noun: a person with whom one has had no personal acquaintance; an outsider
adjective: increasingly different from what is usual, normal, or expected
CHAPTER 1: Meanwhile in Los Angeles …
October 31, 2010
Los Angeles, California
Mickey St. Angel, the Wizard of Fenway, took a long drag on his cigarette as he studied Tsang’s Pawn Shop. Set in the corner of an otherwise vacant three-story building deep in one of the worst slums of L.A., the few signs of life it provided were appropriately forbidding. Pallid lights shone out dimly through two dingy windows, each adorned with the shop’s name in a tacky faux-Chinese font. Each window displayed bric-a-brac – vintage chairs, some creepy old dolls, even an old Victrola record player, plus other detritus of ages dead and gone – but they revealed nothing of the shop’s interior. The exterior walls were slate gray and covered with graffiti. Most of it consisted of gang tags and declarations of love, but Mickey spotted several sigils of power carefully woven into the design. The corner street lamp flickered constantly, its power supply fluctuating due to the corrupted ley lines of this forgotten corner of Los Angeles. As Mickey continued his watch, an unseasonably cold wind whipped over him, tainted with the chill of abyssal power. He adjusted the battered Red Sox cap pulled down tightly over a shaggy mop of auburn hair and pulled his pea coat tighter.
The cigarette was an affectation, of course. Neither nicotine nor carcinogens could get past Mickey’s protective magic, but a guy standing on a street corner smoking a cigarette at 2 a.m. was slightly less conspicuous than one standing there doing nothing at all. “Mickey St. Angel” was also an affectation.“Mika-El Saint/Angel” was a name of power which he’d had won off its previous owner in a card game some three years earlier. In addition to himself and his predecessor, Mickey knew of at least four other Strangers who had worn that particular name in the past century. Three of them came to messy ends, which suggested that maybe hiding behind an archangel’s name wasn’t such a good idea after all, but at this point, Mickey had invested too much in the identity to change.
The surrounding block or so was virtually deserted – unsurprising, really, considering what lived in Tsang’s Pawn Shop – but as Mickey continued to probe the shop’s defenses, he became aware of two others nearby but moving in his direction. He glanced that way and saw two young people, one male, one female, coming up the sidewalk in his direction. They both looked painfully thin, twitchy, and nervous. And they both meant to do Mickey harm. He could practically smell the need for a fix radiating off both their auras and knew that they would kill for enough money for another hit, probably with the gun hidden under the male’s shirt. A quick glance at their respective karmas revealed that their given names were Jae Ellis and Shauna Tate.
Mickey turned his gaze back across the street. They would do what they would do, but he could not risk diverting his attention from the pawn shop. If its occupant had already sensed his presence, she was quite capable of relocating it in the blink of an eye, and he’d wasted too much time already tracking it down. So he opted to ignore his muggers until they were closer. When they were within twenty feet, Mickey dropped his cigarette to the ground and stepped on it with his shoe before casually putting his hands into his coat pockets. Seconds later, Jae walked up to Mickey, perhaps thinking himself stealthy or perhaps just that he’d found an oblivious victim, and shoved him against a wall before sticking the gun under his chin.
“Gimme ya wallet!” he growled. Shauna stayed back, rubbing her arms and shivering despite the hot, So-Cal air.
“Get his coat, too, Jae. It looks expensive.” The mugger looked down at Mickey’s woolen pea coat.
“Yeah. Gimme that too. Why d’ya even need a coat like that in L.A. anyway?”
Mickey said nothing. The coat, while uncomfortable in warmer climates, carried a host of useful protective enchantments (almost as many as his lucky baseball cap), but that was hardly the sort of thing he could explain to two drugged-out mundanes. He studied his two muggers more closely now that he could do so without losing sight of the pawn shop. His initial assessment was correct: they were just a couple looking for someone to roll for enough money to get high. No enchantments. No curses or hexes. No demons hiding behind their auras. Nothing remotely magical … other than the tiny addiction gods nestled in each of their hearts, but that was hardly unusual in this place and time. Their destinies indicated that each would probably be dead by the end of the year, one from overdose, the other from violence.
Satisfied that his two assailants were not cunningly disguised agents sent by Madame Tsang for a sneak attack, Matt relaxed his right hand, which had been shaped into an attack mudra in his coat pocket. Instead, he began rubbing his thumb against the tips of his index and ring fingers in a soft circular motion. He looked at each of his would-be muggers in turn and then said: “This is a bad idea.”
Almost immediately, Jae let go of Mickey’s collar and stepped back, fear washing over his face. Shauna moved quickly to get behind him, as if suddenly afraid of their victim. Mickey neither knew nor cared why they suddenly thought that mugging him was “a bad idea.” He merely presented the statement with a voice backed by magic, and the mundanes formed their own rationalizations. Quickly, they both turned and started walking back the way they came.
Really, that should have been the end of it since Mickey knew he’d need all his juice for what lay ahead. But he was a good guy, at least compared to many of his kind, and he was accustomed to giving higher priority to decency than pragmatism even when it might bite him on the ass later. When Jae and Shauna were a good thirty feet away, Mickey suddenly reached towards them with his left hand and psychically commanded them to stop. Then, with his right hand, he made a gesture of beckoning and sternly said: “Get over here.”
Jae and Shauna didn’t move, but then the second order wasn’t directed at them. Instead, two small black shadows, each about the length and shape of a garter snake, wriggled free from the junkies’ bodies and slithered through the air to Mickey’s beckoning hand. He regarded them with his spiritual eyes for a moment, keeping the majority of his other senses on the pawn shop. They were tiny creatures in the cosmic scheme of things, small addiction gods born of the small vices of small people. One of them bared its fangs at Mickey and hissed, and for just a second, he suddenly wanted another cigarette. The feeling passed almost instantly, but the attempted manipulation pissed Mickey off. He snapped his fingers and barked two short words, and the addiction gods disintegrated in a gout of white flame.
Immediately, a wave of confused relief washed over Jae and Shauna.They stood taller and more confidently and even seemed to look healthier already, as several years worth of painful addiction to meth and several other narcotics simply washed away. Idly, Mickey noticed that they had also lost their addictions to nicotine, caffeine and, for Jae, internet pornography. As they stared back at Mickey in amazement, he called out to them with a laugh: “Go! And sin no more!” Gratitude and terror battled on their faces for a moment. Terror won out, and they both bolted away from this peculiar man who so casually changed their lives.
Mickey shook his head. “You’re welcome!” he yelled after them. Then, he turned his full attention back to the shop. If the owner had not been aware of his presence before, she would be now. He started across the street, adjusting the Red Sox cap out of habit while rechecking his magical defenses. Three of them were at less than full strength, so he quickly muttered a Hail Mary in Urdu, followed by a brief prayer to Baron Samedi, and then a mathematical formula used to calculate the mass of anti-protons. His shields thus bolstered, Mickey stepped up to the door and focused his will against the store’s magical defenses. He snapped his fingers again. “Open, says me.” The front door slowly opened, apparently of its own volition, and Wizard of Fenway stepped through into the dragon’s den.
Over his head, wind chimes jingled softly as Mickey entered. He scanned the interior with all his senses, but could only see at all only with his least reliable: mundane vision. He frowned. The room was heavily veiled against magical observation and none of his occult senses could make out anything. He couldn’t even augment his senses enough to see in the dark, which was a problem – aside from the dangers presented by the owner herself, he had no way of knowing which items in the shop were cursed or otherwise enchanted, let alone what their properties were.
The room was long and rectangular. Nearest the front were some large pieces left out for customers to inspect: a big screen TV, a heavy wooden armoire, a 70’s era jukebox, and oddly, a tacky faux mummy sarcophagus propped up against the wall. Mickey knew a guy back in college who had one just like it that served as a liquor cabinet. Beyond those items were several dusty glass cases which displayed smaller items for sale, ranging from jewelry to electronics, and there were various appliances and stereo devices on grimy wall-mounted shelves. He noticed one case was devoted to knives and blades of all shapes and sizes and another was packed with cheap firearms, but he didn’t see the weapon he was looking for among them. At the far end was a final display case facing the door with an old push-button cash register off to one side. Behind that was an open doorway with a beaded curtain.
Mickey stopped after two steps, declining to step any farther into the spider’s web. There was less chance of triggering any hidden traps if he stayed near the door, and while he was confident in the integrity of his shields, only an idiot steps on land mines when he has the option to walk around them. He didn’t have long to wait. After just a few seconds, a high-pitched stream of Cantonese erupted from beyond the curtain, and then, a short squat Asian woman stepped through. Her hair was in curlers and she wore a hideous floral mu-mu. A large pair of blocky, rectangular sunglasses covered the middle third of her face. Mickey thought she looked like Kim Jong-Il in drag, and he would have laughed if he didn’t know how dangerous she was. Madame Tsang glared at Mickey and began to harangue him in pidgin English.
“What you doing here?!? Is late!! We close! You unna-stand! Come back later!”
Mickey rolled his eyes. “No, Madame Tsang, I will not come back later. I have come a long way and don’t plan on staying any longer than I have to. I’m here for the Birmingham Stapler. I know you have it, and I am prepared to pay a reasonable price for it.”
“Stapler! Dis pawn shop, dummy! You want stapler, you go Office Depot down street!”
“STOP IT!” Mickey had not meant to shout, but the creature’s act annoyed him and he had lost patience. He started forward with his hands outstretched in what he thought was a nonthreatening posture. “Just … stop, okay? We both know that you are fluent in every human tongue ever spoken, so please just stop with this ridiculous Ching-Chong dialect. Aside from being patently racist, it’s not fooling anybody!”
Tsang smiled. Actually, the offensive patois had fooled Mickey quite well – a subtle suggestion spell woven into a bad accent, its true purpose was to make him lose his temper and lure him closer to the center of the room. As he advanced, the old woman threw her arms up, and in response, the store’s gravitational constant shifted and the floor and ceiling suddenly reversed themselves. Mickey let out a surprised yelp as he found himself falling headfirst towards the ceiling, which, he now noticed, had several rows of iron spikes that had been concealed by the store’s dim lighting. He hit hard, but his shields held, absorbing the force of the fall and blunting the sharp spikes. Around him, he heard crashes, as everything in the shop not nailed to the floor (except Tsang herself, of course) also fell to the ceiling.
Mickey shook his head furiously and tried to target Tsang, but before he could get his bearings, she twisted her arms in front of her in a circular pattern and the room spun violently. Vertigo made Mickey’s stomach churn, as “down” was suddenly centered on the east wall just above the floor, and Mickey immediately fell thirty feet to that point, followed closely behind by the heavy armoire that Madame Tsang had thoughtfully loaded down with cement blocks for just such an occasion. Mickey cursed in pain when the armoire hit – again, his shields protected him, but they were mostly ablative when it came to physical assault. While impacts only caused superficial bruises, the shields also degraded with each hit, and anyway it still hurt like hell.
Worst of all, perhaps, was the damage to Mickey’s pride. He had prepared for three whole days to confront Tsang, and he was still getting his ass kicked. Most of his fighting generally involved esoteric magical attacks, and given this enemy’s nature, he had expected more of the same. He was embarrassed at how effectively her strategy of “hit the stupid white guy with rocks until he stops moving” was working.
Tsang twisted her arms yet again, and “down” was now focused over the opposite corner of the room, so Mickey and the armoire slid in that direction until they both hit hard against the big-screen TV which had already crashed there into a pile of jagged shards. The mummy case joined the pile, smashing Mickey’s fingers against the armoire and causing him to curse again. His damage was still mostly superficial – bruised ribs and now stung fingers, mainly – but he was effectively pinned under the heavy rubble and his kinetic shields were close to collapse. Then, Tsang reached forward to touch the display case in front of her and hissed out a word in a language that was already ancient before the Great Flood. The glass panes shattered into dozens of jagged shards which flew towards Mickey like daggers.
“Oh, screw this!” Mickey wrenched both his arms free from where the armoire had pinned them. Then, he focused his will, clapped his hands over his head, and yelled a quick two-word incantation: “Patrick Swayze!”
The armoire and mummy case smashed against the TV as Mickey, now an intangible ghost, easily melted through them. He flew forward, passingly harmlessly through the rain of glass, and then he pulled his legs up into a lotus position as he floated in the middle of the room. Once he’d centered himself, he brought his hands together into the Lesser Sign of Indra and began chanting a prayer in Bengali.
Tsang hissed in anger and casually jumped over the broken display case. She took a deep breath and then exhaled a tremendous gout of green fire directly at her enemy. Mickey smiled and continued chanting. Unlike the gravitational attack that had caught him off-guard, he was actually prepared for fiery magical breath, and as the magical flames reached his body, they flowed over him like water without leaving a mark. When Tsang ran out of breath, she finally had time to look nervous. Mickey finished his prayer and pointed towards her with a grim expression. In response, lightning – about 30,000 volts worth – poured from his hand into the old woman’s body, lifting her off the ground and slamming her into the wall behind her.
“Yeah,” he thought. “Let’s see how you like it!”
After several seconds of electrocution, Mickey ended the attack and let Tsang fall to the ground. He heard crashes behind him as normal gravity reasserted itself and all the objects which had collected in the front corner dropped as well. Mickey did not fall but instead floated gently down, solidifying as he touched the wooden floor. As he passed by one of the intact glass cases, a reproduction of a Spanish rapier with an elaborately designed hilt caught his eye. He gestured and grunted a command, causing the rapier to smash through the glass and fly towards his hand pommel first. As soon as he gripped the hilt, he held the blade up before him and studied it. “En fuego,” he said, and the blade was suddenly sheathed in blue flames.
Tsang was still lying on the ground, twitching and smoking. Her glasses had been blown off by the lightning, along with a big chunk of the spell that concealed her true form. Her eyes were now bright yellow and obviously reptilian, and patches of green, scaly skin showed through where her false human skin had been incinerated. Mickey pointed the flaming rapier at her throat.
“Stand down, dragon. I’m not here to end you, but if we continue this, your glamour will fail and reality will crush you like a bug. Just let me have the Birmingham Stapler, and I’ll leave.”
She hissed at him in rage, and a long forked tongue shot out off her mouth menacingly and then retracted. Her voice was no longer that of an elderly Chinese caricature. When she spoke it was with normal diction marred by rage and an inhuman sibilance.
“Mammalian filth! You would have me sssstand by as you defile my preciousss hoard with your thieving monkey handssss?!?”
“Thieving … monkey hands??? No! What?!?” He rolled his eyes. “Listen to me, you crazy dragon bitch. I didn’t come here to steal anything. At least, not unless I had to. I came here to buy the Birmingham Stapler off of you. I was going to offer you $25,000, which is a hell of a lot more than anyone else is going to pay for cursed office equipment. But since you threw a damned armoire at my head, I am now only offering $15,000, which is still a good offer. Do we have a deal, or do I just cut off your head and leave your body for the Ministry to find?”
She looked at him balefully. “You are not with thossssse who would hound me from this plane?”
“Do I look like Immigration to you? I’m not with the Ministry of Continuity, I’m not with the Unity Blade or the Cult of Mammon, and I’m not some random draconophobic bigot who wants to kill you because he thinks he’s St. George. Unless you’re planning to exterminate all us ‘stupid apes’ so you can reclaim Pangea in the name of Empress Tiamat or some other such bullshit, I really don’t care what you do.”
Tsang slowly climbed to her feet, and Mickey backed away, still holding the flaming sword. She gestured and summoned the shades back to her, and after she put them on, an incantation in some forgotten pre-Atlantean tongue transformed her exposed dragon scales back into human skin. She still moved a bit slow – the lightning had really hurt her – but she was unbowed. Once her disguise was restored, she regarded Mickey with disdain, her accent now uninflected English.
“Twenty thousand. You must also swear a binding oath that you will never again refer to me or to any other dragoness as ‘bitch.’ That word is highly offensive to us.”
He considered. “Eighteen thousand. And you throw in the sword.”
She glanced at the rapier, which was still burning brightly. “It has no magical properties, save for the spell you just cast upon it. It is not even an antique.”
“Don’t care. It’s a rapier. I always wanted a rapier.”
She crooked an eyebrow at him. “Your terms are acceptable. I shall fetch the anomaly you seek.” She turned and walked somewhat unsteadily back towards the beaded curtain.
“Thank you. And I apologize for calling you … that word. I didn’t realize dragons were sensitive to gender issues.”
She turned and looked at him imperiously. “Gender is irrelevant. ‘Bitch’ refers to the females of certain mammalian species.” She raised her chin in fierce pride. “If you would dare to insult a dragoness, the proper English term is ‘crazy dragon cow.’” She turned and exited with as much dignity as was possible for a 4’9″ woman in curlers wearing a muu-muu that still smoked from where lightning had struck it. Mickey held up his new rapier, admired it for a moment, and then blew out the flames as if it were a birthday candle. All things considered, the transaction had actually gone much better than he had expected.
Fifteen minutes later, Mickey St. Angel was walking down the street whistling cheerfully. Under his left arm, he carried his sexy new rapier already packaged for his flight. In his right hand, he carried a plastic bag containing the infamous Birmingham Stapler wrapped up in tissue paper and packed with some ginseng and rock salt to keep it dormant. If he could just catch a cab fairly soon, he might even have time to catch a few hours of shut-eye at the airport hotel before catching the next flight out of town. Then, he could deliver the anomaly to his client, some poor sap in Tallahassee who’d accidentally created the damned thing fifteen years ago and had been trying to recover and destroy it ever since. The Stapler was a surprisingly powerful anomaly, and Mickey would have been curious as to what sort of failed magic had created it if the client not paid extra for discretion.
He was just approaching a main thoroughfare where there was some possibility of getting a cab when his cell phone rang. He shifted the bag to his other hand and pulled out the phone. He didn’t recognize the number.
“Scramble,” he said, activating the phone’s built-in encryption spells before he hit the answer button. “Mickey St. Angel. Investigator of the Unknown. What do you need?”
The smile faded as the other person spoke. Mickey recognized the voice all too well despite the passage of years.
“Mickey, it’s me. You need to come back to Boston. There’s been a … development.”
Mickey listened in silence before tersely replying that he’d catch the next red-eye. Then, he hung up, rubbed his eyes, and wondered what he’d done to deserve this new catastrophe. Idly, he wondered if it was the Stapler, already infecting him with bad luck even despite its dormancy. Then, he shook his head and resumed his search for a cab. He didn’t need a cursed anomaly to generate bad luck. He was quite proficient at doing that on his own.