Passing Down the Keys

by Howard Faxon

Tags: Paranormal,

Desc: Fantasy Story: Magic is not natural. Magic has to be taught. When it is taught certain responsibilities accompany the powers. What rules would the masters of magic respect, and why?

I've lived in West Armpit as long as I can remember. Aww, alright. South Jacksonville Heights, West Jacksonville, Jacksonville, Florida. Mom and I live in this old trailer park way out in the boonies. There's about 80 trailer pads, not that all of 'em are filled There's no swimming pool and you'll only try swimming in the drainage pond once. The cottonmouths and the gator might fight long enough over your butt for you to scramble out of the water and mud, but maybe not. Then there's the green slime ... It's a damned dissapointment, let me tell you.

I was tall and skinny for ten. I don't look anything at all like mom. She's about four foot eight and really curvy with black curly hair, big darke eyes and huuuge eye lashes. She says she looks like Betty Boop, whoever that is. I look like some damned white elf from a Japanese cartoon or something. The hillbilly kids around here used to really bug me before I figured out how to use my speed. One big guy used to punch me every time he could. I fixed his wagon. I fed a long beetle into one of those big slurpee straws and blew it up his nose. Man, the noises he made were awesome!

Last winter we had some home-grown entertainment. An old guy on a really big motorcycle moved in. What was strange was what he moved into. There's this long, low concrete block building in the middle of the park that holds the water tank and lawn mower in one part of it, and an old busted-up laundry mat in the other, larger part. It always smelled like mushrooms and decay when I went near it.

When I came home from school just after Thanksgiving break two guys were tearing off the roof and throwing the pieces in a dumpster. The next day they were wearing gas masks and white overalls while they tore everything out of the old laundry. Dust and crap flew everywhere when they pressure-washed it with bleach and something smelling like Iodine. Mom said it was old-style Lysol. She said it would kill anything but the income tax man. Once everything was stripped to the walls they put up a new roof. Then they got out a concrete saw to replace the old single-pane window with a big 3x6 foot tall one and put in a new door and frame, all in one piece. It was pretty cool looking. It had this big stained glass panel on the front that you couldn't see through. It was taller than usual.

The guys came back one more time to cut a small hole in the concrete block wall and put in an air conditioner. They taped and papered over everything then spray painted the room and all the outside of the building a dingy yellow, kind of like the color of a pecan board. I looked at the label on the big five-gallon paint bucket to see what it was. It said 'marine grade epoxy resin paint'. They sealed it all up and left, taking the dumpster with them. Damn! A mystery!

A couple weeks later an electrician's truck and a plumber's truck drove up. I figured somebody really needed some work done because it was a Saturday and it was going to cost them an arm and a leg. Anyway, the electrician was bending tube, screwing down boxes and running wire like crazy. The plumber just sat on his running board, smoking a cigarette and watching the electrician run in circles. Pretty soon the lights came on and the electrician left. Then the plumber made a phone call and went into the building with a big coil of copper pipe, a tool box and a big box fan. It wasn't long before I heard hammerin' and squealin' and the sound of a propane torch. I'll say this for him, that old guy worked fast.

It wasn't but most of three hours later that a contractor's truck drove up hauling a box trailer. The contractor and his helper started unboxing cabinets and stuff until they could get to a big stack of 2x4s and a table saw. I heard the "Thwap! Thwap!" of a nail gun as that stack of lumber dissapeared. Next I saw a stack of hard pink foam panels, then tongue-and-groove boards went through the door and the sound of a power drill disturbed the quiet. I stuck my head inside and saw a big, long apartment longer than a house trailer and wider than a single. All the electrical boxes were showing through square holes in the boards. I thought that it looked real nice. There was what looked like a bathroom and a small bedroom at one end. I got chased out after the plumber got done with his bit, because he left. The contractor and his helper varnished the whole place, ceiling and all, using stilts like drywall guys use. The sinks and counter top were missing. I guessed that they didn't want to drip varnish on the counter. Once they were done they locked up and left. The contractor guy gave me a grin before he left.

I got back from school on Monday to see the contractor's truck and trailer back. I stuck my nose around the door frame to see what was up. The floor was covered in green plywood and they were using a strange gizmo to nail real wide tongue-and-groove boards down. They were a gorgeous dark red. I must have said, "Wow!" because the contractor sat back on his heels and stretched his back, then looked over at me. "It's a one-shot floor, made from recovered red-oak boards over a hunded and fifty years old. This place is going to be a real showplace when we're done." He grinned. You could tell that he was proud of the work he'd put in and the materials he used.

When they were done he vacuumed it twice, then his helper used a tack cloth on hands and knees to get the last speck of sawdust. Finally they poured on four one-gallon cans of a real syrupy varnish and leveled it with a squeegee. When they'd finished he locked up again. "This Veruthane stuff will self-level and be hard as a rock in three days. Then we'll finish with the trim, counter top, drawer pulls and wall plates." He winked at me and they left.

Wow. Normally workers treated me like a scrounging dog. This guy seemed friendly. I wondered why? If he was after my skinny ass, well, I could guarantee that I could run faster than he could. I just had to stay out of any rooms that had doors the contractor could lock.

The next weekend was library weekend. Mom worked hard to support the two of us, so I did all I could to make her life easy. I cleaned the trailer, did the laundry, took out the trash and did my best not to give her any lip. Anyway, she expected good grades out of me and every second weekend she took me to the big library downtown. Lately I was on a math kick and was seeing how physics and calculus came together. I liked it a lot but I didn't have the knack of coming at a problem from both sides like differential equations seemed to need. Maybe if I could get someone to explain it rather than just reading the books it would make more sense.

When we got back home mom cleaned up, got dressed up and went out with her friends from work. Well, I thought they were from work. I figured 'Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies' applied. Less friction was my motto. I was curious as to what the contractor did that day so I picked up a flashlight and walked over to the place. I walked up to the big window to try to catch a glimpse of what he'd done. I got right up to the window and the inside lights came on. Wow! The baseboards were black, the switch plates and power point plates were shiny brass and a big brushed steel side-by-side refrigerator/freezer sat next to a huge stove with blue control knobs. Suddenly, WHAPF! A strobe light went off. Sucker took my picture. I laughed. My face must have looked like I was on the wrong side of the fence at the monkey house. Man, did I get rubed.

We broke for Christmas the day before he drove up on his motorcycle. It was pretty quiet considering it was almost eight feet long and had three rear tires. I could have sworn it was alive. He was about six-eight. Nothing was small about him. He looked like he could have bench pressed that bike without breaking a sweat. He wore black leather chaps, a big black leather duster, heavy boots and gloves that looked like they could punch out a tractor-trailer rig. He had a silver-white beard and a nose that looked like he'd landed on it a few times. I watched through the living room window as he pulled off his gloves, removed his helmet, unlocked the door and dissapeared. I didn't see him again for DAYS. My curiosity damned near killed me but I wasn't going to go poking into another person's business. I didn't appreciate it when someone else did it to me so I did my best to return the favor for everyone else. When that place was empty it was fair game. Now that someone lived there it was out of bounds.

I was chewing my calculus into small pieces when I heard a knock on the door. Mom was at work, along with almost everyone else in the park but the moms and little kids. I opened the door, curious to see who it was. It was the big guy. My eyes must have turned to saucers as I went into fight-or-flight. He grinned and stepped back two steps. I stopped thinking with my hind brain and said "Hi.". Real genius conversationalist, eh?

"Do me a favor? keep an eye on my place. I've got to get a better vehicle for this climate so I'll be gone most of the day." He handed me a cell phone. Something European. Ericson, I think. "Hit speed dial one and lock the door if anything amiss happens." From his size I shouldn't have been surprised at the sound of his voice. It sounded growly, like distant thunder.

I blinked for a minute. "Anything I should be looking for?"

He shrugged. "Anything approaching the place." His use of anyTHING versus anyONE didn't hit me until later. I nodded while he handed over the phone. He dragged on his helmet and gloves as he walked away. Ya don't say no to a guy that big. Not when he knows where you live.

I didn't feel at ease after that. Something said I should walk around. I picked up my quarterstaff that I'd been trying to learn and walked around the park a while. When I got back to the old laundry I saw a big black snake with bright red markings on it back right up close to the foundation. I slid the staff under it and heaved the thing into the drainage pond. I heard a hiss like I'd not heard from a snake before. It sounded more like pouring water on a fire. That was all I saw until he came back. He was driving one of those skinny vans like UPS and Fed-X uses.

He casually asked, "So, anything happen?"

"Nothing except for the snake."

He tilted his head and said, "What did it look like?"

"Umm, about four feet long, black with bright red markings. It was up against the foundation sort of rippling. I got my stick under it and flipped it into the drainage pond.

He looked at me, then started quietly snorting. "Let's see your stick."

It was standing next to my trailer's door. He examined the ends carefully. He pointed to the burn marks at one end. "I owe you a new staff. This one's been weakened." He broke it over his knee. I repeat, he broke a one and a half inch oak quarterstaff over his knee. I felt dizzy. I said, "I think I'm going to bed now."

When I woke up I still felt this sense of unreality. I felt--I felt like a tent in a wind whose pegs were gradually being pulled from the ground while I was helpless to do anything about it. I lay there in the dark looking at the ceiling wondering why that simple feat of strength distressed me so much. It made no sense.

It was almost dawn. My bedroom was always lit by the street light but I could see the beginnings of a second shadow from the shapes on the floor. I got up and walked outside. It was cool out. Refreshing. I saw the old man sitting on a chair next to his front door, smoking pipe. I quietly walked over and sat on his stoop. I didn't say anything for a while as I tried to figure out WHAT to say. Finally, it just blurted out. "You're not from around here, are you?" I could see his shoulders shake in quiet laughter. "Oh, my. Oh, my. That's the best I've heard it put in ages. Well done, lad. You've surprised me." He reached down into the shadows and picked up something long. He held it out. "Here. Take it. It's a good staff and should serve you well. It's a bit heavier, a bit longer than your old one, but I'm certain that you'll grow into it soon enough."

I took it and thanked him. I didn't say a word about his somehow obtaining it in the few hours that I'd slept. It felt good in my hands though. When I gave it a swing I felt the authority of some inertia, some mass. He slowly nodded. "You always know when you've got the right staff in your hands. It feels comfortable." I grinned and nodded as he re-lit his pipe and took a pull. We sat waiting for the sun to evaporate the dew and raise the humidity. You could almost see little feelers of fog lift from the weeds and evaporate into the air. I could smell the spiciness of the Queen Anne's Lace. Soon he stood and stretched. "Ahh, a new day. Time to see to my obligations." He knocked the dead coal from his pipe, told me "Good morning." and went inside. I went home with my new staff, wondering what that was all about, or did I just read too much into everything?

I sat on my bed with the staff across my lap, examining it. It wasn't polished. It had some sort of smooth bark on it and a long purple line down one side, almost like a scar on a tree. I let my fingers explore the thing, gliding up and down the dense wood and tough bark. When my fingers traced the purple line I felt a sting. I'd been cut! It was as fine as a razor blade would leave, though. A few drops of blood seemed to soak into the purple wood and that was all. No sounds, no lights, no nothing. At that point I didn't think anything to do with that old man would surprise me.

I must have been making goofy faces at my math books that night. I was working at the kitchen table after dinner, as usual. "What's got your knickers in a twist?" (Mom loved old British humor. Go figure.) "It's this math. I'm locked up. I asked my teacher at school and he looked at me like he was eating a dill pickle. I don't see much support coming from that front."

She smiled at me. "Tell you what. Try tackling it from another direction. Electricity or electromagnetic theory, I don't know. I just know that it's math intensive." Mom never got to college. She worked at the post office sorting mail and working the customer desk. She wanted me to get that education, and the only way she could figure out how to get me there was through grants and scholarships. I busted my ass to do what she wanted.

The next Saturday it was back to the library. I was in luck! They'd just gotten in a recently published college textbook on DE. I snatched that thing up like it was made of gold. They also had an old, thick textbook on the five dollar table titled, "Mathematical Methods for Physicists". That sucker went into my backpack in a flash. Mom was surprised that I had finished so fast--usually I spent over four hours digging into the stacks. This time I'd skimmed off the cream. Since the new books could only be taken out for a week I'd have to drop it off at a satellite library within seven days. I was going to start powering through it as soon as I got home.

I sat up on my bed with my new staff across the headboard. It stung me once in a while but I didn't mind. I felt comfortable with it close to me. I seemed to be able to sleep and concentrate better too.

Three days later I finished the book. It was like I'd been swimming and came up for air. I realized that my physics problem was quite a bit more than I could handle with what I knew. I still couldn't work at that level, but I saw the direction I'd have to take. I packed up the book and took my bike to the local branch library. I was lucky they were open that day--it was the day after Christmas. The main desk was swamped with people. I asked the librarian if I could talk to someone about an interlibrary book loan. She waved at a desk behind the counter where a young guy was sitting in front of a screen. He waved, then motioned me on back. "What can I do for you?"

I felt pretty uncomfortable, kind of like sticking my head out of a foxhole, but I didn't see any other way to get the book I needed I handed him the DE book. "I just finished this. Is it part of a series? I'd really like to see the next one, if I can get it."

His eyebrows rose over his glasses. Then he grinned. "Let's see what the ISBN key can tell us." He started punching in a long convoluted string that he copied from inside the book's cover. He frowned over the screen. "It's out there, but not in our system yet. Let's see your library card." He copied off my ID number. "Now, I can put in a request for the volume with a patron's ID attached to it to show that it's a valid demand. Do you check out a lot of technical books?" I nodded. "Good. That'll give the selection committee a good strong reason to think that this is a valid request. Fill out this request form and you'll be notified if and when it comes in. Since the request originated here, it'll show up here." I filled out the form, thanked the man and shook his hand. He looked closer at my face. Then he quietly said, "You're a lot younger than I thought you were. If you looked older you'd pull this sort of thing off a lot easier. Lose the pony tail, get a crew cut or a flat top. Wear polo shirts. Don't wear fucking band shirts. Wear good pants, none with holes in them. No blue jeans. Find a pair of glasses with clear lenses and wear 'em. Don't talk if you don't have to. Move slowly and think before you do anything. Think before you open your mouth." I slowly nodded. I had a lot to think about on my way home.

Mom was working a double shift to help clear up the Christmas load. I put something in the crock pot to wait for her while I cleaned the devil out of the trailer. I'd let it slide while working on that book. I was very glad that she didn't notice with her heavy work schedule over the holiday. Then I started in on that big sucker, MM4P. The field stuff I was reading was beautiful. I could see it in my head. Maybe electrical engineering was the way I should go.

I had to get out and exercise. It was about forty degrees outside but I felt all right in a pair of shorts and a tee shirt. I was mindlessly working in a cycle, feeling the sunshine across my shoulders when I heard the old guy. "Break your rhythm at odd times. And add a hop here and there. It bugs the hell out of your opponents." I grinned as I walked over to him with my staff, breathing evenly.

His eyes wandered over the staff, then focussed on it. His hand turned me around and pulled away the neck of my tee shirt. He let go and sat down hard. He didn't look mad or concerned. He looked curious. "You've been feeding it. My word. You've done it again, lad. You've surprised me."

I felt that I had to explain myself. "That first day you gave the staff to me, I sat on my bed examining it. I was running my hands over it, feeling the textures, when I felt a sting. I opened my eyes in surprise to see a few drops of blood sink into the purple line. I was surprised but not worried. I didn't think that you would give me something inimical or dangerous. After a while I felt comfortable around it. I seemed to sleep better and study better. I think my memory is a lot, um, cleaner."

The old man quietly said, "Delightful! Who would have thought?" Then he said to me, "Come into my place. I have to make something for you." I curiously followed him inside and shut the door. "Wait here. I have to get a few things." He dissapeared into what looked like a store room. He came back a bit later grinning at me. "I knew I had it. I just had to figure out where it got itself up to." He put a flattened round of wood on the table with a steel or iron ring around it, then put down what looked like a diamond bladed saw and a brace 'n bit. "Stick out your first finger." He compared the size of the bit to my finger, then swapped it out. He then fished a dark purple chunk of wood out of his pocket. It was about four inches long and two inches across. "Here. Hold this firmly on the work bed and keep your staff touching it at all times." I curiously watched as he bored out the center of a half inch of the wood chunk, then had me turn it sideways. "Don't let it slip, now." He carefully sawed off a hollowed disk of wood and handed it to me. "Keep that in your palm for a few minutes while I clean up." He proceeded to put away all his tools, then carefully swept all the wood shavings into an envelope. "Can't let those get loose. Devil only knows what they'd get up to."

He sat me in a chair across the table from his. All right, lad. Hmm. Can't keep calling you lad, now can I? What's your first name?"

"Ivor. And you?"

"Eh? Connacht. These days I use Conn. Ivor. Means Yew Warrior. Heh. Apt enough. All right Ivor. Put that rough ring over your left first finger while holding your staff in the same hand. Hang on as it's going to get a bit messy. They'll both bite you but the result will far outweigh the cost, trust me."

I looked at him while he peered at me. He grinned and held up his left hand. There, amost merged with his first finger was a dark wood ring. Okay ... Well, here goes ... Yeow! The little sucker had teeth! It stopped chewing on me fast enough though. My hand was a little slippery from the blood but my staff seemed to drink it in. I saw the ring smooth and shrink to my finger. Soon it calmed down and just sat there, feeling smug. Conn slapped me hard across the back. "Welcome to the brotherhood of the tree!"

A couple strange dreams I'd had came to mind. "Shouldn't that be of the vine?"

He grinned. "Well, yes, but that sounds like we're a bunch of drunken sots. Tree sounds a lot more dignified."

I was curious. "Is there some sort of symbiosis?"

He nodded a few times. "Oh, yes. You provide it food and conciousness. It aids tremendously with your memory, strength, endurance and health. You'll last a long time before you're called. Also, keep that staff in your hands and you'll be fresh as a daisy while your opponents are gagging for breath."

I thanked him and went home to clean up. Mom could be back from work at any time.

Conn sat with his pipe, grinning. "By damn. What a surprise. This little dump certainly bore strange fruit." He wondered what drew him to the place. Now he'd have to stay around just to satisfy his curiosity.

Before he forgot, he picked up the envelope holding purple wood shavings and retrieved his own staff. He set his mind just so and visualized a jungle planet known for its carnivorous vines. He drew an archway against the wall which went dark. A heavy perfume of green growing things underlaid by the scent of rotting vegetation rolled over him. Conn sailed the envelope through the archway and quickly dismissed it before anything crawled through. He grinned while his staff sipped a taste of his life, then made a big roast beef sandwich for dinner. Afterwards he picked a volume out of his glass-fronted bookshelves and sat down with a bottle of beer to re-familarize himself with a several places. He hadn't visited them in a few years and had to keep his journal up to date.

As one of the brotherhood he had a job to do.

In a happy circumstance the library board met on Black Friday, the same evening that Ivor made his book request. Since the volume in question complimented one they already had it was rubber stamped while they went on to the next item in their full docket. The book order went in on Monday. The publisher was trying to lower his warehouse inventory befor the end of the year for income tax purposes. It shipped out immediately. The library recieved it on Thursday. Friday Ivor got a phone call stating that his book had arrived and was on hold for him. By that time the ring had spread a net of filaments throughout his body. The ring had settled in for the long haul.

I started carrying around a little grafting knife with a one inch blade. It was too small for anyone to call a weapon. If anything smelled good I sliced off a bit and chowed down. Some of the roots needed washing so I carried a little mesh bag over the shoulder to collect them in and eat later. Anything collected near or on the sidewalk got saved for consuming after a good wash. I tried to convince mom to start hitting the farmer's market during the weekends but we couldn't afford it. That made me think about how much we had to make do. The only things we didn't get from Goodwill was socks and underwear. I found my bike and fixed it. We ate a lot of starch. Yup, we were dirt poor. My birthday came around on January first and I didn't mention it.

That night I lay on my back wondering if this symbiosis could do anything else for me. when I finally fell asleep I felt bleak, wondering what would happen to my mom and me.

I woke up to one hell of an alarm clock--my ring bit me! I got dressed and put my sneakers on, picked up my staff and went outside? Now what? My eyes kept pulling in one direction. Well, something wanted me to go that way so what the hell. I found myself behind a few wrecked and abandoned cars at the edge of the trailer park's gravel lot, next to the road. My eyes were pulled to the back seat of one car. As I said before, what the hell. I pried open the door with a strong pull of my fingertips. I was surprised that I didn't get the living shit stung out of myself by the hornets. There were nests all across the top of the windshield. I wanted to get out of there fast, so then I shoved a knee into the front of the back seat while lifting up hard. The seat came out in my hands. I didn't see anything but mouse nests and dead bugs under it. Then I turned the seat upside down. Taped to the bottom of the seat were six gallon-sized baggies. They looked stuffed. I cut them free and took them home.

I spread newspaper on top of the kitchen table and started slicing the bags open. There were bundles of tens and twenties held together by dry-rotted rubber bands. I kissed that ring like it was a girlfriend. Relief? This was months of rent on the trailer at the very least. It meant food and gas for mom's car. The ring felt--happy. Appreciated. At home. I piled all the money into a pillow case and threw the plastic bags into the trash.

It was a day off for mom. When she came out I had breakfast waiting and a pot of coffee. After she ate I put the pillow case on the table. "Mom, I searched the old wrecked cars at the end of the lot last night. Remember that pot dealer that got busted a long time ago?" I poured out the cash. She looked at it and her hands started shaking. She cried and shook her head. "What's wrong, mom? You should be happy?"

"Saturday nights I don't go out with friends. I've got a blackmailer. I'm one of his whores. He'll just take it all like he does everything else." She cried with her head on her arms. I was stunned. No wonder we didn't have anything. I stood up and mindlessly stroked her hair. "It's okay, mom. We'll figure out something. Hey, is he the guy driving the car that comes to pick you up?"

"Yeah, That's him. Wally."

Ooh. this fucker needed a take-down. I slowly smiled. I had an idea of how do it, too. I had a ready-made snake incubator in that drainage pond. All I needed was some gunny sacks and a snake stick.

"Mom, look at me. Mom, we're gonna give Wally a Saturday night he's never gonna forget. Now, this is how we'll do it..."

It was about four A. M. Sunday morning when the sedan pulled up. Carol was sitting behind the driver and dropped her window half way before she got out. When she did, all the other women did as well. The last woman, the one that was sitting in the passenger seat, sprayed Wally with mace and dropped the car into park before jumping out and slamming the door shut. I slammed a gunny sack half full of angry cotton-mouths against the car door to further rile them up, then poured them into the back seat. Then I did it again. That was over thirty pissed-off adult cotton mouths. I got back from the car to watch the circus come to town. In a way I was sorry for the cotton mouths. They were innocent victims. Still, the screams that came from that car and the bouncing around soon had half the lights in the trailer park on. The noises stopped long before the police arrived. I was glad to sleep on the recliner while two women slept in my bed, one slept with mom and another took the couch. About noon I made pancakes for breakfast. Afterwards mom took the other women home. Mom went shopping after that. When she got home it looked like she'd had the time of her life.

I knocked on Conn's door. He was wearing a pair of sweat pants when he opened it. I goggled at the scars on his chest. He saw where I was looking. "Swordplay, boy. There's always someone faster, someone better. Remember that. Now, what can I do for you? You're not one to bother an old man without a reason."

I sat down at the kitchen table with him and gave him the whole sorry story about worrying about money and being led to a big cache, then what happened with the blackmailer.

"Why do you feel it necessary to unburden yourself to me?"

I couldn't string two words together, I swear, so I just opened my mouth and let it out. "I couldn't tell my mom any of this as she has no ground. I've come to think of you as a mentor. I'm just a kid and need someone older to help me. I guess that I'm asking you to be my mentor."

"I suppose you couldn't have put it more baldly if you'd tried, but there you go. Yes, lad, I'll be your mentor. You'll rue this day more than once but I promise to do well by you." He quickly leaned forward and gave me two hard numbing slaps, one on each cheek. "That's for taking a life without care for the consequences. If you do it again without a very good justification you will not see another sunrise. That is how the order polices itself. We don't kill for profit, entertainment or the benefit of others. You actually performed the act without the use of your gifts which gives you a bye, but be forewarned. Learn of your victim's dependents as well as their victims before you act. Being judge, jury and executioner brings a high price that you and only you must pay."

Cheeks still smarting, I solemnly nodded. "I understand."

He sat back and thought, looking at me. You've fallen into a major gift. The mind of the ring is powerful yet childlike. When seeking you normally must be as specific as possible in your visualization. However you seem to have hit on another technique which relies more on emotion in your calling. This may be unique to you and your bonding, or others may learn it. Either way it is an astounding lesson for all of us. You noticed that the wasps and hornets didn't bother you. This is a tool of the ring. Beware, if the ring becomes unhappy with you it can be used to chastise. It is good that you felt for the snakes. It reflects balance in your thinking. You must strive for this. It is one of our trademarks and we would not be accepted into certain worlds without it."

"Worlds?"

"Later. It's a big one. Now, despite almost breaking a basic tenet, I give you good marks. It took backbone, intelligence, skill and coordination. You did not have any fall-back in case it went wrong but for a first operation without guidance you did damned fine. You achieved your objective and didn't get caught."

"The librarian gave me some advice. What do you think?" I proceeded to relay the conversation to Con. "Blending into a culture is an art form. I would take his suggestions. He stopped short of make-up which can be used to darken the eye sockets and show a slight beard. These are harder to apply and maintain. By all means, have your mother assisst you in this project."

"You sound as if this is some sort of military or paramilitary training."

"There are many parallels. The same techniques work despite the difference in motivation. We in the brotherhood find ourselves in more violent actions than we prefer by quite a margin. I like to think that we don't start fights but we finish them."

I blinked a few times. "I like that. So what should I read? The West Point reading list?"

"Nope. The U.S. Army captain's reading list and the same for the Marines. Small unit tactics, all that."

"Wow. What a change from electrical engineering."

Conn looked at me curiously. "Just what the hell have you been reading, boy?"

I snorted. "Back to boy, ey? Second year differential equations and mathematical methods for physicists."

He looked at me thought his bushy eyebrows. "Careful, lad. Some of those concepts translate directly into some very powerful effects. We'll begin getting into effecting change at a distance soon, otherwise known as magic. Make certain sure that you run any experiments past me before you try them. For example, in four gestures I can create a fusion bomb of virtually any size I want."

"Oh, wow..."

"NO! Don't even THINK about it. it's a trap, one of many. Talk. To. Me. First. Understand?"

I was properly chastened. If he felt this strongly about it he damned well meant it. "Yes, mentor."

He looked up. "Thank God. All we'd need would be another black hole." He peered at me again. "That reminds me. fuck not with universal constants lest ye become a crispy critter and good to eat with ketchup."

I kept my eyes down. "Yes, mentor."

"Go home. Stay out of trouble. Learn to throw things hard. play with your ring. Learn to punch your knuckle prints into an anvil. That's a fun one. GO!"

I scooted. Knuckle prints in solid steel? I sort of heard a snicker coming from my ring. I smiled. Wow. What else could we do? I wondered if I could throw a baseball fast enough to catch fire?

I picked up a new heavy backpack and rode around on my bike hoping the ring would bring me to another money cache. We didn't need it quite so desperately but mom's car was over ten years old and didn't sound like it had long to live. I sat under a tree in a park thinking about it while trying to think about the ring at the same time. I think I got the idea across because I found myself pedalling like hell towards the airport, some four miles west. There was some pretty rough land just west of Cecil airport. I put down the bike near a big burned off area quite a ways from the end of the east-west airstrip, where a plane had come in short and crashed. I started loping west-north-west. I was pretty tired when I found a footlocker in some woods. When I pulled on the padlock it came open. Whoa. Thanks, ring. Somebody had been smuggling money. I figured that it fell out of a plane's cargo hold while in-bound, then the plane bounced and burned. That's the only guess I had. The whole thing was filled with bank-strapped bundles of cash, and large values too. I didn't count, I just kept stuffing that backpack until it was solid as wood. Then I packed all my pockets, too. I drank the canteen dry I'd been carrying then started slow-marching back to my bike.

I didn't dare stop on the way back home. Mom was pulling a Saturday shift, so I dumped the money on her bed and covered it all with a blanket. Soon enough I was asleep.

I woke up to a howling noise. "Ivor James Macklin, What is the Meaning of This?" (I could hear the capitals.) I wandered down to her bedroom, scratching my head. "Umm, a car payment?"

"Dammit, Ivor, this isn't a car payment. It's the down payment on a mansion! Where did THIS come from?"

How could I fess up without lying my ass off? Maybe a half truth was the best truth... "Mom, I've been getting these, um, dreams, after being worried about our having enough money to live on. I know it sounds suspicious, but nobody helped me. I just found it." (The ring wasn't a person, was it?)

Mom slowly sat down, looking at me all the while. "It's happening again, isn't it? Your father, Thomas, said he got hints when he wanted or needed anything. He just dissapeared one day when you were two."

I went around the table to kneel down and hold her. "Don't worry, mom. I'm not going anywhere for a while. What the heck--I'm only eleven. I found a foot locker full of cash in the woods west of Cecil. Most of it's still there." I held her at arm's length and grinned. "Wanna go pick up another down payment or two?"

We parked at a back corner of Fretwell park. I looked around and couldn't find a landmark to save my soul. I was drawn to a little swale where I found the footlocker under a pine tree. We carried it back to the car and scooted out of there. I sat in the back seat thanking my ring for doing its best to help me secure us a place to live and a way to get around, which was important in our way of living. I promised not to beg again unless something really nasty was happening. I had to promise to go throwing with it soon. I caught an image of whacking a ball bearing with a steel bar and watching it just saaaail ... That was so cool! And punching an engine block! I had so much to learn and so much of it sounded fun. Just ... damn!

We didn't live too far from the impound lot. Just north of there was an old foundry that looked like it closed before I was born. Nobody cleaned it up, they just put those big concrete lane separators around it so nobody could get in. Let me tell ya somethin'. Four feet of concrete never stopped no kid on a bicycle! I'd scoped out the place pretty well over the years. After all, it was abandoned and had all sorts of abandoned equipment laying around, just waiting there for me to explore. I met a lot of other kids screwing around out there too. Sometimes we hung together, but mostly we just looked around. That day I headed down to the repair shops. There were big welders, lathes that stood twice as tall as I was and all sorts of stuff that I couldn't recognize. I went looking for something I'd spotted before but never had a use for-- a big paperboard box of ball bearings, one and a half inches in diameter. I took a double handful down to the pouring floor. It was inside, so nobody could watch and had decent light from all the busted-out skylights.

I stood back a ways from a big smelting bucket and let 'er have it. It made a respectable clank, but didn't really impress me. I found myself talking to my ring. KE=1/2(MV-squared). To get a good punch out of anything the speed had to go way up. I took another ball bearing, spread my stance and really let go with everything I had while watching that bucket. Yow! my shoulder, wrist and elbow hurt like crazy. My fingertips were bloody. My ears rang. There was a dull red glowing hole in the side of the bucket. By Saint Momma Cass and her acolytes; Peter, Paul and Mary! I slowly walked up to that casting bucket. I could feel the heat coming off of it from a few feet away. When I raised my right arm to feel the glow I noticed that it had stopped hurting. I'd have to 'talk' this over with the ring. Somehow I had to get my arm joints strengthened before trying that again. I didn't want to rip my own arm off.

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