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68

We never cleared the star chamber. I mean, I was heeling and toeing as fast as my heels and toes would cooperate, but we just didn't get far.

Morley howled suddenly. That startled the rest of us into freezing. Another bug? I thought. How?... Dotes leapt into the air. As he peaked out, a guy stepped into the chamber and presented his chin for kicking. He dropped like his legs had been cut off, but a whole herd of brunos stormed in over him. He was going to have bruises on his bruises and powdered bones if he ever came around.

Everybody but me got into the mix-up. Ivy and Spud propped me against a wall and jumped into it. I stood there so focused on trying not to fall that I had little attention left for rooting for my pals. I did try fishing something useful out of my pockets, but the effort was too much for what meager energy I had left.

I didn't even realize who this bunch were till Mugwump appeared amid the second wave. By then things had grown too serious to be settled amicably. We had dead and bad hurt people everywhere, mostly on the Rainmaker's side, but poor addlepate Ivy made a wrong move and accidentally got himself stabbed in the back about forty-five times. The Goddamned Parrot ripped the scalp off the character responsible, a ratman so weeded up he couldn't stop stabbing long enough to brush the bird off his head.

Slither picked Mugwump up and tossed him about forty yards, then headed for the Rainmaker, who had just made his appearance, had spotted Saucerhead already headed his way, and was concentrating on evading that behemoth. Then Cleaver saw Slither coming, squealed and ducked between the two big men. I wondered where he had managed to find so many brunos stupid enough to work for him, what with everybody in TunFaire out to buy his head. Maybe he put on his girl disguise and let them think they were working for a woman.

His thugs sure were disconcerted when they recognized my friends.

Slither was altogether too determined to pay Cleaver back for Ivy and his own old grievances. He threw pieces of people right and left as he stormed after the Rainmaker, but he never quite caught up and he didn't keep an eye out behind him. I tried to yell, but my yeller was out of action. Just as he grabbed the raving runt somebody stuck a dagger in his spine. I would have cried for him if I could. Instead, I spent my last reserve to bawl, "Powziffle pheez!"

Slither was a dead man, but he didn't let that slow him down. Nobody he could reach enjoyed the experience. He broke Morley's arm. All Morley was trying to do was get out of his way.

I tried to get my feet moving toward a doorway, but they just wouldn't cooperate. Davenport's headbusters must have given me something more than a beating. I had a bad feeling I wasn't going to make a getaway the way I had at the Bledsoe, even with Slither demolishing the unenthusiastic crowd Cleaver had brought.

I did reflect that everyone who'd ever trailed me seemed to have come to the Tops. I guess everybody thought I was about to glom the mystic trilogy.

About the time Slither wound down, one of the Rainmaker's thugs got a knife into Winger's boyfriend. She had a blood fit, jumped some guys trying to get away. They didn't make it.

I glanced around. It looked like Winger and Grange Cleaver were the only players not hurt. Saucerhead was leaning against a wall, looking pale. Sarge was down, but I couldn't tell how badly he was injured. Spud, with T.G. Parrot on his back, cussing, was on hands and knees not having much luck getting back up. Morley, despite his injury, was making sure none of Cleaver's thugs ever inconvenienced him again.

Looked to me like the whole thing had been a blood sacrifice in aid of nothing. Nobody profited and a lot of people lost big.

I was proud of myself. With a little help from my pal the wall I was making headway toward a door.

Movement took all my concentration. I had to stop to catch up on the struggle.

Things had not gone well. The floor was littered with bad guys, but the good guys had vanished. Unless you counted the Goddamned Parrot, who swooped around exercising the slime end of his vocabulary. I wanted to yell for Morley or Winger or somebody, but my yeller was out of commission.

Cleaver was still upright. So was Mugwump, mainly because he was so wide he rolled back upright whenever somebody knocked him over. Slither had had the right idea: just hurl him through the wall.

Where were my pals?

Ducking somebody else's pals?

I was moving again when Cleaver and Mugwump got to me, just as yet another gang of players plunged into this pool of insanity.

I recognized one, Belinda's specialist, Cleland Justin Carlyle. I assumed his companions were Outfit heavyweights, too.

Now I knew why my friends had disappeared.

Carlyle and his buddies had blood in their eyes. Events at the Jenn house had to be avenged. Somebody messes with syndicate guys, somebody has to pay. Didn't matter then much who.

Mugwump grabbed me by the shirtfront. He snagged Cleaver with his other hand. He hauled us both to a door. I don't know what he was thinking. I guess he was a little distressed. He chucked Cleaver through, held me a second, rasped, "Even, fella," and chucked me, too.

Into some damned hidey-hole behind the ever-loving thrones of the lunatic judges of the Call. Not through an exit.

Mugwump made a whole lot of noise negotiating with the boys from the Outfit. Then the debate ended. Utter silence filled the universe... unless you counted the sonofabitching Goddamned Parrot, who wouldn't shut up if you drowned him.

Everybody else had left him behind. Maybe I could work it that way, too.

Not bloody likely. Not with my luck. The gods probably had me whipped up on like this just so I couldn't shed that talking feather duster.

It was real tight in that closet. It hadn't been intended to take two people. It hadn't been intended to take two people of the sorts we were.

Well, Mugwump had put me close enough to Cleaver to choke him, which is where I'd wanted to be for a while. But I didn't have the strength.

The squabble between the parrot and sanity continued as I blurted, "Get your hands off me!" I suppose prowlers nearby, possessed of sharp ears, might have heard. Might have understood, too. My diction was improving. "I don't play your game."

Cleaver giggled.

And I blushed red enough to glow in the dark. Because Cleaver's movements had nothing to do with me. Sometimes the man did dumb stuff, but only a total damnfool would make a pass with slavering cutthroats stalking around looking to chop him into beagle chow.

"Garrett, you're a wonder." That was the voice of Maggie Jenn, sizzling like a red hot poker. "Maybe I will lay hands on. If we get out of here."

"Back off!" I barked.

He backed. But his Maggie voice chuckled wickedly. Evil, evil person. A moment later, he became all business. "You have your strength back?"

"They gave me something. I'm not going to be any good for anything for a long time."

"We have to step out of here sometime. And I don't have so much as a nail file."

I said "Fooey!" which is dwarvish for "Oh, shit!" Getting out was a significant goal. Out of the closet—out of that closet, damn it!—out of the Tops, maybe even out of the province for a while, all seemed attractive goals. The mess here was beyond any cover-up now.

The closet door whipped open.

Light poured in. It nearly blinded me. I could barely make out the silhouette of somebody short and impatient. The Goddamn Parrot swooped past, cussing.



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