Chapter Six: Conversations
Copyright © 2016 by Brian Bixby
Jacintha sat in her chair at her desk reviewing her pictures. It was amazing how many different ways she could change the lighting and filters on the computer to enhance her pictures. Well, enhanced them some of the time, she admitted to herself. She looked up at the birds in the swamp to compare them to the images on her computer screen. And then Jacintha had a thought about an old photograph. She kicked an alligator out of the way and reached into her file cabinet for one of her older photo files, from the days before digital cameras.
Just as she fetched it out, a voice sounded behind her. “Didn’t you already look at that?”
Jacintha whirled around in her chair. Standing a few feet away, his feet resting on paired armadillos, was Jeremy McAppin.
“No, Geoffrey MacAlpine,” he said, as if he could read her mind.
Jacintha thought about it a moment. OK, I could have gotten it wrong. So she asked, “What are you doing out here in a Florida swamp?”
Geoff shook his head. “Better question: what are you doing here, when you’re supposed to be in England?”
“Hey, you’re right! Why am I not in England?” Jacintha was genuinely puzzled. And then she knew the answer. “That’s two years from now, in 2016.”
Geoff scowled in frustration. After a moment’s thought he asked, “When did you find out when you were going?”
“In February, 2016.”
“And how long ago was that?”
“Ah . . . a year and a half in the future.” Jacintha was bewildered. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Geoff smiled. “Exactly. This isn’t real, Jacintha. You’re in your bed and breakfast room in Great Yarmouth and it is 2016.”
Jacintha couldn’t accept that. But she looked about, and realized there was something wrong. Her desk was now in a mangrove swamp, her computer monitor was 3-D, and as she looked at it a great blue heron flew out of the monitor to perch on the roof of a passing trolley car she remembered from San Francisco. She turned on Geoff. “What are you doing to me?”
Geoff pulled a chair out of thin air and sat down, the armadillos vanishing as he did so. “Not my work, Jacintha Lowell, except for this chair, and me, of course. You shut your brain down, a trick you learned from Gertie Forbes.”
“How do you know about Gertie?” As far as Jacintha was concerned, this was getting out of hand. No one knew about Gertie except Gertie’s magicians.
“My contacts in the states, who know more about Gertie than you might suspect, and also about you, I might add. Your nicknames include Jackie, Jaycee, Swamp Shutterbug, and, for reasons no one could explain to me, Olly-Ooh.”
Jacintha blushed. She remembered when she’d been called that.
“But,” Geoff continued, “all that is beside the point until you regain full consciousness. It should have happened about four hours ago. But your mind keeps reviewing every picture you’ve ever taken, in order, with occasional returns to older ones, and it’s delaying your return. I entered into your mind to ask that you hurry up a bit.”
Jacintha imagined Geoff as a great blue heron for a moment, and his image wavered before returning to his human self. He may be right, she thought. Though he did look good as a heron for a moment there. “You say I shut my mind down. You know why?”
“We’ve a guess something was trying to enthrall you.”
That checked out. Gertie had once run down a list of times when shutting down one’s brain would be the last defense, and that had been one of them, if the enthraller were truly evil. So Jacintha asked the next logical question. “If I shut my mind down, who got it going again?”
That caused Geoff to smile. “Would you believe a cambion with succubus attributes?”
Not normally, Jacintha thought to herself. But it made sense that a cambion could do something like that with ease. “So what do you want from me?”
“Wake up, that’s all. Oh, we’ll talk after, I’m sitting in a chair facing the bed you’re resting on, but you’re not of much use to anyone while you’re dawdling among your pictures.”
Jacintha bristled. Some people just don’t understand the value of photography. And then she let it go. If Geoff was right, she should wake up and find out what was going on. “So how do I wake up?”
Geoff shrugged. “Jump ahead to 2016. Try imagine what you last remember doing. But put away the photos, first, or you’ll never wake up at this rate.”
Says you. But that was her resentment talking. She looked back at that wonderful 3-D monitor, turned back to Geoff, and said, “Okay, in a minute, but there are ten photographs I dearly want to see in 3-D.”
Geoff covered his face with his hand. “Whatever.” And he disappeared.
The first thing Jacintha realized when she woke up was that Geoff had been telling her the truth. The second thing was that she wasn’t wearing the clothes she remembered she had on, but a completely different outfit she wasn’t planning to wear for another two days. She gave him a furious glance.
Geoff understood. “Not my doing, Jacintha. Your clothes were soaked or fire-damaged, so the cambion insisted on my leaving the room while she changed your outfit.”
And naturally the cambion picked my best outfit. And then Jacintha laughed to herself. If she were going to entertain a strange man in her room, she might as well look her best. Assuming she did look her best. Jacintha got up and went into the bathroom to inspect herself in the mirror. She got a bit of a shock, because the cambion had applied her cosmetics with skill, making her look better than she could do herself. Jacintha examined what the cambion had done quite carefully.
Satisfied, she trooped back out. It was time to be gracious. “There’s a hot pot here. Can I offer you a cup of tea?”
The conversation that followed was very gratifying to Jacintha. Geoffrey MacAlpine explained about the wyrm and what they presumed had happened to Jacintha. It made sense to Jacintha, who could not remember anything after she had started to follow the enthralled woman she had seen. And Geoff actually asked for her help as a magician and a photographer in hunting down the wyrm and eliminating the threat it offered.
To her delight, Geoff told Jacintha that her camp in the meadows was still in place and under a protective spell. So once he left, she changed into more suitable clothes for a nature walk, headed out to her camp, and began using the maps she had to plot out how to go hunting the wyrm, not just to capture it, but to photograph it!
There was only one thing that bothered Jacintha. As Geoff had left her lodging, he had casually said, “By the way, everything I’ve said comes under the Official Secrets Act. So please don’t tell other people, or else I’d have to have you thrown in prison.”
“So why did you recruit this photographer?” Calpurnia tried to be gracious about it, but she was irked. All of Geoff’s compliments about how courageous she had been last night did not make up for the fact that she was now laid up with a regenerating foot in a cast. Worse, it itched.
Geoff sat back in his chair at Calpurnia’s kitchen table. He looked pensive. “We need eyes on the Water, and she’s already seen the wyrm.” He didn’t add that Jacintha didn’t remember seeing it. “Besides, Samantha was right. She has had some training. I talked with an old acquaintance in the States. Jacintha’s part of a small group of magicians, all of them military wives or daughters, that got their training from a Navy officer named Gertie Forbes. They’re so off the radar that my informant, who’s otherwise quite knowledgeable, had to look them up. Which is good, it means Jackie won’t blab to people we don’t want knowing about this.”
“Jackie?” Calpurnia was a trifle arch.
“Yes, Cal, Jackie.” Geoff was tempted to tell Calpurnia about Jacintha’s other nickname, Olly-Ooh, and how she got it, which Val Thompson had told him, but decided not to. “We’re going to have to work together, so might as well get friendly and all. So what do we call Ursula if she shows up again?”
“Miss Where Have You Been will do for her. I’ve been calling her that since she was fourteen.” Changing tone and subject, Calpurnia asked, “So what am I going to do while you two go walking through the tall grass together hunting the wyrm?”
“Ah, right.” Calpurnia mentally kicked herself for not considering the obvious. (It is fortunate she didn’t try to kick herself for real.) And then she got to thinking about all the things she could investigate. This could be fun! But I’m going to need help for the next few days. Have to call Bathsheba and ask her to help out.
Geoff had enjoyed talking with Jacintha and Calpurnia. He did not expect his conversation with Donald Chisholm, the Secretary of the Scots Council of Magicians, to go as well. It did not.
Donald Chisholm sounded irritable almost from the first of their conversation. And as Geoff explained what had happened, he kept getting interrupted by exclamations from Donald. He saved his recruitment of Jackie for the last, knowing what sort of reaction he would get.
Donald did not disappoint. “On your own initiative, you brought some rogue American magician in to this business?” Donald’s voice rose in volume until he was almost shouting.
In the same tone he used to placate undergraduates unhappy with their grades, Geoff replied, “I think it fairer to say the wyrm brought her into it by trying to enthrall her. I’m just taking advantage of the situation.”
“MacAlpine,” Donald almost yelled. And then he dropped his voice. “I’m going to take this up with the Council. Today. Officially. I’ll see you reprimanded and recalled for this.”
Geoff had figured it might come to that. “I’ll board the next train home, then.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Donald growled. “You’ll stay there and do your job until we send down someone to replace you, someone who knows what they’re doing. And then you will come back here and face charges.”
“Those are your orders, Donald?” was all Geoff had to say.
“Yes, and to the de’il with you, MacAlpine,” Donald snarled before he hung up.
Geoff pocketed his phone with a rueful smile. The one thing he’d actually been afraid of was that Donald would recall him right then and there, stupid move though that would have been. Geoff was pretty sure the Council would neither recall him or reprimand him, no matter how much Donald stormed at them. Though if they learned about Samantha being involved, or his talking to Val Thompson of the American Office of Occult Affairs, they might sing a different tune.
Geoff shrugged, smiled to himself, and sipped his scotch. He dismissed Donald and the Council from his mind. Tonight he would go wyrm hunting with Jackie. It should be fun.
What the wyrm thought of all these developments, no one knew. Except possibly the two fishermen who encountered it at dawn. The older man probably never understood what was happening when he was caught in the wyrm’s jaws and lifted out of the boat. The younger man was so amazed that he just stared as the creature chewed and swallowed his uncle. Only then did it occur to him to try to escape. He turned and frantically pulled at the outboard motor to get it started. He had just succeeded when the wyrm’s fireball caught the boat. Whether he was killed by the flames or the exploding motor was no doubt a matter of indifference to him.
So Geoff thinks it will be fun, eh? He may be getting more than he bargained for, and dragging Jacintha into it, in the bargain. Will their hunt for the wyrm have results? Check in with the next chapter when it’s posted!