Chapter One: Two uncomfortable people
Copyright © 2016 by Brian Bixby
Geoffrey MacAlpine was bored. He set a pound coin spinning on the top of the table in front of him, and tried to use as little magic as possible to keep it spinning. That was too easy, so he then tried to make it wobble as much as possible as it spun by using even less magic to keep it stable. Abruptly he slammed his palm down on the coin. His waitress was coming, and it wouldn’t do for her to see a coin that was violating the normal order of things.
He had been waiting half an hour, a half hour sitting here, still chilled from the rain outside, with one cup of tea to comfort him. Geoff decided he’d done his duty as a well-mannered person, and this time ordered biscuits with more tea. He sat back, pocketed the coin, and sighed. Besides being bored, he was uncomfortable and unhappy. He was in England, where he’d rather not be, waiting for an unknown contact, to carry out a mission that was bound to be unpleasant, even before this cloak-and-dagger nonsense had been imposed on it. And his contact was already half an hour late. About the only saving grace was that Geoff was inside the café, and not outside in the pouring rain.
His musings were interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, definitely another magician, who came up to his table in a wet mackintosh. “Professor MacAlpine?” she asked. “I’m Calpurnia Kingsley. Sorry I’m late. The bus back from Norwich got held up by an accident.”
Geoff looked up. The magician was definitely a woman, middle-aged, with reddish hair. Geoff repressed a snort. There was a time, he recalled, when red-haired magicians were assumed to be in league with the Devil. Well, he thought to himself, it’s the Devil’s work we’ll be abouts, so maybe she’s what’s needed. But there was something about her that worried him. He didn’t recognize her, by neither face nor name. He reminded himself that this was an English magician, and his knowledge of them was not complete. But she was old enough that if the English Council had assigned her, she should have been someone with a reputation. Keeping his thoughts to himself, all he said was, “Please be seated, Ms. Kingsley.”
Calpurnia draped her mac over another chair and took a seat. She could not contain her enthusiasm. “It’s so very nice to meet you, Professor MacAlpine. I’ve heard so much about you. I’ve never had the chance to work with such a famous magician before. The English Council said I was to put myself at your disposal.” Mentally, she added to herself that they’d said several other things which she wasn’t going to repeat just yet. She was going to give herself time to enjoy this. Geoffrey MacAlipine was a genuine celebrity among magicians, and she was going to be working with him. The sandy-haired fellow was even cute, if middle-aged.
Little did she know that Geoff disliked being called famous. His opinion of her immediately began to drop. Yet his voice was still mild as he asked, “Who have you worked with before? Anyone I know?”
She shook her head. “Not likely,” she confided. “I’ve been out of circulation for some years. Health problems.” Seeing Geoff raise his eyebrows, she hastened to add, “Oh, nothing like that. I fell victim to a spell that crippled my mind and body for a decade. Only got over it last year. I hadn’t expected the Council to ever call on me again, but they wanted someone with a low profile, and I do live here in Great Yarmouth.” She smiled at that, saw that Geoff was smiling back, and added, “So why did the Scots send the famous Professor Geoffrey MacAlpine here, if this is supposed to be so secret, whatever it is? And what is it?”
Although he was smiling on the outside, inside Geoff was cursing the Scots Council, the English Council, fate, and his own stubborn nature. He should have taken a seat on the Council; then he’d not have to put up with these missions. And sending a magician who was probably out of practice on a mission like this one!
Then he settled himself back down. This Calpurnia Kingsley was not the problem. She was going to be his partner, like it or not, and there was no point in attacking her. Besides, he reminded himself, after Maggie, I should know that first impressions are unreliable. And he spared a moment to wonder just where Maggie was these days.
But Geoff was still annoyed, so he turned his scorn on their employers, instead. “Bloody bad luck on my part. I’ve done one or two of these ‘sensitive’ missions in England before, and the Scots Council was pleased. Since I’m not actually on the Council, they can deny I’m here officially. And I gather that your bloody Council wanted it all kept under wraps because they’re afraid of the repercussions of a Scotsman helping them out after the Brexit fiasco.”
Ah. Calpurnia had thought she’d detected a hint of annoyance in Geoff’s demeanor. Now she had some idea why: politics. After what she’d gone through with her first husband, Calpurnia could sympathize in bucket loads. She gave Geoff a wry smile and responded in kind. “They were acting like a bunch of ninnies when I talked with them. Couldn’t even get a straight answer out of them about what talents the job requires. And I’m supposed to obey your every order unless England’s interests require otherwise, and then throw you under the omnibus.” She gave a chuckle to that. “They failed to tell me just how I was supposed to do that. Ask you, I suppose, to do in yourself.”
At that point, the waitress came over again. Geoff asked for another refill, Calpurnia asked for tea and a crumpet. It gave time for Geoff to think about just what to tell Calpurnia. He liked her attitude. She’d not taken offense, and seemed to share his disdain for authority. Which is exactly what she wanted him to think.
Once the waitress departed, Geoff started his explanation. “There’s a wyrm loose in Breydon Water.”
Calpurnia couldn’t believe what Geoff was saying, so she pretended to be clueless. “If that’s news, you Scots need a refresher in ecology. There are always worms loose in Breydon Water.”
Geoff smiled. “Sixty-foot long ones that eat people?”
That got more the reaction Geoff was expecting. Calpurnia’s eyes opened wide. She sat there in stunned silence for several seconds. And then she shook her head. “You’re joking. No way something like that could be happening around here without it getting into the press.”
“You can thank the Official Secrets Act for keeping it out of the press, but it was a close one,” Geoff admitted. “Good-sized pleasure boat, eight dead, one survivor. She’s in London, shot so full of drugs she’s not telling anyone else about it just yet. Though someone’s got to account for her missing leg and arm. Just hope the beastie doesn’t cough them up on some shore.”
Calpurnia blanched. Talk of bodily harm reminded her too well of what her life had been like for years. To cover up her disturbance, she said, “I go walking along the shores of the Water. Would it come after me?”
Geoff chuckled. “Not to worry. You and I are going after it.”
Calpurnia’s jaw dropped. A sixty-foot wyrm, and she and this one other magician were supposed to take care of it? She sat back and looked searchingly at Geoff. “Then I hope you know all about these things. Because my magical abilities, such as I’ve been able to rebuild, involve fabrics and historical psychometry.” And I don’t know why the Council asked me to handle this, she added to herself.
“While I’m a scholar who studies magic, not really a proper magician at all,” was Geoff’s flippant reply.
Calpurnia panicked and raised her voice. “Then why the bleeding hell are we . . .”
Geoff could see he’d overestimated Calpurnia’s sang froid and interrupted her, “Kind of keep it down, you don’t want to wake the thing.”
Calpurnia, caught between panic and laughter at the image Geoff’s words had suggested, shut her mouth. And then she began feeling resentful. This Scottish professor was making fun of her! But the whole situation was ridiculous. And he knew it. So she shot him a raspberry.
Instead of provoking him, all Calpurnia did was make Geoff smile. So she decided it was time to get serious. And the best way she knew how to do that was to ask questions. “Then let’s start with the simple things. Why are you here at all? What does an English wyrm have to do with Scotland? What is it, kissing cousin to the Loch Ness monster?”
The Scots Council had given Geoff a false explanation to satisfy his English colleague. But he was liking this Calpurnia. A little flighty, maybe, but she’d been out of circulation for years, and she had recovered herself quickly. And he felt they’d not be a good team unless they trusted each other. So he told her the truth. “Well, actually, yes.”
Calpurnia sunk down in her chair, wondering just what she’d gotten herself into. Trust the Scots to export their biggest problem! They ought to handle it themselves, she thought to herself, and then admitted to herself that a wyrm in this water, Breydon Water, was England’s problem, and hers, even if she’d not been called in. To Geoff, she said, “So what else do you know about this thing that’s going to help us not end up missing limbs?”
“Well, they usually stay dormant. We had an idea there was one down this way, but there hadn’t been a report . . .”
“. . . since 1397,” Calpurnia finished the thought automatically, not realizing that Geoff had an earlier date in mind. “You people have . . . wait, you said they usually remain dormant? How many of these things are there?”
Geoff matter-of-factly replied, “In Scotland? Seven and a half.”
Calpurnia raised her left eyebrow in disbelief. “A half?”
“It wanders back and forth between the Faroes and Shetlands, and the Danish magicians can’t be bothered, so we consider it ours.”
“How neighborly.” Calpurnia couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “And how many in England?”
“We think there are four south of the Tweed, one of which is in Wales. But they all originated in Scotland. At least we think so.” Geoff got ready to wince. He knew what the next question would be.
Calpurnia came through. “And what makes the Scots think we don’t have native English wyrms?”
Geoff winced before explaining, “They speak Old Gaelic.”
Fortunately for Geoff, the waitress returned to deliver their tea and pastries. Geoff made himself busy with his. Calpurnia, on the other hand, just stared at Geoff. When he finally looked up, she said, “I would normally suspect at this point that I’m getting my leg pulled. Please explain why I should not consider my suspicion factually based and get up and leave.” Not that she would, but she was beginning to wonder just what sort of nonsense was going on here.
In his best professorial tones, Geoff began, “Well, wyrms are linguistically conservative.” That earned a cackle from Calpurnia. “They also tend to like colder waters. One reason you don’t hear much about the English ones is that they are dormant much more of the time. We don’t think they can breed this far south.”
Calpurnia was still debating if this was all real, or whether she’d fallen back into some Twilight Zone nightmare similar to the ones from her years of affliction. So she didn’t even bother to restrain her sarcasm this time. “Wow, think of the years of research that must have gone into that conclusion.”
That got a frown from Geoff, so Calpurnia decided to go back to being serious. Question time again. “I’m not sure I believe a word of this, but it would explain a few legends. So what are we supposed to do with this wyrm? Are we supposed to persuade it to return to Scotland?”
Geoff pulled the pound coin he had been playing with out of his pocket and fiddled with it as he answered. “No, we have to put it down somehow, either get it to lay dormant again, or kill it. The problem is that it’s a male, and all the remaining Scottish wyrms are female. We don’t want it swimming north and impregnating the lot of them.”
At that, Calpurnia burst out laughing so loud that every head in the place turned to see what was going on. Once she got control of herself, she blushed in apology and in low tones said, “Wouldn’t do the Scots’ oil rigs much good, now would it?”
If only that were the problem, Geoff thought to himself. He shook his head and said to Calpurnia, “You have no idea. The things are attracted to old fortifications. We don’t want one of them coming out of the water to make Edinburgh Castle its home.”
“Bad for the tourist trade.”
“Very bad. Also I live nearby.”
“Well, now I know how they roped you in.” Calpurnia almost immediately regretted the levity in her words, Geoff looked so put out. Worse, Calpurnia realized just why she was given this steaming turd, and it wasn’t just her location, either. Time to get back to being serious, again. “Do you have a plan?”
Geoff leaned forward long enough to drink more of his tea, and then sat back, staring at Calpurnia and looking pensive. “I think I know a way to get the wee beastie to go back to sleep, once we find it. The problem is finding it before it finds and eats someone else, or us, for that matter. I guess that is where your local expertise comes in.”
Although she was trying her best to be serious, Calpurnia could not resist making another joke. “And that local expertise is not my extensive knowledge of all the veterinarians in town, either, thanks to the numerous short-lived cats I’ve owned.” She saw she had got no reaction, so she added, “That was meant as a joke, Professor.”
Geoff nodded, realizing just how weary he must feel to have missed it. And how nervous Calpurnia had to be to keep making jokes. So he decided to build her confidence in the best possible way, by telling her the truth. “Call me Geoff, Ms. Kingsley. And you’ve already proven your worth, because I am clueless about what happened in 1397.”
“Call me Cal, Geoff.” Calpurnia favored him with her best smile, partly because she decided she really did like him (not just his looks), partly because she was going to be able to lecture a university professor! “And I’ll be happy to tell you all about 1397, because it might actually help us.”
To be continued in chapter 2 . . .