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May 27

Fated Magic – Chapter 18

It’s the Memorial Day weekend here in the US. To all our veterans, thank you for your service.

Russian Orthodox church

Vadim drove the highway to Salinas, skirting past Pebble Beach and Monterey, then turning to wind into the oak-studded hills of the coast range. It would’ve been far quicker and easier to make a phone call. But some business had to be done face-to-face.

The hills opened onto the Salinas Valley, with its endless acres of irrigated fields. At the edge of town, the fields slowly gave way to strip malls, car lots and gas stations.

At last he came to a row of apartment buildings off an industrial park. Whatever landscaping there’d once been had deteriorated into gravel punctuated with mounds of dirt. TV cables dangled across siding that looked like it had been in need of paint for at least two years. The cars parked in the lot were almost uniformly battered and faded, if not outright broken down. Vadim glanced around, shook his head and laid a ward against thieves and vandals on his car.

The apartment he sought was around the back, on the ground floor. A skinny woman who could’ve been anywhere between 35 or a drug-ridden 25 sat on the concrete steps to the second story, watching him. Pretending to ignore her, he knocked on the door under the stairs.

Seconds ticked past. Vadim knocked harder, then waited again.

The man who finally opened the door held a baseball bat and scowled down at Vadim through a pair of small spectacles.

“Oh.” He rested the bat against the wall, took off his spectacles, polished them on the hem of his flannel shirt then replaced them. “Come in, boss.” He turned. Blond hair a woman would envy flowed to his waist.

Vadim stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. Gloom instantly descended, lit only by the blue glow of computer screens and the flickering eyes of LEDs. Cables snaked across the carpet. Electronic equipment littered every surface, as well as the floor. The only seating was a chair that looked like it belonged in a high-end sports car.

“God in Heaven, Garry,” Vadim said. “Don’t I pay you enough to live someplace decent?”

Garry lowered himself into the chair. “It’s okay. Nobody bothers me here.”

Vadim snorted. “Nobody bothers you because they’re afraid you’ll beat them to death.”

It was no exaggeration. Vadim had seen him nearly do just that when another man had spilled a drink on Garry’s laptop. It had taken Vadim and two other men to pull him off.

Vadim had hired him on the spot.

Garry shrugged and tapped at the keyboard in front of him. Lines of code spilled across the screen.

Vadim leaned on the desk beside him. “I need you check into somebody. Ilia Lebedev.”

Garry kept tapping but nodded. The code disappeared, replaced by a new screen. “Lives in Sausalito,” he said. “Partner in Bay Cities Properties in San Francisco.”

“Where does he go to church?” Vadim said.

Garry squinted at him. “Church?”

He shrugged again, reached for the mouse, tapped away at the keys. Vadim pushed off the desk and wandered around the room. The click of keys and of the mouse button stitched through the quiet hum of cooling fans.

“San Francisco,” Garry said. He quickly ran through several screens, the images there flashing across the lenses of his spectacles. “Our Lady of Noyabrsk.”

“Good,” Vadim said. “Get me everything you can on him. Where he goes. When. Who he talks to. Text it to me.”

Garry nodded distractedly, already engrossed in his hunt. Vadim let himself out.

* * *

Vadim stood on the sidewalk gazing up at the church. Textured copper onion domes topped two-and-a-half tall stories of pale, arch-adorned stucco walls in a surprisingly harmonious blend of Russian and Mission architecture. Against a sky the color and texture of dirty lint, Byzantine crosses stood out starkly. The double cross. Vadim snorted a humorless laugh. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

He opened himself to magic and worked a spell of disinterest. People would see him, but their attention wouldn’t fix on him. He’d be just another man passing by. Settling the spell around him, he climbed the grand flight of steps to the church’s arched double doors and stepped inside.

How long since he’d been in a church? A long, long time, even discounting the century and more he’d been a mindless wraith stripped of his power. He was surprised by how familiar it all felt, the icons of saints, the candles, the fantastically detailed carving. The smells of beeswax and incense.

A few men in suits stood inside, ostensibly praying. From the way two or three glanced around when Vadim stepped inside, he suspected they were Lebedev’s men. They turned away. Good.

How easily the old habits returned! He walked forward, crossed himself, bowed and kissed an icon. Crossing to a little side table, he lit a taper, crossed himself and bowed again. Pretending to pray, he dipped into the flow of magic all around him and let it carry him outward.

His awareness drifted through the doors behind the altar into the sanctuary, down hallways, into rooms. In a room just off the nave, he sensed the presence of a single man. The room would be, he suspected, one reserved for quiet contemplation. The presence of the watchful men outside told him the occupant must be his quarry.

He covered himself in an illusion of a priest’s dark robes and full beard. It was no difficult illusion. He’d worn a beard most of his life. With the spell of disinterest still in place, he walked to a door, quietly opened it and stepped through.

As he’d expected, room was a private chapel. Within, a short, sharp-faced man with a high hairline stood in front of a small altar bearing candles and an icon of Jesus. The man’s head was bowed in prayer. Ilia Lebedev. Perfect.

Lebedev glanced up, gave a distracted nod and returned to his prayers. Stepping up beside him, Vadim let the priest illusion tatter away, crossed himself and bowed his own head. He stood in silence a few minutes, wishing he had Emilia’s ability to see a man’s secrets.

Well, he had the next best thing. He had Emilia.

“God in Heaven,” he murmured as if praying, shaping the magic into a curse as he spoke. “Bless and protect me from my enemies. Let their schemes rebound on them. Let the harm they intend instead be inflicted upon them. Let the deaths they plot strike them down instead.”

From the corner of his eye, Vadim saw Lebedev’s head jerk up.

He raised his own head and smiled. “Hello, Ilia.”

Lebedev scrambled backward, his hand going to the waistband of his trousers.

“You left your gun outside, remember?” Vadim said. “No weapons in the house of God.”

“Viktor! Ivan! Leo!” Lebedev shouted, still backing up.

Vadim shook his head. He’d already worked a spell of silence, as well as a barrier spell to keep people out—and in. So much like when he was a young man amusing himself by working spells to awe the worshipers and confound the priests.

“Sorry, Ilia,” he said. “Your men can’t hear you. But don’t be too hard on them. It’s not their fault.”

The other man was breathing hard. “How the hell did you get in here?”

“Your men can’t keep people from coming to church to pray, can they? I think God would take a dim view of it.”

“Why are you here? What do you want?”

“I thought we’d have a little private talk, you and I. About your plans.”

“What plans?”

Lebedev’s eyes darted to the altar. Watching him calculate the usefulness of a candlestick as a weapon, Vadim set another spell to fix in place the objects in the room—chairs, table, the items on the altar.

“I have it on good authority that you’d like to see me dead,” he said.

“Who told you that?” Lebedev said half angrily, half in alarm.

Ah-ha, Vadim thought. Accurate as always, Emilia. “You can hardly expect me to reveal my sources,” he said.

“Whoever it was, they were lying,” Lebedev said quickly, edging toward the altar. “They’re trying to start trouble between us.”

“Do you think so?”

“Yes. Yes, I do. Whoever it is, they’re a danger to both of us, Vadim, do you see? Get one out of us of the way, maybe both, step in and pick up the pieces.” Lebedev nodded. “I think I might even know who it is.”

“The same one who suggested that I’m a problem that should be cleaned up? That too many bosses have ended up in body bags since I came on the scene?”

Lebedev went pale and dived for the altar, seizing the icon of Jesus in its heavy frame.

Vadim worked another spell on the icon.

Lebedev released it with a yelp. He looked down at the red streaks of burns on his hands and paled. “What’s going on?”

“You should have more respect for our Lord, Ilia. He might strike you dead where you stand. Heart attack, stroke, aneurysm. You never know.”

A sheen of sweat appeared on Lebedev’s forehead. He glanced around him as if for escape. “You won’t kill me, Vadim. You can’t afford to.”

Vadim crossed his arms. “When a man intends to kill me, I can’t afford not to.”

“And Bernard? Are you going to kill him, too? Or is it only me who gets to pay the price?”

Bernard. Of course. After that attempted setup, it only made sense that he’d try a more direct approach.

“No need to worry about Bernard. He has enough worries enough for both of you.”

Lebedev cracked a laugh. “You think you’ll do in both of us? You’ll have the bosses in Russia on you by the time a plane can get here.”

“The bosses. In Russia. Ilia, men like that were drinking lemon tea in the parlors of their dachas when I was running an army in Russia’s backlands. Do you really think they’ll stop me?”

“Someone will. Maybe not me, maybe not the Russians. But you keep making noise, more people than you’ll like will have a reason to silence you.”

Vadim snorted. “They can try.” He took a step toward Lebedev. “If I need to protect myself, I will,” he said softly. “It’s up to you. Understand?”

Lebedev opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

“Good.” Vadim nodded once and walked out.

* * *

Emilia didn’t, as a rule, attempt to read anyone who hadn’t asked her to. Besides being a shocking invasion of privacy, it was frequently too taxing to know secrets she’d rather not.

Today, she determined to break that rule.

Except for Flora. She did, of course, request her services, but Emilia ranged further into her future than usual, steeling herself.

Screams. Gunfire. Broken dishes scattered across the floor. Flora screaming curses in Spanish as she swung a cast iron pan at a man’s head—

Then that familiar nothingness.

It took all Emilia’s will to avoid reacting. Still, Flora noticed something.

“Señora?” she said her brows kinked in a worried frown. “Things are okay? No troubles?”

“There are always troubles,” Emilia said, putting on a smile. “The trick is avoiding them before one meets them.”

David, when she shook his hand after their driving lesson, fared better in her glimpse ahead. But she saw his apartment empty and unkempt, gifts unopened under a brittle drift of Christmas tree needles.

Amanda—

They often lunched together. Oddly, Amanda had never asked Emilia to tell her fortune. Perhaps, as she’d implied at the beach, she had little hope of it being a bright one.

In the end, Emilia’s courage failed her when the moment came that she might read Amanda. She couldn’t bear to feel Amanda’s terror when some man brought a gun to bear on her as she sat at her desk, or murdered in her home or as she went about some ordinary task. Because, of course, a woman who knew as much as Amanda did about Dragovich certainly couldn’t be allowed to live.

Irina’s future saw her weeping bitterly, great, painful gulps of sobs.

Weary to the soul, Emilia escaped into the garden when her computer lessons were done. She stared across greenery now subdued by the cooler temperatures and greyer days, hoping to wash away the images of fear and violence and pain.

There you are,” a light voice said behind her.

Emilia turned. “Tiff! How are you?” She took Tiff’s hands and squeezed them, but kept her gift sheathed. “What have you been doing?”

“Mr. D’s been keeping me busy lately. There’s bunch of girls just come over from Russia, so I’ve been taking them shopping, going with them to meet their sponsors, stuff like that. It’s kinda annoying not being able to talk to them, but I’ve been trying to teach them some English, so it’s getting better.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful.” It was the only bright spot of the day. “I met the young ladies recently. I long to see them again.” And see if their futures have changed since last I looked, she thought.

“You met them? How?”

Emilia smiled a little. Leave it to Tiff to be so blunt. “Mr. Dragovich introduced me.”

“Really?” Tiff eyed her doubtfully. “At Victoria’s? Um, you know about Victoria’s, right? And about those girls?”

“Indeed I do.”

“And…well…you’re okay with it?”

It was just the opening Emilia was looking for. She took Tiff’s arm and steered her away from the house, wishing she had Dragovich’s ability to magically make a conversation private.

“I must admit, it seems degrading to those women. What do you think of the matter? Of Mr. Dragovich’s involvement in—” She found it difficult to pronounce the word. “In prostitution?”

Tiff gave her a sharp look. “I think he kept a whole bunch of girls out of it, is what I think.”

“But—forgive me—how can you be certain?”

“Because that’s what he did for me. If he took you to meet them, you should know it, too.”

It took every ounce of manners Emilia possessed to control her face. “I do beg your pardon, Tiff,” she said. “I— That is, I haven’t the advantage of your experience with Mr. Dragovich.”

“If you did, you’d know better. Yeah, Mr. D’s mob, and the mob is full of not-exactly-nice people. But I’m here to tell you, the world is full of not-exactly-nice people. Just the ones here don’t pretend to be something they’re not.”

Emilia bowed her head. “Still, it leaves something more to be desired, don’t you agree? Have you ever considered leaving Mr. Dragovich’s employ?”

“What? No! Why would I?”

“You must know the danger of this business, amidst such company.”

“Danger?” Tiff said on a disbelieving laugh. “Excuse me, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. I know what’s dangerous, and Mr. D isn’t it. Mr. D won’t lie to you. Mr. D won’t mess with your head. Mr. D won’t do things to make you wish you were dead.”

Emilia reached out a hand to her, dismayed by her sudden anger. “Of course not, Tiff. I don’t mean to say any such thing. But others aren’t so nice. And that’s where the danger lies.”

The anger seemed to leave Tiff as quickly as it had come. “Yeah, I know. But with Mr. D around, I don’t have to worry about that. That’s why I’ll always be happy to work for him, because then I know nobody will fool with me. If they even try, Mr. D will kick their ass.”

“Yes,” Emilia said quietly, remembering Baljic’s fate. “I know he will.”

“You’re still mad at him, aren’t you?”

Emilia thought about it. “No… I don’t believe I am.” That realization caught her by surprise. “Frustrated on occasion, yes. He’s a very obstinate man.”

“You just found that out?” Tiff said, smiling.

“Perhaps I should say I’m learning to plumb the depths of his obstinacy.”

Tiff laughed. “Wow. I didn’t know anybody ever tried to argue with him.”

“That’s the problem then, I suppose.”

Emilia sighed. It was George all over again. Everyone hurtling toward disaster, unwilling to abandon the others to it. What had Dragovich said of her gift? It was a cruel sort, to be able to see…

And yet do nothing to change it.

“If only I could bring him to trust me!” she murmured.

“Trust you?” Tiff said. “About what?”

Emilia waved a hand. “You mustn’t mind me. It’s just that—”

The realization struck her, quaking through her like thunder.

“What?” Tiff said.

My obstinacy is the problem,” Emilia whispered, appalled. “My righteous anger. My implacable resentment. Why should he listen, why should he rely upon one determined to set herself against him, opposing him at every turn?”

“Emilia, what are you talking about?”

“I’m a fool,” she said. “I’ve been so certain of myself, so certain of the injuries done me. I never thought how terribly that might lead me to injure others.”

“But you haven’t hurt anyone!”

“No. Not yet,” Emilia said. “Not if I can help it.”

1 comment

  1. donbay2013

    Will Emilia change? Will Vadim? Two strong characters on a collision course. Where will it lead? What is the result? Will another wizard appear to sort it out?

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