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Susan reluctantly admitted to herself that she was still attracted to him. She had resolved to answer his questions, just to get him off her back, so he’d leave her alone. Except now she wasn’t sure she wanted to be left alone.
Brian had two personas when he interviewed people. He was either the competent authority you better not mess with (in which case you noticed how tall he was) or he was the super-cheerful friendly guy that gee, couldn’t you just tell him anything cause he was so trustworthy? Paul sounded more like a guy who was trying really hard to get the girl he liked to not dump him. As investigative techniques went, it sucked. As a way of convincing even a hard-hearted cynic like Susan to give him a second chance, it worked pretty well.
He was pretty cute, and anyway, who was she to hold thaumaturgy against someone?
She glanced at him again, and pulled into the parking lot of the adobe landmark that he’d chosen as their dinner spot.
When she was a kid, La Casa Vieja had been the nicest steakhouse in town, where they went on the rare (twice) occasions when her sister Julia’s dad came to visit. Since then it had been eclipsed by other, newer restaurants, and only the tourists went there, impressed by a centuries-old adobe building with local character, and still going by old guides that couldn’t keep up with the rapid turnover of college drinking and eating spots.
They left a name with the hostess and went to the bar to wait. It was dark, and slightly crowded despite the early hour.
“So, what do you want to know?” she said, climbing onto the bar stool.
“Can’t this be a real date? How about we have a drink and chat about other things, then talk about that after dinner?” He signaled the bartender with a folded twenty. “Black Russian?”
“Diet Coke,” she said.
“How are things going?” Paul asked.
“Meh. We’re moving next Saturday. You’re welcome to come if you want to help move boxes,” she said. “How about you, what’s going on in your life?”
“Meh?” He imitated her. “You want to talk about it?”
“No,” she said, but she couldn’t help feeling pleased that he asked. Having a guy express an apparently sincere desire to listen to her complain about her life was twice as sexy as checking her out and saying, “Damn, you look fine!”
“What’s that sound? Argh! Something’s got me!” He flailed at the pocket of his jeans, spinning around in his attempt to get the pager out of his pocket. He reminded Susan of a dog chasing its tail trying to get a piece of tape off. She put a hand over her mouth to hide the fact that she was trying not to laugh at him.
“That means our table is ready.” She took the pager out of his pocket and hopped down off the bar stool.
Paul’s expression went from panicked to curious. He flipped the pager over, watching the red lights blink around its edge. By the way he looked at it, it was something dropped by an alien space craft. “I’ve never seen one of those before,” he said.
Either it was a great act, or Carlos’ story was checking out. Paul did act like a guy who had been pulled out of time for forty years. No wonder he didn’t have a Facebook account.
“Right this way,” interrupted the hostess, plucking the pager from his grasp. She led them into the depths of the restaurant.
Susan had always been a little freaked out inside this restaurant, because the adobe building had ceilings too low for her comfort. It was like a cave in there, dark and closed in, with inadequate lighting and floors that creaked and dipped at odd places. Paul kept touching everything, reveling in the textures of the exposed wood beams and the plaster lathe. He exclaimed at the dingy western prints, talking about them as though he still saw the beauty of the original where Susan only saw a poor copy covered over with cigarette smoke and grime.
Usually when she was on a date, she ordered whatever sounded “light,” low calorie and ladylike. That had been salads until she learned the awful truth about blue cheese dressing. But since this so-called date was a non starter anyway, she ordered a grownup sized steak, and got blue cheese dressing with her salad (and anyway she’d been really good that day and only had a grapefruit for breakfast).
Susan watched him as he ate, wondering if he was going to be one of those guys who never ate vegetables. She’d never trusted those types, always thought of them as immature. He passed that test. He also didn’t drink beyond the first one, switching to water halfway through the meal. That was good too. She realized that she was looking for a reason to dislike him, and not finding one.
They had a nice conversation. She couldn’t remember what they talked about, but he made her laugh. When she finished as much food as she thought her dieter’s guilt would allow and asked for a box for the rest, Paul pushed his own plate aside. He dug into his back pocket and pulled out a wooden stick. It was about as long as her hand and as thick as a dry erase marker, with the bark still attached.
“What’s that?” she asked, wiping her mouth with a napkin.
“It’s a magic wand,” he said.
“A magic wand.” She let her dry tone and her eyebrows convey her skepticism.
“Someone fixed magical energy into this wand so that it could be released at another time,” he said. The way he said it sounded like he was a teacher, or someone on one of those science programs, which usually made her mad because she didn’t like being talked down to. Except in this case it was like they were just a couple of experts talking shop, so that was okay.
“Let me explain why that’s impossible,” Susan said, using the same tone. “First of all, the only way a mage can fix unfocused magic into an inanimate object is with life energy, so you’d have to be a psion and a witch, and good at both, or there’s no way.”
“You don’t know any witches who are also psychic?”
Susan looked rueful and nodded to show he’d caught her. “Okay, well, my mom and I could do it, but even we can’t muster enough psychic energy to make it worth the effort. It’s just not efficient. You’d drain yourself into a coma just to give someone else the ability to send a telepathic text message.”
He frowned. “Text message?”
How could anyone not know what a text message was? It was like going on a date with someone’s grandpa. “It’s a—”
“Never mind.” He shook his head. He was playing with the wand, tapping it against his other hand, the way some people play with pens. She hoped that meant that it was spent, or more likely, that it wasn’t really a magic wand, and not that he was just careless. “What about blood magic? That’s life energy, right?”
“I don’t do blood magic,” she lied. She had used it once, and that wasn’t her fault, but she had used it, so technically the MIB could crack down on her. Three people knew about it. Three people could keep a secret, if one was dead and the other was banished to the Elsewhere, but four people couldn’t keep a secret. She looked down at her hands, and her throat got tight. Thinking about blood magic always made her scared, and guilty, and sad that someone had died to save her, even though she hadn’t liked him and dying had been kind of his idea.
“I’m not saying you did it. Of course you don’t do blood magic.” Paul reached forward and touched her hand lightly. He looked gentle and patronizing, like he was trying to break bad news to a young child. “But there are people out there capable of all sorts of things.”
“You think there’s a mage out there who’s been killing people and putting their life energy into sticks?”
He let the stick slip out of his hands and roll across the tablecloth. “When you put it like that, it sounds pretty horrible. Don’t you think we ought to find and stop them?”
“Let the MIB deal with it. That’s what they do,” she said. “Or better yet, let the cops deal with it, because the cops will give the murderer a fair trial instead of just making her disappear.”
“Her?” Paul asked. He picked up the wand again, but this time instead of playing with it, he held it still and leaned forward. “Why do you say her?”
“You think it’s me. You think I’m killing people to make these wands.”
“I didn’t say people.”
“I don’t kill animals either,” Susan said. She didn’t like the way this was going. For a while there, she’d been having a nice dinner with a cute guy who liked her. Now she was being accused of killing animals for black magic. “And even if I were, it’s none of their business. It’s not illegal to kill animals, unless they’re cats and dogs.”
Paul steepled his hands in front of his face and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “This isn’t going how I planned.”
“How did you think I was going to respond, when you accused me of killing puppies? Or is it kittens?”
“I don’t know what they’re accusing you of. They just said it was a territorial conflict and they wanted information about you. They said they sent a translator, but you murdered him, and—”
“Murdered? I’m supposed to have murdered—wait a minute … you mean the little Ken doll?” Susan asked. “What does he have to do with the wands? Is someone killing those little people?”
“The parliament sent him to talk to you, but he was murdered, so they assumed you killed him to keep something secret. I was supposed to find out what that was.”
“I didn’t kill him,” Susan said. “I was investigating, trying to find out what killed him, but I couldn’t find anything, not even what kind of gnosti he was. I didn’t know they could talk. I figured he was one of the garden fey.”
“Now I’m totally confused,” Paul said.
“Okay, let me figure this out,” Susan said. “You said that the parliament was concerned about a territorial conflict. So someone’s muscling in on their turf. It has something to do with the wands, and we are pretty sure that someone is using blood magic to make the wands. Does the parliament make wands too? Is this a business thing?”
Paul snorted and quirked his mouth in a half-smile. “No. We’re all thaumaturges, not witches. We get our power from the goddess.”
“So if they’re not interested in the wands, they’re probably interested in whoever is killing animals to make the wands,” Susan said. “Is your goddess big on animal rights?”
“No. Owls have no problem with killing. They’ll kill anything edible except …” Paul stared off as if he had a sudden thought. “But what if it’s not animals? What if someone is killing translators? Sunwards don’t kill translators, ever. It’s some kind of treaty they made a long time before I joined the light. In exchange, the translators … well, they translate for when an owl needs to talk to a member of another species.”
“Why do you say owl?”
“Because almost all Sunwards are owls.”
“Are you an owl?” she asked. She’d seen enough not-normal happenings since she came to this reality that she didn’t want to take anything for granted anymore. “The old lady at the Mercado called you one of the owl people.”
“No, I’m a man.” Paul shook his head. “I’ve tried to turn into an owl, but I’ve never been able to do it.”
“Me neither,” Susan said.
Actually, she wasn’t really sure if that was true or not. Susie, her counterpart who used to inhabit this body before she decided to switch places with Susan, knew all kinds of magic. Every time Susan took a browse through the spellbook, she found something else she hadn’t seen before. Last time she had gone looking for a spell to make dark roots look blonder (the spell components were more expensive than a professional dye job, so she didn’t do it,) she’d found a spell to make a female cat uninterested in sex. Not infertile, just uninterested: a female feline saltpeter.
She couldn’t imagine the prayer that had necessitated inventing that particular spell, but it had certainly been one of her relatives’ prayers to Ruby. Susan and Susie both rarely did magic on their own account, worried about karmic debt. Susan felt that with losing her brother and sister, being born to a dysfunctional single mom, and all the events that had happened after Susie switched places with her, she had more than her fair share of bad karma. She didn’t want any more.
The last time she had done a spell for herself (to get a new job, which had worked fine) Zoë had announced they were moving. She couldn’t prove it, but she harbored a secret suspicion that if she were to ever do serious magic for anything other than altruistic reasons, she’d get her car stolen and have her face break out in hives.
Besides, what she really wanted was a spell to make her lose weight. In the five months she’d had this body, she still hadn’t been able to get back to the dress size her old body had been, despite twice-weekly gym visits and constant dieting. She blamed Susie. Her old body had been fit; this body couldn’t even do a pull-up. If she could just lose that last fifteen pounds, she’d be happy, but that last fifteen pounds didn’t want to go.
The waitress must have brought the check while she wasn’t looking, because suddenly Paul had it in his hands. She had planned on offering to split it with him, or at the very least to pay for the tip, but he counted out a pile of bills and slipped it in the black check folder before she could think of how to bring it up. He slid out of the booth and offered her his hand.
Outside, he nestled his hands in her curls and pulled her into a kiss.
She hadn’t been expecting it, and had her eyes open, but with a nice man’s lips pressed against hers, it didn’t take long for her to melt into it.
He pulled away, and drew his hands to the ends of her curls.
“Thanks,” he said.
“For giving me a second chance,” he said.
“You kiss nice,” she said, cursing herself immediately for how dumb that sounded.
“I can do more than just kiss.” He gave her an intense stare, a not-in-public kind of stare, which felt even more intimate than the kiss had.
Her Id and Superego got into an immediate showdown. The hormonal, wanna-get-laid, ovulating, sex-deprived part of her wanted to grab him by the collar and drag him home.
The rational half of her, that part that had spent over a decade cleaning up after other people’s messes, screamed “Are you nuts?” and hijacked her mouth, which spewed out the Pollyannaish. “You’re a nice guy, but I’d like to get to know you better first.”
“I’m disappointed, but I should have known you weren’t easy,” Paul said. “You want to go get ice cream?”
This wasn’t how to lose that last fifteen pounds. Honestly, getting a little action would be better than getting some ice cream. Why couldn’t she be irresponsible? Why’d she tell him no?
“Sure,” she said.