Excerpt From Play Dead

CHAPTER ONE

The rain was vicious, drenching the streets, bouncing off the pavement and running down the gutters. The wind had picked up, driving the rain sideways at times, and the bobbing red and yellow and black umbrellas danced erratically as the wind swept through.

A nasty gust caught one woman’s black umbrella and flipped it inside out, instantly transforming it from a useful tool into a formless mass of wire and fabric. The woman clutched at it hopelessly and in faint surprise, as if she’d suddenly and unaccountably found herself holding a drowned bat.

Lou was one thoroughly wet dog, and he didn’t like it a bit. He crowded next to my feet, trying to keep under the umbrella as well, but he’s barely a foot tall and by the time the rain reached him the umbrella was essentially useless. He stopped every minute or so to give a vigorous shake, coupled with a sour glare in my direction. It was not fit outside for man nor beast, as they say. But the weather was entirely appropriate for my mission. I was on my way to see a black practitioner.

Black practitioners have a bad rep among the rest of us who aren’t and it’s not entirely undeserved, but not all of them are terrible people. I’d dealt with a few of them in the last few years, with mixed results. But I’d dealt with a couple of “normal” practitioners as well, with outcomes that were no better, and sometimes worse.

Still, normally I wouldn’t waltz off to the home of a black practitioner I didn’t know. They’re unpredictable, and a practitioner’s home is where he or she is most effective. There’s enough danger in the magical world as is, without inviting more.

So when I got a call out of the blue inviting me for a talk, my first instinct was to politely decline. But the person on the other end of the line was courteous and persuasive, and by “persuasive,” I mean he mentioned a rather large sum of money. He wasn’t the actual practitioner, though. When you reach a certain level of fame, or maybe notoriety would be a better word, you never just call up someone yourself. You have people for that sort of thing. And the name he threw out was impressive—I try not to get involved with practitioner politics, but even I had heard of her. The representative understood I wouldn’t be comfortable coming to a black practitioner’s home, so he suggested a meeting at the downtown offices.

“Offices?” I’d said. That was a new one for me.

“Five hundred Sutter Street, suite 1092. Blue Bay Promotions.”

So there I was, walking through the rain, headed for 500 Sutter Street. Which turned out to be a handsome older building, erected sometime in the 1920s, or maybe even earlier. It sports an elegant granite facade with scrollwork peeking out below the windows on every floor. The lobby is faced in marble and the elevator doors are constructed of engraved metal, so that when they're closed they seem like elegant bas-reliefs, hardly looking like elevators at all. It was the kind of building Sam Spade might have visited, back when San Francisco was a far different city, and probably a better one.

The elevator doors were ancient, but the elevator itself was modern and high speed. I shared the ride with a young woman. There’s a particular type of awkwardness associated with elevator rides—you’re stuck in close proximity with a stranger, and often people avoid even making eye contact. Small talk is rare. An unspoken agreement to stay encased in one’s own bubble seems to be the norm.

Lou changes all that, though. He won’t put up with staring blankly at the opposite wall, and he usually gazes up winningly at random passengers until they finally break down and comment on his cuteness factor. I’d just replaced his usual collar with a sleek black harness because he kept getting the collar hung up on random branches. It was quite stylish and increased the cuteness factor, which helped him in cadging treats from strangers. Some people don’t care for dogs, of course. I guess it takes all kinds. This woman,however, had a corgi with her, so we shared a few dog pleasantries.

At the tenth floor, I walked down the corridor checking numbers until I came to Blue Bay Promotions. The outer office reminded me of a dentist’s office, with bland prints on the walls and beige everywhere. The man behind the front desk looked up as I came in, noting my general scruffy condition and my wet dog, and raised his eyebrows ever so slightly in polite inquiry.

“I’m here to see Jessica,” I said. He looked at me in some surprise.

“You’re Mason?”

“The same.” He picked up the phone on the desk, pressed a button, and spoke into it.

“Jessie? There’s a Mason here to see you?” He listened a moment, then nodded and waved a hand toward the door at the far end of the room. “Go right in.”

I knocked politely at the door before pushing it open. The inside office was as opulent as the outside was austere. Thick carpet, the obligatory expanse of mahogany desk, and, on each wall, hanging rugs that even my untrained eye could see were old and expensive.

“Come in,” said the woman on the other side of the desk. “I’m Jessica, Jessica Alexander. Jessie to my friends, and everyone else, for that matter.” She smiled disarmingly. “Yes, I use my full name, just like an ordinary businesswoman. Gauche of me, I know.” She came out from behind the desk and offered her hand, glancing down at Lou. “And this is Louie, of course.”

“You’ve done you’re homework, I see,” I said, taking her hand. It was cool and her grip was strong.

“Wouldn’t you? I assume you at least asked Victor about me.”

Victor was my sometimes boss, the unofficial head of magical enforcement in San Francisco. Actually, I hadn’t, so I just shrugged noncommittally. Jessica wasn’t at all what I’d expected. First, she was way too young, and way too pleasant-looking. I’d expected more of an iron maiden, suitable for a black practitioner with an impressive reputation. Steely eyes, short hair or perhaps a tight bun, impeccably dressed in the latest of fashion. But this woman was none of those things.

At first I thought she couldn’t be more than twenty-five, but the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes and the slight beginnings of a double chin when she held her head at a certain angle made me revise that upward. Long hair, loose and light brown. A long straight nose. Nondescript slacks and a soft, plain cashmere-type top, expensive but not obviously so. She looked more like the daughter of the CEO than the CEO herself.

Which made her doubly dangerous. One of the things I’ve learned from hanging around with Victor is the danger of unexamined assumptions. This woman looked harmless and friendly, and cultural conditioning would inevitably lead people to not consider her much of a threat. On an intellectual level they might realize her potential for danger, but emotionally it would be hard not to let their guard down, at least a little. Which, given her position, would be a mistake. Luckily, I wasn’t there as a rival.

She sat back down behind the desk, pushing aside a large brown leather purse that was dangling over the back of the desk chair. “Okay,” I said. “So you checked me out. And there was the mention of some money. Quite a bit, actually, but I have no idea why. Blue Bay Promotions? What exactly is it do you do here?”

She examined me thoughtfully, as if she hadn’t yet decided whether she liked what she saw.

“You’ve worked for Victor for quite some time now, haven’t you? And handled some difficult problems, some complicated situations?”

“I have my moments.”

“I believe you. Victor has his moments, too, but he’s old-school, to say the least. He likes the old ways, and tradition, and isn’t fond of change. Am I right?” She was, but I wasn’t about to be discussing Victor’s psyche with her.

“He gets results,” I said.

“I know he does. I’m not dissing him; he’s an impressive man, and quite the character as well. But times are changing—he’d prefer to live in the nineteenth century if he could, where I’m ready to move into the twenty-first, redefining what it means to be a practitioner. So I’ve set up a corporation and opened an office—part public relations, part R and D. The old days of random knowledge and private fiefdoms are coming to an end.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that, and it also didn’t answer what she wanted from me. She immediately saw that in my body language, and turned on her smile again.

“But that’s neither here nor there. I gather you’re not that interested in practitioner politics.” That was putting it mildly. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she continued. “For example, I’ve also heard that unlike many of your fellows, you don’t hold any particular prejudice toward black practitioners.”

“Maybe not, but I haven’t had the best of experiences in dealing with them, either,” I said.

“And have you had nothing but good experiences with those who aren’t?”

“Not always,” I admitted. She smiled.

“So if I were to offer you a job, you wouldn’t automatically turn it down, then? You’d at least listen?” I thought about the dollar figure that had been mentioned.

“Well, I’m here,” I said. “And it never hurts just to listen.” Which of course is the age-old lie, but it’s something we all tell ourselves.

Lou had meanwhile been quietly checking out the office, wandering around unobtrusively. He kept glancing over behind the desk where Jessie sat and then glancing back at me. I looked in that direction and thought I saw a slight movement. Jessie saw my attention straying.

“How rude of me,” she said. “I haven’t introduced my Ifrit. Naja, say hello to our guests.”

I wasn’t prepared for what came out from behind the desk. There are many types of Ifrits, which is what we call our magical companions. They almost always take the form of small animals, no more than fifteen pounds tops, and most are much smaller. Mostly they’re cats, ferrets, sometimes small dogs like Lou, and occasionally even large birds. No one really knows what they really are or where they come from, although my mentor Eli and I have come up with some pretty good guesses in the last couple of years. They can’t do magic or talk, but they’re smart, way smarter than a dog or a cat, and most of them can understand a great deal of what you say. And they do have some special abilities.

Not all practitioners acquire them, either—more don’t have them than do. Lou of course is special, clever even for an Ifrit, and he’s saved my hide on more than one occasion. But there was one form I’d never seen an Ifrit manifested in, and that was what came out from behind the desk. Slithered out, actually. I was looking at a large snake.

And not just any snake. It was five, maybe six feet long, heavy and speckled, and there was a thickening around its neck that would turn into a hooded cowl if it reared up and spread it out. A cobra.

Lou stood immobile, imitating a statue. Ifrits generally get along well with one another, even if their practitioners are in conflict. They’ll fight to the death to protect their practitioners, and that’s a two-way street. But there seems to be no personal animosity between them, no matter how deadly an argument between practitioners may become. They’re almost like mercenaries on different sides of a battle—they may have to kill one another, but there’s no hatred and even a certain respect and camaraderie that comes from being part of the same club, a club outsiders can’t comprehend. But like me, Lou had never run across an Ifrit that was a reptile, much less a snake, and a deadly poisonous one at that. I hadn’t known there were such things. He didn’t seem inclined to test the limits of the normal Ifrit bonds.

“I know, it’s too perfect,” Jessie said, laughing at Lou’s reaction. “Black practitioner with a poisonous snake for an Ifrit. But she’s harmless—quite friendly, actually.” Sure she was.

Lou eased slowly behind me, putting a couple of strong, thick legs between Naja’s fangs and his own precious skin. He may be willing to fight to the death for me, but he’s also got a very strong sense of self-preservation.

“Interesting,” I said.

“Yes, isn’t it? I sometimes wonder why I’m the only practitioner with a snake for an Ifrit. It must say something about me.” It probably did, though I couldn’t imagine what. I’m not one of those people who think that snakes are evil or creepy; I rather like them, in fact. They’re no more evil than is a cat or a dog, just different. But it couldn’t hurt to have an Ifrit that could scare the hell out of people, not to mention that whole poisonous fang thing.

Naja slid back around the desk and disappeared again. Now I did feel a little nervous. It’s one thing to have a large snake staring at you across the room; it’s quite another to have it lurking somewhere, unseen. Maybe Jessie had learned that trick in a management seminar. Gentlemen, ladies—if you want to gain the upper hand in a negotiation, there are many techniques designed to throw your opponent off his game.

But may I suggest a six-foot cobra coiled up somewhere underneath your desk?

“So, what is it you want with me?” I said, trying desperately to regain some measure of equanimity. Jessie didn’t answer right away, making me wait. Another technique designed to make one unsure. But I’d seen Victor pull the same sort of thing for years, and all it did was amuse me. She saw that, and changed tactics abruptly.

“Okay,” she said. “Bottom line, I need your help, and I’m willing to pay for it. I want you to find someone for me.”

“Money’s always welcome,” I said. “But you seem to have quite a little organization going here. You should easily be able to locate someone. Why would you need me?”

“Most of my ‘organization,’ as you put it, aren’t practitioners. They’re accountants and PR people and the like. And we were still in Seattle when this person left, but recently I’ve had word that’s she’s been seen here in Frisco.”

“San Francisco,” I corrected automatically.

“Whatever. But she’s here, and from what I’ve heard, you have a particular talent for finding people.”

“You need better sources of information.” I gestured down toward my feet. “It’s not me who’s good at finding people; it’s Lou.”

“Same difference.”

“Not really. And he can’t just trot out and find someone, anyway—he has to know the person, or at least have met them, and they have to be relatively near—if someone’s in San Jose, they might as well be on the moon as far as his ability to find them goes.”

“Oh.” Jessie looked momentarily disappointed. “Well, that’s too bad, but you still could be a great help. I’m relatively new here; you’re a fixture in the community, dialed in on all sorts of ways. Plus, you’re a musician.”

“I’m not sure what that has to do with anything.”

“The woman I’m looking for is a musician as well—a jazz musician. She may change her name, and even her appearance, but she won’t be able to give up the music. That much I know about her—it was an important part of her life, and she was good. So chances are you might run across her.”

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“Jacquiline. Jackie for short.”

“And why are you looking for her?” A more incisive question might have been why this woman was hiding from Jessie, but as a prospective employee, I was trying to be tactful.

“That’s not important. I just need to locate her.”

“Well,” I said, “it is kind of important, at least to me. If you’re planning on draining the blood from her body for a ritual, for example, I doubt I’d want to track her down for you.” Jessie laughed, not offended in the least.

“If I tell you why I want to find her, will you help then?”

“It depends. Obviously.”

“It’s simple, really. She stole something from me, something important, and I want it back.”

“And what was that?”

“That’s not important, either.” I let that one pass.

“What happens to her if you find her?”

Jessie’s face hardened for a moment, and I got a glimpse of how she could be running a large operation.

“She’s a thief,” she said. “Worse, I trusted her. If she weren’t a practitioner, she’d go to prison. I won’t try to con you; she’ll be punished, and severely. Victor would do the same, would he not?”

“Probably.”

“But no, I won’t be draining her of blood or stringing her up from the ceiling fan.”

“Maybe a little play toy for Naja, though?” This time, Jessie wasn’t amused.

“Naja’s not like that,” she said, clearly angry. “She would never hurt another practitioner unless I was being attacked. She’s an Ifrit, for God’s sake, just like your Louie. She’s not some mindless instrument of revenge.”

“Sorry,” I said, and I was. That had been uncalled for. Jessie nodded, a bit wearily.

“I get a lot of that, just because she’s a snake. It gets old.” We sat for a moment in an uncomfortable silence.

“If I did look for this woman, there’s no guarantee I could find her,” I said, pretending the exchange had never happened.

“Of course,” she said. “I could put you on retainer, though. I know your reputation, and I know you’d give it your best shot.” She named a figure three times what I usually make working a job for Victor. “And of course a bonus if you do locate her.” She named another figure, significantly larger. She reached into the purse hanging from the chair, pulled out a photo, and pushed it across the desk toward me.

When she reached into her purse, I saw a small soft case inside, partly open. I just got a flash of it, but it seemed to contain a hypodermic syringe and some vials of liquid. What was that about? A diabetic, perhaps, but the syringe looked wrong, too long, and so did the vials. It’s also not a disease that practitioners normally develop. Drugs? Was she a secret Demerol junkie? I pushed it aside to consider later.

“This the woman?” I asked, picking up the picture. She nodded.

The photo was an eight-by-ten black-and-white, almost like an old studio glamour head shot. It showed a young woman, a light-skinned African American. Large gold hoops dangled from her ears. Her hair was thick and hanging free, massed like a puff of smoke.

“Quite an attractive woman,” I said.

“Yes,” Jessie said, with no inflection. “Isn’t she?”

I was tempted. Money’s not usually the overriding thing with me, but my rent had been raised, my van needed a major overhaul, and although gigs had been coming my way, clubs weren’t paying a whole lot these days.

But Jessie was a black practitioner. As I said, some of them aren’t so bad, but some of them are, and I didn’t know enough about her or the situation to judge which type she might be. I’d been joking about the draining-blood thing, but not entirely. I pushed the picture back across the desk, regretfully.

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s really not my sort of thing.”

Jessie looked at me from her seat on the other side of the desk and didn’t say anything. A slight flickering in her eyes told me she was running through a set of responses in her mind, trying to decide which one would work best.

“Think about it at least,” she finally said. “You don’t have to give me an answer right now.”

It didn’t add up. I got the feeling there was more to all this than she was letting on, and when you get that feeling it’s best to pay attention.

Why had she called on me, of all people, in the first place? She’d given a bunch of reasons, but they didn’t hold up when you looked at them closely. Finding people is not a particularly noted skill of mine, even with Lou to help, and since she’d done research on me, she must know that. I’m a musician, and the woman she was looking for was, too, but that was a tenuous connection at best. And although I don’t have a huge prejudice against dark practitioners, they’re not my favorite people, either. I should have just thanked her for her interest and walked away, but maybe it would be smart to keep my options open until I found out why she’d focused on me. Maybe I was just being paranoid, but it never hurts to be careful. And there was that money, after all.

“Well, okay, I’ll think about it,” I heard myself say. “I’ll let you know.”

She nodded, satisfied for the moment. When I got to my feet Lou immediately headed for the door, twisting his head back over his shoulder to keep an eye on the desk. Naja had made him very nervous. He didn’t relax until we were out of the building and back out on the street, and then he had the rain to deal with again. All in all, not a great day for him.

Or me, either. I had a splitting headache, and that’s rare for me. I hoped I wasn’t coming down with something. Maybe I was allergic to black practitioners.