Toulouse 8th March, present day

Feeling about as cheerful as a drenched flea-ridden cat with haemorrhoids. And gingivitis. And, oh bugger it, you get the idea.


We came away from the encounter no wiser, nor any less troubled. I’d hoped that Franc would either have been holding information back or discovered further details during my enforced three-day absence. His ignorance was cause for alarm for both of us. He was the ultimate information broker, gleaning it from a hundred senses, his people practically invisible in the daily routine. They were scenery, blending into the background. People ignored them, not wanting their privilege displayed back to them on the polished surface of suffering. We taught ourselves not to see them, and they became effective, invisible spies. 


Combined with the strength of his own magic they all carried with them, missing a Power capable of conquering angels strolling through the streets of our town wasn’t something that would help me sleep easily at night. The single positive crumb I drew from it was it meant he wasn’t infallible – should the day come when we had to throw down against each other, I’d be relying on that, preparing ways to exploit it.


I felt at a loss – the flaneuring that we’d done to work ourselves into synchronisation with the city’s heartbeat had been the only positive in an otherwise fruitless day. Dead ends, both literal and metaphorical, soured even that moment of communion with the streets. I pulled out my burner and called Isaac back. It connected after a couple of rings – I guessed he’d been waiting on tenterhooks for the call.


‘How are you, my lad? What did that old git have to say for himself? The lack of thunderous destruction over the horizon tells me you’ve talked it through, at least for now.’ 


I felt better just hearing from Isaac. It was funny how, even after 800 years, after all the disappointment and heart-sores, the need for people to lean on and trust still seemed integral to the human condition. He’d always been the port I could anchor myself in, however battered I felt by the storms, inside or out. It was that classic parent-adult child situation – as long as we didn’t live together, it was a genuine pleasure to catch up.


‘He’s still breathing, we’re still breathing, I’m still wearing the same body and the Pont Jumeaux is still standing, so I think that’s a win, given the circumstances. I’ll happily take one in that box at the moment,’ I replied.


Aicha lanced an arching look my way. ‘Did you just say you’d take one in the box? After talking about Franc fucking?’ She mimed a telephone in her hand. ‘I’ve got an S. Freud on the phone for you, Jung man’.


A half-spluttered cough came from the other end of the line. ‘Did she just say you were just talking about fucking Franc? Is that even possible, lad?’


‘Okay, hilarious as this game of misinterpretation and double entendres is, and I mean I am spooling my internal organs back into my body from the speed at which my sides are splitting, you comedy geniuses, you, I’d really called to see if we had made any progress on the bloody mess we’re in. Oh, and answering the earlier question, Isaac, he pleads ignorance and looked distinctly put out.’ I tried some mindfulness, pushing a positive thought down to my jaw muscles, telling them to chill the fuck out as they seemed intent on working through their tension by grinding my teeth to fine enamel dust.


‘Brilliant, now I can’t stop seeing Franc dressed up like Prince Humperdinck, riding a white stallion,’ Aicha said. She gave a strange snort, which it took me a minute to realise was her biting back a giggle. I was pleased to see she’d got over his strange offer of either love or war — or both simultaneously — even if it was at my expense.


‘Well, I’ve got a few potential leads I’m continuing to investigate. Why don’t you both come round to mine? We can eat and brainstorm simultaneously. I need more details on your planned clinching with Franc as well, eh?’ I could hear the old bugger grinning, and another almost-giggle escaped from Aicha before she locked it down.


We considered heading back to get the car that Aicha had doubtless liberated from either a douche bag or a dealership, but I felt like I’d done a few too mang good turns, between over-tipping the begging messenger boy and speaking up in their defence to their master. A bit of thievery would be good for the soul. Not part of the teachings of the Church, but true, nonetheless. We walked down the side of the Canal du Midi back towards the north of town, in the direction of the train centre, eyes peeled for a likely ride. 


I soon spotted a suit, lounging against the door of his sky-blue new model Alpine A110. As we neared, I watched him change his stance. He was on the phone, doubtless to some other Eighties reject, and he turned so that he could keep his body between us and his briefcase. I loved that he thought that would keep it safe. I’d have taken great pleasure going straight through him, if I wanted it.


‘Sorry, yeah, yeah, just some more of the undesirables coming my way. Yeah, you know which type. You know, yeah, exactly. Can’t trust any of them. Exactly, steal anything that’s not nailed down. Yeah, right! Should have kicked them all out, long ago.’


The casual racism was categorically clear as was, but, when we’d gone past him, he added a coup de grace by using a particularly disgusting slur for North African Arabs, sniggering down the line to his equally repulsive friend. I tapped Aicha’s arm lightly, to keep her from disembowelling him with her fingernails and force-feeding him his own entrails. We walked on, and turned off down a small side alley. I threw an illusion over us, making myself look like a white northern scumbag lord of my time called Simon De Montfort, and Aicha a dead ringer for his shrew-faced mother Alix in her younger days. I switched up our clothing for high-grade suits and looped back around to go unload a little of the over-privilege from the racist poser with the sports car. There’s a time and place for educating the ignorant. There’s also one for slapping racists. What time is it? Adventure Time! Also, the second one.


We strolled nonchalantly towards the sucker, still sneering disparaging commentary on the world that passed by to whatever mouth breather he was sharing a magic moment with over the phone. He hardly noticed us, apart from a small head nod at me (not my feminine companion, of course). It was supposed to acknowledge that, hey, we were the same, of the same milieu, and moved through the same social waters. I gave him an answering smile back and tapped Aicha on the shoulder. She buried her fist into his stomach so hard he wrapped himself around her arm like a tossed pancake embracing a spatula. He wretched the air out of his lungs, hurling it out, committed until the most distant alveoli were empty. I pulled him upright by the nape of his tailor-made jacket and fixed him with a predatory grin that Franc would have been proud of.


‘That there’s a lovely looking vehicle mate,’ I snarled cheerfully into his lughole as he gasped and wheezed, desperately trying to get some air back into the utterly evacuated organs. ‘Lovely thing indeed, just what I’ve been looking for.’ I patted him down, searching for the key fob. I found the credit card sized rectangle in his inside suit pocket and slipped it into my own.


He’d regained enough air to pass from wheezing to whining, and his confusion and fear were clear. ‘I don’t understand. Why? Why would…’ he searched, both for words and air.


‘Why would someone who looks like me steal from someone who looks like you?’ I leant forward, eyes only centimetres away, making contact unavoidable. ‘Thing is, mate, I’ll let you in on a secret. Street hustlers are playing our games, aren’t they? Sticking to the worlds they’re given, the options they’re offered, the judgements that are passed every single day. Easier to do the hard life, live down to the expectations. The real criminals aren’t them, my friend. The ones making all the big money, whether from ripping off the markets, or flooding them with narcotics, well, we all look the same, don’t we matey? We all look the same.’ 


I tipped him a wink and stepped past him as Aicha delivered another hammer blow to his mid-section that made him vomit, tears mingling with snot down his chin as he dribbled and heaved on his knees. He had no idea she’d completely pulled her punches – had she hit him with even a fraction of her proper force, she’d have punched straight out the back of his sternum.


I threw a casual glance back at the snivelling wreck, crying and gasping in a disabused heap of his own self-worth. ‘In three days’ time, you can report it to the authorities and to the insurance and start what I hope will be a lengthy process of recovering the lost funds. If you should call beforehand, well then, that might not end so well for you should we come for another chat.’ I slid into the padded black leather bucket seat and tipped him another wink as I pulled the door closed. ‘Ta-ta matey boy,’ I hollered, as we pulled away, sniggering like naughty schoolkids. 


Look, maybe you’re judging me for my actions just as badly as I judged him for his words. Fact was, I needed a car, and he needed a slap. I felt all the better for having both anchored my soul once more to this world of sin and educated an arrogant idiot simultaneously. There’d been no real requirement for him to wait three days to call the police – I’d already changed the visible colour and made the number-plates impossible to memorise or recognise to any onlooker that passed within a block – but it amused me, the idea of him walking with a bit of fear in his step to catch public transport or expensive taxis for the next few days, forced up close with the hard-working people he’d been so quick to sneer at. I smirked like the lingering smile of a certain vanishing cat at Aicha. She looked just as pleased to have taken out some of a frustrating day on a suitably deserving target. Considering the whole thing a good omen, we headed toward the peripherique to make our way round to Isaac’s abode.