An Excerpt from License to Ensorcell

Copyright © Katharine Kerr, 2010. Permission to copy expressedly denied.

CHAPTER ONE

I had just stepped out of the shower when the angel appeared. It stood in the bathroom door and scratched its etheric butt through its billowing white robes.

"Yeah?" I said. "I'm dripping wet, so hurry it up."

"Joseph had a coat of many colors." Its hollow voice echoed through my apartment, although the angel itself turned transparent and vanished.

As I dressed, in a tan corduroy skirt and an indigo and white print blouse, I asked myself if real angels itched. It seemed unlikely. Yet I doubted if demons suffered from skin problems, either. Heat rash, maybe. Itching butts -- improbable. So, the question became: which side was this apparition on, in the eternal battle between Harmony and Chaos?

My name is Nola O'Grady. I can't tell you the name of my agency. You wouldn't believe it if I did. Let's just say it dates back to the Cold War, when certain higher-ups became convinced that the Soviets were using psi powers against us. The Soviets thought the same thing about us. Neither side had it right, but the paranoia turned out to be useful. Other people -- if you can call them people -- have given the Agency plenty of business over the years, which, incidentally, gives me a job. I had come home to San Francisco as an Agency operative, investigating a Chaos breach.

I grabbed an apple for breakfast and ate it while I waited for the N Judah streetcar. I stood on the concrete platform with a small mob of bleary-eyed office workers and college students, the majority of whom were drinking coffee from those fancy insulated paper cups. In a gloomy Tuesday mood, still a long way away from the weekend, most aimlessly watched the cars whizzing past us on the street. A few, like me, studied the weather. The night's fog was just beginning to pull back from a sky that promised to be sunny later. Although I kept a lookout, I saw no more angels in the silvery mist.

When the streetcar finally arrived, however, St. Joseph di Copertino was holding a seat for me next to a nice-looking blond guy in jeans and a leather jacket. To be precise, the saint was floating with his legs crossed under him above the seat. Although no one else seemed to see him, the other boarding passengers walked right past the empty seat, most likely for no reason they could have voiced. When I sat down, St. Joe obligingly floated higher and hovered over the back of the seat ahead. The good-looking guy next to me smiled a little and looked at me sideways, waiting for me to break the ice, but saints always come first.

"What are you doing here?" I said. "I'm not an astronaut."

St. Joseph of Copertino smiled his trademark gape-mouthed grin and disappeared. The streetcar started up with its usual jerk and whine. It's gonna be one of those days, I thought. The guy next to me had stopped smiling. He was trying to merge with the wall.

"Sorry," I said. "I see saints now and then. This one happened to be the patron of astronauts, and so I wondered -- "

He gave me the blank stare that people cultivate in a city known for its crazies and weirdoes. Scratch this one, I thought. I'd learned, over the years, that I needed to let prospective friends and especially interested guys know what I'm like right off the bat. It saved hysterics later. Still, I wondered why St. Joseph di Copertino had appeared just then, until I remembered he's also the patron saint of fools. Maybe he was making a general comment on my current love life, though the patron saint of zero, nothing, nada would have been more appropriate.

My cover story office, Morrison Marketing and Research, sat on the top floor of a 1930s building south of Market Street, a believable location for a low-level business, and pure WPA - the clunky stone contruction, the neoclassical pilasters, the dark wood interiors. I chose that office partly because the other suites on that floor stood empty, probably because of the view, or its lack. The windows gave you a good look at the onramps to the freeway leading to the Bay Bridge.

Still, it offered advantages, its age for one. In my small suite the wood-framed windows opened to let in the outside air and the vibrations the air carries. I had a wood desk and a wood file cabinet, plus a couple of chairs for the non-existent customers and a big potted plant. The expensive furniture the Agency had provided had gone into the office behind mine, the one for my non-existent boss.

I wrote up the morning's two sightings and sent them off to the Agency via email using the Agency site, the heavily encrypted TranceWeb, then took my standard morning walk. I was on Chaos Watch, which means you do a lot of looking around, preferably in as random a manner as possible. Chaos eruptions follow no schedules, no reasons, no logical connections -- if they did, they wouldn't be chaotic, would they?

I used a procedure the Agency calls Random Synchronistic Linkage to determine my routes. In laymen's terms, I threw dice. You take a map of the city and pin-point where you are, then assign the numbers two through twelve to the directions all around you. Throw the dice and follow their lead, just so long as the chosen direction doesn't take you into the bay or onto a freeway without a car.

I set out on foot into a day turned bright and sunny, though still cool from the halo of spring fog wrapping the horizon. Up the concrete canyon of Montgomery Street, past the new glass and steel towers and the old marble fronts where bankers work their legal mayhem on the body politic, out again into the sunlight. At the corner where Montgomery heads up a steep slope toward Russian Hill, a grey-haired woman stood waiting for me. I recognized her pink and black tweed Chanel suit first -- vintage Fifties -- with the pointy-toed black patent shoes and matching handbag. She waved.

"Aunt Eileen," I said. "Fancy running into you! I take it you saw me here in one of your dreams."

"Of course, so I came down to meet you." She wagged a finger at me. "Really, Nola darling, it was awfully mean of you to come home and never call."

"I don't want Mother to know -- "

"Not one word. I promise."

She smiled. I smiled.

"And the rest of the family?" I said.

"Doing well, most of them -- " She let the words trail off.

"How's my little brother?" I could guess at the reason behind her reluctance.

"Still trying to transform himself." Aunt Eileen rolled her eyes heavenward. "I do not have the slightest idea, not the very slightest, why Michael wants to be a werewolf, but he does."

"I was afraid of that."

"After what happened to Patrick, you'd think he'd have learned, but no."

"Let's not talk about Patrick. I don't want to cry in public."

"I understand, dear." Aunt Eileen paused, glancing around her. "I don't think anyone can overhear us."

Traffic was rushing by, the wind was sighing through the concrete canyon behind us. I let my mind go to Search Mode:Danger and felt nothing.

"I don't think so, either," I said. "Why the secrecy?"

"Well, I've been having a really awful dream about you, and you never know who's where." She glanced around for a second time. "In the dream someone wants to kill you."

When she comes out with statements like that, I've never known her to be wrong. "Uh, where is this supposed to happen?" I said.

"Somewhere in San Francisco." She lifted one Chanel-clad shoulder in a nervous shrug. "I certainly hope I'm wrong this time. It's all been very distressing, especially once I realized you'd come home."

"Can you see what he looks like?"

"No, which is so annoying! He dresses like Sam Spade. He's in black and white even when the rest of the dream's in color. Very shadowy. Very Thirties." She gave me a sad look. "If you'd called me when you got in, I would have told you earlier."

"I'm sorry now I didn't. Can I buy you lunch to make up for it?" "Some other day, I'd love that, but I have to go to the dentist." She wrinkled her nose. "How I hate it, but then, everyone does. I really must run, but I saw you here when I was waking up this morning, and so I thought I'd just catch up with you. You should go to the police about this person."

"And what am I going to tell them? My aunt had a dream?"

"Um, I suppose they wouldn't take it very seriously. I do wish you'd get a regular job, Nola. Something safe."

"It would bore me to tears."

I had never wanted her to know about my real work, but no one in the family can hide anything from Eileen. If one of her blood relations has a secret, sooner or later she'll dream out the truth, even when she'd rather not know.

"You always were a difficult child, and in our family, I'm afraid that's saying a lot." She rolled her eyes. "Now, you call me when you're free. Ah, here's my cab."

An empty cab was gliding up to the curb. She had luck that way, if you can call it luck. I waved goodbye, then stepped into a doorway to consider. Did I want to continue the dice walk so soon after hearing about this would-be assassin? Possibly my knowing about him had made a synchronistic connection that would lead me right to him, to the detriment of my health.

I turned around and went back to the office.

The answering machine on my desk was blinking when I came in. I kicked off the cheap high heels I was wearing as part of my cover persona, then punched the button on the machine to retrieve a simple message from Y's secretary. (That's the only name I have for him, Y, even though he's been my handler for years.) She told me that her boss wanted to know how the ad campaign for his company's new dog food was going. Dog food. With an assassin looking for me, that particular bit of code sounded entirely too appropriate.

The Agency loves code. It's heavy on the secrecy in general, mostly because the higher-ups are afraid that Congress would cut our funding if it ever found out what we do. I don't even know how large the Agency is or how many other agents work for it, though whenever I've needed help, I've always gotten it. Code words and handles may keep us separate, but our skills unite us at a deep level and get the work done.

I found a notepad and a ball point pen, then went into the supposed boss's office, which I'd done up with blue wall to wall carpet, a big oak desk, and a black leather executive chair. I sat down in the secretary's chair next to the desk and went into trance. In a few minutes Y's image materialized in the leather chair. I can't tell you what he really looks like. The image he used back then for these trance-chats radiated pure movie star, the touseled blond hair, the crinkly smile, the blue eyes.

"So what is all this?" I said.

"I have a job for you," he said. "But you probably knew that already."

"Why else would you call me?"

"To talk about this alleged angel, for one thing. Seen any more of them?"

"None. They're probably just the usual visual projections." I tend to see clues, and I do mean see them.

"That's the safest assumption, but in our line of work you never know."

Ambiguity, the bane of my profession -- having psychic talents makes the job sound easy. People think that clues should just drop into your lap, but on the rare occasions when they do, they usually mean two or three things at once.

"Any other Chaos manifestations?" Y continued.

I considered telling him about the assassin, but he'd want to know how I knew. I wanted to keep the family out of official business. Sooner or later, the guy from the Thirties movie would make a move or leave a track for me to follow, something I could report to Y as standard information.

"No, none yet," I said.

"Good. Now, about this job, it concerns an agent from Israel."

"Holy cripes! Mossad?"

"No, some group we're not supposed to know about. Now, technically he works for Interpol. Technically. This is all very hush hush, but State called me in." He paused for a smug smile. "Called me in personally, that is. You know that State doesn't like asking for our help, but they've got good reasons to, this time."

"Any you can tell me?"

"Sure. This agent is hunting down someone wanted for a couple of murders back in Israel. One of the victims was an American citizen, working for the consular office over there." He leaned forward and lowered his voice, just as if someone could actually overhear us. "There were circumstances, our kind of circumstances. The agent will fill you in when he arrives."

"Now wait a minute! I already have a job on hand. Our stringers sent us evidence of a Chaos eruption. Why are you saddling me with some kind of secret agent?"

"Nola." His image looked at me sorrowfully. "In the service of the Great Balance, everything serves to further. Melodies appear, sing, and twine together. I don't know why this fellow is appearing at the moment, but he too is a thread in the great web of sapient life, a thread that has crossed our threads. Is it ours to question?"

When Y starts spouting philosophy, arguing gets me nowhere. I did allow myself a vexed sigh, which materialized as a rat skittering around between our chairs. Y never noticed it, and a good thing, too.

"All right." I surrendered. "How am I going to contact this guy?"

"Openly. He's going to come to your office on the pretext of hiring the marketing firm. His words to you are 'prayer shawls'. Yours are 'four-thirty appointment.' Got that?"

I could feel my hand writing of its own will. "Got it."

"Ask him who recommended Morrison Research to him. The right answer is Jake Levi of Sheboygan."

"Sheboygan? Why Sheboygan?"

"It's not the kind of name a foreigner could just pull out of the air."

"That's for sure. Okay, I've got that, too."

"Good. He has an odd kind of British accent. If the person who contacts you doesn't, you know what to do with him."

"Sure do, but I thought you said he was Israeli."

"He is. His parents emigrated from Britain right before he was born. They must have spoken English at home."

"Ah. That makes sense."

He leaned back in the chair a little too far. The line of his image sank into the leather. "Now, be careful with Mr. Ari Nathan. He's very high up, very well connected, been around a long time, knows everyone."

I immediately Imaged him as a middle-aged, utterly earnest guy who wore glasses and was losing his hair. Probably paunchy, too, and wearing a rumpled white shirt and a gray suit. Y leaned forward in his chair and considered the extruded image.

"I don't know what he looks like," he said. "I've never seen a picture of him, and that's probably significant."

"All right, don't worry. I'll use my Company manners."

Y laughed at the pun, then withdrew his projection. I banished the image and woke from the trance.

Ari Nathan called early the next morning. He was an Israeli importer, he said, with a line of prayer shawls woven in the Holy Land that he wanted to place in California shops. He had a smooth middle-range voice that did indeed sound British.

"Mr. Morrison has an appointment open today at four thirty," I said.

"Fine. I'll take that."

"May I ask you who recommended us to you?"

"Certainly. Jake Levi of Sheboygan."

All nicely in place and accurate.

Right on time Nathan arrived. The only thing about him that matched my extruded image was his clothing. Even in his cheap gray suit you could see that he had the kind of body you only get by working out regularly. His hair was dark, thick, and loosely curly -- but his eyes caught my attention most of all, large and jet black, with a straight ahead stare under high arched brows. He looked like someone in a Byzantine icon. Yeah, I know that's the wrong religion, but the image fits. I put his age at about thirty, three or four years older than me, anyway. He looked at me, took a step back, then another forward again. Apparently I didn't fit his expectations either.

"Mr. Nathan?" I said.

"Yes." He hefted the tan leather sample case he was carrying. "I came about the prayer shawls."

"Yes, the four-thirty appointment."

"Sheboygan." He smiled with a slight twitch of his mouth. "Where might Sheboygan be, anyway?"

"I've got no idea. I could look it up for you on the Internet."

"No need to bother." He set the sample case down on the floor. "I was expecting some old granny. I must say you're quite a surprise."

"Same to you."

He smiled again, a little more broadly this time.

"I'm Nola O'Grady," I said. "Welcome to California."

"Thank you."

He leaned over the desk, and we shook hands. I liked his grip, firm without being bone-crushing, though he held onto my hand a little too long. I pulled it away as gracefully as I could. He straightened up and arranged a more business-like expression.

"How can I help you?" I said.

He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a white business envelope. "I've been told you might be able to tell me something about this person. He was last seen in your city. I need to know if he's still on the premises."

"What's in that?"

"A set of pictures -- his passport photo, some stills taken from security cameras."

He started to open the envelope.

"Don't," I said. "Just hand it to me sealed."

With a shrug he dropped it on my desk. I opened a side drawer and got out a big pad of paper and a box of crayons. I always use crayons to capture impressions. They're fast, they don't spill water all over, and you get sixty-four colors for cheap. He was staring at the box as if he expected a spider to crawl out of it.

"Is something wrong?" I said.

"Crayons? Children's crayons?"

I sighed. "Mr. Morrison will see you now, sir." I waved a thumb at the door to the inner office. "Go right in."

He started to speak, shrugged again, then picked up his sample case and followed orders. With him gone I could concentrate. Although the Agency calls this procedure Long Distance Remote Sensing, the old name offers more poetry: farseeing.

I laid the envelope of photos to one side of my drawing pad, put my left hand on it, and waited. I can't tell you what I think of when I begin an LDRS because there's nothing to tell. I get a jumble of thoughts, a twitch of the mind, and then all at once images start to develop. In this case I saw the ocean. I grabbed a blue-green crayon and began. Ocean -- rocks, big rock -- cliff -- some yellow smears that might have been taxi cabs. I saw red in the shape of a long box with wheels, a tourist bus.

Everything changed. New sheet of paper, gravel on the ground, a blue car, the bright green of trees, a weird gray shape, a black smudge -- nothing. Whoever he was, he was moving too fast for me to reach him, probably driving the blue car. That much the rational part of my mind could tell me. I leaned back in my chair and considered the scribbles on the two sheets of paper. An LDRS never produces fine art. Interpretation's everything.

I looked away, got up, stretched, then sat back down and looked at the scribbles again. One thing jumped out: the weird gray shape formed a trench coat. I'd even drawn in the belt. The black smudge defined a hat shape, floating over the coat. Sam Spade in black and white, when everything else in the picture had showed up in Technicolor. My hands started to shake. I made them stop. The entire experience left behind a feeling like the lingering stench of old kitchen garbage.

I tore the two sheets off the pad, got up, and went into the inner office. Nathan had closed the windows and the venetian blinds. He held a black gadget that looked like a light meter or a stud finder. As I watched he drew the gadget along the far wall in short, controlled passes.

"Looking for bugs?" I said.

"Yes." He continued working while he talked. "I've got an interference generator in that sample case, too."

The sense of danger struck me in a long chilly frisson. I sat down in the secretary's chair and laid the two drawings on the executive desk. Even though the room had become hot and stuffy with the window closed, my hands ached with cold. The danger flowed out of Ari Nathan, it seemed to me, far deeper than the Sam Spade scribble or Aunt Eileen's warning, danger he'd brought in that sample case, maybe, with the job he needed done.

He finished scanning the window and slipped the device into his pants pocket. "Hot in here," he said.

"It is, yeah." My voice stayed steady, fortunately. "That's because we're right under the roof. I didn't want anyone moving in above me who might want to eavesdrop."

"Good idea. Well, this room's secure."

It was until you walked into it, anyway, I thought. He took off the jacket and draped it over the back of the leather chair. Over his pale blue shirt he was wearing a gun in a shoulder holster. I hate guns, partly because of what happened to Patrick, and for all kinds of rational reasons beyond that.

"Do you have a license for that thing?" I pointed at it.

"Of course." He looked at me slant-eyed. "Why do you ask?"

"They make me nervous, guns."

"Oh? It's a deadly business we're in. You should carry protection of some sort."

"I can take of myself. I've got a license to ensorcel."

He blinked at me with those gorgeous Byzantine eyes.

"There's only four of us in the entire Agency who do," I went on. "It's not a skill we use lightly. I hope you feel the same way about that gun."

I thought he was about to sneer, but he kept his face expressionless. I picked up the two drawings and waved them at him.

"Anyway, your target's in San Francisco, all right, or he was ten minutes ago. He was at the Cliff House out on Ocean Beach. He's driving a blue late-model four door sedan, but I couldn't see where he was headed."

He took the drawings, looked at them, laid them down, then picked up the white envelope. "You haven't even opened this."

"I didn't need to open it. That's not how Long Distance Remote Sensing works."

The words seemed to burst out of him. "I cannot tell you how much I hate this kind of -- of -- this psychic bilge."

"Then what are you doing here?"

"Following the orders my superior gave me." He threw the envelope into my lap. "Open it, will you? At least do that much. Pander to my sense of reality."

"If you're not going to believe a word I say, why should I do anything you want?"

He started to retort, stopped himself, then shrugged. "You've got a point," he said. "Very well, would you please open the sodding envelope?"

I tore it open and shook out the photographs. On top lay a fuzzy snap from a security camera. Although I couldn't discern the perp's features, I could tell he was wearing a Dodgers cap. It figured. The passport photo clearly showed me a skinny white man, nearly bald, light colored eyes, thin lips, wearing a plaid sports shirt, a very ordinary American face, except it belonged to a man who wanted to kill me.

"Do you know that fellow?" Nathan said. "The name we have for him is William Johnson."

"No. Never seen him before."

He cocked his head to one side and gave me a cold look. "You're hiding something, aren't you?"

"How can you tell? I thought you didn't believe in all this psychic bilge."

"I said I hated it. There's a difference. I wouldn't be in the line of work I'm in if I couldn't tell when someone was lying, and that's training, not psychism."

His tone of voice made me feel like slapping him. Instead, I said, "All right, I've been warned that someone wants to kill me. I think it's this guy, but I can't be sure."

"What? Who warned you?"

Since I had to work with this guy no matter what, I saw no point in telling him the truth, especially with a dodge so close to hand.

"Psychic intuition," I said. "The Agency calls this phenomenon Semi-Automatic Warning Mechanism."

He stared at me.

"That's why you're here, isn't it?" I said. "Because I have psychic skills?"

"Unfortunately, yes." He leaned back in the chair with a long sigh. "I should have taken my father's advice. I should have been an insurance adjustor. But did I listen to him?"

"Your father was in the insurance business?"

"Eventually. Before that he was a nutter."

"Say what?"

He ignored the question and continued staring at the opposite wall. From the slack jaw as well as his general vibe -- what the Agency calls the Subliminal Psychological Profile -- I could tell that he felt personally betrayed by something. Life, probably. After a couple of minutes he roused himself.

"My contact at your State Department told me I could use this office as my temporary work arrangement."

"Oh did they? It's the first I've ever heard of it."

"You're supposed to contact your handler about it."

"Oh am I? That's pretty high handed of them! What do you propose for a cover story?"

"Simple." He gave me a crooked smile. "I'm going to be Mr. Morrison."

I let fly with some words that weren't ladylike. He winced and stood up, then picked up his sample case to take with him.

"Oh for God's sake, wipe that sneer off your face, will you?" he said. "If someone's out to kill you, you need the kind of protection I can offer. Well, don't you?"

He had me there. Of course I did.

"You haven't told me why you're looking for this guy," I said, as pleasantly as I could manage.

"I'll do that tomorrow." He took his jacket from the back of the chair. "I've got another appointment. Something personal."

He put the jacket on and walked out of the office. I followed just in case he decided to steal something from my desk, which he didn't. As soon as he'd well and truly left, I went back into the new Mr. Morrison's room, sat down in the secretary chair, and tranced a sharp message to Y. Even though it was eight in the evening, D.C. time, he answered promptly, a little too fast, maybe, because his image had dark eyes instead of the usual blue.

"I take it you don't like Mr. Nathan much, either," Y said.

"You've met him? You told me you hadn't."

"I haven't. Our contact at the State Department has. He warned me this morning. He was close to frothing at the mouth."

"So am I. What's this garbage about Nathan taking over my office?"

"Well, State wants him to have a base to work out of. There's nothing I can do about it, Nola. I'm sorry."

Y sounded so genuine that I calmed down.

"Look, if he gets too obnoxious," Y continued, "tell him that you're his handler now. State will back you. I'll make sure of that."

"Oh thank you very much! He's going to really like that. Take it just like a little lamb."

"Spare me the sarcasm. I've sent you an encrypted file on Nathan's background to the other location."

"I'm surprised their secret service told you anything about him."

"They didn't. This is what our operatives could find out." He paused. "Look, I've got to go. Dinner's on the table."

Y vanished. Was he married, I wondered?


I took the two pieces of scribble art and went back to my own desk where I could sit in comfort to think. So Aunt Eileen's Thirties movie villian had appeared in my remote sensing pictures. I had a name for him now, even though it sounded fake. I considered trying to sense him again, then shelved the idea. Johnson's black and white Shield Persona, as the Agency terms these false images, told me that he had talents of his own. So far both Aunt Eileen and I had partially overridden them. Still, challenging him at this stage of the game struck me as too risky. I disliked the idea of giving him a link back to me even more. I therefore needed to get my mind off him. As a symbolic action, what the Agency calls Conscious Evasion Procedure, I sent the scribbles through my cross-cut shredder.

Night came early that time of year. Even though I twitched at the thought of Johnson hunting me on dark streets, I refused to spend the night sleeping on the office floor. I locked up the suite, then took the N Judah streetcar home.

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