It was such a delightful late spring day in Austin that it was tragic to get called into the BMA's local field office for yet another round of routine harassment. Or as we like to say around here, your typical average Thursday.
The 'Grand Wizard' (and all around Pooh-Bah) Whitaker, the head of our local Bureau of Magical Affairs (BMA) field office views himself as a mighty big fish in an even bigger pond and likes to justify his excessive salary, and ever widening ass. Despite being head of a fairly minor understaffed and badly overworked regional field office, his own unexercised ass hasn't ever left his desk once to my knowledge to actually crook a wizardly finger to do any real work. His forte is paperwork and making the life of Public Adepts such as myself, as miserable as possible. It just sticks in his craw that some of us are legally independent from his control (within certain boundaries) and not subject to his every whim and notion.
Austin might be the Capitol of the large and relatively prosperous Republic of Texas, but the real governmental power is scattered about elsewhere. Mostly in Galveston where our Emperor of the Great Western Alliance (GWA) keeps his spring residence, or else in the bigger cities scattered over a thousand miles of territory. Texans and Texicans hate government and try to subsist on the fewest possible laws and ignore a big chunk of the rare laws that do get enacted in Austin. This is usually a good thing.
Like it or not, Austin is a sleepy backwater fit only for stashing away otherwise useless bureaucrats well away from places where the real work actually gets done. Everyone with even an ounce of common sense knows this ... except for idiots like Whitaker. Fuck him.
Just because I almost burned down an entire neighborhood once (I had a very good reason at the time), my name got very prominently established near the top of Whitaker's 'Shit List' in bright red ink. He can't quite make me march to his tune, but he's got enough political clout to force me to at least tap along to the music.
Last month, the hassle was still concerning the endless paperwork covering the 'Christmas Stalking' incident. I'd completed my reports months ago and Whitaker's local pencil pushers had even finally stamped the case as closed. Now apparently, some Imperial Wizards up the line were reading about the case and, quite understandably, wanted more questions answered. I didn't really blame them.
No one wanted to really believe that a mere 'Sensitive' who wasn't supposed to even be able to channel magic, like my client Gloria, could have summoned a major league outer planar 'Visitor' ... especially a Shadow Stalker. Those guys are pure nastiness and able to kill even trained high powered Wizards, and sometimes do. Well she did it, but she cheated at nearly every step along the way — and it quickly cost her, her life in the process.
Me, 'Zak' Zyphyr, a mere licensed Adept, without Wizard level powers or skills, had taken it down and more than a few buddies of his in the process. Ok, in turn I had a bit of help; I'd caught the shagnasty critter outdoors in daylight and it stopped to beat up on some weaker relatives it had a grudge against before it came looking for me, giving me a chance to work out a plan to nail it. I nearly got my ass totally handed to me in the process, spending just about a week in the hospital afterwards. But I sort of walked away from the fight - the Stalker didn't.
Scoreboard: Zak -1, Evil Nasty Stalker - 0
Everyone was grateful that I had handled it ... but the questions just kept on coming.
The truth was, most of her 'help' came from the illegal possession and use of an old Wizard class Artifact. It was the biggest and hottest piece of magical 'Hamburger Helper' I'd ever seen or even heard about. When worn (and juiced up), this pair of wrist bracers gave Gloria enough raw power to do lots of very nasty, dangerous and very forbidden things, without any proper training — or requiring the slightest bit of common sense. After summoning a succession of increasingly powerful creatures she swung for the fences and landed a majorly nasty Shadow Stalker.
It wasn't impressed by her skill. It ripped out her soul and was amusing itself fucking her eviscerated corpse when I discovered them, an instant before I tried running for my life whimpering like a spanked schoolgirl. I ended up taking the monster down, literally hanging the Stalking on the chimney on Christmas Eve, but no one else appreciated the joke. I was in too much pain for awhile to laugh much myself. Given five more rematches, the Stalker would probably win all five times ... easily. I had been damned lucky.
Sometimes it is better to be lucky than to be good.
I kept her illegal artifact. I had a semi-legal contractual right to it, via her breach of a Contract Oath with me, and it was much too nice of a toy to turn over to the BMA assclowns. It wasn't technically illegal for me to possess it, or even use it ... if I could get it charged up again, but it was very much against custom and sooner or later folks would try to take it away from me, legally or otherwise, if they knew I had it. Possession being nine-tenths of the law, and all that.
Keeping secrets from the BMA didn't make me feel the slightest bit guilty.
Today, the agenda for harassing poor Zak concerned my most recent part-time job, working as an Artifice Engineer for a local arcane technology (Arc-Tec) company, Advanced Magical Devices, off of Ben White Blvd. It was fairly close to my home and they did pay very well, but Whitaker knew enough of my dislike of corporate life to know that I must have an ulterior motive. Namely, why I was now very interested in obtaining Major Arcana Stones. The biggest, baddest batteries on the market for storing and channeling Wizardly energies.
It's hard to keep anything secret in the magical community apparently. I was most certainly very interested in finding these stones. Enough so to even actually work an honest nine to five day job in order to get them. I'd worked out a contract deal with AMD to receive six 'slightly irregular' stones in trade for my help with one of their Arc-Tec engineering projects — namely working on an improved miniature internal magical power source of a new generation of consumer products. A tricky problem of Artificement — but right up my alley of expertise. I'm a born tinkerer and don't mind at all the not-so veiled snide comments about 'gadgeteers'. Sometimes it's the simplest things that save your bacon some days.
Artificement, the relatively low level ability to infuse magical properties into mundane devices is one of my particular strengths, so I thought it wouldn't raise too many eye-brows if I put my private consultation business on the side for awhile.
The problem was Major Arcana Stones were almost exclusively used for Artifacts, items made by Wizard level practitioners, strictly for use by other Wizards. They weren't rare items per say, but they were scarce enough that supply never quite equaled demand. I'd bought two on the open market using most of the proceeds of my reward from Gloria's ex-husband, for keeping him alive during her increasingly reckless assassination attempts. Now I still needed six more to completely restock the Artifact into full functionality. Payday was tomorrow ... and I couldn't wait to finally get my hands on them!
I still wasn't 100% sure what the darn thing did or how she found this pair of virtually indentical matching wrist bangles in the first place. I was planning to power them up and conduct a quiet test drive somewhere out in the middle of no-where. I was sure that it boosted magical ability - a lot. It had made a 'Sensitive' like Gloria who shouldn't even be able to touch, let alone use, magic become a mid-powered Wizard in raw ability (but not training). I suspected my own greater abilities would increase accordingly.
They were probably way too powerful for wearing every day, but I was sure sometime I'd need this extra power and was more than willing to give it a good safe home until then.
The bracers weren't quite identical as I had thought at first. The right handed one was older ... much older, than the left one, which was apparently crafted to resemble it as much as possible in design, style and function. I really wanted to let a 'divvie' or properly trained psychometric examine the older item to give me its origin and history but I didn't know any that I was friendly enough with to beg the favor of.
My best guess, based upon an IntraWeb photo of a similar designed item, was that the original piece was of pre-Columbian Inca origin, probably designed for some Royal Incan Wizard, but that's just a guess. Still, this was all the more reason to keep the thing out of Whitaker's greedy fat fingers.
Today's interrogation lasted for nearly three hours. No bets but what I was sitting in the middle of an extremely powerful Truth Circle. I'm good at making these myself and I know their strengths and their weakness. It did help that my story was at least 99% true.
I explained (very truthfully) that I was indulging myself in some completely legal Arc-Tec research both at home and at work and needed the stones for a particularly elaborate power switching scheme I was experimenting with. One plus one, in the magical world sometimes equals three, instead of two. I suspected that in this case four + four equaled at least sixteen (and probably sixty-four) instead of eight. My limited study of how the Artifact was designed did suggest certain useful future applications.
"If I can make the damned idea work, then I'll register the damned thing ... when it's done and only when it's done. Until then it's just Artifice junk on my workbench." I repeated this mantra about thirty different times until my patience was completely at its end and got up out of the chair to leave the interrogation room.
Not in the least bit unsettled, my tormentor immediately surprised me by changing the subject all together, and requested a favor that I couldn't refuse.
'Ok, enough on that Zak, you're certainly telling the truth or enough of it. I'll tell the Imperial boys that this well is dry and that they should drill elsewhere. Now I've got a request to ask of you. You know we're real shorthanded around here. We never have enough Adepts, let alone an adequate number of full Wizards to get things done. I've made no secret that I'd like to have you officially on-staff at BMA working for us full time. Your motives are sometimes questionable and you should never try to cast another fire spell again ... but you do have a few useful skills."
"Thanks ... I think." I guess that was a compliment, coming from Whitaker anyway.
"I understand you're familiar with the Wizardess 'Harriet'? She's been mired in a complicated problem for over a week and I think she could use a fresh pair of eyes to help her. If you could find some time to assist her, I'm sure she'd appreciate the favor."
Oh, so it would be a favor to her, not to Whitaker. Figures, knowing the slimy bastard. I muttered something in reply about a significant discount of my usual consulting fees as a favor to him. There was awkward silence but then he finally nodded in agreement. It was the closest he was ever going to get to actually beg me for help.
I didn't think that I would be particularly busy next week so I agreed. Like him or not, I needed to stay on as close to his good side as he was going to let me get. I didn't owe Harriet any favors; we were sort of old but estranged friends these days. We had a 'history' though, back when we were both young and foolish. Our relationship didn't work out but the split wasn't exactly poisonous either. I wanted to hang this favor on Whitaker, but in a pinch I would have done it for Harriet, just for old time's sake.
The title of Wizard is theoretically non-gender specific, but every decade or so BMA tries to make itself sound more modern and relevant. This week, Male Wizards are of course called Wizards and the current proper BMA politically correct nomenclature for female Wizards is supposed to be Wizardess. Naturally most of the gals didn't like this much and prefer the older more traditional and sexist title of Sorceress. It does have more pizzazz and sounds more dangerous and mysterious. I don't think Harriet ever thought twice about it or cared a fig what anyone called her.
For awhile, BMA tried to return to the more traditional term of 'Witch' for us lowly Adepts and their little eggheads nearly burst with fury when none of us would condescend to use that ancient and unfortunate title. Much too "Yankee", for starters. The USA still uses that regrettable label for its junior wizards, but then again they're backwards at just about everything these days. I like the title Adept just fine, thank you very much.
"Agreed. I'll report here Monday morning unless Harriet calls me to have her meet her somewhere else instead. You can give her my private cell phone number."
With that we briefly nodded heads in farewell and I scooted my boots out of there as fast as my feet could walk, without appearing to be running. I was already two hours late for work and would need to nearly pull an all-nighter to put the last polishes on my Arc-Tec project. Tomorrow would be payday ... and I was positively itching to get my fingers on those last six stones!
The final engineering proof of concept demonstration to the AMD bigwigs on Friday morning went well. It had taken nearly six months of work, but I'd completed the job. There were smiles, hearty handshakes, a nice little cash bonus check and my real reward of the six 'slightly irregular' Major Arcana stones. They were the world's second largest manufacturer of both Major and Minor Arcana items and even those 'scratch and dent' rejects from quality control still had extremely significant market value, close to my usual annual income ... each.
If I needed more stones later, it was hinted that a more permanent sort of job arrangement could be made. I hoped that I didn't; putting on a lab clean-suit everyday and punching a time clock was not really my idea of fun. I really just wanted to get back to handling regular private clients again as a Licensed Public Adept, and hopefully be able to sleep in late now on most mornings.
Gloria's very grateful (and wealthy) ex-husband Donald was quite true to his word, and was willing and quite eager to sing my praises to his other wealthy friends. I'd been able to handle a few small minor jobs for a few of them, but my AMD job had seriously interfered with my available private practice time and I'd had to turn down several job offers recently, while things had been in 'crunch time' at AMD. I decided that it would be only polite to give him a ring to let him know that I should be available soon-ish.
"Don, Hi this is Zak. My contract over at AMD finally finished up today, so I should be available for awhile, if you want to put the word out. I've got some government things to do probably next week, but nothing long term."
"Perfect timing Zak! I just had a phone call from a buddy who was asking when you'd be available. I'll call him right up and give him the word. I think he wants some help this weekend for a short troubleshooting job and money's not an issue for him if the job can be done fast, toot suite!"
"This weekend is good. Give him the word 'go' and have him leave me a phone message with the details. I'm going straight to bed to make up for a month of doing without any, but I'll be all ready to go in the morning."
"Sounds good!" Donald went to call his friend to give him the good news and I fixed a quick sandwich and made it into bed at least an hour before sunset. But not before I lovingly set the last needed six Major Arcana Stones on my workbench next to the bracers. I was much too tired to play with it tonight — indeed if I primed and set the stones I'd get no sleep again tonight.
Sleep first ... and I did.
The new job was interesting and more than a bit unusual. My new client Walton Hilliard, owned one of the largest retail firearms distributorships in the Republic of Texas, a nation renowned for its love of guns and the yahoos who love to shoot them. He also produces and manages the single largest gun show operation anywhere in the GWA. Nearly every weekend, his company holds a major gun show for collectors and dealers somewhere. Dallas, El Paso, Elkart, Houston, San Antonio, Tulsa and sometimes even sleepy little Austin. Not to mention the other big GWA cities outside the Republic of Texas in Greater Arizona, Sierra Nevada, Colorado, Greater California and Pacifica, along with the Protectorate of Nuevo Mexico, which covers all of the former states of northern Mexico to the very edge of Mexico City.
His problem was that someone, at every single show, was somehow stealing guns from the exhibitors ... lots of them. Each week, nearly a hundred weapons would disappear, usually the most expensive or deadly ones. Military grade assault rifles were especially vulnerable to theft. The maker or model didn't appear to matter to the thief; United States made Colt, Mossberg, or Springfield Armory rifles, Confederate made Alexander Arms, Beretta's or Remington's, or GWA made Brazos, Callahan's, Glock's, H&K's, SIG's or Winchesters all vanished with equal alacrity.
The thief had to be using magic somehow but even hired Adepts that guarded the front doors and loading docks could not find a trace of how the stolen guns were being removed. Now, solving this problem was my job.
He wanted me to be a roving inspector for the next couple of shows, to patrol the dealer's exhibition floor area and troubleshoot out how the guns were being stolen. This was something new and quite different for me and not quite in my skill comfort area, but I was willing to lend another eye on the problem.