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Seams in Reality

Seams in Reality

Alex Siegel

Copyright 2014-2015 by Alex Siegel

Smashwords Edition

License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

For more information about this book and others in the series, please visit http://www.grayspearsociety.com/

Seams in Reality is the first in a four book series. The complete list of books is:

1. Seams in Reality
2. Cracks in Reality
3. Breaks in Reality
4. Shards of Reality

The Gray Spear Society is an earlier series by the same author. Those books are:

1. Apocalypse Cult
2. Carnival of Mayhem
3. Psychological Damage
4. Involuntary Control
5. Deadly Weakness
6. The Price of Disrespect
7. Tricks and Traps
8. Politics of Blood
9. Grim Reflections
10. Eyes of the World
11. Antisocial Media
12. Sharp Teeth and Bloody Claws
13. Teller of Lies
14. Faith Defiled

Revision 6/20/2015

Chapter One

Andrew had walked past the Fine Arts Building of Theosophical University every day for months, but today, he noticed a small brass plaque for the first time. It was almost hidden under the vines which crept up the side of the gray stone building. Shadows shrouded the tarnished brass. He pushed aside the foliage.

The plaque read, “On this site in 1830, the United States Army killed over a thousand members of the Illini Nation. Men, women, and children were shot and burned. May that tragedy never be forgotten.”

He frowned. He had heard about the famous massacre in a history class, and it had a name, but he couldn’t remember it. In the class, the professor had expressed disapproval about putting a university on top of a mass grave. Andrew wondered if some of the bodies were buried directly beneath his feet, and he looked down reflexively. It was possible he was walking over Indian bones.

He remembered he was running late and hurried onwards. His footsteps on the concrete sidewalk were loud.

A flash of sunlight on a window made him glance upwards. The Fine Arts Building on his right, like the rest of the Theosophical campus, was built in the Gothic Revival style. The walls were made of white limestone blocks. Sheets of tarnished copper covered the steeply sloped roofs. The windows were tall, narrow, and filled with small panes of glass. The main doors had arched, peaked entrances. The buildings always vaguely reminded him of cathedrals.

Andrew entered through a side door. The interior hallways had green tiled floors and tan walls. The halls were narrow by modern standards, but the Fine Arts Building dated from the 1920’s.

He jogged to the main auditorium. Final preparations for a live performance of Death of a Salesman were underway. He ran down an aisle and climbed onto the large stage.

Charley looked at him with a cross expression. “There you are!” She checked a clock on the wall. “Twenty minutes late!”

“Sorry.” His face grew warm. “My class ran long.” The excuse was weak even though it was true.

Charley was the stage manager. She was a tall, thin girl, and her luxurious brown hair was the same color as her eyes. As usual, she was wearing a sweater, blue jeans, and soft leather boots. Her sweater had white and gray stripes today. Her creamy skin was her most attractive feature, and its off-white color suggested mixed heritage, but he had never asked her about it.

“Just get into costume, and hurry. Warm-ups are in ten.”

He ran to the tiny changing room used by male actors. He was the last to arrive, and the others were already putting the final touches on their makeup. They gave him dirty looks but kept quiet. He was the star of the show, after all.

Andrew grabbed a rumpled gray business suit from a rack. He had the part of Willy Loman, the lead character. The suit was stiff after three weeks of sweating in it under hot stage lights. The costume needed to be cleaned, but the show would run for only one more week, and bugging Charley about it didn’t seem worth the trouble. The dirty suit would make a good excuse to talk to her though.

He changed as quickly as he could, but he wasn’t quite fast enough. He was still using a makeup pencil on his face when he heard the other actors and actresses warming up on the stage. He had to make himself look like a worn-out old man instead of an eighteen year-old freshman in college. Plenty of practice made the pencil strokes quick and sure. Subtle lines under the eyes and across the forehead were the key. He finished off his face with a light dusting of charcoal powder.

Finally, he was ready to perform, and he ran out of the changing room. The stage was set with furniture that seemed to date from the 1950’s. There was a humble kitchen with stairs leading up to a bedroom. The left side of the stage was a back yard with abstract trees. He had spent so much time on the set, it almost felt like a real home.

Charley shot another hard look at Andrew, and he had to admit he deserved it. As the lead of the show, he was supposed to set an example, even if he was just a freshman. Being on time for a performance was mandatory. He should’ve snuck out of class.

The other actors were walking around in a variety of intentionally funny ways, trying to be as creative as possible. Some were making loud animal noises. It was all about putting on a show, warming up the body, and throwing off any shyness. Andrew joined them and tried to be the silliest of all.

  • * *

“No, you finish first,” Andrew said in a loud, clear voice. “Never leave a job ‘til you’re finished—remember that. Biff, up in Albany I saw a beautiful hammock. I think I’ll buy it next trip, and we’ll hang it right between those two elms. Wouldn’t that be something? Just swingin’ there under those branches. Boy, that would be…”

His amplified words boomed through the auditorium. Every seat was filled, and he was the reason, although he never bragged about it. Critics had lauded his acting skills in the strongest possible terms. Andrew remembered one article that had said, “Andrew Kenworthy has the imagination and command of a professional actor twice his age. He would be at home on a Broadway stage.” He tried not to let the praise go to his head.

He had no idea where that talent had come from. Neither of his parents were actors or had expressed any interest in the subject. Death of a Salesman was Andrew’s first serious production. Something about this particular stage had inspired him to stretch himself in ways he had never attempted before.

He was facing the fake trees on the set. They were just wooden cutouts painted green and brown, and close up, they looked cheap, but the audience didn’t care. He was pretending there was a hammock hanging between the trees.

An unexpected movement caught Andrew’s attention. Somebody was hiding in the shadows behind the trees, but the play didn’t call for an actor to be back there now.

Andrew glanced towards the right wing. Some actors were waiting just offstage, ready to come in on cue. Stagehands in black clothes stood further back with varying levels of interest. Charley had a clipboard in her hand, and she stared at Andrew with a curious expression.

Another movement drew his attention back to the trees. A man in a rumpled gray business suit was standing just out of the light. He was carrying a battered old suitcase in each hand. Exhaustion made his face sag, and Andrew guessed the man was in his forties. Andrew had never seen him before, but he still recognized him.

Willy Loman, Andrew thought.

He completely forgot an audience was watching. He wandered over and stared at the apparition. Willy just stood there with his sagging shoulders and bent back. He had a blank, mindless expression.

“Hello?” Andrew murmured.

Willy didn’t respond.

Andrew glanced at Charley, and her eyes were wide with alarm.

“What are you doing?” she whispered. “Say your line!”

Andrew turned back, but Willy had silently vanished. There was nothing behind the fake trees. What the hell is going on? Andrew thought.

He remembered the play. He turned to the audience, and even though the auditorium was dark, he could see over a thousand faces. They were watching him expectantly.

He realized he had forgotten his next line.

The actor playing Biff said, “Pop, I just washed the car. Do you see? How’s that, Pop? Professional?”

Oh, right, Andrew thought. He looked at the other actor. “Terrific. Good work, Biff.”

The performance continued, but Andrew would be the first to admit it was the worst of his short career. He kept glancing behind the trees and blowing his lines. Normally, he had the focus of a laser beam, but not tonight.

Finally, the show ended, and he didn’t get his usual standing ovation. When the curtain dropped, the audience was still in their seats.

He turned and found Charley already in his face.

“What happened? Have you been drinking?” She sniffed the air. “You don’t smell like booze.”

“No, no.” Andrew took a step back. “I would never come here drunk.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

The other actors were wandering off with reproachful glances at him. Andrew hadn’t just embarrassed himself. He had made the whole production look bad, and that fact made him angry.

He debated what he would tell Charley. If he told her he had seen the ghost of Willy Loman, she would think he was crazy. Willy wasn’t even a real person. Andrew had to come up with a more believable excuse.

“I have a big exam tomorrow,” he said. “I kept worrying about it. Sorry. It won’t happen again. I promise.”

Charley screwed up her pretty face. “You don’t have an exam.”

“I don’t?”

“No. Part of my job as stage manager is keeping track of the schedule conflicts of my leads. You’re not taking any tests this week.”

She was right. Andrew remembered giving her his class schedules at the beginning of the production, and they had included the dates of every test.

“Then my mother is sick,” he said.

Charley glared. “Stop lying.”

“I’d rather not talk about it. I’ll be fine tomorrow.”

He tried to walk away, but she moved aggressively to block him. He bumped against her breasts. He backed off, keeping a straight face like a gentleman. She stiffened but didn’t comment about the awkward incident.

“You’re not going anywhere, mister,” she said, “not until I get an explanation.”

“You won’t believe me. You’ll think I’m crazy.”

“You’ll be surprised at what I’m willing to believe.”

Andrew sighed. “OK. I saw Willy Loman.”

“Huh?” Charley raised her eyebrows.

“He was standing right there.” He pointed at the spot behind the tree cutouts. “But he vanished after a few seconds.”

He expected ridicule or an expression of concern for his mental health.

Instead, she walked over to the trees. “Right here?” She pointed at the floor.

“Just about.”

Charley closed her eyes and swayed on her feet. She took slow, deep breaths.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Hush. I need to focus. This is hard.”

Andrew furrowed his brow.

The crew was still cleaning up from the performance. They were wearing black from head to toe to make them less visible during the show. Everybody was a student at Theosophical University, and most were a year or two older than Andrew. They gave Charley curious looks.

She opened her eyes. “I believe you.”

“You do?” he said.

“Yes, and you’re not crazy. It’s much worse than that. Come with me. You absolutely have to meet somebody.”

“Who?”

Charley walked off the stage, but Andrew just stood in place with a feeling of confusion. It wasn’t time to leave. The rest of the cast was changing back into their street clothes or in the lobby talking to the audience. What was going on?

She looked over her shoulder. “I told you to come!” she said with a sharp tone.

He shrugged and followed her. If he didn’t obey, he wouldn’t get any answers.

Andrew was still wearing his costume, and he wished she had given him a chance to take it off. The gray wool suit was hot, and acting was sweaty work. He stopped for a drink at a water fountain, and the water was refreshingly cool.

They walked quickly through the narrow halls of the Fine Arts Building. Charley’s shoes clicked on the hard floor, and echoes bounced off the walls. She led him down a flight of steep stairs to the basement. Tan tiles covered the walls and made the echoes even stronger. Plain florescent fixtures provided pale bluish light.

Andrew recalled stories he had heard about the haunted basement. Supposedly, the ghosts of dead Native Americans wandered from room to room when the lights were off. They sought vengeance on all white men. Students would dare each other to come down here during the night. Andrew had a creepy feeling and tried to shake it off, but he couldn’t. He was one of those white men.

“Did I see a ghost on stage?” he said.

“Sort of,” Charley said.

“What was it?”

“I can’t say.”

“Why not?” Andrew said.

She didn’t answer.

The basement wasn’t in great condition. Many tiles were cracked, and a few light bulbs had burned out. He heard mechanical rattling noises behind closed doors. He passed a room full of old stage props and costume supplies, and the door was open. He saw a partially disassembled pirate ship. A plastic mannequin had such a life-like form, he glanced at it twice.

“Is this some kind of practical joke?” he said. “You’re still mad at me for being late. You had somebody dress up like Willy and hide at the back of the stage.”

“That’s ridiculous, but I am still mad at you.”

They arrived at a door marked, “Professor Tonya Akin, Department of Metaphysics.” It was a plain wooden door in a green frame. A signup sheet allowed students to schedule appointments.

“We have a metaphysics department?” Andrew said.

“You’re looking at it. Professor? Tonya?” Charley knocked on the door. “It’s Charley.”

“Come in!” a woman answered from behind the door.

Charley entered the office. Andrew followed and looked at the professor.

Tonya was a middle-aged woman, probably in her fifties. She had straight blonde hair cut to a length that barely touched her shoulders. Her eyes were blue. She was wearing a white, button-up shirt with a collar. An old-fashioned brooch made of pretty green crystals was pinned above her left breast. Despite her age, her skin was a healthy pink.

“Andrew,” Tonya said, “we meet at last. I’m Tonya. I’ve admired you for a long time.”

“Thanks,” Andrew said. “What’s going on?”

She turned to Charley and raised her eyebrows inquisitively.

“Something that looked like Willy Loman appeared onstage during the show,” Charley said. “It might have been a sprite.”

Tonya’s eyes widened. “Did you feel it?”

“A little. Andrew had to be controlling it.”

“Oh.” Tonya grimaced. “He really jumped into the deep end. We have no choice but to begin his education in earnest. We clearly can’t wait another day.”

“What are you talking about?” Andrew said. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Take a seat, both of you.”

Feeling anxious, he looked around the office. It was big by academic standards and had probably been a storeroom originally. One wall had bookshelves full of books and papers. The titles included “The Fundamentals of Time and Space,” “The Collected Writings of Aristotle,” and “Perception and Identity.” Heavy stuff, Andrew thought.

There was a small garden under a big, bright grow-light. He recognized bamboo, a spider plant, and a cactus. One plant had pink flowers, and another had spotted red leaves. He could smell the flowers in the still, cool air.

A huge assortment of three-dimensional puzzles occupied another set of shelves. They were made of iron rings, bars, ropes, beads, and boards. One clear plastic puzzle looked like a giant ice crystal, another was shaped like a green apple, and a third was a cardboard ant. The professor even had a spherical globe made of puzzle pieces.

Tonya also had a collection of props for stage magicians. There were decks of cards, painted wooden boxes, shiny rings, and cages. A box had dozens of thin swords stuck into slots. She had at least four different kinds of magic wands, and one had paper flowers sticking out the end.

Andrew sat on a hard wooden chair, and Charley sat beside him.

“I know you have a thousand questions,” Tonya said, “but you’ll have to be patient. I can’t answer them now.”

Andrew leaned forward. “Why not?”

“We first have to go through an assessment process, and that starts with an interview. Tell me about your background. Did you have a happy childhood? What kind of kid were you?”

“Why is that any of your business?”

“I’m going to offer you a scholarship,” she said. “Full tuition, room, and board. You’ll get a free ride through college and come out the other side debt-free. You’ll even get a monthly stipend to cover incidental expenses. Interested?”

Andrew was more than interested. His parents didn’t have a lot of money, and paying for his education was a real hardship for them. He was already looking for work to help cover the costs, and he expected to have little time for fun and parties. Even with the extra income, his family would have to take out loans to get him through the final years of school.

On the other hand, full scholarships weren’t usually offered in the middle of a semester by obscure professors working in a basement late at night. He was suspicious she had a hidden agenda. Before he signed anything, he would have to do some checking.

“Of course,” Andrew said.

“But only very special people can get this scholarship,” Tonya said. “It’s my job to make sure you meet the criteria. Answer the questions, and be truthful. If I catch you lying to me, you’ll get nothing at all. Honesty and integrity are at the top of the list. I will not tolerate any sort of cheating.”

“OK. I suppose I don’t have anything to hide. My parents are Percival and Beth Kenworthy. My dad runs a coffee shop and my mom is a hair stylist. I don’t have any brothers or sisters.”

“I already know the basic facts about you. Tell me things that aren’t in the public record.”

Andrew drew back. “You did a background check on me?”

“Yes.”

He glanced at Charley. She didn’t appear surprised and was looking at him with open curiosity. She was clearly involved in the conspiracy. He wondered if getting the lead role in the play was also part of the secret agenda. At the time, many had expressed shock about a mere freshman receiving such an honor.

Andrew faced Tonya. “I suppose I had a normal enough childhood. Little league baseball and that sort of thing.”

“Did you have a lot of friends?” she said.

“Well, uh…”

“Be truthful.”

“Not a lot,” he said after a pause. “I guess the other kids thought I was weird.”

“Why?” She leaned forward.

“I always talked about knights, dragons, and spaceships. I kind of lived in my own made-up world.”

“I understand. It’s like the real world just isn’t interesting enough. You have to create your own.”

Andrew nodded. “Exactly.” He had never heard anybody express the problem so clearly.

“And when you were lost in your own fantasies, what did it feel like?”

“I was in control. I could have the life I wanted. I just had to imagine it, and I was there.”

“A strong imagination is very useful,” Tonya said, “but so is remembering what’s real.”

She took a dollar coin from her desk and began to flip it across the backs of her fingers. Her dexterity impressed Andrew, and he wondered if she could perform magic tricks. The props in her office suggested she could.

Her wooden desk was big and looked very heavy. Loose papers cluttered the broad surface which had a few spots where the varnish had worn off. A dusty desk lamp had a green glass cover. A laptop computer was shoved out of the way in preference for an old-fashioned typewriter. Andrew had never seen a real typewriter outside of a museum, and he wondered how often Tonya actually typed on it. It seemed kind of useless to him. It was like a text editor with no delete key.

“Did you get into trouble often?” she said. “Were you a problem child?”

“I don’t think so,” he said, “but you’ll have to ask my mom.”

“Which reminds me. I want to know about her father, your grandfather.”

“Why?”

“Just tell me what you know,” Tonya said.

Andrew studied her and tried to guess her motives. She was moderately attractive even for a woman in her fifties. Her round face was nicely proportioned.

“I don’t know much,” he said. “I never met him. He died the day I was born. Mom told me he was very, very smart, but that’s all.”

“A shame,” Tonya said. “You would’ve enjoyed spending time with him. I actually met him.”

He stared in disbelief. “You’re kidding.”

“No. Gustav made a very strong impression on me. That’s one big reason we’re talking now.”

“How did you know him?”

“We were professional colleagues,” she said. “His death was a great loss.”

“He was a professor like you?”

“Not quite. Your mother never talks about him?”

“No,” Andrew said. “It’s like she’s embarrassed.”

Tonya frowned.

He glanced at Charley again. He had the feeling of being in a play where everybody but him had a copy of the script. He had no idea whether he should be afraid or not. Tonya seemed nice enough, but she was obviously keeping important facts from him. She knew more about his grandfather than he did for one thing. Her intense, unwavering stare unsettled him.

“I’m still not sure of what kind of person you are,” she said. “I have your background information, but facts and dates don’t really capture a person’s essence. Maybe you should tell me a little story about yourself in your own words. Describe a formative event in your life.”

“This interview is getting very personal,” Andrew said, “and it’s making me uncomfortable.”

“The scholarship is worth a lot of money. I don’t want to waste it on a failing student.”

He sighed with annoyance. The scholarship would make his life a lot easier and take a huge burden off his parents. He had to play along.

“I grew up in a small town,” Andrew said. “There wasn’t much to do especially at night. The teenagers liked to steal beers and drink them under the bleachers of the high school football field. I tried it because I wanted to be one of the cool kids, but I never had much fun. I don’t enjoy alcohol.

“I was under the bleachers on a Friday night when a stranger wandered over. He was dirty and smelled terrible. He told us he was a hitchhiker from out of town. He wanted a little money for food, but the other kids pushed him around instead. They started really hurting him. I didn’t have to get involved, but I couldn’t just stand there and watch, so I jumped into the middle of it. The hitchhiker escaped, and I got beat up instead.”

“Did you tell any of the adults what happened?” Tonya said.

“No. I didn’t want to cause any trouble. I never went back to the bleachers though. The cool kids had showed me their true selves, and I wasn’t interested in being one of them anymore.”

She smiled.

Charley gave Andrew a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Nice.”

“Is that it?” he said. “Do I get the scholarship?”

Tonya chuckled. “Not nearly. You have to take a written test next.”

“Are you serious?” He looked at her in dismay. “What kind of test?”

She rummaged through her desk drawers until she came up with a deck of cards. She gave him the deck along with a notepad and a few sharp pencils.

“The instructions are specific,” she said, “so pay attention. This is a closed book test. You are only allowed to use what’s in your skull. Read each card in order and write down your best answer. Place the cards face down after you’ve read them. Do not skip ahead or back up. Do not peek at later questions or review earlier ones. Do not rewrite an answer. Take exactly one shot at every question and move on. Understand?”

Andrew nodded. “I think so.”

“Good. You have a half-hour. Charley, let’s let the man work in peace.”

Tonya and Charlie left the office and closed the door. Except for a rattle from the ventilation system, the room was very quiet.

Andrew turned over the top card on the deck. The first question read, “What is the purpose of life?”

He blew air through his lips. How the hell am I supposed to answer that? he thought. The deck of questions was thick, and he didn’t have a ton of time, so he decided to just write the first thing that popped into his head.

He jotted down, “To learn and grow. To make each new generation better than the last.” He nodded with satisfaction. It sounded good at least.

The second question read, “Marian is a single, pregnant woman with no job or money. The father refuses to marry or support her in any way. She can’t raise the baby on her own, so she has an abortion. When he finds out, he beats her severely for killing his offspring. Who is at fault?”

Andrew shook his head. These questions are crazy.

He wrote, “Both people made mistakes, but the father committed a crime. He should go to jail.”

He turned over the card. The next question read, “Comment on moral objectivism.”

Andrew stared at the card. He had no idea what the phrase meant, and he didn’t want to make a random guess. The scholarship was too important. He looked around the office, hoping for inspiration, but he saw nothing useful.

He remembered he had a phone which had an internet browser. He just had to type the phrase, and he would have the answer in seconds. He could write something brilliant and look like a genius.

Andrew put his hand in his pocket and felt his phone. He hated cheating. If he won the scholarship dishonestly, Tonya might never know, but he would.

After taking a long moment to think about it, he wrote, “I don’t know what that means.”

He went to the next question which read, “What is the name of the pregnant woman from two questions back?”

Andrew struggled to recall that trivial fact. He hadn’t paid much attention to the name, and now it was forgotten. Mary? Marilyn? Marina? The answer was two cards back, and he just needed a quick peek. Again, Tonya would never know.

He closed his eyes. He had to decide how much integrity he had. He could tell the temptation to cheat would dog him throughout the test, and if he gave into it once, he might as well do it every time. There was no middle ground that would let him feel like a real winner.

Tonya wanted honesty, he thought. I’ll give it to her.

Andrew wrote, “Maybe it was Mary, but I don’t really remember.”

He continued through the deck at a quick but careful pace. He kept one eye on a clock on the wall, and the hands seemed to move faster than normal. He was able to answer only half the questions, and some of his responses were just educated guesses.

When the half-hour was up, the office door opened. Tonya and Charley walked in. Tonya picked up the notepad and started skimming Andrew’s answers.

“I didn’t cheat,” he said.

“I know,” she replied without taking her eyes off the notepad.

“How do you know?”

“We were watching through a hidden camera.”

His face grew warm. He looked around the office but didn’t see any camera.

“You won’t find it,” Tonya said calmly.

Andrew felt betrayed. While he had wrestled with his conscience, she had watched like a scientist observing a laboratory rat.

“You invaded my privacy!” he said.

“How?” Tonya said. “This is my office, not your bedroom.”

He turned to Charley. “You saw me, too?”

She nodded. “You did great. You showed real integrity.” She gave him a thumbs-up, but it didn’t make him feel better.

“Is that it?” Andrew said angrily. “Am I done?”

“For now,” Tonya said. “I need to examine these answers carefully. Let’s get together again tomorrow night after the show. I’ll make dinner for you at my house. I’ll tell you then whether you get the scholarship or not.”

“Where do you live?”

“Charley will show you. You’re both invited.”

He wanted to make a snappy retort, but Tonya was still holding that scholarship over his head. Demonstrating a bad attitude wouldn’t help him get it.

He settled for, “OK, but no more tricks.”

She snorted with amusement. “Good bye. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Hey, wait a sec. What about the ghost of Willy Loman? You never told me what that thing was?”

“Tomorrow.” Tonya waved towards the office door.

Andrew frowned. “And why do you have a surveillance camera in your office?”

“Go!”

“I’ll walk you out,” Charley said.

She took his hand and gave it a gentle tug. The physical contact surprised him, but he didn’t mind. He allowed himself to be led away.

They walked back through the empty hallways of the basement. He realized he was even more confused and anxious than before.

Charley smiled. “I’m really glad you passed the test.” She sounded very relieved, as if she had been afraid before.

“What would’ve happened if I had failed?” he said.

She glanced at him. “Bad things. There is a lot more at stake than you know. If people like us can’t be trusted…”

“What do you mean by ‘us’? What’s really going on? I thought this was just about a scholarship.”

She shook her head. “Just be glad you passed, and that’s all I can say for now.”

They arrived at the main stage. The crew was gone, and the stage was dark except for a single bulb on a stand. Andrew went to the dressing room to change back into his regular clothes.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Charley said, “and don’t be late again!” She walked off.

  • * *

Andrew walked outside the next day. A chilly breeze made him shiver, and he zipped up his jacket. He looked up at a sky full of gray clouds and searched in vain for the sun.

Theosophical University was located in the suburbs west of Chicago. It was October, and the first stirrings of winter were in the air. He wasn’t looking forward to the infamous Chicago winter. He had grown up in Southern Illinois, and that small difference in latitude made a big difference in temperature. It was typically ten to fifteen degrees warmer back home. It could be raining there but snowing in Chicago. The proximity to Lake Michigan added humidity which made the air feel even colder.

Andrew hurried along a concrete path. The campus had just ten buildings, but they were big and well separated by grassy fields. Getting to his next class on time required a quick trot with a heavy backpack weighing him down. He usually arrived out of breath.

He passed a big sculpture on his left. It was made of plates of stainless steel which looped in big arcs. Students sometimes used the sculpture as a bench even though it had sharp edges, but nobody was there now.

Andrew came around a corner and almost ran into two men in blue business suits. They were big guys with stern expressions.

“Sorry,” Andrew said as he tried to walk past them.

One man grabbed Andrew’s arm. “Are you Mr. Kenworthy?”

Andrew looked back. The man’s suit had nice, sharp creases. Gray eyes stared from a puffy face. Andrew caught a glimpse of a gun in a holster under his jacket.

“Sure,” Andrew said nervously. “Why?”

“We’re from the FBI. Come with us.”

The men bracketed Andrew and held him by both arms as he was marched across campus. Andrew tried to act brave, but he was actually terrified. He had never been arrested in his life, and now the FBI wanted to talk to him, but he couldn’t imagine why. He hadn’t broken any laws he knew about.

“What did I do?” Andrew said timidly.

“Quiet,” one federal agent growled.

They entered the West Parking Lot and walked over to a brown van. After checking carefully in all directions, one agent knocked on the door. It opened, and Andrew saw two more agents standing inside. He was shoved through the doorway. The door closed with a loud bang which made him jump.

Charley was also there, and her brown eyes were wide with fear. She was huddled in a back corner on a bench with her arms wrapped around her chest. He sat next to her and shielded her with his body a little.

“What’s going on?” Andrew said.

One of the agents took out his wallet and flashed an FBI badge. “I’m Special Agent Lees. It has come to our attention that you’re having dinner with Tonya Akin tonight.”

“How do you know that?”

“We bugged her office.”

Andrew gulped. Is Tonya a criminal? I knew there was something odd about her.

Lees had a full head of neatly trimmed, brown hair. He was wearing dark sunglasses even though the van had no windows in back and was dimly lit. The low roof forced him into a partial crouch, but he still looked menacing. His jacket was pulled back to reveal a big gun.

“Both of you are going to that dinner tonight,” he said, “and you won’t say a word about this investigation. Your job is to plant bugs and search for evidence.”

“Why?” Charley said in a quavering voice. “What did Tonya do?”

“We’re not sure if she’s guilty of anything, but her husband, Frank, certainly is. He’s the mastermind behind the Black Magus Society.”

“The what?”

“Professional stage magicians who use magic tricks to commit crimes,” Lees said. “They’ve performed robberies all across the Midwest, netting millions of dollars. Each heist was brilliant in its own unique way.”

“Was anybody hurt?”

“Not yet, but there is always a first time. Regardless, we believe Frank Akin is responsible for at least twenty felonies, but we don’t have enough hard evidence to nail him. You kids will help us fix that. While you’re at it, figure out if Tonya is part of the conspiracy, but don’t be obvious about it. We don’t want them to know they’re in trouble.”

“She’s innocent,” Charley said in an almost hysterical tone. “She’s my friend. She would never commit a crime.”

He raised his eyebrows. “The smartest criminals always seem innocent to their friends. Never trust appearances. This van will be parked near the Akin residence tonight. Before you go into the house, stop by and I’ll give you the bugs. We’ll be right outside the whole time in case you get into trouble. Got it?”

Andrew and Charley nodded.

Lees opened the van door. “Go, and don’t talk about this with anybody!”

The two students got out as quickly as they could, stumbling a couple of times in their haste. They stayed close together as they jogged away from the van. They didn’t slow down until they were back at the stainless steel sculpture, half-way across campus. Andrew’s heart was pounding.

“Let’s sit and talk,” he panted.

Charley nodded. They sat together on the sculpture, and she surprised him by leaning against him. He tentatively put his arm around her to comfort her. Her red fuzzy sweater felt very soft.

“What are we going to do?” Andrew said.

“We have no choice. We have to go through with it.”

“But we’re not detectives. The FBI can’t lean on us like that. We’re not even old enough to drink. It’s not right.”

“You tell them that,” she said.

He sighed and looked at the grass. The color had already started to change due to the cool weather.

Other students were walking quickly on the paths as they hurried to their classes. They were wearing warm clothes and jackets. Andrew wondered if any of their lives were as strange as his had suddenly become.

“Do you know anything about this?” he asked.

“Maybe,” Charley said softly. “Tonya called it the White Magus Society, not Black Magus. She told me they were heroes, not criminals. They secretly fight crime.”

“With stage magic?”

“And their wits. She’s training me to be a magician. I was going to join the Society when I graduate.”

“I’m a little confused,” Andrew said. “How do you fight crime with tricks?”

“Most criminals are pretty stupid. All it takes is a little slight-of-hand and a few clever gadgets to make them incriminate themselves. It’s amazing what the right lighting can do. Of course, you could use the same tricks to perform robberies.” She put her face in her hands. “Now I don’t know what to believe.”

He squeezed her shoulders. “We’ll get the truth tonight.”

She nodded. “And Tonya isn’t a crook! I’m sure of it.” A tear dripped down her cheek.

“I hope you’re right.” I still need that scholarship, he thought, but the whole thing could be some kind of scam.

Charley pushed him off and stood up. “I’m going to stop worrying about this and get to class. I’ll see you at the show tonight.”

As Andrew watched her walk off, he felt a storm of emotions. He thought about calling his parents for advice even though the FBI had told him not to. His father would know how to handle the situation, but Andrew already knew his dad would say, “cooperate with the authorities and hope for the best.” Complaining wouldn’t help.

He suddenly remembered he also had a class, and he ran in another direction.

Chapter Two

Andrew held the door for Charley, and both of them walked out of the Fine Arts Building. It was a dark night, but plenty of lights illuminated the campus. A breeze blew fallen leaves across the grass.

He was trying to forget his performance in Death of a Salesman. For the second night in a row, he had stumbled over his lines, had lost his place, and had made himself look like an incompetent amateur. He didn’t know which night had been worse. He had never been gladder to see a curtain come down at the end of a show. At least he had a good excuse.

“Where does the professor live?” Andrew said.

Charley pointed across the street. “In the red brick house.”

Tonya’s home was right on the edge of the campus, almost as close as she could get to the Fine Arts Building without being in a parking lot. Its proximity startled him. Her commute was three minutes by foot.

It was also a very nice house. The walls were made of clean red bricks, and white paint covered the frames around the doors and windows. It had two stories above ground, and windows below suggested a large basement. It was big enough for a whole family. Tall trees with golden leaves surrounded the home. A flower garden in front looked well maintained.

Andrew spotted a brown van parked a few houses down the street.

He pointed. “The FBI.”

Charley nodded but stood in place. She was wearing a light blue coat over her red sweater, and the zipper was open. Black plastic clips held back her long hair.

“Ready?” Andrew said.

She grimaced. “Not really. I’m still not sure what they expect us to do in there. We can’t just wander around like tourists and look for evidence.”

“I’ll ask to use the bathroom at some point. Keep Tonya and her husband busy while I try to do a quick search.”

“Keep them busy how?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Talk to them. But we have to meet with the FBI first. Come on.”

Andrew started towards the brown van. He was scared, but he wanted to look brave in front of Charley. He kept his head up, and he walked with a vigorous stride. He hoped his acting skills were good enough to convince her. She wasn’t even trying to hide her fear.

The side door of the van opened as the students approached. Agent Lees leaned out and waved for them to come closer.

He had changed into a bulletproof vest and camouflaged clothes. He was equipped with a gun, handcuffs, a flashlight, a radio, and several other items. Everything was dark blue. He came to play, Andrew thought.

Lees gave a handful of little plastic bags to Andrew. “Here are the bugs. Just peel off the adhesive backing and stick them where they won’t be seen. They activate automatically.”

Each bag held a small gadget, and Andrew examined one closely. It had a tiny circuit board with several components soldered to it. Soft adhesive covered one side.

“What are we looking for?” Charley asked.

“Criminal evidence,” Lees said. “Hopefully, you’ll know it when you see it. Check the office and the bedrooms.”

“What should we do if we find any evidence?”

“Leave it. It’s not admissible without a search warrant. All I want from you is a detailed report.”

Andrew furrowed his brow. “Hey, is this legal?”

“Just do what you’re told,” Lees said sharply. “Let me worry about the regulations. Get moving. If you’re late, the suspects will be suspicious.” He quietly closed the door of the van.

Andrew sighed and looked towards the red brick house.

“Let’s get this over with,” Charley said.

They walked to the front door, and Andrew knocked. He quickly stuffed the bags of bugs in his pocket when he realized he was still holding them.

Tonya opened the door and smiled at the two students. The professor had changed into a white gown which was simple and elegant. Her graceful body didn’t fit the academic stereotype.

“Come in,” she said. “Was it a good show?”

Andrew glanced at Charley. “Uh, sort of.”

“Oh.” Tonya lost her smile. “Then maybe it was a good thing I was cooking dinner instead of seeing it.”

Andrew and Charley followed her inside.

The art on the walls immediately grabbed Andrew’s attention. There was a painting of an alien with snakes coming out of its mouth. A centipede had the head of a human baby. A print of a chess board had squares that receded into infinity. Tonya owned sculptures, too, including a human skull covered in gold paint.

“Strange art,” Andrew said.

“Thank you.” She smiled. “Let’s go into the dining room.”

The group went into a room with a large, wooden dining table. There were hundreds of clocks on shelves and on the floor, and they spanned the range from pocket watches to antique grandfather clocks. Most were running, and the ticking noises filled the air. As far as Andrew could tell, none of them had the right time.

“What are all the clocks for?”

“To provide regularity,” Tonya said.

“You should set them so they’re right.”

“That would be pointless.”

He stared at her in dismay.

A nice meal was already laid out on the table. There were roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, broccoli, fresh baked bread, and a big bowl of salad. The simple foods looked and smelled a lot better than the bland garbage the school cafeteria fed him every day.

The food occupied one end of the table, and props for magic tricks covered the other end. There were balls, cups, ropes, rings, wands, and top hats. Andrew couldn’t help but think about the Black Magus Society. Maybe Agent Lees was right.

A man in a nice brown suit walked into the room, and Andrew guessed he was Frank Akin. He had short, straight, brown hair. His gaunt, creased face didn’t reveal a flicker of emotion. Andrew was tall, but Frank was even taller and beefy besides. He obviously worked out on a regular basis. He walked with a straight back and a puffed-out chest like a soldier.

“Hi,” he said without smiling. “I’m Frank. You must be Andrew. Nice to meet you.”

Andrew shook Frank’s hand. “You have a beautiful home.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s big. Do you have kids?”

“No.” Frank shook his head. “My darling wife likes to be close to her work, and there was nothing closer.”

He put his arm around Tonya and pulled her close, but the gesture struck Andrew as uncomfortable, and she tensed slightly. She kissed Frank lightly on the cheek.

“I noticed,” Andrew said. “My dorm is further away.”

“Why don’t we get started on dinner? Tonya spent the afternoon cooking, and I had to smell it. Now I’m starving.”

Frank didn’t strike Andrew as any kind of criminal mastermind. His mood was somewhat friendly. Maybe this won’t be so bad, Andrew thought.

They sat at the table and started eating. He discovered the food tasted as good as it looked. He was well into his second helping before anybody else finished their first. He slowed down when he realized he was gorging like a pig.

“What do you do for a living, Mr. Akin?” Andrew said.

“I’m a magician,” Frank said. “I perform all over the country. I’ll be in Las Vegas next week.”

“That’s great! Could you do a few tricks for me?”

“Sorry. I’m off-duty, but I’m sure Tonya won’t mind. She loves to entertain.”

Tonya smiled. “Of course, but I’m surprised you haven’t asked about the scholarship, Andrew. Don’t you want to know my decision?”

Andrew had so much else on his mind, he had almost forgotten about the scholarship. He realized he needed to play his role better.

“Yes,” he said eagerly.

“To be honest, I’m still gathering information.”

“Oh.” Then why did you bring it up?

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll have an answer for you very soon. In the meantime, maybe I will do a trick or two.”

Tonya retrieved a rope and a pair of scissors from the far end of the table. She let Andrew examine the rope, and it seemed ordinary enough. He gave it a few tugs to prove it wasn’t broken.

“Now watch closely,” she said.

She wrapped the rope around her hand several times. Then she used the scissors to cut the rope. She opened her hand, and he expected it to fall to pieces, but instead, it was still whole. She held a single rope between her fingers.

Andrew clapped. “Wow! That was good!” He didn’t have to pretend to be impressed.

“It was nothing.” Tonya waved her hand dismissively. “An amateur could do it. I’ll perform one more trick, and then we’ll finish eating.”

She grabbed four metal cups and a wooden ball. She moved the cups around rapidly, passing the ball back and forth. Her quick, sure movements were hypnotic.

“Are you familiar with quantum mechanics?” she said.

The question surprised Andrew. “No,” he said. “I’m still in Physics 101.”

“It’s an absolutely fascinating subject. Most people think it’s just a lot of hard math, but it’s really about the nature of reality. The philosophical implications are profound.”

Tonya placed a cup over the ball and stacked the other cups on top. She tapped the stack with her finger. When she lifted the top cup, the ball was there. It had somehow jumped up through all the cups.

“For example,” she said, “quantum mechanics tells us there is no fixed truth. Observations define reality. We change things just by looking at them. Where is the ball?”

She spread out the cups and put the ball under the one on the left. Andrew pointed at that cup. She lifted the cup and showed him it was empty inside.

“Consider the humble electron. It can be in two places at once.” Tonya lifted two cups on the right and revealed two identical balls. “When we measure its location, it has to choose.” She put down the two cups and picked them up again, but now the ball was under just one. “But it can change later.” She put the cups down and lifted the one on the left, and the ball was there now.

Andrew stared. She was very good.

“Which begs the question. What is real? Is it all in our minds? Is everything just a magic trick?” She knocked over all four cups, and the ball was gone. It seemed to have disappeared. “What’s in your water glass?”

He looked down at his glass and saw the ball floating on the water. His jaw dropped.

Frank clapped politely. “Well done, dear.”

“Thank you, darling.” Tonya curtsied.

Andrew shook himself. He remembered he was here for reasons besides entertainment.

“Mind if I use the bathroom?” He gave Charley a meaningful look.

She nodded slightly.

“Go ahead.” Tonya pointed to a doorway.

He hurried out of the dining room. He immediately spotted the bathroom at the end of the hall, but he was more interested in a flight of stairs. After making sure nobody was watching, he padded up to the second story.

The lights were off, but Andrew didn’t dare turn them on. He took a moment to let his eyes adjust while his heart raced.

There were several rooms, and he started with the closest one. He silently went in, closed the door, and turned on the lights. He found himself in a bedroom. The walls were painted a shocking pink, and stuffed animals formed a pile on the bed. It was definitely a bedroom just for a woman, and he wondered if Frank slept separately.

The words “GET THROUGH THE DAY” were painted on the ceiling in block letters. Andrew stared at them curiously for a moment.

He didn’t want to go through the drawers because that was an invasion of privacy. He stuck a bug under the bed to appease the FBI. He turned off the lights and left.

The next room was an office. He smiled, expecting to find evidence here if it was anywhere.

There were a lot of textbooks on the shelves. He saw a weird mix of titles from physics, psychology, philosophy, chemistry, and stage magic. The strange art theme continued in the office, but the selection was even more disturbing. There was a painting of a man pointing a gun at his own head. Another showed playful elves feasting on something pink, but he didn’t take a closer look.

These people are sick, Andrew thought.

He went to the desk. It was a big, old, wooden monstrosity with lots of drawers. He quickly rifled through them, but he only found ordinary paperwork. There were tax returns, receipts, bank statements, and so on.

Andrew paused. He’s a magician. The good stuff will be in a secret compartment.

He went through the desk again, but he looked in all the nooks and crannies this time. He used his hands as well as his eyes. He found a switch hidden underneath where it couldn’t be seen. He pressed it, and a panel on the side of the desk popped open.

“What are you doing?” a woman said.

Andrew almost jumped out of his skin. He turned and saw Tonya standing at the doorway.

“Uh… uh…”

“You were taking forever in the bathroom,” she said. “I was starting to wonder if you had fallen in.”

“I guess I got lost on the way.”

“I’d say so. What’s that?”

Tonya walked over and stood near the secret compartment. She pulled out papers that looked like blueprints.

“What are those?” Andrew said in a forcibly calm voice. His heart felt like it was going to jump out of his chest.

She furrowed her brow. “Plans for the main safe in the Luxor Hotel in Vegas. Why the hell does Frank have these?” She looked at him. “Who sent you? What’s going on?”

He didn’t know if he could tell her the truth. She was acting innocent, but that wasn’t proof he could trust her. More than once, she had demonstrated an ability to trick him. He remained silent.

Tonya narrowed her eyes. “Talk to me, or I’ll tell the police you tried to rob me.”

“I’ll tell them about the plans for the safe.”

“Is that a threat?”

“I just think you should be worrying about your husband instead of me,” Andrew said. “Those are his blueprints.”

She thought for a moment. Then she snorted angrily, turned, and walked off. He followed cautiously, curious about what she would do.

They went back downstairs.

Tonya threw the blueprints onto the table in front of Frank. “What is this?”

He picked up the papers, and his eyes widened. “How did you find these?”

“Mr. Nosy-pants discovered the compartment.” She pointed at Andrew.

Frank glared at Andrew. “Clever boy.”

“Answer the question!” Tonya yelled.

Andrew glanced at Charley. She was standing stiffly with wide eyes and her hands held up defensively.

“I’m afraid I have only one answer for you,” Frank said.

He reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun. He aimed at Tonya’s head.

Andrew reacted instinctively. He tackled Frank, knocking the gun out of his hand. Andrew tried to wrestle with Frank, but the man was bigger and stronger. Andrew was losing his grip when another pair of hands came to his aid. Charley had a fierce expression on her face as she tried to hold Frank down. With her and Andrew working together, they had the advantage.

“Tonya, go outside!” Andrew yelled. “Call for help! The FBI is waiting out there!”

“I don’t think so,” Tonya said calmly.

He looked over at her. She was holding a small gun aimed at his head.

He and Charley slowly disengaged from Frank.

“So the FBI sent you,” Tonya said. “I should’ve guessed.”

Frank retrieved his gun, straightened his jacket, and joined his wife.

Panic was clawing at the back of Andrew’s mind. There was a good chance he was about to die.

“What about the White Magus Society?” Charley said in a hysterical tone. “You told me you were heroes!”

Tonya rolled her eyes. “Grow up, girl. That story was just meant to keep you quiet while I taught you tricks. I was going to tell you the truth when you were mature enough to hear it.”

“But…”

“Seriously, only an idiot would fight crime with magic tricks. That’s why they invented guns! Now, no harm has been done. If you want to keep your plush scholarship, you won’t tell the FBI a damn thing. Pretend nothing happened tonight. I’ll even throw in some extra spending money. Will fifty grand satisfy you?”

Charley bit her lip. “That’s a lot of money.”

“Yes,” Tonya said, “and it’s just the first paycheck of a long career.”

Charley appeared to be considering the proposal, and Andrew felt crushing disappointment. He had thought much better of her.

“What about you?” Tonya asked Andrew. “You want the same deal? A free education and lots of cash. Let’s make it an even hundred grand. The hotel robbery will be a big payday for everybody. All you have to do is play ball. Otherwise…” She pulled back the trigger on the gun.

He didn’t know what to do. She appeared ready and willing to shoot him. Frank had an ugly sneer on his face.

Andrew remembered something the FBI had told him yesterday. Never trust appearances. Understanding dawned.

“This is another test,” he said slowly. “None of this is real.”

Tonya cocked her head. “Why do you say that?”

“The FBI would never use a couple of untrained, unarmed amateurs to take down a criminal mastermind. They would never have me look for evidence without a search warrant. The Black and White Magus stuff is obviously a load of crap. Magicians don’t form secret societies to commit elaborate crimes. You fooled me before, but you won’t fool me again.”

“Careful. I’m still holding a gun.”

“I’m right,” Andrew said with growing confidence. “If I’m not, go ahead and shoot me.” He swelled his chest.

Tonya pulled the trigger. For an instant, he was sure he was going to die, but the gun just clicked. It wasn’t loaded. Sudden weakness in his knees almost made him fall to the floor.

“Well done,” she said. “It was a test of ethics, judgment, and courage.”

She handed the gun to Frank, and he put it in his jacket pocket.

“I’ll tell the guys outside the show is over.” He left the house.

“Was that really your husband?” Andrew said.

Tonya shook her head. “No, thank God. He’s just somebody I have to work with. I live alone.”

He looked over at Charley who was grinning from ear to ear. She had been in on the game from the beginning. Her acting job had completely fooled him. Once again, he was the chump.

The elaborate scenario had gone far beyond a mere trick though. Several men in costume had participated, and the guns had looked real. Tonya had even gone to the trouble of planting fake blueprints in a hidden compartment.

Andrew turned back to her. “Is that it?” he said angrily. “Are we done with the crazy tests? I can’t believe I have to go through all this for a scholarship. What happened to just filling out an application? Something else must be going on.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You’re right. There is something else, and no, we’re not done. You have the most important test of all next, and you’ll finally get some answers. Come. We have to go back to the Fine Arts Building.”

He sighed with frustration. He swore to himself he wouldn’t look like a fool again. He would go into the next test with open eyes and a suspicious mind.

Tonya, Charley, and Andrew went back out into the chilly night. The cool air helped calm him down. His legs still felt funny, and his neck was stiff from tension. That experience had been the most intense of his life.

“I can’t believe you hired those guys just to test me,” he said.

“I didn’t hire them,” Tonya said.

“They weren’t real FBI agents.”

“Not FBI, at least.”

Andrew waited for her to say more, but she fell silent instead.

He frowned. “Tell me one thing at least. How did you make that ball appear in my glass?”

“Simple. Charley dropped it in while you were looking at me.”

Andrew turned to Charley and felt his face grow warm.

She patted him on the arm. “Relax. It was all good fun.”

“Fun for you,” he said bitterly.

“It will be worth it. Trust me.”

He frowned.

It took just a few minutes to reach the Fine Arts Building. They went down into the basement, and at first, Andrew thought they would go to Tonya’s office. She went a different way instead. They arrived at the darkest, dingiest corner of the entire building. A fluorescent fixture buzzed and flickered. A spider web in the corner was big enough to catch a mouse.

A steel door was there. It had a sophisticated electronic lock which looked very out of place in the setting. Tonya punched in a long passcode, and Andrew heard several heavy bolts slide back. She used both hands to pull the door open.

He had a strange feeling of excitement, and it wasn’t from nervousness. Something was behind that door. The hallway had a sharp, electric edge. His thoughts came quicker, and his awareness was expanding in odd ways.

I like this feeling, he thought. I like it a lot.

The group went inside. Two men wearing blue business suits were sitting in a small antechamber. They openly carried compact assault rifles which could fit under their jackets. Andrew’s eyes widened in alarm.

“Give us a half-hour,” Tonya said.

The men nodded and left. She closed the heavy door with a thud.

“Who were they?” Andrew said.

“Guards. Somebody has to watch the place when I’m not here.”

“Why?”

“To keep out the riff-raff,” Tonya said.

She walked into the next room and turned on a light. The walls, floor, and ceiling were made of plain concrete. There were no windows, and the only openings were small ventilation ducts. It was as secure as a prison cell.

The room was furnished with chairs and tables. The chairs had nice, thick cushions, and Andrew wanted to sit on one. Hundreds of odd items filled shelves along the walls. He saw blocks of wood, pieces of metal, clocks, children’s toys, puzzles, jars, and many things he couldn’t even identify.

“What is this place?”

“It’s very special,” Tonya said. “Can you feel it?”

Andrew turned his head and furrowed his brow. “Yes. It’s like the air is… hot and greasy. The colors are brighter. My brain is tingling. What does that mean?”

“It means you’re very sensitive, but I expected that in a man with your talent, intelligence, and blood lines. We’re going to play a few games now. I need to gauge precisely how sensitive you are.”

“Are you going to trick me again?”

She smiled. “If I can. Let’s start with something simple.”

She walked over to a shelf and picked up a coin from a pile. It appeared to be a silver dollar with an eagle on one side. She held it a few feet in front of his face between two fingers. With her other hand, she flicked the coin and made it spin. It continued to spin as if driven by a motor.

“What the hell?” Andrew said.

Tonya winked and let go of the coin. It hovered in the air, still spinning. He looked closely but couldn’t see any strings.

He gasped. “That’s impossible!”

“Obviously. Now tell me what’s really going on. You can look, but keep your hands away.”

Andrew stared at the spinning coin. The shiny surface reflected the light into his eyes, and the effect was hypnotic.

“Some kind of magnet?”

Tonya shook her head. “No.”

“Strings?”

“Don’t insult me.” She moved her right arm around the coin on all sides. “We’re done with ordinary parlor tricks. Look closer.”

He studied the coin carefully and began to notice flaws. The spinning motion was a little jerky like a video game with an uneven frame rate. The coin had no scratches in its surface. It was too perfect.

“It’s a hologram,” Andrew said. He looked around but couldn’t see a laser.

“Close,” Tonya said. “Keep guessing.”

He waved his hand in front of the coin and was astonished. He could still see it even with his hand in the way. It was like he had X-ray vision. He closed his eyes, and the coin continued to spin in the darkness. Understanding hit him hard.

“It’s in my mind!” He opened his eyes and stared at her. “What did you do to me? Hypnotize me?”

The coin vanished.

“Not hypnosis,” she said. “I was hoping you’d figure it out a little quicker. I’ll give you a ‘B’ for that test. Let’s try something else.”

“No!” He shook his head violently. “No more tests! No more tricks! Tell me what’s going on.”

“I’m the instructor here. I’ll decide when the testing is complete.”

Andrew looked at Charley. She gave him an encouraging smile but kept her mouth closed.

He decided he had been pushed far enough. He turned towards the door.

A wall of flame forced him back, and the heat was so intense, he checked to make sure his clothes hadn’t caught fire. He suddenly felt great fear. Tonya had real power and wasn’t afraid to use it. Even though he didn’t understand what was happening, he knew he couldn’t fight her.

“The next test will force you to use your talent,” she said, “not just your brain. Charley, turn off the lights. We’re going to play tag in the dark.”

Charley glanced at Andrew anxiously. She hit a switch on the wall, and the room became pitch black. He couldn’t even see his hands in front of his face.

“Now Andrew,” Tonya said, “Charley has the same kind of talent as you. This place magnifies your abilities enormously, enough that you should be able to sense where she is without any training. Go ahead and touch her.”

He had no idea what she was talking about. He was completely blind, and the sound of his own heartbeat prevented him from hearing Charley. If he took a step, he would probably walk into the furniture.

“You’ve been suppressing your power your whole life,” Tonya said. “You instinctively knew it would set you apart and frighten others. It even frightened you. At some level, you weren’t ready to deal with it. You’re ready now, and in this place, you have no choice. Stop fighting. Open your inner eye.”

Andrew slowed his breathing and tried to be calm. To his amazement, he began to perceive something. He couldn’t rely on his normal senses, so he was forced to use deeper abilities which were now coming to life.

“Wait!” Andrew said. “There’s a shape. It’s like a frozen lightning bolt in the middle of the room. It’s pulsing. I think it’s angry.”

“That’s the seam,” Tonya said. “It’s what makes this place so special. You’re doing well. Keep looking.”

He smiled and pressed harder on his newfound ability. He was as excited as a kid with a new bike. Apparently, Tonya wasn’t the only one with strange powers.

“There are points floating around the seam. They remind me of fireflies.”

“We call them sprites,” she said. “You always find them near seams. I’m impressed, but you still haven’t found Charley. Her energy should be easy for you to detect using raw talent alone.”

Andrew focused on Tonya and discovered he could sense her too. A silent storm of black mist surrounded her. The stuff was slippery and thick, and it seemed to burrow through space itself. He didn’t see it as much as feel its exotic mass. Only his inner eye could perceive the mist at all. He was intimidated but intrigued at the same time.

Finally, he detected Charley. Her power was weaker than Tonya’s but still substantial. The way the black energy swirled around her slim body was fascinating. It pulsed like blood flowing through arteries. He walked over with his hands in front to feel for furniture, and he touched her.

“Good job,” Tonya said happily. “You get an ‘A’ that time.”

Charley turned the lights back on. Andrew blinked in the sudden brightness.

“There had better be a good explanation for all this freaky stuff,” he said.

“There is.” Tonya nodded. “I’ll tell you a story. In 1830, many Native Americans died here.”

“I know.”

“Hush. I’m talking. It was pure butchery. The Indians were surprised, and the US Army overran the entire village in minutes, but one of the Indians was a sorcerer. He may not have known it, but he certainly had the talent.”

Andrew raised his eyebrows. “A wizard?”

“We prefer the word ‘sorcerer.’ It sounds more dignified. You, Charley, and I are all sorcerers. Welcome to the club.”

He wanted to tell her she was crazy, but he knew she was right. He had felt the power in himself. The word fit perfectly, and he was proud to wear it.

“That Native American sorcerer gathered up all the anger, fear, hatred, and anguish around him,” Tonya said. “His talent amplified it and transformed it into a psychic bomb. At that moment, a soldier ran a sword through the sorcerer’s chest. He died on this exact spot.” She pointed at the floor. “And the bomb exploded.”

The seam was there, and now Andrew could sense it even with the lights on. It was like an invisible lion roaring with silent rage. An act of unspeakable violence had created it.

“The explosion couldn’t be seen by ordinary eyes,” she said, “but it still had a profound effect. The walls of the universe cracked.”

“How is that possible?”

“Human minds interact with the world in interesting ways, and sorcerers take it to the next level. We bend reality with our thoughts. Our beliefs have tangible power.”

“Oh,” Andrew said. “We can make things happen just by thinking hard?”

“In essence, but of course, it’s much more complicated than that. There are specific techniques. It will take years for you to learn all the nuances, and we can’t perform magic anywhere we want. We must apply pressure where the universe is already weak. Seams supply us with the special energy we need. In modern lingo, they allow us to ‘hack’ the world.”

“What kinds of magic can we do? Can we change stuff?”

“A little.”

Tonya walked over to a shelf and picked up a bar of lead. She stroked the metal with her fingers, and after a few seconds, it became golden. An inner sense told him she wasn’t casting another illusion. She was actually turning lead into real gold.

She put the bar down, and it reverted to lead. “But our main powers are more mental than physical. You saw flames earlier. Were they real? You felt the heat. To you, they seemed real enough to prevent you from walking through them. You believed. That’s what matters.”

“Where does the energy come from?” Andrew said.

“Enough questions. We need to finish the test.” She faced him. “Let’s do your final exam now.”

Charley whimpered.

Tonya frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“Do I have to watch?”

“Of course. It’s educational.”

“But what if…” Charley gave Andrew a fearful look.

“That’s educational, too,” Tonya said.

Andrew’s positive feelings evaporated into fear. “Will this be dangerous?”

“Yes.” She gave him a stern look. “If you fail… well, it was nice knowing you.”

His eyes widened. He turned and sprinted for the door, intending to run through fire if necessary to escape, but he pulled up short. The door was gone. There was just a concrete wall.

“Let me explain something,” Tonya said. “This is my seam, my property, my place of power. I have absolute control here. I make the rules. No other sorcerer can defy me, certainly not a raw novice like you. You’ll leave when I give you permission to leave. Am I clear?”

Andrew turned back to her and gulped. “Yes.”

“Good.”

She walked over to a shelf and pulled away a large piece of silk. Underneath, there was a sword, a knife, a jar of brown liquid, and a pair of steel gloves. The latter looked like the gauntlets a knight might wear.

“This is an ancient ritual,” Tonya said. “I suffered through it, and so did my master and his master. Charley did it, too. Put these on.”

She gave the gloves to Andrew. He forced his hands inside, and the fit was uncomfortably tight. He hoped he wouldn’t have to wear the gloves for long.

She gave him the sword next. It was a big, heavy hunk of steel with a rusty blade. The weapon had a medieval design, and he could make out engravings under the rust. He grabbed the long handle with two hands because he couldn’t hold the weapon up with just one.

“Your task is simple,” Tonya said. “Don’t let go of the sword. You’ll live as long as you maintain a firm grip.”

The test didn’t seem hard to Andrew, but he expected there was a catch.

She opened the jar of brown liquid. With great care, she dipped the knife into the sticky, glistening goo, coating the tip. She walked over and held the tip near his throat.

“This is concentrated scorpion venom,” she said. “One little nick will kill you. If you drop the sword or try to run, I’ll bury the knife in your throat.”

He kept very still. “Is this really necessary?”

“Control is the most important element of good sorcery. If we don’t master the magic, it masters us, and the result is chaos and death. Our feelings and reactions can betray us. Our fears are our worst enemy. If you can’t demonstrate total control, I’m better off killing you now and saving everybody the trouble of doing it later.”

Andrew’s arms were already getting tired from holding the sword.

“How long do I have to hold it?” he said.

“Five minutes is typical. A man of your breeding should be able to do six.” Tonya smiled, but the expression wasn’t nice at all. She checked her watch.

He felt an odd tingle in his hands. His palms began to itch lightly at first, then painfully. The steel pressed against his skin was getting hot.

“Are you going to burn me?” Andrew said in a fearful tone.

Tonya moved the knife closer to his throat. “Don’t let go of the sword.”

The pain became intense. He was sure his hands were being cooked alive, and he desperately wanted to throw off the gauntlets. He took deep breaths in an effort to calm himself.

“Is this another trick?” he said. “An illusion like the spinning coin?”

She leaned forward. “Does it matter? Believe what you want. Either way, you still have to hold the sword.”

Tears were dripping down Andrew’s cheeks, and his body was shaking. He moaned like a wounded animal. He had never felt this kind of pain, but somehow, he kept his grip.

He looked over at Charley. She was grimacing, and her eyes were half-closed. The smooth skin on her hands didn’t show any burn scars.

“Charley took this test?” Andrew said.

Tonya nodded. “A year and a half ago.”

“Then it’s definitely an illusion,” he said. “It’s all in my head.”

The steel gauntlets glowed red, and he could feel heat on his face. Illusion or not, the pain was excruciating. It was easy to picture his flesh burning off his bones.

He reached down deep and found strength he didn’t know he had. It’s just a trick, he thought. A blend of imagination and fear. I’m still in control. She won’t beat me this time.

Andrew clenched his jaw and glared at Tonya defiantly. The gauntlets were white hot now. He smelled smoke, and his shirt caught fire. Flames spread across his body, but he just clamped down harder.

“Perception and reality,” she said calmly. “Is there a difference? Where is the line drawn? Philosophers have debated the question for millennia, and it is the keystone of sorcery. In this room, the line is very blurry.”

Suddenly, it was over. The fire and pain were gone, and the gauntlets were made of cold steel again. Andrew exhaled and almost collapsed to the floor.

Tonya checked her watch. “Six minutes. Excellent.”

She started putting everything away. Andrew yanked the cursed gauntlets off his hands and inspected his skin for injury. His hands were pink from clenching, but otherwise, they looked normal.

“Are you going to teach me how to do that?” he said.

“Of course, but illusions are easy. It’s just a matter of forcing your beliefs onto somebody else. You’ll learn that skill quickly. Making real, physical changes to the world is much more difficult. It will take a year or two of training before you can even attempt that.”

Andrew took a step, and sudden weakness made him lean onto a chair. Even though the test had just been a mental exercise, it had left him physically exhausted. Charley came over and helped support him. He gave her a warm smile of gratitude.

“What’s next?” he said.

“You’ll get your scholarship,” Tonya said. “Both you and Charley will be my apprentices going forward. There is just a small matter of filling out a few forms in my office.”

Something in her tone put Andrew on edge.

They left the chamber. The two guards in blue suits were waiting, and they took their places inside.

Andrew frowned. “What did you mean by keeping out the riff-raff?”

“This seam is prime real estate,” Tonya said, “one of the biggest on the continent. There are plenty of sorcerers who would love to suckle from this teat of power.”

“How many other sorcerers are there?”

“Ask Frank. He’ll have the exact number.”

“Frank?” he said in surprise. “He’s here?”

Tonya didn’t answer. She led Andrew and Charley back to Tonya’s spacious office in the basement. Frank was sitting behind the desk with a bored expression.

“Looks like the kid survived,” he said in a bland tone.

“Who are you?” Andrew said. “Really?”

Frank stood up and reached across the desk to shake his hand. “Frank Webster, Director of the Bureau of Physical Investigation.”

Andrew shrugged. “Never heard of it. Are you another sorcerer?”

“Negative, I’m very happy to report. No, it’s our job to keep an eye on people like you. We monitor all sorcerers in the United States on behalf of the Federal Government. I have some forms for you to sign.” Frank put a briefcase on the desk and opened it.

The government knows about us? Andrew thought.

He sat at the desk. Frank gave him a thick stack of legal documents with colored tabs to show where to sign. The title at the top of the first page said, “Power of Attorney.”

Andrew furrowed his brow. “What’s this?”

“That document gives your Power of Attorney to the BPI irrevocably. The next one waives your right to a trial by jury. The third says you’ll work exclusively for us for the rest of your life. The fourth allows us to search and seize your property without a warrant. And so on. Just sign. I’ll have copies sent to you so you can read them later.”

Tonya and Charley were standing in the office. Andrew looked back and saw expressions of resignation on their faces. No help there, he thought.

He put down the papers. “I’m not signing my life away! Are you nuts?”

Frank took out a large gun and placed it on the desk with a loud thunk. “No, I’m just doing my job.”

“Which is to monitor us?” Andrew glanced at the gun.

“Let me explain. The United States Government doesn’t trust you. I don’t trust you. Sorcerers are slippery, conniving, stubborn, violent creeps who are all borderline insane. The BPI has a special prison where we put the ones who won’t toe the line. Maximum security and solitary confinement. If you’re not careful, that’s where you’ll end up. Good sorcerers sign paperwork, and bad ones go to prison. Which one are you?” Frank glared.

Andrew wilted. “If you think we’re so much trouble,” he said softly, “why don’t you lock us all up?”

“We tried that in the past, and it was a disaster. It turns out having some sorcerers on the team is necessary. There are certain problems only you can solve. For example, it takes a good sorcerer to catch a bad one. The seams must be guarded by experts. We eventually decided working with you was more productive than hunting you to extinction.”

“Oh.” Andrew looked down at the intimidating pile of forms. “But it still seems like a bad deal for me.”

“As long as you cooperate,” Frank said, “the BPI will take care of you. You’ll get a regular salary, health benefits, protective services, and in your case, a full scholarship. Technically, you’ll be a federal agent for life with all the perks. Now, start signing. It’s getting late, and I want to fly back to Washington tonight.”

Andrew understood the deal, but he didn’t like it. It seemed unfair, particularly because he didn’t have a choice.

He looked over his shoulder at Charley. “Is this another trick?”

“No.” She shook her head sadly. “It’s painfully real. I had to sign the same forms.”

Andrew frowned and turned back to Frank. “How many sorcerers are there?”

“Thirty in the United States that we know of. Thirty-one with you. Ten are in prison.”

“What about other countries?”

“Not my concern. Stop stalling and sign!” Frank put his hand on his gun.

Andrew grudgingly signed the papers. Charley sighed behind his back.

By the time the deed was done, his hand was tired from signing his name over and over.

Frank gathered all the papers and stuffed them in his briefcase. “Obviously, you’re not going to talk about this with anybody. It’s top secret, like the plans for an atomic bomb. Blabbermouths get put away.”

He left without another word. He seemed eager to get out of there.

“Both of you are done for the night,” Tonya said. “We’ll meet at the seam at 9 AM sharp. Andrew, you’ll get your first real lesson then.”

“But I have class,” Andrew said.

“We’ll rearrange your schedule.”

Charley patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll walk you back to your dorm.”

He stood and walked out of the Fine Arts Building with her. His legs still felt a little wobbly, and his heart rate refused to settle down, but he was recovering. The cool night air chilled the sweat on his forehead. They headed across campus towards his dorm. A light breeze made the dry leaves rustle, and street lamps cast long shadows.

“How are you feeling?” Charley said.

“Like I got hit in the head,” Andrew said. “All of a sudden, I’m a sorcerer and part of a government conspiracy at the same time. Being near the seam woke up something inside me I didn’t know was asleep.”

“Tonya told me your grandfather was a powerful sorcerer. When you were a baby, she sensed you had the same kind of talent, but she couldn’t start your training until you were old enough to handle it.”

“She knew me when I was a baby?”

“Yes,” Charley said. “She’s been keeping an eye on you your whole life. This was all planned in advance.”

“And coming to Theosophical University wasn’t a coincidence.”

She nodded. “The BPI made sure you didn’t get accepted anywhere else.”

“I was wondering why I got so many rejections.” He snorted. “My grades weren’t that bad.”

As Andrew moved away from the seam, his new powers diminished. The special part of him went back to sleep, and it was like losing a friend. He wanted to return to the Fine Arts Building for just a little while longer.

He could still sense the invisible energy around Charley though. His sensitivity was reduced, but he retained enough to tell the difference between a sorcerer and a regular person.

“I don’t like Frank,” Andrew said.

She shrugged. “There are much worse alternatives to the BPI. For long periods of history, sorcerers were hunted down and tortured to death. Ever heard of the Spanish Inquisition? The Salem witch trials? We have an unpopular profession. There are still places in the world where we would be killed on the spot. The United States Government actually has an enlightened attitude. As long as we stay out of sight and do as we’re told, we can almost lead normal lives.”

Andrew wanted to argue that the situation was still unfair, but it didn’t matter. Neither of them had the power to change it.

His dorm was on the west side of campus where there were spacious lawns and lots of old trees. The deep shadows were a little creepy at night, and he instinctively glanced to either side. He saw a few other students hurrying back and forth. Leaves crunched under his feet as he crossed the grass.

“Do my parents know?”

“Maybe a little,” Charley said. “The talent skipped over your mother, so she never had any training, but I’m sure she accidently saw your grandfather do a few things. Regardless, you can’t talk to your parents about this.”

“Does it really have to be that big a secret?”

“Tonya has a saying. There are two kinds of people: those who want to exploit sorcerers and those who want to kill them. If you tell your parents, they may tell others. Better not.”

Andrew clenched his jaw. Once again, he had to suffer with an unfair situation. He couldn’t tell his own parents the biggest news of his life.

His dorm looked like a small castle on the outside. Limestone walls reached up three stories, and round towers stood at each corner. He knew the towers contained steep, winding stairs which often smelled like puke on the weekends. Dormer windows jutted out from a very steep roof. Unlucky students lived up there where it was cold in the winter and miserably hot in the summer.

“Are you in a dorm?” Andrew said.

“No way.” Charley shook her head. “I hate dorms. I share a house off-campus with three other students.”

“Renting a house is expensive.”

“Not a problem. The BPI pays us pretty well.”

He smiled. “I like that part at least.”

“Of course the money comes with strings attached. They sometimes put us to work.”

“What do you mean?”

“Mostly, we investigate suspicious events,” she said. “We determine if sorcery was involved. We find previously unknown seams.”

Andrew and Charley went into the dorm. They walked through narrow hallways with carpeting so old and worn down, it was as hard as tile. Cheerful green paint covered the walls. He heard loud music coming from several directions, and that was the most annoying part of living in a dorm. He sometimes needed earplugs to sleep. Charley shook her head and sighed, obviously having the same thought.

Andrew had been lucky enough to get his own room on the first floor where the air-conditioning worked best. He didn’t even have to share it, a privilege usually reserved for seniors. The room was tiny, but it was all his.

“Let me guess,” he said. “Tonya arranged for me to get one of the sweetest rooms in the dorm.”

Charley smiled. “She can be nasty at times, but she can also be your best friend. Stay on her good side. Frank was right about sorcerers being a little insane.”

They arrived at Andrew’s room. He fished a key out of his pocket and unlocked the door, but then he remembered the mess inside.

“Uh,” he said, “it’s kind of gross in there.”

She chuckled. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She walked off.

He wanted to say something clever to impress her, but no words popped to mind, and all he could do was sigh. She had a very nice backside.

He had liked her since they had first met months ago. She was smart, mature, confident, and very pretty. He was definitely looking forward to working closely with her during his apprenticeship, and he hoped their relationship would move beyond friendship. He would have to work on his moves though. He had to admit awkwardness around women was a problem for him.

He went into his room.

Chapter Three

A knock on his door jolted Andrew awake. He rubbed his eyes and checked the clock. It was 7:30 AM, and the alarm wasn’t set to go off until 8.

“Hello?” a man called. “Are you home?”

Andrew sat up. “Yeah, yeah,” he yelled. “I’m here. Who is it?”

“Agent Dan Easton, BPI. Open the door.”

“Do I know you?”

“Just open the door,” Dan said.

Andrew grabbed a bathrobe off the floor and shrugged it on. He opened the door.

A good-looking young man was standing in the hallway. His light brown hair was cut to a short, even length. There was plenty of stubble on his chin, but it wasn’t quite a beard. A leather jacket partially covered a strong, fit body. Dan was young enough to be a college student but still older than Andrew.

“Hi,” Dan said. “I’m your official liaison. I also work with Charley. Do you want a donut?”

Dan was holding a box of assorted donuts. Andrew eagerly grabbed a chocolate donut and took a big bite. It tasted fresh-baked.

“What does an official liaison do?” Andrew said around a full mouth.

“Mostly, I keep you out of trouble. I have to know where you are at all times.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Are you going to follow me around like a chaperone?”

“Not necessarily,” Dan said. “If you give me your daily schedule in advance and stick to it, I won’t bother you. Or call before you go anywhere. Here is my contact information.”

He took a white business card out of his pocket and handed it over.

Andrew wasn’t happy. He had just escaped from the ever watchful eyes of his parents a few months ago, and he was enjoying his independence. Now he had to report his movements to a federal agent like a criminal on parole.

Dan slipped past Andrew and entered the dorm room. Dan shook his head as he looked at the mess, and Andrew felt a little embarrassed. Dirty clothes formed random piles on the floor. There were towering stacks of empty pizza boxes and soda cans. A garbage can was overflowing with crumpled papers.

Dan sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose. “Gah! You actually live like this?”

“I’ve been too busy to clean up,” Andrew said quietly, “or do my laundry.”

“Our daily meetings won’t be here.”

Andrew groaned. “Daily?”

He noticed a gun in a holster under Dan’s jacket.

“It’s not all bad,” Dan said. “If you need anything, just let me know.”

“What can I ask for?”

“Transportation, legal services, medical treatment, protection.” Dan shrugged. “Whatever seems reasonable. The BPI takes care of its people.”

“A maid?” Andrew said hopefully.

“I don’t think so.”

Andrew sighed. “Why would I need protection?”

“Sorcerers are a nasty bunch, and they hold grudges. A leading cause of death is other sorcerers. Watch your back.”

“Oh.” He would have to ask Tonya about that. “How long have you been in the BPI?”

“Just a couple of years,” Dan said. “They sent me here because I’m young enough to blend in on a college campus. What’s your plan for today?”

“My first lesson in sorcery is at nine,” Andrew said. “I planned to sleep a little more, but I guess that won’t happen. I’ll take a shower and eat breakfast instead. I’m actually not sure about the rest of the day. I think Tonya wants to rearrange my class schedule.”

Dan tensed slightly when he heard Tonya’s name. He was trying to hide it, but Andrew could tell Dan was afraid of her. Seeing him uncomfortable gratified Andrew. At least somebody else wasn’t entirely happy with the situation.

“Then I’ll see you after your lesson,” Dan said. “We’ll figure out your schedule then. Here, take the rest.”

He gave the box of donuts to Andrew and walked out of the room. Andrew closed the door.

Seems like a nice enough guy, he thought. I hope I’m not getting fooled again.

  • * *

Andrew arrived in the basement of the Fine Arts Building. He was a few minutes early for his lesson, but Charley was already there, waiting in front of the seam chamber. Snug jeans looked great on her, and the heels of her soft black boots lengthened her already long legs. She had chosen an orange sweater today, perhaps because Halloween was only a few weeks away.

He looked at the heavy steel door protecting the seam chamber. The door had reinforcing straps and appeared strong enough to withstand a battering ram.

He could feel the seam pulsing violently on the other side. He wanted to soak up all that crazy energy and make magic with it. His heart beat quicker in anticipation of his first lesson. He was so excited, he wanted to dance.

Andrew looked at the keypad. “Do you know the code?”

“No.” Charley shook her head.

“Why not? How long have you been her student?”

“Since the summer before last. We’re not allowed inside without Tonya. It’s a safety issue, and sorcerers are very protective of their seams.”

“I’m getting that impression,” he said. “How many seams are there?”

“I’m not sure. Not many, and this is one of the biggest.”

“And we can’t do any sorcery without being near a seam?”

“Only very minor stuff,” Charley said. “Tonya can actually create tiny illusions, and that’s extremely impressive. She’s very powerful. Working without a seam is called ‘cold sorcery,’ but it’s almost never done.”

“Like the magic tricks last night?” Andrew said.

“No, that was just ordinary sleight-of-hand. Knowing fake magic is a good way of hiding the real stuff. You tell people it was just a trick. A number of professional magicians are sorcerers in disguise, and there are probably a few the BPI doesn’t even know about.”

He was glad to hear the BPI wasn’t all-powerful. He already knew they were going to be a pain in the ass.

“How do seams form?”

“It usually takes a disaster,” Charley said. “A lot of people have to die, and it helps if a sorcerer is one of the victims. Most seams are anchored to a physical location like this one. The mass of the Earth stabilizes their position, but once in a while, you get a portable seam.”

He raised his eyebrows. “What are those?”

“That’s when a seam attaches to an object that can be moved around. They are very rare and very valuable because they allow a sorcerer to use his power anywhere. Usually, it’s a crown or a jewel, something people fight over.”

“Have you ever seen one?”

“No.” She shook her head. “The BPI keeps them all under lock and key. The government doesn’t trust sorcerers who are that mobile.”

“A shame.” Andrew frowned. “Do seams last forever?”

“No. The universe heals, but the bigger they are, the longer they last.” Charley leaned forward and whispered, “The ultimate seam is called a living seam…”

Tonya approached at a quick pace. Her black tunic and loose pants struck Andrew as traditional yet modern.

“Hi, guys.” She flashed a smile.

Charley closed her mouth and blushed.

Tonya punched in a long sequence on the keypad, and she blocked it with her body so Andrew couldn’t see. She yanked open the door with both hands.

As before, two BPI agents were waiting inside. They had circles under their eyes, and Andrew wondered how long they had been stuck there. They left without a word.

Andrew eagerly jogged into the seam chamber and turned on the light. Something new grabbed his attention. It was a huge, mechanical contraption made of wood, rope, pulleys, gears, straps, electric motors, and batteries. It was so big, he wondered how it had fit through the door.

“What’s that?” he said.

“It’s for your lesson today,” Tonya said.

Charley made a small groan. “You’re putting him in that thing on his first day? You’re cruel!”

“Might as well start him off properly.”

Andrew gave the scary machine a long look. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t enjoy today’s lesson.

“But we’ll begin with a short lecture,” Tonya said. “Take a seat.”

The three of them sat on padded chairs around a wooden table. The furniture was plain but comfortable. Andrew expected he would spend a lot of time sitting on it.

“There are many types of sorcery,” she said. “The common forms are typically listed as investigative, illusory, communicative, manipulative, destructive, and constructive in order of difficulty. The first three are mental forms, and the last three are physical forms. Andrew, you’ll begin with investigative sorcery. Charley has just begun manipulative sorcery. That’s outstanding for an apprentice as young as her. Both of you are extremely talented.”

Charley grinned proudly.

“Are there uncommon forms?” Andrew said.

Tonya gave him a stern look. “Yes, and they’re called the ‘infernal’ forms. I won’t teach them, you won’t practice them, and we won’t discuss them.”

“But…”

“No ‘buts.’ This isn’t a playground. Many young sorcerers die attempting spells they can’t handle. If you want to get through your training with your mind and body intact, you’ll do exactly what I tell you.”

He cast his eyes down. Apparently, being a sorcerer meant being ordered around all the time.

“Let’s get you started on the machine,” Tonya said.

She stood up and walked over to the contraption. She pulled open the side, revealing a cylindrical compartment the size of a small closet. There were many holes in the interior wall, each about one inch across.

“In you go.”

Andrew looked at the machine suspiciously.

“Don’t make me tell you twice,” Tonya said.

He walked into the cylindrical compartment. She closed it up, trapping him inside with only the top open. He could probably climb out if necessary, but he knew she wouldn’t like that.

He heard a rattle as the machine came to life. He looked in all directions nervously. Sharp wooden sticks began to poke out of the many holes, forcing him to move out of the way. The sticks came out slowly, so he had plenty of time to react, but he had to pay attention. They were just fast enough to keep him on his toes.

“Sorcerers must learn to stay focused for hours on end,” Tonya said. “Getting distracted at the wrong moment can be lethal. Andrew, this machine will teach you this lesson.”

Andrew twisted to avoid another sharp stick. “How long do I have to stay in here?”

“Until the batteries run out.”

He groaned. “But what if I get stabbed?”

“The sticks don’t have enough force to do any real harm. They just hurt a little. This is training.”

The lesson lasted two hours according to Andrew’s watch, but it felt like two days. The damned machine never let him relax. He had to constantly turn and shuffle, and even though the movements were slow, he was physically exhausted by the end.

The contraption did its job. Every time he lost interest, a painful poke got his attention immediately. He learned to keep his mind completely on his surroundings, but it was surprisingly hard. He had always had a tendency to drift off into his own little world.

Charley was another major source of distraction. Tonya was coaching her through a difficult spell, and Andrew couldn’t see them, but he felt the strange energy in the room. It swam around the seam like a school of invisible fish. He tried to imagine what Charley was doing, but the sticks wouldn’t let him imagine for long.

Finally, Tonya released Andrew from the machine. He stumbled out, very glad to be free.

“Are you OK?” she said.

He checked himself for injuries. He had a few nicks and scratches, but there was nothing serious.

“I think so,” he said. “Can I sit down now?”

“Sure.”

Andrew sat at the table with Charley, landing with a thump. She was staring at a glass of water so intently, she didn’t even acknowledge he was there. It looked like ordinary water to him, but black energy was swirling around her head.

“You almost got it!” Tonya sat across from Charley. “Just push harder. Visualize your goal and make it real. Your will is strong enough, and you have the skill.”

Charley was shaking with effort. She was clenching her jaw so hard, the muscles stood out. Her breath came in short, uneven gasps.

Andrew watched with amazement as ice crystals formed in the water. The crystals grew until it was frozen solid.

Charley abruptly relaxed. She threw her head back, exhaled, and said, “Yes! I did it!”

She put up her hand, and he gave her a high-five.

He touched the ice in the glass, and it wasn’t an illusion. She had truly frozen the water.

“How?” he said in a tone of wonder.

“The basic theory is simple,” Tonya said. “Instead of letting the universe tell you what’s real, you tell it. Of course, the devil is in the details.”

He furrowed his brow as he tried to understand. “You mean, if I believe something hard enough, it will happen?”

“Under the right conditions. For example, I believe the water isn’t frozen. In fact, it’s very hot.”

The water exploded into steam. A cloud of hot vapor blinded Andrew for a moment.

“Wow!” he said.

“Don’t get any ideas and start experimenting,” Tonya warned. “Let me guide you. We take baby steps here. A little knowledge is a deadly thing in this case.”

“OK.”

“We’re done for now. I’m going to practice on my own. We’ll meet again after dinner.”

“We have to perform Death of a Salesman again tonight,” Charley said.

“We’ll keep the session short. Go.”

Charley stood up, but Andrew remained seated.

“One last thing,” he said. “A BPI agent named Dan came to my dorm room this morning.”

Charley made a sour face.

He continued, “He told me sorcerers kill each other, and I might need protection.”

“Unfortunately, he’s right.” Tonya sighed and sagged in her chair. “The power tends to go to our heads. We always want more, and that usually means fighting for control of the big seams. Plenty of blood has been spilled in this room.”

Andrew’s eyes widened. “Have you killed other sorcerers?”

“I’ve had my battles. You’ll be safest if you keep a low profile. Just stick to your training and don’t cause any trouble. Now get out of here.”

He and Charley left the room. He closed the steel door, and it hit with a loud clang.

Dan Easton was waiting for them in the hallway. With his tapered chest and slim hips, he had a manly physique, and Andrew was a little jealous.

“Hi, Dan,” Charley said in a subdued tone.

“Good lesson?” he said.

“You always ask that, and I always give you the same answer. It was fine. I’m making slow but steady progress. I guess you already met Andrew.”

He nodded.

Andrew felt something strange. He glanced over his shoulder at the door to the chamber, and his vision became distorted. He sensed incredible energies crashing like black tidal waves on a beach.

“What the hell is that?” he exclaimed.

Charley smiled. “Tonya having fun.”

“It’s like she’s tearing apart the world.”

“Or remaking it.” She looked at Dan. “Why are you here? Our regular meeting isn’t until later.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t see you at other times.”

She just stared.

“Andrew still needs to give me his class schedule,” he added. “Tonya wants to change it?”

“OK.” She sighed. “Let’s all go someplace quiet and figure that out. Tonya is busy right now.”

Another massive burst of sorcerous energy made Andrew turn his head. Tonya was going nuts in the chamber.

“Come on,” Charley said.

She walked off, and Andrew and Dan followed.

Chapter Four

Blake Blutstein was juggling five balls at once. He had been going for a half-hour without a single drop. He watched the balls fly with the absolute focus of a master sorcerer. A half-hour was good, but he was shooting for a full hour which would be his personal best.

The phone on his desk rang. He reluctantly caught the balls and picked up the phone.

“Yes?” he said in an irritated tone.

“Hi!” a female voice answered. “This is Sandy. I’m in the area, and I’d like to chat with you about a gig. The client is eager for you to perform, and I already have a contract for you to sign.”

Blake recognized the voice of his agent and promoter. Her phrasing indicated she wanted to pass on a secret message. She would never come to his house otherwise. The BPI monitored all his phone calls, so he had to use extreme methods to communicate covertly, and Sandy was his primary courier.

“Sure,” he said. “When can I expect you?”

“Is ten minutes too soon?”

“Not at all. I was just practicing my juggling. I’ll see you shortly.” He hung up the phone.

Blake looked around his office to make sure it was acceptable for female company. Half his office contained keepsakes from his years as a stage magician. He had performed off and on for most of his adult life. The profession failed to hold his interest at times, but he earned handsome paychecks, and at least it wasn’t a desk job. He would’ve preferred to make money using real sorcery, but the government severely frowned on that sort of thing.

The other half was a private library. Books were his escape from a world that could be frustrating and dreary, and he read voraciously. At times, books had been the only thing keeping him sane. His interests ranged from military history to science to detective novels.

A BPI agent sat in a chair in the far corner of the room. He was a big African-American man who had probably been chosen for his intimidating expression and bulging muscles. Blake hadn’t bothered to learn the agent’s name. It just wasn’t interesting information. A rotating team of agents watched Blake twenty-four hours a day.

He sat behind his desk to wait for Sandy, and he used the time to meditate.

The doorbell rang ten minutes later. He jumped up and hurried through his house to the front door. His foyer had an antique mirror on the wall with gold leaf covering the frame. A sweeping staircase went up to the second floor. A coat tree made from bleached animal bones stood in the corner.

The BPI agent followed him like a loyal dog.

Blake opened the door to find Sandy standing there. She was a perky little woman in her forties. She was wearing a red coat which went well with her red hair.

“Hey!” She smiled. “How’s it going?”

She shook his hand, and he felt a note being passed to him. He expertly palmed the scrap of paper. She walked into the house but kept her coat on.

“Do you want a drink?” Blake said.

“Just a soda.”

“I’ll be back in a minute.”

He walked swiftly through the house to the kitchen. The BPI agent lagged behind, and Blake took the opportunity to surreptitiously read the note.

In small letters, it stated, “Tonya has taken Andrew Kenworthy as her apprentice. She was already training Charlotte Lemay.”

Finally, Blake thought. The boy should’ve started years ago.

He had thoughts about how he might use Andrew. There were old tasks waiting to be completed and old scores waiting to be settled. The grandson could finish what his grandfather had begun. With Andrew as Blake’s apprentice and assistant, Blake might discover entirely new forms of sorcery and achieve the kind of power he had craved his whole life. He felt compelled to explore the opportunities at least.

As he poured a drink for Sandy, he considered the situation. It was very unusual for a sorcerer to take on two apprentices at once. Training worked best when it was one-on-one. Tonya would do so only if both had massive talent and deserved special attention.

Her skill was legendary. The Theosophical Seam was one of the best in the country, and she had kept her grip on it for decades despite plenty of eager challengers. Blake considered her an adversary, but he knew better than to confront her directly.

He brought the glass full of soda and ice back to Sandy.

She sipped and smiled. “That hits the spot.”

“Tell me about the gig in my office.”

Blake and Sandy went back to his office. She prattled on about a show in Denver, but he didn’t pay much attention. It was just an act for the benefit of the BPI agent.

Blake contemplated his next step. He decided to visit Andrew and assess the situation in person despite the risks. With Tonya around, Blake would have to step carefully, but there was no avoiding it. Only a face-to-face meeting would allow him to see if the boy was everything Blake expected.

Sandy produced a contract.

He scanned it quickly and frowned. “Oh, this won’t do.”

He put the contract on his desk and started making corrections. In the margin, he wrote, “Pay yourself $20K and give $20K to the source.”

Blake maintained a network of contacts that provided him with nuggets of crucial information. The constant presence of the BPI made being a master spy difficult, but he enjoyed the intellectual challenge. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

Sandy looked at the writing on the contract, and her face showed no reaction.

“Sorry you wasted a trip out here,” Blake said. “You’ll have to come back after renegotiating the contract.”

She shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. That’s just part of my job.”

“I’ll see you to the door.”

He walked her back to the front door and watched her go.

Frowning, he turned away. The black BPI agent just stood in the foyer and watched him. The invasion of Blake’s privacy was a constant annoyance. A man with his enormous talent and achievements deserved to be treated better.

“I’m going to fly to Chicago this afternoon,” he announced.

“Oh?” the federal agent said. “Why?”

“To see my old friend Tonya. Call your bosses and arrange a flight for me.”

The BPI insisted on making all of Blake’s travel arrangements as another means of controlling him, but at least he didn’t have to pay for tickets himself. It was a minor perk.

The agent pulled out his phone and made a call.

Blake probably had several hours before his flight, so he decided to tune up his sorcery skills a little. He wanted to be in peak form when he met Tonya. It was a matter of personal safety as well as pride.

He went to a door beneath the front staircase. It had a mechanical combination lock which took him a moment to unlock. A steel plate reinforced the door itself.

He opened the door and went down a flight of stairs into the basement. All the windows were blocked off, so the only light came from a bare incandescent bulb. The walls were plain concrete with a few cracks caused by the foundation settling.

Odd items used for training filled shelves along the walls. There were blocks of raw materials which he could manipulate physically and chemically. He had a collection of three-dimensional puzzles for practicing his visualization skills. A metronome helped him maintain a steady pace while performing long spells.

A seam occupied the center of the room like an invisible monster. It was the result of a large family being murdered here. A sadistic serial killer had tortured them to death, including the young children. Apparently, one of the victims had been a latent sorcerer.

It was an embarrassingly small seam, but the BPI didn’t trust Blake with a bigger one. He was supposed to be grateful they let him practice his art at all after being convicted of serious crimes. He had worked to expand the seam by using it frequently, but that process was frustratingly slow. It still wasn’t much bigger than when he had started.

The BPI agent hadn’t followed him downstairs. The BPI knew to keep their distance when sorcerers were training. Errant spells could do permanent harm to weak, untrained minds. Reality didn’t like being manipulated in unnatural ways, and sometimes it fought back.

Mind-control was an even more insidious possibility. A seam gave Blake the power to manipulate others, and for a normal human, the only defense was physical distance. If Blake were caught using that kind of infernal sorcery, he would go straight to prison, but the BPI wasn’t taking any chances regardless. The agents stayed away when he was working.

Blake didn’t have privacy though. Two surveillance cameras covered every corner of the room. He could fool human eyes easily, but technological eyes were a much greater challenge. Wires and circuits didn’t have organic minds.

A wooden table was in the middle of the room directly beneath the seam, and he walked over. There was a lead bar, a bottle of distilled water, various tuning forks, a cat skeleton, and a wooden block. Blake liked variety when he practiced.

The block looked solid, but hidden latches pressed in a certain sequence would make it open. The block contained his prize possession: a portable seam. Neither the BPI nor the other sorcerers knew about it. The seam was attached to a large emerald which had once been owned by a particularly cruel Russian empress. The famous gem was called the “Russian Eye.” Blake kept it where the regular seam would mask its presence. His father had secretly possessed the jewel, and after his death, it had passed into Blake’s hands.

He intended to bring the emerald to Chicago just in case he needed it. He had to be very careful though. If Tonya detected the portable seam, he would be in deep trouble. The BPI might even kill Blake on the spot. He would leave the emerald in his hotel room when he went to the university.

Blake sat at the table and settled his mind. He picked up a tuning fork.

“Ring,” he whispered.

The tuning fork began to vibrate, producing a clear, pure tone. He smiled.

  • * *

Andrew looked around the cafeteria, but he didn’t see Charley. She was supposed to meet him for dinner. He was disappointed, but perhaps, she was just a little late.

The cafeteria had brown tile on the floors and red tile on the walls. Servers stood behind stations where various ethnic cuisines were available. He could pick from American, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, or Polish. Unfortunately, all of it was bland and mushy, and no matter what choice he made, he would be unhappy. He went to the American station because the line was shortest.

Andrew asked for macaroni and cheese, Salisbury steak, and peas. The server plopped the food onto a plate and handed it over without even bothering to appear interested.

After getting a drink, Andrew looked around again. He finally spotted Charley in the corner. He must’ve missed her before in the crowded cafeteria. Then he realized he could’ve used his inner eye to locate her. Her sorcerous energy made her stand out like a bright light in a dark room. He went around the tables, chairs, and students to reach her. She smiled at him as he sat down.

He looked over at her tray and saw a bowl of Chinese stir fry with chicken. The meat had an odd grayish tone which wasn’t appetizing.

“I’m curious about my grandfather,” Andrew said. “What do you know?”

Charley glanced left and right. “Keep your voice down. We’re in public.”

He looked around. Other students were within earshot, but they weren’t paying attention to him. Still, it couldn’t hurt to be careful.

“Well?” he said softly.

“I only know what Tonya told me, which isn’t much.” She shrugged. “He was famous among sorcerers. He died during an experiment which went bad.”

“What kind of experiment?”

“I have no idea.”

Andrew frowned. He expected Tonya knew a lot more, but she hadn’t volunteered any information. He decided to press her on the matter.

“I just realized,” he said. “You never told me much about yourself. Now I’m curious.”

“My parents are doctors,” Charley said. “They met in medical school. They were always at the hospital, and my grandmother effectively raised me.”

“That’s too bad. I have a close relationship with my parents.”

“I don’t blame my parents for not spending a lot of time with me. They were saving lives after all.”

“True,” Andrew said. “How did you end up at Theosophical?”

“I saw the school when I was a little girl and fell in love with the place. I always knew I would go to college here. I thought it was the Gothic architecture, but it was actually the seam. Subconsciously, I felt its pull. When I was a senior in high school, I toured the campus, and Tonya picked me out immediately. She practically ran out of the Fine Arts Building to talk to me. She made sure I was accepted, and she took me under her wing on the day I arrived.”

“Why did she wait on me? I’ve been here for months.”

“I’m not sure.” Charley shrugged. “It wasn’t due to lack of talent. I felt your energy right away, and I’m just an apprentice, but for some reason, she took a ‘wait and see’ approach in your case.”

Andrew liked her and desperately wanted to impress her by saying something clever. He hoped a smart girl like her would be attracted to a man with brains.

He fished around in his memories until he came up with something. “Hey, do you want to hear a joke?”

“Sure.” Charley smiled.

“Do you know why it’s hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs? Because they always take things literally.”

She paused and then chuckled. “That’s funny.”

Andrew wracked his brains until he remembered another joke.

“The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.” He winked at her.

She snorted. “OK. That’s enough, comedian. Eat your dinner. We’re supposed to meet Tonya for another session.”

He ate his dinner. All of it had the same texture, and only small differences in flavor distinguished the meat from the pasta. The peas were like baby food. He wondered if there were actual cooks in the cafeteria kitchen or just big food processing machines.

Andrew and Charley finished, cleared the table, and left. He had lugged around a heavy backpack all day, and his muscles were tired. She had her books in a satchel slung over one shoulder.

“Do you want me to carry your books for you?”

She gave him a look. “Are you serious?”

“Of course,” he said.

They walked outside. The sun was setting on a day that had been cool and blustery. Orange light streamed through clouds and reflected from windows. The other students had zipped up their coats, and a few wore knit caps.

“Listen,” Charley said as she walked beside Andrew. “Maybe you should think twice before you hit on me. We’ll be working together for years. The last thing we need is extra tension and drama while we’re trying to learn sorcery.”

“You already have a boyfriend?” he said fearfully.

“No, and I’m not rejecting you, but I want you to slow down. We don’t know each other that well.”

He furrowed his brow. It sure sounded like rejection.

“Don’t make that sad face.” Charley gave Andrew a playful punch in the shoulder. “You can carry my books if you really want to.”

She gave him her satchel. The extra weight was uncomfortable, but he straightened up and pretended it didn’t bother him.

They walked along a narrow concrete path towards the Fine Arts Building. He looked around. He hadn’t seen Agent Dan since that morning, but Andrew expected he wasn’t far away.

“Have you had girlfriends before?” Charley said.

Andrew wanted to lie because the truth was embarrassing, but he was afraid she would see through his act.

“Not really,” he said after a long pause. “I was never cool enough. The girls in high school always went for the jocks.”

“Girls can be stupid. You’re very cool.”

He smiled, and he was glad he had been honest. “What about you?”

“Boys chased me because I’m pretty,” Charley said, “but it never lasted long. My intelligence intimidates guys. I couldn’t make myself act brainless just to have a date.”

“Boys can be stupid, too.”

She also smiled.

“Just let me know when I’m allowed to hit on you,” he said. “I’ll be a gentleman until then.”

“It’s a deal.”

They entered the Fine Arts Building. Andrew felt his power swell as they went down into the basement and approached the seam. His vision actually got sharper, and his brain found a higher gear. After spending the day in boring classes, he was more than ready for a lesson in sorcery.

Tonya was standing in the hallway in front of the seam chamber door. She was wearing a black shirt and gray, stretchy pants.

“Andrew,” she said, “close your eyes.”

He stopped walking and closed his eyes.

“Can you sense where I am?”

“Sure,” he said.

A vortex of black energy swirled around her, and now that he knew what to look for, it was easy to perceive. The same effect surrounded Charley but wasn’t as powerful.

“Good,” Tonya said. “Detecting other sorcerers at a distance is a survival skill. You have to see them coming. But don’t depend on the ability too much. You can be fooled.”

Suddenly, the energy around her was gone. It was like she had vanished entirely. Andrew opened his eyes in surprise and saw her still standing there.

“A master sorcerer can hide her power,” Tonya said. “It’s one reason why we’re so dangerous. Beware.”

Andrew nodded. “Got it.”

“You’re going to play hide and seek with Charley. Charley, go hide somewhere in the building, but don’t make it too hard. This is his first time.”

Charley smiled and ran off. He watched her disappear around a corner.

“You have to use your talent to find her,” Tonya said. “Feel where she is and go straight to her. Don’t just search the entire building. We don’t have that much time.”

Andrew liked this game. Chasing after Charley was a lot more fun than being trapped in a machine with sharp sticks.

He waited a minute and then started wandering through the building. His eyes were half-closed as he focused on his inner sight.

The seam was the dominant source of energy in the area, and it almost washed out everything else. It was like staring at the sun. As Andrew moved away from Tonya, even she became hard to pick out against the maelstrom.

He concentrated as hard as he could. He walked into a wall, shook himself, and kept going. Charley was around somewhere.

He picked out a subtle glimmer on the second floor. He hurried up two flights of stairs and looked around. The offices of instructors and administrators were up here, but they were all dark. Everybody had gone home for the night, which was good because he was acting like he was stoned.

The glimmer became easier to detect as Andrew approached it. He was soon able to make out Charley’s characteristic energy pattern. He was learning to recognize her with his eyes closed.

He opened the door of a janitor’s closet.

She stepped out with a smile. “That was pretty fast. I’ll have to hide better next time.”

He grinned with pride.

“Nicely done,” Tonya said.

Andrew jumped in surprise. He turned around and found the master sorcerer standing directly behind him.

“I told you to beware,” she said. “You could’ve heard me approach, but you were focusing entirely on your sorcery. What if I had been armed? Don’t ignore your normal senses just because they’re not as interesting.”

He nodded.

Tonya patted him on the shoulder. “No harm done, this time. Let’s do it again. Now, I want Andrew to hide.”

“We have a show in two hours,” Charley said.

“I won’t forget. Andrew, go.”

Andrew ran off to hide.

Chapter Five

Blake had seen Death of a Salesman performed on Broadway by professionals. He had come into the Fine Arts Building of Theosophical University expecting to see a much inferior rendition, but so far, he had been pleasantly surprised. The young cast was energetic and the set looked good. The acting suffered from a lack of finesse, but the technical flaws were easy to overlook when there was so much enthusiasm on the stage. The kids really wanted to put on a show.

Andrew Kenworthy was far and away the best actor. He commanded attention every time he appeared. His portrayal of the much older Willy Loman was outstanding. Blake could almost believe he was looking at a real salesman at the end of a long, miserable life. Andrew’s emotional range was shocking for such a young man.

Of course, his talents went much deeper than acting. Blake could sense sorcerous energy swirling around the boy. His raw, disruptive power promised a glorious future. It was possible Andrew might have even more natural ability than his famous grandfather.

Tonya’s other apprentice was standing just off stage. Blake couldn’t see Charlotte Lemay with his eyes, but he could sense her location very easily. The energy storm around her was almost as impressive as Andrew’s. Without even meeting her, Blake already knew she had the potential to become a master of the dark arts.

Tonya had managed to get control of two freakishly talented apprentices at once, while Blake couldn’t even find one worth his time. She had obviously pulled strings within the Bureau of Physical Investigation.

He couldn’t sense Tonya, and that worried him. She had to be in the area. He could certainly feel her seam. The beast was raging in the basement like a monster rattling a cage. That incredible power permeated the entire building, allowing him to use sorcery almost anywhere within its walls. The seam here made the one back in his house look ridiculously puny, and it was hard to keep his jealousy in check.

The curtain fell at the end of the first act, and the house lights came up. Members of the audience stood. Blake looked at the playbill to pass the time until the show resumed.

“Hello, Blake,” a familiar voice murmured. “Enjoying the show? I wish you had called before coming.”

Blake looked up at Tonya. For a woman in her mid-fifties, her skin was remarkably smooth and clear. Her blue eyes gleamed with piercing intelligence. Blonde hair was cut short in a style that was attractive yet dignified.

He smiled to hide his disappointment in getting caught. He had clamped down his energy to an undetectable level to avoid being noticed. Apparently, Tonya had done the same because he hadn’t sensed her coming. She was already making him look like a fool.

“The show is delightful,” Blake said.

“Let’s talk in the lobby.”

He got out of his seat. A BPI agent accompanied him as usual, and this time it was a Mexican man with broad shoulders. His blue suit was tight around his chest.

Blake followed Tonya to the lobby. She was probably furious, but she appeared perfectly composed. Control was the hallmark of every great sorcerer.

The lobby was a big, open space which extended upwards to the roof of the building. Chandeliers shaped like globes hung from the high ceiling and produced plenty of white light. The carpet had a red and black crisscross pattern. A couple of student ushers in tuxedos were standing around. Dozens of people were lined up in front of the concessions stand.

Tonya led Blake to a quiet corner where they could have a little privacy.

“Would you like to explain yourself?” she said calmly.

“I came to meet the boy wonder. I knew his grandfather after all, and I was curious.”

“Who told you he was here?”

Blake made a flighty gesture with his hands. “I sensed a disturbance.”

“From your house in St. Louis? Bullshit.” Tonya glared. “You have somebody spying on me. How very typical of you. Always looking for an edge over the competition.”

He couldn’t deny the obvious truth, so he changed the topic. “Speaking of spying, how did you catch me? I thought I was doing a good job of blending in.”

“The BPI told me you were here.” She glanced at the federal agent standing behind Blake. “Unlike you, I’m on good terms with our friends in Washington. We actually help each other. I need not tell you that approaching another sorcerer’s seam without an explicit invitation is an aggressive act. This could be considered a violation of your parole.”

Blake was angry at his own stupidity. His relationship with the BPI had been so adversarial for so long, he had forgotten it could be any other way.

He put up his hands. “I didn’t go into the basement. I meant no harm.”

“Then why did you sneak in here like a thief?”

“Old habits. I apologize profusely. Please, let me meet Andrew for just a few minutes. We have some shared history after all. I just want to exchange pleasantries, and then I’ll be on my way.”

Tonya narrowed her eyes. “Considering your checkered past, you’ll understand why I’m hesitant.”

Blake just maintained an innocent smile. He had hoped for a conversation with Andrew which didn’t include Tonya. Obviously, that plan had failed. She had the right to send him away in disgrace, and she could even ask the BPI to step in. He had clearly violated protocol.

Fighting over the issue wasn’t a good option. She had stopped hiding her power, and it was as impressive as he remembered. The black storm cloud surrounding her was so dense, he almost expected the ushers to see it with their untalented eyes. She also had the advantage of fighting on her home turf. She knew every nuance of the local seam which would make her attacks much more efficient.

“Fine,” she said finally. “I’ll let you speak to Andrew. The experience will teach him a valuable lesson in what happens to sorcerers who flaunt the rules. I’ll have to supervise, of course. Return to your seat and stay there. Stop hiding from me. Meet us backstage after the show. If you’re not on your best behavior…” She didn’t need to complete the sentence.

Blake was surprised she had agreed. “Thank you.”

He hurried back to his seat.

  • * *

The actress playing Linda faced the audience and said, “We’re free… We’re free… We’re free.”

Andrew watched from the wings as the show ended. The lights came down, and for a moment, there was silence in the audience. Then the applause started, and the stage became brightly lit again. All the actors except Andrew walked out for their final bows. The volume of applause went from polite to enthusiastic.

When he walked out, it became a roar, and the audience immediately rose up. He smiled and waved. Tonight’s performance had been rock solid from beginning to end. He hadn’t flubbed a single syllable, and he had stayed in character the entire time. It was almost a shame the run was in its final week when he had finally achieved perfection.

He had done so despite a significant distraction. Another sorcerer was in the audience, a powerful one, and the energy pattern was unfamiliar. Andrew had detected the intruder during the second act. Charley had exchanged anxious glances with him, so she had also felt it, but neither of them could deal with the issue in the middle of a show.

Andrew left the stage even before the applause died down. He had to talk to Tonya immediately.

She was backstage, already waiting for him. They couldn’t talk with the other actors around, so she stood politely as a number of people congratulated Andrew on a great performance. Even the usually surly and disinterested stage hands came up to him. Andrew became impatient with all the fawning. Charlie came over after her stage manager duties were complete, and she had an anxious expression.

Finally, the commotion died down, and they had a little space and privacy.

“Somebody is out there,” Charley whispered.

“Yes.” Tonya said. “His name is Blake. He wants to meet Andrew.”

“Why?” Andrew said.

“He knew your grandfather, and he claims he’s curious about you. I suspect ulterior motives.”

“You don’t trust him?”

She shook her head. “There is a thing called the Sorcerer’s Tribunal. It has six members: three sorcerers and three representatives from the BPI. I’m part of the Tribunal, and so is Frank Webster. We judge errant sorcerers and hand out punishments.”

“Oh.” Andrew furrowed his brow. “So, if I do something wrong, you’ll judge me?”

“Yes, and the verdict is final. No appeal. You signed away your right to a regular trial the other day.”

He contemplated the disconcerting revelation. “I guess you’re mentioning this because Blake went before the Tribunal.”

“We sent him to prison for five years, and he’s been on permanent probation since. The BPI has a team watching him at all times.”

Andrew frowned. “What did he do?”

“He used mind-reading to steal secrets from several other sorcerers. At least, that’s what we could prove.”

He turned as he sensed Blake approaching. The sorcerer was thin and tall. A brown business suit hung loosely on his scarecrow-like frame. He had gray hair and a short gray beard, and both were a little patchy, but he didn’t seem that old. His mustache still had some of its original dark color. His brown eyes stared at Andrew intently.

“Hi!” Blake said. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“You wanted to meet me before?” Andrew said.

“The BPI insisted I stay away until your training officially began.” Blake glanced at Tonya. “They didn’t trust me around you for some odd reason.”

A beefy federal agent with light brown skin stood a few paces behind Blake. He was trying to be polite, inconspicuous, and watchful at the same time, but the act wasn’t working. He looked too out of place in a college setting, and the students were clearly curious about him.

Tonya ushered the group deeper into the recesses of the theater, and they entered the shop where sets were built. Wooden shelves held piles of boards and panels. There were saws and drills, but none of the equipment was too sophisticated for a college student to handle. Leftover scraps filled big plastic garbage bins. Cans of paint formed stacks in the corners and against the walls. Pieces of sets from previous shows were shoved wherever there was space.

“Tonya mentioned you knew my grandfather,” Andrew said.

Blake smiled in a kindly manner. “My father was also a sorcerer, and we visited Gustav several times just to partake of his wisdom. He was a master in more ways than one. He had a grand vision that went far beyond the selfish concerns of most sorcerers. He embraced possibilities that others were too timid to consider. He wasn’t held back by antiquated traditions.”

“What do you mean?”

Blake glanced at Tonya. “I’ll let your instructor give you the specifics.”

Andrew looked back and forth between them. There was a secret here, and clearly, he wasn’t supposed to know it.

“Tell me,” Andrew said.

“This isn’t the right time,” Tonya said.

“Then when?”

“Some other time.” She gave him a stern look.

Blake turned to Charley. “You must be Charlotte.”

“Everybody calls me Charley.” She politely shook his hand.

“Your beauty runs deep. You make me wish I was thirty years younger.”

She blushed and appeared disgusted.

Andrew intervened by saying, “Can you tell me anything else? I never met my grandfather.”

“To be honest,” Blake said, “I never worked with him closely. My father was part of Gustav’s inner circle, and I just admired him from afar, but I can see you inherited all his talent. It’s a shame that…” He pressed his lips together.

“What?”

“Tonya is quite powerful, but handling two apprentices at once is too much for anybody. It’s not traditional or frankly, safe. I’m afraid your training might fall short as she is forced to divide her time between you.”

Tonya worked her jaw but kept quiet.

“What are you saying?” Andrew said.

Blake smiled. “I have an opening. You could leave her and work with me. I think we’d make a great team.”

Tonya’s eyes widened. “You’re unbelievable! You’re actually trying to poach my apprentice right in front of me!”

“I’m just looking out for his best interests.”

“How is that?”

“I can give him my full attention,” he said. “You know I’m more than qualified to teach.”

“Qualified to get him killed is more like it,” she said. “I’ve seen how you handle people.”

Blake frowned and turned to Andrew. “With my guidance, you’ll progress faster. You could become a full sorcerer in just a couple of years. Tonya is very knowledgeable, but she can be overly cautious. She lacks ambition. With Charley taking up half her time, I don’t see how you can achieve your full potential. I’ll take you all the way.”

Andrew had mixed feelings. There was some undeniable truth in what Blake was saying. Tonya was clearly a rule follower, and she did have two apprentices. Andrew expected his training would take the form of slow, careful steps. He would have to learn each lesson completely before moving on. He was already impatient with the process, and it had barely begun.

However, Blake was a convicted criminal among sorcerers. He was probably only telling half the story. Andrew would be putting his life in the hands of somebody he had no good reason to trust.

Tonya looked at Andrew with an expectant expression. He wondered why she wasn’t saying anything.

“You’ll let me go?” he said.

“You’re not my prisoner,” she replied. “If you feel working with this man is what’s best for you, I won’t force you to stay here. The only requirement is that a qualified sorcerer trains you. It doesn’t have to be me. Blake is many things, but incompetent isn’t one of them.”

Tonya’s attitude surprised Andrew. He had expected her to lay down the law like usual.

Then he realized he was being tested again. She wanted to know if his desire for power would make him take stupid risks. Training under her would be a methodical process, but he would come out the other side alive. Blake might push Andrew too far, too fast with deadly results, assuming Blake even wanted to teach Andrew. The sorcerer might have another agenda entirely.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Andrew told Blake. “I’m good where I am.”

Blake’s face became red. “You’re making a big mistake.”

“I don’t think so.”

Andrew noticed Charley was grinning, and he became more confident in his choice.

“You lose, Blake,” Tonya said. “You offered the boy a poison apple, and he was too smart to take a bite. Go away.”

Blake stood there, fuming.

“I told you to go. I won’t repeat myself again.”

Her eyes flashed with anger. The floor began to vibrate, and the pieces of wood on the shelves rattled. A screwdriver danced across a table. The walls of the room seemed to tilt and flex.

Charley dashed to a far corner. Andrew got the message and joined her there. The BPI agent was looking around with an expression of panic.

Blake snorted, turned, and started walking away.

“Wait!” Tonya said. “One last thing.”

He paused.

She went on, “If I catch you anywhere near my apprentices again, I will hunt you down and rip your mind out of your skull. I know your filthy tricks. If you mess with either of these kids, I’ll sniff it out.” She snarled. “Don’t think for a second you can sneak something by me.”

He made a growling noise and left. The BPI agent fled after him.

The vibration in the room stopped, and the walls straightened up. Charley exhaled loudly.

Andrew was left speechless. Nobody had ever protected him like that, not even his parents.

“Thanks,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t know you cared so much.”

Tonya turned towards him with a smile. “It was nothing. Take the rest of the night off. Your next session is tomorrow at nine.”

“Before we go, can you tell me about my grandfather? You obviously know something.”

She shook her head. “Some skeletons are better left in their graves. By the way, Blake’s father didn’t just work with your grandfather. They died together. Focus on your studies.” She walked out of the room.

Andrew looked at Charley, and she shrugged.

  • * *

Tonya hurried back to her office in the basement. Blake’s surprise appearance had left her deeply troubled.

The walls had an eerie, flickering quality. The colors shifted randomly, and occasionally, holes would appear, allowing her to see into the rooms on the other side. She knew there was no reason to be frightened. Too many years of sorcery had done odd things to her mind. The problem grew worse when she became upset, but it was controllable. She forced herself to calm down, and the walls stabilized to their normal tiled surfaces.

Tonya entered her office, closed the door, and sat at her desk. She had left the overhead lights off, and the grow-light in the corner provided the only illumination. She looked at her lovely little collection of plants. They were lucky. They were incapable of insanity.

Teeth started emerging from the leaves of the plants. She rolled her eyes. This is getting ridiculous.

She pulled open a desk drawer, and it was full of mechanical clocks. She took them out, wound them up, and placed them on the surface of her desk. The regular, predictable ticking sound helped the rational part of her mind reassert itself. The teeth slowly retreated back into the leaves.

She contemplated her own reactions. The threat against Andrew and Charley had summoned a long lost maternal instinct in her. She had acted as if they were her own children. In other circumstances, it would’ve been funny, but strong emotions wouldn’t help her deal with a snake like Blake. Calm, dispassionate analysis was called for instead. She had to crawl inside his twisted mind.

Tonya decided she needed to talk to somebody who had walked the same roads as her. She picked up the phone and dialed a number she hadn’t used in a while.

After a few rings, a man answered in an Irish accent. “Hello?”

“Hello, Keene. It’s Tonya.”

“Ah. It’s a pleasure to hear your voice, but when you call, it usually means trouble.”

“I’m afraid that’s the case this time,” Tonya said, “but let me back up a few steps. Did you hear that Andrew Kenworthy is my student now?”

“I hadn’t heard, but I knew that was the plan. Why did you wait so long?”

“His family background made me very cautious.”

“Understandable,” Keene said, “but I thought you already had an apprentice. Charlotte?”

“Yes. I have two now.”

He paused. “Is that wise? You could transfer her to another sorcerer.”

“I don’t think I can trust anybody else with such enormous talents,” she said.

“Well, if anybody can handle two at once, it would be you.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“But why did you call?”

“Blake just showed up for a surprise visit. He talked to Andrew. Blake actually tried to recruit the boy while I was standing there.”

Keene was silent for a long moment. “That’s very unsettling.”

“I sent him away with a very strong warning, and I’ll tell the BPI to be extra cautious with him.”

“Good. It’s been a long time since I saw Theosophical University. Do you mind if I drop by for a brief social visit? I’d also like to meet Andrew.”

“You’re always welcome,” Tonya said with a smile. “You can stay in my house.”

“Then I’ll be there tomorrow, and I’ll bring my apprentice. Is there room for both of us?”

“Plenty of room. Serkan is still with you?”

“He’s almost ready to move on,” Keene said. “I’ll schedule his sorcerer’s exam in another couple of months.”

“Please invite me to observe, and I’ll bring Andrew and Charley. That would be a very good experience for them.”

“Sure. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’m looking forward to it. Bye.” Tonya hung up the phone.

She settled back in her chair and nodded with satisfaction. A visit by a loyal friend like Keene for a day or two was just what she needed.

Tonya looked down at her plants and noticed they had teeth again.

“Damn it!” she said. “Stop doing that. It’s creepy.”

  • * *

Blake was tossing and turning in bed. It was 3 AM, and he hadn’t slept a wink.

The sleeping conditions weren’t helping him relax. The BPI had booked him into a cheap motel room, and the mattress felt like it was full of sand. A noisy heater rattled loudly in the corner, but the air was still too cool. A federal agent was snoring in the other bed. Blake desperately wanted to go over there and smother the man with a pillow.

Memories of the meeting with Tonya were the main reason he was so restless. She had humiliated him, and it hadn’t been the first time. As a member of the Sorcerer’s Tribunal, Tonya had sat in judgment over Blake years ago.

He couldn’t live this way anymore. Every year that passed brought him closer to death and further from his goals. He was bursting with talent, but BPI scrutiny prevented him from utilizing it fully. He was stuck with a puny seam, and he was supposed to be grateful for that much. He couldn’t stand the mediocrity. He had no choice but to make a change.

Change meant taking great risks though. Blake had no allies among the other sorcerers, and the BPI certainly wasn’t his friend. If he got caught doing anything, he would go straight back to prison. He might even be executed. Repeat offenders often suffered the ultimate penalty. He might have to spend the rest of his life running and hiding just to stay alive.

He looked over at his luggage. His emerald, the Russian Eye, was hidden inside, and he could feel disruptive energy radiating from it. The portable seam was small, but it would allow him to perform basic sorcery, and nobody else knew about it. It was his secret weapon and the only real advantage he had.

He resolved to go back to Theosophical University the next night. He wasn’t sure what he would do there, but he would do something. The emerald would allow him to secretly escape from the BPI for a few hours. Perhaps he would kidnap Andrew. Blake couldn’t let talent like that go to waste.

He closed his eyes and forced himself to relax. If he didn’t sleep, he would be a wreck tomorrow when he needed to be sharp instead.

His breathing slowed, and troubled sleep finally came.

  • * *

Andrew was bouncing on the balls of his feet with eagerness. He was about to have his third sorcery lesson, and he had no idea what to expect which made it even more exciting. He loved his new life.

He put his hand on the imposing steel door of the seam chamber. He wondered if Tonya had the power to blast it open using sorcery alone. She had never explained her own capabilities, but the scene with Blake had hinted she could do serious damage.

Charley approached, and Andrew felt her energy signature even before he saw her. He looked just as she was coming around the corner.

Her sweater of the day was red and fit snugly. He approved of the way it showed off her figure. Her jeans and boots were standard fare but still nice. A satchel slung over her shoulder made her walk at a slight angle.

“Do you have any idea what today’s lesson is?” Andrew said.

“Nope.” Charley shrugged. “She likes to make it a surprise.”

“I wonder if I’ll ever get bored with sorcery. Will it become just a regular job someday?”

“Probably not. There are always new levels to achieve, and each one is more dangerous.”

Tonya came strolling down the hall. She had a distant expression, and she didn’t say a word as she unlocked the door. She waved vaguely for the BPI agents inside to leave. They hurried away, obviously eager to get out of there.

Andrew picked up his backpack off the floor, and the three sorcerers went into the chamber. Being so close to the seam made him feel like some kind of superman. He walked through its invisible core just for an extra thrill.

Tonya sighed. “Blake’s visit yesterday reminded me you’ll face many dangers down the road. Today’s lesson will be cautionary. It’s one Charley should’ve had already, but I was nervous. Perhaps Blake was right about me being overly cautious. Take a seat.”

Everybody sat down. Andrew got closer than necessary to Charley, but she didn’t appear to notice.

“Unfortunately,” Tonya said, “I’ll have to dabble in the infernal arts to make my point. Never attempt to reproduce the spells I’m about to show you. The point is to learn what not to do. This is exactly the kind of thing that gets young sorcerers killed. Am I perfectly clear?”

Andrew and Charley nodded.

“Good. Close your eyes.”

Andrew closed his eyes. The darkness enhanced his sensitivity, and he could see the seam easily. It had the shape of a crack in glass. It vibrated and pulsed as energy surged in and out.

“Do you see the sprites?” Tonya said.

“Yes,” he said. “What are they?”

The sprites were like a cloud of tiny fireflies which constantly flew around the seam. Their movements seemed completely random.

“That question has a long answer,” Tonya said, “and it starts with cosmology. Our universe is like a bubble floating in a pool of liquid. The walls of the bubble are the walls of reality. They protect us.”

“From what?”

“The void outside. It’s a realm of pure chaos where the lines of time and space are infinitely blurred. Nothing lives there.”

“Oh.” Andrew furrowed his brow as he tried to imagine that place.

“Seams are cracks in the walls, and sprites sneak through the gaps.”

“But you said nothing lives in the void.”

“They aren’t alive,” Tonya said. “Think of them as free-floating bits of potential or the unformed clay of reality… or dangerous pests.”

“I don’t really understand.”

“The point is sprites can kill. They suck up our thoughts and memories like little vacuum cleaners. They feed on our imagination. They aren’t real until we make them so with the power of belief. Until now, I’ve been protecting you from them while you train.”

Andrew frowned. This explanation was getting more and more difficult to swallow.

“Observe,” Tonya said. “I’m going to intentionally feed a sprite. This is what you should never do.”

One of the points of light grew brighter. It swelled and stretched until it became the shape of a man. Andrew opened his eyes and discovered the sprite was visible now. He could see it normally. Details gradually formed in its face and body until it became a mirror image of Andrew.

“Cool,” he said. “The Willy Loman I saw on stage the other night was a sprite?”

“Exactly,” Tonya said. “Your imagination gave it form, but it’s anything but cool. As a sprite becomes stronger, its hunger grows. It can drain our minds until we’re nothing but an empty shell. The damage can be permanent, even deadly. Sprites are drawn to sorcery like iron filings to magnets. They are our bane.”

Andrew could now feel what she meant. His thoughts were becoming sluggish, and he was having a hard time concentrating.

“A good sorcerer never messes with sprites,” she added.

“But a bad one would?”

“They can be used to create quick and dirty illusions. With the right care and feeding, a sprite can become a kind of servant. We call those homunculi. They can be set loose as weapons of mass destruction. I’m only telling you this so you won’t be caught unaware. I’m sure neither of you would do anything like that.”

Andrew’s mirror image was starting to move around. It was mimicking his gestures and expressions as well as his form. Andrew grimaced as the drain on his mind became more uncomfortable.

“Today’s lesson is about protecting yourself from sprites,” Tonya said. “The first step is stopping it from feeding on you. Just make your mind completely blank. Don’t give the thing any thoughts to steal or emotions to harness.”

He tried to stop thinking, but the task turned out to be much harder than it sounded. He had a very active mind, and turning it off was something he never did.

“Do drugs help?” Andrew said.

“As a last resort, a strong sedative can be used, but a skilled sorcerer would never need a pill. I find reciting the multiplication tables is a good method for banishing other thoughts. A sprite can’t feed on abstract math.”

He started multiplying numbers in his head, and after a few minutes, he felt relief. He found a calm, quiet place inside his head where stray thoughts couldn’t intrude. The multiplication tables protected him like the walls of a fortress.

“It’s not working,” Charley said in a fearful voice. “The sprite is sucking out my brain!”

Andrew looked over at her. Wide eyes stared out from a pale face, and she was gasping for breath.

He grabbed her hand and squeezed hard. “Calm down. It does work. What is twelve times thirteen?”

“Uh… uh…” She looked at him with an expression of panic.

“Twelve times thirteen!”

“One hundred and fifty six.”

“The powers of two,” he said, “quickly. Don’t think about anything else.”

“Two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two…”

They went back and forth, quizzing each other on basic math. Charley eventually settled down, and she gave him a thankful smile.

Andrew glanced at the sprite. Losing its energy source was making it agitated. It began to drift around the room, perhaps searching for a fresh supply.

“Excellent work,” Tonya said. “Now comes the fun part: dispelling sprites. It’s not enough to stop them from hurting you. You have to make sure they can’t hurt anybody else. Turn the tables on the sprite. Attack it with your curiosity. Pick apart its thoughts like you’re dissecting an animal. Have no fear. You’re far more powerful than that abomination. Andrew, you go first.”

Andrew had a basic idea of what she wanted, and he turned his full attention on the sprite. He examined it like it was under a microscope. The thing squirmed as if in pain which encouraged him to press harder. The sprite was wearing thoughts and memories like a set of clothes, and they began to unravel.

Andrew pulled thoughts back into his own mind, and they weren’t all his. Some had come from Charley. He glimpsed her private feelings about him, and it became clear she liked him more than she was letting on. He had a real shot at a relationship with her, but she was also nervous due to bad experiences in the past. Her beauty had drawn the wrong kind of guys into her life. If he wanted her love, he would have to court her properly.

Interestingly, Andrew didn’t get anything from Tonya. The master sorcerer had somehow managed to keep her thoughts secret. Veteran move, he thought. I have a lot to learn.

“That’s enough, Andrew,” she said. “Very well done, especially for somebody with so little training.”

“That was easy!” Andrew said.

“Let’s not get cocky. Charley, drop the hammer on that sucker.”

The sprite was shrinking and becoming indistinct. Andrew looked at Charley who had a furious expression on her face.

She challenged the sprite with her glare. “You’re mine, you little bastard.”

“Don’t let emotion take control,” Tonya warned. “This is a purely intellectual game. A sorcerer must always have razor sharp focus.”

Charley nodded.

Andrew watched the sprite wither away. She was in command now, and the thing didn’t have a chance. She quickly reduced the sprite back to an invisible mote buzzing around the seam.

“Nicely done,” Tonya said.

Charley turned to Andrew with a red face. “I didn’t know you were so horny.”

Obviously, she had received some of his stolen thoughts.

He felt himself blushing. “I’m a guy, after all.”

“I should slap you for staring at my ass all the time, but I guess it wouldn’t be fair.” She sounded like she was still considering her options.

He backed away in case she changed her mind.

Tonya chuckled. “That’s enough.”

Andrew turned to her. “Hey, wait a sec. If I can steal her thoughts, and she can steal mine, can sorcery be used for telepathy?”

“Yes, but it’s risky. One sorcerer can accidently dominate the other. It can become a kind of mind-rape or even mind-control. I don’t think either of you wants to share your darkest secrets with each other or me. We’ll study that form when you have strong internal defenses.”

He and Charley nodded.

“One final lecture before we end the lesson,” Tonya said. “Sprites can take different forms as they grow stronger: apparitions, specters, ghosts, and banshees. They’re all dangerous. It is our solemn duty to banish them before innocent people get hurt.”

“How strong can a sprite get?” Andrew said.

“That depends on how much energy is available. In the old days, when sorcery wasn’t taught as systematically, entire villages got wiped out. A banshee feeds until there is nothing left.”

“And then what happens?”

“Eventually,” she said, “it starves and returns to the void. That’s all I have planned for today. You’re dismissed.”

Andrew grabbed his heavy backpack off the floor, slung it over his shoulders, and walked out of the chamber. He waited for Charley to catch up to him, and the two students continued together.

“Wow,” he said, “that was a crazy lesson.”

She nodded. “Yeah. The meeting with Blake must’ve shaken her up to make her show us that stuff. We just got a solid look at infernal sorcery.”

Andrew had a hard time imagining Tonya being rattled by anything. She seemed to be in total control at all times. Her face never revealed anything but calm certainty.

He sighed. “And now I have boring chemistry. What a letdown.”

“Hey, chemistry is important.”

“Not for sorcery.”

“Are you kidding?” Charley grabbed his arm, forcing him to stop. “Sorcery isn’t mystical nonsense. Science is a big part of what we do. How do you expect to perform transmutations if you don’t even know what things are made out of? Let’s say you wanted to turn coal into diamond. What atoms are in coal?”

“Uh, carbon.”

“And diamond?”

Andrew grimaced. “Silicon?” he said tentatively.

She rolled her eyes. “Wrong, and I made it easy for you.” She walked off.

His face grew hot with embarrassment. He shuffled his feet for a moment as he debated whether to go after her. He finally decided he couldn’t let her leave him on such a sour note. He sprinted to catch up.

Andrew caught Charley just as she was stepping outside. It was a bright, sunny morning, but a chilly breeze blew away any warmth. Dry leaves rattled as they flew across the grass. A few students had broken out their winter parkas, but Andrew was still being a tough guy with just a regular jacket.

“Hey,” he said, “that wasn’t nice. Why don’t you tutor me in chemistry?”

She frowned at him. “Give me a little space, OK? Peeking inside your testosterone-soaked brain wasn’t the nicest experience.”

“Sorry.” He lowered his eyes.

“It’s OK.” She sighed deeply. “I suppose you’re a normal male. I appreciate you helping me down there. I was really losing it, and I shouldn’t have. I’m stronger than that.”

He smiled. “Any time.”

“Let’s meet for dinner. Six o’clock.”

“It’s a date. Well, not really a date. More like a friendly meeting…”

Charley laughed. “Bye. Don’t be late for chemistry.” She walked off.

Andrew whistled a tune from Death of a Salesman and went in a different direction.

Chapter Six

Blake looked up the side of the Willis Tower. He loved the black color of the smooth exterior. It was just glass and steel all the way up more than one hundred stories. There were no annoying embellishments or flashy gadgets. The building’s incredible size made a sufficient statement on its own.

“Are we going in?” a BPI agent said.

Blake turned. The agent had a squat, muscular body suitable for a weightlifter. His jacket was stretched around his bulging shoulders. He had a pink face, but that seemed to be its normal color.

“Do you want to go in?” Blake said.

“It’s up to you.” The agent shrugged. “We’re just along for the ride.”

Blake was playing tourist in Chicago as a way of passing the time. He had never toured Chicago, and the experience was more enjoyable than he had expected. The city was much more interesting than St. Louis.

He glanced back. Two more federal agents were trailing behind at a distance, and they were both watching him. The surveillance had become even more oppressive since Blake’s encounter with Tonya. Obviously, she had told the BPI to watch him even more carefully.

In an odd way, the extra scrutiny would work to his advantage. He intended to make his move after nightfall. The BPI would report they had stayed with him all night and he had never left his hotel room. He had an ironclad alibi.

“No,” Blake said. “I don’t like noisy crowds. I’ll just stay out here where the weather is perfectly pleasant.”

He continued walking down the sidewalk.

Architectural masterpieces towered above him and blocked out the sun. The people on the street looked like toy dolls in comparison. The huge structures celebrated the technical prowess of mankind.

Sorcery had the potential to create even greater works, but for some reason, the other sorcerers didn’t believe that. They were timid, fearful creatures in need of bold leadership. Their own power frightened them. He would show them the possibilities.

He would make them understand.

  • * *

Andrew was trying to keep his eyes open. The class was English 101, and today’s lecture was on using evidence in academic writing. He couldn’t imagine a more boring topic. As the instructor droned on about the differences between facts and opinions, Andrew’s attention drifted.

He gazed at the white tiles on the ceiling. The fluorescent lights were a little too bright, and there was no reason for it. It was a waste of electricity. He looked at the trees outside the window and watched the fluttering brown leaves. Winter was on its way.

He thought about how exciting sorcery was by comparison. The element of danger added spice to the adventure, and he wouldn’t want it any other way. Something so important wasn’t supposed to be easy or safe. Even the training was interesting.

A strange feeling made Andrew sit up abruptly. A new sorcerer was in the vicinity. Actually, there were two and both were strangers. The energy a sorcerer emitted was as distinctive as a fingerprint, and Andrew was already learning to detect the differences from a distance.

He was suddenly nervous. He slipped out of class as quietly as possible, but the instructor still gave Andrew a look.

He took out his phone and called Tonya using a private number she had given him.

“Yes?” she said.

“It’s Andrew. There are two intruders…”

“I know. They’re in my office, and I want you to meet them.”

Andrew furrowed his brow. “Is this going to be another ugly situation like Blake?”

“Not at all. They’re good friends. Come.”

He relaxed and put away his phone. He walked swiftly out of the building.

As Andrew approached the Fine Arts Building, he detected Tonya and Charley in the same location as the two strangers. It’s a party, Andrew thought.

He entered the building and jogged down a narrow, steep flight of stairs. The basement had struck him as dreary at the beginning, but now he liked it. The cracked tiles and the dusty lights befitted a temple full of ancient mysteries. Dangerous secrets were supposed to be kept underground.

Andrew went into Tonya’s office and found two men, one old and one young. Andrew guessed the older visitor was in his sixties. He had thinning gray hair with just a hint of color in spots. His face was full of creases and wrinkles, but he still looked healthy. Light gleamed from a prominent nose. He was wearing a purple windbreaker zipped up to his neck.

The young man was in his early twenties. His head was shaved almost bald, but the hair that remained was black. He had thick eyebrows, brown eyes, and a round face. His ears stuck out oddly and were his most interesting feature. He was wearing a black sweater with a big white scarf around his neck.

Charley was already in the office, and Andrew gave her a friendly smile.

Tonya was seated behind her desk. “Andrew,” she said, “this is my dear friend Keene, a master sorcerer. He lives in Atlanta. His companion is his apprentice, Serkan.”

Andrew had already guessed Keene was a master sorcerer. A tornado of black energy swirled around him, invisible to normal eyes but glaringly obvious to Andrew.

Keene walked over and shook Andrew’s hand. “Very glad to meet you.”

“Same here,” Andrew said. “Did you know my grandfather, too? It seems like everybody did.”

“As a matter of fact, yes. We met a few times.”

“Will you tell me about him?”

Keene glanced at Tonya, and she shook her head.

“Sorry,” he said.

Andrew sighed in frustration.

“I will say he would’ve been proud of you.” Keene stepped back and looked Andrew up and down. “You’re a fine young man, bursting with talent, and you’re in the hands of an extraordinary instructor.” Keene winked at Tonya.

She blushed slightly.

“I’d like to see you cast a spell,” he added.

“Huh?” Tonya raised her eyebrows. “But he just started his training. His skills are rudimentary.”

“That’s fine. I’m still very interested.”

She thought for a moment. “OK, but having so many sorcerers around the seam at once is dangerous. If things start to get messy, you’ll help me regain control.”

“Of course, and so will Serkan. He’s very competent.”

Serkan nodded. “You can count on me.”

Tonya led the group out of her office, down the hallway, and to the door of the seam chamber. Andrew was a little nervous about being put on display. He had no idea what Keene would expect of him. Andrew certainly didn’t want to look incompetent in front of everybody, particularly Charley.

Tonya opened the door. The two BPI agents waiting inside were startled when they saw such a large group. The agents gave each other nervous glances and hurried off.

Keene walked into the chamber. “It’s as magnificent as ever.” He stared at the invisible seam in the center of the room.

“Is your seam as big?” Andrew said.

“Yes and no. Each is different. They have their own foibles depending on how they formed. This one is angrier than most.”

Everybody entered the chamber, and Charley pulled the door closed. Andrew looked around the now familiar room. It wasn’t like a sorcerer’s lair as portrayed in movies. If anything, the place looked more like a children’s playroom. There were blocks of raw materials such as wood, metal, glass, and clay. One shelf held different kinds of mechanical clocks, but a few were obviously broken.

Andrew and Keene stayed in the center of the room. Tonya, Serkan, and Charley spread out and stood near the walls like sentries.

Keene smiled. “We’re going to do a very simple spell together, but it will be a real spell, so there’s some danger. Follow my instructions carefully.”

“OK.” Andrew nodded.

“Illusion is the easiest form of sorcery. It’s just a harmless combination of light and suggestion, and it’s also the most fun. Behold, fire!”

Keene raised his arms, and the walls appeared to burst into flame. Suddenly, Andrew was standing in the middle of an inferno. He flinched away instinctively even though he felt no heat.

Keene snapped his fingers, and the fire vanished.

“You’re going to create an illusion,” he said. “All I want is a glimmer of light, like so.”

A burst of white light flashed in the center of the room like a camera bulb.

Tonya furrowed her brow. “Keene,” she said, “I’m not sure about this. He is totally unprepared, and he could easily get lost.”

“Then we’ll guide him back. Either way, it will be educational. May I continue?”

She made a sour face. After a moment, she said, “Carry on.”

Keene looked back at Andrew. “Such a simple spell requires only a simple technique. Just believe there is light. Convince yourself totally, and it will happen.”

“That’s all?” Andrew said. “I just have to believe? You make it sound easy.”

“It only works because you’re a talented sorcerer and the world is very malleable here. Seams blur the lines between reality, thought, and imagination. Go ahead and try.”

Andrew focused on a point in space in front of his nose. He tried to believe he saw light, but there was no light, and that fact proved to be an obstacle. It was hard to believe something that obviously wasn’t true. He could want light and imagine light easily enough, but believing in it was tricky. He had to fool himself.

“Belief is the essence of sorcery,” Keene said. “We believe things, and we force our beliefs on others. This is different from ordinary people who usually have beliefs thrust upon them.”

Andrew tried harder, but he wasn’t getting anywhere. The light refused to appear. He clenched his jaw in frustration.

“Be specific,” Tonya said. “Choose a particular color, brightness, and shape. Know exactly where you want the light to appear. The more details you fill in, the easier it will be to convince yourself.”

He remembered the lights on the Christmas trees he had seen as a child. There was a particular blue color which had appealed to him. He pictured the exact shape in his mind. It’s… right… there.

Blue light began to glow in front of his nose.

Andrew grinned. He was getting a feel for how to make this spell work. The space around the seam was like stiff clay, and if he pressed hard enough, he could make an impression.

Emboldened by his success, he tried for something more elaborate. He created a sword made of solid diamond. He grabbed it out of the air, and the light weight delighted him. He clothed himself in titanium armor next. He marched around the room, and the metal plates banged together.

A knight needs a steed, Andrew thought.

Suddenly, he was riding a black stallion.

No, bigger!

He was sitting astride a red dragon with flames shooting out of its nostrils. The land below was a charred wasteland. A great battle between dragon riders had been fought here, and he alone had survived. He was Sir Marcus, greatest of all warriors!

He looked back at the woman riding behind him. Her brown hair was like brushed silk, and her eyes were pools of melted chocolate. She was wearing a white gown which fluttered in the wind. They were flying at a great height, and she was clinging to him in fear. He patted her bare thigh to comfort her.

A white dragon came up beside Sir Marcus. He drew his sword as he prepared to defend himself and his lover from the unexpected threat. Strangely, an old woman with blonde hair was riding the white dragon. She was wearing a black button-up shirt and blue slacks.

“Enjoying yourself?” the old woman said calmly.

“I am Sir Marcus! State your business, wench, or I shall run you through with my Sword of Reckoning!”

She shook her head sadly. “This is exactly what I was afraid of. You had a tiny taste of power, and you immediately lost your grip on reality. Now you’re trapped in a delusion.”

“You speak, but your words make no sense, foul maid!”

“You’re Andrew Kenworthy.”

“No!” he yelled. “I’m Sir Marcus, Lord of the Realm.”

“You’re a young man standing in the basement of the Fine Arts Building of Theosophical University. I might add you have a rather silly expression on your face. It’s embarrassing.”

“Untrue!”

She sighed. “This is one of the dangers we face as sorcerers. Our potent imaginations can sweep us away. There are tricks for escaping a delusion, but that’s a lesson for another time. Let’s just get you home. You are Andrew Kenworthy!”

The statement crashed into his mind and shattered his delusion. Suddenly, he was back in the seam chamber. The concrete walls were a great disappointment after riding on a dragon in the sky. He realized what had happened, and his face grew warm. The sword and sorcery fantasy had been very childish. If he were going to get lost in a delusion, he would’ve preferred one with some literary merit.

“Sorry, guys,” Andrew said sheepishly.

“Not your fault,” Keene said. “I talked you into it, but no harm was done, and you’ll remember this lesson next time.”

Andrew nodded.

“I think you and Charley have classes to return to,” Tonya said. “We’ll meet at my house at 6 o’clock. Keene and I will have dinner there, but we’re just going to talk about boring sorcerer politics. You apprentices can eat at a restaurant and spend the night out. Show Serkan what passes for fun around here.”

Andrew smiled. He had eaten every meal in the cafeteria for months. Real restaurant food would be a treat.

He and Charley left the chamber together. He was still feeling a little embarrassed, and he kept his eyes down. They soon emerged into afternoon sunlight.

“It’s OK,” she said. “The same thing happened to me the first time.”

Andrew glanced at her. “What was your fantasy?”

“I’m not telling you that!” She gave him a dirty look.

“You were in mine.”

“I’d rather not hear the sordid details, thank you.”

“It wasn’t dirty,” he said, “but you were kind of half-dressed…”

Charley rolled her eyes. “That’s enough, really. Let’s just get to class and stop saying things we’ll regret. OK?”

“Sure.”

  • * *

Blake checked the clock on the nightstand and saw it was 5 PM. It was just about time to get going. He wanted to reach Theosophical University by nightfall, and he had to drive across Chicago to get there.

He looked over at the BPI agent lying on the other bed. The man was engrossed in a game on his phone. He was madly tapping and swiping on the tiny screen while he chewed his lower lip.

It begins, Blake thought.

His suitcase was lying on the floor. He got out of bed, opened the suitcase, and fished out a large bottle of cologne. Gold paint and French writing made the cologne look expensive, and it was, but it also had a surprise. He popped a concealed latch on the bottom.

An emerald dropped into his hand, and he took a moment to admire it. The nearly flawless natural gem had a square cut and was the size of his palm. As a mere gemstone, it was probably worth a million dollars, but that was only the beginning of the story.

A Russian empress had worn it on her crown in the eighteenth century. She had been a very jealous woman, and she had kidnapped the prettiest young women in the land to eliminate the competition. She had tortured and disfigured her captives before burying them alive under her castle. One of her victims had been a latent sorcerer, and as a result of that cruel death, a tiny seam was embedded in the emerald’s crystal structure.

It was a priceless artifact. The BPI kept all known portable seams locked up in a top secret vault. Possessing one without proper authorization was a felony punishable by life in prison if not death.

Blake carried the emerald over to the BPI agent and showed it to him.

The agent’s eyes widened. “Whoa! Where the hell did you get that?”

“Take a close look.” Blake handed the gem to him.

The agent’s eyes stared deep into the faceted depths.

Mind-control was one of the infernal arts, but it was a simple extension of other forms of sorcery. Blake simply had to force a belief deep into the mind of the BPI agent, an easy target in this case. Blake gathered his energies, banished extraneous thoughts, and began the spell. He used the tiny seam as a conduit for his power.

“You’re tired,” Blake said in a slow, deep voice. “Stay here and rest. I’ll be with you all night. Remember that. Forget you saw me leave, and forget this gem.”

The agent tried to fight the command, but Blake’s highly-trained will was a hundred times stronger. He beat down all resistance with laughable ease. The agent eventually settled back and closed his eyes.

Blake took his emerald, grabbed a set of car keys from a desk, and left the hotel room. Two more agents were in the room next door. He had to deal with them, too, but he didn’t expect any difficulties. Lacking any talent, they had no means to protect themselves. Their impressive guns and muscles would do no good at all.

Blake was far more worried about Tonya. If he ran up against her, the outcome might be very different. One step at a time, he thought.

  • * *

Hurry up! Andrew thought.

He was staring at a clothes drier in the basement of his dormitory. He had run a load of laundry so he would have something clean to wear tonight, but the drier was taking longer than expected. He checked his watch and realized he was almost out of time. He couldn’t go out wearing his current clothes. He had to look nice for Charley even though it wasn’t really a date.

Andrew wished he could dry his clothes with sorcery, but the seam was too far away, and he didn’t know the spell anyway. It was so frustrating. When would he get some real power?

“To hell with it,” he thought.

He opened the dryer and grabbed his clothes. They were still damp, but he would deal with it. He ran upstairs to his room, taking the steps two at a time. He fumbled with his keys while his arms were full, and he opened his door.

He threw the bundle of clothes onto his bed, planning to fold them later. He picked out his nicest shirt and pants, and he quickly changed. The clothes were more wet than damp, but he ignored the discomfort as he brushed his hair. Finally, he was ready, more or less, but according to his watch, he was already late. He grabbed his coat, ran out of his room, and made his way outside.

The sun was setting. Orange light reflected off the many small windows of the buildings as he jogged across campus. He put on his coat when the chill started to seep through his wet clothes.

  • * *

Blake was parked well down the street from Tonya’s red brick house. He hadn’t needed her home address to find her because the power she exuded was more than enough guidance.

Tonya had company. Blake recognized Charlotte’s energy signature, but there were two other sorcerers he hadn’t expected. One was Keene, a member of the Sorcerer’s Tribunal. Blake hated Keene as much as Blake hated Tonya. Both of them had been responsible for Blake going to prison.

Blake didn’t recognize the fourth sorcerer. Judging from his relatively low power level, he was probably Keene’s apprentice.

Keene’s arrival made a dangerous situation even more so. Blake couldn’t handle either master sorcerer alone. If they attacked Blake as a team, his mind would be destroyed within three seconds.

He took his emerald out of his pocket and rubbed it while he considered his next step. He was as close as he dared to get to the house. He could hide his own energy, but the portable seam was another matter. Tonya or Keene could detect it from quite a distance, and if Blake left it behind, he would be powerless.

He sighed. He had no choice but to sit tight until an opportunity presented itself. In the meantime, he would work on his plan. He had some ideas, but they hadn’t come together yet. Much depended on the first move.

The energy of yet another sorcerer drew Blake’s attention to his right. Andrew Kenworthy was running across campus towards the house. The boy was huffing and puffing with a red face.

Having so many sorcerers in one place was extremely unusual. Normally, they tended to keep to themselves with perhaps one apprentice on hand. Having six within a mile of each other was practically a convention.

Be patient, he told himself. Your time will come.

  • * *

As Andrew approached Tonya’s house, he sensed the other sorcerers already inside. He would be the last to arrive. He was out of breath when he finally reached the front door. He hastily tucked in his shirt before knocking.

Tonya answered the door. She was wearing a black evening dress that went down to the floor. White sequins decorated her midsection, and they sparkled like stars. He had never seen her so dressed up, and she had even put on a little eye shadow.

“Wow,” Andrew said. “I didn’t know this was such a special occasion.”

“I don’t often have honored guests like Keene. I decided to look nice. You’re late. Come in.”

He entered the foyer. Charley and Serkan were already there, but Andrew’s attention immediately went to Dan Easton. The young BPI agent was wearing a nice blue shirt and black slacks.

“What are you doing here?” Andrew said.

“I’m your chaperone,” Dan said.

“We don’t need a chaperone.”

“The BPI isn’t going to let a group of apprentices go out for the night without any kind of supervision. Who knows what could happen?”

Andrew sighed with annoyance. His night out with Charley was getting crowded.

He ignored Dan and looked at her. She had stuck with her usual jeans, but she had traded her sweater for a ruffled brown shirt. A necklace with a tiny ruby provided a little color. She was wearing high heels instead of her normal boots, and her awkward stance suggested she wasn’t comfortable in them.

“Let’s go,” she said. “I’m starving.”

“Where are we going?” Andrew said.

Tapas Hermosas. It’s not far. I’ll drive.”

He had never heard of the restaurant, but if Charley liked it, he would certainly give it a try.

“Wait,” he said, “you have a car? You never told me that. My parents can’t afford to buy me one.”

“I bought it myself. With what the BPI pays you, you should be able to get one, too.”

Andrew raised his eyebrows. He wasn’t used to having enough money to buy things like cars.

He turned back to Dan. “That reminds me. When do I get my first paycheck?”

“End of the month,” Dan said, “just like the rest of us. Shall we go?”

Andrew, Charley, Serkan, and Dan left the house. Charley led the group to a red Ford Fiesta parked on the street. It was exactly the kind of cute, little car girls loved and boys found embarrassing.

The four of them got inside, but it was a tight fit. Dan insisted on sitting up front which forced Andrew to get in the back with Serkan. He was wearing a gray jacket over a shirt with black and white stripes. A black scarf was wrapped around his neck. He was smiling pleasantly.

Andrew had an idea. He could pump Serkan for information about the darker, more forbidden aspects of sorcery. Andrew didn’t plan to practice any of the infernal forms, but it couldn’t hurt to know about them, and he was curious. Tonya refused to discuss the subject.

I’ll wait until after he has a drink or two in him, Andrew thought.

Charley started the car and drove off.

  • * *

Blake watched the three apprentices leave together. They were much easier targets than the masters, and now they were on their own. Blake had the advantage.

He smiled. This could work out nicely, he thought. A plan was forming in his mind, and one of those apprentices was exactly what he needed.

Blake started his own car and followed at a safe distance.

  • * *

Andrew looked around as he entered Tapas Hermosas. It was a cozy little restaurant which could seat at most a hundred people. The tables had real white table cloths and wine glasses. Brown and yellow tiles covered the floor. Traditional Spanish paintings decorated the walls, and they depicted bull fighters, festivals, and the Spanish royal family. A man with a guitar strummed softly in the corner.

Andrew had never eaten tapas, and he looked curiously at the food already on the tables. The dishes were small, more like appetizers than main courses, and they were colorful. Most diners had ordered a wide variety and were sharing with their friends and family at a relaxed pace. There was a lot of talking and drinking.

It looks OK, Andrew thought.

The hostess seated Andrew, Charley, Dan, and Serkan at a table. Andrew noticed Dan sat with his back to the wall and kept his eyes on the door. His right hand hovered near the gun hidden under his jacket.

Andrew looked at the menu, but a lot of it was in Spanish. Even the English translations contained some unfamiliar terms. He had grown up in an “American meat and potatoes” household with a mother who considered a pomegranate to be an exotic delicacy.

“Have you eaten here before?” he asked Charley.

She shook her head. “No, but I’ve always wanted to try this place. I heard it was great.”

“Do you mind if I order for everybody?” Serkan said. “I’ve eaten tapas before, and I know what you might like.”

Andrew and Charley agreed, but Dan shook his head.

“I’ll order for myself,” the BPI agent said. “I just want tacos or something simple like that.”

Andrew settled back in his wooden chair. He gave Charley a smile, and she smiled back. Her brown hair looked more lustrous than usual. Did she make herself pretty for me? he wondered.

Serkan ordered a lot of dishes, and waiters brought them out as they were cooked. Andrew tasted everything and tried to identify it. The meats were mostly seafood such as squid, mussels, and anchovies. He found a chunk of octopus which he pushed politely to the side. Some dishes contained sausages that were far too spicy for him. Garlic, vinegar, and peppers were used liberally, and melted cheese acted as a kind of glue. Sliced, fried potatoes were almost French fries, and he took a double helping.

Serkan ordered a couple of glasses of wine for himself. Andrew and Charley were too young, and Dan was on duty, so Serkan was the only one drinking alcohol.

When Serkan looked nice and relaxed, Andrew said, “So how long have you been an apprentice?”

“Five years,” Serkan said. “I’m almost done with the training.”

“What happens when you’re done?”

“I have to pass a test before I can officially call myself a ‘sorcerer.’ Then I’ll find my own seam and live there.”

“Every sorcerer gets his own seam?” Andrew said.

“Usually. All the big ones need watching.”

“Why?”

Serkan glanced at Agent Dan and lowered his voice. “Because sorcerers are drawn to seams like flies to a carcass, and the bigger, the better. Even people who just have latent talent feel the pull. They will start experimenting on their own if nobody is there to stop them. Imagine trying to learn sorcery without any supervision. You’d be eaten by a sprite or trapped in a delusion if you didn’t outright blow yourself up. Then there are the renegades.”

“The what?” Andrew said.

“Sorcerers on the run from the BPI. They’re always looking for an unguarded seam.”

“But it would be safer to stay away.”

“Sorcery is like nicotine,” Serkan said. “Once you feel the high, you’re addicted for life. You can’t stay away.”

Andrew furrowed his brow. That kind of life sounded miserable, and he was glad he was on the right side of the law.

He glanced at Charley and saw her nibbling on the remains of the tapas. She had sampled each dish carefully like a food critic, taking much more time than him to finish her meal.

Andrew leaned forward. “I have another question,” he murmured to Serkan. “What are the different kinds of infernal sorcery?”

Serkan raised his eyebrows. “Shouldn’t you ask Tonya that question?”

“I’m sure she’ll get to that lesson, but I’m curious now. Please, just give me a quick overview. I think it’s an important part of my education.”

Serkan sipped from his glass of wine. Charley appeared unhappy but kept quiet. Andrew guessed she wanted to hear the answer, too.

“I suppose it can’t hurt just to list them out,” Serkan said in a low voice. “Messing with sprites is called organic sorcery.”

“Tonya showed us a little of that,” Andrew said.

“Already? I didn’t get that lesson until after a year. Structural sorcery is the intentional creation of new seams. It usually involves mass murder. Lives must be sacrificed to generate the psychic energy.”

Andrew nodded. He could see how a psychopathic sorcerer might try such a thing.

“Mind-control is also strictly forbidden,” Serkan said. “A skilled sorcerer can impose his will on another. It can happen by accident if one sorcerer is much stronger. Masters have to be careful when teaching apprentices for this reason. Linking is a related form.”

“What’s that?”

“When one sorcerer controls another’s talent. It’s a quick way to gain extra power, but it’s not good for the victim. There are stories of evil sorcerers turning kids with talent into remote control slaves.”

Andrew looked over at Charley. She had an alarmed expression, and he shared her anxiety.

Serkan leaned back and patted his belly. “That was delicious, but it’s too early to go back. Tonya and Keene will want to talk until late. Where are we going next?”

Chapter Seven

Blake peeked through the window of the restaurant at the three young sorcerers. He wasn’t worried about being detected. He had left the emerald in his car which was parked blocks away, and his own energies were clamped down to nothing. The apprentices weren’t even facing the window.

A fourth person at the table was obviously a BPI agent, and he was the only real cause for concern. The agent’s eyes were scanning back and forth. Blake spent only a moment at the window before moving on.

The restaurant was in a nice little shopping area in one of the suburban villages west of Chicago. Blake saw clothing stores, a coffee shop, an Indian restaurant, a burger place, and a store that specialized in gourmet popcorn. People were strolling on the sidewalks despite the chill in the night air. They were a mix of different races and wore a variety of clothing styles. Chicago was a diverse city even out in the ‘burbs.

Blake considered attacking all three apprentices and the BPI agent as a group. He intended to take control of their minds and use them as tools to achieve his objectives. After some thought, Blake decided a mass attack was too risky. Andrew and Charley had freakish talents and might protect themselves instinctively. Andrew in particular had a special something about him that Blake had never seen before. Blake didn’t know the third sorcerer, but his energy signature indicated advanced training.

Blake was also worried Tonya might detect any tampering in her apprentices. The old crone was very canny, and Blake’s visit had made her alert for trouble.

A plan was forming in his mind. It relied on some secrets he had discovered over the years and had managed to keep from the BPI. Substantial research still needed to be done though. There were a thousand details to work out, but fortunately, there wasn’t a deadline. He could afford patience.

Blake kept walking, but he wasn’t done for the night. He would follow the apprentices until he saw his opportunity.

  • * *

Andrew walked into the bowling alley with confidence. The crashing noises from balls striking wooden pins made him smile. He didn’t know much about sophisticated Spanish cuisine, but he could certainly handle a bowling ball. He intended to put on a show for Charley.

Charley, Dan, and Serkan followed Andrew. They went to the counter and rented shoes and a lane. Dan had paid for dinner with a BPI credit card, calling it a “business meal.” He paid for the bowling too, and Andrew’s opinion about Dan softened a bit. At least he picked up the check.

The group walked over to their lane. The interior of the bowling alley featured large televisions on the walls showing college basketball games. Spinning colored lights were meant to look jazzy, but Andrew found them vaguely annoying instead. The balls were also brightly colored and reminded him of giant jaw breakers. His biggest complaint was the music. It was rock and roll which had been popular before he had been born, and it bored him.

“I’ll go first,” Andrew said as soon as the pins were set.

He glanced slyly at Charley to make sure she was watching. He reared back and threw his ball as hard as he could. It shot down the alley like a missile, but his aim was off, and he only picked off one pin on the left. He glanced at Charley again, but she wasn’t showing any reaction to the humiliating result.

Instead, she looked around and then leaned towards Serkan. “I’m curious about cold sorcery,” she murmured. “Have you ever tried it?”

Andrew remembered “cold sorcery” was casting a spell without a seam. He listened closely.

“I tried,” Serkan said, “but it’s really hard.”

“Can Keene do it?” Charley said.

“He claims he can perform a little telepathy cold, but it was so faint, I wasn’t sure.”

Andrew rolled his second ball and picked up five more pins. He didn’t even get a spare. He walked off as if he didn’t care.

“Was anybody ever good at it?” he said.

Serkan shrugged. “Probably. I don’t know.”

“Not needing a seam would be so cool.”

Serkan glanced at Dan. “I don’t think the BPI would agree. They like us having limitations. That’s why all the portable seams are in a secret vault.”

Dan was standing guard facing the other way. He didn’t seem to be listening, but Andrew expected he was.

Andrew got very close to Serkan. “What else is in that vault?” Andrew whispered.

Charley leaned in.

“Documents,” Serkan whispered. “Journals. Research reports. Information the BPI doesn’t want us to have.”

Dan looked over and gave them a suspicious look.

Charley picked up her ball and rolled it down the lane with a graceful swing of her arm. She made a perfect strike and walked away grinning.

I’m supposed to impress her, Andrew thought, not the other way around.

By silent agreement, the sorcerers stopped talking about dangerous topics. Charley asked Serkan about his life in Atlanta instead.

Andrew focused on bowling. Charley jumped out to an early lead in the game, but he rallied back and almost caught up to her by the end. He came in second, but at least it was a respectable showing.

They played a second game, and Andrew achieved a narrow win. He was proud of the result even though it wasn’t the crushing victory he had originally hoped for.

Charley checked her watch. “It’s almost ten, and we have classes tomorrow. We should head back.”

“I can’t go back yet.” Serkan shook his head. “The old folks don’t want me hanging around while they talk. Keene told me to stay out ‘til at least eleven. I’ll just bowl by myself and take a cab back.”

Andrew felt bad about leaving his new friend behind, but Andrew did have classes in the morning. He had learned the hard way that getting enough sleep was necessary if he wanted to succeed at school.

Serkan is a grown man, Andrew thought, and nearly a full sorcerer. He’ll be OK on his own.

Dan frowned. “I’d rather everybody stick together.”

“I don’t need your protection,” Serkan said in a testy tone, “and I don’t need a babysitter.”

“But…”

“The BPI doesn’t follow me around constantly when I’m in Atlanta. I’m not on probation. Are you always this paranoid?”

Dan thought for a moment. Eventually, he nodded. “OK, I’ll trust you, but come straight back to Tonya’s house later. No detours.” He gestured for Andrew and Charley to follow.

The three of them returned their shoes and left the bowling alley.

When Andrew stepped outside, a sudden chilly breeze made him shiver. It was time to start wearing a real winter coat.

He, Charley, and Dan got into the little red car. Andrew still had to sit in the back seat, but at least he had it to himself. Charley drove off.

“That was fun,” Andrew said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Let’s try to get together with Serkan tomorrow for lunch. He’s a nice guy.”

“Do you know how long he and Keene will be in town?”

“Not long. Keene has to get back to his seam.”

He nodded. “I wonder if we’ll ever visit them in Atlanta.”

“Maybe,” she said, “but I wouldn’t count on it.”

  • * *

Blake sensed Andrew and Charlotte leaving, and Blake expected the BPI agent had accompanied the youngsters. The third sorcerer had remained in the bowling alley for some reason. Blake had no idea why, but it was a huge stroke of luck.

His car was parked at a safe distance down the street. He ran back and fetched his emerald from the glove compartment. The seam inside the gem was tiny, but it pulsed rapidly with energy like the heartbeat of a mouse. He hurried back towards the bowling alley.

The road ran through a commercial area. There was a car wash, a repair shop, a body shop, and a car insurance office, but everything was closed. A dense, dark forest was to the east. Blake glimpsed a deer looking back at him with big eyes, but then the animal ran off.

Blake jogged around to a fairly empty parking lot behind the bowling alley. Nobody on the street would see him now. He placed the huge emerald on the hood of a car and crouched behind the car. He clamped down hard on his energy emissions to make himself undetectable.

The sorcerer inside the bowling alley would certainly sense the presence of the seam even though it was small. It took a few minutes, but eventually, he wandered out to investigate. Blake stole a peek through the car window.

The man was wearing a stylish gray jacket. His thick black scarf was practical and handsome. Blake didn’t like how the other sorcerer had shaved himself almost bald. One of the advantages of youth was the ability to grow a full head of hair, and Blake felt the opportunity shouldn’t be squandered. The gray mess on his own head was embarrassing.

He closed his eyes. He emptied his mind and became as serene as a corpse. When sorcerers battled, absolute mental control was essential. He would decide what thoughts to have and when to have them.

The other sorcerer arrived at the car and stopped in front of the emerald.

Blake stood up and attacked without warning. He launched a psychic assault designed to overwhelm and debilitate. He sought out the fears and doubts in his opponent’s mind. They were the points of leverage. Blake hammered the weakest spots, tying the man in psychological knots. So much energy was flowing through the gem that it actually glowed.

The other sorcerer gasped, and his eyes rolled back. His face twitched spastically.

Blake walked over. “What’s your name?”

“Serkan. Who are you?”

Serkan’s legs were shaking. Blake was blasting him with terrifying visions and waves of crippling emotion. Serkan didn’t have the strength to turn the tide of the battle, but he was still putting up a defense, and Blake was working hard to maintain his advantage. It was just a matter of time before he won though. Serkan would soon become exhausted and succumb completely.

“Don’t worry about me,” Blake said. “You’re going to pretend we never met. You’ll make sure Keene never finds out either. When you go back tonight, you’ll act perfectly normally.”

“No,” Serkan groaned.

“Now pay attention. Here are your instructions…”

  • * *

A phone call woke Andrew. He was in the middle of a nice dream involving Charley, and it took three rings before he opened his eyes.

He rolled over and picked up the phone. “Yes?” he croaked.

“This is Tonya. We’re having breakfast at my house. My guests asked for you to come and say goodbye.”

“They’re leaving already?”

Andrew’s clock showed 7:20 AM.

“Keene doesn’t like to be away from his seam for long,” Tonya said. “Hurry over before the eggs get cold.”

He hung up the phone and groaned. Sluggishly, he got out of bed and picked through his pile of clean clothes for something to wear. He hadn’t folded the clothes or put anything away, but at least they had been washed. That was a big step in the right direction.

He found one of his favorite shirts. It was blue with white vertical stripes, and he believed it made him look taller. He put it on and discovered it was a little tight around the shoulders. I’m getting more muscular, he thought. He stuck with the shirt anyway.

He finished getting dressed, put on a winter coat, and left the dorm. A rising sun made him squint. He walked swiftly across campus, and by the time he arrived at Tonya’s house, he was more alert.

The red brick house had a plain, traditional design typical of the Midwest. It was easy to imagine a family living there instead of a master sorcerer. One of the bushes had been trimmed to make it a perfect hemisphere.

A glint of metal caught Andrew’s eye. He walked over and discovered a mesh of steel wires inside the bush. They were holding the branches steady so the shape would be preserved. He imagined it had taken many hours to carefully wrap wires around all the branches. That’s a little obsessive, he thought.

He went to the door and knocked.

Tonya answered the door. She was wearing a purple nightgown, and she had circles under her eyes, but she was smiling.

“You look a little tired,” Andrew said.

“I was up half the night chatting with Keene about past adventures.”

“Why didn’t you sleep in?”

“Not my style,” she said. “Better to tackle the day head-on than concede from the start. Come in.”

He went into the house. The strange art on the walls distracted him, and he tried not to stare, but it was hard to ignore a sculpture of a giant praying mantis in a glass case. The insect was extremely realistic except for human teeth and eyeballs. Andrew wondered where she bought her art.

Andrew went into the dining room where a nice little breakfast buffet was laid out. There were scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, and melon slices. Charley, Serkan, and Keene were seated and already eating. Everybody looked a little tired.

Andrew grabbed a plate and started to fill it.

“I can’t believe you guys are leaving so soon,” he said. “You just got here.”

“I came to meet you,” Keene said. “I’ve accomplished that, so it’s time to go home.”

He was wearing a yellow sweater vest over a brown shirt and a green tie. With all the wrinkles in his solemn face, he looked like an old professor.

“Do you meet all the new apprentices or just the ones with famous grandfathers?” Andrew said.

“Just you.”

Keene didn’t elaborate, so Andrew sat down and ate his breakfast. He made a silent promise that he would solve the mystery of his grandfather someday.

He noticed Serkan seemed a little distracted and was barely touching his food. Serkan’s eyes were bloodshot.

“Are you OK?” Andrew said.

Serkan shrugged dismissively. “Sure. I just didn’t sleep very well.”

“Why?”

“Maybe I’m thinking too much about what I’ll do when I become a full sorcerer. I’ll have to leave Atlanta and find my own seam. I’ll need a job or at least a good cover story. It’s like starting a whole new life.”

Keene patted Serkan on the shoulder. “Just try to have some fun while you’re at it. I think us sorcerers are far too grim most of the time.”

Andrew had barely begun his training and couldn’t imagine what he would do when it was over. He also had a college education to complete.

Keene looked at the three apprentices at the table. “Let’s play a little game. Tonya, could you get some scraps of paper and pencils?”

Tonya smiled. “Sure.”

She went to another room and came back a moment later with paper and pencils. She gave a sheet and a pencil to Andrew, Charley, and Serkan.

“OK,” Keene said. “I want all of you to write down an obvious lie, something that can’t possibly be true. It can even be a little silly.”

Andrew thought for a moment and wrote, “White is the new black.”

“Now pass your papers around in a circle.”

Andrew gave his paper to Charley and got Serkan’s.

“Here comes the fun part,” Keene said. “Make an argument for what’s on your paper. Tonya and I will judge who is the most convincing. This is good practice for a sorcerer. We often have to believe things that aren’t true, or not believe things that seem true.”

Andrew looked at his paper and saw, “When people lie, they are actually being honest.” This will be tough.

“Serkan,” Keene said, “show them how it’s done.”

Serkan nodded. “My statement is ‘the moon is made of cheese.’ It’s obvious, isn’t it? You just look up at night, and you can see the holes. Has anybody here actually tasted the moon? We don’t have any hard evidence it isn’t cheese. In the absence of proof to the contrary, that’s what I choose to believe. Everybody knows the astronauts never went up there. The whole thing was a Hollywood production meant to fool the public.”

“Not bad,” Keene said. “Charley?”

Charley smiled and looked at her paper. “‘White is the new black.’”

Andrew leaned forward to listen.

“White and black are just relative descriptions,” she said. “If you shine a bright enough light on a black wall, it will seem white. Likewise, a white wall looks black in a dark room. As an actual example, the moon looks white even though the surface is actually quite dark. It’s because the sun is so bright. So really, white and black are pretty much the same.”

He raised his eyebrows. He was impressed.

“Nicely done,” Keene said. “Andrew, you can go.”

Andrew read his paper out loud, “‘When people lie, they are actually being honest.’” He pursed his lips.

Everybody waited for him to continue.

After a moment, Andrew said, “Honesty doesn’t always mean telling the literal truth. Sometimes, an audience isn’t ready for plain statements of fact. There are other ways to convey information that can work better. What seems like a lie can actually be a subtle way of getting people to see the truth. Politicians tell little white lies as part of their job. And really, is anybody completely truthful all the time?”

He thought it sounded pretty good for an argument he had invented on the spot. He certainly could’ve done worse.

Keene looked at Tonya. “I think it’s clear who won.”

“Me, too,” she said. “Charley, congratulations. Your argument was crisp and scientific.”

Andrew’s shoulders sagged.

“Let’s finish breakfast,” Keene said. “I want to hit the road.”

Everybody resumed eating with gusto.

Chapter Eight

Andrew looked out the window of his dorm room. Soft white snow blanketed everything, and when seen from the perspective of his warm room, it looked delightful. He expected to be less pleased when he went outside and had to walk through it.

Time to try my new snow boots, Andrew thought.

It was late November, two days before Thanksgiving break. He had hoped to avoid snow until December, but the Chicago weather had other ideas. At least it wasn’t a blizzard.

He dressed in his warmest clothes. He put his snow boots on last, and they were big, clunky things made of rubber, canvas, and soft felt. He felt like a clown when he had them on, but they would certainly keep his feet dry. His mother had mailed him the boots a few weeks ago.

Andrew put on his winter coat and hurried out the door. His morning training session with Tonya would start in just a few minutes. After a month of working together, they had settled into a regular routine. He usually ate breakfast afterwards having learned that practicing sorcery with a full belly wasn’t a good idea.

His sensitivity had increased greatly during that month. He located Charley’s energy even though she was on the other side of the campus, and he could tell she was moving towards the Fine Arts Building. Tonya was already waiting for her apprentices in the building. To Andrew’s inner eye, the master sorcerer shined like a lighthouse beacon.

He left the dormitory. With his boots on, he hardly felt the snow at all, and the crunching sound was fun. He marched along, stepping on the snow a little harder than necessary just to make noise.

His face was the only source of discomfort. The damp, freezing cold bit into his skin with painful ferocity. He had seen other students in ski masks, but he couldn’t bring himself to look like a bank robber. He pulled down his knit wool cap as far as it would go.

He arrived in the Fine Arts Building and went straight down into the basement. The snow on the bottom of his boots was slippery on the smooth cement stairs, and he had to grab a bannister to avoid a fall.

Andrew arrived at the seam chamber. The door was open, and Charley and Tonya were already inside. He closed the steel door with a deep, loud clang.

Tonya was already giving Charley her lesson. Andrew watched them work as he stripped off his winter gear. Whichever student arrived last had to wait for his or her turn, but Andrew didn’t mind. He could happily look at Charley all day.

She was wearing a puffy brown sweater with a picture of a turkey knitted on the front. Her collection of sweaters was amazing, and he still hadn’t seen the same one twice. He wondered what she would wear during the summer when it was hot.

She was working on physical manipulation these days. The skill was well beyond Andrew’s capabilities, but listening to her lessons had given him some basic ideas for how it worked. Knowledge of physics and chemistry was essential. She had to understand the changes she was making at a deep level.

“We’re going to try separating materials today,” Tonya said.

She tore open some white paper packets marked “sugar” and poured the contents into a beaker of clear fluid. Andrew assumed it was water. She swirled the beaker until the sugar dissolved.

“Observe,” she said.

She stared at the water with an intense expression. He sensed her energy flare up like a gas stove turned to full. Sugar crystals formed on the surface until it was coated with a solid layer. She relaxed.

“You have to beat the law of entropy,” Tonya said, “so it will take all your focus. See if you can figure it out on your own while I work with Andrew.”

She snapped her fingers, and the sugar dissolved again.

Andrew was astonished. Physical sorcery was a hundred times more difficult than mental sorcery. He could create the illusion of fire easily, but actually lighting a real candle was so far beyond him, he wouldn’t even know where to start. Even Tonya was limited to tweaking the world in small, temporary ways.

Charley nodded. “I’ll try.” She gazed at the beaker with an uncertain expression.

Andrew sat at another of the small wooden tables in the chamber. Tonya grabbed a toy soldier made of green plastic from a shelf and set it in front of him.

“We’re going to try a slightly more complicated illusion today,” she said. “Make a copy of this toy.”

He frowned at the little soldier. So far, he had only managed to create colored lights and simple polygons floating in the air. The toy had a lot of details which would make the illusion more challenging.

Tonya pointed at it. “You have the example sitting right in front of you. You don’t have to use any creativity. It should be easy.”

Andrew nodded, settled down, and got to work. He had to make himself believe there were two soldiers instead of one.

“Wait,” she snapped. “That doesn’t feel right. What are you doing?”

“Making a second soldier.”

She shook her head. “Wrong. Creating a physical object from nothing would be impossible for you. Even I have trouble with it. The goal is to simply see a second soldier, not make one. That subtle distinction is why it’s just an illusion.”

Andrew believed he understood, but the task was still difficult. He wasn’t exactly sure how to see something that wasn’t really there.

He stared at the real toy until all the details were locked in his mind. Then he looked at a blank spot on the table. He imagined his eyes were movie projectors, and an image of a soldier was shooting from his pupils. It was an intriguing idea. It would be cool if I could shoot lasers, he thought.

A vision of killer robots grabbed hold of him, but he quickly shook it off. He reminded himself he was still in the basement of the Fine Arts Building and his name was Andrew Kenworthy. He wasn’t a robot with laser eyes.

“Good,” Tonya said. “You escaped from that delusion without my help. You’re learning fast.”

He smiled at her. “Thanks.”

“Of course, you have a fabulous instructor.”

“Obviously.”

Tonya abruptly looked up and stared into space for a moment. Andrew used his own abilities to check the area, but he sensed nothing unusual.

“I have to go to my office,” she said. “I want both of you to just keep working. I’ll be back in… a while.”

She left the chamber in a rush. The door slammed closed behind her.

Andrew and Charley exchanged alarmed looks.

“We’re not supposed to be in here by ourselves,” she said. “We could get hurt.”

He looked up at the seam. Even though it was invisible to his eyes, he felt like he was sitting next to a blast furnace. The danger was clear.

“Do you think we should go talk to her? Maybe something is wrong.”

“Something is definitely wrong, but she told us to keep working. Let’s give her a half-hour. If she doesn’t come back, we’ll go look for her.”

Andrew nodded.

He focused on his assignment. He thought about the toy soldier and nothing else. Whenever his mind started to wander, he snapped it back forcefully.

It was hard work, but after a while, he saw something happening. The ghostly outlines of a second soldier began to form on the table. He filled in details, his eyes flipping back and forth between the real toy and the illusion. Good sorcery was all about getting everything exactly right.

“Pretty good for a beginner,” Charley said.

Andrew looked up at her. He had been so focused, he hadn’t realized she was there.

“Pretty good for anybody.”

“Oh?”

She waved her hand across the table. He looked down and saw a dozen identical toy soldiers.

“Show off,” he said bitterly.

She shrugged.

“How are you doing with the un-dissolving sugar?”

“Not so good,” Charley said. “I can’t quite figure out the trick, and I’m afraid of pushing too hard without Tonya here. Let’s find her.”

“Sure.” Andrew stood up.

The apprentices left the chamber and followed Tonya’s unique energy signature to her office. She was leaning back in her padded leather chair and staring into space.

Cardboard puzzle pieces were spread across her oak desk. Some were bent and mashed together as if she had tried to force them to fit. She had used scissors to trim other pieces.

“Are you OK?” Charley said in a tone of deep concern.

“That depends,” Tonya said. “Is there a goblin standing behind you?”

Charley glanced backwards. “No.”

“A unicorn with a dead cat impaled on its horn?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Then I’m not OK. I need to get away from here.”

Tonya stood up, grabbed her coat from a hook, and pulled it on.

“Hold on,” Charley said. “You’re leaving? For how long?”

“I’m not exactly sure. Guard the seam while I’m gone.”

“That’s not funny.”

Tonya walked out of her office at a brisk pace. Andrew and Charley followed close behind.

“We can’t guard the seam!” Andrew said. “We’re not real sorcerers!”

“I trust you two more than I trust ‘real sorcerers,’” Tonya said. “Just watch for trouble and tell the BPI if you see anything suspicious. They’ll take care of it. That’s their job.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea.”

The group was already at the door of the building, and Tonya went outside without hesitation. Andrew and Charley had to follow even though they weren’t wearing coats. He wrapped his arms around his chest in an attempt to stay warm. At least he was still wearing his snow boots.

“There’s no other option,” Tonya said. “Take this as an opportunity to rest and contemplate. Obviously, you can’t practice sorcery when I’m not here.”

“Stop walking!” Charley yelled. “We’re trying to talk to you.”

You’re trying to talk. I’m leaving.”

“This is crazy.”

Tonya glanced back at Charley. “That’s exactly the problem. You two should go back inside before you get sick. It’s cold out here.”

Charley snorted angrily.

Andrew put a hand on her shoulder. “She’s not in a mood to talk. Let’s go back.”

“Fine.” Charley shot a glare at Tonya. “We’ll call her later.”

“I won’t have my phone,” Tonya said over her shoulder.

Andrew and Charley hurried back to the Fine Arts Building. The warm, dry interior was a big relief.

After they calmed down a little, he said, “What now?”

“I guess we have to call Agent Dan,” she said. “The BPI needs to know about this.”

Andrew felt like he was ratting on a friend, but he took out his phone and called Dan Easton anyway.

Dan answered immediately, “If you’re calling me, it can’t be good.”

“Tonya just ran off,” Andrew said. “I think she’s taking a vacation. She was acting weird.”

“Where are you?”

“The Fine Arts Building.”

“Stay there,” Dan said. “We’ll be right over. Bye.”

Andrew put away his phone. “They’re coming,” he told Charley.

She nodded.

Lacking any specific destination, they wandered over to the main stage. Death of a Salesman had closed weeks ago, and neither Charley nor Andrew were part of the current production. It was Shakespeare, but Andrew didn’t know which play. The stage had a backdrop made to look like a medieval castle. Golden thrones fit for a king and a queen were in the center.

“How long do you think Tonya will be gone?” Andrew said.

Charley shrugged. “I have no idea. I’ve never seen her act this way before. She’s usually so in control.”

“We don’t really know that. She’s an expert at faking things.”

“That’s true.” She frowned.

“But I’m sure she’ll be OK. She’s a master sorcerer after all. You don’t get that title if you’re any kind of flake.”

“Yes.”

Charley had a very anxious expression. Andrew wanted to give her a hug, but he held back. They still had a “just friends” relationship. He was afraid if he pressed too hard, he would lose whatever affection she had for him.

It took ten minutes for the BPI to arrive. Dan along with two older agents found the apprentices on the stage.

Charley explained what had happened. Andrew made a few comments, but there wasn’t much to add after her detailed report.

The federal agents conferred with each other. One ran off and another made a phone call.

Dan turned to Charley and Andrew. As usual, Dan was dressed like a college student in an attempt to blend in, but his straight posture and stern expression didn’t fit the cover story. He was wearing jeans and hiking boots. A blue shirt hung over his pants, and Andrew noticed the bulge of a gun under the shirt.

“What’s going to happen with Tonya?” Charley said.

“We’ll follow her,” Dan said. “She’s not going to escape from us.”

“Are you going to bring her back?”

“I’m not the boss, but I don’t think so. I expect the BPI will give her some time to get herself right. She wouldn’t take off like that without good cause.”

“What about us?” Andrew said.

Dan looked at him intently. “Sounds like she gave you a job. You have to guard the seam.”

“But I have classes.”

“Then it’s a good thing there are two of you. You can switch off.”

Charley glared at Dan. “But Thanksgiving break is coming up. I’m going home.”

“I don’t think so.” He shook his head. “Not unless Tonya comes back in the next couple of days.”

Charley turned to Andrew, but he could only look at her helplessly. He had also planned to go home for Thanksgiving.

“We’ll post extra agents here just to be safe,” Dan said. “You’ll have plenty of company.”

Andrew worked his jaw. Spending quality time with federal agents didn’t sound like a lot of fun.

Charley made a face. “Are you telling me I can’t practice sorcery or go home? I’m just stuck here? That’s not fair. You’re the BPI. Isn’t it your job to fix this?”

“Just worry about your own situation,” Dan said. “Let’s figure out who will take what shifts. One of you has to be in the vicinity at all times.”

“Even at night?”

“Of course. That’s why Tonya’s house is so close, but you’re not as sensitive, so you have to be even closer.”

Andrew’s shoulders sagged.

He, Charley, and Dan worked out a preliminary schedule. The apprentices would sleep in the Fine Arts Building on alternate nights. There were spaces in the basement that could be converted into temporary bedrooms.

Once the details were worked out, Andrew stepped away and took out his phone. He had to deliver bad news to his parents. He called home.

“Hello?” his mother answered.

“Hi, Mom. I have good news and bad news. The good news is a professor invited me to participate in a special project. It’s a great opportunity. The bad news is I have to work on it over Thanksgiving break. I can’t come home.”

“Oh.” She sounded sad. “But we haven’t seen you in months. We miss you.”

“I miss you, too. I’ll definitely be home for Christmas.”

“What kind of professor would make you work on Thanksgiving?”

“Well, uh.” Andrew mentally scrambled to think of a good lie. “We need the whole science lab to ourselves. We can’t have other students messing with things. The experiment has to happen during a break.”

“This is an experiment?”

“That’s right. Chemistry.”

“That sounds educational.” His mother paused. “I have an idea. We’ll drive up there and visit you. We’ll have Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago.”

Andrew glanced at Dan. “I don’t know….”

“It will be a fun trip. Plan for us to be there Thursday afternoon. You can give us a tour of the campus and show us your dorm room.”

Crap! Andrew thought. I need to clean my room!

He wasn’t about to tell his parents to stay away on Thanksgiving. The BPI would have to show some flexibility.

“That sounds great, and I have somebody I want you to meet.” He smiled at Charley. “I’ll see you in two days. Bye.” He put away his phone.

Andrew walked back over to Charley and Dan.

“You look happy,” Charley said in a suspicious tone.

“My parents are coming here to visit me on Thanksgiving,” Andrew said.

Dan furrowed his brow. “I didn’t approve anything like that.”

“It will look strange if they’re not allowed to see me. They’ll wonder what I’m hiding. They might ask difficult questions.”

Dan made a sour face.

“Maybe I’ll invite my parents, too,” Charley said cheerfully.

“No!” He turned on her. “One set of outsiders is bad enough.”

“Then you approve?” Andrew said.

“I’ll discuss it with my superiors,” Dan said.

Andrew decided to take his small victory and move on. “Charley has the first shift, and I have to get to class. I’ll see you guys later.”

He gave Charley an apologetic smile and ran off.

  • * *

Andrew checked his watch. It was 8 PM, time for him to begin his night shift, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.

He was carrying his pillow under his arm. A backpack contained some homework he could do if he got too bored, but the assignments weren’t due until Monday. He could play music on his phone using earbuds, and that was probably his best option.

The night was cold and dark, but at least it wasn’t windy. Light from street lamps made the snow glitter. Some people loved snow, but he could’ve lived without it.

Andrew snuck into the Fine Arts Building through a back door. A show was being performed on the main stage, and he kept quiet as he went down into the basement. Charley’s energy signature guided him to a storeroom near Tonya’s office.

It had been hastily refurbished to serve as a guard post and bedroom. There were three cots made of wood and canvas which looked like something from a historic war movie. A cheap vinyl couch and a couple of recliners provided seating. The recliners had cracks in their leather upholstery. A television was standing on the floor, and it was wired to a DVD player, but there was no cable. Two surveillance monitors were next to the television, and one monitor showed the seam chamber door, while the other showed the hallway.

Charley stood up from one of the recliners. “Right on time,” she said. “Good. I would’ve been mad if you were late.”

Two BPI agents were sitting on the couch. One was Dan Easton, and the other was an older man in a blue business suit. They both waved vaguely towards Andrew. They were watching a tough-guy cop movie on the television, and Andrew recognized the actors, but he had never seen the movie.

“Anything going on here?” he said.

“Nope.” Charley shook her head. “It’s boring as hell. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Bye.”

She left.

Andrew sighed, took off his backpack, and sat on the recliner. It was still warm from Charley. Lacking much else to do, he watched the movie, but he was only mildly interested. He was more of a sword and sorcery kind of guy.

Finally, the movie ended.

The older BPI agent turned to Andrew. His blue suit was rumpled, but he had kept his jacket on. He had gray hair on the sides and brown on top. His nose looked a little flattened and bent.

“I’m Agent Gover. You must be Andrew.”

Andrew nodded. “Glad to meet you.”

“Go ahead and use your hocus pocus,” Gover said. “See if there are any other sorcerers sneaking around.”

“Hocus pocus?” Andrew raised his eyebrows.

“Your strange and mysterious powers.” Gover made a circular gesture with his hands. “That’s why you’re here, right?”

Andrew didn’t like the man’s tone but complied with the request. Andrew closed his regular eyes and used his inner one.

“I’m only picking up Charley.”

“You’re sure?” Gover said.

Andrew opened his eyes. “Yes. My hocus pocus is pretty reliable.”

“I’ve always been curious. What does it feel like? Does it give you a special tingle?”

“Sure. It’s like being kissed by a thousand rainbow butterflies.”

“Don’t get cute with me.” Gover narrowed his eyes.

“Seriously, sorcery is hard. You have to impose your will on reality, and it fights back every step of the way.”

Gover furrowed his brow. “It doesn’t look that hard. You just wave your hands and stuff happens. You don’t even use magic words.”

“Sorcery happens up here.” Andrew tapped his forehead. “It’s a mental game, and it’s extremely hard.”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t seem right. You’re messing with things that aren’t supposed to be messed with.”

“You just have to be cautious.”

“In the Bible,” Gover said, “it says…”

Dan gave Gover a funny look. Gover closed his mouth.

“What?” Andrew said with rising anger. “Are you about to tell me that sorcery is blasphemous? I was raised a good Christian. Let me help you with some pertinent quotes. Exodus: ‘You shall not permit a sorceress to live.’ Or Micah: ‘I will cut off sorceries from your hand, and you shall have no more tellers of fortunes.’ Sound about right?”

Gover blushed. “Yeah.”

“That kind of superstition is why people like me live in fear.”

“The Bible isn’t superstition.”

“Give the kid a break,” Dan said. “He was born the way he is. He never had a choice.”

“Sorcery isn’t a birth defect!” Andrew said.

“Then what is it?” Gover said. “A curse?”

“No. It’s just an unusual talent. I’m like a star athlete, except people don’t pay to watch me play.”

Gover frowned.

“Why did you join the BPI?” Andrew said. “You obviously don’t like us.”

“It pays well, and they didn’t tell me what it was about until after I signed up.”

“You could quit.”

Gover shrugged. “It’s OK.”

“OK for you. You’re supposed to protect me. How can I trust you if you think I’m some kind of evil abomination?”

“I’ll do my job.” Gover straightened up.

Andrew wasn’t convinced. He turned to Dan. “What’s your opinion about sorcery?”

“I see it as a dangerous technology,” Dan said. “It has its uses, but it must be controlled. I’m not religious about it.”

“That reminds me of a question I always wanted to ask. Why doesn’t the military use sorcery as a weapon?”

“It’s been tried,” Gover said. “Kings in ancient times employed sorcerers. It was popular in medieval Europe. Even in World War 2, all the armies had secret R&D programs. During my BPI training, we had a whole course on the history of sorcery.”

“So, what happened?” Andrew said.

“All I know is every one of those research programs was a disaster. Only dead bodies came out of them. I’m telling you, sorcery is unnatural. The Lord doesn’t approve.”

Andrew decided this conversation was pointless.

He picked up his backpack. “I’m going to do some homework.”

  • * *

Andrew was walking through a vast desert. A burning sun was beating down on him like a blowtorch. He looked up and saw flames pouring through a crack in the sky. The incredible heat was slowly roasting him alive, but for some reason, the fire was black.

He trudged onwards across the desolate landscape. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew if he stopped, he would sink. The sand was like soft taffy. Big, heavy chunks clung to his feet, making each step a chore. He couldn’t shake the stuff off.

Despite pushing as hard as he could, he was running out of steam and sinking deeper with each step. Tiny burning ants were crawling across the sand. They climbed onto his skin and started biting him. He swatted at the insects, but they just bit his hands instead.

Who am I? Andrew thought. What am I doing here?

He couldn’t remember his own name. He had no memory of how he had come to the burning desert, but he knew he had to get out.

Imagine a clock.

Tonya had taught him to picture a clock in his mind when he felt lost. The movements of the hands were regular and predictable. They were a symbol of order and a shield against chaos. Modern society was built around clocks.

The sticky sand was already up to his neck. The ants were attacking his eyes and mouth, making it hard to breathe. He tried to scream, but no sound came out.

A clock.

He forced himself to calm down. Panic wouldn’t get him out of this mess. He reached out and painted a giant clock across the sky. Somehow, he was holding a paintbrush. The clock came to life, and the hands started spinning wildly.

Too fast.

He slowed down the clock until it was ticking at a nice, steady rhythm. Rationality began to return.

He remembered another useful trick for fighting panic. He started multiplying numbers in his head. The math was just hard enough to prevent him from thinking about anything else. The burning desert faded away, and the ants stopped attacking. Walls made of numbers and clocks protected him on all sides. He was safe.

I’m Andrew Kenworthy, he thought, and I’m asleep. The seam gave me a nightmare.

He heard screaming, and it wasn’t coming from him. It sounded like somebody else was also having a nightmare.

Andrew opened his eyes. He was back in the storage room in the basement of the Fine Arts Building. He had been sleeping on one of the uncomfortable cots. It was the middle of the night, but a nightlight allowed him to see.

Agent Gover was the source of the screaming. He was lying on another cot, and he was swatting at the air as if invisible mosquitoes were attacking him. Dan was shaking Gover violently by the shoulders, but he wouldn’t wake up.

“Flies!” Gover yelled. “Flies everywhere!”

“Open your eyes!” Dan yelled.

“I’m burning!”

Andrew intuitively grasped what had happened. He got out of bed and ran over to Gover.

“Let me work with him,” he told Dan.

Dan backed off with an anxious expression.

“Agent Gover,” Andrew said in his most commanding tone. “What is the square root of eighty-one?”

“Flies!” Gover screamed.

“If you want to live, you’ll answer my question!”

Gover wouldn’t stop yelling. Clearly, Andrew wasn’t getting through. Gover’s extensive BPI training hadn’t prepared him for this situation.

“What’s wrong with him?” Dan said.

“We’re too close to the seam,” Andrew said. “When I was asleep, I had a nightmare, and it must’ve jumped to him telepathically. It was an accident.”

“Fix it!”

Andrew gnawed his lip. Tonya had rescued him from horrifying delusions on several occasions during the last month. In theory, he could do the same for Gover. It was just a matter of employing the right spell, but Andrew had never been taught that spell. He had to figure it out using instinct alone, and without supervision, it would be dangerous.

Gover screamed like he was dying.

No choice, Andrew thought. He tapped into the energy flow coming from the seam. He wasn’t in the seam chamber, but he was close enough to still have a substantial fraction of his usual power. The surge gave him more confidence.

He realized he had to get inside Gover’s mind, and the theory seemed obvious. Instead of pushing beliefs outward, Andrew would accept Gover’s beliefs as his own. It was exactly the reverse of an illusion.

Andrew hesitated, unsure if he should proceed. Tonya wasn’t here to save his ass if the spell went bad. Just because an answer was obvious didn’t make it right.

Gover screamed again. He was obviously trapped in a terrifying and painful delusion, and Andrew blamed himself a little. He should’ve realized sleeping so close to the seam could be trouble.

He closed his eyes, cleared his mind, and turned his curiosity towards Gover. Andrew knew intuitively that he would have to open himself up completely. I got into his head accidently before, Andrew thought. It should be easy to do on purpose.

He relaxed. Finding the right state of serenity and curiosity turned out to be harder than he expected. His mind had to become as blank and receptive as a fresh sheet of paper. His own thoughts would get in the way of making the connection. He gradually entered Gover’s mind.

Andrew found himself floating in an ocean of tar with his head barely above the surface. Waves struck him in the face and made him gag. A cloud of flies biting his skin added more misery to the experience.

Panic struck him when he realized he had forgotten his own name again. This delusion was as dangerous as the other. He couldn’t keep track of where his thoughts ended and Gover’s began.

Andrew fought for control. Bit by bit, he remembered why he was in an ocean of tar and that none of it was real. He began to impose his will on the nightmare, and the waves calmed. He rose into the air. Anything was possible in a dream, and now it was his dream to command.

Gover was still splashing around in the tar, his eyes wide with terror.

“Agent Gover!” Andrew yelled. “Look at me!”

Gover looked up at him.

“This isn’t real. You’re asleep.”

“I’m drowning!” Gover screamed.

“You’re fine. I’ll get you out of this.”

Andrew exerted his willpower. He just had to force Gover to see the truth, and dispelling illusions was a skill Tonya had taught Andrew right from the start. Gover resisted, but Andrew won the fight easily. He was discovering he had a natural ability to manipulate other people’s minds.

Andrew gathered up all his energy in a ball and hurled it. “Wake up!” he bellowed.

Suddenly, he was back in the storeroom.

Gover sat up so suddenly he almost fell off his cot. He looked around, breathing rapidly.

He faced Andrew. “You! You were in my head!” Gover scrambled to his feet and backed away fearfully.

“I was rescuing you,” Andrew said.

“What happened?”

“I had a nightmare, and it splashed onto you. I shouldn’t sleep so close to the seam, but don’t worry. You’re OK now.”

“I am not,” Gover said.

He had been sleeping in his underwear. He grabbed his clothes from a chair and began to put them on. His hands were shaking so much, he could barely button his pants.

“What are you doing?” Dan said.

“Getting the hell out of here,” Gover replied angrily.

“You can’t just leave. You’re on duty.”

“I’m quitting.”

“Hold on.” Dan grabbed Gover’s arm. “It was just a bad dream.”

Gover shook him off. “It was a psychic attack. You weren’t there. I thought I was dying! I can’t do this anymore.”

Dan frowned.

Andrew realized Gover was right. Andrew had inflicted a nightmare on him, albeit unintentionally. Gover could’ve been trapped in a delusion forever. The rescue hadn’t been gentle either.

If I can do that by accident, Andrew thought, what can I do when I really try?

He was on dangerous ground. Forcing his way into another person’s mind was totally unethical. It wasn’t far from full-blown mind-control. Knowing he could do it was a thrill, but he didn’t want to hurt people. He had to be much more careful in the future.

Andrew decided he wouldn’t mention this incident to Tonya or Charley. If they found out, he would explain himself, but hopefully, they wouldn’t find out.

Gover pulled on his coat and left.

Dan shook his head. “You really got to him.”

“I can’t sleep here anymore,” Andrew said. “It’s too dangerous. My control isn’t good enough.”

Dan thought for a moment. “OK. Go sleep in your dorm. I’ll call the BPI and tell them what happened. They’ll send more guys, and we’ll guard the seam without you.”

“What if another sorcerer tries to sneak in here?”

“We have cameras—” Dan nodded towards the surveillance monitors. “—and we can add more. We’ll make it work. The BPI was created to deal with this kind of problem.”

“I’ll stay here until reinforcements arrive.” Andrew yawned. “If I can stay awake.”

Please, stay awake.”

Chapter Nine

“And this is my dorm room,” Andrew said proudly as he opened his door.

He stepped aside to let his parents enter. He had spent all morning cleaning his room. He had washed all his clothes, had thrown out the garbage, and had vacuumed the floor. Everything was stacked neatly or put away. He had even cleaned the windows on the inside.

“It’s nice,” his mother said. “Does he always keep it this clean?”

Beth had medium-length brown hair and brown eyes. She had a nice face, although Andrew had to admit he was biased. Her skin was ruddy from walking outside in the cold, and makeup on her cheeks didn’t match the redness. She was wearing a puffy, blue winter coat which went down to her thighs.

“I don’t know,” Charley said. “This is the first time he let me inside. I wondered if he was hiding a dead body or something.”

She followed Beth into the room. Charley was wearing a golden sweater with white flowers embroidered into it. She was getting along very well with his parents. Neither had asked Charley about her relationship with Andrew, but clearly, they were curious.

“His room at home was certainly never this clean,” his father said.

Percival entered last. He was a big man who prided himself on his muscular arms. His black hair was thinning on top, and he had blue-green eyes which Andrew had inherited. His father seemed to always have five o’clock shadow no matter what time of day it was. He was wearing a dark brown shirt with on open collar. His winter coat was slung over his arm.

“What are you talking about?” Andrew said. “I cleaned my room.”

“Only when I held your video games hostage.”

Andrew glanced at Charley. “He’s making that up.”

She winked at him. “Sure.”

“Whatever. This is the end of the tour. I found a nice Chinese restaurant nearby that’s open on Thanksgiving. It’s not exactly turkey and cranberries, but it should be pretty good.”

The BPI had given Andrew and Charley permission to go to a restaurant provided they didn’t stay out late. Three federal agents were on duty, and three more were on call, so the seam was well guarded.

“That’s fine,” his mother said. “The important thing is we’re together.”

The group left the dormitory and went outside. Andrew zipped up his coat and pulled down his ski cap. The sun had already set even though it wasn’t late in the evening. The short winter days bothered him. On cloudy days, he didn’t see the sun at all.

Andrew really liked being with his parents again. He had missed them.

Charley led the way towards the West Parking Lot where Andrew’s parents had parked their car. The group walked past the Fine Arts Building. Andrew had showed the auditorium and stage to his parents earlier, but they hadn’t gone into the basement.

Charley stopped abruptly. She looked around.

“What?” Andrew said.

She gave him an anxious look. He used his sorcery to check the area, and he discovered what had spooked her. Another sorcerer was nearby, one he didn’t recognize. The unfamiliar energy was located on the far side of the building.

Andrew looked at his parents. Suddenly, their presence was an enormous problem. Andrew had to play the part of an ordinary college student. The BPI had demanded he keep sorcery a secret even from his family.

“Umm,” Charley said, “I think I left my phone in the Fine Arts Building. Can we check inside real quick?”

“Sure,” Andrew said. “We have a little extra time.”

The four of them went into the building through a door on the north side. Most of the lights were off, and the echoing hallways were a little spooky. Charley led the way to the main stage where the Shakespeare set was still installed. The production was on hold during Thanksgiving break.

“Could you two search here while we look in other places?” she asked Andrew’s parents sweetly.

Beth and Percival glanced at each other.

“Sure,” she said.

“Thanks,” Andrew said.

He and Charley hurried off.

“We have to tell the BPI,” she whispered in an urgent tone.

They jogged down a flight of stairs to reach the basement and went straight to the storeroom. Dan and two other BPI agents were stationed there.

Dan widened his eyes in surprise. “I thought you went to a restaurant,” he said.

“We have a problem,” Charley said. “Another sorcerer is poking around.”

All three federal agents immediately drew their guns. Andrew shrank back in fear. Seeing a gun in person was a very different experience than seeing one on television. Those things could kill somebody!

“Show us where he is,” Dan said.

Andrew and Charley jogged through the dimly lit basement and came up another way. The agents stayed close behind them.

The group exited through a door on the south side. Andrew looked around at trees, snow-covered grass, and a narrow parking lot. He was too excited to feel the cold.

He used his talent to locate the intruder. Andrew couldn’t detect ordinary people, but his inner sight saw sorcerers as glowing bodies. He was about to point his finger when Charley beat him to it.

“There!” she said. “Behind the bushes!”

Dan and his two colleagues ran forward.

A man stood up from the shadows with a sawed-off shotgun in his hands. He immediately aimed at Charley.

“Stay back,” the man yelled, “or the chick dies!”

Charley made a squealing noise. The federal agents froze and glanced at each other with uncertain expressions.

Andrew took a close look at the sorcerer. He was wearing green camouflage pants with holes in the knees and torn seams. His blue tennis shoes also looked ready to fall apart. He had an orange parka with ugly brown stains. A black cap sat on top of long, greasy hair. He walked forward slowly into the light with his shotgun pointed at Charley’s head.

“Is he the sorcerer?” Dan said.

“Yes,” Charley peeped.

Andrew nodded. The energy signature made it obvious.

The sorcerer waved his shotgun menacingly. “Here’s the plan. We’re all going down to that nice, big, fat, juicy seam together. Nobody is going to cause any trouble.”

“What will that accomplish?” Dan said.

“I’m going to have some fun. I waited a long time for this chance. I couldn’t get close with that bitch Tonya hanging around.”

Dan glanced at the other two agents. They nodded slightly.

“Hey!” the sorcerer said. “Don’t try anything funny!”

“I assure you,” Dan said, “it won’t be the least bit funny.”

He made a sudden gesture with his hand. It caught the sorcerer’s attention, and the shotgun wavered. The other two BPI agents fired from the hip and hit the sorcerer in the head. The gunshots sounded like thunderclaps to Andrew. Twin sprays of blood created clouds of red mist. The dead body fell backwards into the snow. When the shotgun hit the ground, it went off, but it fired harmlessly into the air.

Charley screamed in fright. Andrew put his arms around her and pulled her head against his chest, but he was just as scared. He had never seen anybody die before. He wanted it to be another delusion, but he knew it was real.

“Go back inside,” Dan said, “both of you. The police will be here in a minute, and we have to talk to them. It’s going to be a long night of interviews and reports.”

Andrew and Charley didn’t move. They were still too stunned.

“He could’ve killed me,” she said softly.

“Which is why we killed him first. Thank us later. Now get out of here!” Dan pointed at the door.

Andrew and Charley went back inside the warm building.

The memory of the sorcerer being shot played in Andrew’s mind like a film loop. It was still hard to believe it had actually happened.

He heard approaching footsteps. Andrew’s parents came running up.

“We heard a noise,” Percival said. “What happened? Are you OK?”

“We’re fine,” Andrew replied.

He tried to put on a confident and relaxed expression, but his acting skills weren’t functioning at the moment. The best he could manage was a grimace.

His father went to the door.

Andrew jumped in front of him. “No! Don’t go out there!”

“Why not? What’s out there?”

Sirens wailed in the distance, and they were growing louder.

Percival pushed Andrew aside and opened the door. “My God! Is he dead?”

Beth joined her husband at the door. She gasped and covered her mouth.

“Get back inside!” Dan yelled. “Close the door! Get out of here before the police show up! Go to your damn restaurant.”

Andrew grabbed his mother’s hand. “Come on.”

“Are you and Charley alright?” she said.

“Yes. We’re fine. We have to go!”

“Were you out there when that man got shot?”

“Can we please have this conversation in the car?” Andrew said.

He, his parents, and Charley walked quickly through the Fine Arts Building. They left through another door and crossed a parking lot to reach a big, brown Cadillac Escalade. Andrew had grown up with that car. The paint was scratched, and one of the doors had been replaced, but the SUV was still reliable transport. His father had taken very good care of it.

Andrew and Charley got into the back, and his parents sat in front.

His father started driving. “We’re safely on the road now. Tell me what the hell happened! Who was that dead man? Who were those other guys?”

Andrew looked at Charley. She shook her head. He kept his mouth shut.

“I’m your father, damn it. Talk to me.”

“The restaurant is on North Avenue. Take a right.”

His father turned the steering wheel. “Were those Chicago mobsters? Are you a criminal now?”

“No!” Andrew said. “I would never break the law. You know that.”

“I only know I just saw a fresh corpse and three guys with guns.”

Andrew had to tell Percival something, and it couldn’t be a lie. Andrew would never lie to his parents.

“The men in suits were federal agents,” he said softly. “The dead guy was a criminal. He threatened Charley, and the feds shot him.”

Charley gave Andrew a very sharp look.

There was silence in the car for a moment.

Finally, his father said, “And why did a criminal threaten Charley? Why are federal agents on your campus?”

“That’s the part I can’t explain,” Andrew said, “but I didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t worry about me or Charley. We’re fine. Let’s talk about something else.”

His mother came to his rescue. “Good idea,” Beth said. “Do we still want to eat out for dinner? I can’t speak for you, but I may have lost my appetite.”

He raised his eyebrows in surprise. She usually didn’t concede so quickly.

“We have to eat, and the restaurant is supposed to be very good. Let’s just stick with the plan.”

Andrew gave directions to the Chinese restaurant, and they arrived a few minutes later. It was in a strip mall made of red and brown bricks. All the other stores were dark. Andrew expected to find the place deserted on Thanksgiving, but there was a big crowd inside the restaurant. Many cars were in the snowy parking lot in front.

“I guess we’re not the only losers who couldn’t make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner,” Charley said.

Everybody got out of the car. Andrew almost slipped on the icy pavement, and he grabbed the door handle to catch himself.

They went into the restaurant. The hostess told them they had to wait twenty minutes for a table, but at least it was warm inside.

The interior had a red-gold color scheme, and the furniture was made of wood. Spherical paper lanterns provided soft lighting. Bamboo screens divided the large space into small sections which allowed the patrons to have some privacy.

Andrew looked at his mother. Normally, she was a very inquisitive woman, and he was still surprised she had backed down in the car. She knows something, he thought. She looked back at him with a sad and distant expression.

Eventually, the group was seated at a table in the corner. Andrew looked at the menu. He quickly found his favorite Chinese dish: beef with broccoli.

After they ordered, Beth seemed to come to a decision.

“Your grandfather had a lot of secrets, too,” she said softly to Andrew.

He leaned forward. “You never talk about him. I don’t even know what he did for a living.”

“He was a Methodist minister. He owned a small church in Mount Vernon, and he had a congregation of a few hundred.”

Andrew was shocked. A sorcerer can be a minister? he thought.

“He also had a secret life,” Beth said. “Strangers would visit him. Some of them wore blue suits and carried guns like those men back at the campus. Dad never shared his secrets with his family.”

Andrew’s father was staring at her like she had grown a third arm. Apparently, this information was news to him, too.

“I do know he did strange things in his church at night,” she added. “Nobody was ever allowed to go into the attic. It was always locked up, and he had the only key. There was a story about that place.”

“Let me guess,” Andrew said. “A mass murder.”

Beth nodded. “The kids used to say, if you went into the church at midnight, you could still hear the screaming. I tried it. It wasn’t true.” She looked down at the table.

“How did my grandfather die?”

“All I know is where it happened: in that attic. Nobody would tell me anything else, and I asked everybody. I was never allowed back into the church. It was condemned after the death. Now it looks like you’re caught up in the same business. Am I right?”

“Yeah,” Andrew admitted.

Charley frowned at him.

“You too?” his mother asked Charley.

“I’m sorry,” Charley said, “but we’re really not allowed to talk about it. Andrew has already said too much. We’ll all get into big trouble if this conversation continues, and I mean the kind of trouble that lands people in prison. Let’s change topics. OK?”

Andrew looked around the table. His mother nodded in agreement but appeared sad. His father was clearly angry, but nothing could be done about that. Andrew didn’t like the situation either.

“I want to hear stories about when Andrew was a little kid,” Charley said.

Beth smiled a little. “OK. He used to have a blanket he called his ‘binkie.’ One day, it got left out in the rain.”

“No!” Andrew groaned. “Not this one.”

She patted him on the arm. “Just be quiet, dear. Everybody loves this story.”

He put his face in his hands.

  • * *

Andrew shuffled into the storeroom in the basement of the Fine Arts Building. It was early in the morning, and he would’ve liked more sleep, but his shift was starting now. He had to guard the seam. The mess with the sorcerer the other day had reinforced how important the job was.

It was the last day of Thanksgiving break. His parents had stayed for just one night before going home. Without the other students around, the campus was quiet and lonely. He was actually looking forward to resuming his regular class schedule.

Dan Easton was in the storeroom along with one other BPI agent. The others came and went, but it seemed Dan was a permanent resident. Andrew wondered whether he had volunteered for that duty or it had been assigned to him. Dan was the youngest agent in the crowd, and perhaps he was trying to impress his superiors.

He and the other agent were sitting at a table and eating breakfast. The campus cafeteria was closed, and the food had come from McDonald’s. The aroma made Andrew’s stomach rumble.

“Sit,” Dan said. “We have some for you.”

Andrew eagerly sat at the table and opened a paper bag offered to him. He found a muffin with egg, cheese, and sausage. He took a big bite and washed it down with orange juice.

“This hits the spot,” he said. “Thanks.”

“My superiors have decided this situation is unacceptable,” Dan said.

Andrew looked over at him. Dan was wearing just a white T-shirt and plaid boxer shorts. It appeared he had slept in the clothes.

“What do you mean?” Andrew said cautiously. He braced himself for bad news.

“Tonya has to come home. Whether she likes it or not, her vacation is over. We want you and Charley to talk to her.”

“What if she doesn’t want to come home?”

“Convince her,” Dan said. “The BPI doesn’t like having a couple of kids responsible for one of the biggest, most dangerous seams in the United States.”

Andrew frowned. Tonya was an extremely stubborn woman who didn’t take orders from anybody. He didn’t see how he could change her mind about anything.

“Where is she now?”

“On a farm near Rockford,” Dan said. “Agents have been keeping an eye on her, but they haven’t approached her. That’s your job.”

“Great,” Andrew said with a sigh.

“But I have some good news, too. To save time, the BPI will fly you and Charley out there in a helicopter. It will be fun.”

Andrew cracked a smile. “Really?” He had never ridden in a helicopter.

“Yeah. Eat your breakfast. You’re leaving in an hour.”

  • * *

Andrew and Charley got out of a car driven by Dan Easton. A big, blue helicopter was parked on a square patch of asphalt. It had space for two pilots up front and several passengers in back. It looked like the kind of aircraft an important executive might own. The engine was running, but the blades weren’t spinning. Andrew and Charley grinned at each other.

The rarely seen logo of the BPI decorated the side of the helicopter. It was a black gear with a white ruler and an electrical bolt drawn on top. It had little to do with the real purpose of the agency.

Andrew and Charley climbed inside. The passenger compartment had eight seats arranged in four pairs. A carpeted aisle ran down the center of the narrow space. The two apprentices sat in the front seats.

Andrew ran his hand along the supple leather upholstery. The armrests were padded, and there was plenty of legroom. First class accommodations, he thought. I could get used to this.

Dan Easton sat behind him. The agent was wearing an official blue business suit now. Dark sunglasses and a radio earpiece completed the costume. A large gun was in a holster under his jacket.

Andrew still hadn’t quite recovered from witnessing the sorcerer die the other night. Hearing about his grandfather’s mysterious death had also rattled him. Sorcery was dangerous in many different ways. Andrew wondered if he could get some practice time on a gun range. It couldn’t hurt.

The helicopter took off. He was used to the relative quiet of commercial jets, and the loud engine noise inside the helicopter surprised him. The roar made him want to cover his ears. He noticed yellow plastic earmuffs hanging by his seat, and he slipped them over his head. The ear protection helped a lot.

Andrew looked out the window excitedly. The helicopter was flying over the western suburbs of Chicago. Streets formed neat grids, and the larger avenues marked off neighborhoods. He knew the area was actually many towns jammed together, but from the air, it was a continuous cityscape. There were a lot of trees, but they had lost their leaves and looked dead.

As the helicopter flew west, Andrew saw more open spaces between the homes. Bits of the native landscape remained undeveloped. Still, it took a surprisingly long time to reach farm country. The Chicago metropolitan area was shockingly large.

The farms of the Midwest formed a patchwork which stretched to the horizon in all directions. The farms were just bare dirt now, but Andrew could still see plow lines. Some of the fields occupied hundreds of acres.

The helicopter flew in a straight line across the landscape at an altitude of a few thousand feet. He guessed it was cruising at the speed of a fast race car. It took less than an hour to reach their destination, but it was enough time for him to get anxious. He had no idea what he would say to Tonya.

The helicopter landed in a field that didn’t look much different than the others in the area. There was a cluster of buildings at the edge which included a large farmhouse. A green tractor was pulling a single plow across the field.

That tractor immediately struck Andrew as very odd. He had grown up around farms, and he knew nobody plowed fields in November. Also, modern farmers used giant machines capable of plowing many rows at once. Andrew couldn’t remember seeing a single-blade plow in actual use.

He and Charley got out of the helicopter. Dust kicked up by the rotor wash irritated his eyes. Chilly air made him zip up his coat all the way.

Tonya was driving the tractor. She was wearing a puffy white parka, mittens, and a ski cap pulled down over her ears, but her face was recognizable. Some of her blonde hair poked out from beneath her cap.

Andrew and Charley ran across the frozen ground towards their instructor.

Tonya turned off the tractor. “I was wondering when they would send you guys to talk to me.”

“Then you can guess why we’re here,” Charley said.

“The BPI is cracking the whip. They want me back on duty, but they didn’t have the guts to tell me to my face. They sent kids to do their dirty work.”

Andrew furrowed his brow. Tonya’s ugly description of the situation was entirely accurate. He suddenly felt exploited.

He looked over at the helicopter. Dan was standing at the door with his arms crossed and an impatient expression on his face.

“Be that as it may,” Charley said, “we do need you to come back. A sorcerer got killed trying to get into the building. He threatened me with a shotgun, and it probably won’t be the last time something like that happens. Andrew and I also need to continue our training.”

Tonya looked out across the field from her seat on the tractor. “But I need to get the plowing done.”

“That’s crazy,” Andrew said. “The seeds don’t go in until spring. Who owns this farm anyway?”

“I do. It’s been in my family for generations. I leased the land to professional farmers so it would be put to good use, but it’s still mine.” She nodded towards the farmhouse. “They’re home now. They told me I could plow.”

The farmhouse was made of wide boards painted white. Andrew imagined the conversation between Tonya and the farmers. They had probably thought she was insane, and they had been right.

Andrew looked at the straight lines in the dirt. She was doing an impressive job considering the antiquated methods she was employing. The spacing was perfectly regular.

He had an insight. “You’re trying to create order in the world to balance out the chaos in your mind.”

“I guess that’s true,” Tonya said. “Living so close to a seam for so long tends to scramble one’s brain. After a while, you forget what’s real, and you don’t care.”

He remembered the nightmare he had experienced while sleeping in the storage room, and that had been just one night. She had guarded the seam for decades. It was amazing she could still think straight at all.

“You’re the strongest person I know,” Charley said. “You can handle the side effects.”

Tonya stared at her. “How do you know? You have no idea what I’m dealing with.”

“You seemed OK until the day you left.”

“Watching over two apprentices at once is turning out to be harder than I expected. It’s very stressful. Blake’s surprise appearance may have pushed me over the edge. I found a skeleton in my closet, and it talked to me in the voice of a dead lover. Tell me that’s healthy. I had to get away for a little while at least.”

Charley grimaced.

“And you’re being very selfish,” Tonya added. “Your training can wait until I feel better.”

Andrew glanced at Agent Dan again. “I don’t think the BPI will accept that answer.”

She looked in the same direction. “Bastards. They have no idea what sorcery is really about. All they see are threats and risks. They try to control what they don’t understand. They destroy what they fear. It wasn’t always like this. In ancient times, people accepted mysteries as part of the natural world. There wasn’t an obsessive need to attach scientific explanations to every last thing.”

Tonya’s bitterness surprised Andrew. He had thought she was a good soldier who didn’t mind working with the BPI. As usual, she had fooled him.

“But sorcery is scientific at some level,” he said. “We can control it, after all.”

“No. It’s anti-science. The seams allow the chaos to leak in and destroy all rationality. As sorcerers, we fool ourselves into thinking we can master it, but eventually, it always masters us. That’s why every attempt to use sorcery as a technology has failed. It’s sand in the gears. It’s termites in the woodwork. We’re addicted to the power though. We can’t stop messing with it like children playing with firecrackers.”

Andrew looked to Charley for help, but she had a lost expression. He knew intuitively Tonya was right, and sorcery was a self-destructive art, but quitting wasn’t an option. He was hopelessly addicted.

Tonya climbed down from the tractor. “And unfortunately, I love it as much as anybody. The last few days have been hard. Life away from my seam is worse than being chained up in a prison cell. I can’t do anything out here. As risky as it is, I have to go back.”

She started trudging through the dirt towards the helicopter.

“No,” Andrew said, “wait. To hell with the BPI. You need to stay on this farm until you’re completely sane again.”

Tonya snorted. “That’s never going to happen. Come on.”

Andrew and Charley followed her reluctantly back to the helicopter. He felt like he had failed but not because he hadn’t completed his assignment. Tonya was going home for the wrong reasons. She had fatalistically accepted a life at the border of insanity rather than trying to find a real fix.

Andrew’s opinion about sorcery in general had just taken a big hit. Instead of a thrilling adventure into the unknown, it was a high-risk business with murky, selfish goals. There has to be a way to make it better for everybody, he thought.

When the sorcerers reached the helicopter, Dan said, “Nice job, guys. Tonya, it will be good to have you back. We missed you.”

Tonya gave him a hostile look but kept quiet.

Everybody climbed into the helicopter. If she was impressed by the transportation, she didn’t show it.

Once they were in the air, Tonya turned to Charley and said, “Tell me exactly what happened while I was gone.”

“A sorcerer was trying to sneak into the building,” Charley said. “I didn’t recognize him.” She went into the details.

Tonya was thoughtful for a long moment. “A number of years ago, I had an apprentice. He lacked mental discipline and was never able to pass the sorcerer’s exam. Eventually, he quit in frustration. He joined the military and served a couple of tours of duty. I was hopeful he had found a life outside of sorcery, but I should’ve known better. One day, he snuck away from his base and was never seen again. The BPI searched for him unsuccessfully. I’m guessing that was him the other night.”

“He was desperate to get to the seam,” Andrew said.

“I’m sure.”

Nobody spoke for a few minutes. Andrew imagined himself in the same situation as that apprentice. How far would he go to get back the feeling of power he had when performing sorcery?

“My parents saw the body,” he said. “My mother kind of guessed what had happened. She had seen BPI agents hanging around my grandfather.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Tonya said.

“This mess really screwed up my Thanksgiving break.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

Andrew shrugged. “I don’t blame you. It’s not like you wanted to go crazy.”

He looked out the window. The checkerboard of farms below was endless. The sight was impressive but a little sad at the same time. Mankind had conquered the land completely and had left no room for nature.

“At least I still have Christmas break,” he added. “That’s the big one.”

“Not quite,” Tonya said.

He turned to her. “Why not?”

She looked back and forth between Andrew and Charley. “I’m afraid you two have a job to do. The BPI needs sorcerers to search for new seams. When school is out, it’s the perfect time for you to go.”

“But we’re just apprentices.”

“You’re sensitive enough to detect a seam, and that’s the only requirement. The BPI will escort you, of course. All expenses paid and first-class transportation. It’s a business trip.”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “But I want to go home!”

“You can visit your parents,” Tonya said, “but don’t plan on spending much time there. The BPI will have a long list of places for you to investigate. I can’t go because I have to guard my own seam.”

He clenched his jaw.

“Andrew and I will be together?” Charley said.

“Yes,” Tonya said. “This time, at least. You’ll watch each other’s back.”

Andrew looked at Charley’s pretty face. A long vacation with her didn’t sound so bad. It would be an opportunity for him to move their relationship to the next level, and he liked the idea of the BPI paying for everything. He wasn’t sure how he would break the news to his parents though.

Chapter Ten

Andrew looked out the window of the limousine. There was nothing but farmland outside, and he sighed with boredom. He had a portable video game, but tired thumbs and lack of interest had forced him to take a break.

Charley was also riding in the back of the limousine, and she was reading a book on a tablet. Agent Dan was driving.

The limousine was nice. White bench seats provided plenty of room to stretch out. There was a wet bar, but it was stocked with soft drinks and juice instead of alcohol. The heating system could be configured to make some areas warmer than others. The stereo had eight speakers and enough power to hurt his ears. Tinted windows kept the bright sunlight out.

Despite the pleasant accommodations, Andrew would be glad when the trip was over. They had been on the road for three days, stopping every few hours. The routine was getting tedious.

“Want to play truth or dare?” he said.

“Now?” Charley said. “Not really.”

“Then maybe just truth. I’m curious about your, uh, former relationships.”

“We’re not even officially dating, and you’re already jealous about by ex’s? How typically male.”

Andrew’s face grew warm.

“I already told you I never had much luck with guys,” she added. “They usually liked my body but not my brain. I was almost raped once by a football jock who didn’t appreciate being called an idiot.”

“What?!”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s in the past.”

He frowned.

“Five minute warning,” Dan yelled from the front seat.

Everybody put aside their devices. Andrew pulled on a green winter coat, a black ski cap, and gloves. Charley was wearing a white parka and a cute pink winter hat. Flaps with tassels covered her ears. She grabbed an expensive camera from an adjacent seat.

“Where is the next stop?” Andrew asked.

Dan glanced at the display on the navigation system. “Boonville.”

“Never heard of it. What state?”

“Indiana.”

Andrew nodded. They had gone back and forth across the Midwest so many times, he had completely lost track of their location.

The limousine drove into a small town. The largest building was a county courthouse located in a park. It was surrounded by restaurants, a hardware store, an antique store, a beauty salon, and other small businesses. The rest of the town seemed to be residential.

Dan made several turns before finding the right address. He parked on a narrow street with cracked pavement. Only one side had a sidewalk, and it also needed repairs. The very plain homes were made of wood with just a few bricks used decoratively. A snarl of overhead power and telephone lines looked like something from a slum.

Everybody got out of the car. It was cold outside, and patches of icy snow decorated the ground. Andrew made sure his coat was zipped up all the way.

Dan checked a clipboard in his hand and then pointed to a gray house at the end of the block. “Two months ago, a bungled robbery turned into a hostage situation and a stand-off with the police. In the end, the robber, a cop, and a family of four got killed. Go.”

Andrew and Charley walked down the block towards the house.

“Remember,” she said, “project innocent enthusiasm.”

“I know that,” he said.

“Your performance wasn’t so great on the last one.”

“You’re giving me notes?” He gave her a sharp look. “As long as we’re on the topic, you’re overusing that camera as a prop. You don’t have to take pictures of everything.”

The two of them walked up to the house. It was small and needed a fresh coat of paint. The windows were tall, narrow, and dirty. Andrew knocked on the door, causing it to rattle in the frame.

After a minute, the door opened, and an old woman peered out. She was wearing a long blue nightgown with puffy shoulders.

“Can I help you?” she said.

Charley smiled. “Yes,” she said with innocent enthusiasm. “We’re journalism students from Indianapolis University. Our professor sent us down here to do a story on the murders.”

“But they happened two months ago.”

“It’s just a class project. May we come in, please?”

Andrew gave the old woman his most innocent smile.

She frowned. “I suppose you kids look alright.” She opened the door.

Andrew and Charley walked in. The front room contained an old couch and a television. There was no other furniture and nothing on the walls.

“I’m Emily.” Charley cheerfully offered her hand.

The old woman shook her hand. “I’m Ruth.”

“Did you know the victims?”

“No. The probate court appointed me as caretaker of the home.”

“Oh,” Charley said. “Then I suppose we don’t need to interview you. Can you show us where the murders occurred? I need to take some pictures.” She held up her camera.

Ruth led the apprentices through the sparsely furnished house to the kitchen. She pulled open a narrow door which led to a large pantry. The white shelves were bare. A tiny, high window allowed a little natural light to spill in.

“The hostages were tied up in here,” Ruth said. “That’s where they died.”

Andrew saw dark splotches on the wooden floor, and he recognized them as old blood stains. He had seen similar stains several times over the last three days.

Charley took a number of pictures, paying extra attention to the stains.

Andrew stepped back, closed his eyes, and used his inner sight. It was possible the violent deaths had left a seam behind, particularly if a latent sorcerer had been a victim. He sensed absolutely no energy though. The walls of reality were solid and strong here.

Andrew opened his eyes and tapped Ruth on the shoulder. She turned to him.

“Must be scary living alone in a murder house,” he said.

She shrugged. “Not really.”

While Ruth was distracted, Charley closed her eyes and relaxed.

“You’re not worried about ghosts?” Andrew said.

Ruth smiled a little. “No such thing.”

Charley opened her eyes and shook her head. She had also sensed nothing.

“We should probably get going,” Andrew said. “The pictures were all we really needed. Thanks.”

Ruth showed them out. She seemed disappointed about the very short visit, and Andrew speculated she was lonely.

He and Charley trotted back to the limousine.

“Anything?” Dan said.

“No,” Andrew said. “It’s clean in there.”

Charley nodded in agreement.

“Good,” Dan said. “The Warrick County Sheriff Office is next. There is some evidence you need to look at. It’s just across town.”

Everybody returned to their places inside the limousine. Andrew was too warm in his winter coat, but he kept it on. He expected to be outside again shortly.

“After we’re done in this town,” he said, “can we visit my parents?”

Dan checked his clipboard. “I don’t know. We still have a long list of places to go.”

“You promised.”

“I suppose we can afford to take a day off. We’re ahead of schedule.”

“Thanks.” Andrew smiled.

The trip across Boonville took only a few minutes. The Sheriff Office was a collection of green and white buildings on the edge of town. They looked more like big metal sheds than a center of law enforcement. A white picket fence surrounded the building in front.

“You’re just going to walk in there and demand to see evidence?” Andrew said.

“Why not?” Dan said. “We’re federal agents.”

Andrew realized he was a federal agent, technically, but he didn’t feel like one.

Dan parked in front of the building, and everybody got out again. He led the group into a small lobby. Deputies and clerks in brown uniforms looked at the visitors curiously.

“Stay here,” Dan said. “I’ll go talk to the sheriff first.” He walked off.

Andrew turned to Charley. They had spent three days together, but Dan had given them little private time. He had acted like a fussy and suspicious mother more often than not. Charley had slept in her own hotel room every night.

“This vacation hasn’t been a lot of fun,” he said.

She nodded. “I never thought I’d get sick of riding in a fancy limousine, but looking at all the crime scenes is depressing. I’ve had enough.”

“I agree. People are sick. If I never hear about another murder, it will be fine.”

She sighed.

“Hey,” he said with a wry smile, “at least we have each other for company.”

“Yeah. I’m a little nervous about visiting your home.” She furrowed her brow.

“Why? My parents liked you last time.”

“You’re sure? Your mother was judging me the whole time.”

“She’s deciding if you’re good enough to be my girlfriend.” Andrew winked.

“Exactly.” Charley didn’t sound amused. “And it will be hard to tell her we’re ‘just friends’ when I’m travelling with you.”

“I’m ready to be more than just friends.”

“I know, but I’m still not sure that’s a smart move. We have to work together. Business and sex don’t mix well.”

He wasn’t going to argue with her. He was counting on patience and charm to eventually win her heart.

Dan returned with a female deputy. She was a stout woman wearing glasses with thick frames. Ruddy skin made Andrew think she had been exercising, but she wasn’t out of breath.

The deputy led everybody to a big room in the back of the building. It was full of lockers and cages of all sizes. Cardboard boxes were stacked high and deep inside the cages, and in some cases, the boxes on the bottom were being crushed. Bigger evidence was placed on shelves, and Andrew saw a couple of rifles and several shotguns.

“I can’t believe you’re showing this evidence to kids.” The deputy gave Andrew and Charley a funny look.

“We have our reasons,” Dan said. “Just pull it out for us.”

The deputy unlocked a cage and retrieved some boxes. She placed them on a heavy steel table in the center of the room.

Andrew reached for one of the boxes. Dan nodded, giving his permission, and Andrew pulled off a lid.

The box was full of items, each tagged and stored in a separate plastic bag. He found rope with blood stains, rusty handcuffs, a wooden mallet, three guns, a coil of barbed wire, safety goggles, a sex toy, wire cutters, and other disturbing artifacts. He didn’t know the story behind the evidence, and he didn’t want to know. His imagination was bad enough.

There were four boxes. Andrew sifted through two of them, and Charley examined the other two. It was solemn, depressing work until Andrew came across a dagger.

The polished blade was a foot long, and the edges were slightly serrated. Thin lines were etched into the surface, and the intricate pattern reminded him of the rings in a tree. Steel wire and leather cords were wrapped tightly around the hilt.

He picked up the dagger in its plastic bag and sensed energy flickering inside. The seam was tiny but unmistakable.

A portable seam, he thought. He handed the dagger to Charley.

Her eyes widened as she examined it closely. “Amazing,” she whispered.

“Found something?” Dan said.

Andrew nodded. “Yes.”

“Give it to me.”

Charley gave the dagger to Dan, and he slipped it into a pocket inside his jacket. He covered it with his arms protectively.

“Hey!” the deputy said. “You can’t take that. It’s evidence.”

Dan opened up his wallet, took out a business card, and handed it to her.

“Call my office in Washington,” he said. “Ask for the director, and he’ll explain the situation to you. Or you can file an official complaint. It will be given all the attention it’s due.”

The deputy stared at the card with an expression of disbelief.

Dan turned to Andrew. “Check the rest of it.”

Andrew and Charley finished picking through the evidence but found no more seams. Then they and Dan left the Sheriff Office.

Dan looked very nervous as they walked outside. He kept a hand near his gun, and his eyes were constantly moving.

“How rare are portable seams?” Andrew said.

“Very,” Dan said. “This is the first one I’ve seen in the wild.”

He opened the trunk of the limousine and pushed aside the luggage inside. A safe was mounted in the well where a spare tire would normally be. He used his body as a shield as he opened the combination lock. Andrew caught a glimpse of the empty interior of the safe. Dan placed the knife inside, closed the door, and wiggled the handle to confirm it was locked.

“But you’ve seen them before?” Andrew said.

“During my training,” Dan said. “The BPI keeps them in a secret vault. That’s where this one is going. A courier will pick it up.” He closed the trunk of the limousine.

“Where is the vault?”

“I don’t know, and just asking the question can get us into trouble. Don’t do it again. A separate department is responsible for vault security.”

Everybody climbed back into the vehicle. The interior was still warm, and Andrew unzipped his coat.

“Can we go to my parents now?” he said.

Dan frowned and checked his clipboard. After a long moment, he said, “I suppose you’ve earned it. Where do they live?”

“Marion, Illinois.”

Dan started tapping on the navigation system.

A few minutes later, they were underway. Andrew smiled at Charley, and she smiled back, but her expression was more polite than enthusiastic.

He could feel the seam in the trunk. It glowed dully like the last ember of a dying fire, but it still had power. It lubricated his mind and freed his creative energies. He had missed that exciting sensation over the last few days.

Andrew was so carried away, he decided to have a little fun. He focused hard on the back of Dan’s head. Andrew wanted to create the illusion that Dan had pink hair, but the task was harder than expected. Andrew was accustomed to the Theosophical seam which was a fire hose of raw power compared to the trickle he was using now. Performing even a simple spell was like trying to suck honey through a narrow straw.

After sweating it out for a few minutes, Andrew managed to give Dan a pink streak. It was enough to make Andrew smirk.

Charley leaned over and punched him in the shoulder. “Stop that!”

He allowed the illusion to dissipate.

“What?” Dan said.

Charley shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. Andrew was just being a twerp.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. She doesn’t have to be nasty about it, he thought.

The limousine reached the highway and picked up speed. They were passing through farmland again, and it was just as flat and uninteresting as the thousands of other farms he had seen. He was very glad he didn’t work in agriculture.

The seam in the trunk continued to distract him. He tried to ignore it, but it tempted him like a juicy, sweet piece of fruit.

Andrew remembered a question from a long time ago. Now seemed like a good time to ask.

“What’s a living seam?” he said.

Charley glanced at Dan nervously. “That’s when a seam attaches directly to a sorcerer.”

“That sounds great,” Andrew said. “You can take your seam with you wherever you go.”

“It’s extremely rare and dangerous.”

Dan glanced back over his shoulder at the two of them. “There hasn’t been a living seam in centuries,” he said. “If the BPI discovered one, we would have to kill him. A sorcerer with that kind of power would be impossible to restrain.”

“Oh,” Andrew said.

As usual, Dan had sucked all the fun out of the conversation.

Andrew went back to his hand-held video game. It would be a long drive to reach his house.

  • * *

Marion, Illinois was another small Midwest town, much like hundreds Andrew had seen over the last few days. It had three distinguishing features: it was located on a major interstate highway, it was near a large lake, and it was his home town.

Andrew directed Dan to get off the highway and to drive down Main Street. The limousine passed the field where Andrew had played little league baseball. His high school, which had intimidated him years ago, was now a comforting sight. They passed the convenience store where he had once been caught shoplifting bubblegum. He looked up at a billboard which had been the subject of several contentious town meetings.

His nostalgia was mixed with mild disappointment. He had spent enough time in Chicago to know what a real city looked like. Marion wouldn’t even qualify as an interesting suburb of Chicago. Everything looked cheap and tacky to his more experienced eye.

“Nice,” Charley said.

Andrew nodded vaguely. “I guess.”

After a few turns, the limousine reached his childhood home on Chestnut Street. He had grown up in a two-story green house with white trim. He had taken pride in living in one of the bigger houses in the neighborhood, but looking at it now, he realized it wasn’t so impressive. Tonya’s home was bigger.

The driveway had been repaved recently, but the surface had humps and ripples. Andrew guessed his father had done the work. Percival had an unreasonably high opinion of his own skills as a handyman. A new satellite dish looked like an amateur had installed it.

“You and Charley can go in without me,” Dan said. “I’ll be fine out here in the car.”

Andrew and Charley got out. They were well south of Chicago, and the temperature was noticeably warmer. Only a little snow was on the ground. He eagerly went to the front door and knocked. He had called ahead, so his parents were expecting him.

Andrew’s father answered the door. He was wearing a brown shirt and black pants, his uniform when working at his coffee shop. He had obviously just come home from work. The stubble on his chin was a little longer than normal.

“Hi!” Percival looked out the door at the limousine. “You’re travelling in style.”

“This is kind of a business trip,” Andrew said. “Can we come in?”

“Sure. Of course. It’s nice to see you again, Charley.”

Andrew and Charley walked into the family room. A big, tan couch faced a brick fireplace. The television was at an angle off to the side. A vase containing fresh flowers was on a coffee table made of driftwood. Andrew’s mother made sure visitors were always greeted by fresh flowers.

Beth came running out of the kitchen and gave him a big hug. She was wearing a white shirt and a black skirt. She smelled like hair spray, and her hair felt a little crunchy under his hands.

She stepped back and looked at Andrew. “You look good.”

She also gave Charley a hug, but the gesture was tentative.

“They came in a limousine,” Percival said.

Beth looked out the window. Andrew saw Agent Dan leaning against the car with his arms crossed.

She sighed. “And they brought company.”

“Don’t worry about that guy,” Andrew said. “He doesn’t have to come in if you don’t want him to. Can Charley stay here tonight?”

“Sure. She can have the guest room, and you’ll sleep in your old bedroom.”

“Great! We’ll go get our luggage.”

Andrew and Charley went back outside.

“Both of us are staying here,” he said to Dan. “We need our suitcases.”

Dan nodded. “I’ll find a hotel nearby. Stay here. Don’t wander off. Call if there is a problem.”

The apprentices retrieved their luggage from the trunk of the limousine. Andrew sensed the tiny seam in the safe, and he lingered a little longer than necessary. He loved the extra jolt of power.

He and Charley returned to the house. Dan drove off.

  • * *

“That was a great dinner, Mom,” Andrew said.

He leaned back in his chair and sighed. His belly was uncomfortably full of beef brisket, baked potatoes, and lima beans. He had been away from his mother’s cooking for too long.

Percival stood up. “Let’s go into the den while the ladies clean up,” he said to Andrew.

Charley frowned. She obviously didn’t like the assumption she would help with the dishes just because she was a woman. Andrew shrugged and smiled apologetically.

He and his father went into the den. It had a desk, a leather couch, a pool table, and another television. Brown curtains covered the windows. Percival didn’t actually spend a lot of time in the den, but he believed all men needed one, and the big house had extra space. The television was useful during football season though.

He walked over to the pool table. “You still remember how to play?”

“Sure,” Andrew said.

His father racked the balls. Andrew shot the opening break, and the cue ball made a satisfying crack as it struck. Two balls went down. He walked around the table as he selected his next shot.

“I’m still upset with you.”

Andrew looked at his father with surprise. “Why?”

“You’re keeping secrets from us, and they seem like important secrets.”

“I explained before. A federal agency told me not to talk.”

“Are you training to be a spy or something?” Percival said. “Did the CIA recruit you?’

“Uh, right. I’m going to work in intelligence. Being a spy was my life-long dream.”

Andrew took his shot but missed.

“The FBI?” his father said as he chalked his cue. “Is that it?”

“Do you really think I’ll tell you?”

“You can trust me. I’m your dad.”

Andrew shook his head. “It’s not a question of trust. I’d tell you everything if I could, but it’s illegal.”

His father made a great shot and pocketed a ball in the far corner. He walked around and dropped a second ball just as sweetly.

“And Charley is in the same boat?”

“Yes,” Andrew said.

“She seems like a nice girl.”

“She’s great.”

“Are you two…?” Percival’s face reddened.

“Not yet. She wants to take it slow.”

“Oh. Then why is she travelling with you?”

“It’s a business trip,” Andrew said. “We’re working together.”

His father furrowed his brow with obvious dissatisfaction.

“Can we just play pool? Or talk about something that won’t get me into trouble?”

His father smiled. “Sure. Oh, we just got a new machine in the coffee shop: the birra eccezionale. It can crank out two shots of espresso in five seconds. It’s a miracle of modern science.”

Andrew relaxed. He didn’t care so much about coffee, but in this case, he was happy to listen.

  • * *

Andrew yawned as he walked down the stairs of his home. He treaded lightly on the creaky wooden steps. It was early in the morning, and he didn’t want to wake anybody up, but he was hungry. He had decided to make himself a light breakfast while he waited for the rest of the crowd.

When he walked into the kitchen, he was surprised to find his mother sitting at the table. She was stirring a cup of coffee with a spoon, but she seemed more interested in looking at it than drinking it. She was wearing a white nightgown with a floral pattern embroidered in the cloth.

She looked up. “Oh, Andrew, good morning. I didn’t expect you up so early.”

“You should be sleeping, too.” Andrew sat at the table with her.

“I was too anxious. I’ll make you breakfast.”

His mother got up and went to the refrigerator.

Everything in the kitchen was painted white, giving it an airy feel. The cabinets employed a traditional Midwest style with long, straight, clean lines. The light fixtures were hanging jelly jars with light bulbs inside. The red tile floor was the worst feature of the kitchen. Decades of use had left the tiles scuffed, chipped, and dingy.

“What are you anxious about?” Andrew said.

“You. I’m afraid you’ll go down the same path as your grandfather. He was a stranger to his own family. I often wonder what he was doing in the attic of that church, and I suspect you have an idea.” She paused. “Do you want pancakes?”

“Sure.”

Beth assembled the ingredients for making pancakes from scratch. She would never consider using a premade mix. She pulled out flour, baking powder, sugar, milk, eggs, and butter.

“I want to see the church,” Andrew said. “Is it far from here?”

“It’s about an hour up the interstate. I haven’t been there in almost twenty years. I don’t even know if it’s still standing, and if it is, we might not be able to get inside. I suppose we could go there today.”

“Oh, but there’s a problem.” He frowned. “The feds want me to stay put.”

“Are you on parole?”

“No, but it seems like that sometimes. I’ll talk to them. I’ll make it happen somehow.”

“Just let me know what the plan is,” Beth said.

The aroma of pancakes soon filled the kitchen. Charley and Percival magically appeared just as the first batch was finished. They had probably smelled the food from their bedrooms. Everybody ate enthusiastically.

When breakfast was over, Andrew went back to his bedroom to get his phone. He called Agent Dan.

“Yes?” Dan said. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Andrew said. “I just called to notify you. We’re going to visit the church where my grandfather used to preach today. I want to reconnect with my past.”

Dan hesitated. “Not a good idea.”

“I don’t see the harm.”

“I do.”

Andrew sat on the edge of his bed. It was the bed he had used growing up, and his feet banged the footboard when he stretched out, so he had to sleep at an angle. Posters from his favorite movies decorated the walls. The collection included The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The NeverEnding Story, Avatar, and Pan’s Labyrinth. A replica medieval sword hung on the wall, but the blade was dull and made of aluminum.

“You won’t let me see the place where my ancestor died?” Andrew said. “That’s not fair.”

“A seam is there,” Dan said, “and the sorcerer who owns it won’t appreciate a couple of kids making a surprise visit.”

Andrew clenched his jaw. He didn’t like being called a kid.

“We’ll explain the situation to him. We’re just apprentices. We can’t attack him.”

“I’d better come along,” Dan said.

Andrew lowered his head. The response didn’t surprise him, but he was disappointed nonetheless. He didn’t want an official babysitter.

“Fine. I’ll call you when I have more details.” Andrew hung up the phone.

He went back down to the kitchen. Charley and his parents were still at the table.

“Well?” Beth said.

“Good news and bad news,” Andrew said. “We can go, but our friendly federal agent is coming with us.”

Everybody appeared troubled, but nobody voiced any objections.

Beth stood up. “I remembered something while you were upstairs. I still have a few things from your grandfather. You might be interested.”

“Absolutely,” Andrew said enthusiastically.

“Mind if I tag along?” Charley said.

The three of them went upstairs and continued upwards to the attic. Andrew’s father didn’t believe in throwing out anything that might have the slightest value, and most of the junk had found its way to the attic. Every piece of clothing Andrew had outgrown was up there. Christmas lights and ornaments filled boxes. There was a bicycle built for two which had been ridden only once. Stacks of rubber bins were full of stuff that would probably never see the light of day again.

Beth pulled a cardboard box out of a pile, set it on the floor, and opened it.

Andrew peered inside and found several textbooks covering physics and philosophy. He had seen similar material in Tonya’s office. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant looked particularly well worn, and some pages were bookmarked.

Andrew opened the book and read, “‘All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.’”

“Profound,” Charley said.

He nodded. He dug into the box again and found an old Navy uniform with ribbons and the silver bars of a lieutenant.

“My grandfather was in the Navy?” Andrew said.

“I think he fought in Korea,” Beth said. “He was an engineer.”

“Not a preacher?”

“He came to that profession late in life.”

Andrew opened a small velvet box and discovered a square chunk of lead. Streaks of gold ran through the lead like veins in a mineral formation.

“Strange,” Andrew said.

Charley took the block of metal and held it up. A single bulb provided all the light in the attic, and the gold gleamed.

“Mrs. Kenworthy,” she said. “Can we please have a few minutes alone?”

Beth frowned. “Sure. I’ll just go clean up the kitchen.”

“Thank you.”

She went downstairs.

When Andrew and Charley were alone, he whispered, “What is it?”

“I think your grandfather turned lead into gold,” she replied.

“I’ve seen Tonya do that.”

“But not permanently. Transmutations don’t stick. A good sorcerer can make the change last for a few minutes, and a great one can make it last an hour. Then the material snaps back to its original form. The world always remembers its proper shape.”

“I’ve wondered why sorcerers don’t get rich creating gold and diamonds,” Andrew said.

Charley nodded. “Only a few legendary sorcerers were able to cause permanent change. It looks like your grandfather was one of them.” She stared at the block. “Wow.”

She took a turn digging in the box. She pulled out a bundle of letters on yellowed paper tied with a red ribbon. She untied the ribbon and examined the letters one at a time.

“Well?” Andrew said.

“Love letters, and all from different women.” She smirked. “He was quite a ladies man.”

He took another turn at the box. The last item was a framed, black and white photograph of two men together. They were standing in front of a white wooden building in a rural location. It looked like a church.

“Interesting,” Andrew said. “I want to show this to my mom.”

He went downstairs. Beth was cleaning up the kitchen, and Percival was watching the morning news in the living room.

“What’s this?” Andrew showed the photo to his mother.

She frowned at it. “I remember that picture. The man on the left is your grandfather. I don’t know who his friend is. I saw him a few times but never got his name. They’re in front of the church we’re going to see today.”

Andrew looked closely at his grandfather. In the picture, he appeared to be in his forties. He had short, spiky hair and a very stern expression on his narrow face. It was hard to judge his height, but he seemed tall. His beard reached down to the middle of his chest.

“The other guy must be important if they went to the trouble of framing a photograph,” Andrew said.

“I expect so.”

There was something vaguely familiar about the other man’s face. After a minute, Andrew realized the stranger had a family resemblance to Blake. Must be his father, Andrew thought. Blake had mentioned his father had been close to Andrew’s grandfather.

“Get dressed,” Beth said. “We’ll leave for the church as soon as everybody is ready.”

Andrew nodded. “I can’t wait.” Maybe I’ll finally get some answers.

Chapter Eleven

Andrew’s father parked the brown Cadillac Escalade in front of a small church. It was painted white, but the paint had peeled in spots, exposing wood underneath. A steeple above the entrance reached high into the air, but the rest was just one story. Tall, narrow windows were made of stained glass. An ugly chain-link fence formed a square around the church, and signs read, “PRIVATE PROPERTYKEEP OUT.” A heavy chain and padlock sealed the lone gate in the fence, and it wasn’t obvious how to get in.

Andrew got out of the SUV and looked around. The church was at the intersection of two country roads. Farms occupied the other three corners, and bare dirt fields stretched to the horizon. Patches of snow contrasted against the dark ground.

A black limousine parked next to the SUV, and Agent Dan got out. He was wearing a heavy blue coat, blue pants, and black leather shoes. He looked at the church and narrowed his eyes.

Andrew couldn’t sense the portable seam in the trunk of the limousine. It was gone. He expected the BPI had sent somebody to fetch it and convey it to the famous “vault.”

Andrew turned his attention back to the church. He could feel a seam pulsing inside like a throbbing wound. It wasn’t near the potency of the Theosophical seam, but the one in the church was still substantial. Something very bad had happened here a long time ago.

Andrew’s parents and Charlie joined Andrew. Nobody spoke. The morning was quiet and still.

A man ran out of the church. His wild brown hair needed a trim, and he had a scruffy beard. He was wearing a jean coat with a sheepskin lining.

“What the hell is this?” he yelled. “Go away! I’m warning you…”

He stared straight at Andrew. The black energy of a sorcerer surrounded the man, and he was probably detecting the same in Andrew and Charlie. The situation had the potential of becoming very ugly.

Andrew raised his hands. “Calm down. We come in peace. Can we talk?”

The sorcerer approached the fence with his arms crossed. His eyes were narrow with suspicion.

Andrew waved for his parents to stay back. He, Charley, and Dan met the sorcerer at the fence.

“You look very young,” the sorcerer said. “Are you apprentices?”

“Yes,” Charley replied. “Tonya is our master.”

“Tonya?” His face suddenly showed more respect. “She’s teaching both of you at once?”

“Yes,” Andrew said. “I’m Andrew Kenworthy. My grandfather died here.”

The sorcerer’s eyes widened in shock. “You’re that boy?” He settled himself. “I’m Will, and you look like a BPI agent.” He turned to Dan.

Dan nodded. “That’s right.”

“I’d like to look inside for just a couple of minutes,” Andrew said. “I want to see the place where my ancestor passed away.”

“I’ll make sure there’s no trouble,” Dan added.

“How do you expect to do that?” Will stared. “Use your amazing BPI anti-sorcery ray?”

“Well, I, uh….”

“I won’t do anything,” Andrew said, “I just want to look. I promise.”

“Sorry,” Will said. “It’s my seam. Tonya’s pets aren’t welcome.”

“But my grandfather…”

“If old man Gustav were still here, he might give you a tour. Too bad he blew himself to bits.”

Andrew raised his eyebrows. “How did he die?”

“Nobody told you the story?”

“No.”

“He was messing with the infernal arts,” Will said. “He accidently turned himself and a couple of other sorcerers into meat bombs. The BPI was scrubbing blood off the walls for days.”

His callous attitude angered Andrew.

“I still want to see the place, please.”

Will furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. “OK, but just you. I’m pretty sure I can take you down if you get feisty. No girlfriend and no fed.” He nodded towards Charley and Dan. “Only you. If you want me to trust you, then you have to trust me.”

Andrew wasn’t sure he trusted Will that much. Andrew would be alone in Will’s place of power, and the sorcerer obviously wasn’t friendly. Anything could happen.

“Fine,” Andrew said after thinking about it. “I’ll take that risk.”

Dan shook his head. “No. This isn’t going to work.”

“I’ll just be five minutes,” Andrew pleaded.

“I can monitor the situation from out here,” Charley said. “If either of them fire off any spells, I’ll sense it.”

Dan frowned, but he eventually nodded. “OK. Five minutes.”

Will unlocked the gate with a key. As soon as Andrew was through, Will locked it again. Andrew suddenly felt like an animal trapped in a cage.

They went into the church. The main hall had been converted into a giant studio apartment. There was a bedroom, a living room, a library, a kitchen, and even a gym area, all in a single open space. The stage in front had become a private movie theater. It was everything a solitary bachelor could want.

“Nice,” Andrew said with sincerity, “but I want to see the attic.”

Will gave him a suspicious look. “Don’t forget I’m a stronger sorcerer. You may have freaky talent, but I have a lot more training and experience.”

“You can tell I have freaky talent?”

“Yeah. It’s obvious why Tonya wanted you and the girl to herself. You’re monsters in the making.”

Andrew felt special even though the comment wasn’t meant as a compliment.

They climbed a steep, narrow staircase at the side of the stage. The wooden boards creaked alarmingly, and he was worried they wouldn’t bear his weight.

Will and Andrew reached the top and walked into a loft. It contained the odd items Andrew had come to expect in a sorcerer’s workplace. There were raw materials that could be manipulated and puzzles for honing the intellect. A tall, elaborate contraption allowed marbles to roll through a labyrinth of jumps, loops, and tubes. Watching it would help restore order to the mind, and Andrew decided he would build something like it back at the university.

A seam throbbed in the center of the attic. It was a knot of angry energy which could never be untied.

“What’s the story behind this seam?” Andrew said.

“A Christian cult predicted the apocalypse,” Will said. “They called themselves the Apocalypse Cult. What a dumb name. They performed a ritual mass suicide so they wouldn’t have to witness the end of the world. Women and kids, too. Are we done? Your five minutes is about up.”

“I guess so.”

Andrew had hoped visiting the place would bring some insight into the cause of his grandfather’s death, but it wasn’t happening. No obvious trace of his ancestor remained.

They went back down to the main hall.

“You live here by yourself?” Andrew said.

“Sure,” Will said. “Just me and my seam.”

“Must get lonely.”

“Women screw with your mind. They make sorcery harder and more dangerous. Sex between talented sorcerers is particularly risky and can have all kinds of unintended side-effects. Remember that when you’re banging that girl.”

“But I’m not…” Andrew said.

Will walked out the front door, and Andrew followed. Will unlocked the gate so he could leave. As soon as Andrew was clear, Will closed the gate and returned to the church without another word.

Charley and Dan were standing by the gate. Andrew’s parents were still near the car.

“Well?” Charley said.

“It was just a seam.” Andrew shrugged.

Dan nodded. “I could’ve told you that. I’m not sure what you expected to find.”

Andrew noticed his parents looked annoyed. He walked over with an apologetic expression.

“What does it look like inside?” his mother said.

“The church has been converted into a private home,” Andrew said. “It’s not very interesting. There was no point in coming here. By the way, what happened to all of my grandfather’s stuff?”

“I don’t know. That box you saw was all I got. I think the authorities took the rest away.”

Charley’s phone rang. Andrew looked over curiously, wondering who might be calling. She answered the call and talked for a moment. Then she waved for him to join her, and he hurried over.

“What’s going on?” Andrew said.

Dan also joined the conversation. Charley put the phone into speaker mode to create a conference call.

“Everybody is here,” she said. “Say it again.”

“Serkan has gone missing,” a woman replied through the phone. It was Tonya’s voice.

“What do you mean?” Andrew said.

“It’s pretty obvious what I mean. Keene just called me, and he’s very concerned. Serkan last spoke to him three days ago.”

“That’s a long time.”

“Serkan is a journeyman,” Tonya said. “He often takes long trips. This is his last chance to explore the world before he has to settle down. Three days without making contact with his master is suspicious though. Andrew and Charley, I want you to quietly assist Keene with finding his lost apprentice. Let’s avoid turning this matter into a crisis. Keene can’t travel because he has to guard his seam, so you’ll have to do the legwork for him. Hopefully, it will turn out to be nothing. Serkan will show up with a great story to tell, and all will be forgiven.”

“This is Agent Dan Easton,” Dan said into the phone. “You can’t just reassign Andrew and Charley out from under me. I have a long list of places they need to visit. If Serkan is really missing, the BPI will send another team to investigate.”

“They’re my apprentices, and I set their priorities. They will look for Serkan. Your precious list can wait.”

“You don’t…”

“Listen!” Tonya said angrily. “I’m a fucking master sorcerer. I’ve reshaped the fabric of the universe with the power of my imagination. I’ve stood at the precipice of reality and stared into the chaotic abyss. You’re just a punk with a badge. I suggest you show more respect. But if you want to get bureaucratic on me, I’ll be happy to call Director Webster. He’ll agree searching for a missing sorcerer is more important.”

Dan was silent for a moment. “You’re probably right,” he finally admitted, “but the BPI needs to know about this.”

“I’m sure they already know. They tap our phones. Some asshole in Washington is listening to us right now. Andrew and Charley, go straight to Keene in Atlanta. He’ll give you further instructions.” There was a click, and the call ended.

Andrew and Charley exchanged anxious looks.

He faced his parents. “I have to say goodbye.” He ran over to them. “I’m sorry, but I’m going to cut this visit short. Charley and I have to work.”

“Now?” Beth said in a distressed tone. “But you just got home yesterday.”

“Are you ever going to explain what’s going on?” Percival said angrily.

“Maybe,” Andrew said. “Someday, I hope, but not now. I have to run.”

He gave his mother a warm hug and shook his father’s hand.

Andrew jogged back to the limousine and sat inside beside Charley. She gave him a weak smile. Dan sat in the driver’s seat, started the engine, and drove off.

“Our luggage is still at my house,” Andrew said.

“I’ll have another agent fetch it,” Dan said. “We can’t afford any detours.”

Andrew leaned back in his seat. He expected they would only stop for short breaks until they reached their destination. At least Andrew had eaten a nice, big breakfast.

“Hey, Dan,” he said. “I have a question.”

Dan yelled from the front. “What?”

“I’m sure my grandfather had a lot of stuff in that church when he died. What happened to it? It didn’t go to my mother.”

“No idea. That was way before my time. Any sensitive material usually gets stored in the vault.”

“With the portable seams?” Andrew said.

“Yes.”

“And you don’t know where that is?”

“No, and stop asking,” Dan said. “Now be quiet. I want to listen to the radio. It’s a long drive to Atlanta.”

Andrew looked over at Charley. She shrugged.

I would love to get a look inside that vault, he thought.

  • * *

Andrew rubbed his eyes. He had spent the entire day in the limousine, and the tedium of the long journey had worn him down. He didn’t understand how truck drivers could spend so many hours on the road every day without going crazy.

It had been such a long trip, Dan had let Andrew and Charley take turns driving. Andrew’s excitement about getting behind the wheel had lasted all of ten seconds. Interstate highways were the definition of boring even in a cushy limousine. The cruise control feature made the trip even more monotonous.

Finally, they were entering Atlanta. Andrew had never seen the city, and he looked out the window with interest, but he was disappointed to discover the same chain stores as everywhere else. It was hard to find unique features in American cities.

Dan drove through Atlanta, guided by the navigation system. He entered the suburbs, and the roads grew narrower. There were a lot of trees. The vegetation was lush even by the standards of Illinois, and the weather was much more pleasant, at least in the winter. People walking along the streets were wearing light jackets instead of heavy winter coats. The homes had much wider spacing than in Chicago, and even though the limousine was passing through a heavily populated area, it had a slightly rural feel.

Dan turned at a private driveway. A small sign read, “Avanessian Institute for Emotional Health,” but a passerby could’ve easily missed it. A tall iron fence protected the property, and Dan had to stop at a gate. He rolled down his window.

An overweight security guard in a tan uniform came out of a booth. “Can I help you?” he said in a pleasant tone.

“Dr. Keene James is expecting us,” Dan said. “Tell him Andrew and Charley are here.”

The guard talked on a portable radio for a moment. He pressed a button in the booth, and the gate opened.

“What kind of place is this?” Andrew said.

“A psychiatric hospital,” Dan said.

“There are crazy people here?”

“Yes.”

Andrew gnawed his lip anxiously.

The hospital consisted of several low buildings arranged in a cluster. They had red brick walls and white trim. A dense forest on all sides created a very serene setting. The private driveways were clean and well maintained. Andrew would’ve assumed the place was a community college or a corporate campus instead of an insane asylum.

A nearby seam in one of the buildings told a different story. He could feel it spewing violent energy like a star ready to explode. The raw power made him shiver. It must’ve taken a truly horrendous catastrophe to punch such a big hole in the world.

Dan parked the limousine in front of the main building. Keene ran out to meet them. He was wearing a brown jacket over a black shirt and tie. A badge was clipped to his lapel.

Dan, Andrew, and Charley got out. Andrew stretched his arms until he felt his back pop. The air was humid and pleasantly cool. He definitely preferred winters in Atlanta over Chicago.

“You’re finally here!” Keene said. “Thanks for coming. I know it was a long trip.”

“What’s the situation?” Dan said.

“I’ve tried every way I know to reach Serkan, and he hasn’t responded. He isn’t home, but that’s probably the best place to start looking for him. We might find a clue in his apartment. Follow me. I’ll take you there.”

Keene got into a blue BMW parked in a spot marked, “Reserved for Dr. James.” Everybody else climbed back into the limousine. Keene drove off, and Dan followed close behind.

They went only a couple of blocks before turning onto a driveway. The apartment buildings had two floors, and Andrew guessed they had four or six units each. The bottom floors were made of brick, and white wood covered the upper floors.

Several black sedans were parked in the driveway, and they had government plates.

“Looks like the Bureau got here first,” Dan said.

The limousine parked behind the BMW. Andrew, Charley, and Dan met Keene on the driveway. The master sorcerer was staring at the long line of black sedans with an expression of dismay.

“I was hoping to avoid this,” he said.

“Why?” Dan said. “It seems like you’d want as much help as possible.”

“I’m sure Serkan will reappear with a good explanation. He’s a very capable, very intelligent man. He wouldn’t take any foolish risks. The BPI will turn this situation into a crisis with a lot of anger and finger-pointing. Somebody will get blamed even if it’s nobody’s fault.”

“You make us sound incompetent.”

Keene just looked at Dan silently.

Dan snarled. “Let’s go in.”

The four of them climbed up an exterior staircase to reach an apartment. The door was open, and men in blue suits were working inside.

Several agents immediately recognized Keene and gave him plenty of room. Andrew saw fear in the eyes of a few men.

Dan showed his BPI badge. “I’m from the Chicago office. These kids are Tonya’s apprentices. They were sent to help with the search for Serkan.”

Nobody objected, so Andrew looked around. It was a nice apartment, certainly much nicer than his dorm. The main room had a big television with the latest game system attached. There were bookshelves full of the kind of books he had come to associate with sorcery. The philosophy texts spanned history from Plato to Sartre. Serkan showed an equal interest in hard science, and a book entitled Advanced Electronic Structure Theory made Andrew shudder. He hoped Tonya wouldn’t force him to learn that stuff.

He and Charley wandered into the bedroom. Serkan had a king-size bed with a brass frame, and it took up most of the room. The frame was highly polished and seemed brand new. A framed print on the wall showed a famous engraving from M. C. Escher. It depicted flying black fish eating white ducks, but in the background, the fish and the ducks merged together.

Charley walked into the bathroom. “This is interesting,” she said. “Two kinds of shampoo.”

“Why is that interesting?” Andrew said.

“One kind is the fancy stuff women like. Did Serkan have a girlfriend?”

Andrew looked to Keene who had come into the bedroom.

“He never mentioned one to me,” Keene said.

“I don’t think he bought that new bed just for himself,” Andrew said.

He noticed the room was clean, and everything was put away. A teddy bear was sitting on a chair in the corner. Serkan definitely has a girlfriend, Andrew thought.

Charley came out of the bathroom. “How close were you to him?” she asked Keene.

“Early in his training, we spent a lot of time together,” he said, “but he’s been much more independent lately. He practices alone. He’s ready to move on and be his own sorcerer. If he loves somebody, there is no need for him to tell me, but I’m surprised he didn’t.”

That kind of independence sounded good to Andrew, but he knew it was years away.

The bedroom didn’t contain an obvious clue about where Serkan had gone. Andrew went back to the main room where a BPI agent was working with a computer on a desk. Andrew walked over for a closer look.

The agent was trying to get past the logon screen, but he obviously didn’t know the password. He was working his way down a list of possibilities on a printout.

“Where did you get the list?” Andrew said.

“The geeks back at headquarters generated it,” the agent said. “It’s maiden names, pets, old street names, that sort of thing. It’s worth a shot.”

“What if it doesn’t work?”

“We’ll send the whole computer to HQ for analysis.”

Andrew nodded.

He noticed a new color inkjet printer was attached to the computer. The printer still had some factory tape on it, and the original box was sitting on the floor. The printer was loaded with glossy photo paper. What was Serkan printing? Andrew wondered.

Keene came over to the computer. “Let me try. I spent enough time inside his mind to make a good guess at his password.”

The BPI agent moved aside, and Keene took a turn at the keyboard.

After a few attempts, he said, “Got it!”

The regular desktop appeared on the computer.

“Nice,” the BPI agent said, “let me get back on.”

“No,” Keene said. “We need somebody who thinks like Serkan to explore his computer. Andrew, you’re a young male sorcerer. Take a seat.”

“That’s evidence. It needs to be handled properly.”

Keene glared at the agent until he backed down.

A crowd had started to gather around the desk. Andrew glanced at all the eager faces before sitting down and felt the pressure to perform. Serkan’s chair had comfortable leather cushions.

Andrew decided Serkan wasn’t the social media type, but he probably used simple email. A handy shortcut took Andrew to the right page, and the login was supplied automatically.

He felt like he was invading Serkan’s privacy, but Andrew browsed the email anyway. A lot of it was spam. He found receipts for plane tickets, but they were too old to be relevant. The only personal correspondence was between Serkan and family members. Some email was in Turkish, and Andrew had no idea what it meant.

“He has a phone, right?” Andrew said. “Can you track it?”

One of the BPI agents held up a phone. “Yeah. It’s right here.”

Andrew furrowed his brow. “What about texts?”

“The phone is locked.”

“Call the service provider. They keep copies of all messages. Right?”

“The provider wants to see a court order,” the BPI agent said. “We’re pushing the paperwork through now. Go back to the computer, kid.”

Andrew looked down at the computer screen. He went through the documents folder but didn’t find anything of interest.

When he opened the pictures folder, his eyes widened. There were hundreds of photos. He opened one at random and found a picture of a pretty girl with blonde hair. She was at a carnival holding a stuffed panda. Andrew tried another picture and saw the same girl. This time, she was standing in front of the Atlanta Braves baseball stadium.

“I found the girlfriend,” Andrew said. “We just need to identify her.”

He went through the pictures, searching for a clue. The girl had lovely green eyes and the body of a fashion model. He guessed she was about twenty years old. It was easy to see why Serkan was attracted to her.

“Hey,” Charley said, “stop slobbering over that chick.”

Andrew looked up at her and his face grew warm. “Sorry.”

“Just stay focused on the job.”

He continued to work. He found some photos showing Serkan and the girl together. Finally, Andrew came across a close-up of a heart-shaped pendant made of gold. An inscription read, “Love Jennifer.”

“Her name is Jennifer,” he announced.

A phone rang. A BPI agent answered a call on his cell phone.

After listening for a moment, the agent stated loudly, “We got the data from the phone. The girl is Jennifer Lemay. She exchanged hundreds of texts with the subject, some sexually explicit. We have her home address. It’s two miles from here.”

Some of the men in blue suits moved towards the door.

“No!” Keene yelled. “Stop.”

Everybody turned towards him.

“Serkan was my apprentice,” he said angrily. “I will decide how we’ll proceed.”

One of the older BPI agents walked up to Keene. Andrew had heard other men call him “Williams” in a deferential manner. His thick hair had touches of gray over the ears. He seemed to have a permanent squint and a scowl like a gunfighter squaring off in a shootout. His suit was shiny, and the creases in his slacks were sharp.

“I’m in charge of the Atlanta office,” Williams said. “This investigation is in my jurisdiction. I’ll make the decisions, not you. Stop ordering us around.”

Keene glared at him. Williams was bigger and taller, but Keene appeared completely confident in his authority.

“Andrew and Charley will spearhead this investigation,” Keene said. “It takes a sorcerer to find a sorcerer.”

Williams looked at Andrew and Charley with derision. “You want these kids to lead a manhunt?”

Keene nodded. “They have more intelligence in their little fingers than you have in your entire thick skull. They perceive a deeper level of truth than you could ever comprehend. If they need your help, they’ll ask for it.”

Andrew grinned. That was the nicest compliment he had ever received, and it had come from a man who knew what he was talking about. He and Charley exchanged proud looks.

“You’re entitled to your opinion,” Williams said angrily, “but according to federal law, the BPI is responsible for investigating crimes and incidents involving sorcerers.”

“Secret laws written by frightened politicians in the middle of the night,” Keene said.

“But still enforceable. This is my case. If I need your help, I’ll ask for it.”

“I want to hear that from your boss. Get Director Webster on the phone.”

“Gladly,” Williams said.

He took out his phone and put it into speaker mode. He dialed a number.

“This is Webster,” a man answered. Andrew recognized his voice from their meeting months ago.

“Sir, this is Senior Agent Williams in Atlanta. I’m investigating the disappearance of Keene’s apprentice.”

“I’ve been meaning to call you about that. Any progress?”

“We have some information, sir,” Williams said, “but now I have a management issue. Keene wants to call the shots.”

Keene leaned towards the phone. “That’s right. This is a delicate matter, and I don’t want your gun-toting blockheads botching it.”

“My blockheads are trained for exactly this situation,” Webster replied calmly. “What’s your alternative? You can’t go out on a lengthy investigation. You have to stay near your seam.”

“I want Andrew and Charley to handle it. Tonya sent them down from Chicago, and they’re ready to go.”

“Is that a joke?”

“Not at all,” Keene said.

“Then you’re being ridiculous. Andrew has been in the program for just two months, and Charley hardly qualifies as a seasoned sorcerer capable of spearheading a manhunt.”

“Do I have to remind you who I am? I’m not just a master sorcerer and a member of the Sorcerer’s Tribunal. I’m also a highly acclaimed psychiatrist and the chief of a major psychiatric institute. I’m well positioned to judge what is ridiculous. The apprentices have extraordinary talents.” Keene looked over at Andrew. “Working together, I don’t see how they can fail.”

“Are you sure you’re thinking straight?” Webster said.

“I’m fine. My mind has never been clearer.”

“A few years ago…”

“Don’t remind me of my past failings,” Keene said loudly. “All I need from you is a decision.”

Webster was silent for a long moment. “OK,” he said finally. “We’ll do it your way… for now, but if those apprentices screw it up, it’s on you.”

“Of course. Thank you. Bye.”

Williams put his phone in his pocket with a grimace on his face. Keene just looked at him.

Andrew was suddenly feeling a lot of pressure. Keene had put his reputation on the line, and if Andrew failed, it would make all of them look bad.

Charley straightened up. “I guess our next stop is Jennifer’s home. Maybe she has an idea where Serkan is. We’ll take the limo.”

The BPI agents had a quick discussion. It was decided Dan would continue to act as Andrew and Charley’s chauffeur. Williams would ride along to provide supervision and support.

The two apprentices and the two agents left the apartment as a group. Williams was in a very foul mood, and Andrew kept his distance.

Williams knew the area so he sat in the driver’s seat of the limousine. Dan rode beside him, and they immediately launched into a professional conversation about backgrounds and qualifications. They were preparing to work as a team, and the apprentices were excluded.

Andrew didn’t mind. He and Charley climbed into the comfortable passenger compartment in the back of the limousine. As soon as everybody was settled, Williams drove off.

Charley leaned over and whispered, “We really need to do a good job.”

“I know,” Andrew murmured. “Keene is counting on us.”

“Not just him. Sorcerers everywhere need more respect and independence. We don’t want to be a bad example.”

He considered that statement. He had met several sorcerers, and not all of them deserved respect and independence. The BPI had plenty of justification for being cautious. Andrew had to admit even his own thoughts weren’t always respectable. He had felt the temptation to dabble in the infernal arts. The power of sorcery was as intoxicating as any drug, and he could head down the wrong path almost by accident.

The drive to Jennifer’s home took only a few minutes. It turned out to be a small, single-story house in a heavily wooded area. Pale green paint covered the wooden walls. The short front lawn was neatly mowed, but the neighbor’s lawns weren’t as well groomed. One was a solid mass of weeds. Jennifer’s house had an enormous oak tree in front with a crown larger than the house.

Everybody got out of the limousine. Andrew was still enjoying the mild weather, and he wasn’t looking forward to returning to the bitterly cold winter in Chicago.

“We got an update on the way over,” Dan said. “Jennifer lives with her parents, Bruce and Patricia Lemay. This is their home. They reported their daughter missing two days ago, and the police investigated but found no leads.”

Andrew frowned at the unsettling news. “Maybe Serkan and Jennifer eloped?”

“I suppose that’s possible. Regardless, we have two missing persons to find now, and they’ll probably be together. What’s your cover story?”

Andrew stared at Dan blankly.

“You can’t just go in there asking about a missing girl,” Dan said. “You need a story.”

Williams smirked.

Andrew turned to Charley. “I guess we can use the same story as before. We’re working for a campus newspaper.”

“Emory University,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a good school.”

“OK. Get your camera.”

Charley went back into the limousine and retrieved her camera. She turned it on and adjusted the settings. “I’m ready.”

The two of them walked up to the door of the house. A large brass crucifix hung above the knocker, and the portrayal of Jesus on the cross was almost gruesomely detailed. A sign below read, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Andrew glanced at Charley. She grimaced.

He knocked loudly.

A woman answered the door. She was wearing a long, blue skirt and a plain white shirt with long sleeves. A silver cross hung around her neck. She had dark hair, but otherwise, the family resemblance to Jennifer Lemay was obvious.

“Hi,” Andrew said. “We’re reporters from the Emory University Gazette. You must be Patricia. We came to do a story on your missing daughter. Can we come in and ask you a few questions?”

Patricia hesitated.

“Extra publicity can only help your daughter, ma’am,” Charley said.

Patricia nodded. “OK. Come in.”

Andrew and Charley went into the house. The living room had a brown couch and a white chair, both made in a plain, traditional style. Shelves held hundreds of little ceramic figurines. There were puppy dogs with big eyes, kittens, cherubs, bunnies, sad clowns, and children wearing traditional Swiss clothing. Andrew also saw more crucifixes and more signs with slogans like, “I can do all things through Christ.” They’ve turned religion into a fetish, he thought.

He took out his phone and selected the voice recorder app. He held the phone near Patricia’s face. “Mrs. Lemay, what can you tell us about your daughter? Do you have any idea where she went?”

“The Devil took her,” Patricia replied in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Huh?”

“For the last year, she’s been consorting with sorcerers. My husband and I talked to her a thousand times about it. We warned her God doesn’t approve, but she never listened. We tried everything to bring her back to Jesus. We even locked her in her room without food a few times. Two nights ago, she never came home. I’m certain Lucifer claimed her.”

Andrew glanced at Charley. “What do you mean by ‘sorcerers’?”

“Witches and wizards. They meet at night and perform sick rituals. I don’t know why the police tolerate it.”

He narrowed his eyes. Rituals?

“A man named Serkan also went missing,” Charley said. “There is evidence he had a relationship with your daughter.”

Patricia nodded. “He came around a few times, but we sent him away. Maybe the Devil took him, too.”

“Was he a sorcerer?”

“Probably, but I don’t know. As soon as we found out he didn’t belong to a proper church, we kicked him out of the house. We worked so hard to raise Jennifer properly, and then she chose a heathen. She actually claimed she loved him. Isn’t that crazy? My husband and I still don’t understand where we went wrong.”

“How do you feel about your daughter’s disappearance?” Andrew said.

“We love her, of course,” Patricia said, “but she chose the path to perdition. We can’t argue with God’s justice. Maybe if she repents for her sins, the Lord will permit her to return home.”

“I’m curious about these sorcerers,” Charley said. “Where can we find them?”

“I heard they go to Candler Park when it’s dark, but I wouldn’t mess with them if I were you. What happened to Jennifer could easily happen to you.”

“We’ll be careful,” Andrew said. “Thank you for your time. I’m sure everything will work out for the best in the end.”

Charley took a few pictures of Patricia for the sake of the cover story.

Then Andrew and Charley left the house. They hurried back to the limousine.

“What happened?” Williams said.

“It’s strange,” Andrew said. “The mother claimed Jennifer was consorting with sorcerers, and she wasn’t talking about Serkan. Are there other sorcerers around here?”

“Aside from Keene and Serkan? Not that I know about. If there are others, they’re renegades.”

“We might be able to find them in Candler Park tonight.”

“I know where that is,” Williams said. “It’s big and includes a golf course. What else did the mother say?”

“She claimed the sorcerers perform ‘sick rituals,’ but it didn’t make sense to me. There are exercises we do for training, but I wouldn’t call them rituals. We don’t chant, sacrifice animals, or anything like that.”

Charley nodded in agreement.

“These other sorcerers may just be fakes,” Williams said. “Plenty of those around. They’re usually harmless.”

Andrew continued, “Anyway, the mother blames the Devil for Jennifer’s disappearance.”

“That’s not likely,” Williams said, “but I have met bad men who could be mistaken for the Devil. Are you going to Candler Park tonight?”

“I guess we have to. Charley and I need to determine if the sorcerers are real, and even if they aren’t, they might have information about Serkan.”

Andrew looked to the west at the setting sun. Night would come soon.

“It could be dangerous,” Dan said. “You want backup?”

Andrew looked to Charley.

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes.”

“No problem,” Dan said. “We’ll have guys in tactical gear watching from all sides. They’ll be invisible, and you’ll be protected.”

Andrew furrowed his brow. The operation was starting to sound like a military mission, and he would be at the center of it. He didn’t like the idea of guns pointed in his general direction even if the men holding the guns were friendly. He would be more cautious about asking the BPI for help in the future.

“Let’s have dinner first,” Charley said. “I’m starving, and it could be a long night.”

Chapter Twelve

Andrew and Charley stepped out of the limousine. According to their research, Candler Park covered 55 acres. It featured a nine-hole golf course, a swimming pool, a soccer field, a basketball court, tennis courts, and a playground. From the street, it looked like an endless expanse of grass and trees with gentle slopes. The forest was dense in some areas, providing plenty of good spots for “sorcerers” to gather in secret.

Dan rolled down the window of the limousine. “Do you feel a seam?” he asked.

Andrew closed his eyes and searched with his inner sense. “Nothing,” he said after a minute.

“All clear,” Charley said. “If sorcerers are here, they can’t do much.”

“The men are deployed,” Dan said. “They’ll have eyes on you constantly. Just wave your arms if you get into trouble.”

Andrew looked into the forest. The sun had set, but street lamps in the park provided lighting along the paths. He didn’t see any men hiding in the shadows. He had to trust they were there.

“Go,” Dan said.

Andrew and Charley started walking along a concrete path. The park was quiet and spooky.

“This is weird,” she said. “Why would sorcerers meet in a park without a seam at night?”

“I guess we’ll find out,” he said. “I hope Serkan is OK. I liked the guy.”

“Me, too.”

They headed towards the southern end of the park where the trees were closest together. Andrew kept his inner eye attuned for the slightest flicker of energy. If there were a seam or a sorcerer in the area, he would detect it, but the only source was Charley.

“Getting anything?” he said.

“Not yet,” she said. “Of course, a master sorcerer can hide his energy.”

“Why would a master sorcerer come here?”

“Good question.”

They wandered back and forth for an hour. Andrew grew bored with the assignment, and he started to wonder if it were a waste of time. It was possible Patricia Lemay had been mistaken. She had struck him as a flake to put it kindly.

Andrew was about ready to call it quits when he saw a figure wearing a black cloak dashing across a field.

“There,” Andrew whispered.

“I saw him,” Charley whispered. “Come on.”

They walked quickly but quietly, following the figure in black. It seemed to be a thin, tall man.

For the hundredth time, Andrew looked around for any sign of the BPI, but the agents were too well hidden. They’re out there, he told himself. Have faith.

Andrew spotted a circle of other people dressed in black up ahead. They were making good use of the shadows, but his eyes were well adjusted to the darkness, and he had no trouble seeing them. They were wearing cloaks and robes which concealed their bodies.

Charley tapped Andrew on the shoulder and pointed to a bush. It was a good place to discreetly observe the strange gathering. He followed her over while trying to walk silently across the short grass. The two apprentices crouched down and peeked through the leaves.

He still didn’t sense any real sorcery.

Andrew looked at the exposed faces of the two dozen people in black, and they were a mix of young men and women. He guessed they ranged from teens to early twenties. They wore shiny amulets, pendants, bracelets, and rings, and a few carried sticks in their hands.

“Are those wands?” Charley whispered.

“Must be,” Andrew whispered.

One of the men threw back his black hood. His head was shaved bald, and tattoos of flames surrounded his right eye. He had several gold loops in each ear.

“Tonight, I will show you how to brew a potion of strength,” he said. “It will be imbued with the power of Nanna, the god of the moon. One sip of this potion will make you three times stronger and give you temporary immunity to disease. Bullets will bounce off your skin.”

Andrew looked at Charley who just shrugged.

The crowd appeared impressed, and they muttered to each other eagerly. The leader basked in the glory.

A cheap folding table stood in the grass in front of him. It held pots, kitchen implements, and a camping stove. Jars containing herbs and colorful powders were on an open shelf below. Some green plastic garbage bags were lying nearby.

He stepped up to the table. “I need the blood sacrifice,” he said. “Who was supposed to bring the meat?”

Another man pulled a package out from under his robes. It was a piece of meat wrapped in clear plastic, and it had obviously come from the grocery store. He handed it to the leader.

The leader looked at the offering and raised his eyebrows. “Boneless chicken breast?”

“It was on sale,” his friend said in an apologetic tone. “At least it’s fresh.”

The leader sighed. He unwrapped the meat, dropped it into a pot, and added white liquid from a bottle. Andrew guessed it was milk. The leader started the stove and placed the pot on the fire.

“Oh, great Nanna,” he said in a deep voice, “I beg you to grant your humble supplicant the power of magic. Allow your magnificent strength to imbue this potion.”

Andrew still didn’t feel any hint of real sorcery. He was growing very skeptical of the entire production.

The leader added herbs and powders to the pot, and he named some of them. “Sandalwood, rose hips, black salt, camphor, cinnamon, Cat’s Claw bark…”

He stirred the concoction with a wooden staff which had a white crystal mounted on the end.

“Flame and fire, heart’s desire, make my strength higher,” he chanted. “I draw upon the energies of the positive and negative planes. May they combine and combust in this pot.”

Andrew rolled his eyes.

“What do you want to do?” he whispered to Charley.

“Wait ‘til it’s over,” she whispered.

“But it’s ridiculous.”

“Not to them. Just be patient.”

He didn’t understand why she was so tolerant, but he didn’t argue.

It took about fifteen minutes to finish the potion. Black smoke was drifting out of the pot by the time the leader was done, but he didn’t seem to care. He served the potion using paper bowls and plastic spoons. When the other “sorcerers” tasted the mess, they gagged and coughed, but they kept it down. Andrew hoped they wouldn’t get sick.

Finally, the ceremony ended. Most of the attendees wandered off, but a handful remained with the leader and helped him clean up.

“That’s our cue,” Charley said.

She and Andrew stood up. His knees were stiff from squatting, and moving around came as a relief. They walked over to the men and women in black.

“Hi!” Andrew said cheerfully. “How’s it going?”

The group turned to him.

The leader looked at Andrew and Charley suspiciously. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“I should ask you the same question,” Andrew said. “We saw you make a potion.”

The leader’s eyes widened. “That was a secret spell!”

“Trust me, we won’t tell anybody. I’m Andrew, and this is Charley. What’s your name?”

“Storm-dubh.”

Sure, Andrew thought. “I’ll just call you Storm. Where did you get the spell?”

“From my grimoire,” Storm said in a somber tone. “Only I have the strength to read my secret book of magic. Its power would destroy the mind of anybody else.” He raised his chin and puffed out his chest.

His followers were looking at him with wide eyes full of admiration. One brown-haired girl in particular had a slack jaw and a dreamy gaze.

Andrew decided Storm was a total phony. He just wanted sex and fame, and he didn’t care if other people got fooled along the way.

“Actually,” Charley said, “we didn’t come to talk about magic. A woman named Jennifer has gone missing, and we’re trying to find her. Her boyfriend, Serkan, also disappeared. We heard Jennifer came here often.”

Storm’s expression changed from arrogance to concern. “We call her Moon-rider. She’s missing? I haven’t seen her for a few days, and I was wondering. She has a true passion for witchcraft. She can’t get enough of it. How do you know her?”

“We know her boyfriend. What about him?”

“He participated in the service only a few times, and I haven’t seen him in a month. He didn’t seem interested in magic, but he really liked Moon-rider.”

Andrew imagined the scene. Serkan had come to investigate reports of sorcerers in the park, but he had found love instead. It was a nice image.

“You have no idea where they went?” Andrew said. “They didn’t tell you anything?”

Storm shrugged. “I hope they’re OK. Moon-rider told me her parents are real assholes. Did you ask them?”

“We talked to her mother.”

There was a lull in the conversation. Andrew decided this lead was a dead end. He looked at Charley, and frustration on her face told him she had reached the same conclusion.

“We should go,” she said. “Sorry to bother you.”

She started to walk away, and he followed for a few steps, but then he stopped.

He turned back to Storm and said, “You need to stop lying to people.”

“What?” Storm raised his eyebrows.

“You don’t have any real power. You’re just a showman, and not even a good one.”

Storm crossed his arms defiantly. “You don’t know that.”

Charley grabbed Andrew’s shoulder and squeezed. He pushed her hand off.

“I read my share of fantasy novels,” he said. “I recognize garbage when I see it. Did you get the recipe for that potion off a website?”

“My power is real!” Storm said.

“Yeah? Prove it. Drink your potion. Show me how strong you are.”

Storm glanced at the pot on the camping stove and grimaced.

“Go on,” Andrew said.

“The magic doesn’t always work. Sometimes the ingredients aren’t pure, or the incantation fails.”

“A convenient excuse.” Andrew looked at the people surrounding Storm. “Has anybody ever seen this joker perform real magic?”

One of the girls nodded. “Yes! He levitated a few days ago.”

“He flew? How high?”

“A couple of inches.”

Charley snorted. “That’s a classic trick. It just takes special pants and good balance. Look it up on the internet. Andrew, that’s enough. We need to go.” She gave Andrew a stern look.

He recognized he was probably wasting his breath, but he hated to see Storm take advantage of innocent people. Andrew decided to take one more shot at disillusioning them.

“It’s fun to believe in magic,” he said. “Everybody thinks special powers are cool, but wanting something doesn’t make it real. This guy is a fraud.” Andrew glared at Storm.

“Hey!” Storm said. “You’d better apologize, or I’ll hit you with a curse that turns your blood into boiling tar.”

Andrew rolled his eyes.

“You don’t know I can’t.”

“I do know you can’t,” Andrew said. “If you had any real power at all, you wouldn’t be sneaking around public parks and burning chicken breasts in the middle of the night. But go on. Turn my blood into tar. I dare you.”

Storm’s face turned red. He looked at the people around him with a desperate expression.

Without warning, he slugged Andrew in the face. Andrew fell on his butt and sat there, dazed. He couldn’t believe Storm had hit him.

“Oh, no,” Charley muttered.

Andrew rubbed his cheek. “I’m OK.”

He noticed she was looking towards the surrounding trees. He followed her gaze and saw men wearing black clothing and black body armor. A dozen of them were running towards Andrew from all directions. They carried compact assault rifles with sleek profiles and angled magazines. He had almost forgotten the BPI was watching him.

Andrew was totally intimidated even though he knew the agents were friendly. He stood up, although it took him two tries. His knees felt weak.

Storm and his friends huddled together like frightened sheep.

Charley made a calming gesture with her hands. “Just relax, everybody. Andrew was being a jerk. He deserved to get hit.”

That’s not true, Andrew thought.

One of the BPI agents looked at Andrew’s face. “Are you injured?”

“No,” Andrew said, “just a little embarrassed.”

Storm looked fearfully at the guns all around. “Are we under arrest? We didn’t break any laws. We were just having fun. I didn’t mean to hit that guy.”

Andrew turned to Charley. “We can go now.”

“Finally,” she replied angrily. “Did the punch wake up your brain?”

They headed back towards the car. The squadron of BPI agents formed a protective circle around the apprentices, but he wished they would go away.

“I wasn’t being a jerk,” Andrew muttered.

“Yes, you were,” Charley said. “You shouldn’t mess with people’s beliefs.”

“But that so-called sorcery was a bunch of garbage.”

“Maybe, but they were having fun. You of all people should understand the value of belief.”

“You’re acting like it was a legitimate religion,” he said.

“It wasn’t too long ago when sorcerers were burned at the stake just because our art wasn’t ‘legitimate.’” She glanced at the surrounding BPI agents. “We’re still being oppressed. I want you to be more respectful and open-minded in the future.”

Andrew gritted his teeth.

“Well?” Charley said.

“Sure. I got it.”

The black limousine hadn’t moved from the spot where they had left it. Agent Dan was leaning against the car with his arms crossed. Williams was sitting in the front seat with the window down, reading a newspaper by flashlight. He looked over when Dan knocked on the car.

“It was a bust,” Andrew reported. “The sorcerers were just posers, and they didn’t know anything.”

Williams got out of the limousine. He dismissed the armed BPI agents and sent them home. Soon, Andrew and Charley were alone with Dan and Williams. The night became very quiet.

“I suppose that’s good news in a way,” Dan said. “If they aren’t real sorcerers, the BPI doesn’t have to worry about them. Anything else?”

“One thing bothered me,” Charley said. “We were told Serkan attended a few meetings and fell in love with Jennifer. Why did he come here at all?”

“He was investigating them,” Andrew said, “just like us. He heard a story about sorcerers in the park and had to check it out. Why does that bother you?”

“But why would he come more than once? It was obvious they were fakes.”

“For Jennifer.”

“Love at first sight?” She frowned. “I don’t know. Besides, Jennifer has serious issues including abusive parents and an unhealthy fascination with witchcraft. A wise and worldly man like Serkan wouldn’t mess with a chick like that.”

“Maybe you didn’t notice,” he said, “but she’s hot.”

“I’m giving Serkan more credit than that. He’s not a horny teenager like you.”

Andrew wasn’t sure if he should feel insulted, but he let it go. Charley had a good point after all.

“Let’s find a hotel,” Dan said. “We’ll get some sleep and hit it hard in the morning.”

Andrew yawned. “That’s a good idea. I’m beat.”

Williams nodded. “And I need a ride home.”

  • * *

A ringing phone woke Andrew from a deep sleep.

He blinked in confusion as the fog cleared from his mind. He was in a nice hotel in Atlanta. The BPI had paid for premium accommodations, and the big, soft bed made him feel like he was lying on a cloud. The bathroom included a Jacuzzi bathtub which he had thoroughly enjoyed last night.

The room had two beds, and Dan was in the other one. Andrew heard the agent talking on the phone, but the words were indistinct. The conversation ended after a minute.

“Who was that?” Andrew said.

Dan sat up. “Williams. His team found a fresh lead for us. Let’s move.”

Andrew turned on the light and got out of bed. His suitcase was lying open on the floor, and he picked through its contents.

“What lead?” he said.

“Bruce Lemay, Jennifer’s father, recently wrote a three thousand dollar check to a Dr. Jeffrey Larson. He’s a professional exorcist.”

Andrew frowned. Clearly, dear old dad had paid for the “Devil” to be taken out of his daughter.

“That’s not nice,” Andrew said, “but how is it a lead?”

“Larson has been known to hold people against their will, sometimes for weeks, while he performs his rituals. Jennifer could be his captive, and maybe Serkan is in trouble, too. We have to check it out.”

Andrew pulled on a pair of jeans. “How did the BPI find out about the check for three grand?”

“Our investigators looked at the Lemay’s bank statements,” Dan said.

“Is that legal?”

“Pretty much.”

Andrew raised his eyebrows.

“It’s not like the evidence will be used in a criminal trial,” Dan added awkwardly. “It doesn’t matter how it was obtained.”

“Sure. Of course.”

  • * *

Andrew looked out the car window at the rolling hills north of Atlanta. Compared to the endless flatlands of Illinois, Georgia was mountainous. The forests were dense and green even in the middle of winter. He knew the area was probably a steam bath in the summer, but he was enjoying the weather at the moment.

Charley was riding in the back of the limousine with him. He turned to her and couldn’t stop himself from admiring her shapely legs. Her jeans fit like a second skin. She was wearing a white knit sweater with a brown cat embroidered on the front. The sweater was familiar, and he realized he had known her long enough to see her repeat one from her collection.

“If this exorcist is holding prisoners,” Andrew said, “do I have to be respectful and open-minded?”

“Not if he’s an actual criminal,” Charley said.

“Just checking.”

Agent Williams was driving, and Dan was riding shotgun. They were chatting quietly. Andrew tried to overhear, and it sounded like they were swapping stories about previous assignments. Andrew heard odd terms like “Roscoe” and “beach time.”

Williams turned into a narrow driveway which wasn’t marked. Walls of trees stood on each side, and there was no shoulder. He parked behind a line of black cars which blocked the driveway.

“This is it,” Williams announced.

Andrew and Charley got out of the limousine. The black cars were marked “Fulton County Sheriff.” Deputies were standing around in small groups, wearing black uniforms with flat-brimmed hats.

Agent Williams went forward to talk to the deputies. His sharp blue business suit, federal badge, and confident attitude garnered him immediate respect.

“What’s going on?” Andrew asked quietly.

“The Sheriff Department will go in first and secure the area,” Dan said. “If somebody needs to be arrested, they’ll do it.”

“Why?”

“The BPI isn’t a general law enforcement agency. Our jurisdiction is strictly limited to sorcerers, and Dr. Larson isn’t one. We have to let the local authorities deal with him.”

Andrew nodded. He used his inner eye to search the area for Serkan, but Andrew detected nothing.

“I don’t think Serkan is here,” he said.

“I’m not sensing any energy either,” Charley said.

Dan frowned. “Maybe we’ll find Jennifer, at least.”

Williams finished delivering his instructions. The deputies walked down the driveway with their hands on their guns. They turned a corner, and Andrew lost sight of them.

Williams came back.

“How long do we wait?” Andrew said.

“Fifteen minutes should be enough,” Williams said.

Andrew listened to the sounds of nature while he waited. A light breeze rustled the leaves in the woods. A small animal in the brush made a chattering noise. A hawk flew overhead.

Andrew felt a craving to practice sorcery. He had been away from his seam in Theosophical University for too long. Living a normal life wasn’t really living at all for him. He felt like he was trapped in an invisible prison cell. He needed to explore the boundaries of reality.

Finally, Williams decided it was time to move. He led Dan, Andrew, and Charley down the driveway.

They turned a corner, and some buildings came into view. The walls were made of unpainted planks of wood with visible gaps. Rusty sheet metal roofs looked equally shoddy. On the other hand, an iron fence surrounding the buildings was strong and secure.

“That’s Dr. Larson.” Williams pointed to a man standing in the yard.

Larson had his hands cuffed behind his back, and a deputy was guarding him. The exorcist was wearing a shirt made of white leather. A brass crucifix hung from a chain around his neck, and it looked uncomfortably heavy. More crosses were tattooed across his face and on the backs of his hands. A riding crop was tied to his black leather belt.

The deputies had gathered three of his victims together a short distance away. There were two girls and a boy, all teenagers. Their clothing was dirty and tattered. Bruises marked their faces, and one girl had a torn lip. They were so exhausted they could barely stand or keep their eyes open. None of them were Jennifer Lemay.

“Take a look around,” Williams said. “Search for clues, but don’t touch anything. It’s all evidence.”

Andrew and Charley stayed together as they entered the small compound through a gate. The deputies gave the apprentices curious looks but nobody stopped them.

Andrew looked through a cracked window into a shack. It contained beds, but the mattresses were just sheets of plywood. Steel shackles were attached to the beds in locations where they could secure a captive by the wrists and ankles. Drops of blood marked one of the beds.

“This is awful,” Andrew said.

“Yes,” Charley said. “Even worse than I imagined. Was it exorcism or torture?”

They walked around and found more implements of pain, humiliation, and confinement. He tried to mentally distance himself from what he was seeing. It wasn’t necessary to imagine how the victims had suffered. At least their nightmare was over now.

One building was in good condition, and Dr. Larson obviously lived there. Unlike the rest, it had electric lights and indoor plumbing. A four-poster bed with an extra-thick mattress was wide enough for two.

“I don’t see anything that will help us find Serkan,” Andrew said.

“Me neither,” Charley said. “Maybe the guy knows something.”

“I might hit him.”

“I won’t stop you.”

They walked over to Dr. Larson. Agents Dan and Williams were already engaged in a tense conversation with him, and Andrew listened closely.

“I don’t know any Jennifer Lemay,” Larson said.

“Of course you do,” Williams said. “Her father paid you three grand.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“It’s on your bank statement.”

“I never look at my statements,” Larson said. “Money is evil.”

Andrew stepped forward. “Why did you torture those kids?” He pointed at the three young victims.

Larsen turned to Andrew with a disdainful expression. “I didn’t torture them.”

“Then why do they look like they were on the wrong side of a bar fight?”

“Separating the Devil from an innocent soul is rough work. Extreme measures are necessary.”

“How do you know the Devil was in them?” Andrew said.

“I could tell their prayers weren’t sincere. Their love of the Lord wasn’t genuine. I’m proud to say children don’t leave here until their faith is fully restored and their souls are as pure as fresh snow.”

“In other words, you brainwash them.”

“Sounds like your soul could use a good scrubbing, too.” Larson sniffed the air. “I can smell the evil on you.”

Andrew snorted. “Evil has an odor?”

“Pagans, atheists, witches, and warlocks. They reek of the foul stench of heresy. I have to bathe my children in water mixed with turpentine just so I can stand to be near them.”

“What about sorcerers?”

“Satan’s henchmen,” Larson said with a sneer. “Condemned to eternal fire.”

Andrew was too angry to continue the conversation. He stalked off and left through the gate.

The sound of footsteps in the grass made him turn. Charley came up to him, and she appeared just as angry as him. Her face was pink.

“I can’t believe that guy,” Andrew said. “He was actually proud of his crimes.”

“A very sick man,” she said.

“We could use sorcery to get the truth out of him.”

“No.”

“I’m sure Keene knows how to do mind-control,” he said.

“No! That’s an infernal art.”

“Larson deserves the same kind of nightmare he put his victims through. I say we lock him in a delusion of burning Hell until he goes crazy.”

Charley grabbed Andrew by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. “Stop it. That’s a line we can’t cross, and if the BPI catches you saying that, you’ll be in big trouble. We already have enough difficulty convincing them to trust us. The last thing we need is to start showing off how nasty we can be.”

He shrugged her off and stewed for a moment. She was right, of course. His suggestion was exactly the kind of thing that made ordinary people afraid of sorcerers.

“I’m just as upset as you,” Charley said, “but that’s no excuse for doing something crazy.”

Agents Dan and Williams approached. They looked very professional in their sharp blue suits. If the conversation with Larson bothered them, they weren’t showing it.

“Is there a problem?” Dan said.

“No.” Andrew shook his head. “I’m just not used to dealing with assholes like that.”

“You never get used to it,” Williams said, “but it’s comforting to know justice will be served. There is enough evidence to put him away for a very long time.”

“I suppose so.” Andrew took a deep breath. “But what about Serkan? We still need to find him, and Larson wasn’t helpful.”

“Unfortunately, he might not know anything. According to his victims, Larson hasn’t left this place in days. He certainly didn’t bring Jennifer Lemay here. I don’t think he abducted her at all. Maybe he was waiting for the check to clear.”

“So this is another dead end?”

“It could be,” Williams said. “I’ll have another conversation with Larson after he spends a night in jail. That experience tends to loosen a person’s tongue, but I’m not very optimistic. Let’s get out of here.”

The group headed back towards the black limousine. A cool breeze and a warm sun soothed Andrew’s anger.

“What’s next?” he said.

“I don’t know,” Williams said. “My team of investigators is digging for another lead. We have to wait for them to do their jobs.”

Andrew frowned. He had thought he and Charley were running the investigation. It sounded like Williams had quietly taken over without even bothering to ask.

“Unless you have a better idea,” Williams added. His phone rang, and he answered it. “Yes?”

His expression darkened as he listened. Andrew could tell it was bad news.

After the call ended, Williams said, “Change of plan. We have to check out a mass murder. Twenty victims and counting.”

“What happened?” Charley said.

“The survivors claim a killer ghost attacked them. Let’s go find out the truth.”

Chapter Thirteen

The limousine arrived in a village in rural Georgia. Andrew hadn’t seen any sign indicating a name, but he presumed it had one. The place was just a collection of buildings at the intersection of two back country roads. He identified a post office, a general store, a fire station, and a few homes. They were built out of a combination of red bricks and white wood. A Baptist church had the place of honor at the center. Dense, native forest bordered the village on all sides.

Andrew expected it was a very quiet place under normal conditions, but not now. Emergency vehicles jammed the streets, and flashing lights were everywhere. State police, sheriff deputies, firemen, and paramedics roamed like packs of wolves. Forensic technicians were taking pictures like paparazzi at a glitzy Hollywood premiere. Three helicopters hovered above.

Some bodies were still lying in the open, covered by blue sheets and surrounded by yellow police tape. Andrew didn’t see any blood though, and no other evidence was marked. For a mass murder, the crime scene was remarkably clean.

The news media had also arrived. Reporters in nice suits had cameramen in tow. They were fighting for access to any authority figure willing to give an interview. Andrew spotted two female reporters engaged in a shoving match.

“I feel a seam,” Charley said.

Andrew focused on his sorcery. A strong source of energy drew his attention to the fire station.

He pointed. “It’s in there!”

The crowd was particularly thick around the fire station. Police and paramedics were going in and out the door in a constant stream. Sometimes, they emerged with a body on a gurney. Reporters orbited the building but cops were keeping them out.

“That seam is unregistered,” Williams said from the front seat. “A renegade sorcerer must’ve discovered it. Park somewhere. Anywhere.”

Dan was driving, and he nodded. He turned into the grass beside the road. The limousine bounced over bumps until it was clear of traffic, and then he killed the engine.

“You three check out the seam,” Williams said. “I need to call the office in Atlanta and maybe headquarters in Washington. We have to contain this situation.”

Andrew, Charley, and Dan got out of the limousine. Andrew filled his lungs with fresh, cool air. The gorgeous weather contrasted with the grimness of the scene.

They started walking through the grass towards the fire station. It was a small, brick building with only one opening for an engine. Railroad tracks were a short distance away, and Andrew expected the firemen were tired of hearing freight trains.

“What do you think happened?” Andrew asked.

“A banshee,” Charley said grimly.

“That’s a kind of sprite, right?”

“Yes, one so powerful it can suck your mind right out of your skull in seconds.”

He looked at the bodies all around. “It wiped out the whole village?”

“That’s my first guess. The only good news is banshees don’t live long once they run out of victims to feed on. Hopefully, this one is gone.” She glanced over her shoulder nervously.

As they approached the fire station, a deputy moved to block them. He was wearing a light green shirt, a dark green tie, and brown pants.

“Stop,” he said. “What’s your business?”

Dan took out his wallet and showed his BPI badge. “I’m a federal agent.”

“What about them?” The deputy pointed at Andrew and Charley.

The apprentices were dressed like college students. The usual story about being reporters from a campus newspaper probably wouldn’t fly. Even the real reporters couldn’t get past the police line.

“They’re specialists,” Dan said.

“Specializing in what?” the deputy said.

Andrew could feel the seam pulsing inside the fire station. It was close enough for him to perform a little sorcery, but he fought the temptation.

“Specializing in none of your damn business,” Dan said. “This is a federal matter. Let us through, or your sheriff is going to get a call from Washington.”

It didn’t sound like much of a threat to Andrew, but the deputy stepped aside.

Andrew and Charley followed Dan into the fire station. The interior was swarming with men and women in uniform. A fire engine took up half the space, and the other half was a small living area for the firemen. There was a table, some comfortable chairs, a television, a couch, and a small kitchen.

Two bodies in blue uniforms were lying on the floor without sheets to cover them. Their faces were frozen in expressions of pain and terror. Andrew didn’t see any blood or other signs of violence. It appeared the victims had died of fear.

Definitely a banshee, Andrew thought.

Looking at the corpses made him think about his own mortality. One day, he would be rotting in the earth. It might happen sooner than he expected. He was getting the impression that sorcery was a high-risk line of work.

A seam was spinning in the center of the room like a gyroscope made of black fire. He could see it clearly, yet policemen were walking right through the thing. The energy it was throwing off filled Andrew with a sensation of warmth and power.

“That feels so good,” he murmured.

“It does,” Charley said, “but we’re here on business. No messing around.”

“You’re no fun.”

Dan leaned towards them. “Well?”

“A big, fat seam is right in front of you,” Andrew whispered. “The BPI didn’t know about it?”

“No, but this location is pretty far off the beaten path. It’s not a surprise the seam was missed.”

“Some sorcerer must’ve known,” Charley whispered. “Banshees don’t appear for no reason. I think we should talk to a witness, if there are any survivors.”

“Let’s see if there are. Come on.”

Dan led the apprentices back outside. Andrew squinted in the bright sunlight. He looked around, but it wasn’t obvious which way to go.

Williams was jogging towards them. Dan, Andrew, and Charley moved away from the crowd so they could talk to him privately.

“Report,” Williams said.

“I’m pretty sure it was a banshee,” Charley said.

He grimaced. “Every available BPI agent is coming, including Director Webster, but it will be a while before reinforcements arrive.”

“The whole world will hear about this.”

“Let us worry about that. The BPI has plans in place for dealing with these situations.”

“What about other sorcerers?” Andrew said. “We need experts to help us figure out what happened.”

“Keene will be here in an hour or two,” Williams said. “Tonya is also on her way, but she won’t get here until the end of the day. For now, it’s just us.”

Dan nodded. “We were about to interview a witness.”

“Good idea.” Williams furrowed his brow and looked around.

His gaze settled on a Georgia State Patrol officer who seemed to be the center of attention. The man was giving orders in a loud, firm voice. A cluster of reporters stood nearby and were waiting to talk to the commander. Williams walked straight over, and Dan, Andrew, and Charley followed.

Williams took out his badge. “I need a moment of your time.”

The officer was wearing a blue uniform with darker pants. He was a big guy in reasonable physical condition. A wide-brimmed hat covered his head, and only a few strands of brown hair poked out.

He looked at Williams and then looked at the badge. “I’m a little busy.”

“We have a few questions,” Williams said.

“So does everybody else.” The officer glanced at the reporters. “Wait in line.”

Williams frowned. “I don’t want to get nasty about this.”

“Don’t threaten me. The State Patrol is in charge here, not the feds, and you’re not even FBI. I’ve never heard of the Bureau of Physical Investigation. Is that even a law enforcement agency?”

Williams cleared his throat. “Captain,” he said in a tight voice, “this isn’t an ordinary murder investigation. Homeland Security has jurisdiction. As soon as enough of my people arrive, we’ll take over. I’d rather not humiliate you in front of your men, so I strongly suggest you clear the area and have a private conversation with us. I’ll be happy to explain everything.”

The officer narrowed his eyes. Williams stared back at him without flinching.

Eventually, the officer nodded grudgingly. He ordered the other troopers to push the crowd back. A circle of men and women in blue formed a barrier, and the people stuck on the outside had expressions of annoyance. Andrew, Charley, and the BPI agents remained inside the circle.

“This had better be good,” the State Patrol officer said.

“An experimental nerve gas was accidently released here,” Williams said in a quiet, urgent tone. “The symptoms are insanity and death.”

The officer’s eyes widened. “Where did the gas come from?”

“The U.S. military was transporting it, and I’m not authorized to tell you anything else. Obviously, this is a national embarrassment, but the last thing this country needs is hysteria about nerve gas. The BPI is a covert organization which cleans up sticky messes. We make national embarrassments go away. I trust you’ll keep this information to yourself. We have to start by decontaminating this entire area. Specialists are already on their way.”

Andrew was impressed. Williams had delivered the lie with the sincerity of a professional actor working off a script. He hadn’t stumbled or hesitated in the slightest. Andrew wondered if he could’ve done any better.

“Oh.” The officer furrowed his brow. “Is it safe for us to be here?”

“As long as you don’t have any hallucinations, you should be OK,” Williams said with a disingenuous smile. “We’d like to talk to some witnesses now. Maybe we can figure out exactly what went wrong.”

The officer swallowed. “Nerve gas?”

“Yes, Captain. Where are the witnesses?”

He pointed to the Baptist church. “In there.”

“Thank you,” Williams said.

He, Dan, Andrew, and Charley escaped from the circle of state troopers. They headed towards a red brick church with a white roof. The building had a very plain architecture and except for a sign out front, it wasn’t obviously a place of worship.

“I like that story about nerve gas,” Andrew said.

“It’s an old standby,” Williams said. “The more misinformation we spread around, the better.”

A state trooper at the door of the church tried to keep them out. Williams explained the situation and flashed his badge, and the trooper was satisfied.

When the group entered the church, the sounds of hysterical screaming assaulted Andrew’s ears, and he winced. Victims were lying on the pews surrounded by paramedics and police. As Andrew walked down the aisle, he saw some were comatose. Others were thrashing so violently they had to be physically restrained.

“Can we do anything for these poor people?” Andrew asked Charley.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ll ask Keene when he gets here. This is way beyond anything I’m trained to deal with.”

He was getting angry. Some sorcerer was responsible for this mess and needed to be punished.

Charley pointed at a woman who appeared more rational and calm than the others. “Let’s talk to her.”

Andrew walked over to the victim. She was in her thirties, husky, and light-skinned. A white tank top and shorts with a green camouflage pattern made an odd clothing combination. She was wearing an oxygen mask even though it didn’t seem necessary.

Williams flashed his badge and told the paramedics to clear out.

Charley knelt by the woman’s head. “What’s your name?”

“Phoebe,” she said.

Charley smiled encouragingly. “I’m sure you’ve already answered a lot of questions, but I need you to answer them again. Tell me exactly what happened.”

“You’ll think I’m crazy.” Phoebe grimaced.

“I absolutely won’t. Just talk to me.”

Phoebe hesitated.

“Please,” Charley said.

Phoebe finally nodded. “I saw a… thing on the street. It came from the fire station. It had a dozen heads and twenty arms, and they were waving around. I recognized the faces from people in town. Do you believe me?”

“Yes. Go on.”

“It attacked Old Man Gladden. The monster pounced like a big cat, and he dropped dead right in front of my eyes. I tried to run, but my legs wouldn’t move. A terrible cold came over me. I was sure I was going to die.”

Charley’s eyes widened. “Then what happened?”

“A man came out of the fire station, a stranger. He yelled at the monster, and it chased after him instead. He saved my life. He ran up the road, and the thing followed him.”

“What did the stranger look like?”

“Shaved head,” Phoebe said, “and young. Kind of tall. A bit of a foreign look to him. He had a black scarf which really caught my eye. I can’t remember the last time I saw a guy wear a scarf, and his was nice.”

“A scarf?” Charley glanced at Andrew.

Serkan, he thought. What was he doing here?

“Yes,” Phoebe said.

“Which way did he go?” Charley asked.

“North.”

Charley stood up. “He may still be out there! Come on!”

She jogged out of the church. Andrew, Dan, and Williams hurried to keep up with her. There was only one road that went north, so they didn’t have to guess which way.

Andrew couldn’t believe Serkan was the one responsible for the disaster. He had seemed like a very cool guy. There had to be a reasonable explanation.

Everybody was walking north at a quick pace when Williams said, “Wait! Stop.”

The group turned to him.

“What?” Charley said.

“We need to check the morgue first. One of the bodies might be Serkan.”

Williams looked at a grassy field behind a general store. About thirty corpses were arranged in a neat grid, and blue sheets covered them. Investigators were examining the bodies and taking notes.

Andrew gulped.

“Come on,” Williams said.

State troopers were keeping civilians out of the field, but Williams used his badge to get past them. He and Dan watched while Andrew and Charley peeked at the faces under the sheets.

Andrew tried not to think about what he was doing. He didn’t know the victims. They weren’t his family or friends. He could just pretend the bodies were very realistic mannequins instead of people. Their contorted expressions meant nothing.

He lost his sense of detachment when he came to a pretty, young woman with blonde hair.

“Damn it,” he muttered.

Charley stared at the victim’s face. “Jennifer Lemay.”

Williams and Dan came over.

“Well,” Dan said, “we now know for a fact Serkan was here, and he brought his girlfriend.”

Andrew threw back his head and stared at the sky. He had never met Jennifer in life, but he knew her story. She wasn’t just another anonymous victim.

Charley grabbed his hand. “Calm down. It’s OK.”

“How is any part of this OK?” Andrew looked at her. “As far as I can tell, we are as far from OK as you can get. It’s safe to say this is the opposite of OK.”

“Let’s just do our job.”

When did looking at corpses become my job? he wondered. Can I quit?

Andrew and Charley checked the rest of the bodies but didn’t find Serkan among them. Andrew felt relieved. There was a good chance Serkan was alive which meant he could explain himself. Andrew still couldn’t believe Serkan was a bad guy.

The group went back to the road and continued their journey north. They walked as quickly as they could.

“I have a theory,” Williams said between breaths.

“What?” Andrew said.

“Serkan discovered this seam during his travels and kept it a secret. He brought Jennifer here so he could impress her with real sorcery. He knew she would go crazy for that sort of thing. She was into witchcraft, and he was into her. The spell went horribly wrong.”

“No!” Charley said. “Impossible. Serkan is much too skilled to accidently create a banshee. He would never hide a seam or break all the rules just to show off for a girl. That’s not the man we met in Chicago.”

“How do you know?” Williams said. “You only spent one evening with him.”

She clenched her jaw and stared straight ahead.

They left the excitement in the village behind. With just a light breeze stirring the leaves, the world became quiet. Tall, straight trees stood close together on both sides of the narrow road.

Andrew felt a flicker of energy.

“Wait!” he said. “I sense him!”

Charley stopped and closed her eyes. “Yes!” She pointed into the forest. “That way!”

The group ran into the forest. Their footsteps crushed the twigs and dead leaves which covered the ground.

They had travelled a few hundred yards when Andrew spotted a man in a black scarf. He had a stylish, dark green jacket. He was sitting propped up against a tree and not moving.

“Serkan!” Andrew yelled.

The group broke into a sprint. Serkan’s eyes were open, but he was staring straight ahead fixedly. Andrew suddenly had an awful feeling.

They arrived at the body.

Dan checked Serkan’s pulse. “He’s dead,” Dan reported grimly.

Andrew exhaled. He couldn’t believe it.

“No.” Charley shook her head.

“He must’ve come out here to draw the banshee away from the village,” Andrew said softly. “He sacrificed his own life.”

“But we felt his energy. He can’t be dead!”

Movement deep in the forest caught his attention. He stared into the shadows. Something was out there.

“It wasn’t his energy,” Andrew murmured.

Charley faced the forest. “The banshee.”

His first instinct was to run like hell, but then he decided he was too angry. He had seen too many corpses. It was time for some payback.

He grabbed Charley’s hand. “Let’s kill it.”

“Are you crazy?” She tried to shake him off. “Serkan couldn’t handle that thing. What chance do we have?”

“It hasn’t fed in a while, and it will be weak. We have to make sure there are no more victims.”

Her eyes were wide with fear.

“Tonya showed us the technique,” Andrew said, “We just need to believe in ourselves. Charley, you and I have all the talent in the world. We can do this.”

“But…”

“We’ll do it together.”

Charley calmed down. Her expression hardened into a look of utter determination.

“You’re right. It’s our duty.”

That’s my girl, Andrew thought.

She turned to Dan and Williams. “If I were you,” she said calmly, “I’d be running for your lives.”

The BPI agents glanced at each other. They sprinted away as fast as their legs could carry them.

Andrew faced the woods. The banshee emerged, and the sight disturbed him even more than he had expected. The monster was an amalgamation of all the minds it had consumed. It had arms, legs, and heads sticking out at odd angles. It shambled and staggered like a drunk. The sound was like a hundred voices screaming at once.

“We’re right here,” Andrew yelled. “Two nice, juicy sorcerers ready to be gobbled up.”

Charley squeaked. “Andrew…”

“Focus.” He squeezed her hand. “Control. No fear.”

He felt a chill. The banshee was already starting to drain his energy, and it wasn’t even close. Andrew’s knees wobbled.

He cleared his mind and became as serene as a frozen pond. He would give the monster nothing to feed on.

He heard Charley taking deep, slow breaths.

The banshee got closer, and Andrew saw pieces of Serkan in the mass of appendages. Jennifer’s face also appeared occasionally. The lovers are together in death, Andrew thought.

The monster was a true horror show. It didn’t belong in this world, and Andrew wanted nothing more than to destroy it.

Even though he was using every trick he knew to protect himself, the drain on his energy grew worse. He began to shiver uncontrollably. Charley sounded like she was struggling to catch her breath.

“It’s too strong,” she said in a hoarse voice. “This was a mistake. I can’t feel my legs.”

“Dig deep. Be the aggressor instead of the victim.”

“I’m trying.” She sounded scared.

“Try harder, and don’t be afraid.”

Andrew also tried harder. He had got Charley into this mess, and he would get her out. He wasn’t about to let an overgrown sprite take the life of someone he cared so deeply about.

Andrew reached down and found a place inside where even the banshee couldn’t touch him. It was an inner fortress he hadn’t known he possessed. The stone walls were impervious, and towers reached to the sky. Absolute peace and quiet gave him an opportunity to regain his focus and quench his distracting emotions. He rested for a timeless moment. He would remember this place and come back to it the next time he was in trouble.

When he was ready, his attention turned outward, and he attacked.

“Now you die!” he screamed.

Andrew sucked energy out of the banshee like it was a seam. After several days without any sorcery, he was starved for power. He allowed his appetite to take over completely.

The banshee wailed in pain.

The sound pushed Andrew to new heights of aggression. He sensed Charley joining the fight, and even though she was a little late, he was glad for the support. Together, they ripped the banshee apart.

It wailed one last time and then exploded. All the memories it had stolen sprayed outwards. Most were lost, but Andrew caught some fragments. He saw scenes from the lives of the banshee’s victims as if they were his own. The kaleidoscope of images and emotion was too much to handle, so Andrew cleared his mind and tried to calm down.

He turned to Charley. She was breathing hard and flushed, but she had a proud grin on her face.

“We kicked its ass,” he said.

“No,” she said, “you kicked its ass. You’re amazing.”

She grabbed his head and kissed him on the lips. He was so surprised, he just stood there. His shock wore off at the exact moment she pulled away. He was left gasping.

Charley looked down at Serkan’s corpse. “Poor guy,” she said softly. “He can rest in peace now.”

The sudden change in mood caught Andrew off-guard. He was still trying to get over that kiss.

Seeing Serkan’s face revived memories in Andrew that weren’t his own. Remnants of Serkan had made the journey through the banshee and into Andrew. He recalled childhood visits to Turkey, and he remembered lessons taught by Keene.

Andrew also had a clear recollection of Serkan performing sorcery in the fire station while Jennifer watched. The two lovers had snuck in through a back door even though the station was occupied. The spell had spiraled totally out of control, and Serkan had been forced to take desperate measures.

“Serkan is responsible for all this,” Andrew said. “He was in the fire station. He made the banshee.”

Charley nodded. “But why? It still doesn’t make sense.”

He looked at the dirt. “I don’t know. Let’s head back.”

“What about the body?” Charley pointed at Serkan.

“The BPI will deal with it,” Andrew said.

The two apprentices walked back towards the village.

The quiet country road failed to ease his troubled mind. Charley was right. Serkan’s behavior today was like a puzzle missing several pieces. He was too smart to make such a stupid mistake. There had to be a compelling reason, and clearly, further investigation was required.

“That was quite a kiss.” Andrew glanced at Charley.

She smiled. “You get one every time you save my life.”

“No other times?”

“Not yet. I like our relationship where it’s at right now.”

Andrew frowned. I’m not as satisfied.

Several minutes later, they returned to the chaos in the village. The crowd of police and reporters had grown even larger than before. The roads were completely jammed, and traffic was backing up. Five helicopters now hovered in the sky, and the rotor noise was annoying.

“It will be interesting to see how the BPI covers this up,” Charley said.

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” Andrew said.

“I think you’ll be surprised. They are experts.”

They spotted Agents Dan and Williams near the Baptist church. More men in blue suits were with them, and Williams was giving orders.

Dan smiled as Andrew and Charley approached.

“You’re alive!” Dan said.

Andrew straightened. “Sorcerers one, banshee zero.”

“Great job. Really well done. I have to admit I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

Andrew grinned proudly. He listened to what Williams was telling the other BPI agents.

“The Director will be here in three hours,” Williams said. “I want a full analysis ready by the time he arrives. That includes the names of police officers, reporters, victims, and witnesses. Times and locations. Maps of the area. Every scrap of information that might be relevant. Pair up, spread out, and get to work!”

“Yes, sir!” the agents responded.

Andrew didn’t have much to do, and he realized he was hungry. He checked his watch and saw it was almost noon. He had missed breakfast in the rush to confront Dr. Larson. As Andrew looked around, he realized hunger could become a big problem. There wasn’t a restaurant in sight, although the general store might have snacks.

Williams looked at Andrew and Charley. “Make yourselves useful,” the agent said. “Start lying to people.”

“Lying about what?” Andrew said.

“About what happened here. Provide misinformation to anybody who will listen, especially the media. Charley, a pretty girl like you should have no problem talking to reporters. You’re a camera magnet.”

Charley’s eyes widened. “You want me to do interviews?”

“Yes,” Williams said, “and be convincing. Move!”

Andrew and Charley wandered off.

He looked at the swirling chaos in the streets and tried to imagine an explanation that wasn’t true. How could so many people die suddenly and without apparent injury?

“Let’s elaborate on the poison gas idea,” he said.

Charley nodded. “But don’t blame the military. That’s a bad cliché.”

“Oh, I got it! Follow my lead.”

Andrew spotted an older male reporter wearing a sky blue suit. His black hair was perfectly groomed. A cameraman and an audio technician were close by.

Andrew walked over until he was within earshot of the reporter.

“It was that chemical truck,” he said loudly. “I knew that brown stuff leaking out the back smelled funny.”

Charley winked knowingly. “Yeah, and it gave me a headache.”

The reporter came over immediately. “What did you say?”

“A chemical truck drove through town just before people started dying. We both saw it.”

She was suddenly the object of a lot of interest. The reporter called his crew over and began to interview her.

“I’m Donald Duffy from the International News Network,” the reporter said. “You are?”

“Emily,” Charley said in a cute voice.

The reporter smiled in a disarming manner. “You saw a chemical truck?”

“It had a big blue tank which was leaking brown gunk. The fumes gave me a headache. It went right through town and kept going.”

Andrew was slightly miffed about Charley getting all the attention. The truck idea had been his, and he deserved some credit. On the other hand, she was a lot prettier.

“Did the truck have a name on it?” the reporter said.

“Alliance Chemical or Allied Chemical or Amalgamated Chemical. Something like that. We didn’t stick around. One whiff of that stuff sent us running the other way. I guess we were lucky we didn’t die. My granny…”

Charley suddenly broke down and started crying. Andrew raised his eyebrows. She was a good actress, and the improvisational performance was compelling. He decided to get in on the act.

He put his arms around her shoulders and pressed her face against his chest. “It will be OK,” he murmured. “Granny is in a better place now.”

The camera focused on Andrew.

“Did you see the truck?” the reporter said.

Andrew nodded. “But it was more green than blue.” He wiped his eyes. “No more questions. Emily needs some time to herself.”

He gently guided Charley away. They stayed in character until they turned a corner and were out of sight.

She straightened up. “That was fun.”

“Yeah.” He grinned. “Let’s do it again, but we need another story. Alien attack?”

“Too far-fetched. Bad food?”

“That wouldn’t kill so many people so quickly. Something in the water supply.”

Charley’s eyes lit up. “Voracious brain-eating amoeba.”

“Ooh! Nasty.” Andrew nodded. “Let’s go find another reporter.”

Chapter Fourteen

“I saw the plane spraying dust,” Charley said in a slightly hysterical tone. “Maybe it was a pesticide. The plane flew right over town, and that stuff went everywhere.”

Andrew stared into the camera with wide eyes. “It made me choke. I could hardly breathe.”

They were being interviewed for a fourth time, and they had told a different tale every time. The reporters ate up the lies without question. Apparently, getting the story first was more important than getting it right, and nobody doubted the honesty of a nice-looking girl like Charley.

Andrew felt a flicker of energy, and he knew another sorcerer was approaching. Andrew recognized the energy signature as belonging to Keene.

Charley looked at Andrew. “He’s here.”

“I know,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Even though they were in the middle of an interview, they ran off. Andrew saw a black helicopter flying in low and fast. He pointed, and Charley nodded. They dodged and weaved to get through the crowd in the street.

They arrived at an open field at the edge of the village. Williams was already waiting, and he greeted Andrew and Charley with a nod.

“We told some really good lies,” Andrew said.

“Great,” Williams said. “Every little bit helps. The professional liars will be here soon.”

“You have professional liars?”

“Sure. Just wait ‘til you see them in action.”

The helicopter touched down. Andrew covered his ears and squinted to protect his eyes from blown dust.

As soon as the aircraft was on the ground, a side door opened, and Keene jumped out. His wrinkled face appeared very anxious. The wash from the helicopter made his gray hair dance on his head. He was wearing a brown wool jacket and matching pants.

“What the hell is going on?” he yelled over the engine noise.

Everybody moved away from the helicopter so they could talk without screaming. Charley summarized the situation in crisp terms a sorcerer would understand. Keene listened with a grim expression while Williams stood a short distance away.

Keene sighed deeply. “That doesn’t sound anything like the Serkan I know,” he said. “Something must’ve happened to him. Our first stop is the seam. I need to see it up close.”

“Wait,” Williams said, “before we go anywhere, I need to make something clear. Serkan was your apprentice.”

“Obviously.” Keene’s eyes flashed with annoyance.

“If he’s guilty of serious crimes, some of the fault falls on your shoulders. You trained him. You were responsible for him. According to regulations, you’ll go to prison for him.”

“You’re already convicting me? Maybe we should get the facts first.”

“The essential facts are beyond dispute,” Williams said. “Serkan was in the fire station performing sorcery in a clandestine manner. He had his girlfriend with him. Thirty-six innocent people are dead at last count, killed by a banshee.”

“The first lesson of sorcery is that one should not trust appearances. Let’s proceed with the investigation.”

Keene marched off towards the fire station. He was energetic for a middle-aged man. Andrew and Charley jogged to keep up with him.

Keene glanced at them. “You really defeated a banshee?”

“We did it together,” Andrew said.

“Actually,” Charley said, “Andrew did most of it.”

“That was foolish,” Keen said. “You took a huge risk.”

“It seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Perhaps,” Keene said, “but I’m having a hard time believing you survived. The banshee must’ve been weakened by starvation.”

“It didn’t feel weak,” Andrew said.

“Not to you. You were lucky this time, but don’t test your luck again. Next time, wait for a real sorcerer. You’re just apprentices.”

They arrived at the fire station. Deputies were still standing guard, and emergency personnel were working inside.

Keene turned to Williams who had followed him.

“Clear it out,” Keene said. “The apprentices and I need to work alone.”

Williams called other BPI agents to help him. After several minutes of flashing badges, barking orders, and threatening federal prosecution, they managed to get everybody out of the fire station.

Keene, Andrew, and Charley went inside. The interior was quiet and a little spooky. All the bodies had been removed, but tape on the floor showed where they had lain.

Keene looked at the seam. “It’s a beast. It’s amazing the BPI didn’t know about it.”

Andrew walked around the room. Each seam had its own character, and this one spun like a gyroscope. The outer surface was a moving blur.

“What are we doing in here?” he said.

“Forensic sorcery,” Keene said. “A rare and subtle art.”

“How does it work?” Charley said.

He glanced at her. “Whenever we work magic, the sprites absorb a little of our power. They remember. I just have to ask them what happened here.”

Andrew saw the sprites as pinpoints of energy moving randomly through space. They formed a cloud around the seam, and in their current form, they seemed completely harmless. The banshee had once been one of them.

“I don’t think they’ll talk to you,” Andrew said.

Keene grunted angrily. “We’ll see about that.”

Andrew sensed Keene’s power growing. An invisible black storm always surrounded him, but now it expanded to ten times its normal size. The room seemed to darken, and the walls became hazy, but Andrew knew it was all in his mind. A normal person wouldn’t see any difference.

Andrew and Charley backed away fearfully. They hadn’t seen a master sorcerer perform a truly powerful spell before. When Tonya practiced, she always did it alone.

Keene raised his hands like a conductor in front of an orchestra. The sprites stopped their random motion and formed a neat line.

“This is organic sorcery,” Charley said. “It’s forbidden.”

“Technically,” Keene said, “but these are mitigating circumstances.”

His faced became locked in a tense expression. Andrew could tell Keene was attempting a very difficult spell, and Andrew tried to be silent.

Keene wiggled his fingers, and the sprites wiggled sympathetically. Some kind of deep communication was happening. Andrew wished he were skilled enough to participate. It was easy to see why organic sorcery was forbidden and why a reckless sorcerer might try it anyway. Playing with sprites looked like fun.

Keene abruptly dropped his arms and stormed out of the fire station with a furious expression. The sprites returned to moving randomly.

“What happened?” Andrew said.

“I guess he got his answer,” Charley said, “and he didn’t like it.”

They went outside into the bright sunlight. Keene was standing by himself and staring at the ground. Bothering him seemed like a bad idea.

Williams walked up to Andrew. “Do you have anything to report?”

“Talk to Keene,” Andrew said, “but I suggest you do it nicely. Or better yet, wait for him to talk to you.”

Williams looked at Keene and furrowed his brow.

Andrew’s stomach growled loudly.

“I’m starving,” he announced. “I’m going to find some food.”

“I’ll go with you,” Charley said.

The general store was the only obvious source of sustenance so they walked over. It was a single-story brick building. A sign on the front read, “Cheap ‘N Good General Store,” but Andrew had his doubts. There was no competition in town and therefore, no reason to be cheap or good.

The interior reminded him of an ordinary convenience store. Dry goods and household items filled most of the shelves. A refrigerator in back held milk, soft drinks, and meat.

All the snack foods had been raided. He didn’t see a single candy bar, packet of nuts, or potato chip anywhere. Even the ice cream shelves were stripped down to bare metal. Two men were arguing about who would get the last bottles of water. One woman was clutching two loaves of bread like they were the only food on Earth. The line at the cash register snaked back and forth and down an aisle. Andrew and Charley stared in horror.

“I guess we’re not eating here,” he said.

“Nope,” she said, “unless you’re hungry for laundry detergent.”

They went back outside. At least the weather was very pleasant.

“Hi guys.” Agent Dan walked up to them. “I was looking for you.”

He was still wearing his standard blue business suit, but it was getting dusty and rumpled. It had already been a long day, and it was only half-over.

“Hi,” Charley said. “We’re looking for food.”

“I suppose we can dip into the emergency rations.”

“What are you talking about?”

Dan led Andrew and Charley back to the black limousine. It was still parked in the grass by the road. Less than two hours had passed since their arrival, but it seemed much longer.

Dan opened the trunk. He pulled out a cardboard box marked “emergency rations” and tore it open.

“You were serious,” Andrew said.

“The BPI is prepared for all contingencies,” Dan said.

He handed out chocolate bars, packets of dried apricots, almonds, and beef jerky.

Charley held up the food. “What is this stuff? It’s not lunch.”

“Emergency rations. High-energy foods that can be stored for months without refrigeration. Eat.”

She had a dubious expression, but she nibbled on the apricots and almonds. Andrew didn’t understand her reservation. He ate his entire portion and felt satisfied even though he wasn’t really full. Dan handed out juice boxes to wash the food down.

Andrew looked at the crowd in the streets, and the scene reminded him of a county carnival. More civilians had arrived to add to the unruly mob, and he guessed that many were curiosity seekers. He wondered what kind of sick person would visit the site of a mass murder for fun.

“Do you think Keene is ready to talk?” Andrew said.

Charley shrugged. “We can ask. I wish Tonya were here. I hope she’s on her way.”

“I’m sure she is, but getting here from Chicago on short notice will be tough. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“The BPI will use a private jet and get her as close as possible,” Dan said. “There must be a county airport or something nearby. We probably don’t have long to wait.”

A commotion in the middle of the street caught Andrew’s attention. Men and women in white lab coats were setting up a ring of tall antennas. Wires ran between the antennas and a computer in the center. A portable generator provided power.

“What the hell?” Andrew said.

Dan chuckled. “They must be our professional liars. Let’s go watch the show.”

The three of them walked over to the group of scientists. A man with curly gray hair and round spectacles seemed to be in charge. He was giving orders to the others with phrases like “Mach flux actuator” and “relativistic sheer stress.”

Andrew was part of a large audience who gathered around the scientists. It was the only interesting thing happening. Reporters also drifted over with camera crews in tow.

The scientists fiddled with their equipment and grew increasingly excited. Apparently, an important discovery had been made. The crowd pressed forward eagerly. The scientists begged everybody to stay back and not disturb the “delicate equipment.”

Eventually, the police got involved. They formed a perimeter to separate the scientists from everybody else.

Agent Williams joined Dan, Andrew, and Charley.

“They work for you?” Andrew whispered.

Williams nodded. “For the Bureau. They’re real scientists though.”

“But this is just an act.”

“Carefully scripted.”

The chief scientist gathered up all the reporters in the area so he could have a press conference.

When all the cameras were pointed in his direction, he announced, “I’m Dr. Laurence Biddle of the Atlanta Advanced Research Center. For years, my team and I have worked on the theory of lambda wave energy transmission, but we haven’t seen the dangerous phenomenon outside the laboratory. I can now confirm today’s tragic deaths were caused by what we call a lambda wave burst. More specifically, a shift in the gravitational field…”

“Nonsense!” a man yelled from the crowd. “Utter nonsense!”

The heckler forced his way to the front. He was a short, round man wearing a black suit. A bad toupee looked like a dead animal sleeping on his scalp.

“Dr. Maeder,” Biddle said with utter contempt. “Did you come to witness my moment of triumph?”

“No. I came to make sure nobody was fooled by your laughable theory. Lambda wave energy transmission was discredited years ago.”

“By you and your cronies.”

“We found the error in your equations,” Maeder said.

“And I found the error in your error!”

Andrew looked back and forth between them. It was a good performance, and the crowd was fully engaged. The news cameras were recording it all.

“Pah!” Maeder made a dismissive gesture.

“Come see,” Biddle said. “Check the readings with your own eyes.”

At Biddle’s insistence, Maeder was allowed past the line of policemen. Maeder studied the readings on the computer in the middle of the antennae ring.

His eyes widened. “My God! You may be right!”

Andrew almost laughed out loud at the exaggerated drama. The actors needed to take it down a notch.

Charley tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “This is a waste of time. Let’s go talk to Keene.”

The two apprentices pushed their way out of the crowd. Agents Dan and Williams followed.

“Do you think people will really buy that stuff?” Andrew said.

“Some will,” Williams said. “We also have a team handling social media. Websites touting the importance of lambda wave energy transmission are already in place. Which would you believe? A new scientific theory or an insane story about a killer ghost? A lie only has to be slightly more credible than the truth.”

“Good point.”

They found Keene still standing near the fire station. The master sorcerer was pacing back and forth and wringing his hands.

“Are you ready to talk to us?” Andrew said timidly.

“No,” Keene said. “I want a second opinion. Disclosure will have to wait until Tonya gets a chance to examine the evidence.”

Andrew and Charley exchanged worried glances.

“What are you hiding?” Williams said.

“I’m not hiding anything,” Keene said. “I don’t want to leap to rash conclusions.”

“Then just give us your opinion.”

“When Tonya gets here.”

The two men stared at each other for a long moment.

“Fine,” Williams said at last. “She’ll be here soon.”

  • * *

Andrew was watching Dr. Laurence Biddle work. The scientist was proselytizing the religion of lambda wave energy to any and all who would listen. He spoke with an authoritative tone and sprinkled in just the right amount of scientific gobbledygook. It was a strong effort, but the audience was losing interest. Even the most gullible sucker could take only so much bunk.

There was a break in the patter when Biddle realized nobody was listening.

Andrew approached the scientist. With his gray hair and soft, round face, he looked like a gentle old man. It was hard not to trust him.

“Hi!” Andrew said.

“Hello,” Biddle said.

Andrew lowered his voice. “You’re a pretty good actor.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t have to pretend with me. I’m with the BPI.”

Biddle furrowed his brow. “You don’t look like a federal agent.”

“I never said I was.”

“Oh.” Biddle’s eyes widened. “Are you one of them?”

“Maybe. Who are them?”

“The people I’m not supposed to know about. The danger we’re trying to hide from the public.”

“That’s me,” Andrew said. “A top secret freak.”

Biddle took a nervous step backwards.

“You’re a real scientist?”

“That’s right. A botanist actually.”

“How do you reconcile the lies with your scientific integrity?” Andrew said.

Biddle thought for a moment. “I was told it’s a matter of national security. It is, isn’t it?”

Andrew considered that question. He didn’t know the exact definition of “national security,” so it was hard to answer. Somebody’s security was certainly at stake. The banshee’s killing spree proved beyond any doubt that the danger was real. Was it a threat to the nation? Possibly.

“Sure,” Andrew said finally.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“It’s a complicated issue. I’m not exactly a fan of the BPI. Some of the things they do really bug me, but I have to admit they serve a purpose.” Andrew looked at the mess all around. “Your work is necessary, unfortunately. Keep it up.”

He felt a tingle of familiar energy. Tonya had arrived.

Andrew weaved his way through the crowd. It wasn’t as dense as before, but it was still a mob and not a pleasant one. He guessed lack of food was making a lot of people irritable.

He reached the edge of the village. A black Jeep was approaching, but cars blocked the road, so the Jeep was forced to drive on the dirt. It bounced over rocks and sticks, and the big wheels kicked up clouds of dust. The Jeep skidded to a stop in front of Andrew.

Tonya opened one of the rear doors and climbed out. She stood on wobbly legs for a moment.

“That was the worst trip of my life,” she declared.

She was wearing a purple coat with two lines of buttons. The coat was more appropriate for Chicago weather than Georgia. Clips held back her blonde hair. Her blue eyes were bloodshot.

“The absolute worst?” Andrew said.

“Top three, certainly.”

Charley came running up. She gave Tonya a hug, but the master sorcerer handled the affection awkwardly. She clearly wasn’t used to even casual intimacy. Andrew kept his distance, but he was also very glad to see Tonya. She would set things right.

“Let’s get right down to business,” Tonya said. “I’ve heard the rumors, now tell me the facts.”

“Let’s talk while we walk,” Charley said.

The three of them headed towards the fire station. Along the way, Charley gave a full report. Andrew mentioned a few details, but there wasn’t much to add.

They skirted the crowd in the streets and walked through grassy fields instead. Uneven ground kept tripping Andrew. He had to watch his feet to avoid stepping in a hole or on a rock.

“You actually fought a banshee?” Tonya said in a tone of disbelief.

“Maybe it was weakened,” Andrew said. “It was far from its seam.”

“Still, I’m not sure whether to be impressed or horrified by your recklessness. I honestly don’t know how you survived.”

“I just had to get into the right frame of mind.”

“It takes more than a positive attitude to kill a banshee. Regardless, don’t do it again until you’re much further along in your training. OK?”

Andrew and Charley nodded.

Keene, Dan, and Williams were waiting at the fire station. Keene and Tonya gave each other a long look, but their faces didn’t show any emotion.

“Go in,” Keene said. “Talk to the sprites. Hopefully you’ll reach a different conclusion than me.”

Tonya went into the fire station.

Everybody else stayed outside. Andrew knew what she was doing without seeing it. He felt her energy gush forth like an erupting volcano, and it made him nervous even at a distance. The magic had a violent, angry character.

“Sprites?” Williams said. “I’m not an expert, but I thought screwing with sprites was against the rules.”

“Forensic sorcery is a special discipline,” Keene said, “with special rules.”

Williams raised his eyebrows.

Tonya came out a few minutes later. Her pale face had a very troubled expression, and she refused to meet Keene’s gaze.

“Well?” he said.

She rubbed her temples. “I’m afraid you have to go back to Atlanta. Stay home while I investigate this matter.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“You know the rules. You were his master. You bear some responsibility for his failings. Until I finish my inquiry, you’re under house arrest. There will eventually be a formal hearing which may lead to further censure.”

“But…” Keene said.

Tonya pointed towards the road. “Just go. Don’t argue with me. I’m not in a mood for it.”

He lowered his head and walked slowly away.

“What was that about?” Williams said.

Tonya stared at him. “I will discuss the details with Director Webster when he gets here. You should focus your attention on Keene. Make sure he gets home and stays there.” The anger in her voice was reflected on her face.

He hesitated and then went after Keene.

Tonya looked at Agent Dan. “Leave us alone.” Her icy stare could’ve shattered a mirror.

Dan ran off after Williams.

When the sorcerers were alone, Tonya put her face in her hands.

“Will you tell us?” Charley said timidly.

“I’m guessing a little,” Tonya said, “but I think Serkan was trying to make his girlfriend into a sorcerer. He wanted to share his talent with her even though she had none of her own.”

Charley gasped.

“Is that possible?” Andrew said.

“It’s never been done as far as I know,” Tonya said, “but I’m not prepared to say it’s impossible. In theory, sorcery has no hard limits. I will say it was incredibly stupid, and he compounded his error by doing it without supervision. I can’t imagine why Serkan would make such an atrocious choice. Was he trying to prove something to his lover? Disaster was inevitable.”

Andrew and Charley exchanged glances.

“What do we do now?” she said.

Tonya sighed. “We have to discover the truth. I need to understand Serkan’s motivation. Maybe he had a good reason after all. I hope so because otherwise, Keene may go to prison, and he’s a dear friend.”

“While we’re investigating, who will guard your seam?”

“The BPI will have to take care of that for a few days. This is more important.”

A thumping noise made Andrew look to the sky. A huge black helicopter was approaching. It looked like the kind of aircraft the President might employ except it had no markings.

“That must be the director,” Tonya said. “Exactly the person I want to talk to. Come on.”

She marched off purposefully towards the helicopter. Andrew and Charley stayed right behind her.

The aircraft landed in a grassy field. Six BPI agents jumped out, and then Frank Webster exited with more dignity. His gaunt face was as immobile as a statue. His big, beefy body moved quickly and without wasted motion. A blue Kevlar vest covered his tailored blue business suit.

As soon as he saw Tonya, he ran over to her.

“Where is Keene?” Webster said. “I expected him to be here.”

“I sent him home. He stands accused of violating regulation 14-B. I have appointed myself as the lead investigator in the case.”

“Oh.”

“And Serkan appears to have violated many regulations,” Tonya said, “but he’s dead, so that case is closed.”

Webster crossed his arms. “I know. I received a full briefing during the flight. What I don’t understand is why further investigation is necessary. We have a pile of dead bodies, and we know what killed them. Serkan was messing with a secret seam and created a banshee.”

“That’s true.”

“So what questions still need to be answered?”

Other BPI agents were gathering around Webster. They were waiting for orders from the boss. The black helicopter’s engine was turned off which came as a great relief to Andrew’s ears.

“I don’t understand Serkan’s motive,” Tonya said.

Webster made a face. “Does it really matter? Even if the outcome wasn’t intentional, the essential facts of the crime remain the same.”

“The most essential fact is Serkan’s behavior doesn’t make sense. We have to investigate.”

“Are you sure your friendship with Keene isn’t biasing your judgment? If this case were presented to the Sorcerer’s Tribunal, the verdict would be swift and unanimous.”

“Perhaps,” she said.

“I think you’re being sentimental.”

Tonya furrowed her brow.

Andrew decided to come to her defense. “Serkan would never do what he did, unless he had a good reason.”

Webster gave him a look that made him feel six inches tall.

“You should definitely be a witness for the defense,” Webster said. “Your argument is so compelling.”

“If one of your agents got into trouble, you’d want to know the truth.”

“What other truth do you expect to find? What will an investigation accomplish besides wasting time?”

Andrew clenched his jaw angrily.

Charley came forward. “Serkan was a good guy. If we don’t understand what went wrong with him, it might happen to somebody else.”

Webster rolled his eyes. “This argument is pointless. I have much more pressing issues to deal with. Perhaps you noticed there was a massacre here.”

“You seem very eager to punish Keene,” Tonya said. “Do you have a personal grudge I don’t know about?”

He looked at her. “Not at all.”

“Then let me satisfy my curiosity. The trial can wait a few days. There is no rush.”

They stared at each other for a long moment.

“Fine.” Webster bowed his head. “Knock yourself out. The conclusion will be the same either way.”

“I appreciate your patience and understanding. We won’t trouble you anymore.”

Tonya walked off. She made a gesture for Andrew and Charley to follow, and they trotted after her.

“That was tense,” Andrew said.

Tonya nodded. “I was getting worried he wouldn’t back down.”

“What would you have done?”

“I’m not sure.”

“What’s the plan?” Charley said.

“Let’s figure that out,” Tonya said.

They found a quiet spot behind a white house where they could talk privately. The house was so small, Andrew expected it had only one bedroom. Vinyl siding covered the walls, and it had split open in spots to reveal plywood underneath.

“Any suggestions?” Tonya said.

“Seems like we need to work backwards,” Charley said. “If we can retrace Serkan’s steps, maybe we can determine what went wrong.”

Andrew nodded. “We should talk to everybody he talked to.”

“The BPI can pull up records of all his phone calls and bank transactions,” Tonya said. “That should give us plenty of leads.”

Andrew wondered how much information the BPI had about himself.

“Which means we need to talk to Webster again,” Charley said.

Tonya shook her head. “No. He might change his mind. I’d rather work with your liaison. Dan?”

“Yes.”

“He’ll be much easier to intimidate. Let’s go find him.”

The three of them went back into the crowd. State troopers and sheriff deputies were still trying to maintain order, and they looked tired. Some of them had probably arrived hours before Andrew had. He felt sorry for them.

The BPI was gradually taking over though. The Bureau now had enough manpower on hand to control most of the village. Instead of being allowed to wander freely, the reporters were herded into specific locations. Printed press releases were being distributed. Stern men in blue suits were pushing the tourists out to the periphery.

After searching for several minutes, the sorcerers found Agent Dan working in the morgue. He and several other BPI agents were loading corpses into unmarked black delivery vans.

Andrew walked up to Dan. “You’re stealing the bodies?”

“No,” Dan said. “They’ll get a proper autopsy before being returned to their next of kin.”

“And the autopsy report will say what the BPI wants it to say.”

“You’re catching on. I believe the prevailing theory is poison gas, but airborne pesticide seems to be gaining traction.”

Dan and another agent lifted a corpse into the back of a van. The interior had steel shelves big enough for plenty of bodies. They were prepared for a massacre, Andrew thought. This isn’t the first.

“You’re finished here,” Tonya said. “You’re coming with us.”

Dan gave her a worried look. “I am?”

“Yes. You’re still responsible for Andrew and Charley, right?”

“Sure.”

“Then where they go, you go, and they’re going.” She raised her eyebrows.

He opened his mouth to protest and then thought better of it.

“Let’s take the limousine,” Andrew said. “Our luggage is already in the trunk.”

The group swung by the Jeep Tonya had used so she could grab her own bag. Eventually, they arrived at the black limousine.

Tonya surprised Andrew by insisting he drive. Dan was relegated to the passenger seat in front. Tonya and Charley climbed into the rear compartment, and Tonya immediately grabbed a soft drink from the wet bar.

“Drive,” she said. “Get us out of here.”

Andrew started the engine and backed up carefully. Escaping the traffic jam required tricky and aggressive driving. The limousine bounced over some big rocks along the way, and he was glad it wasn’t his car. He breathed a sigh of relief when he finally reached open road.

“Where are we going?” Andrew said.

“Dan is going to tell us,” Tonya said.

Dan looked over his shoulder at her. “I am?”

“Call your headquarters in Washington. The BPI must have some idea of the places Serkan visited before he died. Get that information so we can visit the same places.”

“Hold on. I can’t just…”

“Quiet,” she said. “I’m in an extremely nasty mood. Before you start arguing with me, you should carefully consider who you’re arguing with.”

Dan thought for a moment. He took out his phone and dialed a number.

Andrew smiled a little. It was good to have Tonya around.

He admired the green forests on both sides of the road and relaxed a little. He was very glad to be away from the massacre. He hoped he never experienced anything like that again.

“Stop!” Tonya yelled. “Right now!”

Andrew immediately pulled over to the side of the road and parked. “What’s wrong?” He looked over at her.

“We have company,” she replied in a grim tone. She didn’t appear happy.

A blue sedan with tinted windows was approaching. As it got closer, Andrew recognized the energy signature of a familiar sorcerer inside.

“Blake,” Andrew said.

“Yes,” Tonya said. “What is that snake doing here?”

The sedan parked across the road. Blake stepped out and blinked in the bright sunlight. His patchy gray hair and beard had loose strands that needed to be trimmed. He stretched his long, thin arms. He was wearing a dark blue shirt, slacks, and dress shoes.

He crossed over and knocked on the window of the limousine. Tonya rolled down the window but kept the door closed.

“What do you want?” she said.

“I heard there was trouble. I came to offer my help and expertise. What happened?”

“Keene’s apprentice created a banshee.”

“Oh.” Blake grimaced. “How unpleasant, but why are you headed the wrong direction? As a member of the Sorcerer’s Tribunal, I’d expect you to investigate.”

Andrew noticed two BPI agents getting out of the blue sedan. They were particularly large and menacing men. They leaned against the car and crossed their arms. For once, Andrew was glad he only had to deal with Dan.

“We already saw the scene of the crime,” Tonya said, “and now we’re moving on. Why do you care?”

“I told you,” Blake said, “I want to help.”

“Really?”

“Why is that so hard to believe?”

“Your history doesn’t lead one to expect altruistic behavior,” she said.

“I’m trying to write a new chapter in my life. I’m tired of being ostracized by my peers. I want to prove to you and everybody else I can be a good citizen.”

Tonya’s face expressed doubt.

“Where are you going?” Blake said.

“We’re not sure yet.”

“You don’t think Keene’s apprentice committed the crime?”

“We know he did it,” she said, “and he died as a result. We’re trying to figure out why.”

He nodded. “And Keene’s fate hangs in the balance.”

“Exactly. Now, if you’ll excuse us….”

“Wait.” He grabbed the window frame. “Can I tag along? You have to admit a man with my experience would be an asset during a criminal investigation.”

Tonya frowned. “You’re serious?”

“Why do you think I came all the way from St. Louis? Because I like rural Georgia?”

“You honestly expect me to believe you rode in on a white horse just because it was the right thing to do?”

“Yes,” Blake said.

Tonya narrowed her eyes. “Sure. I’ll give you a chance to prove your sincerity, but you’re not riding with us. Follow in your own car.”

“You won’t be sorry.”

“I already am.” She rolled up the window, forcing him to let go of the frame. “Andrew, go.”

Andrew drove off. Blake ran to get back into his own car. The limousine was well down the road when the blue sedan started to follow.

“I can’t believe you’re letting that guy stick with us,” Andrew said.

“Blake is up to something,” Tonya said, “and I want to know what. The best way to answer that question is to let him come. As Michael Corleone taught us, ‘keep your friends close but your enemies closer.’”

“But we’ll have to watch our backs the whole time.”

“Indeed.” She paused. “This might be a good time to discuss how sorcerer’s fight.”

He tried to keep his eyes on the road while listening closely at the same time. He had always been curious about this topic.

“Crude tactics include using transmutation to damage your opponent’s body,” Tonya said, “but masters prefer pure psychic combat. If I were fighting you, I’d get inside your mind. I’d turn your own fears against you in the form of nightmares. I’d dig up your worst memories and make you relive them. I’d paralyze you with such powerful emotions you’d forget your own name. I’d take away your ability to resist my will, and then I could do whatever I want with you. I could even make you kill yourself.”

The description frightened Andrew. He had seen enough to know Tonya wasn’t exaggerating.

“How do I fight back?” Charley said.

“Your core beliefs are your defense: a fortress of calm certainty. You can’t forget who you are or where you are. You can’t lose your focus. Remembering the difference between reality and illusion is the key to survival in combat.”

“Is that it?”

“It’s not easy,” Tonya said. “When we get back home, we’ll do some exercises. You’ll practice math while terrified.”

Andrew grimaced. That doesn’t sound like fun.

He checked the rear view mirror. The blue sedan was following close behind, and he sensed Blake inside. Andrew didn’t doubt Blake would defeat him quickly if it came to a fight.

Dan used his phone to talk to other BPI agents in their headquarters in Washington. The conversation went on for a long time, and Dan sounded frustrated. He clearly wasn’t getting the answers he had hoped for.

When the call was done, Tonya said, “Well?”

“They wouldn’t tell me much over an unsecure phone line,” Dan said, “but they will email a report to my official inbox. If I get to a computer, I can print it out.”

“That’s fine. I’m starving anyway. Let’s stop at the next town and look for food and a computer.”

Chapter Fifteen

Andrew parked the limousine in front of a tall office building covered in glass and stainless steel. A copy and print store which had public computers was on the ground floor.

“Get your printout,” Tonya said. “We’ll be eating next door.”

Dan nodded and got out of the limousine. He jogged into the copy store.

Andrew stepped out in a more leisurely manner. His back was stiff from driving, and he stretched it until he felt it pop. Charley and Tonya joined him on the parking lot.

The air was cool but not chilly. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, Andrew was tired. He already wanted to quit for the day and resume the investigation tomorrow despite its urgency.

The three sorcerers walked into a restaurant specializing in fried chicken. A few stools were in front of a white counter, but most of the seating was at high tables. The simple menu was listed on a chalk board. Jugs of peanut oil and sacks of potatoes were stacked in the corner. Pictures on the walls showed happy chickens living in big, clean pens on farms, but Andrew expected reality wasn’t as nice.

He looked at the menu and picked out what he wanted even before he sat down. Charley appeared less enthusiastic.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “You don’t like fried chicken?”

“Too greasy,” she said, “and lunch wasn’t exactly healthy.”

“But we didn’t have any breakfast. Go ahead and eat. Our next meal might not be until tomorrow.”

She furrowed her brow.

The group sat at a table in the corner.

A moment later, Blake entered the restaurant with his escort of two very large men in blue suits. The BPI agents sat by themselves, but Blake came over to join the sorcerers. Andrew wanted to send him away but kept quiet and deferred to Tonya. Surprisingly, she invited Blake to sit at their table. Andrew tried to maintain a polite appearance.

“Bring me up to date,” Blake said. “What do we know? What are we trying to find out? All I’ve heard are the lies on the news and what my personal gorillas were willing to tell me.” He glanced at the BPI agents across the room.

“Those guys follow you everywhere?” Andrew said.

“One of the benefits of being an ex-convict is twenty-four hour ‘protection.’ I’m constantly watched. There is even a camera in my bedroom.”

What was his crime? Andrew wondered.

Tonya asked Charley to describe the investigation so far, and she did so quickly and without feeling. She was rushing to get through it.

A waitress came by in the middle of the briefing to get their order. Andrew ordered a basket of fried chicken with corn and mashed potatoes on the side. Charley went with the chicken salad. Blake ordered something called “beer grilled chicken.” Finally, Tonya asked for hot wings and onion rings.

When the waitress was gone, Blake said, “Wait a second. A couple of apprentices beat a full-blown banshee?”

Charley nodded. “Andrew did most of the heavy lifting.”

Blake looked at Andrew with an expression of respect. “Wow. It’s a shame your grandfather didn’t live to see this day. He would’ve been astonished.”

Andrew smiled a little.

Charley finished her report.

“Serkan’s behavior was peculiar,” Blake said when she was done. “Keene isn’t my friend, but I have to admit he knows how to train an apprentice. It’s hard to believe he would screw up so badly with Serkan.”

Tonya raised her eyebrows. “For once, we agree.”

Dan entered the restaurant holding a stack of papers. He looked at the sorcerers at one table and the BPI agents at another. He gave the papers to Tonya and went to join his colleagues at their table.

Tonya flipped through the stack. “This is interesting. Serkan bought a gun two weeks ago. We should visit the gun shop and see if they remember anything. That will be our first stop.”

“Why would he need a gun?” Andrew said.

“Only two possible reasons,” Blake said. “He was afraid of being killed, or he wanted to kill somebody. The latter is more likely in this case. Of course, the advantage of a gun is it doesn’t require a seam.”

Nobody spoke for a moment.

“I think we should also have another conversation with those fake sorcerers in Atlanta,” Blake added. “They were close to Jennifer, and she was close to Serkan. That seems like our best lead.”

“I suppose it can’t hurt,” Tonya said.

  • * *

Andrew parked the limousine in front of the RapidFire Shooting Range. It was a low, wide building in the outskirts of Atlanta. The walls were made of red brick, and there were few windows. The parking lot needed to be repaved.

Blake’s blue sedan pulled up next to the limousine. Tonya still didn’t want to share her ride with him which was fine by Andrew.

Four sorcerers and three BPI agents got out of their respective cars. It was an unwieldy group, and Andrew wondered if they should split up to cover more ground. With Blake around, it was probably safer to stay together though.

They entered a spacious, well-lit gun shop. Larger guns hung on hooks behind the counter, and they were predominantly shotguns and hunting rifles. Smaller arms were neatly arranged in glass cases. Auxiliary items such as cleaning supplies, hunting clothes, ear protection, gun cases, and holsters were on shelves in the middle of the floor.

Andrew knew how to handle a gun safely. His father had taken him to a range in his hometown several times. Shooting was fun, but Andrew didn’t like the noise or the smell of gunpowder. Hitting a target accurately was a lot harder than it looked like in the movies.

Tonya went straight to a clerk at the counter. “We need information about a man who bought a gun here two weeks ago. His name was Serkan Kaba.”

“Who are you?” the clerk said.

He was a tall, skinny man with bad acne scars. He was wearing an Atalanta Braves T-shirt with a tomahawk logo on the chest.

“Federal agents. Dan, show him your badge.”

Agent Dan took out his wallet and showed his BPI badge.

The clerk frowned. “What did this Serkan guy do?”

“That’s none of your business,” Tonya said. “Do you remember him?”

“No, but I’ll get the owner.”

The clerk went into the back room and returned with another man. The owner had impressively long blond hair and a beard which went down to the middle of his chest. He was wearing a gun belt with guns in holsters on both hips. He looked ready for a shootout.

Tonya spoke with the owner, but he didn’t remember Serkan either. After a lengthy argument about search warrants and the Fourth Amendment, the owner agreed to show her surveillance footage of the gun purchase just to make her quiet.

The owner took the group to his small office. Paperwork covered an old, wooden desk. A half-full bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey and two shot glasses were on top of a metal filing cabinet. A calendar on the wall had a picture of a hot girl in a bikini carrying two assault rifles.

The owner went to a surveillance system in the corner of the office. He fiddled with the controls until he eventually found the right recording. He stepped back so everybody else could see.

Andrew watched Serkan enter the store, glance to either side, and hurry to the counter. It was definitely Serkan, but he was nervous. He pointed to a small gun in a glass case without much thought.

“What kind of gun is that?” Tonya said.

“A Kel-Tec 9mm,” the owner said. “Cheap and easy to conceal.”

Serkan bought a box of ammunition, but it was almost an afterthought. He paid for the purchase with a credit card.

“That’s weird,” Andrew said.

“What?” Tonya said.

“He used a credit card instead of cash, but he knew the BPI was looking at his bank statements. That’s kind of stupid, isn’t it? I mean, the first rule of being sneaky is you pay in cash.”

“True. Did you find a gun on the body?”

“We didn’t search the body,” he said. “Maybe we should’ve.”

“You had other things on your mind. I’m sure the BPI did. We’ll check with them.”

The owner’s eyes widened. “Hold on. The guy is dead?”

Tonya nodded. “I suppose you could call it a suicide.”

On the video, Serkan left the gun store quickly. The entire recording was just ten minutes long.

“Give us a minute alone, please,” Tonya told the owner.

He left the office. The sorcerers turned to each other.

“Not the behavior of an honest man,” Blake said.

Tonya frowned. “It is a bit incriminating. There had to be a reason for the gun. Was Serkan afraid of something? Why didn’t he tell Keene?”

Nobody had an answer.

“Is it time for a conversation with the fake sorcerers?” Blake said.

“They won’t be meeting in the park this early,” Andrew said, “but maybe we can track down the leader. He called himself Storm-dubh.”

“Black Storm in Irish. A very dramatic name and certainly not his real one. The BPI must know his true identity after your encounter the other night. They’re good about that sort of thing.” Blake turned to Dan. “Right?”

“I’ll make a call,” Dan said.

  • * *

The navigation system in the limousine guided Andrew to a small apartment building in a poor neighborhood. According to information provided by the BPI, Storm-dubh’s real name was Otis, and he lived on the ground floor of the building.

Andrew parked, and the blue sedan pulled up next to him. Everybody got out.

The apartment building was made of orange stucco. A rusty air-conditioning unit jutted out of every other window. A sign on the wall announced the building was a “gun-free zone.”

The group found the apartment with the right number, and Tonya knocked on the door.

Storm opened the door a moment later. He had taken the gold loops out of his ears, but the flame tattoos around his right eye still gave him a barbaric look. A little black stubble covered his scalp. His black T-shirt had the slogan, “Tourist Season is Open,” and it depicted a man wearing Hawaiian shorts being shot in the head. Storm only wore underwear below.

“Otis,” Tonya said, “so nice to meet you. Mind if we come in?”

“Who are you?” Storm said. His eyes widened when he noticed Andrew and Charley. “I remember you!”

Blake pushed him aside and entered the apartment. Everybody else followed.

Andrew wrinkled his nose at an odor that reminded him of gym socks. The small apartment had a main room which served as a bedroom, kitchen, and living room. Only the bathroom was separate. Black curtains covered the two windows. A girl with brown hair was lying in the bed with the sheets pulled up to her chin. Andrew recognized her from the meeting in the park last night.

Storm looked at the large group in his apartment. “What’s going on?” he said uneasily.

“Jennifer is dead,” Tonya said, “and so is her boyfriend. We were hoping you could shed some light on the matter.”

“Dead?” He shook his head. “I don’t know anything about it!”

“Calm down. We’re not accusing you. Did Jennifer mention anything to you? Think hard.”

He chewed his lip.

Andrew walked over to a bookshelf. The titles included the Book of Soyga, Enochian Magic, and the Sinister Tradition.

Blake joined Andrew at the bookshelf and grabbed the Satanic Bible. “I met the author of this.” Blake held up the book.

Storm looked over. “You met Anton LaVey?”

“Yes. A perfect ass and a brute to women. Half of this book is nonsense he made up, and the other half is nonsense he plagiarized.”

“That’s a great work!”

“Before you put faith in something, understand where it came from.” Blake tossed the book into a garbage can. “Now, we didn’t come here to discuss Satanism. What did Jennifer tell you?”

Storm glanced at his girlfriend in the bed. “You’d better be careful. I have powers.”

Blake sneered. “You wouldn’t know a real sorcerer if one came up and tweaked your nose. Feel free to strike me down with your dark magic whenever you like. In the meantime, tell us what you know.”

“Um. There was one thing. She claimed her boyfriend knew about a book of spells.”

Tonya gave Storm a hard look. “What was that?” she said.

“Her boyfriend was searching for a grimoire,” he replied. “Jennifer bragged about it.”

“Did she tell you any specifics?”

“No. It was a secret.”

“A poorly kept one,” Tonya said.

“Wait,” Storm said. “There was one more thing. The book belonged to one of his ancestors.”

She raised her eyebrows in obvious surprise.

“That’s all. I swear. Please, leave me alone.”

She stared at him for a moment and then nodded. “OK. Thank you for your help.”

Tonya left the apartment, and everybody else followed. When she reached the parking lot, she stopped. Andrew was glad for a cool, fresh breeze on his face after the fetid air inside the apartment.

“What was he talking about?” he said. “I didn’t know sorcerers had spell books.”

Tonya glanced to either side. “We don’t. Not really. But sometimes, sorcerers will try experimental techniques and record the results in a journal for later reference. It’s a practice I strongly disapprove of.”

“Why?”

“Because journals can easily fall into the wrong hands. Sorcery must be taught under controlled conditions by a qualified instructor. I have to be there in case you make a dangerous mistake. If you read it out of a book and try it on your own, you’re likely to get yourself killed. The BPI collects all the journals and stores them in the vault.”

“Maybe that’s what happened to Serkan,” Andrew said. “He got his hands on an old journal, read something interesting, and gave it a shot.”

Tonya pursed her lips. “Maybe. Regardless, we need to find out everything we can about the journal. It could be the key to this entire mess.”

“I suggest talking to Serkan’s parents,” Blake said. “They might know the name of the ancestor who wrote it.”

“Yes. That’s a good idea. I’ll call Keene. He’ll know where the parents live.”

Tonya took out her phone and made a call. She put it in speaker mode, and the other sorcerers crowded around.

Keene’s deep voice responded, “Yes?”

“This is Tonya.” She summarized the latest findings.

“A gun?” Keene said. “I don’t believe it. And the idea of a so-called ‘spell book’ is even more preposterous. If he came across anything like that, he would immediately bring it to me.”

“I’m sure, but we have to go where the evidence leads us. Where do his parents live?”

“Marietta.”

  • * *

Andrew parked the limousine in front of a two-story green house with a two-car garage. Many tall trees provided pleasant shade, and there was a huge front porch. It was easy to imagine spending summer evenings on that porch sipping a cool drink. The house was set far back from a wide street, and the use of space struck him as a bit wasteful.

The blue sedan containing Blake pulled up. Once again, everybody got out.

Tonya faced the group. “They just lost their son. They won’t appreciate a crowd in their home. I’m going in with just Andrew and Charley. Blake, wait out here, and the same for you guys.” She looked at Dan and the other two BPI agents.

The agents didn’t appear to care, but Blake frowned. He opened his mouth as if to object, but then he closed it again.

Tonya, Andrew, and Charley went to the front door. Tonya knocked.

A woman answered. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot. Her brown hair was a mess. She was wearing blue jean coveralls with some dirt stains, and Andrew guessed she had been gardening when she had heard the news about her son.

“Can I help you?” she said in a soft, broken voice.

“Pamela Kaba? I’m Tonya. I’m very sorry about your son. We’re friends of his, and we have a few questions.”

Pamela broke down and cried. The sorcerers waited patiently until she calmed down again. Eventually, Pamela invited them into her home.

A middle-aged man came out of a back room. He was medium height, and he had the same round face and thick eyebrows as Serkan. He was wearing a nice blue jacket even though Andrew didn’t see any reason to. The newcomer’s eyes were also bloodshot.

“What’s going on?” he said.

Tonya shook his hand. “You must be Serkan’s father, Rifat. Glad to meet you. I’m deeply saddened by your loss.”

Andrew felt terrible for Serkan’s parents. Andrew knew if he died, his own parents would be devastated.

“I appreciate it,” Rifat said. “Who are you?”

“I’m Tonya, and my friends are Andrew and Charley. We knew your son when he worked at the Avanessian Institute. We’re not satisfied with the official explanation for his death.”

“The police told us it was poison gas.”

“That’s certainly the story,” Tonya said. “Did you talk to Serkan recently? Do you know what was going on in his life?”

“He visited a few weeks ago. He had a very pretty girl with him. Why? What do you think happened to him?”

Tonya glanced at Andrew and Charley meaningfully.

“I’d rather not go into specifics at this time,” Tonya said. “We don’t want to start dangerous rumors without evidence. Did Serkan happen to mention an ancestor during his visit?”

Pamela nodded. “My great-great-grandfather. He fought in the United States Army during World War I.”

“I thought Serkan’s family was from Turkey.”

“Rifat is from Turkey. My ancestors have lived in the South since before the Civil War. I still have some World War I memorabilia in a box. Serkan spent a lot of time looking at it during his visit.”

Tonya’s eyes gleamed with interest. “May we take a look?”

“Sure,” Pamela said, “but I don’t know what that has to do with anything.”

They walked through the home. The furniture was plain and comfortable. The nicer items were antiques, and they included a mirror with a golden frame and a hutch with glass windows.

Pamela led the sorcerers into the basement. “Sorry about the mess,” she said. “We weren’t expecting company.”

Old furniture, cardboard boxes, and broken appliances filled the small space. Reminds me of my attic back home, Andrew thought. Pamela found an antique footlocker amid the mess.

“You think this has something to do with Serkan’s death?” she said.

“It might,” Tonya said.

She opened the footlocker. It contained a green uniform, but some kind of insect had eaten holes in the cloth. There was a German helmet with a spike on top, a semi-automatic rifle with a broken stock, a cap, and many other items.

Andrew grabbed a wooden box and opened it. He found a neat row of medals on colorful ribbons, but the metal was a little tarnished.

“Your ancestor was a fine soldier,” he said.

“That’s why we kept his stuff,” Pamela said. “My family still makes a pilgrimage to his grave once a year.”

Tonya dug deeper into the collection. She found some framed photographs, but they had faded so badly, they were just ghosts on yellowed paper.

She grew excited when she discovered a glass jewel box full of letters. She took the bundle of letters out of the box and skimmed through them.

“Anything?” Charley said.

“Love letters to a woman named Victoria,” Tonya said. “Typical mushy stuff. Makes me gag.”

“Jealous?”

“A little. It’s not like I’ve never had a man in my life. They just didn’t last long. There are certain practical problems when it comes to dating a woman like me.”

Andrew didn’t have to think hard about what some of those problems might be. The life of a master sorcerer was complicated.

Andrew spotted another letter in the footlocker. It was wedged between a trench knife and a shovel as if it had fallen there.

He grabbed the letter, opened it, and read it out loud. “‘Dearest Victoria, Edward and I found the most remarkable book today. We were searching a burned house in Cologne, and we discovered a brick vault in the basement. The heat of the fire had cracked the bricks, permitting us convenient entry. Oddly, the vault contained clocks, puzzles, and children’s toys as if they were items of great value. There was also a book describing experiments of a dark and mysterious nature. In my heart I believe they were notes written by a wizard. I argued with Edward at great length about who should possess the book. I’m afraid to admit we came to blows. I won ownership of the book at the cost of my friendship with Edward, but such a unique manuscript seemed worth the price. This matter may not be fully settled however.’”

“That’s strange,” Pamela said. “I never saw that letter before.”

“It wasn’t in the jewel box,” Andrew said.

“Still, I had thought I’d seen them all.”

Tonya dug into the footlocker. “I don’t see a book.”

“I don’t think there was one,” Pamela said.

“You’re sure?”

“I’ve had all the items in that footlocker appraised for insurance purposes, and there was never any book.”

Tonya furrowed her brow.

“How did your ancestor die?” Charley asked.

Pamela turned to her. “He was shot. According to legend, he dueled with another man to settle a dispute over a woman, but that was never documented. The newspaper report simply states his body was found in the woods.”

“So, this Edward person might’ve killed him and taken the book.”

“That’s possible, if there really was a book.”

The sorcerers looked at each other.

“We need to know more about Edward,” Tonya said. “What’s this?”

She took a framed photograph out of the footlocker. Andrew and Charley crowded around.

The photo showed the unit Serkan’s ancestor had served in. The men were arranged in neat rows, but the photo had faded so much, the faces were barely visible. Names were typed on the bottom, and they were much easier to read.

“Here it is,” Tonya said. “Edward Chesler. He shouldn’t be too hard to track down.”

“Except he’s probably dead,” Andrew said. “This picture was taken during World War I.”

“He’ll have relatives who might know about the famous book. I bet Serkan went down the same road.” She turned to Pamela. “Thank you, Mrs. Kaba. We’ll be on our way.”

Tonya, Andrew, and Charley made their way out of the house.

Andrew glanced at the setting sun. It had been a very long day, and he just wanted to get a nice hotel room and watch television for the rest of the night.

“What happened?” Blake said.

The poor light gave him a spooky appearance. His gray hair was a little wilder and his eyebrows were a little bushier when seen in silhouette. He seemed to lurch out of the darkness.

“We discovered a letter describing the journal,” Tonya said. “We believe it fell into the hands of Edward Chesler, a soldier in World War I.”

He nodded. “Interesting.”

“Can we call it quits for the night?” Andrew said. “I’m exhausted.”

“Me, too,” Charley said.

Tonya turned to her apprentices. “I suppose so. I have to admit I’m pretty tired too. The trail won’t be any colder tomorrow.”

“We could all use some rest,” Blake said. “I had a long trip from St. Louis. Let’s find a hotel.”

“Two hotels. One for us and one for you.”

“Huh? Why?”

“I don’t want to sleep in the same building as you,” Tonya said. “I don’t trust you that much. Find your own hotel.”

Blake stiffened. “I’m hurt.”

“You’ll survive.”

Chapter Sixteen

Andrew was lying in his hotel bed watching television. The show was about modern day gold miners in Alaska, and he found it strangely engaging even though he had never had much interest in mining. It was a view into a different world.

He sensed Charley and Tonya’s energy signatures just on the other side of the wall in the next room. Tonya had insisted they sleep close together for their mutual protection. Even though she still projected confidence, Andrew had gotten the sense she was shaken.

Andrew had to share his room with Dan, and Andrew looked over at the BPI agent. He was playing a game on his phone on his own bed.

“What do you think about what happened today?” Andrew said.

“It was crazy,” Dan replied without looking up from his game, “but most of the stuff sorcerers do is crazy.”

“You really believe that?”

“You bend reality. It’s not normal.”

Andrew furrowed his brow. Unfortunately, he had to agree. “What about Serkan? Do you think he’s guilty?”

“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” Dan said. “I don’t even know why we’re out here. We can’t bring all those dead people back to life.”

“But the explanation could affect Keene’s fate.”

Dan shrugged in a disinterested manner.

And these are the people who are responsible for protecting me, Andrew said.

He heard footsteps in the hallway, and they corresponded to Charley’s energy. A few seconds later, Andrew heard a knock on the door.

He had taken a shower and was just wearing his underwear. He quickly slid under the bed sheet to cover himself, but he left his chest exposed.

“Dan,” Andrew said, “can you get that? It’s Charley.”

Dan gave him a funny look. “That’s what I’m talking about. Crazy.”

He opened the door.

“Hi, Dan,” Charley said. “Can you give us a few minutes?”

“I’ll just get some fresh air,” Dan said.

He left, and she entered. She was wearing fuzzy slippers and pink pajamas with long sleeves. The floppy pajamas didn’t show off her slender body. Her hair was still damp from being washed.

Andrew gave her a curious look. “Hi.”

“Just came to say good night,” Charley said. “It’s been a rough day. I’m really glad you were with me for it. I don’t think I could’ve handled this mess alone. All those bodies….” She frowned.

“I still have a hard time believing it really happened. I keep expecting to wake up from the nightmare.”

“And I’m starting to wonder if Serkan was a bad guy after all. First the gun, then the book. Maybe we were wrong about him.”

Andrew looked down. “Yeah.”

“If you sense anything dangerous in the area, just yell. Tonya and I will hear you through the wall. Well, good night.” Charley sighed. “We need to sleep.” She turned towards the door.

“Wait. Can I get a good night kiss?” he said in a half-joking manner.

She paused, turned, and came back to him. He could hardly believe she was going to kiss him, and he puckered his lips in anticipation.

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Night.” She left the room.

Andrew sagged. Better than no kiss at all, he thought.

  • * *

Andrew parked the limousine in front of a farmhouse the next morning. It was painted red, but the paint had peeled off the wood in spots. Tall weeds surrounded the farmhouse on all sides. Cabbage plants were growing in a field beside the farm, but poor irrigation had made the leaves limp. Some sheep were standing in another field, and they were grazing on native grass.

The blue sedan containing Blake parked beside the limousine.

Andrew felt warm sunlight on his face. He had slept fairly well but still lacked energy. He had a grim feeling it would be another day of upsetting news.

A farmer was repairing the wooden fence which surrounded the sheep. He wore blue coveralls, and a cap covered his bald head. He struck Andrew as too old to be working on a farm.

Tonya walked over to the farmer. Andrew, Charley, and Blake followed, taking care not to step on the cabbage plants.

“Hello!” Tonya said.

The farmer straightened up and brushed off his hands. “Can I help you?”

“I hope so. We’re looking for a very rare book, and you might have some information about it.”

“The only book I got here is the Bible.”

“Oh.” Tonya said. “Actually, your ancestor, Edward Chesler, may have owned the book. He fought in World War I. The book may be worth a lot of money.”

“He was my great-grandfather, but I never inherited anything,” the farmer said with some bitterness. “It all went to my brother.”

“Where can we find him?”

“He was shot two weeks ago. Murdered in his own bed.”

Tonya exchanged glances with Andrew and Charley. Andrew remembered the gun Serkan had purchased around that time.

“I’m sorry,” Tonya said.

The farmer shrugged. “I’m not. Bastard never gave me a penny even when my family was starving.”

Andrew looked around but didn’t see evidence of a family. Probably an ugly story there, he thought.

“We’ll stop by his house anyway,” Tonya said. “Maybe somebody else knows about the book. What’s the address?”

“Canton. Take the highway north….”

  • * *

Andrew parked the limousine in front of a huge plantation home. White columns in front went from the ground to the roof two stories above. The windows had traditional black shutters. A wide porch went around the entire house on the first floor, and there were plenty of balconies on the second floor.

“Nice,” Andrew said.

He waited for the blue sedan to park, and then he got out. He admired the property as everybody else got organized. It was like a scene from a historic movie.

He expected the house had once been part of a working plantation, but now a town surrounded it. A private forest of mature magnolia and oak trees shielded the house from nosy neighbors.

“We’ll stick with the same story,” Tonya said. “We’re book collectors, and we want to buy the journal.”

“All of us?” Andrew said.

She looked at him, Charley, Blake, Dan, and the other two BPI agents in turn.

“We’re a wealthy family of book collectors,” Tonya said, “and the agents are our bodyguards.”

She climbed a brick staircase, crossed the spacious porch, and knocked on doors which were a few feet taller than usual.

A man in a tuxedo answered the door. “May I help you?” he asked in a condescending manner.

“Yes,” Tonya said. “We’re looking for a Mrs. Chesler.”

“And your name is?”

“Tonya. We have a business proposal that she will find very enticing, and we’re not selling anything. We’re buying.”

The butler looked out at the group of people. The four sorcerers were standing at the door while the BPI agents had remained near the cars.

“Wait here,” the butler said in a tone of resignation.

Andrew sighed.

He looked at Blake. For a man with a terrible reputation, he had been on his best behavior so far. His uneven gray beard, wrinkled face, and mild expression made him look like a kindly old man. A dark blue shirt and brown slacks would’ve fit in almost any social setting.

Andrew had to ask a question which had been gnawing at him. Now seemed like as good a time as any.

“When we first met, you told me your father knew my grandfather,” Andrew said.

Blake raised his eyebrows. “Yes.”

Andrew couldn’t miss the look of warning from Tonya. He would’ve preferred to talk to Blake without her around, but that wasn’t likely to happen. Andrew would just have to step carefully.

“They worked together?” Andrew said.

“Gustav shared his wisdom with any other sorcerer who cared to visit him. He was extremely unusual in that regard. My father took advantage of that opportunity many times.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No,” Blake said. “I had my own separate life. Call it the stubborn independence of youth. In retrospect, I wish I had spent much more time with Gustav, but alas, that ship has sailed.”

The butler returned. He escorted Tonya, Andrew, Charley, and Blake around the exterior of the house to Mrs. Chesler. She was an elderly woman, bent with age. Black, lacy clothes and a black vail covered every inch of skin, and she even wore black gloves. She was sitting on a rocking chair and staring at a grove of Pecan trees. A glass of dark liquor was on a table within easy reach.

“You want to buy something from me?” Mrs. Chesler said.

“A book,” Tonya said. “A journal, actually, and we’re willing to pay a substantial sum. Edward Chesler found it in Europe.”

“Edward?”

“He fought in World War I. He was an ancestor of your husband.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Chesler said. “All that memorabilia was sold to a collector years ago. It was cluttering up the house. I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore.”

Tonya furrowed her brow. “Do you remember if there was a book?”

“Not specifically, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in the pile. A young man came by a couple of weeks ago asking for the same book. He had a shaved head and a pretty scarf. Why the sudden interest?”

“The book’s fame must be spreading. Do you know the name of the collector?”

“I’m sure my butler can find that for you.” Mrs. Chesler waved towards the man in the tuxedo.

Tonya paused. “Thank you, but before we go, I have one other question. If you don’t mind my asking, how did your husband die?”

“An intruder broke into the house in the middle of the night, Tuesday before last. My husband was shot while he was lying next to me in bed.”

“That’s awful! Was it a robber?”

“No,” Mrs. Chesler said. “Nothing was stolen. I still have no idea why it happened, and I didn’t see the murderer. The police went over the entire estate with a magnifying glass but found no useful evidence.” She took a big drink from her glass.

“Was this before or after the young man asked about the book?” Tonya said.

“Right after. Do you think he was involved?”

Andrew and Charley exchanged worried glances.

“I’m sure it was just a coincidence,” Tonya said. “We’ll leave you alone now. Sorry to bother you.”

The sorcerers walked around the house to return to the cars. In the meantime, the butler went inside to get the address of the memorabilia collector.

When he could speak freely, Andrew said, “I don’t understand. Why would Serkan kill that man? Serkan already knew the book wasn’t here.”

“It’s obvious,” Blake said. “Simple revenge. A Chesler shot Serkan’s ancestor, so he shot one in return.”

Andrew frowned. The circumstances were certainly incriminating.

Charley shook her head. “I don’t believe it. Let me check something.”

She ran over to the limousine and climbed inside. A moment later, she emerged with a sheaf of papers in her hand. It was the report Dan had printed yesterday. She flipped through the stack until she found the right sheet.

Charley frowned. “Serkan paid for a hotel room in Woodstock, Georgia that night.”

“We passed that town on the way up here,” Blake said. “It’s a short drive away.”

Her face fell.

Andrew wanted to argue on Serkan’s behalf, but it was hard to do so. Piece by piece, the evidence against him was mounting.

The butler came out the front door of the house. With a very straight posture and his chin held high, he walked over to Tonya and handed her a scrap of paper. “The name and address, ma’am.”

“Thank you.” She held up the paper. “Our next stop.”

  • * *

Andrew drove past a sign that read, “Southern Museum of the Great Wars.” The museum looked like a barn made of bricks. It was so small, he couldn’t imagine spending more than an hour inside, if that much. The parking lot had only a couple of cars, but it was still early, and perhaps the museum wasn’t even open yet. He hoped he wouldn’t have to wait around.

Andrew parked the limousine directly in front. The blue sedan parked next to him.

Andrew was the first to the front door, and as he had feared, it was locked. He put his face against the glass and didn’t see anybody inside.

Tonya came up behind him. “Let’s look around.”

The group began to walk around the museum. Beautiful forest and parkland surrounded it, and Andrew wouldn’t have minded a relaxing stroll in the woods. The latest news about Serkan had rattled Andrew to the core. Creating a banshee by mistake was one thing, but a cold-blooded revenge killing was another. Andrew couldn’t believe he had misjudged Serkan so badly.

A back door was open, and everybody wandered inside. They entered a workshop rather than the museum itself. The shop contained machine tools such as a drill press, a milling machine, a lathe, and a power saw. There was also a section for sewing which included an antique, iron sewing machine and plenty of spare cloth.

An old man was working with the machines. He had a rifle in a rubber clamp, and he was fiddling with the firing mechanism. He was wearing a green Army uniform which appeared to date from World War II. Some ribbons decorated his chest. A cap allowed a little gray hair to poke out.

He turned around. “Sorry folks, but the museum isn’t open yet. Come back in an hour or so.”

“We’re not actually here for the museum,” Tonya said. “We’re looking for Carlisle Tritt.”

“That’s me.” Carlisle wiped his hands on a rag. “How can I help you?”

“A few years ago, you purchased some World War I memorabilia from the Chesler family. It included a book that we’re very interested in.”

“A guy came by a couple of weeks ago asking about the same book. Dressed funny. He wore a scarf, and you don’t see that much these days. He had a nice-looking girl on his arm.”

“What did you tell him?” Tonya said.

“I had to look it up. I found a note about the Chesler purchase five years ago, but it didn’t describe a book. It’s certainly not in the museum.”

“Oh.”

“But it’s possible the book was part of the lot,” Carlisle said. “Sometimes I get odd items I can’t use in the museum, so I sell them off to other collectors. I have a rare book dealer I call when I come across a real old book like that one.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. This investigation just keeps going, he thought.

“You sent the guy with the scarf to the book dealer?” Tonya said.

“Sure did,” Carlisle said. “I guess you want his name, too.”

She smiled. “Yes. Thank you.”

  • * *

Andrew parked the limousine in front of a small, two-story office building. It had rounded windows which were so heavily tinted, they were almost opaque. The exterior was made of limestone blocks. Trees shrouded the office building on all sides, and there were no signs out front. It was easy to miss from the road.

The blue sedan pulled up next to the limousine, and once again, everybody got out. Dan and the other two BPI agents had obviously lost interest in the entire adventure. They walked to a tree and stood in its shade with bored expressions. One of the agents began to smoke a cigarette.

Tonya, Charley, Andrew, and Blake went into the building. They found Antiquarian Books and Letters on the second floor and went inside.

A clear plastic barrier separated the room into two sections. The back section contained shelves stuffed with books, and Andrew could already tell the books were very old. Many had bindings which looked like an animal had chewed on them. Some books had suffered from water damage. Loose sheets of yellowed paper stuck out. The barrier appeared air-tight, and he guessed it kept out the excessive Georgian humidity.

A man in a blue shirt and gray slacks was sitting at a desk in the front section. He was bald except for tufts of hair on the side of his head. His scalp reflected the bright light in the room. He was carefully turning the pages of a very old book, and white gloves kept his skin from touching the paper.

He looked up. “Hello? I’m sorry, but visitors must make an appointment in advance. I don’t take walk-ins.”

“Mr. McGahern?” Tonya said. “It’s an urgent matter, and we can’t come back later. We need information about a book.”

“Are you buying or selling?”

“Neither. This is a criminal investigation, and the book might be evidence. It may have come into your possession five years ago. It’s a journal. It was found by a soldier during World War I in Cologne.”

McGahern frowned. He pulled off his gloves and stood up with some difficulty. He shuffled over to a card catalogue and opened one of the long drawers.

“A man came by a few weeks ago and asked about the same journal,” he said as he thumbed through the cards in the drawer.

“A young man with a shaved head?” Tonya said. “He had a pretty girl with him?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’m interested in the same book. Do you still have it?”

McGahern pulled a card out of the drawer. “I found the catalogue entry. Eighty-five pages, all hand-written. No author. The title is simply Journal 1909. It was sold.”

“To who?”

He continued to examine the card, and his frown deepened.

Tonya abruptly walked across the room and yanked the card out of McGahern’s hand. His feeble grip offered little resistance.

She looked at the card. “Who is John Crawford?”

“A specialty collector,” McGahern said.

“What is his specialty?”

He gnawed his lip.

“Mr. McGahern,” Tonya said in an angry voice, “I’ve had a long day, and yesterday was no picnic either. I’m impatient to move on. There are three federal agents in front of this building right now. If you don’t answer to me, you’ll answer to them.”

He walked over to the window and looked out. “What’s going on?”

“That’s none of your business! Answer my damn question!”

After a moment, he said, “Mr. Crawford collects items of an occult nature. He is obsessed with mysteries and magic. He was convinced Journal 1909 described real sorcery.”

“Crawford believes in magic?” Tonya said.

McGahern lowered his voice. “He told me several times sorcerers are among us, hiding in plain sight. He collects evidence they exist. I think he’s crazy, of course, but he pays very well.”

Tonya exchanged glances with Andrew and Charley.

“Where can I find him?” Tonya said.

McGahern grimaced. “I’m not in the habit of revealing the home addresses of my valued clients.”

“And I’m not in the habit of beating the snot out of old men, but we can all try new things, right?”

He still hesitated.

“Listen,” she said in a softer tone, “people may have died because of Journal 1909. A very good friend of mine is in deep trouble. I don’t want to be nasty about this, but I can’t leave here without knowing where to go next.”

McGahern lowered his eyes. “Mr. Crawford lives in the woods in a secret location which I’ve never seen. He has no phone. When we meet in person, he comes here. All I have is his post office box.”

Tonya snarled. “That doesn’t help me much.”

“We can deal with it,” Blake said. “We’ll just stakeout the post office and wait for him to get his mail.”

“That sounds very time consuming.”

“What choice do we have? I bet he checks his mail every day.”

“That’s not a good idea,” McGahern said. “Crawford will think you’re stalking him. He told me he lives with a bunch of heavily armed survivalists, and they don’t trust strangers.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Tonya said, “but I must proceed regardless. Give me the address.”

He provided the information, and she wrote it down. She, Andrew, Charley, and Blake left the office building.

When they were outside and could speak freely, Andrew said, “There are people who collect evidence about us?”

“Our existence isn’t a perfect secret.” Tonya shrugged. “The BPI just keeps the word from spreading.”

“But if the public knew about sorcery…”

“The public does know, but there is so much crap out there, so much religious mumbo-jumbo, so much misinformation, that they can’t tell fact from fiction. If you heard a story about a woman who can bend reality with her mind, and you didn’t know me, you’d assume it was nonsense.”

“I guess that’s true,” he said. “As long as we don’t get caught on camera, we’re OK.”

“Or write anything down,” she added. “Please, whatever you do, don’t keep a damned journal. They are nothing but trouble.”

They rejoined the BPI agents and explained the situation.

“There is a standard approach for dealing with PO boxes,” Dan said. “We put a tracking device in a package and put that in the box. Then we just wait for Crawford to collect his mail. We follow him back to his house.”

“But we don’t have a tracking device,” Tonya said.

“The Atlanta office has them. A courier can bring one to us.”

“Make the call. I want to do this today.”

  • * *

Andrew had never seen a lonelier post office. It was just a small wooden building surrounded by native forest. The parking lot was big enough for just ten cars, and it connected to a little-used county highway. A single mailbox stood next to the post office as if to give it some company.

Finding a good spot for a stakeout had proven to be a challenge. There wasn’t any obvious place to hide the cars, so they had been parked on a side-road a hundred feet down the highway. The four sorcerers and three BPI agents were hiding in the woods in a spot where they had a clear view of the post office but were screened by brush.

Dan was manning the tracking device. It was a blue box the size of a paperback novel with a display on the front. The transmitter was hidden inside a toy car in a package in the PO Box.

The sorcerers were playing poker in the grass. Andrew had thought he was a pretty sharp player, but Tonya and Blake were at a different level. Both were masters of deception and manipulation, and whenever Andrew thought he had a read on either of them, the sucker turned out to be Andrew. Even Charley seemed to have an uncanny ability to make him bluff at the worst possible times.

“Your bet, Andrew,” Charley said with the slightest of smiles.

He stared at his cards. His two queens looked good, so he raised five.

The cards and chips had come from the trunk of the limousine. Apparently, they were standard mission supplies for a BPI assignment. Ironically, the BPI agents were just watching the game. Perhaps they knew playing against sorcerers was a bad idea.

Blake hesitantly called the bet, but Andrew ignored the hesitation. There was an equal chance it was fake or real. Andrew had been burned both ways. Tonya folded which came as a relief to him. At least that move was unambiguous.

He noticed the sun was hanging low in the sky. He checked his watch. “When does the post office close?”

“Pretty soon, I expect,” Tonya said.

“Crawford better hurry up.”

“If he doesn’t pick up his mail today, we’ll be back at sunrise tomorrow.”

Andrew sighed.

The betting finished, and the players showed their hands. Charley had three threes, and as usual, Andrew lost. The pain would end soon though. He was almost out of chips.

A green Humvee drove into the parking lot. It was the original military model with an extra-wide body, oversized tires, and a snorkel intake. Steel bars protected the front grill.

Everybody looked over from the poker game.

The Humvee parked, and a man wearing a green hunting outfit got out. He glanced over his shoulder anxiously before hurrying into the post office.

“Nervous guy,” Dan said. “Let’s get ready to move.”

Everybody stood up and brushed dirt off their pants. Dan watched the tracking system display.

The hunter came out of the post office. He was holding a package wrapped in brown paper which Andrew recognized as the one they had planted. The tracking transmitter was inside. The hunter looked around again, climbed into the Humvee, and drove off.

“Go!” Dan said.

The group sprinted through the woods. The tracking system had a range of a mile, so they had enough time provided they didn’t waste it.

They arrived at the cars. Andrew took the driver’s seat of the limousine, and Dan rode shotgun. Charley and Tonya got into the rear compartment. Blake was still banished to the blue sedan with his two guards.

As soon as the doors were closed, Andrew drove off. He shot down the highway in pursuit of the Humvee.

After a minute, Dan said, “Take a right!”

“Where?” Andrew said.

“There!” Dan pointed at an unmarked side road.

Andrew squealed the tires as he made the hard turn. The road was paved, but there were potholes everywhere, and he swerved back and forth to avoid the worst of them. Low hanging branches scraped the roof.

“Slow down a little,” Dan said. “This isn’t a rally race.”

Andrew eased up on the gas.

After driving half a mile, the road seemed to reach a dead end. He slammed on the brakes.

“Now which way?” he said.

Dan peered at the tracking device. “Right, I think.”

“You think?”

“It would help if we weren’t in a blank spot on the map.”

Andrew turned right onto a path which was more suitable for hiking than driving. Threading the limousine between the trees took every bit of his skill. He had to stop, back up, and try again a couple of times. He knocked some bark off a few trees along the way.

A gate across the trail forced him to stop. The gate was made of welded iron bars and barbed wire. A sign read, “All trespassers will be considered a hostile invading force. There are more of us than you, and we have lots of bullets. WE WILL SHOOT YOU.”

“Friendly,” Andrew said.

“I think we need backup,” Dan said.

“Where is your courage?” Tonya said from the back seat. “Let’s at least scout around while we still have light.”

“But then we’ll have to drive home in the dark,” Andrew said.

“Your powers of observation are remarkable, young man.”

Everybody got out of the limousine as the blue sedan pulled up behind them. Blake and the other two BPI agents joined the group.

The forest around them was foreboding. The crowns of trees created a continuous canopy which blocked much of the fading sunlight. Bushes and weeds made travelling in a straight line impossible. Undulating hills and valleys limited visibility in all directions.

“I’m starting to think Dan was right,” Andrew said. “Maybe we should come back in the morning with a combat team.”

“And proper clothing for a hike,” Charley added.

“And Kevlar vests in case that sign isn’t a joke.”

Tonya looked back and forth between them. “I just want to get this done,” she said. “We’ve been driving around for two days. It’s enough.”

Blake stepped forward. “Your enthusiasm is commendable, but the apprentices are right. We’re not prepared for a violent confrontation. At a minimum, we should look at some satellite photos before going in.”

Dan and the other two BPI agents nodded in agreement.

Tonya gritted her teeth. “Fine, but we’re coming back at dawn prepared to deal with any contingency. I don’t care if there is a whole army of crazy survivalists in there. We’re going in.”

Chapter Seventeen

The phone in Andrew’s hotel room rang.

He answered the call. “Hello?”

“Williams is here,” Tonya said. “We’re having our meeting.”

“Be right there.”

Andrew left his hotel room, walked down the hall, and knocked on the next door. Charley opened the door and let him in.

The room was crowded. In addition to Tonya, Dan, Blake, and his two guards, Agent Williams had come with several more BPI agents. Men in blue were packed into the room until there was hardly space for Andrew.

Williams was wearing a white shirt and blue slacks without his normal business jacket. A big gun in a holster on his hip struck Andrew as overtly threatening. The head of the Atlanta office was squinting and scowling as usual.

Satellite photos were spread out on the hotel bed. Andrew leaned over, but it was hard to tell what he was looking at. A big, grassy clearing formed a perfectly square hole in the middle of dense forest. He saw no buildings, and a chain-link fence marked the border. He looked closer and saw subtle lines in the clearing. It appeared something large and angular was buried beneath the grass.

“It turns out John Crawford is an interesting man,” Williams reported to the entire group. “I wish he had come to our attention earlier. For the last seven years, he and a number of other survivalists have been living in a secret encampment in the woods. It’s a cult of sorts, well-armed and extremely paranoid.”

“How many?” Tonya said.

“Unknown. Children might be involved.”

“I don’t see any encampment,” Andrew said as he glanced at the satellite photos again. “There is nothing but dirt.”

“It’s underground,” Williams said. “Buried buses and shipping containers were used to create rooms and connecting tunnels. The facility is air-tight and secure. The cult is preparing for the end of the world. Crawford is a millionaire and paid for everything.”

“Why?”

“We found his old posts on the internet. He’s convinced there will be a devastating war between sorcerers and normal people.”

“That would explain his interest in sorcery,” Tonya said.

“Yes,” Williams said. “It’s safe to assume we’ll encounter armed resistance when we enter the camp, but we can’t walk away. We know he has Journal 1909, and he might possess other dangerous artifacts. He’s been collecting for a while. We have no choice but to enter forcefully, subdue any opposition, and search the place thoroughly. My plan is to send four squads in full combat gear for the initial assault. When the area is secure, the sorcerers can come in and help with the search.”

Andrew and Charley exchanged worried glances.

“I’d also like to have a portable seam on hand,” Tonya said, “just in case.”

Williams looked at her. “In case of what?”

“Unexpected difficulties. Guns can’t solve every problem.”

He gave her a dubious look.

“Without a seam,” she said, “your most powerful asset in this operation will be nearly impotent. That’s me. Considering how messy this investigation has become, it makes sense to over-prepare.”

Williams made a sour face. “I suppose so. I’ll call headquarters and make the arrangements. I want the assault to commence tomorrow at first light. That means our wake-up call is at 4 AM. Good night.”

Andrew groaned.

  • * *

Blake left the hotel room. He kept a straight face, but it was hard not to smile. His grand plan was coming to fruition exactly as he had hoped. Even the great and mighty Tonya was playing her unwitting part in the scheme. One day, she would look back and realize how foolish and trusting she had been, but of course, the best magic tricks always seemed obvious in retrospect.

Two oversized BPI agents followed Blake down the hallway. The Bureau’s habit of assigning intimidating guards to Blake amused him. Highly intelligent, educated men would’ve done a much better job of watching him, but the federal government was too stupid to understand that fact. The official solution to every problem was big guns and big muscles. He looked forward to teaching the BPI the shortcomings of that approach.

After walking to the far end of the hotel, Blake used his keycard to enter his room. It contained two beds, a desk, a dresser, and a television. The accommodations were hardly adequate for a man of his stature, but the room was better than a prison cell. He had wasted five years of his life surrounded by blank concrete walls. He would never go back no matter what the cost.

One of the guards entered the hotel room with Blake, and the other went to the room next door. Blake ducked into the small, windowless bathroom and closed the door. It was the one place where he could have privacy for a few minutes.

He took a cell phone out of a secret pocket in his pants. It wasn’t his normal phone which the BPI monitored. Only a handful of people knew this phone existed. Acquiring it had been quite a trick.

Blake sent a text message which said, “Green light. 7 AM tomorrow. Be very careful. Many federal agents will be in vicinity.”

After a couple of minutes, the response arrived. “Roger. All set on our end.”

“I will create a distraction.”

“We’ll be watching and ready.”

Blake put away his secret phone. He used the toilet, flushed it, and left the bathroom.

  • * *

Andrew had never worn body armor before, and he didn’t like it. The heavy Kevlar vest hung from his shoulders like lead weights. Flaps bounced against his hips and groin whenever he walked. He felt ridiculous.

He looked at Charley and had one more reason for not liking body armor. It hid her beautiful body from view. She might as well have been a boy.

“This is quite a thing,” he said.

She nodded. “I don’t remember seeing armed assaults in the Theosophical University course catalog.”

“It was in the fine print, along with investigating mass murders.”

Tonya and Blake also looked like soldiers. All the sorcerers wore green camouflage armor over green fatigues. Radio headsets allowed them to stay in touch with the BPI during the operation. The sorcerers weren’t armed though, and Andrew wished he had a gun. If somebody shot at him, he wanted to shoot back.

The sound of a distant gunshot brought the point home. The BPI agents had begun their assault a few minutes ago. The sorcerers were waiting in the woods for the signal to advance. Andrew needed to pee, but he knew it was just nerves. He had gone behind a bush a few minutes ago.

He looked at the peaceful green forest in an attempt to calm himself. A slight breeze rustled the leaves. Birds twittered high in the branches, and he heard a clicking noise closer to the ground. It was dead of winter in Chicago and spring-like in Georgia, but for the first time, he wished he were there instead.

Andrew sensed a flicker of energy nearby. He tried to see the source, but trees blocked his view.

“The portable seam has arrived,” he murmured.

Tonya nodded. “I felt it. It probably came in an armored truck. Driving a truck up that goat path must’ve been a pain in the ass.”

“Are we going to get the seam?”

“Not until we need it. Just stay put.”

Andrew sighed uneasily.

His radio earpiece crackled. “Sorcerers,” Agent Williams said through the radio, “move forward cautiously. We have suppressed the cult. You may begin your investigation, but keep your eyes open.”

Andrew, Charley, Tonya, and Blake pushed through the brush. Andrew was wearing clunky combat boots which weighed down his legs but helped his footing on the rocky terrain. They eventually came to the fence surrounding the survivalists’ compound.

Andrew peered through the wires at a bare hilltop. Sparse grass and weeds covered an area the size of two football fields. Some pipes sticking out probably provided ventilation for the secret underground facility. There were no obvious entrances.

BPI agents wearing black armor and helmets were patrolling the ground. They held assault rifles, and other weapons hung from utility belts. To Andrew, the approach seemed very heavy-handed, but the BPI didn’t believe in half-measures.

He spotted a body lying among the weeds. It was a young man in a green hunting outfit. Blood was leaking from a head wound and soaking the dirt. He had a light sniper rifle in his right hand.

Agent Williams ran over to meet the sorcerers at the fence.

“What’s the situation?” Tonya said.

“We killed three,” he said. “I assume the rest are barricaded below. When they saw they were outmanned and outgunned, they went into hiding.”

“Where is the door?”

“Hidden, but finding the way down is the least of our problems. As soon as they found out we’re federal agents, they started shooting. They had no interest in talking to us. I’m sure they’re preparing for a siege as we speak. Taking the facility will involve a lot more bloodshed I’m afraid.”

Williams whistled to get the attention of one of the BPI squads. Men jogged over and used wire cutters to make a hole in the fence. The sorcerers ducked through.

Andrew walked over to the dead body and discovered the victim wasn’t much older than himself. He recoiled.

“Hey, Andrew!” Tonya said. “Stay with the group. This isn’t a sightseeing tour.”

Andrew came back.

Tonya gave Williams a serious look. “I can save a lot of lives with the seam. I can find the door, force the cult to open it for us, and neutralize them without a single shot being fired.”

“I hate to admit it, but you’re right.” His shoulders sagged. “Come on.”

The group walked along the fence as they made their way around the hill. Williams and his BPI agents flanked the sorcerers, but Andrew felt only slightly safer. Guns were a lot more fun when it was just a video game. He tried to appear brave in front of Charley, but every unexpected noise made him twitch.

The fence had a gate which had been opened. The group left that way and proceeded down a dirt path. BPI cars and vans were parked bumper-to-bumper on the path leading straight away from the compound. Going around the vehicles required walking through tough weeds.

A green armored truck was parked at the end of the line. The thick front windshield was clearly bulletproof. The windows on the sides were only a few inches tall, and each had a gun port below. The tires in the back were doubled to carry the extra weight of the armor. There were no markings at all, just flat green paint.

Four U.S. Army soldiers guarded the truck. The BPI agents were well-equipped, but the soldiers took it to an even more extreme level. Their assault rifles were considerably bigger and more complex. The soldiers had full facemasks with integrated air filters and goggles. Rigid plates augmented the soldiers’ body armor. One carried a sniper rifle which could’ve been mistaken for an anti-aircraft gun.

Andrew could sense the portable seam inside the back of the truck. The energy source was small but still useful.

The Army guards the secret vault, Andrew thought. Interesting.

The soldiers didn’t just give up the seam. Agent Williams had to sign several forms, show his badge, and swear an oath, but the soldiers still weren’t done. They sent a picture of his face and a thumbprint back to their base to confirm his identity.

Finally, the soldiers opened the back of the truck. The cargo section contained a safe with an electronic combination.

This is getting ridiculous, Andrew thought.

One of the soldiers unlocked the safe, but he kept his arms extended fully as if the contents were toxic. He opened the door and jumped back.

Andrew, Charley, Tonya, and Blake crowded around to look inside. The safe contained a porcelain doll which looked like a baby. It had no hair, the paint was chipped, and one leg had broken off, but the doll still demonstrated masterful workmanship. The face was eerily realistic.

“There must be a real horror story behind that,” Andrew said.

“Indeed,” Tonya said.

She gently removed the doll from the safe and cradled it in her arms. The soldiers backed away quickly, almost tripping over rocks and sticks on the ground.

Blake reached out to touch the doll.

Tonya shoved him away. “No. Hands off.”

“I haven’t earned your trust?” he said.

“Not where a portable seam is involved. I don’t want you anywhere near it. We will finish today’s operation without you. Wait in the car.”

Blake’s face fell. “I understand. It’s not a surprise, really.”

He walked up the line of cars and sat inside one. The two guards assigned to him stood next to the car, and one took out a cigarette.

Tonya turned to Williams. “Let’s go.”

She led Andrew and Charley back to the survivalists’ encampment. A large gathering of BPI agents followed close behind.

Being close to a seam, even a small one, gave Andrew a huge boost in confidence. His awareness expanded, and his thoughts came a little quicker. A cold, hostile world now seemed more manageable. He could make impossible things happen.

Tonya marched through the gate and onto the empty hilltop without hesitation.

“What’s the plan?” Charley said.

“We’ll start with a little mind-reading.”

“Whose minds?”

Tonya pointed straight down. “Theirs.”

She walked a little further and then abruptly stopped. She closed her eyes.

“Got one?” Andrew said.

She nodded. “Directly below my feet. Try it. The trick is to become a perfectly blank receiver. Don’t let your own thoughts or expectations muddy the signal.”

He put his hand on the doll to improve his connection to the seam. Then he also closed his eyes.

He cleared his mind as well as he could, but it was tough to squash the little thoughts in the corners. His brain was too active, and his anxiety didn’t help. He tried to remember how he had felt when fighting the banshee. After a few minutes of intense focus, he was finally able to pick up some thoughts that weren’t his own.

“Guns…” Andrew murmured. “Barricades… Ambushes… It’s an underground fortress.”

“And they fear the government,” Charley said. “Leading with the BPI was a mistake. We should’ve used a softer approach.”

“Yes,” Tonya said. “Let’s keep moving. We’re looking for the front door.”

  • * *

Blake looked out the windows of the car he was sitting in. His two guards were nearby, and the four Army soldiers were about thirty yards away. Nobody else was around. In particular, Tonya, Andrew, and Charley were so distant, Blake could barely detect their energy.

Time to create that distraction, he thought.

He took his wallet out. He peeled back a concealed flap to reveal a string of tiny explosive charges. They were just powerful enough to break glass. He carefully pressed the charges against the window in a rough line. He gave a cord at the end a sharp yank to set them off.

The bangs were loud, but he was unharmed. He scrambled to get out of the car.

“Somebody is shooting at me!” Blake yelled hysterically. “A gunman is in the woods!”

He pointed at a random tree and cowered behind the car as if in terror. He peeked over the roof of the car and then ducked down again. He tried to make his knees quiver realistically.

The BPI agents ran around and took cover beside him. The soldiers responded with less certainty. After a quick exchange, they went into the woods in pursuit of the “gunman.” With the portable seam gone, there was no reason to guard the empty armored truck.

A man wearing all black emerged from behind a tree and crept up to the truck. Only Blake saw him because everybody else was looking in the wrong direction. The man in black pressed a device against the underside of the truck’s wheel well. Blake knew it was a homing beacon, but it was designed to look like a splatter of dried mud. The man silently slipped back into the woods.

Mission accomplished, Blake thought.

He relaxed a little. All the planning and preparation had been building up to that moment. The most important task was now done, so he could enjoy the rest of the show.

  • * *

Andrew looked around nervously. He and Charley were following Tonya over the bare top of the hill. If anybody decided to take a shot at Andrew, he would have nothing to hide behind. Ten BPI agents accompanied the sorcerers, but he still didn’t feel safe.

Every now and then, Tonya would stop and close her eyes. She was reading the minds of the people hiding underground. She was reporting her findings to the BPI, and they were building up a complete picture of what was below their feet.

“Three over there.” She pointed at a patch of dirt. “Armed with shotguns.”

An agent made a note on a map.

Tonya walked a little further, stopped, and frowned. She took a couple of steps backwards.

“Crap,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” Andrew said.

“See for yourself.”

He closed his eyes and sensed a weak flicker of energy below. It wasn’t a seam.

“Another sorcerer,” he said.

“A young boy with latent talent,” Tonya said. “We don’t need this complication.”

Agent Williams was among the BPI agents. “Has the kid had any training?” he said.

“Hard to tell from a distance, but I don’t think so.”

“Then we’ll deal with him later. Keep moving. We still need to find the front door.”

Tonya made a big circuit around the hilltop. Eventually, she arrived at a spot that didn’t look much different from anywhere else.

“Here,” she said. “It’s guarded by four guys, two with handguns and two with rifles.”

Williams squatted down and looked at the dirt. “How do we open it?”

“I’ll find out.”

She squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her fists. She pressed the porcelain doll against her chest with her arms.

“Got it,” Tonya said. “Everybody step back.”

The whole group gave her some space, and the federal agents readied their weapons.

She grabbed a large rock and twisted it like a handle. She pulled up hard. A fake piece of the hillside lifted up to reveal a short staircase. The stairs went down to a solid iron door set in a stone frame, and an electronic keypad was beside the door.

“Cool,” Andrew said.

“Now we just need the combination,” Williams said.

“No,” Tonya said. “They’ll open it from the inside, and I’ll stun them at the same time. Rush in when I give the signal.” She walked down the staircase.

“Hold on. That sounds like mind-control.”

“I’m saving lives. If we open this door any other way, people will die, and some of the dead might be your agents.”

She put one hand against the door and held the porcelain doll with the other. Andrew sensed her energy spiking, and the seam inside the doll pulsed like a black strobe-light. The doll’s eyes began to glow red in visible light.

“Whoa!” Andrew backed up.

Charley grabbed his hand and squeezed.

He heard metal sliding against metal. The iron door opened on creaky hinges. A man wearing a green hunting outfit peered out, but he had a dopey expression, and his eyes weren’t tracking properly.

Tonya stepped aside and made a gesture with her hand. All the BPI agents rushed forward, leading with their guns.

Andrew and Charley waited for the excitement to die down, and they were the last to enter. He looked around a room that had once been a railroad freight car. Big rust spots marked the walls. A folding card table and four wooden chairs were the only furniture, and a single bare bulb provided light. There was another doorway, but the door was closed. A faint, sour odor reminded Andrew of raw sewage.

Four men in hunting outfits were laying face-down on the floor. BPI agents had put cuffs on their wrists and ankles, but the captives weren’t struggling and still had stunned expressions. A pile of assorted guns and rifles was in the corner.

“Next room,” Williams said to Tonya.

She raised her eyebrows. “Mind-control is acceptable now?”

“In this specific circumstance.”

“I guess it’s more like a guideline than a rule.” Tonya went to the next door and put her hand against it. “Two people, a man and a woman. Both have shotguns. They’re scared and liable to shoot at anything. Let’s see what I can do…”

Andrew heard a distant alarm ringing, and it sounded like a school fire alarm.

“What’s that?” he said.

“Isn’t it obvious?” She pressed her forehead against the door. “Damn it! They’re escaping out another exit! Back out!”

The large group of BPI agents turned around and rushed out the way they had come. Andrew followed the crowd back up the stairs.

When he was standing on the surface, he looked around and spotted another opening. A steady stream of men, women, and children were pouring out of the ground like ants fleeing a flooded nest. Some were armed, but they were more interested in escaping than fighting. The survivalists were scattering in many directions at once.

“Get them!” Williams told his men. “Arrest as many as you can!”

He and his agents ran after the survivalists.

Tonya, Andrew, and Charley were left alone.

“Now what?” Andrew said.

“I guess we’ll go back inside and take a look around while the BPI rounds up the cult,” Tonya said.

“That doesn’t sound safe.”

“We’ll be careful, but I want to examine the evidence before anybody else gets their paws on it. Time is of the essence.”

The three sorcerers returned to the buried freight car. Four prisoners were still lying on the floor. They were awake but not moving.

“How long will they stay stunned?” Charley said.

“A few hours,” Tonya said. “I hit them pretty hard. I wanted to make sure they didn’t put up a fight.”

“But you didn’t do any permanent damage, right?”

“They may have nightmares for a while.”

Andrew frowned as he considered the ethics of what Tonya had done.

She put her hand against the next door. “All clear. The cult is gone.” She opened the door.

The next room was a little bigger. Andrew guessed it was made from two shipping containers joined side-by-side. Children’s toys were scattered across the floor on one side, and the other had couches in front of an old television.

“They were raising kids here,” Charley said in a tone of disbelief.

“The next generation of nutcases,” Tonya said.

Andrew furrowed his brow. “All because they’re worried about a war with sorcerers. How realistic is that?”

She shook her head. “Not very. There aren’t many of us, and we don’t work well together. We also need seams which are a very limited resource.”

“If we could make new seams….” He looked at the doll in her hand.

“Don’t even have that thought. Just the idea can get you into trouble. Let’s move on.”

They cautiously explored the underground facility. Tonya used sorcery at every juncture to make sure nobody was waiting in ambush, but she never detected anybody. All the survivalists had run away.

The sorcerers had to watch for booby-traps, but Tonya had read enough minds to know how to avoid them. She pointed out the tripwires and cleverly concealed trapdoors. Andrew and Charley stayed closed behind their master.

There were rooms full of bunk beds, two kitchens, bathrooms, a machine shop, an armory, a library, storage areas, and a generator room. There was enough food and fuel to last for months in isolation. All the basic necessities were present, but Andrew was very glad he wasn’t a resident. Everything was shabby and dirty. There were no windows. A persistent odor indicated the septic system wasn’t adequate.

The sorcerers didn’t find Journal 1909 or anything else of interest though. They swept through the facility twice.

“Was this a big waste of time?” Andrew said.

“Don’t give up so quickly,” Tonya said. “The good stuff is probably hidden.”

“How are we supposed to find it?”

“Think like a magician.”

He hadn’t received much instruction in magic tricks, but he would give it a try.

The three of them made another pass through the rooms. Andrew paid attention to how the walls came together and to the locations of the doors. He tried to visualize the layout in his mind.

He did his best, but Charley found the secret hiding place. A false wall sounded hollow when she knocked on it. The latch wasn’t apparent, so Andrew fetched an axe from the tool room and chopped through the wall.

A giant safe was revealed. It was as big as a closet and made of polished steel. The hinges were three inches across and could probably support an elephant. The lock used three separate dials.

“Anybody know how to pick a safe?” Andrew said in a half-joking tone. “I don’t think the axe will work.”

“Sorcerers don’t pick safes,” Tonya replied with disdain. “Charley, take this but keep it close to me.”

She gave the doll to Charley.

“Andrew,” Tonya said, “pull open the door when I tell you to.”

“Huh?” Andrew said. “How?”

“I’m going to soften the steel by temporarily altering its molecular structure.”

His eyes widened. “You can do that?”

“It would be fairly easy if I had the Theosophical seam here,” she said. “Using this little one instead will test my skills.”

Tonya rubbed her hands together and then placed them against the safe. She closed her eyes. Andrew sensed her energy level shoot way up until an invisible storm filled the entire room.

She grunted with effort, and her breathing became rapid. Her face turned red. Her whole body began to shake so much she had trouble staying on her feet.

“Now!” she gasped. “Pull!”

Andrew pulled on the handle of the safe with all his strength. Unbelievably, the door moved. It bent like a giant block of clay instead of steel. As he opened the door, sheared bolts dropped to the floor with loud thuds. He felt like Superman.

Tonya backed off. She leaned on her knees and took deep, fast breaths. Her face was almost purple.

Andrew clapped loudly, and Charley tried to do the same while holding the doll.

That was master level sorcery,” Tonya said between breaths. “I almost had a stroke.”

Andrew knocked on the open door of the safe. The steel had reverted to its normal hardness.

He looked inside the safe, expecting to find just books, but a great variety of items were placed on shelves. He saw supplies for magicians such as wands, a wooden cage, a top hat, and a deck of cards. There were occult items like talismans, jars of powder, dry bones, oils, ceremonial knives, and gemstones. Some things appeared quite ordinary. Andrew saw a spoon, a set of spectacles, and some worn-out underwear.

“What is this stuff?” he said.

“I imagine it all belonged to sorcerers at some point,” Tonya said as she straightened up. “Useless memorabilia. Ah! Our prize.”

She reached to the back of the safe and pulled out a notebook. It had a green cardboard cover which was scuffed and stained. Some of the papers were loose inside. A “1909” was drawn on the cover in black ink, and the handwriting was elegant.

“Can I see?” Charley said.

“No,” Tonya said. “My eyes only.”

She examined the contents of the notebook without letting the apprentices get a good look. Andrew only caught glimpses of handwritten notes, and each page had a date at the top.

He sighed unhappily. After everything he had been through, it didn’t seem fair that she was keeping the journal from him.

“Well?” Charley said. “What’s your opinion?”

“It was written by a real sorcerer,” Tonya said, “and it describes the kind of spell Serkan was attempting. It can’t be a coincidence. Somehow, he got his hands on this exact journal. Unfortunately, the evidence in this case is conclusive. Serkan is guilty, and Keene will pay the price.” She closed the journal with a sad expression and looked into the safe. “We need to sort through this evidence and decide what is too dangerous to leave behind. Find a box or something we can carry things in.”

Andrew wandered around the underground facility until he found an empty wooden crate which was a convenient size. When he returned, Tonya was examining another notebook. It was blue instead of green but looked just as beaten up as the first.

“What’s that?” he said.

“A companion piece, apparently,” she said.

She held up the notebook so he could see the cover. “1910” was written on it.

“Same author?”

“Same handwriting certainly,” she said. “It’s remarkable that John Crawford got his hands on two journals from one sorcerer. That’s one more thing we have to ask him about.”

Tonya picked through the safe and dropped some items into the wooden crate. She seemed most interested in books or anything with writing on it, and she even grabbed a bundle of newspaper clippings.

She tossed an unmarked plastic bottle of pills into the crate.

“What are those?” Andrew said.

“I don’t know, but they can’t be healthy.”

The three sorcerers left the underground shelter. Andrew carried the crate, and the treasures it contained tempted him. He desperately wanted to peek into the books. One book entitled True History of Sorcery was particularly inviting, and he kept glancing at the intriguing black binding.

They emerged cautiously into the open air.

“Is it safe?” Charley said, ducking her head.

“Looks OK to me,” Tonya said.

BPI agents were escorting groups of captives towards the middle of the property. They were being herded together into a single mass. Andrew counted fourteen men, eight women, and eight children. A few were in handcuffs, and all of them had frightened expressions. Dirt marked their faces and clothes.

Agent Williams hurried over to Tonya. “What’s in the crate?”

“Stuff that needs to go into the vault,” she said.

He leaned over the crate and looked at its contents.

“I don’t think anything else of interest is down there,” Tonya added, “but you’re welcome to search later. Right now I want to talk to the young boy I detected earlier, the one with talent.”

She walked over to the captives who looked at her with open suspicion. After contemplating the group for a moment, she pointed at a boy with brown hair. Andrew guessed he was eight or nine years old. The boy had brown eyes, and a few of his teeth were missing. Very pale skin indicated he didn’t see the sun often. He was wearing a green camouflage jumpsuit with a Kevlar vest made for a child.

“I need to talk to you,” Tonya said. “Come here.”

The boy cowered behind a woman.

“I won’t hurt you,” Tonya said. “I promise.”

Some of the men moved to protect the boy with their bodies. He seemed important to them.

Maybe they know he has talent, Andrew thought.

The BPI agents got involved and forcefully separated the boy from the others. He was escorted over to Tonya.

“What’s your name?” she said in a gentle voice.

“Phillip,” the boy replied softly.

“Did you know you’re a very special young man?”

“I’m a sorcerer,” Phillip said.

The flat statement startled Andrew. Who told him?

Tonya hesitated. “That’s right,” she said. “These nice men will take you to a new home where you’ll live with other kids just like you. It’s a wonderful place, much nicer than here. Certainly cleaner. It will feel a little strange at first, but eventually, you’ll be happy. I promise. Someday, I may visit you there.” She nodded to Agent Williams.

He dispatched two of his men to escort Phillip to the cars. The boy looked over his shoulder fearfully as he left.

“What kind of home?” Andrew asked quietly.

“A foster home for sorcerers who are too young to train,” Tonya said. “The minimum age for an apprentice is sixteen or seventeen. You need a certain amount of intellectual and emotional maturity. Obviously, Phillip isn’t ready now, but one day, he will be. Until then, the BPI will look after him.”

He nodded.

She turned to Agent Williams. “Which one is John Crawford?”

Chapter Eighteen

Blake was sitting in a car and relaxing. A feeling of deep satisfaction made him smile.

He sensed another sorcerer approaching. The energy was weak and disorganized, not even at the level of an apprentice. Blake looked out the window and saw two BPI agents escorting a boy.

Interesting, Blake thought.

The child had plenty of talent, but it was very raw. He wouldn’t be a competent sorcerer for many years unless radical training techniques were used. Blake knew some of those techniques.

He had done his homework on Crawford’s little clan of survivalists. Blake knew what they were about, but he hadn’t known they had a child with talent in their midst. It had to be intentional.

Blake got out of the car. The pleasantly cool air was fresh and clean. He didn’t normally enjoy the outdoors, but the forest was nicely lush.

He walked over to the boy. “What’s your name?”

“Phillip.”

Blake didn’t need to ask where the BPI was taking Phillip. The boy would be placed in a foster home in a remote location, far from any seam. Professionals would raise him. By the time the kid started his official training as a sorcerer, he would have the proper moral values permanently ingrained in him.

It was a typical response from an organization renowned for paranoia. The BPI solved every problem using heavy-handed methods, and in this case, it was a terrible shame. Phillip was doomed to becoming another rule-following, boot-licking, narrow-minded sorcerer. He had special potential, but he would never realize it.

Unless Blake intervened.

“You seem like a nice young man,” he said. “Maybe we’ll meet again someday.”

Phillip just looked up at him with a fearful expression.

Blake sat in the car again.

  • * *

John Crawford was the oldest man in the group of prisoners. His long gray hair went well down his back. He was wearing a green tank top shirt which showed off surprisingly muscular arms for a man his age. His leather boots had steel caps over the toes. Two black leather holsters were hung on his hips, but his guns had been taken away.

Andrew could tell from Crawford’s expression that he didn’t intend to cooperate. His mouth was set in a slight snarl. He glared defiantly at the BPI agents. Andrew wondered how Tonya would handle him.

A half-dozen agents separated Crawford from his friends and escorted him to a safe distance for a private conversation. Tonya, Charley, Andrew, and Agent Williams walked over.

“I have a number of questions for you,” Tonya said.

Crawford crossed his arms. “I don’t talk to feds.” He looked into the crate Andrew was carrying, and Crawford’s eyes widened. “You got into my safe!”

“Yes,” Tonya said, “and we found some interesting things. How did you become so well informed about sorcerers? Who have you been talking to?”

He maintained a stubborn silence.

Charley was still holding the porcelain doll with the portable seam inside. Andrew knew Tonya could easily use its power to force Crawford to talk, or she could just read his mind. Andrew didn’t sense any extra energy coming from her though. Perhaps, she was waiting to see if he would cooperate willingly.

Agent Williams grabbed Crawford by the shirt. “Listen, buddy, if you’re smart, you’ll tell us everything. You’re in a lot of trouble. A confession might save you some prison time.”

“Am I charged with a crime?” Crawford said.

“Shooting at federal agents, illegal weapons, and intentionally purchasing and possessing sorcerous materials.”

Andrew raised his eyebrows. He didn’t know about the last law, but it didn’t surprise him.

“I’m screwed anyway,” Crawford said. “You’re with the Bureau of Physical Investigation, right? You don’t have a track record of fair and honest dealing.”

Another BPI agent came up to Williams and whispered in his ear. Williams looked over at the motley group of survivalists and frowned.

“I know how you got some of your information at least,” Williams told Crawford. “One of your men was a BPI agent before he quit. Now he’ll stand trial for revealing government secrets.”

The pained reaction on Crawford’s face indicated Williams was correct.

“This is all very interesting,” Tonya said, “but I really want to know about a man who came here a week or two ago. Shaved head. Likes scarves. Somehow, he got into your safe and read 1909.”

Crawford just glared at her.

She clenched her jaw, and Andrew sensed her energy level rising. The seam inside the doll responded by pulsing rapidly. The porcelain eyes began to glow red like smoldering embers.

Crawford looked at the doll and then stepped back. “You’re a sorcerer!”

“Not just any sorcerer,” Tonya said angrily. “A master, and one who has run out of patience. I opened your safe, and I can open your mind just as easily. This is your last chance to talk of your own free will.”

“You sold out.”

“What do you mean?”

“The government owns you.” He nodded towards Williams. “Instead of standing up for your rights, you bowed down to Uncle Sam.”

Tonya snarled. “The choices I’ve made are none of your business. For your information, the guy with the shaved head was another sorcerer named Serkan.”

Crawford’s eyes widened. “But he said…”

“What?”

“The book dealer sent him to sell me 1910.”

“I don’t understand,” Tonya said.

“I bought 1909 from the dealer and 1910 from Serkan. He compared them to verify their authenticity. That’s why I let him into the camp.”

“I’m sure Serkan forged 1910 to fool you. It was his ticket to read 1909, and obviously, the trick worked.”

Crawford had a confused expression. “Oh. But…” His voice tailed off.

Andrew looked into his crate and saw both journals. We should’ve done something like that instead of using armed troops, he thought.

“I heard you’re worried about a war with sorcerers,” Tonya said. “I’m curious, whose side are you on?”

“Neither. I just want to survive.”

“Then what’s the story with Phillip? Why have your own sorcerer?”

“He was my ace in the hole,” Crawford said. “My secret weapon.”

“How did you find out about his talent?”

“Um.”

“Don’t test me,” Tonya said. “You’ll tell the truth willingly or unwillingly.”

He hesitated. “The BPI agent told me about a baby boy the Bureau was monitoring.”

“So you kidnapped the baby just to have a secret weapon?”

He blushed.

“And you dare question my ethics. What was this stuff for?” Tonya tapped the wooden crate.

“So Phillip could learn sorcery,” Crawford said.

“This is educational material?” She raised her voice. “You were planning to give dangerous journals to an unsupervised novice?”

“Well…”

“Idiot! You would’ve killed him! I’ve heard enough. Andrew, Charley, let’s go before I do something I’ll regret.”

Tonya stomped off towards the cars, and Andrew and Charley followed. They soon reached the gate in the fence.

“What’s next?” Andrew said.

“We’ll put the seam back in the armored truck,” Tonya said, “along with the evidence. Then I’ll send the truck on its way.”

He realized he was about to lose his chance to read any of the books in the crate. He just wanted a peek. The one entitled True History of Sorcery was particularly tantalizing. Tonya almost never talked about the past, not even her own past. He hated to break the rules or risk her wrath, but he needed answers that she wasn’t giving him. He was responsible enough to handle the truth.

The BPI had parked its many vehicles along the dirt path leading up to the gate. They were a mix of sedans and vans in dark colors. The path was barely wide enough to accommodate the largest vehicles. There were ruts in the dirt, and tree roots poked up in places.

Andrew intentionally tripped on a root and fell. The contents of the crate were scattered under a car.

“Sorry!” he said. “I’ll get it.”

He crawled under the car to fetch the evidence. He found History of Sorcery on the dirt, and he slipped the book under his Kevlar vest. He passed the rest of the stuff to Charley, and she put it back into the crate.

Andrew stood up. “Sorry, again.” He brushed himself off.

The group continued onwards to the armored truck at the end of the line. He made sure to keep a straight face.

He sensed Blake inside one of the sedans, and Phillip was in another. Andrew felt a little sorry for the kid who hadn’t asked to lead such a crazy life. Andrew was grateful his childhood had been fairly normal.

Blake got out of his car. “What happened?”

“We found the journal,” Tonya said, “and unfortunately, it’s incriminating. Now I have to preside over Keene’s trial.”

“Oh.” He looked down.

“Don’t play sad. You’re no friend of his.”

“We’ve had our differences.”

“At your trial, you cursed him in rather colorful terms,” Tonya said. “You cursed me, too, as I recall. You even swore vengeance.”

Blake shrugged. “I was upset. I’m over it.”

“Sure. Just stay back from the seam.”

Charley was still carrying the porcelain doll. She gave it to the Army soldiers guarding the armored truck. They locked it in the safe in the cargo area. Andrew handed over the wooden crate which was placed next to the safe. Two soldiers climbed into the back, and the doors closed with a metallic clang. The other two soldiers sat in the front.

“Take it all back to the vault.” Tonya slapped the side of the truck.

A big diesel engine started under the hood. The truck carefully turned around, threading between trees in the process. It rumbled down the path and was soon out of sight.

Andrew felt colder and weaker with the seam gone. He still had the book though, and it was safely hidden under his vest against his stomach.

“Is that the end of the investigation?” Blake said. “Should I go home now?”

“I think so,” Tonya said. “I don’t know what else there is to check. By the way, your help is noted and appreciated.”

He smiled. “Great. That’s all I wanted.”

“And I’m headed to Washington for a meeting of the Tribunal. Andrew and Charley, you’ll go back to searching for seams with Dan.”

Andrew nodded without enthusiasm. He wasn’t looking forward to spending another week or two on the road even with Charley at his side. He was ready to return to Chicago.

“Now we just need the BPI to give us rides out of here,” Tonya added.

  • * *

“I’m going outside,” Andrew said. “I could use some fresh air.”

“Don’t stay out for more than twenty minutes,” Dan said, “or I’ll come looking for you.”

“OK.”

They were in a motel in Gilmer, Georgia. Andrew smiled innocently, left the room, and walked directly into the parking lot outside. The tiny motel had just six small rooms. The only things separating the guests from the outdoors were cheap wooden doors painted white. The motel was made of gray bricks and had a gray metal roof.

Andrew glanced at the setting sun. It had been a long day spent mostly in the wilderness. The BPI had needed hours to process John Crawford and the members of his cult. Securing and searching the underground bunker had also taken plenty of time. Andrew had been forced to watch and wait until the BPI was done.

He quickly walked around to the back of the motel. Charley was in the next room, and if Andrew wandered too far, she would detect his absence. That would lead to awkward questions.

When it seemed safe, he took out History of Sorcery from under his shirt. The hardcover book was black with gold lettering. It was disappointingly thin but probably still contained lots of interesting information. He opened the cover.

The first page read, “It is widely accepted that the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt were the first notable sorcerers. At least, we have no clear records of sorcery going further back than that. The pharaohs were worshiped as living gods because of their power. At the time, there was no concept of science, and every natural phenomenon had a divine origin. The people accepted sorcery as just one more inexplicable thing, no stranger than the movements of the stars and the moon.

“It is also believed that the Great Pyramids were built around large seams. Scattered evidence supports this theory, but the seams have faded away during the forty-five centuries since the construction of the Pyramids. Only curious artifacts remain such as stones which appear to have been transmuted.

“The Egyptian sorcerers used ritual chants in their training. A single recitation could take an hour, and a master sorcerer was expected to get every word exactly right from memory…”

Andrew glanced to either side nervously. He intended to study the book at length when he returned to the privacy of his college dorm room. For now, he just wanted a sampling.

He had an idea. He went to the index in back and looked up “Gustav Pinch,” the name of his grandfather. Andrew was delighted to find an entry. He quickly turned to the page which was nearly at the end of the book.

The section was just a list of modern sorcerers with a short description by each one. Gustav Pinch was described as “one of the intellectual giants of his era. He explored exotic forms in bold, and some say, reckless experiments. He is best known for accomplishments in long-range telepathy. There are credible reports of him communicating at distances of over a mile. He died during one of his legendary experiments, and two other sorcerers of less renown also perished.”

Andrew frowned at the last line. Blake’s father was one of them.

“Andrew!” Dan yelled from the other side of the motel. “Where are you?”

Andrew hid the book under his shirt and ran around the motel. Dan was standing at the door of their room.

“You didn’t get enough fresh air today?” he said. “You needed more?”

“I just felt like wandering,” Andrew said.

“Stop it. Let’s both just stay in and rest. We’re hitting the road at dawn tomorrow. We have to make up for lost time.”

  • * *

Andrew opened his eyes. He was lying in the bed of his motel room. It was the middle of the night and very dark. Dan was snoring in a second bed.

It took a moment for Andrew to realize what had awakened him. He had a clear memory of two journals: 1909 and 1910. The titles were written in the same handwriting and even the same type of pen. That can’t be, Andrew thought.

He grabbed his phone off the nightstand and called Tonya.

“Hello?” she answered in a sleepy voice.

“This is Andrew. You told me 1909 and 1910 looked like they had come from the same author.”

“Apparently.”

“But that’s impossible,” Andrew said. “According to you, Serkan forged 1910 before he ever saw 1909. They should’ve looked completely different. Maybe they’re both forgeries.”

Tonya paused. “That’s an excellent point.”

“What do we do?”

“I think you and Charley need to have another conversation with the rare book dealer. It felt like something was off when we talked last time. He knows more than he told us. Unfortunately, I have to go to Washington, so you’re on your own.”

“OK,” he said. “We’ll take care of it.”

“Good. I’m counting on you. Bye.”

Andrew hung up the phone.

“What was that about?” Dan said from the other side of the room.

“We need to talk to Mr. McGahern again in the morning.”

“I thought we were done with that mess.”

“No,” Andrew said. “Not nearly. In fact, I think it’s about to get even more interesting.”

  • * *

Blake opened his eyes. He was in a dark hotel room. A BPI agent was sleeping in the next bed, so Blake kept still and silent.

He slowly reached under his pillow and took out a phone. It was the secret phone he used for communicating with his operatives. He checked the messages.

A new message read, “Followed truck to Mumford Army Base in New Mexico. High security forced us to abandon pursuit, but truck stayed on base.”

Blake grinned broadly. Today, he had learned the U.S. Army was guarding the BPI’s secret vault of dangerous artifacts, and now he knew the general location. The plan was working.

Blake turned off the phone and slipped it back under his pillow. The next step would be very risky, and once he crossed that bridge, he could never go back. The good news was he wouldn’t go to prison again. If the BPI caught him, he would be killed on the spot. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.

He laid back and allowed himself to dream about his bright, shiny future. He would accomplish things no sorcerer had ever accomplished. His name would become synonymous with power. The leaders of the world would kneel before him one day.

He sighed with happiness.

  • * *

Andrew, Charley, and Dan walked into Antiquarian Books and Letters. Mr. McGahern was sitting at his desk. He was wearing a brown jacket over a white shirt. Tight-fitting white gloves kept his skin from touching a book so old, the paper was brown. He was studying a page with a magnifying glass.

He looked up from his work. “You again?”

“Yes,” Andrew said. “We have a few more questions.”

“I told you everything.”

“We’re not so sure. The man who visited you a couple of weeks ago was named Serkan. He had a second journal called 1910, and he sold it to Crawford, but he claimed it came from you. It was very similar to 1909. Doesn’t that seem strange?”

McGahern swallowed nervously. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There was only one journal.”

Andrew considered his options. Beating up the old man would be a criminal act, and Andrew couldn’t do that. He looked at the old book on the desk and had another idea.

Andrew walked over. “What are you reading?”

“It’s Rousseau’s Social Contract and Emile, printed in 1762.”

“Sounds expensive.”

“Very,” McGahern said.

Andrew looked around. The little shop reminded him of a small, disorganized library.

“You don’t seem that wealthy. How could you afford such rare books?”

McGahern bit his lip.

Andrew grabbed the Social Contract off the table.

McGahern squealed like a pig. “Hey! Be careful! It’s fragile!”

Andrew grabbed a chunk of pages. “I’m going to rip it to shreds if you don’t talk to me.”

“You wouldn’t!”

Andrew pulled, and there was a slight tearing sound.

“No!” McGahern cried. “You win! Serkan gave me 1909 and told me to sell it to Mr. Crawford. I got to keep the money, but I had to lie about where the journal came from.” He lowered his head. “I knew this was a terrible idea.”

Andrew looked at Charley in confusion.

“I’m not sure I understand,” Charley said. “Serkan knew about Crawford?”

“Serkan knew everything when he came in here. He told me how to make contact with Mr. Crawford and what to say to him. The first time I met him was when I delivered 1909. He wasn’t a regular client.”

Andrew put the Social Contract back on the desk. McGahern quickly put his arms around the book as if it were a baby.

“Where did Serkan get 1909?” Andrew said.

“I don’t know.” McGahern shrugged. “Maybe he wrote it. There were signs the journal wasn’t authentic. The paper had a modern feel, and the ink was too uniform. I certainly don’t know about a 1910.”

“You were told to lie to us?” Charley said.

“Yes,” McGahern said. “Serkan seemed to know somebody would come. He was very specific about what I should tell you. He even wrote the catalog card for me. That’s all I know. I swear. He never explained his motivation, and his girlfriend hardly talked at all.”

Andrew, Charley, and Dan moved to a far corner so they could talk privately.

“This is crazy,” Andrew whispered. “Why would Serkan do such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” Charley replied. “It doesn’t make any sense. How did Serkan even know we would come here? It’s like the whole thing was scripted.”

Dan nodded. “The whole thing stinks.”

“Let’s call Tonya,” Andrew said.

He took out his phone and made the call.

“Yes?” Tonya said.

“This is Andrew again. We just had a very interesting conversation with the book dealer.” He relayed what he had heard.

After a long pause, she said, “Somebody is playing us all for fools.”

“Serkan?”

“No. He’s dead. The person behind this devilishness must still be alive. Have another visit with all the other people we talked to. Follow the trail of breadcrumbs backwards.”

“Sure.” Andrew wasn’t looking forward to another long day in the car, but clearly, it was necessary. “What’s going on with you?”

“We’re getting ready for the Sorcerer’s Tribunal. It’s weird having Keene stand as the accused instead of sitting on the bench. I’ll try to delay the proceedings to give you more time to work.”

“OK. We’ll get on it right away.” He hung up his phone and turned to Charley and Dan. “The Southern Museum of the Great Wars is our next stop.”

  • * *

The museum still looked like a big brick barn to Andrew, and the parking lot was still nearly empty. He wondered how the museum paid for itself. Its rural location certainly didn’t attract a lot of tourist traffic.

Andrew and Charley were in the back of the black limousine. Dan was driving again now that Tonya wasn’t around to tell him not to. Andrew certainly didn’t mind sitting close to Charley. The stress of the last couple of days had derailed his efforts to create some romance between them, but he was ever optimistic his time would come.

Dan parked in front of the museum, and everybody got out. An “OPEN” sign hung on the glass front door. The three of them went inside.

A girl sitting behind a counter was selling tickets, but Andrew thought it was funny. He could see half the museum from the front door without spending a penny. The space was divided into two parts corresponding to the two Great Wars.

The World War I section showed the clumsy transition to modern military technology. A glass case full of bayonets and swords was next to a case full of powerful rifles. A wax model of a cavalry soldier sat astride a stuffed horse. The soldier was frozen in the act of charging a machine gun, and Andrew could tell how the confrontation would end.

The World War II section was all modern. A diorama showed life inside an underground bunker in London. There was a collection of cannon tubes ranging in size all the way up to monsters Andrew could fit his head inside of. Maps showed which countries controlled which territories during every year of the war.

Dan paid for museum tickets because it seemed like the right thing to do. He was using a BPI credit card anyway. Andrew asked for Carlisle Tritt and was directed to the shop in the back.

The old man was repairing a vintage naval uniform using a sewing machine. The machine was also an antique, and he was quietly cursing at it.

He looked up. “You kids, again. Did you find that book?”

“Yes,” Andrew said. “Thanks for your help, but we have a few more questions. Do you have any records describing the book?”

“No. I told you before. There was nothing in my notes.”

“So you don’t know if it actually passed through your hands.”

“That’s right. Did McGahern know about it?” Tritt said.

“In a way.”

“Then why are you asking me? All I know is a guy with a shaved head wanted it, and I sent him to McGahern, just like you.”

“That guy gave the book to McGahern,” Andrew said. “He may have even written it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. You must be mistaken, but I guess I don’t really know.”

Andrew frowned and turned to Charley. “Shall we move on?”

She shrugged. “I guess our next stop is Mrs. Chesler.”

  • * *

For the second time, the limousine drove up to the plantation home with white columns in front. It was impressive, but Andrew found the house repugnant on reflection. It brought back images of slavery and suffering he had seen in history class.

Dan parked. He, Andrew, and Charley stepped out into cool, breezy air. The weather was a bit chilly today.

Andrew climbed a short staircase and went to the big front door. He knocked loudly.

An African-American man in a tuxedo opened the door. “May I help you?” His tone suggested he wasn’t actually interested in helping Andrew.

“We were here the other day. We need to have another conversation with Mrs. Chesler.”

“About that book again?” the butler said.

“Yes. Exactly. We’re hoping to get a little more information.”

“Wait here, sir.”

The butler closed the door, and Andrew heard him walking off.

His stomach growled, reminding him he had skipped breakfast, and it was getting close to lunch time. He had already spent four hours in the car today.

After several minutes, the butler opened the door again. “Follow me, and please, avoid stepping on the carpets. We try to keep them clean.”

The group walked through the house. The interior was sparsely furnished in a very traditional manner. The wooden chairs had tall, elegantly carved backs. Columns framed many of the windows and doors. Andrew guessed the vaulted ceilings were more than ten feet high. Electric lights looked like gas lamps or candles. Giant mirrors created the illusion of extra rooms.

They found Mrs. Chesler listening to music being played on an old record player. Andrew had never seen a vinyl recording in actual use before, and the spinning black record fascinated him. The music sounded dull and scratchy. He didn’t understand why aficionados felt analog recordings were superior in any way.

Mrs. Chesler was still dressed as a grieving widow in all black. A large glass of dark liquor was on a table beside her.

“Still looking for that book?” she said.

“We found it, actually,” Andrew said. “Thank you. Now we’re just trying to get some more background information.”

“I think I told you before. I never saw any book. It was probably buried in the pile. Edward Chesler brought back a lot of memorabilia from World War I.”

Andrew was seeing a pattern. Serkan had pretended to search for 1909 before writing it himself, but Andrew still didn’t understand why.

“Let’s talk about your husband’s murder,” Charley said. “Have the police found anything new since we last talked?”

Mrs. Chesler shook her head. “I think they stopped investigating.”

“What was the exact sequence of events? The man with the scarf came by asking about the book…?”

“That morning. My husband died less than twenty-four hours later.”

Andrew furrowed his brow. If Serkan was the murderer, then he should’ve been more careful. Meeting the victim immediately before the crime was a sure way to arouse suspicion. Sorcerers were trained to have iron-clad mental discipline and total control over their emotions. The idea of Serkan rushing stupidly into a murder was inconceivable, assuming he would commit a murder at all. It was like he had wanted to get in trouble.

Charley’s dark expression suggested she was having the same thought.

“If you think the man with the scarf was involved in the death of my husband,” Mrs. Chesler said, “you should tell the police. I don’t even recall his name.”

“It was Serkan,” Andrew said, “and he’s dead, so even if he did it, there’s no point in investigating him.”

“I would like to know the truth.”

“So would we.”

She cocked her head. “I thought you were book collectors. Why do you care about my husband’s death? How do you know about Serkan? What’s going on?”

Andrew couldn’t answer that question truthfully, and he didn’t want to lie to a grieving widow, so he just remained silent.

“We have to go,” Charley said with a polite smile. “Thank you for your time. Again, we’re sorry for your loss.”

She walked out of the house. Andrew and Dan followed her until they reached the limousine. Once they were alone, they stopped to talk.

“The deeper we get into this,” Andrew said, “the less sense it makes. Some of the stuff Serkan did was really dumb.”

Charley nodded. “The whole investigation was strange. We tracked down the journal after only a couple of days. I mean, you would expect finding a rare book would take more time.”

“Serkan made it easy for us. We just had to follow the obvious leads. He wanted us to look in that safe and find the journal he wrote.”

“But he made himself look like a renegade in the process. He destroyed his own reputation and put his master at risk.”

“And then he died,” Andrew said. “Why? What was he hoping to accomplish?”

“Maybe the last stop will tell us. We have to go back to his parents’ basement and take a hard look at the evidence that started us down this road.”

Chapter Nineteen

Andrew, Charley, and Dan climbed down a creaky wooden staircase into a basement. Not much had changed. The small room still contained stacks of boxes, furniture, and appliances. A line of refrigerators spanned decades of historic styles, but none were plugged in. A tapestry of cobwebs decorated the rafters. A pile of various hats probably had an interesting story behind it.

Andrew led the way to the footlocker containing the relics of Serkan’s ancestor. Andrew dug through the contents until he found the letter he had read before.

“This is the only evidence the journal was found during World War I,” he said, “or that it existed at all before Serkan came along.”

“Let me see,” Charley said.

She took the letter and held it up to the light. She gently rubbed the paper between her fingers.

The footlocker contained a glass jewel box full of other letters. She grabbed one of those and gave it the same treatment.

“Well?” Andrew said.

“The paper isn’t the same,” Charley said. “I’m thinking the letter was just made to look old. The color and texture aren’t quite right either. Now that I think about it, something else is strange. The letter claims the journal came from Cologne which is in France, but the journal was written in English. We should’ve noticed that before.”

“Somebody planted a fake letter in the footlocker?”

“Serkan, obviously. He was down here. The BPI can verify it isn’t authentic.”

They had read Edward Chesler’s name off of a photograph during their first visit. Andrew grabbed it out of the footlocker and pulled it out of its frame. He rubbed his fingers against the shiny surface of the photograph.

“This is modern photo paper,” he said, “and Serkan just bought a new printer. The box was still in his apartment.”

He turned over the photograph. The words, “STOP ME! STOP ME! STOP ME!” were written in red pen.

“That’s creepy,” Andrew said.

Charley looked at the words. “What does it mean? Was Serkan insane?”

“Maybe he had a split personality.”

“Keene would’ve known if Serkan had any psychological problems. Keene isn’t just a sorcerer. He’s also a successful psychiatrist. Of course, Keene could be part of the conspiracy, which would explain a lot. It’s possible he deserves to go to prison after all.”

“Let’s talk to Tonya,” Andrew said quickly.

He checked to make sure Serkan’s parents weren’t by the stairs and listening. Then Andrew took out his phone, put it in speaker mode, and called Tonya.

She answered, “I hope this is good news.”

“It’s news.” Andrew told her the latest findings.

After thinking for a moment, Tonya said, “This doesn’t help Keene’s case. If Serkan was crazy, Keene should’ve known, and if he did know, it’s even worse. But I think this is more than just a case of a sorcerer going insane. Serkan had an elaborate plan. He located an unknown seam. He planted evidence for us to discover. He made sure we found our way to John Crawford and Journal 1909. Serkan even dragged along his girlfriend as window dressing. If not for a small mistake, we would’ve walked away, satisfied with our investigation.”

“Do you have a theory?”

“No.” She paused. “By the way, when you took down that banshee, did any piece of Serkan pass through the banshee and into you?”

“A little,” Andrew said.

“Same here,” Charley said. “I picked up some of his childhood memories.”

“Interesting,” Tonya said.

There was a moment of silence.

“Is that useful?” Andrew said.

“Well, in theory, I could go into your minds and tease out what pieces of Serkan remain. It might be possible to uncover the truth that way.”

“Great idea. Let’s do it.”

“Don’t be so quick to agree,” Tonya said. “I’ll have to shine a very bright light into the dark corners. If you’re hiding anything, I’ll find it. Both of you are young, but you probably still have shameful memories and embarrassing secrets. There are things you don’t want to share with me. Do you really want that kind of exposure?”

Andrew and Charley looked at each other.

Tonya went on, “It goes without saying that this is infernal sorcery. I won’t do it without your total consent. If you refuse, I won’t hold it against you. I certainly wouldn’t submit to a procedure like this. It goes beyond a mere invasion of privacy. It will be painful and traumatic. Our minds all have closets which should never be opened, certainly not by a nosy old woman like me.”

Andrew realized he was hiding something from Tonya in particular. True History of Sorcery was under his clothes in his luggage. If she found out he had taken it, the consequences might be severe.

“I don’t want an answer now,” she said. “Give it some thought. We’ll talk later. Bye.”

The call ended, and Andrew put his phone away.

He and Charley stared at each other.

“Do we have a choice?” she said. “Keene is on trial right now. He could go to prison if we do nothing.”

“You’re not worried about what Tonya might find?” Andrew said.

“Of course, but that’s not as important as discovering the truth. A lot of people died, and the reason could be hiding up here.” She tapped the side of her head.

“Maybe, but I still want to think about it.”

Charley frowned with obvious disapproval. Andrew was hurt, but he maintained a calm exterior. He couldn’t let Tonya know about True History of Sorcery.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Charley said. “Just hang out while you ‘think’? Spend quality time with Serkan’s parents?”

“You heard Tonya,” Andrew said. “This is a big deal. She’s going to dissect our brains while we’re still using them.”

“I trust her. She won’t hurt us.”

He just sighed uneasily. It didn’t even matter if he threw True History of Sorcery in the garbage. Tonya would still see the crime inside his mind.

“Give me the rest of the day to decide,” Andrew said. “OK? Dan, we still have most of the afternoon to check for a seam or two. Are there places we can go?”

Dan raised his eyebrows in obvious surprise. “I’m sure. The list is as long as my arm. We were only part way through when we got pulled off to search for Serkan.”

“See?” Andrew looked at Charley. “No hanging out or quality time is necessary.”

She narrowed her eyes. “When night comes, you’ll give me your decision, and it had better be the right one.”

“Sure.”

  • * *

Dan parked the limousine in front of a brown house with stone walls. It had a sharply peaked roof and lots of tall, skinny windows. Generous use of columns on the exterior added to the elegant style.

“The locals call this the Black Widow House,’” Dan said. “The owner, a seemingly kind old lady, took in elderly boarders. She would then steal their identities and drain their bank accounts. When the victims caught on, she poisoned them using a concoction that caused heart attacks. She even collected their social security checks. She killed fifteen people before the authorities finally caught her.”

Andrew sighed. He was past the point where that kind of story moved him. He had unfortunately become an expert on mass murder.

Charley gave him a nasty look. She hadn’t spoken to him since they had left Serkan’s parents’ house. Andrew clearly wasn’t meeting her expectations.

She grabbed her camera, and the two of them left the limousine. They walked up a long, sloped driveway and then up a flight of stone stairs. He knocked on the front door.

“Smile,” Charley said.

Andrew forced himself to smile.

A middle-aged, overweight man opened the door. He was wearing a white undershirt and baggy green pants. The odor of cigarettes followed him.

“Hi!” Andrew said cheerfully. “We’re journalism students from Atlanta University. Our professor sent us up here to do a story on the Black Widow murders. Mind if we come in?”

“You’re about a year too late,” the man said.

“It’s just a class project. You are?”

“Nate. I’m the so-called Black Widow’s son. This is my house now, and tourists aren’t welcome.”

“We’re not tourists,” Andrew said. “We’re students. Can we at least take a few pictures? Our class grade depends on this.”

“Please?” Charley said in a sweet, girlish voice.

He glanced at her. Her expression suggested she was just on the edge of crying. She could be adorable when she wanted to be.

Nate sighed. “Five minutes, and I’m not answering any damn questions, unless you pay me.”

Andrew and Charley walked through the house. It had probably been a beautiful home in the past, but it had fallen into disrepair. The walls were dingy and had water stains. Light fixtures were broken. The scattered furniture looked like it had been purchased at garage sales.

Charley clicked away with her camera.

“Were you close to your mother?” Andrew asked Nate.

“I told you,” he said, “no questions.”

Andrew frowned.

He didn’t feel any seams in the area. He looked at Charley, and she shook her head.

“Thanks,” he said. “That’s all we need.”

The two apprentices left the house. Andrew was glad to be out of that depressing place.

As they walked down the driveway, Charley said, “Have you made your decision?”

“I told you I would tonight. The sun hasn’t even set.”

He checked the angle of the sun, and it was still well above the horizon.

“What are you waiting for?” she said. “You can only make smart decisions in the dark?”

“Maybe I have guilty secrets I don’t want Tonya to know about.”

Charley stopped walking and faced him. Tall, old trees bordered the driveway on both sides. Birds were twittering high in the branches which were swaying slightly in the breeze. The weather was perfect, but Andrew wasn’t enjoying it.

“I don’t care if you’re secretly a serial killer,” she said. “We have a moral obligation.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Do serial killers understand moral obligations?”

“You know exactly what I mean.” She glared at him.

He grimaced.

“I thought you were a good guy.”

“I am!” he said.

“You’re not acting like one. If you want to be my boyfriend, you’ll have to step up your game.”

Andrew felt trapped. Charley was absolutely right, unfortunately, and more than his relationship with her was at risk. If he made the cowardly choice, he would have to live with a lifetime of shame.

His shoulders sagged. “Fine. You win. Call Tonya and tell her we’ll both do it.”

She smiled and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I knew I could count on you.”

She grabbed her phone and made a call. After a brief conversation, she hung up.

“Well?” Andrew said.

“She wants us to fly to Washington immediately,” Charley said.

  • * *

Blake had his suitcase lying open on his bed. He was packing for a trip which might last the rest of his life.

He walked into his closet and looked around. He had hundreds of nice outfits which he had collected during a long career as an entertainer. He enjoyed performing stage magic. Making an entire audience look like idiots was fun and easy for him.

The best tricks had layers. He would let the audience think they had figured out the secret when, in fact, they had just reached the next layer. He loved to see the dismay on their faces when they realized they had been fooled twice or even three times. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have that pleasure when it came to Tonya and Keene. By the time they finally figured out Blake’s real intentions, it would be far too late. He would just have to imagine their rage and frustration.

Blake selected basic business suits and casual clothing from his closet. He didn’t want to attract any attention. He would stop using his real name as soon as he left the house. A tuxedo was the fanciest thing he took, but it was old and worn.

He looked up at a surveillance camera in the corner of his bedroom and waved. His years of living under constant scrutiny were about to end.

After the suitcase was packed, he zipped it up and rolled it out of his bedroom. He encountered a BPI agent in the hallway. As was typical of the men assigned to him, the agent was muscular and intimidating. His big head could serve as a battering ram, and the dull look in his eyes suggested he had tried it.

“What are you doing?” the agent said suspiciously.

Blake reached into his pocket and took out a large emerald. It was the portable seam he had worked so hard to hide from the BPI.

He held it up to the agent’s face. “Kill the other BPI agents,” Blake said. “Then kill yourself.”

A twinkle of light flashed in the depths of the gem. The victim’s mind was so weak, it took hardly any effort for Blake to implant the command.

The agent drew his gun and ran back the way he had come.

Blake walked away, dragging his suitcase. A moment later he heard gunshots, and he smiled. The BPI would know he was responsible for the massacre, but it didn’t matter. His days of treading lightly and avoiding trouble were over. He was ready to accept his new role as a wanted criminal with a death sentence hanging over his head.

He went down to the garage. Two cars were parked there: a black Mercedes that he owned and a blue Ford sedan owned by the BPI. He dithered about which car to take. The Ford had government plates and looked more official, so it was less likely to be stopped by the police. He chose that one. Now I just need the keys, he thought.

Blake heard more gunshots in the house, and they sounded like they had come from the kitchen. The BPI agents were fond of snacking on his food. He went there.

Two bodies in blue suits were lying on the floor. A puddle of blood had spread across his fine marble tiles. He did his best to avoid getting blood on his shoes as he searched the bodies. He found guns, bullets, wallets, and keys. All were useful. He left the phones behind though because they were easy to track.

Blake went back to the garage and tried keys until he found the one that opened the blue sedan. He loaded his luggage into the trunk and opened the garage door. The velvety darkness of night beckoned him.

When he sat in the front seat of the sedan, he began to second guess his decision about which car to take. The upholstery was cheap vinyl. The sound system was rudimentary, and on a cross-country drive, that could be annoying. He realized he would have to change cars a few times anyway, so it didn’t really matter.

Blake started the engine and drove off. For the first time in many years, he felt truly free.

  • * *

Andrew decided he liked flying in private jets. There were no tickets, no security, and no long lines. The jet flew according to his schedule instead of vice versa. If he were ever a wealthy man, he would definitely buy his own jet.

The BPI certainly owned a nice one. The big, soft seats had plenty of leg room. Instead of a tray table, he had a real table in front of him. There were even fold-out beds in the back. All at tax-payer’s expense, Andrew thought.

He looked across the aisle at Charley. She was wearing a green sweater which had a nice, snug fit. A red scrunchy held back her brown hair. She was reading a book on a tablet.

“What do you got there?” Andrew said.

“An interesting book about the history of physics.”

“Huh? I don’t see how history or physics could be interesting, and the combination sounds deadly.”

“They’re both important for sorcery,” she said, “and who knows? Maybe some guys in this book were sorcerers. We do have a unique understanding of how reality is put together.”

“I suppose so.”

“Did you see all the books in Tonya’s office? She has read every one and understands all of it. If you want to catch up to her, you’ll have to do a lot of studying.”

Andrew frowned and settled back in his seat.

The pilot announced through a loudspeaker, “We’re approaching Ronald Reagan National Airport. Please fasten your seatbelts.”

Andrew buckled his seatbelt and looked out the window. It was nighttime, so all he could see were city lights. He wondered if he would get a chance to tour Washington after the crisis was over. He had been all over the Midwest and parts of the South, but he had never visited either Coast.

The small plane touched down with a soft bump. It decelerated rapidly on a runway normally used by big passenger jets. Andrew saw the terminal in the distance, but his plane went past it to a separate cluster of hangers instead. He smiled. Definitely the right way to travel, he thought.

The plane parked in the back corner of the airport. Dan was accompanying Andrew and Charley as usual, and the BPI agent stood up as soon as they stopped moving. The apprentices followed him to the forward hatch.

Airport workers were already in position with a mobile staircase. It took just a minute for everybody to get off the plane. They waited while their luggage was retrieved from a compartment underneath.

Andrew shivered. Washington was much colder than Atlanta, and he remembered it was still the middle of winter. His heavy coat was in one of his bags. At least there wasn’t snow on the ground like Chicago.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to suffer for long. A black limousine pulled up a moment later. Two BPI agents stepped out and stuffed the luggage into the trunk while Andrew, Charley, and Dan sat in the passenger compartment. The air in the car was comfortably warm.

“I feel like an important executive,” Andrew said.

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Charley said.

He remembered why he was here. Tonya was about to pry open his head and find the guilty secrets inside.

The limousine drove off. A couple of minutes later, it merged onto a busy highway.

“Tonya will need a seam,” Andrew said. “Does the BPI headquarters have one?”

“No.” Dan shook his head. “The headquarters is intentionally located far away from any seams as a security precaution.” He leaned towards the two BPI agents up front. “Hey, guys. Where are we going?”

“Manassas,” one man said.

“Oh.” Dan grimaced.

“What’s Manassas?” Andrew said.

“Don’t you know anything about the American Civil War? The Battle of Bull Run?”

Andrew shrugged.

“Then you’re about to get a history lesson, kid,” Dan said, “and it won’t be pretty.”

  • * *

Andrew looked out the windows at a dark night. They were far from the lights of Washington. The limousine was driving down a two-lane road that passed through the fields and forests of rural Virginia. An old-fashioned wooden fence was the most unusual feature in sight. The fence didn’t use metal poles or nails, and instead, rough-hewn logs were stacked and angled in a mutually supporting arrangement.

The limousine made a turn and parked in front of a white building with decorative pillars. A sign read, “Henry Hill Visitor Center,” but the building was dark and obviously closed for the night. There was nothing else but empty grass fields in all directions.

Despite the late hour, two other cars were parked in the lot. Both were black sedans with federal government plates.

Andrew could already detect the seam. It was even bigger and nastier than the one at Theosophical University.

Andrew, Dan, and Charley got out of the warm car, but the two agents up front remained seated. Andrew rubbed his arms as winter air hit them. A nearby forest was dark and foreboding, but fortunately, the seam was in the other direction. He sensed Tonya and an unfamiliar sorcerer’s energy close to the seam.

Charley took Andrew’s hand which surprised him, but he didn’t complain. They walked towards the seam, and Dan trailed behind.

“You know where we’re going?” Dan said.

“Of course,” Andrew said. “The seam is gigantic. It’s like a lighthouse.”

“It’s so dark, I can hardly see anything at all.”

“Well, I don’t see it with my eyes. It’s more like an inner sight.”

“I wish I understood what that meant,” Dan said.

The seam was in the middle of an open field. The grass had been mowed like a giant lawn, and a line of vintage cannons provided decoration. As they passed a gun, Andrew put his arm inside the barrel, and it fit easily. He tried not to imagine what the weapon could do to a man.

He saw Tonya and a stranger up ahead, and both were carrying flashlights. She was wearing a long black coat which left only her head exposed.

Her companion had a gray beard, a gray mustache, and tufts of gray hair sticking out from under a leather hat. His clothing was made of heavy, coarse fabric colored a light brown. The style seemed historic.

“Hello,” Tonya said. “Welcome to the Manassas seam. My friend is Richard. He’s the third sorcerer on the Sorcerer’s Tribunal besides Keene and myself. Richard is a master sorcerer and the owner of this seam. He also runs the visitor’s center.”

Andrew looked up at the seam. It was an ugly scar on the flesh of the universe. Raw, angry energy spewed out in irregular bursts. He was almost afraid if he got too close, the seam would eat him alive.

Richard walked up to Andrew and shined a flashlight at his face. “You have your grandfather’s eyes,” Richard said, “and his talent.”

“Thank you,” Andrew said.

“It’s not necessarily a good thing. Do you know the history of this seam?”

“No, sir.”

Richard looked up at the seam. “On July 21, 1861, the armies of the North and the South clashed on these fields in the first real battle of the Civil War. Each side engaged about eighteen thousand men. They were poorly equipped, poorly trained, and poorly led. The generals understood the theory but not the practice of war. It was a bitter learning experience for all involved. Almost five thousand casualties later, the South won but mostly because the North was more inept that day. Ironically, the loss mobilized the North and contributed to their eventual victory.”

He took a deep breath and continued, “That’s what I tell the tourists, but there is another part of the story. Sorcerers secretly engaged in battle that day. The North brought their two best masters and so did the South, and all were armed with portable seams. It’s quite common for sorcerers to be used at the start of a major war. During peacetime, the generals forget that sorcery isn’t a military technology. It can’t be harnessed like a horse and made to do tricks. It comes from chaos and always leads to chaos. Four sorcerers obliterated themselves on July 21 in a spectacular act of mutual annihilation. Every bystander within a hundred yards also died. This monstrosity is the result.”

The power of the seam was making Andrew a little giddy. He felt like a drug addict taking a hit after a long abstinence. He wanted to create an illusion just for the fun of it, but he held back. Tonya was watching.

“The Manassas seam has faded considerably in the last century and a half,” Richard said. “The initial reports described a throbbing wound which could ruin the mind of an unprepared sorcerer. It is said the seam cast a shadow across the entire continent and made the war much bloodier, but that’s just speculation. I do know 625,000 soldiers died over four years, and neither side ever sent another sorcerer into battle. Draw your own conclusions.”

Andrew looked at the dark fields all around. It was easy to imagine them strewn with dead and dying men.

Richard took a deep breath. “Speaking of ugly business, we have some before us tonight. We might as well get to it.”

“Dan,” Tonya said, “go back to the car. This isn’t for your eyes.”

“But…” Dan said.

“Go away!”

Her voice boomed like thunder, and her hair burst into flame. Andrew knew it was an illusion, but it still startled him.

Dan ran off.

Richard gave Andrew and Charley a very serious look.

“Before I consent to this,” Richard said, “I need to make sure both of you understand what’s going to happen. Tonya will perform a forensic analysis on your memories. She has to find whatever bits of Serkan are lodged in you. You’ll be completely at her mercy and have absolutely no privacy. I’m permitting this infernal act with great reluctance and only because of the extreme circumstances. The decision is ultimately yours though. There is no shame in refusing, none at all.”

“I’ll do it,” Charley said immediately. “I trust Tonya. I don’t care if she learns all my secrets.”

Richard looked at Andrew. “What about you?”

Andrew grimaced.

“I’m not hearing a ‘yes’.”

Charley gave Andrew a dirty look.

“I have some secrets I don’t want to share,” Andrew admitted, “but I understand finding the truth is important. A lot of people were killed, and Keene is in trouble. I don’t know what to do.”

Tonya gave him a speculative look. His face grew warm, and he turned away.

“Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll start with Charley. Maybe I’ll find what I need in her.”

Andrew breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks.”

“Charley, lay directly under the seam. Relax. Get comfortable.”

Charley walked forward a few paces and laid down in the grass. Tonya knelt next to Charley’s head.

“Now count backwards from ten,” Tonya said.

Charley counted, “Ten… nine…”

Tonya’s energy suddenly flared up to an enormous level. A black whirlwind of power surrounded her, and Andrew stepped back, intimidated. Charley’s mouth froze in mid-count. Richard looked on with a sour expression.

Andrew couldn’t tell what was happening, but he could see the unpleasant effect on Charley. She was gasping and twitching as if she were having a seizure. The torment went on for quite a while until Andrew became tempted to say something. It certainly looked like some kind of torture.

Tonya finally stood up. “I got something,” she said.

Released from the spell, Charley immediately began to cry. She sobbed like her best friend had just died. Andrew dropped to his knees and cradled her in his arms.

“Are you OK?” he said softly.

She shook her head. “That was awful!”

“It’s over now.” He stroked her hair.

She sat up and wrapped her arms around his chest. He felt wetness on his shoulder as she continued to cry. He returned the hug and held her tight.

“What did you get?” Richard said calmly.

“Serkan was under an external influence,” Tonya said.

“Mind-control?”

“Yes, and the corruption went deep. It was the work of an expert. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out who was responsible. I need more.”

She and Richard looked at Andrew.

Charley hadn’t settled down, and her distress made him even less certain he wanted to participate. He looked away, unable to meet the gazes of the master sorcerers.

“Andrew,” Richard said softly, “a great number of men died on this battlefield. Many were as young as you, and they also had a difficult decision to make. They could fight, or they could flee as cowards. Hundreds fled, but it was a decision that marked them for the rest of their lives. What kind of man are you? What kind of sorcerer do you want to be? What legacy will you leave behind? Nobody but you can answer those questions.”

Andrew felt crushing pressure. “It sounds like you want me to say ‘yes’.”

“I want you to make a decision you won’t regret.”

He squeezed his eyes shut. “If you put it that way, I guess I don’t have much choice. I’ll do it.”

“You’re sure?” Richard said.

“Yes, damn it. Get it over with before I change my mind.”

Andrew let go of Charley and laid down in the soft grass. He stared up at the seam floating in the air. Jets of raw, chaotic energy shot out, and to a sorcerer, it was the sweetest kind of power, but the deadly danger was all too obvious.

Tonya knelt beside him. “Count backwards…”

“Just do it!”

Andrew was suddenly a baby in a crib. It was a memory pulled from deep inside his mind. The world was complicated and confusing, but he loved his parents and they loved him. Nothing else mattered.

He jumped forward a few years. Now he was three and playing in the yard behind his house. His mother was reading a book on the porch. A ladybug on a flower fascinated him, and he reached out to touch it.

Another woman arrived. Andrew recognized her as a younger version of Tonya, but at the time, he hadn’t known her. She came over and touched his forehead.

You visited me when I was a toddler? Andrew thought.

I’ve been watching you for a long time, Tonya replied.

He jumped to other memories. She was running through his mind like she was searching for a file in a computer. The loss of control was a horrible feeling. He had become a helpless victim of her relentless curiosity.

Some memories were good such as the time his team had won the county little league tournament. He remembered the first time he had kissed a girl. One day he had brought home a report card with straight A’s, and his parents had taken him to the most expensive restaurant in town.

Tonya didn’t flinch from the ugly memories. Andrew was forced to relive the death of his beloved pet dog. There was the night he threw a rotten egg through a neighbor’s window and the police came. He remembered stealing a tin of chewing tobacco and trying it. He had thrown up his dinner.

The most surprising memories weren’t his own and had come from the banshee. Serkan had visited the town of Aksu in Turkey as a teenager, and Andrew remembered hiking in the mountains nearby. He recalled taking French lessons from a private tutor in a penthouse apartment, but he didn’t know what life that memory belonged to.

Tonya focused on a specific memory from Serkan. He had just bowled a few games with Andrew and Charley. The younger apprentices went home while Serkan remained in the alley for a while longer.

An unexpected source of energy caught his attention. A small seam was behind the bowling alley, and it hadn’t been there earlier. He cautiously left the building and walked around to investigate. He was alert for trouble, but he didn’t sense another sorcerer in the area.

A lone car was parked behind the bowling alley. A giant green gem was sitting on the hood, and as Serkan approached, he could tell it was the source of energy. Apparently, somebody had left it behind.

He looked around but didn’t see a soul. It was hard to imagine anybody abandoning a gem of such enormous value much less a priceless portable seam. The treasure was literally worth killing over.

A man stood up abruptly from behind the car. A psychic assault overwhelmed Serkan in an instant, and he realized a master sorcerer had ambushed him. The fight was already lost. He was no longer in control of his own mind.

It was Blake. That treacherous asshole was responsible for everything.

Reliving that attack triggered a defensive reflex in Andrew. He instinctively protected himself even though it was just a memory.

He was suddenly inside a giant fortress. Walls of impossible height and thickness protected him on all sides. The blocks were made of clocks and multiplication tables compressed together to form an impervious barrier. The peace and quiet were absolute.

“This is unexpected,” Tonya said.

Andrew turned and found her standing beside him. Silky white robes covered everything but her head. Her eyes had no pupils.

“I recognize this place,” he said. “I came here when I fought the banshee.”

She turned her head. “It seems I’m trapped here with you. I can’t get out.”

“I thought you were in control.”

“I’m supposed to be. A mere apprentice shouldn’t be able to lay such a potent psychic snare for a master.”

“What does it mean?” Andrew said.

“We’ll discuss that later, but right now, I need you to release me. You’re hurting me.”

“I am?”

“Yes,” Tonya said. “This is very bad. Unclench your mind. Have pleasant, relaxing thoughts, please.”

Andrew was still trying to get over the attack on Serkan. Memories of pain and horror were as clear as if they had happened yesterday. Andrew was far too angry to have a pleasant thought.

Tonya’s face was melting before his eyes. He realized she really was in trouble.

“Hurry,” she said calmly.

He thought about the first time he had met Charley. It had happened during his audition for Death of a Salesman. She had sat in the first row and had watched him with great interest. Her enchanting beauty had made it hard to focus on his performance. Ever since, he had looked for every possible excuse to spend time with her.

Andrew opened his eyes. He was back in the present day lying on the grass at night. The Manassas seam floated directly above him.

Tonya stood up and staggered off. She was having trouble keeping her balance.

Richard watched her go. “What’s wrong with her?”

“We had a rough experience,” Andrew said. “She can explain it better than me. I don’t really understand what happened actually. We’d better give her a minute.”

He felt fine, but Charley was still upset. He put his arms around her again. Holding her tight felt so good, he never wanted to let her go.

After a few minutes, Tonya came back. Seeing her face in the darkness was difficult, but it appeared she had been crying.

“It was Blake,” she said in a voice that oozed rage. “He had a portable seam, a very large, square emerald. He ambushed Serkan.”

Richard raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like the Russian Eye, but it was lost decades ago.”

“Not lost, just hidden, apparently.”

“But what was his motivation?”

“Revenge against Keene,” Tonya said. “He’s part of the Tribunal that sentenced Blake to prison. Keene was a hair’s breadth from suffering the same fate.”

“We’re also members of the Tribunal.”

“Which means we’re next on Blake’s list.”

Richard furrowed his brow. “We need to have a formal hearing immediately.”

“I’ll call Frank Webster,” Tonya said. “Andrew, Charley, get up. We have to go.”

Charley needed Andrew’s help to get on her feet. He wondered why he hadn’t been affected the same way. Somehow, he had protected himself. Maybe he had kept his secret safe after all.

“What did the fortress mean?” he asked Tonya.

She shook her head. “Not now. Later.”

All four sorcerers started walking towards the visitor’s center. Tonya had a short conversation with Director Webster on the phone.

After she hung up, she said, “He’s gathering the full Tribunal. They’ll be waiting for us at headquarters.”

“Will he have Blake arrested?” Andrew said.

“Not yet. The portable seam in his possession makes him exceptionally dangerous. The BPI will make its move when they’re ready. If the Tribunal decides he should be killed, there won’t be any arrest. A sniper will take him out from a safe distance without any warning, and it will happen tonight.”

He gulped. “But why did he join us on the investigation?”

“To make sure it reached the conclusion he wanted it to. He nudged us down a certain path in the guise of being helpful. I hope you learned a lesson from this mess. Never trust appearances.”

They went around the white visitor’s center to the parking lot on the other side. They approached the black limousine.

“Andrew,” Tonya said, “give me the book.” Her eyes flashed with anger.

Andrew winced. He had hoped she had missed that memory, but apparently, he wasn’t that lucky.

“It’s in my luggage,” he said quietly.

The BPI agents seated inside the limousine got out. One of them opened the trunk, and Andrew pulled out his bag. He dug through the contents until he found True History of Sorcery. He handed the book to Tonya without meeting her gaze.

She shined her flashlight on the cover. “Interesting.”

“Where did that book come from?” Charley said.

“John Crawford’s safe. It was supposed to go to the vault, but Andrew filched it. This is what he was hiding from me.”

Charley stared at Andrew with wide eyes.

“It’s about our history,” he said in an apologetic tone. “I didn’t see the harm in taking a look.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“We will discuss this matter at another time,” Tonya said. “I need to think about it. At least you made the right choice in the end.”

She stuffed the book into one of her coat pockets, and Andrew was sorry to lose it. He wondered what his punishment would be, and he didn’t really understand why he should be punished at all. It was just a history book.

“Let’s go,” she added.

Chapter Twenty

Blake drove up to a small but otherwise nice house made of yellow bricks. It was in a suburban neighborhood, and the narrow streets were empty so late at night.

He parked, but before he exposed himself, he checked for witnesses. He used his outer and inner eyes to carefully survey the area. When he was sure nobody was looking, he got out of the car.

He hurried up to the front door and rang the doorbell several times.

After a minute, Sandy answered the door. His promoter was wearing a red nightgown, and her red hair needed to be brushed. A lack of makeup exposed the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth.

“Blake?” Her eyes widened. “What are you doing here? I was trying to go to sleep.”

“Sorry about that,” Blake said. “I needed to visit, and it couldn’t wait.”

“Why didn’t you call?”

“Your phone is probably bugged. I’ll get right to the point. You’ve been a loyal friend and ally for several years, and I really appreciate that. A guy like me has a hard time making and keeping friends. I need you to do one last favor for me.”

He took the Russian Eye out of his pocket and showed the emerald to Sandy.

Her eyes widened. “Is that real?”

“Yes.” Blake tapped into the power of the tiny seam trapped in the crystal. “You have to die. You know too much about my operation. Get dressed, drink a few beers, and drive into a bridge abutment at high speed. Eighty miles per hour should produce a quick, painless death, but just to be sure, don’t buckle your seatbelt. Understand?”

Sandy nodded dumbly.

“Great. I have to run. It was nice knowing you. Thanks again for everything you’ve done.”

He jogged back to his car.

  • * *

Andrew looked out the car window at Washington, D.C.. He had hoped to see familiar landmarks, but the limousine had passed through suburban neighborhoods instead. The homes and small office buildings looked the same as all the other cities he had visited. The darkness made the scenery even less exciting.

The limousine drove into a parking lot in front of a building as wide as a football field, but it was just two stories tall. Brown bricks covered the exterior, and there were exposed concrete beams. Trees in front provided a light screen. One small, blue sign read, “Bureau of Physical Investigation,” but that was the only indication of who occupied the building.

“This is it?” Andrew said in a tone of disappointment. “It’s boring.”

“We try not to attract attention,” Dan said.

“You can say that again.”

Andrew, Charley, Dan, and two other BPI agents got out of the limousine. Tonya and Richard pulled up in separate black sedans, and they joined the group.

Andrew detected Keene’s energy signature nearby. The master sorcerer seemed to be deep underground which surprised Andrew.

“If Blake comes here,” he said, “will one of you be able to tell?”

“Maybe,” Tonya said. “It depends on how hard he is trying to hide. We’ll definitely feel the seam if he brings it. The Russian Eye is a powerful artifact, and disguising a seam is impossible.”

The group entered the building. One of the BPI agents used a keycard and a passcode to open the door.

Once Andrew was inside, he saw the walls were two feet thick, and the slot windows were probably bullet-proof.

“What kind of security do you have here?” Andrew said.

“That’s on a need-to-know basis,” Dan said, “but obviously, we’ve planned for all contingencies including hostile, renegade sorcerers.”

Two guards at a desk greeted the group, but there were several surveillance cameras, and Andrew guessed others were watching. Everybody had to show identification, and the sorcerers also had their fingerprints taken. Finally, the group was allowed to proceed through an interior security door.

Andrew looked around excitedly, but he didn’t see much of interest. Blue hallways connected offices and meeting rooms. At this time of night, there wasn’t much activity, and most rooms were dark. He realized the interesting work happened in the field. BPI headquarters served as an administrative center.

The group came to another guard post, and it looked even more serious than the first. The guards communicated through a video system instead of being physically present, probably as a defense against mind-control. Two machine guns on robotic gimbals hung from the ceiling. Andrew tried to play it cool, but he was very intimidated. Everybody established their identities again as if the first time had never happened.

In addition, the BPI agents stuck their bare right forearms into a slot. As each man took his turn, he winced in obvious pain. There were drops of blood on their wrists afterwards.

Finally, everybody entered an elevator.

Andrew expected to go up to the second floor, but instead, the elevator dropped like a stone. Nothing indicated how deep they were going, and it was impossible for him to even guess, but it had to be at least a hundred feet.

“A sorcerer would have a hard time getting down here even with a portable seam,” Andrew said.

“That’s the idea,” Dan said, “and he’d be killed before he reached the bottom.”

“What was the deal with that arm thing? It looked painful. Did it take a blood sample?”

“That’s none of your business. You don’t need to know.”

The elevator doors finally opened again. The group walked out of the elevator into a tunnel cut through solid rock. Bright fluorescent panels provided light.

“Cool!” Andrew said. “It’s like a secret underground fortress.”

They walked down the corridor, and the sights were more interesting than up above. He looked through a window into a large gun range. A solid steel door was marked, “ARMORY,” and another was marked, “SCIENCE DEPT.” Other tunnels branched off in several directions.

The group eventually reached a chamber with a domed roof, and the furniture was laid out like a courtroom. A wide, raised bench on one side had spots for six judges. A small audience could sit on the other side of the room. Tables and chairs were in between, and clearly, the prosecution and the defense sat there. All the furniture was made of thick planks of wood stained black.

Keene was sitting in the middle of the room instead of at the judge’s bench. He had circles under his eyes, and his face seemed more wrinkled than usual. He gave a half-hearted smile to Richard and Tonya as they entered.

Three men in black robes were seated as judges. Andrew recognized Frank Webster in the center with a grim expression. His short brown hair was ruffled. His posture was as straight as a flagpole.

“I have bad news,” he said. “We tried to make contact with the agents guarding Blake, but nobody is responding. It appears the entire unit was taken out.”

A chill ran down Andrew’s spine. Nobody had to tell him how dangerous Blake could be as a renegade on the run with a portable seam in his possession.

“But let’s deal with the business at hand first,” Webster said. “Tonya and Richard, take your places.”

Tonya and Richard sat at the bench facing Keene. There were no lawyers present, and apparently, Keene would be expected to defend himself.

Andrew and Charley sat in the audience section.

“I call to order the four hundred and thirty-second meeting of the Sorcerer’s Tribunal,” Webster said in an official tone. “The first item on the docket is a violation of regulation 14-B by one Keene James, master sorcerer. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty,” Keene said.

“Noted. Tonya Akin performed an investigation and found evidence relevant in this case. Please, give us your official report.”

Tonya summarized the events of the last few days. Keene showed great interest and obviously hadn’t heard the latest news. Webster and the two other BPI agents sitting in judgment maintained passive expressions.

Andrew didn’t see a court reporter or anybody taking notes. There was no paperwork anywhere. Andrew assumed the proceedings were being recorded at least. For a trial, the process was surprisingly informal.

Tonya didn’t mention the book he had “filched.” He took that as a good sign, but he knew he wasn’t off the hook.

“Thank you,” Webster said. “Keene, do you have any final words before we pass judgment.”

“Only the obvious ones,” Keene said. “I had no idea Blake had compromised Serkan. Only an invasive analysis of Serkan’s mind would’ve revealed the damage, and I had no reason to do that. He showed no outward signs. That’s all I have to say.”

“Very well. We will pass judgment now. What are your verdicts?”

Webster looked at the other judges. Tonya and Richard quickly said, “Innocent.” The BPI agents were more hesitant, and only one said, “Innocent.” Andrew could hardly believe his ears when the other said, “Guilty.” On what grounds? Andrew wondered.

Finally, Webster said, “Innocent. By a vote of four to one, Keene James is cleared of all charges. You may take your place at the bench.”

Keene smiled a little, stood up, and went to the empty seat at the judge’s bench.

“The next indictment is against Blake Blutstein,” Webster said. “His crimes are numerous, and I don’t have to remind the court of his checkered history. Bearing in mind the prior testimony, what is your verdict and recommended punishment?”

All the judges said, “Guilty, death.”

“As director of the Bureau of Physical Investigation,” Webster said, “I will swiftly execute the recommendation of this court. Thank you for your quick decision. The meeting is adjourned. Now how the hell are we going to deal with this?” He looked at the three sorcerers on the panel expectantly.

“Our first priority is personal safety,” Tonya said. “Blake is clearly out for revenge against the Tribunal, and he doesn’t mind using apprentices as weapons. Andrew and Charley, you’ll live in my house and sleep under my roof from now on. When you’re not with me, you’ll be with each other. Stay on campus, and be alert at all times.”

“I’ll assign extra men to Theosophical University,” Webster said. “They’ll have twenty-four hour protection.”

She nodded. “Good.”

Andrew groaned silently. He hated the idea of having bodyguards all the time, but on the other hand, Charley was now under orders to stay close to him. That was a very nice bonus.

“Blake can fool people,” Webster said, “but he can’t fool cameras and computers. The BPI will use every technological resource of the federal government to search for him. I’ll lean on the NSA and the FBI to help. I’ll put his face and fingerprints into every criminal database in the country.”

“That may not be sufficient,” Keene said. “Blake will wear a disguise in public, and I’m sure it will be a good one. His ability to control minds enables him to travel without spending money. He can simply command people to give him food, transportation, and shelter. If he’s arrested, he’ll just tell the police to let him go. As long as he keeps a low profile, he can go anywhere without identifying himself. If he wants, he can leave the country. The only way to catch him is with another sorcerer.”

“I can’t tell every sorcerer in the United States to search for Blake. Who will guard the seams? It wouldn’t work anyway. There are only twenty of you, and that’s not enough manpower to search a nation of three hundred million people.”

“The problem is worse than that. Blake is strong enough to take down all but the best of us. So, we’re really talking about just a half-dozen sorcerers involved in the search, and as you mentioned, they all have seams to protect. We need to draw Blake out. We can’t catch him, so we must trick him into coming to us, but how?”

Silence descended on the room. Everybody looked at each other, but nobody had a suggestion.

Finally, Tonya spoke, “I have a bold proposal. We can use Andrew as bait. We know Blake is very interested in Andrew. Blake tried to recruit the boy at their first meeting.”

Andrew couldn’t believe what he had just heard. She wanted to dangle him in public like a worm on a hook! He was so shocked, he didn’t know what to say.

“Andrew will be in extreme danger,” Keene said.

“Not as much as you would think,” Tonya said. “I discovered something about him tonight, something incredible, something Blake doesn’t know. Andrew is a war mage.”

Richard and Keene’s eyes widened in obvious surprise.

Webster raised an eyebrow. “I’m unfamiliar with that term,” he said.

“Put simply,” Tonya said, “if Blake attempts to control Andrew’s mind, Blake will get a very nasty surprise. It will be like stepping into a bear trap. I barely escaped that trap at Manassas tonight and only because Andrew let me go. He is uniquely qualified for this mission.”

“But Andrew barely has any experience,” Keene said. “Even a war mage needs training. You can’t just send him out to hunt for a veteran fighter like Blake.”

She nodded. “Several weeks of intensive, specialized instruction should be sufficient. I hate to give Blake that much time, but it’s necessary. While that’s happening, the BPI can conduct its search using technology.”

Andrew decided he couldn’t keep his mouth shut any longer. “Do I get to say something?” he said.

Everybody looked at him.

“Of course,” Tonya said in a kind tone.

“I like the idea of becoming an expert at sorcerer combat, but this plan still seems very risky for me. I’ll be all alone out there.”

“No,” Webster said. “I’ll assign my best men to you. I’m talking about Special Forces operators. You’ll have all the physical protection you could want.”

“And you’ll have a partner,” Tonya added.

“Who?” Andrew said.

She looked at Charley. “You clearly make a great team.”

“Me?” Charley squeaked. “But I’m not a war mage! I can’t fight a monster like Blake. I couldn’t even deal with a banshee.”

“Your talent is still extraordinary,” Tonya said. “You have skills that Andrew doesn’t. Working together, you’re much more likely to succeed than him alone.”

“But Blake will take control of my mind.”

“Not if you’re with Andrew. He can protect you.”

“But I’m just an apprentice,” Charley said. “Find another war mage to help him.”

“I don’t know any others. There may not be any.”

Charley bit her lip.

“You don’t have to do this,” Tonya said. “I won’t force you to risk your life, but you’ve seen what Blake can do. As long as he’s out there, innocent lives will be in danger. He must be stopped at any cost. I’ll put you through the same combat boot camp as Andrew. You’re not a war mage, but I can still make you into a very dangerous lady.”

“And you can visit Manassas any time,” Richard added. “I’ll teach you a few nasty tricks that I picked up over the years. Blake won’t know what hit him.” He grinned savagely.

Charley still appeared unsure. Andrew wanted her to join him, of course, but he wouldn’t put pressure on her. Her life would be at risk even more than his. The decision had to be hers alone.

Andrew had already made his own decision. The mission sounded like the thrill of a lifetime, and he wouldn’t miss it for the world. He was already looking forward to his next meeting with Blake. Andrew couldn’t wait to see the expression on Blake’s face when Andrew ripped his mind out through his ear hole. All the deaths would be avenged.

Charley finally nodded. “I’ll try the combat training. If it seems to be working, then I’ll stick with it.”

“Fair enough,” Tonya said. “Is that all?” She looked at the other members of the Tribunal.

Nobody else spoke.

She stood up. “Then it’s time for me to take my apprentices home. We have a lot of hard work to do.”

She headed for the door, and Andrew and Charley followed her.

“Wait!” Keene said.

Everybody stopped walking.

Tonya turned. “What?”

“Thank you for keeping me out of prison,” Keene said. “You have my eternal gratitude.”

“Just doing my job. Feel free to visit my home again anytime. You can teach Andrew and Charley some of your tricks, too.”

“I will.” His eyes gleamed eagerly. “I’ll prepare some special lessons for them.”

Andrew and Charley exchanged worried glances.

Tonya led her apprentices out of the chamber.

As they walked through the stone tunnel back to the elevator, Andrew said, “What exactly is a war mage?”

“A freak talent,” Tonya said. “A natural destroyer of other sorcerers.”

“And I’m the only one alive?”

“As far as I know. If I were you, I wouldn’t mention this interesting fact to anybody else. It might make some sorcerers very nervous, homicidally so.”

“But if a sorcerer attacks me,” Andrew said, “I’ll win.”

“Assuming he uses magic. You’re not bullet-proof, poison-proof, or knife-proof, last I checked. No matter how skilled you are, there are still a thousand ways to kill you. Which reminds me, some martial arts and firearms training for both of you might be a good idea.”

“That sounds like fun. I have another question. When we were coming in, the agents had to stick their arms into a tester. Do you know what that was for?”

“I might have some idea,” Tonya said in a low voice. “When the human brain is directly exposed to sorcery, it releases certain chemicals. That machine looks for those chemicals in the blood.”

“To screen for mind-control victims?”

“Exactly, although I don’t know how effective the test is. It certainly doesn’t work on sorcerers. Our brains are always full of those odd chemicals.”

“What happens if the machine gets a positive reading?”

“Then the BPI calls in a sorcerer to perform a more thorough analysis. If I look hard enough, I can always detect mind-control. Now let’s hurry up. I want to go home.”

  • * *

Andrew yawned as he walked into the seam chamber of Theosophical University. The wooden shelves covered with odd items were familiar and comforting. The unique shape of the seam was like the face of an old friend. Andrew was finally home again.

Tonya and Charley were with him, and both women had circles under their eyes. They had arrived in Chicago in the middle of the night. Tonya had allowed her apprentices only six hours of sleep before their first lesson in combat. Andrew was as eager to begin as anybody, but he would’ve liked a couple more hours in bed.

The three of them sat at one of the small tables.

“Before we begin the lesson,” Tonya said, “we have some unfinished business. True History of Sorcery, to be specific.”

Andrew gulped. “I’m very sorry about that. I was just….”

“You don’t have to explain. Your motivation was clear. I won’t punish you specifically this time. The combat training will serve that purpose well enough, but don’t do anything like that again.”

He nodded. “OK. I promise.”

“I looked at the book,” she said, “and I saw the mention of your grandfather.”

“I read that part, too. He performed experiments.”

She nodded slowly. “Gustav suffered from a problem common to all great men and women: arrogance. He believed he was smart enough to outfox the universe. No matter how dangerous the experiment, he assumed he could avoid a fatal outcome. Obviously, he was wrong. His achievements were extraordinary, but in the end, he was just another tragic footnote in a history book. His work did nobody any good. A sorcerer who believes he can’t die already has one foot in the grave.”

“You’re worried I’ll be just as arrogant?” Andrew said.

“Yes. You’ve already shown a lax attitude towards following the rules. That’s why I was so cautious about starting your training. I wanted you to have as much maturity as possible first. Do you understand?”

He nodded. “I think so. What happened to my grandfather’s research?”

“All the journals and notes were locked in the vault, of course.”

Andrew sighed. The end of the story was the most tragic part of all. His grandfather had lost his life for nothing. His brilliance had been completely wasted.

“Let’s begin the lesson.” Tonya stood up. “When sorcerers fight, the most basic weapon is fear. It cripples the mind and destroys the will. Your enemy will terrify you with nightmare illusions. He will expose your deepest anxieties. If you succumb to panic, you’ll lose. Therefore, you must learn how to maintain your focus while scared half to death. You must be able to walk through Hell without forgetting who you are and what you’re doing.”

Andrew already knew he would hate this lesson. Charley grabbed his hand.

“Behold,” Tonya said.

Andrew was suddenly falling through the air. He looked down and saw a volcano in mid-eruption. He was dropping straight into the fiery caldera. Searing hot gases burned his eyes and made him choke. He flailed and screamed instinctively even though he knew it wasn’t real.

Tonya’s voice surrounded him with the deep resonance of rolling thunder.

“What is eighty-four divided by six?” she said. “Quickly! If you hit that lava, you may not die, but I promise it will hurt a lot.”

  • * *

Blake was looking through the eyepiece of a powerful telescope. It was designed to view the stars, but he had mounted it in a horizontal position instead. He was looking across a desert valley at the side of a distant mountain. Dust in the dry air gave the scene a brownish, washed-out appearance, but he could still see enough detail to know what he was looking at.

The mountain had a tunnel, and the square shape proved it wasn’t natural. A dirt road wound up the steep, rocky slope to reach the tunnel, making the approach slow and difficult. Cliffs blocked access from above. Very tall concrete guard towers had clear views, and there was no cover, not even a blade of grass. Approaching the tunnel unseen would be impossible. A rabbit would be spotted a mile away. Blake expected reconnaissance drones were permanently stationed in the air.

To further discourage unwanted guests, a platoon of tanks waited just outside the tunnel. Their tan camouflage blended well in the desert. Four howitzers supported the tanks, and the huge guns covered all approaches. Concrete barracks were probably filled with soldiers.

The US Army was taking its guard duties very seriously and with good reason. Blake was looking at the famous vault. To a sorcerer, the treasures inside were worth more than all the gold and diamonds in the world.

Blake was particularly interested in the private journals of Gustav Pinch. Blake’s father had told tales of Gustav’s exciting research before both had died during an experiment. Blake expected that if he continued the work, he could gain powers never before seen in the world, but he needed the notes first. The hoard of portable seams also had limitless value. Basically, everything he had ever wanted was in that vault.

Robbing the place presented an interesting challenge though. The security was fairly ridiculous.

Blake did have one advantage. The BPI probably didn’t know the vault had been his target all along. The Sorcerer’s Tribunal had every reason to believe Blake was motivated solely by a desire for revenge. Tonya was probably huddling near her seam with her apprentices in protective custody. Blake would get to revenge eventually, but the vault came first.

“Is that what you’re after?” a man said.

Blake turned his head. A muscular man wearing sand-colored camouflage was crouched behind a cactus.

“I believe so,” Blake said.

“Great. Now I can get paid.”

Blake had the Russian Eye in a pouch under his shirt. He tapped into that tiny source of power and said, “I paid you up front. I don’t owe you a dime.”

“Oh.” The man frowned. “Right. I don’t know how I forgot that.”

“But the good news is the job isn’t done. If you keep working for me, you’ll get more big paychecks. Come on. We have an enormous amount of work to do. The planning and preparation could take months, and we’ll need help. A lot of help. Do you have any good connections in organized crime?”

Blake picked up the telescope and hurried off. His henchman followed.

THE END

To be continued in… CRACKS IN REALITY.

A Humble Plea from the Author

You’ve just finished my book. Now would be a great time to go back to the site where you purchased it and leave a review. Kind reviews are the best way to convince other readers to try a book. Many people won’t even consider looking at a book until it has a pile of strong reviews. Positive feedback also encourages me to write more books, and I’m sure you want to see what adventures await Andrew and Charley. It should only take five minutes, and it really makes a difference. Thank you!

For a complete list of books written by Alex Siegel, please check http://www.grayspearsociety.com/.


Seams in Reality

SEAMS IN REALITY is the first book in the Seams in Reality Series. As a freshman in a suburban college near Chicago, Andrew leads a mundane life until he meets a professor named Tonya. She is secretly a master sorcerer, and she invites him into a conspiracy of magic. Only those few who possess a special ability may join. A resourceful young woman named Charley has the same supernatural gift. She accompanies Andrew on his journey into a dark profession, and romance quickly blooms between the young apprentices. When Andrew meets Blake, a sorcerer who knew his brilliant grandfather, Andrew becomes embroiled in a game of lies and treachery. Blake's crimes leave a grisly trail of casualties, and Andrew must take up the mission of stopping him, but Blake's true objectives are even more devious than Andrew anticipates.

  • Author: Alex Siegel
  • Published: 2015-09-26 17:35:20
  • Words: 101300
Seams in Reality Seams in Reality