Monday, August 29, 2005

Intangible Assets, Chapter 3

I took my hand off the gun. The plain lead I had loaded wouldn’t do me any good against a ghost. The fact the she and the door seemed to politely ignore one another made the point clearly enough for even the blue boys down at the precinct house. Rather than the gun, I picked up the ring from the same drawer and nonchalantly slipped it on my finger.

Whoever she was, she was a looker, a tall brunette with her hair done up. She wore a red sequined dress that shimmered in patterns that had nothing to with the physical lighting of the room. Her form was indistinct, as if the ten feet between us was filled with a heavy fog.

I couldn’t say that I knew much about ghosts. My training with the Order focused on turning people into ghosts and very little pertaining to the pre-made variety. No point in letting her know that though.

I hoped that my poker face had held, and I asked, “Is there something I can do for you, Miss?”

She gave a start at my question.

“You can see me.” Her voiced was vaguely muffled, the sound having as much difficulty as the light crossing the distance, but the relief came through clearly enough.

I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms, keeping my ring concealed under my left elbow.

“I’ve got a knack for it. Please have a seat.”

She looked at the chair as if she was struggling to remember just what she was to do with it. She sat down tentatively until she was certain that she wouldn’t fall right through. Once settled, her demeanor changed into an air of poise as easily as slipping on a mink stole.

“I suppose we can start with your name,” I prompted.

She closed her eyes as if searching her memory.

“Tierney, Allison Tierney.” Had she still been one of the breathing types, that pause would have been enough to set off every alarm in my head. I gave her a little benefit of the doubt, my education did include that ghosts can be as mentally hazy as they were physically. The benefit was only slight, I couldn’t be sure if she really was that unsure or if she was playing off the reputation. Call me suspicious, but being wary when approached by an unknown supernatural had become a survival tactic.

“And what can I do for you, Ms. Tierney?”

“I think someone is trying to kill me.”

I was proud of myself for not letting a laugh pass through my lips at that. It would have been even better if my face hadn’t betrayed my reaction.

“Yes, Mr. Watson, I know that I am dead,” she spat, “but that does not change the fact that I have been attacked since I died.”

“Attacked how?”

“It was a black shadow, it might have been a man in a dark coat, but I do remember claws. It would come out of nowhere and tear at me. I could not remember anything after that except coming to in my apartment.”

“Do you have any idea why someone would want you, um, gone?”

“No. I don’t know why, but there is so much I can’t remember about before.”

I nodded as if I understood. What I actually knew about ghosts I could write on an index card and leave enough room for the Gettysburg Address. While I was wrapping my mind around dealing with an amnesiac ghost, she started to fade away.

“Please, help me.” Her voice sounded infinitely tired and distant.

“No, wait!” It did me no good as she vanished. “Aw, hell.”

There was no sign that this case could so much as cover my retainer. I could rationalize that it was a case and could bring in some income. I wasn’t kidding myself; I could never turn down a dame in trouble. I had a name and a phone book. I’ve had cases that had less to work with. Too bad so few of them ended successfully.

I started cleaning up the cards off the floor. I turned over the face down card in the hat.

The Three of Swords.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Intangible Assets, Chapter Two

The sun was setting over New York City and I was sitting in my office. The day had been the type of hot and muggy that just drained the energy right of you. Obviously it did that to any potential clients, because the only shadows to darken the doorstep of Sam Watson, Private Investigations that day belonged to me, my secretary Calliope, and the particularly obnoxious imp that delivered yet another past due rent notice.

The only things that I had managed to do that day had been to add sweat stains to a once reasonably clean shirt and find the least ineffective spot for a small electric fan.

Calliope opened the door to my office.

“Anything I can do for you before I head out, boss?”

Even after three years she can completely derail my train of thought by just entering the room. This entrance merely put a pause in my absently flipping Tarot cards at my upturned hat.

Yes, I thought, tell me how you can make a heat-limp cotton sundress look like the height of Paris fashion. She stood in the doorway looking in at me. Her blonde hair was done up in ringlets that defied both gravity and the humidity. She only stood about five-four, but she had curves that were truly treacherous; hard to notice at first, but easy to go over the edge when you did. Her eyes were as wide and blue as Heaven, and lips as red and smoldering as Hell. The dress she wore was less at both neck and hem than decorum would dictate for a proper young lady, a role that Calliope had never made any pretense of observing. The heat must have been truly fierce if she had managed to wear that dress on the street and into the building without my having to drive out a gaggle of Imperial doughboys.

“No, go on and have a good time,” I said.

“Sure will. You should try it some time.” With that she turned, flashing a scandalous bit of thigh.

She had been gone for a few seconds by the time I got my mind back into even keel. I scolded myself for becoming so distracted by her. Heh, its not as if I have anything else to occupy my mind, I thought as I flipped the next card at the hat.

It sailed well wide of the mark and landed face-up, The Lovers. Typical.

The program on my neighbor’s wireless changed over from a cricket match to the news. The lead was once again the imminent capture of the city of Detroit, last holdout of the rebellious colonials east of the Mississippi River. The Ministry of Information had been running that same headline on and off for the past month. That they never seemed to get around to announcing the consummation of the immanent victory said more than any honest report of the locals beating back the attackers would have.

I had heard that the auto-works up there had never re-tooled after the Allies got steamrollered in the Great War. Not that the armored cars and tanks they had produced en-masse had helped much when the Imperial Order invaded the States. What we had needed was magical might, much like what the Germans had unleashed during the war in Europe.

My thumb idly rubbed the base of my right ring finger, the place where I would wear my ring when I needed to reach into that bag of tricks. I had been part of that effort, part of the Army Corps of Sorcerers. They trained me to be a wizard and to cast spells on the battlefield. I learned to use the power that had ripped across the face of the earth back on the Winter Solstice of 1915.

That battlefield never came for me. Magic is a subtle way, and the Imperial Order honed their subtleties while we prepared to face the brute force they had already shown the world. They found and subverted those who would sell their country out for a title and a position of influence. Before the first shot was even fired, the Order knew the location of every ship at sea, all of our ray-gun emplacements, and every senior military commander that had not been subverted to their side. Most damning was how the wards against the Emperor’s Demonic Legions were never erected. The Army Corps of Sorcerers had been turned at the very top and subsumed into the Order of Illumination. Every American mage either swore fealty to the Emperor, ran for their lives, or died.I chose the second option. I had never been to New York, so no one would think to look for me here. The Order taught that Names have power, so I chose my Nom de Guerre after old good ol’ Uncle Sam and Dr. Watson from the Doyle stories. I learned patience and how to find information that doesn’t want to be found in my time with the Order. I figured that I could make a go of it as just another private detective in the big city.

The plan was working quite well, except for the making a go of it part. I managed to keep a couple of steps ahead of my dwarf landlord, and why Calliope stuck around despite her paychecks sometimes having more rubber than Goodyear was beyond me.

The next card flew off the deck in my hands. It made a graceful arc through the air and landed neatly in the hat. The Wheel of Fortune. Not that I couldn’t use a change in luck. The card after that also landed in the hat, but face down. I contemplated turning it over, but I was interrupted by a twinge in the back of my mind.

A lot of people talk about that feeling of being watched or the sensation of a goose walking over their graves. The Order trained me to harness that sense, to call upon it with a little bit of concentration. More than that, I learned to make wards that alerted me when anything with more mojo than a book of matches crossed them. The twinge I felt was the ward telling me that something out of the ordinary had just crossed my threshold.

I opened the drawer that held my gun when she walked through the door.

Walked through it without opening it.