(Sorry this took so long to finish. The flu keeps kicking me back to stage one where writing becomes impossible, even when the story is in my head. For those wondering what this is all about, this is a prequel to Alien Curse, starring little Art Arcana all grown up which I SHOULD be able to bring out sometime next month – SAH.)
The White Lady of Christmas
by Sarah A. Hoyt
© Sarah A. Hoyt 2017 – All rights reserved.
It was snowing – thick, white, fluffy flakes – when I came across the beauty with empty eyes.
This was rare, because it didn’t normally snow in LA. In fact the last large snow storm worthy of the name had been in 1949, over a hundred years ago.
But then again, we were in the vicinity of the spaceport, and once the space magicians had started doing their thing in this neighborhood, the weather – and just about everything else – had gone to hell. It was about as normal to wake up to a hundred degrees as to freezing weather on Christmas morning. Or midsummer.
On the other hand, it made the neighborhood really cheap for a barely-surviving PI like me. Lately frankly more attuned to the barely than the surviving. The rent was late again, I hadn’t had a decent meal in three days, and the holes in my soles which I’d plugged up with cardboard were letting snow in to freeze and wet my shoes. And there would be no jobs till after Christmas.
For some reason, cheating spouses, crooked business partners and evil warlocks might not take a break at Christmas, but those who wish to catch them seem to. It’s as though for the duration of the season, people want to believe the best of everyone around them. Which meant that people like me, who made a living off the worst in humanity starved. I’d be going to the soup kitchen for Christmas dinner at this rate.
My mind was on my problems, my heart in the vicinity of the holes in my shoes, when I saw her. She was tall and beautiful, like the lost dreams of youth, with pale blond hair, big blue eyes, and the kind of lips that made you think of frozen raspberries.
I thought I was hallucinating her, and stood, my eyes wide open, staring, as a man does who walked into a dream. In this weather, she was wearing a form-fitting white dress of sparkling white silk. Snow flakes clustered in her pale hair. Her eyes were thoroughly empty.
She stared at me without blinking, and then the frozen raspberry lips formed two words: help me!
I tried to say “with what?” but my throat was dry, and I couldn’t summon words.
She put her hand out and touched mine. Her hand was ice cold. And then she was gone, walking very fast, past me, her heels clicking rhythmically on the pavement, somehow not at all muffled by the snow.
I’d seen those empty eyes before. A PI comes across all sorts of things, but eventually we always come across necromancers. My first case had been a necromancer who used the residents of entire cemeteries as workers in his factories.
For just a moment, under the unnatural snow, I considered running to St. Joe’s down the street. I wasn’t very prone to religion, but there are things in this business that make even an atheist want to cross himself and bathe in holy water.
Worse, after the shock wore off, I realized that not only did I know what those empty eyes meant, I knew who that woman was. Myrene Myrreile had smiled at me from a hundred movie screens, her expressive face reflecting whatever the movie plot called for.
The hair rose at the back of my head. Someone in Hollywood was playing with necromancy.
There are many things a PI can do when trying to figure out who is breaking the law. It depends on the law being broken. But when it’s a magical law being broken, there’s only one thing you can do, and that’s to use your magical power. Because even the simplest case of infidelity can involve illusions and cases of fraud can involve mind-manipulation. So the only way to crack a big case is magic.
I have magic. Don’t get me wrong. I even had some instruction on how to use it. Okay, it was a correspondence course, but so was my PI license. All the non-magicians in the business were run off in the two thousand and twenties, when magic returned.
The problem is that if you use magic while you’re starving you might kill yourself. And I wasn’t going to kill myself over a case no one was paying me for.
I could, of course, forget it all, and go in search of a meal.
But I remembered those empty eyes, and the dark lips mouthing “help me.”
So I did what gumshoes did before they had magical power. Incidentally, also, it might get me a meal.
I walked away from the vicinity of the spaceport. The snow storm continued, which was strange.
You can’t get anywhere in LA on foot. At least not far enough. The skies were crowded with broom fliers. There were magical carriages pulling passenger carts hurrying down the palm-lined boulevards. Of course, I was limited to those boulevards I could take on foot. It didn’t seem to me like the snow was impairing anything, though it lent verisimilitude to the choir of Victorian children a Boulevard Magician had conjured up.
LA is full of these aspirants. They come out to work for the spaceport as space magicians, or to work for the movies, but instead, they end up doing magic on the boulevards for thrown coins, or, of course, becoming PIs and living on the edge of starvation.
The Victorian children were very realistic, easily rivaling the magical effects in the movies of Art Arcana himself. Little plump faces, and rich clothing, and singing about peace on Earth in a bubble of light in which you saw just a glimpse of Victorian London and behind it the whole yellowed and softened like a romantic vision.
The magician himself wore full Victorian gentleman’s regalia, waistcoat, watch chain, top hat and everything. Only if you squinted really hard and used mage vision did you see, beneath the glamour of the suit, a very worn Hawaiian shirt and shorts. He had to be colder than I was.
If I’d had any coins, I’d have dropped them in front of him. As it was I said, “That’s amazing work. The best I’ve seen outside the movies.”
He opened his mouth, for a moment as though to answer, then gave a little smile and bowed, slightly.
He really was very good. For him, the dream of a studio seeing him and perhaps hiring him on the spot might very well come true, as it never could for the rest of us.
A block down from him, there was the hotel where I sometimes worked security during the screening and festival season. They would be empty two days before Christmas, because few people chose to holiday then.
But the doorman there, Tom Michaels, knew all the gossip, including the gossip from much better hotels, like those the stars stayed at. I didn’t know how he did it. Perhaps he ran a rumor spell on his radio and listened to all the gossip, like others listen to radio programs.
Or perhaps he just had a vast network of friends.
In a way I was one of them, on the far fringes, a guy he could count on for some hot gossip, and to whom he gave some information when needed.
He was at his post under the snow and greeted me with a grin, “Sam. Long time no see, my man.”
I grinned back at him. He was wearing his impeccable blue uniform, had a fresh haircut, and looked far more respectable than I did. He registered this with “You look like you haven’t got much work recently.”
I made a face. “You know how it is around this time of year.”
He nodded sagely, then shoved his hands in his pocket. He pursed his lips, as though he were considering how much to tell me, then said, “I’d think otherwise, with the SBI in town and all.”
“The SBI?” I said, stupidly. Yes, of course, I’d heard of the Supernatural Bureau of Investigations before. But I couldn’t figure out either what the SBI would be doing in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, or what that would have to do with me.
“Well, I thought you might be nibbling at the edges of the same case,” Tom said. He leaned closer and told me “They say—” Paused, either hesitating or trying to entice me, to make me eager for his confidences. “They say that someone up there,” a movement of the shoulder either towards Hollywood or towards heaven, which in this city might as well be the same, honestly. “Has been playing at necromancy. They say that all this is a result of that.” He waved around at the snow. “The weather magicians can’t fix the disturbance, and they got the SBI on the lookout for what might be causing it.”
Normally I would have questioned the idea that there was necromancy in LA. Sure, all the other crimes, including enthralling women into sex. But necromancy?
Necromancy takes more work, more energy, more sheer raw magical ability than almost any other magical art. It is also, honestly, far more “wrong” than even lovespells or the other minor, inconsequential dark magic that has become common. Most people feel when they’re transgressing with that kind of dark power. They have to be half mad to start down that road, and because of the spells and the power draws involved, even if they aren’t, they will become so.
I would normally have said no one in LA could be a necromancer, because on a town that ran on gossip, we would have heard of someone who was that absolutely raving lunatic.
Only I remembered the woman in the snow, with her vacant eyes, and her lips like frozen raspberries, and I said, “Um.” And then, “Have you… That is, do you have any idea who that could be? Because no one sane would be working with dead people. And anyway, why work with dead people? There are all sorts of people dying to get in the movies.” As the words left my lips, I wanted to call the pun back.
Tom gave me a reproachful look, then shook his head, then told me, “No. No, but…”
“Do you remember Jim Fenton, the guy who used to do illusions for Art Arcana? Word has it that the studio let him go suddenly, and he’s become a boulevard magician, working for the thrown pennies.
I didn’t remember Jim Fenton, as such. I don’t think I’d ever met you. I mean, I don’t exactly get invited to the stars parties unless someone has been stealing silverware and they want me to track it down. Only in this town everyone is a little obsessed with the movie business. It is what makes us different and special. Without the movies, we’d be like New York with better weather and more Hawaiian shirts.
So we all sit a little longer at the end of the movies, and look at all the names on the screen, including the “second assistant to the third light magician” which, frankly is probably code for someone who fetches coffee and sandwiches.
I suspect we do it just in case we find ourselves out of town and someone asks “who’s that up and coming light and sound guy who works for Art Arcana?”
Only it’s more likely we want to know who comes into our office trying to hire us, or perhaps whom we’re serving coffee to, late at night at the diner.
So yeah, I’d heard the name Jim Fenton. His magical effects had made Art Arcana stand out, have a plausibility and a realism that it hadn’t had since old Art Arcana Senior had started it.
And they had let him go? That certainly indicated some sort of dirty dealing on his part. No one would gladly part with someone capable of that kind of luminous and complex rendering out of nothing for anything short of a major liability. I remembered the scene in Star Magic, for which he was said to be solely responsible – you know the one I’m taking about, the one where the big space battle takes place with hundreds of different spaceships, all moving in their own particularly way? – and whistled under my breath. No. Having let Jim Fenton go, they would have to hire about a hundred magicians to take his place. And to get that many magicians to work together with any sort of coordinated effort was kind of like trying to get a hundred cats to pull a sleigh. It might be theoretically possible, on force alone, but it wouldn’t be possible. Not really.
So what would convince Art Arcana Junior, the owner of the studio of the same name, inherited from his brilliant father, to let their star magician go? Honestly, at that level, Jim Fenton could have thrown scalding coffee in the face of the second assistant to the third light magician, and the kid would just be paid off to get medical treatment and go away.
And then it hit me. It was the word luminous. I’d seen the man back there, the one working the luminous illusion of the city of London in the time of Queen Victoria, and I’d thought he should be employed by the studios. I had no idea what Jim Fenton looked like, but….
Out of my memory, I conjured an image of what the man looked like. It was hard, because honestly, I was starving, and all I could get was his face, floating about two inches above my hand. I had to apply all my effort to keep it visible, as it tried to fall apart into etheric wisps, but I managed it, just about, and managed to ask Tom, through clenched teeth, “This Jim Fenton?”
He looked surprised. I also had the impression I’d miscued at least one exchange and maybe failed to answer one of his questions, as I pursued my idea.
But he looked at the image of the face above my hand and said, “Yeah, that’s Jim Fenton. Why?…” He looked at me with expectancy, as though hoping I had some juicy gossip.
I believe in the share and share alike system, so I said, “I don’t know yet, but… there might just be something I can do, you’re right. I’ll tell you as soon as I know.”
He half put out his arm to hold me, as though he’d demand all the details right there and then, but I was already on my way back.
Now the bubble in which the boulevard magician displayed his skill showed a choir of angels, singing. I realized the front one bore a strong resemblance to Myrene Myrreile. I tried not to read too much into it. After all she was the stereotypical, glamorous Hollywood blond. Lots of people – and artifacts – resembled her.
Still it colored my voice as I said “Jim Fenton?”
For just a second, his illusion wavered, and I glimpsed his Hawaiian shirt under the illusion of the Victorian jacket, then he turned and said, “Yes? In a cold voice.
“What are you doing on the boulevard?” I asked. “A man like you, with your skills? I would think that anyone who could create the battle scene in Star Magicians—”
He gave me a dirty look. “Can it, okay? You know damn well Arcana has enough power in this town that if word goes out they won’t have you work for them—”
“Why would Art Arcana do that?” I asked. “It seems to me that losing you would mean a loss in profit to them. Surely Art is not insane?”
Jim looked at me, and for a moment his eyes were as wide and desolate as Myrene Myrreile’s in the storm. But not as empty, Behind his almost forcefully blank look raged a sense of fury, a sense of having been done wrong. I didn’t even have to turn my magical senses on to see it – which was good, because as starved as I was, the magic would eat me – or Jim Fenton would, metaphorically speaking with his magic, considering that he had to be a considerable practitioner to create the effects he had.
The quick suspicion that he might have killed Myrene to acquire her magic came and went. I didn’t even know the actress had any magic. Sure, sure. I hear you. All of these Hollywood actresses, at least the ones good enough to have star billing have glamour at the very least. It’s funny how they used to call it that, too, even before magic returned and was made scientific.
His face was working, “Why don’t you leave me alone?” he asked. “Most people don’t even recognize me. I do okay out of the tips. I’m not sure what you want with me. Did Arcana send you?”
I gave him a half laugh. “If Arcana had sent me,” I said. “I wouldn’t be out here in shoes whose soles are bolstered with cardboard, and a thrift store suit, would I?”
He looked at me then. Fully looked. His gaze swept me from shoes to face and fixated on my eyes. I didn’t think he was doing a full magical read. At least I didn’t feel anything, but in my exhausted state, I might not.
“Then who?” he asked.
I sighed. Any other time, any other place, in this city of illusions, I’d be afraid of saying it. But this was Christmas eve, the one night of the year when it’s safe to speak of ghosts and ill omens. I shrugged. “I saw Myrene Myrreile in the storm. She looked dead. She asked me to help her.”
He looked again. I felt faint scrabblings, like kitten claws working at my power. This time he was doing a read.
He nodded curtly and made a gesture like closing an umbrella, which closed in the bubble of light and all the angels. They stopped singing abruptly, mid note. He grabbed my arm, his fingers like claws. “Come on,” he said. “I know a place.”
I felt a quick panic at the urgency in his voice, the bite of his fingers, and made as though to pull away. He stage whispered me, “Don’t. I’ll buy you a meal.”
By then my state of faintness was such that I would followed the devil himself back to hell for a sandwich and a glass of milk.
It wasn’t a sandwich and a glass of milk. We took several turns, through several highly disreputable alleys, till we came to one where an almost empty diner sat, brightly illuminated.
Jim waved as we entered, and from the smile and nod of the man wiping down the counter, he was a regular. He led me to a corner booth. The sign on the wall said the booth was reserved for parties of four or more people, but I didn’t think there was a great rush for tables.
The waitress arrived moments later, a perky young woman in a pink mini-skirt, who kept striking poses between words, as though she were hoping to be stopped for stardom.
“What.” Pose with pouting lips. “Can.” Pose with outthrust hip. “I” Pose with pushed out bosom. “Get.” Pose with hand on hip. “You.” Pose with shoulder-forward. “Gentlemen.” Big smile as though she were posing for publicity photo.”
I resisted an urge to roll my eyes, which was made far easier by the smell of food, and the fact that food was right now serious business, judging from the way my stomach felt as though it were clinging to my spine.
Jim ordered for us, family style, he said, beef stew which was the special of the night, written on a blackboard behind the bar, then the server turned to me for “What.” Pose. “Will.” Pose. “You.” Pose. “Drink.” Pose.
I ordered coffee and asked for creamer and sugar on the side, because right then I needed all the calories I could get. During a dry spell, two winters ago, I’d resorted to going into hotel lobbies that had a complimentary coffee machine, and drinking coffee with as much sugar dissolved in as it would take.
I started on the coffee with about half creamer and a lot of sugar, while we waited for the food. Jim Fenton watched me put in ten packs of sugar and six creamers, then gave a look to the space behind my head where any halfway decent magician can see the power aura. “Have you been doing magic on a boiled egg a day?” he asked, in a shocked voice.
I shrugged. “Sometimes I can’t afford a boiled egg.”
He frowned. “You know the risks. That’s downright irresponsible.”
By which he meant that if a magician ran through his power, his power would eat his personality and vitality and leave him a dangerous power-wraith. The thing about zombies eating brains? It must have been a survival from a time when there was magic before – some researchers think that the Earth goes through phases on which magic works, when going through different regions in space, but no one really knows why the magic went away and then returned. We are, however, morally sure that there was magic before now – because a magician who runs through his power and is eaten by his power does devour the mind of his victims, even if not strictly the brains. And he is, in many ways, a zombie, that is a living body from which mind and soul have departed.
I didn’t tell him that, duh, some of us didn’t have the kind of power that allowed us to make illusions and hook in to the Hollywood gravy train. However, I thought of it, and I must be weakened and low on protection enough that he sensed the feeling, if not the words of my thought. “I know, I know,” he said. “But if you came to Hollywood with thoughts of working in the movies, maybe it’s time—”
“I didn’t,” I said. “I was born here. My father was an illusions tailor, in the early days of magic in the 20th century. You know, making sure that the stars had that extra dose of glamour with their clothes. I actually never had any interest in the movie business, besides watching it, and of course, what you know if you live here. My dream—” I shrugged.
“Yes?” he said.
“It’s neither here nor there, and not likely to ever happen. I stayed around here, not for the movies but for the spaceport. I have this dream that one day I make it big enough that I can pay my colonist’s fee and immigrate. Not likely to happen before I’m fifty, the cut off age for spacing. But that’s my dream, and I haven’t been able to give it up. I live in an apartment near the spaceport and I can watch the spaceships leaving for distant stars.”
There was something arrested in his expression. “It’s a beautiful dream. Mine is crazier.”
The server brought us our meal, and whatever else it was “family style” meant enough to serve a family of ten. Jim Fenton ate a reasonable amount, while I ate enough for the rest of the family. For a while we didn’t say anything, mostly because I was shoveling food into my mouth as fast as humanly possible. Which is to say, very fast, because this human is capable of great shoveling.
I felt… Well, when you’re dangerously hungry your power feels like it’s unstable. It gives you a tendency to cry a lot, and a tendency to feel like you’re walking some narrow dangerous ledge. Mostly because you are.
As I ate I felt more and more stable, and finally took a pause between bites to say “Your dream? To work in illusions for the studios?”
“No.” He smiled. “That was my dream once. It was a good dream, and it left me with a very healthy bank balance. But it’s not… I found it doesn’t fulfill whatever it is.”
I paused again after patting my lips with the napkin, looking for a way to ask the obvious question. Then I did, “Healthy bank balance?”
He laughed. “Oh, you mean boulevard illusions? Nah. That’s not because I need the money. It’s because I need the magic. You know it’s a high. You know you become …. Someone else when doing it. I need to do it. It also brings in a surprising amount of money, particularly during the holidays. But the money isn’t…. Pardon me, I know it’s very important when you don’t have enough to eat, or when the dream of your life depends on it, but it isn’t enough. No, my dream was utterly impossible. I wanted Myrene Myrreile, you see.”
I had a vague memory that Myrreile was in fact, and had been for ten years, at least, Mrs. Art Arcana. I knew it because it was considered one of the great successes among Hollywood marriages. Ten whole years, and a little boy, Arthur Arcana the third.
“So that’s why Art Arcana kicked you to the curb?” I said. “Because you were…. In love with his wife? Having an affair with her?”
Jim Fenton opened and closed his mouth. He was silent a long while, and I let him be while I polished off the beef stew and ate the gravy on bread. His silence was not final. It was like a pause in a conversation, as though he were trying to figure out how much to tell me. He was probably taking in account the fact I was a total stranger, but the fact is that my power had been so thin and stripped that he must have got a full read into me, not just power, but personality and character too.
And now that I had some power I could squint and look at him. He has a glorious aura of power, all around his head, flashing in yellow and blue at least two yards out. No wonder he could make amazing illusions. If he’d taken his power in another direction, he could have been a war magician, one of those they keep in the basement, in case they need to deploy the truly scary explosions.
“I was in love with Myrene,” he said. “But she was in love with me too. We…. She was too straight for an affair, you know. She knew Art Arcana slept around on her, but she’s a good girl, from a farm in Pennsylvania, and she’s not about– Was not about to compromise her honor. Instead she started finding evidence of his infidelities. She was supposed to file for divorce, and then we’d get married.”
“And she changed her mind?” I said.
“I don’t think so. It’s just, one day she was supposed to meet me and she didn’t. I saw her a lot at movie functions, and I got the feeling he was mind controlling her. Her acting went downhill too. All that amazing expression she’s know for? It’s gone. Though most of the critics don’t notice, because they always underrated her as an actress. I took it for five years, then I tried to see her. Privately. I– I broke into her trailer during the production of Some Like it Magical, last month. Art Arcana caught me. He threw me out and fired me. And she, Myrene, just stood there, and let Art’s goons rough me up and throw me out.” There was another silence. I drank my coffee. I felt as though I’d burst, but that was way preferable to being starving. At least I hadn’t fasted enough to be sick when I first ate. That has happened once or twice, and it’s an unpleasant experience and a waste of good food.
“Look,” he said. “If she got out and got enough of her mind back to ask you for help, maybe that’s hope. I’ll pay you handsomely for finding out what’s going on and freeing Myrene.”
I had a bad feeling. I’d seen Myrene Myrreile in the snow, and I wasn’t sure what was going on was as simple as mind control. Sure, it could be. Some mind-control spells – Well, let’s say death is more merciful. But what if she’d simply decided to give Jim Fenton the go-by? What if it wasn’t at all what he had made it out to be, in this description and in his head?
“I can’t take the case in those terms,” I said. “I mean, she might be free, for all we know.” I raised my hand. “Yes, it’s unlikely from what I saw and you say. But it’s possible.”
“Right,” he said. “Right. He ran his hand backwards through his hair, and said, “Tell you what, I’ll pay also if you prove to me that she is staying with Art of her free will. That’s all I ever wanted, was to make sure that there was no coercion. But he just threw me out and blacklisted me with all the other houses.”
“A thousand up front, two when I deliver,” I said, fully expecting him to negotiate.
Instead, he reached into his pocket, brought out a leather pouch and counted out the money in the small change they’d thrown him for his illusions. I once more cursed the fact that’s not the way the knack of my power ran.
However, even if I had to count fifty in small change, his money gave me the chance to rent a broom. And a broom allowed me to fly through the snow-clouded air, to my fifth floor balcony. I leapt off the broom, leaving it free to fly back to its stable, unlocked the balcony door and went in.
Because I inherited most of my father’s furniture, my one-bedroom is comfortable, if cramped and old-fashioned. But I wasn’t interested in comfort right then. Sure a thousand would take care of the immediate necessities, but if I wanted to pay my back rent, and keep the lights on another month, even near the spaceport, I needed the rest of the fees.
I pulled back my heavy sofa and an armchair better suited to a gentleman’s library in the nineteenth century, then rolled up the rug, to reveal a pentagram of power worked in inlay oak into the mahogany floor. This, which must be a survival from the time it was built, in the nineteenth century and have clear nothing to do with magic, had been one of the reasons I’d rented the apartment. It was easier to power up a pentagram permanently attached to my floor than to have to draw one in chalk every time. Yes, magicians really are as lazy as you’re told.
I put the rug aside, at in the center of the pentagram, in the lotus position, my hands up on my knees, and I powered it up. The glow of magical light extended from the floor up, surrounding me. This meant I was protected. Doubly so, since this was Christmas eve, but really that pentagram had seen so much use that I was pretty protected every time.
It’s important to be protected when you leave your body, because otherwise you’re going to be open to having your body taken over by anything that’s wandering by. In Hollywood those were mostly shades of once great actors who had committed suicide, but I once knew this guy whose “vacant” body had been taken over by a fire demon. I was part of the effort to trace him, and I heard when the police apprehended him, he had set fire to an entire city block.
So, leaving my body completely safe, I floated up and out of my body, looking down at me in the lotus position, in the middle of the pentagram.
Astral projection is a weird thing. You still feel like you have a body, and are wearing exactly what you were wearing before, but you can do all those things you can do in dreams, like speed instantaneously some place, and find your way into locked rooms.
Oh, and you can be killed. No, it’s not the old “Anything that kills you in a dream kills you in real life.” It’s more that a sufficiently powerful magician can blow your astral body to smithereens, and after a short time your flesh body goes into a coma and dies.
As soon as I pulled away from my body, a process akin to struggling free of quick sand, I wished myself where Jim Fenton was.
There is never anything wrong with checking out your client, before you are fully committed to the case.
He had gone back to the boulevard, and was doing the angel illusion again. Honestly, if he weren’t careful, the movie company was going to sue him for the use of Myrene Myrreile’s likeness. But at least now I understood his compulsion to use her.
In astral projection his power pattern was more clear to me than when I was enfleshed, and it was truly clear and bright, with the faint golden glow about it that meant he had never even engaged in minor black magic like love philters. A boy scout.
But it didn’t mean the boy scout wasn’t delusional.
So I wished myself at the gates of the Art Arcana mansion.
The thing is much admired by tourists, doing the obligatory broom tour of Hollywood. Whole bevies of them hung around, over the mansion, even now, and I could hear a tour guide declaim, “The father of the current Arthur Arcana, Arthur Arcana senior was one of the pioneers of using whole magical illusions for movies, which allowed him to do not just fantasy and science fiction epics, but the sort of truly spectacular staging that couldn’t be done by real, live action means. His Hannibal, famous for its battle with elephants would have caused him to run afoul of PETA, if—”
I tuned him out. I tuned him out because even on this side of the gates – in spirit form, couldn’t really cross them without permission. I risked disintegration if I tried – I could feel the stench of corruption, the feeling of something twisted and wrong.
It felt like… Like inside the Art Arcana mansion there was a black hole of evil and wrong. But it was the stench that overpowered me, the stench that told me what this was. I didn’t know why the SBI hadn’t traced it, but I’d put my hands on the fire that Art Arcana was engaging in necromancy.
Perhaps it was because I had dealt with it before. Once you “smell” the psychic stench of rotting corpse, you’ll never mistake it for anything else.
I shot up and above the mansion, ignoring and flying through the bevvy of broom tourists. It feels a little tingly, but they couldn’t see me, and it didn’t hurt anyone. Up there, looking down, I could see mommy, daddy and little boy playing in the yard in the snow.
Myrene Myrreile looked just as I had seen her, only in jeans and a sweatshirt. Her movements weren’t right. But what clinched it was that in my spirit form – never in human form – I could see her soul pinned to the body by unnatural meals, struggling and fighting to get free. It was like those angels Fenton had animated, but with cuts and bruises from her struggles against the spells that held her unnaturally alive.
The SBI didn’t believe me at first. Of course they would not. I was just some nut off the streets. Maybe I should have told Fenton first, and got him to accompany me. Or maybe that would not have made any difference, since he was known to have a grudge against Art Arcana.
It was a very long 3 hours, as their magicians viewed my memories, tested my power, and finally looked at my power pattern for any evidences of madness or delusion.
At the end of it, they brought me sandwiches, and a tired-eyed man in a cheap blue suit who was some kind of captain or commander or something – judging from the way even the magicians called him sir – sat across the table from me, and started off by saying, “You realize going in your astral body into a place as well defended as Art Arcana Mansion is foolhardy? There are a million spells that could have caught you and disintegrated you. Which is why my men never got close enough to see what was going on.”
“I was safe,” I said. “Though I’d eaten enough to power my magic, I’d been starving for days, so my astral self was… less material, for lack of a better term, than a normal astral body. I knew there was a good chance the spell couldn’t catch me.”
“A good chance isn’t good enough. You shouldn’t take stupid risks.” He paused a long time as though waiting for me to promise him I wouldn’t, but the thing is that I don’t make promises I can’t keep. Then he said, “At any rate we thank you. We’re preparing an intervention force now.”
“I want to go along,” I said.
There was opposition. There was a lot of opposition. The man in the cheap suit and his superiors thought that I should mind my own business. They wanted only professionals on the scene.
You’ve read about it in the newspapers. In the end I convinced them that Myrene Myrreile’s soul had a special connection to me, and they let me tag along.
We broke into the mansion at midnight on Christmas eve. This was calculated, because dark magic loses its power then.
The SBI magicians immobilized the guards, and I ran in, alone, knocking the front door down with a well-aimed kick – it was more for show than security, of course, the security being in the walls, the spells, the guards outside it – breaking the glass into a million pieces that fell like a glass cascade, making beautiful music.
I felt the SBI agents behind me as I reached the foot of the stairs. Art Arcana reached the top at the same time. “What in hell?” he said.
And before I could speak, the man behind of me, out of breath, said, “This is the SBI Mr. Arcana. We’d like a word with you.”
He threw a fire spell at us. I stopped it, mid-air. It wasn’t very strong. His corrupt power wouldn’t work on Christmas and besides it was done just to distract us.
Before I dispelled the thing with a puff of smoke, mid-stairs, leaving a char mark on banister and ceiling, he had run in the other direction. I felt more than saw his rushing by again, in the hallway up pulling a blond woman in a nightdress by the hand, towards the right side of the hallway. We heard a tinkle of glass.
There was a feeling, a very odd feeling indeed. When we followed and reached the end of the hallway, we saw that he’d broken the window, and jumped through it, holding Myrene Myrreile’s hand. Into the pool beneath. He can’t have thought, as tall as the house was, that he’d survive the jump. The fall alone, since the house was built on a hill and the pool was a good 100 feet below, would have killed them. Or killed him and freed Myrene Myrreile from her counterfeit of life.
I remember them floating face down in the pool, hands linked.
But there are two things I remember more. The first is the little blond boy who came running out of one of the bedrooms, as we turned away to go down the stairs. He was maybe five, and he was crying for mommy and daddy.
I know the aftermath, the complex legal and financial convolutions that ended up giving Jim Fenton control of the Art Arcana studio – and caused him to send me a very large check, which will, in fact, pay my immigration to a colony, plus give me a good amount of start up money – and of all the Art Arcana money, if there was any. It was said that Arthur Arcana Junior in his madness – trying to keep the wife who would have left him, and whom he’d murdered – had run through the immense fortune his father had left him and was essentially penniless.
I don’t know what happened to little Art Arcana. He disappeared into the federal orphan bureaucracy. Magical orphans, particularly children of dark magicians are watched very carefully. Blood calls to blood, and bad blood most of all. But I remember his panic on that Christmas morning, as his – doubtless – very expensive gifts lay unopened under the tree.
The other thing I remember, which makes the whole experience worthwhile, was the vision in the sky above the pool, as a beautiful white angel with Myrene Myrreile’s face and vast immaculate wings rose to the sky, and smiled at me, and mouthed “thank you” before speeding on to her eternal home.
Maybe that’s worth a little boy’s orphaning. I don’t know. I know I freed my true client, the dead woman who asked me for help on Christmas eve.
Christmas morning dawned sunny and bright, and I went to the beach.
But not all the sunshine could erase the sadness in my heart for a great man driven mad by love, the woman he enslaved in an unnatural state, or the little boy left alone on Christmas morning.
Sometimes all you can do is free the captives. It’s not enough. Magic didn’t make humans into angels. Just humans, with the same old sins and failings, the old hopes and dreams but now with the power to make them either wonderful or horrible.
And often both.