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Protection Money

Written by Wen Spencer
Illustrated by Carol Heyer



Tommy Chang had no sympathies for the humans of Pittsburgh. Every time he heard someone complaining about how dangerous the city had become with the war between the elves and the oni, he wanted to punch the speaker in the face. Pittsburgh had never been safe—not for his half-oni kind. He'd grown up a slave to his brutal oni father; his money controlled, his family held hostage for his good behavior, and his every action watched.

Tommy had wanted freedom, so he had thrown in with the elves during the last big battle. Somehow everything had changed, yet stayed the same. The city was under martial law, so the elves were controlling his cash flow. His family had to register as known oni dependants. And the arrival of a summons from the viceroy meant that the elves were keeping track of his moves.

If Tommy was currently free, then somehow, he'd confused freedom with starvation. He didn't want to go talk with the viceroy at his enclave, but the elf owed him money that he desperately needed. At his knock at the enclave gate, a slot opened and elfin eyes studied him with suspicion.

"I'm Tommy Chan. The viceroy sent for me."

The slot closed. When the gate opened a few minutes later, armed elves filled the courtyard beyond. Most of them were common garden variety laedin-caste soldiers, but sprinkled among them were the holy sekasha-caste warriors, with spells tattooed down their arms in Wind Clan blue.

Tommy figured it would go like this, but it was still hard to ignore the fear racing through him and calmly step through the gate. He raised his hands carefully as the gate clanged shut behind him.

"I'm a half-oni." They were going to find out one way or another, and he didn't want to give them an excuse for killing him. "The viceroy ordered me here."

"Weapons?" One of the sekasha-caste warriors asked.

Tommy surrendered over his pistol and knife. They searched him for more. He hadn't been stupid, so there was nothing for them to find. As a final humiliation, they had him take off his bandana and reveal his cat-like ears. No one who wasn't family or half-oni had ever seen his ears before. Tommy locked his jaw on anger; he'd vent his annoyance when he knew he was safe.

Windwolf, the viceroy and head of the Wind Clan for the Westernlands, waited in a luxurious meeting room. With cool elegance, the elf noble wore a white silk shirt, a damask cobalt-blue vest, and black suede pants. That was elves for you—everything had to be done with polished style. Windwolf acknowledged Tommy with a nod.

"This wasn't necessary," Tommy said. "You could have mailed me a check."

"I wanted to talk to you. Sit."

Tommy considered all the alert and heavily armed sekasha. The holy warriors were considered perfect, thus above the laws made by common elves, and free to kill anyone that annoyed them. So far a Pittsburgh policeman and elf nobles had fallen under their blades.

While the sekasha bristled with swords, guns and knifes, the viceroy seemed unarmed. Tommy had seen the elf blast down buildings and set oni troops on fire with a flick of his fingers; Windwolf didn't need knives or guns—he was a living weapon.

Tommy took a chair. "So talk."

Windwolf laid an envelope onto the table.

Tommy studied the thick, white envelope as if it was a trap. He couldn't see the strings attached, but he was sure they were there.

"That is for the damage I did to your family's restaurant." Windwolf said.

Tommy's grandfather Chang had started the business in a time when Pittsburgh existed solely on Earth and oni were only an Asian myth—a "myth" that infiltrated all levels of the Chinese government. When Pittsburgh started to shuffle between Earth and Elfhome, it was the unexpected side effect of the "mythological" oni trying to return home to Onihida. Unlike the other two worlds, Earth had no magic, and was a place to flee. Lightly populated Elfhome, however, represented a great prize and invasion plans were laid. The oni's first step was to find Chinese people who had family members in Pittsburgh. The Changs were the first family enslaved, thus Tommy was the oldest of the half-breeds.

For twenty-eight years, working in great secrecy, the oni sought a way to bypass Earth and invade Elfhome directly. That summer, they nearly succeeded. Pittsburgh was embroiled in open warfare as royal elfin troops washed the city in blood and Fire Clan red. Sick of oni enslavement, and knowing that Windwolf was key to the elves' defense, Tommy risked everything to save the viceroy's life and hide him at the Changs' restaurant. Then the stupid elf fuck picked a fight with oni warriors, blowing out the storefront and structurally weakening the building to the point that it collapsed.

But it worked as Tommy hoped. The oni stranglehold on him was broken, and Windwolf crossed the half-oni off the elves' "kill on sight" list.

"This is not stake money," Windwolf tapped the envelope between them. "But a repayment of what I owe you."

"Which makes us even." Tommy wanted that clear even though he wasn't sure if it was a good thing or not. There was some degree of security inherent in having Windwolf in his debt, but the elves were making it clear that their protection came at a cost.

"The question is now, what does the half-oni intend?"

"My family wants to rebuild." Tommy left the envelope on the table, waiting for the outcome of the conversation. "We have a good reputation in Oakland, so we would stay in the same place."

He used "want" to indicate desire, not concrete plans, as lying to elves was a dangerous thing to do. He wasn't sure, however, if the elves approved of his more lucrative but illegal operations.

"I have spoken with Director Maynard, and the Earth Interdimensional Agency will help you move to Earth, if that is what you want. Through the EIA, the UN has set up extensive programs to help the humans dislocated by Pittsburgh's move to Elfhome. Those programs can apply to the half-oni."

Tommy shook his head, locking down on a flare of anger. Remember the sekasha. "Moving to Earth would be a serious step down for my people. We don't know shit about Earth. The only people that know us over there are oni. And I know Earth history enough to know that the UN could completely dick us over—'relocating' us to whatever hellhole no one else wants."

"I see."

"There's no golden promised land for us. Let someone else chase that shit. We know the score here."

"Very well. Here you will stay."

When Windwolf said it that way, it sounded ominous.

"Are we done here?" Tommy asked.

"We elves had our own cruel masters, the Skin Clan, who we turned against. We know that good can come from evil, which is why we're allowing the half-oni to live, but not without conditions."

Here it comes, Tommy thought. "Those being?"

"All of the half-oni must allow themselves to be known to us, so we can weed them from the oni. We are still set on our course to eliminate the oni from our world. The EIA are urging us to detain them and have them deported to Earth. Whatever is decided, the half-oni will be spared only if they reveal themselves."

"And have a Star of David sewed onto their sleeves?"

"The oni invaded our world. If we are not ruthless in our actions, the oni will take Elfhome from us by merely breeding like mice and overrunning us. We are sparing the half-oni because we believe you have inherited compassion and the capability of honor from your mothers."

Tommy flinched, as always, at the thought of his mother. His father had murdered her when he'd grown tired of her. Tommy valued his life, so he chose to find it lucky that his father continued to see him as useful. "You don't have to convince me that oni are filthy pigs."

"The half-oni will also have to conform to elfin culture. You will form households under the Wind Clan."

"Why not the Stone Clan or the Fire Clan?"

Windwolf raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Has the Stone Clan offered?"

So Prince True Flame of the Fire Clan was so unlikely that it wasn't even a question. "Not yet, but rumor has it that Forest Moss on Stone is quite insane, and capable of anything."

"Yes, I suppose that's the truth. I would not recommend him."

"Because he's insane?"

Windwolf shook his head. "I don't know if he is as insane as he makes out to be; it might be a ploy he's found useful. I believe, however, that the Stone Clan sent Forest Moss here because they saw him as expendable. If that's true, he does not have firm backing by his clan. Nor does he have sekasha, which leave any household he builds vulnerable."

"Ah." Tommy fought a flash of respect for Windwolf. The elf was shrewd. Unfortunately, that could work to Tommy's disadvantage.

"This is repayment." Windwolf tapped the money on the table. "If you wish to establish a household under me, I will advance you stake money. You would be under my protection."

Tommy had lived under the oni 'protection' long enough to know that was a two-edged sword. "I'll need time to think about it."

Windwolf nodded. "We're lifting martial law today. Do what you will, but know that the offer is still on the table."

* * *

Tommy collected the money, his bandana, his knife, his pistol and his freedom, in that order. With the money stuffed into his jeans' pocket, he rode his hoverbike up to Mount Washington. There he sat, smoking a cigarette, looking down at the city. He spent years taking calculated risks trying to free himself from his father, Lord Tomtom, leader of the oni. Looking back, it was odd which ones led to this moment.

The most unlikely was staying silent when his father started looking for a man by the name of Alexander Graham Bell. Tommy knew Bell was really a teenage girl genius who went by the name of Tinker and ran a metal salvage company in McKees Rocks. He saw her and her cousin, Oilcan, every week at the hoverbike races. Knowing what his father would do to Tinker if he found her, Tommy went to her scrap yard to kill her. He told himself it was the merciful thing to do.

Tinker been working on an engine, but greeted him with a smile, a cold beer, and a blithe assumption that he cared about the inner workings of big machines. She was so small and trusting. He'd waited until she leaned back over the engine and wrapped his hand around her slender neck. . .

And realized he was rock hard with excitement. He was getting off on the idea of killing someone who, with her pulse pounding under his thumb, only looked at him with mild confusion. It was like the monster that was his father suddenly woke inside him and stretched against the limits of Tommy's skin. It wanted out to fuck with something that had been beaten to bleeding and then kill it. Like Lord Tomtom had done to his mother. Like his father had tried to do to him.

Tommy jerked his hand back off her neck and wiped it against his pants, wanting it clean. He wasn't his father. He refused to be.

Three months after he'd fled his heritage and Tinker's scrap yard, she killed Lord Tomtom, blocked the oni invasion, and kept Tommy from being beheaded. Of all his little rebellions, he would have never guessed that the most important had been wrapped around that small life. Knowing how close he came to killing her made him worry about what he should do next. It was so easy to misstep.

He took out the cash and counted it. The insurance adjustors had been generous. His family could rebuild the restaurant and still have a small nest egg. But it did nothing for the other families that looked to him for protection. He employed all the half-oni that couldn't pass as human, making sure they could make ends meet without risking being discovered. His father's warriors had always controlled his cash flow; his oni watch dogs had stripped Tommy bare before they fled. Then the elves locked down the city, shutting down his businesses. What little he had hidden away had been drained just keeping everyone fed.

If he took care of just his family, he lost the ability to do anything for the half-oni. With the loss of that power base, he would be less able to defend his family. It was a self-defeating loop. The more he tried to protect his family alone, the less he would be able to do it. Any disaster would put them at the elves' mercy. They'd go from being owned by the rabid oni to the being controlled by the rigid elves. Slavery, no matter who was the master, held unknown terrors of helplessness.

But if he used the money to restart his businesses, then it was more than enough to keep them free of elfin entanglements. The most profitable was the hoverbike races. Now that martial law had been lifted, racing could start again. Carefully managed, he could grow the seed money.

And money meant freedom.

* * *

John Montana ran a repair shop and makeshift gas station out of the old McKees Rocks Firehall. He also captained Team Big Sky, which had ruled the racing season until the elves locked the city down. The firehall's three tall garage doors were open to the summer night as Tommy pulled up on his hoverbike. John had a car up on the end rack. Surprisingly, his younger half-elf brother, Blue Sky, was with him. The boy was, however, practicing drawing a wooden sword and bringing it up into a guard position. It confirmed the rumors that the elves had discovered that the boy's father had been a Wind Clan sekasha and taken custody of him. Apparently they'd given John visitation rights to the brother he had raised like a son. How good of them.

John came out from under the car and greeted Tommy with a cautious look and a nod. "Blue, I'm getting hungry. Can you heat up the food you brought home from the enclave?"

Being a good kid, Blue immediately put away his sword. Blue was seventeen years old, but because of his elf heritage, he was as small and naïve as a twelve year old. "Is Tommy staying for dinner?"

"No, he's not." John mussed Blue's hair and then gave him a little push to get him moving. He waited until the boy had left before asking, "What do you want?"

Did John know that Tommy was half-oni? Of all the people in Pittsburgh, he might know, since Blue was coming and going from the Viceroy's enclave. It was hard to tell, as John had always been protective of his little brother around him.

"Elves lifted martial law," Tommy said.

"I heard."

"I'm setting odds for this weekend." Tommy leaned on his handlebars, keeping to his bike out of grudging respect for John. The man had always done right by his brother, even though he wasn't much more than a kid when they'd lost their mother. "Is Blue riding?"

John nodded. "The sekasha figured out fast that taking everything from him would only break him."

Was it good of the elves to be worried about breaking their possessions? The oni never did. Did it make the elves more compassionate, or just more careful with what belonged to them? "Letting him come back here is also to keep him from breaking?"

John pressed his mouth into a tight line, as if he'd said more on the matter than he wanted to.

"If I was you, it would piss me off." Tommy pressed for more information, wanting to know what is was like to have elves control your life. "Them taking him like that."

"Didn't say I was happy about it." John lowered the rack, dropping the car down to the garage floor. "But some of it makes sense. He likes to fight. It's why he likes to ride. And since we don't have any family here on Elfhome; they'll take care of him if something happens to me. He's going to be a kid for a long time; probably longer than I'm going to be alive."

Trust John to still be thinking of what would be best for Blue Sky even while the elves were rubbing his nose in shit. What made humans so damn noble and oni so monstrous? Was it because the oni greater bloods had bred the lesser bloods with animals? Tommy didn't like to think what that made him, but he couldn't deny the cat-like ears hidden under his bandana. And did those ears mean he could recognize nobility, admire it, but never contain it?

Tommy distracted himself by starting up his hoverbike. He had dozens of teams to visit. "Still think it sucks."

* * *

Since Windwolf had reduced their warren to rubble, Tommy had hidden his family away at an industrial park on the South Side. The building was large enough to hold them all, had running water and toilets, and was easily defended by a handful of people. After the luxury of the enclave, it was also very dirty and ugly. His cousin, Bingo guarded the main door. He slid the massive door aside to let Tommy ride his hoverbike into the cavernous warehouse, and then pulled it shut and threw the bar.

"Glad you're back." Bingo pulled the door shut and threw the locking bar. "I've been getting calls all day. People are asking if we're taking bets."

"I've been out to the teams." Tommy fished out his wordpad and handed it to Bingo. "Call Mason at the Post-Gazette and give him the list of teams that will be racing. Tell him we'll be starting to take bets tomorrow morning."

There was a brittle crystalline crash from the back of the warehouse. Tommy reached for his pistol then stopped as he realized Bingo looked only mildly disgusted by the noise.

"What's that?" Tommy asked.

Bingo shouldered his rifle. "Numbnuts got Aunt Flo knocked up last time he boinked her—just before Windwolf turned him into an oni candle."

"Shit, again?"

His cousins were all mildly terrified of Aunt Flo, even though their oni blood made most of them nearly two feet taller than her. The more the oni humbled her, the more she would rage at his cousins. Tommy suspected her fury was the main reason she'd survived where his mother hadn't. If he didn't stop her, she was capable of breaking all their dishware. Sighing, he headed to the back of the warehouse.

They had salvaged what they could from the restaurant, including the dishes. They had nailed up shelves to the back wall and stacked the survivors there. Aunt Flo had worked through rice bowls and was now throwing bread plates.

"Stop that," Tommy snapped. "We'll need those to start up the restaurant again."

She flinched away from him, shielding herself with the plate.

"I'm not going to hit you." Tommy wanted to though, just for thinking he might. She read the anger on his face and continued to quail. "Throw the last one, and then clean up the mess."

Reassured that he wouldn't act, she let loose her anger again. "I didn't want another baby!" She flung the plate against the wall. It shattered, its pieces raining down to a pile of broken china. "I'm sick of babies! You could have stopped him!" She turned to flail harmlessly at him. "You stood there and let him finish and then you killed him! You should have just killed him when he first walked in!"

He caught her wrist and controlled himself so he didn't hurt her, despite his growing anger. "He had his warriors with him. Did you want us all dead just to save you from. . .what? Doing what he'd done a hundred times before? We're free of oni now. This time, you can go to the human doctors and have an abortion."

The fight went out of her and she started to cry, which only made him angrier, because he'd been helpless to protect her in the first place. It had been Windwolf that killed the oni, not him. She clenched the front of his shirt with both hands, seeking comfort from him as she sobbed. The herd of his younger cousins thundered pass, all shrieking loud enough to wake the dead, the one in the lead with some treasured toy that all the rest wanted.

God, he needed a drink

* * *

There were a billion things that needed his attention if the races were to happen. He and his cousins worked out how much of the seed money had to go to operating expenses and how much could be risked in betting. They would need to pay wages, stock the food concessions, and put aside tax money. True, they'd double their amount with the admission fees, but the money had to be spent upfront first. Lastly, some cash had to be spent immediately so that various families didn't starve before race day. Luckily the entrance fees covered the purse money for the winners, so that money didn't need to be held in reserve. They set the starting odds, downloaded the spreadsheet to Tommy's workpad, and made sure their phones all worked.

"Remember, your cap is five hundred." Tommy paced the room. "Anything above that, call me first. We have to watch our bottom line closely on this one, so call in after every bet. The elves are jumpy; keep your guns out of sight. Watch your back. Remember that there are some oni still out there loose."

"Danny. Yoyo. Zippo. Quinn." He tapped the chests of the teenagers as he passed them. "You're to guard the warren. If the elves know where we are, the oni might too. They might raid us for food, money, and sex. Call Bingo if you see anyone suspicious. He'll be stationed closest to the warren. If you're raided, don't give them any reason to kill you. Remember, what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

"This is just like before—only this time, we're doing it for ourselves."

* * *

All day his phone rang, giving Tommy a constant barometer of Pittsburgh to be entered into his spreadsheets. True there were some names he recognized as die-hard gamblers. They carefully weighed the odds, dispassionate in their choices. The rest of the city, however, bet with their hearts.

The elves bet on Blue Sky without exception. They believed the holy sekasha-caste were perfection made flesh, and having seen the half-elf race, Tommy wasn't sure if he'd quibble with that.

The human population splintered into a multitude of factions. The younger crowd that thought of Elfhome as their world bet on Team Tinker or Team Big Sky. John's team had the most recent wins, their custom-modified Delta hoverbike, and their "perfect" rider. Team Tinker was still a strong contender even though Oilcan wasn't as aggressive a rider as Tinker used to be. Team Tinker had the experience and the only other Delta. While the team was all humans, Tinker had been magically transformed into an elf and married to Windwolf which tainted the team through association.

The older humans didn't bet on either of the top two teams. They saw Pittsburgh as still a city of Earth and men. They supported the underdogs, if they bet on the next layer of teams. Then under that, came bets on teams connected to certain political ideology, or someone just had a lucky feeling for, but usually only to place, not to win.

He was out at the race track, when he realized that his phone had stopped ringing. He took it out and checked on the signal strength. "Trixie, is your phone working?" he asked the half-oni in charge of the food concessions.

She took hers out and glanced at it. "Huh, no signal."

He went up to the track office and picked up the landline. It was dead too.

Trixie had followed him. "What do you think it is?"

"The oni might be attacking town." He swore. "Last thing we need is to have the elves slap martial law back on."

"Well, we'll be eating hotdogs for the next two weeks."

He picked up the microphone to the race track's PA system. "I'm heading into town, do we need anything out here?"

There was a call from somewhere near the concession booths.

"What was that?" Trixie's hearing was as human as her ears appeared.

"Toilet paper." Tommy tied his bandana back into place and headed out to his hoverbike.

* * *

"I've been trying to call you." Babe held out a list of bets.

"All the phones are down." Tommy entered the information into his spreadsheet. Babe had only taken four bets, one at the five hundred dollar cap for Team Providence to win. It was a fairly new team made up of tengu, having only run a half-dozen races, and never even placed. None of Tommy's information suggested that they could pull a win off. They were such a longshot that the large bet required an immediate adjustment to the odds. "Shit, what a hell of a time for the phones to go down."

He didn't recognize the name: Kenji Toshihiko. Most the Japanese in town, though, were part of the tengu. "I don't like this taking bets blind. Spread the word: I'm closing the books."

Abby had a five hundred bet for Team Providence. And Syn too. Tommy swore and ran numbers right there. If all of his cousins had taken bets at their cap, locking in the same longshot odds, and Team Providence won, then his family were going to be royally screwed. Not only did it take out all the money they set aside to cover the bets, it also would eat up all the money that the race would bring in with admissions.

He checked his phone. It was still dead.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck." Tommy punched Syn in fury.

"We'll just call the bets off." Syn scrambled out of the way of a kick.

"We can't!" Tommy shouted. "The fucking anal elves and their frigging honor! A bet is a promise to them! If we welshed on the bets, they'd be all over our asses because they know we're half-oni!"

"Someone is suckering us!"

"Don't you think that I know that? I'm going to fucking find them and kill them. Spread the word. No more bets!"

* * *

Whoever planned the strike against them had done it with great precision. It had only taken an hour to close down the books but the damage had already been done. Twenty bets, all at cap, all made within minutes of the phones going dead. Ten thousand dollars with a payoff of half a million dollars.

"The bets are to win," Bingo pointed out as they gathered at the warren.

"Because to 'show' and 'place' gave lower odds," Tommy snapped.

"How the hell do they expect Team Providence to win?" Bingo said. "Team Big Sky was creaming everyone before the elves locked the city down. And there's Team Tinker, and Team Banzai and Team Eh?"

Tommy had talked to all the teams. They assured him that they were all racing. Some of them might have been lying, in on the scam, but not Team Tinker nor Team Big Sky. They were tied too closely to the honorable elves to cheat, and they were the favorites to win. "Whoever the hell they are, they've got something else planned then. They're going to cheat somehow. We've got to find out how."

* * *

They stormed the garage of Team Providence first. The building was completely empty of everything, even dust.

"We just not let them race!" Syn said as Bingo sniffed around the room, trying to find a scent.

Bingo shook his head. "They waited until the Post Gazette listed the teams. We provided the list after the teams all paid the entrance fee. The elves would see that as a contractual promise. . ."

"Fuck the elves." Tommy snarled. "Okay, so to hit all of us at once, there had to be at least twenty of them. Was any of them part of Team Providence?"

His cousins shook their heads.

"Thirty tengu. We only need one. One little bird to sing."

* * *

The tengu had at one time had been humans that lost their way onto Onihida through natural gateways. Gathered into one mountain tribe, they were conquered by an oni greater blood, who merged the survivors with the crows feeding on the dead. Typical oni stupidity—use what was at hand and not worry about the consequences. Thus the tengu were clever with languages, attracted to bright and shiny things—and tended to flock together against their enemies. Like Tommy, the tengu had thrown in with the elves during the last battle, and won their limited freedom.

The Four and Twenty was the tengu bar in town. On a Friday night, it was crowded with tengu. Wading into it would have been an invitation for a full out war, with a good possibility of the tengu they wanted not even being in the crowd.

Tommy didn't have his father's talent, who was able to make groups of people see anything he wanted them to see. Lord Tomtom's ability to pass an army invisibly through a crowd was the reason his father had been chosen to oversee the invasion of Elfhome. Tommy couldn't completely mask a moving object from multiple watchers. With stage props, dark lighting, and concentration, though, he could pass as someone else in a crowded space.

He tore up one of his T-shirts to match the backless style favored by the tengu. With matte black paint, they painted a close approximation to the spell that was tattooed onto the back of every tengu. His black hair needed no work, but he wore a hat to pull low, to cover the fact his nose wasn't a large hooked beak.

He startled Bingo at the door on his way out.

"Tommy?" Bingo sniffed a few times to verify his scent. "Why Riki?"

"He has some influence, so I'm going to use it. Besides, I can nail him cold." Riki Shoji was the nephew of the tengu spiritual leader, Jin Wong. The oni had used him to control the tengu. They had worked with Riki during the summer, serving as a go-between as he spied for the oni.

"How are you going to know he's not in the Four and Twenty already?"

"You're going to sniff around the outside first. Still remember his scent?"

"Yeah, I can do that."

* * *

Four and Twenty was in the Strip District, giving Tommy reason to suspect that the tengu village was north of Pittsburgh. Tengu would fly in out of the dark on wings of glossy black feathers. With a word, they would cancel the spell that created their wings and walk into the bar. While Tommy masked them from the tengu coming and going, Bingo sniffed around both the front door and the back.

"Riki doesn't seem to be here, Tommy." Bingo drifted back into the shadows across the street. "Be careful. If you need me, just yell."

The bar was crowded, but dim. Tommy avoided the bar. The people sitting there looked in too many random directions, and the mirror behind the bartender doubled his danger. Tommy slipped back to the corner of the room, trying to keep focused on his appearance while listening in to the conversations that he passed. He found an empty table without hearing one mention of racing. He wished he could take the hat off; it was muffling his hearing. Still, he could make out conversations that the various parties thought were under the general level of noise. He focused on each discussion around him in turn.

In the corner booth, four males were discussing the weather report for the next day. They made travel arrangements without indicating where they would be heading, but Tommy listened with interest. There were few places in Pittsburgh where tengu would find driving easier than flying. The racetrack was one. He didn't recognize any of them, but as three got up to leave they called the fourth by name. Kenji. Babe's cap bet was placed by a Kenji Toshihiko. Was it the same person?

Tommy caught Kenji as he counted out money for the tab. He slid into the booth and put out his leg, trapping the tengu into his side. Tommy said nothing, only glared; waiting to see if this male knew Riki.

Kenji's eyes went wide. "Shoji, what are you doing here?"

"I've been worried about how things are going." There, nice and vague.

The tengu male got a slightly guilty look on his face that he banished away. Oh, what is this? Something that Shoji—and ultimately—the spiritual leader wouldn't like?

"The city is a powder keg." Tommy poked at the tengu's conscious. "One little thing and it's going to blow to pieces. If it does, I'm afraid a lot of our people will be hurt."

"Most of our people don't go into the city," Kenji said.

"The race tomorrow is sure to pull some of them." Tommy said.

Again, another guilty look.

"I heard what you've done and I don't like it," Tommy said.

"Does your uncle know?"

"Not yet."

"It's only the one time. The only ones hurt by the phones going down were the oni brats. It was the only way to sucker them into a big payoff. They wouldn't have taken a big bet at the long odds, and with each small bet, they would have adjusted the odds down."

Damn right he would have. Unlike the people making the bets, Tommy didn't gamble. Only outright fraud like the tengu could have forced him into losing money. He controlled the urge to rip Kenji's throat out. He still had to find out how they planned to win the race.

The waitress came to collect Kenji's bill.

"Let's talk about this where we will not be overheard." Tommy let Kenji led out the door, concentrating on keeping his appearance through the crowds. Once outside, he caught hold of Kenji's arm and urged him toward where Bingo was hidden. His cousin gave a wolfish grin but stood silent as Tommy kept him invisible from the tengu. Once they were past him, Bingo quietly followed.

"You're putting our people's safety on the line to cheat on a race?" Tommy talked to distract Kenji as he led the tengu even father from the bar, where cries of pain wouldn't be heard.

"We checked carefully. The rules allow you can switch out bikes up to the last minute."

They'd found a loophole. Tinker had invented the hoverbikes, and up till now, was the only one that understood the blend of magic and technology enough to improve on the basic design. It was such common knowledge when Tinker sold one of her custom Deltas, Tommy could easily adjust the odds.

"I don't see how you're going to get your hoverbike past the oni brats." Tommy hated using the words to describe himself. He spat them out in anger.

Kenji mistook his tone. "The dogs won't be able to do anything. It took careful manipulations, but the sekasha from the Fire Clan will be there—seeing what the newly found baby sekasha does in his spare time. We're going to show up just before the first race, wipe everyone off the track with our bike, collect our winnings and leave."

With the sekasha unintentionally protecting them every step of the way. If Tommy didn't get to the bike before they got to the track, there would be no stopping them without getting the elves involved.

Kenji finally noticed that they'd walk for several blocks into a warehouse district. He laughed nervously. "Are we walking back to the Nest?"

"Here's far enough." Tommy pinned the tengu to the wall. "Where's the bike?"

Kenji looked at the hand pinning him, seemingly still unaware he was in danger. "I don't know where they moved it to."

Was he telling the truth? "Who would know where it is?"

"Look, you shouldn't even get involved in all this. It could get messy. We didn't want to get you or Jin pulled in."

Behind Tommy, he heard Bingo shift with a scrape of boot on pavement. Kenji glanced toward the noise and went stiff with alarm.

"It's an oni brat!" Kenji cried and tried to push Tommy aside.

"Yes." Tommy lifted his head and dropped his illusion. "It is. Now, tell me, where's the bike, or this will get messy."

* * *

Unfortunately, they had to get very messy, but without learning anything useful. If Kenji knew where the bike was stored, he took the information to his death. After what they'd done to him, however, Tommy doubted that the tengu had ever known. At first light, they dumped his body into the river.

Tommy knew that his father would have raided the tengu village, taken hostages, and executed them for the surrender of the bike. He couldn't. Even if he could bear to be that much like his father, the elves were watching him too closely. He'd be putting every half-oni in Pittsburgh at risk.

He didn't know what to do. The race would start in a few hours and he didn't know where the bike was being stored. The tengu had outwitted him so far at every step, so staking everything on a chance to intercept it and destroy it would be stupid. He needed to act, not react. He had no proof that the tengu had defrauded him, while, for all he knew, this was a clever trap, forcing him to betray himself by cheating.

No, he needed a plan, one that the elves couldn't object to. Kenji had admitted that the tengu's bike could outstrip the Delta in speed. Speed wasn't everything.

* * *

Tommy's luck was good for once. John and Blue Sky were at the Team Big Sky's pit at the race track, keeping to their habit of showing up early. The only sign of change was a basket of food from the enclave instead of their normal lunch of hot dogs and sauerkraut from the concession stands. John eyed him with faint suspicion as Tommy crossed the race track.

"I need help," Tommy said.

"You?" John said.

"Yes. I put up all the money to rebuild my family's restaurant to back my bets." Tommy went on to explain how Team Providence had disrupted the phones in order to defraud him. "They have a new bike. It's faster than yours. They plan on blowing you out of the water and bankrupting me."

"It's not my problem," John said.

"They'll take everything I own, including this race track. These bigoted frauds will be running the races; screwing people over whenever they feel like it. You think you don't trust me—but if you really didn't, you wouldn't be letting your little brother race here. I run a clean track. For the last five years, I've kept this kind of bullshit out. You might be scared to let me anywhere near Blue Sky, but you've always felt this place was safe for him."

John studied him, the line of his jaw tight.

Blue came to lean against his brother. "There's nothing wrong with Tommy; he's just trying to protect his family."

"He does it by hurting people," John said.

Blue shrugged. "He likes to fight. And so do I. John, what's the point of me racing today if I'm not trying to win?"

John looked down at his little brother and then sighed. "Give me a minute to think." He paced the pit for a minute. "Most of the racing bikes are stripped down so that they're lighter. The Delta has a beefed up power plant and Blue is one of the lightest riders, so we've never stripped down the Delta."

"We should tell Oilcan about this," Blue Sky said.

"What?" Tommy was surprised that Blue would be willing to share an advantage.

"It is only fair," Blue said. "Oilcan could have stripped down his Delta to get an edge on me, but he's been keeping the playing field even."

Ah, yes, the honorable thing. "We need to keep it quiet, or the tengu will strip their model too."

"Oilcan can be trusted," Blue said.

It went against Tommy's grain to trust anyone. Part of him, though, envied Blue's easy faith in someone. Having another team on a more equal footing, though, would be to Tommy's advantage.

"Fine, tell Oilcan," Tommy said. "Let him know that we have to keep it secret."

Blue nodded and dashed off.

John took out his drill and started to dismantle his Delta.

Blue Sky came back a few minutes later with a spell stencil. "Oilcan gave this to me. Tinker designed it. It goes on the handle bar. It gives a bike a more aero-dy-namic profile. . .whatever that means. He was going to use it this race to try and gain speed on me, since I'm lighter than him."

* * *

A few minutes before race time, the tengu team arrived, bike intact. Tommy wasn't sure how they slipped it past the various traps his cousins had laid outside of the race track, but it didn't matter. It was here, and he was out of time. Everything rode now on Team Big Sky and Team Tinker.

Blue pulled on his racing leathers and mounted the Delta.

John caught his brother's chin and made the boy look at him. "You do not take unnecessary risks. This is just a race. It is only money. Your life is more important than either one of those. Do you understand?"

Blue glanced to Tommy.

"It's only money." Tommy forced himself to say.

Blue pulled on his helmet, started up the Delta and swung it out onto the race course.

Oilcan came out of the Team Tinker's pit, his Delta as bare as John's. While he was bigger than Blue Sky, Oilcan was a compact man. Both teams were in Wind Clan Blue, near twins as they slid up into their starting gates. Oilcan looked in Tommy's direction, giving him a long, unreadable study. As Windwolf's in-law, Tommy realized, Oilcan was another person who might know his secret.

Team Providence brought their bike out last, trailing the pack. It was a standard street frame and enlarged power housing. The rider was a tall, lean male with a tengu nose in the team's bright red color. He frowned at the stripped Deltas as he took his gate at the end.

There was a moment of near quiet with only the deep rumble of the engines as the clock counted down the last second. Then the horn blared and the gates dropped open and the hoverbikes leaped forward. The crowd roared. Blue Sky darted into lead position with Oilcan on his flank, and a second later the tengu surged forward out of the pack to close the distance. The lead three flashed around the corner into the first series of jumps. The last bike cleared the gates. As the gate crew moved to swing the gates out of the way, Tommy crossed the track and swung over the retaining wall. He wanted to watch from the stands in order to see the full racecourse.

It was clear that his bike gave the tengu the advantage. In the straights he pulled ahead, only to lose the lead again and again to the more experienced Blue Sky and Oilcan on the smaller bikes. He was shifting too much power into his lift drive to make each jump, stealing too much from his spell chain that provided the speed. Blue Sky had the lead, shaving the clearance of his jumps down to fractions of the inch. Oilcan kissed down each time, seconds behind him, but with nearly a foot in on his landings.

"Yes!" Tommy hissed. His nails bit deep into his palm as he clenched his fist tight. If the two could hold out the entire race, they might win.

There was another straight after the jumps and the tengu pulled ahead, but slowed for the hairpin second turn. Blue Sky flashed past him, riding high up the wall to slip past him. Oilcan took back second, and then pushed into first as they went through the moguls, perfectly timing his liftoff to grab the most airspace.

Tommy pulled his eyes off the racers to check on the tengu pit. Their spotter was down off his perch, huddled with the rest of the crew. They knew they were in trouble. What would they do? Tommy watched them carefully. While the elves had accepted the tengu's claims of being humans crossed with crows, it didn't make them any less oni in Tommy's eyes. And oni were capable of anything.

The crew captain broke away from the huddle, talking on his headset, shielding the earpiece from the unending roar of the crowd. Tommy tried to read his lips, but couldn't tell which of the many languages in Pittsburgh that the tengu was using. The captain was repeating the word. What was he telling his rider to do?

The captain turned and looked not out at the riders, but up at the grandstand. He was talking to someone in the stands. No, he was looking too high. On the grandstand roof!

The leaders flashed in front of the pits and the captain gestured at them, and repeated the word. Tommy guessed the word—shoot.

Fury filled him, like a cold dark storm. He shoved his way through the crowd to the stairs down to the concession level. The dim cement hallway was empty of people and echoed with the wild cheering.

"I've got a shooter on the roof!" Tommy shouted at Trixie as he ran past her in the concession stand. "Get someone to back me up!"



He had to jump to grab the bottom of the access ladder and scrambled up it. A tengu male was crouched at the far lip of the roof, a rifle at his shoulder, aiming at the leaders. Tommy clenched his ability tight around the tengu's mind and willed him blind. The tengu lowered the gun, shaking his head as if trying to clear his vision. Tommy stalked forward, all need to hurry over, letting his fury carry him. The tengu got to his feet and cautiously backed away from the edge of the roof. Tommy grabbed the rifle and jerked it from the tengu's hands. Changing his grip on the rifle, Tommy swung it like a club.

"This!" The stock hit with satisfying solidness. "Is!" His hit smashed the tengu to the ground. "My!" The tengu's nose disintegrated in a spray of blood. "Track!"

The tengu writhed on the ground, trying to escape him. Tommy pinned him in place with his foot, reversed the rifle and placed the tip of the barrel at the center of the tengu's forehead. He released his hold on the tengu's mind, letting him see the rifle. "And no one fucks with what is mine."

The roaring of the crowd grew, indicating that the race was nearly done. The tengu team would be free to look for their missing shooter, and the grandstand would be swarming with idle race goers, hanging out between races. If he killed the tengu, there could be hell to pay. He kicked the tengu in the temple, knocking him unconscious. Bingo scrambled up the ladder to join Tommy on the roof.

"Don't kill him, but get him down off here." Tommy turned to watch the end of the race.

The leaders were coming around the last turn. Blue was tight and low, leaned so close to the inside wall it seemed like it had to be peeling off his jacket. Oilcan was tucked close behind, his spell chain nearly touching Blue's lift engine. The human flicked out as they hit the straight, moving to try and pass the half-elf. The tengu whipped around the curve and poured all his power into speed and surged forward. Oilcan continued to slide right, blocking him. The tengu tried to shift left and Blue darted into his path. They roared toward the finish line, the lead two weaving a dance to keep the tengu blocked.

Team Big Sky won. Team Tinker took second. Team Providence took third.

* * *

Oilcan stopped Tommy before he reached the tengu team. "Don't hurt them, Tommy. This has been bad enough for the racing. Don't take it any farther."

"This is their gun. They were going to use it on you and Blue."

Oilcan's eyes widened at the blood splattered rifle, but still, he shook his head. "You beat them. If you take it farther, it's only going to look bad on you." He indicated the sekasha in the stands.

Tommy flung the rifle into the tengu's pit. "Clear out and don't come back. All tengu teams, from here on out, are banned from the race. All tengu are banned from the race track. They are banned from every place that I have influence over. I offered a fair race and fair odds and you tried to grind that into the mud, and I will not deal with you again."

"Do you think we care?" the captain asked.

"Take your dishonor back to your flock. Tell your shame to Jin. Then tell me if you care."

It took a minute, but then it dawned on the male that in Pittsburgh, with the elves holding a sword's edge to the throat of all that was non-elf, he and his cohorts had just fucked themselves over royally.

* * *

Windwolf arrived while Tommy was working in the money room, totaling up the day's take.

"What are you doing here?" Tommy saved his work and closed the windows on his workpad.

"I heard there was trouble here today," Windwolf said.

"Nothing I couldn't handle."

The tengu team had slunk away, taking their unconscious shooter with them. The races continued without incident and no surprises in the betting. Between the attendance fees and concession receipts, they covered all their expenses and made a good profit. All in all, a good day.

Windwolf tilted his head, as if utterly confounded by Tommy. "Why do you fight the idea of forming a household beholden to me so much?"

"Why do you expect me to put my life into your hands? Because you were humane enough to recognize the truth—that we're more human than we are oni? That we hate the oni as much as you do? Why should that be enough to make you our master?"

"Part of the new treaty, all of Pittsburgh must become part of the elfin culture. The half-oni must form a household."

"We are a household."

"And be part of a clan."

"Because you refuse to trust us unless we're your slaves? We're good and honorable people." He had realized today that he had always had, at his core, that human nobility that he recognized in John. For years he had run a fair race for no other reason that it seemed the right thing to do.

"It is the elfin way: those who serve are protected, those who protect are served."

"The elfin way is wrong. You have no right to be my master. You're no better a being than I am, and you don't have my trust, and I don't owe you anything. I will not enslave myself and my entire people just because you say I have to."

"Yes, you owe me nothing. But I owe you my life. I do not seek to enslave you, but to protect you from my people and the others that would harm you."

"I will protect my people. I always have. And I always will."


* * *

Wen Spencer is the author of many books and stories.

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