Thursday, December 29, 2005

Walking Death, Chapter 7

     Hack dropped Rachel and Frieda off in front of a place called Molly’s Diner. He was heading down the road before he could notice that the two women weren’t interested the blue plate special.

     Rachel gave a jaunty little wave to Molly as she led Frieda by the hand toward the building’s small lobby. The door wasn’t locked in case someone had to see Dr. Moss, whose office shared a reception room with Sam’s, for an emergency. The bulb on the stairwell was out, but Rachel’s eyes scarcely registered the gloom. Between the low-light vision and the beauty of their angelic cousins, all of the Lilliam had the full see-and-be-seen package.

     Enough light came down from the floor above for Frieda to see well enough by the time they reached the first landing. The light, she judged, was from a single lamp behind the frosted glass door labeled “Sam Watson, Private Investigator”.

Rachel stopped for a moment, appraising the door with an unfocused look in her eyes. Her scrutiny satisfied, she squared her shoulders, strode the three paces across the small reception area and knocked on the door. A shadow moved in the office.

“Who is it?” asked a masculine voice.

“Advance agent for Santa Clause, Mr. Watson,” said the dark-haired girl. “I’m here to discuss some irregularities of your behavior for proper listing.”

The door opened. The man inside wore shirtsleeves, suspenders, and an empty shoulder holster. He kept his right hand behind the door. The smile on his face died away as quickly as his eyes went from the girl to the woman behind her.

“Oh,” said Rachel, “introductions as soon as you let us in, Sam.”

He stepped aside with a nod into the room. The two women were barely in before he closed the door and locked it behind them. Sam re-holstered the handgun as Rachel took a seat on the desk.

Frieda chose to remain standing, taking a position along the wall opposite the door. The man, Mr. Sam Watson, Private Investigator she presumed, was of middling height and a fit build. His hair was light brown tending to red in the light of the hooded desk lamp. He didn’t seem particularly young, maybe late thirties, forty at most. He looked the tired of a man who had just completed some vigorous activity. If the girl was bringing her to this man, Frieda concluded that the activity would have been the fight at the warehouse.

Now that she finally had some decent light to make an assessment, Frieda looked at her guide. She had been assuming that her rescuer was young, and now her appraisal confirmed it. The black haired girl was more than a waif, probably sixteen or seventeen, with a pale-skinned, expressive, face.

The question was forming in Frieda’s mind when the girl answered it.

“My name’s Rachel.”

Sam had by then reclaimed his composure.

“May I offer you a drink, Doctor?”

“Are we safe here?”

“So long as you weren’t followed the Imperials would have no reason to look for you here.”

Frieda let out a breath that she hadn’t been aware of holding.

“Then thank you, I need a drink.”

“Set me up one too, Sam,” said Rachel.

Frieda quirked an eyebrow as Sam took a pair of glasses out of a desk drawer.

Rachel smiled and said, “I’m older than I look.” With another look, Frieda saw that despite nothing seeming to change about Rachel, she had to reassess her age into the mid-twenties. Frieda made a note to rebuild her magic sensing glasses as soon as possible.

“I need to make a call, pardon me, ladies,” said Sam, now sitting behind the desk and pulling the phone over to him. He took pains to keep the number he dialed covered up. Frieda was still able to tell by counting the clicks of the rotor.

“Quisitor. I’m checking in for Lamb as well. Yes, about that, Knocker is secure. Yes, Lamb brought her to my office.”

“Tell him I thought there would be road blocks between the pick up and the safe house,” offered Rachel.

“I agree,” said Sam, ignoring Rachel’s intrusion, “the damage has been done, she knows both of our names. Uh-huh, thought you’d say that. She’s right here.” With that, Sam held the phone out to Frieda. “Liberty for you.”

“Thank you. Hello?”

“Dr. Kellner, I am glad to hear you made it out safely.”

“Good to be out, but what about your men?”

“We did lose some, both killed and captured, but we are already working to find them. For now, it is enough that you are safe.”

“Thank you, but what now?”

“For now, I’m going to have you work in Mr. Watson’s cell with Rachel. I had other plans, but it is better that you stay with them for now.”

“How much can I tell them?”

“I would have brought Sam in regardless, so you may tell them everything about the project.”

“Understood.”

“I’ll remain in touch to get you set up with a new identity in the meantime.”

“Thank you, again.”

“Thank you for taking the risk, Doctor. Good bye.” The line then went dead.

Sam and Rachel were watching her through the conversation. Frieda replaced the phone onto the cradle.

“Liberty says that I am to trust the two of you with the information I have. That being the case, I need to tell you about Ambulamort.”

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Walking Death, Chapter 6

     Leaping aside from the toppling truck, Frieda reset her grip on her ray gun. She took a quick stock of her situation. She knew that the side of the ambush with the burning truck was clear. What she didn’t know was how long it would take for the Imperials from the front to get to that side, or if that would be long enough to get through the corner and into cover for a stealthy escape. She had her ray gun, no self-respecting weird scientist traveled without one, but she knew that it would not be enough to hold off a company of Imperials.

“We need cover!” she yelled to the Resistance man ahead of her.

“There’s an alley across the street. We can make it if we give these guys the bum’s rush.”

“Go!” she said, following tight on the man’s hip.

The pair spun around the corner of the disguised panel truck. A pair of controlled bursts from his Thompson brought down the first two soldiers in the line. The third one was not completely surprised and let of a blind shot. The man was panicked, and lucky. Frieda’s escort let out a muffled groan and started to collapse.

The doughboy was marveling at his shot when Frieda’s first ray took him in the chest. Her next two went off as she loosened the focus on the emitter with her thumb. The widened beam wasn’t enough to kill any of the remaining three men, but it was enough to catch them all and knock them senseless.

Frieda knelt and rolled the Resistance man over onto his back. The hole, gasping and bloody in his chest, put paid to any idea of helping him escape. She had no false modesty. She knew that the man took the risk to get her safely away from the Empire. There would be no purpose in both being captured in her stopping to render aid.

Instead, she ran, head down, for the now visible alley mouth. She had momentum on her side as she crossed the dangerous open space where she would be visible to the third truck. A shout of “Halt!” and a pair of rifle reports sounded behind her. The darkness of the alley was welcome shelter, an old ally that she worked very well with.

She discovered quickly that she did not have the shadows to herself. A figure stepped out from the cover of a cluster of trashcans. Frieda’s heart almost gave out until the new shadow spoke.

“Knocker.”

Frieda needed a restarted heartbeat to remember the countersign.
“White Rabbit?”

“Call me Lamb,” her rescuer said with a released breath. “Follow me.”

On closer inspection, Lamb proved to be little more than a slip of a girl. At first, it gave Frieda pause that her fate had fallen into the hands of someone so young, let alone small. A second thought revealed that it could be ideal. If one ever had an image of a fighter, Lamb was not it. If this one had a method of escaping this situation, it would be a stealthy escape and one that had been thought out well before hand.

Whatever plans the girl had had to be put into motion quickly. By the time they rounded the first corner they came upon there were at least two Imperials in the alleyway. A few more twists and turns put them out onto the street on the far side of the block.

Lamb took Frieda’s arm.

“Just look like a fella out with his girl,” she whispered. Frieda had forgotten that she was wearing workman’s clothes and could reasonably expect to pass from a distance.

Sirens sounded in the distance, and as the pair crossed the street they saw police cars go roaring toward the warehouse. Once across the street, Lamb danced up the steps to a tenement call box. She pressed three buttons simultaneously, and the door buzzed open. They slipped through as a sleep addled voice demanded to know who was bothering him at that time of the night.

Their path took them up the stairs.

“We need to get some distance before we get a ride,” said Lamb. “I hope that you don’t mind heights.”

Their climb took them to the roof. Lamb pointed the direction, and Dr. Kellner saw the almost stair like arrangement of rooftops. Before the girl could say anything, Frieda took off at a run and leapt the gap to the next roof. She drew more than a little satisfaction at the girl’s surprised look.

Then Lamb made her jump. Frieda could have sworn that she heard the girl make a quiet “Whee” sound. The two then set off at an easy run across the rooftops, making the leaps across the alleys. Just before the end of the block, Lamb pointed out a fire escape and headed over there. At the bottom was a cab with its engine running.

“Heya, Hack,” said Lamb to the driver. To Frieda: “Don’t worry, he’s one of ours.”

“Is this the Doc?” asked Hack.

“Yep, let’s do the introductions on the road, shall we?”

“Right, safe house.”

“No,” said Lamb. “The pickup got busted, I don’t know if the safe house is safe anymore.”

“So where do we go?” asked Frieda.

Lamb was silent for a moment. Then she smiled.

“I know just the place.”

Monday, November 28, 2005

Walking Death, Chapter 5

Sam’s second spell was to cast darkness about himself. It filled a sphere five yards out with impenetrable blackness. The darkness itself was simple, making it so that he could see through it was one complication, but allowing select others to see through it took the greatest finesse. That Jericho and Petra had already gunned down three soldiers testified to their sight through the dark.

The first spell had been a fireball into nearest truck before most of the men inside could get clear. The rest, lacking any cover from both the warehouse and the outside guns, fell quickly.

For the moment, Sam found himself without a target. He kept a wary eye off to his right, the direction from which forces from the front of the warehouse would do the most damage. Unless Liberty got his people out of the warehouse in a hurry Sam’s position would become untenable in an all-fired hurry.

The gout of white smoke that erupted from the rear doors answered that concern very quickly. The smoke was thick, and it further reduced Sam’s view more than the burning panel truck had.

Sam ran to Jericho’s position at the edge of the circle of darkness. From there he was able to see a half dozen men hunkered down behind the second truck. That truck had been parked so that it was directly opposite the doors in a semicircle with the other two.

“Cover me,” yelled Jericho. Sam obliged with three shots toward the rear of the truck as the Resistance fighter took cover behind the corner. One Imperial had been spraying rounds randomly into the darkness, peppering holes into the car but making little real damage. Sam’s shots forced the man to pull back behind the decreasingly effective cover of the truck. From his new position, Jericho had traded the relative safety of the mage darkness for a better attack angle. He made the most of it.

Meanwhile, Liberty and the inside Resistance came rolling out of the warehouse, taking cover behind the truck that had picked up Dr. Kellner. He kept Frieda close to his side as he fired over the bed of the truck at the position to the right of the doors.

“When we get as far as we can, get across to the alley and make for your escape…” started Liberty.

“VIENTO” pronounced a loud voice from within the warehouse. With that, the Resistance was again covered by rapidly thinning smoke as a sorcerous wind purged the air.

“Move, move, move!” ordered Liberty. Once the smoke was gone, there would be nothing left to cover them from more magic. Nothing except an out of position Quisitor.

Sam’s blood ran cold when he heard the voice. Incantations were as unique as the casting mage, and Sam knew that Captain Bren was aiding in this raid. Sam looked to his two compatriots. Neither responded very much to the sound of the spell being cast. That left Sam to protect them and the rest of the Resistance.

He ran for the burning truck, praying that there weren’t any rounds yet to cook off. By the time he got there, the truck had nosed itself into the far enemy vehicle. Sam prepared to block an attack from the inside, but the tactic used caught him flatfooted. The truck lifted an inch off the ground and then rolled over on its side. Sam reacted, but too slowly to prevent it from landing on Spanner and two others. The best Sam could do was preventing the vehicle from crushing the men to death.

Liberty and the other men moved to roll the truck back off of their fellows, but a fresh barrage of gunfire from inside the warehouse stopped them, killing one man in the process.

“Retreat, retreat,” yelled Liberty. To the rest he said, “Be strong, we’ll get you out.”

Sam ran for his car, giving Petra and Jericho the wave off signal. Driving away, he did not know if they had managed to free the scientist.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Walking Death, Chapter 4

Liberty watched as his team unloaded the casket-like box from the rear of the truck. Tarrytown and Goodyear hopped out of the truck while Sampson, Digger, and Cross did the unloading.

Liberty knew he had a good plan, and good people to see it through. He was still bothered, however, bothered beyond the usual anxiety inherent to any operation. The defection of a scientist of Kellner’s stature had rightly caused a furor back in the Old World. It was also a given that the Resistance would somehow get her to the Free States. The blockade of all Free State ports meant smuggling through a controlled port.

That was the first part of Liberty’s worries. The only means available to the Resistance was the Trident, the world spanning smuggling ring controlled by “Zeus” Pandareos. He was let in on neither the contents of the package nor who was paying him to move it. Both pieces of information were classically taboo in Zeus’s line of work, but he was still able to put two and two together with respect to the timing to know that four was going to cost more than normal. It was a gaping hole in the security of the transport, but there was no way around it.

The second thing that had him worried was that the local garrisons hadn’t seemed to react to the news. No extra security at the ports, no extra crackdown on freelance practitioners of weird science. The Count seemed to be making a show of his pants being down.

That was why Liberty had laid on so much protection for this operation. Five men in case the Imperials made their way inside, in addition to himself and Spanner, who was there for his technical expertise. Outside, he had four more: Quisitor, Lamb, Jericho, and Petra. They were primarily lookouts, but Jericho and Petra were fair gun hands, and Quisitor was the sole mage in Liberty’s New York operation. Should fighting start, Jericho and Petra would form on Quisitor and provide him cover. Both sides of this war knew: when in doubt, shoot the guy throwing fireballs. If things went particularly badly, he had Lamb holding back as eyes to gauge the activities of the Imperials post raid. Lamb may have been more than just a girl, but she was far more valuable for intelligence than fighting.

Sampson didn’t bother with a pry bar as he removed the lid from the crate. He was one more surprise in case things went bad. Sampson’s strength was normally impressive. When pushed, he could use some of the world’s magic to augment his might.

Once the lid was removed, Spanner was right over the doctor and snapped a capsule he had removed from his heavily laden vest under her nose. Sawbones was right next to him checking the doctor’s vital signs. Frieda sat up with a gasp and a long fit of coughing. Liberty waited until her coughing came under control before speaking.

“Knocker?”

Dr. Kellner had to pause for a moment to focus her eyes on the masked man standing next to the crate.

“White Rabbit?”

Liberty smiled under the mask at his alternate codename. It was his first in truth, selected due to his heritage. Henry Fitzpatrick counted himself a descendant of Patrick Henry and saw it as a duty to re-fight the Revolution as fate would have it. “White Rabbit” had been a joke made by one of his commando platoon during the Great War to mean that he was “late for the Tea Party”.

“Good to have you here with us, Doctor,” said the Resistance leader.

Before she could respond, Spanner’s miniaturized wireless gave out a call.

“Base, Quisitor: the wolf is at the door, the wolf is at the door.”

“Soldiers front!” called Cross.

“Soldiers rear!” called Goodyear.

“Hold them back!” ordered Liberty.

With that, two men each at the front and rear opened fire with their Thompsons through windows at catwalk level. Liberty could not see anything from his ground floor position. The warehouse faced the waterfront to the west and had a second set of loading doors on the east. North and south were unbroken brick walls.

Glass rained down when the Imperials opened fire. Digger screamed and fell backward off of the catwalk. Liberty grabbed Dr. Kellner and pushed her into the truck.

The light bloomed through the windows of the west face.

“One of their trucks just blew!”

Liberty knew that it must have been Quisitor engaging the enemy.

“Digger, Cross, pin them down up front. The rest, get ready to punch our way out the…”

A crash of wood and metal prevented Liberty from completing his order. The doors flew inward as if a truck had hit them. The force was enough that the doors took out three of the supports for the catwalk. Digger and Cross found the metal they were standing on suddenly no longer supporting them, and they fell in front of the now open maw that had been the front doors.

“Mage!” yelled Liberty. “Spanner, smoke now!”

“Spectacles down, smoke now!” Spanner removed two canisters from his vest, popped a pair of levers, and tossed the small smoke generators toward the doors. With the spectacles he had provided, the Resistance members could see as well as a clear day. Meanwhile, the Imperials, and most importantly the Imperial mage Captain Rupert Bren, could not see more than five feet into the smoke.

It sadly did little for Digger and Cross, for whom the pain of their injuries magnified ten fold under the magic of Captain Bren. Their capture would be easy enough, and the Anti-Resistance Force wasted no further thought on them.

Liberty grabbed Frieda by the arm and moved quickly to the rear doors.

“Spanner, notify the outer teams that we are coming out the back. And have your smoke ready.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sampson, hit the door.”

The rear doors buckled outward with little less force than the front ones had. The new cross ventilation threatened to dissipate the smoke more quickly, and Liberty knew they didn’t have time to waste.

“Charge!”

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Walking Death, Chapter 3

     Sam and Rachel met up prior to the meeting and made their way. Virtually everyone on the call out list was present. The meeting was to make plans for the recovery of a defecting Imperial scientist who was referred to only by the codename Knocker. Knocker would be arriving via a cargo ship and in a casket sized box. Sam shuddered to think about a passage of three weeks inside a coffin, and thought that the woman had to have ice water in her veins.

The plan was simple: two men would recover the box and transport it to a warehouse rented for the night from the Rinaldi Family. Once there, Spanner, a weird science specialist, and Sawbones, team medic, would awaken the scientist. Goodyear would be standing by to drive. Four others, not including the pick-up men, would be present as close security. All of this would be overseen by the masked Liberty, head of the New York City resistance. That he was in on this was too much of a risk so far as Sam was concerned, but Liberty made it clear that he would not remove himself from the plan.

Outside of the warehouse, Liberty had placed four lookouts, Rachel/Lamb among them. Sam was to be outside as well; ready as magical back up and to cover the escape should the Law come down.

Sam and Rachel took a position a couple of blocks away from the warehouse.

“I feel ridiculous,” said Rachel as she leaned into the passenger side of Sam’s car. She was wearing a low-cut top and old flapper dress purchased from a second-hand store.

“What? I’ve seen you wearing less than that during dance numbers.”

“At least those outfits had class. And they matched. These look like you just dug them up from random out of a charity bin.”

Sam decided to button his trap on that one. He did pull them out of a bin at the store.

“Hey, I had to work hard to find something that would class you down. Anything you might have had would have been too nice for a working girl in this neighborhood.”

“Well, I would have found something better.”

Rachel was had to remind herself to keep from stomping as she made her way up and down the street. She was running ways of getting back at Sam for this indignity. Not only was she passing up a night at Club Hades, but she was positively mortified that one of her sisters might spot her done up like this. The Lilliam were certainly not uptight when it came to sex as a business matter, but they definitely considered mere street walking beneath their station. Besides, cash was not the true medium of exchange in such matters.

She continued her walk up the street, back toward Sam to report nothing of interest. She even managed to put on a smile and a cant of the hip to the whistle of the shotgun man of a panel truck heading toward the docks. The whistler’s truck was the first of a half dozen traveling in convoy. Rachel stopped her strut and looked closer as the trucks traveled in convoy.

They were all commercial lorries, but something about the drivers bothered her. The passenger of the first truck made a smart whistle and got a punch in the shoulder from his driver. None of the others made any sign of having seen her. The last truck’s passenger did notice her, however. In a brief flash of eye contact, Rachel recognized the scarred face of the last passenger: Major Helmut Stein of the Imperial Anti-Resistance Forces.

Panic flashed before composure resettled over Rachel’s mind. She gave the major a wink, a twitch of the hip, and a lewd comment. Stein’s gaze slid right off of her. Rachel hoped that he had just brushed her off his mind like he would a speck of lint off of his normally perfect uniform. He had been wearing coveralls. She did the math as she hurried to Sam’s car: driver and passenger in each truck was twelve, plus unknown number in the back of each.

She had to get back to Sam immediately.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Walking Death, Chapter 2.5

The most powerful men in New York City waited for the meeting to start. They stood about the long mahogany table set with coffee cups, water glasses, pens and dossier folders. None of them had yet moved to look into the folders, instead preferring to conduct what business they could with the underlings that had come with them to the Cloisters.

The largest such group stood behind the man seated at the end of the table. That man was Jasper Addney, the meeting’s host and Count of the City of New York and Long Island. He spoke quietly to each of the functionaries that came to him for instruction or authorization for the many issues that demanded his attention. The County of New York was far from a quiet sinecure from which to plot future political advances, but Addney relished the potential that the largest city in the re-established colonies offered.

The Count’s ambition was well matched by his youth. It was rare for someone to rise to the rule of a county before the age of forty, but it was also rare that someone would actually want the rule of the New York City powder keg.

He forswore the affectations common to the newly minted nobility of the reconquered Americas. Rather than wear medals, ceremonial swords, or sashes of office, Addney preferred precisely tailored Saville Row suits and ties. The only concession to noble accoutrement was his coat of arms executed in a silver pin attached through his lapel. He felt, in this modern age, that people should recognize him more from frequent newspaper photographs than from trappings of office.

One person in his retinue kept to the back of the crush. Her name was Babette de Loring, and the others always kept clear of her space. She was the Imperial Court Sorceress, a position from where she wielded almost as much political influence as she did magical power. She wore a long skirt, tailored jacket, and a white ruffled blouse. She kept her chestnut hair in a bob cut. The faint smile on her lips added to the sense of youth about her, maybe a decade shy of her true age of thirty-five. She held her arms crossed in front of her, and lightly drummed the fingers of her right hand on her left elbow. The silver ring she wore on her third finger seemed to reflect more light than fell upon it.

Uniformed men, and one woman, were the balance of the other groups in the room. The right hand side of the table was dominated by Lord General Einhard Ubell, commander of all Imperial military units for the county. He was a tall man in his fifties. His hair was two shades of silver separated from his rock grey imperial uniform. He stood ramrod straight, and the monocle he wore was the only indication of decline with age.

With Ubell was Major Helmutt Stein, head of the Anti-Resistance Forces in New York City. His silver-fringed uniform was similarly immaculate. The wound badge on his jacket was superfluous measured next to the long scar on his cheek. His dark brown goatee was the only hair on his head.

The far side of the table hosted an odd assortment of people, all in black uniforms trimmed in red. Two men, one slight and the other gigantic, and a beautiful blonde woman waited in attendance to a dashing figure of an apparent fifty years. No one in the room mistook them for human, the red on black marked them as members of the Imperial Demonic Division. The center of the group was Colonel Aldrick Meinrad, a name that was no more true than the face he showed.

“Gentlemen,” said the Count, his voice cutting through the conversations taking place around the table, “we all have a great deal to occupy our time. Let us get to business.”

“That would be greatly appreciated, Your Excellency,” said General Ubell. His tone was cool. A lifetime military man, he knew precisely were the line of insubordination rested. His willingness to dance that line with respect to Count Addney was something that did not go unnoticed in the city’s court.

Once again, Addney chose to allow the unspoken slight to pass by. Strictly speaking, Addney was the one in command, but he knew that the military was fiercely loyal to Ubell. If anything, Ubell’s ruthlessness was a useful threat against those who proved less than cooperative. It was Ubell’s command that brought death, complete and merciless, to the population of Scranton. It played to Addney’s advantage to appear to be the one preventing a similar fate from befalling New York.

All of the attendants took the cue to leave the room save for de Loring. She remained next to one of the guards flanking the double doors behind the head of the table.

The Count remained standing, and rested his hands on the table.

“I have been given leave to discuss a new weapon developed on the Continent that shall be produced here within the County for deployment along the Mississippi front.” The count reached over to a small console and pressed down a toggle.

“Edna, would you please show in the gentlemen?”

“Right away, your Excellency,” replied the tinny voice from the speaker.

A matronly woman opened the double doors behind the foot of the table. She stood aside so that three men could enter. The first, a tall, reed thin, man in a wool overcoat and gloves, stopped and handed the coffee cup in his hand to the taken-aback secretary.

“Might I trouble you for a refill, madam?” he asked.

Edna regained her composure and said, “Of course, Doctor.”

“Thank you, my dear.”

He proceeded to the table and took a position behind the chair at the foot of the table. Two other men entered close on his heels. The first was a man of fifty-odd years. He had an intellectual’s high forehead and a pair of pince-nez glasses. The other man stood no more than four foot six inches tall and nearly that abroad. He was of indeterminate age and sported a beard that nearly obliterated any evidence of the necktie that he wore. The man went to the left side of the table and the dwarf took the right.

“I am certain that you gentlemen are familiar with Doctors Hobbard and Tabbert of Research Division 9,” said the Count. The second man and the dwarf inclined their heads in response to their names and took their seats. “Well, allow me to introduce Dr. Everet Felson of the Imperial Bureau of Advanced Sciences. He shall be the one to brief you on the new weapon that shall be manufactured in the County of use along the Mississippi front. Dr. Felson, the floor is yours.”

“Thank you, your Excellency. It is my pleasure to present to you the latest in advanced technological achievements for use on the battlefield. In the folders before each of you is the technical data on what has been named Ambulamort. While delivered as a gas…,” the doctor was interrupted by a knock at the secretary’s door. The guard looked to the Count who gestured his leave to open the door. Outside was Edna with a fresh cup of coffee on a coaster. She stepped into the room, although the confident stride she showed previously was now gone. Instead, she seemed unsteady on her feet. She was concentrating fiercely on delivering the cup of coffee to Dr. Felson.

“Shut the door please, guard,” said the Doctor. The guard looked up again to the Count who again gestured his consent.

“As is was about to say…,”

“I believe,” interrupted Major Stein, “that I must point out that she does not have the clearance for this briefing.”

“Her clearance,” rejoined Dr. Felson, “is of little concern at this point. If I may continue without further interruption, I was saying that while Ambulamort is dispersed as a gas, its action is actually through skin contact. It can be spread via, say, a glove or a coffee cup. The compound remains active in the environment for fifteen minutes before oxidizing to an inert state. The subject experiences an intense headache and dizziness before all neurological activity shuts down, causing death.”

Edna tried to walk back to the doors, oblivious that they had been shut behind her. She was two steps away from them when she fell boneless to the floor.

“This seems to be nothing more than another generation of nerve gas,” said Gen. Ubell. “While the forces of the Rebel States may not have an antidote for this one, what is so special about this compound?”

“The difference, my Lord, is in the secondary effects.”

One of the guards from the secretary’s door had been checking the woman for signs of life. He screamed in pain and pulled back, his sleeve tattered and bloody. Edna rose to her feet, her face the color of dirty chalk and contorted in rage. She leapt at the soldier, slashing with grossly extended claws in place of fingers. Her victim brought his bayoneted rifle up, but Edna ran upon the blade with no concern. The damage to her gut was extensive, and blood clung to the bayonet, and yet she charged down on the hapless soldier and tore out his throat.

The other soldier opened fire, striking the creature that had been Edna full in the back of the chest. All that it accomplished was get her attention. She turned quickly, sending the embedded rife flying.

“Lamnas!” came the cry from the sorceress. A barely visible ripple of air leapt from her hand as she made a cutting gesture. The spell struck the zombie precisely in the neck, severing the head in the blink of an eye. The headless corpse fell to the ground.

De Loring turned on Felson.

“Necromancy,” she hissed.

“I prefer necrotic revitalization.”

“What is there to prevent our forces from coming under attack from these, creatures?” asked Ubell.

“If you will note, neither I, Doctor Hobbard, nor Doctor Tabbert were attacked. That is because prior to our coming in here, we applied a repellant pheromone compound. My research indicates that a person might as well be invisible while protected. Additionally, our forces can be inoculated to prevent casualties during the brief interval of chemical activity.”

“Thank you very much, Doctor,” said Count Addney. “Are there any questions from the table? No? Then I adjourn this meeting.”

Monday, November 14, 2005

Walking Death, Chapter 2

     Sam stepped out onto the street through the front door of his apartment building. He bid a half sincere good morning to Mrs. Kranski. Not that he had anything against the old lady who lived in the single first floor apartment. Merely that, to Sam’s reckoning, no morning was good until he found the bottom of his first cup of coffee.

For that he always went to Molly’s CafĂ© at the ground floor corner of his building. Molly had perhaps the second best cup of coffee in the city. The first best belonged to an alchemist of Sam’s acquaintance by the name of Akbar al Faruq. Akbar made coffee as if hoping that the drippings would come out gold.

Molly didn’t have such pretensions. She just made the coffee and kept it coming for your nickel. Either way, the difference between them was like the difference between a night at the Plaza and a night at the Plaza with an extra C-note in your pocket.

Molly’s husband Stan worked the grill behind the pass-through window, and Sam knew that his morning eggs and bacon would be passing through it very soon.

A twelve-year-old boy stood on the corner calling out the headlines. Sam thought that it must be one hell of a verge if Detroit was still about to fall off of it. He was picking through a handful of change when a roar overhead startled him into dropping the changed. Looking up, he saw a long formation of eight single engine fighter planes fly over at no more than four stories off the street.

Sam straightened up and looked up and down the street. Other people were doing the same. Most probably remembered the Invasion, and the sound of low flying craft was not one to be recalled fondly.

“Damn fly boys,” muttered Sam as he picked up his change. “No one’s sleeping now.” The kid with the papers merely looked impressed. He was too young to remember the war in all its glory.

Sam folded the paper and stepped into the diner. The air was thick with the scent of coffee and the heat coming out of the kitchen. Despite a brisk breakfast crowd, Sam managed to find a stool at the counter.

“Heya, Sam,” said Molly. Molly came to just under eye level when Sam was seated. She poured him a cup of coffee and handed over a menu. Sam didn’t even blink at the change in routine. Instead, he took the menu into the same hand as he had the folded Imperial Times. Sam always had the same thing each morning. What he didn’t always have was the latest issue of the Liberty Press, the underground resistance newspaper. He made a show of reading the menu while separating the newssheet from the back of the menu. Someone would have to be looking very closely to see that the front page of the Times had changed during the exchange.

“What the hell, Molly, I’ll have the ham steak rather than the bacon today.”

After breakfast, Sam took the paper back to his office.
“So what was all that noise about?” asked Calliope, the secretary he shared with Dr. Moss next door.

“Just a gaggle of flyboys making a nuisance of themselves.”

“Ooh, pilots,” said Calliope with a vaguely hungry look, “they’re always good for a little fun.”

Sam knew that that meant some pilot somewhere was going to get a better time than he could handle.

“Too bad,” Sam thought, “that he’d be waking up and writing it off as a hang over.”

It was three weeks since the Tierney case, and the truce with Boss Ambrosi seemed to be durable enough for Sam to finish what work he could. So long as no one was looking to lean on him, Sam was happy.

Happy, that was, until he opened up the Liberty Press and looked over the coded messages in the back. The codes were arranged in small boxes, and some wag ages before had the brainstorm to label the page “Classified Ads”. The name stuck.

So had Sam’s codename: Quisitor. Sam sighed as he mentally de-coded the message next to his name. Meeting, the next night, back room of a local pub, standard security protocols.

There were a few other names getting call-outs. Sam ran down the list and found the one he was looking for: Lamb. While he couldn’t make out her code, Sam was sure that she would be at the same meeting. The two of them worked most often together, typically as a means of vetting potential recruits into the Resistance.

If the others were also going to be there, then something big was going to happen.

Just what he needed.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Walking Death, Chapter 1

Dr. Frieda Kellner slipped away from the ballroom of the Court of Luxembourg on the balmy August night. Despite her formal court dress, she moved quietly and unobtrusively through the grounds. The guards were less alert than they should have been. Luxembourg was far from any place the Resistance considered important. If anything, their vigilance was focused inward. That vigilance was precisely what Dr. Kellner sought to avoid.

She slipped in between a pair of shadowed topiary. Two guards walked down the path, more interested in the previous night’s football match than in looking for people out of place. Their direction took them toward the palace, destroying their fragile human night vision. Frieda knew that the ork sentries would be the greater threat to her escape.

Dr. Kellner was a member of the Imperial Bureau of Advanced Sciences. Frieda was one of the small circle of scientists who designed the super weapons that aided the victories across Europe and the Americas. Fueled by excelsiol, the fuel derived from pure magical energies, their devices were of a technology that would have boggled the minds of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Her course though the garden was no less roundabout than her path through life. Orphaned young, she made her way through the streets of Berlin avoiding the police and the pimps. She taught herself to pick pockets and slip through second story windows the by the time she was ten. Her burglary was as often to satisfy her curiosity as to find valuables, and books were often among the pilfered items.

When the Resurgence occurred, she found herself facing ever more sophisticated burglar alarms. That set of an arms race of sorts, as she had to devise ever more precise methods and tools to get by them. Her victims of choice became the scientists and universities that practiced the New Science. Each new piece of knowledge was added to her repertoire and refined her devices, while the Empire was driven to distraction by the near constant violations of its security.

Her anonymous career came to an end when she was nineteen when she failed the last part of a burglary, namely the “get out” portion of “get in, get the goods, and get out”. The scientist, Dr. Erick Reinwald of the University of Berlin, had set a surprise gas trap in his safe. After examining the gear Frieda was carrying, he considered himself quite lucky to have captured her, and he made the offer of joining him as a research assistant or be turned over to the Empire as the spy they had been looking for.

Her work in an academic setting made Dr. Reinwald regret that he had not had this prodigy to work with ten years before. She rapidly caught up in the mathematics and old science needed for her position and was soon pushing the boundaries in fields beyond her street experience. Not that her previous skills went dormant, Dr. Reinwald had many rivals in the field and having someone who could break and enter into the most secure facilities was a tremendous edge for her mentor.

It was one of those forays that led her to discover this latest alchemical abomination of the Empire, one that she could not allow to come to pass.

She had made contact with the Resistance a month previous, and the night to make her escape had arrived. No guards were in sight and she made her way down to the parking lot. A Resistance driver should have arrived by then, and she saw him by her car. Unfortunately, there was also an ork guard giving the driver a hard time. All of the drivers were to be kept in the garage. Nominally they were there to get food and drink, but really it was to limit the options of the party’s guests to slip their minders. Frieda’s driver was still in that small gathering; the man in the lot was a second. The guard was threatening to drag the driver to the watch commander as Frieda made her way behind the guard.

“Pardon me,” she said in her native German.

The ork turned to look into the business end of a pump atomizer. Frieda squeezed and a mist of fast acting knockout solution caught him square in the face. A human would have dropped like a stone, but for once an ork was doing a fair impression of a feather. Frieda gave him a sharp chop with the edge of her hand to the ork’s neck just under his jaw line. Only then did the stone-like quality set in.

“Frau Doktor,” said the driver, “we must be going.”

Frieda nodded and entered the held open door.

They changed vehicles three times by the time they reached Marseille the next day. She was dressed in a man’s work clothes as she exited the car. At a dockside warehouse, she was escorted to a body-sized crate that held a small device of her own design. A visibly nervous man handed her a tiny canister of the tremendously volatile excelsiol. Frieda dropped three drops of the precious fluid into the reservoir of the device. To that she added the powdery contents of a vial. The device would refresh the air of the soon to be sealed crate. The powder would be aerosolized by the air generator and would allow her to make her journey in a state of deepest sleep.

“It is time,” she said.

“New York has been alerted and will be awaiting your arrival, Frau Doktor.”

“They had better.”

She climbed into the crate. She contemplated the secret project that had found her conscience after all these years. There were things worthy of war, but the new plans were beyond the pale. Thoughts of the new world occupied her mind when she was given the signal that sealing was complete, and she toggled the device at her side to on.

Her last thoughts were on New York City.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Intangible Assets, Epilogue


Akbar was indeed impressed with the knife. He said that he could use it to make an enchanted weapon that would allow a corporeal user to effect spiritual entities. That end result was enough for him to trade even for Renfroe’s Compendium. Score another one for the Sam Watson not-yet-Memorial Library.

The jewelry I had lifted from my first visit to Allison’s apartment had been enough to get square with my landlord, kick Calliope a nice bonus, take Rachel out to dinner, and keep me off the soup line for a couple of weeks.

All that and one more thing. I walked into Cutler’s alley with a bag tucked under my arm. Removing the flask-like bottle of good whiskey, I pushed power into it. It took a bit more than the cigarettes, but I figured I owed him. The bottle broke easily against the wall, and I carefully set its ghost on a trash can lid.

Cutler was right there to pick it up. He unscrewed the cap and took a sniff and a snort.

“I’ve had better,” he pronounced, “but not recently. Thanks, Watson, you’re a pal.”

“I try,” I said, “I try.”

Intangible Assets, Chapter 19

     Allison stood looking about her burnt out apartment. The firefighters had done what they could, but they didn’t stand a chance against the professionals Ambrosi had sent to torch the place. She remained intangible to the normal senses, but I was still keeping an Eye on her. It was several hours after sunset of the day after my meeting with Ambrosi.
     
     A single candle burned next to me as I sat in a corner. Its light failed to penetrate into the room; my magic turned the feeble light around and into a circle about me. Only darkness and the faint luminescence of Allison’s astral form remained outside of that circle.

     The apartment was a difficult place for Allison to be. Now that I understood her story, I could understand why. I reminded myself to apologize later for the moll crack I had made the first time I was here. The sense of sadness coming off of her would have been palpable to anyone in the room. No one would have needed my senses to be able to tell that this room was haunted. Where before the fire I hadn’t been able to keep my senses active, the desperation of putting the fire out and the fear of the neighbors diluted the resonance of Allison’s murder.

     We had been waiting there for those hours before the other presence made it felt. Arrogance and Hatred imposed itself into the room. Allison turned toward it quickly, lashing out with her spectral stiletto.

     The new form coalesced around its wound. It was a man of maybe thirty-five, although the look of rage on his face made him seem practically ancient. Despite the fine suit and hat, there was little about him that seemed human. His face appeared frozen, as if incapable of holding any other emotion, and at the first manifestation of his form he seemed to be drenched in blood all down the front of his jacket from a gaping wound to his throat. Without his body, there was no pretense as to what Sylvio Tenebrisi was deep down.

I drew the last of the warding spell as he appeared in the room. This time, the ward was set so that he could not get out.

Allison leapt backward away from Sylvio as I drew my gun and pulled the trigger. The report was both silent and deafening at the same time. To any other living person in the building, the round in the gun failed to fire. In actuality, the gun was only loaded with spent brass that I had fired off at a Resistance shooting range. Before I had fired them off, however, I had pushed some of my power into them, much like the cigarettes I had given Stewart Cutler. The crack of exploding powder reverberated through the ghostly aspect of the room, and my theory was born out by Tenebrisi falling to the ground.

He turned at me with a snarl of rage on his face. His move was like lightning; I had failed to consider what not having a body could do for one’s mobility. He was almost as fast as Bloody Giuliano had been in the warehouse.

I did learn another lesson very quickly after that. I learned that what my instructors had said was true in that looking at the spirit realm makes one vulnerable to that realm. He cut at me with his knife and I felt life flow out of my arm as I missed the clean block.

Tenebrisi had forgotten about Allison at this point, and she made him pay for that sloppiness with a stab to where his kidney once was. Evidently Victor had taught her how to use the blade when he gave it to her.

“Get clear of him!” I told Allison.

She again got clear before I hit Sylvio with a spell of Motion. He went flying back and to my right until he ran up against my ward. Despite the hard slam into the wall, he still managed to keep his feet. He kept his feet until I put a spectral bullet into his leg.

His form and fight went out from under him.

“You have to be a special kind of stupid to be messing with me, flatfoot. Your life ain’t gonna be worth a plugged nickel once my boss hears about this.”

I hunkered down at my spot across the room from him. Allison came over and stood to my left.

“I’d be concerned about that, Sylvio, if your boss didn’t already know about this little set-up here. You have to be the first I’d ever heard of a guy getting sold out by his boss twice.”

The realization crossed his face as the understanding dawned. In truth, he was only half of the deal. The other half was that I got to keep the journal. Ambrosi had been fit to blow a gasket, but then I pointed out that he had deadly blackmail on me. All he had to do was drop a dime on me and my soul would be fueling one of the emperor’s war machines by the end of the week. So rather than doing that, he could let the standoff continue indefinitely. Treaties had been signed on less, and that treaty would be keeping Allison, my friends, and me safe for as long as it lasted.

Tenebrisi did the math, and realized that he wouldn’t be getting out of here as alive as he entered. He leapt at me; the look on his face very reminiscent of the proverbial cornered rat. Again, however, he wrote off Allison as a frail and not a threat. She was in my line before I could get the shot off.

Sylvio’s knife slashed a new slit through Allison’s dress and into her side, but her knife caught him square in the chest. She took him right where his heart should have been, and that was enough.

She leaned into him and said into his ear, “Victor avenged me on you, now I do it for myself and him.”

Sylvio’s face was a mask of confusion. He must have never considered that a woman could ever have been a threat. It had driven him to murder her, and it had led him to die on her blade. The look of confusion faded with the rest of his form. He slowly faded, as if he was retreating into a black mist, and then the rest slid downward like sand through an hourglass.

Allison watched Sylvio disappear. Once he was gone, and there was no doubt that he was gone forever, she looked down at her knife and threw it aside like something evil.

“I don’t suppose I’ll be needing that anymore,” she said.

“I don’t reckon you will, either.”

It was then that I noticed a faint glow growing brighter in the former living room of Allison Tierney. I saw that the light was the perfect source for the sparkle of the sequins of her dress.

“He confessed,” said Allison through a smile and a sob, “thank God, he confessed.”

I couldn’t see anything either in or through the light. It wasn’t my time to know that, yet.

Allison turned after taking two steps toward what awaited her. She was already partly obscured by the glow.

“Thank you, Sam.” She giggled and took a last look about the place. “Help yourself to what you can find. I’m sorry I can’t pay you better.”

“Just go, and be happy.”

“I’ll visit if I can.” With that, she continued walking until she disappeared in the mists. Once she was gone, the light dimmed until I was alone in the burned out apartment.

I lit a cigarette and considered the apartment. Then, I took my handkerchief, pushed a touch of power into it, and used it to pick up her discarded knife. I was surprised it was still here, and I figured that I could get a decent trade from Akbar for it.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Intangible Assets, Chapter 18

     We had a lot to do and not a lot of time to figure out just how to do it.

     There were few options to my situation. I considered, briefly, finishing Marquis Dunkirk’s mission and killing Ambrosi. That would be the path suggested in fables and tales of yore. What those tales never took into account were the dozens of men that the monster could have surrounding himself. Beyond that, there would be no guarantee that the other bosses wouldn’t thank me by rubbing me out on their way to a bloody war over the spoils. The Families might not like each other all that much, but they do have a certain esprit de corps when it comes to outsiders messing with their own.

Second option: make it so that pursuing either Allison or me would not be in Ambrosi’s best interests. I preferred not to use the term blackmail because it sounded so sordid when it was being applied to my actions, but there you have it.

I was going to have to speak with Ambrosi, and that meant I had to make arrangements. More than time and place, just getting the word to him would be difficult. I also needed to find a venue that was secure enough for me to walk away from. The more I thought about it, the more certain the answer became: Tempeste and Club Hades.

I carried the book with me in my pocket as I headed for the club. Calliope called ahead for me, and Tempeste was apparently intrigued enough to grant me an audience. Having my secretary call from a phone booth outside a church to arrange a meeting with the Princess of the Isle of Grey was just another note to the surreal history I had lived over the past week.

     So far as the Fae are concerned, Tempeste is the one in charge in New York City. The Isle of Grey is technically only Manhattan, but Tempeste oversees operations in the other Burroughs as well. Not many mortals know that, and how I came to know it is part and parcel with how I came to the city in the first place.

Samira was at the door to greet me when I knocked. She was dressed casually and didn’t seem to mind that I was there in the middle of the day. The interior of the Club was dim, and the chairs had all been turned over onto the tables. All of the chairs except those at Tempeste’s table. Those were being used by the Mistress of the club and a thin, sallow faced man with wire-rimmed spectacles. A pair of leather bound books sat open between them.

“That’s enough for now. Thank you, Nicolai,” said Tempeste.

I had to do a double take. I hadn’t recognized the gentleman who heads the club’s bartending crew during the evening. It also went to say that I didn’t recognize him as Tempeste’s go-to messenger. Those would be the messages that get delivered via a meaningful item left on your pillow while you slept. He cleared the books away, and I filed away the information that he was also Tempeste’s accountant. I would have hated to get a message from him about outstanding debts. Thank God my landlord doesn’t know him.
“To what do I owe this visit, Sam?” Tempeste asked. She rose from the table to meet my en route. She wore a silver silk blouse and a pair of black pants over her long legs. She always carried herself with the air of one who makes their own rules, and fashion was the least of those. I appreciated the aesthetic, and mentioned as much.

“Thank you, but I doubt that couture is what brings you at this ungodly hour.”

“Ungodly? It is two in the afternoon.”

She smiled.

“Perhaps not for barbarians, but certainly civilized folk prefer the night.”

“And the not-so-civilized in some cases. Say, Giaccomo Ambrosi and Bloody Giuliano.”

“Why whatever do you mean?” She was so clearly enjoying our little game.

“I couldn’t imagine Club Hades being the place it is and not attracting at least a couple of vampires.”

“Vampires? My, that would be scandalous, even if they didn’t advertise the fact.”

“A few prefer to play their cards close then?”

“Oh yes, a few prefer to earn their reputations through more mundane avenues. Business, for instance.”

“The old family firms, I should guess.”

“Certainly. You get all sorts here.”

Samira approached the table and set a Bloody Mary at my elbow.

“I hope you don’t mind,” said Tempeste, “I asked Samira to fix one up for you. You look like you could use one after your adventures last night.”

“You heard about that?” I asked as I held up the drink, as if examining the glass in the light. Instead, I was looking it over with my Sight. No enchantments were noticeable. So it was to be a gift of another nature.

“I’ll let you have that one for passing a small test. Tell me something I already know.”

Interesting game. She wanted to know that I knew something, as opposed to what I knew.

“Alright, how about that Giaccomo Ambrosi is a vampire?”

“And I would know that already?”

“He’s been to the club,” I said, making a broad gesture to take in the environs. “And no one gets in without you learning their natures.” I can’t say just how much that had scared me after the first time I had been there.

She nodded, and I enjoyed the drink. A little light on the Tabasco, but I always took my drinks strong. I didn’t know how much I needed that drink until the first swallow. Leave it to the Fae to get me feeling human again.

“So what is it that you need, Sam?”

“I need one of the private rooms for a very private meeting.”

“I’m sure the Sheraton would have something available for that.”

“Not if one side is very concerned about it turning into a lead swapping party.”

“And I would want such a party happening in my establishment?”

“No, but Ambrosi has done business here before. Your reputation of neutral ground is too useful for him to trash on my account.”

“It would be expensive for him as well, I assure you.”

I nodded over another sip of my drink.

“Something like this could be expensive for you as well,” she said.

I knew that was coming, and there was only one thing that I had to pay her with.

“Then let me tell you the secret that I am counting on to keep me alive.”

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Intangible Assets, Chapter 17

Rachel wanted to take me to Dr. Moss’s office. Dr. Moss had an office on my floor. Our offices connect to a common waiting room, and Calliope handles the phones for the both of us. I was sure that I was going to hear from him about Calliope ditching out in a hurry that day or the day before. I was not sure as to what time it was; my watch got broken early in the interrogation.

We stopped at a greasy spoon for Rachel to call ahead to my destination of choice: St. Mary’s. Rachel would need whatever arrangement had been made for Calliope. As I sat in the car, thinking most for the sake of staying conscious, I figured that it wasn’t the wrong thing to do to send my succubus secretary for help from a particularly powerful man of the church. Both had Allison’s best interests at heart, and I doubted he got too exorcised about her visit. Odd thing about pain, when it hurts to laugh everything seems funny. Anyway, I was planning on bringing another Lilliam for a visit.

We arrived at the church about ten minutes later. I could guess what Rachel was seeing as we stepped out of the car: a shining beacon of divine protection that could fry her on the spot. Just to make matters clear, if anyone came looking for Calliope or Rachel, then I would have been the one doing the frying.

Fr. O’Brian met us in front of the church.

“Mr. Watson, you…”

“I’m OK, father. You should see what I did to the other guy’s fist.”

Rachel leaned in and whispered, “What did you do, spit on it?”

“Maybe,” I answered, “but I think it was on fire with the rest of him at the end.”

“I was going to say,” continued the priest, “that I haven’t seen a mug like that since I was a fighter.”

“They probably didn’t have a division where one guy is tied to a chair.”

“Only after the fight in the ring, and only if the fighter didn’t dive as instructed.”

I introduced Rachel and we headed around the church to the old orphanage in the back. It wasn’t my imagination that Rachel kept me between the church and her during the trip.

“You sent Calliope here?” Rachel asked.

“It was the only place available if Ambrosi’s men tracked me back to the office. This used to be Allison’s parish, and the Father has been as much help as he could be.” And then some, I added mentally.

Our trek ended in an office of the orphanage. The construction of the building as a whole implied an attitude of getting as much shelter as possible, amenities be damned. I doubted that daylight or actual use could have made the place seem hospitable. Charity probably only went so far during the Great War and the Invasion.

The office was a little claustrophobic for five people and the desk, although Allison made room by perching on the desk next to the comb.

We found Calliope and Allison in conversation when we arrived. There was no paranoia this time in the cessation of their conversation. Despite not having seen a mirror, I knew that having one eye open does little for one’s looks.

“Holy Hell,” murmured Calliope.

“Yeah, and I feel like it, too. I’m glad to see that you got out safely.”

“Molly called and told me to beat feet. By the way, Doc Moss wasn’t too happy about my taking most of the day off.”

“Figured. Then again, all I got to do is show up like this and he’ll get the clue.” I found that funny enough to launch into a spasm of coughing.

Fr. O’Brian stepped forward.

“I don’t think that your injuries will wait, Mr. Watson. If you would allow me, I think we are among friends.” He held up his hands to show a soft glow brightening upon them.

The two girls looked uncomfortable.

“Hey, Rachel,” said Calliope, “let’s get scarce. Anything else you need, boss?”

“No, and thanks for getting Allison here. I know how little you liked the idea, and I owe you one.”

“I’ll put it in the ledger,” she said with a smile.

With that, Calliope and Rachel left. I didn’t think that the magic of the place would necessarily hurt them, but I knew that Rachel was particularly sensitive about her mortal seeming being penetrated. So much so that she avoided fights as opposed to dropping the disguise and using the full power of her nature. Holy magic and items dispelled her seeming and those of her sisters, Calliope included.

Once they were gone, Fr. O’Brian laid his hands over my eyes and on my side over the ribs. I felt a touch of the power that he was channeling. It waxed and waned like a tide, only with volition of its own. It touched my aura, and an image of having my credentials checked at a roadblock came to mind. By what grace decided that I was worthy I didn’t know, but the power then surged into my wounds. My breathing eased immediately, and I felt the swellings on my face and torso recede. When the power left, I felt only slightly sore, as if I had just spent a couple of days at rest.

He removed his hand, and I realized that I could see with both eyes again. What I saw was Allison looking positively stunned.

“Father, I am sorry for ever having doubted anything you’ve taught me over the years. I feel like Doubting Thomas all of a sudden.”

Both the Father and I let the observation that it took a healing to convince a ghost of that pass. It seemed a touch classless to me at least.

“Allison, Giuliano wants you because he thinks that you would know where Victor would have hidden the book that Ambrosi wants.”

“Why would he think that I know that?” “Perhaps,” offered the Father, “he thinks that he may have confided aloud after your death.”

“We were honest with each other, but I know that he never knew that I was there.”

“Possible,” I mused, “but kind of a long shot. Allison, you and Victor were known as an item even before the engagement, correct?”

Allison smiled and nodded.

“Definitely, even back when we were kids.”

“That is true,” said the priest, “the two of them were thick as thieves, always up to something. I considered assigning a nun to the two of them on a full time basis on more than one occasion.”

“It is that type of thing I am leaning towards here. Is there some place that you knew, as kids, that if you hid something there you could count on no one else finding it?”

“We had several, here and there. Fr. O’Brian and Sister Ophelia kept finding them, however.”

“We knew about those long before you came along, child.”

“But there was one that was never found out.”

Fr. O’Brian looked surprised at that.

“I thought I knew of every last loose stone in the orphanage.”

“That’s why it worked, because it isn’t on the inside. Follow me.”

She led us upstairs. I had to double back to retrieve the comb the first time. She showed us the way to what Fr. O’Brian referred to as the boy’s dormitory. He gave Allison a glare, and I learned that ghosts could blush.

The dormitory was one large room that I imagined could have held twelve sets of bunk beds. At the far end was an empty doorframe, beyond which I could see a toilet stall. Allison led us to a window.

“Victor’s bed was next to this window.”

She leaned out the empty window and muttered a curse.

“Sorry, Father. I tried to move the stone out of the way. I guess I forgot about that.”

I leaned out the window. The boy’s dormitory was on the third floor. Fortunately I’m not phobic about heights.

“Which one is it?”

“The second from the right, second down.”

“Which right?”

“Looking out.”

I found the loose stone and worked it out. It slid most of the way and then caught a back corner. The result was that the stone hinged downward yet remained secure. It was enough for me to reach my fingers into. I felt something wrapped in an oilskin. Getting a secure grip, I pulled out a rectangular bundle, maybe four inches by six. Father O’Brian and Allison gathered in closely to see as I unwrapped the skin.

Inside was a small journal, leather wrapped and stained from much use. A tarnished brass catch once held the book shut, but it appeared to have been forced upon at one point.

“Let’s get this down to where the light is better,” I said.

“Is this what Victor was killed over?” asked Allison.

“No,” I answered, “this is what he was counting on to keep from getting killed.”

Father O’Brian was looking at me.

“You don’t seem particularly happy to find it, my son.”

“I just can’t help but wonder what is in here that Ambrosi finds so important. The word on the deep dark part of the street is that he is a vampire. Now a days, that might not be enough to hurt him too bad with the Empire, especially with the clout he has on the streets. I can see him easily cutting a deal with the Count just to keep the peace.”

The others lapsed into silence as we entered the office. I sat down on a folding chair and set a lantern to shine over my shoulder. My pessimism was only checked by curiosity as I settled down to read.

That curiosity was rapidly satisfied. Engraved on the frontispiece:

By the Grace of the Sword and Rose Society
The Journal
Of
Albert Marin
Marquis Dunkirk

“Marquis!” I yelped, “Dunkirk was a nobleman!”

And I had thought that Ambrosi’s biggest mistake had been pissing me off.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Intangible Assets, Chapter 16

So that was how I ended up in a warehouse, tied to a chair, getting myself worked over like a rack of ribs in a Count’s kitchen. Even worse, I had yet to spot an opportunity to do anything about it.

“Where is the girl?”

I had lost count of how many times they had asked me that question.

“Where is the comb?”

Ditto.

I wasn’t giving anything up. The Tusk didn’t seem to be getting frustrated. He probably preferred my not answering, because that was when he got to play. And it wasn’t Taps he was playing, or at least not yet.

The Voice was not nearly so happy. He had the Tusk working on me with breaks only for questions and unconsciousness. That I was still breathing was a good sign for all concerned. As opposed to Victor who expired quickly when they put the screws to him. Evidently the Tusk was not part of that interrogation. I imagine that he could keep me going for days. Lucky me.

Carlo took a rest. That meant it was the Voice’s turn.

“I fail to understand your attachment to this matter,” he said. “Ms. Tierney has absolutely nothing to offer to interest a gent. No access to money, certainly no means to offer the more physical interests.”

“I’m just a sucker for a dame with a sob story.”

He gave my response its due consideration of half a second.

“This doesn’t have to continue, Mr. Watson. Give us what we want, and you may go.”

“Yeah, and I promise to never speak ill of your boss, either. I’d put money on you making good on my promise first.”

An opening wasn’t going to happen. I had to take a chance to make one.

“That is,” I said, “if you can actually get back to your boss with something useful this time. Do better this time than you did with Caretti.”

“Shut your trap.”

“And all this time I thought you wanted me to talk. Does your leach of a boss know…?”

That was as much as I was able to get out before he was on me. He gave me a backhand that sent the chair and me flying out of the cone of the light.

“Where is the book?!”

“Ay!” yelled the Tusk, “the boss said that I do the poundin’.”

No doubt, I thought. I thought that Paulie had hit hard, but Giuliano was another weight class entirely. He was moving in on me for more when Carlo got in between.

“The boss said I do the poundin’. He don’t want what happened last time, capisce?”

The Tusk was trying to hold back Angelo “Bloody” Giuliano, Boss Ambrosi’s number-two man.

Focus, focus! I screamed in my mind. I could not lose this chance to unconsciousness. Neither of them was looking at me right then, something that had yet to happen while I was conscious. I focused on the satisfaction of having figured out who the Voice was and tried not to follow too for into the implications of being in the clutches of someone nicknamed “Bloody”. I had landed on my side, my hands hidden from them. A magician can do a lot in that position, and a wizard a hell of a lot more.

I felt around so that I could get at least a fingertip on the hemp rope. Once I found it, I called down an invocation of fire: “Ignis!” No time for subtle, no time for control. The beatings I had taken left me too groggy for anything fine. Fire erupted and swallowed the ropes quickly. Unfortunately, they also seared my skin and scorched the sleeves of my shirt. Before the Tusk turned or Angelo noticed, I caught the flames and hurled them at the back of the Tusk. His clothes leapt into flames, and his shriek only died out after he fled from the warehouse.

Angelo only caught a portion of the flames, staggering back and beating at his suit. I took the opportunity to disappear into the shadows. Once I was out of sight, I slipped my ring onto my finger. Thankfully, they had not recognized it as a weapon. Their loss.

The Tusk was outside, so that left Bloody Giuliano. Looking around, I saw that I was roughly in the middle of the warehouse, slightly behind where I had been tied up. I couldn’t see the end of the warehouse that had been behind me for all of the palates and boxes. I headed deeper into the boxes and took stock of myself. The glaringly obvious was that I was a physical wreck. If I had more time, I could probably find a bone or two that didn’t hurt. My hands were also burnt red, but I could handle that for now. After the Fire invocation, I didn’t have much stamina left for many more castings. I’d have to make them count.

And the surest way of making them count would be to get my gun. Since I had to guess, I figured that they would have kept my piece on the table that Giuliano had been standing by most of the time Carlo had been working on me.

I crept back to the edge of the crates, and looked across the thirty feet between the gun and me. Way too much open space, especially if Giuliano had a piece. Well, if the flat foot can’t get to the gun, let the gun come to the flat foot. I cleared my mind except for the image of my squeezer and the incantation of motion repeated over and over again. Using motion for this is doing it the hard way, but I had never gotten to any lessons on Space. Remember, battlefield, not intelligence.

I opened my eyes when I felt the familiar weight settle into my hand. I almost smiled until I saw a dark blue blur pass into the aisles of crates on my right.

“Nice trick, shamus,” called Angelo from somewhere behind me. “Looks like you’re packing more than the typical flat foot.”

“That’s why I’m the detective, Bloody. I already had your boss figured for being a vampire.”

The quiet sound of air very briefly disturbed sounded in the distance, and Angelo’s voice came from a new quarter.

“You know, I’m sure that we could work something out. The boss could make the life of someone with your skills very comfortable.”

He was somewhere else by the time he finished his offer. He was just too damn fast. I could squeeze off a round where he was only to find him someplace else by the time the bullet got there. I had one chance, anticipation. Calliope might not be telepathic, but I can no in a pinch. And this was a pinch.

I reached out and found him; he was the one slightly more complex than the rats. When I tried to make contact, I ran right into a dead wall.

“Oh ho!” he laughed. “Another trick, Watson?”

Damn, tipped him off. Always the danger. His mind was just not right, aside from being that of a sadist. It was a mind in a dead brain. It made it too easy for him to block me. I had to force him to crack in far less time than they took for me. Then something occurred to me.

“So you’re a leach too?” His shield recoiled at that. Evidently he didn’t like that word. “You were a little slow on the uptake earlier. I don’t need the comb, or the girl. I already have the book.”

Panic. In that one instant, he almost broke. One more push.

“Everything Dunkirk had on Ambrosi. Funny thing, you weren’t even mentioned. So much for the reputation.”

Bastard!/Go left. I got an image of an intersection behind me and to my right. I spun around the corner and fired two shots at the empty air. He was not there on the first pull, but he was for the second. He staggered back as I kept shooting, two more to the chest and two more to the head. It wouldn’t keep him down, but I wasn’t yet willing to wing killing a made man. Not without what must have been the journal of Albert Dunkirk, Monster Hunter.

“Sam, are you in here?”

Rachel? What was she doing there?

“Over here, Rachel,” I said as I stepped out from the maze of crates.

My step turned into a stumble as she raced across the floor to hold me up.

“Nine hells, Sam. I just can’t leave you alone.”

“Nope. I just go getting beat up and shooting made men in the noggin.” I pointed back where I left Angelo.

That startled her.

“Who?”

“Bloody Giuliano.”

She let out a breath.

“Nothing permanent then.”

I gaped at her.

“You knew?”

“It’s my job to know, and that is kind of a first thing you notice type of thing.”

“We still have to do something with him. He saw me using magic.”

“Too late for that.”

I looked back where she was looking. Nothing.

“How’d you find me?”

She gave me her best innocent look, and started helping me toward the door.

“Oh, a little bird with a square jaw and blond hair was telling some friends at Armstong’s about the private dick Angelo was putting the screws to down here. He said something about the detective saving one of his boys from getting run over during the chase. I figured that had to be you, so I headed to the docks where he said Angelo was. I figured I had the right place when I saw a flaming ork jump off a pier.”

By that time we had gotten out to my car. I let her drive, I wasn’t in a mood for a fight right then.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Intangible Assets, Chapter 15

I had a lot to think about as I headed for the office. My mind was so busy that I forgot one of the basics: Stay alert.

The oak shavings were the clincher. There was one reason for a monster hunter to be carving and it was not artistic. He chose oak for his stakes. While wood in itself wasn’t anything in particular to demons, it was very handy when a sharp piece crowds in on a vampire’s heart. Oak, or any other deciduous tree, additionally lacked the eternal life aspect of evergreens. Of course, I never understood why a tree that seems to die every year yet come back to life was a better symbol, but art and folklore are two things that seldom remain literal.

Parking was as bad as always, so I had to walk a couple of blocks back to the office. My route took me past Molly’s. It was nearly noon, and lunch seemed a damned good idea.

I took my seat at the counter and Molly was right there with a cup of coffee. Molly was a plump, middle-aged Irish woman. I had yet to visit the diner and find her either not there or not cheerful.

Her smile never faded as she said, “Don’t look around, Sam. There have been some men watching your office most of the morning.”

I doctored my coffee so as to keep myself from turning. Instead, I tried for a look in the mirror behind the counter.

“Imperials?” I asked.

“No, too well dressed to be plainclothes.”

Yet another lady looking out for me. Molly does it for everyone; it was simply her nature. She was also my contact with the Resistance. Her code name was Mother Hen.

“I need to make a call,” I said.

“I already called Calliope. She said that she was going to take a friend to church. She didn’t sound too happy about it.”

I nodded. Like I said, Molly took care.

“Maybe they haven’t made me yet. Backdoor?”

“Over by the phone, but you knew that already.”


I made a show of dropping a nickel (I’d be damned if I ever called it five pfennig) on the counter. Molly may have been great for information and local surveillance, but she was not a fighter. Hopefully I hadn’t them off about her role in my subsequent plan.

I looked out the front widows via that mirror behind the counter. I saw ground pounder and the ork from outside of Dunkirk’s apartment. Not good. This time, I recognized him, Carlo Tuskoni. It also meant that the stakes had been upped. Ambrosi knew that I was pursuing the secret that he had killed Victor over.

I had to be quick if I was going to disappear out the back door. That, and lucky.

To say that luck is fickle is to say that a two by four to the gut can wreck your whole day. Sadly, I was reminded of both as soon as I exited the back of the diner.

When I looked up, I saw Paulie hefting the lumber like a Louisville Slugger.

“Hello, shamus.” There wasn’t room in his voice for more scorn. He also kicked me in the ribs to make his point.

I didn’t feel hitting the trashcan or the rubbish spilling over on me, but I did wonder at how well he spoke despite the broken jaw I had given him.

“Boss wants you alive, but I can tender you up some.”

“What in Sam Hill is going on here?!” cried Molly who was sticking her head out the back door.

It was the opening I needed. I didn’t like his jawing. A milk bottle had fallen out of the trashcan and lay barely out of reach. Without time to physically grab it, I put a hefty dose of Motion behind it and sent it into Paulie’s face. I couldn’t tell if his jaw broke again. The breaking glass was loud enough, as was Paulie’s scream as the glass slashed his face.

I climbed to my feet as I saw Big scout and The Tusk round the corner. They were cutting me off from my office. Not that there was anything there that would help me out of the jam, but it would be a defensible position at the least.

I took the only option still available and ran down the alley. Molly’s building ran all the way to the street with a fence cutting the length in half that I would have to deal with.

It was hard enough to run after the kick Paulie gave me, and the climb was even worse. I had just gotten one leg over when a board exploded as if the brick that had hit it had been fired rather than thrown. I looked back behind me to see Big scout picking up another brick. It was only luck that I dropped to the other side of the fence before the thrown brick took my head off. Big scout had thrown it high and tight enough to make Ty Cobb proud.

Despite landing on my feet, I still winced at the pain in my ribs. There were even more reasons to run now, because the pace that big scout put on the bricks let me know that he and Paulie had the same coach. Big scout and The Tusk would not need as much time to go through the fence as I needed to go over it.

Behind me, I heard, “… wants him alive.” More like, “… wants him dead later,” I thought.

There was another twenty yards between the street and me when a car pulled across the mouth of the alley. Ground pounder got out of the Duesenberg and leveled a gun from over the fender.

“Grab air, flat foot!”

I flinched for a brief moment, and then kept charging. Ambrosi wanted me alive, and I didn’t think that ground pounder would risk a shot with his boys down range. I had to time it right. Foot to the fender, foot to the hood, foot to ground pounder’s chin. Another brick went whistling past my ear as the kick landed. I hit the ground hard as the brick found a home through the driver’s window of a car motoring along the other side of the street. My leg gave under me when I landed putting me right next to the insensate ground pounder. I had the ground’s eye view of the stricken car wandering across the median, and of the car forcing a cargo truck to swerve to avoid it. The swerve took it right at where the goon and I were sprawled on the street.

My kick left ground pounder loopy, and he wasn’t in a mood to fight me as I got a bouncer’s grip on him and dragged him out of the way of the oncoming truck. He screamed as the truck’s fender caught his ankle, but better that than the rest of him. By then, the truck had taken the side of the Duesenberg. Pity. The good news was the collision drove the car sideways into the alley, blocking off all the more solidly the mouth of the alley. That bought me a moment or two as not even the dhampyric strength of big scout or the Tusk’s orc might would allow them to move the stricken car, and I intended to make the best use of that time.

I took off across the street and down the alley. Heading down the street would do me no good. I had one advantage over the goons, and it was one that was less useful to me the more witnesses there were around. In this neighborhood, they would probably get more help from the cops than I would. Authority would not be my friend.

My mind was running through the options for havoc that I might throw at them when the Empire State Building landed between my shoulders. At least that is what it felt like. The impact sent me sprawling, and the first thing I saw in front of me was a car’s headlamp, Duesenberg if I wasn’t mistaken, spinning to a rest a few feet in front of me.

I was struggling to get an arm under me when a pair of very large hands hauled me up by my jacket and shirt from behind. In front of me was the big scout. The look was plenty close enough. He was six feet at the least, with a square jaw that certainly wouldn’t have minded a meeting with the barber’s razor. I might have taken him for a Swede, pale complexion, blond hair under the brim of his hat, and blue eyes. Oddly, his eyes didn’t look like those of a killer. If anything, he looked sympathetic.

“You pulled Stu’s fat from the fryer back there. Figure I owe you one for that.”

“Yeah, you’re a real prince.”

The Tusk gave me a hard shake for that crack. I was soon to learn that he has little to no sense of humor to speak of.

“I just look out for my boys. So, I’ll make this quick.”

He was certainly a man of his word. Even standing right in front of him, I never saw the right cross coming. He connected quite solidly.

Exit light.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Intangible Assets, Chapter 14

I considered pounding on Akbar’s door until he woke up and answered my questions. Then I conceded that is was well after midnights when I had left Club Hades. Waking someone up in the middle of the night was not a recommended practice in the care and cultivation of contacts. Instead I went to my office for some shuteye.

My plan for the next morning was to have a conversation with Akbar al Faruq. Akbar was the proprietor of Akbar’s Emporium of Wonders. He kept the front half of the store filled to the rafters with dusty books, dull brass, and an air of magical power that was tantalizingly felt even by those with mundane senses. The last was an illusion, like perfume in a shop full of old flowers. The illusion was a nice touch, as it wasn’t cast on anything in particular so that nothing sensory was changed about the goods. That way the cheap brass and arcane knock-offs might seem wonderful in the store and yet skirt every regulation on the use of magic in retail. Good thing, too, the Order of Commerce could be every bit as vengeful as the Order of Illumination when they get their dander up.

For anyone with even the most rudimentary Sight, Akbar’s little illusion was a flimsy little thing unworthy of a rank amateur. That opinion, when extended to Akbar and his shop, was exactly what he wanted. Very few who saw through the scam up front kept looking to find the real deal in the back.

Akbar also had the pulse of New York City’s black market in magical goods. He most certainly would have crossed paths with Victor. Even if Victor had not moved the hunter’s possessions through the Emporium, Akbar would know what hit the market shortly after the hunter’s death.

“I assure you, Madam,” said Akbar in full voice worthy of a bass soloist, “that what you hold there is a the Amulet of Dabhydh, an item that will protect you from hurtful eyes and spiteful words.”

It was only courteous of me to stifle the laugh I felt at the line he was giving the lady. Courteous, and that wrecking someone’s deal would not dispose that someone toward helpfulness later.

Akbar completed the transaction and turned toward me.

“Mr. Watson! How good it is to see you again!”

Akbar had a voice that was born for carrying across chaotic bazaars. In an over packed New York storefront it was more than adequate.

He closed the distance between us to shake my hand. I was amazed at how he could navigate the his considerable girth between the close spaced shelves.

“Good morning, Akbar.”

“May I offer you some coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

It was one of the few surprises I enjoyed learning in my time in the city: you can count on an alchemist to brew a mean cup of Joe. This one could at least. Akbar practiced alchemy, I always heard it as al-Khemy from him, and was probably the best the city had to offer.

Akbar escorted me to a small room just behind the shop. A door in the back presumably led to his laboratory, but I had never been invited in, so I could not be absolutely certain. A staircase crowded the small room. The remaining space was covered over in fabrics and cushions around a small, circular table inlaid with various Arabic and Hebrew characters bearing a small brazier.

“Aziz!” bellowed Akbar. He might as well have conjured the lad he appeared so quickly from the back room. “Mind the store. Keep anyone who comes in entertained until I return.”

“New apprentice?” I asked.

“A nephew, he has just arrived from Istanbul. Please, be seated.”

I undid the button on my coat, laid my hat next to me, and settled into the cushion. Akbar took in my gun with a glance and without a word. The black market was a rough business. Besides, we were in his domain, and he was the one with the power there. My defense was that it was in his best interest not to get a reputation for offing visitors. The arrangement worked well enough over several deals to where I considered Akbar something of a friend.

“Tell me, Sam,” said Akbar as he poured two small cups of coffee from an ornate samovar, “how are those lovely ladies of yours?”

“They are doing well.”

“That says to me, ‘much the same’.” He gave me an appraising look. “Such a waste.”

“You’re always on the lookout to use that line.” He enjoyed letting me know what extra information he could get out of my responses. Made me glad he was on my side. I took a sip of the coffee, and smiled. Now that Joe was right.

“And I shall continue to do so until you change the situation. Two lovely ladies, absolutely devoted to you, and yet you abstain.”

I shrugged.

“I’m bucking for sainthood.”

“I tell you that there are far better matters to occupy a man’s days.”

“And by saying ‘days’ you really mean ‘nights’.”

Akbar chuckled deep in his gut.

“And that tells me that there is some hope for you yet.”

He set aside his coffee picked up a jar bearing a hinged lid. He held up the jar and a small spoon, and he looked up at me.

I nodded, and he poured a small spoonful of purple crystals into the brazier. Light blue smoke billowed outward. Akbar reached into the spreading cloud and snapped his fingers. I heard nothing. The smoke filled the room with a sweet scent reminiscent of fine tobacco and amber. Akbar snapped his fingers again, and that time I heard it.

It was during an earlier meeting that he first explained that the incense held sounds within its bounds. It was also the sign that the small talk was over and it was time to get to business.

“So,” he asked, “what is it you are seeking?”

“First of all, a top off of this coffee.”

“Of course, and if there is a first, then it stands to reason that there shall be a second.”

“Certainly. The second is that I need to know about a quantity of specialty items hitting the market a little more than two months ago.”

Akbar’s brow furrowed and he brought a finger to his lips.

“Specialty in what way?”

“Hunting. Supernaturals,” I added the last to interrupt the question he had forming.

“I believe I know what you are asking about. Why your interest?”

“I need to know what he was hunting.”

“That knowledge did not seem to do him much good. Regardless, the hunter had a number of small Christian relics, several ampoules of water, and a small collection of books. And that was just what my contact had to offer.”

“Would that contact have been Victor Caretti?” I asked.

Akbar gave me a speculative look.

“Sam, you know that I work in the strictest confidence with my clients.”

“If it was Caretti, then I would say that you don’t need to worry too much about losing any business.”

“Caretti was an agent for his patron, a patron that I do not wish to risk losing. Particularly the quality merchandise.”

“Then Victor had a good reputation for selling quality?”

Akbar considered.

“Yes.”

“So this hunter’s gear was the right stuff?”

“I should say it was. Three of the four relics he had were authentic, however minor, and the fourth had enough resonant faith to pass. The water was sanctified and potent enough to have been from the River Jordan itself, and I would be hard pressed to part with the tomes.”

“What was his choice of reading material?”

“Your basics, Malleus Maleficorum, The King James Bible, and so on. The Malleus was a seventeenth century reproduction, but breathtaking nonetheless. The prize of the collection would have to be Renfroe’s Compendium of Nocturnal Horrors. Very rare, and allegedly quite accurate.”

“What would the table of contents look like?”

“Ghosts, spectral visitors, succubi, vampires, and dhampiri.”

“Do you have it?”

Akbar leaned back.

“Aah, yes! And before you ask, no, you may not take a look. You and your accursed wizard memory.”

“What are dhampiri?”

“You are not familiar? Perhaps I should make you buy the book.”

“Cut me some slack, Akbar.”

Akbar thought for a moment.

“Very well, it is but one of many interests the tome holds.”

I waved a circle with my hand to hurry him along through the sales spiel.

“Dhampiri are half-vampires. Either they were born as such as the result of the mother being attacked by a vampire, or by the reversal of the typical order of vampires drinking human blood, namely humans drinking vampire blood. The blood acts like a potion that grants great strength and vigor without the vulnerabilities of vampirism. The cost of the practice is that the blood is addictive. For that reason, dhampiri are almost always bound to the service of their patron vampire.”

I thought back to Paulie and the flight I took in Allison’s apartment. Blinking was still an annoyance.

“What else beyond the esoteric?” I asked.

“Nothing much worth speaking of, aside from being nice antiques. A short sword and a silver cross were the only things of real value.”

I had a feeling deep in my gut that I knew where the question of what Dunkirk was heading, but assumptions can get you killed in this here Empire.

“One more thing,” I said. “I have something I found at the hunter’s residence.”

I opened my handkerchief and showed him the wood shavings.

“I need to know what type of wood this is.”

Akbar gave me an incredulous look.

“It is clear you have mistaken me for a gardener, Sam.”

“Just think of it as an unknown substance. And since when have you gone looking down on wood?”

“It is not a pure element, but I might be able to learn what you need. This should only take a few moments.”

Akbar disappeared into the back. I poked around the front under the watchful eyes of Aziz. Some of the knick-knacks had some flash value, but I wanted to get my hands on that book.

My time in the Corps was designated for warfare. It came from having a knack for Fire greater than my skills in Thought or Space. We spent more than a few months training in mundane methods of killing the not mundane, and what folklore I had absorbed gave me the answer that I was looking for Akbar to confirm.

It only took him ten minutes to return with his answer.

“It is oak.”

I nodded.

“One last thing, how do I kill a ghost?”