Cat in Heels

Cat pegged the young man as a sucker even as he approached the gate to the Magic City. He’s my mark for sure, she thought, regarding his honest face. Then he opened his mouth and removed all doubt.

“You can’t come in without life insurance,” the guard said to the honest-looking farm boy.

“What?”

“Life insurance, pal. You want to seek your fortune? You gotta be insured. Otherwise, you better go back to the provinces.” The guard paused. “Actually,” he said in a softer voice, “You’d be safer if you did go back.”

The young man looked so darn lost and sweet and innocent that most decent folk would feel compelled to help him.

Dammit, thought Cat. Now everyone’s going to target him.

She moved fast. She clipped toward him on her four-inch high heels, hoping the kid fancied girls.  Cat’s looks were her third greatest asset.

“Hi!” She said, reaching him only a few steps ahead of two other insurance booth operators. The other two glared at her and slunk back to their booths, beaten. Cat smiled. “I couldn’t help but overhear. I think I can help you, Mr…”

“I’m Mark. Mark Kimball.”

Cat blinked. Her mark’s name was Mark. That’s amusing.

            “I’m Cat. I sell life insurance for the magic city. I can give you a rates and benefits breakdown for my own company as well as our major competitors. Mark smiled at her.

This is where they always say, “Lemme guess, your company always has the best rates…”  Cat thought. It was a predictable script. Unwritten, but her potential—ah—customers always followed it.

But Mark the mark just said, “Oh that would be a big relief! I’m sure I’ll end up purchasing yours, Miss Cat, Ma’am!”

Cat blinked again. He was more than the perfect target, he was the ideal target. A con artist’s fantasy come to life. So Cat got suspicious. She wondered if he might be some sort of undercover operative. Try not to get carried away, she thought.

But she couldn’t help herself; he handled like a dream. She batted her eyelashes and he signed something without reading it. She laughed at his joke and he divulged his home address, birthdate, and the secret passwords for his bank account. The other insurance booth salesmen could only look on in envy as, in under fifteen minutes, Cat was shaking Mark’s hand and giving him a completed contract and charmed seal with his new insurance policy.

Cat shivered as she shook Mark’s hand. Now that she owned his seal, she could feel his magic—the gift that had brought him to the dangerous magic city to seek his fortune. For all his gullibility and farmer’s tan, Mark Kimball was a power. She looked into his brown eyes and felt as though she were falling down a bottomless well toward a reservoir of quiet, waiting magic. She looked away.

The real insurance bosses of the magic city, who the other booth operators only represented, were powerful seal mages who could hold hundreds of thousands of mage contracts. Cat could hold maybe fifty.

Am I even strong enough to hold this guy? She wondered as Mark walked through the gates to seek his fortune in the Magic City.

***

Cat was done crying. And groaning. And letting her lower lip quiver from the pain in her shattered kneecaps. Crying was a mark of helplessness and she couldn’t look weak now.

Boss Crelon’s goons had finally caught up to her and done what they usually did to insurance fraudsters who honed in on their bosses’ business. Real insurance agents had booby trap spells to protect them from other bosses’ goons. But it was only a matter of time before most fraudsters were kneecapped and tossed, vulnerable and friendless, into some dangerous Magic City back alley.

But I was too clever for this! Cat whined in her head. I was careful! She doubled over on the patio chair the goons had propped her up in. The goons had been so maddeningly routine about the whole process. Chloroform kidnapping; whack the knees while talking sports in mild voices; recite rote threat in mild voices; deposit victim in Magic City. She swore viciously into her lap for a few minutes. Swearing made her feel less helpless than the crying had.

The café patio she was sitting in was at least on a nice street with bakeries, gas lamps, and cobblestones. Cat hadn’t been inside the city since she fled in her adolescence, and she’d certainly never seen a nice part. The street was empty now, long past midnight. But citizens would know what she was when they found her and no one in Magic City harbored goodwill for insurance fraudsters. She was done for.

What made Cat the angriest was the goons’ blasé attitude toward her. Now that it was her time, she wanted someone to be passionate about knocking her off. She didn’t want to go out feeling like a checked box on a to-do list.

She thought about Mark. She’d sent him into the city a week ago and he must have figured out by now what she’d done to him. He’d probably be furious with her. She smiled. If she was going go, she could at least cackle and gloat first. Some things in life, you wanted to be personal.

Of course, Mark could be the one who’d tipped Boss Crelon off about her. That would be less good. But still good. He’d be the one gloating. But someone was going to gloat, dammit.

Cat closed her eyes and called Mark. She held his seal, after all, and this was part of the deal. A mage’s seal-holder could call him any time. Could tap a portion of his power, provided the seal-holder was skilled enough to use it. Cat had tried to tap Mark’s power that first week, but it had been too much for her. It could have been useful against the goons…Oh well. Her other seal contracts had died or left the city long ago. Too far out of range to tap.

She could feel Mark awaken halfway across the city. He was confused and annoyed at first. Then she felt him recognize her and follow her call. Purposefully.

Good. That was done. She sat back in her chair and waited for the vengeful young idiot to come do the townspeople’s dirty work for them. With feeling.

 

“You!”

Cat smiled and slitted her eyes open. Mark stood before her, fuming. She was going to get a good cackle and gloat in after all.

“Well, well, well,” she said. A fine opening for a gloat. “If it isn’t Mr. Signs-Without-Reading himself.” She twitched the corner of her mouth up and leaned one elbow on the patio table by her chair, hoping she looked more arrogant than in horrible pain.

“You!” he said again, jabbing in her direction with a shaking index finger.

“Yes. We’ve established that it’s ‘me.’ What are you going to do? I own you.” Technically true. Not that it gave her any real power.

“You lied to me,” he said.

“No kidding,” she said. Cat buried her face in her hands and groaned. Her knees were little worlds of pain. Why couldn’t he get on with it before she started crying? She didn’t want to go out crying.

“Look, relax,” she said. “You can’t fake being a seal mage, so the contract’s still good. If you die, all your magic will be reborn somewhere down your family line. I’m not a big Boss or anything, but I can still keep your power from flitting off into the ether.”

“Did you know what it was like for me in here with fake insurance? I can’t get a job! I can’t rent an apartment! I can’t use any of the public facilities! Sabotaged from day one!”

I don’t want your life story, kid! She thought frantically. In the past, Cat had frequently found herself trapped in boring conversations with her marks while she was hungry, or needed to pee. She was similarly frustrated now, only so much worse. When he stops talking, I’m dead. Until he stops talking, I’m in agony!

Suddenly, a yellow burst of energy hit the dressmaker’s shop across the street and the building erupted in flames. No wonder the goons had left her on such a nice street. She’d wondered about that.

“What’s that?” Yelled Mark.

“Insurance hit,” cat shrugged.

“What?”

“Seems Boss Crelon thinks Boss Virile has amassed too many people. Too much power.” Cat shrugged. “It’s a controlled burn.”

“This place is so stupid!” Mark kicked the wrought-iron fence surrounding Cat’s café patio. The bar bent a little, but only a little. Just what you’d expect from a big, strong farm kid. Strength’s not his magical power, then.

“You better run!” Cat sat back and smirked. Fire wasn’t a bad end. She’d had her gloat, even if it was only at stupid, simple Mark. He was so pitiful, she found she didn’t really want him to have her blood on his hands. He wouldn’t know what to do with the character complexity.

“Where do the people live?” He yelled. They could both hear the screams rising.

“In those apartments one street over.” Cat pointed and Mark’s gaze followed her finger.

The fire would consume the nice street and the nice apartments before Boss Virile could send his water mages to douse the flames. Not only would Virile take a hit in numbers, but he’d be scrambling with his public relations messaging. How could new citizens feel safe signing with a boss who couldn’t protect his own? Cat sighed.

“This stuff happened from time to time,” she said. “Politics.”

“Let’s go!” He started running toward the fire.

“What?” Cat said. Suddenly she felt an irresistible tug at her abdomen. Horrified, she watched herself get hoisted to her feet by her own invisible call line to Mark. The seal-mage line wasn’t supposed to work two ways. She only had time to think, ‘You’re hooked a shark while fishing from a kayak, didn’t you, Cat?’ before her crumbly kneecaps collapsed and she fell, smacking her nose on the iron patio fence on her way down.

“Cat?” Mark turned to see her groaning on the pavement, holding her gushing nose.

“By dees!” She cried. “By dose!”

“What?”

“Dey broge by dees! You broge by dose!”

“Why didn’t you tell me that?” Mark sounded exasperated. He hopped the fence and wrapped his hands around her knees. The patellas crunched a bit.

“Dowch!”

“Sorry,” he mumbled. Then, suddenly, the pain was gone. A healer! Those were rare.

“Why’d you do dat?” Cat asked, holding her nose.

“Here,” he said and grabbed her bleeding face in his giant hand. The nose felt better too. “We’ve got to go.”

“Where?”

“To help those people!” Mark reached down and pulled off her high heels. “Come on! Fast as you can!”

“Oh no. Not me…” She was cut short by the irresistible pull of her giant fish pulling her little boat along. She staggered a few steps and shouted, “Wait, wait, wait!”

“What now?”

“I run faster with them on!” She reached down and slipped her red heels on. Mark shook his head and ran toward the fire like an idiot. Cat clipped after him, swearing viciously.

 

Mark skidded to a halt in front of the block of burning apartments. A few coughing people had escaped into the streets, but too many screams still rose into the night alongside lemon yellow flames—a magical fire only magical water could quench.

“Cat, can you call for the fire department? I’m going to stop the deaths.”

“You’re what?”

Mark’s eyes rolled back until Cat could see only the veiny white part. A translucent, spring-green cloud erupted from his upturned hands and spread over the burning block. Is he dousing a magic fire by himself? Cat wondered. But though the cloud covered the four burning apartment buildings, the fire burned on.

The screams abated, though, and more and more people fled the buildings. The people weren’t what Cat expected. None of them were coughing or had to be carried. What was Mark doing?

Up the street, Cat saw the blue flashes of approaching water mage wagons. She hadn’t needed to call them, of course. Boss Virile would have felt the hit on his people and acted at once.

People crowded the streets outside the apartment buildings as the roofs collapsed. Most milled around inside Mark’s green cloud, but a few people ran back inside to lead more survivors out. A few others ran back inside and emerged with treasured possessions. Curious, Cat left Mark’s side and insinuated herself into the edges of the crowd.

“And then, I could breathe easy,” Cat heard one woman say.

“Aye,” said an older man. “I’d been burning in my feather bed. Seared flesh. Ungodly pain! But look!” He tore the charred sleeves of his nightshirt away, revealing healthy, whole skin. Cat’s eyes bugged.

She bent down to her red high heel and extracted the blade she kept in the left one just in case. She made a shallow slice across the pad of her middle finger. She winced. Pain and blood. Then she straightened back up until her upper body was once again enveloped in Mark’s green cloud. She brought her bleeding finger inside the cloud and the wound sealed itself. A mass healing ability! It would change everything.

Cat started laughing and looked at Mark, still standing in the shadows, palms to the sky, eyes rolled back. He was starting to shake with the effort, poor thing. It had been his lucky day a week ago when Cat had nabbed his seal. She wasn’t powerful enough to see what he was, but any of the big bosses would have known the moment he’d signed—and killed him.

In a society where the powerful kept each other in check with mass killings, a man who could save hundreds of lives at once would topple the system. And she—Cat—owned him! Glorious!

Just then, the water wagons pulled up and blue-clad mages spilled out. Waving their arms like symphony orchestra conductors, they directed thousands of gallons of magical water, sparkling and silver, to battle the unnatural flames.

Mesmerized, Cat watched the mages loop the flying water ribbons through the burning apartments. The flames hissed and billowed smoke skyward as they died. It was only then that Cat noticed Mark’s green healing cloud had vanished.

She turned. Four blue clad mages struggled with Mark. He shook one of them off, but it was obvious he was tired. They quickly pushed him to the ground and bound his hands. Cat started toward him, and then stopped. They were even now, weren’t they? He’d fixed her knees. She’d ensured some boss didn’t kill him first thing. Unwittingly, yes. But Cat felt unintended good deeds still counted. Results, and not intent, mattered ultimately.

Sure he’d probably be killed within the day, but that wasn’t any of Cat’s doing. Tangling with mages was insane. Cat certainly wasn’t powerful enough to do it, and they were even. Square.

Mark stared at her as they forced him to his feet and marched him into one of the wagons. He didn’t look angry. Just sort of dopey. As they shut him in the wagon, a wave of Mark’s fear hit her through their seal line. He knew.

As the wagon wheels started turning, the line that connected them jerked cat toward Mark. She planted her feet to resist the pull. Her high heels slid along the bumpy cobblestones and she trailed the wagon like some gawky water skier.

Let me go! She cried through their bond. And Mark let go.

Cat toppled forward and sprawled across the cobblestones. She managed to keep her nose from hitting this time. Neither the water mages who were still dousing the fire nor the milling crowd of survivors seemed to have noticed her invisible tether to the receding wagon.

She stood, wincing and brushing pebbles from her skinned knees. Terrified as he was, Mark could have dragged Cat with him all the way to Boss Virile’s mansion. The only help he could call on in the whole city—little help that she’d be. But he’d let her go.

Well, damn. She owed him again. And when you owed someone, you had to repay them. It was personal. She thought about how impersonal Mark’s execution would be. He’d get an “Oh thank you for saving all my people,” from Boss Virile, followed by a “But on the whole, you’re bad for business. Terribly sorry.”

And her twisty mind—which was truly Cat’s greatest asset—landed on a plan. But she’d need to look a lot more put-together than she did. Torn skirt, dried blood from her broken nose, skinned knee. She picked up a loose, fist-sized cobblestone and, after a glance around to see if anyone was watching, she smashed the window of a boutique on the nice street.

***

Cat strode into Boss Virile’s receiving room head held high, working her new form-hugging dress and pumps. She’d been granted an audience almost immediately when she presented herself not only a seal mage, but the seal-holder of Virile’s unusual new prisoner.

Boss Virile’s high backed chair swiveled around, bringing Cat face to face with an austere-looking old woman wearing glasses an understated grey dress so exquisitely tailored it probably cost a fortune. Cat’s high heeled step faltered.

“Are you all right?” The old woman asked.

“I—thought you’d be a man,” Cat blurted.

“Whatever made you think that?”

“Well,” Cat bungled on, “With a name like Virile, I thought you were compensating for…” She cut herself off before she could say anything else stupid.

“It would appear I have a great deal to compensate for,” The old woman nodded gravely.

Great. She’s mocking me. Cat glanced down at herself. She’d wildly miscalculated her outfit. It seemed a slim chance that the academic old woman in front of her could be distracted by youthful, feminine wiggling.

“Do you need to start over, dear?” the woman asked.

“Yes. No. Look, you’ve got my guy. And I thought that, as a fellow seal mage, I ought to warn you about him.”

“Warn me?”

“Yes. He’s dangerous. You probably figured out that he can heal. But did you know that he can un-heal?”

“Un heal?”

“Yes. He can harm you. He’s too nice to do it willy-nilly. Moral scruples and all. But you show him a gallows and he’ll unhook your brain from its stem. Like that!” she said, snapping her fingers.

“Is that what brought you here? Concern for my wellbeing?” The woman’s mouth turned up in a dry smile.

“Well, I thought the information might be worth something to you. Money-wise.”

“Ah money. You insurance fraudsters love money almost as much as you love power. I bet my new guest is too much for you to tap, little seal mage.”

Cat looked down and away, blushing furiously.

“I thought so.” Boss Virile pulled a braided silk rope. “Well, I’m glad you stopped in for this chat because I do like to clean the streets of vermin like you when I can. It keeps my potential people much safer.”

“What?” said Cat, “You can’t…”

Two guards slammed the room’s double doors and seized Cat by an arm each.

“I’ve studied him, my dear little fraudster. He can heal masses of people. But, scruples or no, his magic cannot harm other’s bodies. He poses no threat but the threat to good business.” She turned to the guards and said, “Take her to await her turn at the gallows,” Boss Virile said. “After our unusual guest, of course.” Boss Virile adjusted her glasses and turned back to some papers on her desk.

Cat smiled. Now time for the real stuff.

“Wait!” She called. “You’re in danger!” The guards continued to drag her out the door. She stomped the toe of her right-side guard’s boot with her spiked heel. He howled in pain and she wrenched herself free of the other guard and ran to Boss Virile’s desk.

“It’s not from Mark, either. It’s the other bosses. I can help.” The guards had recovered and grabbed Cat again.

“Wait,” said Boss Virile. “Say on, fraudster. But don’t expect me to believe you.”

“It just makes sense. You’re too powerful. Boss Crelon ordered that hit on your people because you have too many living seals. That’s how the power balance works here. But since Mark basically negated that hit, you remain the most powerful Boss in Magic City. Only now, Crelon’s people are weakened from the magic he tapped from them to hit you. So you’re an even taller poppy to chop.”

“This has occurred to me.”

“So think about this. The bosses have been balancing power, but what if you just take it. Keep Mark as your bodyguard. As your people’s guard. Think of the numbers you could get to sign with you if you could promise protection from the hits.”

“This also has occurred to me. It’s too dangerous. I’m not strong enough for a power grab of that magnitude.”

“But you are. You just need a little insurance yourself.” Cat smiled. The old woman’s eyebrows went up.

“You?”
“Think about it. You can’t do better than me. None of you super powerful seal mages sign with anyone else because you don’t want another super powerful mage who can jerk your chain. When you die, your family line loses all your magic. But if you sign with me, someone who isn’t powerful enough to tap your magic, I can still do my job as a seal mage. The deal’s still good. Your magic returns to your line.”

Boss Virile was quiet and looked thoughtful.

“You wouldn’t be guaranteed safe, of course. But you’d have a better shot than most boss seal mages. You’d be starting a dynasty. The first in Magic City history.”

“Well,” said Boss Virile. “I’m old enough it’s time I start taking some risks. The terms of the contract are exactly as you state. You are my seal mage. You channel my magic back into my family line. If you die before I do, my seal returns to my ownership.”

“Absolutely,” Cat said. “And in return, Mark and I get a sizeable monetary chunk of the new royal treasury.”

“Of course.” The old woman extended her hand. Come to Mama! Thought Cat and reached back.

As their hands met, Cat felt the familiar sizzle of a new seal pact. Then, as she had felt with Mark, the weight of massive power descended. She now had two leviathans on her line. It was all up to Mark now. I hope you’ve got this, big guy. She tried to send the thought to him along her line to him.

“Now,” said Boss Virile as she withdrew her hand, “Take my seal-holder into a comfortable cell. Ensure she lives a long and captive life.”  Predictable. The guards grabbed Cat again. Cat went limp to force them to drag her to the door.

Cat felt Mark’s power hit her line, immense and wild. She clung to the line, trying to keep herself from pulling on it. Just hold it. She felt she might break something if she resisted his mighty tug.

Boss Virile resisted. Cat watched the woman stand, shocked and strain against Mark’s magic. Cat smiled. Mark had no power to hurt Boss Virile or anyone else, unless they were magically connected. Then he could drag you around and break your nose. Now it was a question of whose magic was stronger. Certainly not Cat’s. She just had to hang on and hope.

It seemed an even contest. Cat felt like the flag tied to the tug-of-war rope between two Titans. Boss Virile was shaking, but she was holding her ground. Cat wished she could see Mark to see if he was breaking a sweat or not. But then she was glad he wasn’t here. Mark would probably hold back if he knew how old Boss Virile was…Oh.

Damnit Mark! Cat hissed through their bond. You don’t have to hurt her. Just show her you’re the boss.

That did it. Mark pulled and slammed Boss Virile into her oak desk. She lay there, groaning. Cat’s guards dropped her and ran to assist their mistress.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Cat said, dusting herself off. “He’s done worse to me for far less. He’s all thumbs for a healer.”

“You tricked me!”

“Duh. Fraudster.” Cat smiled and pantomimed tipping her hat. “Now get Mark up here so we can re-negotiate the terms of our little agreement.”

Ex-Boss Virile nodded to her guards. As they left, Cat stepped around the desk and folded her arms at the old woman.

“Someone’s in my chair,” she said.

“You’re a brat,” spat the ex-Boss, but she stood.

Cat plopped down in the wooden swivel chair. Expensive. Comfortable. She kicked her high-heeled feet onto the desk and crossed them at the ankles. Then she leaned back and relaxed with her hands hooked behind her head.

“Ah. This might do,” She said. Gloating felt good.

 

Mark looked so horrible when the guards brought him in that Cat considered leaping from her desk to help him. Red weals covered his face and arms, and Cat could see blood seeping through a few places in his white tank top. Cat wondered if the wounds were part of the magical tests ex-Boss Virile had ordered to learn the extent of Mark’s powers. But Mark was walking okay, so she opted to lean further back and smile.

“Glad you could join us!” Cat grinned at Mark. “We’re discussing the new order of things. Get him a chair, Virile!”

Boss Virile looked furious for a moment, then motioned for a guard to seat Mark in front of the desk. Mark dropped gratefully into the chair. Cat looked him up and down. He must be even stronger than she thought, given that he bested Virile’s magic after being used as a punching bag all day.

“As I was telling this lady,” she indicated Virile, “My word was good when we made that pact. We’re going to be the big power in this town. You, Mark, will keep her people safe during the hits. And Virile…look, what is your first name?”

“Vera.”

“Vera Virile?”

“Young lady, I’ve heard every joke in the book, so don’t think yours will be original,” the old woman said warningly.

“Right. Vera will keep signing new people. Our power base will be huge, our fortunes made!”

“I have one condition,” said Mark.

“Oh?”

“No hits.”

“What?” Virile barked a laugh.

“We don’t do hits on anyone else’s people. I can heal. You can sign. Cat can…sit around and nap or whatever. But we don’t put out hits on the other bosses’ people.”

“That’s outrageous!” said Virile. “How are we supposed to wipe out the competition?”

“No,” said Cat. “Mark’s right.” She remembered fleeing the city as a newly orphaned child. Her parents’ seal mage had gotten too powerful. “It only seems like it will be faster if we take out the other bosses’ people. But we’re proposing a big change; the people ought to welcome it.”

“I’ve seen this place as an outsider who can’t get a job anywhere. All the talented people come here, but they live in fear of the hits, so they don’t really grow to their potential. I see it all the time with our chickens. There are three or four big fat ones who eat all the grain. The rest are just happy to scrape a few kernels here and there, but when we cook a couple fat ones, all the chickens grow and lay more eggs. Until a couple get a little bigger. Then it starts all over again. But by that time another holiday has come up and it’s time to eat another chicken or two.”

“Mark,” said Cat.

“Oh. Sorry. I think the whole city will get wealthier and more prosperous if people don’t have to fear the big power. Then they’ll be looking to fry up those folks who are posing danger.”

“I see,” said Virile. “Interesting. And I suppose I have no choice.”

“You really don’t Ms. Vera, ma’am,” Mark said and sent a subtle shiver of his power across their shared line through Cat. Virile looked down. Point taken, Cat thought.

“So, I know what I’ll be doing,” said Mark. “And Vera knows her job. What are you going to do, Cat?”

“I’ll be doing what I’ve always done. I’ll be out front of the city, collecting signatures. Only legally now.” Cat smiled. There was an automatic magical booby trap protecting all licensed insurance salesmen outside the city. She fervently hoped her old friends Boss Crelon’s goons would try to snatch her one more time.

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