The Plain Manby Steve Englehart
Magick and reality collide in The Plain Man, Steve Englehart's 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/i>
Magick and reality collide in The Plain Man, Steve Englehart's 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.
Read an Excerpt
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 • 1:12 A.M. MOUNTAIN STANDARD TIME
5 Jaguar (Empowering Clarity)
“A sex caper?” Pam Blackwell said skeptically. “My name isn’t Mata Hari.”
“And I’m not Heidi Fleiss,” Max August answered. “But honey traps have existed as long as spies have, because they work.”
“I suppose so, but still … kind of ballsy, no?”
Both of them chuckled in the sweltering night.
They were lying on a blanket spread over the sand, on a hill in the ass-end of Arizona, watching the sky above. An hour after midnight, it was still eighty-seven degrees with no breeze at all. But this far from pollution and city lights, the sky was brilliant, blazing with stars, planets, and the satellites that swept across the expanse like clockwork. Pam was twenty-nine years old. Max was thirty-five even though he’d been born in 1950, and he’d be thirty-five until somebody killed him, because he was Timeless. Both were blond, he with hazel eyes and her with blue. They could have been two lovers on a picnic—which, in fact, they were—but they were also two alchemists, and they were going to war.
Max said, “Everybody thinks with their body sometimes, lady.” His features were striking, dominated by the full mouth of the deejay he’d once been. That mouth produced a voice just as striking, deep and rich and round.
Pam studied his silhouette against the night, and said, “Everybody wants a relationship. Everything wants a relationship, because everything is related—the first magickal secret you ever told me.”
“Mike and Di are no different. They want each other and they’re coming together like crashing meteors.” He gestured toward the sky, which was devoid of meteors. “See if you can shoot this down. We’ve got time.”
“Okay.” She put her hands behind her head and stretched.
“Well,” he said, “Dave does data mining for me. It’s small-scale, but he’s only looking for a few things. One is intelligence concerning Michael Salinan and Diana Herring.”
Pam’s eyes narrowed as she ran the information she’d gathered over the year and a half she and Max had been together. Dave was his computer jedi. Michael Salinan was a well-known political guru, usually but not always right-wing, and Diana Herring ran Full Resource Channel, which owned radio and television stations of all networks all across America. Several years before, Dave had uncovered a relationship between Michael and Diana that suggested a love affair, though they’d tried hard to hide it—just as they’d tried to hide their membership in a cabal known only by the initials “FRC,” or three words beginning with those initials. The FRC had run the American government during the Bush/Cheney years, embedding its people throughout the bureaucracy to maintain as much control as possible after Obama took over, and judging from the results, they’d succeeded. Rather than end the wars as promised, the government had recently announced its intent to assassinate American citizens if it wanted. This was duly reported to the citizens months afterward at the bottom of page A-12 and most people missed it. But for Max and Pam, “of, by, and for the People” was not just a slogan, the way it was to the FRC.
“Dave discovered a run of credit card numbers that seemed to have been dropped down a black hole,” Max went on. “Everything before that run was issued, and everything after, but those cards were just gone. So he kept an eye out. One of them was used last month to buy tickets for Wickr under an assumed name, and Dave applied his standard cross-checks. He traced the transaction as far as KSN-TV in Wichita and then hit a brick wall, at first, but he checked the station’s FedEx shipments and found one to a hotel on the south side of Chicago. There was no record of what happened there, but Diana operates her FRC out of Chicago, so he kept going and found airline tickets on the same card, from O’Hare and Dulles, both to Las Vegas, arriving later today. And Wickr starts today, three hours north of Vegas.”
“Nice work on Dave’s part,” Pam said. “I couldn’t even master Windows. But what’s the deal with Wickr? You’ve been before, right?”
“I went in ninety-eight. It was a whole lot smaller and more intimate than it is now, but I doubt if the vibe has changed. It’s a festival in the high desert during the week leading up to the Midsummer solstice. Upwards of fifty thousand people, all ages and persuasions, come together to live in an instant city far from view; there is a lot of energy. It’s held at the base of the Silver Peak Mountains, at a point where the hills sweep into the distance like stone wings. On either side of that point, Wickr plants two two-hundred-and-twenty-foot towers. A fifty-foot sphere made of curved wooden slats, like massive rattan, simple and primitive, hangs one hundred feet in the air, suspended from a cable on an arc between the towers. That’s the Sun; it hangs above the landscape, swaying in the breeze, all week. Then, at the Midsummer solstice, it’s raised all the way up to two hundred feet and set ablaze against the sky. The solstice moves forward a quarter of a day every year, so the Burn takes place whenever Midsummer comes—morning, afternoon, evening, middle of the night. You get a different gathering every year, depending on who’s awake. This year’s the evening year; the best blaze, biggest crowd, biggest party.”
“Is it a straight takeoff on the old Wicker Man festival?” Pam asked, interested. When we started, Pam thought, there was so much to take in. But you get inside it and it’s simple. “Eight festivals mark out the year, at each of the four seasons and the four points halfway between. We met on one—Hallowe’en. Wicker Man’s for Midsummer, the longest day of the year, when the Sun reaches its highest point in the sky and the Earth is in the fullest of bloom below. Both sides at their most radiant—because after Midsummer, the Sun will grow lower in the sky and the Earth’s vegetation will fade, and we puny humans certainly have no control over whether they’ll do it again next year. So everywhere in the world, humans came together and showed off their own considerable life-force with sex and sacrifice—usually an animal but sometimes a man if they were really worried about how things were going.”
Max’s hand found hers on the blanket, and he chuckled. “As far as I know, the Wickr festival’s just a festival. Nobody’s into human sacrifice, but there’s almost any other thing you want if it doesn’t hurt somebody else. There’s dancing and drugs and conversations and costumes and art and wacky cars and vision-quests and girls on stilts, with a permanent techno soundtrack from dance floors in all directions. Wickr is essentially an alternate reality you live in for a week; it’s a very cleansing experience. There just happens to be plenty of sex if you want it, and Mike and Di want it.”
“Are you and I having plenty of sex?” Pam wanted to know.
“With each other. If we want it.”
She jabbed him with her elbow. “Not other people?”
“Up to you, my love, but I’m not.”
“No, I’m good.” She pulled her hand from beneath his and placed it on top. “We’ll keep our magick to ourselves.”
There was silence for a while.
“Anyway,” Max said finally, “Wickr’s like a free-thinker’s Renaissance Faire that you get to live in.”
“So that brings up the question,” Pam said, “of why two members of the FRC would choose it.”
“Two members having an affair,” Max reminded her. “They’ve kept it quiet because they don’t want their bosses to find out about it. Now comes a chance for a week of heavy petting, in a place their bosses would never go. As Di would be the first to say, ‘Win-win!’”
“Still, there will be fifty thousand people there, and both Mike and Di have been on TV a lot.”
“But how many of those fifty thousand, who like a little alternate reality in the desert, watched Meet the Press clips like us? Probably not too many. Plus, Mike and Dican disguise themselves.”
“With wigs and makeup, maybe,” Pam responded with ironic dismissal. “We can bend light to actually change what people see.”
“True, but we won’t actually be dealing with them.”
“Right. Because then we’d have to sleep with them.”
“Yes, but also because the more I reveal of myself to the FRC, the more openings I give them to come after me. I prefer to remain invisible as long as I can, because soon enough I’ll be right up in their face and I want every advantage I can get.”
“We can get.” Pam rolled over in place onto her side, supporting her head with her hand. “So this is where Sly and Rosa come in.”
“Why them, particularly?”
“They’re both creatures of illusion.”
“And they’re good with the sex?”
“Sly is ecstatic.”
“What about Rosa?”
“If she didn’t want to do it, believe me, she wouldn’t.”
“That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.”
“With her, it is,” Max said. “She’s not what you’d call demonstrative.”
“So that’s another question,” she said. “Are you sure they can pull it off?”
“Pull what off?”
“Seducing Michael and Diana.”
“Sly and Rosa can seduce anybody,” he said with confidence.
“And why is that?” Pam pursued. “I have no way of evaluating them because I don’t know them and you can’t tell me much about them, thanks to the frikkin’ code of the magi. But what else can you tell me, Max?”
He hesitated, then said, “Nothin’.”
“You know,” Pam said darkly, “you’re adorable when you do that deejay folksy thing, but I still heard ‘nothing.’”
“Their secrets are their secrets, Pam. That is indeed the code. Nobody wants his secrets spread around—we wouldn’t want them spilling ours.”
“But you can’t trust me to keep their secrets.”
“That’s exactly right. I can’t trust you,” Max said. “It’s not up to me. Only they can trust you, which they will, once they get to know you.”
Pam thought about her one meeting with the pair. They had been strangers in the night—jostling through the crowd of a Mixed Martial Arts match in Barbados. Sly and Rosa both looked to be teenagers, almost like kids playing dress-up in that crowd, but even then Pam felt that they were far older than Max was. Creatures of illusion, indeed.
“So how are they going to work it?” was all Pam said out loud.
“That’s up to them. We’ll brief ’em and then turn ’em loose,” he responded. “But we might get a few ideas. What’s today going to be?”
“Ah,” she said, and looked down across her hip at a thick manuscript lying beside her, gray in the night. It was her well-thumbed copy of the latest version of Max’sCodex, which he kept current with everything he knew about the occult systems he’d mastered. The Mayan calendar was a basic one, and he put her through her paces every day.
“In the Mayan system,” she said, “days have names, created from a simple shorthand: a verb plus a noun. In the calendar that counts the days for average people, there are thirteen numbers corresponding to verbs, times twenty names corresponding to nouns—for a total of two hundred and sixty days per calendar cycle. Every day begins at dawn; until then, it’s still the old day. So right now, at … one thirty-four in the morning, we’re still in Five Jaguar. ‘Five’ is ‘Empowering’ and ‘Jaguar’ is ‘Clarity,’ so the energy around us now is Empowering Clarity. Which is probably why I’m trying to get everything clear before we begin.”
“Probably,” Max agreed.
Pam said, “Yeah, so you’ve done this longer. It’s still hard to grasp that we’re living in the midst of all this energy.” She tapped his chest. “The energy flows forward forever, we call it time, and alchemists make use of it. By the time we get to Wickr, it’ll be after dawn, so the day will be Six Eagle, which means Responding to the Storyline. We’ll be surrounded by other people, all of whom have their own agendas, and the energy will be there for improv. Which, I remind you, we would be doing on any day that Wickr got under way.”
“Sure, but on Six Eagle it’ll be the dominant concept. On other days, other things would be more important—bad weather, cranky vehicles, the things we brought, the things we forgot to bring. This day, the flavor of the flow is Responding to the Storyline, so you and I are going to scope out Mike and Di and have everything nailed down before Sly and Rosa get here tonight. We’ll get them ammunition they can use tomorrow—then we’ll kick back till their part is done.”
“Yeah, that’s the part I still have trouble with,” Pam said off-handedly. “Mike’s hot.”
“If you think a bald-headed guy with big ears is hot—”
“It explains why you made the cut, too; is that what you were going to say?”
“It would explain a lot.… But it doesn’t explain why I haven’t left you for some slightly less hideous guy. Maybe there is no one less hideous.…” She touched his face. “Ah, well,” she said, smiling, “I like hideous.”
They nuzzled in the sweltering night.
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 • 1:49 A.M. MOUNTAIN STANDARD TIME
5 Jaguar (Empowering Clarity)
After a while, they packed up their deli wrappings, shook and folded their blanket, then half slid down the sandy slope to their rented Volkswagen camping van, parked in a turnoff by U.S. 95. They could have chosen something roomier or newer for their ground transportation, but both of them had fond memories of trips in VWs—Max in one of the original puke greens. So they’d flown into Tucson from Acapulco yesterday afternoon and picked up the rental. They had used assumed names they’d never before assumed, and paid cash (a suspicious circumstance with airplane tickets but not camping vans, at least if you were obviously white Americans). They checked the van thoroughly for bugs both physical and metaphysical, just to be sure, then drove to a Big 5, a Costco, and a Walmart, where they outfitted themselves for a week of camping—and finally, found the Goodwill for a week of costumes. As the sun was lowering, they left Tucson and traveled over 250 miles, taking a nonobvious route around Phoenix toward Blythe on 10, then up 95 toward Lake Havasu, staying out of California to avoid the agricultural inspection stations at the border. And nowhere along that journey had Max sensed anyone or anything paying the slightest bit of attention to them, though he never for a moment stopped checking.
Now, as they pulled back onto the two-lane blacktop, heading north, he savored the hot desert breeze. It might well have been cooler with the windows up, let alone with air-conditioning, but he liked nature as it was. He glanced at his watch with its luminous dial and calculated the distance. “We’ve got to get to four-tenths of a mile past milepost 378 by two forty-five. Should be a piece of cake.”
Pam, uplit by the dashboard greens and ambers, still thinking over what they’d discussed, said, “Okay, we’re sure the FRC isn’t tracking us, but we’re on our way to meet someone they could have tracked. What’s up with that?”
“They can’t track Dave.”
“Why not? He’s a computer genius, but he’s not an alchemist or a mysterious pair of whatever Sly and Rosa are.”
“No, but I got him a power stone years ago, and they don’t know he knows me.”
“He does more than know you. He’s your right-hand man in the straight world. He contacts you and you contact him. He may have a magick talisman, but all it takes is one slip—and everyone makes one, sometime. Isn’t that what both you and the FRC count on?”
But Max just laughed. “With Dave, it’s mostly a matter of timing. Computers got going while I was learning alchemy from Agrippa in the early eighties, and Agrippa wanted to learn them, even though he knew he only had four years to live. So I asked around on the down-low and people said Dave was the best guy in Marin—a geek out in Forest Knolls. If we’d lived in the South Bay, I’d probably have contacted Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak and the whole world would have changed, but I got in touch with Dave, talked with him until I figured I could trust him, and told him he could build his dream system if he kept it absolutely quiet. He agreed, and I introduced him to Agrippa, who agreed with my assessment. So Dave outfitted us with the cutting edge computers, Osborne I’s.”
“Never heard of ’em.”
“They were a portable computer—only weighed twenty-five pounds. And they were very cool for the time, by the way. Anyway, he kept us on the edge till Agrippa died. By then we had the very first Mac Plusses, and he and I were good friends. When I had to disappear, no one knew of our connection. He’s stayed out on the edge through all the technology changes since; he uses a proprietary 1024-bit symmetric encryption scheme now, four times the government’s Top Secret standard, and twice the FRC’s. When we communicate, there’s really no way for anyone else to track us. My skills are alchemy and combat; his is artificial intelligence. I’ve taken him places he can’t go on his own, and he’s taken me, many times. I trust him.”
“You’ve said that twice,” she said. “I rarely hear you say it once.”
“Dave has never let me down, in over twenty-five years.”
She snorted. “I forget how old you are sometimes.”
“I’m thirty-five,” Max answered equably. “It’s my history that’s old.”
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 • 2:42 A.M. MOUNTAIN STANDARD TIME
5 Jaguar (Empowering Clarity)
An hour later, Max’s eyes flicked to the rearview mirror, and saw nothing but the low Pisces moon behind them, its half-lit face a pale gray-green. Ahead was darkness, split by his headlights along the asphalt road. They were south of Vegas, in the dead zone between Sunday night and Monday morning, between no radio worth listening to and no radio at all. He was running his iPhone through the van’s sound system, playing Neko Case, “Prison Girls.”
Two-tenths of a mile to go.
He checked his rearview again, then looked back at the highway. There was no sign of life. Coming up on his right was a ranch road. With no hesitation, he turned into it, slowing as he trundled over the cattle guard. The gate was open, the road a pale ribbon running toward distant mountains which blacked out the desert stars. Max flicked off the lights and drove with practiced ease over the rutted dirt, keeping it slow to mitigate the plume of dust rising gray in the night at their passage.
“One thousand one, one thousand two…” he began. Pam counted along with him, in her head, and when they reached one thousand twenty-six, they came to a turnaround, a wide spot in the road. A dark Tacoma was parked to the left. Max pulled to the right and braked.
Pam’s eyes were adjusting to the dark. She saw a man climb out of the truck and step into the road. Max opened his door and got out. They were surrounded by great silence and the scent of sage.
“Wilhelm,” Max said, just barely loud enough for the other to hear.
“Scream,” he replied just as quietly.
It was evidently the right answer, something just between the two of them. Max went quickly forward and hugged the other man. Pam saw the other’s teeth, grinning widely over Max’s left shoulder.
Max saw the past.
APRIL 24, 1982 • 3:18 P.M. PACIFIC DAYLIGHT TIME
11 Nipple (Owning Reality)
He was standing by Dave’s record player, spinning the disks from Dave’s incredible 45 collection, inside Dave’s bungalow in Forest Knolls. He was bullshitting like the best deejay in town, the legendary Barnaby Wilde, though he’d retired a year before to work with Agrippa. Agrippa, wearing his usual impeccable black suit, was dancing barefoot on the hardwood floor with Val. She and Max had been married one whole month now and their love was growing like the spring orchard outside the house. Marriage to the legendary Barnaby Wilde had only pushed her farther up the pop-goddess ladder, and if she wasn’t at the top she was damn close. She had big wild hair, dark-mascara’d eyes, a figure the whole world was in love with, and an enormous lust for life. But Agrippa, nearly five centuries older, was enjoying himself as much as anyone in the room, even with a death sentence over his head; all those years as a wizard had taught him to live for the day, and his years as Val’s manager had taught him to breakdance. He gave Max an insouciant wave as he did the splits. All the while, Dave was waving his own loose hand, lounging long-limbed on his couch. They were riding the waves of the day.
Sharp knuckles sounded on the front door.
Max let “I Can’t Go For That” spin on as all concerned looked quickly around for any telltale evidence, and all concerned realized that the room was completely filled with smoke.
The knuckles rapped again.
Dave got up. Agrippa motioned him back, preparing to defend them. But then the door opened, and two cops from the Fairfax Police, under whose jurisdiction Forest Knolls fell, stood there. The smoke wafted through the open door into their faces and curled around their caps.
Dave said, “Jesus, Bernie, you scared the hell out of us!”
The cop said, “Gonna need you to turn it down a little, Dave.”
“Sure. No problem.”
The cop saluted the room. The others in the room saluted back, with Agrippa clicking his heels. Dave closed the door and they fell about laughing.
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 • 3:05 A.M. MOUNTAIN STANDARD TIME
5 Jaguar (Empowering Clarity)
Max had Dave in a bear hug. “How’re ya doin’, man?”
“Pretty good now,” Dave said. They stepped apart, and Dave’s grin was unmistakable in the gloom. “It’s always a good day when I see you, bud. If you can call this ‘seeing.’”
Max waved his hand in a precise, wiping motion. An outside observer would have seen no change in the desert’s darkness, but both men became visible to each other’s eyes, and to Pam’s. “I can see fine. You’ve lost weight.”
“I was turning into a caricature of a geek,” Dave said, sticking his stomach out, rubbing it. “Junk food and no exercise. I decided, if you can do what you do, I can get off my ass. I’ve lost thirty-three pounds.”
“You look good, man.”
Pam opened her door, slid out, and walked around to the driver’s side. Dave caught her shape in the night. “Is this Pam?” he asked.
Pam reached up and put her palm against his forehead. She became as visible as the men. “Yep, it’s me,” she said, as she and Dave looked each other over frankly.
Dave wasn’t exactly thin even now, but his clothes were loose. He had thin brown hair and looked to be a well-worn midfifties, pale from lack of sun.
“Damn,” he said.
“Hi, Dave,” Pam said. “I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s a pleasure.”
“I’ve only heard a little about you,” Dave replied. “Our friend here keeps our conversations short. But he really undersold it.”
“I did not,” Max said.
“You said she was smart and pretty. That’s way underselling it.”
Pam dropped her hand, returning herself to a mere shape in Dave’s view. She didn’t want him to see her blushing; she had to learn to control that. But Dave was the first person in over a year who knew her for who she was. She’d gotten compliments and innuendos often enough in that time, but always for the woman she was pretending to be. This was directed at her, and that was unusual. A break in the routine.
“Pam’s learned a lot in the past year,” Max said, casually drawing attention from her, knowing her embarrassment. “She can protect herself, which is key, and it turns out she’s got a natural flair for mental projection. She had telepathy from the jump.”
“I never could get the hang of any of that,” Dave sighed. “Alchemy. Even astrology. I tried for a long time, but I guess some brains are just wired differently.”
“I certainly could never do what you do,” she told him sincerely. “I can use computers, but their innards are a complete mystery.”
“I’ll record some stuff and give you a DVD next time we meet up.”
“Thanks. That’d be cool.”
But his words had evidently reminded Dave of why he was there, and that reminded him of who they were up against. He abruptly pulled a manila envelope from inside his shirt and thrust it on Max. “Here, bud,” he said. “Two tickets to Wickr, as requested, and a little something extra from your Uncle Dave.”
“What’s that?” Max’s voice betrayed his quick interest. Dave smiled with satisfaction; he liked holding up his end of the deal with the master alchemist.
“Well, I’ve got a pretty good idea how the FRC encrypts their stuff now. I made the assumption that these guys would use three-word combinations beginning with F, R, and C, because we’ve seen that’s how they like to roll. So I had a place to start off. Their encryption is awesome after that, so I’m only partway through uncovering it, but I’m makin’ progress. Well, it occurred to me that Michael and Diana would certainly bring their laptops, even if they’re flying under the radar. If you get the chance, stick this thing in a USB port and it’ll transmit the hard disk data, securely. I should be able to read at least some of what we come up with.”
Pam had rarely seen Max surprised, but he was now. “You’re not serious.”
“It’s what I do,” Dave said.
Max took the device from the envelope and turned it back and forth in the ghost light, studying it. It looked something like a flash drive, but maybe 50 percent longer, widening out at the end. Probably the transmitter.
“You’re saying you can decrypt FRC files,” he said.
“I hope so. I think so. But I didn’t test it. That could leave a trace, and you don’t want me to do that.”
“It was fun, though,” Dave smiled, “reverse-engineering what I got.” He looked at Pam and added with a shrug, “I have a funny idea of fun. And not enough real challenges anymore.”
Max looked at Pam. “They don’t know! Jesus! That changes everything!”
“Empowering Clarity,” she said.
“In spades!” He turned back to Dave. “Thank you, man! Even if it doesn’t work, that’s above and beyond.”
“No way, bro. I’m behind you all the way, and all the way behind you. No, I’m serious. You’re doin’ good work here. Old man Agrippa’d be proud. I’m happy to be in on it.” His eyes flicked to Pam again. “So, there’s just that one last thing…” he said.
Max understood. He said, “It’s okay. You can talk in front of her.”
“Well, it’s about Val.”
Valerie Drake August had died in 1985, three years after that day at Dave’s, but had kept her spirit alive after death—until she vanished on Hallowe’en, 1991. Now it appeared that she had been reincarnated, somewhere on Earth, as a seventeen-year-old girl. Dave gave it one more beat to be sure Max was cool, then went ahead. “I’ve got a pretty complete list of girls born that Hallowe’en night, worldwide, with complete records for Europe and America—partial everywhere else. I’m crunching their lives looking for any connection to you that I can find. So far there’s nothing, but I’ve got a long way to go.”
“There’ll be a connection,” Max said. “It probably won’t look all that significant, but I am certain there’ll be one.”
“Because Aleksandra likes to fuck with me.” Aleksandra was the other-worldly diabola who’d killed both Val and Agrippa.
“Well,” Dave said, “as you can imagine, getting info on all those kids, even knowing their names, is a long process. They’re not old enough, most of them, to be in the system. But anything I come up with, I’ll let you know ASAP. Meanwhile, check the list to see if anything jumps out at you.”
“As soon as I can,” Max said. “I’m a little busy right now.”
“Understood.” Dave pulled out a second package. “But once you get some real free time, I burned the latest seasons of Dexter, Burn Notice, Mad Men, and Hustle,in case you haven’t seen ’em. And season one of Party Down, highly recommended. For your voluminous free time.”
“Thank you, Dave. And for you,” he said, handing over his own package, “here’s music from Barbados and Mumbai.” The mention of Mad Men sparked a memory. “Hey, you hear anything from Heather and Bill?”
“They’re still livin’ in Ashland, still doin’ advertising. Their oldest just got out of med school. And McGrady’s salesman of the year for the third time. Tangier’s got an estate with a gate and a private sound studio, but nothing much comes out of there; he talks about submitting a movie to Cannes but never does. Jan said some nice shit about you a couple of months ago, wondered where you were. They all think you’re livin’ back East, you know. And, what else?… KQBU switched formats again.”
“Unbelievable,” Max said.
“Which is why I’ve got six terabytes of the music I want on a portable hard drive. But none of it is from Barbados.”
“You’ll like it.”
“I know I will. Nobody knows music like you do. Back in the day…” Dave paused, clearly remembering where they were right now, and why. Max understood.
“No one knows we’re here,” he said. “And you’ve got your stone, right?”
“Right,” Dave said.
“We’re cool. Trust me.”
“So what about you, man?” Max asked.
“Me? Oh, you mean Kate?” Dave said.
“We broke up. No big deal.”
“I thought you guys were doin’ good.”
“We were, for a while, but she wanted to live in the city. That’s not me.”
“You could give it a try.”
“Nah, I know who I am. I like my little bungalow. It wouldn’a worked.”
“Well. Too bad,” Max said. “I liked her.”
“Yeah, well,” Dave said. “Life happens. I’m better off. Listen, I think I’ll get rollin’. It’s a long way back.”
“I hear you,” Max said. “We’ve got to go, too.”
“There’s a Grand Slam breakfast with my name on it in Bakersfield. Good seein’ you, buddy. Really good meetin’ you, Pam. Sorry about the Val thing.…”
“Not a problem,” Pam said.
“Stay careful, man,” Max said.
“You, too, guys.”
The two men hugged again, then Dave hugged Pam, and she hugged back, fully aware that he could use a hug from a woman just then.
Dave went back to his truck and Max and Pam got back into their van. Dave started his truck and drove away along the dirt road, lights out. Max, also without lights, turned the van around and watched Dave drive halfway back toward the highway. Watched the highway. Watched for anything that bothered him, on the ground or in the sky. Still a point man.
When he was satisfied they were still in the clear, he followed his friend out to 95. At the junction, Dave turned south and Max turned north.
Pam, in the passenger seat, waved a hand at the world ahead of them. “All this,” she said. “Wickr, the FRC—so many things on your plate.” And, after a barely perceptible beat, “And no time to read the list of possible Vals?”
“I’ll read it. But I can’t give it my full attention while we’re trapping Mike and Di, and I know any clue will be subtle so I need my full attention.”
“Shouldn’t you,” Pam asked, “make looking for Val a priority?”
“Looking for her has always been a back burner thing,” Max said seriously, his gaze far down the road. “When she was still a spirit, I only reached her on All Hallows’ Eve—the rest of the year involved some preparation for the next one, but mostly, other stuff altogether. Now I have no way to reach her, so progress will have to come to me. All I can do is stay open to the signs.”
“She could have been reborn anywhere.”
“It doesn’t matter. All the magick involved will have set up waves in the Flow. I wouldn’t be much of an alchemist if I didn’t believe those waves will have effects. And if I’m enough of an alchemist, I’ll feel them wherever I am.”
“Good,” Pam said. “I want you to find her, Max.”
“I know you do.”
“You told me, you won’t know how you’ll feel—about her, about me—until you do. So the sooner you find out, the better.”
Max abruptly pulled the van off the road, onto the dirt shoulder. He put it in park and put his hand on Pam’s shoulder … then drew it sensuously down along her arm, down to her fingertips.…
“Well,” Pam said, several moments later, “I think that empowers all the clarity I could ask for.”
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 • 11:00 A.M. BRITISH SUMMER TIME
6 Eagle (Responding to the Storyline)
Eva Delia Kerr meandered along Oxford Street, enjoying the sound of “Mama Do” bouncing out of Whittard’s tea shop on a summer’s day. The bright morning was comfortable, not too hot and not too cold, with sun peeking through billowing clouds. Those clouds were building; it would rain later. But all that meant was, she was outside, in the open air, and not in some home somewhere. She was surrounded by other kids in their late teens, just like her. And her meds were working. She felt quite at home in Soho.
It seemed so long ago that she’d been in a home in Cambridge, labeled a schizophrenic. They had kept her so sedated that it was like a dream, anyway. Like another life. The voices in her head had always been at cross-purposes—they were bad then, yes they were. But the meds she got kept her from listening too hard, and that was a good thing for a while. Only, when the drugs were dialed back and she started listening better, she heard things she needed to hear.
One voice was Eva Delia, and that was the one they said was her. The other she just called the Voice. It was a woman’s voice with a foreign accent, American maybe, and she didn’t so much talk as sing, which just made it weirder and harder to shut out when Eva Delia wanted to believe she was Eva Delia. The Voice was like the earworm to end all earworms. And if she listened to its song long enough, she couldn’t believe she was Eva Delia, no matter what the nurses told her.
Eva Delia knew she wasn’t Eva Delia. But that didn’t mean she was the Voice. Far from it. The Voice was beautiful. Eva Delia knew she wasn’t beautiful, and although she tried, she couldn’t sing at all. She dreamt about singing almost every night, but in the real world she could hardly even whistle.
“Little black butterflies deep inside me,” Pixie sang.
So she was nobody, and she had two voices competing for her head, and everyone agreed that that made her mental. But with the meds dialed down, she had finally heard a third voice. That one reminded her of a drunken clown she’d seen on an outing, staggering along a Cambridge mews, holding on to the buildings for dear life, puking on his shoes. But that drunken clown had come from somewhere, and was going somewhere, and with the staggering and puking, it seemed like her, the girl with the voices. Her life had been so strange and erratic, but it was her life.
So the Clown-Girl listened to Eva Delia but didn’t believe her. She listened to the Voice and didn’t believe her, either. And by listening to both of them, bouncing off their walls, she was able over time to be the Girl. Just the Girl, but at least she wasn’t nobody, she was somebody, even if she really had no name whatsoever. She was glad to know that. Finally.
And with her new meds, she could stagger a great deal less.
“Uh-oh, uh-oh,” Pixie sang.
The first step in survival, the Girl had realized as realization became possible, was getting free of Cambridge. She knew they couldn’t hold her once she turned sixteen, but they’d be there, watching her. Talking to her: more voices. So she had to go, and she forced herself to walk all the way to the M11 to see if someone would take her away. She had staggered a little, but she didn’t throw up, and she didn’t give up, and she got there. She knew men could be bad so she said no to the men who asked her to ride with them, and when Carla Lambert said she’d give her a ride to Liverpool, she’d said no, too, because it just didn’t feel right in her addled state. But soon enough Betty Gerard had spoken to her, and Betty had said she was driving down to London, and Eva Delia said her father lived there, and it was done. That was more than a year ago, now.
The Girl dodged the cars to cross the wide street and duck into Rathbone Place, then continued into Soho Square. Here, suddenly, it grew darker as the ancient trees shaded the sun, and she began walking unconsciously to the beat of the Voice. But that didn’t worry her the way it would have in Cambridge. She passed the melting statue of the old king or whoever, and the homeless kids sitting endlessly on the worn grass behind the benches, and the boy in the wool cap playing the public piano. There was some sort of festival setting up—there was always some sort of festival, it seemed—but she exited into Frith Street, and the light from the sky came back.
Just down the block was the National Health clinic (“Soho Centre for Health & Care”). She went up the ramp and crossed the waiting room filled with people with hurt bodies, to take the lift to the third floor. The waiting room there was nearly empty; not so many people with hurt minds. There was only Fred, the rasta. As usual, he stared at her but said nothing. It had bothered her the first few times he’d done it, but now it was familiar, comforting, like the clinic. The pretty nurse behind the counter was expecting her, and passed her through to her psych nurse, a nice woman with pretty skin and lots of it. Her name was Sunita Koomari, which was sopleasant; it always made the Girl smile, even on the bad days.
“Hello, Eva Delia,” said Nurse Koomari. “How nice to see you again.”
The Girl knew not to say she was not Eva Delia. “I never forget to come, Nurse Koomari,” she said carefully. “I want to get better as soon as I can.”
It seemed as if Nurse Koomari’s face grew a little sad then, just a little, and the Voice sang, “You’ll never get better,” but Eva Delia said, “Yes I will! Shut Up! Shut Up!”, and the Girl with no name closed them both out firmly. They weren’t welcome here in the clinic, or anywhere else when they argued.
Nurse Koomari asked her the usual questions, making sure she was all right, making sure the hostel they’d found for her in Greek Street was treating her correctly. To prolong the conversation, the Girl told the truth but elaborated on her answers until she felt perhaps she’d started rambling. She enjoyed talking to Nurse Koomari, and she thought Nurse Koomari enjoyed talking to her, so long as she didn’t ramble. That was the same as staggering, and that made Nurse Koomari unhappy. But evidently, the Girl had pulled back in time because Nurse Koomari gave her the same prescription, 10 mg of olanzapine, and said she was doing very nicely, indeed.
It was such a good session that the Girl kissed Nurse Koomari’s cheek, and let the Voice sing without interruption as she made her way back to the lift. She wanted to go down, but the sign there said, as always, “Press Up button for lift.” Nurse Koomari had told her the Down button was broken, and the lift would come anyway, which it did.
But that kind of thing, the Girl thought, could make you mental.
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 • 6:10 A.M. EASTERN DAYLIGHT TIME
6 Eagle (Responding to the Storyline)
The sun had been up for forty-five minutes in Manhattan, but the temperature wasn’t all that bad for mid-June. Early-morning dog-walkers, even runners, were hardly breaking a sweat. Inside his brownstone on East Thirty-fifth Street, Lawrence Breckenridge was sweating, but he was communing with the only power in the universe that he submitted to, the diabola known as Aleksandra. She had been human once but existed on a different plane now, and though she could appear in something very like flesh if necessary, she preferred to have the sixty-eight-year-old Breckenridge lead her FRC. He was, as both friend and foe often noted, “remarkably well-preserved”—thanks to her.
Coraxo cahisa coremo, od belanu azodiazodore …
Das Daox cocasu ol Eanio vohima …
Ohyo! ohyo! noibu Ohyo! casaganu!
NIISO! carupe up nidali! NIISO I A I D A!
Suddenly she appeared before him, burning with a red fire that highlighted her perfect, naked form. It was a false form of high, perky breasts sweeping into smooth curves of hip and leg, and Breckenridge, like any man, had no trouble lusting after fantasy. He felt her hand wrap around his heart, like the world’s most skilled courtesan caressing his balls. That pleasure, he knew, could so easily turn to pain, and she’d given him one heart attack already. But still, he was confident.
Aleksandra! he cried out. Diabola!
She looked back at him impassively. He ruled everyone below him, and she ruled him, which put her at the pinnacle of the world—but she took that for granted and found no special pleasure in it.
What’s the news on Max August? she asked, her communication a form of call, direct from mind to mind.
“The three teams sent to destroy him and his woman remain close,” Breckenridge answered, orally. He could approximate a call to her, if he had to, but why? Speaking was easier. “Each of them has a different skill set, so each seeks him on a different level.”
“Close” is not what I expect from you, Lawrence.
“We’re on track, diabola,” Breckenridge responded crisply, still on his knees but straightening his thighs and rising as high as he could, to look right into her crimson eyes. He had failed to kill August the first time the cabal had targeted him, and Aleksandra had threatened to replace him, but she had not done so. It told him that there was no one better suited to act for her on this level, and the terror he had felt when he’d failed her had rebounded to become a sort of surety. He knelt because she was worthy of awe and respect, and even love—not because he feared her. She could destroy him but she needed him, so they were collaborators. “You know better than I how hard it is to track someone with powers like his. He’s damn good at using all of them, but we have mercs, ninjas, and demons. One of them will find a weakness and move in for the kill, because he’s only human, in the end. We’re closing in. It’s just a matter of time.”
Isn’t everything? But the last time anyone found him was two months ago, in Mumbai.
Breckenridge said nothing. It was true but ultimately irrelevant in his view, so he waited for her to continue.
What about your new wizard, Quince?
“I’m seeing him tonight. I gave him three weeks to study Jackson Tower’s records, and he’ll give me his conclusions at sundown, in Duluth. If I’m impressed, he’ll have passed the first hurdle in taking his place in the Necklace. If I’m not impressed, Dick Hanrahan will terminate him on the spot. But I expect to be impressed.”
The FRC was the outer order; the inner order was the Necklace, a chain of nine men and women. Each of the Nine was responsible for one sector of power in society, like media, politics, finance … and wizardry. The Necklace had existed long before Aleksandra took it over, and had prospered over the years by using every form of power available. Wizardry gave them an edge; only the Nazis had ever staked out the same ground, and they had been undone by their direct assault on their enemies. Magick was powerful but so were enemy armies; therefore, the Necklace had almost always chosen to operate in the shadows, through pawns and fronts. They’d been operating without a wizard since August killed Tower and stole his power, a year and a half before, but Breckenridge had searched long and hard before settling on Peter Quince, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, as Tower’s replacement. On the one hand, Breckenridge’s association with Aleksandra made him uniquely qualified to judge magickal skill, and he had sought the best candidate out there. On the other hand, his association with Aleksandra was a secret that could never be revealed, so he had to feel certain that he could maintain the secret. Quince had struck him as a man with such a high opinion of his magickal power—a perfectly valid opinion—that it would never occur to him to wonder if anyone else in the Necklace had more than he did.
What do you expect him to offer you?
“No idea. The real point is for him to demonstrate his thought process.”
If he doesn’t offer something substantive, that means another delay.
“I don’t expect that to happen. But if it does, it does. We need to make sure our own house is in order. August, after all, is a temporary problem, but we are here for the long term.”
Unless Max August destroys you in the interim.
“I don’t expect that to happen,” he said again.
But if it does, it does. She was mocking him. Again, he showed no response. This, too, was true.
In any event, you’ll be without my aid for the next several days.
Finally, he was caught off guard; this had never happened before, not in all the years they’d been linked. “What are you saying, diabola?”
I have a quest. I won’t be available if you CALL, so don’t CALL.
“But—why?” Now it was she who did not respond, except for a mocking smile that played over her face. It was not his place to question her; he couldn’t push it. So he simply said, as if it didn’t matter, “Good luck, then. You can rely on me.” Still, he did love her—how could he not, with her overwhelming beauty and power?—and he hated the idea of losing her for any length of time. “Can I be of any help—?” he began.
But she had vanished.
The man who ran the world was well and truly alone, for the first time in years.
MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2009 • 5:30 A.M. CENTRAL DAYLIGHT TIME
5 Jaguar (Empowering Clarity)
Peter Quince stood spread-legged on a flat, metallic plane that stretched away forever everywhere. High above him, two lights, a sort of sun and sort of moon, threw twin shadows down over him and the center of the plane. He knew it was the center, at least for him, because four lines led from it, at right angles to each other, in four different colors. The red line led straight out ahead, as far as the eye could see.
It was another world, and he was alone in it.
Peter Quince was a stocky man. His face was stocky as well, with all the features compressed into the middle of it. But some people, given a second look, saw the reverse: the vast brow and the tough chin. The brow was further expanded by his receding hairline, though he was not yet forty; the remaining hair was combed backward in smooth waves. His shoulders were wide, his arms heavy; he looked far more like a linebacker than a wizard.
Quince gazed above the red line, through crystalline air, at the images hovering before him. Centered among them was the horoscope of Max August, born July 31, 1950, 11:56 A.M. Miami. He had studied it for hours today, and hours on several days before this one. He saw the planets and their intricate, ancient patterns.
He was certain that Jackson Tower had taken notes on Max August, but he was just as certain that they’d gone up in flames along with the old wizard. So he’d begun from scratch. He saw things, and the next night he saw more things, more complex patterns. It was always that way with a chart. You had to live with it for a while, get to know it, just as you would get to know a person. And in this case, he had to know it, because Tower, who was reputed to be a sharp old sonofabitch, who’d survived a long time for a wizard to the all-powerful Necklace—had lost to August. There was something in the Code Red that Tower had not seen.
Or perhaps something Tower had seen, but not fully understood…!
Quince swiped his hand, four o’clock to the center of the air. The horoscope moved up to the left, retreating, shrinking, while the National Security Agency dossier on August moved into its place, expanding. Quince flipped seventy-three pages with a mind-thrust, read:
In Vietnam, August was his unit’s point man. The other men would move through the jungle as a group with August on his own somewhere ahead. His job was to hunt for the Viet Cong or their booby traps, to protect his men. He was said to be very good at it.
Staff Sergeant Oliver Mendelsohn, interviewed 27 Feb 81: “The guy had a real knack. You can either go out there and sweat bullets, or go out there and make a game of it. He made it a game, though he knew the stakes as well as any of us. He was never reckless that I know of, but he liked it out on the edge.”
Lieutenant Gene Polansky, interviewed 24 Feb 81: “There was something seductive about the war. Danger—weird danger—in the jungle, and hookers and dope in Saigon. You could hit a nice rhythm between the two, rocking back and forth, in and out of the darkness. But August played it straight in town, which made him a real motherfucker in the field.”
Spec4 Dantron Weeks, interviewed 2 Mar 81: “He thought the war was a huge mistake, but if it had to be, and he had to be in the damn middle of it, he was going to do what he had to do. He was going to do his job, to the best of his ability. And I think he found out that he did love the job.”
The images in the air faded, as Quince’s concentration on them faded. He was inside his head, reading signs in those words, savoring them. That was what Tower had missed. Because Tower practiced the old ways of abstinence, so Tower did not love.
But August did.
Quince waved the book aside and called up Pamela Blackwell’s chart, July 9, 1979, 10:24 A.M. Alamogordo, New Mexico. Seven, nine, seventy-nine. He appreciated the cleanliness of it.
She was a strong other half for him, with a real connection. Tower must have seen it, but it didn’t mean enough to him. Max and Pam, as Quince thought of them now, would reinforce each other. The way a stone augments a wizard, the two together were more than the sum of their parts. To attack one, you had to attack both, and the bond between.
He let the plane boil and bubble away beneath his feet, dissipating like fog in the mountains. He felt himself falling, though it seemed as if he stood quite still, and when the final tendrils vanished, he was standing in a large, private room in Duluth, Minnesota. Despite its specialized design, it wasn’t a room he’d ever have chosen, but he didn’t have to stay there. He could rise to the plane whenever he wanted. Or he could walk out the room’s door, down the narrow wooden hall, down the narrow wooden stairs, and open another door.
Peter Quince was a lover, too, and Rita Diamante was waiting for him downstairs, naked.
Copyright © 2011 by Steve Englehart
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.
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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