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Fat chance. In the first place, I don’t keep pets. For obvious reasons. In the second place, I don’t take on obligations that I don’t choose. Not ever and, especially, not now. That’s a principle of mine, and I’m sticking to it. So obviously I wasn’t going to let this creature, whatever it was, follow me home. On the other hand, I was starving.

We went to the donut place on Hadley, because it was the only place handy that’s open all night. He looked even rattier under the lights than he had up on the hill, like he’d been on the streets for quite a while. His blond hair was clean, but his last hair cut had probably been done without a mirror. His skin was unusually pale for California, almost milky, like in fairy tales. His face reminded me of a Greek statue, but his cheeks were hollow and the set of his mouth was hard. He still radiated tension, but it wasn’t the same as when he’d first appeared on that hill. He must have been hungry. He ate more donuts than I did.

I downed a buttermilk bar and a glazed while I studied him. He was formed like a piece of art, where every detail, his wrist, his throat, the line of his jaw, drew and held the eye. He scarfed up two chocolates and an old-fashioned. I realized, annoyed, that he knew I was looking at him. I started on another glazed and said, “All right. Let’s have it. What were you doing up there? And what’s the whole story, where you come from, what you are, and why the hell do you think for a second that it has anything to do with me?”

He put down the donut he’d started on. He was wary of me, but not afraid now. That was strange. Maybe he was on a sugar high. He didn’t look at me directly, but said, “Where should I begin?”

“At the top. What were you doing up there?” I took a drink of coffee. It was loathsome.

“I sensed the working. I went up to see if I could talk to them.” He glanced at me briefly and amended, “To talk to the sorceress.” He licked sugar off his thumb as though he had to concentrate on it.

“You can sense a working in advance?”

“No, of course not. They’ve been up there Thursdays for five weeks now.”

“You’re kidding.” What had I been doing last Thursday? What did those bitches mean by doing a working in my territory, which I had plainly marked out when I got here? They should have known better. The celebrant hadn’t been surprised to see me, so she knew it was my territory, and if it weren’t so late I’d get up, follow her home, and prove it to her.

“They are a strong coven.” He was staring at the remaining donuts. I pushed the box toward him and he took one. “I couldn’t find my way to them through their wards until tonight. Something changed. They must have reworked the wards to make a gateway, to guide the ones who heard their call.”

“What are they calling for?” I asked. The coffee was really ghastly. It wasn’t even hot.

“For help,” he said.

“I know that. I heard them. Help, protection, deflection. What is their problem?”

He put down the donut, turned it on its napkin, picked it up again. “It’s not just them. All the Wiccans, all the pagans, all the power raisers are out. Even the Buddhists are chanting protection up on Mount Baldy, though they probably don’t know why.”

“But you know.” I gave him a moment, but he just pulled the chocolate donut in half and started on it. “So tell me,” I prompted. “Why?”

He swallowed hard. He looked up and his eyes, blue and troubled, met mine. He looked old then, old enough to have seen Hell, even. He said quietly, “The World Snake is coming. She’s turned.”

“The World Snake?” I’d never heard of it, but the hair along my nape rose at the name.

He nodded. “There was an earthquake, some months ago, in November.”

“I remember.” My first night in my new apartment. My skin had been tingling all day, and I couldn’t sleep that night. I was not surprised early the next morning when I heard the rumbling begin, and then felt the quake jump beneath me, and roll on by. I didn’t have anything breakable. I went out onto the landing above the steps down to the street. In the predawn darkness, my neighbors emerged, some of them yelling and screaming. My building is across the street from the Whittier College campus. It’s old and ramshackle, and relatively cheap, but I chose it mostly because lots of students live along here. It gives me more cover. You could tell how recently my neighbors had come to California by how much noise they made, while we watched the showers of sparks as the transformers on the power poles flamed out. The power came back on the next day.

“And what has that to do with the World Snake?”

His eyes widened at my ignorance. “Herakleitos? Thrace? Helike?”

I shook my head.

“Those are some of the cities she’s swallowed before. Atlantis?”

“Oh, yeah, right.”

He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter if you believe me. The power raisers know it. That’s why they’re working deflection and protection all around this basin, from the Primrose Dragons down in Irvine, to the Black Robes out in Claremont, to the Thunder Mountain Boys up in West Hollywood, and all the diviners and lone shaman with their backyard altars in between. I’ve been to some of them, for help. Help I can give, and…” He fingered the napkin. “Help I need myself. Well, not the Thunder Mountain Boys. They think they own something like me.” He met my eyes briefly, and I couldn’t tell again if he was young or old. Either way, he’d seen more trouble and care than he was good for.

I leaned back in my chair, folded my arms. “So this city is going under. No one’s going to be surprised. Why not head for Colorado?”

He shrugged. “I can’t. I’m bound here.” He glanced at me again.

“Oh, yeah? Well, I’m not.”

“What they don’t know, but I know, is what comes before.” He leaned forward now, speaking in earnest, the donut pushed aside.

“Before the World Snake?”

“Yes.” He didn’t like to hear the name, anymore than he liked saying it. He lowered his voice again, and I had to listen sharply to hear his words. “Before her, in her bow wave, will come the Eater of Souls.” He eyed me now with a whole world of trouble in him. “That’s what I’m afraid of. And I don’t think they know, or they wouldn’t be calling so openly. But they won’t—they won’t listen to something like me. I can’t even get near most of them.” He smiled a little, tightly, and opened his hand. “Somehow they don’t trust me.”

“And you think I will?”

He looked straight at me. “I am not allowed to lie to you.”

My turn to smile. “Uh huh. And why do you say that?”

He avoided my gaze again, and looked down at the table. He turned the donut on its napkin once more, pushed it away. “You don’t believe me.”

“No, I don’t.”

“But you saw what I am.”

The memory raised the hair on my neck again. “I saw,” I told him, “what I want no further part in. Namely, you, whatever you may be. Thank you for your information. I’m sure it will be a big help. Now, I want you out of this town, out of my territory, and out of my sight.” I got up to loom over him, but he scrambled to his feet as I stood. “Do you understand me? Good.”

I left him there and went home at a jog trot. When I got out of the shower, my alarm clock was already screaming. My kind don’t generally need much sleep, but I was not pleased at having had none.

I rolled my black Honda Civic out of the carport and turned down the alley that led to the street. Damned if that guy wasn’t leaning against the side of the building by the dumpster! I saw red for a minute, and took my foot off the gas. I was going to get out and chase him out of town right then. After a couple of heartbeats, I thought, All right, he didn’t believe my implied threat; we’re even. I didn’t believe almost anything he said. Then I thought, what the hell. I can always run him off later if he bothers me. There’s a lot to be said for having a secret identity.

I slogged through the traffic to the 605, hopped on the freeway, drove along the River Where the World Was Made—according to the original inhabitants—and down to La Mirada. I clocked in at Arches Auditorium only ten minutes late, got a bucket and a handful of cloths, and joined Brad, Marcus, Tepio, and Yvette on the scaffold in the second-story lobby.

Arches Auditorium was a hundred years old that year. The whole building was being cleaned, refurbished, and repainted from the attic dressing rooms to the tunnels under the stage to the scene shop. We’d started upstairs in the dressing rooms months ago, opening cupboards where things had died and even more nameless things had been stored for decades, until they left nothing but a smear on the walls and floor and the smell of their passing.

I’d gotten the job through the lucky chance of overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop in Whittier. The guy at the next table was telling a friend that he was blowing off his job so he could take an extra class. I went down to Arches the next day and told Pete, who was in charge of our crew, that I was there to take Conner’s place, and Pete took me on that day. I liked earning money. Even more, I liked having something worthwhile to do all week. Days can get pretty long, otherwise.

Today we were in the upstairs lobby, cleaning the section of paneling we could reach from the scaffolding, then applying a first coat of linseed oil to the wood. While that dried, we washed the cornice above, working around the hand-painted watercolors in each panel.

I’d been the first woman hired on the team. Marcus, Brad, and Tom had been the rest of the team then, guys in their twenties who banded up like dogs when I showed up. They did their best, in their stupid, unimaginative way, to make me feel unwelcome. I don’t care if people don’t take to me. I don’t, for the most part, take to people. But I won’t stand for disrespect. Tom was the worst of them, with a big neck and small eyes, mean in the way he worked, and in everything he said. Strangely, the lights went out in the tunnel not many days after I started, while Tom was down there. I chased him up one side and down the other, making the kinds of noises you only think you hear in nightmares, till he tripped and fell flat out in a pool of slimy water. That’s when the lights came back on. He finished the day in the bathroom, and he didn’t come back. After that, the other guys were sweet puppies. Yvette was hired in Tom’s place. She’s big and strong and kind, and she could handle herself. Tepio came a week later. I don’t know where he was from. He was quiet when the others were, and the first to laugh when someone made a joke. He was okay. I listened to their banter all day, and their laughter.

Late in the day as we were cleaning our brushes, Yvette said to me, “Hey, Amber, you hear any drumming last night?”

My I.D. says my name is Elizabeth Beaumont. I still forget to answer to it. I tell people I’m called Amber, which makes it easier. I turned to her. “What’s that?”

“You live in Whittier, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So do I, up on Beverly. You hear drumming in the hills last night?”

“Is that what that was?” I wanted to hear what she would say, but I didn’t want to commit myself.

“Yup. I’ve heard it before. One of these days I’m going to take my drum up there and join the party.” She beat out a rhythm on a couple of paint cans. Tepio, coming into the sink room joined in, clicking with his brush handle against the edge of the sink.

I headed home through the rush hour traffic, ready for a big dinner, a short evening of loafing, and then bed. I parked my car in the carport and turned up the stairs to my apartment.

He got to his feet where he had been sitting on the steps below my landing. I stopped. His fear was flaring. His tension was back. Despite that, he moved with the grace of an animal. I had forgotten how beautiful he was, despite being thin, despite his old clothes. His eyes were haunted, wary, almost desperate. My response to his attractions fed the surge of anger I felt on seeing him. “Do you have some kind of death wish or something? I told you to get out of town.” He was afraid now, no doubt about it. I could smell it. That was good.

“Please. I need to talk to you.”

I stood looking up at him for a long minute, tired and hungry and pissed off. “What if I don’t want to listen?”

He shrugged. “I’ll wait. I’ll wait until you do.” He met my eyes and said levelly, “I have to.”

His outward form was beautiful, but that wasn’t all he was. If he wasn’t human, would it count if I took him out? I mean, would anyone even know? But his blood had been human. I still remembered the taste of it.

I decided that eating took priority. I’d had a hamburger for lunch a long time ago. And in this form, he wasn’t going to take me. “All right,” I said, walking past him. “Come on up.”

He stood near the door while I went into my room and changed out of my paint clothes into some clean ones and used the bathroom. Then I went into the kitchen and pulled the big plastic bin out of the fridge that I keep full of marinade and slabs of meat. I heated up a pan of oil and threw on as many as I felt hungry for. I got out a plate.

“What did you want to talk about?”

He kept his hands jammed in his jacket pockets. I could see he was salivating involuntarily at the smell of the frying meat. I was myself, as a matter of fact. I tried not to look at his throat as he swallowed. I wondered if he’d eaten anything since the donuts early that morning.

“There are things you need to understand,” he offered, “about what’s going on.”

“No, I don’t,” I replied, flipping the meat in a hail of spitting oil. “All I need is food, and sleep, and an occasional night out, and to be left alone.”

He ventured another step toward the kitchen, and spoke louder, so I could hear him over the sounds of sizzling. “You are involved in what is going to happen. That’s true. And it remains true, whether you want it to be, or whether you like it or not.”

I smiled at him, showing my teeth. “Didn’t I tell you, I’m moving to Colorado? Probably tomorrow.”

That gave him pause for a moment, but then he shook his head. “No. That isn’t how it works.”

I turned off the gas and speared the meat onto my plate. I got a bottle of cider from the fridge, sat down at the table, and started in on my steak. Yummy. Gods, there’s nothing like meat when you’re hungry. “All right,” I said, over my mouthful. “You tell me how it works.”

He took a few steps forward to stand by the table. I could see his jaw working as he swallowed the saliva in his mouth. I cut myself another big bite, forked it around the plate to soak up all the red juices, and put it in my mouth.

“Go on,” I said around my mouthful. “Tell me all about it.”

“All right.” He swallowed again and looked away. “They had a working. They called for help. And you came. That means you’re involved.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yes. I’m involved already, but what is important—”

I got up, put the pan back on, and put some more meat into it. “Yes? Go on, I’m listening.” I picked up my plate, and kept working on my dinner, as I cooked seconds. I was hungry.

“What is important is that you stepped between me and the sorceress.”

“Okay,” I said. “You’re welcome.”

“Listen. Please. I am not a free agent. I am never a free agent. It’s part of the conditions of my being here. I always belong to someone. That’s the way it works.”

“Uh huh.” I pressed the meat down in the pan, just to hear it sizzle louder. “And now you belong to me? Because the Wiccan lady said so?”

“Not only that.”

I spooned some of the marinade into the pan. The smell was heavenly. I glanced back at him. “All right. What?”

“You claimed me from her. You did.”

I turned to him. For a minute I thought he would step back, but he got hold of himself and held his ground. I said, “The last thing you want on this Earth is to be close to me. That is a promise. You can say your piece, and I’ll listen, but then you go, and you don’t come back. Understand?”

“That isn’t…”

“It’s that or nothing. Understand?”

He raised his hands briefly, I thought, in surrender. He said, “This is what I know. I am bound to the events that are going to come to pass here.”

“The World Snake, and all that?”

His hand went up again, as though to still my voice on that name. I’d said it to see what he would do. He went on after a moment. “Yes. And since last night, I am also bound to you.”

“So you say.” I turned the meat. My kind of cooking never takes long, just enough to put an artistic bit of browning around the edges of the meat.

“Yes. And I’ve been through this enough times… I know how it works. Look.” He took something out of his pocket and held it out to show me.

It was a deck of cards, larger than most, and so old and worn that the pattern on the back had worn off to a pasty white almost everywhere that fingers would normally touch them.

“Cards?” I said. How cute.

He shook his head, turned them over, and fanned them. The other sides weren’t faded at all; they were livid with color, pulsing with life, flaming with symbols, and full of meaning. “It’s a tarot deck.”

“I can see that.” I said.

“It’s how I know,” he said earnestly, “that I’m in service. They don’t work for me. I’m only able to use them on behalf of my master.” He was flushing, the delicate color rising to his cheeks and his ears. He lowered his head in embarrassment, cut the cards, and turned over the one at the top. “Look,” he said. “This is you.”

It was the Moon, and below it a wolf stood, drawn in a Medieval style, with its head back, howling. “Oh yeah?” I said. “That’s me?”

He made an impatient gesture. “It symbolizes you. Your nature—your true nature—is guided by the moon.”

“That’s a myth, you know.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. The moon is your sign because, like the moon, you are changeable. You have more than one aspect.”

“I’ve got lots of aspects,” I said gently, “and most of them you wouldn’t like.”

He shook his head. “I know it’s you, because until today, that card in that form never appeared in my deck before. And I’ve had these a long, long time.”

I forked the meat onto my plate. After a moment, I got out a second plate and put some meat on that, too. I got out some cutlery and put it on the table across from me with the other plate, and sat down to the second half of my supper. “Sit down,” I told him, pointing. He didn’t have to be told twice, but he waited till I had my first mouthful before he started in. Then he ate faster than I did. Boy, he must have been hungry.

I leaned back in my chair when I’d finished. “All right, demon. Let’s have the rest of the story. What are you doing this side of Hell?”

He’d been finished for a while, looking at his plate as though he’d like to pick it up and lick it. But he raised his head and took a breath. “I am here because I was summoned by the most ignorant practitioner of the magical arts in the history of the craft, who called my name, commanded me into human form, this form, and set no limitations in time or space for my durance here. None!”

“Uh huh.” I thought about this. “Okay, there’s some magician who can call up demons, make them human—”

“Make them wear human form, pardon me.”

“All right. But he’s supposed to put an end time on how long you stay, and he didn’t. Is that right? So—don’t tell me. Now that you belong to me—as you say—you want me to kick his ignorant ass.”

He smiled then, and for a moment I saw the ghost of the beautiful boy he had been commanded to be. “I wish it were so simple. John Dee has been dead more than four hundred years. I am good and stuck here.…” He looked away, his mouth hardening.

I didn’t let him help with the dishes, or even clear them. I didn’t want him to feel that much at home in my place. He wasn’t staying. He didn’t seem to know that yet. While I cleaned up, I made him tell me the rest of the story. He didn’t tell it all, but I guessed that.

“I thought when John Dee died, I would return to my true form and be free to go. When he found he could not use me as he hoped, he gave me to his daughter, who kept house for him. She was never at a loss to find me something more to do. Then John Dee died, and I went on as before.… I thought when Katherine died, then I’d be free, but it wasn’t so. She sold me to pay a debt, and I found myself still bound.”

“They had to die while you were still working for them. Is that it?” I turned off the water and hung up the dishrag.

“I thought so, too,” he said. “But I once consulted with a master of the magical arts, who interested himself in my case. He told me that because I was summoned and bound here in this form without end, that this is my fate. I have been in servitude to one master after another ever since.”

“Yeah? So last night, when you headed up the hill, who was your master then?”

He blushed. The rose color was awfully pretty on his pale skin. I watched him flail around for a lie that would work for him. He held out his hands again. “That was… different. Things have changed since then.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Look.” He put the deck of tarot cards down on the table in front of him. “Will you cut them?”

“All right.” I like card tricks. I cut the cards and pushed the deck across the table toward him. He didn’t touch them.

“Turn over the top card,” he said.

I did. It was the Moon again. “Good going!” I pushed the deck toward him.

Again he shook his head. “Will you shuffle them?”

I put the card back in the deck and shuffled them idly for a while, wondering what trick he would pull next. Then he said, “Whenever you like, choose a card from the deck.”

I simply turned the deck over to reveal the bottom card. It was the Moon. I dropped that card on the table where I could see it, and shuffled again. I looked a challenge at him, but he only nodded. “Whenever you like, turn over the card of your choice.”

So I cut the deck and turned over the top card. It was the Moon. When I looked over at the card I had dropped on the table, it seemed I had mistakenly dropped the Knave of Wands there instead. Except I hadn’t.

I handed him back his cards. “Cute trick,” I said, but he only shook his head again.

“I have cast the cards a hundred times today. Every time, you appear in the central place, balancing the issue between of the fate of this city, the coming of the Eater of Souls, and the Great Snake.” He lowered his head and added, “And of my fate, as well.”

I cracked a smile at that. “That’s real funny. What do you think I am, some kind of superhero?”

He said, “I only know what I am told. We are at the outset of catastrophe, and you are the vital player.”

“And with you at my side, we will prevail? That’s rich. I always liked those stories too, but just now, these days, I’m just hanging out on the outskirts of L.A., doing my thing, living my life, know what I mean?” I backed him across the living room toward the door. I was about to reach past him and open it for him, when he held out the cards again.

“I am not without my uses.” He sounded like a hawker in the marketplace, only this guy was selling himself. “I can offer you what it is you want, what you have been longing for.” He fanned the cards in his hand.

“What are you talking about?” I said, low and dangerous.

He turned the cards over and fanned them face up, so the bright strange shapes writhed before my eyes. “I am, as I said, the tool of my master. I can read the cards for you. I can find what is lost to you. I can discover what it is you want to know.”

“Out,” I said. And I bit off the word as my four paws hit the floor. He backed toward the door, still talking.

“Only if you want, Lady… your tool to use… if in return you would aid me…”

I walked him to the door, my head low, my mouth open. I get bigger when I’m angry. So they say. I almost didn’t fit in the doorway, so I think it must be true. He backed out onto the landing and down the stairs.

I slammed the door on his last words, took two turns around the living room as his footsteps retreated to the foot of the stairs and he stood hesitating. After a while, I heard him walk away. I got up on the big chair and curled up. How did he know? What did he know? He can’t have read my mind. Could he have read my heart? And I’d thought, for the longest time, that mine was dead.

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