Bad Magic sample (pages 1-30)
ISBN 0-312-87862-1 (Tor hardcover, 2004)
Rider watches her root for aluminum in overflowing trash cans. Lawyers and marketers in their daytime finery pass by without seeing—perfect. He can approach without difficulty.
Cracked eyes meet his. Grime lips croak “Spare change?” He draws his wallet and hands her a ten dollar bill. She squints at it. While she tries to think of something to say, Rider reaches out with a metaphor and takes her invisibility from her. She can tell something has happened—looks around, realizes the suits are staring with sick horror. As Rider slips away, teeth gritted with the effort of holding on, he watches their faces. There will be many glasses of pill-chased delicate wine lifted tonight; many this-is-the-City anecdotes, and killing bouts of depression.
Rider waves down a cab. Sweat covers his forehead. Finally, he enters his loft and hurries to his workroom, where his special clamp is ready. He is still proud of it. It holds the raw invisibility securely, and Rider can relax. He runs fingers through his beard; flattens his mustache nervously.
An hour ginning and spinning the invisibility—another hour at the loom, and Rider has a cloak. It will crumble at sunrise; the street person is, in part, defined by her invisibility, and so it must return to her.
Summer night has fallen; warm breezes, sounds of patio barbecues. Rider would rather take his Goldwing, but he has too much to carry. So he loads his panel truck and motors to 23rd and Potrero. The great brick buildings of San Francisco General loom, dwarfing the walking wounded dragging themselves through the grounds. Narrow windows like a medieval castle, forbidding. Rider parks, unloads, crosses the street, and wraps himself in his cloak. Makes his way to the burn wards.
His paraphernalia is bulky—a Dewar flask of liquid nitrogen, a brazier, a staff—and even with the cloak, the night nurses can tell something is in the air. A young woman asks her supervisor if she has the shivers. “No, I do not,” she answers, staring her down, “and neither do you.” Rider smiles. In Berkeley, there is a graduate student writing her thesis about the ghost tales wrought by Rider’s visits to the hospital.
Acres of bandages and gallons of raw alcohol; patients in troubled, drugged sleep. Rider can’t cure them but he can make things easier. He slips into a room—the chart says nine year old girl, small but multiple full-thickness burns to the lower body, vaginal abrasion. Rider makes a note of her name. He sets the brazier on a telescoping camera tripod, burns incense, waves the staff around, muttering. The girl sleeps deeply. Rider unwraps the bandages. He takes silvery-translucent ectoplasmic tweezers from his cloak; uses them to draw threads of pain from her wounds. They twist and squirm as Rider pulls them free, thrashing in search of flesh like lampreys until he drops them into the chill fluid.
The next patient was in a car wreck and his face will never be the same. The next knocked over a deep fat fryer. The next ran into a burning house to save the cat. The next is the fireman who went in after him.
And the next patient, and the next…
Fanning vapors from the Dewar, Rider can see slivers break the surface as they try to escape. Time to go. But as he packs his gear he realizes that something is jarring; something is not as it should be.
The burn ward is a terrible hall, full of the dreadfully injured; nothing to do for them but pour in liters of morphine…
He snaps his fingers. Enters the rooms he hasn’t inspected; not a single goner. Not that there is any lack of work, but…
A quick distraction isn’t hard to arrange. Rider sneaks down to the end of a corridor, lights three cigarettes, balances them in a bedpan, drops in a coin for the clatter, quickslides down the wall as the young nurse rounds the corner to investigate. She is goose pimpled and hesitant. She calls to the head nurse; the two of them approach slowly. Patients sneak cigarettes, but never have either seen three burning at once with nobody nearby… giving Rider time enough to vault behind the counter of the floor station and yank bright knots of information from the stacks of records and the filing cabinet. More staff-waving and Sumerian chants and he has copies. Releases the originals and hotfoots it away.
All three eyes, two concrete and one abstract, hurt. No surgeon ever worked harder, and he still needs to stabilize the shards of raw pain lest they burst free and return to their wounds—or worse, swarm into him. Once, Rider knocked over the Dewar; he spent the night in a refrigerator suit and respirator, frantically spraying the floor with nitrogen and grabbing at fragments. He didn’t get them all; a square foot of scald snapped into his leg and Rider screamed himself raw before he could dig it out.
Home. Once a great raw concrete space in a factory converted to artists’ lofts, but Rider has put in drywall to make rooms– and mortared cinder block around his laboratory. Rider pours the contents of his little Dewar into his big, squat, silver Dewar; adds more liquid nitrogen, affixes the pentagramed lid. The slivers are restive, despite the cold; he can hear the bigger ones dragging themselves over the bottom of the flask. Stabilizing them will take four hours. “Four painstaking hours, that is,” mutters Rider. Smiles weakly at his own old pun.
As he works, dawn comes and the cloak unravels. Under the fluorescents Rider is oblivious.
At ten o’clock, the doorbell rings the chime that means the button knows whose finger is on it and likes him. (There is a different chime for a her. Not that he hears it much.) Rider looks up with red eyes, yells at the door to let him in. Listens to the footsteps; hears the cane tapping jauntily up the stairs to the loft. “In here, Perry.”
Pericles Whitlomb makes a disdainful entrance, looks askance at the alembics and strings of dried gunk hanging on the walls. “No prettier than usual. I still think the bulk of these accouterments are merely for show,” he sniffs.
Rider does not turn. “Says the man who carries a cane when it matches the color of his suit. I need about another hour here, Perry. Is something up?”
“No, just came by to chat. Brought a paper. I’ll wait.”
“With you in a little while, then…”
Whitlomb goes into the living room. Glances at himself in the mirror. “The cane does match this suit, after all,” he mutters. He’d found that dressing like Abraham Lincoln with spectacles by Benjamin Franklin made people treat him like a grandfather. He’d given up trying to look young forty years ago, when his hair went from black to white on the eve of his twenty-first birthday—and a long coat can hide a big gun. Turning from the mirror, he notices a new sculpture, carved of moonbeams and dusted with the menace of a spider. Studies it from all angles. Shudders.
His task done, Al Rider finally turns from the workbench and stretches. His scuffed leather jacket is too old to creak. He holds the Erlenmeyer of powdered agony to the light, hefts it in his hand. He can feel it snarling defiance at him. “Relax,” he mutters. “You’ll be back in action soon enough.” It is mollified a little. He shelves it and heads into the kitchen, scratching his beard.
Leaving the workroom, he suddenly smells coffee and bacon. His stomach rumbles. Whitlomb smiles at him. “Your self-management is frightful; you go entirely too long without food.”
“With this stuff, I’m just another kind of chemist; you don’t eat in a laboratory. Thanks.”
Whitlomb beams, makes a show of checking his heavy pocket watch. “How long have you been at it?”
“Since about four yesterday.”
“Tsk tsk. I would suggest you take yourself to bed straight-away.”
“Too keyed up. I’ll crash early tonight.”
“Hrm. A productive night?”
“Point four three kilograms. Keep me in beer and skittles for a while.”
“Euthanize anybody?” asks Whitlomb, in a studiously peaceful tone of voice.
“No need. Not a single goner in the ward.”
“Remarkable. Suspicious, even, perhaps.”
“Yep. Grabbed some records but I haven’t transcribed ‘em yet. Want to have a look?”
Whitlomb sighs. “I was rather hoping to speak to you about next season’s football pool, but I suppose needs must.”
Rider fetches a few reams of paper, pulls knots of information from his pocket, and scatters them over the stack. A few passes and they format themselves back into visible words. He gives one ream to Whitlomb, opens the other himself and begins scanning the text.
They munch companionably for a while, a professor of archaeology and a synesthetic mage. The occult makes for strange bedfellows.
Rider stretches. “You been working on anything?”
“Just the regular patrols. There has been a veritable rash of anemia among members of the UC Berkeley band, but not a trace of the occult.”
“Are you sure?”
Whitlomb lowers his glasses and gazes over the rims. “Whom are you addressing?”
“No neck wounds; no allergic reaction to hawthorn, ash, silver, garlic, salt, holy water, holy oil, ultraviolet, the Host, white rose, raw sunlight—”
“All right, all right.”
“Apology accepted.” Whitlomb reads on. “Hmn. A Mr. John Doe; third degree burns over much of his body; critical condition. Transferred to the `Holy Cross Hospice.’”
Rider turns to the in-out logs. “Holy Cross… here’s another Doe transferred there… and another one. Are they all goners?”
Whitlomb combs the papers. “Doe… yes, this one inhaled flame, it seems. Two code blues yesterday. Doe… different Doe, he’s still at SF General… and a third Doe, also with a code.”
“Perhaps a building fire? Trapping the squatters within?”
“That’s not what I mean. Why would they transfer a burn case to a hospice at all? And three Does worth?”
“If they are not expected to survive—”
“You don’t move a goner. It could kill him, and if the relatives ever turn up, they sue.” Rider stares at the papers. He pulls a whistle from his pocket, blows it; the noise pulls the white pages from the shelf and to his hand.
“Practice… No Holy Cross Hospice that I can see.” Plucks the phone from its cradle. “San Francisco… Holy Cross Hospice… No? How about Marin? Yes? Thanks…” Writes a number on a pad and hangs up. He turns on the tape recorder and the voice distorter; punches in the number.
“Hi there! This is Tim Harris, I’m with the San Jose Mercury? Hi! Listen, could you transfer me to your public relations folks? I’m doing a piece on innovations in health care… Sure, I’ll hold. Thanks!” Rider stares off into space. “Yes, I’m here. Uh-huh. Hi! Yes, I’m Tim Harris, with the San Jose Mercury…”
Whitlomb polishes his glasses. The PR-media dance goes on quite a long time. If they were birds, the eggs would be en route.
“And yes,” blathers Rider, “we’re particularly interested in innovative patient management techniques. Now, I was down at San Francisco General just now, and they mentioned…”
Eventually Rider hangs up. “According to the flack, the hospice managed to bung something through the ethics board—I’ve got the date of the decision, we can verify it—on the grounds that the hospice has more experience with intense pain and large doses of narcotics. They argued that they can do a better job of caring for the patient, so it’s actually unethical to leave them in the burn ward. They do the transfer in an ambulance with one of their own code teams aboard. If the patient lives long enough, they transfer him back; it hasn’t happened yet, and probably won’t.” Rider stops. “Now, I wonder why a hospice would have a code team?”
“A hospice is not merely an annex to the funeral home, Al.”
“You’re right. Anyway, so far they’re only doing it with Does, and I’ll bet you a nickel SF General wouldn’t even suggest it to a regular patient’s next of kin.”
“The ethics do sound questionable.”
“If the board passes it, it’s ethical. Besides, SF General gets a bed, and the hospice gets money from the State. If it’s mundane, it’s mild corruption at the absolute worst. We’ll have to check ourselves for the occult.”
“Shall we knock them up, swing by this afternoon?”
“Mmm. I’ve been going for quite a while. Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, I have promised to tutor a gentleman at Oakland High School on the finer points of system administration. Perhaps I could just examine this anomaly solo.”
“Against doctrine, Perry. Maybe you could catch Chloe on her lunch hour?”
Whitlomb scratches the back of his neck.
“We need to get her out in the field more often,” says Rider.
“Max may think otherwise.”
“Or not. Actually, he’ll probably want to shepherd her himself.”
Whitlomb nods. “In any event, it’s most likely nothing to be concerned with.”
There is a tangle of hooves and a jockey struggling to get away from her mount in that eternal two seconds of a collapsing horse. Before the beast slams to the ground Maggie-Sue Percy is running for the golf cart, her blonde tresses streaming behind. The horse slides along the track from sheer momentum, three good legs fighting to get up and continue the race.
The crowd is standing, straining to see. Only the fanatics are still watching the race and Maggie-Sue hates each and every one of them. Off the cart, black bag in hand—the jockey is soothing the horse as best she can, tears on her face.
The knee is shattered. Maggie-Sue take a syringe from her bag, fills it from a livid purple bottle. The jockey knows that color– turns away. Maggie-Sue cradles the velvety head as the poison does its work and the jerking legs still and the great eyes stop rolling in their sockets. Finally she lets herself cry.
But then the hair stands up on the beck of her neck. She stands and whirls, slaps a hand onto the talisman tattooed onto her breast, opens her third eye. In a flash, sees an old man, neck forward, drinking the spectacle with his eyes, grotesque sexual arousal scrawled across his features… He sees her, starts; is on his feet and elbowing his way to the aisle…
“Yes, Perry, Max told me to call you and get the details. Mmm hmm… Mmm hmm… you’re right, doesn’t sound like much.”
Chloe Lee pivots in her swivel chair. Brunette pocket Venus; with her snub nose, she looks like a twelve year old girl with tissue paper in her bodice.
“But it can’t hurt to check. What say we all get together for dinner? See if you can get Rider to show up, too; I haven’t scanned him in a while. Yes, I know I’m a heathen paranoid. Yes, I do. Um—how about Goat Hill? Sound good? Great. See you at eight. Bye.” She hangs up, goes back to reviewing inventory. A 20 by 40 container of wicker chairs seems to be missing. She glares at her terminal. For the next hour, the machine happily refuses to do what she means it to do. She types in one more command. The screen freezes solid. She beats her head against her desk. From neighboring offices she hears curses.
She grabs her purse, steps into the corridor and high-heel taps her way down to Geek Central. A man is typing gibberish on a screen already full of it. He looks up. Pinks. “I’m working on it… I’m working on it… It’s the patch for the year 2000 problem; it has some bugs in it…”
“Jones, the Port of Oakland would run a bit more smoothly, if you can just get it up and keep it up for a little longer this time,” she purrs. Bucks his elbow with her hip. He turns bright red and she sashays out, leering over her shoulder.
A six foot six bear of a man is marching around the corner. “Great timing, Max. Let’s go,” she simpers, pressing against him.
“Please, show some respect for the uniform,” he grins. His naval whites are immaculate, and his lieutenant’s shoulder boards go well with his RAF mustache and lantern jaw. He leans down and kisses her forehead.
“Oh, I hate when you do that.” She slips her arm part of the way around him and they depart.
Once they gain the parking lot she stops giggling. They climb into Sturgeon’s Ford and head for the Bay Bridge. “I’ll want to stop off and get out of uniform,” he says. “What do you need to get ready?”
“Anywhere I can reach the water.” They chat about his base and her work as they drive. Stop at the Alameda Marina; quick jaunt to the waterfront.
Max Sturgeon watches as she bounces down the pier, takes off her shoes, and dangles her feet into the Bay. He can’t see her face, but knows her eyes are closed and she is reaching out to her totem, the spirit animal her rite of passage revealed to her. He has known her for over a year, now, and thus can keep a straight face when she speaks of Seattle’s mighty patron, the Mollusk of Glory—the geoduck clam.
He wonders, not for the first time, just where on her body her totemic tattoo is.
She jerks her feet from the water, walks down the exact center of the pier, quivering from an overwhelming desire to run. She shakes water from her feet and climbs in. “What was that all about?”
“The barnacles on that pier—some of them are from San Diego. Spies. If I’m lucky, they didn’t taste me after I opened my third eye– otherwise, I could have some unwelcome company.”
Sturgeon studiously avoids rolling his eyes. He starts the car, and they head for the Bay Bridge. “So, you were having computer trouble?”
“Yes. I wish you’d have a look at it.”
“Sorry. I just keep ‘em safe—I don’t fix ‘em. Perry may be able to help.”
“Maybe it’s a hacker.”
“Cracker. And I doubt it—you don’t have any information worth stealing.”
Chloe is staring at a Mercedes that just whipped past. She takes a pad from her purse and writes down the license number.
“What was that?”
“Nothing much—two-headed driver. We can add it to your list.” She sighs. “I should do this more often. It’s not like I’m ever far from the water in this city.” She mock frowns at him. “You should spend more time with your third eye open, too, Max.”
“I’ve been busy,” he mutters. “Besides, you know I hate seeing things I can’t do anything about. Anyway. Any idea why Rider didn’t want to do this?”
“No. Probably out spinning sunbeams into gold.”
“Can he do that?”
“He’s working on it. Remember when he had his hands all bandaged up? The metal didn’t hold and he got burns all over.” She watches the view out the window for a while. They have just passed through the tunnel on Treasure Island and San Francisco has come into view. The Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower, postcard views.
She sighs and returns her attention to the traffic. “Don’t follow that guy too close—there’s a poltergeist in the car with him.”
“Thanks. You working on anything weird?”
“No. Things have been quiet.” She grins at him. The two of them chorus, “Too quiet.” She continues, “So I figure Al may well be on to something.”
“Just as well it’s us doing this, anyway. What’s our story?”
They plot and rehearse, stop off at the San Francisco Marina. Sturgeon goes onto his sailboat—a tremendous Formosa 51, fifty-one feet long with teak decks—and changes. They drive north, take the Golden Gate bridge to Marin County. Each steals glances west, to the Pacific and the deep water. And finally, arrive in San Rafael. They find the hospice without any trouble, and park.
“How’s it look, Chloe?”
“Clean from out here.”
Sturgeon takes a few deep breaths. “Let’s do it.” He climbs from the Ford—slow, deliberate, his face a mask. Looks at the entrance. Chloe takes his arm; he pats her hand, and they funeral march through the front door.
The receptionist smiles at them. “Hello. Are you here for a visit?”
“Ah, no,” heaves Sturgeon. “I was wondering… do you have anyone who could… er…”
“I understand, sir. Please, have a seat; I’ll see if Doctor Gray is available.” They sit. Sturgeon picks up an old Time magazine and examines it assiduously, running his eyes over the same paragraph repeatedly. Chloe divides her attention between House and Gardensand him.
When a man in a white coat enters, Sturgeon stands quickly and swallows.
“Hello. I’m Doctor Gray. Please, let’s go to my office.”
Pleasantries, and then the awful story—mother sick with liver cancer, chemotherapy and radiotherapy as likely to kill her as slow down the disease, nobody at home to take care of her, senile dementia and depression… looking for somewhere… Gray is professionally understanding. They tour the facility. The very picture of ongoing grief and wifely support.
The tour over, they take a card and brochure, manage to avoid leaving any documentation themselves—dangerous and memorable, but if there is something afoot, best to make the villains work for their ID.
They regain the car, cross the bridge, and stop at Golden Gate park, not saying a word. Sturgeon draws a map; Chloe waits until he is done. Finally, he says, “Anything?”
“Nothing obviously wrong,” she says, “no constructs, undead, chimera, or anything like that. One of the patients was chanting to the Tiger totem—they can get violent when they get old, but she was too frail to do much.”
“Didn’t see anything either, but I don’t know what I’d see.”
“Well, I think we can stop worrying about this one.”
“There is one more fellow we could call in—”
“No. No way. We don’t need Arbeiter, either.”
“Okay.” He checks his watch. “Shall we eat, or do you need to get back?”
“Let’s eat. Oh, we’re meeting at Goat Hill Pizza at eight.”
That evening, Maggie-Sue is assaulting Chinese take-out in her Belmont one-bedroom apartment. Peninsula bedroom community; apartment buildings you can hear the freeway from at night. One can hardly see the walls for the potted ferns and hanging plants. Kerosene lanterns provide light, but do not smoke or stink; the fish tanks hum.
Her cut-off jeans show off her long, tanned, thin legs; broad hips and a wasp waist. Her mostly-rayon top (blood red like her elegant fingernails) struggles to contain her bosom; torrents of blonde hair whisper below her shoulders and lie curling around a sweet, gently pulsing throat. No chin; china blue eyes set entirely too close together in a face too small by half for her skull; microscopic mouth twisted into a perpetual snarl. Gazing upon her visage is like jabbing six live centipedes into your eye sockets. One could rib her about the practice of bagging one’s head, if one felt one could get along with a few feet less colon.
Knock on door. Nobody visible through eye hole. Knock comes again. She opens the door. A white-haired black dwarf with yellow sclera looks up at her. She huffs and jerks the door open enough for him to enter. “Thought you might like some company,” he drones.
“Why? Mystic fucking voodoo connectivity?”
“Close. Six o’clock news. Sports. They caught you looking up at heaven with rage, too. Very dramatic.”
“I was not. Somebody in the stands looking at me. Some dirty old man.”
“Hmn. You want to talk about it?”
“Dumb question. You never do. How’d you spot him?”
“I don’t know. I just did. Caught up to him in the parking lot, kicked him in the balls a few times. Just another creep. What do you care?”
“No reason. Just thought I’d check, see how you were doing.”
“Well, you could have done that over the phone. So you can go back and open up your shop again, for all I care.”
“You want me to go?”
“I don’t care one way or the other.” She seizes a carton, yanks out a pot sticker. The chopsticks twist in her hand. The pot sticker drops into her lap.
Joseph Washington whoops laughter. She glares. A mosquito, blundering between the two of them, turns to stone and drops to the table. A fern behind him wilts. The fish hide in the gravel. Washington keeps laughing. Her hand moves like lightning as she grabs the pot sticker and bounces it off his head.
Kristof Arbeiter is not eating. He’s hunched over a motorcycle, ripped out of his mind on a compound made of rattlesnake venom and black widow spider webbing, hauling his backside the hell away from a neighborhood in Oakland he should never have set foot in. He’s cursing in German as he pulls around a truck piled high with cardboard. Switches to English as he runs a red light. “Every August,” he snarls. “Every August, like clockwork, Creedon watches that damn documentary about Hiroshima, and is he around to watch my back? No, he is not. And every August I say I can do it alone and—” he stops to lay the bike down long enough to slide under a semi trailer—“every August I get in over my head and have to—” he switches to the sidewalk and weaves through foot traffic—”bust my ass just to get a hold of the one lousy ingredient I don’t have in the lab just so I can”—back to street, jumps an open manhole– “make up a batch of some stupid recipe I get off of some stupid promotional calendar”— goes around a fruit stand—“spend half the night running from some thousand year old aboriginal Eskimo whale hunter with a guilty conscience… When the Wall came down, I should have stayed on my side where I belonged…”
“Yes. I love garlic.”
“Hey, here’s a special. Look at this, Chloe!” says Rider. Chloe frowns at him. “Oh, come on, there’s more than one kind of clam. Oh, miss?” A passing waitress turns. “Are the clams you use here geoduck clams?”
“Ah… I could check?” The waitress smiles hesitantly over the checked oilskin tablecloth; the table candle flickers.
“Never mind,” smiles Whitlomb, kicking Rider. The waitress leaves to collect a pitcher of beer and the piano player launches into another piece.
“Anyway,” says Sturgeon, “we didn’t see anything. Although I am surprised that the hospice is taking burn patients—that’s a very specialized field of care. Of course, we could get Arbeiter and company to check for parts-raiding and unusual deaths, but I don’t think it’s worth the—ah—hassle involved.”
“Wouldn’t be so bad,” says Rider. “Might even be justified. Perry hit the library; this hospice opened up without a whole lot of press. That’s always a bad sign.” He looks around the table. “Oh come on, y’all look like I just suggested summoning one of the Four Horsemen.”
“And you know as well as I which one I have in mind,” growls Chloe.
Rider shrugs. The sun is setting; he is framed in a window of pink skyscrapers.
Whitlomb gestures to the waitress; they give up and order the same pizza they always do. “I had to wonder, when I left you, what you planned to spend the rest of the day on?” he asks Rider.
“Oh, there’s this project I’m working on.”
“Really,” says Chloe, widening her eyes. “What is it?”
“Don’t give me that breathless I-never-saw-magic-before look.”
“If you must know… I’m trying to take the carcinogenic properties out of cigarettes.”
“Ye gods, man,” says Sturgeon, “who do you hate enough to give cancer to?”
“Nobody. I just don’t want lung cancer to catch up with me.”
“You could quit,” murmurs Chloe.
“How would you dispose of the cancer-stuff if you got it out, anyway? Sell it to the same people you sell pain to?”
“Yeah, probably. Although I suppose Puget Sound could probably afford to be taken down a peg or two. Not that there are many pegs left to go.”
“Well, that’s probably the right answer. We could at least seal it up into pearls.”
“Thought that was oysters.”
“We have friends.”
Eyes lock. Sturgeon coughs; Whitlomb tugs at his collar. Rider deliberately looks away, reaches for his beer; Chloe rummages in her purse and checks her makeup in a compact.
Sip. Sip. “Anyway,” say Rider. “Everything else I’m worried about is pretty far away. Germany looks nasty, as always; the Balkans and the Middle East, of course, and if we get bored, we can always get behind one of Seattle’s San Diego projects. Can’t fault their ability to organize, at least. Don’t know about you all, but I’m not that bored yet.”
“Naturally. You’re not one to burn yourself out saving the world,” mutters Chloe.
Thankfully, food arrives, and soon they chatter happily about the summer movies. Rider even manages to make an incisive crack at exactly the right moment to make Coke come out Chloe’s nose.
The girls of the Tenderloin are sweetly anxious. The first two weeks of August always see a rise in violence—johns are found with bullet holes, pimps lie in alleys with gashes in terrible, terrible places—but for some reason, the prostitutes are untouched. Mostly. Were it not for the spectral sobbing, the wails of grief coming from the sky, they could almost be calm.
Maggie-Sue rises early, feeds the fish, waters the plants, takes a shower. The black lump on the couch is still snoring. She takes a stick, prods his foot. He sits up very, very fast. “It’s morning,” she snaps.
“If you’re dead, how come you snore? It’s annoying.”
“You want breakfast?” she asks.
“No, I’ll cook. I can’t stand to see you clambering around in my kitchen like some kind of monkey.”
“You think I like seeing you cooking eggs over hellfire?”
“It’s not hellfire. It’s perfectly natural.”
Washington grunts and heads for the bathroom.
She has food ready when he emerges. “Here’s your damned paper,” she hisses, flinging it at his head.
He reaches up and takes it. “Thank you.”
He hauls himself up to the chair, unfolds the business section. She
eyeballs the paper resentfully.
“If you scorch a hole in NASDAQ again I’ll put you over my knee.”
They eat. “Hurry up,” she says. “I have to leave soon.”
“Afraid if you leave me here alone I’ll steal the stereo?”
Munch, munch. “Have we any more toast?” asks Washington. Scrape. Bang, clatter clatter. Whoosh. Slam. “Thank you, Maggie-Sue.”
“I suppose you’ll want to come by again tonight.”
“Good. I have things to do.”
Munch munch. Washington mops up egg with toast, finishes the paper, glances at his watch. “Have to open up soon. See you later.”
She points at the door. Slam. She hurls dishes into the sink.
“You know me.”
“I have a name for your friend.”
“You’ve been reading Vachss again, haven’t you, Rider? Go
“Heh. I guess wiretaps aren’t high on the list of things we have to worry about, eh? The clown in question is named James Evingine; foster father of one Jennifer Will.” Reads off an address.
“What’s the trouble?”
“Drop in the ocean, then. He probably won’t even bother.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“And this is a bad time to ask him to work.”
“I know, Kris.”
“Did you know her?”
“She was in the burn ward at SF General, that’s all.”
“You have been reading Vachss.”
“Look, you want to tell him, or not?”
“I’ll blind drop it, but I don’t know when he’ll pick it up. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Kris. Keep an eye on him.”
“Ha. Talk to you.”
Max Sturgeon’s job is to watch over electronic security for the Treasure Island Naval Station. Sturgeon walks with an emission patrol, sniffing the ether for unauthorized transmissions.
He strolls along, feeling the wind on his face. Perfectly ordinarily day; no leviathans rising from the water, no haruspecoid mutants.
The Bay Area is a land of microclimates and sudden change. Today, on Treasure Island, the sky is tropical as the Caribbean and the ocean seems to go on forever. But in a few hours, the sun will touch horizon and it’s the North Sea, bone cutting fog and cold enough to kill. And thus, Sturgeon wonders about his double life.
Chloe and Whitlomb tell him that things simply are not as they seem—there are monsters and demons and undead all around, and always have been. But if you can’t see it, it has a hard time giving a damn about you. So humanity evolved a selective inability to comprehend certain things. Some people can “open their third eye” and watch all the goofy things actually going on, but this is dangerous as hell. On the other hand, they can do things that others can’t, like shoot scorpions out of their navels.
Sturgeon was nonplused to learn that “natural” deaths are nothing of the sort. And he can’t vacation in San Diego any more.
His companions’ insistence on describing things in mystical terms annoys him. Totems and souls and spirits and Tibetan eschatology and gods—phooey. His pet theory is that there is a parallel universe that leaks over every now and then. When Sturgeon advanced it, Whitlomb pinched his nose and said it was as good an explanation as any.
Still, dollars aren’t much of an issue any more. Sometimes he feels guilty about all the counterfeit he throws around. But according to Arbeiter it’s all Monopoly money anyway; the things that honestly are scarce can’t be bought with currency. All in all, being aware of things as they really are is a good deal.
When a K-9 rushes at him and Sturgeon pitches into the drink with teeth sunk into his calf, he changes his mind. He has time to think, “Well, this isn’t supposed to happen to the leaders,” before the water closes over his head.
Washington blinks. The first joint of his left hand’s ring finger burns. He scurries into the back and opens a floor safe. There are seven small bundles of herbs and dried blood. Washington takes five and throws them into a brazier, following up with a squirt of lighter fluid and a match.
Chloe knocks over her chair. Arbeiter spills coffee onto a painting. Maggie-Sue sets her rolodex on fire. Whitlomb drops a three thousand year old tablet. Rider fumbles a microgram of cancer and an innocent flea bloats with sudden tumors. Many feet pound pavement.
Arbeiter ties off, injects a savage substance into his veins. The world becomes slow and rectilinear—headlights appear square, trees are twisting nests of jagged green lightning bolts. He makes sure he has the antidote and burns off towards the Bay Bridge at well over a hundred miles an hour. Weaves through traffic. He curses as he goes; probably another false alarm. On the other hand, the system saved his thymus, once, so he really can’t complain. It almost makes up for the irritation of the constant drills where everybody makes for some arbitrary point on the map. Switches on his throat mike. “Status?”
“Washington here; Sturgeon down on Treasure Island. Chloe, Whitlomb, and Rider are en route. I’m eastbound, but won’t be there any time soon. Maggie-Sue is fifteen minutes out.”
“Okay. I’ll do a recon, then. Just reached the Treasure Island off ramp.” He slows to the base speed limit—shore police are not people he wants to argue with. Soon enough, he reaches the pierlet and sees forms thrashing in the water. “Looks like a thin dog—the SPs pretty much have it under control, they’re getting him out of the water.”
“Joe, this is Chloe. I’ve got trouble. Westbound on the Bay Bridge, and there’s a whole pack of dogs behind me, maybe ten. They’re following and sixty miles an hour is too fast to be natural.”
“Those aren’t dogs; those are thin dogs. Don’t turn off at Treasure Island. Make for Rider’s. Rider, Whitlomb, go back to the loft and get ready.”
“Rider here, I copy.”
“Loaded for bear; be at Al’s in a moment.”
“Arbeiter here, Sturgeon’s on land, bleeding, they’re working on his leg– oh, shit. Thin dog pack, fifty meters.” They hear gunshots and the sound of an engine.
(From the San Diego Institute of Necromancy Cookbook: THIN DOG: Take one dog. Feed for three months on human flesh. Eviscerate with bone knife; loop intestines around neck as beast perishes. Insert subdermal armor, if desired. Stuff with mastiff pelt and powdered wolf teeth. Bake at 200 degrees and zero humidity, basting regularly with fresh blood and rosemary, for seven days or until the hide is flaky and brittle to the touch. Reanimate under open sky when Sirius is above horizon. Slaughters four, or more if your enemies are weak. Keep away from salt.)
Arbeiter points the fairing of his BMW at the center of the pack; pops a wheelie as he accelerates and draws a sawed-off shotgun. The SPs are confused. The dog that knocked Sturgeon into the water has bitten all half dozen of them; two are holding it down as a third empties a magazine of bullets into its head. That slows it down a little. They start stomping on it; that works better.
Arbeiter whoops as he arrows for the pack. In a half instant he sees the lead dog brace and turn its head to bite his tire—notices metal teeth aglint. Realizes that he is going to need a new tire and, in all likelihood, Extreme Unction. Forces himself to bail off the bike as it mashes to a halt. One of his gloves comes off as he rolls down the pavement and soon his left hand is a sponge of road rash. Loses the shotgun. Watches the world spin and listens to his brains bounce off the sides of his skull. Wonders where the first bite will come.
Sturgeon recovers consciousness in time to hear an SP screaming with his last breath. Sturgeon is close enough to death for his third eye to have come open; he can hear the hoarse, dustthroat barking as the pack circles, planning the charge. He notices Valkyries riding overhead but he’s pretty sure that’s just a conventional hallucination.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco proper, Rider is shouting obscenities as he counts his dog skulls—six. Well, it’s a start. Carries the box downstairs, runs outside, slashes his palm with his bone knife and drips blood over the skulls, chanting like a lunatic.
“Whitlomb to Rider, I’m five blocks out—”
“Rider, this is Chloe, I’m a block away. Should I stop, or go by and have you guys take ‘em out as they follow?”
Rider can’t answer either of them—he’s busy screaming in a polyglot of Tibetan, Sumerian, and Haitian. Sees Chloe drift around the corner and zoom towards him. And skidding behind her Toyota, ten nightmares.
Back on Treasure Island, Arbeiter manages to sit up, and wonders where the dogs are. Turns– sees them circling the SPs. They’ve managed to pepper one to fragments; the others are jumping and dodging around to spoil their aim. The SPs will soon run out of ammunition. Arbeiter hobbles towards his shotgun, dripping blood from his hand.
Rider grins as Chloe blasts past. The dogs are dead, not stupid– to one with an open third eye, Rider’s staff is a beacon shouting I AM BEING HELD BY A VERY PISSED MAGE. Threat management dictates they rip his throat out.
Arbeiter has his shotgun. The SPs are down to truncheons. The dogs are making darting passes. An SP loses his calf and bleeds profusely. Arbeiter raises his helmet’s visor. “Yoo hoo, puppy dogs!”
One turns and looks at him. Mummified dog faces don’t have much expression, but this one seems to say, “I’ll be happy to tear your kidneys out as soon as I get a chance, but I’ll have to get back to you on it.” Arbeiter points the shotgun at the thing’s face and pulls the trigger.
Lead does not vomit from the bores. Nor silver. The beast gets a load of rock salt. It cocks its head at him, shrugs, and goes back to circling. Arbeiter pumps the action.
Rider waves his staff around. The dogs bark at him. He barks back. They snarl and charge. Rider crushes a dog skull with his bleeding hand. The lead dog’s skull collapses into dust. The body runs a little further and disassembles into a jumble of ancient hide and brittle bones. Rider crushes another skull. Wonders vaguely what he’ll do when he runs out.
Arbeiter shoots another dog. Another SP is down.
Rider runs out of skulls.
One of the dogs circling Sturgeon stops in its tracks, cocks its head. Wanders off. The other dogs bark at it. The dog trots to a tree and sits. Scratches a flea. Jumps as it hears bone scrape on leathery hide. Stares at its foot. Remembers having a glossy coat, chasing Frisbees, getting its hair brushed. Wags its tail; hears vertebrae grind against each other. Cranes its head back and studies its hindquarters.
Tibetan salt works much faster on reanimated humans; humans can think and remember faster. It rarely takes more than a second for a human zombie to realize what it is and how much it has lost. Humans also have hands and can use tools, so it is very seldom one sees a human zombie trying to end its suddenly unbearable existence by biting itself to pieces.
Rider decides to try blind panic—turns and runs screaming. There is an Oldsmobile coming fast down the street. Rider makes a complicated set of gestures intended to inquire if Whitlomb might be able to do something about the creatures behind him. Whitlomb has seen Rider panic before, so he gets the gist of the question. Whitlomb has one of the only Oldsmobiles in San Francisco with a gun rack. Extreme terror gets Rider around and behind the car as it skids to a halt and Whitlomb jumps out with a very large rifle.
The dogs have figured out that Arbeiter is doing something bad to them. Two peel off and rush him. He catches one point-blank before the other bodyslams—Arbeiter goes down. His helmet is too massive for the creature to rip out his throat, so it bites his arm right through the leather and Arbeiter can feel teeth scratching deep groves into his bone.
About then Maggie-Sue’s tornado reaches from the sky and pulls the dog into pieces. From it leaps a white-haired black man, about three foot eight. Fifty kilograms of dehydrated Rottweiler figures this should be easy enough to deal with; jumps for the throat. Washington does something complicated and fast, the sort of thing Bruce Lee used to do, and the dog’s head goes in one direction and the body in the other.
Four thin dogs rush Whitlomb, who knows that most people use Tibetan salt to dispatch zombies. He prefers the direct approach. His father’s estate provided him with a Holland & Holland Nitro Express. Dad used it to kill elephants. It has two barrels. Two extremely loud noises occur. There are only two dogs remaining. They look at each other in consternation. Chloe’s Toyota blindsides one and skids in a perfect bootlegger’s reverse as Rider recovers from his panic and charges the last infernal canine waving his staff.
The jaws are still locked on Arbeiter’s arm, but the rest of the dog has been scattered by the four winds. He pries the skull loose, watching a pine tree climb right up out of the ground, leap onto a dog, and hypocotylate the devilment out of it. Another is dragged howling into the Bay by ropes of seaweed. “If I know Maggie-Sue,” he thinks, “that one over there is about to—”
Excerpt copyright © 2004 Stephan Zielinski. ISBN 0-312-87862-1. Tor® and Forge® are trademarks of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, and are registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. That soft noise you just heard outside your window is a zombie. Run.