CRONYN AND JUSTICE #1:
Dangerous Hardboiled Magicians
by Mel Gilden
Chapter 1: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
The Pico and La Cienega branch of a chain store called Spell-Mart had hired me to find out who was stealing packets of domestic magic: Clean-Up (a dust collector), Flying Saucers (the dishpan miracle), and Pretty Face, which was exactly what it sounded like. The case was not the sort that makes headlines, but the Spell-Mart people offered to pay me so I took the gig anyway.
The store was a block square, modern as next year's automobile, and full of light. The whole operation had as much warmth as a phlogiston station restroom.
After two weeks of tedium I had narrowed my search to one of the clerks. He was a head taller than I was, twice as wide, and had a constant leer on his face that made him look as if he were always thinking about girls, but not in any way a girl would want to be thought about. The largest red and blue Spell-Mart vest was too small for him, making him look like an organ grinder's monkey despite his size. For reasons known only to him he liked to be called Chick. I was about to start a casual conversation with him when somebody called my name.
I turned and was surprised to see Lord Zorn Slex standing in the headache and cold remedy aisle as if he'd grown there from an acorn. He was built like a snowman, with a round pink head atop a round body that showed even under his robes of office. Strings of dishwater-blond hair hung from the back of his head like a beaded curtain. Unlike me, he had gotten older in the past 20 years.
I glanced back at Chick and saw that he was not even aware of my existence. Working at his usual lethargic pace, he would be stacking loaves of fairy soap for a while. I smiled and hurried toward Lord Slex with my hand out. He shook it as if he were trying to pump water out of me.
"Mr. Cronyn," he said, "how nice to see you again."
"Me too," I said with more feeling than grammar.
He lowered his voice. "Uh, you work here?"
"You've discovered my terrible secret," I said.
He smiled as if he had a pain somewhere. "Maybe you can help me," he said.
"I'm looking for a spell that will stop some itching."
"Some rather personal private itching." On hearing exactly where this itching was located, I learned a lot more than I wanted to know about his personal life. But a lot of guys itched, even there. What surprised me about his request was that he was in here looking for a commercial medical spell at all. I'd have thought that a board member of Stilthins Mort could whip up one of his own spells without much trouble.
Still, I wasn't so ill-mannered that I asked. Being curious didn't make it my business. I just took him to the right section, where he eagerly picked up a couple of packets. He stood there for a moment weighing the packets in the palm of his hand. He was obviously making up his mind about something.
"I heard that after you left Stilthins Mort you became a private detective," he said, his voice low again.
"That's right," I said. "From the sublime to the ridiculous."
"It guess it didn't work out." He looked around him meaningfully.
"I guess," I said and tried to sound sorry.
"Would you take an investigative job if it were offered to you?"
I didn't answer immediately. After all, I supposedly had a steady job here at Spell-Mart. When would I have time to go off poking my nose into the affairs of other people? "I'd like to get back into the business," I answered as if admitting a perversion.
"Fine, fine," he replied as if everything was all settled. "Come to the school on Monday at about three p.m. and we can talk further about what I want done."
"Yes, sir. Monday at three."
We shook hands again and he headed for the cash registers. I didn't have time to wonder what Lord Slex had in mind because when I looked at the end of the aisle it was empty. Chick had finished with the soap and moved on.
I ran to where he had been. The woman behind the nearby small appliances counter was staring into space.
"Where did Chick go?" I asked.
She pointed toward the warehouse area at the back of the store. I ran in the direction she pointed, hoping she was right.
The loading dock was empty—no deliveries at this hour, nobody sitting on the far edge smoking—only the residual shimmer of unused moving spells falling like golden dust through the hazy afternoon sunlight. Imps floating near the ceiling lazily waved rattan fans, making a breeze no stronger than the breath of a sleeping baby. In the large cool space beneath the imps the stacks of crates made mazes in whose turns and dead ends many forbidden activities took place.
I didn't see Chick. He could be anywhere in the maze, but on a hunch I went to the place where I knew the Clean-up was stored. None of it had been stolen for a few days. If I had figured the rotation right, it was time.
I made no sound as I walked between stacks of crates higher than my head. I rounded a square corner and confronted Chick with his hands in a busted crate, digging out packets of Clean-up and shoving them into the pockets of his pants.
"Hello, Chick," I said, calm as if I'd found him smoothing the Velcro on his shoes.
He froze and then turned his head slowly to look at me with a face out of a horror comic book. "Just getting some new stock," he grumbled.
"Like hell," I said.
Suddenly he ran. I ran after him. I could corner him if there was no way out of the maze on that side, but if he found an exit—well, he moved pretty fast for a man his size. In a moment or two I was out of the maze and looking across an open space at Chick's retreating back. I could never catch him.
But a push broom stood next to me. I grabbed it and broke the handle across my knee, creating about a foot and a half of club. I flung the club spinning across the floor and it caught his feet like a snare. He fell flat on his face and stayed on the floor without moving.
I approached him carefully. Guys had been known to fake how badly they were injured. I picked up the club where it had bounced off a pallet of tooth-whitening spell and stood over him with it while I watched him drool onto the floor. He didn't fight me as I put handcuffs on behind his back. He didn't fight me when I turned him over and sat him up against the wall. He was still sitting there with a vague expression on his face when I came back from calling the police.
The manager of the Spell-Mart store promised that I would have my check by the end of the week. I wasn't surprised when I still didn't have it by the following Monday, the day I was supposed to visit Lord Slex.
The usual detective's deal.
Chapter 2: Easy Come, Easy Go
One-horse-open sleighs were popular that year, though without the horse, of course. Roman chariots, Conestoga wagons, and even bathtubs were also on the road. The definition of what was street legal was broad, and with magic you could get almost anything up to freeway speeds.
A teenaged girl on a broom almost cut me off when I attempted to turn left into a phlogiston station. "Cover me," I yelled to the dust monkey as he trotted out of the tiny office eager as a puppy.
"Sure thing, mister," he said. He gestured magically at my five-year-old Puck in a confident way, but he was obviously new at the job because he had to read that week's proprietary fuel spell from a sheet of paper. The spell fell over my car like a gossamer blanket, briefly making it glow.
I waited for a barbershop chair to pass, then drove out of the station and down to Canal Street, where I was supposed to have lunch with Harold Silverwhite. He was an expert on magic who lived in one of the cottages that lined what remained of the Venice canals.
The city had cleaned up the canals, and gentrification had set in. Like most of the other houses in the area it was small and neat and painted in bright candy colors. Silverwhite's cottage was different from the others in that it had a brown shingled roof that was oddly peaked and raked; an enthusiastic pink trumpet vine covered the walls. The day was unseasonably warm for Venice, but wisps of white smoke drifted from the chimney of Silverwhite's cottage.
A hundred feet away a man leaned against the railing of one of the old bridges that arched picturesquely over the canal, smoking and contemplating the ducks circling in the placid water.
I pulled into the driveway next to Silverwhite's van—white, and with his name on the side in a circus font—and went to knock on the door of the house. "Come in," the door said as it opened. For some reason, no matter how many times it happened I was tickled by the fact the door recognized me—it was like being loved by a dog everyone else thought was vicious.
The house was much larger inside than it seemed outside. You could put the entire outside into the living room, a cozy nook that looked like the reading room in an old-fashioned men's club, all dark wood and soft studded leather. Floor to ceiling book cases lined the walls, with books showing behind the glass windows in the doors, each one now carefully closed. A big fireplace took up one wall, but nothing in it was burning so the smoke had to be coming from some place else. Clever deduction. Me and Sherlock Holmes. The suggestion of a really terrible smell fought its way into my nose.
"In here, old chum," Silverwhite called out.
I followed the sound of his voice to a room that was even larger than the living room. It seemed part kitchen and part laboratory. Vials, retorts, and flasks were everywhere. Books, like heavy prehistoric butterflies, were open on a lab bench. In the fireplace a fire burned under a pot like the ones in cannibal cartoons—it was big enough to boil at least two men whole. The smoke was rising from there, and the smell was much worse. It scoured the inside of my nose like a pad of metal wool.
"Can't you open a window?" I asked.
"No can do, old chum. I'm afraid the smell is part of the whole experimental experience." His voice wasn't quite British—mid-Atlantic I think the accent was called.
"I'm a little surprised you're not stinking up the whole neighborhood."
He shook his head. "It doesn't have to smell after it leaves here, so it doesn't."
I stared at him for a moment as if he were a wonder I'd paid to see. "I'm sure I ought to understand that."
"No need, old chum. No need."
I grumbled and tried to ignore the smell as I crossed the room to where Silverwhite was sitting on a stool before a scrying ball the size of a beach ball studying thaumaturgical formulae. He was a thin gentleman wearing a long lab coat buttoned almost to his chin. Beneath it I could see the beautifully tied knot of a dark tie. He had delicate features and tightly packed curls of a brown so light in color it was almost blond. I always got the impression that he was just visiting from an earlier, more decorous and genteel age. He waved his hands through the air, making the formulae in the scrying ball change.
"Very nice," I said. "No keyboard."
"Nothing to it really," he said.
"What is it?" I asked, using my chin to point at the formula in the ball.
"Programming to stop the Meltdown virus. Heard of it?"
"Everybody who owns a scrying ball has heard of it," I said. If the virus infected your scrying ball, it melted into a steamy and evil-smelling mass. So far I'd been lucky. "How are you coming?"
"Close now," Silverwhite said. "Shall we eat?"
He knew that I didn't like to eat in his laboratory, but he usually forgot. When I asked him if we could eat in some other room he chuckled. "I've been eating in here for years, old chum. So far I remain untroubled by curses, hexes, germs, or poisons." He got up and strolled to a bench across the room. It was piled high with white paper bags.
"Except for that time you had snakes instead of hair for three days," I reminded him as I strolled over to join him.
"That had nothing to do with me, old chum. Anyone can be infested by imps."
"Last time you said it was demons."
He made an equivocating motion with one hand. "Six of one," he said.
I knew better than to continue the argument, particularly because Silverwhite was buying.
"But I will shut off the smell while we eat," he said, and over his shoulder gestured with one hand at the fireplace. The fire and smoke froze as if for them time had stopped, and a few seconds later the smell was gone.
"Show off," I said, and reached for a bag. When I opened it, a wonderful smell of fish and rare spices escaped and floated upward. "Atlantean food from Oricalcum?" I asked hopefully.
"Mostly Marax and Praxa sushi," Silverwhite said as he took the bag away from me and lifted out trays of rolled-up raw fish. He began to arrange the sushi on the serving plate in an artistic design. "Beer?" he asked.
"Root beer, if you have it. I need to be at the top of my game this afternoon."
"I have ginger ale," he said, and took a small green bottle from a refrigerator that was otherwise filled with chemicals, leaves, stems, seeds, and other magical supplies that needed to be kept cold. "What's happening this afternoon?" he asked.
I told him about my time at Spell-Mart and my meeting with Lord Slex.
"It is odd, isn't it?" he agreed. "But perhaps someone at his level can't be bothered reproducing spells that can be purchased over-the-counter."
"Perhaps," I said, unconvinced.
"What has that to do with this afternoon?"
"I have a meeting with him up at the school. He wants me to do some detecting for him."
"What? Stilthins Mort?" he asked, smiling around his food. "I haven't been up there in ages. What does the old boy want?"
"He didn't say. I got the idea that he was a little embarrassed about his problem, whatever it is."
"He must have decided you were all right, after all."
"Hm?" I asked, my mouth full of marax and cabbage.
"Sorry to break it to you, old chum, but he always thought you were kind of a doofus."
"That's not exactly news." I thought while I chewed. "But you're right. It does seem odd."
"You probably owe him a term paper."
"If I do, I'll hire you to write it for me."
We both enjoyed that. In the old days we had been students together, he the star and I the goat. I don't know why we got along, but we did. Chemistry, maybe. Whatever that means.
"You always wrote your own papers," Silverwhite said.
"That's me," I replied. "Honest to a fault—and I do mean a fault."
"Speaking of academia," Silverwhite said, "In my copious spare time I've been writing spells for this year's Spelling Bee."
"You don't have any spare time," I remarked. "From Spelling Bees you make a living?"
"Mostly, old chum, I do it for the honor of the thing."
"I wish I could afford to be so magnanimous."
"You don't do so badly."
"No. Not if I'm careful to eat only every other day."
"Have some more sushi," Silverwhite said and put a few more rolls onto my plate.
The air behind Silverwhite wavered, as if somebody had lit a fire on the floor near him. Suddenly a short man appeared. He had a large square face, lumpy with ugly features that at the moment were snarling. He wore a red satin jacket and spikes of black hair stuck up from his head at odd angles.
Silverwhite must have seen the surprised expression on my face because he turned suddenly and looked at this apparition. The short man pointed at me. "Stay outta my way," he cried angrily and came at me with his hands outstretched, as if he were going to strangle me.
I leaped backward, knocking over the stool I'd been sitting on. Silverwhite leaped to one side and gestured at the man while speaking a formula. The spell had no effect whatsoever on the man. He kept coming.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Your worst nightmare," the man said.
"About average, I'd say," I said as I continued to back away. I knew I would run out of room eventually, but I didn't know exactly when. "If you want something, spill it. Threats tell me nothing."
"If you make trouble for me, you're in big trouble—that's all."
Silverwhite was still flinging spells into the air, trying to get one to take. He was looking chagrinned and desperate now. I knocked over some glassware, and it crunched beneath my shoes as I continued backing. I was probably looking a little desperate, myself.
"Look, mister—" I said, but was interrupted when he lunged at me. I ducked out of his way and pushed open a pair of French doors. I was now outside on Silverwhite's back lawn, where I hoped I would have more room to maneuver. Silverwhite followed, watching us closely but keeping his distance, like the referee in a prize fight.
We danced like that while I wondered how to escape this guy. He seemed awfully determined, but a little unsure about what. The ducks had flown away at the first sign of trouble, but the man on the bridge seemed fascinated by the show.
I growled and rushed the guy hoping he would back up, and to my surprise, he did. He was now at the edge of the canal. "Smart boy," he said as if it were an insult. "Smart boy with big plans."
"You're not making any sense," I said.
He laughed with disgust. "You're a fine one to talk." He saw Silverwhite coming closer. "And tell your pet magician to stay away from me."
"Anything you say," I said and rushed him again.
He took a step back and windmilling his arms, fell into the water. He thrashed around as anybody would, and while he was busy I jumped in after him.
The water was cold and about four feet deep, coming up just to my armpits. He bobbed to the surface sputtering, but before he could catch too much breath I grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him back under. I didn't want to drown him, just slow him down a little. Maybe we could still talk things over.
Suddenly my hands were empty. He hadn't twisted out of my grasp or gone limp, he just wasn't there any more. I looked around in the murky water and saw nothing but murk.