Donovan was shot by a cop. For jaywalking, supposedly. Actually, for arguing with a cop while black. Four of the nine shots were lethal—or would have been, if their target had been anybody else. The Foundation picked him up, brought him back, and trained him further. “Lethal” turns out to be a relative term when magic is involved.
When Marci was fifteen, she levitated a paperweight and threw it at a guy she didn’t like. The Foundation scooped her up for training too.
“Hippie chick” Susan got well into her Foundation training before they told her about the magic, but she’s as powerful as Donovan and Marci now.
They can teleport themselves thousands of miles, conjure shields that will stop bullets, and read information from the remnants of spells cast by others days before. They all work for the secretive Foundation… for minimum wage. Which is okay, because the Foundation are the good guys. Aren’t they?
A snarky, irreverent tale of secret magic in the modern world, Good Guys is the first solo standalone novel in two decades from Steven Brust. Available March 6th from Tor Books.
The first one on the list was Georgio Byrne Lawton-Smythe. I found him at the Maumee Grill on Mulberry and Fifth, just south of the river. There was no good way to talk to him, under the circumstances, but that didn’t bother me. Nothing he said would have made any difference to me, and nothing I said would have made any difference to him. Or to put it another way, I didn’t hate him enough to bother. I just walked up to him and put three 12-gauge solid slugs into his chest, like, blam cha-chink blam cha-chink blam. Then I dropped the shotgun, walked out the door, and turned left. I threw my gloves into the river and hiked all the way to East Broadway before I caught a cab to bring me back to Toledo and my hotel.
* * *
Just after 2:00 East Coast time on Thursday morning, Donovan Jackson Longfellow initiated a Skype call to Marci No-Middle-Name Sullivan. She came on quickly enough that he could be pretty sure she’d been awake and at her computer, so he didn’t bother asking if he’d interrupted anything.
“We caught one,” he said without preamble.
“Yep. Ready to go into action?”
She might have nodded, but then remembered how hard it was to make out gestures on Skype, so she said. “Yes, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir. My name is Donovan, or Don, or Donny.”
“All right. How does this work?”
“You ask me what’s up, and I tell you what we know.”
“Um. Okay. What’s up?”
“West Nowhere Ohio, a place called Perrysburg. Guy torn in half with a shotgun.”
“A shotgun? That doesn’t seem like, you know, our kind of thing. I speak under correction, of course.”
“Yeah, you’ll stop doing that soon. Here’s what we know: It happened in a restaurant in the middle of dinner hour, there were plenty of people there, and no one saw anything.” Before she could ask, he elaborated. “I don’t mean couldn’t ID the shooter; I mean I saw nothing. One second everything is fine; next second there’s a dead guy messy on the floor with a shotgun next to him and blood spreading out and all the nice people freaking out and throwing up. The PO-lice are stumped, and Upstairs is talking nightmare scenario. Of course, they do that all the time, so I figure mildly troubling dream scenario until proven otherwise. But we still need to check it out.”
“How are they explaining it? I mean, the police.”
“They figure everyone was shocked by the horror of it all, or some shit. Customers and staff are under scrutiny. They won’t get shit that way.”
“So the police believe it was someone in the restaurant?”
“What else could they believe? But the important thing is that we don’t believe it, so we need to investigate.”
“Do we know who the victim is?”
“Name hasn’t been released. Upstairs has ways of getting past that, but they’re still working on it.”
“Okay,” she said. “Just you and me?”
“I’m also calling in the hippie chick, because it’s better to have her and not need her than, you know.”
“Oh! I know her. She’s the one who pulled me out of the kiddie pool.”
“So, now what?”
“Now you ask how you’re supposed to get there.”
“All right. How do I get there?”
“Um, yeah, good question. Let me think.” Donovan weighed the pros and cons of delaying half a day, went through an imagined conversation with Oversight, and said, “You’ve been checked out on your slipwalk, right?”
Marci might have nodded again, but then said, “Yes.”
“We’ll go that way, then. The scene is already two days old. Can’t expect you to sense it if we wait another twelve hours for travel.”
“A bit more.”
“I probably won’t get anything as it is. Why so long?”
“Access. The crime scene is still closed, but they’ve stopped guarding it.”
“Oh. I don’t know how these things work. Couldn’t the Foundation have pulled strings and gotten us in earlier?”
“They probably don’t think it’s important enough to pull the big guns out. It’s critical and could mean the end of the world, but we can’t spare any resources. That’s sort of how things work.” He shrugged, though she wouldn’t see it. “I don’t know. That’s above my pay grade.”
Marci muttered something non-committal.
“Look,” said Donovan. “Don’t sweat it, all right? We go in, check it out. You get something or you don’t, I report to Upstairs. If you get something, we try to figure out what it means. If not, I go back to Internet hearts, Hippie Chick goes back to organic gardening, and you go back to whatever it is you do.”
“All right. I just hate it when—all right.”
“Also, what are you wearing?”
“Is there a dress code?”
“Kind of. Business casual is all right, or jeans and a T-shirt.”
“What isn’t all right?”
“Don’t look like you’re going clubbing.”
“Is this really a thing?”
“Look. It matters. There are practical reasons.”
“What practical reasons?”
“You’ll figure it out.”
“I—all right. I’ll trust you on that. For now.”
“No, that’s it.”
“Are you calling Susan or am I?”
“Does she really do organic gardening?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. The place is called the Maumee Grill.” He started to give her the whole command line for the slipwalk, but decided it was disrespectful. If she ended up in Greenland or something he’d regret it, but she was now on his team, so he’d assume competence until proven otherwise. “I’ll meet you outside the yellow tape. See you in an hour?”
“An hour,” she said, and he disconnected.
He made the next call, which took a little longer to connect. Susan Dionisia Kouris eventually appeared. Even though it was before midnight in her time zone, she looked more than half-asleep. She was wearing a blue terry-cloth bathrobe.
“Sorry to wake you up,” he said.
“Ugh,” she explained.
“Need some time?”
“No, it’s all right. I’m at the tail end of a chest cold. I’m trying to sleep it off. We have something?”
He nodded. “Yeah. A body. Up for it?”
“Always. I’ll take a decongestant.”
He gave her what details he had and hung up.
Donovan stood up and stretched, then put his coat on—the ugly-but-warm fleece-lined one. He also put on a stocking cap, because sometimes when it’s cold you just have to sacrifice looks for survival, or comfort at any rate.
He checked his pockets to make sure he had his wallet, knot-not, latex gloves, and blackjack. He was unlikely to need the blackjack, especially with Hippie Chick there, but he felt naked without it. He left the apartment, took the elevator to the basement, and let himself into the laundry room.
Building management had thoughtfully provided the tenants with a washing machine and two dryers, one of which sported a sign that said: “Out of order.” He switched that one from “high heat” to “air dry,” then set the timer to 8 minutes, then moved it to 31 minutes, then to 19 minutes, then to 39 minutes. He switched it from “air dry” to “high heat” and stepped to the side. The dryer swung back, taking a section of wall with it. Donovan went into the stairwell it had revealed, lit by a single fluorescent bulb, and pulled the wall shut behind him. He said in a clear voice, “Outside the Maumee Grill, Perrysburg, Ohio, USA.” Then he went down the stairs. After about ten steps, the hallway dissolved.
Aw shit, he thought just too late. Did I leave the milk out?
It was full dark in western Ohio. Once the ground stopped turning, he looked around to make sure he was alone. The temperature wasn’t bad, but there was a wind that stung his face. He took a long sniff of the air: stale fryer oil and river. He walked around the building, staying outside of the crime scene tape; after a good look, he slipped under it. I have now broken the law, he thought. Gosh gee.
The main door was closed by more than bureaucratic theory— there was a particularly heavy padlock there: an Abloy PL 362. He recognized it because it was the same one he used for the closet where he stored his gear. Using it here was pure idiocy— yeah, it was hard to get past; the knotnot might even be inadequate—but there were windows all around the place, and, in particular, four windows into the kitchen and a door in back that wouldn’t stand up to a pry bar, or even a decent screwdriver.
He shrugged and went around back and put the latex gloves on. He didn’t have a pry bar or a screwdriver, but he did have a gift from the good folks in the Burrow: a device that looked like a cheap ballpoint pen, because that’s what it used to be, and that he called a knotnot. He pointed it at the back door and said the magic words: “Open, you piece of shit.”
The door gave out a click. He turned the knob and went inside.
Forty-five minutes later he was back outside, in time to see Susan appear as a two-dimensional image that, even if you knew what was going on, made you think, Wait, has she been there the whole time? The image filled out so there was no question; Susan looked around and found him.
“Hey, Laughing Boy. You went in, didn’t you?”
“Just for a look-see.”
“Because protocol is for other people, and there was no chance of you being interrupted and, like, arrested or shot or something?”
“Do you see anyone around? Any PO-lice cars?”
“Not the point and you know it.”
“How’s the cold?”
“I’ll live,” she said, and sniffed. In person, her eyes were certainly bloodshot, but he wasn’t her nurse. If she’d been too sick to take the job, she could have said so.
She glanced around, then looked a question at him.
“Soon,” he said. “If she doesn’t screw it up.”
Susan nodded, and they stood there in silence, waiting.
A minute or two later, Marci appeared, stumbling a bit. Everyone stumbled at the end of a slipwalk, except Hippie Chick, because she was a freak. Marci smiled a little hesitantly to him and Susan. “That was weird. And kind of fun.”
“Yeah,” said Donovan. “Bad news is, you’ll get used to it.”
“Except the climate changes,” said Susan. “That always catches you by surprise, even when you’re expecting it. And you can get a cold from the temperature shifts if you do it too much.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
“This? No, this is just Oregon winter.”
Marci nodded and turned to Donovan. “Have you learned anything new?” she asked.
“I couldn’t learn anything new without going inside, which protocol forbids without the full team.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
“As it happens, I don’t give a shit for protocol. So here’s what I got: Blood spatter tells us that the victim didn’t move, and the PO-lice report Upstairs passed on says that he was shot three times. If you work out the timing on three shots from a pump-action shotgun, it means something was holding him still. Dropping the weapon at the scene—and right there next to the victim’s table—would usually indicate a professional killer, or someone who planned the whole thing out in detail and was cool enough to follow through with it.”
“Usually?” said Susan.
Donovan nodded. “Thing is, shotgun slugs can’t be identified. Either he doesn’t know that, which means he’s new at this, or he had another reason to drop it. No witnesses report cars leaving the lot afterward. There was a duffel bag just outside the door, and they found traces of gun oil in it.”
He paused for a breath and to see if there were questions yet, then continued.
“So he walked from—somewhere—holding a shotgun in a duffel bag. He dropped the bag, came in, did his thing, dropped the gun, walked out again all with no one seeing anything. Or hearing anything.”
“No one heard anything?” said Marci. “No one heard the shotgun fire?”
“So it wasn’t just invisibility.”
“Maybe a combination of—no, I shouldn’t speculate. Let’s go in. From the sound of it, it was a major working, so there could still be traces. And we’re far enough from a grid line that it might not have covered it over.”
Donovan nodded as if he understood that—well, he sort of did, in theory—and indicated the way around the back. Susan led, because protocol; Donovan at the back. This was in case of danger that didn’t exist, but it was silly to argue about. Marci walked almost in a straight line, like she wanted to put one foot directly in front of the other, giving her a strangely dainty stride that reminded Donovan of cartoon Japanese women. Susan walked like someone you didn’t want to tangle with, but a lot of that was that she didn’t swing her arms at all, which gave her a sort of threatening aspect. And the rest was because Donovan knew her.
They reached the back door. “Gloves,” he said, “if you plan on touching anything. I have extras.”
“I shouldn’t need to touch anything,” said Marci.
Susan pulled out her own gloves and put them on without a word.
“Okay,” said Marci once they were inside. “I’m going to see what I can find. Can you two wait here?”
Donovan and Susan remained by the door to the dining room. “Watch the crime scene markers,” he said.
Marci walked up to the blood spot, stopping just short of it— it was big. There’d been a lot of blood. Donovan and Susan waited while Marci investigated her way.
“Well,” she said a moment later. “This is quite something.”
“I hope you didn’t have any plans,” she said in a suddenly all-business voice. “This is going to take a while.”
“If I had a life,” said Donovan, “I wouldn’t be here.”
Hippie Chick nodded beside him.
* * *
Around 6:00 AM, Donovan stepped out of the laundry room, took the elevator back upstairs to his apartment, put his coat away, returned the blackjack and the knotnot to the closet (no—that shelf, you idiot, so you’ll remember it’s been used), and sat down at his computer. He brought up Skype, and selected a name. The face that appeared was a pasty, sickly white as of someone who never went outside—you could even tell through the distortion. The man was clean-shaven and bald save for a fringe of light brown hair, and was wearing a white shirt and thin, dark tie. His collar looked very tight.
The man on the screen said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Longfellow.”
“It’s morning here, Mr. Becker. Very early morning, after a very late night.”
“He used a time-stop. And he used it over a wide area—he covered the whole building so he wouldn’t be seen even in the parking lot.”
“That’s a lot of power, Mr. Longfellow. I trust you’re certain it was a time stoppage, and not high speed?”
“Marci is sure, so I’m sure. There was also a gradual release, so it covered up the sound of the shots.”
“Explain that, please?”
“Marci says if the time-stop releases gradually, the sound will be whole octaves lower than usual, and drawn-out, and the human ear won’t pick it up.”
“I’m not certain I understand, Mr. Longfellow.”
“Nor am I, Mr. Becker.”
“Very well. Did this take place close to a grid line?”
“None within half a mile.”
“That is extremely impressive.”
“Shotgun, three to the chest, just like the PO-lice say. From under a foot away.”
“How did the shooter cut through the air?”
“If time has stopped, surely that means the air molecules are also stopped? So how did the shooter get past them?”
“Oh. According to Marci, a time-stop field takes effect an inch or so from the caster, otherwise he’d have stopped himself. I hadn’t thought about the air movement thing.”
“An inch from the caster, Mr. Longfellow? But the barrel of the gun is farther away than that.”
“Yeah, I asked about that. If the caster is in contact with the gun, the gun is part of the field; otherwise it wouldn’t fire.”
“I see. Ms. Sullivan. It sounds like she’s working out.”
“It was her first case. But yeah, I think so. She knows her stuff.”
Becker was silent for a moment, then said, “Take me through the events.”
“All right. I’m going with ‘he’ for now, because a man is more likely to use a shotgun. Marci didn’t get any personality indicators—which says something by itself. Anyway, yeah. He arrives, walking, at about six fifty PM local time. No sign of magical travel of any sort, although after two days that doesn’t prove anything. He casts a time-stop from about twenty feet from the door. He goes in. Dining room has seating for fifty-six, and it’s about half-full. Or half-empty, in your case, Mr. Becker.”
Becker didn’t appear to hear that; Donovan went on.
“He walks up to the table and shoots three times. Now here’s the thing: Marci figures that as soon as the slug clears the barrel, it hits the time-stop. Like, if you’d been able to watch, you’d have seen the slug freeze in midair, and then the next, and then the next. Which is why it looked like the guy didn’t move when he was hit—in effect, when the time-stop released, all three slugs hit him at the same instant.”
“And yet, you said the time-stop was released gradually.”
“Gradually, Mr. Becker, meaning over the course of about a second subjective time.”
“I see. And speaking of, is there any way of knowing the elapsed subjective time for the shooter?”
“Marci says that time-stop, at best, doesn’t last very long, and takes a lot of concentration to maintain. I can’t imagine he spent more time than he had to. And there are no reports of anyone in the place having a watch that’s suddenly off. All in all, I’d guess about a minute. Not more than two. I should add, this is from historical reports; she says that no one has been able to perform that spell in over two hundred years. It’s a fluke talent, like direct flying or becoming discorporeal.”
“Thank you. I believe I’m caught up.”
“Have you managed to learn anything about the victim?”
“Yes, some things have come in.”
Becker may have nodded—it was hard to be sure. “Our victim wasn’t a very nice man, Mr. Longfellow.”
“Very not nice?”
“So we might be dealing with a personal grudge, or a vigilante?”
“Either one is possible. We know that the deceased, a Mr. Lawton-Smythe, emigrated from Bristol, England, ten years ago and took a tenure-track position at the University of Toledo. Married to a professor of modern languages, two children, aged fourteen and eleven.”
“What did he teach?”
“English literature and philosophy, with a specialty in Heidegger.”
“Sounds pretty evil.”
“You’ve never heard of Heidegger, have you, Mr. Longfellow?”
“Not as such. Does it matter?”
“Probably not. More significantly, Lawton-Smythe had ties to the Roma Vindices Mystici.”
Donovan sat back. “Why would they want someone in western Ohio?”
“Why would we want someone in New Jersey?”
Donovan took the point: They didn’t particularly want someone in New Jersey—that’s just where he lived.
“What sort of ties?”
“He was a sorcerer. Not especially strong, but still. A sorcerer, and one of theirs.”
“Do we have him for anything?”
“In England he was responsible—indirectly, of course—for random beatings of Pakistanis, and some football hooliganism.”
“Football hooliganism. Is that a thing?”
“It’s the game you would call soccer, and yes.”
“Did he have a reason? I mean, other than being a prick?”
“If by ‘being a prick,’ Mr. Longfellow, you mean being an extreme racist, none we are aware of.”
“What’s he done since he came here?”
“Nothing we’ve found so far, but we’re still looking.”
“You said he wasn’t very strong.”
“Just mental and emotional effects—suggestions, mood altering. But good at it. In England, you might say he did a great deal of damage on a small scale, if that makes sense.”
“What did he do for the Mystici?”
“We don’t know exactly. If I had to guess”—Becker said this as Donovan might say, If I had to stick my hand into sewage—“I would say that they brought him in when they needed subtle manipulation done.”
“All right. So, how do I find the shooter?”
“You’re asking me, Mr. Longfellow? That’s your specialty.”
“All we know is that he’s willing to throw away a shotgun. I need something to go on.”
“A sorcerer who can do a time-stop over that much of an area must have left traces somewhere. Where did he get his training? Or, to put it another way, is he one of ours, one of theirs, a renegade, or a weirdo? Odds are good he’s one of theirs—Marci is sure we don’t have anyone with that talent. If that’s true, it’s one of theirs attacking others of theirs. That means talking to them and convincing them to cough up information, and that’s your department, Mr. Becker. Although one other possibility comes to mind.”
“A powerful spell, cast half a mile from the nearest grid line, using a spell no one has been able to do in generations. What does that suggest to you?”
“Ah. Yes. It is possible. Good idea, Mr. Longfellow. I’ll have our people look into it, though we’re unlikely to have a positive quickly, and of course we’ll never have a definitive negative. What will you be doing in the meantime?”
“I’ll be sleeping, Mr. Becker. After that, my niece is having her sixth birthday, and I haven’t gotten her anything.”
“Please, Mr. Longfellow.”
He shrugged, even though Becker wouldn’t see it. “We got what we could get. Now we wait for you to find something, or for something else to happen.”
“Something else, Mr. Longfellow? Such as what?”
“Another killing, Mr. Becker.”
“You think there will be more?”
“I have no idea. It’s a trade-off, I guess. More killings will make our shooter easier to find.”
“You are very cold-blooded sometimes, Mr. Longfellow.”
“You would know, Mr. Becker.”
It seemed on the screen as if Becker may have smiled a little. Donovan closed Skype, then stared at his computer’s wallpaper—a British Columbia lake reflecting mountains that looked like it should be on a beer can—for a good five minutes. Then he got up, found the milk, sniffed it, and put it in the refrigerator.
* * *
Manuel Becker stretched his legs, then stood up. He could have phoned, Skyped, emailed, or sent a memo, but he always preferred to ask favors in person. He took the elevator up to the Burrow. Many Foundation members, over the years, had remarked with amusement that the Burrow was actually on the second from the top floor; Becker was not one of them. Many had also, on the way to the Burrow, stopped to admire the view of Paseo del Prado through the window opposite the elevator. Becker wasn’t one of those, either. He just stepped out of the elevator and went down the hall to the room labeled, in Spanish, German, English, Russian, French, Mandarin, Farsi, and Hindustani, “Artifacts and Enchantments.”
The department secretary, a young man named Anthony, did a credible job of appearing to snap to attention without moving. “Mr. Becker,” he said in American-accented English. “How can I help you?”
Becker had years ago given up on trying to convince him to speak Spanish; it was one of few things he had ever given up on. He nodded. “Hello, Anthony. Is Ms. Ramirez available?”
“I’ll check, sir.”
Anthony picked up the desk phone, punched a button, and waited. After a moment he said in Spanish, “Julia? Mr. Becker from the Ranch—I mean, from I and E—would like to see you, if you have time.… All right.”
Anthony hung up, and said in English, “Just go on back, sir.”
Becker nodded and did. Julia Ramirez stood up from her desk as he approached. She was wearing a red dress that matched some of the appalling fake gemstones on her glasses. “Mr. Becker,” she said in a thick but pleasant Catalonian accent. “Please, have a seat.”
Her L-shaped desk held a computer with a pair of monitors, and a picture of her husband and their two boys, both in the eight-to-ten range; the picture was new since the last time Becker had been to see her. He did not remark on it. He sat down opposite her and said, “Thank you for making the time, Ms. Ramirez.”
“Of course. How can I help Investigations?”
“We have an unusual case, Ms. Ramirez. A sorcerer has used a time-stop to commit murder.”
Ramirez nodded. “Go on.”
“It was cast in a place far from a grid line. This makes us wonder if an artifact or a device of some sort could have been used.”
Her brows—pencil thin and artificially darkened—came together. “We have no such device, nor the capability of making one.”
“Yes. My understanding is that none of our people are able to cast it.”
“That is correct. If the Mystici do, they are keeping the secret well guarded.”
“I understand. But something from antiquity?”
“Well, of course, it’s possible. But I’ve never heard of anything with that enchantment on it.”
Becker nodded. “Could I trouble you and your team to do some research? If there is, or was, such an item, and it has been found, it could help us identify the individual responsible.”
She flashed a quick, uncomfortable-looking smile. “Of course, Mr. Becker. We’ll start at once.”
“Thank you, Ms. Ramirez.” He stood up. “I look forward to hearing from you.”
He gave her what hoped was a friendly smile, and left, only vaguely aware of how the entire room seemed to emit a sigh of relief as the door closed behind him.
GOOD-BYE, MR. BLUM
Next on the list was Richard Nathaniel “Nate” Blum. He had an office in the MetLife Building. He used a town car to get to and from his condo around the corner from a restaurant called At Nine, where he liked to eat. I could have done it there, but outside the building was too convenient, and crowded, to pass up.
He worked a little late that night, but there were still a lot of people leaving the building when, just twenty feet from his ride, he gasped, clutched his chest, and fell to his knees. I was the first one to him. I squatted down facing him and said, “Heart attack. That must really suck. Tell me, does it make you wish you’d lived a better life?” He looked at me, his mouth open, but of course he had no idea who I was.
A crowd gathered quickly and someone knew CPR, so I got out of the way while various people did chest compressions until the EMTs arrived. Charlie had said that would likely happen and not to worry about it, so I tried not to. I examined my feelings to see if there were any, and, except for a certain satisfaction, there were none. I was fine with that.
It took a while to figure out which train would take me back to Brooklyn, but I did, rode it, then took a cab to my hotel. I settled into my room and started looking at flights out of Newark because everyone says LaGuardia sucks.
* * *
When Donovan stepped out of the shower, the beeping from his computer informed him he’d missed an important call. He studied the screen. Becker. Donovan finished drying himself and got dressed before returning the call; Becker wouldn’t have cared either way, but Donovan did.
Becker appeared instantly. Donovan tried to remember a time when Becker hadn’t, but couldn’t think of one. Did the man never use the bathroom?
“You called me, Mr. Becker?”
“There may have been another killing, Mr. Longfellow.”
“May have been?”
“This one isn’t as clear-cut as the Lawton-Smythe matter. It appears to have been a heart attack. Late twenties, good condition, no history. Of course, that happens.”
“But he is connected to the Mystici.”
“With all due respect, Mr. Becker, tens of thousands of people are connected to the Mystici.”
It seemed as if Becker may have bowed his head—as close as Donovan had ever seen him come to a gesture of regret. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Longfellow. I should have said, close ties to the Mystici. From the amount of communication between him and London, we assume he was an actual agent, as opposed to an occasional asset like Lawton-Smythe. We do not know what he did for them, however.”
“Again, perhaps it is only the heart attack it appears to be. But we feel it is at least worth bringing your sensitive to the scene and looking it over.”
“When did it happen?”
“It’s still fresh, only a couple of hours ago. If sorcery was used, there should still be traces.”
“What can you tell us about the heart attack guy?”
“Nate Blum. Iraq War veteran, Marine. Honorable discharge in 2013. Divorced, three children aged three, four, and six. He lives with the oldest, a boy; his ex has custody of the other two. No job, but he keeps—kept—a nice apartment in Greenwich.”
“Is that what the PO-lice would call ‘no visible means of support’?”
“That is exactly right, Mr. Longfellow.”
“But he worked at the MetLife Building?”
“He had an office there that he went to every day; we aren’t aware of anything he actually did except communicate with London a great deal.”
“Maybe I’m just crazy, but shouldn’t we find out?”
“We’re working on it.”
Donovan exhaled slowly. “All right,” he said. “What else?”
“There are indications that he’s been responsible for the disappearance of reporters looking into government corruption.”
“Same time and place more than once. It could be a string of coincidences, but it seems unlikely.”
“Very well, Mr. Becker.”
“I’ll email details of the location.”
“All right. I’ll get the team on it. What time is it there, Mr. Becker?”
“And you’ve been hanging around the office waiting for me to call? Maybe you should go home.”
Becker signed off without further comment, and Donovan started placing calls.
* * *
Two hours later, just after 10:00 PM, Donovan stood outside the MetLife Building in Manhattan with Marci and the hippie chick. This time he’d used mundane travel—PATH across the river to the MTA. The others had had farther to travel, so he’d authorized slipwalks for them. It was late, but there was a lot of traffic, and people kept moving to and from the station directly below them. He was aware of the attention he was attracting—standing on a public street with two white women was going to get him noticed—but so far the attention was subtle, and not overtly hostile. And, as always when out in public and not in his own neighborhood, he had the Face on.
“Oh,” said Marci.
“The dress code. I get it.”
Donovan nodded and turned his mind to the case.
“Somewhere around here,” he said.
Susan said, “You’re sure this is our business?”
“Nope. That’s the first thing to check.”
“Why do you suspect?”
Donovan explained Becker’s thinking; Susan and Marci nodded.
“How long this time?” asked Marci.
Donovan pulled out his cell and checked the time. “A bit under four hours.”
She nodded and, with her arms at her sides and her palms out, she closed her eyes and turned in a slow circle. She got a couple of glances from passersby, maybe waiting to see if she was about to do a street performance, but this was New York, so they just moved on. After a moment, Marci opened her eyes and said, “Nothing. How sure of the location are you? I mean, the precise location.”
“Not very. He came out that door, was heading in that direction, toward Forty-First. Somewhere in between he collapsed. But with the amount of power you detected last time, if there was anything you’d pick it up, right?”
“If it was another time-stop, yes. Let me do a couple more checks; then we’ll call it a day.”
She moved around and repeated her exercise, while the others waited. It was strange watching Marci work. Her face was usually so animated, every nuance of emotion expressed in the twitch of a lip or the furrow of brows. But when she was sensing an area, she was like a fine marble sculpture before the artist had finished the face. There was nothing, except that, if she found what she was looking for—
The third place she checked, just past what Donovan thought of as the cement garden, her body went rigid, only her hands moving, slowly curling into fists and then uncurling again.
“Fuck,” said Donovan, hitting the k particularly hard.
After about twenty minutes, Marci’s face returned to normal. She blinked, shook her head, and walked up to the others. “Yeah,” she said as if they hadn’t just seen.
“What can you tell us?”
“It wasn’t big like the time-stop. It was something subtle. Heart attack fits. The sorcerer just stopped the guy’s heart.”
“Is that hard to do?”
“Okay,” said Donovan. “Now I’m really curious.”
Donovan looked at the MetLife Building, looming over them. “I wonder what kind of security they have.”
“What are you thinking?” said Susan.
“I want to know who this guy was. According to Upstairs, he came to work every day and no one knows what he did. Becker said, ‘We’re working on it,’ in the tone that means ‘in six months or so someone might deign to pull the assignment out of an in-box somewhere.’ Marci, do you have something that could get past security, in case they’re checking?”
Marci looked doubtful. “I can do emotional stuff, and trust falls in there. But I can’t do illusions. I suck at light manipulation.”
“So… maybe. Not exactly my area.”
“Welcome to fieldwork. Give it a shot?”
They walked in the door, Susan and Donovan pretending to be in deep conversation, Marci a step ahead of them. He saw her shoulder’s tense, and her fingers twitched a little. The security guard looked up, smiled, and, “Hey, Sherri.” He gave Donovan and Susan a smile and waved them through. When they were inside an elevator, Donovan said, “Sherri?”
“I have no idea,” said Marci.
“Well, good work,” although, in fact, he almost regretted it; he’d had thoughts of going to a costume shop and dressing them all like a cleaning crew like they do on TV. He’d always wondered if that would actually work.
The office was on the forty-first floor. They stepped out of the elevator into a wide hallway. Showing off, thought Donovan. See how unconcerned we are with the cost of space? You can drive a truck down our hallways. Whatever. The hall was illuminated by fluorescent light fixtures every five feet, with smaller ones to the side.
They found the office. Donovan put his gloves on; Hippie Chick did the same. He took out the knotnot and said the words. Marci giggled, which made an odd sound in the empty hallway. Donovan opened the door, and looked inside. Then something slammed into him and he was on the floor.
Susan jumped over him, into the room, rolling.
It was over before Donovan had time to know it was going on: Susan was straddling a man who was facedown on the carpet; she had his arm up behind his shoulder and was gripping his hair with her other hand. Then Donovan noticed, a foot or so from the guy, a gun: a semi-auto complete with silencer, just sitting there. Donovan glanced over at Marci, who was pale, but seemed steady. Then he smelled cordite. He looked back and saw the bullet hole in the wall behind him, and he didn’t feel at all steady himself.
“We need to get out of here,” he said.
Susan nodded. “What do we do with this guy?”
“Let me see him.”
Susan pulled the man’s head up by the hair. The man had scar tissue around his eyes, and his nose had been broken at least once. His clothing was dark and loose fitting, not overly expensive. His hair was a little shaggy—he hadn’t had it cut in several weeks—but his face was well shaved. He seemed more dazed than either frightened or angry, but that wouldn’t last. Donovan said, “We need to question him. We’re going to feel pretty stupid if he’s the guy we’re looking for and all we do is turn him over to the PO-lice. Is your place good for that, Hippie?”
“No,” she said without hesitation.
“Then I hope yours is, Marci—because we’re sure as hell not hauling this asshole back to my place on a train, and I think a taxi might present problems even if we can find one to take us to Jersey.”
“I think I might be able to manage a sort of slipwalk, now that I’ve done it,” said Marci. “I mean, not a full slipwalk with all the bells and whistles, but I think I can duplicate enough of the effect to get us there. Or, I know. This is better.” She walked forward, knelt, and touched the man’s forehead.
The guy’s eyes suddenly looked even more dazed.
“You two will have to support him,” she said. Then she looked back and forth between Susan and Donovan, as if she’d been doing this all her life. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get our poor, drunk friend back home.”
“I’ll get the cab,” said Susan. “I can talk a cabbie into anything.”
“A New York cabbie?” said Donovan.
“It’s my super-power,” she said.
Donovan and Susan helped the man stand; he really did act like he was drunk. Donovan said, “Can you hold him for a second?” Susan nodded. Donovan took a quick walk around the room: There was one small bookshelf, a table covered with newspapers and magazines, a desk with half a dozen more books and a few papers on it. Hanging near the one window was what looked like a cross between an American Indian dream catcher and a mobile made of stained glass.
“All right,” he said. He took their prisoner’s other arm. “Marci, get the lights. Use your elbow, not your fingers. And shut the door, but don’t touch the handle.”
“What about the gun?” said Susan.
“Not my gun, not my fingerprints.”
They set off back toward the elevators.
* * *
“So,” said Becker. “You interrogated him yourself?”
“Because you’re in Spain and I didn’t want to keep him trussed up in my apartment until you could get here. And because I don’t like your interrogation techniques, Mr. Becker.”
“I see. We will discuss that another time, Mr. Longfellow. For now, what did you learn?”
“None of the facts are useful; some of the conclusions are.”
“Please, Mr. Longfellow. I know how clever you are. It is why you were brought into the organization. What did you learn?”
“He was hired anonymously; all he has is an email address. I’ll text it to you if you want, but good luck tracing it. He was paid in cash, unmarked bills left at a drop; he has no idea who hired him or how that person picked or found him. But what’s interesting is what he was hired to do. He was given a key to the office and told to enter it at six o’clock that evening, remain for fifteen hours, and kill anyone who came in during that time.”
Becker was silent for nearly a minute. “Yes,” he said at last. “I see what you mean about drawing conclusions. Who is he?”
“Ex-army, ex-boxer, ex-merc. Did a stretch for armed robbery, was arrested for manslaughter once, but no conviction.”
“How much was he paid?”
“Five hundred bucks, with the promise of a thousand later for each one of us he killed.”
“Not very much as such things go.”
“No. Mr. Becker, why is it that we don’t have someone who can use magic to trace an email address?”
“I’m told Research and Development is working on it, but it isn’t easy for reasons I’m afraid I do not understand, and that I doubt you would, either.”
“It’d sure be useful.”
“No doubt it would. How did you get the information from the attacker?”
“I asked nicely.”
“Please, Mr. Longfellow.”
“I’m mostly telling the truth, Mr. Becker. There were a few subtle threats, maybe, but for the most part, we just talked. We cooked him some roast chicken, gave him some beer, and had a conversation. No torture, not even a hint of a spell from Marci. We convinced him that if he cooperated we’d let him go, and that he had no reason to protect those who hired him.”
“And you think he told the truth?”
“We know he did. Marci can tell; that sort of falls within her skill set.”
“What did you do with him?”
“Let him go.”
“Do you think that was wise?”
“I don’t see the harm.”
“He knows where you live. He can report it, and our enemies can find you.”
“Yeah? That’ll be interesting.”
“We do things differently, Mr. Longfellow.”
“Yes, we do, Mr. Becker.”
“In any case, we’ve established that they’re on to us. Or they are now, if they weren’t before.”
“Yeah. We also know that their resources are limited if they have to go outside their group to take a shot at us, and not all that effective a shot at that. Five hundred? A thousand per? That’s not big-budget stuff.”
“Yes,” said Becker. “I was able to confirm the nature of his connection to the Roma Vindices Mystici.”
“So was I,” said Donovan.
“Were you indeed? How so?”
“That’s what he did in that office for eight hours a day: He was recruiting for them. His area ran as far west as the Ohio border, as far south as the Maryland border, north to Canada. And he also kept track of who was looking into government corruption. Your assumption about him being involved in making reporters disappear is almost certainly true. From what I know of the Mystici, he would have been doing that on his own as a private contractor for someone, not for the Mystici, but I speak under correction, of course.”
“Good work, Mr. Longfellow.”
“What is it with these people? Are they just, you know, doing bad stuff because they’re bad, and like to twirl their mustaches and say, ‘Bwa ha ha’?”
“They protect each other, just as we do.”
“But the things they do—”
“You know their history, Mr. Longfellow.”
“Some of it. The Foundation isn’t especially forthcoming with those of us who are merely employees, Mr. Becker. And none of my cases so far have brought me up against them.”
“You aren’t against them now, Mr. Longfellow. The members of their order are sworn to defend each other. They have no goals, or master plan.”
“But they’re such assholes.”
Becker might have smiled. “Some of them,” he said. “But then, similar words have been applied to me at times.”
“That’s hard to believe, Mr. Becker. So, our shooter. He either doesn’t like the Mystici, or doesn’t like some assholes in it.”
“Other than being frat brothers, do the two victims have any connection?”
“We’re still checking. I’ll let you know if we find anything. I assume you will also look into the matter.”
“Yeah. So here’s the question: Why do we care?”
“You care because you’re being paid to, Mr. Longfellow.”
“What, a hundred and thirty dollars a month? That’s not a lot of caring, Mr. Becker.”
“And a place to live. And that’s just the retainer. For active service, you’re paid by the hour.”
“Right. Eight dollars and fifty cents.”
“That is the best we can do, I’m afraid. You know we’re not wealthy.”
“But why do you care? Your people, the ones who pay me? What’s the Foundation’s stake in this?”
“Mr. Longfellow, anyone able to stop time and willing to murder presents a danger, don’t you agree?”
“Mr. Becker, we both know you sent my team to look into Lawton-Smythe’s death before we knew about the time-stop. So, what is it?”
“Your job is to prevent knowledge of magic from leaking out into the awareness of the general public. You truly cannot see how exactly this sort of thing could lead to that?”
“Not really. Especially the coronary. It isn’t like the Arizona business, with pyrotechnics that everyone could see and had no good explanation. Or that mess with the flying ship in Biloxi. And it seems like the people being killed are bad guys. Isn’t that one of the things carved into the plaque? ‘People shouldn’t use magic to do bad things to each other,’ or whatever it is in Latin. So, what is it really?”
“If that is all, Mr. Longfellow, I should follow up on your intelligence and see if it leads anywhere. I’ll be in touch.”
Donovan stared at the camera long enough to make his point, then said, “I’m including the interrogation on my time sheet, Mr. Becker.”
“Very well, Mr. Longfellow.”
“Marci and Susan were there for the whole thing, so I’m going to tell them to include it on theirs, too.”
“Very well, Mr. Longfellow.”
“I’ll talk to you soon.”
Donovan closed Skype, and turned around. Marci and Hippie Chick were sitting on his sofa, in earshot of the computer, though not in range of the camera. Marci was drinking tea. Susan had white wine. Donovan was drinking horseradish-infused vodka on the rocks because he felt like it, that’s why. Three of Donovan’s knotnots were sitting on the table, next to Marci—she’d recharged them while he was talking to Becker, which would have been distracting if it had involved anything more dramatic than her face going blank and the room warming up a little. He picked up the devices with a nod of thanks and put them in his closet, then came back, sat down, had a sip of vodka. It burned pleasantly.
“All right,” he said. “You heard all that. Anything come to mind?”
They both shook their heads.
“Me neither,” said Donovan.
“You have a nice place,” said Marci, looking around. “It’s cozy.”
“You mean tiny.”
“It’s what they gave me.”
“How’d they recruit you?” she asked. Then she looked suddenly hesitant and said, “Or are we not supposed to talk about that?”
“I don’t mind. Do you mean how, or why?”
“I was asking how, but now I’m curious about why.”
“Why is because I had the right skill set. I was going to be a private investigator. I had an uncle who was an ex-fed, if you can believe it, and he trained me.”
“What happened to that plan?”
Donovan considered, then shrugged. “He lived in Los Angeles, and I was staying with him there while he taught me. He died, and after the funeral I was going to take a flight home. The TSA guy decided I needed to be frisked, and he touched my junk.”
“Yeah. I broke his wrist. And a couple of ribs and his jaw. So all of a sudden I can’t fly, and I can’t get a PI license.”
“Really!” said Susan. “I never knew that. No offense, Don, but you don’t look like a bruiser.”
“I’m not. He was a little guy with a lot of attitude.” Donovan didn’t mention his own broken ribs, from where the other TSA guys had held him down and kicked him. It didn’t seem germane.
Marci nodded. “Well, so that answers the why. Now, how?”
“I should have let you interrogate our friend.”
She smiled nervously. “Sorry if I’m being—”
“Naw. It’s all right. The how is easy enough: They brought me back from the dead.”
“Almost. I was shot by a PO-liceman. For jaywalking.”
“That’s not what he said. And there were words exchanged first, and I probably shouldn’t have tried to run. But yeah. They brought me back from nine shots, at least four of which were fatal. I guess I wasn’t technically dead at the time, or they couldn’t have managed it, but technically dead doesn’t have a really good definition when it comes to medicine, and less when it comes to magic.”
“I know,” said Marci.
“Anyway, yeah, back without any what they call ‘deficits.’ Gave me a new identity, new face, set me up. I could get a PI license now, but I figure I owe them.”
“So,” said Susan, “you knew about the magic from the start.”
She shook her head. “They handled it well. I’d see something bizarre, and they’d shrug it off and refuse to explain. It went on for months like that, all during my training. By the time they told me what was really going on, I was in a head space to accept it.”
“They’re clever,” said Marci.
“That they are,” said Donovan. He looked at Susan. It was interesting that they’d never talked about this before. He said, “Do you know why they recruited you?”
“Yeah. Because I got too big to be an acrobat.” She turned to Marci. “How about you?”
“Me?” said Marci. “When I was fifteen, I levitated a paperweight and threw it at a guy who—who I didn’t like.”
“That was it? You just levitated something out of nowhere?”
“That was the first time I did something I couldn’t explain away. The next day William sent me a text message.”
“William?” said Donovan. “I don’t know him.”
“Head of recruiting.”
“Must have been after my time.”
“I guess. He specializes in magic training and fart jokes. The message said: ‘You can do more than levitate things, and I can help.’ ”
“Huh,” said Donovan. “That’ll get your attention.”
Marci nodded. “I used to sneak out to practice with him two or three times a week, whenever I could. Once I was on my own, working for them just seemed obvious.” Then her brows came together and she tilted her head. “Hey, tell me something?”
“Were you just, ah, blowing smoke up Mr. Becker’s ass?”
Donovan frowned. “Huh? No, that turns out to be a bad idea. What do you mean?”
“All that stuff about what Blum did.”
“Oh. Yeah, that’s real.”
“How could you know that?”
“I told you, my uncle was an ex-fed and he trained me.”
“Did you see a computer on his desk?”
“Um. I don’t remember. I was kind of excited.”
“There wasn’t one. But there was a CAT Five cable sitting on it, so what do you conclude?”
“That he uses a laptop and brings it home with him.”
“See? It isn’t that hard.”
“But how does that—”
“It was just an example.” He drank some more vodka and leaned back in his chair. “Of course, we can go a little further: that he’s using CAT Five instead of the building’s wireless means he’s concerned with security, and that he doesn’t know a lot about how computer security works. But that doesn’t get us very far, either.”
“So then how did you know all that stuff?”
Donovan drummed the fingertips of his left hand on the arm of the chair, and looked at Susan, who was a wearing one of her little smiles. “All right,” he said. “Next to the cable—I mean, right next where his laptop would be—was a map of the northeastern United States, with nodes marked on it. One of the things nodes are used for is recruitment—a sensitive might be drawn there, so the Mystici, and us, keep a watch on the major ones to see who shows up. Pretty much anything else, like most uses of magic, he’d have the lines, the points, and the nodes. Also, right on his desk, in easy reach, he had a listing of psychiatric hospitals and wards in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts—all the states in his area. Sometimes sensitives are first diagnosed as schizophrenics, so keeping track of those is something else a recruiter would do. The thing hanging from the ceiling is one of the standard ways to construct—hell, I don’t know what they call it; ask the kiddie pool. But it can detect when magic, especially uncontrolled magic, is used within a certain distance. That’s probably how your friend William found you. Put it all together, he was doing recruiting.”
Marci nodded. “And the stuff about the reporters?”
“The magazines on the table. The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Harper’s, The New Yorker: newspapers and magazines that are known for revealing political scandals. Upstairs told me that Blum might have been involved in that, so I was looking for it.”
“But you were only in there for a few seconds.”
“As I said, I’ve been trained.”
“What was in the bookcases?”
Donovan nodded. “Ah. Now, that is actually interesting. They were all novels. Mysteries, thrillers. A complete set of Anthony Price. And Patrick O’Brian.”
“How is that interesting?”
“A bookshelf full of fiction? At the office? Why not keep them at home?”
“Oh. Well, why?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m going to guess that we’ll never find out, and, if we do, it won’t matter. But it’s a thing I noticed, so I’m going to keep track of it.”
“Wow,” said Marci. “You’re good at this.”
“Yeah, and you’re good at what you do. And Susan’s good at what she does. And so are most of the rest of the Foundation. They’re all good at what they do.”
“Nice to know we’re the good guys,” said Marci.
“If we are,” said Donovan.
Susan’s head snapped around. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’m not sure they—we—are the good guys anymore.”
“Why?” said Susan.
“Why do I wonder? Because we’re after someone who’s killing members of the Roma Vindices Mystici, and from everything I know all the people he’s killing are assholes.”
“I think they—I mean we—are still the good guys,” said Susan.
“Yeah, because you’re a hippie chick who trusts everyone.”
“No, because if we were bad guys we’d be getting paid more than minimum wage.”
“Huh,” said Donovan.
“You know,” said Marci. “That’s actually kind of a good argument.”
Donovan thought about it. “Make sure you include the interrogation on your time sheets,” he said.
Excerpted from Good Guys, copyright © 2018 by Steven Brust.