David B. Coe
December’s full moon is known among some of the tribal peoples of North America as the Cold Moon, or the Long Nights Moon. Living in Chandler, Arizona, a suburb in the desert sprawl of Phoenix, I can’t say that “Cold Moon” has ever had much meaning for me. But as a weremyste I know all about full moons and long nights.
For three nights out of every moon cycle, the night of the full, and the nights immediately before and after, weremystes go through what’s known as the phasing. That probably sounds innocuous enough. Trust me, it’s not. Our magic strengthens, but our minds weaken to the point of temporary insanity. At the very moment when we most need to have control over our thoughts and our runecrafting, we have none. The barriers between reality and delusion melt away. Some of us retreat into our minds, enduring the dark hours in quiet desperation. Others turn violent, lashing out at those we love, or turning our fear and rage inward so that we harm ourselves. I’ve experienced both: resigned withdrawal into my own addled mind and violent eruptions that nearly ended with me putting a bullet through my head. I couldn’t tell you which is worse. They both pretty much suck.
Not surprisingly, these descents into madness eventually cause our minds to deteriorate. One doesn’t meet many sane old weremystes. They don’t exist. My father, who’s also a weremyste, and who, like me, lost his job on the Phoenix police force because of the phasings, is in his sixties, and he’s nuts, just as I will be.
There isn’t much that could make the phasings worse than they already are, but this year’s calendar was doing its best. The next full moon, only two days away, fell on Christmas, which meant that the phasing would begin on Christmas Eve. Joy to the world.
Forty-eight hours shy of the full, and several hours before even today’s moonrise, I could already feel the moon tugging at my thoughts, like idle fingers pulling at a loose thread. Sooner or later, it was all going to unravel.
Right now, though, I was in the Z-ster, my 1977 silver 280Z, following the Piestewa Freeway through the city, on my way to meet with a new client. Mitchell Sullivan owned a car dealership over on East Camelback Road, the heart of Phoenix’s automobile trade. Sullivan hadn’t told me much over the phone, but I gathered he was having trouble with one of his employees.
I’m a private detective -- owner, president, and principal investigator for Justis Fearsson Investigations -- and since I used to be a cop, many of the clients who come my way are business owners trying to manage problems that straddle the boundaries of the law. They avoid going to the police because they don’t want the negative publicity, but they also know that they’re out of their depth. More often than not, I’m a compromise who can make the issue go away quietly and discreetly. Or so they think. Sometimes it seems like I can’t do anything without drawing the attention of the police, the press, and the entire magical community of the Phoenix metropolitan area. But I try not to mention that to potential clients.
I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound of the voice. The car swerved, taking me perilously close to the minivan in the lane next to mine. I swore. The other driver yelled something I couldn’t hear.
“Damn you, Namid! I’ve told you not to just appear in my car like that! Not when I’m on a highway.”
The ghostly figure in the passenger seat stared back at me, his expression maddeningly tranquil. Namid’skemu was a runemyste, one of thirty-nine spirits created centuries before by the runeclave to be guardians of magic in our world. He was essentially the ghost of a Zuni shaman from the now-extinct K’ya’na-Kwe clan, the water people, as they were also known. And true to his heritage, he appeared to be made entirely of faintly luminous waters. He was tall and broad, like a warrior, but right now his face and form were as clear as a mountain lake. As his moods changed, so did his appearance, so that he could be as roiled as the ocean in a storm, or as hard and uncompromising as ice. Only his eyes remained unchanged. They always gleamed as bright as stars on a winter night.
For years now, since he first revealed himself to me during one of the darkest phasings I’d ever experienced, Namid had been my mentor in the ways of magic and, enigmatic though he was, my friend. Mostly. He called me “Ohanko,” which, roughly translated, meant “reckless one.” I guess I had earned the name over the years.
“I am sorry if I startled you,” he said, in a voice like a tumbling stream. “Should I leave?”
“No, you’re here now. What do you want?”
“It has been some time since last you trained. Your skills as a runecrafter need work.”
“And you think I can train while I’m driving?”
I found it alarming that he appeared to consider this. “It would be an interesting exercise in concentration.”
“It would also likely get me killed. I meant the question as a joke.”
The runemyste frowned. He had never been fond of my sense of humor. “You need to practice. Honing your magic and your mind is particularly important when we are on the cusp of the moontime.”
The moontime was what he called the phasing. And I knew that he had a point: improving my skills as a weremyste would actually make me more resistant to the long-term effects of the full moon. But despite his interest in testing my powers of concentration, this was not the time.
“You do realize that I have to eat, right? That I have a mortgage, that I need to earn a living? Being a weremyste doesn’t pay any bills.”
“Being a weremyste has been a boon to you in your work as an officer of the law and an investigator. You know this.”
“Fine,” I said. “Practicing doesn’t pay bills. Is that better?”
“Practicing keeps you alive.”
I hated arguing with Namid, because he had the annoying habit of always being right, and because it was like arguing with the world’s oldest know-it-all, or maybe the world’s most persistent four year-old. Either way, I wasn’t sure why I bothered.
“You’re right, it does. I need to practice more. But I have to work now, and I don’t know when I’ll be done.”
He let out a low rumble, like ocean breakers crashing on a rocky shore. Then he faded from view, slowly, glaring at me the whole time. When at last he was gone, I felt both relieved and guilty.
I exited the freeway at Highland Avenue, took Sixteenth up to Camelback Road, and crept along the street past lots filled with new cars gleaming in the Sonoran sun, until I came to Sullivan Toyota and Lexus. I pulled in and parked near the showroom.
A salesman in charcoal gray slacks, a white dress shirt, and a red and blue striped tie, stood near the entrance, smoking a cigarette. He was the only salesperson I saw who wasn’t with a customer. The lot was hopping. I wouldn’t have thought that many people bought cars so close to Christmas, but it seemed I was wrong.
He nodded to me as I got out of Z-ster.
“Nice car,” he said. He dropped the rest of his cigarette into one of those plastic receptacles that look like upside down lollipops, and walked to where I stood. He shook my hand, but he was focused on the car. He walked around it once, nodding at the detailing.
I ate it up. I’m a car guy, and having another car guy admire my wheels . . . Well, the only thing that would have made it better was if he was a she. A pretty one.
“You looking to trade her in?” he asked. “I mean, she’s in great shape; I know we could give you a good deal.”
I shook my head. “Thanks, but there’s no offer you could make that would convince me to trade her or sell her.”
“Yeah,” he said with a shrug. “I figured. Gotta ask, though, you know? So then it’s a second car you’re after.”
“Actually, I have an appointment to see Mister Sullivan.”
To his credit, he didn’t show any disappointment at learning that I wouldn’t be his next sale. He crossed to an intercom panel near the showroom door, pressed the white button, and said, “Sarah, can you send Mitch out here? There’s someone to see him.”
I couldn’t make out what the woman on the other end said in response, but the salesman thanked her and told me that Sullivan would be out shortly. He came back to the Z-ster and after ogling her for a few minutes, asked if he could see the interior.
“Yeah, sure.” I got out of his way.
He lowered himself into the car and just sat, the door open, one hand on the wheel, the other resting on the stick shift. “Nice,” he said, drawing out the word. “My Dad had one of these, but he never let me drive it. Where’d you even find it? It’s gotta be older than you are.”
“I found a listing in the Republic classifieds about six years ago. It had maybe forty thousand miles on it, and had been babied its entire life. I was lucky.”
A white-haired man emerged from the showroom wearing a beige Western cut suit with black piping, a bolo tie secured with a mammoth piece of turquoise, and a stetson that matched the color of the suit. On most people the outfit would have looked ridiculous, but somehow this guy -- Mister Sullivan, I assumed -- made it work. His face was tanned and deeply lined, so that he looked like the old sheriff in every Western I’d ever seen. He was tall and hale, and he flashed a big smile at me as he strode in my direction, his hand outstretched.
“Jay Fearsson, right? I’m Mitch Sullivan.” He spoke in a loud voice that sounded like it had been roughened by a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. I swear the guy was straight out of central casting.
His grip was crushing.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“You Lee Fearsson’s boy?”
I felt my smile slip. I always grew wary at the mention of my Dad’s name. He didn’t interact with many people anymore. He lived out in a tiny town called Wofford, in an old trailer on land that most people who didn’t understand the desert would call desolate. But he’d left the police force under a cloud of scandal, and there were still some folks around who remembered. It didn’t help that I’d left the force pretty much the same way.
“Yes, sir. You know my dad?”
“I met him a few times when he was still on the force, and I was workin’ a security job over at the airport. That was back when it only had two terminals -- that’s how long ago I’m talkin’. Anyway, he was a good cop and a good man. Always thought he got a raw deal.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“He still with us?”
“Yes, sir. He lives out in Wofford.”
“Well, next time you see him, you tell him Mitch Sullivan says hello.”
He glanced at the Z-ster. “Yours?”
“Decent car. I always preferred American muscle to Japanese sportsters, but here I am sellin’ Toyotas, so I guess I should just keep my mouth shut.” He laughed and slapped me on the back. “Come with me. We’ll chat in my office. Jeremy, get out of the man’s car and get back to work.”
He said this last with a growl, but Jeremy was grinning as he climbed out.
I followed Sullivan inside, to a posh office that looked out over the lot. He stepped around his desk to a large leather chair, and indicated that I should take one of the black fabric-covered chairs across from him.
“Let’s start with the bottom line,” he said. “Two-fifty a day plus expenses, right?”
“Yes, sir, with a five hundred dollar initial payment.”
“And do I get half of that back if you solve my problem today?” He asked it with a smile on his lips and a mischievous gleam in his blue eyes, but I could tell that he wanted an answer.
“No, sir. Five hundred dollars is my minimum payment.”
“All right, fair enough.” He leaned forward and pressed a button on his phone. “Maria, please have a check made out to Justis Fearsson Investigations, Inc., in the amount of five hundred dollars.” He spelled “Fearsson” for her, released the button, and sat back. “You’ll have that before you walk out of here today.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now then, I have a problem, and you’re going to fix it for me.”
“I’ll do my best.”
His expression turned flinty. “Five hundred dollars says you’ll do what it takes.”
I didn’t shy away from his gaze, but I also didn’t answer.
“I think one of my employees is stealin’ from me,” he went on after a moment’s silence. “Or else he’s giving people access to the lot after hours. I’ve had six cars stolen in the last week and a half. Only one car on any given night, but they’ve all been Lexus sedans, the high-end ones. I’ve got more than sixty grand in each.”
“What makes you think it’s someone who works here?”
“We have a security system here on the lot. You gotta punch in a number before you can move the gates leadin’ in and out. And there’s nothing to indicate that the system’s been tampered with. Now, by itself that might not mean much, but there’s more.” He stood. “Come with me.”
Mitch led me out of his office, through the showroom, where he greeted customers with smiles and handshakes.
“How’s it goin', folks? They treatin' you right? You got any problems at all, you have 'em call for ole Mitch, ya hear?”
I was watching an old pro work a room, and though I was thankful every day that I didn’t have to bust my butt selling cars, I appreciated talent when I saw it.
Once we were through the showroom, Mitch led me to a flight of stairs.
“The secret to this business,” he said, as we went down past the service area to the basement, “to any business really, is makin’ folks feel that that they’re in control of the situation, even when they’re not. Those people upstairs are goin’ to make me a lot of money today, but they’re goin’ to leave here thinkin’ they put one over on me, got themselves a real good deal. Know what I’m sayin’?”
All I could do was agree.
We reached a gray metal unmarked door that Mitch opened with a key. Inside were a set of black and white monitors and a sophisticated security control console. A brawny African-American man in a security uniform sat watching the monitors, a cup of coffee in one hand. He stood as we walked in.
“Good morning, Mister Sullivan,” he said, in a voice that sounded like a salute.
“Mornin’, Rob. Everything look okay?”
“Good. I’d like you to run the feed from two nights ago for Mister Fearsson here. Just the part that matters.” Mitch glanced my way, his grin putting me in mind of a wolf. “We don’t want to take up too much of his time, ‘cause every minute’s costin’ me a pretty penny.”
Rob fiddled with a few buttons and knobs, and one of the monitors went blank. A moment later, it came to life again, but I could see from the dark skies onscreen and the time stamp in the bottom righthand corner that this was recorded.
At first, I saw nothing unusual. Like most car lots, Sullivan’s was well lit at night. But nothing moved. Even the foil banners that stretched between lampposts remained still. There couldn’t have been a breath of wind. The feed continued this way for about two minutes.
Then Mitch said, “Keep an eye on that lower left corner. The open pavement there.”
I nodded, watching the spot. And perhaps ten seconds later, a shadow appeared there. It was in the shape of a person, though elongated by the distance between whoever cast it and the lights behind him or her. I could make out a head, shoulders, arms, and the torso down to about the waist. The rest was cut off by the edge of the screen. One of the arms shifted, as if the person had raised a hand. An instant later, the entire image wavered and went blank again.
I looked at Sullivan. “That’s it?”
“That’s all we’ve got. The figure doesn’t show up on any of the other feeds. This person knew just where to stand to avoid bein’ seen. All of the feeds go dead at the same time. All of them remain dead for precisely the same amount of time: approximately twelve minutes. Then the feed resumes as if nothin’ ever happened. Except that one of my sedans is gone.”
“Can I see it again?”
He turned to Rob and lifted his chin toward the monitor. Rob replayed the clip. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, and even after I’d watched it a second time, I couldn’t say that anything in particular caught my eye.
“You understand now why I brought you in?” Mitch asked, once the feed had cut out a second time. “You of all people?”
I faced him, feeling my gut clench.
Magic. That was why he wanted me. Somehow, he knew I was a weremyste, though I saw on him none of the usual blurring of features that I could see when looking at another of my kind.
Plenty of people knew, at least in the abstract, that weremystes existed, but most of us didn’t advertise the fact that we were runecrafters. The stigma attached to mental illness in this country remained a heavy burden for those who suffered its effects. And many people still viewed anything that resembled “witchcraft” with a healthy dose of skepticism, even fear. Combining that misunderstanding of psychological problems with old prejudices against sorcery produced a dangerous mix. Perhaps if people like me were able to be more honest about the phasings and their effects on us, I’d still have a job with the Phoenix Police Department.
But that wasn’t the world in which we lived. Not yet. I didn’t like the implication of Mitch’s question, and just then I didn’t feel comfortable under his keen gaze.
Maybe he sensed that.
“Rob, why don’t you take a short break, refill that cup of yours and maybe grab a bite to eat. Mister Fearsson and I will keep an eye on the monitors.”
He said it with another grin, but I heard the command behind the words.
So did Rob. He was already reaching for the door when he said, “Yes, sir.”
Once we were alone, Mitch surprised me.
“I’m sorry about that. I should have sent him out before I asked.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “You think someone used magic to disable your security system.”
I shrugged, eyeing the monitor, which Rob had switched back to the live feed. “It’s possible. That might also explain the gate. It might not be an employee after all.”
“I suppose. But still, you can help me find the person responsible, can’t you?”
I didn’t answer right away
Sullivan sat in the vacated chair. “I remember that your old man was a wizard, or whatever the hell you all call yourselves. That’s why I figured you might be, too.”
“How did you know that about my Dad?”
“I asked him. He came to the airport lookin' for a job after he left the force. I’d known a guy in high school who used magic, and Lee was askin' questions about the flexibility of the schedule, and bein' able to get a few nights off each month. I put two and two together.” He leaned forward, trying to look me in the eye. “I never told anyone. I swear.”
I nodded. “Thank you.” To be honest, I was still trying to get my head around the fact that my Dad had tried to get a job at the airport. I never knew that, though I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. By that time my Mom had died, and my Dad was well on his way to becoming a full-time drunk. But he still had me, and he would have needed income to support us both.
“So can you help me out?” Sullivan asked.
“I think I can. The first thing I’d want to do is take a look around the dealership, try to see if I can spot a weremyste among your workers.”
“You can tell just by lookin' if a guy’s a . . . what’d you call 'em, a weremyste?”
“Yes, I can. You can’t, unless there’s more to you than you’re letting on, but I can see the magic in others. And they can see it in me. Any weremyste working here is going to spot my magic, just as I can spot his or hers. Having me here could spark a battle of spells.”
“Well, then what do you suggest I do instead?”
It was a good question, one I couldn’t answer. “Let me walk around a bit. I’ll try to stay out of people’s way, and I’ll be as discreet as possible.”
He frowned, his brow creasing. “That doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”
“Welcome to the PI business.”
That coaxed a grin from him. “All right, then. I’ll leave you to it. Just holler at me if you need anything.”
We left the security room and climbed the stairs. I hadn’t noticed any weremystes among the salespeople and clerical workers I’d seen in the showroom, so I stepped into the service area, leaving Sullivan to go back to his office. The guy at the service counter, who wasn’t a weremyste, asked me if I needed help, but I said I was waiting for my car to be serviced, and he told me to make myself at home.
A small waiting room sat adjacent to the service reception area. It had several chairs, a coffee maker, and a couple of vending machines stocked with prepackaged pastries and those peanut butter and cheese crackers that are drier than dust. A woman sat near the door, thumbing through a magazine, but otherwise the room was empty. A window at the back end looked out on the garage, and I parked myself in the corner beside it. I could see most of the workers and the cars they were servicing, but the mechanics wouldn’t be able to see me all that clearly.
It didn’t take me long to spot our weremyste. He was a young guy, not one of the chief mechanics, but a helper. He was about my height -- maybe five-ten -- and thin, with dark eyes and long black hair that he wore tied back in a ponytail. His features bore the tell-tale blur that I saw on all weremystes, but the effect wasn’t particularly strong on him. I suppose he was capable of casting a spell that would put the whammy on Sullivan’s security system, but I had seen more powerful mystes in my day. Lots of them.
I stayed where I was, checking out the other people who worked in this part of the dealership. There weren’t a lot of us weremystes in the Phoenix area -- a couple of thousand tops -- but it wasn’t out of the question that Sullivan could have two working for him. Even as I watched for others, though, I kept my eye on the kid, and I tried to stay out of his line of sight.
After another fifteen minutes or so, I had convinced myself that he was the only runecrafter working today’s shift, and I began to contemplate my next move.
Before I could make it, I saw one of the mechanics call him over and speak to him. He nodded and then started in my direction. I muttered a curse to myself, but that was about all I could do. There was only the one entrance to the room; he was going to see me no matter what I did. I made a point of not staring at him, of making it seem that I was just watching the mechanics work.
But I knew the moment he spotted me. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he slowed almost to a stop, and cast a quick look back over his shoulder. Seeming to realize he had no choice, he resumed walking a moment later, though more slowly now. I could tell that he was eyeing me, perhaps searching for some sign that I had noticed him.
For my part, I could ignore him for only so long before my disinterest appeared too studied. He was a weremyste, and just as he knew that I was, he would assume that I could see the magic on him.
So as he drew near, I stared directly at him and made my eyes widen a little, as if in surprise. I followed him with my gaze and turned toward the doorway as he stuck his head in. He glanced at me, but said to the woman, “Missus Pratt?”
She set aside her magazine. “Yes.”
“Your car’s ready.”
“At last. Thank you.”
His dark eyes flicked in my direction again, but he left without another word. As he walked away, he cast another quick look over his shoulder, but I had seen him turning and was already gazing elsewhere.I waited until the mechanic gave him another task and then left the room, took the stairs, and returned to Mitch Sullivan’s office.
He was on the phone when I knocked, but he waved me in and motioned for me to shut the door. He ended the call moments later.
“I don’t know anything yet,” I said. “It’s possible that one of your nonmagical employees is working with a weremyste, and that person disabled the security camera.”
I let out a breath. “But you do have a weremyste working for you. A young kid. Long black hair. He looks like he might be from one of the Pueblo communities.”
Sullivan sagged. “Damn. You mean Tommy Strong.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure he’s a weremyste. Like I said, I don’t know anything else for certain. Where does Tommy live?”
“I can have Maria pull his info-- Aw, hell, I’ll do it myself. Fewer questions that way.” He slid his chair up to his desk and began to click through files on his computer, still shaking his head and muttering to himself. After a few minutes, he said, “That’s what I thought. He’s Pima Indian. Lives in Komatke in the Gila River Community.”
He grabbed a pen and a sticky note, jotted down the kid’s name, address, and phone number, and handed the slip of paper to me. “Truth is, I don’t want it to be him. He’s a decent kid, family’s been through a lot.”
“But you do what you have to. If it is him, I want you to tell me. We clear on that?”
“That was my plan all along. I’d like to talk to him now, if it’s all right with you.”
“Sure, why not? If any of the mechanics give you a hard time about it, tell 'em you cleared it with me.”
“I will.” I folded the paper with Tommy’s address and tucked it into my pocket. “You’ll hear from me as soon as I know something for certain.”
I let myself out of the office and went back downstairs to that cramped waiting room. But when I scanned the garage, I didn’t see Tommy. I walked out into the work area and found the mechanic the kid had spoken to earlier.
The guy was hunched over a diagnostic computer, a scowl on his face. “Can I help you with something?” he asked after a few seconds, his eyes still on the screen.
“I’m looking for a kid who was in here earlier. I think his name’s Tommy?”
“Tommy just left. Said he wasn’t feeling good. Can I help you with something?”
Damn. “No, thanks. I’ll . . . find him another time. It was nothing important.”
I walked away, resisting the urge to look back. My parting line had been a little weak, and I was sure the mechanic was watching me. But that was the least of my concerns. Halfway to the waiting area, I turned and headed out of the garage, hoping I might catch a glimpse of the kid before he left the dealership.
I didn’t, but I heard a car start up, not with the smooth hum of a new engine, but with the staccato growl of something old and in need of repair. I ran toward the sound and saw a small blue pickup back out of a space.
“Tommy Strong!” I called.
The truck jerked to a stop and then peeled away with a screech of rubber on pavement.
I started to recite a spell in my head: three elements that would have flattened one of his tires. But before I could cast, I felt magic charge the air.
I tried to shift my spell to a warding, but I didn’t have time enough to cast. Even at a distance, Tommy’s spell hit me with the force of a mule’s kick. I flew backwards, hit the pavement and somersaulted onto my front. I lay still for several seconds, trying to remember how to breathe. I hurt all over, but I didn’t think that I’d broken anything.
When I saw him in the garage, I hadn’t thought there was much to his power, but if that spell was any indication, I’d misjudged him. His spell packed a serious wallop. I wondered if he’d been trying to kill me, or if he had been smart enough to hold back. I wasn’t sure which thought scared me more: that the kid might be so desperate he was willing to kill, or that he was powerful enough to hit me that hard with a restrained casting.
I climbed to my feet, feeling like an old man, and glanced around. Miraculously, no one had seen me go down.
With Tommy gone, I had little reason to stick around the dealership. I staggered back inside to retrieve my check and then limped to my car. Rather than get in, though, I walked to the part of the lot that I had seen in the video.
All magical spells leave a residue, a glow of color on the things they touch, including people. And the color of every runecrafter’s magic is unique. So in theory, I might have been able to identify the person who had cast that spell on the security system, if only I could see something else that he or she had touched with a crafting. The problem was, the glow faded with time, and the more powerful the sorcerer, the more quickly the residue vanished. It had been a day and a half since the last spell was cast on the system, and it being almost noon on a cloudless Arizona day, the sun was bleaching the color out of everything it touched.
Still, staring up at the security cameras, I thought I saw a faint hint of golden yellow glimmering on the gray metal. I looked down at my shirt to the spot where Tommy’s spell had hit me. The magic I saw there wasn’t the same color. Not even close. The residue of Tommy’s spell gleamed like fresh, wet paint: a cool, pale blue, the color of a winter sky.
Meaning it was possible that Tommy had nothing to do with the car thefts. But then why had he been so spooked by the sight of another weremyste that he fled the garage and attacked me with a spell?
I returned to the Z-ster and steered her back onto the freeway. From there, I made my way south to the Gila River Indian Community, a reservation on the southern border of the metropolitan area that was first founded in the mid-nineteenth century. Like so many reservations, particularly those in this part of the country, the community dealt with a host of problems, all of them rooted in poverty: health care issues, crime, drug use, gang activity. The folks in Gila River were working hard to overcome those problems, and, in an effort to bring in some tourist money, had managed to open up a couple of golf courses and a few casinos. But I was headed to Komatke, a dusty desert town with little going for it.
Tommy Strong lived on Tashquinth Drive, in a small, one story ranch house. A stunted palo verde tree grew in the middle of the yard, which otherwise consisted of little more than dirt, sand and a few clumps of dried grass. The door was closed and there were no cars in the driveway. I parked by the road in front of the house and knocked on the door. A dog barked from inside, but otherwise I heard nothing, and no one answered my knock.
I walked next door. The yard and house were practically clones of the Strong place; the two homes were even painted the same shade of pale beige. But a beat-up old land rover sat in the shade of the neighbor’s car port, and the front door stood ajar. Inside, someone was blasting country music.
I had to ring the doorbell several times before the volume on the music finally went down. A young woman appeared at the door. She had dark hair and eyes, and nut brown skin. She was heavyset, with round cheeks and a friendly face, though she eyed me warily before peering past me toward my car.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I hope so. I’m looking for Tommy Strong, and I’m wondering if you’ve seen him recently.”
“You a cop? You look like a cop.”
I hadn’t been on the job for more than a year, but I guess the look never really goes away.
“I used to be a cop. I’m not anymore.”
She just stared at me, her eyebrows raised as if she were waiting for me to say more.
“I’m a private detective,” I told her. “I was hired by Tommy’s boss to look into a problem he’s having, and I need to ask Tommy some questions.”
“I don’t think I believe you,” she said, the words shaded subtly with the soft lilt I often noticed in the speech of Arizona’s native people.
“It’s true.” I pulled out my PI’s license and showed it to her. “I was at Sullivan Toyota just a short while ago. Tommy took off in a hurry when he saw me, and I thought maybe he’d come back here.”
She frowned, twisting her mouth like a little kid, and watching me.
“Do you know that Tommy’s a weremyste?” I asked. It was a bit of a risk, since it led inevitably to the question of how I knew this. But I had long heard that American Indian culture was far more accepting of my kind than was white society.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “He doesn’t try to hide it. That’s probably more than you can say, isn’t it?”
She was smart as hell.
“Yeah, way more.”
She smiled, and her face glowed like the full moon.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“No,” she said with a shake of her head. “I don’t think I want to tell you that.”
“Okay. Then what can you tell me about Tommy?”
The frown returned and I thought for certain that she’d ask me to leave. But instead she leaned against the doorframe, her gaze roaming the empty street.
“I’ve known Tommy since we were kids, you know? I like him. He’s a good guy.”
“But he’s got these ideas . . .” She shook her head. “Being a weremyste in Indian culture, that’s big, you know? Shamans have a proud tradition in our world, and Tommy takes that seriously.” She wouldn’t look at me, and I sensed that she regretted answering the question. “There’s a few of them, boys from Gila River and Salt River -- they call themselves the Piranhas. They’re all weremystes. They have people around here scared.”
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community was located in the northeastern part of the Phoenix area, near Scottsdale. It was far smaller in size than the Gila River community, though its population was roughly comparable. Together they couldn’t have had more than twenty or twenty-five thousand residents, which begged the question, how many young weremystes could there be in the two communities?
“There a lot of them, these Piranhas?”
She shrugged. “No. Maybe five boys. But they’re strong because they have magic. People here are afraid of them, even some of the gangs, who aren’t afraid of anything. But they stay away from Tommy and his friends.”
“Yeah,” I said, more to myself than to her, “I’ll bet they do.” A gang of weremystes. That might have explained why the magic from Tommy’s spell differed from the residue on the security cameras. “Have you seen Tommy driving around the neighborhood in something other than his little blue truck?”
I saw her close down on me. Without intending to, without even thinking about it, I’d gone back into cop mode. Her expression flattened, and the look in her eyes turned hard.
“I think you’d better go now,” she said, the lilt sounding less friendly than it had seconds before.
I didn’t argue. “Right. Thanks for your help,” I said. “Have a merry Christmas.”
I started down the path back to the street, and I heard the door shut behind me. A moment later, the music started up again, louder than before.
I would have bet every dollar I had that Tommy and his friends had shown up in a brand new Lexus sometime in the last couple of weeks. I also had a feeling that Tommy wouldn’t be coming near his house tonight. He’d seen me at the car dealership and he’d figure that Sullivan had given me his address. He could be anywhere in the Gila River or Salt River communities. That was over six hundred square miles, and I had no idea where to begin looking. There wasn’t anything more I could do today.
Tomorrow, though, was Christmas Eve, and I had a feeling his family would expect him to be here then.
The problem was, the phasing started tomorrow night.
I returned to the dealership, and got the security code for the gates from Sullivan, figuring that if I staked out the lot, I might get lucky. But I think my appearance in the garage had spooked Tommy pretty seriously. Nothing unusual happened during the night. At one point Namid showed up, and since I was doing nothing else, I allowed him to drill me in some rudimentary defensive spells. But I was on a stakeout and I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself, which meant there were only so many spells we could practice. After a while, the myste grew frustrated and left. With the first light of dawn I went home and got a few hours of sleep.
I woke up late in the morning feeling dazed and muddled. The moon wouldn’t be up until close to dusk, but already I could feel its weight pressing down on my mind, as unwelcome as woolen blankets in an Arizona summer.
I dressed quickly, strapped on my shoulder holster, and holstered my Glock 22 .40 caliber pistol. I didn’t want to use it, but I would have been a fool not to bring it with me, given what I had in mind to do. I also had a brief conversation with Namid; I needed him to do a small favor for me. It took some coaxing, but eventually he agreed, although not before wringing from me a promise to practice my spells in earnest after the phasing ended.
With all my plans for the day in place, I grabbed my keys and crossed to the door.
The moment I stepped out of the house, I felt the tug of the moon even more intensely. For a moment I merely stood there by my front door, trying to remember where I was going and why.
Then it came back to me: the idea I’d thought up in the wee hours of the morning as I tried to stay awake in a dark corner of Sullivan Toyota’s vast lot. I’d started with the obvious question: How was I, a lone weremyste, supposed to stop five of my kind? Sure, they were kids; they probably didn’t have as much knowledge of the craft as I did. But the spell Tommy had used to knock me over had been nothing to sneeze at. If his friends were as strong, I couldn’t take on all of them at once.
Maybe, though, I didn’t need to.
I didn’t want to hurt them if I didn’t have to, and Sullivan wanted this dealt with quietly, without any police involvement. He had hired me to stop the thefts and, if possible, recover the stolen cars.
No problem. Right.
I drove back out to Gila River. A few wispy clouds feathered the sky, but the air was clear and an overnight snow had dusted the rugged peaks of the Estrellas to the west. A Swainson’s Hawk, neatly decked out in white and brown, circled over the desert, while three ravens, glossy and black, hopped by the highway, eyeing a road-killed jack rabbit.
I parked outside Tommy’s house with my windows down. I didn’t see his truck, or any late model Lexus sedans, but other cars sat in the drive. Two little kids played in the dirt yard, and I could hear lots of people inside.
I pulled out my old cell phone and that slip of paper I’d gotten from Mitch Sullivan, and dialed Tommy’s number. He answered on the fourth ring.
“Merry Christmas, Tommy.”
“You don’t know who I am, and yet you threw an attack spell at me without even thinking. That’s not too smart.”
This was met with a silence so long, I started to wonder if he’d broken the connection.
“Who are you?” he asked at last. It seemed like he was trying to sound menacing; he only succeeded in sounding young and beyond his depth.
“What did you do with all those cars you stole, Tommy?”
Another long pause. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No? Should I ask your family if they’ve seen you driving any Lexus sedans recently? I’m sitting right outside your house. I could probably shout to them from here. Or maybe I should bring the police over and let them do the questioning. What would you prefer?”
I heard an odd noise on his end and then muffled voices. I realized that he had his hand covering the microphone, and was talking to his buddies. Good, they were with him already.
“How about it, Tommy?” I asked after a few minutes of this.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, his voice shaking. “We’re coming now, and if you aren’t gone by the time we get there, you’re a dead man. You hear me?”
“Not smart, Tommy. Runecrafting 101: never threaten a weremyste you don’t know.”
I snapped my phone shut -- yes, I still use a flip phone. Get over it -- knowing that would infuriate him more than anything. He and his friends would show. It was just a matter of when.
As it turned out, they must have already been in the Gila River Community, because barely ten minutes had passed before I heard the growl of Tommy’s truck. I climbed out of my car and saw that the little blue pickup was trailed by a second car, a metallic blue Chevy lowrider. I had been hoping to see a shiny new Lexus, but these guys weren’t going to make this quite that easy for me.
I cast a warding, felt the magic settle over me like a cool mist. I knew I would need to cast again once our battle began in earnest, but I didn’t want to go into this unprotected.
The two cars veered toward Tommy’s yard and skidded to a stop, raising a cloud of brown dust. Tommy and another guy got out of the truck; three more boys clambered out of the lowrider.
I did nothing more than watch them, the Z-ster at my back.
The two little kids ran over to Tommy, shouting his name. He eyed them, looking nervous.
“Send them inside, Tommy,” I said.
He glared at me, but then squatted down and talked to them. They cast looks my way before running to the front door and slipping into the house.
“You should have left when you had the chance,” Tommy said to me, straightening.
His buddies closed ranks beside him, which was foolish: they should have spread out. That’s not to say they didn’t look pretty impressive. They were good-looking kids, all of them with long dark hair that they wore loose to their shoulders. One of them was heavier than the others, and another was short and slight. But all of them looked reasonably fit. If this came to a physical fight, I was in trouble.
I cast a second warding, this one a deflection spell that would redirect the attack I knew was coming.
I saw Tommy’s mouth moving, and guessed that he was casting. When he released the magic, I was ready. It hit me with enough force to make me brace a hand against the Z-ster, but my warding did just what it was supposed to. His spell bounced off of my defenses and hit the rear of the lowrider. The bumper buckled.
“Shit!” It came from the heavy-set boy, whose eyes had gone wide. “Tommy, what’d you do, man?”
I cast again. Three elements. A rock that sat nearby, the rear windshield of Tommy’s pickup, and the distance in between. The rock soared at the truck, smashed through the rear glass, and exited the truck through the front windshield.
Tommy gaped at his pickup. Before the boys could recover, I used the same spell to put a stone through a side window of the lowrider.
This last spell knocked them out of their stupor. They charged me, again en masse. They might have had some skill as weremystes, and they might have been big and strong, but they were still just kids playing with powers they didn’t yet understand.
My next crafting I aimed at them. Magic for me is an act of will and of visualization. So I visualized all five of them being knocked back by a giant two-by-four: the kids, me, and that imaginary piece of lumber. Three elements, as simple as you please.
They were slammed back about ten feet, all of them landing hard on their backs. Dust billowed from the ground where they hit, and for a few moments none of them moved.
I chanced a glance at Tommy’s house and saw that two men and three women were watching me from the front walkway. The little kids were with them, hiding behind their legs. For now, the adults had done nothing to intervene, and I took that as a good sign. Maybe they’d been waiting for someone to teach these guys a lesson.
Tommy was the first to stir. By the time he sat up, I had my Glock out. I didn’t aim it at him or his friends, but I made sure all of them could see it.
The boys struggled to their feet, but they didn’t charge me again.
“I can go on kicking your asses all day long,” I said. “You guys look like hell, and I haven’t even broken a sweat yet.” I gestured with the weapon. “Or I can use this if I have to, but I’d rather not.”
“What is it you want?” Tommy asked.
“Your boss, Mister Sullivan, wants his cars back. By his count you’ve stolen six Lexus sedans from his lot. He called me because he doesn’t want to go to the police. But that’s where he’s headed next if you’re too dumb to listen to me.”
I made sure I said all of this loud enough for Tommy’s family to hear.
“We’re not afraid of the police, or of you,” said one of the other boys.
Tommy cast a fierce look his way. “Shut up, Cody.” To me, he said, “We don’t have the cars anymore.”
“Where are they?”
He hesitated, but only for a second. “A chop shop in Glendale.”
“I’ll need that address.”
“You’re going to get us killed!” Cody said. “I’m out of here.”
He started walking away.
Three elements: his foot, my hand, and a firm tug. His leg went out from under him and he went down in a heap.
“No one leaves until I say so.”
I heard snorts of laughter from the other boys. But Cody was pissed. He scrambled to his feet and ran at me. He was about my size and probably could take me. I didn’t give him the chance. All these spells were beginning to tire me out, but I was nowhere near done.
My fist, his face, and a good hard punch.
He was still ten feet away from me when he went down again, blood spouting from his nose. This time he didn’t get up.
A hush fell over his friends.
“Magic isn’t something you screw around with,” I said, walking to where Cody lay. I could see he was still breathing, and after a moment he stirred and let out a low groan. “It can be a powerful tool and a dangerous weapon. You all know that it can mess with your minds; it will tonight. You need to learn to control it, and you need to find something better to do with it than disabling security systems. In other words, you need a teacher.”
“Are you going to teach us?” Tommy asked.
There was no challenge in the question. After all I’d done to him, to his friends, to his car, I think he might have been willing to have me as a mentor.
But I shook my head. “No, it won’t be me. Namid,” I called, raising my voice. “I think we’re ready for you now.”
The runemyste materialized beside me, his pale, clear waters sparkling in the desert sun.
“Whoa!” Tommy whispered.
Two of his friends took a step back.
“What is that?”
“I am Namid’Skemu,” Namid said, his voice rolling like distant thunder. “I am a runemyste, a spirit created by the runeclave centuries ago so that I might guide fools like you through the mastery of magic.”
What a charmer.
“A runemyste?” Tommy said.
“They are not very clever, are they, Ohanko?”
I grinned. “Not very, no. But I think they’re willing to learn, and that’s something.”
Namid approached the boys, gliding over the road like a sailboat on a mountain lake, and began to speak to them, his voice low. I glanced toward Tommy’s house. Most of the adults had gone back inside, but one man remained by the door, watching me. When our eyes met, he nodded once and let himself into the house.
Satisfied that I had done what I could for Tommy and his friends, I walked back to my car. Before I reached it, I heard footsteps behind me and turned once more.
Tommy strode in my direction, a sober expression on his youthful face.
“Thanks,” he said. “You didn’t have to do this.”
I shrugged. “Mister Sullivan hired me to stop whoever was stealing his cars. This seemed like the best way.”
“Yeah, well, I’m grateful, even if Cody isn’t.”
“Is Mister Sullivan going to fire me?”
“I don’t know, Tommy. That’s between you and him. He likes you. He was disappointed when I told him that you might be responsible. So it may be that you can earn back his trust. But that’s going to take some work.”
He nodded. “Yeah, all right.” He started back toward his friends and Namid. “See you around.”
I spent most phasings by myself. I feared hurting someone with my enhanced magic and reduced control, and, maybe more to the point, I didn’t want anyone to see me like that: desperate and mad and unable to function.
But this was Christmas Eve, and I knew that my Dad, who was already crazy enough, thank you very much, would be having a rough time, too. So, I bought us a couple of steaks and some potatoes, and late in the afternoon I drove out to his trailer.
The sun angled steeply across the Phoenix-Wickenburg Highway and a stiff westerly wind shook my car and sent tufts of tumbleweed rolling across the road. It would have been a great afternoon for a hike in the desert, but I could feel the moon lurking just below the horizon, reaching for my mind, clouding my thoughts. I arrived in time to get the food cooked and plated. We ate in silence, rushing through our meal like men who knew their minutes were numbered. My Dad wasn’t in great shape, though he wasn’t as bad off as I had seen him on occasion.
When we had eaten and I had put our dirty plates in the sink, I came back outside and draped a couple of blankets over my father’s shoulders.
“Thank you,” he mumbled.
“You’re welcome. Merry Christmas.”
He grinned. “Merry Christmas to you.”
We sat together, watching the light change, waiting for the moonrise. Once it came, I lost track of the time. But I remember seeing the moon creep up into the sky, huge and orange, as mesmerizing as it was powerful. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. My thoughts fragmented, and, as I did so often, I began to hallucinate. I remember seeing my mother, dead more than fifteen years, standing before me, the wind stirring her hair. I thought I saw a mountain lion slink across the land behind my father’s trailer. And at one point I could have sworn I saw something flash across the face of the moon in silhouette: a sled pulled by flying, antlered creatures and bearing a single man.
Over the years, I had seen a lot of strange things during the phasing. Who could say which of them were real, and which weren’t?
Copyright © 2014 David B. Coe
David B. Coe is the author of many fantasy and contemporary fantasy novels and stories. Spell Blind, Book 1 in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson series, is available January 6th, with Book 2, His Father's Eyes, upcoming in summer 2015.