The Impossible Wizard: Chapter 15
If you ended up here before reading the earlier chapters, you can return to Chapter 1 here
Lady Raven stood in the center of her magic circle and adjusted the black raven mask so the eyeholes aligned properly. The shadowy casting chamber held nothing that might distract her. Even the smallest mistake when she was working on a project could mean her end. The upcoming meeting held similar risks. If she couldn’t explain her actions to the Hierarchs’ satisfaction she might easily end up dead.
It was a shame she had to discard her Mercia persona. She’d gotten comfortable in that one over the last several years. She’d also gathered a great deal of information for her superiors. On the other hand she wouldn’t miss having to show deference to those arrogant women at the Department. If they knew her true power they wouldn’t have been so smug. Well, they knew it now. She smiled.
When the simple ward she’d woven over the door to Mercia’s apartment shattered she’d recognized the magic that broke it as belonging to her former superior at the Department. When the trap she’d left inside activated, Lady Raven assumed she would be down two enemies. To her surprise, Clair and Terra had managed to defeat her Faceless One. Those two were turning out to be tougher foes than she’d expected.
Their time would come, just like the abomination’s time would come. She’d failed to kill the boy twice, but when the third time came he’d die just as surely as day turned to night.
Lady Raven tried to clear her mind of irrelevant thoughts. The time for the meeting drew near and her superiors would be able to sense any doubts and weakness. Like the animals whose masks they wore, the Hierarchs would attack at the slightest sign of weakness.
A tingle ran through the mask, prompting her to speak the activation spell, connecting her mind to the group. All around her the shadows seemed to flicker and flow, forming five shadowy avatars of the Hierarchs. Each wore a mask similar to hers. Directly in front of her was the Supreme Hierarch in her dragon mask. Flanking her, two per side, were wizards in animal masks. A tiger, lion, bear, and wolf. Beside the Hierarchs, one on each side, were two Sub-Hierarchs, a bluejay and a mockingbird. Either one of whom would be thrilled if Lady Raven fell flat on her face.
“Lady Raven,” Lady Dragon said. “It has come to our attention that you have deviated from the plan. Is everything still on track?”
“Yes, Mistress. I only sacrificed the spare gem in hopes of killing the abomination.”
“A task at which you failed.” Lady Mockingbird made no attempt to disguise her glee.
“Yes, I admit the boy survived, due to outside influences, but the other sites are secure and the authorities have no idea of their existence. The plan will proceed with no issues.”
“And the abomination?” Lady Tiger asked.
“For now he is beyond my reach, but I have other tools that can deal with him when the time comes.”
“No.” Lady Dragon spoke with finality. “Focus on your mission. In time the boy will come out of hiding. There is no need to rush.”
“Yes, Mistress.” It galled Lady Raven that she wouldn’t have another shot at Conryu, but having failed twice perhaps it was for the best. A third mistake would not be looked on favorably.
“And, Lady Raven.” Lady Dragon raised her hand, displaying the Scepter of Morgana for them all to see, a less than subtle reminder that in their true mistress’s absence she ruled the Society. “You have already lost your position in the Department. Should you fail to carry the plan to fruition we will have no further use for you.”
Lady Dragon vanished, followed quickly by the others, leaving Lady Raven alone in her casting chamber. She pulled her mask off to be sure the connection was fully severed then fell, trembling, to her knees. The chill of her mistress’s disappointment sank deep into her bones.
She couldn’t fail again, not if she wanted to live.
Lady Raven frowned and considered what her mistress had said. She only commanded that Lady Raven herself not attack Conryu again. It was possible the Hierarchs remained unaware that she’d prompted the zealot to attack the boy at his press conference.
In that case it wouldn’t take much effort to convince a fresh batch of the fools to take another shot at him. She even knew the perfect time.
* * *
Lin found Terra and her companion, a wizard he hadn’t met before, standing in the hall outside the smoking remains of an empty apartment. Inside, a team of firemen checked for hot spots or embers that might still be a threat. They’d evacuated the fifteen people in the building just to be safe. Considering the damage to the roof he doubted they’d be allowed to stay in their homes tonight or any night until repairs were completed.
The lack of smoke in the hall surprised Lin until he realized the wizards had probably done something to keep it clear. They wouldn’t have wanted to stand around coughing while they waited for him.
“You two okay?”
Terra looked his way and smiled. It surprised him how good that felt.
“We’re fine, Lin, thanks. Was anyone hurt in the blast?”
“EMTs are checking everyone out downstairs, but they seem fine. What happened?”
Terra told him about the trap and how they escaped. When she finished he asked, “What about your colleague? There was no sign of her beyond the ring?”
“No, and I doubt she ever stayed in that apartment. I’m afraid we need to consider Mercia a suspect in the murders and the attack on Conryu.”
Lin tried to smooth his suit and failed. “If you can send me a picture of her I’ll put out a BOLO request.”
“Of course, but Mercia can alter her appearance with a simple illusion so I don’t know how much good it will do you.” Terra shrugged her shoulders and worked her neck from side to side. If they’d been alone he would have offered her a massage. “Any luck with the carnival people?”
“No, they’ve left Sentinel City for wherever they go while they wait for the island to return to the west coast. I’m afraid they were just innocent people with the bad fortune to get mixed up in things that didn’t concern them.”
“I suspect you’re right,” Terra said. “It’s a shame, but I don’t think we could have done anything except what we did.”
“Me neither, but that doesn’t make it suck any less.”
“No, it doesn’t. If there’s nothing else, Lin, we need to head back and analyze the ring.”
“Of course.” Lin and Terra shook hands. “Let me know what you find?”
“Will do.” Terra guided her still-shaky companion down the hall and out of sight.
Lin sighed. It was a shame Terra was a wizard. She would have made an excellent detective.
“Hey, Sarge,” one of the firemen called from the apartment. He’d worked with the guy on an arson investigation a year ago and they’d kept in touch.
“The room’s clear. The wizard did a good job snuffing out all the hot spots. We’re going to head out.”
“Thanks, guys.” Lin took his leave. Outside, one of the uniforms lifted the crime scene tape for him. Lin climbed into his beat-up four-door and headed uptown. The techs had finished analyzing Mort Call’s laptop and they traced the person he chatted with to an internet cafe at the edge of a middle-class neighborhood that bordered on a rougher area. Hopefully they had security footage.
Lin didn’t bother with his siren as he wove through the midday traffic. Hundreds of people going about their business without a clue that an insane wizard was threatening the city. City Hall wouldn’t put it on the news unless they absolutely had to. The panic could end up being worse than whatever the wizard had in mind.
He turned off the main road and into a neighborhood of mixed residential and small businesses. The internet cafe was at the edge of Cliff Street and barely hanging on given the spread of broadband and cellphones.
Speaking of which, Lin’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He parked in front of the cafe and dug it out. It was a text message from Terra with Mercia’s picture. He’d seldom seen a more average-looking woman save for the deep wrinkles. She wouldn’t even need a disguise. Mercia could walk down the street and never draw a second look.
Why couldn’t anything be easy? If she had a hook nose, maybe a missing eye and some tattoos, anything to make her stand out would help. Lin slid out of his car and walked up to the cafe. They hadn’t opened yet, but a young woman with purple hair and studs running up the side of her ear was fiddling with one of the computers. Lin rapped on the door until she looked up. He pressed his badge to the glass.
She hurried over and opened the door. “Can I help you, Officer?”
Lin showed her the picture on his phone. “Do you recognize this woman?”
“Sure, she gave me my wizard’s test last year. I failed.”
“I was thinking more recently.”
“Oh, then no, I guess not.”
“Does this place have security cameras?” Lin asked.
“These days every place does.” The girl gave her hair a flip. “We keep three days’ worth. You want to take a look?”
“Is it digital?”
“If I give you an address can you download the contents to the police server?”
“I can do better than that, I’ll just swap the hard drives and you can take them with you. Be a lot faster than downloading on our crappy connection.”
Lin blinked, surprised at how helpful she was. “That would be great, but won’t your boss object?”
“Naw, he used to be a cop. If I was anything but helpful he’d toss me out on my ear. Just wait here and I’ll bring you those hard drives.”
“Thanks.” Lin watched as she jogged back through the rows of computers and disappeared through an open doorway into the back room.
The moment she was out of sight he tiptoed along behind her. He stood in the doorway as she frantically tapped commands into a console tied to a server rack.
“You wouldn’t be trying to delete evidence, would you?”
She leapt back from the keyboard and looked frantically for an escape. The only way out was through Lin and he had his hand on his pistol grip.
“Please don’t do anything stupid. I’d hate to have to shoot you.”
“If I let you have those hard drives he’ll kill me.”
“Who, your boss? You said he used to be a cop.”
She smiled and shook her head. “That wasn’t the whole story.”
“What is the whole story?”
“You have to get me out of the city. Promise me a ticket out of town and I’ll tell you everything.”
“Deal. May as well grab those hard drives while we’re at it.”
* * *
Lady Raven had barely finished posting on the fanatics’ secure forum when someone banging on the door got her attention. She typed a short command that disconnected her and erased her browser’s cache so no one could see what she’d been doing.
She turned to look and found a man in his forties wearing a rumpled blue suit standing in front of the door. He pressed a badge to the glass. Damn it to hell! How had the police found this place already?
It was inevitable that they would, but she’d hoped to get another month or two out of it. Worse, if they’d found the cafe it was only a matter of time before the Skulls came to their attention. The bikers knew far too much for her own good. They were useful tools, but it seemed they had played their parts. It was time to cut them loose.
A plan formed as she made her way to the door. By the time she unlocked it and invited the cop inside she knew exactly what she had to do. It was a small miracle he hadn’t arrived ten minutes earlier. If she’d had to send the message to the zealots from her own computer it would have been far riskier. So risky in fact that she might not have even bothered.
“Can I help you, Officer?”
The cop showed her a picture of herself on his phone. “Do you recognize this woman?”
It took all her willpower not to laugh. After a brief interrogation during which Lady Raven did her best to be as helpful as possible, helpful enough to make him suspicious, she went to the back room to retrieve the hard drives.
The moment she left his line of sight she darted to her station at the servers and typed commands that would automatically delete everything she didn’t want the authorities to know about. Which was pretty much everything but the contents of three hard drives she’d set up for this exact eventuality.
“You wouldn’t be trying to delete evidence, would you?”
As she’d hoped, his suspicious nature prompted him to follow her. She looked left and right, trying her best to appear frightened and desperate, a scared girl caught out of her depth. Lady Raven had honed her acting skills over years of undercover work. In truth she’d spent so much time pretending to be other people she’d almost forgotten who she started out as.
“Please don’t do anything stupid. I’d hate to have to shoot you.”
His pitiful weapon couldn’t have harmed her unless she allowed it to, but she cowered like the girl she appeared to be. She blamed her fear on the dupe that ran the shop for her. He tried to be reassuring and she let him calm her down. They struck a bargain and she pulled the three hard drives she wanted him to have in the first place. It was so much easier to convince someone to do what you wanted when they thought it was their idea.
The cop packed her and the hard drives into the back seat of a car that had seen better days. He jumped in the front and they drove away. Lady Raven kept her hands hidden as she wove a wind spell that would carry a message to Iron Skull. By the end of the day her dupe would be at the bottom of the ocean.
She smiled as they made their way to the police station. What better place to hide than right under their noses?
* * *
Lin guided the purple-haired tech down the hall toward an empty interrogation room. He glanced down at the chipped, filthy black and white tile floor. The station needed to invest in an extra janitor. The mess that was the main corridor from the front of the station to the rear didn’t fill a person with confidence about the quality of people working for the city police. A light buzzed and flickered overhead as the bulb slowly died, adding to the ambiance.
“This place reminds me of a mental ward from a low-budget horror film.”
Lin wanted to argue, but he had nothing. “Try not to judge the police by the station. There are a lot of good people working here. We do our best with limited resources.”
“Hey, Sarge.” One of the guys from sex crimes, a three-hundred-pound heap of blubber named Louie that seldom left the office, waved him over to his desk in the maze of cubicles.
“Wait here.” Lin left his witness and walked over. “What’s up?”
“Got a message from that Cullen guy that owns the carnival. One of his people got so depressed she killed herself.”
“Yeah, the guys investigating wanted me to let you know since it dovetails with your investigation.”
“Thanks, Louie. I’ll bring you a Bear Claw tomorrow.”
“Fuck you, Chang.”
They shared a good-natured grin and Lin went back to his witness. “Sorry for the wait.”
She shrugged. “What else have I got to do? Anything exciting?”
“Another body. It seems I’m drowning in them lately. At least this one didn’t stand up and start walking around. Come on, I’ll get you settled then send those hard drives down to the tech department. It shouldn’t take our facial recognition system long to see if my suspects visited your cafe.”
“You’re going to see a lot more than that.”
Lin raised his hand. “Please, don’t say anything until we reach the interrogation room. Once we’re inside everything will be recorded. That way we avoid any misunderstandings.”
Fifteen minutes later Lin sat across from the witness in a dingy, bare room. A single light bulb flickered over their heads. The chipped plastic table between them looked like a reject from a condemned school. Behind the two-way mirror Lin’s boss, Captain Connor, watched and listened. He was as eager to crack this case as Lin and had agreed to allowing the girl a deal for anything short of murder.
“State your name for the record, please,” Lin said.
“Again, for the record, you have the right to an attorney during this deposition. Do you waive that right?”
“I do.” Her voice sounded steady despite the circumstances. Lacy was clearly a tough girl.
“Okay. Tell us your story.”
“Six months ago I took a job doing basic maintenance on the cafe’s computers. The job came with a little hole-in-the-wall apartment upstairs. I didn’t get good enough grades to qualify for college, not even one of the two-year places. At first it seemed like a sweet deal, but then all these strange guys started coming and going early in the morning and late at night.”
“Strange guys?” Lin asked. “Please be more specific.”
“I can’t give you names, if that’s what you mean. They didn’t exactly introduce themselves. They were big, biker-looking guys. You know, lots of leather and spikes. Not to mention knives and guns. Five of them showed one night with enough firepower to start a war. Scared the hell out of me.”
“They had clips as long as my arm. That seems like the sort of thing you guys would frown on.”
“What about the tattoos, or patches on their jackets? Anything that could give us an idea who we’re dealing with.”
She thought for a moment. “There were a lot of skulls. Skull patches, skull tattoos, one guy had a helmet that looked like a skull. They all wore rings that looked like barbed wire. Does that help?”
Lin smiled and tried to look encouraging. “It all helps. You said we’d see a lot on the recordings. What did you mean by that?”
Lacy cleared her throat. “Can I have a drink?”
“Sure.” Lin pushed himself out of the chair, poked his head out into the hall, and spotted a uniformed officer walking down the hall. “Excuse me. Would you get my witness a glass of water?”
The officer pulled a face, but nodded. “Yes, Detective.”
Lin went back inside and sat down. “It’ll just be a minute. Do you want to keep going while we wait or do you need a break?”
“I can keep going. Like I said, they scared me so I reset the security cameras to run during off hours when the bikers were there. Sort of an insurance policy. It reacts to movement so the camera doesn’t record all the time and I partitioned the hard drive to keep it from automatically erasing with the rest of the data. The light isn’t great, but you should be able to make out all of them, at least a little.”
The door opened and the officer came in with a plastic cup of water. He set it on the table, nodded once, and silently marched out. Didn’t look like he and Lin would be best friends anytime soon.
“Tell me about your boss.”
Lacy set the cup down and wiped a drop of water off her lips. “Mr. Connelly? I don’t know much about him. He doesn’t spend a lot of time at the cafe. It’s more of an investment for him. Not an especially good one nowadays either.”
“Is there anything else you can think of that might be valuable to us? Even the smallest detail could be vital.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t really know much. It’s not like we’re pals or anything. I was just a nobody that kept the computers running.”
“Okay. Thank you, Lacy.” Lin held out his hand and they shook. “Two officers will take you to a department safe house. As soon as we finish going over the drive and we’re sure we don’t have any more questions, I’ll take you to the airport myself.”
Half a minute later Captain Connor and two uniforms stepped into the room. Lacy went with the uniforms leaving Captain Connor and Lin alone in the room.
“What do you think?” Connor asked.
Lin shook his head. “Until we know what’s on the tape we only have her word to go on. Certainly nothing I’d want to take to court.”
“What’s your gut tell you?”
“That she’s telling us everything she knows, but that there’s a lot more going on here than we know about.” Lin picked up the plastic cup by the lip. “I’m going to have this dusted for prints and see what else we can learn about Miss Winn.”
* * *
Conryu turned the page of the two-inch-thick book Mr. Kane had given him before they left last night. It was the current edition of The Basics of Wizardry and it was written in the most dry, boring voice Conryu had ever read. He knew they didn’t put much effort into making textbooks entertaining, but god almighty it was like the author went out of her way to make this one dull.
Maybe she considered it some sort of test. If you didn’t have the focus and discipline to make it through the book you wouldn’t make it as a wizard. That was the most charitable explanation he could come up with.
Unable to stand it anymore, Conryu slammed the cover shut and tossed the book on the couch. He switched on the tv. Maybe he could find a replay of last night’s ballgame. The clock on the mantle read ten in the morning. He should be out doing something, anything, not cooped up like an inmate. He flipped to one of the news channels and there was his face.
“Who is the real Conryu Koda?” the hostess asked. “The first ever confirmed male wizard, Conryu comes from an unremarkable background.”
He switched it off. What the hell did she know about the real him? He’d never even met the woman. Well, when you had twenty-four hours of news to fill you had to talk about something. Conryu hopped out of the recliner and went to the kitchen. Some junk food would take his mind off wizards and reporters. He pulled the refrigerator door open and scanned the awful selection of fruits and vegetables. Where was that last piece of lasagna?
Someone knocked and Conryu closed the fridge. Thank goodness. That had to be Maria. Maybe she’d summarize the book for him. Knowing her she’d read it cover to cover more than once.
He peeked out into the hall just to be sure and frowned at the mass of wild white hair. He knew that hair, but what was that crazy professor doing here?
Conryu opened the door a crack and frowned out at the old man. “Are you lost?”
“No, in fact I was hoping we could talk a bit. I have so many questions. May I come in, please?”
Conryu looked from the professor, to the book on the couch, and back again. Which was the lesser evil? Finally he decided it was a toss up, but he didn’t want to offend one of Mr. Kane’s colleagues.
He pulled the door open the rest of the way. “You have half an hour, then I need to get back to studying.”
The professor, McSomething, Conryu couldn’t remember the rest, hustled into the apartment and looked around like he’d never seen one before.
“Looking for something in particular?” Conryu asked.
“Sorry. I was just trying to understand how the most amazing person ever born could come from such an ordinary place. This might be any one of ten thousand apartments in this city. It’s inexplicable.”
“Yeah. I won’t tell my mom you said that as she’s quite proud of her decorating.” Conryu plopped down into the recliner. “So what do you want, Professor?”
“Angus, please.” The professor sat beside the book on the couch. “I’ve been doing genealogical research on both sides of your family and you know, there isn’t a single wizard on either side as far back as I could find records. Would you be willing to give me a blood sample so I can check your DNA for anomalies?”
“No.” Angus blinked at his abrupt answer. Conryu didn’t especially care. He had no intention of being poked, prodded or tested any more if he could avoid it. “What does my family history have to do with it?”
“Don’t you know anything about magic?” Angus pressed on before he could say the sarcastic remark that popped into his head. “Wizards tend to run in families. Not always as directly as your friend Maria, with daughter following mother, but all wizards can find another wizard somewhere in their ancestry, except you.”
“How far back did you go?” Conryu asked. He didn’t really want to get in to this, but now his curiosity had been roused.
“Things become murky after ten generations on your mother’s side, but I traced your father’s family all the way back to the second generation after the Elf War, and not a speck of magic could be found. It’s absolutely astonishing.”
“Huh. Well, was there anything else?”
“Could you tell me what it felt like when you touched the testing device? Did you get a thrill of power when you learned you were a wizard?”
Thrill of power? This guy read too many comic books. “I didn’t feel anything, Professor, except my dreams dying. You seem to be the one getting a thrill out of my problems, but for me they’re nothing but a pain in the ass. I have to delay starting my job for four years, study a subject that doesn’t interest me in the least, all while hopefully not getting killed by any of the nuts that object to my existence. Mr. Kane said that once I finish my training at the academy I’ll be free to do what I want. And what I want is to have as little to do with magic as possible.”
“No! Don’t you see? You have a great destiny ahead of you. You can’t simply fade into obscurity. You’ll be famous the world over, the most powerful wizard ever. You’ll consult with kings and emperors just like your predecessor, Merlin. You’ll be a living legend and I’ll be vindicated.”
Conryu leapt to his feet, marched to the door and yanked it open. “You and Merlin can both take a flying leap. Now get out before I throw you out.”
“Please, I have many more questions.”
“I’m going to count to five and if you’re still here I’ll make you wish you weren’t. And I promise you I won’t need magic to do it. One!”
Angus scrambled to his feet.
He rushed across the living room, out the door, and stopped in the hall. “If you change your—”
Conryu slammed the door in his face and leaned against it. He didn’t know what was worse, the people that wanted to kill him or the ones that wanted to use him. At least the killers didn’t try and pretend it was for his benefit.
Consult with kings and emperors. Ha! What in the world would he have to tell a king? Maybe if something broke on the royal motorcycle he could help, but his expertise ended there.
A knock sounded on the door. Stubborn old fart couldn’t take a hint.
He yanked the door open and found Maria standing there stunning as ever, in a pale blue dress.
“Everything okay?” She shied away from him and Conryu realized he was still scowling like he expected the professor.
He smoothed his expression and stepped aside to let her enter. “Sorry. I had an unpleasant visitor and I was afraid he’d come back.”
He recounted what the professor had to say. When he finished he added, “I wasn’t eager to renew the conversation.”
“You really don’t want to have anything to do with magic?”
Conryu groaned. Not Maria too.