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Crooked Magic

Kathlena L. Contreras
The Land of Enchantment 3

Crooked Magic cover

Wizards are back and selling their services to the highest bidder. Amethyst Rey has just been outed as a wizard, and now she’s on the auction block, too—whether she wants to be or not.
Amethyst just wants to live quietly as a stained glass artist. But when she and Talys, her familiar, confront another wizard who’s meddling in local New Mexico politics, she lands herself square in the sights of the shadowy figure called Ragman, a headhunter who supplies wizards to corporate clients.
When the game of cat and mouse with Ragman and his hired thugs turns deadly, Amethyst is forced to partner with Jas Harker, the wizard who almost ensnared her last year. But charming, devious Jas always has his own agenda. And this time, he’s maneuvering to pick up where he and Amethyst left off.

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Prologue

Everyone around the table was shouting. The Lieutenant Governor shouted at the Senate Minority Leader. The President Pro Tem shouted at the Speaker. The governor’s aides shouted at the senators’ aides.

David Gray wanted to put his head in his hands, close his eyes and make the whole damn mess go away.

“Governor.” Gray’s advisor spoke in his ear loudly enough everyone would’ve been able to hear her voice under normal circumstances. Her perfume enveloped him. It made his head ache. “The consultant we talked about is here. Mr. Moraihn. I told him you’re tied up, but—”

“God, Lianne, not now!” Gray said. “Tell him—”

“Who the hell are you?” On the other side of the table, the Minority Whip glared down the room. He looked like an angry turkey, face red, wattles quivering, small eyes behind his glasses outraged. “How did you get in here?”

Faces turned. Some of the shouting died down. Gray followed the gazes to the conference room door. A man stood just inside, smiling slightly as if amused.

“That’s him,” Gray’s advisor whispered.

Gray waved her and her perfume away. “Mr. Moraihn,” he said, raising his voice to be heard by the man by the door. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t a good time.” What in God’s name was the man thinking, barging in now? “I appreciate your coming, but I’ll have to get back to you. My aide—”

“Oh, no,” the man interrupted. “This is the best time.” He had a hint of a brogue to go with his sandy hair and freckles. He was by no means a big man, and wasn’t doing anything but standing quietly, but something about him sent a warning prickle up the back of Gray’s neck. Gray drew breath to tell Lianne to get the man the hell out of here.

“Kris,” the Lieutenant Governor snapped first, turning to her aide. “Call security for an escort.”

The stranger’s sharp blue gaze leapt to the young woman. “I don’t think so,” he said.

Kris stood frozen, phone to ear, lips parted as if to speak.

Gray turned to her. “Kristen—”

The young woman didn’t move. Not even her eyes. She might’ve been figure from a wax museum, except for the terror in those eyes.

Another of the aides, a young man, grabbed her arm. “Kristen? Are you okay? Kris!” He scrabbled his own phone out of a pocket, then yelled and dropped it. The phone slumped into a puddle of molten plastic.

Gray shoved to his feet. “What the hell?”

The people at his end of the table scrambled out of their chairs, babbling. Those on the other side craned their necks or stood to see what was going on. Voices cursed and questioned and demanded.

The stranger took a step forward. “Quiet.”

The voices stopped as if a Mute button had been pushed. The air suddenly shimmered, almost as if it were no longer air at all but some perfectly clear crystal. Gray brought fingertips to forehead. Had he had a stroke? He turned slowly. No one else in the room moved. No one but Lianne, his advisor. Her gaze, wide and shocked, jumped to him.

Lianne’s long nails bit into his arm through his suit jacket. “Dave, this is Mr. Moraihn,” Her voice quavered. “He’s the one who—who—”

“Just Moraihn.” the man said. “I’m the one who will stop the impeachment proceedings against you.”

Gray’s cheeks went cold and his gaze darted to the men and women around him, a roomful of people prepared to destroy his career.

“Don’t worry,” Moraihn said. “They can see and hear nothing of what we do.” He spun an empty chair and sat.

Gray remained standing. He breathed hard, but couldn’t seem to get enough air. He looked from Moraihn to Lianne and back again.

“How?” Gray said. “Are you some kind of hypnotist? Is that what’s going on here?”

“Nothing like that.” Moraihn picked up an abandoned pen and turned it in his fingers. “What would you say if I told you magic is real?”

Gray strangled a laugh. “I’d say you’re out of your mind.”

Moraihn’s lips quirked up. “Out of touch for a time, yes. Out of my mind? Hardly. Let me show you.”

He studied the pen he held, slowly raised his hand and opened his fingers. The pen hovered in midair, then shot across the room.

No, Gray thought, disbelieving. Lianne cried out and made a grab for him. Pain blazed in his chest. He yelped and clutched at it. The pen clattered to the floor at his feet. A blot of ink stained his shirt. Blood oozed out, red within the black. He clawed his shirt open, fingering the puncture beneath. Ink crept across the skin of his chest. He tried to wipe it away but it continued its spidery crawl, forming familiar shapes. Numbers?

No. How—? No. Gray scrubbed at his skin but the numbers remained as if tattooed. He backed up, horrified noises pushing through his throat.

“Oh God.” Lianne’s manicured fingers reached and flinched away again from Gray’s chest. “Oh God.”

Moraihn got to his feet. His gaze flicked to Gray’s chest, then back to meet his eyes. “You have my number. Call me when you’re calmer. When you’ve had time to…what is it you say?…to process this. We’ll discuss what I can do for you.” He smiled again. “And what you can do for me.”

He walked toward the door and vanished into it.

 

Chapter 1

The hardest thing about being a wizard was knowing when you should use magic—

And when you shouldn’t.

So far, Amethyst Rey had avoided having to use it much at all. She drummed her fingers on the dining room table and scowled at her laptop screen. She had a very bad feeling that was about to change.

“Damn,” she said.

Caramela, her pit bull, trotted over, plunked her big, blocky head on Amethyst’s knee and gazed intently up at her. Amethyst gave her a reassuring pat. Caramela hated it when she cursed the computer.

Talys, in the kitchen, slanted her a look out of eyes the silver of polished steel. A tank top and shorts—both black, as usual—showed off the barrel-chested, slim-hipped build of a Navajo Indian. His black ponytail and broad, good-looking face completed the image, though he wasn’t Navajo at all. In fact, he wasn’t even human.

“Another demanding client?” He raised a finger that dripped dish suds. “Wait. Let me guess. Mrs. Parnell has decided the pattern of the window you just installed doesn’t precisely match that of her showpiece Maria pot.”

Mrs. Parnell was, Amethyst suspected, nouveau riche. French for “pain in the ass.” Amethyst had been tempted more than once to tell her to get another stained glass artist, but Talys always found a way to make her laugh at the situation. Like the whole Maria pot thing. Mrs. Parnell had to make sure absolutely everybody knew she owned an honest-to-goodness, black-on-black Maria pot, yes, the Maria Martinez, the famous early 20th century San Ildefonso Pueblo potter.

“No,” Amethyst said. “Worse than Mrs. Parnell. Look at this.”

Talys dried his hands on a dishtowel and came around the kitchen peninsula.

He leaned over her, one hand on the back of her chair, the other braced beside her on the table. She could always sense his presence, like knowing where the sun was behind clouds. But when he was close, like this, it was a sort of doubling. A wizard’s sense of her familiar, along with his physical presence, the warmth of his body, the dry, warm scent of his skin…

She gave her head a shake and made herself pay attention to the article on the computer screen:

 

Petroglyphs Mysteriously Mis-Plotted

By Rose Gutierrez

Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer

Surveyors recently discovered the Indian petroglyphs at the heart of the Camino subdivision controversy were in fact not within the boundaries of the proposed development. Tribal leaders of the Isleta, Sandia and Laguna pueblos have contested the findings. Lawyer for the pueblos have petitioned the courts for a restraining order to halt work, citing the cultural and archeological value of the ancient rock drawings…

 

He straightened. “Yes, and?”

“Those damned wizards have to be behind it!”

“I scarcely see how you came to that conclusion.”

“This fight has been going on for years,” she said, stabbing a finger at the screen. “That developer tried every angle. No go. Not with the petroglyphs there.” She raised her arms like a priestess invoking miracles. “Then the wizards return,” she intoned. “And lo! The petroglyphs are right where the developer wants them. Doesn’t that seem just a little too convenient to you?”

“Perhaps, but—”

“There is no ‘but,’ Talys! If wizards can shove aside something as irreplaceable as those petroglyphs for somebody’s profit, what else will they do?”

“Exactly what wizards always did. Work their will in the world. Support or topple established power structures. Create new ones.”

Her stomach clenched suddenly around the tamales she’d had for lunch. “Are you serious?”

“Why are you shocked?” he said. “The world went on for centuries—millennia—in that fashion. Your little American experiment with representative government only came about after wizards had nearly all vanished, when ordinary folk began to believe that they could also control their destinies.”

He’d been with her for over a year, but sometimes she felt she didn’t know him at all. “So you’re saying it’s okay for wizards to trample over other people. Just because they can do what other people can’t.”

He shrugged, an elegant gesture for such big shoulders. “I’m simply stating fact. Those with power use it. Those without, follow—or wisely get out of the way. Part of the human condition, from what I’ve observed.”

She took a long breath, swallowing her temper. “And when someone with power runs into someone else with power who doesn’t particularly agree with that philosophy?”

“I sense the incipience of some rash and foolish act from which I shall be compelled to dissuade you.”

“After some wizard who’s been out of the world for however-many hundred years decides to stomp through my town screwing things up? Damn right I’m about to do something rash and foolish.”

He gave her a long, level look. “And how much of this is attributable to the fact that it was you who restored the wizards’ power?”

Her temper went out like he’d sprayed it with a fire extinguisher. She got up, turned to the window and crossed her arms.

His arms came around her from behind. “You are not responsible for their actions.”

“If I ignore what’s going on, I am.” She sighed and rubbed her face. “No matter how much I might want to.”

He just held her a moment, head bent to nuzzle her cheek. Since he’d taken a human form, this—the form he inhabited, to be specific—seemed to be his preferred method of distraction.

“No, no, no,” she said. “That will not work this time.”

He moved to her ear. “What won’t work?”

“Talys—” She turned, braced her hands on his biceps to gain a little space and scowled up at him. “We’ve got to do something about this.” She waved in the general direction of the computer screen.

“No we don’t.” His hand slid under her shirt.

She caught it and took it out. “Yes, we do. Besides, you’re the one who’s always badgering me to use magic.”

He sighed. “You’ve a knack,” he said, “for ignoring my suggestions until the most inopportune moments.”

She put on an innocent look. “That’s not true. I use magic to open the garage door. And keep the bread fresh. I use it for that, too.”

“And to start wizards’ wars, it seems,” he growled.

“Oh, come on. It’s not that bad.”

He released her, holding his arms wide as if in surrender. “Very well, love. Gather your purse. If you’re determined to make life difficult, we may as well get it over with.”

* * *

New Mexico’s summer monsoons had touched the mesa’s thin grasses with green. Snakeweed bloomed sulfur yellow against tiny, lime-green leaves. A lone hot air balloon drifted south beneath sky castles of cumulus clouds. On the other side of the Rio Grande valley and the glittering spill of Albuquerque, the Sandia Mountains’ slate-blue hump loomed against the eastern skyline.

A few miles to the west, one of the Albuquerque volcanoes shouldered up out of the mesa. Much closer, by the front bumper of Amethyst’s Subaru, in fact, a survey stake lay flat in the grass. The high-altitude sun had faded the stake’s orange flag and turned it brittle. Another stake, this one fluorescent green, flicked in the breeze about a hundred yards off, on the other side of a jumbled, rusty pile of basalt. A few car-sized blocks of stone scattered the space in between. On the nearest, a hand was pecked through the dark desert varnish to the paler rock beneath, greeting or warning.

The rocks pulsed with…something. A sort of heat, or a low, subliminal hum. Amethyst turned slowly, head tilted and fingers extended as if the sensation were something she could touch.

“Do you feel that?” She frowned. “Magic, but it feels…old. Asleep. How can that be?”

“The magic is in the stones themselves,” Talys said. “These stones are sacred to the Pueblo peoples of the Rio Grande.” The sky and clouds reflected in his sunglasses. “They are alive, almost sentient from the energy given them over the centuries.”

“I never knew before.”

On one block, a figure danced with upraised arms under an uneven orb that might have been a gibbous moon. An owl’s face, or maybe a human’s, gazed east, toward the mountains. On a higher rock, a star with a face and two hands peered down. Amethyst smoothed the hair on the back of her neck.

Caramela snuffled along the ground, for once seemingly oblivious to the magic. Maybe it was so old, it faded into the background for her.

“Okay,” Amethyst said. “Then the only magic I’m picking up is what’s in the rocks. So what are we looking for?”

As far as experience with magic, Talys was definitely the senior partner here. She had a little over one year, while he had…centuries? He’d always avoided telling her exactly how much more.

“Did some wizard physically move the rocks?” she said. “Did they fox the surveying equipment—or maybe mess with the surveyors’ minds?”

Talys’ ponytail stirred in the breeze, glossy black strands sliding against the black of his shirt. He squinted and shook his head, looking rather Special-Ops in his tight-fitting t-shirt and black jeans. All he needed was an ankle holster with a semi-automatic.

“Mind-magic is difficult and generally requires close proximity,” he said. “A binding or compulsion, once set, doesn’t.”

“Oh, crap.” Amethyst shuddered. Memory taunted—Jas Harker’s dark eyes holding hers, the feel of his fingers in her hair—

She stopped the thoughts. Shot them dead in their tracks, in fact. With a .45 with hollow-point bullets.

“Illusion,” Talys went on, “making things appear other than they are, must be maintained. Physically altering the environment—say, by relocating the offending stones—requires a great deal of power. Possible, certainly, but strenuous, and the type of thing we couldn’t avoid noticing.” He picked his way through the scattering of basalt and tufts of sand sage. “I sense no fresh magic, therefore I’d assume that documents were most likely altered to show the petroglyphs in the preferred location. A subtle, elegant solution.”

“Which suggests that someone well-connected hired the wizard, since they’d have to have access to the plats.” She frowned. “But the rocks are here.” She pointed at the ground. “No matter what the survey shows, they’re still here. If somebody did slip down to Planning and Zoning to whisper incantations over the plats, how does it solve the problem?”

“Once scrutiny is relaxed and public interest has dwindled,” he said, “other documentation of these artifacts could simply vanish. A few days with the aid of heavy machinery,” he snapped his fingers, “and their existence is erased indeed.”

“It can’t work that way.”

“Yet your legal system depends upon documents, does it not? What recourse is available without it?”

She raked a hand through her hair. “But, Talys, how is even a wizard going to find every piece of paper relating to these petroglyphs?” She counted on her fingers. “Newspaper articles. Scholarly studies. Geological surveys. Magic isn’t omnipotent, for godsake.”

“Granted. Yet we can’t know the entirety of the measures that might be involved.”

She kicked at a survey stake, thinking. “Good, old-fashioned undue influence and all? Maybe a nice curse or two, and some those compulsions you mentioned. Better than bribery. God.”

Caramela had strayed farther than she should. Amethyst called her. She trotted back, her wide, pink mouth open in a pit bull grin. Amethyst patted her muscular side and looked around. Miles to the west, a grey veil of rain slanted down. She could see a long, long way.

“You know,” she said. “I feel really exposed up here.”

“I would suggest a ward rather than illusion. Better to deflect attention entirely. Furthermore, a ward is passive. And thus less likely to leave traces.”

She gave him a sharp look. “Traces.”

“The moment we meddle here, our opponent will know another wizard has been at work. I’d prefer to leave him guessing as to which wizard.”

“Damn,” she said under her breath. She did not like the idea of leading an angry wizard to her doorstep.

Amethyst plucked a dry sand sage stalk and marked a pattern of lines in the pale dirt. She spat, stirred and dipped a forefinger into the spot of mud.

Talys made a noise. “Interesting. I’ve not seen a spell of misdirection of that sort in, oh, perhaps two thousand years. Primitive, but binding and effective.”

Yikes. Maybe up his age by a factor of ten?

“Yeah, well, my brain is full of such second-hand gems.” She marked the same lines in mud on Talys’ forehead, then her own, then on the bumper of her Outback. Caramela was already pretty well camouflaged by her color and low profile. “Courtesy of possession by several dozen wizards’ shades.”

He grinned. “Every cloud has its silver lining, eh?”

“Right,” she muttered.

Here, where the smooth sweep of mesa folded down to the edge of the volcanic escarpment, the land dipped and rolled. The terrain seemed a better candidate for open space than for home lots. But open space generally didn’t generate much profit.

“So the rocks were here first,” she said. “Let’s make sure they get to stay that way.”

“You need only fix the symbolic values, the relation of the stones to the boundary points of the land in question.”

“Like fixing coordinates in a spreadsheet. Too bad we couldn’t just Google the subdivision and do the magic remotely.”

He tilted his head. “It may be possible. Indeed, it’s likely. If you know how.”

“Which I don’t,” she sighed. “So we do it the old-fashioned way.”

The mesa rolled toward the dark hump of the volcano. She nudged a chip of basalt with her toe, then picked it up and pressed her thumb to the darker, varnished side.

Talys took a quick step toward her. “Amethyst—”

Then he was there with her, touching the magic. She felt him ready to restrain her power, but he waited, poised.

Magic ran along her nerves, through her veins, hot and tingly. She suddenly tasted dirt and rock. The deep, slow pulse of the earth thrummed just beneath hearing, something she could feel more in her bones than ears.

She opened her hand and a spiral showed on the stone, the image perfectly smooth as if laser-cut. “That should take care of illusion or bewitchments anyone might set.”

He took it, turned it in his fingers then nodded. “This is very like the magic already here. Yet if found—”

She took it from him, scuffed out a shallow trench in the sand among the tufts of grass, dropped and covered the chip. “Good luck with that. Now. What do you think about letting the rocks watch out for themselves?”

He plucked at his lip, considering. “You are determined to do this.”

“Yep.”

“Very well,” he gave a resigned wave of the hand. “Then proceed.”

A flutter of nervousness went through her. A little late, don’t you think? she scolded herself and paced to the opposite end of the basalt pile. The rocks here had tumbled long ago. The tip of one showed among the grass and sage like the prow of a sunken ship. Amethyst pressed her hands to two adjacent planes, pushed power from her center and down her arms. She lifted her hands. Two prints remained like afterimages. Wrapped around the rock was a face with a bar of eyebrows with the stone’s corner as a nose.

Amethyst stepped back and admired it. “That should help keep the bad guys away.”

She moved to the opposite side of the rock promontory.

Sleepy and ponderous, the ancient magic roused at her touch. Some called animals to the hunt, some fertility to crops and people. Some honored the spirits, another celebrated the beauty of a desert flower. Amethyst touched each, reminded the magic of itself, of its place in the world, of its stony permanence.

“Very good,” Talys said. “Very good indeed.” His smile shone, white in his dark face. “Old magic possesses the value of permanence, as does earth magic. Here you’ve taken advantage of both.”

She hadn’t used a tremendous amount of power, but more than usual. She crouched and rested elbows on knees, cold and drained.

Talys’ footsteps crunched across the ground, then he cupped the back of her head. Energy flowed into her. The weakness diminished, but the sense of openness to everything around her remained. Magic connected to everything. When she used it, the barriers between herself and the outside world thinned to transparency. She felt the distant thunderstorm’s electrical tension, a collared lizard in a cool nook in the rocks dreaming of succulent bugs. She tasted the lemony-mint scent of some desert plant, smelled the gassy exhaust of a small plane overhead, heard a toddler’s tantrum in a house at the edge of the mesa. Drawing on Talys’ energy, she pushed the world outside again.

“Whew.” She took his offered hand and let him pull her to her feet. Her thoughts settled into their usual channels, like a river after a flood. She opened the car door. Caramela hopped into the backseat.

Magic breathed on the back of her neck. She turned. The tumble of rusty-black stones watched her, awake and aware. And perfectly obvious to anyone who came to see why, exactly, his spell wasn’t performing as advertised.

“You know, I’m pretty sure we’ve just pissed someone off,” she said. “Possibly several someones—the wizard plus whoever hired him.”

“No doubt, but you forget one thing.” Talys placed a hand on his chest. “Me. Even a strong wizard will be reluctant to confront one accompanied by a familiar. My knowledge, my non-mortal nature, not to mention my enhancements to your power provide you with formidable superiority.”

“Not to mention your bashful modesty,” she said.

The back of her neck prickled with warning. She rubbed it. Imagination, Amethyst told herself and climbed into the car.

 

Chapter 1.5 – Opposition

He stood at the edge of the table land. The wind of an approaching storm plastered his shirt to his thin body, tangled in his short, dark curls.

He called himself Stregone—warlock. Not the name given him at birth, but it fit, and he’d worn it since before his people had discovered this continent. A wizard had stolen that name for a long while, left him drifting mindless and powerless. Then another gave it back to him, along with his power. Like a man under an enchantment, he’d reawakened into a world changed beyond his imagination. A world where ordinary mortals flew, and spoke over long distances, and scried far scenes in glass. A world where his power had been rendered redundant.

Or so he thought. For a time.

The stones rising from the dry ground watched him, their ancient, unfamiliar magic muttering like the distant thunder. A stern-browed face glared at him from the nearest. Two hands flanked the face: stay away. Last time he’d been here, the stones had slept. His employer had wished them moved—or removed. He’d laughed, knowing well enough to leave them alone. People nowadays had strange notions of wizardry. He possessed other spells, which did much quieter work. Not the sort of thing that would awaken the magic here.

Not far from where he’d parked his own vehicle, tire tracks flattened the grass. Footprints, one set large, another small, and those of a dog, made patterns in the floury sand. He followed the tracks. Short grasses and weeds scratched at his boots. A rattlesnake buzzed beneath a grey-green bush. Stregone reached out a thought and silenced it.

No magic here that was not old, no magic that did not fit. Yet there were the stones, awake and watchful.

He returned to where the other car had been parked. He called up his powers and grimaced. The magic now was like this age—loud and fast. It grabbed and towed one along, stripping barriers and defenses, flattening any attempt at finesse. Often his spells went wild. He disliked feeling like an apprentice once more, struggling with his craft. Yet he worked a finding. It felt like a proper finding should. He cast it over the tire tracks.

Nothing. He should have felt a tugging, a pull that would lead him to the vehicle had made those tracks, to the person that had driven that vehicle.

He frowned. Huge raindrops splatted him like bird droppings. He waved them away. Clearly his powers were in order this time. Someone must have cast a spell of bafflement.

Stregone closed his eyes, bowed his head and called up more power. Sweating, he released his counterspell, then his breath. His arms ached. He found his fists clenched, relaxed them and opened his eyes.

He might was well have cast the magic into a void. A chill crept up his back. Could his opponent be so powerful?

He opened his senses to the magic. The old magic of the stones rose like a hunched, shadowy presence whose roots stretched backward through the depths of centuries. His own spell made flickering gaps where his imperfectly meshed power fractured the magical ether. Nothing else, nothing but the spell on those tracks, magic that lay in the dirt like a lizard’s discarded tail.

His eyes narrowed. Staring down into the busy glitter of the city, he picked at knots of questions. Why awaken the stones, then scamper off and hide? If someone powerful enough to thwart his spells wished to warn him off, a more direct approach would have made more sense. Why protect the stones at all? What good were they in this age? Who would care to preserve their antiquated power but—

Ah! Stregone raised his chin in sudden realization.

The wizard who’d been here could, of course, be anyone, perhaps the ancestors of those who’d carved the figures on the stones, who’d set the ancient magic. But those, he suspected, might lie in wait to confront the one who defiled their sacred place. No, this was a marking of territory. The magic worked said, This is mine. I was here first. He knew of only one wizard who could make that claim.

His gut tightened around certainty. He’d confronted that one once before, shortly after he’d reawakened. And been bested. Stregone was not to be thwarted without consequences. Others, wizardly and commonplace, had learned that to their grief.

He climbed into his vehicle. He took the phone from the console, spoke his message and pushed “send”.

A message came back: Who?

He replied: I have a guess.

Take care of it. Project needs 2 move.

He was beginning to weary of an employer whose ambitions extended no further than amassing wealth. Stregone might, if he were cunning and careful with his knowledge of his rival, find a more appreciative buyer for the information.

He tapped a finger on the steering wheel. You did not pay me for that.

He waited. Finally, the message came: Come here. We’ll talk.

Oh, yes. They’d talk. But Stregone would also be talking with someone else. And a certain young wizard would quickly find her life a great deal more complicated.

* * *

From: 870.9786: Stregone says another operator n area. Project halted. Pls advise.

From: Ragman: Do you have vital info?

870.9786: No.

Ragman: Can Stregone locate new operator?

870.9786: Maybe??

Ragman: Do not contact. I will meet w Stregone.

870.9786: My project?

Ragman: Will attempt to mitigate probs, but need that info.

870.9786: Thx. Will have Stregone contact you.

* * *

To: TGarret@daggetinc.com

From: Ragman@ndns.net

Subject: Specially skilled operator

Mr. Garret:

We recently discussed your interest in gaining a valuable new resource that will give your company an unparalleled competitive edge. A promising individual has come to light. I will call to discuss your terms and requirements, and if you decide to move forward, will make the appropriate connections. My assistant will call to set an agreeable date and time. In the meantime, please keep in mind that other parties have also expressed an interest.

HHR

* * *

The man in the overcoat sat at the counter sipping a cup of coffee, a half-eaten bagel and cream cheese in front of him. The waitress called orders to the kitchen, the cook set plates under the heat lamps and called orders back. The clink of knives and forks on dishes, the background music turned up too loud to stay in the background made nearby conversations impossible to hear. The place was no Starbucks; no wi-fi, no trendy twenty-somethings with their smartphones and iPads and Bluetooths. Just a counter with the kitchen on the other side of a hand-through and a few much-patched booths under a row of windows that let you see everyone passing by on the sidewalk outside, as well as a good portion of the street. Perfect for keeping an eye on things.

The man sitting at the counter next to him was stocky, and except for the old acne scars that pocked his cheeks, nondescript. He folded the stock section of the newspaper and stabbed a sausage on his plate.

“Can I take a look at that?” Mr. Overcoat gestured at the stock page. “I bought some stock in this tech startup in Albuquerque and want to check it.”

“Albuquerque?” The other man said and slid over the newspaper. “Jesus. Dink town in middle of the desert. What the hell is there?”

“You’d be surprised,” Mr. Overcoat said. “This thing is really going to pay off.”

Mr. Scarface shook his head. Mr. Overcoat slipped a thick manila envelope into the folded section of the newspaper, which he pretended to study for a while.

“My shares are down,” he finally said and slid the paper back.

Mr. Scarface put a hand on it. His eyebrows climbed. “Too bad. Looks like mine just went up. Maybe you should get into another industry.”

“Like shipping and transportation,” Mr. Overcoat said. “Nothing fancy. If I was a customer, all I’d want was my stuff delivered undamaged.”

Mr. Scarface gave a grunt of a laugh and tucked the folded paper into his coat. “I’m sure you’ll get what you want.”

Mr. Overcoat angled a knowing smile at the other man. “I’m sure I will.”

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