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"Is your friend really what he says he is?"
There was a carefully casual note in Ruth Kleinfeld's voice that made Joanna hesitate a long time before replying.
"What has he told you?" she asked at last, cradling the receiver of the telephone against her shoulder to hit the SAVE key. As an afterthought, she punched through a save and exit, parked the heads, and took the computer down. Something in Ruth's tone told her this could get complicated. "And why do you ask?"
There was a pause. Ruth, Joanna guessed, was ensconced in the dingy gray office of her father's construction company in the cement wilds of South Central Los Angeles, painting her fingernails and trying to guess the amounts of the checks her father had written on the office account last week. The temperature down in her neck of the woods—Venice Boulevard and Hoover Avenue—would be hovering in the nineties. Up here in Van Nuys it was worse, and Joanna, clothed in her oldest jeans and a black Enyart's Bar & Grill T-shirt with sleeves and neck cut out, was wondering whether the air conditioner would make it till sunset, let alone till Thanksgiving, when the San Fernando Valley would finally cool off.
There was no question about which friend Ruth meant. It was just like Antryg Windrose, Joanna reflected, not to come up with an alternative to the unvarnished truth.
"He says," reported Ruth in a just-the-facts-ma'am tone, "that he's an exiled wizard from another universe."
Why not? Joanna sighed mentally. Antryg had been considered hopelessly insane by everyone who knew him in his former life. Why alter things now?
There was momentary silence on the line, something the girls had grown used to over the course of their years of friendship. On the other side of what had once been her Aunt Rachel's dining table, Chainsaw yawned and rolled over to a more comfortable position, all four feet in the air, on top of the pile of documentation Joanna was using to try—vainly, so far—to figure out why Galaxsongs Records' spreadsheet program refused to work. Chainsaw and Spock deeply appreciated Antryg Windrose's arrival on the scene last January, coinciding as it did with Joanna's decision to become a free-lance consultant and full-time dispenser of cream and catnip. It amused and interested Joanna that, although the living room had been transformed into a barely restrained chaos of papers, drawings, physics books, tarot decks, used teacups, animal skulls, dried and potted herbs, gutted computers, dismantled clocks, pinwheels in various stages of construction, and an artillery battalion of windup toys, the cats left most of Antryg's things alone.
After a moment Ruth went on. "Now, I mean, Antryg is definitely not from this Universe ..." Joanna could almost see her tap her forehead, indicative of her frequently voiced suspicion that Joanna's roommate hailed from the far side of the Twilight Zone. "Is he psychic?"
"Y-yes," said Joanna slowly. He wasn't, exactly, but it was one of the simpler explanations.
She heard Ruth sigh. "I didn't used to believe in it," she said. "But after you were gone last fall ... I don't know. And there's something about Antryg ... Maybe it's just that he believes it himself, until you get to believe it, too."
"There is that," Joanna agreed. She recalled Antryg's application for his bartending job at Enyart's. He'd seen no incongruity in listing "wizard" as a former occupation. "Not that I was ever paid for it, you understand," he had hastened to explain to Jim, the manager, who nodded and gave him the job. Jim had lived in L.A. a long time.
"The thing is," Ruth went on, "Jim says he sees auras—personal auras around people, that kind of stuff. And he says Antryg has the damnedest one he's ever seen. So I was wondering ..."
She hesitated again, and Joanna felt, as clearly as if someone, something, had come up and laid a clawed hand upon her shoulder from behind, that she knew what Ruth was going to say.
And the cold fear of it shrank in her viscera, as it had one night two years ago, when she'd returned to the locked apartment and found a cigarette stub on the edge of the bathroom sink.
"The riverbed ..." She heard the ghost-quick intake of Ruth's shaken breath.
"You've been there?"
Joanna shut her eyes. So Ruth knew about it. That meant it really was real.
She felt cold.
It hadn't been precisely a dream. It had come to her waking and in daytime, like the sudden recollection of something dreamed days ago, only she knew she had never actually dreamed any such thing. In a vision-flash of quasimemory, she had seen herself walking along the bed of one of Los Angeles' notorious cement-paved rivers, something she knew down to the molecules of her bone marrow she had never done and would never do. But the memory was so vivid, it nearly blinded her: the heat of the May sun beating on her tousled, too-curly blond hair, the scuff of her sneakers in the thin yellow-gray dust, the Hispanic graffiti on the concrete retaining walls that rose around her, and the pale pinks and greens of the sixties tract houses visible above them. One house, defiant heliotrope, stood out among them like a biker at a CPA convention.
The very clothes she'd had on at the moment of the vision—the slightly newer jeans and white tuxedo shirt, currently lying half-folded over the edge of the bed, which she'd worn to Galaxsongs' office that morning—had clothed her in the ... dream? vision? Please don't let it be a premonition ...
And more vivid than any of the rest was the memory of the fear that lifted like heat shimmer from the cement.
She couldn't recall what she'd been afraid of, though she dimly sensed it had to do with something on the ground: tracks, writing, something drawn among the dry, spreading rings of parching bull-thorns on the earthquake-cracked pavement of the wash.
But it was the fear that came back to her most clearly now, five hours later, sitting in her dining-room-cum-office on the phone with Ruth, the sun klieg- light bright outside the half-drawn drapes on the windows and the heavy, throbbing heartbeat of rising rush hour leaking faintly in from Victory Boulevard outside.
"Joanna?" Ruth sounded worried at the long silence.
Joanna took a deep breath, telling herself firmly that there was nothing to be afraid of in that ephemeral series of images which hadn't even been a proper dream. "I haven't been there," she said slowly. And then, "You mean you know where it is?"
"Sure." Ruth's voice, deep for a woman's, usually a sweet, slow, sexy drawl even when she wasn't turning on her charm for men, was low and hesitant now, and scared. "That's what spooked me so bad when I dreamed it last night. That's the Tujunga Wash just north of the Ventura Freeway. My parents live right over on Whitsett; my brother and I used to get in trouble all the time for playing down there when we were kids. And it's like that, even that crazy purple house up on the bank. On my way down to the office this morning, I drove by there."
If your dream was anything like mine, thought Joanna with a shiver, you're a braver lass than I am, Gunga Din.
Or maybe she just didn't know what could happen.
Ruth hesitated, struggling with a truth, an admission, perhaps, of craziness that she wouldn't have made to anyone else. Then she said, "Joanna, there's something weird going on down there. I didn't see anything, but I felt ..."
She broke off, but it didn't matter. Joanna knew what she had felt.
The sense that if she had stood still and listened, she would have heard, in the empty, baked stillness of the morning heat, breathing other than her own. The knowledge that something was going to happen that had no business happening in the sane and daylight world of every day.
In a smaller voice, Ruth went on, "I've been sitting here all afternoon wondering if I was crazy."
"No," Joanna said quietly, and that something which had shrunk and shriveled within her tried to make itself a little smaller, tried to hide behind her sternum for protection—tried to tell her that if she ignored all this and went about her business, everything would be all right. "No, you aren't crazy—unless we're both crazy. But I'll get in touch with Antryg. He'll know what's going on, and he'll probably know what to do."
And she reflected, as she hung up, that that in itself was one of the less comforting aspects of the situation.
At this time on a Friday afternoon, Joanna knew that Antryg would be "down at the shop"—a shabby twenties Spanish duplex up on Saticoy Avenue with a sign outside that said: PALMS READ—TAROT—PSYCHIC COUNSELING.
The woman who owned the place had recently taken custody of her niece and nephew at her sister's death, and had cut back her psychic counseling to weekday mornings; she'd been happy to find someone willing to rent space afternoons and weekends. A Mazda Miata of a shade popularly known as give-me-a-ticket red sat in one of the two parking spaces in what had originally been the front yard; Antryg's bicycle was propped, unlocked as usual, against one of the splintery awning posts of the porch.
The bike was a good-quality Nishiki touring job, purchased with part of the spoils of Suraklin the Dark Mage's secret bank accounts shortly after Joanna had attempted to teach Antryg to drive a car. The neighborhood averaged five burglaries a week, but whatever it was that prevented Spock and Chainsaw from making free with Antryg's pinwheels in the apartment evidently worked on the local druggies as well. There was a parking place available, too, directly in front of the duplex, on a street whose proximity to a pre-zoning-law industrial park made walks of a block or more almost routine.
As she mounted the cracked brick steps to the jungle of the porch, Joanna heard Antryg's voice through the window screens, a brown velvet baritone like some mad Shakespearean actor's, the drop and flex of its intonations like the swirl of a stage villain's cloak. He was talking to a client, of course.
Joanna grinned inwardly. Another of her friends in Antryg's home world, the sasennan Caris, onetime sworn warrior of the Council of Wizards, once said of Antryg in scandalized tones, "He's nothing but a dog wizard!" Raised in the purest mainstream of Academic wizardry, Caris meant it as the basest of insults, for in the Empire of Ferryth the dog wizards were the semitaught free- lance mages who refused to take the vows imposed by the Council as a condition of teaching. Lumped into the same category were the outright charlatans who claimed powers they had not been born with at all, relying on sleight of hand to deceive their customers ... men and women who used magic, or claims of magic, for gain.
The Academics, of course, were above such things, even had they not been forbidden by civil law and their own vows to use their powers to meddle in human affairs.
In a way, Caris and the Academics—who had chucked Antryg out of their highest councils when he was barely thirty—were right. Antryg Windrose was a dog wizard.
And in this world—in this city, with its scruffy palm trees and limpid swimming pools, its perpetual stink of exhaust and its shining glass high rises, all pretending like hell that it wasn't constructed on a desert and a dozen earthquake faults—fugitive and exile and unable to work the magic that was his in his own universe, he was making a fair living at it.
From the rump-sprung wicker loveseat in the porch's slatted shade, Joanna could see through the screen door into the room where Antryg talked to his clients. Mrs. Pittman would not have permitted another swami to use the same rooms she used, nor would Antryg have dreamed of doing such a thing—an assumption on both their parts that had gone far toward reconciling her to the whole deal in the first place. Instead they had cleared out what long ago had been the front bedroom of its years' worth of nameless junk, draped it with mysterious-looking hangings at $1.49 a yard from Fabric Champ, and set up Antryg's private sanctum. The plain wooden table and kitchen chairs lacked the elegance Joanna recalled from the house of the most famous dog wizard in Angelshand, the renowned Magister Magus, with its tufted carpets, black velvet drapes, and ebony throne ... but then, Antryg was just starting out in the business.
She could tell by the pitch of his voice that his formal patter, as he laid out the cards, was done. The deep murmur of his words was interspersed by a woman's voice, soft and questioning, and her occasional laughter. After not very long she came out, beautiful in the same leggy, fashionable, well-cared-for style that Ruth epitomized, a style that always made Joanna unhappily conscious of her shortness, the prominence of her nose, and the fact that, at the age of twenty-six, she still had no idea how to put on makeup. In the presence of girls like the one leaving, Joanna always felt as if she had CAN'T COOK, EITHER printed across her forehead in large block letters. The absurdity of that image teased her into a grin in spite of herself as she pushed her way through the screen door and into the wizard's salon.
"My dear Joanna!" He looked up from the new spread he was laying out on the stained and mended silk of the embroidered tablecloth, his face breaking into the beaming grin of a slightly pixilated rubber doll. "Don't tell the Galaxsongs' programmers are more competent than their sound engineers and you actually were able to unwind what they'd done? Or have you come about the thing in the cement river?"
Joanna stopped in her tracks. Of course, she thought, Antryg would know.
He looked up at her, and behind the mischief sparkling in his eyes, she could see guarded concern as he studied her face. He wore, as usual, a faded and unwizardly T-shirt with the sleeves cut off—this one was green, and whatever rock-concert logo it once bore had long since flaked away to obscurity—and a pair of senile Levi's. A livid scar marked his bare left arm; just above it, fresh and blue, the Anheuser-Busch eagle was tattooed on his bicep, the result of an exchange of services with an artist in Long Beach. She knew that both still hurt. His hands, where they lay upon the cards, were large, bony, deft, and beautifully expressive despite the twisted fingers and swollen joints.
For the rest, Antryg Windrose could have been any age from his mid-thirties to his mid-fifties, though in fact he was forty-three. There was something oddly ageless about the beaky, mobile face, whose rather delicate bone structure seemed overbalanced by the cresting jut of the nose and the extravagance of the mouth. The round lenses of his steel-rimmed spectacles were thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles, and behind them his gray eyes, enormous to begin with, were magnified still further. There were people who attributed his habitual air of demented intentness to the glasses as well, but this, Joanna knew, was not the case. That was just how Antryg was.
Unkempt curls in the final throes of fading from brown to gray, mismatched earrings of yellowing crystal, and half a dozen strings of cheap glass and plastic beads in assorted garish colors around his neck completed the impression of an unreconstructed sixties flower child turned abruptly adrift in the steel- edged cyberpunk streets of fin de siècle Los Angeles; an impression, Joanna thought, not wholly inapt. Antryg had the definite air of being in the wrong place and time, though most people didn't guess quite how wrong. In his own universe, he had been a practicing wizard since the age of ten.
He laid down the cards—Joanna noticed the two of swords and the chaotic five of wands—and reached with one booted foot to hook a chair for her.
She said, "Ruth told me where it is."
"Ah." Something changed in his eyes.
Excerpted from Dog Wizard by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1992 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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