So, a funny story about this. I posted a snippet of a fantasy story back in August, and enough people said nice things about it that I actually got off my ass and did some playing around to format the full story as an epub. This was, of course, complicated by the fact that computers are awful, but I think I finally got a version that doesn't have gibberish characters all over. At least, as long as you're not using the worthless free epub reader I initially downloaded, which makes a hash of even actual purchased professional ebook files.
I was all set to post that-- had the post all typed in, and was ready to hit "Publish" when my email beeped. It turned out to be a reader with a connection to a professional fiction outlet, who had mentioned it to an editor there and gotten an encouraging response. So I sent it off to them, because I'm evidently a poor man's John Scalzi.
Of course, I'm a very poor poor man's John Scalzi, because after a few months, they turned the story down. Very nice rejection note, but, you know, still a rejection. And while this does suggest that I could probably sell it to somebody, I don't deal well with waiting, and this is not at all my primary line of work, so I'm going back to the original plan of posting it here.
Anyway, here's a Dropbox link to the full story, because WordPress won't let me upload an epub. It's not all that long, so I'll also put the full text below, in HTML.
I was staring out the diner window, watching it rain, when Jimmy the werewolf slid into the booth behind me. “We got trouble, boss,” he said, and I spilled coffee over the back of my hand.
“Asshole,” I said, not turning around. “How about a little warning next time?”
“Don’t want to let on I know you. Because of the trouble.”
“How can we be in trouble? We haven’t done anything yet. What kind of trouble?” I probably sounded a little petulant, but I was annoyed about the coffee.
“Wizard trouble.” That’s a whole lot worse than spilled coffee.
“Across the street, bus stop.” I did my best to look at the bus stop without obviously looking at the bus stop. An enormously fat woman talking on a cell phone was taking up most of the bench inside the shelter, and what room she wasn’t occupying herself was filled by her two kids, engaged in some sort of punching game. Pushed out of the shelter by this little domestic scene were two young women with umbrellas, glaring daggers at the serenely oblivious woman inside, and a bedraggled little man in a tan raincoat, who was attempting to keep himself dry by holding a newspaper over his head, like you see in old movies. It doesn’t work nearly as well as it does in Hollywood.
None of them looked remotely wizardly. “Who?”
“Him? He’s no wizard. He doesn’t have enough sense to stay out of the rain, for Chrissakes.”
“Yeah. One thing, though: why’s he carrying an umbrella?” I looked again, and sure enough. His left hand was holding the newspaper aloft, but down by his side, clutched in his right hand, was a long, narrow, fabric-wrapped object that looked like a golf umbrella.
Magic’s a tricky business at the best of times, but combat magic is a bitch and a half. The usual way to make it easier is to pre-load a bunch of stuff into some object, traditionally a long wooden stick. When the time comes, you trigger it, and hopefully wreak some havoc. And if magic doesn’t do the trick, well, you’re holding a nice solid chunk of wood, and can always hit the other guy with it.
Problem is, it’s not exactly inconspicuous. It hasn’t been fashionable for healthy young men to carry walking sticks for nigh on a century now, so if you want to openly carry a staff, you have to either fake a limp, or raise a lot of questions. Or, you can wrap your wizardly stick in a piece of nylon cloth, and it looks for all the world like a large umbrella. Problem solved—you just look like you’re cautious about the weather.
Until it actually rains. At which point, you look like a dumbass standing in the rain holding a closed umbrella.
I stared across the street at the bus shelter, looking at that umbrella. And at its holder, who on, closer inspection, was clearly watching me back.
“Shit,” I said. “Wizard trouble.”
Half an hour later, I was walking through the rain, trying to come up with a good way to defend myself from the angry wizard a block behind me. My umbrella was just an umbrella, and while it did a reasonable job of keeping me dry, it wasn’t much use in a fight.
Jimmy and I had tried to figure out who the fellow with the staff was, but neither of us recognized him. He didn’t seem to connect Jimmy with me, and we tried to prevent him from making that association by talking to each other on our phones. We probably could’ve saved the charges, and just pretended to talk on the phone, but we were both a little rattled. We had planned to meet with a client who was hiring us to steal stuff, but we hadn’t done anything that should’ve pissed anyone off enough to come after me in public. Not yet.
“Maybe you slept with his wife,” Jimmy offered.
“Ha fucking ha.” I was in a bit of a dry spell, and none too happy about it. “How can he know what we’re going to do? I don’t even know what we’re going to do.”
“Maybe he’s not after us? Maybe he’s just following us to get to the client?”
“The client’s got an office. He’s in the phone book.” William Shoreham (not his real name, so don’t bother looking it up), some subspecies of attorney, with an office in a strip mall on Central. I’d called him there to set up the meeting. “If you wanted to find him, you’d go to his house, not tail me around town in the rain.”
So, we had an unknown wizard, armed for bear, looking for me. This obviously wasn’t something we wanted to bring down on the client, so going to the meeting was out. And I couldn’t very well sit in a diner all damn day. So, I was out walking in the rain, trying to think of a way to face this guy down and come away with my skin intact.
Problem is, I suck at fighting. I’m all about lies and misdirection, and skulking in the shadows. Given time to plan, there’s no set of protections I can’t get through, but I’m a thief, not a killer. If somebody wants to kill me, I either talk them out of it—I’m very convincing—or hide until they lose interest. Whoever this guy was, though, he was already on me, which meant a straight-up fight, and even with time to prepare, I’m no good at those. I could probably lose him, but if he found me once, he’d find me again, and I was too broke to go to ground comprehensively enough to avoid trouble.
Lacking the time to make a complicated plan, we went with a simple one: since he didn’t seem to know Jimmy, I’d lure him into a convenient alley, and Jimmy would jump him from behind. The classics never go out of style. Assuming, of course, that the wizard in question wasn’t bad-ass enough to take both of us.
Thus, walking in the rain, trying to figure out who this guy was, and why he wanted a piece of me badly enough to come at me this openly. I snuck the occasional glimpse as I turned corners and crossed streets, but he didn’t look like anyone I knew. South Asian, probably thirty-something, wet and annoyed. Also, completely unsubtle, like he either had no idea how to follow someone inconspicuously, or was too angry to bother trying to hide. Which I guess ruled out a professional hit; small comfort, that.
Walking and thinking wasn’t providing any answers, but it was bringing me closer to my destination, now a block ahead on the right. I jogged across the street just as the light changed, buying myself a little more time, then turned down a cross street that was barely more than an alley. Glancing back, I saw my pursuer waiting for traffic to let up so he could cross.
Once I was out of sight, I closed the umbrella, walking the half a block to the dead-end alley behind a block of storefronts. Being wet wasn’t a whole lot of fun, but I needed to be a little more in tune with the elements, as it were, if I was going to save myself with magic.
Magic, fundamentally, is bullshit. I don’t mean that it’s not real—it’s how I make my living, after all—but that the process is the same. If you’re going to sell somebody a line of bullshit, you need to pitch it at them in just the right way for them to accept it—you have to make them want to believe something that isn’t true. Magic’s the same way, but you’re not selling bullshit to a person, you’re selling it to the entire universe.
To lie effectively, you need to know something about the person you’re lying to: where they’re from, what they do for a living, what they like and dislike. Then you craft the simplest lie you can that makes them want to believe what you want them to believe. Getting two different people to believe the same wrong thing can require two completely different pitches.
Magic’s the same way, only you’re conning the universe—convincing it that while conventional reality would suggest A, B is really a more congenial state. The exact path from A to B, like the exact lie needed to sell a truckload of bullshit, is never exactly the same from one time to the next. Doing magic requires a feel for how things are, and what you can do to nudge them closer to your goal. Small changes, like small lies, are easier to pull off: this lock really ought to be open, that security camera really ought to be on the blink right now. But if you’re good, you can move the world an amazing distance. Provided you know where you’re starting.
So. I was starting in an alley, in the rain. A hard steady rain, not a blinding downpour, but cold and soaking over time. Except where the run-off from the roof above me poured out in a heavy stream, the gutter pipe long since having gone missing.
Okay, I could use that. Some of the rain that wants to fall here really ought to be falling there instead. I raised my hands slowly, and pushed toward the mouth of the alley (the physical gestures involved are whatever feels right—I hope they have a cool t’ai chi sort of effect, but I’m half afraid that they look ridiculous). Over my head the rain… diverted. Like it was hitting an invisible sloped roof, starting at the building behind me, and pushing forward to a foot or so in front of me. The resulting sheet of water blurred and distorted the mouth of the alley, and ought to make me harder to see.
What else? Not much wind, here in the alley, but there had been the occasional gust out on the street. Okay, so how about some wind in here. I cupped my hands into the sheet of redirected rain, and poured some into my mouth. Then I spat it out toward the mouth of the alley in as fine a mist as I could manage, like a pro wrestler mugging for the crowd. A gusty wind sprung up beyond the sheet of water, spraying rain toward the mouth of the alley, into the face of anybody trying to enter.
Now, a little misdirection. Closing my eyes, I took three steps to my left, picturing myself still at the center of the alley, willing that image to be projected out to anyone looking in. When I opened my eyes again, the view through the water was distorted even more, in ways that made my head hurt. I hoped that meant it was working, and tried not to look too closely. With a bit of concentration, I ought to be able to hold this all together, making myself hard to see, and harder to hit with anything painful. At least long enough for Jimmy to arrive.
A second or two later, an indistinct figure stepped into view at the end of the alley. From the color of the coat and the staff clenched off to one side, I assumed it was my mysterious stalker. He put one arm up in front of his face for a second, then began to walk forward.
“I don’t know who you are, but I’ve got no fight with you,” I called, imagining my voice coming from off to the right a ways. “If you start something, though, I’m not going down easy.” I pushed for a bit more wind and rain, hoping it added the right theatrical menace.
The indistinct figure paused, then replied, with a faint hint of an accent, “How can you have no fight with me, after what you did?”
“Look, buddy, you’ve got the wrong guy. I haven’t done anything to you. I don’t even know you.” Any minute now, Jimmy ought to hit him.
“You don’t know me, but you knew Will.”
“Will, who?” Really, Jimmy, any minute now.
“’Will who?’ Seriously? Do you kill so many people you can’t even remember their names?”
That rocked me for a second. I was already on edge—it’d been a rough morning—and that was enough to break my already fragile focus. The rain that had been pushed away crashed back down on me. The wind died, and the mouth of the alley snapped back into focus. An angry wizard stood there, in the rain, holding a staff that was definitely not a golf umbrella, which was beginning to glow in an ominous manner. He was startled, but turned his head to find me again quickly enough.
“Look, man—“ I started, but he cut me off.
“You killed him, you son of a bitch, and now I’ll kill you.” Jimmy continued to not jump out to save me, as he raised the staff, its glow brightening as the cloth wrapping burned through and fell away. I tried to think of something to save myself, but didn’t get much other than Oh shit oh shit ohshitohshit…
And then the damnedst thing happened. There was a weird flickering spark effect that I swear to God looked exactly like a killer robot shorting out in a bad movie. Then the glow winked out entirely.
The angry man stared dumbly at the stick of wood in his hands, then fell to his knees, sobbing. I stood there and gaped like an idiot.
And that’s when Jimmy made his entrance at last, banging open the back door of the building just behind the crying man who had failed to kill me. He rushed out, then stopped, puzzled. “What the fuck just happened?”
“Hell if I know,” I said. “I’ll tell you this, though: We’ve got trouble, but he’s no wizard. Let’s get him inside.”
The crying man made a feeble attempt to shake us off, but we were able to get him inside without too much resistance. A few minutes later I was toweling off in the kitchen of Jimmy’s spare apartment (if you were prone to uncontrollably turning into an animal a few days a month, you’d keep an extra place in a bad neighborhood, too). Our guest was slumped over at the table, his sobbing beginning to wind down.
“What the hell took you so long, anyway?” I asked.
“That idiot Jackson piled a bunch of shit in front of the back door. Took a while to move.” The tenant in the other apartment was working on a debilitating addiction to something or another, which led to a lot of erratic behavior. On the bright side, though, he didn’t notice that his upstairs neighbor was occasionally a wolf. You take the bad with the good.
“Why’d you come through the building, anyway? Why not just walk around the block behind him?”
“Thought the door banging open would be more startling.”
“Whatever. Let’s just get this over with.” I went and sat down in the other chair, across from the would-be wizard, who had stopped crying. I picked up the “umbrella,” which was, as I had thought, an elaborately carved piece of wood. The carvings looked kind of familiar, confirming a suspicion I’d had.
As I move the staff, our guest picked up his head. “Hey,” I said. “Let’s try this again. I’m John, but I think you already know that. This is Jimmy.”
“Hey,” said Jimmy, leaning against the wall behind me.
“Um. Hi. I’m Raj.” (Not his real name, but it’ll do as a placeholder.)
“Nice to meet you, Raj.” I turned the staff over idly. “So, Raj…. What’s your fucking problem?”
“I—I—“ He looked like he might try to make a break for it, though there really wasn’t anywhere to run.
“Yeah, I know, you thought I killed Will. Which I didn’t. But why in hell would you think that?”
“You were in his phone. I mean, not you, but your name, and contact. He met with you, then… So,…” He trailed off awkwardly, not that so I assumed you were the one who killed him would’ve been a less awkward way to end that sentence.
“Speaking of things in phones,” said Jimmy behind me. “Shouldn’t we call to cancel our other meeting?”
“Wouldn’t be much point. The client’s dead.” I said.
“Ah. So, the guy you’re supposed to have killed…”
“Is the guy we were supposed to meet this morning. This is the staff he had when he approached me.” The carvings were pretty distinctive, up close. It was a nice piece of woodworking.
“Which means this guy is… His brother?”
“Apprentice for sure, but I’m going to go with… partner? Spouse? One of those.”
Jimmy made an unhappy grunt. His parents were some kind of ultra-Catholic, and that shit takes a while to get over. “Why do you say that?”
“Well, for one thing, the client was a middle-aged white guy.” I looked back over my shoulder. “They’d need to have a pretty close connection for him to even get this staff to light up, though, which doesn’t leave a lot of options.” Magic, being bullshit, is a highly personal business. If you’re trying to something simple—making a light, say—there’s a lot of carry-over between individuals. If you’re trying to do something complicated, though—say, blasting somebody with lightning—everybody goes about it in a different way, and what works for one person will completely fizzle for another. Even a pre-made item, like a staff, will only work for the person who made it, and maybe their closest associates.
I turned back to Raj. “Just so we’re clear, I had nothing to do with Will’s death. I barely knew the guy. We were supposed to meet to set up a job, that’s all. Sorry for your loss, and all, but it’s not my fault.” Raj looked kind of sick, but nodded agreement.
“Unless it had something to do with our job,” Jimmy said helpfully.
“Or the dude might’ve just had a heart attack.”
Raj shook his head violently. “No way. He was killed. By magic.”
“We were at the store, and suddenly he just… couldn’t breathe. He was gasping, and clutching at his throat like he was being strangled, but there was nothing there. Nothing visible.” He looked like he might cry again.
“When was this?”
“And what did the doctors say?”
“They’re doing an autopsy, but… Something about anaphylactic shock? Some kind of allergy thing, but he didn’t have any allergies. I think they’re just saying that because they have no idea. But I know, it was magic. The whole place reeked of it.”
“Could be.” Almost definitely was, but I didn’t want to admit it. “But it’s not something I could swing. Even if I wanted to. Are you sure it wasn’t just a freak thing?”
“No way. He’d been nervous for a couple of weeks, warding the house at night, and that sort of thing. He said something bad was coming, and he was going to stop it.”
Shit. That wasn’t good.
“That’s not good, man,” said Jimmy helpfully.
“If somebody’s after him, and then he came to us…”
“They could come after us, next.”
I turned around in my chair. “You’re not fucking helping, you know.” I turned back. “Okay, so, somebody with some serious power was after him. Any idea who? People he worked with?”
“I can’t imagine who…”
The late William J. Shoreham, Esq. (Will to his friends) was, to hear Raj tell it, a regular pillar of the community, friend to widows and orphans and small forest creatures. He had a small private law practice operating out of a strip mall up on Central, mostly real estate stuff with the occasional small business contract. No criminal work, no divorces. There’s no telling when lawyers are involved, but it didn’t seem like a disgruntled former client.
He and Raj shared a good-sized three-story house from the 1920’s, a mile or so from the university, and not too far from my day job at the bookstore where he approached me (pro tip, kids: when embarking on a life of crime, make sure you have a day job, and pay taxes—that’s how they got Capone, remember). The house was full of quietly expensive furniture and tasteful art, none of which was remotely helpful. He had a well-fitted-out workshop in the basement, with the usual collection of odds and ends.
Raj was no great shakes in the magic area—too fundamentally honest, I suspect—and had only been learning for a couple of years. He could light a candle nine times out of ten, and move small objects from across the room, but Will was the real practitioner in the family. He’d clearly been trained by a pro, but had gone beyond that to pursue studies of his own. I speculated that he made some use of, let’s say “paranormal persuasion” in his legal practice, because I’m a cynical bastard. Raj was offended by the suggestion, though, so I let it drop.
The magical community up here isn’t all that big, so the fact that I’d never heard of Will before suggested he wasn’t a heavy hitter. Then again, it’s not like we all go clubbing on weekends. He obviously knew enough people to know where and how to approach me, so maybe he was more plugged-in than I knew. And anyway, he hadn’t been in the area all that long, moving up from the City maybe ten years earlier. He and Raj had only been together five, and Raj was hazy on the details before then.
The manner of his death was pretty gruesome, and would’ve taken quite a bit of skill. I could only think of a few people locally who’d have the chops to kill someone that way, and it didn’t seem like their style. And Raj confirmed that none of them had any negative interactions with the late Will Shoreham, Esq.
“Somebody else, then? Somebody from before he moved up here from New York?”
“Probably, yes, but who? You’re the only criminals I know of that he knew.”
“Look, wasn’t there anybody he didn’t get along with? I mean, people don’t get magically choked just at random.”
“Not really… Well, OK, there was Emilio. Will studied with him, before we met, but they had some sort of falling out.” That’s not a surprising story at all—magic being a highly personal business, there’s only so much you can learn from another person. Some things—small lights, telekinesis, sympathetic magic—are pretty universal and reliable, but doing anything big requires figuring out what works best for you. The better practitioners know and accept this, but this business draws a lot of people who don’t accept rejection well. The magical community is full of burned bridges between masters and students.
“OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Is Emilio somebody local?”
“Yes, he moved here… two years ago? We don’t see him often; he’s not a pleasant person.”
A horrible thought came to me. “This Emilio. Is he about yay high?” I held up a hand, an inch or so short of my height. “Bald head? Like, completely bald? No eyebrows?”
“Yes. Do you know him?”
I turned to look at Jimmy. “The Lizard,” we said at the same time. “Fuck me,” Jimmy added.
As I said, there aren’t a whole lot of people up here who are seriously into magic, and it’s not like we all hang out. Word gets around, though, especially about an unpleasant character like Emilio Lascardo.
He’d come up from New York about three years earlier, after being run out of town by one of the syndicates down there. He’d pissed somebody off but good to get his Manhattan privileges revoked, and was none too happy about it. He’d set about trying to recruit a troop of like-minded assholes, whether to make some money to buy his way back into the good graces of whoever threw him out or to build a power base to fight his way back in, it was hard to say.
He gave his name as Lascardo, and tried to hint at some Mediterranean background, but the accent was erratic and hard to place. A syndicate guy up from the City one time rolled his eyes and called him “Emilio Lizardo”—some kind of old movie joke that a bunch of people found hilarious. The name stuck, as it had down there, because he had a kind of James Carville thing going on. It didn’t help matters that he was in the habit of shaving off all his body hair, eyebrows included, something that the truly paranoid do to avoid giving their enemies material for sympathetic magic. There was a rumor that he followed that up with chemical depilatories, basically taking baths in Nair. Gave him a really creepy look, and most people called him “The Lizard,” though not to his face.
Whatever he was up to, it almost certainly wasn’t good. Any plan he might be pulling together would probably count as “something bad” coming down the road. And if anyone local had both the raw power and the personality needed to kill somebody from afar, well, The Lizard was a good candidate.
With that in mind, going through the late Will’s effects provided a few more clues. His phone showed an appointment with an “E.L.” a few weeks back, around the time Raj said he’d started getting twitchy. A paper desk calendar in his home office had a date about two weeks out heavily outlined in black, suggesting the probable date of whatever the Bad Thing was, though maddeningly, it didn’t include any details.
The house didn’t have a safe, but Raj thought that Will might’ve kept something in his law office up on Central. So we piled into Jimmy’s car, and drove up there, arriving just as the fire trucks were leaving. There was yellow tape blocking off a big area, a slowly dispersing crowd of gawkers, and a couple of guys nailing a sheet of plywood over what had been the front window. What we could see around it didn’t suggest there would be anything useful left inside.
A couple hours later, Jimmy and I were sitting in a bar, nursing a couple of beers. We had left both Raj and Jimmy’s car at the train station—Raj headed for a short-notice visit to a cousin in Queens, and Jimmy’s car waiting in the long-term parking lot until we were more confident that we wouldn’t be traced by it.
“This sucks,” said Jimmy.
“Pretty much,” I agreed.
“You have no idea what we were supposed to be going after?”
“None at all.” The late Will had shown up in the bookstore where I work, asking whether I might help him “acquire some unusual items.” When I asked the exact nature of what he wanted me to steal, he said he it was one of two or three things, and he would find out for sure that weekend. He was supposed to tell me at our second meeting, which wasn’t going to happen, now.
“You think it’s related to whatever bad thing the Lizard is up to?”
“I think that’s a safe bet, yeah.” If Will wanted to stop this Bad Thing without a direct confrontation, hiring a thief to steal some essential component would be an obvious way to go about it.
“So, what are we going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the Lizard doesn’t know about us, does he? And we don’t know anything about whatever he’s doing. Smart play is to just walk away, right?”
“Probably.” I took another swig of my beer, and looked unhappily at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
“We’re not going to walk away, are we?”
I took another drink. “It’d be the smart play.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“I know.” The thing is, the Lizard was a first-class dickhead, and other than the little misunderstanding where he tried to kill me, Raj seemed like a decent guy. And as shady as my own magical career is, killing people is a whole other level of wrong. “No,” I said, sighing, “We’re not going to walk away.”
“Good. That dude’s an asshole. Somebody should take him down.”
“Yeah.” I swirled the last swallow or two of beer around in my glass.
“So, we’re going to try to bust up a plot that we know nothing about, by stealing we don’t know what, from a wizard who’s willing to use magic to kill?”
“You got a better idea?”
“Not really. I just want to be clear what we’re taking on.”
I tossed back the last of my beer, and stood up. “Let’s get to it, then.”
The Lizard had set himself up in a good-sized house a few exits up the Northway, where lawyers with long commutes start to fade into farmers with nowhere to go. It wasn’t quite rural, just… widely spaced. The houses were separated by a hundred or so yards, not too far to be seen, but not right on top of each other, either. Lizardo Estates was screened from view by a thick stand of pine trees, and backed up on a stream that was technically public land, but not a good enough trout stream to draw a lot of fishermen.
As I approached on foot the next day, I noticed a grey-haired guy raking leaves in the front yard of a house on the other side of the road, and fifty or sixty yards away. “Afternoon,” I called to the old guy. “You seen a dog come by here?”
“What kind of dog?”
“A great big shaggy grey one. Part wolfhound, part mastiff.” I held my hand about waist high to indicate. “Answers to ‘Buddy’ if he answers at all. He was in the back of my friend’s truck when we stopped at the sign back there, and he jumped out after something.”
“Probably a rabbit. Damn things are all over this year.”
“Yeah, probably. Anyway, he headed down this way, but I lost him.”
“Haven’t seen anything, sorry.”
“Thanks anyway. Hey, if I cut through there,” I gestured vaguely at woods adjoining the Lizard’s house, “Does that get me to the creek? With my luck, he’s already in there getting all muddy.”
“Yeah, but I’d keep off their land. Bunch of damn skinheads, would probably shoot your dog if he went through there. Probably shoot at you, too.”
“There’s a public path about a hundred yards down the road, just the other side of their yard. If you go down that, you’ll be okay.”
“Hey, thanks, man.” I knew that already—Google Maps is a wonderful thing. “If you see the dog, he’s a sweetheart. My number’s on his collar.”
“I’ll keep an eye out.”
“Thanks.” I waved as he went back to his raking, and headed down the road, trying to look like I was looking for a dog, but really looking at the house.
It was set back from the road a bit, and looked like your standard boxy colonial house—a big brick-red rectangle with a triangle on top, like a kid’s drawing. In addition to the pine trees screening most of the yard, there was a three-foot wooden fence around the back. Two big black SUVs sat in front of the two-car garage, because criminal wizards have no originality. All in all, it didn’t look particularly intimidating.
Of course, there’s not much point to being a wizard if you can’t use magic to secure your property. This takes lots of different forms—my own preference was a “nothing to see here” suggestion to keep people from getting interested in the first place—but I’d bet the Lizard would go for something a little more drastic. As I walked, I ran through the concentration exercises I do to get to the place where I see magic.
Looking at magic is as individual as doing magic—everybody who sees spells sees something a little different, and interpreting magical protections laid down by others is a tricky business. One of my old mentors had a very spiritual disposition, and as a result tended to see magic in highly metaphorical terms, all spirit animals and totems and shit. A lot of people see colored auras. Me, I imprinted on caper movies as a kid, which probably has something to do with my choice of career, and between those two, I tend to see magical wards looking like those grids of laser beams you see in heist flicks.
As quiet and unassuming as it looked in normal sight, the Lizard’s place was wrapped up impressively tight. The grid of lines involved three or four different colors, probably corresponding to a few different processes—a tangle of yellowish lines leading up into the air and away down the road probably indicated a personal warning system (the lines ultimately connecting to the Lizard himself, off doing whatever he was doing that afternoon), while the red and blue grids looked like they would do something painful. There were also some green traces woven through the trees and shrubs around the property, that probably made it considerably more difficult to push through those trees than you might expect. Even if I had actually lost a dog, there’s no way it would’ve gone through those, and I’d bet they didn’t have much of a rabbit problem in that yard.
As I walked down the road, I looked for gaps in the web of lines, but there wasn’t much to work with. The net continued along the public path on the far side of the property, binding the trees and bushes into a nearly impenetrable barrier. When I got to the stream, I picked my way a few yards upstream to get a look at the back, which was probably the best bet. There wasn’t quite enough vegetation to make a good barrier on the water side, and whoever had laid down the painful and violent wards hadn’t done as thorough a job here, presumably because there wasn’t much traffic back there. The yellow warning net was everywhere, though, and getting through it without alerting the Lizard would be difficult. Getting back out, carrying God only knows what, would be even worse.
After checking things out for a bit, I walked back out to the road. On the second pass, I laid down a couple of monitoring spells of my own. I waved ruefully to the fellow raking his yard again, then made my way up around the corner to where Jimmy was waiting in a pick-up truck. “How’s it look?” he asked, as I climbed in.
“Not good,” I said. “This is going to be tricky.”
Two days later, I was back in the neighborhood, this time with a big black SUV of my own (well, not really my own—I’d “borrowed” it from the parking lot at Time Warner Cable as payback for making me sit around the house for four hours to get the service activated). “Thanks so much,” I said to the grey-haired fellow with the rake, whose name turned out to be Fred. “I was starting to think I’d never see him again.”
“You know, he looks pretty scary, but you were right about him being a sweetheart,” he said patting the head of the enormous shaggy dog panting at my side. “He showed up in the front yard this morning, and sat there quiet as can be all day long.”
“Big dogs get a bad rap,” I said, opening the tailgate of the SUV. “If they weren’t safe to be around, nobody would own them.” I slapped the tailgate, “Hop on up, Buddy!” The dog jumped into the back, the tags on his collar jingling, and I closed the tailgate. “I can’t thank you enough for watching him.”
We eventually agreed that $20 would be thanks enough and cover the cost of the chicken nuggets he’d fed Buddy while waiting for me to get there, and I pulled out. When we got to the stop sign at the corner, I reached into the back, and unsnapped the collar. Then I did my very best to keep my eyes on the road and pay no mind to the awful noises coming from the back seat. A few minutes later, when things got quiet again, I risked a peek in the mirror. Jimmy lay across the back seat, naked and panting.
I picked up a bottle of Gatorade from the passenger seat and tossed it into the back. “Clothes on the floor,” I said. “What’re we looking at?”
As I drove the couple of miles out to the highway, he filled me in on the results of his canine-form surveillance: five guys in the house, plus the Lizard, all with shaved heads and a fondness for Nazi iconography. They didn’t do much in the way of patrolling—probably comfortable relying on the impressive magical protections on the property—but they definitely had weapons. A couple of them went around wearing shoulder holsters, and all five were prone to carrying golf umbrellas on sunny days. The wards around the back were, as I had suspected, proof against animals as well as humans, with no clear path through the trees and bushes.
“Do they ever all go out together?” I asked.
“On Saturday they all piled into the cars and went off somewhere. They didn’t come back for three, four hours.”
“So, we potentially have a window.”
“If you could get through the wards, yeah. Any chance of that.”
“There’s always a chance. I can get around it, but it’s going to take a while. If I had some of Emilio’s hair or blood, it’d be trivial—they’re probably keyed to let him come and go. Not much chance of that, though.”
“And we’ve got, what, a week?”
“Week and a half, from Will’s calendar.” We’d had no luck figuring out any significance of that particular date, yet another in a series of dead ends.
“Fucking fantastic. Hey, can we get something to eat? That old dude’s chicken nuggets sucked ass.”
We pulled off at the next exit, to a chain restaurant. We ended up at a table off to one side of the dining room, where it’s easy to guard against eavesdropping. You put some room between yourselves and the folks in the booths, and a little suggestion easily keeps people from trying to listen in. And you don’t need to worry about the wait staff—it usually takes magic to get them to notice you.
Being career criminals and all, we probably should’ve been sitting with our backs to the wall and our eyes on the door, but I’ve never been good at maintaining a state of paranoia. And, anyway, who stages an ambush in a fucking Applebee’s?
So it was a complete surprise when two hands fell heavily on Jimmy’s shoulders, attached to a large bald man. Another goon, conspicuously holding a golf umbrella, stepped up next to me. Well, shit. Jimmy looked at me, and I shook my head a little.
Then the Lizard himself stepped up to the table. “I expect you know why I’m here,” he said, smiling like that was clever.
“To help me save fifteen percent on my car insurance?” I said brightly. There are days when I can talk us out of trouble, but it wasn’t looking like this was one of them.
“Funny.” The smile went away. “You know what else is funny? Finding you two idiots in my neighborhood. Care to tell me what you’re doing on my property?”
“Hey, man, we’re just here for the food. We didn’t know you owned the place, but, you know, our compliments to the chef.”
“Cut the crap. Your ‘dog’ was sniffing around my land, and I want to know why.” Shit. Jimmy must’ve tripped a detection ward. Which explained how they’d traced us here.
“You know how it is with dogs. You go out for a nice walk in the woods, enjoying nature, they see a squirrel, and next thing you know, they’ve blundered into some asshole’s yard.” Jimmy shot me a look that wasn’t a whole lot friendlier than the Lizard’s.
“Bullshit. I don’t know what you and that little raghead faggot think you’re doing, but it won’t work.”
“Oh, come on, man. He’s Indian, not Arab.” I heard Jimmy sigh.
“Raj. He’s Indian, not Arab. He’s a lapsed Hindu, not a Muslim. And definitely not a Sikh—they’re the ones who wear turbans.”
“What’s your fucking point?”
“Well, get your ethnic slurs straight, you ignorant fucking wop.” Definitely not a talk-my-way-out-of-trouble day.
The Lizard smiled again, coldly, and nodded slightly to the goon with the umbrella. Who stepped up and backhanded me across the face. Hard. While my vision was still messed up, I felt a hand grab my chin, a thumb swipe across my mouth.
When my eyes cleared, I saw the Lizard, with a nasty smirk and a red smear on the fingers of his right hand. Blood. My blood, from my split lip. This was very, very bad.
“Smartass little thief, think you’re clever. I could kill you now, but it’ll be more fun to keep you around and let you watch. I have to protect my interests, though…” His eyes went a little vague in the manner of someone about to do magic. I started to try to stand, but Umbrella Goon put his hands on my shoulders from behind, pushing me back into the chair.
The Lizard held up his blood-smeared hand, and began to speak; evidently, he was of the pompously declaiming school of magic. “Little worm, little thief, I bind you now, by blood and magic.” Sympathetic magic is one of the most reliable forms, and he had my blood. I could feel the spell start to bite. “You will steal no thing that belongs to me. You will—“
And then, a lot of things happened very quickly. Jimmy launched himself up and back, slamming his head into the nose of the goon behind him, who reeled backwards. Jimmy then leaped across the table and jabbed a hand in the Lizard’s eye. The Lizard staggered backward, clutching at his face, and breaking the spell.
The goon holding me eased up a bit, probably starting a move toward Jimmy. I kicked myself back hard, knocking the “umbrella” from his hand before he could bring it around. Lurching forward, I grabbed a half-empty pint glass and flung it at the Lizard, who reflexively brought up a hand; the glass didn’t hit him, but the beer washed over his bloody hand, which was my real target.
And then the tubby little guy who managed that particular restaurant was in the middle of it all, yelling about calling the police. The Lizard and his goons gathered up their stuff, trying not to look rushed, and stalked out. I made a big fuss about being assaulted by skinheads, how dare they, what sort of place is this anyway, blah, blah, blah, but Jimmy and I made sure we didn’t stick around to file a police report.
But hey, they didn’t charge us for dinner, so there’s that.
I won’t bore you with the details of what we did to shake loose whatever the Lizard had used to track Jimmy, save to note that some poor Time Warner employee was going to be very annoyed with where his SUV ended up getting dumped. A few hours later, we slumped down on the beds of a cheap motel a ways off toward Amsterdam, and tried to take stock.
“Did you get hold of Raj?” Jimmy asked.
“No. Voice mail. He’s probably fairly safe in Queens, though.”
“More than we can say.”
“Well, we’re safe for the moment, anyway.”
“Yeah.” We sat silently for a while. “So, what do we do now?” Jimmy asked.
“Well, we can sit and wait for the Bad Thing, whatever it is, or we can try to stop it. that’s pretty much the full range of options.”
“We could tell somebody else…”
“Tell them what? The Lizard is up to no good? Everybody already knows he’s a bad dude, and nobody with enough pull to do something about it gives a shit.”
“Tip off the syndicates? The Bad Thing is probably aimed at them.”
“I don’t want to be mixed up with those guys, either.”
“Those are stupid reasons, you know. You’re just taking this personally.” Jimmy could be disturbingly perceptive sometimes.
“Okay. So what can we do?”
“Well,” I said. There was only ever one thing to do. We break into his place, find the essential components of the Bad Thing, and take…” Pain shot through my gut as soon as I said it. I doubled up, gasping.
“No, I’m not okay. I’m under a compulsion not to steal from the Lizard.” Just mentioning the forbidden activity made my hands shake.
“Kind of takes away all our options, doesn’t it?”
“Pity. Means I got these for nothing.” Jimmy held up a plastic baggie with a few tiny brown things in it.
“What are those?”
“From the Lizard?”
“Yeah. Nair in the eyes must sting like hell, so I guess he doesn’t bother with them. I grabbed a few when I poked him in the eye.”
“That’s fucking amazing. With those I could totally get through his wards, and right into his house. Then I could figure out what he’s up to and how to disrupt it by tak—“ my stomach started to cramp up. “God damn it!”
Silence for a moment. “Interesting thing, though.”
“You didn’t twitch when you talked about breaking in. Just when you got to the taking.”
“What?” I thought for a second, and he was right. I pictured myself at the wards behind the Lizard’s house, sketched out what I would do to get through them. Nothing. I pictured walking through the house. Nothing. I pictured myself picking up a book, slipping it into—my hands started to twitch, and I quickly banished that image.
I took a few deep breaths. “That’s very interesting. I guess the compulsion only covers stealing from him, not breaking in.”
“Could we do something with that?” Jimmy asked. “Break in, figure shit out, then tell the authorities?”
“I guess,” I said.
“But it’s personal.”
We sat, and thought. Breaking into places and taking things away is what I do, and it’s really hard to get past that. What good is just breaking in, if you can’t take anything away? Then it hit me.
“Hey, Jimmy? You remember that crazy militia asshole over in Vermont? Dude with the gun collection?” We’d helped him acquire some historically significant pieces from a rival collector. In addition to his old guns, he had an impressive arsenal of new stuff, stockpiled against the coming United Nations takeover, and a huge library of paranoid right-wing propaganda. In Vermont. Go figure.
“Yeah. Hugh… Jensen, right?”
“Yeah, that’s the guy. I think we need to give Hugh a call…”
Five days later, Saturday night, I stood in the shallow creek behind the Lizard’s compound, with a heavy backpack and a baggie containing the last two eyelashes of the five Jimmy had gotten in the fight. It was a bit after midnight; the Lizard and his skinhead buddies had piled into their SUV’s and gone out drinking a couple hours ago, and Jimmy was keeping an eye on them from a gas station down the road. Under normal circumstances, they’d be at the bar until it closed an hour or two hence. The Bad Thing was still a couple of days off, and we were still no closer to figuring out what it might be.
I breathed deeply, taking in the smell of the woods, the sound of the creek. I had already gone through the basic process I was about to repeat three times, but this was the trickiest, and the most important.
I’ve always been good at getting into places I’m not supposed to be—even as a kid, I had a tendency to turn up in unexpected locations, something that gave my parents no end of angst. I was probably doing magic without realizing it, subtly reshaping the universe. This guard’s looking the wrong way, that door’s unlocked, and next thing you know, everybody’s yelling at each other about how Johnny got into the lemur cage. We weren’t real popular at the Bronx Zoo.
Invisibility is the most straightforward of the ways to get where you’re not supposed to be, but not much help against magical wards tuned to specific individuals. A better trick is appearing to be someone you’re not. For that, it helps to have a little piece of them. Thanks to Jimmy’s quick hands, I had that.
I looked down at my feet, and picked up a few leaves that had fallen just outside the glowing grid of magical lines, and stuffed them in my pockets. I scooped a handful of water from the creek, and poured it over my head—it was icy cold, but it felt… right. Another two handfuls on my head, then a long drink from my cupped hands. Then I carefully pulled one of the eyelashes out, put it in my mouth, and swallowed it. The other, I wedged in between my front teeth, where it stuck like one of those maddening piece of popcorn kernel.
My skin tingled, in a way that went beyond the chill of the creek water dripping down my back. Looking at my hands, my they seemed to glow a faint yellow. That was it, I hoped. To someone looking from outside, I should now appear slightly shorter and much balder; an earlier run at a local mall had confirmed that even to a closed-circuit security camera, I should appear more or less like the Lizard. If I left fingerprints behind, they would look plausibly like his. That wasn’t the most important thing right now, though—what mattered was that I should also match his magical signature, at least temporarily.
At least, that was the plan. But, of course, there was only one way to find out. So I stepped gingerly out of the creek, and into the glowing grid of magical protections.
Which flickered briefly, then let me through.
Having passed the magical barrier at the creek, the physical locks on the house were an absolute joke. There was another layer of magical protection at the back door as well, but nothing as serious as the web of stuff at the property line.
The interior was about what you would expect from a house inhabited by an entirely male group of skinhead assholes—empty beer cans, ammunition and Nazi paraphernalia scattered about. Charming. The furniture in the front room had been pushed aside to make a clear space around two heavy wooden trunks decorated with demon faces and carved runes; these were presumably the necessary components for the Bad Thing. I took the liberty of shifting these into a back bedroom, but as much as I concentrated on the fact that I wasn’t technically stealing them, the effort left me gasping.
The kitchen contained a sink full of unwashed dishes, and also a door to the basement. This held a substantial armory of things that go “BANG,” and also a well-appointed magical workshop. A little heavy on the demonic iconography for my tastes, but some nice stuff. Just looking covetously at some of the better items made my hands shake, though, so I turned away, put down my heavy pack, and got to work.
Half an hour or so later, I was back in the creek, with a much lighter pack. I scooped up a handful of creek water, and swished it around my mouth, using it to work that damned annoying eyelash loose. When I spat it into the creek, my skin stopped tingling and glowing; presumably, I was back to my normal appearance.
I pulled out a revolver, purchased from Hugh along with a number of other things I had left inside, and emptied it into the opposite bank, not all at once, but in a pattern to suggest multiple shooters—BANG… BANG BANG… BANG BANG… BANG. Then I pulled out a cell phone, and dialed 911 to report a loud argument, with multiple shots fired, at a particular address way out in the sticks. With any luck, some of the neighbors were making similar calls at the same time.
Turning off the phone—a burner that I’d dump in a different river later—I took a deep breath, then reached out very carefully to the magical grid around the Lizard’s compound. I picked out one of the yellow alarm threads, and plucked it like a guitar string.
You probably heard about it on the news later, but the reconstructed sequence of events went like this:
A few miles away, Jimmy watched two carloads of skinheads charge out of a bar and go roaring up the road, driving fast and somewhat unsteadily. At about the same time, two State Police units were dispatched; they drove more sedately, having already made the trip to this particular address a few times.
When the Lizard and his goons got back to their house, they found the front door standing open, and all the inside lights on. Some prominent items had been removed from the living room, which led to a lot of shouting. A mix of outrage (“They took what?!?”), recriminations (“I thought you said nobody could get in here!”) and angry orders (“Find the bastards! Take them out!”). You know, skinhead stuff.
About this time, the State Police rolled up, lights flashing. A couple of the goons, who weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed even when not pumped full of cheap beer and adrenaline, popped off some shots. The resulting firefight put three skinheads and one patrolman in the hospital, and two more skinheads in the morgue. One of the dead was the Lizard, whose real name turned out to be Emile Lascar; he wasn’t actually from Europe after all, but Canada—he’d started his career as a Quebecois separatist. Go figure.
The story got some national play for a few days, thanks to the contents of the basement. Not only did this particular group of Nazis turn out to be Satanists (the news media’s catchall term for anything remotely occult, to the loudly expressed dismay of members of the actual Church of Satan), but there were lots of guns, military-grade explosives, and detailed plans for a number of violent terrorist attacks. These involved bombs to be planted at a mall, a local mosque and the train station.
The surviving skinheads insisted loudly that this was all a frame-up—sure, they loved guns and hated Muslims, but the explosives weren’t theirs—but nobody really believed them. After all, security camera footage from the mall and the train station clearly showed someone matching Lascar’s description in both locations, and the bombs found there and at the mosque bore partial fingerprints identified as his. And while cops could maybe plant stuff in the house, well, you’d need to be some kind of wizard to fake those...
We never did figure out what Bad Thing they’d been planning though. That still annoys me, but I guess you can’t have everything.
A nice read, and sounds like the basis for a novel. One of the hard things about short stories is that putting in too many plot twists can make them a bit Snoopy-esque, and Emilio is dangerously close to that territory.
I would love to read more stories in this world. I particularly like the system of magic where a close reading of TVTropes colors your perception of the world. Just as in Real Life.
So, does all your fiction involve the narrator talking to a dog? :) Nice story!
That was a fun read! Hope Raj is okay. :)
I enjoyed that very much and I hope there will be more in that world. I hope there will be a great dog scene in every story, too! Jimmy’s gig as Buddy was great fun.
Even if I hadn’t known the author was a physicist, I might have suspected a connection. I thought the narrator’s brand of magic was particularly informed by quantum weirdness and observer effects.