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“Whispering Shadows Apartments had been made for a niche market. Originally all of the apartments were decorated very goth,” Carlos explained as he jangled his keys and led Paul into the manager’s office. Carlos had enough lines around his eyes and mouth that he’d never be asked for ID again. He still had the same thick black hair, but now he had a thick middle to match it. He wore a tailored dress shirt in a material so dense it shined. He had expensive-looking dress shoes, and even a tie. The tie seemed unfashionably narrow, but the rest of his outfit spoke of money and power. The manager’s office had been carpeted and wallpapered in dark red, with taxidermied animals for décor. “Two thirds of the apartments were painted either black, burgundy, or dark grey. You’d be surprised how popular that is. There’s even an underground swimming pool, and an underground parking garage so the residents don’t have to see the sun if they don’t want to. I’m gonna get the keys.”
“That works for me.” Paul stuffed his hands in his pockets and followed Carlos.
Paul was average height for a human male, as tall as three great horned owls perched on each other’s heads. He was lean, with not an ounce of fat on him, and he had the kind of muscles that come from work rather than the gym. He was as brown as a nut on his forearms and face, but pale in the places where his clothing covered his skin. His shoulders and upper arms bore crosshatched parallel lines of white scar tissue. He had taut features, high cheekbones and facial muscles that seemed to enhance, rather than conceal, his skull. His eyes had a Slavic tilt to their corners, and his chin was rather sharp and cleft, which is why he wore a narrow beard. He was hunching his shoulders, and tried to straighten up. Carlos had said he’d help him. Nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone needed a little help sometimes.
The landscaping, from what he could see, was all creepers and vines, and the paths were lit with short lanterns whose bluish glow seemed to emphasize the darkness. “The office fits in.”
“Yeah,” Carlos said, laughing. “Residents love that it’s open from sunset to midnight. Thinking about doing that for our other apartments. Makes sense, you know? People want to look for apartments in the evening, after work.”
The last time he had seen Carlos, they’d both been twenty years old. He’d been a scrawny kid, with thick black hair and eyes set just a little too close together, making him look either astute and intense or weaselly, depending on whether you liked him or not. They had been best friends in high school, and had continued that friendship after they graduated. They got the same job working for the same gas station, and when Carlos got fired, Paul quit so they could both work together somewhere else. Carlos was a harder worker than Paul, but since he was the Mexican, he always got fired first, especially in the summer when ASU closed and the town emptied of both students and snowbirds.
They’d done just about every job they could possibly have, from selling ice cream to kids (in a blazing hot truck that played ‘Music Box Dancer’ loud enough to deafen) to loading up bales of alfalfa and cotton with the migrant workers. They’d made grand plans for the future, while hitching a ride back home every evening, shivering in the back of the flat bed truck or station wagon as the heat of the desert turned to chill minutes after the sun went down. They were gonna make it big somehow, be there when opportunity struck and make so much money that they could buy a new Chevy every year, and give the old ones to whoever was nice to them when they were poor. And when they sat in the Yucca Tap Room in the evening, drinking Budweiser and waiting for Carlos’ girlfriend to give them a ride the rest of the way home when she got off work, Paul and Carlos swore that they’d always be friends, no matter what.
Paul’s mom was a nurse, and she taught them a trick to get them medical deferments from the army. But when they turned twenty, the war had heated up, and they got reclassified 1-A. Paul had money which would pay for college so he could get a deferment, but Carlos did not.
He tried to make a gift of the money to Carlos, and when Carlos wouldn’t take it, he called it a loan and closed his friend’s fingers around the cashier’s check that contained the sum of the bank account. He tried to explain to Carlos where he was going, though he wasn’t sure he succeeded. Carlos enrolled at ASU, and Paul got drafted. They saw him get on the bus to boot camp, and even though Paul told Carlos he would never set foot in Vietnam, it didn’t look like Carlos believed him.
Then Paul walked into the light, vanishing from society. He never came home from boot camp. Never even arrived, in fact. As far as anyone knew, he was dead.
Carlos led him around a corner to a door in a shadowy alcove, and unlocked the door with a rattle of keys and the creak of underused hinges. Stale air and the reek of mildew wafted out of the apartment. “This one has been empty since we kicked the last guy out. Among other things, he let the tub overflow. The bedroom and half the drywall in the hallway got ruined, so I figured I’d work on filling the other apartments before I worry about fixing this one. You can stay as long as you need.”
The apartment had high ceilings and a floor that looked like travertine until he knelt and discovered it was just an amazingly convincing porcelain. A metal spiral staircase led to a miniscule mezzanine with narrow French doors opening to a balcony barely big enough for a chair. The rooms were quite small, and a bit gloomy, but it was so sumptuously detailed it felt like a single bite of an upscale artisan truffle rather than a slab of cheap waxy discounted Easter rabbit. If the walls hadn’t been painted blood red, he would have liked it very much.
Paul toed the corner of the hallway, where the bottom of the wall bloused out with sagging plaster and mold. “I know how to hang drywall.”
“Let me do something.” Paul gave him a look.
Carlos looked at him, paused for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. Yeah, that’d be great. I’ll talk to Hector, make sure he gets you some supplies. There’s wireless in the building,” Carlos said. “And someone left a futon and a couch in another apartment when they moved out. They’re in storage right now, I’ll let Becky know I said you could have them. Becky’s the manager.”
“Wireless? Wireless radio?” Paul asked.
“No, you know, wireless Internet,” Carlos said.
Paul just shook his head.
“Jesus, you really were off the planet, weren’t you? I thought you were in jail, but that doesn’t explain how you look so damn young.”
“I told you a long time ago,” Paul said. “I was chosen by a goddess.”
“I thought you meant a woman,” Carlos said. His voice was low, full of wonder and something like remembered pain. “I mean, you called her a goddess, but I figured you’d met some girl and were going to travel around with her.
“Word got around that you’d given away all your stuff. Some figured you’d died somewhere. Some people just figured that you were living abroad. I mean, the way you looked when you told me you were going away … I’ll never forget the day when you dropped off your stuff at the Salvation Army. I would have thought you were about to shoot yourself in the head with how final you were being, except you just looked so damn happy.”
“I was happy,” Paul said. “I’ve been happy.”
“Mama thought you’d gone to Canada. I let her believe that after a while. I started to think that myself, except now here you are, and you haven’t aged a day.”
“I explained it as best I could when I left.” Paul opened a closet and saw rodent droppings. Maybe he could invite Fox over. She liked mice. “I’ve been pulled out of time. That’s part of what it means to go into the light. When I’m with her, I don’t age. I don’t exist except as part of her.”
“Yeah,” Paul said. He was still looking around at the place. It had small round windows near the ceiling with stained glass panels in them. There was a pressed tin ceiling, painted dark gray, with an antique chandelier hanging from the center. The small living room area had a gas fireplace and a stone mantel. Above the mantel hung an oil of a magnolia in a gilded frame. A white chipped corner on the frame gave a clue as to why it had been abandoned. “How much these apartments normally go for?”
Carlos told him, and Paul almost choked on his tongue he was so surprised.
“I can’t pay you back.”
“Quit being so white.” Carlos gave him a wad of cash. “Here. This should get you some clothes and food for a week. Let me know if you need more.”
Paul looked at the cash in his hand. He did need it, as he had no way of falling back into society without a little charity of some kind, but it felt wrong to accept so much of Carlos’ money, no matter how rich his friend was.
“Just say thank you,” Carlos said.
“Thank you.” He’d have to get a job soon, and hope that he could find one that earned more than what he was getting back before he left. He’d just tell the owls that a job would help with his cover.
“You’re welcome,” Carlos replied, with mock exasperation. “And my mama’s probably going to invite you over for dinner in a week or two, as soon as she gets over thinking you’re a ghost. You still gonna be here?”
“This thing I’m doing might take a couple months.”
“So you’re going back after that?” Carlos said. He sounded a little hurt, like when an out-of-town guest comes to your party and only stays fifteen minutes. “To Mars or wherever?”
Paul just nodded, wishing he could say something to explain how much he’d changed. He was a Sunward; he belonged in the light. He knew from the first moment he vanished into the sunrise that he didn’t belong on earth anymore, except occasionally. He never wanted to be one of those who spent every night in their body and never learned to speak to owls, or shapeshift, or any of the other powers that the lady had promised they’d learn eventually.
“Okay, man. I’ll see you around.”
“Thanks again, Carlos.”
“Joey died, you know,” Carlos said, pausing at the door. “Joey Esconito died two months after he got sent to ‘Nam. They say a mortar shell hit him.”
Paul was spared having to come up with a response for that by the sound of the door closing behind his friend.
He took a shower, luxuriating in how much he missed it. As he stepped out and dried himself with his jacket he realized he’d washed Susan’s number off his skin. Well, he knew her last name, all he had to do was find a phone booth and look up her number in the phone book. He put his old clothes back on, put the keys and the cash Carlos had given him in his pocket, and headed out.
It took him a mile and a half of walking before he found a single phone booth. Luckily, it had a phone book in it with the S section of the residentials still intact. Unluckily, there was only one Stillwater name, and it said “Maggie” not “Susan.”
He went for a walk until he found a grocery store, surprisingly still open at quarter till ten. He bought an overpriced sandwich, and ate it as he walked. There were a few people on the streets after dark, and even though they didn’t talk to him, it was nice to have company. He felt bored and lonely, and wished he were in the light again. He also wished he’d bought a small television, even if it was just a little black and white tv, but he had to make Carlos’ money last.
The next day he managed to go out into the sunlight long enough to get hired as a night janitor. He used most of the rest of Carlos’ money to buy some clothes and some cans of food to last him until he could collect a paycheck. There wasn’t enough for a television or magazines, so when he was done for the evening, he went for a walk.
The owls had it easy. When they came back to the darkness, all they had to do was hunt to eat. People weren’t made like that. Owls were okay with being alone. For them, the parliament was an aberration in normal owl behavior. They tolerated one another’s society as a condition of being Sunwards.
The parliament. Everything was about the parliament. He still wasn’t sure exactly what they hoped he’d find out from Susan. What did the owls want? Power, maybe? That had been motivation for him. As much as he loved the lady, and loved being in the light, it was power she’d seduced him with. He wanted to be able to shapeshift. He wanted to be able to talk to owls, at the very least. Honestly, what was he supposed to ask Susan, if he didn’t know exactly what the owls wanted? Hello, I know you’re a mage. Are you also a murderess?
The only thing he had in common with the owls was that they both wanted power, and they both were awake at night. And of course, the lady chose them too.
He walked for a long way, so far that he wondered if he was going to get lost. After a while he came to the railroad tracks and decided he’d walk along them. The railroad, at least, hadn’t changed. As he cut through a park, he noticed he was being followed by a Sunward wearing a canine shape. He liked dogs, so he waited for it to catch up. It was a skinny little thing, small, with large pointed ears. When it came closer, he saw it wasn’t a dog after all, but his friend a kit fox, dusty yellow and terribly thin, with ears larger than the rest of her head. She held a stick in her mouth.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey fellow Sunward,” Fox responded. She wasn’t talking, she was doing the body-language-and-pheromone thing that foxes do. He was good at understanding foxes. Mammals were so much easier than birds.
“What’s up?” Paul asked. The grass was soggy from irrigation so he crouched instead of sitting.
Whenever he had a chance to talk to a fox or a coyote, or rarer still, a dog that had been chosen as a Sunward, he always found them friendly and conspiratorial, in a sort of ‘Us against the owls’ kind of way.
“I told the owls that I’ve already helped you with your mission, and now I want you to help me with mine.”
“You found out if Susan killed the translator?” He felt disappointed that Fox had already finished the parliament’s wishes. All the effort he put forth to fall back into society, and now it might not even be necessary?
The fox barked in laughter, but didn’t drop the stick between her teeth. “No, but I sniffed around the mage’s house just so I’d have plausible deniability.” Plausible deniability was a phrase that sounded even more natural in fox-speak than in English. If foxes took human form and got desk jobs, they’d have the highest salary, never do any work, and steal from petty cash without anyone the wiser. “I heard you took on human form and I got to thinking, why were we both pulled back into the darkness, when we’d barely been in the light for half a lifetime? The parliament has got a burr in its fur about something, and I think that we’re both looking at different sides of the same situation.”
“What have you been sent to work on?”
Fox dropped the stick at Paul’s feet. He picked it up. It was still warm and moist from her mouth.
“Tell me about this. Human magic all smells the same to me.”
Paul held the wand and concentrated. He wasn’t a mage, but being in the light had changed him enough to give him sensitivity to things normal people didn’t have.
His first ability as a newly turned Sunward was that he could tell how recently sunlight fell on something. A completely useless skill. This stick had been in the sunlight as recently as sunset the previous night. He could tell that automatically, just by brushing his fingertips along the bark. To detect magics, he had to look a little closer. He peered at the wand, letting his third eye tingle as though he were trying to see hidden gnosti.
He remembered a television show once where the detective used magic-detecting powder to prove that the chief of police was the one casting curses, and not the little old lady that everyone suspected. He and Carlos had been terribly disappointed to find out that there was no such thing as magic-detecting powder, at least not like they showed it on television. The one thing that the television show did get right was that magical energy created faint traces, ridges, and these lines solidified when the power got expended. Concentric lines rippled along the surface of the wand, like a topographic map. The lines were denser on one half of the wand.
The last time he’d been called out of the light to answer a question for the parliament, it was because someone had put a twinge trap in a garden. A twinge trap was one of the most basic kinds of spells. He and Carlos used to make them all the time to keep people out of the secret clubhouse they’d made in the abandoned lot near the school. You took two sticks and put your curse into them. Then you tied thread to each of the sticks and stretched it across the area you wanted to protect. When someone tripped over the thread, the spell would release onto them. He and Carlos knew diddly about magic. What usually happened is that they’d have a faint line on the ankle when they broke their own spell, and claim success.
A real twinge trap, made by a skilled mage, could cause flightlessness (in the case of the owls) or paralysis, or even brain damage. The owls had called him to find out why another Sunward had been grounded. He’d snooped around the mage’s house at night until he found the remains of the twinge trap. Those sticks had dark lines where the string had been tied. If the sticks had been used in a protection amulet, they’d have even ripples, like a stylized wood grain, because the power in an amulet is expended evenly. If they’d been used in a curse against a specific person, the ripples would thicken around the letters where the mage had written the target’s name on the wood, and might even be dense enough to show the mage’s handwriting.
He placed his knuckle over the densest portion, placed his fingertips over the three other denser circles, then wrapped his palm to cover the larger dense part, and suddenly found himself gripping the wand as if he were going to wave it. In this case, the lines were thickest where a hand had gripped it. Did that mean it was a trap meant to discharge when someone picked it up? Paul set the wand down and mimed picking it up. He touched it lightly at first, only gripping it when it was off the table. If that had been a curse, it would have burned just his fingertips, because when you pick something up you touch it lightly at first. It hadn’t discharged until someone held it and pointed it at something.
It took him a minute to figure it out, even when all the pieces were in place, because such a thing didn’t exist. Couldn’t exist.
“Someone made a magic wand,” Paul said. “They put catalyst energy into this wood, so that someone else could discharge it.”
Fox nodded. “I couldn’t tell anything about it except that it’s been held by more than one human, both males and females. The parliament wants me to find out where these are coming from. They assumed that Susan was the maker, and didn’t believe me when I told them what my nose said.”
“Why is she under so much suspicion?”
“She killed the translator that was sent to ask her questions about this,” Fox explained. “That means that she’s hiding something. It must be something terrible if she’s willing to kill a translator. Even I won’t kill translators, no matter how hungry I am, even without the treaty. They are quite useful.”
“She didn’t seem like an evil person.”
“Does evil have a smell?” she asked. “You’re distracted by her young, healthy body.”
“She is pretty, and I do like her, but I’m not blinded by that. It takes an evil person to kill a translator, and I don’t think she could be that evil. Maybe the translator just died for some other reason that had nothing to do with her.”
Fox barked, sounding exactly like a human’s cough of disbelief. “The translator just happened to die on the same day he went to ask her questions about the wooden wands, and you think that she didn’t kill the translator?”
“You’re the one who said she didn’t make the wands.”
“I didn’t say that she didn’t make them, only that there is no proof that she is the only one doing it,” Fox said. “The parliament is upset about these wands. They are going to demand that we stop the mages responsible, perhaps with persuasion, perhaps with a claw in the night.”
“I won’t let them hurt Susan,” he said.
Fox laughed. “You sound like you’re defending a mate,” she said. “Worry about that later. If she is the one who murdered the translator, the translators will enact their own revenge.”
A dog barked, and a black and white shape bounded towards them across the irrigated park, dangling a leash. A man ran after it, but it was clear he wouldn’t reach the dog before the dog reached Paul and the fox.
“I gotta go.” Fox flicked an ear and loped away.