Consequences: The World In Play: Chapter 6

I

Oakland

Brandon's phone rang. "Hello."

"Get over here, Bernardo," the boss's voice said. The boss always called Brandon Bernardo.

"Sure, boss. Uh, where exactly?" Brandon didn't know why the boss never used his name. He hated being called Bernardo, but he didn't want to be staked the way the last right-hand-vampire had been. He could put up with a lot of things to avoid being staked.

"My place."

"Right away, boss." Brandon caught up his jacket and headed out the door into the evening. I hope this isn't another body, Brandon worried. The war was over, and things were just settling down a little. It had been a rough year, and he had been longing for some peace and quiet.

Raoul diCosta's current place was a furnished efficiency apartment, not far from East Fourteenth Street. Brandon didn't know whose it had been or how the boss had acquired it, he only knew that the boss was staying here now. The boss's coat was tossed over a chair. Another coat, not as expensive, and a purse were on the floor beside the chair. There was a girl, maybe alive, maybe not, on the bed.

The girl blinked, but was otherwise still. She was very pale. She had been plump, but now looked ...deflated, the junior vampire decided. She had two puncture wounds on her neck; they were fresh but already closed. Her skirt was pushed up above her waist. Her blouse and bra were spread open to her sides. Above her half nude body, her bleached blonde hair was both wild and flat. Her eyes didn't move from the ceiling as he entered the room.

The boss came out of the bathroom, buttoning his cuffs. "Get dressed," he ordered the girl on the bed.

She sat up, and fumbled with the front clasp of the bra she still mostly wore.

Brandon licked his lips as she settled her breasts in the cheap lace cups.

"No," the boss said. "She's forgotten what happened. If you start with her, I'll have to blank her mind again. Anyway, another drink from her and she'll be too weak to walk. Next time."

"OK."

"Help her with her drawers. If she goes home without them, she'll start worrying about it."

"Did she have tights?"

"No. When she's dressed, get her out of here."

Brandon pulled the girl's panties up her legs, then brushed her skirt down over them. He put her shoes over her bare feet. "Up you go," he said quietly, lifting her upright. He picked up the coat and put it on her, then he stuffed the purse in the coat pocket.

"Go sit in the park," the boss ordered. He donned his jacket as he stood in front of the girl. He reinforced his order: "Sit in the park for one hour, then go to your home."

Brandon knew the boss was really good at enthrallment and domination, but that was a complex order. The girl walked to the door. Brandon hurried around in front of her to open it. With only a little wobbling, the girl left the apartment.

"Will she sit there?"

"Why not?" the boss said. "Women have no will power. She'll do as she's told. Let's go." He gave his jacket a shake and took a last look around. Apparently he saw nothing out of place or left behind. He gestured Brandon out, then followed him, closing the door behind them.

o

"I've been thinking, Bernardo."

What now? Brandon worried. "Uh, yes, boss?

"I want you to be my native guide."

"Sure, boss. Where do you want to go?" Brandon didn't understand why a vampire would want to leave East Fourteenth Street. The place had everything — constant streams of tasty humans, some tolerant bars where a guy could get a drink, a variety of places to take over, and a cosmopolitan population that wasn't over eager to talk to the local police. What more could a vampire ask?

The boss, though. The boss thought too much, in Brandon's opinion. He was careful never to express that opinion. The boss, even among vampires, was noticeably ready to kill anyone, human or vampire, who opposed or slighted him. He was also quick to take offense, even for minor actions. One had been staked because he said it looked like fog. Of course, that guy might have been staked because he was right, not just because he contradicted the boss.

The recent war would have added even more to Oakland's already impressive three digit body count if most of the casualties had not been vampires. Somehow the boss, although a member of the Oakland vampire scene for less than a year, had come out of the war as the head of the largest remaining vampire gang.

He didn't look it, Brandon thought. The boss was about 5'9" and extremely well fed. He had a formality in his clothes that contrasted with the more relaxed taste of local vampires. His face was square, with wide cheekbones; his eyes were dark blue with hazel flecks, shading to an irregular golden-hazel ring around the pupil; and his brown hair cut short. He looked slightly overweight and soft, but he was very quick and strong. Then there was that whole fascination, domination and enthrallment ability. He was not a person Brandon could stand against, not that he tried.

"We will have a night out across the Bay." The boss turned up International Boulevard, apparently heading for the BART station several blocks away. Easy for him, he'd just eaten and was warm and lively. Brandon remembered something else:

"Uh, boss?"

"What, Bernardo?"

"By the time we get to the station, BART will have stopped."

"What? Why? It's only a little past midnight."

"The only time it ran 24 hours a day was when we had the earthquake and the bridge broke."

"I expected more from a state of the art transportation. This is nearly as bad as the subte."

"Yes, boss." Brandon had heard about the subte before. He wasn't entirely certain what it was, but it broke down frequently and was behind its construction schedule. On the other hand, it was cheap.

"What good is a state of the art transportation system that shuts down at night?"

"It's not actually state of the art anymore, and it's only closed for four or five hours."

"So when is the next train?"

"Over here, you mean?"

"Yes, Bernardo, here."

"About 0430, which isn't that long but with sunrise still so early..."

"We'll take the car," the boss said.

San Francisco

Raoul diCosta decided keeping Bernardo in ignorance about the true nature of their excursion had been wise. If his lieutenant had known they were on a scouting expedition, he would have been more nervous than usual. Raoul would have to pick his time carefully before he let Bernardo know he intended to expand into San Francisco. Possibly the best time to tell Bernardo would be after the process had begun.

"Last call, people. Last call."

Raoul glanced up. He turned to Bernardo. "What does he mean, last call? It's barely 0045"

"Officially, all the bars in San Francisco close at two o'clock," Bernardo said, apologetically.

"Two o'clock? You're joking!"

"No, sir. Some of them, like here, shut down earlier. That's why we came here first."

"For a city with its reputation as a party town, San Francisco closes up damned early." The first bar on Bernardo's list was full of varied and interesting patrons, who seemed to be having a good time. They were laughing and relaxed, totally off-guard. Some of them looked so damn edible and easy, he knew he'd been wise to eat before setting out tonight. He found that he still did not care for bourbon at all, didn't like rose hips or smoked olives in a cocktail and was quite taken with something called a Rusty Screw, which involved lemon peel, Grand Marnier and scotch. Not bad for something out of a glass.

"After hours stuff is music or parties. Raves."

"And they're dry?"

"Officially, dry and drug free."

Hm. Lightly drunk victims were more approachable, Raoul thought. And tasted better. After a few drinks, the mix of alcohol in their blood enhanced the flavors of both components. Best of all was opium, filtered through pre-adolescent boys. That was long ago and in another country. "And unofficially?"

"There's a couple of places we can go." Bernardo frowned, and didn't meet Raoul's eyes as he added: "Look, just don't do anything, OK?"

"Such as?" Raoul asked coldly.

Bernardo looked up, then away: "Well, y'know, eat somebody. For one thing, boss, there's only two of us. And this place is popular, even if it is quiet. It's a private club, but you could join real easy. I just sign you in the first time. Uh, if that's all right with you."

"That'll be fine," he reassured Bernardo.

o

"This is the No Mirrors Lounge. It's quieter and open all night, not like the No Mirrors Bar or the White Elephant, downstairs," Bernardo said.

"So who runs it?" Raoul asked. "I assume from its name it caters to vampires."

"Oh, yeah. See the guy talking to the bartender?"

"That old guy?" Raoul eyed the vampire at the bar and wondered how old he was. Vampires have two ages: The human age they had been when they were changed and also how long they had lived after that. The vampire at the bar looked as if he had been at least thirty-five before he had changed, which was unusual. What vampire, Raoul though, would eat someone that old? Raoul had not yet turned nineteen when he had been changed and had been a vampire for one hundred fifteen years.

"He went gray before he got turned, back in the last century. This is his place, so's the Bar."

"Does he have a name?" Raoul asked.

"Martin Stevenson," Bernardo said.

o

The patrons from the White Elephant were leaving when the two vampires reached the street. If a connection had been made, the pair of men moved off more briskly than the unsuccessful singles. It would be simple to lure a lonely male off...

"This would be easy hunting," Raoul said. He kept his voice soft, so as not to alarm the herd.

"Ah, no, I'm afraid not," his native guide said equally softly. "Not here. The White Elephant clientele is off limits."

The two vampires walked north-east up Howard Street, heading back to the car.

Raoul asked: "So why is the meat market off limits?"

"Stevenson says so," the local vampire said.

"Does he say why?"

"Uh, no. He just..."

"Does he go there?"

"He's usually at the No Mirrors Lounge. Oh, sometimes he's throwing people out of the No Mirrors Bar, but mostly..."

"Does he have a boy friend who goes there?" He stopped and looked at Bernardo. "Does he have a boy friend anywhere?" If Stevenson liked boys, the simplest tactic might be the easiest.

"I haven't been here for a couple of years. He didn't then. Rumor has it, back mid-last-century, yes, he had a few. Not recently, though. From what I saw when I was over here a lot, it's women."

"Human?"

"Yeah, the ones I saw."

"Why?"

"Why what, sir?"

"Focus, Bernardo. If he's not keeping some pretty boy complaisant, why does Stevenson protect them, why keep us out?"

"He says he likes a quiet life. He's got some long rant about how 'tell the townspeople to bring torches and meet in the square' is hard on the innocent bystanders and bad for property values."

"Why the hell would a vampire care about property values?"

Bernardo shrugged. "No idea. It's not so bad, you know. The No Mirrors Bar hasn't been raided in a while, like sixty-seventy odd years. It's open twenty-four seven, all year. And Stevenson always lets you run a tab for Cambells."

"Ach! That canned swill?"

"I'm saying it's a trade-off," Bernardo said nervously. "Anyway, the bars further along Folsom are all right. They know we're out here though, and are pretty wary. They'll give you a good chase. Or just a little further west, there's still some good hunting in Haight-Ashbury. The run through Buena Vista Park is really exhilarating. There's a great view of the City."

Raoul ignored that: "Just how much territory does Stevenson reserve for himself?"

"Roughly a five block radius around the No Mirrors Bar."

"And how does he enforce this?"

"Patrols. Mixed gay and vampire vigilantes."

"Other vampires co-operate with him? Have they no pride?"

"Boss," Bernardo said, "not everybody is as good a predator as you are, you know. Really, though, Oakland is much easier."

"Ach!" Raoul said again. Complications. If San Francisco's vampire population was co-operating, the tactic of adding an adherent here, an adherent there, would probably be ineffective. At least it would probably be noticed. If Stevenson and the No Mirrors Bar were a focus for the local vampires, destroying the first and taking over the second, while presenting several problems, might be the easiest way to add San Francisco to his territory. In any case, he needed to see how Stevenson would react to an attack before he could begin to plan. "I'll need a map," he told Bernardo.

Raoul discovered that a Bloodshot — a cocktail of equal parts Cambells, strong beef tea and vodka, with a squeeze of lime, over rocks — was drinkable. He normally loathed Cambells, but he was attempting to blend with the zanganos at the No Mirrors Lounge. He had tried the classic Bloody Mary, in all eight flavors, and the Tabasco flavored Sangrita before he got around to the Bloodshot. The drink made his sorties into Stevenson's place bearable.

He was being careful not to eat anyone within the truce area. Yet, he thought. I won't eat anyone here yet.

Jesse the junior bartender was on duty. He was a little taller than Raoul, with a long lantern jaw. His dark brown hair had blond highlights, and was combed back from a straight hairline. He always wore the same necklace: a free-form heavy silver-colored pendant with an ugly lump in the center. The lump was surrounded by black faceted gems and inset gold stars.

"The usual," Raoul told Jesse.

"Sorry," the bartender said. "What is it again?"

"A Bloodshot, AB negative, with lime," Faron the head bartender said. "Right?"

"Right," Raoul said. This place, he thought, needed a shake-up. Jesse should remember his customers. Especially me. Patience, his calmer self urged. He was well over a century old, and knew that patience could be useful, if not enjoyable. He left the bar, and selected a table that gave a wide view of the curved bar and the entrance.

"Jesse," Faron said. "What's up? You got his drink right last time."

"That was a week ago," Jesse said. "I remember now."

Faron frowned. It hadn't been a week ago, it had been only two days.

It was a little past 2300. A woman alone walked in the door. She paused by the blanket check girl and spoke with her. Karelle shook her head. The woman nodded and handed the vampire a white silk trench coat. Raoul turned to watch her walk across the room.

A human, she wore dark green trousers, a lighter green one button jacket with no lapels, and a silvery gray top with a deep cowl. She did not carry a purse. She was a gawk, too tall and too skinny, with no bust or hips; not to his taste at all. He expected her walk to be awkward and jerky, but it was a smooth, graceful glide. Her hair was pulled back from her face in an untidy bun, with black wispy tendrils around her neck, which was, he noted, white, slim and very biteable. She sat at the bar, not far away, but with her back to him. Not what Aunt Geltrudris would have called a lady, Raoul thought, but then his aunt had been one of the most rigid, hide-bound, stuffiest...

The head bartender went over to the woman. "Ann," Faron said. "I suppose you want your usual?"

"Yes, thank you, Faron."

He had expected a high, tight voice, but when she spoke, her voice was surprisingly rich and resonant, and deeper than most women's. He couldn't see her face, but Raoul thought she would be smiling.

The new bartender brought Raoul his Bloodshot. His hand shook, and a drop of cocktail spilled on the table.

"I can make you the best chocolate martini ever. I use a fresh grating of Ghirardelli's bittersweet, Ashanti Gold, and a twist of orange peel."

"A whiskey sour, no sugar on the rim," her voice was gentle, but firm. Apparently she did not want a chocolate martini. Raoul could only approve her taste.

"That's Jesse," Faron said, waving one hand at Jesse. "He's new. Hey, Jesse, come here. Jesse, this is Ann Grove."

Jesse wiped the table, then walked back behind the bar.

Ann Grove glanced at the pendant Jesse was wearing, then at his face. He gave her a brief little smile. "As it happens, I do know Jesse," she said.

Three vampires came in and sat at the bar, on the side nearest the door, to Raoul's left.

"Excuse me." Jesse quickly moved down to take their orders. Faron completed Ann Grove's whiskey sour and placed it in front of her, then moved around the bar to meet Galley at the waiter's station.

Ann Grove took her drink and moved around the curve of the bar, away from Faron and Galley, Jesse and the three new vampires and, incidentally, Raoul.

Eventually, Jesse delivered the last drink to the trio of vampires. He glanced around. Ann was looking at him. He sighed and went over to her.

Raoul tried to listen, but he was unable to hear anything more. He considered and rejected changing tables. Too obvious. He watched the two humans. Jesse's back was eloquently unhappy. Ann Grove's face was serious.

″Jason: is Jesse all right?″

"Oh, yeah, he's OK; we're all OK. Listen, Ann, call me Jesse, OK?"

"No one can hear us. Why are you being Jesse?"

"The four of us are working this job."

"The four of you?" Ann asked.

"Me, Jesse, Joshua and James. I guess you haven't met James?"

"Not yet," Ann agreed

"He's new. The thing is, the owner doesn't know about the other three of us, so when you see one of us here, it's always Jesse."

Ann was silent for a long moment. "Jason," she finally said, "we have a serious problem here."

"Hi, boss," Jason said.

Ann turned and smiled at Martin Stevenson as he came up beside her.

Jason glanced at him, then back at Ann. Oh, hell, Jason thought.

Well, that was the most interesting thing I've seen yet, Raoul thought. What had Jesse been saying? He wished Ann Grove hadn't moved out of earshot.

Stevenson and the woman did not kiss or even touch, but their physical relationship was readily apparent. Jesse the bartender seemed to suddenly realize that, too. What had he been saying to her before the vampire came up? That reaction was more than just getting caught putting the make on the boss's woman merited. The bartender left the couple.

The three newcomers started pushing at each other. It was nothing serious, and downstairs in the Bar, it would have been ignored. Here, Stevenson went over to the trio, leaving the woman, who looked over and caught Jesse's eye. Jesse glanced after Stevenson. The woman shook her head. They certainly had a lot to say to each other; more like old friends than just introduced server and client.

"Martin can handle it. We need to talk."

"Ann, look..."

"Jason, I won't lie to my lover, even by omission. If you're in trouble or in danger, certainly I'll help, but you should see that if this is any sort of scam — targeting Martin or even one of his friends — I'm in a completely untenable position."

"It's not like that. It's just, uh, ..."

"Either the rest of you stop pretending to be Jesse, and he works this job alone," Ann said, "or you all come out to Martin. Well, at least a modified outing. He does need to know who exactly is working here, but I don't see that you need to tell him anything beyond the fact that there are four of you." She frowned and continued: "Currently four of you. Four of you here. At least four of you. Oh, however you need to phrase it."

"Oh. Well, that might not be so bad."

"Can you communicate with the others?"

"You know we don't do telepathy!"

"Have you phones?" Ann demanded.

"Oh, yeah. Actually, we have a family plan."

"You have two hours. Consult among yourselves if necessary, but straighten this out."

"We really like this job."

"Two hours," Ann repeated as Martin, smoothing back his hair with one hand, rejoined her. "What was that about?" she asked the vampire.

"I don't know," Martin said. Jesse moved off. "It doesn't belong up here, though. As I was about to say, I'm sorry, but about Friday: I'm on during the day."

"And I'm busy next Friday and that whole weekend," Ann said. "After equinox?"

"But before Halloween," Martin said. "That's the last big invasion of tourists before Christmas shopping and New Year's."

"And a cross-quarter day," Ann said. "I find quarter days and cross-quarter days to be busy. We'll see what happens. I'm due at home."

Well, that was interesting, Raoul thought again. Are she and the bartender working together? If so, on what? Whatever it might be, if they are, can I use them? How? Why hasn't Stevenson taken the obvious step of enthralling her? That smile had not been totally besotted, the way it should have been. Well, she is a gawk. Maybe he thought she wasn't worth the effort. Maybe he has other women.

Stevenson and Ann Grove walked over to the blanket check where Karelle handed out the white silk trench coat. Stevenson took it and held it for the woman. They exchanged smiles, and the woman left. Stevenson did not watch her go, but returned through the door beside the right end of the bar.

Arrogant, Raoul thought. He thinks she's safe. He thinks his writ protects her. Or, he shrugged mentally, he really doesn't care about her. Something else to think about.

Stevenson was pretty much an enigma, Raoul mused. He worried about property values, safe streets — things Raoul never thought about — and most confusing of all, the man worked. Two or three times, Raoul had seen him downstairs behind the Bar. What sort of vampire was that?

What sort of vampires were the San Francisco types? Some of them were gay, some weren't; some were definitely drones; some seemed to like Cambells, some didn't, but Raoul hadn't seen any of them contest with Stevenson.

There he goes now, Raoul thought, right on time: It was nearly closing time for the White Elephant and Stevenson and his friends were going out on watch. Now that was just poor hunting management. If you didn't cull the herd, the strain weakened. If the prey weakened, the vampire would weaken. Everyone knew that. Raoul would be doing the entire vampire race a favor if he stopped Stevenson. Right, he thought. Absolutely. There was just the problem of how. He'd think of something. Raoul diCosta ordered another Bloodshot, and kept observing and scheming for another hour before departing for Oakland.

o

When Martin returned after his walk around, Karelle caught his eye.

"Ah, Martin," Karelle said.

She was keeping a carefully straight face. What? he thought. "Yes?" he said.

"Jesse and uh, some other people want to see you."

So what was she up to? Or was Jesse up to something? It's always something, Martin thought. He crossed the room directly to the bar. "Jesse? What's the matter?"

"I'm Jason," the bartender said.

Martin looked at him. "You look like Jesse," he said carefully, wondering if the strain was telling on his new bartender already.

"I'm Jesse," the same voice said.

Martin turned slightly to his right. Jesse, wearing different clothes, and his customary necklace, stood there. Jesse remained standing to his left, and, wearing a third set of clothes, was at the same time just coming out of storage room; while, in a fourth outfit, yet another Jesse was popping up from lower shelves of the refrigerator right beside the first bartender, who insisted he was Jason.

"That is Jason," the one who had said he was Jesse said, "and next to him is Joshua and over there is James. We're identical."

"How very Biblical," Martin said. He was relieved. Quadruplets, identical quadruplets, while rare and potentially confusing, seemed much easier to deal with than a bartender suffering a nervous breakdown. "And you all tend bar?"

"We've been taking turns," Joshua said.

"We didn't think anyone would notice," James said.

"Ann noticed," Jesse said, "which isn't surprising."

"We didn't know she was here at all," Joshua said.

Ann knew them? He'd have to ask her about that.

"Right," Joshua said, and inspected Martin carefully. "Apparently she comes around a lot."

Jesse also considered Martin.

"She's a regular customer and a friend of the family," Martin said. "She runs a monthly tab."

"Right," one of the four muttered. Martin ignored it.

o

When Karelle arrived at work the next afternoon, the first thing she asked Martin was: "So what did you do?"

"I hired them all. Some combination of them will work 16 shifts a week, here and downstairs, starting tomorrow. I left the details of the scheduling up to them."

Karelle nodded. "Can you tell them apart?"

"Not yet."

o

Ann arrived home after a short, but messy, litter patrol. She fixed tea and a small plate of almond cookies. She sat on the living room deck and poured out the first cup. Her large crystal phone appeared on the table and chimed. She touched the crystal.

"Anna," the receptionist at Coronis and Polias said. "Nancy asks if you can come in today."

"Unless it's an emergency, I'll need 45 minutes, Fenasti," Ann said. "I really must change."

"That will be fine."

Now what? Ann wondered. She sipped her tea, ate a cookie and moved up to her bedroom. After a shower, she braided her hair and wound the plaits around her head. She decided on a silk gabardine navy skirt and jacket, with matching Ferragamos. She pinned on a navy and white hat, from the Academy of Art University fashion department sale, then considered and rejected gloves. Even in San Francisco, daytime gloves were now mostly utilitarian. Hats, however, hats were still fun. This one was mainly straw, with a little flat ribbon, a decorative veil and a few feathers here and there, along with the two hat pins that insured it wouldn't go flying off. It was useless in the sun or rain, but it did look good.

She was ready in time for a short walk, so she ported to a safe spot in the Embarcadero BART/MUNI station. She walked around a corner and, to all appearances a normal subway rider, joined the other riders who rode the escalator up to Market Street. She walked along Pine Street to the tall, angular, building where Coronis and Polias had their offices.

Fenasti greeted her, saying: "Nice hat. Go on back. She's free."

Ann walked down the corridor to Nancy's large, corner office.

"You're being sued." Nancy was wearing a gray pencil skirt and a white pleated linen blouse. Her ash-blonde hair was up in a bun. She looked calm and competent and was carrying a roll of parchment.

"By whom?" Ann asked, sitting in the client's chair beside Nancy's desk.

"Mekonneth, or as he is currently known, Mekonnen."

"He threw a fireball at me," Ann Grove said.

"He claims he was startled." Ann's lawyer sat at her desk and opened the long scroll. It stayed flat. She frowned at it. "Apparently you waved a sword at him."

"I do not 'wave swords' at people. I destroyed the fireball in a quick, safe and efficient manner."

"More importantly, he also claims to be on the Quest of the Egg."

"Why not?" Ann said. "Everybody else is."

"Anna," Nancy Polias said, "if he is..."

"All right," Ann said, "I know. If he is, I can't banish him."

"Exactly."

Ann was silent for a moment. "So what's really going on here? What was the committee really worried about? The fires or the Quest?"

"If they tried to use you to divert Mekonnen from the Quest, it didn't work. That may make it more unlikely that they will try that particular ploy again. In any case, now I know what to watch for. Oh," Nancy said, still looking at the scroll, "and he says he wants his book back. What book?"

"It's not his book," Ann said. "It's A History of Apocryphal Texts. I'm not sure whose it is."

"Where is it?"

"I didn't take it from him, I took it from the Heroes, who bought it from the book dealer over in Berkeley. While I'm uncertain who holds the legal title to it, I gave it back to them. It isn't that helpful, you know."

"I'll deal with that."

"Thank you." Ann stood up. She and Nancy walked out the door and along the corridor.

"Stay out of trouble," Nancy said as Ann opened the outer door. Ann glanced back at her lawyer and smiled, but said nothing. Nancy sighed.

o

Ann finished her midnight patrol. It had been exceptionally dull, even for a routine task. Now, she needed a place to think, a place where she wasn't likely to be interrupted. She ported to a rock near the top of Mount Tamalpais and listened. No wandering humans. Good. She stretched out flat and looked up at the stars.

Tamalpais stuck up above the local fog. Here, the sky was clear and the temperature twenty degrees lower than sea level. It was nearly equinox; already the autumn stars were higher in the sky. There was Pegasus, with the tip of Pisces just to the south, and over there, Aquarius.

Well, what was she to do next? Having had decided not only on action but on purposeful action, there was no reason not to do it well. Thrashing around wildly was pointless. She needed a plan. A plan required data.

The Singletons had data. Maks and Hilarion and their brothers, cousins and uncles had been gathering the written word about the Egg, the tianyuan and the Ceremony of the Beginning. Their library might be helpful. The problem was, she wanted to stop the ceremony from proceeding, which meant their interest and Ann's interest were incompatible. She thought it unlikely they would grant her visitor's rights to their library. The Innkeeper would probably object if she just walked in without the Singletons' permission. No.

That left Meri.

Ann stood and stretched. Home to Russian Hill and sleep. After a quick breakfast and a stop at her favorite bakery, she would meet Meri in her office at the library in Moraga.

o

Meri was wearing an elegant linen pant suit, in black and white, with long narrow crocheted insets running around the jacket edges.

"Very nice," Ann said.

"Today, I greet several tours of new students," the librarian said. "They pay more attention if I dress as if I am a chief librarian rather than if I were a stack worker."

"Those are runes," Ann said. She frowned at the pattern.

"Yes."

"Write it down," Ann read.

"Yes," Meri said again. "A scholar's saying. The other side reads: Catalogue it at once. A librarian's saying."

"I see." Ann poured coffee and waited while Meri took a piece of baklava before she posed her question: "Can I believe what A History of Apocryphal Texts states?" She quoted the relevant passage.

Meri arranged a napkin on her lap, then, after a bite of baklava, began: "In answer to your question, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of any of the conclusions in HOAT. In this case, the very title of the work in question, The Saga of the Egg, is itself somewhat arbitrary."

"No doubt," Ann murmured, then sipped coffee as she considered the matter.

Meri continued: "The author is unknown, but legend says he, or she, was from a distant world."

"Where can I locate a copy of the original text?"

"It will take a while," the librarian said. "As far as I know, there are none available here: Madalveus, who wrote HOAT, and who we assume has at least seen a copy of the original Saga, certainly was several worlds away. He wrote in Alvish, but The Saga of the Egg was first written in Yeltuki, not Alvish and certainly not Urdu or English. Um. Yes, translations of translations, indeed. I quite see your problem."

Reading Yeltuki was not a problem, but Meri knew her subject. If she said there were no copies of the original here on Earth, there weren't any.

"I wondered about that. I don't mean to trouble you," Ann said. "Is there a book dealer who specializes in esoteric imports? A nearby book dealer? I can't travel at the moment." And, she thought, it really wouldn't be kind to involve poor Glen Merrill in her pursuits.

"Well, there's one over in the City. He's calling himself Stancy Flemming at the moment. He has a shop called The Constant Reader."

"Stancy?"

"Sometimes Constantine," Meri said. "Sometimes Stancio Reyes, most often Stancy Flemming. He was originally a simple human. He still takes money." She brushed a flake of pastry off her jacket and wiped her hands.

"Is he reputable?"

"Mostly," Meri said, "for some limited definition of reputable."

o

Later that day, after her noon litter patrol, Ann walked down Sutter Street. She passed an upscale trendy clothing store, then came to a luxury chocolate shop. Both were pricey, but worth it, especially the chocolates. She went in and bought flavored chocolate wafers, chocolate creams, chocolate covered nuts and fruits and two varieties of mints. Some things were easier to buy than to make. She moved them all to the pantry on Russian Hill and, unencumbered, continued along Sutter.

She reached the roll-out shelves that were on either side of the door to The Constant Reader and ran her eyes over the books on display. Paperbacks two for a dollar; hardbacks two dollars. The Constant Reader was painted in an arc on each window and centered in three lines on the door.

Ann was wearing a one button Armani pant suit, with curved lapels and a cut-away hemline, in soft pale blue-gray wool over a silk jersey top in blue with a navy belt and matching high heeled oxfords. She walked into the shop and approached the only other person present: "Mr. Flemming?"

Flemming was wearing black Frye boots, black jeans and a burgundy crew neck T-shirt under a tweed sport coat. He had a book in each hand. "Yes. Can I help you?" He sounded as if he were busy, but still trying to encourage a customer.

"I need a book found. An original of The Saga of the Egg."

He really looked at her. "The original is in Yeltuki," he said, in a different tone of voice.

"I am aware of this," Ann said.

"It will cost you."

"I'm sure we can arrive at a price."

"I'm not interested in money." He put the books he was holding down on the counter and turned back to her.

"What does interest you?" Ann asked.

"Diamonds. More accurately, one specific diamond: the largest ever found."

Ann regarded him calmly: "Mr. Flemming, not only has that one been cut, all the bits and pieces have owners. I am not about to steal any of the British crown jewels."

"That one is spoiled," Flemming agreed. "I want a new one. Jingwu."

"Indeed," Ann said.

"Yes, I recognize you. I know what you can do."

Well, he couldn't know everything; and what he said he knew was fairly common knowledge. Ann remained unalarmed.

Flemming continued: "Do we have a deal? The largest diamond for an original text of The Saga of the Egg?"

"It will cause comment. The Cullinan Rough was about 4 inches by 2 inches by about 2 ½ inches. It weighed one and one third pounds," Ann informed Stancy. "3100 carats, give or take a few carats."

"Ten percent bigger," the book dealer said.

"3410 carats?" Ann asked. "You couldn't even have it cut here without a lot of fuss. Remember the last time. Whatever would you do with it? Even at a pound and a half, it's still too small for a doorstop."

"I'll think of something. And let's just round it up to an even 3500 carats."

"You would be better off taking krugerrands or 35 hundred carat stones."

"One 3500 carat stone," Stancy said. "Do we have a deal?"

Ann shrugged, then said: "It will take me a little time."

"So will finding the book," Stancy said. "You're really getting a bargain, you know."

"If you do not deliver the book by 2015, the arrangement is void," Ann said. "You say you know what I can do: Also know this, I value my privacy. I insist on a non-disclosure clause: you may not reveal any information about our contract. Not its very existence, not what I want and not what I am willing to pay for it. Were you to blab after completion, I would keep the book and repossess the diamond. In addition, I would be very annoyed. Agreed?"

Stancy nodded: "Yes. New Year's Day or New Year's Eve 2015?"

She was already working on stones for an earring for James the bartender and a cuff for Joshua. She would begin a ring for Jason as soon as he decided on the design. She could start Flemming's huge diamond tonight, before her midnight patrol. Thirteen years... Thirteen years was rushing a little for 3500 carats. The task would involve more personal attention than a longer time span would require, but it would be done.

″New Year's Eve,″ she said.

Why Flemming wanted it was still a mystery. She might eventually discover more, she might not. Ann made her way west to Hyde Street and caught a cable car homeward.