Martin looked around. "Nice place. Where are we?"
"This is the Inn at San Francisco," Ann said.
"Rather like pictures from the Gilded Age."
They were in a hotel lobby and Martin's comment was appropriate. Curving marble staircases with bull-nosed treads and cast bronze balusters in the shape of stylized Eschscholzia californica; Corinthian columns, with deep fluting and gilded capitals rising the full two stories to support a glass dome; multi-tiered crystal chandeliers; frescoes so deeply allegorical as to leave the vampire uncertain of the subject — the large lobby lacked no ornate or opulent cliché.
"Inns are flexible and both reflect and are independent of their environment to some degree. It depends. The Inn at Shasta has always been a lodge, even before Americans began skiing. The one at Piraeus is still a dockside tavern.
"San Francisco is a complex town even for humans," Ann continued. "It's always had a formal society as well as one or more counter-cultures, whatever the names are this year. We're in the quiet, formal, part of the Inn. I'm told the St. Francis and the Ritz-Carlton were inspired by this part of the Inn."
She fit in well with her current surroundings: Her dress was silk crêpe, white for the full length skirt, with a violet sash that flowed up over her shoulders, twisted around her torso to form the bodice, then tied in front and fell nearly to the hem line. He couldn't find any hint of a zipper. He had been trying to follow the flow of the material with his eyes, but he couldn't determine if the sash was one long strip of material or if it had been cut and sewn. The topology was interesting and reminded him of something. "Like a Möbius strip," he realized.
"Yes," Ann said, smiling.
"Vionnet," he added, dredging the name out of his past.
"Yes. How did you know?"
"The shrink? She had good taste."
"Actually, she wouldn't let my kid cousin wear one, not one like this, tighter, with less top."
"How old was your cousin?"
Ann nodded. "Some of Madeline's dresses are not suitable for young girls."
He looked at her again, thinking the dress she was wearing was another. The dress veiled her body from shoulders to toes and by doing so, made it impossible to ignore. "Very elegant."
"Our restaurant is this way."
"This is part of a chain?" Martin asked, wondering about the Inn at Shasta and the Inn at Piraeus.
"It's a franchise, more or less," Ann said. "Do you want a drink first?"
"The Pacific Room, I think," Ann said. "The last time I was here, it was over this way."
The bar was quiet. Martin was impressed. The noise from the White Elephant started loud, grew gradually throughout the evening to a painful level, then stopped abruptly at 2:00 AM; while the noise from the No Mirrors Bar peaked erratically several times a night as the demon-vampire or the vampire-vampire or the demon-demon interaction grew heated. The No Mirrors Lounge had its own schedule of noise.
Martin held Ann's chair, then sat himself. The chair was comfortable and the table was marble. Keeping marble unchipped, unstained and nicely polished was not easy. He ordered scotch. Sipping it, he was startled. If this was the bar scotch, what else did this place stock? He debated asking for a Villeneuve's Hat, which was the most obscure mixed drink he knew, at least in the States, just to see what the bartender could do, then Ann said something, and he lost interest in business.
"The chain specializes in sheltering non-humans?" Martin asked, watching a trio of diminutive male taldis demons exit the bar ahead of them.
"Immortals and visitors, usually," Ann said.
"Vampires?" Martin asked.
"Why haven't I heard about it before?"
"From what you've told me, you're not an average vampire. You never were imprinted on the vampire who turned you or on the typical feeding practices. No one ever told you the rules."
"That's true," Martin agreed. "But then, even if I knew the rules I probably wouldn't pay any attention to them."
"Because you were one of the dangerous Boston free-thinkers," Ann said with a smile.
"And now, I'm one of the independent free-thinking vampires," Martin said.
"There's always a truce here," Ann said. "And that's not a change of subject. Not all traditional vampires are welcome. A certain standard of good behavior at the Inn is required, on pain of stoning."
"That's a little barbaric."
Ann laughed. "Not lapidation, petrifaction." A group of young blond men at the bar glanced up at her. She appeared to pay no attention.
Martin was watching her laugh, and didn't glance at the man alone at a table across the room, who looked at her and turned his face away. "What you did to Logan?" Martin asked.
"That was a simple immobilization. You can't move, you can't talk if I include your larynx, but you can think, see and hear."
"What Dmitri Romanov did to Jan?"
"That was a stasis spell. Ofon'ka has been practicing."
"What do you mean?"
"Stasis spells are tricky for some people to master, but slavers like them."
"Dmitri's a slaver?" Martin asked.
"What did you think he was doing with Jan?"
"Oh. Of course," Martin said.
"Sometimes Ofonasii Liubinovich needs watching," Ann said.
"How many names do you people usually have?"
"Compared with whom?" Ann asked, amused. "Normal vampires? Immortals, of whatever origin, tend to acquire use names. They're usually not completely our own doing, mostly they attach to us the way you became first Molchan Grigor and then Malcolm Gregory.
"Anyway, the advantage to stasis spells is that the object retains many of its original aspects. Color and visual textures are life-like, so the merchandise can be seen as it is, but I think the principal reason slavers like them — beyond that their merchandise doesn't age or need to be fed — is the same reason lawyers hate them: The object, if alive to begin with, has a memory gap."
"You can't testify to what you didn't experience?"
"So what's petrifaction?"
"That involves a hiatus, too. You're a statue; you're stone. You stay that way until you are released. You can get chipped or even eroded if you're left out in acid rain. Here at the Inn it's usually just till they can throw you out, but once out, you stay barred for a century or a millennium. It depends on the Innkeeper's mood."
"It sounds like a useful talent. Can anyone learn it?"
"Which may be just as well," Martin said.
"Well," Chasen thought, watching Andrée Chantal and an unknown vampire exit the Pacific Room. "She's taller than me this time. I still recognize her though. So, does her being here mean trouble? Maybe not. Everybody comes to the Inn, after all, and she didn't even glance at me or at the subjects. She's interested only in the vampire; lucky bastard."
He returned to his surveillance of the blonds. They were easily the dullest subjects he'd watched in recent memory. Still, his instructions were clear: The geek component would lead him to the man with the object. So far, though, none of the geeks had shown any intention of leaving the Inn. There was no way he was going to attempt any violence in the Inn, no matter how urgently Mekonnen demanded action.
"Anna, good evening." A man in a very nice evening suit halted a seemingly casual amble and smiled at Ann. He was shorter than Ann, his shaven head about level with the tips of her ears. He had black skin, a narrow nose and a pattern of raised scars on both cheeks: two mirror-imaged double spirals, like a capital S facing a backward one while lying on their long sides.
"Good evening, Innkeeper. This is a friend of mine, Martin Stevenson."
"How do you do," the Innkeeper said as they shook hands. The Innkeeper's hands were large for his height, and quite strong. His gaze sharpened at something behind Martin, and he said: "Excuse me." He nodded to Ann and hurried off.
"Brusque," Martin said.
"That was cordial," Ann smiled. "Innkeeper can be a hectic job, especially in a place like San Francisco today."
Something in her comments made Martin look at her. "Do you keep an Inn?"
"I did, a long time ago, when my foster son was young," Ann said. "It was much smaller and less frequented than this one, but some of the problems are the same, then as now."
"How long ago?"
"Oh, before you were born," Ann said. "Keeping an Inn does give a certain structure to one's daily routine, which I found helpful when raising an infant; and of course, the guests can be an education in themselves."
"And is your foster son here in with you?" Martin asked.
"He's away at school," Ann said.
"A small institution in the north-east?"
"Taz is going to be a junior at Stanford," Ann laughed.
"His friends there have started calling him Taz; I don't know why."
"How old is he?"
"Older than you are, younger than I am," Ann smiled.
Martin smiled back in defeat and returned to the subject of the Inn. "You may find this a silly question, but does this place have a street address?"
"It's not silly, and the answer is yes and no. It has a street address, usually with underground parking and a pedestrian entrance or entrances, but its address and appearance change day to day. It moves around, on no posted schedule, but it's always somewhere in San Francisco."
"This is quiet, too," Martin said, pleasantly surprised.
"I like quiet. If it were rated, this restaurant would get one bell. There are other restaurants—"
"Each with a different ambiance?"
"Yes. Here they have an excellent selection of appetizers. Ah, stuffed chanterelles. Do you like oysters?"
"One or two."
"We can order several small plates, so you can have a variety of tastes. And I'm told they have a fine blood list, if you want something substantial or something exotic."
"How do you know so much about us?" Martin asked. "Most humans think we sleep in coffins and eat only blood."
"Some of my friends are vampires," Ann said. "And some are professional vampire hunters."
Martin heard footsteps halt behind him and turned. Across the table, Ann glanced up and beyond him. She stared for a moment, appearing startled.
"Etana?" Ann asked. "I'd heard you left, but I didn't know you returned."
"Hey, you were always sharp. I didn't think you'd recognize me, what with the new body and everything."
"It's quite a change, but you're still you."
Martin rose to his feet and turned to face the man who had approached them.
"New name, though: Ethan. I'm going by Ethan now."
"Nice name. I'm using Ann Grove at the moment, and this is Molchan Grigor. Grigor, Ethan. Any last name, or are you just Ethan?"
"Singleton, I decided on Singleton, since I'm the only Ethan that matters. You a mortal, Grigor?"
"Not exactly." Martin was ready to shake hands, but Ethan turned back to Ann:
"You always had a thing for mortals, didn't you?"
"I like many of them, certainly."
"She's always been a little pamiscuous," Ethan told Martin. "She usually has four or five of them around."
"Oh," Martin thought. "Promiscuous. And it sounds as if those grapes are sour."
"I prefer 'eclectic'," Ann said calmly. "After all, I usually have only four or five of them around."
"Eclectic is good," Martin said, watching Ethan frown.
"Are you with someone, Ethan? A young man is attempting to gain your attention."
"Behind you," Ann said.
Ethan spun around.
Martin decided if he ever had to fight Ethan he'd cheat. Not only was Ethan young — about twenty-two at most — tall — about 6'6" — and well muscled — he could have been the 'after' example in an ad for an exercise video — he was fast and agile. He was wearing only a sheer linen kilt, sandals and a lot of massive gold jewelry: armlets, bracelets, a necklace and a wide belt of flat links, all with hunting scenes — men, in kilts like Ethan's, armed with spears, facing huge lions and strange winged beings — in high relief. In addition to having butt-long honey-colored hair and dark blue, long lashed eyes, he had a golden all over tan, totally lacked body hair and was uncircumcised.
"Ah, he's just one of the clan."
"You're gathering the clan again? Have you brought all your family?"
"Just the boys, you know, my brothers and cousins and uncles."
"You're fortunate to have so many good looking relatives," Martin said, as the young man signaling to Ethan was joined by a crowd of tall blond men. None of them, the vampire noticed, were quite as tall as Ethan or wore as much jewelry. Most of them were dressed in kilts, but some of them, seemingly older than the average although that might have been because they had shaved heads, wore toga-like garments in stripes of red and green, while others wore tight white pants under strangely cut caftans.
"Yeah, they all look a lot like me," Ethan said, smiling at Martin. "We planned it that way."
"All thirty-six of them," Ann said mildly.
"No, there's more of us. There's got to be more of us around here somewhere."
"Ah, those four beautiful blond boys in the quiet bar?" Ann asked. "I didn't realize they were with you. I don't think I've met them before."
"Most of them are new, so are some of the others, but hey, we're all kin."
"What are the forty-one of you going to do to pass the time? Your old occupation is mostly non-existent in this century, except on some of the cable channels."
"Oh, you know, this and that. Gotta go. Drop around sometime, Grigor, we'll have a beer."
"Thank you," Martin said.
Ann watched Ethan. Martin also watched the hulking blond gather up his relatives and lead them across the restaurant to a set of double doors, where a tall man carrying a slender staff, and with his hair and beard in long black ringlets, waited. Martin somehow recognized the Innkeeper, even wearing long robes with colorful spot patterns and deep fringes. He guessed costume changes, including body shifts, were part of the job.
Martin sat again. He knew there was no point in asking Ann how long ago she'd known Ethan. He'd just get another answer like oh, before you were born. He concentrated on what might be important now: "Is he one of the rough types you were talking about?"
Ann turned to him. "He's more uncouth. Are you immune to him? He was trying with you, there at the end, but you seemed unimpressed by him."
Ann smiled. "To enlist you. He likes followers. He can be very charismatic; although apparently not to vampires."
"Or to you?"
"No, and he knows I'm immune, he doesn't bother trying with me. I don't think he's a problem; certainly not tonight. Are you going to eat that last mushroom?"
"No," he said, passing her the remaining stuffed chanterelle. "What was his old occupation?"
"Looking good at state orgies," Ann said, "and other ceremonial events. He might actually be much happier this time around — we have very good mirrors now."
"Speak for yourself."
Ann chuckled. She seemed more amused than his somewhat feeble sally deserved.
"Is he right about you and mortals?" Martin asked. "Or were you just confusing him with words?"
"That's usually unavoidable. He's approximately correct, at least about the numbers. I often have more than one lover at a time. However, he's wrong when he implies that my lovers are chosen only from among mortals and he totally ignores that I select them carefully, whether they're mortal or immortal."
"Well, hell," Martin thought. "She ignores most of my questions, and then she freely delivers some very interesting facts. I guess patience pays. What should I say to that?" Aloud, he said: "Ah. I see. Does the selection process involve essay questions?"
"A series of vivas," she said, her mouth slowly curving into a smile.
"I always do well on orals," he said, leaning forward across the table.
"Really?" she said, moving to meet him.
Before Martin could reply, Ethan stuck his head around the door and bellowed. Martin winced and looked around. The Innkeeper, walking out the main entrance, frowned, and recrossed the room. Ethan pulled his head back. "Good for the Innkeeper," Martin thought.
Straightening, Ann watched as the four clansmen from the bar came hurrying across the room. "Now that is interesting."
"They all have laptops."
"That's as unusual as a vampire with a suntan," Ann said.
"The outer area is for pleasant conversation and quiet dining," the Innkeeper told Ethan. "With the door shut, this room's soundproofing insures that any behavior, even the most robust, can be kept private. We will arrange immediately for a separate exit and an elevator directly up to your quarters."
"Hey, nobody got hurt. Scaring those guys is harder than you think," Ethan said. He smiled winningly at the Innkeeper.
The Innkeeper rapped his staff on the floor. Just once. Ethan stopped smiling.
"I like my quiet dining room quiet."
"Enjoy your meal," the Innkeeper said, and left.
"And even if I did scare them, it wouldn't do them any harm at all," Ethan muttered.
Chasen, loitering casually near the door to the private dining room, walked off as the Innkeeper came out. Glancing back, Chasen saw him close the door and erase it with a smooth gesture of one hand. Well, if the Innkeeper had sealed Ethan in permanently Chasen's job just got easier. Chasen sighed. That was too good to be true. There's probably a door somewhere. He just had to find it. Over the years, he had come to appreciate civilization; not that simplicity didn't have its virtues, too, at least for short times. On the other hand, here at the Inn, he had the best of both worlds: even if he came in from the field wearing armor and carrying a shield, he could still get a wasabi vodka and stout depth charge. Chasen used the restaurant's back exit and walked around the perimeter of the private dining room, looking for changes.
"All right!" Ethan said, looking at the TelePrompTer. The cuneiform symbols started to flow slowly up the screen. "The time is ours! It is time for us to accompish our fated hero task. Slow this thing down, can you? We are all returned to take our rightful place in the world. To this end…what? So we can do this," Ethan ad-libbed, "we've made some changes — some of us are scribes and some of us are priests. Usually we're all heroes and hunters, but we've gotten started a little late and we have to catch up…uh…we need a variety of talents. The scribes, the priests and the hunters will locate and acqu…the scribes and the priests will find out what we need and the hunters will go get it. Once we have what we need, we'll change the world back the way it was, we'll be a new broom…what? We don't sweep — that's for slaves and women."
Produs Singleton whispered to Ranon Singleton: "I thought you were going to rehearse him?"
"We did; you should have heard him before."
Stap Singleton whispered to Ethan: "We will redirect the world into the proper and traditional worship…"
"Oh. Uh, we'll redirect the world to the proper…Oh, you know what I mean — we'll bless the fields, drink the beer and hunt, just like we used to!"
"Do you think we should remind him how different the world will be when we succeed?" Ranon asked while the rest of the clan cheered.
"He'll just forget again. He's quite the optimist," Produs replied.
"Did I mention I have the 0300 watch?" Martin asked. "I should be back at the Lounge by 0230."
Ann nodded. "If you want to walk, we should leave now; or we could have coffee on the roof and after that, I'll move us to the Lounge."
"That sounds good."
"There's an elevator over this way. Usually," she added looking around. "Ah, there it is."
The doors opened, they entered, the doors closed. Martin looked for a control panel but did see one.
"The roof," Ann said.
The car remained still.
After a moment, Ann said, "Martin? Have you changed your mind about coffee?"
"The elevators here are attuned to the passengers," Ann said. "I asked for the roof. Apparently you want to go somewhere else?"
"Oh," Martin said. "Not exactly. I was just thinking that this is the first time this evening we've been private."
"Think about coffee," Ann said.
"I'd rather think about kissing you."
"I can't teleport us out of here," Ann said.
"You could kiss me, and then I might feel more like coffee."
"I'll kiss you when this elevator arrives on the roof."
"OK," Martin said. "Now, I didn't do that."
Ann laughed. She stepped out of the elevator before she turned to him.
"You don't trust the elevator?"
"No," Ann said. "It seems a little too anxious to please. We might find ourselves elsewhere."
"That's not a totally unacceptable idea," Martin said.
Ann smiled, but said, "Returning might be a problem."
Ann didn't think about Etana. now Ethan, and his kin after leaving the dining room. She delivered Martin back to the Lounge, and walked home, wondering without anxiety when their separate demanding schedules would permit their affair to progress. As she climbed the stairs to the house on Russian Hill, she put those musings aside. Her assignment map would demand some attention before she slept.
For the next ten days she kept to her solitary routine: Checked her map and tidied up the local magical ambiance. In her spare time she attended her cooking classes, joined the dedicated deadheaders at the Guadalupe River Park Heritage Rose Garden, walked around Lake Berryessa, attended the fashion and the fine arts summer auctions at the Academy of Art University, and hiked up and down Mount Diablo.
The Saturday before the Summer Solstice she found an unusual locus highlighted on her map: Berkeley.
"What's going on in Berkeley? The magic users over there generally take care of their own messes. I haven't ever been to Berkeley on a litter patrol. Yet. Well, now I am."
She enlarged the scale. Fourth Street, between Dwight Way and Carleton Street appeared to be the locus of the problem. Getting there would take a little time. Only a fool would teleport to a place she had never seen to meet unknown conditions; Ann would walk some of the way, and see what was happening before she jumped in. She put on appropriate working clothes — jeans, a sweater and shoes that would do for walking or fighting — moved herself to a quiet out of the way spot she knew on University Avenue, walked to Fourth and turned south.
White saw-horse barricades at Blake Street blocked off Fourth to cars. Further south on Fourth Street, she could see more barricades across Parker, the last street before Fourth dead-ended in an empty lot. The only building was a large warehouse on a wide block, with another empty lot immediately across the street to the west.
'Benefit Block Party & Concert for the Berkeley Free Clinic' read the banner across a wide door towards the north-west corner of the warehouse. A crowd of humans, in the uniquely Berkeley melange of costumes and personal appearances, milled freely from the warehouse into the street and around the drum circle now occupying the western empty lot. A small group of people were just standing by the entrance, watching the crowd. As security, they were far too casual to suit Ann, but then, they weren't working for her.
She walked in, paid the suggested donation at the receiving table, and received a stamp on her hand.
The man behind the table waved one hand to his left. "The main entrance is down at the other end of the lobby. Look over the premium tables along the sides if you like. Later we're going to auction off some prizes, dinner at local restaurants, trips and original art and the like; we have handouts, including descriptions of services, hours, and the Clinic's history on a couple of the tables. We take Visa, MasterCard, American Express, cash and local checks. Uh, no smoking anything inside."
"I know," she said.
The lobby's temporary walls were ten-foot tall rigid screens hanging from chains depending from the ceiling. Above the screens were drapes filling in the screen to ceiling gaps. Since it was Berkeley and a concert, some witch, or witches, had set the warehouse and the interior furnishings with powerful and discreet soundproofing and contra-flammable spells. She had to look carefully for them. They weren't what had set off the alarms.
The set ended, the band withdrew, most of the dancers sought the cool of the night, and the viewing of the auction items began. Ann inspected the art work, covering most of the interior space while doing so. She noticed nothing amiss. None of the art appealed to her, and, rather than stay for the auction proper, she decided to walk around the outside of the warehouse, searching for whatever had set off her map. "So where is it?" she thought. "What is it? If there's nothing here, I'll have to tell Dai his map is screwy."
Walking through the foyer again, she felt a psychic tug. Calmly she turned her head. There, holding down a pile of Clinic literature, was a palm sized paperweight. It was an irregular quadrangle, approximately 7.5 by 3.5 inches, tapering to 1.8 inches at the small end, by 1 inch thick, with a beveled edge and a flat top and bottom. It was a table cut ruby, of a deep pigeon-blood red, about 4000 carats at a quick guess, and someone had stuck gold-foil press-on letters to its top, spelling out 'Berkeley Free Clinc'. She hadn't seen it when she had walked in, and if it hadn't called to her, she would have walked right by it.
"Greetings," she said.
The paperweight knew her, just as she knew it. It glowed briefly.
Unmoving, she regarded it for a long moment. "A tianyuan," she thought. Whatever you might call it — a tianyuan, a Heavenly Element, a Fragment of the Divine Egg, or a Piece of the Cosmic Egg — encountering one of the most magical artifacts in the Universe did not happen every day. Certainly, she had never expected to see one.
The tianyuan did have an avid, if small, following. Each Piece of the Egg was rumored to give its temporary holder some enhancement. For the most part, she had been content with the talents and powers Fate had given her, but some of her peers, as well as other immortals and ambitious humans, had been known to participate in an active Search for the Fragments.
She had much to consider, and what happened next depended only in part on her own actions. "Whatever else you may be," Ann thought, half to herself, half to the Piece of the Egg, "you're a portent of change. As if this life isn't complex enough already."
The Fragment laughed: a ripple of light ran from its broad end to its narrow end and back again.
"Yeah." Ann was not fool enough to believe consequences arising from non-action were different in kind from the results of action. Whatever one decided, action or non-action, karma ensued; only the details differed. She made her decisions and took up the Piece of the Egg.
She did not die immediately, which had been one possible outcome. Since she was still alive, she continued: Someone, probably a human, since she had noticed only humans around her, had brought the Fragment here. That the Fragment was just laying around could indicate that the temporary owner didn't know the paperweight was a Fragment or even a simple ruby. Even if the hypothetical owner wasn't religious, Ann did not expect a human to leave 4000 carats of gem quality ruby laying around. Still, there was the faint possibility that was exactly what had happened. Ann needed to assemble a replacement, a physical duplicate that would also serve as a decoy.
It wouldn't be that hard; even humans had been growing colored and colorless aluminum oxide for years: Ruby lasers, sapphire record player needles, scratch-proof white sapphire watch crystals, unbreakable knives that never needed sharpening, gear pivots, and, of course, gems.
She favored diamond, enjoying the stark elegance of pure carbon, but she often worked with the whole beryl and corundum families. In recent years she had specialized in chatoyant sapphire and ruby, but those were subsets of the basic gems. Clear ruby was the basic aluminum oxide, Al2O3, arranged in a hex cell array, but with some aluminum atoms replaced by chromium. The raw elements, aluminum, oxygen and chromium, were readily available. The problem was matching the color, which depended on the percentage of chromium present. This Piece of the Egg was a deep red, indicating a high proportion of the Cr+3 ion... It was a little bit like patchwork. Once she had the different five-atom units repeat pattern correct for the color match, the rhythm of assembly was simple and only took time.
An observer would have seen her lifting the Piece of the Egg off the stack of brochures, then stand quietly as she read the literature, but the ruby she eventually put down was only physically identical to the one she had picked up. It even had gold-foil letters spelling out 'Berkeley Free Clinc'. A human, even a skilled human, would not be able to detect the substitution; there would be no fuss from a bereft owner, no cries of thief, but the reactions, or lack of reaction, from any Searcher might be informative. The real Fragment was safely on her writing desk in the library at Russian Hill.
All that done, she paused. "Why stop with one?"
She conjured a dozen glass paperweights. They were simple solid solutions of lead glass with varying percentages of gold chloride. They were all irregular quadrangles, of slightly different dimensions, colored from pink to cranberry, with 'Berkeley Free Clinic' in clear letters inset in their tops. Each underside bore an engraved Common Era year date in Arabic numerals(2002), two Roman letters numbering the edition(A/L — L/L) , and a hastily designed hallmark (a demi-sun under a two towered bridge); there was also a paper sticker reading 'suggested donation $120.00' in Italic minuscules. It managed to look both business-like and artistic. In addition to eliciting possibly revealing reactions, the decoys might generate donations for the Free Clinic. She placed them among the other premiums and continued the job that had brought her here: searching for the magic mess her map had reported.
As she neared the open door, she heard one or more cars crash through the barricades on Park Street, squeal around the the corner, and shriek to a halt in front of the warehouse amid alarmed and angry shouts from the people in the street. The group of security watchers stirred and began to turn toward the street.
A surge of human magic swept over Ann. It left her untouched, but curious. "Now what?" she thought. The drum circle fell silent. The security watchers collapsed where they stood. The ticket sellers immediately in front of the open door started to rise to their feet, then slumped over the table and slid on to the floor.
Someone out there was a powerful human magician. "Not more magic then; it might be noticed. A simple teleport, though...," she thought. She glanced up at the rafters spanning the roof. The I-beams were broad enough to be useful. She teleported up, and arranged herself against a cross-beam.
Through the empty door and over the quiet bodies stepped four vampires armed with Uzis, a naked witch, and a fifth vampire, dressed as a mid-last-century preppie and carrying a chrome plated automatic.
"Where is it?" the fifth vampire asked.
"Close. It's close, Adan," the witch said. "It's red, it's beautiful, it's here." She looked around, then moved further into the lobby and looked around again. She walked over to the premium tables. "Ah." She picked up one of the glass paperweights. "No!" she said. "This is a fake." She threw the decoy paperweight the length of the lobby to crash against the far wall.
"But it looks like that?" Adan the vampire asked.
"It wasn't that!" the witch insisted.
"Does it look like this?" Adan asked. He walked over to the first premium table and picked up another of the glass decoys and showed it to the witch.
"The witch is only a human and the vampires are just vampires. So how did they end up here, looking for the Fragment?" Ann wondered silently.
"Yes, sort of."
Adan lifted the glass paperweight. "It looks like this," he told the four other vampires. "Search. Whatever you find like this show to Rissa."
"No, no," Rissa kept murmuring as she found other glass paperweights.
"Adan!" a sixth vampire said, running into the lobby. "Ivarr! He got away!"
"After him!" Adan ordered, and followed the sixth vampire as he turned and started running south down Fourth Street. "Don't hurt him!"
"Ah," Rissa said. "This is the one."
"She's right about that," Ann thought. Rissa was holding the decoy ruby paperweight. "So she managed to find it. I wonder if she went by the foil letters or by the sloppy spelling, but even more than that, I wonder who is more important than 4,000 carats of ruby and how and why he got away."
Ann ignored Rissa as she began crooning to the paperweight. Ann watched the remaining vampires hurry after Adan. She considered the terrain she had seen on her approach, and teleported beyond the barricades, to the empty lot at the south end of the street. She arrived in the shadow of a bush of Scotch Broom, disturbing some branches whose yellow flowers shed pollen over her head and shoulders.
Down the empty block a human figure was running. As Ann watched, the figure flickered, not in and out of visibility, but in and out of a vampire state. "Oh, really?" Ann thought. "Fascinating." She glanced north. Adan and his crew were already through the barricades and were coming up fast. Ann raced after the escaping vampire. She caught him by the arm, and, as Adan and the other vampires closed on them, she teleported both of them to the basement of her home on Russian Hill.
The vampire swung his free hand at her face. She caught a glimpse of a narrow face, grey eyes and tousled blond hair.
Ann forced him into stasis. "That was too easy," she thought. "A vampire should have been harder." She caught the toppling statue-like figure and lowered it to the floor. That done, she teleported back to her I-beam in Berkeley.
Rissa was still crooning to the decoy. The humans all around were still unconscious. Adan and his cohorts had not yet returned, but from the shouts Ann could hear, they were approaching. Adan appeared in the doorway.
The witch, clutching the ruby decoy, joined the vampire. "I have it, I have it!" Rissa said.
"You're sure this is the right one?" Adan asked.
"It's just what I saw," Rissa said. "This is what he described. He wants this."
"Get in the car."
"He who?" Ann wondered silently. "Whoever he is, did he want the ruby or the tianyuan? If it's only the ruby he wants, I think he'll be satisfied, but what if he's a Searcher? Things I don't know, and want to. I wonder if the vampire in the basement will know?" She heard car doors slam, and cars accelerate away, crashing through the barriers north of the warehouse. She dropped lightly to the floor. "Sloppy," Ann said to herself. A quick wave of her hand put all the glass paperweights and the rest of the lobby back in order. She walked out the door, and mended and replaced the barricades. "I don't need to worry about leaving traces here," she thought. "There are enough local power users that anyone noticing the fixes will just think some other witch did it." All that accomplished, she untangled the sleep spell Rissa had left on everyone. As the surrounding humans stirred, Ann removed herself to Russian Hill.
She went directly to her map. Now it was clear, with no highlighted spots demanding attention. Whatever had set off the alarms was gone. She set the covering picture back in place. "And I still don't know if it was the Fragment or Rissa's messy sleep spell that called me over there," Ann said to herself. "If it was the latter, has my map become prescient? That would be confusing. I must talk with Dai. Soon, but not right now." She moved to the basement and considered the frozen vampire.
This part of her basement was the play room. It had a tall ceiling, a mirrored wall, a selection of weapons, tumbling mats, a barre, a balance beam, a small table and cushions that she used for tea after practice, and windows. Not wanting the unknown vampire/whatever-else-he-was to know where he was, or more accurately, where she lived, Ann replaced the windows with blank wall. She removed the weapons, locked the door, turned the vampire onto his back, and slipped a small tracking diamond behind his sternum, in case she had no opportunity later. She removed the stasis effect, retreated across the room, sank slowly into lotus posture and waited.
The frozen vampire suddenly relaxed, then just as suddenly tensed. He scrambled to his feet and looked around. He saw her, but at her continued stillness, took in the whole room. He crossed the room in a quick, graceful stride and tried the door. Finding it locked he turned to her. "Does Adan have us?" he asked.
"No," she said. "I have you. The last I know of Adan, he was driving north. I'd like to talk to you."
"Ah," he said, as he watched her. He took a step toward her.
She froze him with a basic immobilization spell. "I am not as defenseless as I may look," she said. After a long moment, she released him.
"So I see." Subtly, his features became more finely drawn, his grey eyes shading to green.
She was watching him as carefully as he was watching her. He was, she realized, shifting just enough to suggest a male version of her own current look. "On the theory that the lover wants a lookalike? Yes," she thought, "you're a pretty boy and you may be clever, but if you're trying to seduce your jailor, you're wasting both our time." She kept her thoughts out of her face. With normal vampires, there was a barrier that prevented her from analyzing the curse all of them carried. The barrier was like a thick fog between her and them that prevented her from easily sensing them other than physically. She could see them, hear them, touch and smell them, but her other senses were blocked by the fog. This vampire's fog was not the pea soup sort she usually dealt with; this was a wispy fog, tattered and uneven, and as his features changed, it vanished entirely. She recognized what he was, at least in a general way, and that gave her some idea where he was from, or rather where he wasn't from. Aloud, she said: "Fascinating."
"The way you change from normal to vampire and back," she said. "How does that work?"
"I am not a vampire. Adan's the vampire; I was just his prisoner."
The wispy fog roiled around him again. She shook her head. "That wasn't quite a lie, at that moment. Now that you're vampire again, it would be. Don't do it; silence is better. Lying to me can be unwise," she said. "So how does this work? You have to maintain the shift? You're a vampire when you don't think about it? Your eyes are grey again, by the way."
"Yes." He sounded tired.
"And the basic change is very subtle. A human probably wouldn't even notice."
"You're not a human."
It wasn't exactly a question, but Ann answered it: "No. Related, but not human. You're obviously not human, well, it's obvious to me that you're not human. You're an alv, and you're not a just near visitor, either: you're a far traveler. How did you become a vampire? And was it here? Or at your home?"
He was silent, looking at her.
"I don't kill every vampire I come across, I rarely do anything to bothersome gate visitors beyond sending them home, and I want information you have. You don't know who I am or where we are and that's not part of an interrogation technique. I'm keeping you as ignorant as I can because I don't want to kill you or even change your memory."
He was still for a moment longer, then he gave a short nod. "I'm called Ivarr Dyrisson."
"Why did you come to Earth?"
"I felt the urgent need to travel."
"I bet you did," Ann thought. "Pretty boys like you are always surprised when you into trouble and your looks aren't enough to get you out of it." Aloud, she said, "How did you get here?"
"Two gates. I made it to Hove. The gate to Lillehammer was closed, so I came through at Gävle."
"When was that?"
"About two centuries ago."
"How did you become a vampire?"
"It happened here, about half a century after I arrived. Apparently in the usual way: A vampire killed me but let me drink from her. I woke up like this."
"Was there anything unusual about her? As a vampire?"
"Again, apparently she was normal." As he calmed, the fog faded around him.
"That's a lot to think about," Ann mused silently. She'd never been able to examine the vampire curse this thoroughly. "Good curse," she thought. "At least five? six? non-human casters. It's old, older than I thought it might be. The layers! Layer upon layer, and some of them are newer than the others. Ha! Not new exactly, even the newer parts are older than I am, at least in this life, but the more recent casters were local. Fascinating! I don't know whose work that is or how it modifies the original curse. Damn. Things I really want to know, and don't have time to find out!" Aloud she asked: "Why did Adan want you?"
"He thinks if he drinks enough of my blood, he can learn to shift."
"Is that possible?" Ann asked.
"I don't know; I doubt it, though. It's not something we acquire, it's something we do, what we are. We all do it after maturity; some better than others. The way shape-shifters in the fantastic literature here work sounds pretty unlikely, but then so do vampires. I started to tell Adan all that, but I realized if he didn't want to drink from me, he'd just kill me, so I shut up."
"You don't have vampires," Ann concluded.
"Not at home, no; nothing like them."
"Well, I'm not going to drink your blood," Ann said. "Are you hungry? Can you eat human food now or shall I offer you Cambells?"
"Human food," he said at once. "It's been a while."
She used the small tea table, and raided her stasis pantry, keeping it simple: Hot and sour soup, stir-fried chicken and asparagus, bean curd and vegetables, rice, and fruit, with Dragon Well tea and water. She described the ingredients briefly; for all she knew he was allergic to mushrooms or eggplant.
He nodded. "I can eat most things, even if I don't like some of them." In fact, he tried a bite of the bean curd, then carefully avoided the rest.
"Why was Adan here tonight?"
"What was Adan doing here? He arrived with a witch and armed muscle. What was he expecting? What were they looking for? Why was he here?"
"He meant to steal something valuable."
"That was obvious," Ann said. "Beyond that: What and why?"
"He has a list," Ivarr said. "I don't know where he got it, but he's had it for a while — it's tattered and stained — and he looks at it often."
"What was on the list for tonight?"
"A piece of jewelry, a ruby gew-gaw. That was the talk."
"What else is on the list?"
"Weird stuff: a flute, a wheel, a glass knife. No rhyme or reason to them that I saw," the shifter said. "The list tells Adan the thing, and the city. Rissa locates the raid more precisely."
"Oh, there's a reason for them," Ann thought. "One more might be coincidence, but three more? He's seeking Pieces of the Egg. Why? He can only use one of them." Aloud she asked, "Does he has the flute and the other things?"
"I think he does. Maybe not all, and certainly not with him, but some of them, somewhere; but that's just my impression." Not for the first time, he rose and paced about the room.
"How do you travel?"
"Cars," the shifter said. "They steal new ones frequently."
"How many people are in his gang?"
"It varies; there's a core of ten or so. About three cars' worth most of the time."
Ann nodded, and changed the subject to Adan's usual habits: "Does he have private meetings?"
"Not meetings, phone calls. I was shut out of planning meetings after I tried to escape, but even before that, he always took the phone calls in another room. Even Rissa isn't allowed in."
"When she's locating the place, what does she do?"
"Well," she said, "Thank you. If I turn you loose, where will you go?"
"Canada," Ivarr said at once. "Montreal."
She rose smoothly to her feet. "I'll send you there." She plucked from the air, and unrolled, a street map. "Any particular place?"
"You came through at least two gates and you suffered no ill effects, so, yes, now," Ann said. "From here to there."
"Near the University," he said, pointing to a green area on the Montreal map. "I know — knew — the area a little."
Ann released the map, which rolled back up and vanished. "There's a park two blocks north of campus where your arrival is likely to pass unnoticed. Have you any money?" she asked.
"Canada has changed its currency since last I visited, but I think this is still useable. You may have to change it at a bank," she said, and produced a small stack of bills and handed it to him. "And this: It's a life-saver. Crush it — it's just glass, don't get cut — and you'll be moved here, to me."
He took the money, but regarded the small clear sphere warily: "What else is it?"
"If you mean can I find it, yes, I can. If I search for it, I can find it anywhere on Earth. No one else can find it other than physically, seeing it or touching it."
"You can find me," he said.
"If I search for it, yes, I can find it," she repeated. She left the life-saver floating in mid-air between them, and took a step back. "Good luck," she said, and with a wave of one hand, sent him away.
At the last possible moment, Ivarr snatched the life-saver.
Ann forgot the alv: until and unless the simple diamond she had put in Ivarr announced his presence within the boundary of her prison, she didn't need to think about him.
She had other things to to occupy her mind: "If Adan, the vampire with the tacky automatic, is obtaining pieces of the Egg, the immediate questions is why? Yes, the Pieces of the Egg are individually powerful — and I must discover what powers were inherent in that newly acquired piece of trouble I now have — but why does he want more than one? Does he think he can use them? And, come to think of it, why do I think he can't? What do I actually know about the Pieces of the Egg?
"Well, there are forty-one of them."
In his office, the Innkeeper and four of his managers were handling routine administration details: Security, supplies, repairs, and reservations.
Zuri, security, in a very few well chosen words, reported on a brawl in the lower tavern and other matters. Chaldun, repairs and maintenance, commented on the breakage. Egil, the restaurant and bar manager, reported on the state of the pantry. Yerodin, the reservations manager, wanted some clarification on the clansmen.
"A meeting room?" the Innkeeper asked.
"And a computer center and a library," Yerodin said.
"What are they up to?" Egil wondered.
"All their activities so far have been permitted," the Innkeeper said.
"Chasen," Zuri said, meaning that Chasen was still watching the clansmen with computers.
The Innkeeper nodded.
"They want buffet service," Egil said. "Coffee, small foods and a full bar."
Zuri asked: "Where?"
"That's the problem," Yerodin said. "The most convenient rooms are reserved next week. A coven."
"Private floor?" Zuri asked.
"That would keep Chasen away," the Innkeeper agreed. "All right, create a café-bar for Ethan and his clansmen along with all the rest, and set the elevators to skip those two floors for everyone except them. Yerodin, do you have a contact for the coven?"
"Call and find out what they're planning, what they'll need. If we have to move them to the ballroom, do it. What's next?" the Innkeeper said.
"Chasen," Zuri said again, meaning something else about Chasen.
"He's contacting Mekonnen on that private mirror."
Yerodin and Egil glanced at the security chief. A complete sentence from Zuri was a rarity.
"Has Mekonnen manifested?" the Innkeeper asked.
"Everyone still keeps an eye on Chasen," the Innkeeper said.
Chaldun and the others nodded."What's next?"
In a meeting room next to a full café-bar, the Librarians, Lorant, Maks and Nansen, wearing spiral-sewn leggings and angarkas in fine muslin, sat at one end of a large table facing the Priests, Produs, Ranon and Stap, who wore their red and green togas. The four young men with laptops, who were called Guiscard, Hilarion, Imbert and Jere, wearing long pleated kalisari, sat facing each other down the sides.
Maks began: "Much of what Ethan said is to the point. We are starting later than some others, but there are many of us, we are specialized and we are organized, which is to our advantage. We are also in the right place at the right time to employ human technology in our efforts."
"So what are we here for?" Guiscard asked.
"There are forty-one pieces of the Cosmic Egg," Maks said. "We need to collect them."
"Therefore," Nansen said, "we need to know their current form and their general location."
"And once we have them," Ranon the priest said, "we must perform the rituals."
"You four," Lorant nodded at the men with laptops, "have a task with two parts: Search accumulated human knowledge, using your computers, for descriptions of the pieces and of the ritual we must follow to turn the Wheel and remake the world."
"We," Nansen said, "will be doing the same thing, with different tools."
"As will we," Stap said.
"With three modes of attack," Maks said, "we will efficiently and quickly acquire the knowledge we need to advance our task."
"You guys want original hardcopy?" Hilarion asked.
"Yes, if possible. However, we will accept e-books," Nansen said.
Chasen was regretting accepting this hire. He was working solo and to even attempt an adequate job he needed at least two leg men. If his employer wanted all forty-one clansmen watched, he needed a minimum of 123 watchers and there was no chance in hell that the Innkeeper wouldn't notice that. With that in mind, he waited until the computer geeks were safely in the private elevator, before he took another one up to the roof.
Selecting a table some distance from the serving area, he ordered fruit, yogurt and a local newspaper. As the waiter left, he cast a privacy spell. With that securely in place, he took a small mirror from his jacket pocket and spoke the activation phrase.
The mirror clouded, then cleared, showing Mekonnen's face against a carefully neutral background.
"Thank you for taking my call."
"What do you have to report?"
"You're paying me, but I don't think you're getting your money's worth. The big guy is working out in the gym, some of the others are off to a private brothel, and the geeks — the ones with the computers — disappeared into their private floor. They've been doing this on a regular basis for the last ten days. If they repeat their established pattern, they won't surface again for another 36 hours."
"Did you follow the group to the private brothel?" his employer asked gently.
Chasen was relieved he was able to say: "No, they invited the geeks to accompany them, which is how I know where they went."
"Keep your attention on the young men around the computers. The man with the book may call on them or they may go to him. I want that book."
"It might be simpler if I went directly after the man with the book," Chasen suggested.
"If I knew who had the book, I would not need your help. My haruspex is seeking a solution to that question, but he lacks the proper supplies at the moment. Follow the computer-guided young men. We know that at some point, they will come into close contact with the book."
"And I don't use a computer search because computers don't work reliably in this world."
"I would not venture to ask."
"But you were wondering."
"Yes, patron, I admit I was."
Bright light flashed, then the mirror faded to black. Chasen sighed and slipped it into his coat pocket. Not for the first time, he wondered if he was going to complete this hire alive. If Mekonnen stayed in the other world, he might. And Mekonnen was more likely to stay away if he managed to find the book and get it to Mekonnen.
Hilarion closed his computer, stretched and went next door to the private café-bar.
Methodical as always, the computer faction had moved from straight liquor, tasted in alphabetical order, straight and with ice, water, and soda, to mixed drinks, tasted in alphabetical order within categories. Hilarion was up to 'Bolero,' in the Rum sub-set of the Cocktail section.
He had moved along to a 'Borinquen' and was debating eating the gardenia garnish when Maks came in, brandishing a sheaf of hardcopy.
"Read this!" Maks said, passing over a small pamphlet.
"So?" Hilarion demanded, looking at the title. "I saw this. It's an abridgment, not that helpful."
"This part," Maks said impatiently, leafing through the pages. "Read the description here, half-way down the page."
"'The List of Relics of Abidoun is a translation from Gnodipian into Kagwas of the Ceremony of the Beginning. Containing a list of the Holy Objects and the full text of the Ceremony.' Yeah, that would be helpful, but this thing's title says it all: Extracts from A Commentary of Apocryphal Texts. The book does not exist," Hilarion said.
"And this." Maks handed Hilarion another piece of paper.
"What's that?" Hilarion asked.
"Part of the catalogue of the University library," Maks said. "The List of Relics is in Lima."
"And how did it get to Peru?"
"Concatenation," Maks offered. "Confluence. Whatever you call it, it's an established quality of the pieces of the Egg, people interested in the Egg, and writings about the Egg. The Scroll moved, somehow, from Gnopid to Kagwas, and from Kagwas to Earth, and ended up in Lima. What I'm saying is, let's get it and look at it. At the very least, it's an interesting work."
Eventually, Hilarion sought out Maks, running him down in the café-bar. Maks was surrounded by stacked coffee cups, sticky notes, and computer litter. Hilarion cleared off a space and sat. Maks looked up.
"So what's the problem?" Maks asked.
"Well, I've got good news and bad news."
"Good news, please."
"The University of Lima had the List of Relics—"
"Which we knew."
"And also a translation."
"Urdu, Alvish, Zelwash, Bonyia, Gnodipian, Kagwas and Yalit."
"Oh," Maks said.
"And more: Commentaries on the List of Relics, also in Urdu, Alvish, Zelwash, Bonyia, Gnodipian, Kagwas and Yalit. "
"And now the bad news," Hilarion said. "They no longer have either of them; they've been stolen."
"And where are they now?"
"I think they're on their way to California."
"Aren't we in California?" Maks asked.
"Technically, yes. I still say we should be back home."
"Well, I was never there, and while I haven't gone out that much, I like California, what I've seen of it, just fine. Why is it coming to California?"
"Apparently a Reverend Professor called Dyami Chandrapanthi, who's at some university here in California, suborned Francisco Naoko Guzman, an assistant librarian in Lima, to steal the book and bring it here."
"Is a Reverend Professor like a priest?" Maks took the sheaf of print out Hilarion was carrying and flipped through it.
"Maybe," Hilarion allowed.
"'Acquire the objects and deliver them to us and your salvation is assured.'"
"What's salvation mean in this context?" Hilarion asked.
"Some human religious idea, I think. You know how weird they can get on that subject. 'I will arrange meet you San Jose,'" Maks read.
"So where is this San Jose place?"
"Check your atlas," Maks said. "I want to brief one of the priests."
"All the stuff about religion," Maks explained. "He may see something there that we're missing, and besides, they're better at talking to Ethan."
Maks explained the situation to Ranon Singleton, concluding: "According to the latest e-mail we found, Señor Guzman will meet Dyami Chandrapanthi, who is a Reverend Professor at the Anglo-Sanskrit Theological University —"
"The what?" Ranon the priest asked.
"It's some sort of religious school, in Vallejo, north of here. Anyway, Guzman and Chandrapanthi will meet in a motel room in San Jose, which is south of here, the day after tomorrow, after Guzman, with the List of Relics and the Commentaries, flies up from Lima, Peru."
"I will explain to Ethan," Ranon agreed.
"Ah, Ethan," Ranon the priest said. "We have something we want to talk to you about."
"Make it fast, I'm on my way to the gym."
Ranon, with help from Maks and Hilarion, finished the presentation and waited for Ethan's reaction.
"How much?" Ethan demanded.
"It's human money," Maks reminded him. "It doesn't matter."
"For books?" Ethan sounded appalled.
"Books of directions, in a way," Hilarion said.
"Why we're here? Our hero task, remember?" Ranon prompted.
"The Egg," Hilarion agreed.
"We don't need directions," Ethan insisted. "We get the forty whatever pieces and uh, …"
"Well, there's a little bit more," Maks said.
"It's not just piling everything into a triumph," Ranon said.
"And dancing around it," Hilarion said.
"It's a matter of timing," Maks said.
"And we need to fine tune the ritual," Ranon said.
"Why you?" Ethan asked.
"The man with the books is a librarian," Maks said. "Not a very good one, I mean he stole from the library, but we think he'll be more receptive to us, not to the hunter-types. We talk the same language."
"OK. And you need a car? Why?" Ethan asked.
"The books are in San Jose," Maks said again.
"South of here. It's about six hours to eight hours if we walk, and only an twenty minutes if we drive."
"I've seen book stores around here. In the City, I mean."
"The books we need are coming in on an airplane," Hilarion said.
"To the San Jose airport," Maks said.
"How do you know that?" Ethan asked.
Maks opened his mouth, then shut it and looked over at Hilarion.
Hilarion considered explaining the Net, e-mail, fire walls, electronic snooping, and the entire concept of hacking. He gave it up. "We looked them up on our computers," he said.
"OK," Ethan said. "Get the books, have somebody read them. And remember, if I'm going to dance, I need at least an hour to practice."
After Ethan departed for the gym, Maks said, "We'll need clothes."
"What?" Hilarion asked.
"Why?" Ranon asked.
"Everyone who goes outside wears street clothes."
"You're right. Even Ethan wears different clothes when he goes out," Hilarion agreed. "Let's ask the Innkeeper."
The Innkeeper, meeting the three Clansmen near one of the exits of the lounge, listened, then shook his head and said, "Clothes appropriate for Broadway will attract attention on the street in San Jose. Is what you want?"
"We have a tailor who is reasonably au courant with local styles. You can discuss the occasion with him and see what he suggests. This way."
"And we're going to need some human money," Maks said.
"The cashier will advance you what you need. How much will that be?"
"Sixty cubed," Ranon said. "Uh, in decimal English, $216,000.
"Certainly," the Innkeeper said. "There is a mandatory briefing on how to conduct yourselves in modern human society, and what to do if difficulties arise. The Inn retains Polias and Coronis for legal matters, and also the Kearney Agency for escort work."
"Hey, we may be smart, but we're still heroes. We can get around on our own," Hilarion. "We can all drive, we passed the course."
"And when were you planning on leaving the Inn?"
"Tomorrow night," Maks said.
"In time to get there before midnight," Hilarion said.
"So," Chasen thought, "something out of the ordinary: A priest, a scribe and a librarian, in a huddle with the Innkeeper. If it's not just the start of a Bar Joke, it might be important. Those three need watching." He kept walking, but doubled back behind some of the ubiquitous potted palm trees, sat down and began to read his paper, keeping an eye on the mixed trio.
"So, here are your car keys, your licenses, your panic buttons, and your money."
"Thank you," Ranon said.
"Remember, since that thing last year, humans in this country are very xenophobic. Don't speak anything but English or Spanish," the briefer said.
The three clansmen left the briefing room and went off to the elevators.
Chasen watched the elevator read-out. The geeks' elevator descended, and remained for some time in the garage. Chasen pushed the call button, and repeated the act until the right elevator stopped in front of him. It was empty. OK. Chasen ran down the stairs in time to see the boys finish sorting out the seating and who was going to drive. He got to his quiet Toyota in time to follow the candy-apple red Escaslade out the up-ramp.
Guzman, the less than perfect librarian, followed the Reverend Professor's instructions, even when he was already sure he hadn't been noticed. The ticket checkers in Lima had paid no special attention to him, the stewards had paid only the same attention as to any other business class passenger. In Los Angeles no one had paid any unusual attention to him: The customs agents had passed him through after the usual post-11-September search and interrogation, both of which were stringent but expected and impersonal.
He went to the San Jose shuttle ticket outlet and arranged to take the next flight north, without attracting any attention that he noticed. When the plane lifted off, he sighed, having successfully 'broken his trail,' exactly as instructed.
The Reverend Professor had strongly impressed on him that what he carried was valuable, not only to the faculty of the University of Lima and the faculty of the Anglo-Sanskrit Theological University at Vallejo, but to Others. These Others also wanted the book and the scroll, and only by following the professor's instructions would Guzman, and his immortal soul, be safe. There was also the matter of the deposit.
What would happen if the Others took the book and the scroll was almost too terrible to think of, so Guzman turned his mind to the next set of instructions, reading them again. The penultimate step involved a meeting and half a playing card. He could do that, Guzman told himself, opening his paperback and regarding the jaggedly cut Queen of Hearts he was using as a bookmark. He moved it to his right jacket pocket and made sure the flap was smooth over it.
He was much surer about driving. Even California traffic couldn't intimidate someone who commuted in Lima. Just to be on the safe side, however, he said a quick prayer, holding the large cross he wore; then he inspected his new international driver's license again. Satisfied with his preparations, he waited as patiently as he could for the short flight to end.
"How will we know which one he is?"
"We'll have him paged," Ranon said, walking over to a white phone. "I saw this on the television. Page Francisco Naoko Guzman. Yes, I'll hold."
"White Courtesy Phone for Francisco Naoko Guzman. Francisco Naoko Guzman, White Courtesy Phone, please," came over the PA system.
"How much of a fuss is he likely to make?" Maks asked.
"Yes, we're not the ones he's come to meet," Ranon said.
"We're going to be offering him a lot more money," Hilarion pointed out. "I don't think he'll care."
Tightly gripping his carry-on, Guzman walked into the airport. He picked up his checked luggage — one wheeled suitcase — and looked around for a car rental agency. He heard his name called over the PA system and stopped. This wasn't according to the plan, but he had been cautioned that emergencies might happen and he should be alert for any contingency. After all, the call included his middle name, the name his mother gave him and which he never used in Lima. He had used it in his e-mails with the Reverend Professor; this message must have come from him. He picked up a white phone.
"May I help you?"
"This is Guzman," he whispered.
"Please speak up, sir."
"This is Guzman!"
A blond man, one of three people surrounding the phone next to his, looked up.
"This is Guzman," Guzman said, more normally.
"One moment, I will connect you."
Hilarion said: "Mr. Guzman?"
"Yes?" Guzman said into the phone.
Hilarion tapped him on his shoulder. "Mr. Guzman? We need to talk to you."
Guzman caught his breath and jerked around.
Ranon nudged Maks, who was speaking into the phone: "Hello? Hello? I'm not getting anyone." Maks looked up, then straightened.
Guzman saw three tall fair skinned men, clearly related to each other, with what a writer of an English telenovela would call 'ruggedly handsome' features. They wore khaki pants, brown lace-up boots, white shirts with the sleeves rolled up and the collar open. In each shirt pocket were a laser pointer, a Rapidograph, and a dry-erase marker, each in a different color: red, blue, and purple. One of the men, with long blond hair in a queue down his back, carried a laptop; one, with a crew cut, carried an aluminum briefcase; and the third man, the one with the shaven head, was empty-handed. They all had dazzling smiles. They seemed to radiate a feeling of friendship and camaraderie. Warmed and charmed, he smiled back at them. "Yes?" he said.
"Hi! You don't know us," the one with the laptop said.
"But we know about you."
"We want to talk about the List."
"And the Commentaries."
"Let's go to the café."
"If we're not going to the hotel room, shouldn't we go on to the university?" Guzman asked.
The three men exchanged quick glances. "Later," one of them said.
Guzman stopped smiling. Just inside the café he balked. "Uh, do you have something for me?"
"Oh, yes," said the man with the aluminum briefcase.
"Of course," the third man said.
"Come sit down and we'll show you."
"Show me now," Guzman said.
"We're not supposed to show you the money where other humans can see it," the man with the laptop said.
"Not money. The other half," Guzman said, dropping his suitcase and reaching into his pocket for the Queen of Hearts.
"Of what?" the third man asked, looking blankly Guzman.
"You're not from the university," Guzman said, stepping back and leaving the card where it was.
"We're from a different library," Maks said.
"Argh! Vade retro me, Satana!" Guzman held up the cross he wore.
Alarmed, the three heroes stepped back.
'I knew it!' Guzman thought. 'The Reverend Professor was right! The Others are after the books, and these are They!'
"Is he having a fit?" Ranon asked. "Humans do have fits."
"I don't think it's a fit," Maks said. "I think he wants the money."
"That doesn't seem entirely likely," said Hilarion, as Guzman snatched up his suitcase, turned and ran out the café door.
"We're being watched," Maks muttered.
"Right," Hilarion said. "Let's sit down and think about this."
"We should follow him," Ranon said, taking a step after Guzman.
"No," Maks said, blocking the priest for a moment. "That man in the grey pants and shirt, with the gun and symbolic shield, that's one of the airport guards the Inn's briefing warned us about. We should leave."
Guzman spotted a crowd and hid himself in the center of it. The enhanced group of people split to exit through several doors opening on to a wide pavement where a bus waited. Everyone got on. Guzman stopped in the door: "¿Va este autobus a una agencia de alquiler de automoviles?"
"Does this bus go to a car rental agency? Only four or five. Get on," the driver said.
No one noticed a man hurry out of the airport, glance at the front of the bus, then speed off towards an illegally parked car.
Guzman tried to calm himself. Fortunately, there was a line at the car rental counter. He kept glancing around, but the three blond men did not reappear. His breathing returned to near normal, and he even remembered his English as he completed the forms and handed over his VISA card.
He picked up his car and headed back the way the shuttle bus had come. He missed the turn for Airport Parkway, and was disconcerted to find himself suddenly and without making a turn, on Technology Drive. He paid little attention to the car following him as he decided to go back and find Airport Parkway.
Guzman turned left on Sonora Avenue. At the stop sign, he read 'North First Street', which was what he supposed to be on after making a turn off Airport Parkway. He took his time before deciding to turn right. The car behind him waited patiently as he made up his mind.
Chasen followed the man with the books. "He's never heard of turn signals," he thought, turning south after the rental car. "I miss the old days: I'd just set the rakkis on him, follow at my leisure, and sort through the inedible bits until I found what I wanted. Now, there's all this damn tedious personal effort. Faugh!"
Guzman, still alarmed by the abortive meeting with Maks, Ranon, and Hilarion, was ready to see dangers everywhere and he quickly noticed the car behind him. Exceeding the speed limit and earning a rebuke from the car's speakers, he tried to outrun his pursuer.
BOOKQUEST, Guzman read. A warehouse for books. 'Be alert for any contingency', the Reverend Professor had written. Books were Guzman's life; books had gotten him into this dangerous predicament, perhaps books could help him get out of it. He turned into the parking lot. He got out of the car for a quick look around, then hid the car as best he could around the back, in the shadow of a dumpster.
He pulled his rolling suitcase out of the car and, taking his carry-on, hurried quietly along the side of the warehouse where the shadows were deep. He scuttled across the large metal garage door, passing a small human sized door towards one edge. As he neared the human door, it opened.
A security guard, older than Guzman, and even more sedentary, tried to exit.
Guzman let go his rolling suitcase and, fueled by desperation, hit the guard in the face with the carry-on, knocking the guard back. Guzman hurried in after him.
Guzman found himself in an oil stained loading bay: a large empty area, with wheeled canvas carts carrying brown cardboard parcels and manila padded envelopes, with a few pallets laden with larger cardboard shipping boxes off to the side by a small forklift.
The guard fell and Guzman hit him again. "Perdone Usted,"Guzman said, his English deserting him again. He knelt and took the guard's handcuffs, using them to bind the guard's arms behind him. "I will return directly and you can arrest me and I will be safe, but first I must hide the items."
He locked the entrance he had used, took his rolling suitcase and his carry-on and hurried across the loading bay, where he went through a pair of double doors in the interior wall. He found himself in the mailroom: a long table with packing materials ready to hand, tape, scissors, packing paper, bubble wrap and a dedicated printer, with a socket for a plug-in inventory device; surrounded by several of the small wheeled carts, each with a stack of books and its own small hand held inventory computer. He looked over all the books, looking for one in particular. There, that stack, the ones on the bottom, they were the right size; and they were blank, not even a title on the spine. Excellent. He eyed the stack of books, took the printout inventory with attached mailing label, and selecting a large mailing box and set it up, taping the bottom closed and lining it with bubble wrap. He took the List of the Relics and the Commentaries out of his carry-on.
Looking around again, he saw a bundle of shipping tubes. They were a little too long, but they would do. He removed the Scroll of List of the Relics from its leather carrying case, removed the modern scroll from its mailing tube and swapped them, putting the List in the tube, while the modern scroll went into the leather carrying case. He took out one of the blank books and slipped the Commentaries in the gap. He put the blank journals in the shipping box, added the rest of the books in the original stack, placed the List, in its makeshift mailing tube, on the stack. He plugged the hand-held into the printer and printed out the shipping paperwork. He put the inventory in with the books, taped the carton closed and attached the label.
He took the extra blank book and put it and the leather scroll case in his carry-on. He put the box he had packed in one of the larger wheeled carts, re-arranging the sealed cartons already there. "There," he thought. "Several innocent boxes, no way to tell them apart. The books are as well hidden as I can manage."
Chasen, locating Guzman's parked car and noticing the wheel marks in the foundation planting bed, had no trouble discovering where Guzman had gone, but was delayed while he picked the lock. Walking silently into the loading bay, he saw the guard.
The guard had managed to use his spare handcuff key and had his hands free. He didn't notice Chasen behind him. All he saw was Guzman, returning. He had his gun in one hand and with the other was struggling to free his radio from his belt.
"Stop!" the guard said.
"Help me!" Guzman called.
"Stay right there, fella. The police will be here in just a minute." He raised the radio to his mouth.
"Dammit," Chasen said. He foresaw a swarm of pesky humans interfering with his plans. He drew a knife from his sleeve and stabbed the guard in the shoulder, causing him to drop the radio.
The guard shot Guzman and slowly turned and faced Chasen, pointing the automatic at him.
Chasen killed him with a thrust into his heart. He stepped on the radio, then walked over to Guzman. "Dead. Damn. Worse luck: no books. Where's the man's luggage?"
Chasen looked around, then focused on the floor. There were faint wet and dirty tracks from the wheels, leading back into the warehouse. He followed them into the mailroom.
Books, boxes, and bins. The suitcases were over by the table.
Chasen lifted the rolling case onto the work table and opened it. Clothes, but no books. Opening the smaller suitcase, he saw a scroll case, about 13 inches long and 4 inches in diameter, of hard, smooth finished leather, with an unknown glyph stamped on the lid. With it was a plain cover, leather-bound book, approximately 10 inches by 13 inches. He frowned, then shrugged. He'd give both to Mekonnen. He closed the carry-on, and taking it and the larger case, returned to the loading bay, where he searched Guzman's body, taking all the Peruvian's papers: passport, wallet, plane ticket, international driver's license, and the paperback book with the stamp marking it as property of the University of Lima.
In the underground parking facility of the Inn, Chasen drove past the candy-apple red SUV. Apparently the clansmen managed to return safely; with that thought, he dismissed the group from his mind. They had only been a means to an end and now he had no need to think about them at all.
He unloaded the wheeled suitcase, and taking it and the small carry-on, took the elevator up to the roof.
He ordered a martini and sipped it. When it was half gone, he took out his mirror.
"I have completed your mission," Chasen said.
"Ah," Mekonnen said. "One moment."
Across the table, the air thickened, then opened. Mekonnen sat in the chair opposite Chasen.
Chasen rose, and placed the small suitcase in front of Mekonnen, who opened it eagerly. He took the leather book. He opened it, then let it fall back. He opened the scroll case, removed and unrolled its contents: a crumpled photo of the panoramic view from the top of Everest.
"What is this?" Mekonnen said softly. He opened the book and displayed its blank pages to Chasen. "This is not what I hired you to bring me."
Chasen stood and stepped back. "It is what the man was carrying, which is what you told me to get for you. You never told me any details, and you never mentioned the book at all. I brought them to you without even opening the scroll, which is what you told me to do."
"Liar and thief!" Mekonnen said, standing himself, and growing more massive and less human of face. Energy crackled around his hand as he raised it.
"None of that," the bartender said.
"Keep back!" Mekonnen said, turning to the bartender and pointing at him.
Chasen dived under a table as lightening flashed.
There was no thunder. Chasen, listening hard, heard nothing except a resumption of normal bar talk. He lifted his head and took a quick look around.
The bartender was back behind the bar, and Mekonnen was stone. The Innkeeper was surveying the new statue. He held his hands up, palm to palm, and slowly spread them apart. A glowing ring grew between his hands. When the opening he created was of a sufficient size, he turned his hands palm out to Mekonnen and pushed the ring over him; then he closed the portal.
The Innkeeper glanced around, gestured the tables and chairs into order, and vanished.
Chasen got up off the floor, took a seat at the bar and ordered another martini.
Chasen heard the phone ring. No one could avoid hearing that phone ring. He picked it up.
"Chasen, a problem has arisen with your bill, and the Innkeeper would like to speak with you as soon as possible."
"Certainly. I'll attend him as soon as I complete my ablutions."
'Oh, damn, damn, damn.' Chasen gulped down a pick-me-up from the small refrigerator, then took a cold shower.
He had realized as soon as Mekonnen had stood up that he was in real trouble. The demon thought Chasen had betrayed him or possibly just cheated him. Either way, Mekonnen was after his blood.
He had left the mirror on the bar when he had staggered to the elevator. Even if the Innkeeper had already released Mekonnen, the demon couldn't use the mirror to track him. As long as he stayed at the Inn, he was safe. Outside, he had no expectation of safety.
"Chasen," the Innkeeper said, "Mekonnen has canceled your credit."
"I should have thought of that," he muttered. "Ah. He is recovered, then."
After a brief silence, Chasen said, "I was wondering…"
"Should I understand that you find it inconvenient to leave the Inn at the moment?"
"Very inconvenient, yes."
"Your own account is not sufficient to maintain you in your current quarters, or for that matter, in any of the guest quarters. You've been overdrawn for several years."
"However," the Innkeeper said, "I am not interested in turning you out."
"Provided you work for your keep."
Chasen swallowed. "Fine," he said.
"Here's your new room number. Move your belongings, then report to Chaldun, the maintenance manager."
Chaldun looked at Chasen. "Got any magic?"
"Then there's your cleaning cart. Follow the flower crew. When they take away the vases, dust the tables and statutes. Use the yellow dust cloths on the tables, and the feather duster on the statutes. When the flowers are done, you use the carpet sweeper on the runner and the dust mop on the wood floors, making sure to gather any twigs or fallen petals and to wipe up any spills of water. You all start at the top at 0600 tomorrow."
Detective Sylvia Corbin was on the phone with her mother: "Look, Ma, I have to go."
"But are you coming down this weekend, Sylly?" her mother asked.
"Maybe, but it depends."
"Gotta go." Sylvia rang off. She hated being called Sylly. Her mother and all her high school friends still used her baby nickname. Sylvia's college years had been spent in northern California, far from home. Her mother still lived down in Oceanside, and Sylvia managed to avoid visiting more than once or twice a year. She insisted on driving, which kept the few visits even shorter than they could have been.
The phone rang again. Sylvia assumed it was her mother again and ignored it.
Her partner David Chang's voice came out of her answering machine: "Sly, pick up."
Sylvia didn't mind being called 'Sly'. She picked up the handset. "Hi. What's up?"
"We got a call. Body in a warehouse. It's on your way in."
"Walsh, off the San Tomas, near the airport, 'Bookquest' in big letters on the front."
"OK, it'll be about half an hour, depending on traffic."
Walsh Avenue was just west of the airport, in the freight handling area: many sheet metal and concrete block warehouses, left plain and unadorned, and a few offices of sprayed concrete blocks, usually in pastel colors, with redwood beams sticking out of the walls, sometimes supporting second floor decks or landings, often not, with radio and microwave receivers of various sizes and orientations on their roofs. These were often surrounded by landscaped berms with thumb-thick saplings stuck here and there amid plantings of salmon or magenta iceplant. The warehouses were surrounded by cargo containers, tractors, trailers, stacks of both wood and plastic pallets, forklifts and old fashioned closed delivery vans.
with large blue letters on the wall of a typical corrugated metal warehouse, was towards the east end of Walsh.
Sly saw the coroner's van waiting outside. She parked away from the activity and showed her badge to the uniformed officer who was acting as sentry. She ducked under the yellow tape and stopped, while her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light.
Everything was apparently running in Chang's usual orderly style. Sly signed in with the Recorder and was handed two pairs of paper booties.
"Two?" she asked.
"Change for the mailroom. The CS people are trying oblique lighting on some shoe prints there."
Sly nodded and, carrying the spare booties and carefully avoiding all the evidence markers, looked for and found David Chang, who was looking at the first of a pair of male corpses.
"So what happened?"
"The way I see it, the guard shot this guy, and then was knifed by a third guy."
"Who is he?"
"No ID," David said. "We can get a name from the rental car outside."
David indicated half a playing card in an evidence bag: The Queen of Hearts. "It was a meet. I don't think it was drugs, which leaves ransom or espionage."
"Or whistle blowing or simple smuggling or something else," Sly said. "And why here?"