The wedding chapel had a neon sign outside and a slot machine in the foyer. I’d been in Las Vegas too long. This setup didn’t even rate an eyeroll.
It also had a man on the door, who asked, “What’s this?”
“Croque-en-bouche,” I said.
“It’s a croque-en-bouche. Means ‘crunch in the mouth.’ It’s for the wedding.”
“Looks like a witch’s hat.”
I did my best to ignore the stereotyping. I don’t even wear a hat, let alone a pointy one. And the term is person of power. “Yes, well, it’s a tower of choux buns, filled with custard and bound together with caramelized sugar. They’re traditional for French weddings.”
“If you say so. Go on through, then.”
“Oh, Viola, thank God,” said the wedding planner, managing to imply that I had been holding up the entire proceedings instead of being there ten minutes before the agreed time. “Put it on the end of the table. No, not that table, darling, the other one. Thanks so much.” He bustled off to decorate some other space with unnecessary drama, his gold lamé jumpsuit gleaming under the lights.
I turned the croque-en-bouche out of its metal cone, fired up my little portable burner and started melting sugar. You can’t put the spun sugar on before delivery; it just falls off and looks terrible. As always, I felt the pull of the magic inherent in the sugar, but ignored it. I was undercover, and showing power would draw attention.
“Well, ain’t that pretty,” said a voice behind me as I applied crystallised flowers. “Those pansies?”
I turned and saw Elvis.
Elvises are more common than lawns in Las Vegas, and I didn’t so much as blink, just answered, “Violas.”
“I thought a viola was…” He mimed playing a large violin.
“Also flowers. And my name. It’s a kind of signature.”
He nodded. “Never seen a dessert like that before,” he said.
“They’re traditional for French weddings.”
“Didn’t know this was a French wedding,” said the Elvis.
“It isn’t, as far as I’m aware. By dint of great effort, I’ve made them popular here, too.”
“No, I’m from New Zealand.”
“Noo Zealand,” he drawled. “Know any hobbits?”
At least he hadn’t asked about kangaroos. There’s nothing that annoys a New Zealander more than being confused with an Australian. “Not a one,” I said, applying more flowers.
“Thought you might be one yourself,” he said.
I looked at him over my glasses. “I’m short,” I said, “but not that short.”
“Beg pardon, ma’am,” he said, maintaining the Elvis drawl. “That was right rude of me.”
“Yes,” I said, and returned to my decorations.
“My momma always did say I had poor impulse control.”
“This whole town has poor impulse control,” I said, turning away from the completed croque-en-bouche. “But since, among other things, that creates the wedding industry from which you and I get our livelihood, I suppose we can’t complain too much.”
He grinned at me, and I saw a gold tooth.
This was my last delivery of the day, so I stayed to see the ceremony. It completely failed to be sweet, moving, or romantic. Both parties were noticeably intoxicated. The bride wore a bad prom dress’s ugly stepsister, and the groom’s suit looked as if he’d ordered it with three proof-of-purchase coupons and a self-addressed envelope. He hadn’t ironed it after taking it out of the envelope, either.
I estimated that the likely duration of their marriage could be measured in weeks. Possibly hours, if either of them faced any kind of personal challenge.
The Elvis performed the ceremony, with down-home aplomb. You could practically smell the peanut butter.
Afterwards, as I walked to my tiny car, he fell in beside me. I slipped a hand into my hidden pocket and fingered my Shielder symbol, feeling the power but not tapping it. It was just a precaution. He was bigger than me—most people are—and I didn’t know his intentions.
He’d stripped off the wig and sideburns, and spoke to me in a Midwestern accent.
“Viola, was it?”
“Yes,” I conceded.
“Warren. Sorry about before. I’m… kind of a method actor. I’m not actually…”
“A southern-fried moron?” I said. He winced.
“Look,” he said, “I’d like a chance to prove that I’m not… What I’m saying is, will you have dinner with me?”
I looked him up and down. He smoothed the Elvis suit with nervous fingers covered in cheap, chunky rings.
“Oh, what the hell,” I said. “Why not? But I get to pick the restaurant.” This could be just the opportunity I’d been looking for.
“Thanks for giving me a chance,” said Warren, when we met again outside the restaurant (Italian, inexpensive, and with one other important distinction which I wasn’t about to mention to him). He had changed clothes, and looked like a different person. I had regretted my impulsive agreement to his invitation several times already, but looking at him under the neon lights I thought I might have not made a bad choice. I liked his little chin cleft, and he had good shoulders. This might be an enjoyable date, as well as advancing my investigation.
“I don’t get asked out all that often,” I said. “Thought it might be fun.”
“I find that hard to believe.” He opened the door and ushered me through first. “The not-asked-out-often bit, I mean.”
“Oh, come on.” I snorted. “I’m not exactly a showgirl.”
“I dated a showgirl once,” he said. “It was less successful than you might think.”
“I’d think it would be an unmitigated disaster.”
“Yeah, it was less successful than that.”
I laughed, and the awkwardness between us eased.
The poor lighting in the restaurant mostly covered the signs of wear and tear (and inadequate cleaning). The gum-chewing hostess seated us at the back, near an exit. At this early hour, the rest of the section sat empty.
Warren came from Ohio, I discovered as we waited for our pasta. He’d always been an Elvis fan. “Then one Halloween I dressed up as him, and … it kind of snowballed from there.” When he wasn’t being Elvis, he made wooden toys and gave them to children’s homes, he said. I believed him. He seemed a decent man.
I began to regret using him as a cover to get a closer look at the restaurant.
Over dry garlic bread, I asked him about his “method acting.” I had a hunch it might go a little deeper.
“How do you get into character?” I said.
He looked down at his plate, biting his lip. “I sing. ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, usually.”
“And what happens?”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” I said. “You can say something that sounds crazy, and I won’t hold it against you. Then later on, when I say a crazy thing, you’ll do the same for me.”
He flicked an uncomfortable smile. “All right. It’s like … like being immersed in an Elvis bath, and then it comes in through my skin. It’s almost like I channel him, you know? Sorry, that sounds stupid.”
“Not at all.” I’d spent some time with a person of power I knew in New Orleans, and she’d described being ridden by the loa, the voodoo gods, in similar terms.
“Anyhow,” he said, clearly uncomfortable with the topic, “how is it that someone from New Zealand ends up in Vegas making… what did you call it?”
“Croque-en-bouche. I learned to make them in New Zealand, for the final of a cooking reality show.”
“Did you win?”
“No, I came in second, thanks to not getting my custard thick enough. So I’m a very minor celebrity in my home country, and nobody at all in Vegas. Still, it’s proved a useful enough skill that I’m making a precarious living at it.”
“I love the way you talk,” he said, flashing the gold tooth.
“Thanks.” I smiled at him as our pasta arrived. Slopped on the plate, drenched in harsh tomato sauce and cheap cheese, and—I discovered when I stuck my fork in it—rubbery.
“This place is worse than I thought,” I muttered. He looked up, and visibly restrained himself from saying something.
“I know,” I said, “I picked it. But it wasn’t for the food.” I took a pull on my drink to fortify my courage, as much for the pasta as for the conversation. “Can I tell you a secret?”
I touched the Shielder symbol in its hidden pocket, and froze. The symbol enhances my magical ability, and my palate is a big part of that. A wave of dizziness swept over me as I tasted inimical magic.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” I said. Warren lifted confused, dreamy eyes at me. Dreamy in the about-to-head-for-dreamland sense, not the other one. I muttered a counterspell, and we both jolted as it burned off the hex that had been placed on the iced tea. (You can’t get proper tea in America. I take what I can get.)
“What was that?” he said.
“Tell you later. Move, Warren, move!”
The gum-chewing waitress noticed us heading for the exit, stood up from where she’d been leaning against the wall, and yelled into the kitchen. “Runners!”
Two men armed with kitchen knives burst through the swinging doors and headed for us, holding their grubby chef hats on with their non-knife-wielding hands. I flashed my badge spell at them. It outlined me in blue and gold light, forming an enormous shield—useful, as well as symbolic.
They didn’t slow, telling me several things. They were in the know, magically speaking, and weren’t surprised; they didn’t respect legitimate authority; and they thought they had enough juice to take me.
I wasn’t about to gamble that they were wrong, given my own limited juiciness. I grabbed Warren and ran for the back door.
“Your car,” I said, as we hit the parking lot. We had come separately, but my subcompact was barely large enough to hold the empty croque-en-bouche mold as well as me, and his pink convertible Cadillac was probably faster.
We piled in over the doors, and the engine roared to life. We left the knife-wielding cooks capering and shouting in our exhaust.
“So.” Warren drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Where to?”
“My kitchen,” I said, and gave him the address. “I need to be in my place of power.”
He shot me a sideways glance, then focused on the road.
“Mind telling me what this is all about?” he said. He was taking it uncommonly well, or possibly he was just in shock.
“I owe you an apology,” I said. “I seem to have involved you in a bit of a tangle.”
“This is your fault?”
“Well, only indirectly. The real fault lies with the corporations who took over running Vegas when the mob pulled out a few years ago. They still practice human sacrifice to keep the big spell running.”
“Spell?” he said; then, “human sacrifice?”
“Yes, you don’t think that the poor impulse control people show in this city is natural, do you? It’s a massive spell, and they sacrifice a couple of people every so often in order to power it. I came here to stop it. I suspected they were using that restaurant as a recruitment point, so when you asked me out I took the opportunity to investigate more closely. I didn’t expect that we’d be chosen as victims ourselves. Sorry.”
“You … who are you?”
“I work for… call it magical law enforcement. Undercover. Not so undercover now that I’ve flashed the badge, I suppose. Still, since you’ve seen that, I assume you believe me? Otherwise, I’d just sound like a nut.”
“You kind of would,” he agreed.
“Remember our agreement. I get to say a crazy-sounding thing?” My voice rose tentatively at the end of the sentence.
“That’s three crazy-sounding things.”
He had a point. I fell silent.
We pulled up outside my rented kitchen space and I let us in.
“You think we lost them?” he said, looking around the interior. There wasn’t a lot of ‘around’ to look at. I couldn’t afford a large facility on what I was making from the business.
“Not for a moment. I countered the hex on the drinks, but there’s enough spell residue that they’ll be able to track us. Our only chance is to hold out here until backup arrives.” I started pulling equipment and ingredients out of cupboards and drawers.
“You’ve called for backup?”
“As soon as we were en route.”
“I didn’t see you … oh.”
“Yes, I didn’t use a cell phone. We have our own methods. The Shielders here are understaffed and overworked, like everywhere, but we should get help soon.”
“Good.” He opened a drawer and looked inside.
I shut the drawer and gave him a stern look. “I’d tell you to get away and leave me here, but they’ll track you too.”
“Just as well. I wouldn’t go.”
“Decent of you. But, no offense, you’ll be useless in a magical fight, so when they get here, just crouch behind the stainless-steel worktop and wait for it to be over.” I rapped the worktop in question for emphasis.
He frowned and squared his jaw, preparing for an argument. I looked at him over my glasses and he sighed and gestured assent.
“Do you mind if I get something to eat?” he asked. “We didn’t really eat dinner.”
“Help yourself. There’s bread and so forth in the fridge.”
“Any peanut butter? I always crave a PB&J after I’m, you know, him.”
I consider mixing sweet and savory in one dish to be just wrong, but then, American peanut butter isn’t especially savory. It’s quite unsavory, in fact, but I keep some in the kitchen, because sometimes people want it in the croque-en-bouche filling. I showed him where it was.
While he made his sandwich, I put on my chef coat, the special one that I was given to wear in the cooking contest final. I find that it boosts my power a touch. I also fetched out some sugar and a few utensils, including my second-best blowtorch—the best one was in my car, back at the restaurant. I looped the Shielder symbol around my wrist where I could touch it and still leave my hands free for the sugar work.
Brakes squealed in the parking lot outside, and car doors slammed. Several of them.
“Get your head down, Warren,” I said, and prepared the first symbol. The door burst open.
I cast, and the first man through the door staggered back into his colleague, overloaded with sugar. I glimpsed several more outside. This was going to take some serious confectionary.
A loose bolt of power sizzled through the doorway and bounced off my shield. It struck the jar of peanut butter, shattering it and spattering the kitchen, and me, with its contents. Distracted, I glanced away from the attackers. My Shielder symbol, dangling on its cord, lost contact with my skin momentarily, and the spell flickered. My vision flashed as another bolt struck me, and I rocked back on my heels.
You know that effect in old movies, where the circle shrinks in from the outside of the screen until everything goes black?
I came to tied to a chair, the metal cold against my bound hands. As I rolled my head on my aching neck, someone said, “She’s awake!”
“Viola!” said Warren’s voice behind me, sounding as if he was also sitting down. “Are you all right?”
“It would take a very generous definition of ‘all right’ to encompass this,” I said, through a dry throat. “Are you all right?”
“No! I’m tied to a chair.”
“Some people like that sort of thing,” I said. “Not me, but some people.”
“OK, can the chatter,” said the man who’d spoken earlier. “Boss, they’re ready.”
A man in a suit at the exact opposite end of the suit spectrum from the groom we’d watched that afternoon strolled into my field of view. He regarded me with a gaze which could have kept shrimp fresh for a week.
“This one’s not very big,” he said. I couldn’t help it. I gave him my best evil eye, but he didn’t so much as blink. Warded, no doubt. Maybe the ward was woven into his suit, which had clearly been made for him.
My Shielder symbol was gone, and I don’t have a lot of raw power of my own. I make up for it with subtlety, usually, but subtlety wasn’t going to get me untied. A chill ran through me.
“Still,” the man continued, “I suppose we don’t need a lot of blood, and the pain and terror will be the same. All right, check their bonds and then come into the chapel and finish setting up.”
The other speaker—a man shaped like a gorilla, whose suit wasn’t nearly so nice—tugged on the bonds that held us to the chairs and confirmed that they would continue to do so. Then he followed his boss through a door, leaving me and Warren alone. I twisted my wrists, but the plastic ties were solid, and all I achieved was pain.
“What the hell is happening?” Warren asked, in what would have been a hiss if it had had more sibilants.
“Um … we appear to be the next designated victims to maintain the spell,” I said. “Killing two birds with one stone, as it were. Though it’ll be a ritual knife, rather than a stone.” My voice croaked in my own ears, flat with terror.
“So we’re going to die?” he said.
“Unless I can find another source of power, yes. Shut up now and let me think.”
My mind hamsterwheeled frantically. This was like being in the reality show final. I’d panicked, and that had lost me the prize. Viola, I said to myself, get a grip. Think about cooking. You know how that calms you down. I pictured the now-familiar process of piping out the choux buns, baking them, filling them, creating the tower from the resulting profiteroles, and covering it with spun sugar and crystallized flowers. I took a deep breath, and turned my mind to escape.
I was still wearing my chef whites. Someone like Mr. Nice Suit probably didn’t think of it as a symbol of power, but it was to me, if a minor one. Along with the sugar in the peanut butter, I might just have enough to get me out of my bonds.
I focused and felt the ties stretch, smelled melting plastic. A few hard yanks left me with sore wrists, a headache—and a free hand.
The power I had was just barely enough, along with some wrenching, to break the tie on my other wrist as well. I rubbed my wrists, thinking furiously in between throbs of my redoubled headache. I was free, but escape was a different matter. The only door was the one that Mr. Nice Suit and his goon had used, and they were on the other side of it, and stronger than I was (especially after I had used all my power up getting out of my bonds).
The room we were confined in was some sort of behind-the-scenes utility room, not one of the ones that visitors were supposed to see, so it didn’t contain any symbols I could draw on for power. Vegas is usually lousy with symbols, too.
I heard a sigh from Warren behind me. “And here I just wanted to drive a pink Cadillac,” he said.
Wait just a minute. “Warren,” I said, “do the Elvis thing.”
“Do your Elvis thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I have physical contact with a powerful enough symbol, I can draw power from it and break us out of here.” I laid my stubby fingers on his. “Touch me, Elvis.”
“But I don’t have the costume on.”
“Have kids’ movies taught you nothing? The power is in you, Warren. It was in you all along.” I remembered the peanut butter, and held out my spattered arm for him to sniff. “Here. Elvis food.”
He shrugged, as best he could while still tied to the chair. “Well, if we’re going to be murdered by nutcases, I might as well go out in style.” He started to sing “Blue Suede Shoes”.
The first verse or so sounded like Warren pretending to be Elvis. But by the time he hit the old fruit jar, something had changed. His accent slid eastward and southward, and his voice took on a richer tone.
At the end of that verse, I felt the power slam into him in earnest, and my magical sense picked up a rhinestone glitter in the air around us. The peanut-butter smell intensified. As it continued to build, I concentrated, and converted the power of Elvis into something that would free him.
His bonds burst apart with so much force his arm hairs smoked.
“That’s more like it,” I said. This Elvis power was stronger than sugar. Mr. Nice Suit had underestimated me; I’d underestimated Warren, and when we got out of this, I would apologise. “Come on,” I said, taking his hand.
“My pleasure, ma’am,” he said.
As we made for the door, it opened, revealing Gorilla Goon. He must have heard the singing and come to investigate. I blew him out of the doorway with a blast of force, and he hit the floor and slid into the middle of the mystic diagram Mr. Nice Suit was drawing.
Mr. Nice Suit looked up, his cold eyes going wide, and dropped his chalk. It bounced, loudly in the sudden silence, and rolled. Both men’s jaws dropped open. Whatever corporation they worked for had a good dental plan.
“Kiss the carpet, scumbuckets!” I yelled, pointing a finger that glowed with the power of Elvis. The finger trembled, but they complied.
When the other Shielders finally arrived, they found me standing over the thug and his boss, tied to the chairs that had formerly held me and Warren.
“Much trouble?” said the chief.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle. The civilian helped.”
He nodded, looking Warren up and down with no evidence of being impressed. He had let go of his power, and was just a man again. “Good work, Viola.”
“So that’s it?” said Warren, when I joined him at the side of the room. “You’ve taken down the bad guys, and everything will be OK?”
“It’s not quite that simple, I’m afraid,” I said. “These things are hydra-headed. We’ve taken down this lot, but someone else will try to feed the spell. The corporations are making too much money to let it slide. It’s a never-ending battle.”
He looked down at me, considering. “Well,” he said, “I’m glad it’s you fighting it.”
I smiled at him. “Thank you,” I said, in a Mississippi drawl. “Thank you very much.”
Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his contemporary urban fantasy series Auckland Allies; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards.
As well as Auckland Allies, he writes two other series: the Gryphon Clerks (secondary-world steampunk/magepunk full of heroic civil servants, engineers, and journalists) and Hand of the Trickster (Leverage-meets-Lankhmar sword-and-sorcery heist capers). His short fiction has appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.