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
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?”


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.


“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.


“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?”