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David Fisher is no hero. As a bureaucrat for the Environmental Perfection Agency, he reviews magical impact statements and ensures that various manufacturers of magical devices don't foul the environment. But when he receives a call to investigate the Toxic Spell Dump, David must confront an ancient deity bent on destroying Western Civilization. Original.
I hate telephones.
For one thing, they have a habit of waking you up at the most inconvenient times. It was still dark outside when the one on my nightstand went off like a bomb. I groaned and tried to turn off the alarm clock. Since it wasn't ringing, it laughed at me. The horrible racket from the phone kept right on.
"What time is it, anyhow?" I mumbled. My mouth tasted like something you'd spread on nasturtiums.
"It's 5:07," the clock said, still giggling. The horological demon in there was supposed to be friendly, not sappy. I'd thought more than once about getting the controlling cantrip fixed, but twenty-five crowns is twenty-five crowns. On a government salary, you learn to put up with things.
I picked up the receiver. That was the cue for the noise elemental in the base of the phone to shut up, which it did—Ma Bell's magic, unlike that from a cheap clock company, does exactly what it's supposed to do, no more, no less.
"Fisher here," I said, hoping I didn't sound as far underwater as I felt.
"Hello, David. This is Kelly, back in D.St.C."
You could have fooled me. After the imp in one phone's mouthpiece relays words through the ether to the one in another phone's earpiece and the second imp passes them on to you, they hardly sound as if they came from a real person, let alone from anyone in particular. That's the other reason I hate phones.
But the cursed things have sprouted like toadstools the past ten years, ever since ectoplasmic cloning let the phone company crank out legions of near-identical speaker imps, and since switching spells got sophisticated enough so you could reliably select the imp you wanted from among those legions.
They say they're going to have an answer to the voice problem real soon. They've been saying that since the day after phones were invented. I'll believe it when I hear it. Some things are even bigger than Ma Bell.
Nondescript voice aside, I was willing to believe this was Charlie Kelly. He'd probably just got to his desk at Environmental Perfection Agency headquarters back in the District of St. Columba, so of course he'd picked up the phone. Three-hour time difference? They don't think that way in D.St.C. The sun revolves around them, not the other way round. St. Ptolemy of Alexandria has to be the patron of the place, no matter what the Church says.
All this flashed through my mind in as much of a hurry as I could muster at 5:07 on a Tuesday morning. I don't think I missed a beat—or not more than one, anyhow—before I said, "So what can I do for you this fine day, Charlie?"
The insulating spell on the phone mouthpiece kept me from having to listen to my imp shouting crosscountry to his imp. I waited for his answer: "We have reports that there might a problem in your neck of the woods worth an unofficial look or two."
"Whereabouts in my neck of the woods?" I asked patiently. Easterners who live in each other's pockets have no feel for how spread out Angels City really is.
The pause that followed was longer than conversations between phone imps would have required; Charlie had to be checking a map or a report or something. At last he said, "It's in a place called Chatsworth. That's just an Angels City district name, isn't it?" He made it sound as if it were just around the corner from me.
It wasn't. Sighing, I answered, "It's up in St. Ferdinand's Valley, Charlie. That's about forty, maybe fifty miles from where I am right now."
"Oh," he said in a small voice. A fifty-mile circle out from Charlie's office dragged in at least four provinces. Fifty miles for me won't even get me out of my barony unless I head straight south, and then I'm only in the one next door. I don't need to head south very often; the Barony of Orange has its own EPA investigators.
"So what's going on in Chatsworth?" I asked. "Especially what's going on that you need to bounce me out of bed?"
"I am sorry about that," he said, so calmly that I knew he'd known what time it was out here before he called. Which meant it was urgent. Which meant I could start worrying. Which I did. He went on, "We may have a problem with a dump in the hills up there."
I riffled through my mental files. "That'd be the Devonshire dump, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, that's the name," he agreed eagerly—too eagerly. Devonshire's been giving Angels City on-and-off problems for years. The trouble with magic is, it's not free. All the good it produces is necessarily balanced by a like amount of evil. Yeah, I know people have understood that since Newton's day: for every quality, there is an equal and opposite counter-quality, and all the math that goes with the law. But mostly it's a lip-service understanding, along the lines of, as long as I don't shit in my yard, who cares about next door?
That attitude worked fine—or seemed to—as long as next door meant the wide open spaces. If byproducts of magic blighted a forest or poisoned a stream, so what? You just moved on to the next forest or stream. A hundred years ago, the Confederated Provinces seemed to stretch west forever.
But they don't. I ought to know; Angels City, of course, sits on the coast of the Peaceful Ocean. We don't have unlimited unspoiled land and water to exploit any more. And as industrial magic has shown itself ever more capable of marvelous things, its byproducts have turned ever more noxious. You wouldn't want them coming downstream at you, believe me you wouldn't. My job is to make sure they don't.
"What's gone wrong with Devonshire now?" I asked. The answer I really wanted was nothing. A lot of local industries dispose of waste at Devonshire, and some of the biggest ones are defense firms. By the very nature of things, the byproducts from their spells are more toxic than anybody else's.
Charlie Kelly said, "We're not really sure there's anything wrong, Dave." That was close to what I wanted to hear, but not close enough. He went on, "Some of the local people"—he didn't say who—"have been complaining more than usual, though."
"They have any reason to?" I said. Local people always complain about toxic spell dumps. They don't like the noise, they don't like the spells, they don't like the flies (can't blame them too much for that; would you want byproducts from dealings with Beelzebub in your back yard?). Most of the time, as Charlie said, nothing is really wrong. But every once in a while ...
"That's what we want you to find out," he told me.
"Okay," I answered. Then something he'd said a while before clicked in my head; I hadn't been awake enough to pay attention to it till now. "What do you mean, you want me to take a quiet look around? Why shouldn't I go up there with flags flying and cornets blaring?" A formal EPA inspection is worth seeing: two exorcists, a thaumaturge, shamans from the Americas, Mongolia, and Africa, the whole nine yards. Sometimes the incense is a toxic hazard all by itself.
"Because I want you to do it this way." He sounded harassed. "I've been asked to handle this unofficially as long as I can. Why do you think I'm calling you at home? Unless and until you find something really out of line, it would be best for everybody if you kept a low profile. Please, Dave?"
"Okay, Charlie." I owed Charlie a couple, and he's a pretty good fellow. "It's politics, isn't it?" I made it into a swear word.
"What's not?" He let it go at that. I didn't blame him; he had a job he wanted to keep. And telephone imps have ears just like anything else. They can be tormented, tricked, or sometimes bribed into blabbing too much. Phone security systems have come a long way, yeah, but not all the devils are out of them yet.
I sighed. "Can you at least tell me who doesn't want me snooping around? Then if anybody tries anything, I'll have some idea why." Just silence in my ear, save for the light breathing of my phone imp. I sighed again. It was that kind of morning. "Okay, Charlie, I'll draw my own conclusions." Those conclusions made for one ugly drawing, let me tell you. After a last sigh for effect, I said, "I'll head up to the Valley right away. God willing, I can get going before St. James' Freeway turns impossible."
"Thanks, David. I appreciate it," Kelly said, coming back to life now that I was doing what he wanted.
"Yeah, sure." I resigned myself to a long, miserable day. "'Bye, Charlie." I hung up the phone. The imp went dormant. I wished I could have done the same.
I grabbed a quick, cold shower—either the salamander for the block of flats wasn't awake yet or somebody had turned it into a toad overnight—a muddy cup of coffee, and a not quite stale sweet roll. Feeling as near human as I was going to get at half past five, I went out to the garage, got on my carpet, and headed for the freeway.
My building has access rules like any other's, I suppose: anybody can use the flyway going out, but to come in you have to make your entry talisman known to the watch demon or else have one of the residents propitiate him for you. Otherwise you come down—with quite a bump, too—outside the wall and the gate.
I rode west along The Second Boulevard (don't ask me why it's The Second and not just Second; it just is) about twenty feet off the ground. Traffic was moving pretty well, actually, even though we all still had our lanterns on so we could see one another in the predawn darkness.
The Watcher who lets carpets onto St. James' Freeway from a feeder road is of a different breed from your average building's watch demon. He holds the barrier closed so many seconds at a time, then opens it just long enough for one carpet to squeeze past. Nobody's ever figured out how to propitiate a Watcher, either. Oh, if you're quick—and stupid—you may be able to squeeze in on somebody else's tail, but if you try it, he'll note down the weave of your carpet, and in a few days, just like magic, a traffic ticket shows up in your mailbox. Not many people are stupid twice.
The freeways need rules like that; otherwise they'd be impossibly jammed. As things were, I got stuck no matter how early I'd left. There was a bad accident a little north of the interdicted zone around the airport, and somebody's carpet had flipped. The damned fool—well, of course I don't actually know the state of his soul, but no denying his foolishness—hadn't been wearing his safety belt, either.
One set of paramedics was down on the ground with the fellow who'd been thrown out. They had a priest with them, too, so that didn't look good. The other Red Cross carpet was parked right in the middle of the flight of way, tending to victims who hadn't been thrown clear—and making everyone detour around it. People gawked as they slid by, so they went even slower. They always do that, and I hate it.
After that, I made pretty good time until I had to slow down again at the junction with St. Monica's Freeway. Merging traffic in three dimensions is a scary business when you think about it. Commuters who do it every day don't think about it any more.
The rush thinned out once I got north of Westwood, and I pretty much sailed into St. Ferdinand's Valley. I slid off the freeway and cruised around for a while, getting closer to the Devonshire dump by easy stages and looking for signs that might tell me whether Charlie Kelly had a right to be worried about it.
At first I didn't see any, which gladdened my heart. A couple of generations ago, the Valley was mostly farms and citrus groves. Then the trees went down and the houses went up. Now the Valley has industry of its own (if it didn't, I wouldn't have had to worry about the toxic spell dump, after all), but in large measure it's still a bedroom community for the rest of Angels City: lots of houses, lots of kids, lots of schools. You don't care to think about anything nasty in a part of town like that.
Before I went out to the dump itself, I headed over to the monastery to do some homework. The Thomas Brothers have chapter houses in cities all across the west; more meticulous record-keeping simply doesn't exist. Even if the Valley looked normal, I had a good chance of finding trouble simply by digging through the numbers they enshrined on parchment.
I've heard the Thomas Brothers have an unwritten rule that no abbot of theirs can ever be named Brother Thomas. I don't know if that's so. I do know the abbot at the Valley chapter house was a big-nosed Armenian named Brother Vahan. We'd met a few times before, though I didn't often work far enough north in Angels City to need his help.
He bowed politely as he let me precede him into his office. Candlelight gleamed from his skull. He was the baldest man I'd ever seen; he didn't need to be tonsured. He waved me to a comfortable chair, then sat down in his own hard one. "What can I do for you today, Inspector Fisher?" he asked.
I was ready for that. "I'd like to do some comparison work on births, birth defects, healings, and exorcisms in the northwest Valley ten years ago and in the past year."
"Ah," was all the abbot said. When viewed against his hairless skull, the big black caterpillars he used for eyebrows seemed even more alive than they might have otherwise. They twitched now. "How big a radius around the Devonshire dump would you like?"
I sighed. I should have expected it. I'm Jewish, but I know enough to realize fools don't generally make it up to abbot's grade. I said, "This is unofficial and confidential, you understand."
He laughed at me. I turned red. Maybe I was the fool, telling an abbot about confidentiality. He just said, "There are places you would need to be more concerned about that aspect than here, Inspector."
"I suppose so," I mumbled. "Can your data retrieval system handle a five-mile radius?"
The caterpillars drooped; I'd offended him. "I thought you were going to ask for something difficult, Inspector." He got up. "If you'd be so kind as to follow me?"
I followed. We walked past a couple of rooms my eyes refused to see into. I wasn't offended; there are places in the Temple in Jerusalem and even in your ordinary synagogue where gentiles' perceptions are excluded the same way. All faiths have their mysteries. I was just thankful the Thomas Brothers didn't reckon their records too holy for outsiders to view.
The scriptorium was underground, a traditional construction left over from the days when anyone literate was assumed to be a black wizard and when books of any sort needed to be protected from the torches of the ignorant and the fearful. But for its placement, though, the room was thoroughly modern, with St. Elmo's fire glowing smoothly over every cubicle and each of those cubicles with its own ground-glass access screen.
As soon as Brother Vahan and I stepped into a cubicle, the spirit of the scriptorium appeared in the ground glass. The spirit wore spectacles. I had to work to keep my face straight. I'd never imagined folk on the Other Side could look bookish.
I turned to the abbot. "Suppose I'd come in without you or someone else who's authorized to be here?"
"You wouldn't get any information out of our friend there," Brother Vahan said. "You would get caught." He sounded quietly confident. I believed him. The Thomas Brothers probably knew about as much about keeping documents secure as anyone not in government, and what they didn't know, Rome did.
Brother Vahan spoke to the ground-glass screen. "Give this man unlimited access to our files and full aid for ... will four hours be enough?"
"Should be plenty," I answered.
"For four hours, then," the abbot said. "Treat him in all ways as if he were one of our holy brethren." That was as blanche a carte as he could give me; I bowed my head in profound appreciation. He flipped a hand back and forth, as if to say, Think nothing of it. He could say that if he wanted to (humility is, after all, a monkish virtue), but we both knew I owed him a big one.
"Anything else?" he asked me. I shook my head. "Happy hunting, then," he said as he started out of the scriptorium. "I'll see you later."
The spirit manifesting itself in the access screen turned its nearsighted gaze on me. "How may I serve you, child of Adam given four hours of unlimited access to the files of the Thomas Brothers?"
I told it the same thing I'd told Brother Vahan: "I want to go through births, birth defects, healings, and exorcisms within a five-mile radius of the Devonshire dump, first for the year ending exactly ten years ago and then for the year ending today." Humans can handle approximate data; with spirits you have to spell out every word and make sure you've crossed your t's and dotted your i's (and even your j's).
Excerpted from The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove. Copyright © 1993 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 29, 2002
This book shows Harry Turtledove at his best- an alternate world, magic, humor, and plenty of friendly puns. You'll love the glib mind and tongue of the narrator, David, and the comparisons of a magical world to our scientific one. Highly reccommended in every sense.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.