Read excerpts from Katharine Kerr’s Science Fiction/Fantasy works below:
The night lies misty over Salisbury plain. Every now and then the moon breaks free of scudding clouds and gleams on the fields that lie either side the road up from Bournemouth. Already the sleek grey limousine has glided through the edge of New Forest. When it sped along the by-pass around Salisbury, the driver, Sergeant Potter, saw a glimpse of the cathedral spire under the moon as the road turned. Whether his important passengers in the back seat, invisible behind smoked glass, saw the spire or even cared he does not know. They have left the ruins of Roman Sarum behind, too, and now run free through farmland, rolling over the downs. Here the road runs past Bronze Age tumuli and the barely visible scars left by cursi and avenues, but Potter knows little and cares less about the Bronze Age or the Romans either. To him Salisbury Plain means what’s left of Britain’s army, the artillery ranges and the infantry base, the airfield that shelters the new StarHarriers.
Although Potter of course knows where they are going, he hasn’t the slightest idea of why, in the middle of the night, he is driving the prime minister, two generals, and the Duke of Kent to Stonehenge. The only logical reason he can come up with is that the entire government has gone daft, but he would prefer to think otherwise.
At the crossroad, as he turns right and heads down the last slope, Potter can see the ancient stones, standing behind their new plastiwire barrier, which shimmers and gleams in the moon-shot mist. Not far from the circle, across the access road and just past the refreshment kiosks and souvenir shops, stands a pale structure. In the moonlight it seems to be made of several tea tents clustered together. Potter wonders if he’s the one going mad. Behind him, a tap on the glass — the general’s aide-de-camp slides open the communication panel.
“Just pull into the regular lot, sergeant,” the lieutenant says. “Down at the far end.”
“Very good, sir.”
Potter pulls into the last space at the end of the asphalt strip, then slides out of the car to open doors. Out of the circling ditch materialize sentries in field uniform, rifles at the ready. The lieutenant barks a hasty password. The sentries nod, one salutes, they stand waiting while the generals and the Duke get out. The prime minister needs a little help; Potter smells brandy hanging about him like perfume.
“Wait with the car,” the lieutenant says
His cargo delivered, Potter leans against the bonnet and watches the Important People clamber down the side of the wet ditch, re-emerge safely on the other side, and hurry toward the collection of tea tents with two of the sentries trailing behind. This close Potter can see that yes, tea-tents are exactly what they are, pink and white striped pavilions, lit from within — a cool white light very different than the usual field lanterns and electric torches. The last sentry clambers out of the ditch and strolls over to help him guard the limousine. Potter jerks a thumb at the tents.
The sentry shrugs. Since clouds have darkened the moon, Potter cannot get a good look at his face, but when the man speaks, his voice shakes badly.
“They called us out of barracks to put the bloody things up,” the sentry says. “Emergency, they told us. Only thing they could find were bloody tea tents. Ours weren’t big enough, they said. Hurry it up, lads. Then they hauled something in on a couple of lorries. Something big. Looked like a tank, maybe, wrapped in canvas. A couple of squads put up another tent around it. To hide it, like, before the wraps came off.”
“Missiles? Something the sodding ‘Merrkans don’t want us to have?”
The sentry shakes his head no. Potter waits.
“After they had it stowed,” the sentry says in a moment, “The captain sends me up there with a message from Field Command to the colonel in charge. He was inside, you see, the colonel. So I handed it over at the door.” He falls silent.
“Well now, here, if you’re under orders to keep your mouth shut — ”
The sentry shakes his head again. Overhead the moon breaks free and floods them with silver light. Even though he’s a veteran of the Pakistani Border wars, Potter has never seen a man so terrified as the sentry is now.
“There’s these creatures in there,” the sentry says. “With wings. Wearing clothes. Aliens, they must be, from outer space.”
Potter would like to laugh, but he restrains himself in the interests of morale.
“Uh, now here, you’ve had a few, have you? It’s cold out here, can’t say I blame you, and it’s none of my job to report it, anyway.”
The sentry laughs, an unpleasant giggle like a teen-aged girl’s.
“I’m not drunk, and I’m not joking.” The sentry’s voice turns hard with near-rage. “I saw these things, I tell you, a couple of meters tall, they were, and they had wings. Blue and green wings. And they were walking back and forth and talking to the colonel.”
I had just stepped out of the shower when the angel appeared. It stood in the bathroom door and scratched its etheric butt through its billowing white robes.
“Yeah?” I said. “I’m dripping wet, so hurry it up.”
“Joseph had a coat of many colors.” Its hollow voice echoed through my apartment, although the angel itself turned transparent and vanished.
As I dressed, in a tan corduroy skirt and an indigo and white print blouse, I asked myself if real angels itched. It seemed unlikely. Yet I doubted if demons suffered from skin problems, either. Heat rash, maybe. Itching butts — improbable. So, the question became: which side was this apparition on, in the eternal battle between Harmony and Chaos?
My name is Nola O’Grady. I can’t tell you the name of my agency. You wouldn’t believe it if I did. Let’s just say it dates back to the Cold War, when certain higher-ups became convinced that the Soviets were using psi powers against us. The Soviets thought the same thing about us. Neither side had it right, but the paranoia turned out to be useful. Other people — if you can call them people — have given the Agency plenty of business over the years, which, incidentally, gives me a job. I had come home to San Francisco as an Agency operative, investigating a Chaos breach.
I grabbed an apple for breakfast and ate it while I waited for the N Judah streetcar. I stood on the concrete platform with a small mob of bleary-eyed office workers and college students, the majority of whom were drinking coffee from those fancy insulated paper cups. In a gloomy Tuesday mood, still a long way away from the weekend, most aimlessly watched the cars whizzing past us on the street. A few, like me, studied the weather. The night’s fog was just beginning to pull back from a sky that promised to be sunny later. Although I kept a lookout, I saw no more angels in the silvery mist.
When the streetcar finally arrived, however, St. Joseph di Copertino was holding a seat for me next to a nice-looking blond guy in jeans and a leather jacket. To be precise, the saint was floating with his legs crossed under him above the seat. Although no one else seemed to see him, the other boarding passengers walked right past the empty seat, most likely for no reason they could have voiced. When I sat down, St. Joe obligingly floated higher and hovered over the back of the seat ahead. The good-looking guy next to me smiled a little and looked at me sideways, waiting for me to break the ice, but saints always come first.
“What are you doing here?” I said. “I’m not an astronaut.”
St. Joseph of Copertino smiled his trademark gape-mouthed grin and disappeared. The streetcar started up with its usual jerk and whine. It’s gonna be one of those days, I thought. The guy next to me had stopped smiling. He was trying to merge with the wall.
“Sorry,” I said. “I see saints now and then. This one happened to be the patron of astronauts, and so I wondered — ”
He gave me the blank stare that people cultivate in a city known for its crazies and weirdoes. Scratch this one, I thought. I’d learned, over the years, that I needed to let prospective friends and especially interested guys know what I’m like right off the bat. It saved hysterics later. Still, I wondered why St. Joseph di Copertino had appeared just then, until I remembered he’s also the patron saint of fools. Maybe he was making a general comment on my current love life, though the patron saint of zero, nothing, nada would have been more appropriate.
My cover story office, Morrison Marketing and Research, sat on the top floor of a 1930s building south of Market Street, a believable location for a low-level business, and pure WPA – the clunky stone contruction, the neoclassical pilasters, the dark wood interiors. I chose that office partly because the other suites on that floor stood empty, probably because of the view, or its lack. The windows gave you a good look at the onramps to the freeway leading to the Bay Bridge.
Still, it offered advantages, its age for one. In my small suite the wood-framed windows opened to let in the outside air and the vibrations the air carries. I had a wood desk and a wood file cabinet, plus a couple of chairs for the non-existent customers and a big potted plant. The expensive furniture the Agency had provided had gone into the office behind mine, the one for my non-existent boss.
I wrote up the morning’s two sightings and sent them off to the Agency via email using the Agency site, the heavily encrypted TranceWeb, then took my standard morning walk. I was on Chaos Watch, which means you do a lot of looking around, preferably in as random a manner as possible. Chaos eruptions follow no schedules, no reasons, no logical connections — if they did, they wouldn’t be chaotic, would they?
I used a procedure the Agency calls Random Synchronistic Linkage to determine my routes. In laymen’s terms, I threw dice. You take a map of the city and pin-point where you are, then assign the numbers two through twelve to the directions all around you. Throw the dice and follow their lead, just so long as the chosen direction doesn’t take you into the bay or onto a freeway without a car.
I set out on foot into a day turned bright and sunny, though still cool from the halo of spring fog wrapping the horizon. Up the concrete canyon of Montgomery Street, past the new glass and steel towers and the old marble fronts where bankers work their legal mayhem on the body politic, out again into the sunlight. At the corner where Montgomery heads up a steep slope toward Russian Hill, a grey-haired woman stood waiting for me. I recognized her pink and black tweed Chanel suit first — vintage Fifties — with the pointy-toed black patent shoes and matching handbag. She waved.
“Aunt Eileen,” I said. “Fancy running into you! I take it you saw me here in one of your dreams.”
“Of course, so I came down to meet you.” She wagged a finger at me. “Really, Nola darling, it was awfully mean of you to come home and never call.”
“I don’t want Mother to know — ”
“Not one word. I promise.”
She smiled. I smiled.
“And the rest of the family?” I said.
“Doing well, most of them — ” She let the words trail off.
“How’s my little brother?” I could guess at the reason behind her reluctance.
“Still trying to transform himself.” Aunt Eileen rolled her eyes heavenward. “I do not have the slightest idea, not the very slightest, why Michael wants to be a werewolf, but he does.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“After what happened to Patrick, you’d think he’d have learned, but no.”
“Let’s not talk about Patrick. I don’t want to cry in public.”
“I understand, dear.” Aunt Eileen paused, glancing around her. “I don’t think anyone can overhear us.”
Traffic was rushing by, the wind was sighing through the concrete canyon behind us. I let my mind go to Search Mode:Danger and felt nothing.
“I don’t think so, either,” I said. “Why the secrecy?”
“Well, I’ve been having a really awful dream about you, and you never know who’s where.” She glanced around for a second time. “In the dream someone wants to kill you.”
When she comes out with statements like that, I’ve never known her to be wrong. “Uh, where is this supposed to happen?” I said.
“Somewhere in San Francisco.” She lifted one Chanel-clad shoulder in a nervous shrug. “I certainly hope I’m wrong this time. It’s all been very distressing, especially once I realized you’d come home.”
“Can you see what he looks like?”
“No, which is so annoying! He dresses like Sam Spade. He’s in black and white even when the rest of the dream’s in color. Very shadowy. Very Thirties.” She gave me a sad look. “If you’d called me when you got in, I would have told you earlier.”
“I’m sorry now I didn’t. Can I buy you lunch to make up for it?” “Some other day, I’d love that, but I have to go to the dentist.” She wrinkled her nose. “How I hate it, but then, everyone does. I really must run, but I saw you here when I was waking up this morning, and so I thought I’d just catch up with you. You should go to the police about this person.”
“And what am I going to tell them? My aunt had a dream?”
“Um, I suppose they wouldn’t take it very seriously. I do wish you’d get a regular job, Nola. Something safe.”
“It would bore me to tears.”
I had never wanted her to know about my real work, but no one in the family can hide anything from Eileen. If one of her blood relations has a secret, sooner or later she’ll dream out the truth, even when she’d rather not know.
“You always were a difficult child, and in our family, I’m afraid that’s saying a lot.” She rolled her eyes. “Now, you call me when you’re free. Ah, here’s my cab.”
An empty cab was gliding up to the curb. She had luck that way, if you can call it luck. I waved goodbye, then stepped into a doorway to consider. Did I want to continue the dice walk so soon after hearing about this would-be assassin? Possibly my knowing about him had made a synchronistic connection that would lead me right to him, to the detriment of my health.
I turned around and went back to the office.
The answering machine on my desk was blinking when I came in. I kicked off the cheap high heels I was wearing as part of my cover persona, then punched the button on the machine to retrieve a simple message from Y’s secretary. (That’s the only name I have for him, Y, even though he’s been my handler for years.) She told me that her boss wanted to know how the ad campaign for his company’s new dog food was going. Dog food. With an assassin looking for me, that particular bit of code sounded entirely too appropriate.
The Agency loves code. It’s heavy on the secrecy in general, mostly because the higher-ups are afraid that Congress would cut our funding if it ever found out what we do. I don’t even know how large the Agency is or how many other agents work for it, though whenever I’ve needed help, I’ve always gotten it. Code words and handles may keep us separate, but our skills unite us at a deep level and get the work done.
I found a notepad and a ball point pen, then went into the supposed boss’s office, which I’d done up with blue wall to wall carpet, a big oak desk, and a black leather executive chair. I sat down in the secretary’s chair next to the desk and went into trance. In a few minutes Y’s image materialized in the leather chair. I can’t tell you what he really looks like. The image he used back then for these trance-chats radiated pure movie star, the touseled blond hair, the crinkly smile, the blue eyes.
“So what is all this?” I said.
“I have a job for you,” he said. “But you probably knew that already.”
“Why else would you call me?”
“To talk about this alleged angel, for one thing. Seen any more of them?”
“None. They’re probably just the usual visual projections.” I tend to see clues, and I do mean see them.
“That’s the safest assumption, but in our line of work you never know.”
Ambiguity, the bane of my profession — having psychic talents makes the job sound easy. People think that clues should just drop into your lap, but on the rare occasions when they do, they usually mean two or three things at once.
“Any other Chaos manifestations?” Y continued.
I considered telling him about the assassin, but he’d want to know how I knew. I wanted to keep the family out of official business. Sooner or later, the guy from the Thirties movie would make a move or leave a track for me to follow, something I could report to Y as standard information.
“No, none yet,” I said.
“Good. Now, about this job, it concerns an agent from Israel.”
“Holy cripes! Mossad?”
“No, some group we’re not supposed to know about. Now, technically he works for Interpol. Technically. This is all very hush hush, but State called me in.” He paused for a smug smile. “Called me in personally, that is. You know that State doesn’t like asking for our help, but they’ve got good reasons to, this time.”
“Any you can tell me?”
“Sure. This agent is hunting down someone wanted for a couple of murders back in Israel. One of the victims was an American citizen, working for the consular office over there.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice, just as if someone could actually overhear us. “There were circumstances, our kind of circumstances. The agent will fill you in when he arrives.”
“Now wait a minute! I already have a job on hand. Our stringers sent us evidence of a Chaos eruption. Why are you saddling me with some kind of secret agent?”
“Nola.” His image looked at me sorrowfully. “In the service of the Great Balance, everything serves to further. Melodies appear, sing, and twine together. I don’t know why this fellow is appearing at the moment, but he too is a thread in the great web of sapient life, a thread that has crossed our threads. Is it ours to question?”
When Y starts spouting philosophy, arguing gets me nowhere. I did allow myself a vexed sigh, which materialized as a rat skittering around between our chairs. Y never noticed it, and a good thing, too.
“All right.” I surrendered. “How am I going to contact this guy?”
“Openly. He’s going to come to your office on the pretext of hiring the marketing firm. His words to you are ‘prayer shawls’. Yours are ‘four-thirty appointment.’ Got that?”
I could feel my hand writing of its own will. “Got it.”
“Ask him who recommended Morrison Research to him. The right answer is Jake Levi of Sheboygan.”
“Sheboygan? Why Sheboygan?”
“It’s not the kind of name a foreigner could just pull out of the air.”
“That’s for sure. Okay, I’ve got that, too.”
“Good. He has an odd kind of British accent. If the person who contacts you doesn’t, you know what to do with him.”
“Sure do, but I thought you said he was Israeli.”
“He is. His parents emigrated from Britain right before he was born. They must have spoken English at home.”
“Ah. That makes sense.”
He leaned back in the chair a little too far. The line of his image sank into the leather. “Now, be careful with Mr. Ari Nathan. He’s very high up, very well connected, been around a long time, knows everyone.”
I immediately Imaged him as a middle-aged, utterly earnest guy who wore glasses and was losing his hair. Probably paunchy, too, and wearing a rumpled white shirt and a gray suit. Y leaned forward in his chair and considered the extruded image.
“I don’t know what he looks like,” he said. “I’ve never seen a picture of him, and that’s probably significant.”
“All right, don’t worry. I’ll use my Company manners.”
Y laughed at the pun, then withdrew his projection. I banished the image and woke from the trance.
Ari Nathan called early the next morning. He was an Israeli importer, he said, with a line of prayer shawls woven in the Holy Land that he wanted to place in California shops. He had a smooth middle-range voice that did indeed sound British.
“Mr. Morrison has an appointment open today at four thirty,” I said.
“Fine. I’ll take that.”
“May I ask you who recommended us to you?”
“Certainly. Jake Levi of Sheboygan.”
All nicely in place and accurate.
Right on time Nathan arrived. The only thing about him that matched my extruded image was his clothing. Even in his cheap gray suit you could see that he had the kind of body you only get by working out regularly. His hair was dark, thick, and loosely curly — but his eyes caught my attention most of all, large and jet black, with a straight ahead stare under high arched brows. He looked like someone in a Byzantine icon. Yeah, I know that’s the wrong religion, but the image fits. I put his age at about thirty, three or four years older than me, anyway. He looked at me, took a step back, then another forward again. Apparently I didn’t fit his expectations either.
“Mr. Nathan?” I said.
“Yes.” He hefted the tan leather sample case he was carrying. “I came about the prayer shawls.”
“Yes, the four-thirty appointment.”
“Sheboygan.” He smiled with a slight twitch of his mouth. “Where might Sheboygan be, anyway?”
“I’ve got no idea. I could look it up for you on the Internet.”
“No need to bother.” He set the sample case down on the floor. “I was expecting some old granny. I must say you’re quite a surprise.”
“Same to you.”
He smiled again, a little more broadly this time.
“I’m Nola O’Grady,” I said. “Welcome to California.”
He leaned over the desk, and we shook hands. I liked his grip, firm without being bone-crushing, though he held onto my hand a little too long. I pulled it away as gracefully as I could. He straightened up and arranged a more business-like expression.
“How can I help you?” I said.
He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a white business envelope. “I’ve been told you might be able to tell me something about this person. He was last seen in your city. I need to know if he’s still on the premises.”
“What’s in that?”
“A set of pictures — his passport photo, some stills taken from security cameras.”
He started to open the envelope.
“Don’t,” I said. “Just hand it to me sealed.”
With a shrug he dropped it on my desk. I opened a side drawer and got out a big pad of paper and a box of crayons. I always use crayons to capture impressions. They’re fast, they don’t spill water all over, and you get sixty-four colors for cheap. He was staring at the box as if he expected a spider to crawl out of it.
“Is something wrong?” I said.
“Crayons? Children’s crayons?”
I sighed. “Mr. Morrison will see you now, sir.” I waved a thumb at the door to the inner office. “Go right in.”
He started to speak, shrugged again, then picked up his sample case and followed orders. With him gone I could concentrate. Although the Agency calls this procedure Long Distance Remote Sensing, the old name offers more poetry: farseeing.
I laid the envelope of photos to one side of my drawing pad, put my left hand on it, and waited. I can’t tell you what I think of when I begin an LDRS because there’s nothing to tell. I get a jumble of thoughts, a twitch of the mind, and then all at once images start to develop. In this case I saw the ocean. I grabbed a blue-green crayon and began. Ocean — rocks, big rock — cliff — some yellow smears that might have been taxi cabs. I saw red in the shape of a long box with wheels, a tourist bus.
Everything changed. New sheet of paper, gravel on the ground, a blue car, the bright green of trees, a weird gray shape, a black smudge — nothing. Whoever he was, he was moving too fast for me to reach him, probably driving the blue car. That much the rational part of my mind could tell me. I leaned back in my chair and considered the scribbles on the two sheets of paper. An LDRS never produces fine art. Interpretation’s everything.
I looked away, got up, stretched, then sat back down and looked at the scribbles again. One thing jumped out: the weird gray shape formed a trench coat. I’d even drawn in the belt. The black smudge defined a hat shape, floating over the coat. Sam Spade in black and white, when everything else in the picture had showed up in Technicolor. My hands started to shake. I made them stop. The entire experience left behind a feeling like the lingering stench of old kitchen garbage.
I tore the two sheets off the pad, got up, and went into the inner office. Nathan had closed the windows and the venetian blinds. He held a black gadget that looked like a light meter or a stud finder. As I watched he drew the gadget along the far wall in short, controlled passes.
“Looking for bugs?” I said.
“Yes.” He continued working while he talked. “I’ve got an interference generator in that sample case, too.”
The sense of danger struck me in a long chilly frisson. I sat down in the secretary’s chair and laid the two drawings on the executive desk. Even though the room had become hot and stuffy with the window closed, my hands ached with cold. The danger flowed out of Ari Nathan, it seemed to me, far deeper than the Sam Spade scribble or Aunt Eileen’s warning, danger he’d brought in that sample case, maybe, with the job he needed done.
He finished scanning the window and slipped the device into his pants pocket. “Hot in here,” he said.
“It is, yeah.” My voice stayed steady, fortunately. “That’s because we’re right under the roof. I didn’t want anyone moving in above me who might want to eavesdrop.”
“Good idea. Well, this room’s secure.”
It was until you walked into it, anyway, I thought. He took off the jacket and draped it over the back of the leather chair. Over his pale blue shirt he was wearing a gun in a shoulder holster. I hate guns, partly because of what happened to Patrick, and for all kinds of rational reasons beyond that.
“Do you have a license for that thing?” I pointed at it.
“Of course.” He looked at me slant-eyed. “Why do you ask?”
“They make me nervous, guns.”
“Oh? It’s a deadly business we’re in. You should carry protection of some sort.”
“I can take of myself. I’ve got a license to ensorcel.”
He blinked at me with those gorgeous Byzantine eyes.
“There’s only four of us in the entire Agency who do,” I went on. “It’s not a skill we use lightly. I hope you feel the same way about that gun.”
I thought he was about to sneer, but he kept his face expressionless. I picked up the two drawings and waved them at him.
“Anyway, your target’s in San Francisco, all right, or he was ten minutes ago. He was at the Cliff House out on Ocean Beach. He’s driving a blue late-model four door sedan, but I couldn’t see where he was headed.”
He took the drawings, looked at them, laid them down, then picked up the white envelope. “You haven’t even opened this.”
“I didn’t need to open it. That’s not how Long Distance Remote Sensing works.”
The words seemed to burst out of him. “I cannot tell you how much I hate this kind of — of — this psychic bilge.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Following the orders my superior gave me.” He threw the envelope into my lap. “Open it, will you? At least do that much. Pander to my sense of reality.”
“If you’re not going to believe a word I say, why should I do anything you want?”
He started to retort, stopped himself, then shrugged. “You’ve got a point,” he said. “Very well, would you please open the sodding envelope?”
I tore it open and shook out the photographs. On top lay a fuzzy snap from a security camera. Although I couldn’t discern the perp’s features, I could tell he was wearing a Dodgers cap. It figured. The passport photo clearly showed me a skinny white man, nearly bald, light colored eyes, thin lips, wearing a plaid sports shirt, a very ordinary American face, except it belonged to a man who wanted to kill me.
“Do you know that fellow?” Nathan said. “The name we have for him is William Johnson.”
“No. Never seen him before.”
He cocked his head to one side and gave me a cold look. “You’re hiding something, aren’t you?”
“How can you tell? I thought you didn’t believe in all this psychic bilge.”
“I said I hated it. There’s a difference. I wouldn’t be in the line of work I’m in if I couldn’t tell when someone was lying, and that’s training, not psychism.”
His tone of voice made me feel like slapping him. Instead, I said, “All right, I’ve been warned that someone wants to kill me. I think it’s this guy, but I can’t be sure.”
“What? Who warned you?”
Since I had to work with this guy no matter what, I saw no point in telling him the truth, especially with a dodge so close to hand.
“Psychic intuition,” I said. “The Agency calls this phenomenon Semi-Automatic Warning Mechanism.”
He stared at me.
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” I said. “Because I have psychic skills?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” He leaned back in the chair with a long sigh. “I should have taken my father’s advice. I should have been an insurance adjustor. But did I listen to him?”
“Your father was in the insurance business?”
“Eventually. Before that he was a nutter.”
He ignored the question and continued staring at the opposite wall. From the slack jaw as well as his general vibe — what the Agency calls the Subliminal Psychological Profile — I could tell that he felt personally betrayed by something. Life, probably. After a couple of minutes he roused himself.
“My contact at your State Department told me I could use this office as my temporary work arrangement.”
“Oh did they? It’s the first I’ve ever heard of it.”
“You’re supposed to contact your handler about it.”
“Oh am I? That’s pretty high handed of them! What do you propose for a cover story?”
“Simple.” He gave me a crooked smile. “I’m going to be Mr. Morrison.”
I let fly with some words that weren’t ladylike. He winced and stood up, then picked up his sample case to take with him.
“Oh for God’s sake, wipe that sneer off your face, will you?” he said. “If someone’s out to kill you, you need the kind of protection I can offer. Well, don’t you?”
He had me there. Of course I did.
“You haven’t told me why you’re looking for this guy,” I said, as pleasantly as I could manage.
“I’ll do that tomorrow.” He took his jacket from the back of the chair. “I’ve got another appointment. Something personal.”
He put the jacket on and walked out of the office. I followed just in case he decided to steal something from my desk, which he didn’t. As soon as he’d well and truly left, I went back into the new Mr. Morrison’s room, sat down in the secretary chair, and tranced a sharp message to Y. Even though it was eight in the evening, D.C. time, he answered promptly, a little too fast, maybe, because his image had dark eyes instead of the usual blue.
“I take it you don’t like Mr. Nathan much, either,” Y said.
“You’ve met him? You told me you hadn’t.”
“I haven’t. Our contact at the State Department has. He warned me this morning. He was close to frothing at the mouth.”
“So am I. What’s this garbage about Nathan taking over my office?”
“Well, State wants him to have a base to work out of. There’s nothing I can do about it, Nola. I’m sorry.”
Y sounded so genuine that I calmed down.
“Look, if he gets too obnoxious,” Y continued, “tell him that you’re his handler now. State will back you. I’ll make sure of that.”
“Oh thank you very much! He’s going to really like that. Take it just like a little lamb.”
“Spare me the sarcasm. I’ve sent you an encrypted file on Nathan’s background to the other location.”
“I’m surprised their secret service told you anything about him.”
“They didn’t. This is what our operatives could find out.” He paused. “Look, I’ve got to go. Dinner’s on the table.”
Y vanished. Was he married, I wondered?
I took the two pieces of scribble art and went back to my own desk where I could sit in comfort to think. So Aunt Eileen’s Thirties movie villian had appeared in my remote sensing pictures. I had a name for him now, even though it sounded fake. I considered trying to sense him again, then shelved the idea. Johnson’s black and white Shield Persona, as the Agency terms these false images, told me that he had talents of his own. So far both Aunt Eileen and I had partially overridden them. Still, challenging him at this stage of the game struck me as too risky. I disliked the idea of giving him a link back to me even more. I therefore needed to get my mind off him. As a symbolic action, what the Agency calls Conscious Evasion Procedure, I sent the scribbles through my cross-cut shredder.
Night came early that time of year. Even though I twitched at the thought of Johnson hunting me on dark streets, I refused to spend the night sleeping on the office floor. I locked up the suite, then took the N Judah streetcar home.
Hagar’s enormous sun sets in an opalescent haze, the sky brindled a metallic red-orange that seems insultingly gaudy, as if a cheap holopix director were designing an alien sky. As the red fades into an offensive little-girl pink, the real show begins above Polar City. The northern lights crackle, hang long waves of rainbow over the skyline that resembles nothing so much as egg-cartons set on end, and at times wash the high gantries of the space-port in purple and silver. Although most of the inhabitants (just getting out of bed, checking their kids or their incubating eggs, brushing their teeth or washing their beaks,) ignore them, tonight Police Corporal Baskin Ward stops on his downtown beat and leans against the blue plastocrete wall of the public library to watch the sky. He has a lot to think over, and it is very hot, as it always is in Polar City. In an hour or so, the town will come alive, but he wants to take it easy so he’ll be fit for the sergeant’s exam on the morrow. If he passes, he’ll be able to marry the woman he’s loved for three years, a clerk/comp-op over in Traffic Control who wants, as he does, two children and a transfer off this god-damn low-tech desert world with the continually gaudy sky. If he does well as a sergeant, he’ll be able to request posting to Sarah, his home planet, a world of rains and jungles–if, of course, he passes the exam in the first place.
The blue arc street lamps wink on, floating in their maglev field some twenty feet above the pale gray sidewalks and the shiny black movebelts that flow beside them. The Civic Center Plaza in front of him is empty except for a woman hurrying across, her high-heeled boots echoing and slapping on the rammed earth tiles, the sound competing with the endless snap of magnetism in the sky above. In a little while, office workers and bureaucrats will pour in from the underground condos rimming the city proper. Ward hopes for an easy beat. Most likely it’ll be a few drunks and more than a few dreamdusters, all to be lectured, ticketed, and entered into the rehab computer via the terminal on his belt, while the most exciting arrest is likely to be a pick-pocket. Basically, Ward is there to be seen in his kelly-green uniform with its imposing gold braid and shiny silver stun-gun, a visible symbol of the Republic’s power to protect and punish.
He settles his cap, peels himself off the library wall, and steps onto the movebelt that runs across the plaza toward City Hall, a enormous black basalt building as glum as a tombstone. In the center of the plaza is a roughly-defined square bordered by holm oaks. Just as the belt carries Ward inside this square, some unseen worker far below the surface turns on the public hologram in the center. A tall fountain snaps into being, the illusionary water spraying in dead silence for a minute before the hiss-and-splash tape goes on. When the ion generator joins in, Ward can almost believe that it’s cooler near the fountain. He steps off the belt and ambles over to the real railing that keeps kids, lizlets, and pets out of the imaginary water. In the middle of the big white plastocrete pool, he sees his first drunk or druggie of the night, lying half-hidden in the murk of the illusion.
“Okay, amigo, need a little help, huh?”
As Ward wades through the holo, he’s irrationally irritated that his legs stay dry and thus hot. The doper never even moves, merely waits, lying on his back with his hands folded over his chest. Then Ward sees the stain, more black than red in the arc light, spreading over the whiteness.
Ward kneels down fast, reaching for his combox. He sees that he’s dealing with a male carli, about five feet tall, even skinnier than most of his species, the three fingers on each hand like long twigs and tufted with pale gray fur. The dark gray fur visible on his face, arms, and neck is dull and matted. His eyes are wide open; the skin-flaps around each ear, fully extended and rigid; his thin slit of a mouth, shut tight. Since Ward knows carli ways, he realizes that these particular facial expressions indicate a certain mild surprise and nothing more. The victim must have suspected nothing, seen no danger coming, until the exact moment that someone slashed his throat open to the spine.
“Since he’s a carli, sir, he got to be part of the Confederation embassy.”
“Safe enough bet, Ward.”
Chief Al Bates, an enormous, burly man whose skin is so dark that it glitters with bluish highlights, and his corporal, about half his size and on the pale side, stand off to one side of the plaza and watch the ‘grammers and techs swarming around the corpse. Since the fountain has been shut off, they can see the body clearly, dressed in luxurious blue robes of natural fiber. On its left wrist is a multi-function chrono with a solid gold band, its expensive presence eliminating a nice routine robbery-with-bodily-harm. Although the chief wants to find a simple motive–unpaid gambling debts, say, or an affair with some other carli’s female–deep in his heart he suspects that politics lies at the root of this killing, simply because major crimes on Hagar almost always have something to do with politics. Just six blocks to the west of them stands the embassy of the powerful Interstellar Confederation; eight blocks to the east, that of the enormous Coreward Alliance. Polar City Hall, seat of the provincial administration of this portion of the pitifully small Republic (seven inhabited planets in four systems, two asteroid belts, and a couple of minable moons), stands symbolically in between, caught, as the citizens like to say, between the Cons and the ‘Lies. This joke is not meant kindly.
By now the office workers are arriving, popping up like sandworms out of the metro exits, and of course, they stop to gawk. Without waiting for orders Ward trots away to keep them moving–a good officer, in the chief’s estimation, and one worthy of a set of sergeant’s stripes. He also sees the Vulture Detail weaving through the crowd–a medic and two body techs, with a maglev platform bobbing along after them. Bates wonders why the killers left the body in the middle of the plaza, especially in the fountain, a damn strange place to dump a corpse. Perhaps the killers were new to Polar City and didn’t know about the fountain? Perhaps they were deliberately insulting the dead man? The carli are extremely touchy about the disposal of their corpses. He reminds himself to access a databank on carli burial customs to see if water might be a source of ritual pollution.
“It looks horrible, chief.”
“Jeez! Mulligan!” Bates swirls around, his stun-gun half-drawn before he catches himself. “Will you stop creeping up on me like that? One of these nights you’re going to get a skull full of shock waves.”
Mulligan merely smiles his open, boyish grin, one of the things that the chief particularly dislikes about him. Although Bates is willing to admit that a free society should tolerate psychics, and that indeed, the Republic often finds them useful, he has never felt at ease around psionic jocks and particularly not around Mulligan. Tonight Mulligan looks even messier than usual, all skinny six feet of him dressed only in a pair of filthy white walking-shorts and a green shirt open to the waist, both of them much too large. His hair though permanently shaggy is temporarily turquoise blue, a color that clashes with the bright red, mandatory `p’ tattooed on his left jaw, just beside the ear. (While the Republic tolerates psychics, it also brands them to protect its other citizens.) In the street lights, his eyes glare like a reptile’s–reflective gold contact lenses, the chief notes in disgust. He cannot quite stop himself from thinking that after all, white people, los Blancos, are mostly this way, out of touch with hard reality, caught up in some faked image of themselves. Then he feels ashamed of himself for lapsing into old prejudices.
“Can I help?” Mulligan waves vaguely at the corpse.
“What do you want the bucks for? Dreamdust?”
“Never use the stuff. How about, like, rent? My landlord’s going to throw me out. Y’know?”
Bates snorts in skepticism, then hesitates, thinking. Mulligan has the virtue of being right there on the scene, and early, before whatever vibrations it is that psychics read have weakened or even dissipated completely.
“Yeah, sure. Follow me.”
Mulligan trots meekly behind as the chief shoves his way through the crowd to the coroner’s techmen around the corpse. They are just loading the gray-shrouded bundle onto the maglev platform.
“Got a registered psychic here,” Bates says. “So hold off moving him for a moment.”
Obligingly the techmen let the corpse fall back onto the fountain floor. Mulligan kneels down, slumps back onto his heels, then holds his long-fingered pale hands out over the body. For a moment he sits quietly, while one techman gets out a recorder and primes it to catch whatever he says and the other corpse-handler gets himself a pinch of chewing spice out of his shirt pocket. Then Mulligan goes rigid, his head snapping back, his back arching, and howls once, a high-pitched shriek of pain. One techman swallows his spice and rushes away to puke it back up in the privacy of the gutter. The other, who is apparently more familiar with psionic techniques, flicks on the recorder and yawns. Bates hunkers down close.
“What do you see?”
His mouth half-open, Mulligan turns his head to look the chief’s way. Because of the reflective contacts, it’s some moments before the chief realizes that something is badly wrong, that Mulligan’s acting blind, that he’s desperately trying to force out a few words and to raise his hands. When Bates grabs him, he howls again, but this time he sounds like he’s choking. For all his big-bellied bulk, the chief can move fast when he has to. Dragging Mulligan with him he jumps to his feet and leaps back. The result appears to be exactly the same as dragging someone away from an electrical shock. At first Mulligan spasms, then faints in the chief’s arms. Turquoise sweat streaks down his face.
“Medic!” Bates’s voice booms over the murmurs of the gawking crowd. “Get me a medic! Pronto!”
He stood where he liked standing, alone on the edge of the crowd and watching, above the crowd, too, on a ramp half-way up and curling round the dome of the spaceport terminal. Checking tickets, carrying luggage, herding children, sapients rushed past in both directions, but no one more than glanced his way. He was hidden in plain sight by his clothes, the finely tailored but utterly undistinguished suit of a merchant. Pale soft shirt, gray short-tunic, and a slashed kilt of the same gray — human trousers, graceless wear for a stub-ugly species, did you no good when you carried a tail, even a short stump of one like his. In one hand he held a sample case, splashed with color and the name of an importing firm. Inside lay jewelry, artificial amber from the planet of Souk, opals from Kephalon, providing him with both a cover story and money to live while he got his real job done.
He leaned on the railing of the ramp and looked down at the swarming terminal, where sapients of half a dozen races milled around or squabbled over the scanty seating. He heard the crowd as a roar and babble, half a dozen languages mixed with the flat tones of Gen, the official trade-talk of that region of the galaxy known as the Pinch. Over it all a booming noise sounded, as if a thunderstorm were gathering under the forcedome far above. He could see the source of the booms: hundreds of saccules, the short and pouchy native race of Palace, scurried and dodged through the crowd. Dressed in simple shifts, as if they were children ready for bed, they carried luggage, offered refreshments, cleared paths for their human masters, while they boomed and squealed and did their best to mimic real speech with the throat sacs and pouches clustering round their eating mouths. Their odor reached him as well, even up as high as he stood. The saccules gave off a smell-babble of scents that had earned them their nickname, Stinkers.
In his mind, though, the real stench came from the humans who swarmed thick below, all soft and somehow pulpy with their pale tan or dark brown skins stretched over fat and flesh. His own race glittered with gray-green scales, smooth and hard and pure, not tufted with dirty hair or clotted with the stuff, hanging limp from round skulls. Unclean — he stopped himself from spitting on the ramp just in time. He was here for vengeance, after all. He could follow their ugly little customs and courtesies as part of the game.
He’d have his revenge, that is, provided he could get past the autogates that led from the terminal into the city. Although his view was partially obscured by a bank of vidscreens displaying a constant barrage of news footage, from his distance the gates looked deceptively simple, a pair of featureless vertical rods a few yards high and set about five feet apart, but each one contained a sophisticated array of scanners, all tuned to different frequencies, as well as password protected, encrypted, and monitored round the clock by highly trained customs agents. No one but a fool would try and pass through them with contraband or weapons. His prospective employer had promised him safe passage so long as he carried the photonic token he’d been given, but he found it hard to believe, not when you couldn’t even to bribe your way through. The AI in charge kept the locking codes secret from the agents and changed them daily for good measure.
For a better look he leaned forward, frowning with a twist of his long mouth; then he felt, rather than heard, someone stop behind him. A slight pressure from a hand touching the case he held, a faint draft of moving air — no more than that. The thief was good, but Vi-Kata, the deadliest assassin in the Pinch, was better. In utter silence he spun, kicked low, saw a human face grimacing with pain, its mouth open for a scream — grabbed with his free hand and flung — the shriek rang shrill as the thief flipped over the railing and plunged down, still screaming, his scream drowned in other screams when he hit headfirst, splattering across the floor.
“Stop him!” Kata yelled in Gen. “The murderer! That way! Police! Police!”
Yelling, pointing, Kata raced down the ramp. A few young human men followed him, calling for the police as they chased their imaginary murderer. Down below chaos swirled around the corpse. Muttering weeping sapients shrank back from the bloody mess on the floor or else stared, frozen in horror, blocking the way of the security guards trying to cordon off the corpse. Everywhere clots of saccules clutched each other and boomed. Their fear smelled like old vomit. Police sirens sounded, shrill and urgent. Kata had no trouble losing his impromptu posse as the confusion spread and swelled. He slipped off to one side and strode for the gates. Up close, he could see that every exit stood guarded by not just one gate, but a series, a long tunnel of autogates stretching toward the gray light of outside and safety.
Behind him, he could hear a police loudspeaker shouting for order and commanding everyone to stay where they were. Now or never. One customs officer, a pale pinkish human, had stepped a few paces away from his gate to stare slack-jawed at the cluster of police around the corpse. A perfect chance, but Kata hesitated for the briefest of seconds. He was under sentence of death on more than one world, and the police of all of those worlds had encoded his DNA signature into their security systems. He stepped forward, hesitated again, then shrugged and walked through, strode through, swinging his sample case, his skull crest raised at a jaunty angle. Eight gates passed, nine, ten, and then the door ahead, opening with a hiss of air.
None of them gave an alarm.
Kata walked out into a cold, gray light. Overhead, clouds swirled with the perpetual fog of Palace . . .
Here is a teaser for The Snare, my new SF book that will be coming out in January in the UK and in April in the United States. At the moment I only have a cover flat for the British edition; the art is by Geoff Taylor and as is usual for him, really good.
The astute reader will notice that the languages spoken by the characters in this book — Hirl-Onglay and TekSpeak, Vranz, and Kazraki — bear varying degrees of resemblance to English, French, and Arabic, which were indeed their parent languages at a remote point in the book’s past. The resemblance is faint because the action of the book takes place in approximately 4200 AD. By then the parent languages have not merely suffered the usual language changes; they’ve picked up terms and constructions from various alien languages as well.
In the same way, the outer forms of the religions described have mutated to a greater or lesser degree. I sincerely hope that no believers will find this offensive, but if they do, I’d like to point out that the inner truths remain the same, and that ultimately this book is labelled fiction for a good reason.
———– Katharine Kerr
The great king Chursavva of the Chiri Michi said to the leaders of the Humai, “You have broken taboo. You have come to the forbidden country. Your power shall be deadened forever, and your [toys? trinkets?] smashed and broken.” Thus said Chursavva on the first day of the council, and all the Humai wept and wailed in terror. Then the captain of the Humai rose and spoke boldly to the king’s face. “We did not mean to break taboo. Yet we will accept your terms, as proof of our kind hearts and pure minds.”
And the great king Chursavva of the Chiri Michi said to the leaders of the Humai, “You keep the spirits of many animals bound into the crystals in the jars and cabinets of your flying boat. You may choose two large ones and two small ones and two winged ones to accompany you into your long exile.” Thus said Chursavva on the second day of the council, and all the Humai moaned in confusion. Then the captain of the Humai rose and led his chiefs apart into their fort so that they might choose the animals.
Over the two small animals there was no dissension, for all loved the beasts known as the eeka and the cat. Over the two winged animals there was no dissension, for all loved to eat plump fowl and to see hawks fly. Over the first large animal there was no dissension, for all agreed that the sheep would provide clothing as well as meat. But over the second large animal there was dissension. Some wished for a beast known as the cow, which gave much milk and meat, but which required much land on which to live. Some wished for a beast called the goat, which gave some milk and some meat, but which could live in the waste places of the wild lands. And so they argued, until an old woman rose and called for silence.
“It is truly said that the cow and the goat, and yes, even the unclean pig, will give us food and give us skins for our clothes. But you are all forgetting the beast known as the horse.”
Many of the council members jeered, saying that the horse was tough and stringy and would give little food. The old woman called again for silence and continued her speaking.
“Little food, yes, but it will give us something greater, something that Chursavva can never foresee.”
“Indeed?” said the captain of the Humai. “And what is this marvelous gift?”
“Speed.” The old woman paused and smiled. “And eventually, freedom.”
And the council members fell silent, thinking about ancient wars in the history of the Humai, until one by one they smiled, too, and pronounced the old woman wise beyond belief. And because a woman chose the horse, to this day among the Tribes women alone may own them . . .
from the Histories of Ahmed, the Last Hajji
In the warm night, the scent of true-roses hung over the palace gardens. Among the red spear trees and the obsidian statuary, water splashed in fountains and murmured in artificial streams. In a cluster of orange bamboid two persons sat side-by-side in the lush true-grass, one a young slender woman, shamelessly bareheaded, and the other a heavy-set soldier with a touch of grey in his dark curly hair. Anyone who saw them would have known that they were lovers, but Captain Idres Warkannan was hoping that this truth would hide another, that they were also plotting high treason. Lubahva Shiraz acted her part by giggling in the most vapid way she could manage. Her gold bangles chimed as she laid a slender, dark-skinned hand on Warkannan’s arm.
“Do you see why I thought you needed to hear this?” she whispered. “Right away?”
“I certainly do. Send me another note if you hear more.”
“I will. We’ll be doing the dinner music tomorrow for the same officials. They forget about us once we’re behind that brass screen.”
Lubahva kissed him good-bye, then got up and trotted off, hurrying back to the musicians’ quarters. Alone, hand on the hilt of his sabre, Warkannan made his way through the palace grounds. As an officer of the Mounted Urban Guard, he had every right to be in the Great Khan’s gardens, but he hurried nonetheless, cursing when he found himself in a dead-end, striding along fast when he could see his way clear.
The palace buildings rarely stood more than a single story high, but they dotted the gardens in an oddly random pattern. Beautiful structures of carved true-wood housed palace ministers and high-ranking officials. Squat huts of pillar reed and bamboid sufficed for servants. In the warm night windows stood open; he could hear talk, laughter, the occasional wail of a tired child, but no matter how domestic the sounds, he knew there might be spies behind a hundred different curtains.
Beyond the buildings, low walls of filigree moss and high walls of braided vines transformed the hillside into a maze made up of mazes. Down some turnings, the cold pale light of star moss edged broad paths that ended in thickets of bamboid. Down others, fern trees rose out of artificial ponds and towered over him, their fronds nodding and rasping in the evening breeze. Among their branches, the golden-furred eekas whistled and sang; now and then two or three dropped suddenly down to dash in front of him on their spidery legs. Once Warkannan took a wrong turn and ended up caught in an angle of mossy walls, where a half-dozen eekas surrounded him. They joined their little green hands and danced around him in a circle, squeaking and mocking. When he swore at them, they darted away.
The outer wall at last — he’d reached it without being challenged. Gates of gilded true-wood stood open in the living walls of thorn vine, woven into bronze mesh, that guarded the compound. Two guards in the white tunics over black trousers of the infantry stood at attention on either side. When Warkannan held up his hand in salute, one stepped out to talk with him: Med, an old friend, smiling at him.
“I thought you were on long leave,” Med remarked.
“I am. Just came by to see one of the palace girls and pick up my salary.”
“Those girls don’t come cheap, do they?”
“No. She’s got her heart set on a necklace she saw in town, she tells me. God only knows how much that’s going to set me back! It’s a good thing I’m doing some investing these days.”
“Well, good luck with it, then.”
“Thanks. I’m going to need it.”
Warkannan sauntered through the gates while he wondered if his excuse would hold. Would someone high up in the chain of command learn that he’d returned to the palace in the middle of his leave?
“Charity, sir, oh charity?” A crowd of ragged children rushed forward and surrounded him. In the lamp light Warkannan could see their pinched little faces, their bony hands, the rags flapping around prominent ribs. “Oh please sir!”
Warkannan dug into the pocket of his uniform trousers; he’d taken to carrying small coins, these days. The children waited, staring at him. There was only one way to give charity without being followed and mobbed. He held up the handful of deenahs, glanced around, and saw a patch of well-lit grass.
“Here.” Warkannan tossed the coins into the grass. “Go get them!”
The children dove for the coins, and he hurried downhill, jogging fast till the street curved and hid him from their sight. Every day, more beggars, he thought. When is this going to end?
The Great Khan’s compound lay on the highest hill of Haz Kazrak, a city of hills. Far below to the west lay a sea-harbor, embraced by stone breakwaters where red warning torches glowed and fluttered, staining the water with reflections. In the cloudless sky the Spider was just rising in the east. This time of year the entire spiral would be visible by midnight as a swirl of silver light covering a tenth of the sky. Already it loomed over the eastern hills like the head and shoulders of a giant. Over the open ocean the two Flies, small glowing clouds, were scurrying to the horizon ahead of their eternal enemy. The rest of the sky stretched dark.
As Warkannan walked on, the Spider and its light disappeared behind a hill, but the soft glow of oil lamps bloomed in the twisting streets. The neighborhood around the palace was safe enough. The compounds of the rich lined the wide streets, and most had lanterns at their gates and a doorman or two as well, standing around with a long staff to keep beggars and thieves away. Further down, though, the private lamps disappeared; the streets narrowed as they wound along the slopes. The squat little houses, made of bundled reeds or bamboid, stood dark and sullen behind kitchen gardens that smelled of night soil and chicken coops. Warkannan stayed out in the middle of the street, where the public lamps shone, and kept his hand close to the hilt of his sabre.
Down by the harbor the way broadened and brightened again. Here among the shops and warehouses people stood talking or strode along, finishing up the day’s business or drawing water from the public wells. A good crowd sat drinking with friends in the cool of the evening at one or another of the sidewalk cafes. In the center of the harbor district lay a large public square, and in its center stood a six-sided stone pillar, plastered with public notices and religious dictates from the Council of Mullahs. Whores lounged on its steps or strutted back and forth near by, calling out to prospective customers. Warkannan noticed one girl, barely more than a child, hanging back terrified. She’d been forced onto the streets to help feed her family, most likely. It happened more and more these days.
Warkannan crossed the square, then paused to look up at the velvet-dark night sky. In the north he saw the Phalanx, as the Kazraks called them: six bright stars zipping along from north to south, tracing a path between the Flies and the Spider. Since they appeared every night at regular intervals, he could get a rough idea of the time, enough to figure that he was late. In the light of a street lamp he took out his pocket watch. Yes, a good twenty minutes late. He put the watch away and hurried.
Fortunately his destination lay close at hand, where the street dead-ended at a merchant’s compound. Over the woven thorn walls, the fern trees rustled as the breeze picked up from the ocean. The outer gate was locked, but a brass bell hung from a chain on the fence. When Warkannan rang, the doorman called out “Who is it?”
“Just a minute, just a minute.”
Warkannan heard snufflings and the snapping of teeth, low curses from the doorman, and a collection of animal whines and hisses. Finally the gate swung open, and he walked in cautiously, glancing around. Huge black lizards lunged on their chains and hissed open-mouthed as they tried to reach his legs. When the doorman waved his staff in their direction, they cringed.
“They can’t get at you,” he said, grinning. “Just stay on the path.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Warkannan fished in his pocket and found a silver deenah to tip him. “Thanks.”
The graveled path led through the fern trees to an open space around the house, a rambling structure, all one story, woven of bundled rushes and vines in the usual style but overlaid with a small fortune’s worth of true-wood shingles. At the door, Nehzaym Wahud herself greeted Warkannan and ushered him inside the warehouse. Although she never told anyone her age, she must have been in her late forties. On her dark brown face she wore the purrahs, two black ribbons tied around her head. The one between her nose and upper lip marked her as a decent woman who observed the Third Prophet’s laws of modesty; the other, around her forehead, proclaimed her a widow.
“How pleasant to see you, captain,” Nehzaym said. “I’m glad you could join us tonight.”
“My pleasure, I’m sure. I’m extremely interested in this venture of yours.”
“If the Lord allows, it could make us all quite rich, yes.”
Warkannan followed her across the room. Against the walls, covered with a maroon felt made of dried moss, stood a few lonely bales and sacks of merchandise left over from the winter trading season, a big desk littered with documents, some battered cabinets, and a tall clock, ticking to the rhythm of its brass pendulum. Nearby a bamboid door led into Nehzaym’s apartment. She ushered him through, then followed. In the middle of the blue and green sitting room a marble fountain bubbled, pale orange ferns in bright pots stood along the walls, and polished brass screens hung at every window. Just in front of the fountain stood a low table, spread with maps of pale pink rushi, where other members of their circle sat waiting for him.
“Sorry I’m late,” Warkannan said.
Sitting on a heap of purple cushions, Councillor Indan Alwazir looked up. The old man kept his long white robes gathered round him as if he were afraid he’d be polluted by the incense-laden air. Warkannan’s nephew, Arkazo Benjamil, a young man with a beaky nose and a thin-lipped grin, was sitting cross-legged on the floor and holding a good-sized glass of arak between thumb and forefinger. When Warkannan frowned at him, Arkazo put the glass down on the floor and shoved it under the table in one smooth gesture.
Standing by the marble fountain was the most important man in their venture. Tall and slender, Yarl Soutan was wearing the white shirt and loose white trousers of a Kazrak citizen, but his blue eyes, long blond hair caught back in a jewelled headband, and his pale skin marked him for the infidel stranger he was, a renegade from the Cantons far to the east of the khanate. Although he looked Arkazo’s age, his eyes seemed as old and suspicious as Indan’s, squinting at the world from a great distance. As always, Warkannan wondered just how far they could trust a man who claimed to be a sorcerer.
“We have been waiting,” Indan said to Warkannan. “For some while, actually.”
“I had to go up to the palace. You’re about to hear why.”
Indan raised an eyebrow. With a demure smile for the men, Nehzaym barred the door behind her, then perched on a cushioned stool near the councillor.
“All right,” Warkannan said. “Someone’s laid an information against us with the Great Khan’s Chosen Ones.”
Arkazo swore. Indan went pale, his lips working. With a little laugh, Soutan turned from the fountain.
“I told you I saw danger approaching. These things always send omens ahead of them.”
“You were right,” Warkannan said. “This once, anyway.”
“May God preserve!” Indan was trembling so badly that he could hardly speak. “Do they know our names?”
“Calm down, councillor,” Warkannan snapped. “Of course they do, or we wouldn’t have anything to worry about. They’re wondering if we’re really going to prospect for blackstone.”
“Is this anything special?” Arkazo broke in. “As far as I can see, the Chosen are suspicious of everything and everyone all the time.”
“I don’t know what they know,” Warkannan said. “All that Lubahva heard was that someone bragged abour our investment group. He implied it might be more important than it looked. The Chosen don’t ignore that kind of rumor.”
“Indeed,” Indan said. “Who was it?”
“Lubahva doesn’t know yet.” Warkannan paused to glance at each member of the group in turn. “I’m not doubting anyone here, mind, but our circle’s grown larger recently. I knew we’d reach a danger point.”
The suspicion in the room hung as heavy as the incense. Everyone looked at Yarl Soutan, who strolled over and sat down.
“And would I run to the Chosen after throwing in my lot with you? The Great Khan wouldn’t give me a pardon for spilling your secrets. He’d have killed me in some slow painful way for having come here in the first place.” Soutan laid a hand on the maps. “I wonder — someone must suspect that I brought you something besides those old maps.”
“That’s my worst fear,” Warkannan said. “If they do, they’ll send a man east to the Cantons just to see what he can learn about you.”
“Oh good god!” Soutan snarled. “That could ruin everything.”
“Exactly,” Indan said. “Why do you think I’m terrified?”
Soutan nodded. For a long moment they all looked at each other, as if the information they so desperately needed could be read from the empty air.
The Crescent Throne of Kazrajistan ruled these days by the sword and terror. Gemet Great Khan had gained the throne by sending his Chosen Ones to kill everyone in his own extended family with a good claim to be a khan, a word that had come to mean a man fit to be the supreme leader by blood and so sanctified by the mullahs. Now Gemet lived in fear of revenge, and with good reason. His brothers and half-brothers had married into the best families in the khanate, and with their murders and the confiscation of their lands, those families had lost sons and property both. Since he knew that any more confiscations would make the armed aristocracy rebel, he’d turned on the common people with taxes for teeth.
The last heir, young Jezro Khan, had been serving on the border, an officer in the regular cavalry. The assassins came for him, as they had for all the others, but no one ever found his body. With his assumed death, the khanate had settled into ten years of paranoid peace. Just recently, however, Soutan had ridden into Haz Kazrak and brought Councillor Indan a letter in Jezro’s handwriting. Jezro Khan was alive, living as a humble exile far to the east. After some weeks of weighing risks, Indan had contacted Warkannan, who’d served with Jezro in the cavalry.
Warkannan could still feel his shock, could taste his tears as he looked over the familiar writing of a friend he’d given up for dead. Together he and Indan gathered a few trustworthy men and made contacts among those families who’d suffered at the current emperor’s hands. Soon they had pledges of soldiers and coin to support the khan’s cause if he returned. Things had been going very well indeed — until now.
“If we’re going to prevent disaster, we have to move fast,” Indan said. “We need to shelter Soutan above all else.”
“Just so,” Warkannan said. “And we’d better do it tonight. Councillor, you have a country villa, don’t you?”
“Oh yes, and my servants there are most trustworthy.”
“Good. You and Soutan get yourselves there. I’ll stay in the city and keep in touch with Lubahva. If we all bolt at once, the Chosen are likely to draw some conclusions.”
Indan’s face went ashy-grey.
“I’ll be sending you word as soon as I can,” Warkannan said. “Lubahva’s group plays for every important man in the palace, and she hears plenty.” All at once he smiled. “She’s always complaining that they treat the musicians like furniture. It’s a damn good thing, too. We’ll find this traitor yet.”
“So we may hope.” Indan sighed, looking suddenly very old and very tired. “But I see ruin ahead of us all.”
“Oh come now, don’t give up so soon.” Soutan turned to the councillor. “You forget that you have powerful magic on your side.”
“Indeed?” Indan said with some asperity. “But if it can’t read the minds of the Chosen, it’s not much good to us.”
“Perhaps it can.” Soutan gave him a thin-lipped smile. “Don’t mock what you don’t understand.”
When Indan started to snarl an answer, Warkannan leaned forward and cut him off.
“Patience, Councillor,” Warkannan said. “We don’t know what the Chosen are going to do. They may look us over and decide we pass muster.”
“They might,” Indan said. “Or they may have sent one of their spies east already. Or a dozen of them, for that matter.”
“It should be an easy thing to find out.” Nehzaym glanced around the circle. “Most of our allies are on the border. If we warn them, they’ll keep watch.”
“The Chosen are very good at what they do.” Indan’s voice seemed on the edge of fading away. “Doubtless, when they send off their man, no one will suspect a thing.”
“Don’t be so sure.” Warkannan got up with a nod for Arkazo. “Let’s go. Gentlemen, I suggest you leave with us. We’ll walk into the town square together and talk about our maps and our profits. Remember, we want to be noticed doing ordinary things.”
Warkannan, with Arkazo in tow, headed for the door, but when he glanced back, he noticed that Soutan stood whispering with Nehzaym near the fountain. What was the charlatan up now? Indan joined him, followed his glance, and raised an eyebrow.
“Soutan?” Indan called out. “We’d best be on our way.”
“Of course.” Soutan strolled over to join them at the door. “Of course. Our lovely widow was merely asking my advice about a small matter.”
Nehzaym glanced at Warkannan as if inviting comment. He merely shrugged, then turned and led the men out.
The Spider hung at the zenith on her thread of stars by the time that Soutan returned to the compound. Nehzaym was reading in the sitting room when she heard the lizards outside hiss and the chains clank. She took a lamp, hurried into the warehouse, and crossed to the door just as the sorcerer opened it. With a little bow he stepped inside, then turned to shut the door behind him.
“Well, that was a waste of time,” Soutan said. “Warkannan’s idea of acting normally is to sit around in a cafe and argue about anything and everything.”
“Don’t underestimate him,” Nehzaym said. “He’s quite intelligent whether he acts it or not.”
“Really. Shall we go in?”
“By all means. I’m anxious to see this treasure of yours.”
“I just hope you can tell me what it is.”
She led the way back into the apartment. They walked down a short hallway to her tiny widow’s room, which sported a window on one wall, a narrow bed at one end, a small threadbare rug on the floor, and little else. Out of habit she still kept her clothes, her jewelry, the chests of bed linens, and the like in the large room she’d shared with her husband. One of the treasures he’d given her, however, she kept here, where a thief would never bother to look for anything valuable. She set the lamp down on a wooden stand. Soutan sat on the floor, cross-legged, while she knelt by the rug and rolled it back to expose the sliding panel under it.
Inside the hide-hole lay a book, bound in purple cloth, and what appeared to be a thin oblong of grey slate, about twelve inches by nine, lying on a black scarf. As she was taking the slate and scarf out, Soutan craned his neck to look inside the hole; she slid the panel shut fast. He laughed.
“By all means,” Soutan said, “you’d best keep that book hidden. The Sibylline Prophecies, isn’t it?”
Nehzaym shrugged and laid the slate down between them on the scarf. It hummed three musical notes and began to glow.
“God is great,” Nehzaym sang out. “The Lord our God is one, and Mohammed, Agvar, and Kaleel are His prophets. In their names may all evil things be far away!”
“Amen.” Soutan leaned forward, staring.
In the center of the panel the glow brightened to a pale blue square, which slowly coagulated into the image of a round room with a high ceiling. Floors, walls, the dais in the middle, the steps leading up to that dais — they all glittered silver in a mysterious light falling from above.
“Whenever I take it out, I see that picture,” Nehzaym said.
“Does it show you others?” Soutan said.
“Only this one. And look!” Nehzaym pointed to a narrow red bar of light, pulsing at one side of the slate. “When this light flashes, a minute or two later the image fades.”
Already, in fact, the room was dissolving back into the pale blue glow. The red light died, leaving the slate only a slate. Soutan made a hissing sound and shook his head. “Where did your husband get this?”
“In Bariza. He bought it in the marketplace from a man who dealt in curios.”
“Curios? Well, I suppose the ignorant would see it that way. Do you know anything about it?”
“Only that you have to feed it sunlight every day. I take it to the garden. In the rainy season it doesn’t work very well.”
“No, it wouldn’t. Our ancestors knew how to bind spirits into their magicks. They feed on sunlight. When they’re hungry, they refuse to do their job.”
“I can’t say I blame them. Are the spirits immortal?”
“What a strange question!” Soutan smiled, drawing back of thin lips from large teeth. “Everything alive must die, sooner or later.”
“And when all the spirits die?”
“There won’t be any more magic, just like your Third Prophet said. No doubt you Kazraks will celebrate.”
“We’ve chosen to live as the First Prophet wanted us to live, yes.” She paused, choosing her words carefully. “And how will your people feel about losing their magic?”
Soutan shrugged, his smile gone. “Let’s hope it doesn’t happen for a good long while, a thousand years, say.” He pointed at the panel. “What do you think that room is?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“I can’t, not for certain, but I’ll make a guess. You have a copy of the Sibyl’s book. Have you read the part about the empty shrine?”
Nehzaym felt her clasped hands tighten.
“I see you have,” Soutan said. “One of these days you might see the Fourth Prophet standing on that dais.”
“If God would only allow, I’d happily die.”
“You’d be happier if you stayed around to see what happened next. Now. Let me see if I can show you something interesting. May I pick it up?”
Soutan took the slate and peered at it in the dancing lamplight. He ran one long finger down the side, paused, fingered the back of it, then suddenly smiled. He took a full breath, and when he spoke, the sound seemed to come from deep inside his body and buzz like an insect. The words made no sense to her at all. The spirit in the slate, however, must have understood them, because the panel chimed a long note in answer.
Soutan laid the slate back down on the floor. A new picture was forming of a different room, inlaid with blue and white quartz in a diamond pattern.
“Another shrine?” Nehzaym whispered.
“Perhaps. Wait and see.”
Slowly the room became clear — a half round, this time, and just in front of the flat wall stood two slender pillars, one grey, one white. Between them hung what appeared to be a gauzy veil, yet it shimmered and sparked with bluish light. Nehzaym twined her hands round each other. A pale blue thing shaped like a man appeared in the center of the room. He waved his hands and seemed to be speaking, but she could hear nothing. Suddenly the thing’s face filled the image. Its eyes were mere pools of darker blue; its purple lips mouthed soundless words.
Nehzaym shrieked, a sound that must have frightened the spirit inside the slate. Once again the red light began to flash. The image disappeared.
“May the Lord preserve!” Nehzaym said. “A ghost!”
“Do you think so?” Soutan looked at the panel for a long silent moment. “If I had gold and jewels to give, I’d heap them all in your lap in return for it. Unfortunately, I don’t.” His voice dropped. “Unfortunate for you, perhaps.”
Nehzaym started to speak, but her voice caught and trembled. Soutan rose to his knees and considered her narrow-eyed, his hands hanging loose at his sides, his fists clenched.
“Take it,” Nehzaym said.
“If you want the nasty thing, it’s yours. I work and pray for the coming of the Fourth Prophet, but this is evil sorcery. I don’t want it in my house.”
Soutan sat back on his heels and stared at her slack-mouthed.
“I suppose I must look superstitious to you,” Nehzaym said. “I don’t care. Take it. It’s unclean.”
“Who am I to turn down such a generous gift?” Soutan scooped up the slate.
“Take the scarf, too. I don’t want it, either. It’s touched something unclean.”
With a shrug he picked up the length of black cloth and began wrapping up the slate.
“May the Lord forgive!” Nehzaym said. “I’ll have to do penance. Necromancy! In my own house, too!”
“Oh for god’s sake!” Soutan snapped. “It was only an image of a ghost, not the thing itself.” Soutan cradled the wrapped slate in the crook of one arm. “I’ll have to look through the books in Indan’s library. I wonder just whose ghost that was?”
“I don’t care. You shouldn’t either.”
Soutan laughed. “I’ve learned so much from your scholars that it’s a pity I can’t stay in Haz Kazrak. But all the knowledge in the world won’t do me any good if I’m dead.”
“If you bring Jezro home, you’ll have an army of scholars to fetch your impious books.”
“Oh, stop worrying about impiety! You’re too old to shriek and giggle like a girl.”
“I what? That’s a rude little remark.”
“You deserve it. I must say that you Kazraks have the right idea about one thing, the way you train your girls to stay out of sight. But you’re an old woman, and it’s time you learned some sense.”
“I beg your pardon!”
“You should, yes.” Soutan shrugged one shoulder. “I’d better get back to Indan’s townhouse. He wants to leave early.”
After she showed Soutan out, Nehzaym told the gatekeeper to loose the lizards for the night. Before she went back to her apartment, she stopped in the warehouse to wind the floor clock with its big brass key. As she stood there, listening to the clock’s ticking in the silent room, she suddenly remembered Soutan, talking about wanting the slate and looking at her in that peculiar way. She’d been so upset at the time that she’d barely noticed his change of mood. Now, she felt herself turn cold.
He might have murdered her for that slate.
“Oh don’t be silly!” she said aloud. “He’s a friend of Jezro Khan’s. He wouldn’t do any such thing.”
But yet — she was glad, she realized, very glad, that she’d seen the last of him.