Back | Next


I hate telephones.

For one thing, they have a habit of waking you up at the most inconvenient times. It was still dark outside when the one on my nightstand went off like a bomb. I groaned and tried to turn off the alarm clock. Since it wasn't ringing, it laughed at me. The horrible racket from the phone kept right on.

"What time is it, anyhow?" I mumbled. My mouth tasted like something you'd spread on nasturtiums.

"It's 5:07," the clock said, still giggling. The horological demon in there was supposed to be friendly, not sappy. I'd thought more than once about getting the controlling cantrip fixed, but twenty-five crowns is twenty-five crowns. On a government salary, you learn to put up with things.

I picked up the receiver. That was the cue for the noise elemental in the base of the phone to shut up, which it did—Ma Bell's magic, unlike that from a cheap clock company, does exactly what it's supposed to do, no more, no less.

"Fisher here," I said, hoping I didn't sound as far underwater as I felt.

"Hello, David. This is Kelly, back in D.St.C."

You could have fooled me. After the imp in one phone's mouthpiece relays words through the ether to the one in another phone's earpiece and the second imp passes them on to you, they hardly sound as if they came from a real person, let alone from anyone in particular. That's the other reason I hate phones.

But the cursed things have sprouted like toadstools the past ten years, ever since ectoplasmic cloning let the phone company crank out legions of near-identical speaker imps, and since switching spells got sophisticated enough so you could reliably select the imp you wanted from among those legions.

They say they're going to have an answer to the voice problem real soon. They've been saying that since the day after phones were invented. I'll believe it when I hear it. Some things are even bigger than Ma Bell.

Nondescript voice aside, I was willing to believe this was Charlie Kelly. He'd probably just got to his desk at Environmental Perfection Agency headquarters back in the District of St. Columba, so of course he'd picked up the phone. Three-hour time difference? They don't think that way in D.St.C. The sun revolves around them, not the other way round. St. Ptolemy of Alexandria has to be the patron of the place, no matter what the Church says.

All this flashed through my mind in as much of a hurry as I could muster at 5:07 on a Tuesday morning. I don't think I missed a beat—or not more than one, anyhow—before I said, "So what can I do for you this fine day, Charlie?"

The insulating spell on the phone mouthpiece kept me from having to listen to my imp shouting crosscountry to his imp. I waited for his answer: "We have reports that there might a problem in your neck of the woods worth an unofficial look or two."

"Whereabouts in my neck of the woods?" I asked patiently. Easterners who live in each other's pockets have no feel for how spread out Angels City really is.

The pause that followed was longer than conversations between phone imps would have required; Charlie had to be checking a map or a report or something. At last he said, "It's in a place called Chatsworth. That's just an Angels City district name, isn't it?" He made it sound as if it were just around the corner from me.

It wasn't. Sighing, I answered, "It's up in St. Ferdinand's Valley, Charlie. That's about forty, maybe fifty miles from where I am right now."

"Oh," he said in a small voice. A fifty-mile circle out from Charlie's office dragged in at least four provinces. Fifty miles for me won't even get me out of my barony unless I head straight south, and then I'm only in the one next door. I don't need to head south very often; the Barony of Orange has its own EPA investigators.

"So what's going on in Chatsworth?" I asked. "Especially what's going on that you need to bounce me out of bed?"

"I am sorry about that," he said, so calmly that I knew he'd known what time it was out here before he called. Which meant it was urgent. Which meant I could start worrying. Which I did. He went on, "We may have a problem with a dump in the hills up there."

I riffled through my mental files. "That'd be the Devonshire dump, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, that's the name," he agreed eagerly—too eagerly. Devonshire's been giving Angels City on-and-off problems for years. The trouble with magic is, it's not free. All the good it produces is necessarily balanced by a like amount of evil. Yeah, I know people have understood that since Newton's day: for every quality, there is an equal and opposite counterquality, and all the math that goes with the law. But mostly it's a lip-service understanding, along the lines of, as long as I don't shit in my yard, who cares about next door?

That attitude worked fine—or seemed to—as long as next door meant the wide open spaces. If byproducts of magic blighted a forest or poisoned a stream, so what? You just moved on to the next forest or stream. A hundred years ago, the Confederated Provinces seemed to stretch west forever.

But they don't. I ought to know; Angels City, of course, sits on the coast of the Peaceful Ocean. We don't have unlimited unspoiled land and water to exploit any more. And as industrial magic has shown itself ever more capable of marvelous things, its byproducts have turned ever more noxious. You wouldn't want them coming downstream at you, believe me you wouldn't. My job is to make sure they don't.

"What's gone wrong with Devonshire now?" I asked. The answer I really wanted was nothing. A lot of local industries dispose of waste at Devonshire, and some of the biggest ones are defense firms. By the very nature of things, the byproducts from their spells are more toxic than anybody else's.

Charlie Kelly said, "We're not really sure there's anything wrong, Dave." That was close to what I wanted to hear, but not close enough. He went on, "Some of the local people"—he didn't say who—"have been complaining more than usual, though."

"They have any reason to?" I said. Local people always complain about toxic spell dumps. They don't like the noise, they don't like the spells, they don't like the flies (can't blame them too much for that; would you want byproducts from dealings with Beelzebub in your back yard?). Most of the time, as Charlie said, nothing is really wrong. But every once in a while . . .

"That's what we want you to find out," he told me.

"Okay," I answered. Then something he'd said a while before clicked in my head; I hadn't been awake enough to pay attention to it till now. "What do you mean, you want me to take a quiet look around? Why shouldn't I go up there with flags flying and cornets blaring?" A formal EPA inspection is worth seeing: two exorcists, a thaumaturge, shamans from the Americas, Mongolia, and Africa, the whole nine yards. Sometimes the incense is a toxic hazard all by itself.

"Because I want you to do it this way." He sounded harassed. "I've been asked to handle this unofficially as long as I can. Why do you think I'm calling you at home? Unless and until you find something really out of line, it would be best for everybody if you kept a low profile. Please, Dave?"

"Okay, Charlie." I owed Charlie a couple, and he's a pretty good fellow. "It's politics, isn't it?" I made it into a swear word.

"What's not?" He let it go at that. I didn't blame him; he had a job he wanted to keep. And telephone imps have ears just like anything else. They can be tormented, tricked, or sometimes bribed into blabbing too much. Phone security systems have come a long way, yeah, but not all the devils are out of them yet.

I sighed. "Can you at least tell me who doesn't want me snooping around? Then if anybody tries anything, I'll have some idea why." Just silence in my ear, save for the light breathing of my phone imp. I sighed again. It was that kind of morning. "Okay, Charlie, I'll draw my own conclusions." Those conclusions made for one ugly drawing, let me tell you. After a last sigh for effect, I said, "I'll head up to the Valley right away. God willing, I can get going before St. James' Freeway turns impossible."

"Thanks, David. I appreciate it," Kelly said, coming back to life now that I was doing what he wanted.

"Yeah, sure." I resigned myself to a long, miserable day. " 'Bye, Charlie." I hung up the phone. The imp went dormant. I wished I could have done the same.

I grabbed a quick, cold shower—either the salamander for the block of flats wasn't awake yet or somebody had turned it into a toad overnight—a muddy cup of coffee, and a not quite stale sweet roll. Feeling as near human as I was going to get at half past five, I went out to the garage, got on my carpet, and headed for the freeway.

My building has access rules like any other's, I suppose: anybody can use the flyway going out, but to come in you have to make your entry talisman known to the watch demon or else have one of the residents propitiate him for you. Otherwise you come down—with quite a bump, too—outside the wall and the gate.

I rode west along The Second Boulevard (don't ask me why it's The Second and not just Second; it just is) about twenty feet off the ground. Traffic was moving pretty well, actually, even though we all still had our lanterns on so we could see one another in the predawn darkness.

The Watcher who lets carpets onto St. James' Freeway from a feeder road is of a different breed from your average building's watch demon. He holds the barrier closed so many seconds at a time, then opens it just long enough for one carpet to squeeze past. Nobody's ever figured out how to propitiate a Watcher, either. Oh, if you're quick—and stupid—you may be able to squeeze in on somebody else's tail, but if you try it, he'll note down the weave of your carpet, and in a few days, just like magic, a traffic ticket shows up in your mailbox. Not many people are stupid twice.

The freeways need rules like that; otherwise they'd be impossibly jammed. As things were, I got stuck no matter how early I'd left. There was a bad accident a little north of the interdicted zone around the airport, and somebody's carpet had flipped. The damned fool—well, of course I don't actually know the state of his soul, but no denying his foolishness—hadn't been wearing his safety belt, either.

One set of paramedics was down on the ground with the fellow who'd been thrown out. They had a priest with them, too, so that didn't look good. The other Red Cross carpet was parked right in the middle of the flight of way, tending to victims who hadn't been thrown clear—and making everyone detour around it. People gawked as they slid by, so they went even slower. They always do that, and I hate it.

After that, I made pretty good time until I had to slow down again at the junction with St. Monica's Freeway. Merging traffic in three dimensions is a scary business when you think about it. Commuters who do it every day don't think about it any more.

The rush thinned out once I got north of Westwood, and I pretty much sailed into St. Ferdinand's Valley. I slid off the freeway and cruised around for a while, getting closer to the Devonshire dump by easy stages and looking for signs that might tell me whether Charlie Kelly had a right to be worried about it.

At first I didn't see any, which gladdened my heart. A couple of generations ago, the Valley was mostly farms and citrus groves. Then the trees went down and the houses went up. Now the Valley has industry of its own (if it didn't, I wouldn't have had to worry about the toxic spell dump, after all), but in large measure it's still a bedroom community for the rest of Angels City: lots of houses, lots of kids, lots of schools. You don't care to think about anything nasty in a part of town like that.

Before I went out to the dump itself, I headed over to the monastery to do some homework. The Thomas Brothers have chapter houses in cities all across the west; more meticulous record-keeping simply doesn't exist. Even if the Valley looked normal, I had a good chance of finding trouble simply by digging through the numbers they enshrined on parchment.

I've heard the Thomas Brothers have an unwritten rule that no abbot of theirs can ever be named Brother Thomas. I don't know if that's so. I do know the abbot at the Valley chapter house was a big-nosed Armenian named Brother Vahan. We'd met a few times before, though I didn't often work far enough north in Angels City to need his help.

He bowed politely as he let me precede him into his office. Candlelight gleamed from his skull. He was the baldest man I'd ever seen; he didn't need to be tonsured. He waved me to a comfortable chair, then sat down in his own hard one. "What can I do for you today, Inspector Fisher?" he asked.

I was ready for that. "I'd like to do some comparison work on births, birth defects, healings, and exorcisms in the northwest Valley ten years ago and in the past year."

"Ah," was all the abbot said. When viewed against his hairless skull, the big black caterpillars he used for eyebrows seemed even more alive than they might have otherwise. They twitched now. "How big a radius around the Devonshire dump would you like?"

I sighed. I should have expected it. I'm Jewish, but I know enough to realize fools don't generally make it up to abbot's grade. I said, "This is unofficial and confidential, you understand."

He laughed at me. I turned red. Maybe I was the fool, telling an abbot about confidentiality. He just said, "There are places you would need to be more concerned about that aspect than here, Inspector."

"I suppose so," I mumbled. "Can your data retrieval system handle a five-mile radius?"

The caterpillars drooped; I'd offended him. "I thought you were going to ask for something difficult, Inspector." He got up. "If you'd be so kind as to follow me?"

I followed. We walked past a couple of rooms my eyes refused to see into. I wasn't offended; there are places in the Temple in Jerusalem and even in your ordinary synagogue where gentiles' perceptions are excluded the same way. All faiths have their mysteries. I was just thankful the Thomas Brothers didn't reckon their records too holy for outsiders to view.

The scriptorium was underground, a traditional construction left over from the days when anyone literate was assumed to be a black wizard and when books of any sort needed to be protected from the torches of the ignorant and the fearful. But for its placement, though, the room was thoroughly modern, with St. Elmo's fire glowing smoothly over every cubicle and each of those cubicles with its own ground-glass access screen.

As soon as Brother Vahan and I stepped into a cubicle, the spirit of the scriptorium appeared in the ground glass. The spirit wore spectacles. I had to work to keep my face straight. I'd never imagined folk on the Other Side could look bookish.

I turned to the abbot. "Suppose I'd come in without you or someone else who's authorized to be here?"

"You wouldn't get any information out of our friend there," Brother Vahan said. "You would get caught." He sounded quietly confident. I believed him. The Thomas Brothers probably knew about as much about keeping documents secure as anyone not in government, and what they didn't know, Rome did.

Brother Vahan spoke to the ground-glass screen. "Give this man unlimited access to our files and full aid for . . . will four hours be enough?"

"Should be plenty," I answered.

"For four hours, then," the abbot said. "Treat him in all ways as if he were one of our holy brethren." That was as blanche a carte as he could give me; I bowed my head in profound appreciation. He flipped a hand back and forth, as if to say, Think nothing of it. He could say that if he wanted to (humility is, after all, a monkish virtue), but we both knew I owed him a big one.

"Anything else?" he asked me. I shook my head. "Happy hunting, then," he said as he started out of the scriptorium. "I'll see you later."

The spirit manifesting itself in the access screen turned its nearsighted gaze on me. "How may I serve you, child of Adam given four hours of unlimited access to the files of the Thomas Brothers?"

I told it the same thing I'd told Brother Vahan: "I want to go through births, birth defects, healings, and exorcisms within a five-mile radius of the Devonshire dump, first for the year ending exactly ten years ago and then for the year ending today." Humans can handle approximate data; with spirits you have to spell out every word and make sure you've crossed your t's and dotted your i's (and even your j's).

"I shall gather the data you require. Please wait," the spirit said. The screen went blank.

In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God. Yes, I know that's Brother Vahan's theology, not mine. It's a lot older than Christianity, for that matter. In Old Kingdom Egypt, the god Ptah was seen as both the tongue of the primeval god Atum and as the instrument through which Atum created the material world. Of course thought is the instrument through which we perceive and influence the Other Side; without it, we'd be as blind to magic as any dumb animals.

But John 1:1 and its variants in other creeds are also the basis of modern information theory. Because words partake of the divine, they manifest themselves in the spiritual world as well as in our own. Properly directed—ensorceled, if you will—spirits can gather, read, manipulate, and move the essence of words without ever having to handle the physical documents on which they appear. If the Greek and Roman mages had known that trick, their world could have been drowning in information, just as we are now.

I didn't have to wait long; as I'd expected, Brother Vahan used only the best and most thoroughly trained spirits. Ghostly images of documents began flashing onto the access screen, one after another—records from ten years ago. "Hold on!" I said after a few seconds.

The spirit appeared. "I obey your instructions, child of Adam," it said, as if daring me to deny it.

"I know, I know," I told it; the last thing I wanted was to get the heart of the access system mad at me. "I don't need to look at every individual report, though. Let me have the numbers in each category for the two periods. When I know what those are, I'll examine specific documents. That way, I'll be able to see forest and trees both."

The spirit looked out at me over the tops of its spectral spectacles. "You should have no difficulty in maintaining your mental view of both categories," it said reprovingly. That's easy for someone on the Other Side to say, but I have the usual limits of flesh and blood. I just stared back at the spirit. If it kept acting uppity, I'd sic Brother Vahan on it. After a last sniff, it said, "It shall be as you desire."

One by one, the numbers came up on the screen. The Thomas Brothers certainly did have a well-drilled scriptorium spirit; the creature wrote so its figures ran the right way for me to read them. It hardly needed to have bothered. I'm so used to mirror-image writing that I read it as well as the other kind. Maybe learning Hebrew helped get my eyes used to moving from right to left.

When the final figure faded from view, I looked down at the notes I'd jotted. Births were up in the most recent year as opposed to ten years ago; St. Ferdinand's Valley keeps filling up. Blocks of flats have replaced a lot of what used to be single-family homes. We aren't as crowded as New Jorvik, and I don't think we ever will be, but Angels City is losing the small-town atmosphere it kept for a while even after it became a big city.

The rate of healings hadn't changed significantly over the past ten years. "Spirit," I said, and waited until it appeared in the access screen. Then I played a hunch: "Please break out for me by type the healings for both periods I'm interested in."

"One moment," it said.

When they came up, the data weren't dramatic. I hadn't expected them to be, not when the overall frequency had stayed pretty much constant. But the increased incidence of elf-shot within the pool of healings was suggestive. Elves tend to be drawn to areas with high concentrations of sorcery. If the Devonshire dump were as clean as it was supposed to be, there shouldn't have been that many elves running around loose shooting their little arrows into people. Elf-arrows aren't like the ones Cupid looses, after all.

Exorcisms were up, too. I asked the access spirit for sample reports for each period. I wasn't after statistical elegance, not yet, just a feel for what was going on. I got the impression that the spirits who'd needed banishing this past year were a nastier bunch, and did more damage before they were expelled, than had been true in the earlier sample.

But the numbers that really leaped off the page at me were the birth defects. Between ten years ago and this past year, they'd almost tripled. I whistled softly under my breath, then called for the scriptorium spirit again. When it reappeared, I said, "May I please have a listing of birth defects by type for each of my two periods?"

"One moment," the spirit said again. The screen went blank. Then the spirit started writing on it. The first set of data it gave me was for the earlier period. Things there looked pretty normal. A few cases of second sight, a changeling whose condition was diagnosed earlier enough to give her remediation and a good chance at living a nearly normal life: nothing at all out of the ordinary.

When the birth defect information for the year just past came up on the ground glass, I almost fell off my chair. In that year alone, the area around the Devonshire dump had seen three vampires, two lycanthropes, and three cases of apsychia: human babies born without any soul at all. That's a truly dreadful defect, one neither priests nor physicians can do a thing about. The poor kids grow up, grow old, die, and they're gone. Forever. Makes me shudder just to think about it.

Three cases of apsychia in one year in a circle with a five-mile radius . . . I shuddered again. Apsychia just doesn't happen except when something unhallowed is leaking into the environment. You might not see three cases of apsychia in a year even in a place like eastern Frankia, where the toxic spells both sides flung around in the First Sorcerous War still poison the ground after three quarters of a century.

I finished writing up my notes, then told the spirit, "Thank you. You've been most helpful. May I ask one more favor of you?"

"That depends on what it is."

"Of course," I said quickly. "Just this: if anyone but brother Vahan tries to learn what I've been doing here, don't tell, him, her, or it." Scriptorium spirits, by their nature, have very literal minds; I wanted to make sure I covered both genders and both Sides.

The spirit considered, then nodded. "I would honor such a request from a monk of the Thomas Brothers, and am instructed to treat you as one for the duration Brother Vahan specified. Let it be as you say, then."

I didn't know how well the spirit would stand up under serious interrogation, but I wasn't too worried about that. Shows how much I knew, doesn't it? I guess I'm naive, but I thought the automatic anathema that falls on anyone who tampers with Church property would be plenty to keep snoops at arm's length. I'm no Christian, but I wouldn't have wanted an organization with a two-thousand-year track record of potent access to the Other Side down on me.

Of course, the veneration of Mammon goes back a lot farther than two thousand years.

I stopped by Brother Vahan's office on the way out so I could thank him for his help, too. He looked up from whatever he was working on—none of my business—and said two words: "That bad?"

He couldn't possibly have picked that up by magic. Along with the standard government-issue charms, I wear a set of my own made for me by a rabbi who's an expert in kabbalistics and other means of navigating on the Other Side. So I knew I was shielded. But abbots operate in this world, too. Even if he couldn't read my mind, he must have read my face.

"Pretty bad," I said. I hesitated before I went on, but after all, I'd just pulled the information from his files. All the same, I lowered my voice: "Three soulless ones born within that circle in the past year."

"Three?" His face went suddenly haggard as he made the sign of the cross. Then he nodded, as if reminding himself. "Yes, there have been that many, haven't there? I talked with the parents each time. That's so hard, knowing they'll never meet their loved ones in eternity. But I hadn't realized they were all so close to that accursed dump."

An abbot does not use words like accursed casually; when he says them, he means them. I wasn't surprised he hadn't noticed the apsychia cluster around the dump. That wasn't his job. Comforting bereaved families was a lot more important for him. But the Thomas Brothers collected the data I used to draw my own conclusions.

"Elf-shot is up in the area, too," I said quietly.

"It would be." He got up from behind his desk, set heavy hands on my shoulders. "Go with God, Inspector Fisher. I think you will be about His business today."

I didn't even twit him about turning One into Three, as I might have if I'd come out of his scriptorium with better news. Blessings are blessings, and we're wisely advised to count them. I said, "Thank you, Brother Vahan. I just wish I thought He was the only Power involved."

He didn't answer, from which I inferred he agreed with me. Wishing I could have come to some other conclusion, I went out to my carpet and headed over to the Devonshire dump. I drove around it a couple of times before I set down. Scout first, then attack; the army and the EPA both drill that into you.

Not that I learned much from my circumnavigations. You think dump, you think eyesore. It wasn't like that. From the outside, it didn't look like anything in particular, just a couple of square blocks with nothing built on them, nothing, at least, tall enough to show over the fence. And even that fence wasn't ugly; ivy climbed trellises and spilled over inside. If you wanted to, you could probably climb those trellises yourself, jump right on down.

You'd have to be crazy to try it, though. For one thing, I was certain catchspells would grab you if you did. For another, the ornaments on the perimeter fence weren't just there for decoration. Crosses, Magen Davids, crescents, Oriental ideograms I recognized but couldn't read, a bronze alpha and omega, a few kufic letters like the ones that lead off chapters of the Qu'ran . . . Things were being controlled in there, Things you wouldn't want to mess with.

They weren't being controlled well enough, though, or babies around the dump wouldn't come into the world without souls. I dribbled a few drops of Passover wine onto my spellchecker, murmured the blessing that thanked the Lord for the fruit of the vine.

The spellchecker duly noted all the apotropaic incantations on the wall . . . and yes, there were catchspells behind them. But it didn't see anything else. I shrugged. I hadn't really expected it to: its magical vocabulary wasn't that large. Besides, if the sorcerous leakage from the dump was so obvious that anybody with a thirty-crown gadget from Spells 'R' Us could spot it, Charlie Kelly wouldn't have needed to send me out to look things over. Still, you'd like things to be easy, just once.

There was a parking lot across the street from the entrance. I set my carpet down there, chanted the antitheft geas before I climbed off it. I do that automatically; Angels City has had big-city crime for a long time. Leave a carpet unwarded for even a few minutes and you're apt to find it's walked with Jesus.

I crossed in the crosswalk. They still call it that here, though in a melting pot like Angels City it also has symbols to let Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Parsees and Buddhists, and several different flavors of pagan (neo and otherwise) get from one side of the street to the other in safety. I don't know what you're supposed to do if you're a Samoan who still worships Tanaroa. Run like hell, I suppose.

The entryway to the Devonshire dump projected out several feet from the rest of the wall. A guard in a neat blue denim uniform came out of a glassed-in cage, tipped his cap to me. "May I help you, sir?" he asked politely, but in a way that still managed to imply I had no legitimate business making him get off his duff and step outside.

I flashed my EPA sigil. At a toxic spell dump, that effectively turns me into St. Peter—I'm the fellow with the power to bind and loose, at least. The guard's eyes widened. "Let me call Mr. Sudakis for you, Inspector, uh, Fisher, sir," he said, and ducked back into his cell. He grabbed the phone, started talking into it, waited for his ear imp to answer, then replaced the handset in its cradle. "You can go in, sir. I'll help you."

Help me he did. The gate was the kind with the little wheel on the bottom that retracted in back of the fence. He pushed it open. Behind it was a single, symbolic strand of barbed wire, with a placard whose message appeared in several languages and almost as many alphabets. The English version read, ALL HOPE ABANDON, YE WHO UNAUTHORIZED ENTER HERE. Dante always makes people sit up and take notice.

The guard moved the wire out of my way, too. Behind it was a thin red line painted on the ground which went across the gap where the two sections of wall came out to form the entryway. The guard picked up a little arched footbridge made of wood, set it down so that one end was outside the red line, the other inside. He was very careful to make sure neither end touched the strip of paint. That would have breached the dump's outer security containment, and doubtless cost him his job no matter how many backup systems the place had.

"Go ahead, sir," he said, tipping his cap again. "Mr. Sudakis is expecting you. Please stay within the confines of the wires and the amber lines inside." He grinned nervously. "I don't know why I'm telling you that—you know more about it than I do."

"You're doing what you're supposed to do," I answered as I mounted the little footbridge. "Too many people don't bother any more."

As soon as I'd got off the bridge, the guard picked it up and put it back on his side. The amber lines on the concrete and the barbed wire strung above them marked the safe path to the administrative office, a low cinderblock building that looked like a citadel in both the military and sorcerous senses of the word.

I looked around as I walked the path. I don't know what I'd expected—blasted heath, maybe. But no, just a couple of acres of weeds, mostly brown now because nobody's spells have been able to bring much rain the past few years. And yet—

For second or two, the fence around the dump seemed very far away, with a whole lot of Nothing stretching the dirt and brush the same way you'd use bread crumbs to make hamburger go farther. Astrologers babble about the nearly infinite distances between the stars. I had the bad feeling I was looking at more infinity than I ever cared to meet, plopped down there in the middle of Chatsworth. Magic, especially byproducts of magic, can do things to space and time that the mathematicians are still trying to figure out. Then I looked again, and everything seemed normal.

I hoped the wards the amber lines symbolized were as potent as the ones the red line had continued. By the data I'd taken from the Thomas Brothers' chapter house, even those weren't as good as they should have been.

A stocky fellow in shirt, tie, and hard hat came out of the cinderblock building and up the path toward me. He had his hand out and a professionally friendly smile plastered across his face. "Inspector—Fisher, is it? Pleased to meet you. I'm Antanas Sudakis; my job title is sorcerous containment area manager. Call me Tony—I'm the guy who runs the dump."

We shook hands. His grip showed controlled strength. I was at least six inches taller than he; I could look down on the top of his little helmet. Just the same, I got the feeling he could break me in half if he decided to—I'm a beanpole, while he was built like somebody who'd been a good high school linebacker and might have played college ball if only he'd been taller.

He wasn't hostile now, though. "Why don't you come into my office, Inspector Fisher—"

"Call me Dave," I said, thinking I ought to keep things friendly as long as I could.

"Okay, Dave, come on with me and then you can let me know what this is all about. All our inspection parchments are properly signed, sealed, blessed, fumigated, what have you. I keep the originals on file in my desk; I know you government folks are never satisfied with copies called up in the ground glass."

"What sorcery summons, sorcery may shift," I said, making it sound as if I was quoting official EPA policy. And I was. Still, I believed him. If his parchmentwork wasn't in order, he wouldn't brag about it. Besides, if his parchmentwork wasn't in order, he'd have more to fret about than a surprise visit from an EPA inspector. He'd be worrying about the wrath of God, both from bosses who didn't pay him to screw up and maybe from On High, too. A lot of things in the dump were unholy in the worst way.

His office didn't feel like a citadel, even if it had no windows. The diffuse glow of St. Elmo's fire across the ceiling gave the room the cool, even light of a cloudy day. The air was cool to breathe, too, though St. Ferdinand's Valley, which like the rest of Angels City was essentially a desert before it got built up, still has desertly weather.

Sudakis noticed me visibly not toasting. He grinned. "We're on a circuit with one of the frozen water elementals up in Greenland. A section of tile here"—he pointed to the wall behind his desk—"touched the elemental once, and now it keeps the place cool thanks to the law of contagion."

"Once in contact, always in contact," I quoted. "Modern as next week." A lot of buildings in Angels City cool themselves by contagious contact with ice elementals. That wasn't what I meant by modern; the law of contagion may be the oldest magical principle known. But regulating the effect so people feel comfortable, not stuck on an ice floe themselves, is a new process—and an expensive one. The people who made a profit off the dump didn't stint their employees; I wondered how the leak had happened if they had money like this to throw around.

Once his secretary had brought coffee for both of us, Sudakis settled back in his chair. It creaked. He said, "What can I do for you, Dave? I gather this is an unofficial visit: you haven't shown me a warrant, you haven't served a subpoena, you don't have a priest or an exorcist or even a lawyer with you. So what's up?"

"You're right—this is unofficial." I sipped my coffee. It was delicious, nothing like the reconstituted stuff that makes a liar of the law of similarity. "I'd like to talk about your containment scheme here, if you don't mind."

His air of affability turned to stone as abruptly as if he'd gazed on a cockatrice. By his expression, he'd sooner have had me ask him about a social disease. "We're tight," he said. "Absolutely no question we're tight. Maybe we'd both better have priests and lawyers here. I don't like 'unofficial' visits that hit me where I live, Inspector Fisher." I wasn't Dave any more.

"You may not be as tight as you think," I told him. "That's what I'm here to talk about."

"Talk is cheap." He was hard-nosed as a linebacker, too. "I don't want talk. I want evidence if you try and come here to say things like that to me."

"Elf-shot around the dump is up a lot from ten years ago till now," I said.

"Yes, I've seen those numbers. We've got a lot of new immigrants in the area, too, and they bring their troubles with them when they come to this country. We have a case of jaguaranthropy, if that's a word, a couple of years ago. Try telling me that would have happened when all the neighbors sprang from northwest Europe."

He was right about the neighborhood changing. I'd gone past a couple of houses that had signs saying Curandero tacked out front. If you ask me, curanderos are frauds who prey on the ignorant, but nobody asked me. A basic principle of magic is that if you believe in something, it'll be true—for you.

I'll tell you something I believed. I believed that if the EPA took Devonshire dump to court just on the strength of an increase in elf-shot around the area, the lawyers Sudakis' people would throw at us would leave us so much not-too-lean ground beef. I had no doubt Tony Sudakis believed it, too.

So I hit him with something bigger and harder. "Are you going to blame the immigrants for the three cases of apsychia around here in the past year?"

He didn't even blink. "Coincidence," he said flatly. One hand, though, tugged at the silver chain he wore around his neck. Out popped the ornament on the end of it. I'd expected a crucifix, but instead it was a polished piece of amber with something embedded inside—a pretty piece, and one that probably cost a pretty copper.

"Speaking off the record, Mr. Sudakis, you know as well as I do that three soulless births in one area in one year isn't coincidence," I answered. "It's an epidemic."

He let the amber amulet slide back under his shirt. "I deny that, off the record or on it." His voice was so loud and ringing that I would have bet something was Listening to every word we said, ready to spit it back in case we did end up in court. Interesting, I thought. Sudakis went on. "Besides, Inspector, think of it like this: if I didn't think this place was safe, why would I keep coming to work every day?"

I raised what I hoped was a placating hand. "Mr. Sudakis—Tony, if I may—I'm not, repeat not, claiming you're personally responsible for anything. I want you to understand that. But evidence of what may be a problem here has come to my attention, and I wouldn't be doing my job if I ignored it."

"Okay," he said, nodding. "I can deal with that. Look, maybe I can clear this up if I show you the containment scheme. You find any holes in it, Dave"—I was Dave again, so I guess he'd calmed down—"and I will personally shit in my hat and wear it backwards. I swear it."

"You're not under oath," I said hastily. If he turned out to be wrong, I didn't want to leave him the choice of doing something disgusting or facing the wrath of the Other Side for not following through.

"You heard me." He got up from his desk, went over to a file cabinet off to one side, started pulling out folders. "Here, look." He unrolled a parchment in front of me. "Here's the outer perimeter. You'll have seen some of that; here's what all really goes into it. And here's the protection scheme for the complex we're sitting in."

I was already pretty much convinced the outer perimeter of the dump was tight; that's what the spellchecker had indicated, anyhow. And a cursory glance at the plans to keep the blockhouse safe told me Sudakis didn't need to be afraid when he came to his job. Satan himself might have forced his way through those wards, or possibly Babylonian Tiamat if her cult were still alive, but the lesser Powers would only get headaches if they tried.

"Now here's the underground setup." Sudakis stuck another parchment in front of my face. "You look this over, Dave. You tell me if it's not as tight as a Vestal's—"

Unlike the other two plans, this one really did demand a careful onceover. Proper underground containment is the Balder's mistletoe of almost any toxic spell dump. The ideal solution, of course, would be to float the dump on top of a pool of alkahest, which would dissolve any evil that percolated through to it. But alkahest is a quis custodiet ipsos custodes? phenomenon—being a universal solvent, it dissolves everything it touches, which would in short order include the dumping grounds themselves.

Some of the wilder journal articles suggest using either lodestone levitation or sylphs of the air to raise the dump above the ground and to keep it separated from the alkahest below. I think anybody who'd try such a scheme ought to be made to live in the dump office. Lodelev is a purely physical process, and, like any physical process, vulnerable to magical interference. And sylphs of the air really are just as flighty as their reputation makes them out to be. They'd get bored or playful or whatever and forget what they were supposed to be doing.

That wouldn't be good, not where alkahest is involved. They used it in the First Sorcerous War, but not in the Second. It's just too potent, even as a weapon. As it eats its way straight toward the center of the earth, it's liable to bring up magma or ancient buried Powers through the channels it cuts. Nobody even stockpiles it—how could you?

So, no alkahest under the Devonshire dump. Instead, the designers had put in the usual makeshifts: blessings and relics and holy texts from every faith known to mankind, and elaborate spells renewed twice a year to use the law of contagion to extend their effect to the places where they weren't actually buried.

"It looks like a good arrangement on parchment," I said grudgingly. "I presume you rigidly adhere to the resanctification schedule." I made it sound as if I assumed nothing of the sort.

Tony Sudakis set more parchments in front of me. "Certification under canon law, the ordnances of the Baron of Angels, and national secular law."

I examined them. They looked like what they were supposed to be. The dump management outfit might have forged the secular documents; the worst the Baron of Angels can do is send you to jail, the worst the secular power can do is leave you short a head. But you'd have to be pretty bold to forge a canon lawyer's hand or seal. The punishment for that kind of offense could go on forever.

I shoved the pile of parchments back at Sudakis. Now my tone of voice was different: "I have to admit, I don't know what to tell you. This really does look good on parchment. But something's not right hereabouts; I know that, too." I told him about the rest of the birth defects I'd spotted, the vampirism and lycanthropy.

He frowned. "You're not making that up?"

"Not a word of it. I'll swear by Adonai Elohaynu, if you like." I am, God knows, an imperfect Jew. But you'd have to be a lot more imperfect than I am to falsify that oath. People who would risk their souls by falsely calling on the Lord won't make it past the EPA spiritual background checks, and a good thing, too, if you ask me.

Sudakis' beefy face set in the frown as if it were made of quick-drying cement. "Our attorneys will still maintain that the effects you cite are just a statistical quirk and have nothing to do with the Devonshire dump, its contents, or its activities. If we go to court, we'll win."

"Probably." I wanted to hit him. The certain knowledge that he'd murder me wasn't what stopped me. Getting in a good shot or two would have made that worthwhile. Far as I'm concerned, people who hide "it's wrong" behind "it's legal" deserve whatever happens to them. The only thing that held me back was knowing I'd bring discredit to the EPA.

Then Sudakis pulled out that little amber charm again. He licked a fingertip, ran it over the smooth surface of the amulet, and murmured something in a language I not only didn't know but didn't come close to recognizing. Then he put the amulet back and said, "Now we can talk privately for a little while."

"Can we?" I had no reason to trust him, every reason to think he was trying to trap me in an indiscretion. The lawyers he'd been throwing at me would have loved that.

But he said, "Yeah, and I think we'd better, too. I don't like the numbers you laid out for me, I don't like 'em at all. This place is supposed to be safe, it's been safe ever since I took over here, and I want it to keep on being safe. That's what they pay me for, after all."

"Why do you have to turn aside the Listener if that's so?" I asked. Come to that, I didn't know his outrÇ little ritual really had turned aside anything.

He said, "Because the company basically just wants me to run this place so it makes them money. I want to run it right."

All I could think was, Hell of a note when a man has to deafen the Listener before he says he wants to do a proper job. But he'd convinced me. Too many top corporate managers hide dorsal fins under expensive imported suits. If one of those types got wind of what Sudakis had said, let alone what he'd done, he'd be out on the street with a big dusty footprint on his behind.

"How'd you get word there was trouble here, anyhow?" he asked. "Did you paw through the Thomas Brothers' files hoping you'd stumble over something you could use to curse us?"

His bosses wouldn't have let him manage the dump if he was stupid. I answered, "No, as a matter of fact, I didn't. I got a call from the District of St. Columba this morning, telling me I ought to check things out. So I did, and now you know what I found."

"That's—interesting." He stuck out his chin. "How'd Charlie Kelly know back there that something was up when you hadn't heard anything out here?" No, he wasn't stupid at all, not if he knew the fellow at the EPA who was likeliest to give me orders.

"His job is to hear things like that," I answered, suspicious again. Not all the ways Sudakis might have learned about Kelly were savory ones.

"Yeah, sure, sure. But how?" If he was acting, he could have given lessons. He looked down at his wrist, said something scatological. That's a safer way to work off your feelings than swearing or cursing. "My stinking watch says it's day before yesterday. Must be eddy currents from the garbage outside."

"You ought to wear something better than that cheap mechanical," I said. I touched the tail of the timekeeper that coiled round my wrist. It's a better-behaved little demon than the one that sits on my nightstand at home. It yawned, stretched, piped, "Eleven forty-two," and went back to sleep.

Sudakis scatologized again. "The Listener will go back on duty any minute now. I can't put it out two times running; the magic doesn't work. I hate doing it even once: too much magic loose here as is. That's why I don't wear a fancy watch like yours. Mechanicals are all right. When one gets bollixed, I just buy another one: no need to worry about rites or anything like that."

I shrugged; it wasn't my business. But I have as little to do with mechanicals as I can. If the Other Side weren't as real as this one, they might be all right. But as Atheling the Wise put it, though, most forces are also Persons, and mechanicals have no Personalities of their own to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—to say nothing of outraged (or sometimes just mischievous) Forces. That's why you'll never see lodestone levitation under an alkahest pool.

Sometimes, when I'm in the mood for utopian flights of fancy, I think about how smoothly the world would run if all natural forces were as inanimate as the ones that let mechanicals operate. We'd never have to screen against megasalamanders launched on the wings of supersylphs to incinerate cities anywhere in the world. Neither of the Sorcerous Wars that devastated whole countries could have happened. For that matter, I wouldn't have had to worry about toxic spell dumps or the ever-growing pollution of the environment. Things would be simpler all around.

Yeah, I know it's a dream from the gate of ivory. Without magic, the world would probably have farmers, maybe towns, but surely not the great civilization we know. Can you imagine mass production without the law of similarity, or any kind of communications network without the law of contagion?

And medicine? I shiver to think of it. Without ectoplasmic beings to see and reach inside the body, how would medicine be possible at all? If you got sick, you'd bloody well die, just like one of Tony Sudakis' cheap watches when magic touched its works.

I pulled my mind back to business and asked him, "Can you give me a list of the firms whose spells you're storing at this containment facility?" That was a question I could legitimately ask him, regardless of whether the Listener was conscious.

He said, "Inspector Fisher, in view of the unofficial nature of your visit, I have to tell you no. If you bring me a warrant, I will of course cooperate to the degree required by civil and canon law." He thought he was being heard again—he tipped me a wink as he spoke.

"Such a list is a matter of public record," I argued, both because it was something I really wanted to have and because I still wasn't sure I could trust him.

"And I will surrender it to properly constituted authority, but only to such authority," he said. "But it could also give competitors important information on the spells and charms we use at this facility. Limited access to magical secrets is one of the oldest principles of both canon and civil law."

He might have been playing it to the hilt for the sake of the Listener, but he had me and I knew it. Sophisticated magic has to be kept secret or else everyone starts using it and the originator gains no benefit from hard and often dangerous research work. People who want to socialize sorcery don't realize there wouldn't be much sorcery to socialize if they took away the incentive for devising new spells.

"I shall return with that warrant, Mr. Sudakis," I said formally.

He grinned and gave me a silent thumbs-up the Listener wouldn't notice, so he was either really on my side or one fine con man. "Will there be anything else, Inspector?" he asked.

I started to shake my head, then changed my mind. "Is there a safe spot in this building where I can look out at the whole dump?"

"Sure is. Why don't you come with me?" Sudakis looked happy for any excuse to get up from behind his desk. My guess was that he'd been promoted for outstanding work in the field—he probably liked the money from his administrative job but not a whole lot of other things about it.

Our shoes rang on the spiral stairway that led to the roof of the cinderblock office. Steps and rail alike were cold iron, a sensible precaution in a building surrounded by such nasty magic. The trapdoor through which we climbed was also of iron, heavily greased against the rains Angels City wasn't seeing lately. Sudakis effortlessly pushed it out of the way.

"Here you are," he said waving. "You're about as safe here as you are indoors; topologically, we're still inside the same shielding system. But it doesn't feel the same out in the open air, does it?"

"No," I admitted. I felt exposed to I didn't know what. I wondered if the air itself was bad somehow. I imagined tiny demons I couldn't even see crawling down into my lungs and relieving themselves among my bronchial passages. An unpleasant thought—I scuttled it as fast as I could.

The dump still looked like a couple of acres of overgrown, underwatered ground. If it had been paved over, it would have been a perfect used carpet lot. I don't know what I'd expected from a panoramic view: maybe that I could spot boxes or barrels with corporate names on them. I didn't see anything, though. The most interesting thing I did see was a little patch of ground about fifty yards from the office building that seemed to be moving of its own accord. I pointed. "What's over there?"

Tony Sudakis' eyes followed my finger. "Oh, that. It'll be a while before decon does much with that area, I'm afraid. Byproducts from a defense plant—I can say that much. Those are flies you see stirring around."

"Oh." I dropped the subject, at once and completely. I'd thought about the Lord of the Flies on the way over to the dump. He's such a potent demon prince that even saying his name can be dangerous. Speak of the devil, as everyone knows, is not a joke, and the same applies to his great captain, the prince of the descending hierarchy.

I didn't care for the notion of the Defense Department dealing with Beelzebub, either. I know the Pentagram has the best wizards in the world, but they're only human. Leave out a single line—by God, misplace a single comma—and you're liable to have hell on earth.

I looked back toward the place where I'd seen a whole lot of Nothing when I was coming up the protected (I hoped) walk toward Sudakis' office. From this angle, it didn't look any different from the rest of the dump. I thought about mentioning it to Sudakis, but didn't bother; he probably saw enough weird things in the course of a week to last an ordinary chap with an ordinary job a lifetime or two.

Besides, that thought gave rise to another: "How often do you run across synergistic reactions among the spells that get dumped here?"

"It does happen sometimes, and sometimes it's no fun at all when it does." He rolled his eyes to show how big an understatement that was. "Persian spells are particularly bad for that, for some reason, and there's a large Persian community here in the Valley—refugees from the latest secularist takeover, most of them. When their spiritual elements fused with some from a Baghdadi candy-maker's preservation charm, of all the unlikely things—"

I drew my own picture. It wasn't pleasant. Shia and Sunni magic are starkly different but argue from the same premises. That makes the minglings worse when they happen: as if Papists and Protestants used the same dump in Ireland. The Confederation is a melting pot, all right, but sometimes the pot wants to melt down.

I didn't see anything else about which to question Sudakis, so I went back down the spiral stairs. He followed, pausing only to shut the trap door over our heads. As we walked back to his office, I said, "I'll be back with the warrant as soon as I can: in the next couple of days, anyhow."

"Whatever you say, Inspector Fisher." He winked again to show he was really on my side. I wondered if he was. He sounded very much like a man speaking for the Listener when he said, "I'm happy to cooperate informally with an informal investigation, but I do need the formal parchment before I can exceed the scope of my instructions from management."

He went out to the entrance with me. I craned my neck to see if the Nothing reappeared as I passed the place where I'd seen it before. For an instant I thought it did, but when I blinked it was gone.

"What's there?" Sudakis asked when I turned my head.

"Nothing," I said, but I meant—I guessed I meant—it with a small n. I laughed a little nervously. "A figleaf of my imagination."

"You work here a while, you'll get those for sure." He nodded, hard. I wondered what all he'd seen—or maybe not seen—since he started working here.

When we got out to the front gate, the security guard again carefully placed the footbridge so it straddled the red line. I felt like a free man as soon as I was on the outside of the dump site. Sudakis waved across from his side, then went back to his citadel.

It wasn't until I'd crossed the crosswalk, chanted the phrase that unlocked the antitheft geas on my carpet, and actually gotten into the air that I remembered the vampires, the werewolves, the kids born without souls, all the other birth defects around the Devonshire dump. Getting outside the site didn't necessarily free you from it. Were that so, I wouldn't have had to make this trip in the first place.

Midday traffic was a lot thinner than the usual morning madness. I was more than twice as far from my Westwood office in the Confederal Building as I was when I left from my flat, but I didn't need any more time to get there than I do on my normal commute. I slid into my reserved parking space (penalty for unauthorized use, a hundred crowns or an extra year for your soul in purgatory, or both—judge's discretion: if he thinks you won't rate purgatory, he'll just fine you), then walked inside.

The elevator shaft smelt of almond oil. At the bottom was a virgin parchment inscribed with the words GOMERT and KAILOETH and the sigil of the demon Khil, who has control over some of the spirits of the air (he can also cause earthquakes, and so is a useful spirit to know in Angels City). The almond oil is part of the paste that summons him, the other ingredients being olive oil, dust from close by a coffin, and the brain of a dunghill cock. "Seventh floor," I said, and was lifted up.

As soon as I got into the office, I called Charlie Kelly. He listened while I told him what I'd found, then said, "Nice piece of work, Dave. That confirms and amplifies the information I'd already received. Go to work on that warrant right away."

"I will," I promised. "I know just the judge: I'll take the information over to qadi Ruhollah. He's about the strictest man in A.C. when it comes to environmental damage." I chuckled. "For that matter, he's a rigorist on just about everything—Maximum Ruhollah, we call him out here."

"Sounds like the fellow we need, all right," Kelly said. "Anything else?"

I started to say no, but had to think better of it. "There is one other thing, as a matter of fact. Sudakis—the dump manager—wondered how you'd heard something new might be wrong at his place when no one out here had a clue. I couldn't give him an answer, but it made me curious, too."

As it had once or twice when he'd called me at home, the silence stretched longer than imp relay could account for by itself. Finally Charlie said, "A bird told me, you might say."

"A little bird, right?" I started to laugh. "Charlie, I stopped believing in that little bird about the same time I found out the stork only brings changelings."

"However you want it," he said. "That's all I can tell you, and more than I ought to."

I thought about pushing some more, but decided not to. People back in D.C. are supposed to have good sources; they justify the fancy salaries that come out of your purse and mine by knowing what's going on all over the country and how to find out about it even if the people who are doing it don't want it found out. But I was still moderately graveled that somebody a continent away had picked up on something I hadn't heard the first thing about right in my own back yard.

"Get the warrant, Dave," Charlie said. "We'll go from there, depending on what we learn."

"Right," I said, and hung up. Then I grabbed a sandwich and a cup of coffee at the little cafeteria in the building. They perfectly balanced virtue and vice: they were lousy but cheap. Lousy or not, my stomach stopped growling. I made another phone call.

The phone on the other end must have yammered for quite a while, because I listened to my imp drumming his fingers on the inside of the handset until at last I got an answer: "Hand-of-Glory Press, Judith Adler speaking."

"Hi, Judy—it's Dave."

"Oh, hi, Dave." I thought her voice went from businesslike to warm, but with two phone imps between us I had a hard time being sure. "Sorry I took so long to pick up there. I was in the middle of a tough passage, and I wanted to get to the end of a sentence so I could be sure I wouldn't miss even a single word when I went back to it."

"Don't apologize," I said. "Doing what you do, you have to be careful."

Hand-of-Glory Press, as you'd guess from the name, publishes grimoires of all sorts, from simple ones on carpet maintenance up to the special secret sort with olive-drab covers. Judy's their number one proofreader and copy editor. She's the most intensely detail-minded person I know, and she needs to be. An error in a grimoire on flying carpets might end you up in Boston, Oregon, instead of Boston, Mass. An error in a military magic manual might leave you dead, or worse.

She said, "So what's up?"

"Feel like going out to dinner with me tonight?" I asked. "I ran into something interesting today, and I wouldn't mind hearing what you think of it." Knowing someone who can see not only forest and trees but also count leaves is wonderful. Being in love with her is even better.

"Sure," she said. "Meet at your place after work? I ought to be able to get there before six."

"You'll probably beat me there, then, the way traffic on St. James' has been lately," I told her.

"Sounds good."

"There's a new Hanese place a few blocks away that I want to try."

"Sounds good to me, too. You know how much I like Hanese food."

"See you tonight, then. Now I'll let you get back to what you were doing. 'Bye."

I went back to work, too, although my mind wasn't really on the main project that currently infested my desk. A couple of days before, a big carpet carrying fumigants had overturned in an accident, spilling finely ground linseed, psellium seed, violet and wild parsley root, aloes, mace, and storax. Because they're materials used in conjurations, I had to draft the environmental impact statement.

I could have just written no impact and let it go at that: the fumigants were harmless in and of themselves, and required combustion and ritual to become magically significant. A two-word report, however, would not have made my boss happy, and might have given people outside the EPA the idea that we didn't take seriously the job we were doing.

So, instead, I wasted taxpayers' time and parchment writing five leaves that ended up saying no impact but did it in a bureaucratically acceptable way. I do sometimes wonder why governmental agencies have to act like that, but it seems as universal as the law of contagion.

Suffused in virtue, I dropped the draft of my statement on my boss' desk for her changes, then went down the slide, out to my carpet, and onto the freeway. Sure enough, traffic was beastly, especially down by the airport. Not only was everybody getting on and off there, but the flight lanes for the big international carrier really cramp air space for local travelers.

Judy was waiting for me when I got home, as I'd thought she would be. We'd been seeing each other for about two and a half years, then; I'd gotten her a spare entry talisman and given her the unlocking Word for my door pretty early in that time, and she'd done the same for me.

She greeted me with a pucker on her lips and a cold beer in her hand. "Wonderful woman," I told her, which might have helped heat the kiss a little. She got a beer for herself, too. We sat down to drink them before we went out.

Judy's a big tall brunette with hazel eyes and a mass of wavy brown hair that falls halfway down her back. She doesn't walk, exactly; when she moves, it's more like flowing. She looked too feline ever to seem quite at home on my angular apartment-house furniture. I enjoyed watching her all the same.

"So what did you come across today?" she asked.

I finished my beer and said, "Let's talk about it at the restaurant. If I start explaining it now, we won't get to the restaurant, and then you'll think I invited you over just to lure you into bed."

"It is nice to know you occasionally have other things on your mind," she admitted, upending her own bottle. "Let's go, then."

We rode on my carpet; the safety belts held us companionably close. The restaurant parking lot had a sign with a big Hanese dragon breathing ornately stylized fire and a blunt warning: TRESPASSERS WILL BE INCINERATED.

Judith smiled when she saw it. I didn't. I live in a moderately tough part of town, and I figured there was at least one chance in three the sign was no joke.

Wonderful smells greeted us just inside the entrance. The only trouble with Hanese restaurants is that so much of what they serve is forbidden to those who observe the Law. Sea cucumbers I can live without, but I've heard so much about scallops and lobster that I'm always tempted to try them. But how can a man who'd break what he sees as God's Law be trusted to uphold the laws of men? I was good again. So was Judy, whose job and whose life also took discipline.

Still, you can't really complain about hot and sour soup, beef with black mushrooms, crispy duck, and crystal-boiled chicken with spicy sauces. Everything was good, too; this was a place I'd visit again. While Judy and I ate, I told her about the Devonshire dump.

"Three cases of apsychia this year?" she said. Her eyebrows went way up, and stayed way up. "Something's badly wrong there."

"I think so, too, and so does the dump administrator—fellow named Tony Sudakis—even though he won't say so where a Listener can hear him." I sipped my tea. "You deal with magic more intimately than I do, maybe even more intimately than Sudakis: intimately in a way different from his, anyhow. I'm glad you're worried; it tells me I'm right to feel the same way."

"You certainly are." She nodded so vigorously, her hair flew out in a cloud around her head. Then her eyes filled with tears. "Just think of those poor babies—"

"I know." I'd thought about them a lot. I couldn't help it. Vampires and lycanthropes have their problems, heaven knows, but what hope is there for a kid with no soul? None, zero, zip. I drank more tea, hoping it would cleanse my mind along with my palate. No such luck. Then I told Judy what Charlie Kelly had said about a bird telling him something might be amiss at the dump. "He wouldn't give me any details—he wanted to be coy. What do you suppose he meant?"

"A bird? Not a little bird?" She waited for me to shake my head, then started ticking off possibilities on her fingers. "First thing that occurs to me is something to do with Quetzalcoatl."

"You just made dinner worth putting on the expense account," I said, beaming. "I hadn't thought of that."

I felt stupid for not thinking of it, too, for no sooner had I spoken than a busboy stopped at the table to clear away some dirty dishes. Unlike our waiter, he wasn't Hanese; he was stockier, a little darker, and spoke his little Anglo-Saxon with a strong Spainish accent. A lot of the scutwork in Angels City gets done by people from the south. As Sudakis had said, more of them come here every year, too. Times are so hard, people so poor, down in the Empire that even scutwork looks good to a lot of people.

Angels City, much of the Confederation's southwest, used to belong to the Empire of Azteca. The nobles, some of them, still plot revenge after a century and a half. For that matter, though most people in the Empire speak Spainish these days, some of the old families there, the ones that go back before the Spaniards came, go right on worshiping their own gods in secret, even though they go to Mass, too. Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, is much the nicest of those gods, believe me.

The old families crave the Empire's old borders, too, even if their own ancestors never ruled hereabouts. They call our southwest Aztlan, and dream it's theirs. The way immigration is headed, in a couple of generations that may be true in all but name. Some people, though, might not want to wait. So, Quetzalcoatl.

Judy asked, "What ideas have you had yourself?" Thinking is hard work. She didn't want to do it all herself, for which I couldn't blame her.

I seized a big, meaty mushroom on my chopsticks, then said, "The Peacock Throne crossed my mind."

Judy was chewing, too. She held up a finger, swallowed, then said, "Yes, I can see that, especially since—didn't you say?—you know some Persian firms use that dump?"

"That's right. Sudakis told me so." The Peacock Throne is the one which was warmed by the fundament of the Shahan-Shah of Persia until the secularists threw him out a few years ago. St. Ferdinand's Valley has a large Persian refugee community. And if Persians had been whispering in Charlie Kelly's ear, I wouldn't have any trouble getting a warrant from old Maximum Ruhollah, either. He was plus royal que le roi, if you know what I mean.

"After the Peacock Throne, the next possibility I thought of was the Garuda Bird project," I went on. "Aerospace and defense are Siamese twins, and a lot of defense outfits use the Devonshire dump."

Judy nodded, slowly. Her eyes caught fire. So did mine whenever I thought about the Garuda Bird. Up till now, no one's ever found a sorcerous way to get us off Earth and physically into space. People have even talked about trying to do it with pure mechanicals, though anybody who'd fly a mechanical in a universe full of mystic forces is crazier than any three people I want to deal with.

But the Garuda Bird project links the ancient Hindu Bird with the most modern western spell-casting techniques. Before long, if everything goes as planned, we'll try visiting the moon and the worlds in person, not just by astral projection.

"There's a good-sized Hind community up in the Valley, too," Judy said.

"That's true." It was, but I didn't know how much it meant. Angels City and its metropolitan area are so big, they have good-sized communities from just about every nation on earth. If God decided to build the Tower of Babel now, he'd put it right here: the schools, for instance, have to try to teach kids who speak close to a hundred different languages, and some towns have laws that signs have to be at least partly in the Roman alphabet so police, firefighters, and exorcists can find the places in case of emergency.

I ate another mushroom, then said, "Any more ideas?"

"I didn't have any others until you mentioned the Peacock Throne," Judy said, "but that made me think of something else." She didn't go on; she didn't look as if she wanted to.

"Well?" I asked at last.

She looked around and lowered her voice before she spoke; maybe she didn't want anybody but me hearing. "There's the Peacock Throne, but there's also the Peacock Angel."

Not everybody, especially in this part of the world, would have taken her meaning. But while neither one of us is a sorcerer, we both deal with the Other Side as much as a lot of people who make a good living at wizardry. I felt a chill run up my back. The Peacock Angel is a euphemism the Persians use for Satan.

"Judy, I hope you're wrong," I told her.

"So do I," she said. "Believe me, so do I."

I remembered the knot of stirring flies I'd seen in the dump—Beelzebub is very high up (or low down, depending on how you look at things) in the infernal hierarchy. And that Nothing—had I really seen it, or was it just jitters at being in a—literally—spooky place? If it was real, what, or Who, caused it? Those were interesting thoughts. I didn't like any of them.

Suddenly a little bit of Nothing seemed to fall like a cloak over the warm, comfortable restaurant. I didn't want to be there any more. I waved for the bill, pulled money from my wallet to cover it, and left in a hurry. Judy didn't argue. Even euphemisms can bring trouble in their wake.

My flat felt like a fortress against our gloom. As soon as I'd locked the door and touched the mezuzah that warded it, Judy came into my arms. We hugged, hard, just holding each other for a long time. Then she said, "Why don't you bring me another bottle of beer?"

When I got back from the icebox with it, she'd taken from her purse two small alabaster cups, thin to the point of translucency. Into each she poured a little powder from a vial she carried. I'd once asked the ingredients of the "cup of roots," and she'd told me gum of Alexandria, liquid alum, and garden crocus. Mixed with beer, it was a contraceptive that dated back to the ancient Egyptians. I was convinced it worked: not only had it never failed us, how many ancient Egyptians have you seen lately?

Just to be safe, though, I also followed Pliny's advice and kept the testicles and blood of a dunghill cock under my bed. Unlike the old Roman's, mine were sealed in glass so they wouldn't prove contraceptive merely by stinking prospective partners out of the bedroom.

If you ask me, making love, especially with someone you do love, is the most sympathetic magic of all. Afterwards, I asked Judy, "Do you want to stay the night?" I admit I had an ulterior motive; she's different from most of the women I've known in that she often feels frisky in the morning.

But that night she shook her head. "I'd better not. I'd have to take the cup of roots again if you wanted me, and I don't want to drink beer and then steer a carpet through rush-hour traffic."

"Okay." I hope I gave in with good grace. If you love somebody not least for having a good head on her shoulders, you'd better not get annoyed when she uses it.

She went into the bathroom, came back and started to get dressed, then stopped and looked over at me. "Could we try again tonight?"

" 'Try' is probably the operative word." But I was off the bed like a shot and heading for the kitchen. "Woman, you'll run me out of beer and make me go up with the window shade, but you're nice to have around."

"Good," she said, a smile in her voice. Beer in hand, I hurried back toward the bedroom. Her nice, sensible head was not the only reason I loved her. No indeed.


Back | Next