Book excerpt

The Arena Man

The Max August Magikal Thrillers

Steve Englehart


Day One
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Max and Pam lifted off from Heathrow into scattered clouds, then a brilliant sky. British Airways flight 1542 was the day’s first nonstop to Chicago, getting them in at 12:50 P.M. Central Time after a five-hour time change. As was their custom, they had the only two seats on the right in the last row of first class, they had new faces, and they had magickal shields around their conversation. Pam obviously wanted to talk, and as soon as they were airborne, she did.
“About last night…”
“I believe doctrine states that power’s just busting out all over at springtime.” Pam’s voice was carefully dispassionate. “And this year, the Sun’s conjunct Uranus, to make it even more spectacular. It doesn’t take an alchemist to see that power playing out last night.”
“No,” Max agreed, well aware that she was troubled by it. “But it takes at least an astrologer to know about it.”
“D’you think Ken and Barbie timed their attack to take advantage?”
“Probably. I would have.”
“Should we have been expecting them?”
“There was sexy stuff in the air last night, but that could have been us doing our ritual. An attack by incubus and succubus was certainly not probable.”
“The whole male-female thing…” Pam mused. Her jaw clenched. “I remember when the Necklace made all their agent teams one man and one woman, because it made the teams more powerful.”
“Yeah.” He smiled at her in his breezy deejay way, refusing to join her mood. “Agrippa used to tell me the god of Spring is Pan, and Pan means ‘All.’ We all feel his power. And then soon enough, we settle in as one half of All, either male or female, and we go looking for our other half. That’s nature, and that’s gravity—the eternal coming together. We’re all built for relationships. It’s the nature of a dual world, and it’s powerful.”
Pam nodded, her lips tight.
“Beyond that, though,” Max continued, “there are four seasons, and four days midway between the seasons, and out of that comes the eight sabbats of the world—Yule, Imbolc, Spring, Beltane, Midsummer, Lughnasadh, the Fall, and All Hallows’ Eve. The wise begin their counting with Zero, and in this case that’s Hallowe’en, the Dark Void. Then Yule is One, Imbolc Two, and Spring is Three, when the world, which has been kept under wraps all winter, becomes three-dimensional again. Then comes the hidden number pi, the number that never ends.
“Now, Archimedes worked out pi as approximately three and one-seventh, around 250 BC, but before him, people guesstimated at three and one-eighth, and they were the ones working out an understanding of the year. If Spring is Number Three, and there are forty days to the next sabbat on Beltane, one-eighth of forty is five. Five days from spring, March 25, is an ancient festival called Lady Day. It’s when ‘All’ celebrates ‘all the girls.’
“There are ninety-three days to the next season, at Midsummer. One-eighth of ninety-three is eleven and a chunk. Eleven and a chunk days from spring, April 1, is the equally ancient festival of April Fools’ Day, which is when ‘All’ celebrates ‘all the boys.’ Alchemists, though on one team or the other, celebrate both.”
“I know all this,” Pam said sourly. “You’re just trying to divert me with your dazzling repartée.”
“No, I’m saying an alchemist celebrates both, because that’s how our world is set up, because both count. Sex is a given, so don’t beat yourself up over a fundamental part of human nature.”
“It was so fundamental I couldn’t do anything to stop it, Max. Unlike you.”
“So you’re human, and not as far along as you thought you were. Welcome to the club. But alchemy’s a path, Pam, not a teleportation. You’re getting there.”
“‘Getting there.’ ‘Getting there.’ I want to be there already!”
“One step at a time, cowgirl.”
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Breckenridge ran on his treadmill, gloriously alive from his night with his diabola. The monitor in his private gym was secure on Channel Nine, the Necklace’s intranet, so he conducted a lot of his consultations from there. Precisely at 6 A.M., as he did every day of the year, and had for nearly twenty years, he flipped a switch in a panel beside his hand and the image of Dick Hanrahan appeared before him.
“Good morning, Renzo,” the old man said in his briefing voice. “Today is March 21, 2011, a Monday.
“The Brits took a shot at Qaddafi overnight, putting a missile in his compound, but he got away. Obama says he’s not a target, and also says the U.S. expects to hand over military leadership to the allies within days.
“The Japanese say there’s radiation in the food supplies around their four crippled nuclear plants, but eating it won’t do anybody any harm.”
“Can you believe we were going to detonate Yucca Mountain?” Breckenridge broke in. “This is much better, and it didn’t cost a cent.” He waved a hand. “Continue.”
“AT&T plans to pay thirty-nine billion dollars for Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA to create a new U.S. mobile market leader, and raise their prices ten bucks a month, so Carole is dealing with the antitrust boys.”
“For a lot less than when antitrust had teeth, I’m sure,” nodded Breckenridge. “That’s just a business expense now. Tax deductible.”
“You want the numbers?”
“No. Tell me about August.”
“The succubus and incubus failed.”
“Jesus. When we actually do bring that guy down, it’ll be epic. What about the Black Helicopters?”
“Wiped out a family in Montana and were seen. I chose that guy who yelled at you in Kalispell, but it could have been anybody out there in the sticks.”
“Now that’s the way we like it,” Breckenridge said, beginning to breathe just a little harder. “Friday night, they’ll set off an uprising, and it doesn’t matter how large, because it will legitimize the act of rebellion, and the fear behind the act. One of those rebels will kill somebody, like that lunatic in Arizona. Maybe more than one. But it won’t have anything to do with us.”
Breckenridge’s shoulders were swinging back and forth. “One act of true violence and the pot begins to boil. The uprisers want it to boil, want it to boil over. Normal people want it to stop, and most don’t care how that gets done. We can handle that for them. We can hold the lid on the boiling pot, as hard as we have to. And then comes Twenty-Twelve. Jackson Tower, in his time as the wizard, was too old-school to learn Mayan magick, but the Mayan End Times fit my plan so perfectly it’s like it was preordained. December 21, 2012, will be the capstone of my twenty years as Gemstone.”
Hanrahan blinked, once. “Unless August and Blackwell keep interfering—especially this Friday.”
“You give these folks a lot of credit, Dick.”
“You don’t know magick any more than I do, Renzo. They’ve got real power.”
“True,” said Breckenridge, “I don’t know magick. But I know human beings, and that’s all Max and Pam are. No more, no less. They’re not gods.”
“Neither are we.”
“Exactly. We’re all humans here, and we have real power, too. The difference is, we’re worldwide, and they’re just the two of them.”
“They have some friends. Maybe as many as a dozen.”
“Humans, too.”
“Let’s hope so.” Both men cracked a smile, but Hanrahan had another objection. “They’ve hit us three times so far.”
“And we’ve succeeded forty-five other times,” Breckenridge said.
“That’s three in less than three and a half years. And each of those three was big. That’s too much, Renzo.”
“All right, Max and Pam have to die. The plucky rebel sweethearts have to die, and sooner rather than later. But I can’t worry about, or bet all my chips, on any one operation, or any one source of opposition. I’ve got my eye on all of them. We may take some flak but we’re getting this ship to Twenty-Twelve.”
“Most of our other victories were in the back rooms of Washington, Renzo. Based on what he’s shown us, August could have disrupted a lot of those. I think he hasn’t because he hasn’t wanted to. He holds his fire so he can focus on what, frankly, we’re focused on. He wants to hit us where it hurts. And I believe that the threat assessment is very high on something this critical.”
“Which is what I have you for, and what I have Ruth and Franny for.”
“Thank you for including me with them,” snapped the old man.
“Jesus, Dick, lighten up. It is what I have you for. The Intelligence link in the Necklace gives me what I need to know, and the Ops and Ordnance links give me control on the ground. I trust all of you to do your jobs, so I can run the ship. Until we kill Max and Pam, we will suffer a higher than normal failure rate, but that rate is six percent and I can live with that. One of our failures was Yucca, but the Japs just handed us what we wanted, so let’s scratch that one off. Two failures. What’s that, four percent now. Dick, if you saw the world the way I do, you’d see a far more complex, and ultimately forgiving, place.”
“I see facts,” said Hanrahan sourly. “I see August and Blackwell continuing to live, and my analysis says he’ll be interested in Black Helicopters.”
“He would be interested, but how’s he going to know about them?” Breckenridge used the pad beside his hand again, to stop the treadmill and lope to a halt. “Let’s just make certain we do everything we can on our end. Then it’s in the hands of the gods.”
“Yeah,” said Hanrahan. “Finally Renzo: tomorrow is Stamp Act Day.”
“I know. Huzzah! All hail the Loyale Nine, my friend!”
“All hail the Loyale Nine!”
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Two hours later, Breckenridge stepped from his limo beneath Barker Chilton’s spacious portico. It was a dismal, snowy day, but the portico’s main purpose was to shield the arrival of visitors from non-Western satellite view. American and European satellites were recording a feed showing the Chilton estate with no visitors whatsoever.
In fact, there had been thirty-three arrivals and departures this morning. Porter Allenby, the Values link, and Nat Whitten, the new Politics link, had massaged the gathering in preparation for Breckenridge; he was the centerpiece of the affair so his arrival was timed to be last.
“Larry!” It was Chilton, striding forward to greet him, hand outstretched. For a nickname, Breckenridge preferred the “Renzo” his old friend Dick used; beyond that he preferred his given name. But this was trivial.
“Barker, how are you, old friend?”
“Excellent, Larry. Any problem on the flight?”
“No, I’ve had my pilot for a long time now. I hardly even notice flying.” He turned toward the driver’s window. “Roger.”
The driver bobbed his head. The impression he gave was of solidity. Nothing would get past this man if it threatened the boss. Breckenridge said, “This is Roger, my pilot and driver.”
“Your wingman,” Chilton chuckled.
“Nice to meet you, Roger.”
“You, too, sir.”
Breckenridge said, “One hour, Roger.”
“Yes, sir.” The limo moved smoothly to the parking area. Chilton led Breckenridge inside his mansion. There were thirty-three people there, almost all men. They broke into applause. Breckenridge flipped his palms up, humbly acknowledging it with a grin that said he wasn’t humble at all. The applause went on for a while. He held up a palm and it died away.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I’m going to enjoy this day with you, and I’ll tell you why. We are in the end days. The end of an era, ushered in by you. Soon those who share our beliefs will truly be the chosen ones, as the failures of the past, however noble, however sacred, will matter no more. There will be a new day, with only promise ahead—and don’t we all wish we could speed that day?”
Cries of assent were heard around the room.
“Well, we can’t. But it’s coming, coming because of you. Some say it’s at the end of next year. Now, we’re not Mayan—”
“Not hardly!”
“—but maybe they found the end of days on their own, to prove Christ’s dominion over all the Earth, for surely he is Lord of all the heathens as well!”
“Yes!” “Yes!”
“Everything is speeding up, and it’s spinning out of control. Everything’s new and then everything’s obsolete within months now. The tape, the CD, the DVD, the Blu-Ray. The film in the theater and the film on Blu-Ray with the two alternate endings. You can never get to the end of it, and so now people, somewhere deep in their souls, want to get to the end of it. In their heart of hearts, all of America is thinking, ‘Can we just stop, please? Stop and let me finally find some work, let me enjoy my income, let me plan for the future, let me relax’—but I am certain that soon, maybe very soon, they will get their answer, and it will be ‘No!’ Our time on Earth is played out, and there is a new day coming!”
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
The Ohio River runs through the chaotic mountains of West Virginia—a river mighty enough to carve a valley over time, a long, narrow, north-south stretch of lowland passing eternally lowering ridges. Within that valley is the city of Wheeling, which has spread as wide as possible across the valley, to hold the twenty-eight thousand people who live there. But once you leave the city and head back up into the mountains, the population drops off drastically. An inhabitant of Wheeling like Dick Hanrahan could find complete privacy there.
It was getting to be warm, early on the first day of spring, but at this elevation the snow still clung to the ground and the trees. Hanrahan had left immediately after briefing Breckenridge and driven his personal Ford Expedition, a forgettable gray-silver, up Route 647 until he reached a gated turnoff on the left. It went without saying that he had hidden cameras watching the road for two miles in either direction, checking the gate and the narrow road leading up and away behind it, now covered in snow. But as soon as Hanrahan opened the gate with his remote and disappeared around the first curve, the road turned black and dry, thanks to the heating units running beneath it. Hanrahan continued another three miles upward to another gate, opened that one, and went to the ridge. where the road ended in a circle wide enough to turn around in. He left the Expedition and walked a quarter mile on a snowy path through the woods, giving his state-of-the-art electronic and mystical scanners time to decide that he belonged here, that they should not kill him. The walking made his back feel better, so he had no desire for death. His desire went another way.
He came to a small, windowless cabin and let himself in. No one had been here since his last visit, his sensors said. He checked his watch, then went to the bar and turned on the coffemaker. It was still two minutes to Charley.
*   *   *
In Duluth, Peter Quince sat cross-legged in the center of the circles ancient wizards had inscribed in the wooden floor of the sanctum sanctorum in the cupola of the house on Lake Superior.
At least, what was left of him did.
His body had become no more than clouds of mist, pulsing with rhythms only it could hear. Half of what he was, was here now, in Duluth. The other half, augmented by all the power from the women on the slabs, was a mist above a plane, the highest realm he could imagine. Two lights shone high above him, throwing vague shadows through him into the gaping, putrescent hole at the center of the plane. But four lines led from that center, in four directions, in four colors. The blue line led to the right, into a blue veil.
The half-Quince moved in that direction, passing through the veil, and entered the soul of Charley Posner, a loan officer at Chase in Dayton. Quince had the ability to enter a few select people, and Charley was the best fit of “distance” and “suitability” when it came time for Quince to choose someone to meet with Hanrahan in the cabin. Charley, who ordinarily lived alone in Dayton, lay unconscious twenty-three hours a day in West Virginia, but every morning at 8:15 he sat up as Peter Quince.
He did so now. “Good morning, Dick,” said Charley with Quince’s Western accent. “Enjoy your coffee. I’ve gotta go pee.” He stood up and walked directly into the bathroom.
Quince was a wizard, and Hanrahan accepted his weirdness because he was good at wizardry. In the two years that he’d held the position, he had provided a steady stream of magickal devices to help the Necklace, including the bone that the Black Helicopter mission was built around. Moreover, he was the only one of them to have personally fought Max August and Pam Blackwell. His insights into their characters and methods had allowed the Necklace to keep August and Blackwell from forestalling the Wisconsin attack.
All of that was why the Necklace made allowances, but Hanrahan had one more reason: he and Quince were conspiring to kill Lawrence Breckenridge.
*   *   *
Quince finished peeing. Even with wizardry, coffee is coffee, he thought. None today. But he lingered in the bathroom. He had no need to bow before Hanrahan, or any man, and he enjoyed these times when he could be the master and not the slave. Let the old man wait, and wonder what I’m doing in here.
But finally, he opened the bathroom door and Charley came forth, zipping his fly. “Where’s Breckenridge this fine morning, Dick?” he asked his now longtime partner.
“Meeting with rich white evangelicals.”
“As opposed to what?”
“All part of the buildup to Friday,” said Hanrahan. “They’ll give like crazy after Friday. He’s very focused on Friday. Coffee?”
“No, thanks. So when I hit him Wednesday, he’ll have to cram that crisis on top of Friday’s mission—”
“—and Thursday morning, he’ll be looking forward and backward, but not straight in front of him.”
“That’s the plan. And a good one it is,” said Charley, “if you’re right about him not suspecting you.”
Hanrahan regarded him icily, but Quince/Charley didn’t blink. “I’ve known him for forty-eight years,” the old man said. “The only thing I don’t know about Renzo Breckenridge is the cause of that strange noise I hear on my bugs—which I asked you about.”
“I gave you my best answer on that, Dick,” Charley responded impatiently. “It’s a rejuvenation machine of some sort. Breckenridge’s vitality is unnatural. Forget about it.”
“I know for a fact that Ordnance didn’t build him anything like that, and I find no record of any outside firm doing it, or of any wizard.”
“But you wouldn’t, would you? He’s the Gemstone.”
“And I’m Intelligence. So I would.”
“Well, I found nothing on the wizard side, either. And after Thursday, it won’t matter.”
“I don’t like loose ends,” said Hanrahan.
“Then ask him, Thursday afternoon. You’ve got drugs.”
“No, when I kill the snake, I kill the snake. And besides—I’ll have a Necklace to run.” The old man smiled his own reptilian smile. “Now, Peter, this will be the last time we’ll be in contact before Thursday, unless something unforeseen comes up.”
“We’ve foreseen everything.”
“In all my years of espionage, I’ve never known that to be true. There’s always something. And aren’t you the one who says, ‘There are no cut-and-dried answers in magick’?”
“Yes, but trust in yourself, and the world will be ours!”
“Are you,” queried Hanrahan, “giving me a pep talk?”
“We’re partners, aren’t we?”
Idiot, thought the old man.
Fool, thought the wizard.
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Peter Quince resolidified in Duluth. He opened his eyes. He was home.
Hanrahan doesn’t suspect us.
“Then why haven’t you engulfed him, Master?” Quince asked.
There’s no magick in him—a major reason why he doesn’t suspect. You are all I need here, my adorèd one.
He knew Belia’al was the Prince of Liars, but he’d come to enjoy the lies. “Thank you, Master.”
I have had my way with great men since the days of the Patriarchs. I control one thousand humans, great and small. But never have I had my way with the world.
One thousand, Quince thought, preening. And I’m his favorite.
Control of your world is the ultimate response to the cruel and unjust fate that God imposed upon me. I have lusted after it forever. And now, finally, you and Hanrahan will seize control of the Necklace—then you will seize it from him. And I am you.
Quince’s body shivered in anticipation.
God banished my brother Lucifer, creating me as an artifact of his arrival in the world of duality. Lucifer chose revenge through men’s souls, but I chose men’s minds. Belia’al laughed, deep in Quince’s chest. And I win!
It was a conversation between two entities, but it all came from the one man in the room. Just a wizard being weird.
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Breckenridge excused himself from the center table and gave a small wave of farewell to the crowd as he made his way to the exit. Porter Allenby and Nat Whitten got up as well and followed him. It was not done with pomp and circumstance, but it was noticed, and appreciated. Breckenridge, Allenby, they were the leaders, charting the course for the movement, and they had to do what they had to do. It would be worrisome if the leaders had nothing better to do than sit and make small talk. It was as if Lawrence Breckenridge was the president of the United States.
Outside, he and the two other Necklace members retired to the Gemstone’s limousine, now rimed with a thin skin of snow. It was a mobile security spot, tricked out with every device the military-industrial complex had devised, augmented by the cabal’s time-tested magickal shields. Peter Quince had offered to improve the shields, but Breckenridge knew from Aleksandra that they needed no improvement and had turned him down.
Roger sat in front, his back to the dense shield that slid up between him and the rear compartment of facing seats. Breckenridge took the seat facing forward; Allenby and Whitten sat side by side across from him and the latter closed the side door with a satisfying chunk.
Porter Allenby always dressed in a well-tailored suit—which is to say, one that didn’t quite fit. It enforced his image as a man of down-home values from the heartland of America, which was exactly what he was. He stayed forever in tune with public sentiment, ready to ride it wherever he wanted to go. He was a minister, but seemed more like a professor, and the fact that he lived in a liberal state like Wisconsin showed he wasn’t really a partisan. Thus, Diana Herring’s media pushed him on the public as a serious person. He was the third guest at the party, the guy she put on as the center of balance between the right and the left. The fact that he was right wing, too, served to demonstrate that the center belonged there.
Little Nat Whitten had a face turned leathery early from all the close-and-personal battles he’d waged in the halls of the Texas statehouse. It was not a face designed for television like Allenby’s; it thrived in the halls, filled with smoke and man-sweat, where it wheedled and roared and cajoled as needed to get a deal done, and preferably one they could sell come November. But last year he’d come to understand that deals didn’t have to be sold any longer, they could just be announced, and he jumped at the chance to play for bigger stakes with the Necklace, replacing Michael Salinan. He was not surprised to learn that Salinan had been the previous Political link; if he’d known such a post existed, he’d have been in his top two to hold it. But Salinan had disappeared and the position was open.
Though he showed none of it, Breckenridge was weighing Nat’s every moment, even now. Breckenridge had been the Politics link in his time, and he’d picked every one since, personally—including Michael Salinan. So he refused to give Whitten his complete trust at this early date; and Nat would have distrusted any man who did. They understood each other. “Give the contributions list to Carole,” Breckenridge told Nat. “The money’s not important. Tell me about commitment.”
“Very high,” Nat said, looking at the Gemstone with camaraderie. “We’re goin’ all-in for Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Kansas, and Arizona. Everybody’s pumped. There’s strong pushback from the public, but those folks have no long-term strategy. If they stymie us here and there, we’ve still surrounded ’em, so the next time our ideas’ll be well-known and long-held positions, not radical a-tall. I’d say our position is real strong.”
“The governors and legislators may not be so sanguine about being cannon fodder,” offered Allenby.
“They’ll be taken care of if they’re recalled. That’s what think tanks are for.”
“Ha! Then everybody’ll be workin’ for us—the governors as well as the slaves.”
Breckenridge said, “Well, if any of the governors want to talk with me, set it up. We don’t condone any backsliding.”
“Sure. And then, come Friday, it’s all forgotten. The Black Helicopters are the new Nine-Eleven.”
Breckenridge looked at Allenby. “How’s the mood?”
“Lots of unhappy people, fighting to hold on to their dreams. Not really ready to revolt, but the idea is out there. Problem is, revolt against what? Most think the rich are to blame, but how do you attack the rich? And the Tea Baggers think the liberals are to blame. So there’s a lot of disjunction, a lot of unease, just below the surface. Ironically, the one thing holding it in check is the idea at the back of people’s minds that the world ends next year, not this one.”
“But after Friday?”
“Well, Black Helicopters have been a bête noir since the seventies. The original idea was that they belonged to the UN and would swoop down when America was converted to a one-world government. Unless they belonged to space aliens who were doing all the cattle mutilation. Their profile dipped somewhat when nothing further happened on those fronts, but they resurfaced in the nineties when Helen Chenoweth of Idaho charged they were being used to enforce the Endangered Species Act. ‘We do have some proof,’ she said, but somehow she didn’t produce it, so they faded again in the public awareness. But they’ve stayed on the crazies’ radar right along, and if that proof were finally to arrive, it would be another Nine-Eleven—everybody would have to jump on board.”
“On a ride t’ nowhere,” said Nat.
“Not nowhere,” said Porter. “A frightened mob goes wherever you point them.”
“All we’re doin’ is givin’ them something to rebel against, on the road to Twenty-Twelve. They’ll take it from there.”
“More falling in line. More allegiance,” agreed Breckenridge. “One big happy plantation.”
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Eight hours and forty minutes after takeoff, Max and Pam touched down at O’Hare. They joined their fellow passengers on the long walk to passport control, and were waiting in line for customs when Max noticed a young woman two lines down. She had reached her customs kiosk and was having some trouble with the agent. He only had to extend his consciousness a little to hear their back-and-forth.
“You can’t have my laptop or my cell phone,” she was saying, trying to keep her voice under control.
“I’m sorry, miss, but it’s the law,” the agent said firmly.
“Not nonsense. According to Homeland Security, you donated to Wikileaks.”
“So Wikileaks is under investigation, and since you support them, we can confiscate any evidence that may help pursue a case against them.”
“My laptop? My cell phone? Wikileaks hasn’t been charged with anything, and I don’t work for them.”
“You’re holding up the line, miss. Please come with me to the interrogation room.”
“I’m not going anywhere. This is bogus.”
“It’s the law. Now—”
Max had had enough. He ducked his head, concentrated for a moment.
The agent rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes. “Oh, go on through,” he said, and stamped her passport.
The girl looked at him, but not too long. She grabbed her computer and phone and moved toward the exits as quickly as she could without attracting any more attention.
“These are not the droids you’re looking for,” Pam said at Max’s side.
“Exactly,” he said. “I just hope she’s got sense enough to encrypt anything she wants to keep on a separate machine and leave it in America, because that’ll happen every time she leaves the country and comes back.”
“That is outrageous if she hasn’t committed any crime.”
“Well, a crime is whatever the government says it is, and the Necklace has been criminalizing whistle-blowers,” he said. “I wish I could follow up with her … but we’ve got to get to Fort Wayne.”
They came to their own line’s kiosk. The agent looked them over, compared what he saw to the photos in their passports, and stamped them through. “Welcome home,” he said.
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Max bought a copy of Entertainment Weekly to shoot up current American culture—evidently, Charlie Sheen, Charlie Sheen, and Charlie Sheen—on their way to rent an Altima from a no-name agency outside the airport. They set off toward the Indiana Toll Road over some of the worst pavement he’d seen in a while. He tried to find Jim Rome on the radio, but apparently Chicago still didn’t carry him, so he settled on B96 and sat back to dance with his shoulders to Jessie J’s “Price Tag.” He was well and truly removed from his deejay days at KQBU, but a good pop song was eternal. He can dance anywhere and any time, thought Pam, with affection.
They’d last driven the toll road in September of ’09. Diana had given Max the nine cities in the Necklace at Midsummer, and first they’d gone to London to help Hoodoo look for Eva Delia, but when that had stalled after two months of no results, they’d flown back to America for the scenic tour.
There were two reasons they’d begun with Peter Quince, Wizardry, in Duluth, instead of Carole van Dusen, Finance, in Boston. First, they’d just beaten Quince and needed to know what he’d done about that. Second, no member of the Necklace could be considered “easy,” but moving west to east put the heaviest hitters last, and it was just as well to take it slow. They could not let anyone know that they had this knowledge without bringing Di down.
So they took a room at the Holiday Inn in downtown Duluth and went for a drive out London Road to see the wondrous houses of East Duluth. In the early days the city on the great lake had rumbled with lumber, milling, shipping, and railroads. The tycoons of the Gilded Age built homes to match their grandeur. Always solid, with fine style, they ranged along the pristine eastern shore, where the woods ran down to the water. They carved out lawns for private views; some left the forest standing as it had since time primeval, others cleared it out so drivers on London Road could see their opulent houses. Peter Quince’s place, known locally as the George Kerrigan house, was one of those not visible. The obvious approach was through the woods at the rear, but as soon as Max did his wipe, where he “cleaned” reality by moving his hand from left to right, he saw the haunting spirits there. So he and Pam went for brisk sailing jaunts past the Wizardry house, up and back, where each time both they and the boat seemed different.
Next, they drove down to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where Porter Allenby, Values, held sway. There they took a tour of his megachurch. Max found no spirits there; rather, there was the suppressed tension, just below the surface, that roiled so many people. The message was simple: “We deserve better.” Subtext: “Because we’re the people who built this country.” Subtext: “Because we were promised the American Dream.” Subtext: “Somebody took that away from us, and we don’t know who that is, and it’s pissing us off!” Subtext: “So we hate everyone we don’t know.”
But the message was full of hope for a better tomorrow, and Allenby delivered it with calm certainty. He was not a screamer, not an orator; he presented himself as simply a public speaker who happened to speak for God. Max and Pam—wearing name tags for “Eric” and “Mallory”—took in two of his services on many levels, feeling for the subtexts, experiencing the whole. The message was certain that it was true, and everything else a sad mistake. The message said “We will vanquish our enemies and claim the Dream!”
Next came Diana Herring, Media, in Chicago. If they didn’t want to tip any of Di’s compatriots, they certainly didn’t want her to notice them, even though she’d naturally be on alert. Their theory was, there had been three months with no sign of them, so she’d have to be deciding that they’d been and gone. In any event, they took the tour at skyscraping Full Resource Channel three times.
For Pam, disguising herself with a twist of will was now very much second nature. She could see how you faced down a mass of new information, ground your way through it piece by piece, and finally came out the other side, where you understood the information, where it was something you could build on as you moved to the next course of work. Where you could see you had come a distance on the path to Timeless alchemy.
Which was why Max kept upping the ante, teaching her to “paint” her new identity with finer and finer brushstrokes. With his core knowledge of the 260 days in a Mayan cycle, and the 260 corresponding asteroids, he saw things with 260 facets—details you could easily overlook, but which worked around the edges of your attention, subtly confirming the reality of what you saw. By the time they left Chicago, she was almost as good as he was.
Next came Franny Rupp, Ordnance, in Fort Wayne.
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Vee closed her canary yellow door and stepped out into Hartland Road. To her left, the road jogged across Clarence Way, and on the far side was St. Barnabas, an abandoned church. It was still hot out, and the early spring had put leaves on the old tree in front of it, which threw its own shadows on the narrow churchyard. People said the weather had changed, that spring didn’t used to be like this. Vee wouldn’t know.
She turned right and walked up Hartland Road, with its twin rows of color—a sight that always made her happy. Some of her neighbors were also out walking, and she greeted them as they passed. She liked most of them, but Vee in 2011 was interested in three things: herself, the book, and her music. She had gone so long without a self that she loved exploring all the things a Vee could be. It was one of the things that made her a rising star in the Camden scene, her ability to go deep inside that self when she sang. But the book was in there, too, and as she explored herself she explored the world of alchemy as well, and the two mingled. The Vee she was was a Vee she would not have been if she’d been allowed to live a normal life from birth. This Vee was a product of her distinct circumstances. She was literally born to alchemy. And so there she was, drawn inward toward a world larger than the one she walked on Hartland Road—and yet walking up Hartland Road to go perform in public.
That was the hard thing to explain: her real pleasure in singing for an audience. The book certainly didn’t teach that, so it was all her, but she’d never wanted the spotlight when she was the girl who called herself Eva Delia Kerr. It was her real self, no longer held back by Eva Delia. It was Vee at her very core, the Vee she didn’t know and so explored—and yet, she was immersed in alchemy at the same time.
Eva Delia could never have done that—held two sides together. But normal people could. All the neighbors could. Most of all, Vee could.
Sometimes that thought almost knocked her off her feet, it was still so new. Less than two years, after seventeen years of confusion and pain. No wonder she focused on herself.
And yet … she could not forget Eva Delia. That poor girl never asked to have another self thrust into her mind. She’d been the pawn of some evil force, who’d used her birth to hide Vee there. Vee was positive that it hadn’t been Vee’s own doing; she knew herself well enough to know she’d never do that to anyone, and the book spoke for a man who would never have taken a disciple who would. Vee was a victim, but so much more so was Eva Delia, doomed to a life of madness.
Vee was new to her life, but she had history, and she had curiosity. This is what she explored, and what she drew upon for her set.
She reached Chalk Farm Road and turned left, toward the High Street, but couldn’t help noticing, in the market across the way, a wild variety of flowers. Pan is the force that drives us all, she told herself. And this year he’s extra explosive.
Strolling into the heart of Camden Town, passing tinny CD players outside storefronts and stereos in flats above them and radios in passing cars and speakers in the pubs, she heard a continually shifting variety of music—all the sounds of 2011. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep.” Bruno Mars, “Grenade.” Keyshia Cole and Nicki Minaj, “I Ain’t Thru.” Cee-Lo, “Fuck You.”
So very, very normal.
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
In New York City, Nat Whitten paid his cabbie and entered the Bismarck Hotel on East Twenty-ninth Street through fading rain. It was his longtime home away from home in New York—long enough for him to have bought the old building through a series of fronts. His room on the seventh and top floor was always available; more important, it was secured with state-of-the-art devices that were not provided by the Necklace. None of them were magickal devices or spells, but he had to know a good deal about security in his business and he was amply satisfied with his electronics, which had been engineered into the remodeling of the room. He had some things he had to keep private, even though he was one of the Nine. When he entered room 701, he could be certain that whatever he did there was private as hell.
He used his secure line to contact Gabriel Longchamps on his private laptop. The man’s ruddy, horsy face appeared almost at once.
“Where are we, Gabe?” he asked him.
“I just got in,” Gabe said. “The flight was ridiculous. It’s too late to see anyone tonight, but I have an appointment with the commander in the morning. I’m sure there’ll be red tape, but I’ll be in touch as soon as I have a firm time.”
“No one’s lookin’ at you funny?”
“Not at all. No one has ever known the bond between us, Nat. And if they heard a rumor, I doubt they’d believe it.”
“Unfortunately, horse-face, I think so, too.” They both laughed. “Keep at it and I’ll talk at ya soon’s you’re ready.”
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
“Listen, Senator, people are saying you’re not pushing the debt hard enough.—Well, of course debt is irrelevant with this many people out of work, but that’s the mission. If we don’t sell the idea of a crisis there’s no reason for people to accept losing wages and benefits, and nothing sells crisis like shutting the government down.—Yes, if we have to.—There’ll be jobs someday. Once we’re in charge and they’re ready to take whatever they can get.”
Another button on Breckenridge’s secure phone lit orange.
“John, I’ve got another call. You’ve got your orders. Don’t overthink it.”
He punched the glowing button. “Congresswoman! How are you today?—Yes, of course we need that legislation. If they can organize, they can resist. Moreover, they’ll think they have friends instead of competitors.—Don’t worry about the money. The bank was indeed our primary operation, but we have more. By summertime, no one will remember if they go under.—Because no one will keep the story alive.—If it involves banks, no story will remain alive.—Right. Just do what we tell you and you’ll get paid.”
Breckenridge saw line nine light up with Diana’s name. “Excuse me, I have another call.—Yes, I’ll see you there.”
He punched line nine.
“Good afternoon, Diana! We were just discussing the media. How are you today?”
“I’m great, Lawrence. How about you?”
“Good. I have a proposal for you.”
“I’d like to spend the next few days in Fort Wayne. The schedule doesn’t require me to be in Chicago tomorrow or Wednesday, and I’d like to watch Ruth and Franny in action, up close and personal. I’m always at the back end of events, but with a mission this elaborate and long term, the more I actually know, the better I can shape the storyline.”
“And if you see Franny or Ruth screw up?”
“Well, I’d expect to see them fix the screwup, Lawrence. If they didn’t, of course I’d tell you, but that seems unlikely. And naturally, none of it would go on air.”
“You can imagine their reaction to your proposal, I’m sure.”
“That’s why I called you first, boss man.”
“Diana, since Yucca Mountain, you’ve been an exemplary link. I’ve told you before how well you handled Wikileaks, and the wiretaps. But my worry is the possibility of your bringing unwanted attention to Fort Wayne.”
“In all the time since August appeared, he’s never broken any of our shields.”
“That we know of.”
“Well, Lawrence, by that standard, we could never be sure of anything.”
“Welcome to my world.”
“I hear you. But August is not a god.”
“A point I myself made just this morning. But why should we tempt fate?”
“If I make a mistake because I’m uninformed, that would not benefit us. I’m trying to do my job the best I can, for everybody’s benefit.”
“All right. Make me proud tonight, and make certain you’re back in plenty of time for Thursday night’s work. I’ll break it to Franny and Ruth.”
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Franny entered Ruth’s office with a sour look on her broad face.
“What?” Ruth asked.
“Diana’s coming to inspect us.”
“Ah shit no!”
“Lawrence says she just wants to watch.”
“Bullshit! We’re at T minus four. I’ll call him—”
“Won’t do any good,” Franny said. “He said he’s decided and that’s that.”
“That bimbo has him wrapped around her little finger.”
“I dunno about that, Ruth. I’ve never known Lawrence to be interested in any woman—”
“Trust me, Franny, powerful men always have a bimbo around somewhere.”
“You think Diana? I don’t. He was really pissed at her when Mike Salinan got put away. She had to walk on eggshells for a long time. I thought maybe she and Mike had a little something goin’ on.”
“And maybe Breckenridge was the man scorned.”
“Umm. Maybe.”
“In any event, she uses her sex appeal—”
“Her ‘sincerity’—”
“Yeah. She bamboozles anything in pants. But not me,” said Ruth.
“Or me,” said Franny.
“But we’re stuck with her anyway.”
“Like a turd in a punchbowl.”
Ruth held out a hand, waving the problem away. “Can you take the lead on this, Franny? You can work to a schedule; I’ve got to be plugged in all the time.”
“I know it. I’ll handle it.” Franny sighed heavily. “And if she doesn’t like it, she can go straight to hell.”
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Max and Pam pulled their rental car to a halt where the houses in Fort Wayne ran out. It was a year and a half since the last time they’d been here. The two blocks in front of them were open green grass on both sides, save for a Bud Light truck trailer parked on the left of the nearest block—then the street dead-ended at the Rupp Works. Behind a tall metal fence, a low, rather ominous citadel made of gray Indiana limestone faced the street. Six taller, longer, three-story buildings of brown Indiana brick lined up behind with all their windows blacked. Transparent walkways joined the top floors, adding a modern touch to Rupp’s tradition of smart craftsmanship. Towering over it all was a high cylindrical chimney.
Railroad tracks ran past the compound, on its right, between the Rupp Works and what once had been the Dailey Company, according to the faded sign it bore. Now Dailey’s was deserted, but in the fall of ’09, Max had easily found the sensors there, in the most logical place to hide on this open ground. So he and Pam had picnicked in the park two blocks farther on and taken hikes back along the tracks, sightseeing. It had been a warm day in Indian summer.
Today was still in the high fifties, with warm days not too far away. The sky was gray with clouds, but light gray, not threatening to rain, and the sun, low but still behind the clouds, made a section of the gray almost translucent, making the ground seem dark. It wasn’t the weather that made Pam shiver.
She looked at him intently. “Are you feeling what I’m feeling?”
His face was grim. “Like what I felt when we first arrived in Barbados, tracking Squire Omen.”
“I couldn’t feel it then,” she said, “but I sure feel it now. It makes my stomach turn. Is that what we’re here for?”
“No,” Max said, opening the driver’s door and getting out, his eyes locked on the Rupp Works. “It’s not big enough. But it’s the prelude to something.” To any eyes but Pam’s—had there been any—he was turning invisible. But there were no other eyes there, and she was becoming invisible as well. “Last time we got the hell away from it,” she said, following him as he started off down the street at a brisk walk.
“This time I have to see what it is,” he said—and abruptly broke into a run. Pam, startled, started instinctively after him, but No, he snapped telepathically. She stopped, and tried to see what he had seen. Now she did.
There was a man with a gun outside the factory’s gates.
The gun was half hidden in the man’s outer coat pocket, but Max and Pam were used to looking for danger. The man’s hand was on the gun and his eyes were locked on the gate, which was now opening. He was to the right of it. A Hummer drove from the flat lot onto the flat street, not having to slow for the right turn. The man pulled his weapon, took aim with a professional stance, and began firing at the passing car. Windows spiderwebbed but did not break, before at least two people inside began return fire. The man on the street loosed two more shots, then turned and ran into Dailey’s across the tracks. The Hummer hit the brakes hard and a man jumped out a side door to give chase, firing as he ran. Behind him, the body of another man flopped awkwardly out the door and landed on its head. The assailant ran into the building. The pursuer took a less obvious entrance. And Max, invisible, followed him.
In a long hall, Max saw the attacker ahead of him, passing shuttered office doors. The man ran through a doorway at the end of the hall and Max was right behind him, encountering pursuer and attacker on a vast open floor, two dark figures in late-afternoon gloom. Their shots echoed high and airy off the old brick. A bullet snapped past Max, who knew full well that invisibility didn’t change the fact that he was physically here. But that was a game he’d been playing since 1972, a game he’d been loving. For all his magick, there was nothing like a fire fight. Though it changed things a little if they weren’t firing at him.
The attacker suddenly turned and ducked and fired. He was clearly an experienced marksman but with that momentum it was still a lucky shot. It caught the pursuer in the chest, though he fired off another two shots before his knees went out from under him and he fell to the floor. The second shot went into the floor but the first one caught the crouching man and took him down as well.
Max ran to the pursuer; this man was dead. The attacker was lying twenty feet ahead, dying, spurting blood with less and less urgency. Behind Max came the sounds of other people entering the long hall, warily but steadily.
He dropped to his knees and yanked the pursuer’s wallet and keys from his pockets. He searched quickly for anything else he might need but that was it, so he grabbed the gun as well and stood up again, shoving the booty into his own pockets, moving his feet comfortably apart. He put his hands out, palms out toward the pursuer’s body, and made three distinct gestures, each hand a mirror image of the other, as his face hardened in concentration. Five seconds passed, while the sounds of the newcomers came closer—then Max gave a short, sharp shove in the air toward the body, and the body abruptly rolled over and disappeared as if falling into a hole. In fact it fell into the collective subconscious, the vast realm invisible to men but available to masters of magick.
Quickly, Max ran his hands downward in front of his face and chest, four times. When he was done he was indistinguishable from the man he’d hidden. He drew a finger along the left side of his neck and left a trail of blood. The newcomers would catch sight of him in ten seconds, so he pulled out the wallet and looked at the Pennsylvania driver’s license. From that moment he was Dennis Aparicio.
Two men abruptly emerged from the hall, mirror images of pros, guns in front. After a moment to digest the scene, the one on the left asked, “You okay, Aparicio?” His voice, too, echoed.
Max had no idea what Aparicio sounded like, but that’s why he had blood on his neck. He roughened his voice to say, “I’ll live, but the bastard almost put one in my throat.”
“He did put one in Lindemann, back at the Hummer.”
“I was there, remember?”
The two newcomers approached the attacker from angles, still wary of him, but the closer they got, the more certain they were that there would be no more attacks today.
“Aw, Christ!” said the one on the right. “It’s Cordover.”
“Cordover?” Max echoed.
“You know. The guy they sent back to P-A for theft.”
Max said, “Looks like it was a round trip.”
“To a dead end.” That was a new voice, but one Max recognized: Franny Rupp. She came striding into the room, weighing at least two hundred pounds, but it was mass, not flab. Max remembered Bertha Cool, a private eye Erle Stanley Gardner wrote about between Perry Masons, back when Max was a kid. Perry was now in the stage between forgotten and rediscovered; how many people would know about Bertha, who looked like she was made from a roll of barbed wire? That was what Franny looked like—just as she’d looked in ’09, except for a very few more gray hairs.
“You okay, Aparicio?” she asked, making her way straight toward him.
“I’m fine,” he croaked.
“You don’t sound fine.”
“My throat—”
She looked him over carefully, the way she’d inspect a new weld. “I see. You’re a brave man, Aparicio.”
“Just doin’ my job.”
“No. That was more. I appreciate it. Get that looked at, then come see me.” She turned to the other two, and spoke to the man on the left, obviously the senior. “I didn’t see you and Bragane movin’ quite that fast, Royal.”
“No, Chief.” The man called Royal agreed readily, evincing no guilt. Bragane, on the other hand, narrowed his eyes; he was not a man to take a rebuke.
Max jumped in for his buddies. “I had an easier exit from the vehicle, Chief.”
Franny snorted. “Job got done. That’s all that matters here. Royal, you and Bragane get rid of the body. Come see me, Aparicio.” She surveyed the body one more time, then turned on her wide feet and headed out, muttering, “March madness!”
Max looked across the room at Pam, who had watched all of this from the astral. Her real body was undoubtedly back in the car, slumped in the seat, but here, her astral thumb was decisively up.
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Max’s session with the doctor at the Rupp Works was simple enough. He hoped to get through it on deception alone, but when the man asked, “Where’s your appendectomy scar?”, Max magicked him. In the future, any exam would be pro forma and end with a clean bill of health. Max liked to avoid using magick when there was another way, because magick caused ripples that could lead back to him, but there was no other way so he rolled the dice.
Pam, still unseen by any but him, nodded in agreement.
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
Max rolled into Franny’s office with the swagger befitting his rôle. The agents hadn’t been there in September ’09 so he hadn’t studied them then, but they were everywhere now. They were highly trained, the élite of the élite, and therefore, all of a type. Max simply had to play the part, with no need for “Aparicio” to show any individuality. It made his deception easy, so he came to the office with his deejay’s sense of a good show ahead, feeling pretty élite himself.
Franny was with Ruth Glendenning. Max had not seen the Ops link in person before, because her compound was the most heavily guarded of the nine, deep inside the forest of State Game Land Number 305 south of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. As he studied her now without seeming to, Ruth’s face and body were both devoid of any excess fat—the genes of a supermodel grown middle-aged. And perhaps a supermodel would have the same eyes in an unguarded moment, but Ruth’s eyes looked out upon the world at all times with no illusions whatsoever. In her skintight face they were chips of ice.
First Di and Mike at Wickr, and now two more links in the Necklace, Max thought. Step by step, I’m closing in on them.
“Sit if you want, Aparicio,” Franny said in her rumbling contralto.
“I’m good, Chief,” Aparicio said, still rough. “Medic just put some antibiotics on the throat. Doesn’t even need stitches. It’ll be tight for a few days but it won’t slow me any.”
Ruth, holding a piece of paper, looked him up and down, then came close to study the bandage. “He also says you shouldn’t talk much for a while.”
“I’m good,” he said, not knowing what Ruth’s men called her. Not “Chief,” certainly.
“You look all right. I don’t need speeches, but I do need bodies. Doc says you’re still go for tonight.”
He nodded.
“Now, do you know anything interesting about Cordover, and do you know anyone among the men who does?”
He shook his head.
“When I said I didn’t need speeches, Aparicio,” Ruth said sharply, “I still need the occasional ‘No, ma’am.’”
Problem solved. “No, ma’am.”
“He must have had some friends.”
“If so,” Max said, “I wasn’t one of ’em. He kind of kept to himself.”
“All right. I’ll pursue that. Now, did Cordover say anything while you were chasing him?”
“No, ma’am. He wasn’t much into conversation.”
“How close to him were you when you shot him?”
“Twenty feet.”
“Did he shoot you before or after that?”
“After, ma’am. He surprised me because I thought he was dead on his feet.”
“And did you have any second thoughts about chasing down a man with a gun, who’d already shot the guy next to you?”
Max had wondered that himself, about the real Aparicio. “You know how it is, ma’am. I didn’t want to be stuck in the vehicle, and once I jumped out, I just somehow didn’t want to hide behind it, so I decided to take the fucker out. I think it spooked him a little. I mean, he was well trained, but he had to know he was on a suicide mission, and he probably was in no hurry to get to the end of it. So he ran, too, and probably figured to pick me off from Dailey’s, but I knew both ways in. He picked one, I took the other.” Max ended that speech with a rasping cough.
“Let the guy get some rest,” said Franny.
“The machines are yours, the men are mine,” Ruth answered, and it seemed to Max that it was a familiar statement between them. They’d be called upon to work together quite a bit, he imagined, and they were comfortable in their back-and-forth. “Aparicio: was there any sign that Cordover had help?”
“No, ma’am.” Now that he’d spoken his piece, he figured he could dial it back from here on.
“So in your opinion, he was a lone gunman on a suicide mission.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“I hate lone gunmen on suicide missions,” Ruth said. “All right. Dismissed. But be back here at twenty-one hundred hours.”
Aparicio nodded. “Ma’am,” he croaked.
“Thanks again,” Franny said.
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)
With Aparicio taken care of, Franny and Ruth went back to their consultations.
“You think the attack has anything to do with the mission?” Franny asked.
“I’d say no,” Ruth answered. “But I’ll keep digging.”
“I don’t think so, either. We had Cordover for theft, which wasn’t the act of an infiltrator.”
“Still,” Ruth said, “I’ll raise the threat level. I can keep it low-key. Since your grandfather—”
“—surrounded the Rupp Works with empty fields that you own, it’s unlikely that anyone saw or heard our little Wild West show.”
“In a way,” said Franny, “I’m glad we’ve got another flight tonight. If there’s anything else that’s hinky in this, that should show it.”
“How are we supposed to know what’s hinky,” Ruth asked, “with the bone involved?”
“We’re the Necklace,” Franny said. “Take it as it comes.”
Ruth cocked her head at her compatriot. “I don’t see any need to alert Hanrahan at this point,” she said pointedly.
“No,” Franny agreed. “We don’t want another of the Nine in our business.”
Ruth nodded, and Franny turned to leave. Then she turned back. “You trained a good one in Aparicio, Ruth. I want you to know I appreciate it.”
“They’re all that good,” Ruth said, uninterested in praise. “Or they’d better be.”
“No,” said Franny. “I think Aparicio’s somethin’ special.”
13 Milky Way (Managing Alchemy)

STEVE ENGLEHART is known to millions as the writer of over 800 comics for such series as Spider-Man, Captain America, Superman, The Fantastic Four, and Batman. The Arena Man is his fourth Max August novel. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.