Check out Greg van Eekhout’s California Bones, an epic adventure set in a city of canals and secrets and casual brutality, available June 10th from Tor Books!
When Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian. When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.
Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch’s storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian’s sword, an object of untold power.
For this dangerous mission, Daniel will need a team he can rely on, so he brings in his closest friends from his years in the criminal world. There’s Moth, who can take a bullet and heal in mere minutes. Jo Alverado, illusionist. The multitalented Cassandra, Daniel’s ex. And, new to them all, the enigmatic, knowledgeable Emma, with her British accent and her own grudge against the powers-that-be. The stakes are high, and the stage is set for a showdown that might just break the magic that protects a long-corrupt regime.
Daniel Blackland’s clearest memory of his father was from the day before his sixth birthday, when they walked hand in hand down Santa Monica Beach.
That was the day Daniel found the kraken spine in the sand. It was a slate-gray morning, and Daniel shivered without a jacket, but he wouldn’t complain. The soggy air carried rollercoaster screams from the pier, and Daniel hoped for a ride. Maybe he and his father would even drive the bumper cars, teaming up to bash other kids and their parents. But then he spotted the bone splinter in the foam of the receding surf, a silvery fragment the length of a knitting needle, rising from the sand like an antenna. Years later, he would wonder if his father had planted it there for him to find, but on this day, he
hadn’t yet learned that level of suspicion.
The sliver drew him like a magnet. Breaking contact with his
father’s grip, he ran across the wet-packed sand to claim his prize. When he brought it back, his father held the spine to his long, bent nose, and his dark eyes focused like a microscope over a glass slide. He took an aggressive sniff, as though he were trying to suck the soul out of it. In his white dress shirt and gray slacks, he resembled one of the seagulls wheeling overhead, and Daniel imagined him spreading his long arms to catch the wind and take flight.
Daniel’s mom once said his father was made of air. “Sebastian Blackland’s not down here with us. That’s why he’s hard to understand. Spend too much time searching the sky for your father and you’ll just crimp your neck.”
Sebastian held the sliver up to the weak sun. “Kraken. We hardly ever find these anymore. Not outside of the Ossuary, anyway. But something must have dredged it up from the sea floor, and then the currents carried it here, right in your path, just for you. It’s not surprising. I’ve used a lot of kraken in my work, so it’s in my bones, and I’ve passed some of that affinity to you.” He handed the spine back to Daniel. “The kraken used to live in the great deeps. They were creatures of storms and wind and rain and lightning. Not much in the way of solid skeletons, so their remains are rare.”
He paused and looked at Daniel, and Daniel felt as though he were being measured. He held his father’s gaze, struggling to triumph over squirms and fidgets.
“This is a good find, Daniel. Better than most of the La Brea fossils. The kraken is even older, with deeper osteomancy.”
Daniel glowed. His father didn’t lavish idle praise.
“Find me a seashell,” he instructed Daniel. “Abalone would be perfect, but I’ll take anything from the ocean I can use as a crucible.”
Daniel raced off. He found no abalone, but from a tangle of seaweed swarming with sand fleas, he excavated half a large mussel shell. He rinsed it in the surf, dug out some stubborn sand grains with his fingernails, and rinsed it again before bringing it over for Sebastian’s inspection.
“Good,” Sebastian muttered. “This will be good.”
They sat cross-legged on the sand together.
“Do you trust me?”
This was a serious question. An important one. Usually his father’s eyes roamed when he spoke, looking at things Daniel couldn’t see. Now, they saw only Daniel.
Daniel loved him with the uncomplicated desperation with which small boys love their fathers. But trust? It had never occurred to Daniel not to trust him. It was like earth. Daniel never wondered if it’d be there when he took a step. Now, the smallest of fissures opened in his unquestioning certainty.
“I trust you,” Daniel said, because he knew it was what his father wanted to hear.
His father took the mussel and kraken spine and set them both on the sand. From a leather zipper case, he produced his scalpel. The handle was polished bone, coffee-stained from millennia in tar and so well used that there were indentations where his fingers gripped it. The blade was fashioned from the tooth of a Vipera americanus.
“I’m a powerful man,” he said. It didn’t sound boastful. It was a simple fact. “Some people want what I have. They’re not dangerous to me, because I’m stronger than they are. But there are other people who are more powerful than me, and they’re afraid I’ll want what they have. Those people are very dangerous to me. And because you’re my son, they’re dangerous to you. So, I have two choices. I can keep you ignorant and weak. Or I can try to make you strong. Do you understand?”
“Not really,” Daniel said.
His father’s smile formed a pale seam in his face. “No, of course not. I’m not sure I do either. But you said you trust me. And there will be times when I ask you to do hard things. Things that hurt. Things that make you cry. But I’m doing them for your own good, so that when you grow up, you’ll be strong. Stronger than me. Stronger than the people who are stronger than me. Can you understand that, at least?”
“Good,” said his father.
Daniel watched his father’s hands work the kraken with the scalpel, curling away shavings and letting them drop into the shell. Sometimes Sebastian spoke as he worked, instructing Daniel in the way his teachers must have instructed him. He spoke of Elysia chlorotica, a sea slug he’d been studying that stole genes from the algae it ate and gained the ability to convert sunlight to energy. A natural osteomancer, he called it. But sometimes his words couldn’t express what he was doing. Sometimes Daniel could only watch and smell. Some of what he smelled now was earthly—the salt and mud and sour rot of things from the bottom of the sea. And some of it was osteomantic, impressions of ancient things, lurking deep, of old power, of electric anger, waiting to discharge.
Next from the zipper case, Sebastian produced his torch. In outward appearance it looked very much like a cigarette lighter of burnished copper, but it was an intricate instrument with inner workings as complex as a fine watch. Sebastian thumbed it open and dialed the flame to a precise temperature. He applied it to the bottom of the shell, and the flame changed color, fading from intense red to pale peach, and then to an invisible heat. The flame wasn’t just coming from the torch. Daniel’s father was fueling it, too, and his heat baked Daniel’s face.
For a stretch of time, nothing happened. Sebastian remained perfectly still, holding the torch steady. Daniel’s foot began to fall asleep, so he counted ocean waves to take his mind off the tingling. By the time he got to seventy-five, the kraken shavings had melted to a tiny pool of molten silver. Sebastian spit into the shell. He wasn’t a tobacco user, but his saliva was the same rich brown as the tar-infused bone handle of his scalpel. The kraken shavings burst into flame, with tall flickerings of gasjet blue.
“Our bodies are cauldrons,” he said, “and we become the magic we consume.”
He often said things like that, things that circled around the perimeter of Daniel’s understanding, sometimes veering just within reach before darting away into ever-widening orbits. Daniel could remember the names of osteomantic creatures and their properties—mastodon for strength, griffin for speed and flight, basilisk for venom—but he grew lost when Sebastian spoke of the root concepts of magic.
The blue flame deepened to a dark royal color, like the flags that snapped above the Ministry of Osteomancy building where Sebastian worked. When the flames shrank and died, he capped the torch and held the mussel-shell crucible out to Daniel.
“Drink,” his father said, not in the firm tone he used when Daniel didn’t want to eat his brussels sprouts, but softer, more encouraging, almost a whisper of anticipation. “Drink.”
Daniel obeyed. He lifted the shell to his mouth, took a breath for courage, and touched his tongue to the fluid. His tongue blistered in an instant, and his taste buds charred and fell away. His hand jerked in pain, but his father’s strong fingers steadied his wrist, and Daniel spilled no kraken.
“Drink,” he said again, and maybe it was the pain, or maybe the magic, but it sounded as though his father’s voice had come from the crucible.
Daniel tipped the shell back and let the scalding silver slide down his throat. At first there was only fire and searing pain. He tried to scream but all that came out was a strangled croak, and in that croak was stored not only physical agony, but deeper injuries of betrayal. His father had done this to him. He was in pain because of his father.
And then Sebastian’s cool hand cupped the back of Daniel’s head, as if he were an infant and his father were cradling him, and the pain went away, replaced by flavors and aromas of secret places in deep, sunless waters, and great black pressures from the miles of vertical ocean. Daniel was a skeleton swimming in the sea-water cage of his own body, and the pressure suddenly gave way and Daniel shot to the surface.
“Quick, now, Daniel. Hold my hand.”
Light-headed, Daniel gripped his father’s hand as tight as he could. A prickling sensation raised goose bumps on Daniel’s skin. The tiny hairs on his arms stood at attention, and his blood popped like cola.
Gulls cried overhead and waves hammered the shore. Daniel looked up at Sebastian. His face was a blur, and Daniel realized his father was vibrating, and Daniel was vibrating with him.
“Don’t be afraid,” his father said, voice shuddering. “I’m strong.”
Lightning struck. Silver-white cracking bursts. Threads of blinding light coursed over Daniel’s arms and legs, snaking around his chest and rib cage and mingling with the lightning coming off his father. Pain gouged his flesh. He screamed, desperate to let the pain fly from his body, but there was only more pain. His body was a sponge for it, with limitless capacity. Pain replaced everything.
After a time, Daniel’s world settled and he could once again see. Fused sand, pools of black, gooey glass, thick as La Brea tar, smoked and bubbled around them.
“The kraken was a creature of storms,” Sebastian said. “It’s been a part of me for a long time, ever since I consumed my first one, when I wasn’t much older than you. And now it’s yours. That’s the osteomancer’s craft, to draw magic from bones. To capture it and store it, to use the creatures’ power, guided by human intelligence. One day you’ll be able to use the kraken’s power as you will. Understand?”
Sebastian studied him a long time. The pain was over, but the memory of it roiled inside Daniel, like smoke from a fire.
He felt strong.
Not all Sunday visitations were like this. There were also days at the movies, and miniature golf in Van Nuys, or at the water park in San Dimas. But by the time Daniel was twelve, the outings tapered off and weekends were spent at Sebastian’s house, a warren of tilting walls jammed into the earthen gouge of Topanga Canyon. The area was popular with artists and musicians and chefs and osteomancers. Daniel didn’t like their children. They had names like Aquarius or Oat and a lot of them didn’t wear shoes. Daniel was jealous of them. They had time to screw around with skateboards and bikes. They had time to shoplift CDs from Rhino Records. Not that normalcy was an entirely foreign country to Daniel. Monday through Friday, at home with his mom, things were kept as normal as possible. But the weekends were marathon lessons with his dad, and that world was full of bones and oils and feathers and powders. He learned about Colombian dragon and smilodon and eocorn, the primitive New World unicorn. He learned about osteomancy imported from other lands, like abath from Malaysia and criosphinx from North Africa. And he learned to use the osteomancy already in him. He could generate sparks from his fingertips without having to consume more kraken. His father fed him a lot of magic.
On the last day he saw his father alive, Daniel watched a little nugget of bone bob in a kettle of boiling oil. Sebastian lifted it with a copper spoon and sniffed it. “Tell me what this will do,” he instructed.
“I have no idea,” Daniel said, giving the bone a cursory sniff. Outside was a blue sky and a warm sun and a short gondola-bus ride to the beach, where Daniel fancied he could rent a surfboard and maybe figure out a way to impress a girl. He didn’t want to be here with the curtains drawn, breathing air full of dead things that stank.
Sebastian dipped the bone back into the oil. “Try, Daniel. Let it in. Let it talk to you.”
His father wouldn’t give up, and there was still a part of Daniel that wanted nothing more than to please him. Resigned, he lowered his face to the kettle. At first all he detected were his father’s tells: There was clean sweat. Shaving soap. And tar, deeply embedded, from the marrow of his father’s bones. And there was also something of Daniel. The ghosts were all mixed up, and Daniel couldn’t tell where his father’s smell ended and his own began.
“What is our essence?” Sebastian asked.
Daniel had answered this question a thousand times. He answered it again. “Cells.”
“And what is the essence of the cell?”
“Was that your mind answering, Daniel, or just your mouth?”
“Molecules,” Daniel repeated, adding a touch of drone in order to make himself sound as brainless as possible. But taking the time to answer, even in his smart-assed way, forced him to concentrate on the word just enough that he involuntarily began to envision molecules, like knotted beads twisted into esoteric chains.
Sebastian smiled, enjoying his small victory. “And what is the essence of the molecule?”
“And the essence of the atom?”
“Electrons, protons, neutrons. And quarks.”
This was where Sebastian Blackland had made his innovations in magic. He’d followed the research in nuclear and particle physics, reading papers smuggled into California from the United States, seeking to understand the fundamental nature of matter on a finer-grain level than his colleagues at the Ministry of Osteomancy. Ultimately, he felt that magic came from understanding matter, so he sought to understand matter as deeply as he could.
“What is at the heart of the subatomic particle?”
“Energy,” Daniel said, his answers more than recitation now. Sometimes he felt he was coming close to understanding his father’s model of magic, and that’s when he felt nearest to those beach-walk afternoons of long ago. But his understanding was like a whiff of vapor that stole away on the breeze.
“What bridges energy and matter?” Sebastian continued.
“Magic,” said Daniel.
“Trick question,” Sebastian said, a little mischievous now. “Magic transcends energy and matter. Magic transcends the laws of thermodynamics. An osteomancer consumes a creature, and not only does he use its power, but he increases it.” He stirred the pot again. “If he’s any good, that is. Now. Smell the preparation again.”
Daniel moved his face over the bubbling kettle. He shut his eyes and thought of chains and links and impossibly small bits of matter and impossibly huge parcels of energy.
“Well?” Sebastian whispered, close to Daniel’s ear.
“It’s sint holo?” The sint holo was an extinct horned serpent from the American southeast.
“Yes,” Sebastian said. “And what does it do?”
“I don’t know,” Daniel said. “It’s like something I can’t hold on to. It’s like confusion.”
Sebastian straightened, smiling, and Daniel felt his head swim. Maybe from the fumes. Maybe from pride.
“That’s right. Sint holo remains transfer properties of invisibility. It’s for a weapon I’m making. Part of a sword blade. Want to see?”
Did Daniel want to see? Was he kidding? What kind of wizard’s son would he be if he didn’t want to see his father’s sword? He’d read a book about the swords the Hierarch had used in the Battle of Santa Barbara, and he knew if he ever became a true osteomancer, he’d specialize in making magic swords.
“Okay,” Daniel said.
He imagined Sebastian would take him through some secret doorway, down a passage to an underground vault, and that the sword would be displayed in a magnificent case, or embedded in a stone. Whenever Daniel heard mention of the Ossuary catacombs, where his father worked, that was how he envisioned it. Instead, Sebastian took him to a bureau in a spare bedroom stuffed with books and file cabinets. He slid open a long, flat drawer, from which he took out a towel-wrapped bundle. He set it carefully on the bureau and peeled back the terry cloth.
It looked… okay. The pommel was a round metal disc welded onto a bare tang, and the guard was an unadorned crossbar. The leaf-shaped blade was kind of short, a little over two feet long and in need of a polish. Running down the blade, almost from guard to point, was a sort of channel inlaid with bone chips. Many were the rich brown of La Brea fossils. Others were tan or gray or white. A few were iridescent pearl, or the rich jewel tones of a church window. Some of the chips appeared to be assembled from smaller pieces, little nuggets of bone, or teeth.
The inlay only ran halfway up the blade, indicating many more hours of toil left to be done.
“Does it have a name?” Daniel asked. All great swords had names. The Hierarch’s was called El Serpiente.
“Not yet. I’ve been calling it the Vorpal Sword for now, just for convenience. It’s kind of a joke from Lewis—”
“‘Jabberwocky,’ I know. Mom read it to me.”
“Ah. Good,” said Sebastian. “Well, whoever finishes the sword gets to name it, because it’ll have that person’s essence.”
Daniel pointed out the bone chips. “What do they do?”
His father’s eyes shone. He somehow managed to betray giddy excitement and remain grave at the same time. “Right now, the sword does everything I do. It has kraken properties, and firedrake. Thunder and flame. Sint holo will make it hard to defend against. But we won’t know all its properties until you’re finished.”
“I’m finishing the sword?”
“Yes, that. But I also meant we won’t know what it’s capable of until you’re finished. Here, look at this.” His father ran his finger along some of the inlaid chips. “These are your baby teeth. And these threads between them are made from your hair clippings. And these lacquered bits here? I made those from your tonsils.”
Daniel’s tonsils came out when he was five. He didn’t remember why. He didn’t remember being sick. He just knew his father had taken him to a doctor and then his throat hurt and there was ice cream.
“Your magic is in this,” said his father. “And you’ll keep growing your magic, and you’ll keep investing in this weapon, and in others. Using the magic brewing inside you… that’s deep magic. That’s osteomancy.” He gestured at his work counter, littered with jars and vials and little envelopes. “Everything else is just recipe. It’s so important you learn that, Daniel. It’s important you make powerful weapons. That you be a powerful weapon.”
“Because the Hierarch is making very good weapons.”
He rewrapped the sword in its towel and returned it to its drawer. Back in the kitchen, he dialed down the heat on the boiling sint holo bone and fitted a heavy copper lid over the kettle. “It still needs to simmer awhile. So, let’s use our time to—”
“Can we go somewhere?” Daniel interrupted.
“Yes. Somewhere outside? Or at least somewhere with natural lighting?”
Sebastian’s gaze skated worriedly over his work counter.
“It doesn’t have to be Disneyland or anything like that,” Daniel pressed on. “We can even just stand out on the curb. We can gaze into the mysterious shadows of the canal and you can tell me all about the osteomantic properties of carp or canal scum or anything you want—”
“Okay,” Sebastian laughed. “Okay. What do you really want to do?”
“Mini-golf and go-carts.”
Sebastian’s eyes warmed. “Aren’t you getting a little old for that?”
“Also, I want to destroy you at skee ball.”
“It’s good to have ambition. I’ll get my keys.”
They left the workroom together and entered the living room, little more than a narrow pathway between teetering boxes that went almost to the ceiling. The boxes contained the books and papers Sebastian had hauled over from his Ministry office.
From outside, the sound of a helicopter rotor chopped the air. Sebastian went to the window, but came away when the phone rang. He lifted the receiver.
“This isn’t a good time, Otis,” he said. And then for a while he didn’t speak, but only listened.
“Who else did they get?” Whatever the answer, it made him shut his eyes. When he opened them, he looked over to Daniel, and for the first time in his life, Daniel saw his father’s fear.
“You’ll take care of them?” Sebastian said into the phone. “Promise me, Otis. Promise me.”
There was a short pause, and then he returned the receiver to its cradle.
Out on the canal, boat doors slammed. Sebastian pushed Daniel back into the kitchen.
“The sint holo isn’t ready yet,” he said, lifting the lid of the simmering pot. “But it will help you, at least for a little while.”
“What’s going on, Dad?”
“Wait as long as you can before swallowing it, and when you walk, make no noise. Take the sword, and go to 646 Palms Boulevard. Your mother will meet you there. Wait for Otis, and he’ll help you and your mom get out of Los Angeles.”
He ruffled Daniel’s hair and placed a priestly kiss on his forehead, just like he used to do when putting Daniel to bed. Then he went into the living room and shut the door, leaving Daniel alone.
Here, Daniel’s memory of what happened became less clear. Mostly, he remembered noise and light. Splintering wood and boots pounding the hardwood floor. Shouts. Then, cracks of thunder, so close, like bombs detonating between his ears, the loudest thing he’d ever heard.
After that, a brief silence, followed by soft footsteps outside the kitchen.
Daniel ran to the stove, where the kettle rested over the flame of the burner. The bone still tumbled in the low boiling oil. With a pair of tongs he lifted the bone and braced himself for pain. He opened his mouth and dropped the bone in, forcing it down, tears streaking his face as the jagged nugget burned and tore its way down his throat.
The kitchen door flew open and a half-dozen cops rushed in. The gray-haired man in the lead wore the Hierarch’s wings-and-tusks emblem on his windbreaker. Daniel backed up against the stove as the man came closer, his hand extended.
The man’s eyes lost focus. He blinked.
Daniel stepped around his outreached hand, avoiding contact. When he moved past the cops, they flinched as though brushed by cobwebs. He went into the front room.
Four charred bodies lay amid an avalanche of overturned boxes, yellow-edged papers and books spilling across the floor. The men’s faces bubbled, black with char and red with blood. The room stank of ozone and cooked meat and kraken.
His father hadn’t managed to get them all. He was on his back. Three cops were cutting the flesh off him with long knives. They’d already flayed one arm, exposing the deep, rich brown of his radius and ulna. They peeled back his face to expose his coffee-brown skull.
The man on the carpet being dissected before Daniel’s eyes was no longer his father. Daniel understood that his father was gone. In the space of an instant, eternal moment, these men had taken his father away from him. They had reduced his father to a sack of magic, and now they were plundering him.
Daniel reached back to that day on the beach, six years before, when he’d found the kraken. He remembered its smell, and he searched for it in his own body, and when his fingers began to tingle, he knew he’d found it. His father had made him strong, and now Daniel would use his strength to make these men with the long knives shriek like slaughtered animals.
In the doorway stood a man. Whether it was a trick of memory or a trick of magic, Daniel couldn’t quite focus on him, as if light slid off his flesh and dripped away. But Daniel caught an impression of him. A smell of deep things underground. The smell of earthquakes.
The Hierarch entered the house. The earth shuddered with each step. The pictures on the walls rattled in their frames, and glasses in the cabinets and the silverware in the kitchen drawers jingled. The Hierarch loomed over the body of Daniel’s father. In his hand, something of polished metal glinted. It was a fork.
“Excuse me,” the Hierarch said in a sandpaper voice. “I’ll have him fresh.”
Daniel did not want to see this. He wanted to run. That’s what his father had told him to do, and he did not want to see this, because he knew that, once seen, he would never be able to close his eyes without seeing it.
But the sword. He couldn’t leave without getting the sword. The sword was his father’s magic. It was Daniel’s own magic. So he forced himself to turn back to the spare bedroom, where two of the men with the long knives stood before the door. There was just enough space between them that Daniel should be able to slip past. He took a step. And then he heard something, over from the floor where his father lay, and where the Hierarch crouched. He didn’t look, would not look, but the sound was obvious. The Hierarch was chewing.
That night, Daniel left the sword behind and ran. Away from the house. Away from the rotor blades and searchlights. He ran until he could only walk, walked until he could only stumble, stumbled until he could only crawl. When morning broke, he awoke in wet sand and bathed himself in the cold waves rolling in on the edge of a winter storm. He would live here, he thought. He would live here on the beach as a ghost.
He was already dead, Daniel told himself.
When the Hierarch began eating his father, he was already dead.
Ten years later, he would still hear the sound of the Hierarch’s teeth grinding his father’s cartilage.
Daniel caught the gondola-bus at Lincoln Station and rode it all the way to Wilshire and Fairfax, just a few blocks from La Brea Tar Pits. The gondola doors flapped open with a pneumatic hiss, and the burned-dirt stink of tar settled in the back of his head. He only realized he’d been woolgathering at the door when the gondolier growled something about schedules and people with heads lodged in their asses. Daniel stepped off into the tar-haunted air.
Delivery boats and taxis left trails through rainbow-slicked waters. After more than a century of use, the Los Angeles canals had become a swill-clogged circulatory system on the verge of seizure, not so much the quaint Venetian paradise Abbot Kinney had envisioned in the early 1900s. Daniel’s father used to rant about how LA deserved a land road system worthy of the kingdom. Ten years after his assassination, roads were few and canal traffic was even worse. The Hierarch liked gondolas in his city.
Daniel climbed up the dock steps and glanced over to the community bulletin wall, where the Hierarch’s authority was on display. The hands of thieves decorated one section of the wall like fish scales. Nearby, the crow-picked corpses of subversives hung in gibbets like wind chimes.
Entering the sprawl of Farmers Market, Daniel negotiated the maze of stands and awnings and bins and baskets where little old ladies with sharp elbows crowded the lanes. Deeper into the market he went, through aromas of charred meat mixed with garlic and cloves and ginger and grease. The market was even busier than usual, with shoppers eager to spend for the upcoming Victory Day celebrations. Dragon magicians smoked the air with flash-powder, while jugglers and snake charmers vied for space with guitar-strumming buskers whose repertoire spanned the spectrum from soulful pop to soulful folk-pop. But what Daniel noticed most was the smell of tar from parcels of gas lurking below the streets like jellyfish.
He made his way to Apothecary’s Row, where the shelves bore a dizzying array of things in pickle jars: teeth, bones, penises, glands of all kinds.
“You got a problem?” said a man behind a stall. His face was creased like a cinnamon stick. “Yeah, I can tell. You got lots of problems. Fatigue, listlessness, bedroom difficulties, am I right?”
“I don’t have bedroom difficulties,” Daniel said, defensive. He’d passed by this stall three times this week, sniffing. He knew the apothecary’s pitch. He knew there was a storage space behind the curtain at the back of his stall. He knew in which pocket the apothecary kept his keys.
The man shook a few grains of bright orange dust onto a metal tray. It looked like dehydrated cheese powder from a box of instant macaroni.
Daniel sniffed. “What’s this?”
“Dragon-turtle,” said the apothecary, his smile revealing jade teeth. Jade veneers were catching on as a fad. They were believed to counteract poisons.
The apothecary launched into an unlikely narrative about the turtle’s origins. The Chinese still had dragon-turtles, he explained, living ones grown from ancient fossils, and there’d been a typhoon last week and a Chinese turtle carcass had drifted all the way across the Pacific to wash up on a San Diego beach. There, a lifeguard, who just happened to be the apothecary’s brother-in-law, got to it before the Hierarch’s men were able to confiscate it.
Daniel had to give him credit: It was not the worst spiel he’d ever heard.
A woman in a black peacoat stepped up to the counter and stood at Daniel’s elbow. She glanced at him, her brown eyes level with his, and he took in her talcum-powder and cleansoap scent, and suddenly the thought of needing an aphrodisiac was beyond absurd.
“Are you going to try it?” the woman said to him.
“I really don’t need—”
“My husband does,” she said, waving her hand to show off a loose-fitting gold ring crowned with a sparkly chunk of rock. “But he’d kill me if he knew I was shopping for this kind of thing.”
“There’s no shame in it,” Jade Teeth said, turning on the charm. “But you have to be careful where you get your magic these days. Some of the vendors around here aren’t selling anything more potent than baking soda. And that only works if you want your man foaming at the mouth.”
The woman laughed extravagantly and waved her hands in a gesture of careless hilarity. Her ring slipped off her finger and flew across the counter. She and the apothecary fumbled hands as they both made a grab for it, but it ended up in her palm, and then back on her finger. Daniel caught an expression of lost opportunity flash on the apothecary’s face, but Jade Teeth hadn’t noticed the woman’s hand dip into his pocket.
“That would have been a disaster!” the woman said with a relieved gasp. “He would have just killed me if I’d lost my ring! I guess I should take that as a sign or something. No bedroom enhancements today, thanks.”
She smiled, her nose crinkling in a way that Daniel found unbearably fetching, and with a small wave good-bye at the apothecary, she drew away from the counter. The apothecary hungrily watched her go.
“Try the dragon-turtle,” he said, snapping back into sales mode, “and you might have a chance with a girl like that.”
Daniel suppressed a sudden urge to punch the man in the nose. He licked his fingertip and applied it to the powder and gave it a deep, healthy sniff. Mostly flour, a small touch of sulfur, a pinch of deer horn, mixed with common herbs. Fairly harmless, and not even remotely osteomantic.
True osteomancy was scarce these days, but that didn’t stop the market. People craved magic. Magic to heal their ailments, magic to boost their mental acuity, magic to put some octane in the old sex tank. And people like the apothecary were only too happy to sell them counterfeits.
Behind the apothecary’s back, the curtain blocking off the back room wafted ever so slightly.
“This is not making me horny,” said Daniel.
“You only had a little.”
“It’s not even making me a little horny. Do you have anything other than kitchen experiments?”
The apothecary squinted. “Are you a cop?”
“Do I look like a cop? I don’t even have a mustache.”
“I got nothing for you.”
“But what about my bedroom difficulties?”
“Fuck your bedroom difficulties.”
Daniel shrugged his eyebrows and moved back into the crowd.
He found the brown-eyed woman with the loose ring near the doughnut stand on the other end of the market. She handed him a small white bag. He peered inside.
“Devil’s food! With candy sprinkles!” he said, delighted. He took a munch of doughnut. “So, how’d we do?”
“You tell me.”
She undid the two top buttons of her coat and flapped the lapels. A sour tinge of cerberus wolf passed across Daniel’s senses. Not a lot of it, and it was cut with a dozen useless compounds, but these days it counted as a decent score. Still, it rankled Daniel to be punching so far below his weight class.
Cassandra Morales rebuttoned her coat. “Don’t give me that look. That’s a month’s rent for each of us. Beats working, anyway.”
Daniel actually had nothing against working. But getting straight work in Los Angeles wasn’t an option for him. Straight work meant submitting to an interview by the Ministry of Labor, which meant an hour-long interrogation, background check, peeing in a cup, letting a hound sniff your skin. It was an opportunity to slip up in the smallest way and earn a place back at the end of the line, or a flogging, or worse. And for Daniel, with his magic-saturated bones, walking into the Ministry of Labor was equivalent to volunteering for a vivisection. Los Angeles wasn’t a safe place for the son of Sebastian Blackland.
So, he was left with these petty thefts of trace magic.
“It’s a lot of work for little gain,” said Daniel.
“Speaking of work, you didn’t tell me I’d have to break a sweat to get into the safe.”
“I saw you steal the apothecary’s key.”
“Yeah, but there was an alarm. All you had to do was talk to the apothecary and lick stuff.”
“I’m just saying this was hardly the heist of the century.”
“Well, okay,” Cassandra allowed, “sniff us out a better score, and we’ll see what we can do.”
Daniel caught a whiff of something and his mouth went dry.
Cassandra noticed. “What’s wrong?”
“Hounds,” he whispered.
They came from the other side of the food court: Garms, the lean, smoke-colored breed favored by the Ministry. Like hyperactive vacuum cleaners they sniffed the carpets and wares of the stalls and the shoes of the shopkeepers. Even now word would be filtering through the network of black marketers, and contraband magic was being flushed down toilets or sent off with runners.
“Go,” he told Cassandra, and she trusted him enough not to argue. Daniel wasn’t too worried about her, nor the cerberus wolf in her pocket. She could take care of herself. With a talent so sharply honed it might as well be magic, she melted into the crowd and was gone.
Daniel would have a harder time. The hounds were trained to detect magic, and Daniel was magic.
He shouldered his way past a clump of people surrounding a street performer in silver paint doing a human robot bit. Threading himself into the knot, he unzipped his black hoodie, reversed it, and put it back on, red-side out. That wouldn’t fool the dogs, but if the handlers radioed in a fleeing suspect, at least the description of his clothes would be a little off. Much better, of course, if the dogs didn’t pick up his scent. But a wet canine snuffle sounded from behind him. He glanced over his shoulder. The dogs were less than a dozen yards away, noses to the ground, sweeping.
No point in running now.
He came to a stop in a crowded market corridor. Sunlight filtered through the multicolored plastic canopies and bathed the space in a floral glow. The hounds were close enough to cover the distance to him in a single lunge. They strained against their harnesses, twisting, threatening to slip their restraints. Alarmed shoppers shoved one another to get out of the dogs’ way. A woman dropped her purse and a man stepped on her hand as she bent to pick it up. Oranges spilled out of someone’s bag, starting an argument that ended with the snarl of a hound.
Sebastian Blackland had taught Daniel osteomancy, but Otis had taught him almost everything else necessary to survive as the son of an osteomancer. He drew his shoulders in. He expanded his abdomen to create a small paunch. This wasn’t magic. It was acting. He was no wizard’s son now. He was no professional thief. He had no power. He was a man of little consequence. Of no interest. He was just a guy.
It didn’t work. The hounds smelled the truth. They smelled it in his blood and lymph. They smelled it in his marrow. They howled as though he were a rabbit at the end of the hunt, and the handlers drew their cleaver-clubs. Daniel would have to burn them with lightning or let himself be beaten and cut and taken into custody. If he was lucky, he’d just end up with his body parts pinned to the community wall. But that was probably too good a fate to hope for. He was Sebastian Blackland’s son, and the Hierarch would make a project out of him.
He called on the sint holo now. He remembered its chaotic, contradictory aromas. It was slippery, ungraspable, and he drew its memory from his bones. Most osteomancers needed constant replenishment of osteomantic materials to use magic. But there were the rare few, like Sebastian and Daniel, who retained the osteomantic properties of what they ingested. With Sebastian the ability had come from research and training. With Daniel, it had come from being used by his father as a human laboratory. He’d eaten what his father gave him, and surrendered his baby teeth and hair and nail clippings, and then Sebastian cooked the magic residue in them, reprocessed them, and fed the refined results back to Daniel, again and again until the magic embedded itself in his bones.
He became invisible now.
Glassy-eyed from sint holo miasma, the dog handlers merely looked through Daniel. But the hounds reached for him. They’d been bred to detect osteomancy, and nothing got them more excited than sniffing out magic. The hounds paused. They half turned away, then back, then away again. Addled and crestfallen, they bowed their heads and whimpered.
“What are we even doing?” one of the handlers asked his partner.
The other sheathed his cleaver. “I don’t know. It’s weird.”
Daniel didn’t stick around to see if the hounds would reacquire his scent. As quickly as he could, without running, he moved through the market. By the time he reached the docks, the sint holo had worn off, leaving him exposed. He hoped he’d fogged the brains of the hounds and handlers enough that any memories of the pursuit would be something like the sense of dread following a long night of drinking, where you could remember having your pants around your ankles at some point but not much more than that.
He raised his hand to flag a water taxi when he felt a presence behind him. He knew what was about to happen: A massive hand took hold of his thumb and pinky in a grip that threatened pain if Daniel resisted. At the same time, a white van floated up to the dock. The side door slid open, revealing two more muscle-slabbed men inside.
First cops, and now Otis’s goons.
“I’m not having a great morning,” Daniel said.
Let’s go,” said the muscle with the death grip on Daniel’s fingers.
“Oh, please don’t hurt me,” Daniel wailed. “It’s not manly to weep in public.”
“Get in the van or you’re gonna be crying blood.”
“You know, that literally makes no sense. Did Otis tell you who I am?”
“We found you, and we bagged you. What does that tell you?”
“That he doesn’t like you much. Well, okay, then.”
He stepped forward and ducked into the van, where the muscle-slabs shoved him down onto a bench seat. The door slammed shut and the van rumbled into traffic and started slogging toward Culver City.
He’d learned to drive getaway in a van much like this, when he was fifteen and Otis’s thugs were schooling him in the basics of thiefcraft. Daniel noted the odors of stale fast-food grease and pine air freshener, and he was getting nostalgic when he saw drops of old blood on the carpet and caught the faint tinge of urine.
The van passed beneath the shadows of RKO Studios, where chimney towers poked above the fortress walls and vented eocorn-tinged steam into the gray morning sky. Daniel usually tried to avoid steering this close to such high-powered operations, but Otis liked headquartering near them. Hiding in plain sight was one of his specialties.
The van docked behind a low-slung brick warehouse, and Otis’s thugs brought Daniel out with some extracurricular shoving and a stinging slap on the back of the neck. It was hard enough to bring water to Daniel’s eyes. Two of them gripped his biceps and marched him through a maze of plywood and drywall to Otis’s office.
Otis wasn’t there, but his menagerie was, housed in cages and fish tanks. The animals were oddly quiet. No ear-gouging screeches from the parakeets or cockatiels. The mice and hamsters didn’t run on their wheels or gnaw their cages. Even the fish seemed spooked. The animals had been bred to detect osteomancy. They were Otis’s alarm system.
“Daniel, my boy!”
Otis’s mass entered the room, his arms spread in welcome, his voice booming. A pink-cheeked, carrot-haired white man, he looked like someone who could fit in anywhere. Put him in a suit, he was a lawyer. Put him behind a bar, he was a bartender. Here, smiling warmly, he could be someone’s favorite uncle, and Daniel reminded himself Otis was none of these things, but was in fact a kind of monster. His goons still held Daniel fast.
“How about a drink? Horchata? I remember how much you like horchata. Boys,” he called out to nobody in particular. “Can we welcome Daniel home with a glass of horchata?” Daniel was aware of some scrambling around, as Otis’s minions combed the warehouse in search of whatever he demanded.
“Hello, Otis,” Daniel said. “Watch this.” He reached back for the memory of kraken. The brine-and-mud scent filled his nostrils and electricity tingled through his veins. A sizzling crack of kraken energy burst from his skin.
The hired musclemen screeched like cats and leaped back.
“That’s for the slap on the neck,” Daniel said.
One of the men stared at him with wide “how could you do this to me?” eyes. The other sucked on his burned fingers and looked like he was trying not to cry.
“You don’t send your fuck-clowns after me, Otis. I don’t owe you money and I’m not your boy.”
“But you don’t answer my calls! You ignore my letters!” Otis was still smiling, his eyes a-twinkle. He was a black marketer, a crime lord, and also not a very nice man, and he enjoyed himself immensely.
Daniel turned to leave, and the muscle looked to Otis for instruction. They feared another shock from Daniel, but they feared their boss more.
“All right, boys. Let him go and get lost.”
With great relief, the men squeezed themselves through the door and disappeared.
“I wasn’t sure you still had the juice,” Otis said, “which is why I told the guys they could be a little rough. I’m surprised you didn’t burn them when they bagged you.”
“What do you want?”
Otis smiled his avuncular smile and removed a smogstained oil painting of a sad hobo clown from the wall, revealing a standard-looking wall safe. There was no point in spinning the dial, because the lock didn’t work. To all appearances, the safe was empty. But Daniel knew better. It was lined with ground-up sint holo vertebrae and treated to bring out properties of visual confusion. Otis reached into the seemingly vacant space and pulled out a rolled sheet of paper.
“There’s a job.”
“I don’t want a job.”
Otis reacted as if Daniel hadn’t spoken. He unrolled the paper on his desk. There were actually several sheets, the topmost being a basic canal map of the Miracle Mile district, encompassing Farmers Market, the banks and office buildings of midWilshire, the Tar Pits, and Ministry headquarters. Otis peeled back the map to reveal a civic engineering drawing of some kind, with sewers and pump works and electrical junctions: the flayed city.
He tapped his finger on a rendering of a pipe or a tube or something. “This is the job.”
“I’m not looking for a job,” Daniel said, with more force.
Otis lifted the engineering drawing away to expose yet another beneath it. He liked to unveil things gradually. He liked theater.
Daniel refused to even look at it. “I don’t want work from you. I don’t do that kind of thing anymore. Not for you. Get someone else. Get Little Al. Hell, get Fat Al.”
“The Als are dead.” Otis tapped the paper again. “I need you for this, Daniel. And you need me. I know how things are. I know how hard it is. Those little jobs you and Cassandra are pulling? It’s unworthy of you.”
Again, Otis tapped the drawing, and this time Daniel looked. The page was blank, at least in the visible spectrum. Then, from a desk drawer, Otis produced a corked ceramic vial. Once he popped the cork, Daniel smelled sphinx. The essence of the sphinx was the riddle, and it could be used for locks, for barriers, for secrets and codes. Sphinxes had once roamed all over Pleistocene-era California, leaving hundreds of skeletons behind. Most had been taken east by Freemasons before the Hierarch came to power. Yet Otis had sphinx ink. It wasn’t cheap.
He moistened a small sponge with the contents of the vial and rubbed it over the paper. A hand-drawn diagram faded in like an apparition. It was a maze of some kind. A labyrinth. A faint circle about the size of a decitusk coin sat just off center. If the drawings were the same scale and orientation, the circle would have to be somewhere beneath the Tar Pits.
Otis’s smile twinkled. “I’ve found the Ossuary.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “Oh, kill me now.”
To most, the Ossuary was a place out of legend, the vault where the Hierarch was said to store his personal stash of magic. Daniel’s father had worked there, but he’d never revealed its exact location to Daniel. Thieves murmured about it with fear and longing. And there were always rumors: The Hierarch kept entire herds of mammoth remains down there, bones and beautiful ivory tusks, interwoven like mountainous baskets. Basilisk teeth and griffin claws towered to the ceilings over bog-preserved unicorn carcasses.
And there were stories about attempted heists: Tunneling and mining and armed sieges and all manner of magical infiltrations. The names of thieves who’d tried it were whispered like ghost stories. And the one thing all the stories shared in common was that they ended in executions, in dungeons, in glue factories.
“Assuming this is even a real place—”
“It is,” said Otis.
“—how’d you come by this map?”
Otis paused as if weighing how much to reveal, but Daniel knew he had this entire conversation planned out from beginning to end.
“What do the greatest heists in history have in common?”
And suddenly school was in session again.
“All the thieves were caught and tortured until they begged to die?” Daniel said.
“What they have in common is that every single one benefited from having an inside man.” Otis gestured at his drawings. “Same here.”
“You have a guy in the Ossuary? Okay. Who?”
“Are you taking the job or not?”
“I’m not,” said Daniel.
Otis regarded him for a while. Up to now, he’d been playing the role of jolly uncle and impresario. Now his eyes grew tired and wise and concerned, like the doc character in an old Western. He reached into his desk drawer and came up with a bottle of tequila and a pair of shot glasses. He filled both and slid one toward Daniel, like an opening chess move. Daniel left it on the desk.
“You can’t afford to be this way, Daniel. You’re all knotted up inside, racing around like a roach on the edges when you could be claiming big piles of treasure right there for the taking. What was the score on that Farmers Market job today? A few hundred? I’m offering you the biggest job of your life. Hell, the biggest job of my life.”
“So put on some gloves and a black beanie and go get it yourself. You don’t need me.”
Otis took one of the glasses. He held it up to the light, as if looking for a speck of magic trapped in amber. “When your dad asked me to take you in, he didn’t have a lot of options. He was a powerful man, but he was trapped in the machinery of the Ministry. I was the only one outside the system he could turn to. But I did it without exacting a price from him. I kept you away from the Hierarch. And more. I taught you everything I know about thiefcraft. About leadership. And for the things I couldn’t teach you, I found people who could. I got tutors to teach you osteomancy.” Otis downed the shot.
The sphinx ink began to fade, and Otis rolled up the papers. He replaced them in his wall safe, straightened the hobo clown.
“When you left, I didn’t like it, but I let you be. I didn’t harass you. I showed you respect. Now show me some.”
Any score from the Ossuary would be huge. The Hierarch had the best magic, and the best osteomancers to refine it. A single cask of pure hydra regenerative could fetch millions on the black market.
Otis straightened some invoices into a neat pile. He folded his hands over it and looked up at Daniel. “Sleep on it and get back to me?”
Daniel turned to the door, but he knew Otis wouldn’t let him go before jiggling the lure again.
“It’s a sword, Daniel.”
Daniel stopped but didn’t turn around.
“It’s the sword your father was working on when the Hierarch got him. It’s the best thing your father ever made. The most powerful weapon.”
And now Daniel felt himself turning back to face Otis, as if he were a compass needle and Otis a magnet.
“That sword is made of you, kid. And as long as the Hierarch has it, he’s got you.”
“He’s had it for years. Why is this a big deal now?”
Otis tried to look grave and concerned, but Daniel knew him too well. He could see Otis’s delight. The old man was enjoying his abracadabra moment.
“Because my source says the Hierarch’s going to use it. And when he does, he’ll be using you.”
California Bones © Greg van Eekhout, 2014