KIERAN SMOOTHLY PULLED THE DOOR OPEN AND USHERED HER INSIDE.

The Golden Cat’s interior screamed its ambition to be an upscale and classy establishment, a shining diamond in the rough of Locksley. There was a maître d’ at a little podium at the front who rolled her eyes as Kieran and Betsy entered.  The long, central stage that ran down the hall had a lush, intricately-woven carpet down its length, all the better to cover the marks where poles had once been affixed. There was a sumptuously-stocked bar on one side with a pair of busy mixologists performing feats of alcoholic alchemy, and the tables on each side of the center stage were tasteful circular numbers with elegant white candles on shimmery black tablecloths. The candles were infused with vanilla, which just about drowned out the scent of fish that made up the Cat’s signature dish. 

Off to the side of the main stage, a boudoir grand piano had been installed, all the better for gorgeous songbirds in slinky dresses to sprawl across as they wailed anthems of heartbreak from decades past. There was no knockout dame up there at this hour, though; the Golden Cat’s main clientele were workers whose collars had just barely been bleached enough to turn a sort of periwinkle, and those vital societal climbers were in bed by this hour, having been excited quite enough by nine PM.  No, only one performer was left at this hour, tickling the ivories in a seemingly endless vamp. 

Deacon Quick was, if you listened to certain sources, the gods’ gift to women; of course, whenever it was said, someone in the crowd would inevitably shout that he was plenty gift to men, too. Kieran had heard it all, often from the giftees themselves, who were of course lovely, but were always distressingly lyrical about the whole thing; raven locks that cascaded in waves down to his shoulders and deep, dark eyes of the kind that people got lost in. Chiseled cheekbones, perfect jawline, the whole goddamn nine yards, and people just wouldn’t shut up about it. To almost everybody who met him, Deacon Quick was drop-dead gorgeous. 

To Kieran, he was her cousin, who she reckoned just kind of looked like her, and she tried not to think about what that meant.

Tonight, the manager at the Golden Cat had dressed Deacon in a smart black waistcoat with a golden tie; the bar’s performers always had a splash of the signature shade somewhere on them. His hair, to be a bit more professional, had been tied back, though a few locks had escaped their confinement and artfully wisped around his face. He played with his eyes heavily lidded, visibly feeling the music as it flowed from his agile hands and nimble fingers into the keys. 

Kieran cleared her throat. Deacon’s eyes fluttered open and he grinned at his cousin, never missing a beat. 

“Hey, footpad,” he purred, making note of Betsy and tossing a wink her way. “Making trouble for me, huh?” Kieran chuckled. 

“That’s rich coming from you, conman.” she shrugged. “Trouble found us, just like always.” 

“Just like always,” hummed Deacon, nodding. “What kind of state’s Giancarlo in?” 

“…Breathing,” said Kieran. Deacon grinned. “Look, if you’d just tell him to let me in when I come here, we wouldn’t have to do this song and dance every single time.”

“You know it’s all Marco giving the orders there. I just play the tunes, man.” 

Kieran scoffed. 

“Uh, Kieran?” asked Betsy. “Is that Marco there?” 

Marcus “Marco” Baxton was a short, broad-shouldered man with an elegantly coiffed hairdo and a pencil mustache, wearing a beautiful tapered suit that for all the world made him resemble nothing so much as a large, angry triangle. At the moment, he was charging from the back office to the piano in short, rapid strides, like a ballet dancer gliding across the stage. Kieran tried not to smirk at the contrast.

“No way in hell, Quick!” he hissed, apparently believing his stage whisper enough to ensure the handful of late-night guests didn’t hear him. “No way in any or all the hells, even! Deacon is scheduled ‘til midnight, and nothing you or anybody says is gonna change that!” 

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that,” muttered Deacon, throwing a little flourish into the phrase he was riffing on. Marco’s body language changed in a flash, supplicating and soothing as he fussed and danced around his golden goose. 

“Oh, of course, Deacon,” said Marco. “You’re here because you want to be!”

“I’m here because you told me you knew people in the record industry,” said Deacon. “That, and because it was good money in the meantime.” 

“I do know people in the record industry, baby! I got an in with Regalia Records, these things just take time, you know, I gotta schmooze ‘em just right, drop your name in the right places. I swear, we’ll get you in a studio any month now!” 

Deacon quirked an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. Marco smiled, like a cat with a twitching tail. Kieran rolled her eyes, and he scowled at her. 

“Besides,” he continued, emboldened. “Deacon, baby, you should hear what people say about that cousin of yours. She’s bad news. If you really want to make it in music, you need to start thinking about your image. Associating with lowlifes–” 

Suddenly, a discordant note clanged out from Deacon’s improvised melody. Marco froze, eyes flicking from the keys to Deacon’s face and back. Deacon said nothing, and it seemed like the sour note was a fluke. 

Betsy opened her mouth, but Kieran shook her head, beaming. Marco licked his lips. 

“I mean, ah, that is to say–”

“I know what you meant to say, Marco.” Deacon’s voice was smooth and sharp, like a polished spear. “Honestly, I should thank you. Who knows how long you would’a strung me along if it was just me you were laughing at.” 

“Now Deacon,” started Marco, but a tri-tone stopped him. He opened his mouth to continue, but a machine gun of trilled high notes shut him up again. Deacon closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and smiled. 

“My friends, you’ve been a wonderful audience tonight,” he muttered under his breath, more for himself than anyone else. “There will be no encore.” 

Deacon’s eyes flicked open, and he started to play an old ragtime standard, slowly at first then faster and faster as his fingers blurred across the keys. The guests at the Golden Cat began to look up from their meals and conversation, as the dull roar of humanity petered away into something approaching rapt attention as the boudoir grand creaked under Deacon’s frenzied ministrations. Finally, as he hit the crescendo, Deacon repeated the final phrase a half-dozen times and, instead of resolving it, slammed a fist into the keys, crashing the standard straight into a brick wall. 

Deacon sprung to his feet, raised both hands in an exceedingly obscene gesture, and crowed: 

“Get that one out of your heads, assholes!” 

He pointed to one of the bartenders.

“Except you, Parker. You’re great. Good luck on your midterms.” 

Parker rolled their eyes, and Deacon grinned. 

“Alright, let’s blow this gin joint and you can tell me what you need,” he said, loosening his tie and tossing it in Marco Baxton’s dumbstruck face. Kieran chuckled and clapped her cousin on the shoulder. 

“You know you can just quit a place normally, right?”

“Cousin dearest, I have not yet met a bridge that didn’t burn beautifully.” 

“Yeah, very impressive,” said Betsy, “But perhaps we can continue talking outside? Preferably through the back?”

She pointed, and Kieran saw Giancarlo, woozy and red-faced as he slammed open the front door and locked eyes with her. 

“Right. Betsy, Deacon, Deacon, Betsy. We can talk about her issue outside.”

The was a clatter as Giancarlo shoved a table aside as he stomped toward them, sending vanilla candles and fresh salmon flying in his single minded rage. 

“Quickly!” added Kieran, and the trio beat feet, dashing up the steps onto the stage and then into the back rooms from there. The Golden Cat was a deceptively deep building, with an impressively large dressing room and kitchen, but Deacon led the other two unerringly to a simple steel door with a big red EXIT stenciled on it. Kieran collided with the pressbar at full speed and scrambled into the alley behind the cabaret, blessedly deserted apart for a pair of waiters from a dinner-theatre down the street taking a smoke break. 

Deacon was the last out and turned around at the last moment, giving a saucy wave to Giancarlo before the door swung shut. He rubbed his hands together and sparks began to skitter across his palms before he uttered a strange, guttural rune into the air and pressed them to the lock of the door, fusing the cylinders together and sealing the portal shut. 

“Hey Deacon, you finally quit that dump?” called one of the waiters. Deacon straightened up, flicking away molten steel, and grinned at them. 

“Oh, hey Hazel, Ollie. Yeah, just one slight too many, I guess. Hey, you don’t happen to need a piano man over at Upon This Sword I Bite, do you?” 

“Oh, sure!” said Ollie. “Just come by this weekend and talk to Joanne, I’m sure you can charm your way in.” Deacon laughed. Betsy leaned in to whisper in Kieran’s ear. 

“Does he just know everybody?” 

“That’s the way he’s always been,” shrugged Kieran, as the trio began descending deeper into the alleyways of Locksley, following some route that neither cousin saw fit to explain. “He’s a people person.” 

It was true. People loved Deacon, and Deacon loved people. Waving good-bye to Ollie and Hazel, Deacon fixed his gaze on Betsy and gave her a crooked smile and all of his attention. 

“Apologies for the delay, miss. My name’s Deacon Quick, and my cousin seems to think I can help you, so by the gods I believe I must. What’s the problem?” 

“Show him the ring, Bets. He’s our best bet at this hour.” 

Slightly reluctantly, Betsy held out her hand, the brass ring gleaming dully upon her finger. Deacon stopped walking to get a closer look, holding out a hand. 

“May I?” he asked. Betsy nodded. Deacon took her hand gently in one of his and closed his eyes. Strange lights glinted behind his eyelids as he pressed the pads of two fingers onto the ring, muttering incantations under his breath. Suddenly, the ring sparked and flashed, and Deacon pulled his hands away with a yelp. 

“Damn!” he said, sticking the two fingers that had touched the ring into his mouth and sucking on them. “That’s a real deal curse on that, alright. The ring looks familiar too, like I’ve seen it somewhere before. Maybe a book?”

He took his fingers out of his mouth and waved them in the night sky; his fingertips had turned an evil-looking purple, but it was fading quickly. Betsy’s eyes widened as she saw them. 

“I’ve got a couple ideas on how we might get that off of her, but we’ll need a bit of time, and I need to do a bit of research. Let’s get to my apartment quickly, I’ve got some books there that might give us a bit more information.” 

“Oh, some books you say, eh?” said Kieran, smirking at her cousin. “These books wouldn’t have happened to have been checked out from the university library, would they? Again?”

Betsy tilted her head. 

“Are you a university student, Deacon?” she asked. Deacon opened his mouth to open, but Kieran cut him off. 

“Nah, there’s just this lovely little genius redhead who works there during the day that our boy Deacon can’t get enough of,” Kieran teased. “I tell you, the man’s read more the last few months than I’ve seen him do our entire lives, just to give himself a reason to see her again. It’s adorable.

“Hey, hey, let’s not start throwing rocks in glass houses, footpad. I’m sure I could tell our new friend plenty of embarrassing tales about you, too.” 

“No denial, you hear that?” 

“Well, Betsy, there was this one time when we were twelve and Kieran had some interesting ideas about how modern munitions were inefficiently-packed–”

Deacon’s story was interrupted as Kieran leapt onto his back, clapping her hands over his mouth. 

The trio emerged out of the alley, stepping up onto a quiet backstreet sidewalk somewhere within the jumble of inner Locksley. Betsy turned back to Kieran and Deacon, amusement playing about her face. 

“You two really just go and go, don’t you?” 

Kieran was just about to reply in the positive when the squealing of tires and revving of an engine split the night. A panel van came hurtling down the street with its headlamps off, skidding to a stop in front of Betsy. 

“Shit!” shouted Kieran, reaching out to grab her. A pair of hooded figures leapt from the rooftops above, quiet as the grave. They crashed onto the backs of Kieran and Deacon, driving the pair to the ground as the van’s loading door burst open and four more similarly-enshrouded assailants pounced on Betsy. She let out a shriek of terror as they dragged her into the van and tossed a sack over her head. 

Kieran reached up behind her head, fingers clawing for anything soft and vulnerable. She found a throat and squeezed, but nothing happened, no glottal clicking rasp as breath refused to answer the call. Rattling off a stream of curses, she pistoned her legs in a mad scramble, bucking her assailant from her back to her waist as she twisted to look them in the eye. 

No eyes met hers, though; the attacker’s head was covered completely in a thick, woolen shroud with no holes for the eye, mouth, or nose. It was like being strangled by a mannequin, and the hand that grasped her face and slammed the back of her head into the hard ground of the alleyway was cold and dry, like polished stone.

TO BE CONTINUED

CHAPTER THREE ARRIVES 03/01/2022

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