The Wizard’s Way

Wolf\'s Favourite Old Den

I looked over the page and nodded.

”I think so, Monica. If possible, Id like to see these things your husband collected. Which books and so on. It would help if I had a picture of him, too. I might like to take a look around your house at Lake Providence. Would that be all right? ”

”Of course, ” she said. She seemed relieved, but at the same time even more nervous than before. I noted down the address of the lake house and brief directions.

e aware of my fees? ” I asked her.

”Im not cheap. It might be less costly for you to hire someone else. ”

”Weve got quite a bit of saving, Mr Banks, ” she told me.

”Im not worried about the money. ” That seemed an odd statement from her, at the time—out of tune with her generally nervous manner.

”Well, then, ” I told her.

”I charge fifty dollars an hour, plus expenses. Ill send you an itemized list of what I do, so youll have a good idea of what Im working on. A retainer is customary. Im not going to guarantee that I work exclusively on your case. I try to handle each of my customers with respect and courtesy, so I can put any one of them before another. ”

She nodded to me, emphatically, and reached into her purse. She drew out a white envelope and passed it over to me.

”Theres five hundred inside, ” she told me. ”Is that enough for now? ”

Cha-ching. Five hundred dollars would take care of last months rent and a good bit of this months, too. I could get into this bit with nervous clients wanting to preserve the anonymity of their checking accounts from my supposed sorcerous might. Cash is always spent.

”That will be fine, yes, ” I told her.

I tried not to fondle the envelope. At least I wasn crass enough to dump the money on my desk and count it out.

She drew out another envelope.

”He took most of his things with him, ” she said.

”At least, I couldn find them where he usually keeps them. But I did find this. ”

There was something in the envelope, making it bulge, an amulet, ring, or charm of some kind, I was betting. A third envelope came out of her purse—the woman must be compulsively well organized.

”Theres a picture of him in here, and my phone number inside. Thank you, Mr Banks. When will you call? ”

”As soon as I know something, ” I told her.

”Probably by tomorrow afternoon or Saturday morning. Sound good? ”

She almost looked at my eyes, caught herself, and smiled directly at my nose instead.

”Yes. Yes, thank you so much for your help. ”

She glanced up at the wall. ”Oh, look at the time. I need to go. Schools almost out. ”

She closed her teeth over her words and flushed again, as though embarrassed that she had let such an important fact about her slip out.

”Ill do whatever I can, maam, ” I assured her, rising, and walking her to the door.

”Thank you for your business. Ill be in touch soon. ”

She said her goodbyes, never looking me in the face, and fled out the door. I shut it behind her and went back to the envelopes.

First, the money. It was all in the fifties, which always look new even when they
e years old because they get so little circulation. There were ten of them. I put them in my wallet and trashed the envelope.

The envelope with the photo in it was next. I took it out and regarded a picture of Monica and a man of lean and handsome features, with a wide forehead and shaggy eyebrows that skewed his handsomeness off onto a rather eccentric angle.

His smile was whiter-than-white, and his skin had the smooth, dark tan of someone who spends a lot of time in the sun, boating maybe. It was a sharp contrast against Monicas paleness. Victor Sells, I presume.

The phone number was written on a plain white index card that had been neatly trimmed down to fit inside the envelope. There was no name or area code, just a seven-digit number.

I got out my cross-listing directory and looked it up.

I noted that down as well. I wondered what the woman had expected to accomplish by only giving out first names when she had been going to hand me a dozen other ways of finding out in any case.

It only goes to show that people are funny when they
e nervous about something. They say screwy things, and make odd choices which, in retrospect, they feel amazingly foolish for making. I would have to be careful not to say anything to rub that in when I spoke to her again.

I trashed the second envelope and opened the last one, turning it upside down over my desk.

The brown husk of a dead, dried scorpion, glistening with some sort of preservative glaze, clicked down onto my desk.

A supple, braided leather cord led off from a ring set through the base of its tail so that if it was worn, it would hang head down, tail up and curled over the dried body to point at the ground.

I shuddered. Scorpions were symbolically powerful in certain circles of belief. They weren usually symbols of anything good or wholesome, either.

A lot of petty, mean spells could be focused around a little talisman like that. If you wore it next to your skin, as such things are supposed to be worn, the prickly legs of the thing would be a constant poking and agitation at your chest, a continual reminder that it was there.

The dried stinger at the tails tip might pierce the skin of anyone who tried to hug the wearer. Its crablike pincers would catch in a mans chest hair or scratch at the curves of a womans breasts.

Nasty, unpleasant thing. Not evil, as such—but you sure as hell weren likely to do happy shiny things with magic with such an item around your neck.

Maybe Victor Sells had gotten involved in something real, something that had absorbed his attention. Art could do that to a person—particularly the darker aspects of it. If he had turned to it in despair after losing his job, maybe that would explain his sudden absence from his home.

A lot of sorcerers or wanna-be sorcerers secluded themselves in the belief that isolation would increase their ability to focus on their magic.

It didn —but it did make it easier for a weak or untrained mind to avoid distractions.

Or maybe it wasn even a true talisman. Maybe it was just a curiosity or a souvenir from some visitors to the Southwest.

There wasn any way for me to tell if it was indeed a device used to improve the focus and direction of magical energies, short of actually using it to attempt a spell—and I really didn want to be using such a dubious article, for a variety of good reasons.

I would have to keep this little un-beauty in mind as I tried to run this man down. It might well mean nothing. On the other hand, it might not. I looked up at the clock. A quarter after three.

There was time to check with the local morgues to see if they had turned up any likely John Does—who knew, my search might be over before the days end—and then to get to the bank to deposit my money and fire off a check to my landlord.

I got out my phone book and started calling up hospitals— not really my routine line of work, but not difficult, either, except for the standard problems I had using the telephone: static, line noise, other peoples conversations being louder than mine. If something can go wrong, it will.

Once I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye, a twitch of motion from the dried scorpion that sat on my desk. I blinked and stared at it. It didn move.

Cautiously, I extended my senses toward it like an invisible hand, feeling about for any traces of enchantment or magical energy.

Nothing. It was as dry of enchantment as it was of life. Never let it be said that Ryan Banks is afraid of a dried, dead bug. Creepy or not, I wasn going to let it ruin my concentration.

So I scooped it up with the corner of the phone book and popped it into the middle drawer of my desk. Out of sight, out of mind.

So I have a problem with creepy, dead, poisonous things.

So sue me.

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