They followed the man with the white hair down the paved stones that wound its way through the private bungalows. Peggy had pulled the handkerchief she kept in her jacket pocket out and had it pressed up to her face. The scratches from the bark of the branch would heal pretty quickly, but the black eye and fat lip were going to linger. Aster was walking close enough next to her that their arms were brushing up against each other. After passing a couple of the bungalows Peggy took Aster’s hand and squeezed. They gave her a watery smile. It had never happened to Peggy, but she couldn’t imagine being possessed was a fun thing you could just throw off.
There were no paparazzi back here, probably because there was hardly anyone to photograph. They passed one person as they followed the man, an impossibly buff young man in a tight suit walking from one bungalow up to the main hotel. He gave them the smile and nod you gave to strangers as he passed by, and then Aster was squeezing Peggy’s hand hard enough to make it burst.
“That was Bradley Brown!” they hissed in her ear, looking to make sure he hadn’t heard.
“Oh, yeah. I met the photographer trying to grab his picture. They think he’s here with Celeste Carmichael.”
“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?”
“You were possessed.”
Maybe being possessed was something you could throw off.
“This way,” the man said.
There was a single bungalow left, down a path overgrown with what passed for a jungle in southern Golden. Creeping vines and palm trees and some kind of flowering bush that seemed to reach for their ankles as they walked by. This bungalow stood apart from the others but otherwise looked the same. Small, stucco, clay roof. The man with the white hair opened the front door and ushered them in.
“Yeah…I see it, too.
The space they were standing in could not have fit inside the bungalow. This was not the front of a modest but decadent hotel room. This was the front hall of a mansion. Rooms spread out in front of them. A pair of grand staircases rose up on either side and led to a second floor that, outside the bungalow, didn’t exist.
The man led them across the main hall, the heels of his shoes hitting hard against the black tiles. He knocked twice at a set of heavy French doors, and after getting some sort of signal neither Peggy nor Aster could hear he opened the doors.
The room on the other side was some kind of formal sitting room. Stuffy, pale rose couches with gold worked along the sides surrounded an ornate table that looked like a coffee table but surely was older than the phrase. There was a fireplace with a stone hearth sitting cold on one wall. The facing wall was a wet bar, with three shelves filled with expensive bottles, some unlabeled. Standing at the far end were two women talking. One had short brown hair, slicked back down the middle with both sides shaved. Piercings were in her nose, ears, and lip. She was wearing an intricate sari, green and gold weaving in and around each other.
The other woman wore a dress just as elegant, only in a western style. A deep purple that snugged around her curves and flared out at the bottom, with a black shawl draped over her dark brown shoulders. Her hair was in braids, starting in an elegant twist on top of her head and then converging into a single fishtail braid that rested on her right shoulder. Despite the two women looking nothing alike, they shared a single feature – deep purple eyes.
“Here they are,” she said, her voice as serene and regal as the rest of them. “The heroes of the hour.”
Aster pulled themselves closer to Peggy as they squeaked, “Heroes?”
“Yes, of course. You’ve saved me quite the headache. We were just beginning to see the threads of Rupert’s schemes, but we wouldn’t have found him on our own for weeks. And here you two come, just bringing him along with you! If you hadn’t angered him so, there’s no way he would have come so close.”
Peggy shifted her weight. “You’re Andromeda?”
The man with the white hair growled. “Your highness, to you.”
A light laugh came from the woman in the sari. “Oscar, you’re too formal for your own good. Neither of them are contracted to redwave magic.”
Oscar said nothing, only resumed the glares he seemed to have for everybody except Andromeda.
“Yes, I am Andromeda. I’m sure you’ve heard some things about me, by now. Mostly from, um…what are their names? The imps?”
“We call them the Steves,” Aster said, “uh, ma’am.”
“Right. The Steves. You’ve met Oscar, my right hand. This is Priti, my left. We only wanted to introduce ourselves to the people who helped us in our time of need. And to receive help from someone on the blue side of things! Miracles, and such.”
“We both had our reasons for wanting…Rupert?…to cut the shit,” Peggy said. “The people that he tricked into contracting with-”
Priti waved her hands once across her body. “The contracts were broken the second Rupert was sent back home. It will be a long time before he crawls his way back to the crust.”
“Okay. Great. Um. Thank you, then. I guess we should be going.”
“Oh, yes! Aster Basa. Margaret Murphy. It was so nice to meet you both.”
Peggy turned for the door. Aster sketched out a curtsey, then a bow, then waved before following. They were at the door before Andromeda said something.
“I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again,” she said. They turned back to look at her, a smile playing on her face. “You know, as you proceed with this new venture. I do hope the next time we meet it’s something like this. With all of us on the same…side.”
“Yup, me too, sounds great,” Peggy said. She opened the door and pushed Aster out into the hall. That calm, in control image Andromeda had been portraying had started to crack at the end, letting Peggy see the dangerous woman underneath.
They were sitting across from each other on the train, both of them staring out at Pacific City rushing by. The afternoon rush was over, and the train car was only half full. Neither of them could shake the feeling they were still being watched until they were back on their side of town.
“Did we just make a friend? Or an enemy?” Aster asked, pulling themselves out of their slouch in the chair.
“Both. Neither. Frenemy. Do the kids still use that word?”
“Who gives a fuck about the kids?” Aster asked. “Hey, why did she call you Margaret?”
She shrugged. “Because that’s my name.”
“No,” Aster said, sitting forward. “Your name is Peggy.”
“Peggy is a nickname for Margaret.”
“What? Why? How? That doesn’t make any sense. Where’s the P in Margaret? Shouldn’t you go by Maggie?”
Peggy pulled her long braid out from behind her and draped it over her shoulder. “I do. Sometimes. But I prefer Peggy. And are you really going to argue with me about my preferred name?”
“Low blow, Peggy,” Aster said through a smile. “You know, by my count we saved three people today.”
“More,” Peggy said. “We don’t know how many books Gary sold before we caught up to him. Could be double digits. That’s some pretty good work for the first job of the Pacific City Defenders.”
Aster’s eyes went wide, and the smile they had turned into a grin. Before they said anything though they crossed their arms in front of them and made the smile a frown. Tried to, anyway.
“I thought you didn’t like the name,” Aster said.
“It’s good enough for now. We can figure something better out later.”
Aster gave up trying to be stern. Their grin almost split their face in half and they punched the air a few times.
“Pacific City Defenders! I’d say we should celebrate, but I am so God damned exhausted. Apparently getting possessed takes it out of you. Hey. What do you say to coming back to my place, smoking a bowl, and watching nature documentaries?”
Peggy smiled. “We need to stop at the Gulp ‘n’ Go first.”
“For the Steves?”
“What? No! When I get high I get munchy as fuck.”
Peggy was having a very nice dream where she and Bradley Brown were sitting in a hot tub in the mountains passing a joint between them, and even if it never became a sexy dream the kush was good. And then her fucking phone started to ring.
“You’ve got another job for us already?” Peggy mumbled into the phone.
“What ‘already?’ It’s been a month.”
Peggy sat up straight in bed. She had been expecting Aster’s quick and light voice. Compared to them, Joey sounded like a fork stuck in a garbage disposal.
“What is it?” Peggy asked.
“Train job. Be at the factory by six. And Maggie…be nice.”
“You don’t pay me to be nice.”
But Joey had already hung up.