A Dish Served Cold

A Dish Served Cold

 

It’s said that the Eskimos …. Wait. That’s not politically correct any more. It’s said that the *Inuit* have twenty-seven words for snow.

Augustus Van Dorn didn’t know about that, but he knew how to curse in twenty-seven languages and he used all of them as he stood in the snow near the arctic circle, his string of profanities ending with “fucking Eskimos.”

He thought back to how this had all started.

* * *

In his line of work, you got to see places most people never see. He’d been to Paris, in the spring, sipping coffee on the Champs Elysee. He’d been to New Delhi during the festival of Diwali, where the candles and oil lamps and fireworks lit up the night like a hundred million lightning bugs. He was in Sydney on New Year’s Eve, 1999, as people rejoiced in the biggest party of the millennium. He’d also been to the depths of the Sahara Desert in the middle of summer, where you could literally fry an egg on the sand at mid-day, and to the slums of Mexico City, where life was worth less than nothing. Of course, in his line of work, he didn’t work for nothing.

A drop of poison in the coffee of a certain French government official. Fifty thousand Euros. The immolation of an problematical business owner from Noida. One hundred fifty thousand Swiss Francs. Orchestrating the “accidental” fall of a foreign diplomat from the top of the Sydney Opera House. Two hundred fifty thousand Australian dollars. Making an adventure-seeking CEO disappear from the face of the Earth during his one man off-road crossing of the Sahara? Well, that one had netted him a cool three million British Pounds. After his near fatal incident in Mexico, he had decided to give up the life.

Before he could close down his operations, though, he was contacted for one more job. It seemed some eco-friendly Eskimo with a law degree was interfering with a certain corporation’s desire to open up some territory in northern Alaska for mineral exploration. One million, American, to eliminate the problem.

Van Dorn did a cursory check and found out who was really behind the request. For the ex-politician who was trying to hire him, one million was pocket change. At the best of times, Van Dorn was apolitical. It was fairly standard in his line of work. Van Dorn wasn’t one of that politician’s true-believer flunkies and he didn’t like being low-balled. He sent a reply via coded e-mail from an untraceable source: “Insult me again and I’ll take a job for your opponent, free of charge.”

Ten minutes later, the revised offer came in: Five million dollars, American, in gold, the first million up front at the drop point of his choosing.

Van Dorn nodded. Okay. One more job before he left for good.

He decided to play it as an adventurer hunter after big game. He booked first class flights to Anchorage. Arriving in Anchorage with insufficient cold weather gear, he went to a hunting shop and played the wealthy but none too bright tourist adventurer and let the shop owner provide him with the top of the line rifle, handgun and gear for a trip deep into Alaska.

“Y’know, you really should come back in the summer time, Mister Lancaster” the shop owner said, using the alias Van Dorn was using on this job. The owner was a man by the name of Billy Ray Johnson. “I’ve been here for nigh on fifty years. I came just after Alaska became a state. I can tell you that the best hunting is in the summer. Sure, you might maybe find some caribou out there … maybe even a bear or two … but your odds would be a lot better six months from now. If you go missing out there, this time of year, ain’t no one gonna be able to go looking for you for months.”

Six months was out of the question. His client needed the target out of the way before the warmer weather made mineral exploration possible. Besides, that meant there would be no great investigation of his target’s unfortunate demise for months, either.

“Thank you for your concern,” Van Dorn replied, playing his part to the hilt. “The thing is, part of this is bragging rights. My friends have all bagged big game here in the summer. Think of the way I can top them when I tell them I bagged mine in the middle of an Alaskan winter. It is a lot colder than I’d thought it would be. It’s one thing to say twenty degrees below zero and minus forty with wind chill but it’s something else to actually experience it.”

Johnson shook his head. “It is, that. Well, I can’t say you weren’t warned. At least now you’re properly equipped.”

“Thanks for the information about the three fifty-seven. Down in New York, everyone told me I needed a three fifty-seven magnum in case a bear attacks.”

“Well,” Johnson said, “that’s New Yorkers for you, no offense.”

“None taken.”

“You wanna hear a joke you can tell your New York friends the next time they tell you you need a pop gun like that for one of the big Alaskan grizzlies?”

Van Dorn avoided showing any signs of dislike for the man. Let him tell his joke. After all, he was a loose end that would be tied up on the way out of Alaska. “Sure,” he said with as much in-the-know conspiratorial joviality as he could muster.

Johnson smiled. “A greenhorn walks into a hunting store, goes up to the counter and says he needs a three fifty-seven magnum. The store owner looks at him and says, sure, he can sell him that gun but why does he need it. The greenhorn says he gonna go hiking in the back country and he needs it in case he’s attacked by a grizzly bear. The store owner says, ‘Grizzly bears, eh? I got other guns which ….” but the greenhorn interrupts him and demands the three fifty-seven magnum. The store owner realizes that there’s no arguing with a fool so he says, ‘Sure, I can sell you the three fifty-seven. Do you want me to file the front sights off for you?’ The greenhorn stops and asks, ‘Why would you file the front sights off?’ and the store owner says, ‘So that after you shoot the grizzly, it won’t hurt so much when he takes it away from you and shoves it up your ass.’ ”

Van Dorn had heard that one before but he laughed as if it were the funniest thing he’d heard in weeks. “Wow. That’s a good one. I’ll definitely tell that to the boys at the club when I get back.

Johnson chuckled as well. “You sure you don’t want to test fire the .50 caliber before you go? It’s got a helluva kick.”

“Nah,” Van Dorn replied. “I’ll fire off a few rounds when I’m out in the middle of nowhere. Don’t wanna wake up your neighbors down in Juneau, now, do I?”

Johnson laughed. “Nice one, Mister Lancaster. I might use that myself as a sales tactic.”

“Feel free,” Van Dorn replied. “It’s fair exchange for the advice you gave.”

Van Dorn went to his too-chilly hotel room to prepare his gear before a bush pilot took him into the wilderness near to his target the following day. He found that he although he didn’t need gloves in the room, his hands still had a chill in them. He put on his gloves as he examined his weapons, since he’d be wearing gloves when he had to use them. The rife was a very pretty Remington thirty ought six, with a Zeiss hunting scope and soft rounds that would bring down a caribou (the only thing it was legal to hunt this time of year) … or blow a hole in a man the size of a dinner plate. He’d used similar rifles early in his career and he’d be able to master the feel of this one with only a handful of practice shots. The pistol was the real beauty, though, and cost more than the rest of his gear put together.

It was a custom tooled piece, made by a man named Perry. It held only five rounds but, at fifty caliber and with soft-nosed ammunition, it was the only handgun he knew which actually could make a grizzly bear or polar bear think twice about its life choices without you having to hit a vital spot. And if you hit a vital spot, you would definitely be going home with the dead bear instead of the bear going home with a dead you. Now, Van Dorn would prefer to take out his target with his rifle, since only a fool relies on a handgun in a deadly confrontation unless absolutely necessary, but if he had to have a handgun as a backup, well … Dirty Harry might have warned the punk that a forty-four magnum would take his head off, but he was exaggerating. If Dirty Harry had been carrying the Perry, it wouldn’t have been an exaggeration.

Van Dorn slept very well with it under his pillow that night, although he’d needed two extra blankets to feel warm. He found he didn’t really hate the Sahara after all. Anything was better than the cold.

The following morning, when the clock showed six-thirty anno meridian and the thermometer showed negative twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit, he met the bush pilot at a small air strip outside of the Anchorage city limits. He noted with satisfaction that his snowmobile was already loaded into the cargo area of a cold-weather-modified Cessna. He saw skis instead of wheels on the place and noted that the air strip itself of made of hard packed snow and ice instead of asphalt. That made sense, since it mirrored the terrain in which the place would land later.

“Mister Lancaster?” asked a rangy man wearing a bright orange snow suit.

“Yeah,” Van Dorn replied. “Are you Watson?”

“Jack Watson, pilot extraordinaire of the air ship Victoria, at your service. You sure you want to do this? Have me drop you off at those coordinates? There ain’t nothing out there for five hundred miles except a small village of Inuit that hunt caribou for a living. They ain’t even got snowmobiles out there … just dogs.”

“I’m hunting caribou,” Van Dorn replied. “I have to go where the caribou are to do that.”

Watson shook his head. “Okay, pal. It’s your money. I’ve already done the pre-flight check. Let’s get you loaded and get going. I want to land there while it’s still light … and this time of year, that’s about a two hour window.”

Van Dorn stowed his gear where Watson indicated, then strapped himself into the second seat of Cessna.

“You’ve been in a Cessna before?” Watson asked as he climbed into the pilot seat.

“What?” Van Dorn asked.

“I said you’ve been in a Cessna before. You climbed into the second seat without me pointing it out to you.”

Van Dorn cursed himself silently for the mental slip, blaming it on the cold. “When I was young, I took flying lessons. I haven’t been in one of these in years but I guess I still know which seat is which.” The lie came easily. The truth was that his special military training included how to commandeer and fly small planes but that hardly fit in with the life of the playboy hunter, Alexander Lancaster.

“Ain’t nothing like it,” Watson was saying. “Flying up here is trickier because of the cold but the air’s also so much clearer, at least when it ain’t snowing. I used to fly for a big airline, once upon a time. I just got tired of pushing buttons, obeying voices in my ear to turn and ascend and descend, telling me when to take off and when to land, flying through fog and smog and smoke, and listening to passengers complaining about delays that weren’t my fault, every damned day. Now it’s just me, the ol’ Cessna, here, and the wide open sky.”

Van Dorn sat in his seat and shivered. He wished the pilot would shut up but he was worse than the stereotypical New York City cab driver. Last job, he said to himself silently. Last job. Then he could head off to his retirement spot … a little tropical island, off the tourist path … where he wouldn’t have to listen to inane chatter. “You ever think about going back? I hear airline pilots make great money.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? You see, it’s like this ….”

Van Dorn did his best to tune him out during the four hour flight, shivering in his seat and making only the minimum necessary comments to keep the pilot chatting and not talking about Van Dorn. He imagined that he’d enjoy killing Watson when this was all over. Strictly professional, of course. Watson would be another loose end. But he’d still enjoy it.

“Here we go,” Watson said. “This looks like the best landing area close to your coordinates. I didn’t see any caribou but it’s still kind of warm so they’re probably further north. I guess it’s that global warming they keep talking about, eh?”

Van Dorn noticed that the air temperature outside the plane was minus forty, the point at which the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales crossed on the thermometer. “Global warming?”

Watson grinned. “Yup. It’s usually closer to minus fifty this time of year. You caught us in a heat wave.” Before Van Dorn could reply, Watson said, “Hang on. Our ‘runway’ looks a little short so I’m gonna drop us in there kinda quick.”

“Kinda quick” felt like free fall to Van Dorn. The landing was bumpy … no hand tended air strip here; just what nature provided. Still, Watson got them down in one piece. Van Dorn had to admit that the man knew how to fly his plane.

Once they were on the ground, Watson was all business. He had Van Dorn’s gear unloaded and clear of the plane within twenty minutes, including the powerful snowmobile.

“I don’t know how you’re gonna sneak up on any caribou on that thing but that’s your lookout. Just remember, ol’ Victoria here does have a weight limit. You come back with more than two thousand pounds of trophies, you’ll have to leave either the trophies or the snowmobile behind. Understand?”

“I understand,” Van Dorn said.

“Okay, then.” Watson walked to the back of the plane, carrying a six foot spear-looking item. It was painted bright orange, like his snowsuit and it glittered faintly in the weak northern sunlight. He drove the pointed end into the ground, then waggles it around to make sure it would stay upright. At the upper end, he hit a button and a small but powerful green LED light began flashing. “Seven days from today, at noon, you be by this marker. I’ll land, wait until the sun sets, and then I’m gone. I’ll report you missing, back in Anchorage, but I won’t be coming back unless the rescue forces pay me to do so. Last chance. You staying?”

“I came up here to hunt,” Van Dorn said, “and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Okay, then. I’ll let you drive away first, so the wind from Victoria’s engines don’t foul your gear. See you in a week, Mister Lancaster.”

“One week,” Van Dorn said. He checked the straps holding his gear to his snowmobile, checked his GPS location tracker, and headed north. A few minutes later, the Cessna flew over him, then circled back south and gradually disappeared. As it disappeared, so did “Mister Lancaster”. Van Dorn finally let all of the pretenses and mannerisms of his cover persona drop away, leaving only the stone cold killer. At the thought of cold, he huddled deeper into his parka.

After an hour, the sun began to set. For this first night, Van Dorn chose to acclimate to the terrain. He found a high, level spot and set camp. As the light faded, he set up a few targets (snowballs the size of his fist) one hundred paces from his tent. Just after sunset, he checked his rifle, loaded it and took aim. His first shot was slightly left, cutting a divot into the snowball but leaving it otherwise intact. The sights were fine but his heavy gloves had pushed the rifle perhaps one or two millimeters to the left as he pulled the trigger. He adjusted for the push and aimed again. The next three bullets were dead center, blowing apart the snowballs as they hit. It was a fine rifle. Next, he pulled out the Perry, checked it, loaded it, and walked toward the targets. When he was ten paces away, he aimed with his arm straight out and fired. The sound was nearly deafening in the quiet desolation of the arctic tundra. The kick was more than he expected and his first shot went high, missing the snowball completely. He braced the handgun with his second hand and fired again. The target vanished in a puff of snowflakes. So did the next one. He tried a one-handed shot again, with the gun held close to his body. The next snowball was hit off center and spun away as half of it was removed by the bullet. One more, and the last snowball disintegrated from the force of the fifty caliber bullet. Van Dorn nodded. Without a two handed grip, the weapon was dreadfully imprecise. However, against a large target at close range, such as a bear … or a man, it would suffice in an emergency. He walked back to his tent and reloaded both weapons. He was ready.

Dinner was a self-heating MRE ration which barely approached tepid in the freezing temperatures inside the tent. Van Dorn doubted it was meant for these conditions. He doubted anything made by men was meant for these conditions. Still, his target called this place home. For the first time, a glimmer of trepidation entered his consciousness. He had never felt so much at a disadvantage on a job. He pushed the feeling aside. He was a goddamn professional and his target was a civilian, an idiot who lived where no human being would ever live voluntarily. He would stalk his prey. He would kill his prey. And then he would be out of the game, once and for all.

He took out the file on his target. He’d read it all before but it was part of his routine to review the whole thing once more before he set off to finish the job. The man’s nickname was “Quinn”, a full blood Inuit. Van Dorn shook his head upon reading that name as he did when he first read it. “Quinn the Eskimo”? Really? He came from a village that didn’t even have a name. The government had a designation for it: A.V. 369. Quinn had apparently won a scholarship and left the village to attend college in Juneau. He went on to earn a law degree in environmental law, passed the bar exam (both Alaskan and Federal) and then returned to his village. When one of the big corporations determined that there might be valuable minerals (oil, natural gas, and possible gold) under the lands occupied by A.V. 369 per the federal treaties which put that land under Inuit control, the corporation’s lobbyists in D.C. had begun their campaign to have the laws governing the exploration and exploitation of mineral rights changed to allow them to bypass the Inuit “for the good of the country”. What they hadn’t counted on was an Inuit attorney showing up to the congressional hearings with a detailed and exhaustive brief which covered the rights of the Inuit, the history of the federal government breaking treaties and then apologizing for breaking them illegally, full and detailed environmental studies demonstrating how the corporation’s plans would jeopardize not only the native wildlife but the Inuit settlements for a thousand miles in every direction. Van Dorn could see why the corporation would want him silenced during the Alaskan winter while he was home with his clan, especially as a “hunting accident” by a hunter who fled the scene. After the death of Quinn the Eskimo, the corporation would be the one dancing for joy and re-start the process to appropriate the mineral wealth of the region.

Van Dorn memorized the face of his target, the location of the target’s house in the village, and the locations and numbers of the other Inuit in the village. He packed everything away and then settled in for the evening. Tomorrow, he go the village and case it.

The next morning, he woke up shivering in the dark. “I hate this fucking place.” He ate another barely warm MRE, then packed up his tent and gear. He drove slowly through the dark Alaskan morning, relying on starlight, moonlight, and the headlight of his snowmobile to avoid sharp dips and cracks in the permafrost. Eventually, the sun peeked over the horizon and the terrain lit up with a (figuratively) warm yellow light.

He came to a stop and checked his position. He found that he’d drifted a bit west of where he needed to be but the village was now less than fifty miles away. He’d ride until he was within ten miles and then hike in. As he was putting away the GPS, he noticed a movement just behind a slight rise. To his surprise, a single caribou walked out. He smiled. Perfect cover. He freed his rifle. Distantly, he was aware that the rifle in his hands made the cold in his bones disappear. He took a moment to let the adrenaline equalize in his body. Then, still sitting on the snowmobile, he took careful aim. He fired and the caribou stumbled for a half dozen steps, then dropped. It was a perfect shot through the heart. He drove the snowmobile over to the carcass. Behind the small rise, he noticed that there was a caribou calf. It had been hiding. Seeing him, it made a bleating sound and ran off.

Van Dorn debated using another bullet to save the calf a slow death without its mother, then shrugged. Life was hard. He shifted the gear on his snowmobile to make room for the dead caribou. One good thing about the cold … the body wouldn’t smell. Now Watson the pilot wouldn’t suspect a damned thing.

By the time he’d finished securing the caribou, the sun had already crossed half its arc. He decided to eat while it was light and then drive on in the darkness. His blood was up, now. Needlessly killing the oversized Bambi was just what he needed to put his mind back on the task. This must be why all those hicks who kill animals just for the sport of it get all fired up about hunting. He had more in common with the Inuit than those yahoos … at least for them, like him, it was business, life and death. Too bad for this particular Inuit, but that was what he got for going up against a corporation. He’d finish this tomorrow and then be at the pick up point in plenty of time.

The drive to his second campsite was uneventful and when he checked his GPS, he was exactly where he needed to be. He made camp and, this time, he accepted the MRE for what little warmth it offered. He went to sleep early and slept well.

The following morning, he woke up early. The shivering was gone. He’d finally acclimated to his environment. He was still cold but he no longer shivered … a good sign for his accuracy. He covered his hunters orange with a white camouflage cloak he’d brought with him on the plane to Alaska. (He didn’t want anyone asking why he would buy such a thing if he was just an ordinary hunter.) He shouldered his rife and made sure his handgun was easily available in case of surprises. He was in enemy territory, now. Instead of police or military, he’d have to avoid a village of Inuit. Well, that was fine. He was ready.

He checked his GPS and set off at a steady, ground-eating pace. Five hours later, he could see signs of the village. The sun was just beginning to rise. He dropped to the ground and ate a protein bar. Van Dorn loved technology. Even in the cold, the artificial ingredients and preservatives prevented the thing from freezing. He took out his binoculars and scanned the village.

“Fuck,” he whispered.

How could he have overlooked something so simple? All of the Inuit, every one, was wearing a parka with the hood up in the cold weather. He checked his bearings and oriented on the village. Okay, he’d do this the hard way. His target’s house … shack, really … would be to his right, the one furthest south in the village. He looked through his binoculars again and checked his orientation. Yes. He could see the house. Okay, then. He would wait for dark and then approach from the south. He’d take out everyone in that house and then make his escape.

Darkness came quickly. In an hour, the sun was just a suggestion in the far southwest. In another, it was gone. Van Dorn waited one more so that he would not show up as a silhouette against the sky when he approached.

He began walking to his target’s house. As he did so, his mind grew calm. His soul grew colder than the ice on which he trod. He was no longer concerned about screw ups or money or the cold or anything else. His attention had focused on the job, a laser seeking a single point. No distractions. No qualms. No fear.

Until he stepped on the dog, which yelped in pain as it woke from its sleep.

And that dog woke the other dogs.

And the howling began.

And the lights flickered on in a dozen houses, with flashlights searching in his direction.

He heard the Inuit shouting back and forth to each other in their own language, but he didn’t understand it. He could imagine, though.

[“Hey! Why are the dogs barking?”]

[“How the hell should I know?”]

[“You see any polar bears around, today?”]

[“No! How about you?”]

[“No! God damn it to hell, someone shut those fucking dogs up!”]

[“Fuck you.”]

[“Everyone shut the hell up! I’ll go see what’s bothering the dogs!”]

One of the flashlights started moving closer. The dogs continued their barking. It had all gone so terribly wrong. Van Dorn thought for a second on his three choices. One, he could say screw it, run away, and retire without the final score. That was a bad idea, knowing who would be coming after him for failing to make the hit. Two, he could try to kill everyone in the village. Also a bad idea. He didn’t know exactly how many there were or how they were armed. Third was a bad idea, too, but it had a slight potential for him to both complete the job and live to tell the tale. He’d end up leaving a village full of loose ends, but he’d have to accept that.

“Hello?” he called into the darkness, using his Lancaster personality. “A little help, please?”

“Who’s there?” called a voice in English.

“Oh, thank God. My name’s Lancaster. I was out hunting and my snowmobile broke down. I saw your village. Can you help me?”

“Stay there,” the voice said. “We’ll come to you.”

Shortly, the light came closer and Van Dorn saw three men approach.

“Welcome to our village,” the first man said.

“Thank you,” Van Dorn said.

“Are you hurt?”

“No,” Van Dorn said. “Just very tired.”

“Come with us. We all need to get out of the night and the cold. That may not be simple fatigue. The early stages of frostbite resemble it..”

Van Dorn followed the three men. Too easy, he thought.

The men led him to a small house near the center of the village. He wondered if one of the men with him was his target. He put one hand into his parka’s pocket and held the revolver in anticipation.

“Here we are,” the man said.

One of the Inuit men opened the door first and entered, followed by the other. Neither had said a word since Van Dorn had allowed himself to be found. The man with the flashlight waved the light toward the door indicating Van Dorn was to go next. The hit man relaxed just a bit. He took his hand out of his pocket to hold the door frame with both hands, since he had seen the two men step down into the room on the other side of the door. And he put his hands on the door frame, something hit him on the back of the head and he fell into the room. He had time to notice that there were a dozen men in the room before everything went black.

When he came to, he had been stripped naked, with his hands bound behind his back. The fire in the center of the room made things tolerable, if just barely. He winced at his own pun. The dozen or so Inuit surrounding him were grim. Two of them held his guns. Three had spears pointed at him. Two by the door, the only means of escape, had clubs. The rest had knives.

“Welcome, Mister Van Dorn,” the first man said. With the man’s hood down, Van Dorn recognized him as the target.

“My name’s Lancaster,” Van Dorn said. “Alexander Lancaster.”

“Please, Mister Van Dorn. Haven’t you figured it out, yet? You’ve been set up.”

“What?”

“Did you really think my little fight with the U.S. Congress was enough to warrant a five million dollar bounty on my head? That was just a way to provide a pretext for people with money to hire people like you to kill people like me. The truth is, your former employers don’t like the idea of a man such as yourself retiring, what with all you know about their affairs. When assassins outlive their usefulness, we … our village … provide a discreet service.”

“So this whole thing?”

“Designed to take an assassin out of his comfort zone so that he … or she … can be disposed of.”

“That’s insane.”

“Not really. Tell me, if someone had tried to kill you in a major city, or on the little island you were going to go to, what would have happened?”

“I’d have seen them coming and killed them,” Van Dorn said, proud of his skill.

“Exactly. Instead, you were led out here in ‘the middle of nowhere’ as our employers like to call it. Our land, not yours. Our advantage.”

Van Dorn stood up straight. “So? Kill me already. Unless you want to torture me some more with tales of how I screwed up.”

“Our intention is not to torture you,” the man said. He said some words in his native language and all of the men said a phrase in the same language. When they were done, the man said, “My people have apologized to you for what we are about to do. It is … necessary.”

“Necessary?”

“Yes. It has always been our way to honor the animals we kill for our survival. With the destruction of so many animals and the change to our climate, our old ways no longer sustain us as they once did. Were it not for the business of which you are now the subject, our village would have had to move to one of the cities, become no more than another group of ‘Eskimos’ scraping by on what scraps the oil companies deign to leave for us.”

“So, how are you gonna do it? The rifle? The handgun?”

“No,” the man said. “It is a bad thing to spill blood in a home. We prefer a more natural death for you. It will not be very pleasant, I’m afraid, but it will be quick.”

* * *

They had subdued him and taken him outside. He found that his snowmobile had been located. The caribou had been taken away. They lashed him to the snowmobile as he had lashed the caribou to it, then covered him with a thick blanket which kept out the worst of the cold. They drove the snowmobile for perhaps three miles … it was so difficult to tell in the night-covered tundra. Then they untied him, took away his blanket and drove away.

Before they did so, he asked, “How are you gonna explain me being naked out here when I’m eventually found?”

“Oh, you won’t be found, Mister Van Dorn,” their leader said. “After you’re dead, well, our dogs need to eat, too. And we won’t squander good caribou on them when something else is available.”

Augustus Van Dorn knew how to curse in twenty-seven languages and he used all of them as he stood in the snow near the arctic circle, his string of profanities ending with “fucking Eskimos.”

Damn, it was cold.

 

The End.

 

 

 

 

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Pride Goeth

Pride Goeth

 

He fled across the desert. He was already lost, but he knew he had to keep running and never stop.

He’d been one of the most celebrated archaeologists in the world, famous for his discoveries. When he’d found the tomb, he knew it was important. It was in the middle of a trackless waste, far from any ancient city or caravan route. He knew it must contain some great king of the ancient world, hidden from those who would disturb him.

Even as he ran, he could remember the inscription he’d translated from the ancient language only one step removed from Enochian: “Here is bound an angel of the one God. Do not open the chamber, for it contains your death.”

He’d laughed when he read it. For tomb curses, it was original. He’d even made a note to link it to the first warning ever given to Man. “Do not eat of the tree in the center of the garden, for it contains your death.”

“Such foolish pride,” he thought. Then, “Of course.”

He stumbled, falling to the bottom of a dune. When he looked up, Lucifer stood before him, wielding a flaming sword. “Rise, my liberator. You will stand at my side in the battle to come.”

 

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Recruited – A Tale of Cantera

Recruited – A Tale of Cantera

 

He was not calling himself Cantera, yet. At this point, he was just a man with a slightly unusual past. He’d been born just before midnight on the 31st of December, 1899. He was a survivor of the sinking of the Titanic. He had joined The Great War just one month before it ended and had served as an interpreter for the generals during the negotiations at Versailles. These were what brought him to the attention of the more clandestine areas of America’s government, who approached him during his graduate studies at Oxford University, in late 1932.

The agent said his name was Austin. It was probably a fake name anyway, but he seemed earnest enough. “We want you to go to Germany.”

“Why?”

“Something is happening there … something we don’t understand. We understand that you can speak German. We also understand that your you received a double degree from Brown University, in history and in folklore, before you came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.”

“Is that relevant?”

“It might be. We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that we’ve sent in two agents before you. Both of them disappeared without a trace. The last message from the second man was cryptic. All it said was, ‘Occult ritual must be stopped.’ Before we could get clarification, he vanished.”

“I don’t suppose you know who is involved, where this ritual is supposed to take place, or when?”

“Where, we don’t know,” Austin admitted. “We do, however, have clues about who and when. Whatever is going to happen will happen before Christmas.”

“That’s only three weeks away.”

“We know. That’s why we’re recruiting you. By the time we got another agent here from the U.S., it would all be over.”

“Who, then?”

“We’re pretty sure it’s a group of people in the Nazi Party.”

“Those boys? You don’t think they’re an actual threat, do you?”

“We do.”

“So you think a bunch of second-rate thugs who lost seats in the last election are somehow going to do an occult ritual and … what? Why do you care? You don’t believe in magic, do you?”

“Believing in magic isn’t required. They believe it. They think it will grant them power. We don’t want them to have that power.” Austin leaned forward. “All you need to do is find this ritual and disrupt it somehow.”

“What do you mean by disrupt it? Kill everyone involved? I thought I was done killing Germans in 1918.”

Austin shrugged. “I was going to suggest fouling or exchanging their ritual materials, or scribbling over their magical lines, or interrupting their chanting, but killing them would work for us. Dealer’s choice.”

“I still don’t believe it. Those brownshirt thugs couldn’t successfully order food from a menu with more than three items on it and they’re, what, going to raise the devil?”

“Don’t underestimate the Nazis,” Austin warned. “Most of the brownshirts are thugs, as you say, but there are some very clever minds behind them. Those are the people we need you to watch, even get close to. You’re from north European stock, blond and blue-eyed, one of their Aryan ideals. You’re familiar with folklore and the occult from your studies. You speak German like a Prussian nobleman. And you’ve kept your politics to yourself, so there’s nothing anyone can show to prove you *aren’t* a pro-German anti-Semite.”

“I don’t know. It seems like a wild goose chase.”

“I wish to God it were,” Austin said, “but two good men have died on this wild goose chase already. I want that goose for my Christmas dinner.”

The scholar thought for a long while, then nodded his head. “Okay. I’m in. I’ll need everything you know about the people most likely to be involved. What about Prof. Gruber from Heidelberg? He’s the most well-known authority on the occult in Germany. Is he a Nazi? They might have recruited his help.”

Austin looked at his new recruit and marveled at how quickly he cut to the heart of the matter. “Gruber’s on our list. We have a full dossier.”

“Good. I think maybe I need some research material for my next thesis which can only be found at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in Heidelberg, and I’ll have to look up Professor Gruber while I’m there, since I met him when he came to Oxford last year. Will you arrange the train tickets while I pack?”

Six hours later, the young scholar boarded the train which would take him to London, then to the boat train for the continent. As the train pulled away from the station, Austin nodded to the man who had remained in the shadows, watching him go.

“What do you think?” the Englishman asked, chomping on his ever-present cigar.

Austin stared after the train. “I think we might just have found the man who can stop it, if what he sees can make him believe in time.”

“He’s likely to die in the attempt either way.”

“I know,” Austin said, “but we’re out of options and he’s probably a better choice than our last two agents. He’s loyal, he got a top secret clearance in the war, and he’s lucky. As near as we can trace, he not only survived the Titanic, he managed to be assigned to the worst of the fighting in the war and escaped without a scratch. And there are stories of other near misses in the States. It’s like he’s destined for something … maybe this.”

“I wonder,” the Englishman said slowly, “if sending a man like that on this mission might have … unintended consequences.”

Austin snorted. “I’ll take the unintended consequences if we can stop the goddamn intended ones. If he does survive, though, we’ll need to keep a close eye on him in the future.”

“Agreed. If your young man has a destiny, we must ensure his destiny included working for *our* side.”

* * *

Of course, on the winter solstice, 1932, in a remote clearing in a German forest, the young man met his destiny. He was unable to save the Free Traveller who was sacrificed by the Luciferine Brotherhood (of which Professor Gruber was a member) as part of the ritual, but he inadvertently took the thousand years intended for the German Reich into himself, making himself practically immortal while the Thousand-Year Reich lasted only twelve.

Later, his telling of the tale to a Free Traveller led indirectly to the Second World War.

During the war, he was recruited by Austin into the OSS and people remarked about his ability to recover from wounds quickly and the way he still looked to be in his early 30s despite being 45 at the end of the war.

As for the rest of his history, those details remain to be explored.

 

 

 

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Death Doesn’t Take a Holiday

Death Doesn’t Take a Holiday

 

Once upon a time, Death wanted a holiday.

Now, for most people this is not a problem. A farmer can choose not to go into the fields for a day or two and hire someone to milk the cows. A tailor or a boot maker can simply close up their shop for a few days. The lady of the night who walks the cobbled streets of the port can even choose to go away for a few days and leave the lonely sailors to their own devices for a while.

Even for most of the supernatural beings, this is not a problem. The troll under the bridge can let the travelers pass their way unharmed with nary a challenge. The Redcaps can cease their carnage for a time, choosing to relax in their fell hollows. Even the mightiest of the Fey Courts can leave their courtly duties behind from time to time and walk in the mortal world, partaking of its pleasures and diversions.

Death, however, had a Duty, capital D. Even if every being in the mortal and Faerie realms took a holiday at the same time, someone, somewhere would have an accident or become sick and Death would have to be there to guide the poor soul to their next stop on the grand journey.

Death was tired of the unfairness of it all.

He asked the Mighty Ones who watch over all of the realms for just a day to himself without any need to execute his office. They heard his eloquent pleas with the mightiest of consideration. They were even about to grant him his wish when one of the Mighty Ones choked on a mighty chicken bone and Death had to perform his duty. After that, the Mighty Ones were scared. Had Death been on holiday, their now deceased fellow would have suffered for all of that time until Death got back and, mighty as they were, none of them wanted to face that kind of pain.

And so, Death returned to his rounds.

Still, he planned and he contemplated and he fantasized. If he ever got his holiday, he could go to a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean and simply float in the calm waters of a lagoon, doing absolutely nothing. Or he could go to a ski resort in the mountains of Europe or the Americas and ski every route on a mountain from the gentlest of bunny slopes to the most challenging of the black diamond trails. Or he could go incognito into the Fey Courts and dine on the finest of Faerie fruits and drink dew from elegant elfin flutes. Or even just return to his castle, deep in the shadows between the realms. He would close the doors, lock the windows and pretend, just for a while, that there was nothing left for him to do but rest and wander the halls, alone.

He thought about claiming his own life, moving on to whatever came next. (He didn’t know, you see. Death can open the door for a soul when its time has come but he is not permitted to look.) If he did, another would be chosen to become Death and he would be free. The thing is, in spite of what the Buddhists say, he was rather attached to his self and wasn’t keen to let it go. Besides, whoever replaced him would be forced to go on in his place without a holiday either. He really didn’t want to do that to another being. Bad karma.

He thought about training an assistant. If there were two of them, one could take a day off from time to time while the other worked, and vice versa. While the idea had merit, the practicalities of it were a problem. There was only one Scythe of the Grim ReaperTM. He didn’t know how to make another one. While he wanted a holiday, he did take pride in his job and wouldn’t want to have to split it up so that he would only be working half the time. Besides, his castle was a smallish one and he wouldn’t really want a roommate. No, no assistants for him.

He thought about just taking the time off, like those mortals who stay home from work claiming to be sick when really it’s just because it’s a very nice day and they want to do something other than work. They don’t ask for permission from their bosses like he did. They just take it. He thought about that long and hard before deciding that if he just took the day, the Mighty Ones would know and, since they had already said no, the consequences could be … unpleasant. They could move him out of his castle and into a one bedroom apartment in downtown Dallas, for reality’s sake. He wouldn’t like that. He wouldn’t like that at all.

Then he hit on it. It was a perfect idea. Death could not be everywhere at once personally. Oh, his mind and essence were with everyone who died but the physical manifestation … his body … merely made the rounds in certain places and personally opened the door for certain individuals to step into their next life, whatever it was. And that was something he could work with. A working vacation.

And so, Death never takes a holiday. But if you are traveling in some exotic locale, such as a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, or a ski resort in the mountains, or the Fey Courts during one of their countless feasts, and you see a tall, thin man dressed all in black, by all means, say hello.

But watch out for the scythe. That sucker is sharp.

The End.

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Succession – a Story of the Order of Payens

Succession – A Story of the Order of Payens

 

The old Grandmaster knew his time was short. He had ruled the Order for nearly three decades, but his magic was weak, now, and several members of the Inner Circle had already called for him to resign. He had refused.

He wondered which of the Circle would move against him. He might withstand the first challenge, but it would so weaken him that the second would surely succeed. His window was the time when the Circle jockeyed among themselves. Eventually, one of them would talk himself into thinking he could succeed. The others would wait, hoping the first failed, and then vie for the chance to be second.

The Grandmaster’s reverie was interrupted by a knock at his door.

Before he could invite the guest to come in, the door opened. Chevalier Franck entered the room. The Grandmaster relaxed. Only a Paladin of the Order could succeed him. In the presence of a Chevalier, he would be safe enough, even one as arrogant and ambitious as Franck.

“Good evening, Grandmaster,” Franck said with all formality, in contrast to his informality entering the Grandmaster’s chamber without invitation.

“Good evening, young Franck. Your Christian name is Charles, yes?”

“Yes, Grandmaster.”

“What brings you to my chamber?”

“I wish to learn something about the Order of Payens which has confused me.”

“Could your question be answered by none of the other Chevaliers, or by your Paladin superior?”

“No, Grandmaster.”

The Grandmaster took a sip from his nightly tonic. He considered the request. Franck was quite correct in coming to him with such a question, but he wondered what the question would be and whether it involved one of the Mysteries which a mere Chevalier was not meant to know, not even learn enough to be able to ask a question about it. Still, it would not hurt to let the young man ask his question. Often, the Grandmaster mused, he had learned more from the questions others asked than from knowing the answers to those questions. “Ask your question,” he said.

Franck paused before speaking. Both he and the Grandmaster knew he was doing so only to lend his question more weight, but both he and the Grandmaster knew that the other knew what he was doing. The knowledge served as an informal test of the question’s worthiness. Finally, he asked, “Why does advancement within the Order require the death of our eldest and wisest members?”

The Grandmaster nodded. “Yes, that is a question which every young Chevalier asks himself at some point, and one which their Paladin superiors choose not to answer, as a means of delaying some of our more ambitious recruits.” The Grandmaster nodded to Franck in recognition of the young man’s own ambitions. “The answer is two-fold. The first is that, as we become elderly, our bodies are unable to withstand the tremendous strain of the forces we employ. We are a martial brotherhood, and our arts are the arts of war. War is not a game for old men.”

“But surely the older men have the wisdom and strategic knowledge to lead while the younger men fight?”

“You would think so, but it is generally not the case. History has shown that at the beginning of every war, the generals in charge are the oldest men, and they resort to the tactics and strategies of an earlier age. They try to fight the current war with the previous war’s lessons. The army that wins is usually the one who replaces those old generals with younger men not as tied to the traditions and battle plans of the past. The Order of Payens realized this and sought a way to ensure that old men do not keep leading us down old paths when new paths would be more profitable, more in line with our goals. They asked for retirement at a certain age but, almost immediately, the early Grandmasters refused to give up the power they had earned. No man, reaching the peak of his profession, ever wants to let that power go. As a result, we adopted the pattern the death of a ranked man would mean that his killer would assume the rank, with the protection that no man may rise more than one rank in a five year period, to prevent meteoric rises by recruits with more ambition than wisdom.”

“Such as colonels bypassing generals in a coup in some nations.”

“Similar. Yes.”

“So the deaths are needed because those with power are unwilling to surrender that power, even if it’s for the good of the Order?”

“Yes. Traditionally, those of lower rank will ask their superior to resign once they reach a certain age or show signs that their ability to wield the power of the Order is weakening. When the man refuses, as he almost always does, someone will eventually try to replace him.”

Franck thought about this for several minutes while the Grandmaster took another sip from his tonic.

“So the deaths are to ensure that the Order remains strong and that the thinking of the leadership doesn’t become ossified?”

“Yes.”

“What was the second reason?”

The Grandmaster smiled. “Ambition.”

“I thought the rule about jumping more than one level was put in place to control ambition.”

“Control it, yes, but not stifle it. Our organization has also always been ambitious. Having a succession based on seniority would tend to make us stagnant, as people choose not to rock the boat while they wait for their turn to lead. Permitting the attacks on the next level above, with proper controls including notice being given, allows those with real ambition, combined with wisdom, to move up the organization relatively quickly. It guarantees that those in power are strong enough to wield our power, wise enough to wield it well, and ambitious enough to keep forwarding our plans. If any one of those is lacking, the organization suffers, as it has done at various times in our history.”

“Really?” Franck asked. “When?”

The Grandmaster looked at Franck and made a decision. He took a piece of paper from his desk. While he wrote, Franck remained perfectly still, waiting. After two minutes, the Grandmaster took his wax and his seal and added them to the decree. He handed the paper to Franck, who read it quickly.

“An authorization to use the Library? I already have access to the Library.”

The Grandmaster merely said, “Read it again.”

Franck did as he was ordered. “The ‘Old’ Library?”

“You have asked questions that indicate your readiness to learn the complete history of the Order, not just what we teach the new recruits. Learn our history well and you could very easily join the ranks of the Paladins, maybe even become Grandmaster one day … as I’m sure you want to do.”

“Thank you, Grandmaster.”

“Don’t thank me,” the Grandmaster warned. “Once you possess that knowledge, your life may be a lot shorter than it would otherwise have been … unless you are as wise as you are ambitious.” The Grandmaster turned away. “You may go, now.”

Franck bowed to the Grandmaster. He placed the grant of access inside his coat and walked to the door. “Oh, one more thing, Grandmaster?”

The Grandmaster turned, frowning. “What is it?”

In one smooth motion, Franck took the silenced .22 from his coat and shot the old man in the heart. He walked toward the old man’s body and with calm deliberation shot him twice more in the chest and twice in the head.

Paladin Andrew had been correct, Franck thought. The old man was no longer fit to lead. His memory was going. He had given Franck access to the Old Library three months before. Unlike Paladin Andrew, however, who had merely skimmed the old histories, Franck had been much more thorough. He knew that when the Grandmaster was not killed by a Paladin, the civil war among the Paladins often ended up in the death of several of them, sometimes as many as half. It was true that Franck could not become Grandmaster yet, because he couldn’t jump the two ranks. With several openings among the Paladins however, he was sure he could gain one of those positions.

Then, it was just a matter of waiting for five years. It didn’t matter to him if it was Andrew or one of the other Paladins who held the Grandmastership for that period. As far as he was concerned, they were just waiting for him to take his rightful place. He had the strength. He had the ambition. And if he didn’t have the wisdom, well, cunning was just as good in the short term.

He left the old Grandmaster’s body cooling in his chambers. No one had seen Franck visit him. Everyone would know none of the Paladins had struck. Franck smiled. The coming months should be very interesting.

 

 

 

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Un-Fair

Un-Fair

 

Sometimes, being the Chief Conjurer for Oldbridge, Massachusetts is like being the umpire at the company picnic softball game. Everyone’s glad that somebody else is doing it, but it doesn’t win you any friends. In the end, though, you have the final word.

Exactly how or why the previous mayor of Oldbridge decided that we needed a town barbecue festival in August, I have no idea. When you say “Massachusetts,” the first words that come to mind are never “spare ribs” or “barbecue sauce.” Being practical New Englanders, however, the town adapted the barbecue festival to make it a general pre-back-to-school party with pie-baking (and pie-eating), a farmer’s market, some classic cars brought out from under their protective covers, the volunteer fire department showing off their freshly washed truck, and the other usual events of small town pride.

Me? I’m on duty at the festival, the only small business owner NOT drafted into crewing the dunk tank and the whipped cream pie throwing and the face painting stalls. I don’t know what it is but, every year, one of Oldbridge’s “other” residents gets it into their fey head to have their own brand of fun at the festival. Two years ago, a small drake (think dragon, but the size of a Chihuahua) used the fireworks show to set a dozen fires. Last year, a phouka replaced one of the ponies at the kiddie rides and tried to carry off four-year-old Dina Barthe.

After the phouka incident, the mayor asked me to stop playing barker for the dunk tank and start patrolling. Keeping the presence of real magic in Oldbridge a secret is my main duty as Chief Conjurer. Running the town’s largest insurance agency (okay, there are only two, but it’s the larger of the two) is just my day job.

First, I checked out all the animals at the petting zoo. No shapeshifters. After that, I took a stroll past all of the rides. I didn’t expect any trouble there, since most of the rides were made of iron and steel, but you never know. Other than the dangers of unlicensed temp workers assembling devices to whirl people around at high speed, however, nothing seemed amiss. I stopped by the food area, but there was nothing dodgy there besides the hot dogs. After eating two of them, with chili, I headed for the midway.

The dunk tank was fine. No water sprites or their kin. The whipped cream pies were starting to curdle from the heat, but without any help from mischief-making brownies.

“This thing is rigged!” I heard a teenaged boy’s voice call out.

“Of course it’s rigged,” a teenaged girl replied. “It’s a carnival.”

“It’s not rigged,” a man said. “I’m not even with the carnival.”

“I can vouch for him,” I said, walking up to the Strongman game. “That’s Larry Pfeiffer. He owns the oil change shop over on Rowan Ave. What’s up, Larry?”

“No one has even come close to ringing the bell, today. It’s supposed to be easy. All the prizes were donated. We’re raising money for the big church bell restoration, so we want people to try. Word’s starting to get around that no one can win so no one’s trying any more. Even Davy Mac couldn’t get it above the WIMP level.”

Dave MacAvoy was an ex-Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer who ran the gym and fitness center on Walnut Street.

“Is there a problem with the game itself?” I asked.

“We took it down and ran the slider along the whole track. We even greased it to make it easier. But when anyone hits it with the mallet, it just fizzles out. I’ll tell you, if I hadn’t given up drinking, this would be enough to make me start again.”

That’s when I spotted the boobach, disguised as an 8-year-old, peering at me from behind the ring toss stall a few steps away. A relative of hobgoblins, boobachs are usually harmless but they do hate two things: teetotalers and church bells. I glared at it and it glared back.

“Let me give it a try,” I said. To cover what I was really doing, I reached down and spun the shuttle around its track a few times while I whispered an enchantment which drew the boobach’s power out of the device. “Just loosening it up,” I said. I handed over the five dollar donation and picked up the mallet, pretending to tighten the head of the mallet while repeating my enchantment. “That should do it,” I said.

I lifted the mallet and with all my might (and a bit of magical oomph) I hit the red circle and the shuttle raced up the track and rang the bell. The boobach covered its ears in annoyance. I signaled it to go to the big maple tree at the edge of the festival ground. Reluctantly, it headed that way.

“I don’t know how you fixed it, but thanks.” Larry handed me a small plush animal. “You’re stronger than you look.”

I handed the toy to the teenagers and told Larry, “Tell folks the Strongman game was damaged, but it’s fixed now, and give anyone who had tried before a free go. Just spin the shuttle before each hit. That’ll help.”

I stopped by the ice cream vendor on my way to the maple tree. The boobach was waiting for me.

“No more pranks on Larry,” I told it. “And I’ll see if I can do something about that church bell.” I held out the ice cream cone. “I don’t have a bowl of cream for you, but this is ice cream. Deal?”

The boobach nodded and greedily reached for the ice cream, then took off back to its home, wherever that was.

Larry’s stall raised so much money, I suggested an electronic bell instead of a traditional iron one and the church council approved it unanimously … with a little “help.”

Anything to keep the peace.

 

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Guardian: a Tale of Mister Snuggle-face

Guardian: a Tale of Mister Snuggle-face

 

Unlike most dogs, Mister Snuggle-face didn’t worry too much about squirrels. The little fluffy-tailed rats knew better than to go anywhere near his home. That happens when you’re a Hound of the Wild Hunt.

Every once in a while, though, there’s a little nut chaser who didn’t get the memo.

Now, a Hound of the Wild Hunt is a large dog. Mister Snuggle-face was the runt of his litter and even he was the size of an Irish Wolfhound. A big one. The Hounds don’t sneak up on their prey. They pursue it.

It was a short pursuit.

The squirrel did what squirrels do and climbed a nearby swamp maple as fast as it could. Mister Snuggle-face didn’t so much climb up after it as much as he just ran up the tree at full speed. The squirrel was, needless to say, surprised. It froze and Mister Snuggle-face caught it in his jaws.

Now, being a dog belonging to the Chief Conjurer of Oldbridge, Massachusetts, Mister Snuggle-face had been given strict instructions not to kill anything without the express permission of the Chief Conjurer or his daughter, so the squirrel remained alive. Mister Snuggle-face dropped to the ground, walked over and leapt the six foot fence dividing his home with the neighbor’s property, and tossed the squirrel into the neighbor’s pool to teach it a lesson, much to the surprise of the neighbors, who were swimming at the time.

Mister Snuggle-face headed back the way he came, not even bothering to watch as the squirrel dragged itself out of the pool, shook itself, and headed in the opposite direction as fast as its furry little legs could carry it.

Once again, Mister Snuggle-face thought to himself, his home was safe from the annoying evil that was squirrel-kind.

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Gramma’s Secret

Gramma’s Secret

 

Sometimes, being the Chief Conjurer of Oldbridge, Massaschusetts, is like being a plumber called to fix the pipes in an old house, except the old house was designed by M.C. Escher with help from Salvador Dali, and when you get there, you realize it’s your house.

I arrived home to find my wife arguing with my grandmother. Normally, I’d try to slip out unnoticed but I actually hadn’t seen Gramma in a while so I risked making my presence known.

“There you are,” Cheryl said. “Would you please tell this b-, this woman, that we own the house and property now and we can make changes if we want.”

My grandmother just looked at me and waited.

I chose to be reasonable to both sides. (Yes, I’m a coward when it comes to family.) “In general, yes, we can make whatever changes we want,” I said. I could see my wife’s eyes light up in victory, so I quickly added, “But there might be a very good reason for my grandmother’s concerns.”

“Really?” Cheryl asked with a tone that told me I’d be ordering take out for the next week if I wanted a warm meal. Oh, well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

“What change did you want to make, honey?”

“The so-called apple tree in the back yard. The one that doesn’t produce any apples. I want to have it taken down and a new one put in its place. Or maybe a pear tree instead. But she,” my wife added, pointing a finger at Gramma, “says I can’t.”

“Did she say why?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter why,” Cheryl said, rounding on me. “I want it gone.”

Since my grandmother had said nothing through all of this, I knew there was a very good reason involved. Even at almost a hundred, she was still one of the most powerful sorceresses I’d ever known. Frankly, I was surprised Cheryl, a fine wizardess in her own right, wasn’t in toad-form, challenging Gramma that way.

I turned to my grandmother and said, “Okay, Grams. Spill it.”

She had the grace to look embarassed as she admitted, “There’s a spirit in that tree.”

“Oh.” Binding someone’s spirit is generally considered a crime in the magical community, and an actual crime in Oldbridge. “Whose spirit?” I asked.

“A Roman emperor,” she said. “Oh, not one of the important ones,” she added quickly. “He was emperor for only five months or so and got himself killed by lightning, of all things.”

I stumbled over the thought of a Roman emperor’s spirit trapped in my apple tree. Finally, I asked, “How long has he been there?”

“1941,” she replied.

I nodded. If a spirit that had been bound for so many years were suddenly released by the destruction of its prison, it could go mad and start causing havoc.

“Wait,” Cheryl interrupted. “What’s a Roman emperor doing in our tree?”

“He was rude, dear,” Gramma replied. “Some fool teenager was playing with a spirit board. Turns out the boy had some talent and accidentally called up the ghost of the Emperor Carus. I helped the boy out.”

“And you bound him in the apple tree?” I asked.

“He was rude to me,” Gramma repeated. “I wanted to teach him a lesson before I sent him back where he came from.”

“And?”

“And the next day, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Chief Conjurer at the time gathered all available power to protect Oldbridge and its familes for the duration of the war. I didn’t have enough power to free him for nearly a decade. By that time, they passed a law making what I’d done a crime.”

“You could have told me,” I said. “You did it before the law was made.”

“That wouldn’t matter to some,” Gramma said, looking at Cheryl. I had to admit, my grandmother was right. Some magical folks would love to see her stripped of her powers, since it would increase the powers of everyone else nearby. I loved Cheryl very much, but I knew that she loved power almost as much as she loved me.

Very formally, I said, “As Chief Conjurer of Oldbridge, Massachusetts, I declare that Jane Agatha Browne is innocent of the law forbidding the imprisonment of a ghost or spirit, such act having taken place before the law was implemented. I command that she release the spirit of Carus and lay it to rest immediately.” Then, in a more normal voice, I added, “And tomorrow, I’ll call the tree service to have the apple tree removed so we can put up a pear tree in its place.”

“Thank you, Samuel,” my grandmother said. “I’ll go do that now.”

After she had gone out to the back yard, Cheryl came up to me, pulled my arms around her, and said, “Are you sure we can’t take her power?”

Before I could reply, I suddenly found myself holding a toad.

“Grams!”

 

 

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Anniversary

Anniversary – 100 words – 2017-01-27

 

Sometimes, being Chief Conjurer of Oldbridge, Massachusetts is like being a pro referee. You’re expected to get it right instantly, while everyone else gets to check the replay.

Fifteen years ago today, I got it wrong.

That was the day I accused a beautiful witch of trying to enslave me. Only after she’d killed herself did I learn the truth. The true culprit will spend ten thousand years dying. The woman I accused? She loved me. I never knew.

Now, every year, on this date, an inscription appears in the sky over Oldbridge: “Remember me.”

I do, Aishling. I do.

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The Hound of the Melvilles

The Hound of the Melvilles

 

Sometimes, being the Chief Conjurer of Oldbridge, Massachusetts, is like being at a traveling carnival with sketchy-looking clowns. Sometimes, you’re the chaperone, keeping all the kids safe; sometimes, you’re driving the tiny car.

On the Saturday morning in December that Bobby Gillis went missing, I was having an argument with my daughter. She wanted a puppy for Christmas and I wanted to keep my shoes un-chewed and drool-free.

“But Da-a-ad,” Jenny whined.

Since she had stretched it to only three syllables, I knew I still had some wiggle room. When “Dad” became a five-syllable word, we were into pre-teen meltdown mode. “You remember Alvin? And Alvin II? And Lefty and Mugsy and Ollie and – and the three other hamsters we had that I can’t even remember their names?”

“Ollie survived,” she retorted, ignoring the seven earlier short-lived attempts.

“Okay, yes, Ollie survived. So let’s get you another hamster.”

“I don’t want another hamster. I want a puppy.”

“Dog,” I said.

“What?”

“How long does a dog live? On average?”

“It depends on the breed,” she replied, sensing a trap. “Some live only eight years, some can live twenty years or more.”

“And for what portion of that time is it a puppy?”

“About a year,” she said, grudgingly.

“You want a puppy, not a dog. Until you want a dog, to take care of for its whole life, you’re not getting one.”

“Oh!” she huffed with the kind of put-upon, Cinderella-never-realized-how-easy-she-had-it sigh that only a twelve-year-old girl could manage. She went up to her room, probably to bad-mouth me to her friends via text.

Just as I was about to relax with my coffee and the paper, there was a knock on the kitchen door. When I opened it, the mayor-elect was there, looking cold and tense. Wendy Wheeler still hadn’t gotten used to the idea that Oldbridge had a Chief Conjurer, something she only found out when she won the election the previous month. It was a safety issue. When the town changed mayors, I erased all memory of the existence of magical residents from the previous mayor’s mind and informed the new mayor of our existence. It’s kind like those novels with the boy wizard, but less incompetent bureaucracy and more the magical equivalent of “The Godfather.” After all, it wouldn’t be good if the knowledge got out, again, that all the spellcasters and magical critters from legends, myths and faerie tales are actually true. The Oldbridge Witch Craze was even more vicious than the Salem one, but it’s almost unknown, mostly because one of my ancestors and predecessors, Matthias Browne, made damned sure no one heard about it. It is, however, one of my biggest nightmares to have a mob riot on my watch.

“Sam, a child has gone missing,” she said immediately.

And that was another nightmare. The ground was almost clear of snow for the moment due to an unseasonably warm week, but with a storm headed straight for us out of the Great Lakes, it having already dumped a foot and a half in Albany. People were going to be searching everywhere for the boy and could easily stumble upon some of Oldbridge’s less – peaceable – residents, many of who were hibernating and strongly disliked being disturbed.

“Mayor-Elect Wheeler,” I said, “please come in. Have some coffee and tell me what’s happened.”

“I’ve told you, you can call me Wendy,” she said. I was reminded of her “Call Me Wendy; Call Me Your Mayor” campaign slogan. It was very popular with most of the folks in Oldbridge.

I’d voted for her opponent.

“And I will,” I said, “on social occasions, but this isn’t a social occasion.”

“No, Mr. Melville,” she said. “Bobby Gillis is missing.”

“I know Bobby’s parents,” I said. “What happened?”

“That’s what I want to find out. Did one of – you – take him?”

“I seriously doubt it,” I said immediately. Privately, I wasn’t nearly so sure. While it didn’t sound like the work of any of the mayor’s “other” constituency, I couldn’t rule out a visitor wandering through the territory. “What steps have you and the current mayor taken?”

“Amber alert, of course. And the local church leaders are setting up search teams, but there’s a lot of land in Oldbridge and the old mayor doesn’t remember you – what you are.” She paused, hesitant to ask the question. “Can you, you know, ‘find’ him? With magic?”

“Not that way, no,” I said. “My magic is tied up in other things. There are other options I can try, however. How long has he been missing?”

“We’re not sure. Four hours maybe. No one seems to have seen him since after breakfast.”

“You focus on the streets, back yards, parks, for now. Clear those first.” She looked dubious, so I said, “He’s only seven. Kids have no sense of private property and he might have just found something interesting in town – a fish pond or something. I’ll reach out to – the others – to search the woods.” Wendy had been clutching a plastic bag since she came in. “I assume you brought me something of Bobby’s to track him with?”

“His pillowcase.”

“Good. Leave it on the table. If I find anything, I’ll call you. Now go. Let’s find him.”

“It’s only four days until Christmas,” she said. “I don’t want Oldbridge to be famous for the death of a little boy at Christmas, Mr. Melville.”

“Neither do I, Ms. Wheeler.”

She left, looking backwards at me like she was wondering if she’d just sold her soul to the devil. Considering what I’d dug up about her background, it was amazing that it never even occurred to her that her soul was already his, unless she managed to find religion before she died. Oddly enough, finding out magic and magical creatures are real might be the very thing that saves her soul.

I brought the plastic bag to my workspace in the basement. Yes, of course it’s in the basement. Neighbors are nosy as a rule. They’ll rifle though your closets, peek behind every closed door, and rummage around in your bureau drawers and medicine cabinets, but the one place they still don’t go uninvited is the cellar. Most of the living tend to dislike being underground if they can avoid it. I looked in the bag and saw there was a short reddish-brown hair on it. Bobby. I carefully removed the hair, placed it in my working bowl and began a simple locating spell.

Yes, I lied to her. I dislike lying to mundanes in general but let one of them know you can find every lost child, cat and button with magic and they’ll never leave you alone. They’ll fritter away all of your power on mundane issues until you have none left when true evil comes knocking. Of course I’d use it to find a lost child. I just wouldn’t tell her that’s what I was doing.

Except, two hours later, it hadn’t worked. Someone, no, something was blocking me. Damn.

I went back upstairs and picked up the phone. You know how PTAs and little leagues and such have phone trees, where one person can make a call and soon everyone knows what’s going on? The magical community picked up that idea with a vengeance. The ones who have phones relay information to the ones without and then relay it back again. Me? I’m at the top of every magical phone tree in Oldbridge, of course. I made two quick calls, outlined the problem, and made myself another cup of coffee.

Ninety minutes later, the calls started to come back. No one saw anything, but there was something in the woods. A newcomer. The fourth call confirmed my worst fear. It was a Redcap.

For those of you who don’t know, a Redcap is one of the Unseelie Court – evil Fairies – a warrior who keeps his cap red by dipping it in the blood of the humans he kills. The ritual of taking is twelve hours, and I’d already lost eight between the delay in reporting it to me and my spell and phone tree. Four hours would be plenty of time, except Redcaps have one other trait – they’re immune to human magic. If I found him in time, I’d have to fight him physically, and I couldn’t use magic to find him.

I had only one option, and I wondered if he’d set it up. It was his kind of set-up.

I glanced at the thermometer, then put on my coat, gloves, and a warm hat. I also took an emergency blanket for the boy, just in case. The drive to his place was short, but every minute counted.

As I arrived at the W.H. Kennel & Rescue, the various dogs in residence began their chorus of greetings. The owner came out to meet me before I reached his front door. As I understood it, no one had ever seen inside his home. He had an oversized shed he used as an office. He was already walking in that direction as I came to a stop. I turned off the engine, got out, and followed him into his office.

“What brings you here, Chief Conjurer?” he said.

“I need your help,” I said. “A Redcap has wandered into Oldbridge and taken a child.”

“Redcaps,” he said. “Very nasty. What help do you need from me?”

“Can you hunt him? Save the boy?”

“Yes. And no. I can hunt him, of course, but not until midnight.”

“By then, the boy will be dead,” I told him.

“Yes, but it would prevent anyone else from dying. And I would do it for free, since I haven’t hunted a Redcap in far too long. Isn’t that sufficient?” The bastard had the insolence to smile.

“No, it’s not. I apologize for wasting your time.”

As I got up to leave, he said, “Hold.”

I paused at the door.

“I said I cannot hunt him until midnight, but you can.”

“What do you mean?”

“My alpha female had a litter at the Autumnal Equinox. One of them is a runt. He’ll never be a true part of the pack but he has all the instincts of his breed. Since he has never hunted with me, he is not bound to my rituals.”

“You want to lend me a puppy? Could he even track at that age?”

“My hounds can track from the moment they’re born, before their eyes have even opened. Finding a single boy, even in the presence of a Redcap, is like breathing to them, even for a runt. But you misunderstand me.”

“What do I misunderstand?”

“I would not be lending him to you. If you take him and hunt with him, he is yours. Permanently.”

And there it was. I asked, “And what would be the price for you to give up one of your hounds, even a runt?”

“It’s simple,” the Lord of the Wild Hunt said. “Some day in the future, unless I find myself in need of a major favor from the Chief Conjurer of Oldbridge, I am going to hunt you.”

“You’re going to hunt me?”

“Not immediately. Probably not for a long while. Maybe never, if, as I said, I ever need a favor. But that is the price to save the boy. My hound, for a future hunt.” He paused, then added, “Don’t worry. I always give those who bargain with me three days’ notice before a Hunt, to put their affairs in order.”

I wanted to say no. It was only one child. One small, defenseless, innocent child.

“Yes,” I said, “on condition that the hound leads me to the Redcap in time. If I fail, the deal is negated.”

“Of course,” the Huntsman said. “I wouldn’t have it said that my hounds failed in a hunt. No one would ever deal with me again.”

“How many of these deals have you made over the centuries?” I asked.

“Dozens, at least. Perhaps hundreds.”

“And how many times have you foregone the promised Hunt?”

“Twice,” he said. “Only twice. One of them died before I could Hunt. The other, well, that’s a long story and you lack the time. Come. I will introduce you.”

He led me out of the office and into his home. While the dogs in the heated outdoor kennels were of various mundane breeds and mixes, his home was designed as one big kennel combined with a hunting lodge décor. Various taxidermied heads adorned the walls, including several species of Faerie-born and at least three humans. His hounds all approached me quickly, taking my scent for the future but backing away at a silent command from their master. The adult hounds were the size of ponies. The puppies were each the size of a full grown Irish Wolfhound. They all had short, smooth black fur and unsettling gray eyes. Only one hound, perhaps the size of a bullmastiff, was allowed to stay near me.

“This is your hound,” the Huntsman said. “Hunt with him, then name him, and he will be yours for life.”

“What happens if someone else names him?” I asked, thinking of my daughter’s desire for a puppy.

“Then his loyalty would be divided, and you would lack the complete control I have over my pack. A hound of the Wild Hunt, even a runt, can become – challenging – if it doesn’t have one firm owner. He would also be less useful when Hunting. I do not recommend it.”

“I understand.” I turned to the puppy and said, “Come with me.”

It looked at the Leader of the Wild Hunt, its alpha, who nodded. Obediently, it looked up and waited for me to lead.

It was getting dark as I left, with perhaps three hours remaining in the Redcap’s ritual. I opened up the rear passenger door of my SUV and said, “Okay, in you go.” My new hound jumped in and lay down on the seat, occupying most of it. I realized that I had gotten a dog for Christmas after all. Assuming I survived the Redcap.

I drove to the edge of the woods closest to the boy’s home, where the Redcap was likely to have gone. I exited the SUV, let the hound out, then took out the plastic bag and my sword. Yes, I have a sword. Yes, it’s magical, but since I expected the magic to fail in the presence of the Redcap, I was going to be relying on its physical properties. It was made of sky iron, and edged in silver, two things known to be anathema to most of the Faerie-born, but especially the Unseelie.

I opened the bag and addressed my new hound. “We’re hunting the Redcap who stole this boy,” I said. “Find the boy to protect him, hunt the Redcap. Understand?”

The hound looked at me as if I were developmentally challenged, sneezed once, then stuck his nose in the bag.

“And don’t lose me,” I said to him.

The hound nodded once, then took off into the woods. I followed as quickly as I could. Every couple dozen yards, he would wait for me to catch up, then dart ahead again. He was definitely on the trail. I had no idea how he was tracking the boy. He wasn’t sniffing the ground. He just seemed to sort of follow a scent trail in the air, if that were possible, but he never wavered. Thirty minutes later, he stopped and crouched. That was unexpected. I hadn’t realized the hounds were setters rather than pointers or baying hounds. In fact, I knew for a fact they bayed when in pursuit of their prey. Then I remembered that the hound wasn’t following prey; he was following a boy to rescue. Rescue dogs are trained to lie down when they find their target. I had a lot to learn about my new pet.

I came up as silently as I could and skritched him behind the ears. There, in a small clearing, stood the Redcap, holding a bronze dagger. The boy must have disappeared earlier than I’d been told. The Redcap was about to cut his throat. That meant the boy was just unconscious but not dead yet.

I whispered to the dog, “Protect the boy,” and charged into the clearing.

And tripped over a tree root.

That actually saved my life, because the thrown dagger sailed over my head instead of into my heart. The Redcap had been ready for me. I began to stagger to my feet when a black blur swept by me and I heard the Redcap scream, a horrifying scream which was abruptly cut off.

I rose and saw that, the Redcap having been dealt with, the hound was snuggling close to the boy, sharing body warmth. I moved quickly to the boy. His lips were turning blue but he seemed otherwise unharmed. “Back to the car,” I said to the hound. My hound. “Lead the way.”

That night, the boy safely returned to his parents with a story of his wandering into the woods with an imaginary friend, I told my story to my wife and daughter, leaving out the promise to be Hunted at a later date. “So, now, I need to name him to maintain full control over him,” I said, absently skritching him behind the ears.

“Whatever. I’m not picking up after him, Sam,” Cheryl said. What can I say? My wife’s a cat person.

“That’s so cool,” Jenny said as the hound flopped down beside her for a belly rub. “He snuggled up to Bobby to keep him warm?”

“Mm-hmm. He understands a lot.”

“I think you should name him Mr. Snuggle-face,” she said. Then she turned to the hound and said, “Isn’t that right, Mr. Snuggle-face?”

I felt the magic lock into place as she said it. My daughter had named him. So much for full control over my dog. Life promised to continue to be interesting for a long, long time.

And that’s how the Melville family came to own a Hound of the Wild Hunt named Mr. Snuggle-face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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