An Introduction to Devon Monk’s Magic on the Line
By Penguin (Ace/Roc) SFF editor Anne Sowards
Allison Beckstrom lives in a world where magic is used every day, for reasons both legitimate and nefarious. In her Portland, Oregon, magic is another energy source, like electricity — except the price you pay for using it doesn’t come from your checking account, but your body and soul. Casting a spell might give you a three-day migraine, or take away the memory of your first kiss.
I first encountered Allie when I was considering acquiring Magic to the Bone for our list, and I was immediately captivated by her distinct voice and drawn into her world. Over the course of the series (seven books so far), Allie has evolved as a character. She’s gone from a relative loner whose best friend doesn’t even live inside city limits to a reluctant member of the Authority (the secret organization that governs magic use) with a circle of friends and a lover. Her always conflicted relationship with her father has gotten even more interesting since his death (I won’t explain more because — SPOILERS). And in Magic on the Line, Allie finds herself in the position of choosing whether to continue to follow the Authority’s rules, or to turn against the very people for whom she’s risked her life.
It had taken Bartholomew Wray, the overseer of Portland’s Authority, who was apparently my new boss, exactly forty-eight hours to contact me for a standard-procedure meet and greet.
By “contact,” I mean he sent to my door two goons who asked me if my name was Allison Beckstrom, if I was the daughter of Daniel Beckstrom, and if my civilian job was Hounding. I said yes to all three, which scored me the grand prize of a meet and greet. And by meet and greet, I mean small room, bright light, two-way glass, and interrogative Truth spells that would be illegal if anyone knew about them.
The room itself wasn’t too bad—a conference area on the sixth floor, tucked away behind the very real attorney’s office in smack-center downtown Portland. A redwood and marble table took up the middle of the room, while bookshelves on three of the walls bulged with gold-embossed leather volumes that I bet no one had touched since they’d been shelved. The other wall held two tall windows, blinds closed tight.
The carpet was burgundy with whorls of gold at the edges. It gave the whole room a gilded-picture-frame feel, and it was so thick, I felt like I was wading through loose sand when I walked across it.
I had been escorted by the goons, who were both taller and wider than me and had opted for the twinsy look in matching black suits, white shirts, and black ties, topped off with the standard secret-bodyguard accessory: reflective sunglasses. The heavier, darker-featured goon on my left smelled of garlic and pepperoni, while the blond, acne-scarred goon on my right smelled like brown sugar and pork.
My escorts walked with me down the length of the redwood table to an unassuming little black walnut desk in the corner.
Goon Two waved a hand toward the plain leather chair, and I sat. I’d tried conversation in the car, tried conversation during the six flights of stairs (no, I had not let them talk me into riding an elevator). By the second floor, it was pretty clear they were paid to keep the chitchat to a minimum.
I leaned back and didn’t ask questions while the goons positioned themselves at each end of the room. One stood next to the door we’d entered through; the other took the door directly opposite.
And then they started casting magic—something in the Privacy spell category. It was aimed at the room in general, not me specifically, which was good. If they tried to work a spell on me, they’d be in for a helping of hurt.
That they were casting a spell wasn’t all that unusual. That they were working it together piqued my interest. They started the spell small, and when the magic they cast sizzled like a cheap sparkler, Goon One canceled his spell and adjusted what he was tracing to make it more closely match Goon Two’s spell.
They were Contrasts. I hadn’t seen a lot of magic users cast magic together—well, except for a few Soul Complements, me and Zayvion Jones included. Zay’s best friend, Shamus Flynn, and I were Contrasts, which meant that sometimes we could make spells a hell of a lot stronger if we worked together, and sometimes magic backfired and blew things up.
But the goons had it down to a routine. All through the cast, and it seemed to be a long and complicated spell, Goon One kept an eye out for things going wrong—like all the oxygen getting burned out of the room—and negated it before it became a full-force killer.
And then they were done weaving the spell between themselves and throughout the room. They both said a word, a single syllable, and my ears stuffed with cotton. I swallowed hard, tasted the chemical sting of the combined magic—like they’d just drenched the room in antiseptic—didn’t like it much, and tried to get my ears to clear.
Should have packed some magical chewing gum.
“So now no one can hear us, see us, or probably remember us coming into the room,” I said with all the boredom I felt at their theatrics. “Do we get to have our little chat now? And if we do, would one of you like to fill me in on why Mr. Bartholomew Wray wanted me to meet him here today?”
I didn’t add “alone.” And no, I hadn’t told Zay or anyone else that I was coming here. One, it hadn’t seemed like that big of a deal. The first time I’d gone to meet my teacher, Maeve Flynn, I hadn’t alerted the search and rescue or anything. I figured the new boss of the Authority would be following the same rules he expected the rest of us in the Authority to follow.
And if he wasn’t, I could more than handle myself.
I was no slouch with magic or a blade.
Also, I wasn’t as alone as most people. My dead father had been possessing a corner of my brain for months—ever since a magic user had tried to raise him from the dead. He’d been pretty quiet lately, but I knew he was always there, listening.
The goons still weren’t talking. “Listen,” I said, “I wasn’t the one who called this little barbecue. If he wants to talk to me, he knows where I live.”
Just as the door across the room opened.
In strolled Bartholomew Wray. I’d never met him, but that punch-in-the-stomach kick of recognition from my dad, who was still curled up and possessing a part of my brain, told me he knew the man.
Wray was about my dad’s age, maybe a couple inches shorter than me, and dressed in a nice jacket and slacks, button-down shirt but no tie, collar undone. His receding hairline and the pompadour comb-back, which crested in a six-inch wave, only made the top of his head look too wide and his cheekbones too sharp above his narrow, pointed chin.
Eyes: watery blue. Lips: thin enough I was pretty sure they’d break under the weight of a smile.
“Ms. Beckstrom.” He wasn’t looking at me. He was reading the report in his hand. “Thank you for coming today. Please, sit—” This was when he glanced up.
And stopped dead in his tracks.
Shock, surprise, and then an uncomfortable half smile that he managed to prop up with a stiff sneer. “You certainly resemble your father.”
Ah. Well, now I could assume they had not been friends. I wondered whether he held grudges.
“So I’ve been told,” I said.
He adjusted one sleeve, catching at the cuff links there as if they were worry stones, and then motioned at the chair behind me. “Please, have a seat so we can begin.”
I sat. “What are we beginning?”
He took the chair on the opposite side of the desk and one of the goons came over with two glasses of water, placing them on the coasters near each of us.
“Didn’t they inform you?” He raised silver eyebrows and glanced at each of the goons in turn.
“They said it was a standard-procedure meeting of some kind,” I said. “And I have no idea what that means.”
He glanced back down at the report in his hands. “I’m not surprised. No one has been following procedure during the past five years, apparently. And no one has reported the lapse in discipline.”
“Isn’t that your job?”
He flicked a look at me.
“Supervising?” I said. “Which means working with the ground troops and maybe checking in every once in a while so you know when something isn’t going right?”
“I have a large region to cover, Ms. Beckstrom,” he said. “I can only focus on a specific problem, such as Portland, if it is brought to my attention. No one called me.”
“And you haven’t stopped by in the past five years.”
He held my gaze for a long moment. I suddenly knew he and I would never be friends either.
“No one followed procedure and contacted me until things were in this sorry state of disarray.” He sniffed and pulled a pen out of his breast pocket, clicking it three times and then poising it over the report.
“I’ll need you to sign this form.” He spun it in my direction and held out the pen for me.
I slipped the form off the desk and sat back to read it all the way down to the fine print. It gave him permission to work a Blood magic Truth spell on me. The fine print was all about how I wouldn’t fight him, sue him, or complain if I found out he had me Closed for what I revealed while I was under its influence.
“No.” I spun it back around in front of him.
His eyebrows notched up. “Do you understand that this form protects us both, and leaves a trail for other people to follow if anything goes wrong?”
“Yes. That’s why I’m not signing it.”
“I’m not certain you are aware of your position here, Ms. Beckstrom.”
“Listen,” I said, “I know you want to work a Truth on me. You want to know what happened out at the prison, and the Life well. You want to know what part I had in the fight and deaths at both places. Fine. I’ll tell you. But I will not sign anything that connects me in writing to the Authority.”
“That seems a strange stance to take since you are so very involved in the Authority, Ms. Beckstrom. As was your father.”
“My father’s dead. I’m sure he signed a lot of papers too, and some of those might have made a nice easy trail for the people who killed him. I Hound for a living, Mr. Wray. When you’re in the business of tracking old spells—often illegal spells—back to the people who cast them, you don’t want anyone to know where you’ve been, what other cases you’re working, or who you let get stabby with Blood magic Truth. I won’t leave a trail that would tie me to you.”
“Very well, then.” He reached down and opened a drawer in the desk. He shuffled past several files and finally pulled out a new form and began writing on it. “This indicates that the unnamed member of the Authority refused to sign but is willing to be questioned.” He paused, while each of the goons in turn left his post and initialed the form; then he handed the form to me.
“Please read it.”
I did so. More of the same legal mumbo jumbo, with the exact same small-print clause as the other form. I nodded.
“I’ll initial that the unnamed read it and that it was witnessed by Mr. Harrison”—he nodded toward Goon One—“and Mr. Ladd”—he nodded toward Goon Two.
Well, at least I had their names now.
He initialed the paper, slipped it back into the file folder on top of his desk along with the other unsigned form, and, after squaring the edge of the paper to properly align with the folder, sat back.
“Mr. Ladd,” he said, “please inform Ms. Whit we are ready for her.”
Goon Two turned and cast your basic Unlock, then opened the door behind him. The door’s angle blocked my view, but in a minute a woman strolled in.
She was tall and big-boned, her sandy hair cut short and messy around her face, which seemed to be dominated by wide lips and a strong jaw, lending her a tomboy look, even though she must be in her thirties. She had on a cardigan over a tank top and slacks, and running shoes. She wore very little makeup, and smiled appreciatively when she caught sight of me.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” she said, striding over with her hand out to shake.
I stood. I was right. We were about the same height. Her hands were calloused enough that I noticed the rough ridges running like rings down her fingers and along her palm. I tried to think of what would make those kinds of wear marks. Came up blank.
“The famous Daniel Beckstrom’s daughter,” she said with a gold-star voice.
“Allie,” I said. “Just Allie.”
“Melissa,” she said. “Whit.” She searched my gaze for recognition, but I had none to give her. Not even Dad flinched at her name. No, he was being suspiciously quiet.
I just nodded.
“Well,” she said, dropping my hand like I’d gone dead. “Are we ready?” She pulled a slick, thin Blood magic blade out of the hip sheath hidden by her sweater.
“Ms. Beckstrom has read the papers and signed off,” Bartholomew said. “You may begin the Truth spell.”
I’d wondered what she had to do with all this.
She glanced around the room, then rolled a chair from next to the table over to my side, positioning herself like a nurse about to take my blood pressure.
“Do you want me to use physical restraints?” she asked.
“What? No. Why would I want that?”
She glanced over at Bartholomew. He shrugged. “It’s within her rights to refuse them.”
“You’re just casting Truth, right?” I asked.
“Yes. But it’s a very . . . detailed spell,” she said. “I wouldn’t think anyone here would have used it. It’s difficult,” she said just in case I wasn’t catching on. “But don’t worry. I do this all the time. Haven’t lost anyone yet. Well, not on accident.” A smile stretched her lips just a smidgen too wide for the sane kind of happy.
I opened my mouth to tell her that maybe she could just hold off on the creepy Blood magic user shtick and let me get my own set of witnesses in the room to make sure nothing went horribly wrong. But with the first stroke of her knife through the empty air in front of me, she caught up the edge of the goons’ spell that was still lying like a heavy cloak over the room and so, too, she caught up my ability to speak.
Another Contrast? The place was just crawling with them.
Then she slashed the knife across her hand, a straight line through the meat of all four fingers—that’s what the calluses were from—and the blood blade drank down her offering of blood, mixing it into the spell she traced. A spell that locked me into the chair as surely as if she’d buckled me in and set a whale on my lap.
Her eyes were glassy, her lips forming the words of the spell even though she didn’t so much as whisper.
She didn’t have to. Magic followed each stroke of her blade, formed to the rhythm of her unspoken words. She closed the spell and Truth took hold like a vise on my head that squeezed at my temples.
“Set,” she said. “Ask her anything you want. She’ll tell the truth.”
I heard the chair squeak as Bartholomew got up and sat on the corner of the desk. He moved my glass of water aside and brushed the condensation off his fingertips and onto his slacks.
“Tell me your name,” he said.
“Allison Angel Beckstrom,” I said.
“Yes.” That was from Melissa.
Huh. So it wasn’t just Truth. She was acting as a lie detector too. I’d never seen the spell used this way before—didn’t know you could use Truth on someone without using at least a drop of their blood, and I had most certainly not let her cut me.
I wondered if Dad knew how this spell worked.
From the uncomfortable shifting of his thoughts in my head—some of which I caught—he did, and he thought it was oversanitized and outdated. A failed attempt to adapt a spell outside a specific discipline, which resulted in an inferior spell with an even higher pain price.
Terrific he had an opinion about it. Less terrific an inferior spell with a higher pain price was currently attached to my head.
“Were you involved in the battle at the Life well a few days ago?”
Bartholomew rubbed at his cuff links again. Note to self: get into a high-stakes poker game with him. His tells were so loud I needed earplugs just to be in the same room with him.
“Tell me who was there.”
“Everyone?” I asked. The vise on my head was starting to get uncomfortable. Inferior spell, wrong discipline meant the price of pain leaked to me. Faster would be better.
“Yes,” he said.
So much for fast. This was going to take some time.
“Me, Zayvion Jones, Shamus Flynn, Terric Conley.” That covered the current members of the Authority. Now to sum up the ex-members who were there. “Sedra Miller, Dane Lanister, some of Dane’s men, and Roman Grimshaw. Also, there were some dead people there: Mikhail, Isabelle, Leander, and my dad.”
“Your father?” Bartholomew asked.
Out of that entire list, the last four people were Veiled—ghosts of dead magic users who had been possessing the living. And of those four people—Mikhail, who had died years ago and was once the head of the Authority; Isabelle and Leander, who were the most powerful magic users in history, along with being two very sick and twisted souls bent on killing anyone in the way of their plans for ruling magic; and my father, who was a successful businessman—my dad, the most recently dead, was the only one who sparked Bartholomew’s curiosity?
“Yes.” Short, sweet, let’s get this the hell over with.
“Where was your father?”
That got me a long, doubtful stare.
Devon Monk © Magic on the Line 2011