Chapter 17: A bird in the hand
Copyright © 2016 by Brian Bixby
There’s a new receptionist at our branch; Tracy left last Friday, unattached and unbedded, at least by me. The new receptionist at the front desk is a worthy replacement, to judge from her appearance: Patty Lee, presumably Chinese between her name and coloring, with a lovely round face and bleached hair. She carefully checks out my badge and compares it to the official database while I check out her legs.
She hands my badge back to me. “You’re clear, Henry.”
“Harry,” I tell her. “My friends call me Harry.”
“That’s okay, Henry,” she replies. “My friends tell me you’re nothing but trouble and that I’d be better off having sex with a septic gremlin than with you.”
Maura seems as happy to see me as she would a yeast infection. She curtly orders me to get caught up on my work and to spend the afternoon on the call desk. In fact, she tells me that will be my afternoon assignment every day, until I have something more important to do. This is punishment. Manning the call desk means sifting through the calls to see if there’s anything important, and alert the appropriate people. Most of the “calls” are recorded messages, e-mails, and texts, so there isn’t even the excitement of talking to a real person about an active case. Maura says it’s a job that requires a senior individual to do it right. But it’s really the dullest assignment she could give me.
After a boring afternoon, I offer Patty Lee my best smile on the way out the door. She gives me a frosty one in return. Nuts to her.
Time to go hit the local bars and see if I can get laid. I drive home, check my mail, unlock my apartment, open the door, and step through . . . only to encounter a bit of magic.
It’s gone in an instant. And, apparently, so am I. This is not my apartment. Where the hell am I?
The room is decked out like a fortune teller’s parlor, if the fortune teller had a taste for high kitsch: crystal ball, round table, a skull, occult symbols on the wall hangings. Put it that way, I guess all fortune tellers must like kitsch; it’s expected of them. I hear a clicking noise and see something dart in through the door. Naturally, it has to be a black cat, which jumps onto a throne-like chair. Presumably it belongs to the fortune teller.
I look around, hear a noise, and turn back to the face the throne. There’s someone sitting there. She looks up, and I recognize her. It’s Sanderson. But she looks so odd. I can’t place my finger on what’s wrong with her, but there’s something very off.
For lack of anything better to say, I ask her, “Sanderson? Are you okay?”
She says nothing, just stands up, dumping the cat off her lap. She walks around the table to me. And then she holds up her right hand.
I’d noticed while she was stroking the cat that the feathers on the back of her hand were silver again. But that does not prepare me for what I see now. Somehow the brooch, Deecee Young’s brooch, must have merged into her hand, because there is a seven-pointed star engraved in silver on the flesh of her palm.
I look Sanderson full in the face. There is definitely something wrong with her. Her face looks blank, wooden. And it finally clicks: she looks and moves like a marionette, a simulacrum of herself.
Abruptly magic seizes me, and forces my left arm up, so I’m holding my palm out to her. I try to move, and find I’m frozen in place. This is not good. Sanderson reaches out with her right hand, and presses her palm onto mine. There is absolutely nothing I can do as I feel magic eat into my flesh, lines being drawn in my hand. I can tell, even without seeing it, that a seven-pointed star is being engraved on my hand. And I am terrified. I don’t know how Sanderson is doing this, or why she is, but I don’t imagine I’ve been frozen in place for my own good.
Sanderson lifts her hand away. The next moment she is gone. I look down in my hand. There is a seven-pointed star set deep in my flesh there. There is magic in that star. And it is set in silver.
I’m in an unknown location, and a woman who may have become a dark power has just branded me with a magical symbol. I walk out of that room, hoping that as I go through the door I’ll be returned to my apartment. No such luck. There’s clearly a door to the outside on my left. I take it, find myself on a porch, and let myself out.
The sign on the street tells me what I need to know. This is the house of “Dr. Helen Rowe, M.D.,” and “Madame Fortuna,” in other words, where Sanderson and her bitch of a doctor friend live. I’m in Farnham. I’d smack my face with my hand, except now I have to be careful which hand I use. I don’t know what this star in my left palm does, or will do to me. But it’s got its own weird magic, apart from my own, even though it’s part of my body. That is a bad situation for any magician to be in.
Not knowing what else to do, I decide I need a drink. It’s after five; there must be some strippers already on stage at Louie’s. So I walk over there, pay the cover, and set myself down at a table with a beer to enjoy the one show going on.
I don’t get to enjoy it long. A big man comes along and pulls out the chair on my left to sit down at my table facing me. After what’s happened to me lately, I check to see if he’s a magician. He is. I look to my shields. Almost immediately I’m assaulted by a magical attack coming from the guy in front of me and someone behind me. I’m not drunk, but I haven’t the power to stand up to the two of them. I’m frozen in my seat, powerless to stop them.
The big man leans forward. “Well, look what’s we’ve got here.” He picks up my left hand and takes a look at it. “Looks like magic.” He drops it, looks me straight in the face. “So, tell me, just who are you?”
I try to resist, but don’t stand a chance against this guy and whoever is behind me. “Harry Eberhardt.”
The big guy raises an eyebrow, and addresses the other magician apparently standing behind me. “Well, look at that. Looks like Olivia was right. This guy is working with the Sanderson chick.”
A female voice comes from behind me. “Then why didn’t it show up in the first interrogation?”
He shrugs. “Damned if I know.” He laughs. “I’ll ask him.” He looks down at me. “Now listen carefully, Harry . . .”
“Freddie! Freddie you conniving bum!” A loud female voice comes in from the left, and the next thing I know there’s a woman standing to my left yelling at me. “Freddie, you worthless piece of scum! I’m pregnant thanks to you, you creep!” The only thing I can see clearly is her thigh-high black leather boots.
The big guy looks at the woman and his eyes open wide. “Watch out, Wendy, she’s . . .”
The woman to my left lunges and crashes into the female magician behind me. Half the magical power holding me is gone. Without even thinking of what I’m doing, I swing my left hand, palm front, into the head of the big guy. There’s a flash of magic, and he goes flipping backward, toppling out of his chair.
I’m free! I jump up and quickly step away from the table before I turn around. I see Ms. Leather Boots and Ms. Evil Magician duking it out. Ms. Magician lands a heavy blow on Ms. Boots’s neck, and I am out of there. No way am I going to be recaptured.
It’s not until I get out of the club and a few hundred yards away down the road that I realize how impossible a situation I’m in. Those were Office magicians. They caught me here in Farnham, where I shouldn’t be, with evidence I’ve been dealing with Sanderson, which I haven’t, at least not voluntarily. But how am I going to explain that? I think I’ve just lost my job, and if I don’t get away from here, the Office may yet strip me of my magical powers. And what the heck happened with the star on my palm? Did it kill that guy? If so, I’m doubly doomed for killing a colleague.
A car pulls up beside me, the passenger window rolling down. From inside the car comes a voice. “You’d better get in, Harry Eberhardt, unless you want to be interrogated by some unfriendly friends of yours.”
I look in. It looks and sounds like Ms. Leather Boots. At this point, what have I got to lose? I climb in. Almost immediately the car takes off.
It’s Ms. Leather Boots all right. She’s concentrating on the road as she says to me, “Buckle in. I’m going to have to violate a few traffic laws to get us out of Farnham safely.” The car immediately executes a sharp right turn, fishtailing in the dirt as it goes down what looks like bare ground. Another sharp turn and we’re on a badly paved street.
I buckle in. “What’s the hurry?” I ask.
We hit a bump that the suspension can barely handle. “The town’s overrun with magicians looking for your friend, the Sanderson woman. I expect they’ll be hunting you now.” She pauses. “Here comes one now.”
We’re in an alley, and there’s a car racing right towards us. Ms. Boots, far from being worried, steps on the accelerator a bit more. I get the impression we’re about to engage in a fatal game of chicken. The black car rushing toward us is an SUV that will crush this piece of tin we’re in. We get closer . . . and closer . . . and then almost at the last second, Ms. Boots hits a button on the console, and the SUV abruptly crashes into the wooden fence on one side. Ms. Boots swings the wheel hard right. I can feel posts slamming into the right side of the car. But in a moment we’re clear.
Ms. Boots takes a sharp left turn onto the main road, sees a flashing blue and red light, and takes an immediate right. “Wonder what road this is?” She looks at the GPS. “Ah, that doesn’t sound good: Ravine Road.” She fiddles with it. “Doesn’t look good either: dead end.” She looks over at me. “Good, you’re strapped in. Just leave the driving to me.” And she hits the accelerator again.
I look behind us. I can see several cars following us, including a police cruiser. I turn around to speak, and almost get jarred out of my seat as the pavement gives out. “We can’t go back,” I shout to Ms. Boots.
She laughs. “Well, we can’t go forward, either. So we’ll have to go somewhere else. Damn, hard to get up enough speed on a road as bad as this one.”
“What’s ahead of us?”
She shrugs. “A cliff, I hope.” And she pushes down on the accelerator to its limit as she fiddles with the console instruments.
The car is shaking violently from all the bumps. I look back. At least we’re pulling away from our pursuers. And then I look forward . . . just in time to see a “ROAD ENDS” sign shoot past us. The ride gets even bumpier.
For about two seconds, I see the ravine ahead of us. And then we go over the edge. The car nose tilts forward and I can see the bottom of the ravine floor rising up to meet us. I am watching my life end. This car is falling into a ravine and I am watching my life end.
And then the car, the ravine, and everything else suddenly look like an M. C. Escher print. I want to throw up and I can’t.
Wham! The car hits the ground on all four wheels, nowhere near hard enough for falling into the ravine, and certainly not nose-first. I barely get the car door open before I throw up on the ground.
When I’m finished, I notice a few things. I’m not dead. This is grass underfoot. I look up and around. It’s nighttime. This is not Farnham. This is nowhere near Farnham.
I turn and look over at the driver. Ms. Leather Boots is smiling at me. She says, “Good thing I don’t need to get up to 88 miles per hour, or we’d be dead.”
“Why aren’t we?”
She laughs. “Oh, a little trick I picked up from an acquaintance last year, and improved a little bit. Welcome to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Let’s get out of this crate and into my chalet, and you can get something to wash your mouth out.”
Okay, that explains the evergreens everywhere. And the grass. And the cooler temperature. And the fact that it’s dark, except for the moon.
The one thing it doesn’t explain is Ms. Leather Boots, but she explains quite a bit. I hadn’t noticed before, but she’s a magician. Makes sense. The next question, of course, is whose magician is she?
Ms. Boots gets out of the car and heads off toward a dark building nearby. I follow. We get inside, she turns the lights on, and I find we’re in the kitchen of a comfy little house. Ms. Boots goes over to a cabinet, gets out two glasses, and asks, “What are you having, Harry?”
That’s right, she has already called me by name once before; she knows who I am. Or at least she heard me give my name to those Office magicians. I answer, “A beer.”
She heads over to the refrigerator and pulls out two beers. Never seen that brand before. She opens them, pours them out, and brings the glasses over to the kitchen table. “Pardon the informality of my dining arrangements, but I don’t entertain much here,” she says as she sits down.
I sit down and take a sip of the very dark beer. Its taste lives up to its appearance.
Ms. Boots waits until I’ve put my glass down before asking, “Want to tell me how you got a seven-pointed star on your left hand?”
I give her a wary glance. “Want to tell me just who you are? You seem to know my name.”
“Call me Becky,” she replies. “It’s as good a name as any, and my name wouldn’t tell you much, anyhow. I’m not with your Office, if that’s what’s worrying you. And the late and much lamented Abigail Lane is a personal friend of mine. That’s how I know your name, incidentally.”
For someone who’s dead, Abigail gets around a lot. “Abigail sent you?”
She shakes her head. “Not exactly. I’m attuned to certain types of magic, including magic involving seven-pointed stars. Your friend, Miss . . . ah, let’s see if I have this right, Persephone Désirée Arabia Nightfeather Sanderson?”
She smiles at me. I’ve recovered enough that I’m having trouble not staring at the view of her breasts in that halter top. She goes on to say, “Well, she’s been leading me a merry chase lately. I happened to mention her to Abigail, and Abigail filled me in. You’re supposed to be her moral guardian or something, am I right?”
Right. She burns a star into my hand, and I’m her moral guardian? “Abigail says so.”
“Well, Abigail’s usually a cautious soul, so if she’s willing to say it, it’s likely true. Just what happened to you there in Farnham, anyhow?”
I debate how much I want to tell “Becky,” and decide I don’t want to tell her much. “I forgot to return the rest room key, and a lot of people got upset.”
She throws up her hands. “Fine.” She drinks from her glass and then slams it down on the table. “I rescue you from what was clearly an involuntary interrogation, and we’re both working to save this Sanderson woman, so you tell me nothing.”
I lean forward until our faces are inches apart. “I don’t know you. I don’t know what your game is. I’m not involved with Sanderson anymore. I just want to find a nice sexy woman and take her home to bed.” I pointedly glance down at her breasts. “Know anyone interested?”
She glares at me, and then slowly a smile comes to her face. “You really think you can walk away from this, Harry Eberhardt?” She leans back in her chair, shaking her head and smiling. “I wouldn’t normally do this, but I can’t think of any easier way to convince you that you are in deep trouble and need my help.” She closes her eyes.
The star in my palm is always seething with some of its own magic. Now it builds up, and I can feel it spreading through my body. I can’t stop it.
Becky’s eyes are open. She’s staring at me. She says to me, “Slap yourself, Harry, really hard.”
The next thing I know, I’ve almost knocked my head off my neck. And the power of the star immediately disappears from the rest of my body, so it’s just back in my hand.
Becky thinks she’s shown me, but I’ve been under a magic compulsion before. “That’s a simple magical trick, Becky. Try harder.”
She shakes her head. “You really don’t get it, Harry. So let me spell it out for you. You must know from your training that it’s dangerous to associate with magical powers greater than your own. Well, that’s what that star did to you. It forged a connection with a dark power. And unless you get yourself free of it, it will suck you dry and you will just become a mindless slave of its power.”
End of chapter seventeen