The Plain Manby Steve Englehart
Magick and reality collide in a new, fast-paced Max August thriller
Max August is not invulnerable, but he never ages—a gift he earned while studying under the legendary alchemist Cornelius Agrippa. August, now an alchemist himself, is using his magickal abilities to fight the right-wing conspiracy known as the FRC, which seeks to control all aspects of/p>
Magick and reality collide in a new, fast-paced Max August thriller
Max August is not invulnerable, but he never ages—a gift he earned while studying under the legendary alchemist Cornelius Agrippa. August, now an alchemist himself, is using his magickal abilities to fight the right-wing conspiracy known as the FRC, which seeks to control all aspects of society. At the top of the FRC is a nine-member cabal, each member of which is a powerful force in one area of society, such as media, politics, finance…and wizardry.
When Max learns that two members of the cabal are en route to Wickr, a Burning Man–like festival held in the American Southwest, he stages a plan to gather information from them and, he hopes turn one member against the others. Max has been careful not to leave a trail, but the cabal sees all, and an "accident" at a nuclear waste facility just 100 miles from the festival would send a clear message to those who oppose the FRC. Max may be timeless, but he is running out of time to stop the FRC and save millions of lives.
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The Plain Man
By Steve Englehart, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 Steve Englehart
All rights reserved.
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 9:30 A.M. PACIFIC DAYLIGHT TIME
6 Eagle (Responding to the Storyline)
When Max and Pam crossed into Nevada, the change from Mountain Standard Time to Pacific Daylight Time was mere semantics, so when Pam took over the wheel, she drove through Vegas with the night shift going home, the day shift reporting for work, and, for the first time, other vehicles clearly on their way north to Wickr. These last ones were packed with supplies, whether or not they flew flags with the Wickr sphere on them, or plastered that design on their windows. Most of them had old bicycles attached to their trunks. She had no trouble spotting them, and no trouble spotting the traffic cams along the freeway, which she could have avoided by taking the long way around through Pahrump. But now that the energy was Responding to the Storyline, she made the decision that they'd be less conspicuous in the crowd. She drove with the traffic, while Max dozed.
KLUC was offering Ne-Yo's "Mad" and "Closer" back to back as she made her way along 95, dancing in place to the snap of the beat. She passed miles of subdivisions behind sound abatement walls, until coming to the ring road finally let her see the vast sweep of the land she was in by daylight. Born in New Mexico, it had been a while since she'd seen a Southwestern desert, and it made her realize she missed it. It surprised her. She didn't like what the FRC had done to America but she liked America just fine. All she and Max had to do was get it back.
Tearing her eyes from the vista, Pam looked over at Max. We've been together twenty months now, she thought. I was twenty-eight when I met him; in three weeks I'll be thirty. And Val or no Val, we've become a couple, just the two of us. She remembered his earliest attempts to explain magick to her, and her first attempts to keep up. He'd tried to use words because he was a deejay and she was a doctor, but they'd soon figured out that she was really someone who learned by doing. So they developed her natural abilities, like the call, and built on that — letting things like the Mayan calendar and festivals of the year come when they came. Through it all, they became a team. Now we're going to have two more in the mix, she thought. It's going to be a change.
She drove north along 95, past Lathrop Wells and Beatty to the junction with 266, where she took a left past the Cottontail Ranch, following and followed by the other Wickns. Pink sang "Please Don't Leave Me" and Jeremih sang "Birthday Sex." Ten miles later, 774 cut off south toward Gold Point. The Black Eyed Peas sang "Boom Boom Pow." Ten more miles into increasingly empty vistas got them to the few scattered houses of the old mining town, where the Vegas deejay talked about Michael Jackson's upcoming tour, and then a reddish-brown dirt road marked with the bright golden circle of the Sun to put them on the last five miles of their journey. Lady Gaga broke up in the midst of "Poker Face," and that was it for the outside world.
Max sat up, stretching. He could see dust rising in the air from far across the subtly rising plain, churned by dozens of other vehicles ahead of them. They drove along a low ridge overlooking the plain until they caught up with the cars, then settled in for a good ninety-minute crawl to the entrance kiosks.
"I've got nothing to do until we hit the ground, so I'm going back to sleep," he said, and sat back, pulling his cap low over his eyes. "Home, James." Pam gave him an indulgent look and soldiered on.
At the end of the crawl, a ticket-taker took their tickets and passed them forward to the greeters. These were people dressed in costumes of one sort or another, from elaborate to all-but-nonexistent, who asked each arrival to step out of his or her vehicle and chat a little, one on one, making the first of the human connections that really defined the festival. Those who said they'd been to Wickr before, like Max, were welcomed back with enthusiastic hugs, but those who were new had to grab a handful of dust and throw it up into the air. Pam threw, and her little white dust cloud was one of dozens down the kiosk line, a continuing fireworks show to celebrate discoverers. Pam's greeter gave her an enthusiastic hug then, dipping her, and she joined the energy of Wickr: when they stood up, she dipped him. The car behind them emitted applause.
They were in a large, relatively flat area at the base of the chocolate brown mountains. Even in mid-June there was snow on the mountain peaks, thousands of feet above, but down in the desert it was already better than ninety degrees. Max and Pam got back in their van and drove into the charmed circle of the new city, like Dorothy beginning to follow the yellow brick road.
They trundled at five miles per hour around what was actually the dusty circumference road until they found a view of the mountains they both liked, then worked their way inward on the spoke road. When they came to Venus Street, Pam pointed out a likely looking camping spot with some crazy-looking vehicles around it; Max agreed, and she pulled to a halt so Max could lean out his window and ask one of the campers already in place if they and some friends could join them. With the guy's ready affirmative, Pam pulled into a large empty spot, stopped the van, and got out again, stretching hard in the heat of the sun.
Max got out, looked around, and casually made a wiping motion with his left hand, as if cleaning a windshield. In fact, he was cleaning the world he saw, looking through that world into another world for anything that might be a danger to them in either world. When he was satisfied that there was nothing, that they were still safe, he gave Pam the slightest of nods.
The other campers here had come in vehicles ranging from cars to trucks; Max and Pam had the only van in sight. Some of the others had tents or other shelters erected, others were in the process. The tents ranged from low Army pup-tents to vast domelike creations, some limned with lights. There was also an even larger structure built to resemble the curl on the top of a soft-serve ice cream cone, with a window cut into the side and the twelve-foot cone lying nearby; someone was planning an attraction.
Max and Pam walked back to where their new friend was lounging in a low fold-out chair alongside a woman his age, under a canopy made of three layers of mosquito netting stretched from their car's roof to corner poles. The guy was wearing knee-length shorts and nothing else; the girl had on a see-through muslin top over a pale green skirt. Glasses and a pale green pitcher were arrayed on a small wooden table between them.
"Mojito?" the guy asked.
"We would love two," Max said. "Hi. I'm Paul and this is Olivia." Pam noted the names; it was one of Max's jokes, or maybe tests, to spring new names on her when needed. Paul and Olivia.
"Randy and Sara," said their new friend, and his girl raised a hand. Randy scrunched himself forward in the sunken seat of his chair to reach the fixings, and poured out two drinks that he handed around.
Pam, taking a sip, felt the kick and said, "Damn! That goes down good."
"It's our official Wickr whiskey," said Sara. "Starts the day off right."
"Where are you guys from?" Randy asked.
"Chillicothe, Ohio," Max said.
"How long a drive?"
"Six days," Max said. "We came out Route 66." Pam knew that he'd actually motored west on 66 at some time and would be able to talk about it accurately. She wondered, not for the first time in these situations, when he had done it. "How about you guys?" Max continued.
"Salem, Oregon," Randy said. "One long day."
"One very long day," Sara echoed. "But there are springs just before we get to Nevada, so we broke it up."
"How many times have you been here?" Max asked.
"Three," said Randy.
"This is the second for me and first for Olivia."
"How do you like it?" Sara asked Pam.
"So far so good," she grinned. Sara grinned back.
Max said, "We've got some friends coming in tonight, so I'm gonna set up two tents in my space if that's okay."
"Knock yourself out," Randy said. "You need any help?"
"I don't think so, thanks. We'll stop back after we get squared away."
"Putting up tents is thirsty work," Sara said. "That's why we don't. So stop on back for refills whenever you need them. We'll probably head out after a while but we'll leave the pitcher full."
Max and Pam went back to the VW and slid open the side door. All of the equipment they'd picked up in Tucson was packed expertly, and still filled the interior almost to the roof; it took a fair amount of stuff to spend a week self- contained. But right on top, ready to be pulled out, was a Volkswagen tent designed to attach to the side of the van, wrapped in a carrying bag. A standalone tent lay in another bag. They got them both out onto the ground, then climbed inside to get the rest of what they'd need to erect them. Pam touched Max's leg with her hand, a small signal, and pulled the sliding door closed. It immediately became an oven inside.
"Max," she said.
"That test back there."
"You did fine, as always."
"That would be my point," she said, looking meaningfully into his face. "I'm both your girlfriend and your disciple. I like both parts, but being at Wickr makes me think that maybe we've gotten 'em out of balance. How about if we let the girlfriend part predominate this week — when we're not planning doom for the FRC? After all," she added, warming to her brief, "Sly and Rosa are doing all the heavy lifting — so to speak. Most of the time, we won't be involved."
"We're always involved," he said, but he was nodding. "Your point's well taken, Pam. Whenever we can, we will party —" his voice became the resonant one he used on-air in his radio days "— LIKE IT'S TWO-THOUSAND-AND-NINE!"
She laughed, and softly paraphrased Fergie. "I'm so two-thousand-and-nine / you're so far out of your time. ..." She smiled her crooked smile. "Thanks, sweetie."
"Believe me," he said, opening the door again, "it is not a problem." He stepped outside and gazed around at the burgeoning city. "I like Wickr, too."
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 11:15 A.M. PACIFIC DAYLIGHT TIME
6 Eagle (Responding to the Storyline)
"Back ... back ... hold it, that's good."
Michael Salinan brought Diana Herring's American Heritage luxury coach to a halt, directly across from his own, facing the other direction, at a distance of twenty feet — far enough apart to allow them some semblance of separation, near enough to discourage anyone from trying to park between them. They'd chosen a spot far out on Saturn Street where there were few other vehicles as yet, and none even approaching the size of theirs. Soon enough they'd set out travel chairs and tables to further mark their territory, and the thirteen-foot heights on either side would go far to shield their world from view. All in all, it seemed to be about as much privacy as one could have at Wickr.
Diana slid down from her seat and exited down the passenger-side steps. It had not been a long drive from Vegas, but she wasn't used to driving anything as big as this behemoth, and the five miles of dirt road had been a real pain. Literally: her shoulders ached. A luxury coach was indistinguishable from a tour bus in shape: forty-five feet from squared-off front to squared-off back. She would not have minded at all having someone else drive it, but no one else was allowed to know she was here. She would not have minded coming with Mike on one bus, but that left no plausible deniability if one or the other was found out. So she drove "hers" and he drove "his."
His was identical to hers except for color; hers was Sandrift, all beiges and tans, while his was Cashmere Blaze, aswirl with whites and maroons. She approached her behemoth as he opened the door with a hydraulic whoosh and stepped out. Then he walked behind her up her steps. Then he took her in his arms.
Michael Salinan, the political guru of the Necklace, was forty-two. His head had been shaved bald since the Clinton administration, highlighting his wide, pointed ears to make him easier to caricature, since he appeared in political cartoons and on the Sunday news shows from time to time. But at the moment, he was wearing a curly brown wig beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat, and aviator sunglasses. The wig was exquisitely made and looked completely natural. It had been attached to his head with an adhesive guaranteed not to loosen with sweat. It made him look both normal and nonthreatening.
Diana Herring was thirty-eight. She had the strong willowy body of a news anchor, and curly black hair, naturally, but now her hair was straight and blonde. Her face was normally slightly asymmetrical, which didn't mar her striking beauty but gave her greater gravitas. Now it was carefully balanced, with extra shadow under the cheekbones. Her best friend would have had a hard time recognizing her. She had worked local news, followed by a brief stint with NBC, before moving into management at the age of twenty-nine. Six years later, she was tapped to head the Media link in the Necklace. Her secret to success was her ability to always appear completely sincere; right now she was sincere as she pulled Michael into the interior of her coach and led him toward the queen-sized bed with the beige satin coverlet.
"Hang on," Michael said. "What about security?"
"This thing's got an alarm system," Diana said, and let him go long enough to reach out and press a wall switch. The door to the van hissed shut and a red light came on beside it.
"That's fine," Michael said, "but my coach isn't set. Anyone could get in." He broke the clinch altogether and turned back. "Open up," he said.
Diana made a disparaging sound but pushed the switch again and let him out; then watched through the side windows, beneath the shades and past the flowerpots with real flowers, as he walked back over to his coach. He looked around, then checked inside, before coming back out and thumbing a button on his keys. His door slid closed.
Michael was a hale fellow well met, but he was a chess player at heart. He loved the game, and he loved the win, and Diana loved that about him. She herself was all about the big picture, and her love was an air war for men's minds.
When he came back up her steps and into the coach, he said, "Okay, babe, here are the rules. Anything goes at Wickr. It's all about being exactly who you want to be, and the worst thing we could do is hold each other back. I want to be here with you, big time, but I also want to enjoy the time and place."
"And I'm good with that, Mikey. Though I, personally, have more than sex on my mind."
"So do I, babe. Part of what I need to know here is the mind-set. We've got to turn the tide on the youth vote, so I'm going to be studying these kids."
"And I've got to stay up with the demographic, so I'll be doing a lot of empathizing. Win-win." She smiled, and spread her arms. "All right?"
"All right," he said, and had the decency to smile.
As they fell backward onto the bed, Michael's hands undid her silk blouse and slid inside. He ran his hand along her rib cage with a delicacy no one would have suspected in him; it made her moan and twist to offer her breasts. He took what was offered, deftly snapping open the clasp on her bra. It parted to reveal her breasts, flushed and hard-nippled.
"Hi there," Michael said brightly, "I'm Ron."
"Stacy," snickered Diana. "Pleased ta meetcha!"
They were going to enjoy this week big-time.
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 2:00 P.M. CENTRAL DAYLIGHT TIME
6 Eagle (Responding to the Storyline)
Kevin Stallworth paced the basement of his parents' downsized house in Fort Worth. It was hot outside, cool in here; he wanted to be out there, wearing a heavy wool suit, with a tie. Instead he was here in his skivvies. He put three Hot Pocket Sideshots in the microwave, went into the bathroom and peed. He flushed, washed his hands, went back to his room to get dressed. The NASCAR calendar above where he'd dropped his jeans read JUNE 2009.
For the one millionth time, Kevin asked himself why he'd had to graduate when there were no jobs.
Excerpted from The Plain Man by Steve Englehart, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2011 Steve Englehart. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
STEVE ENGLEHART is best known for writing for such comics series as Spider-Man, Captain America, Superman, The Fantastic Four, and Batman for DC and Marvel Comics, and for his novels The Point Man and The Long Man. He has been named Favorite Writer at the Eagle Awards, and has also won an Inkpot Award for his comics work. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where he is currently working on a new Max August novel.
Steve Englehart is best known for writing for such comics series as Spider-Man, Captain America, Superman, The Fantastic Four, and Batman for DC and Marvel Comics, and for his novels The Point Man, The Long Man and The Plain Man. He has been named Favorite Writer at the Eagle Awards, and has also won an Inkpot Award for his comics work. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where he is currently working on a new Max August novel.
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Many people thought Cheney ran the country during the Bush 43 presidency. However, that would be far from the truth. Instead the FRC cabal was in charge as Bush and Cheney were their puppets. With the election of Obama, the FRC had a few months to keep their power in place by strategically planting operatives in key federal positions. Seemingly as of June 2009 the right wing cabal succeeded. Their only opposition comes from alchemists like timeless mortal Max August and Pam Blackwell. Max obtains reliable information from his computer hacking guru Dave that two of the nine heads of FRC (Michael Sainan and Diana Herring) are attending the Wickr festival in Arizona for a forbidden tryst. His plan is for him and Blackwell to use honey to get one of the leaders to betray the others. However, the FRC has a different scheme to force obedience as they understand domestic terrorism being behind much of it. They plan to blow up a nearby nuclear waste facility as a warning to those in the new Administration and concealed alchemists to obey; if millions will die so be it. The latest August political science fiction thriier with fantasy elements (see The Point Man and The Long Man) is an entertaining thriller that will remind readers of Steve Englehart's comic book work on Doc Savage. The story line is faster than a speeding Superman as time is running out on mortal Max and his sidekick. Although the villains seem interchangeable, fans will enjoy the battles in Arizona and on a mystical plain, and the references to the Matrix of modern America. Harriet Klausner