band called The Naomis because every member was called Naomi. When the exec had announced the idea, Naomi was glad for the first time that she was not in the habit of wearing a sword as a civilian because otherwise she might have yielded to the temptation to tear the guy's pants off, bend him over, and then paddle his arse with the flat of her blade. As it was, one of the other Naomis had fattened his lip and walked out. "It's been a rough day. Are you really going to bedgrudge me a few drinks?"
"You didn't self-medicate like this after the Clarion job," said Eddie.
"Tell that to Christopher Renfield," said Naomi, recalling with a bit of guilt how she had used him without any consideration for his own needs or desires when the nightmares had been at their worst. It had been a while since she last dreamed of the white cell, but other dreams took their place. Just last night she had watched as tungsten lances fell screaming from the sky as her last desperate gambit, a distributed denial of service attack, failed to shut down the GUNGNIR platform in time. "I think I wore the poor man out."
"We've been keeping an eye on the Dusk Patrol survivors. Renfield's fine, and he's had worse than a sore willy."
"Has he been asking after me?" It would not have been the first time, though she could not understand why. It wasn't as if they had been lovers. At most they were acquaintances with benefits.
"This is all on me," said Eddie. "I've tried to be discreet about it for your sake, but I've been keeping an eye on you ever since Clarion. I know you turned down Desdinova once, but we could still use your help."
Naomi stared into her wine, not wanting to answer Eddie one way or the other. It had been Desdinova who had ordered Malkuth to keep her in the dark, offering no intelligence and minimal support when she had stumbled upon the murders in Clarion and their true cause. Eddie himself had admitted that it was a shit job, utterly thankless and likely to end with her and her entire family exiled from Earth to get away from assassins.
Not that the man who had called himself Ian Malkin needed assassins. He had proven himself perfectly capable of doing his own wet work without bloodying his hands when he had appeared in her room at the Lonely Mountain in Clarion. He had offered her a nice, juicy carrot: if she renounced her post as an Adversary and kept quiet about what she had seen in Clarion, she'd get a shot at a life as a rock musician. Then he showed her the stick: if she persisted in clinging to her ideals, ideals which had led her to learn some disquieting truths about how the Phoenix Society worked behind the scenes, he would simply teleport her into the Oort Cloud to breathe hard vacuum and freeze in the dark like he had done with the man Naomi had identified as the culprit behind the murders in and around Clarion.
Henrik Petersen—country doctor, former colonel in the North American Commonwealth Army, and clandestine genetic engineer—had also proven responsible for Project Harker, Dusk Patrol, and the bombardment from orbit of the original town of Clarion during Nationfall. He had attempted a second bombardment, but Naomi had stopped him with tools left behind by a local sysadmin who had revived a mirror installation of Fort Clarion's computer systems. Petersen had had him murdered, but it did not save him; when she last saw him during her brief visit to deep space, she had found him frozen in a final scream that would go forever unheard.
"You're shivering," said Eddie as he draped his jacket over her. "Are you all right?"
It smelled of oil, old cannabis, and older sweat but Naomi tried to appreciate the gesture. "Thanks. Some bad memories came up, that's all."
"I'm not surprised. Didn't you take on Dusk Patrol with practically no support?"
Naomi had had Christopher Renfield and a witness to some of the murders, Mike Brubaker, on her side but she understood that a single soldier and a young man not quite old enough for militia duty was hardly the old soldier's idea of support. Eddie's idea of support was shaped by his pre-Nationfall military training and involved at least two fireteams with artillery and air support a radio call away. "Dusk Patrol was bad odds, but they weren't insurmountable, and Dr. Petersen had given me a temporary equalizer."
"Something happened afterward, didn't it?"
"Quite a few somethings," said Naomi. She no longer wanted her wine; the old memories would steal its savor and bring her nightmares tonight. It would not be the first time. After leaving a tip beneath her glass, she shrugged off Eddie's old bomber jacket and returned it to him. "I suppose you're a decent enough sort, but I've no intention of working for Desdinova no matter how poorly my musical career goes. If it was just a matter of money I could always do sex work instead."
He caught up with her half a block away from the pub she had left behind. "It wasn't Desdinova who sent me this time."
She whirled upon him, reaching for a sword that was not there. "Who is it, then? Ian Malkin? First he claimed to be my father. Then he claimed to be some kind of demon. Then he threatened to murder me. I left my old life as an Adversary behind for a reason."
"It hasn't left you," said Eddie. "You were ready to draw on me the second I reached out to grab you by the shoulder. If you had been wearing a sword you would have done it."
"So what? I've heard about all of /your/ amorous misadventures. I daresay I wouldn't be the first woman to draw on you."
"True enough," said Eddie, "And you'd have rather more cause than the others. Then again, the last woman to pull a sword on me did it because she caught me balls deep in her little brother. Can't really blame her for that."
It was more than Naomi needed to know. "Dammit, Cohen."
"What? It was dark, I was drunk, and his arse was just as smooth."
"Goddammit, that's /way/ above my pay grade. I already knew more than I cared to about your sexual life before you opened your mouth, and had no need-to-know for any of it." Though she immediately regretted it, she could not resist adding. "Please tell me the brother-buggery was a joke, or at least consensual."
"Actually, I made all that up. But I have the sort of unsavory reputation that makes it easy for you to believe such things of me, don't I?"
Naomi knew better than to answer that, and she suspected she knew why he had taken this tack. "You're trying to distract me."
Cohen shrugged. "You were looking pretty miserable back there. Like you were dwelling on soul-scars and about to spiral into depression. I've seen it happen before."
"You need a hand with this bloke?" An unfamiliar voice spoke behind Naomi.
Turning around, she found herself looking down upon a strung-out youth with a carving knife in his fist. "No, thank you. Not that I believe for a moment that you're here out of concern for my well-being. This looks more like the prelude to an attempt at robbery."
"Great. Saves me the trouble of 'splaining." The youth made a vaguely threatening gesture with his knife. He did not quite brandish it, but it was close enough for her purposes.
Catching his wrist in mid-flourish, Naomi took the knife from him and tossed it down a storm drain. "Sorry, but I'm not in the mood tonight."
"Step aside, please," said Eddie.
Naomi did so, turning halfway. Eddie had a suppressed pistol trained on the youth and his finger on the trigger. "Don't bother. He's a waste of ammunition."
"I only need one bullet. Two if I want to be professional about it."
Hearing this, Naomi imagined Eddie shooting the would-be robber in the chest, and then putting a second shot through the back of his head. The former military types who made up the Phoenix Society's old guard called it a 'control shot' or 'confirming the kill'. "Put it away, Eddie. I've already neutralized him."
The youth did not say anything. He merely put his hands up to show that they were empty. "I'd be happy to just walk away now."
"You might as well stick around," said Naomi, "And save the authorities the trouble of hunting you down."
A silver-haired man wearing a grey trenchcoat over a charcoal suit stepped forward, spreading his hands. "Please stand down, Adversary Bradleigh. That young man was working for me."
"And who the hell are you?"
"Call me Desdinova, if you please. I hope you'll pardon my resorting to my brother's methods, but I needed to see for myself that you were still an Adversary at heart."
Before Eddie could stop her, Naomi had closed the distance between her and Desdinova, caught him by the lapels, and driven her knee into his groin. She had hoped to feel his balls compress as he collapsed in her grasp, reduced to a whimpering heap, but she was denied the satisfaction. An unseen force stopped her from following through.
Desdinova favored Naomi with a small, tight smile. "Mind letting me go, Adversary? I might not be the magus my brother Imaginos has become, but I'm not about to let you purée my testes in a fit of righteous indignation."
She threw him to the pavement with a shove, taking what satisfaction she could in the ability to knock him on his arse. "I already told Cohen that I wasn't interested in working for you, and these little games you play do bugger-all to persuade me otherwise. So, what do you want?"
"It's about what /you/ want," said Desdinova, dusting himself off as he got to his feet. "You want a mission, and for your sins you're getting one."