The Black Scarab and the Magic of Christmas
by Leslie Ann Miller
I snorted to myself, blowing on my cappuccino to cool it as I unlocked the door to my government issued sable VW bug. What the hell did The Plucky Duck know about magic, anyway? The only magical thing about Christmas was how fast it sucked money out of people's pockets, worse than any gold greedy leprechaun or pocket-change hungry sprite.
Now me, I knew about magic. You could even say that magic was my stock and trade. I wasn't a magician…no, I never pulled rabbits out of a hat at the local office party, nor did I chop semi-naked ladies in half in front of astonished audiences. (What I did to semi-naked ladies was kept very discretely behind the closed doors of my bedroom, thank-you-very-much, but that was another story entirely.) No, about the only magical "act" I ever performed was folding my long legs into my bug every morning on the way to work without spilling hot cappuccino all over my pantyhose, skirt, or black blazer.
I performed this mystical feat again this morning, settling my cup into the center cup holder, and pulled out into the heavy morning traffic, heading toward the National Mall and my office in the basement of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Magic. Most people who watched the movie, Men in Black, thought that it was an amusing farce about a secret government agency working to conceal a culture of aliens and UFOs on earth - all the while content in their knowledge that it was just fiction, the product of the wild imagination of some Hollywood script writer who picked the concept up from tabloid headlines. Fiction. Fantasy. There weren't really aliens on earth. At least, not like depicted in the movie.
I snorted to myself. Fiction. Fantasy. What did the American public really know about such things? Nothing. They lived their lives in blissful ignorance, blind to the dangerous nature of true reality. As in the movie, if they knew the truth, they would panic. And that's where I came in.
I didn't know about UFO's or aliens from other worlds. That life existed on other worlds, I knew for a fact. Other worlds, other dimensions. But if the denizens of those worlds traveled here by technologically advanced machines, I had my doubts. The products of science were limited by the laws of physics and the natural laws of the universe. Magic, on the other hand, knew only the boundaries of the practitioners who tapped into it. It was far more likely that an extraterrestrial or extradimensional visitor to earth would fly here on a broomstick, or fall here through a magic portal, or step here through a nightmare. Move faster than light speed? No problem! Cross the universe in the blink of an eye? You bet.
Christmas wasn't magic. This mumbo-jumbo self indulgent wallowing in joy and emotion wasn't magic. No, magic was the stuff of nightmare. Magic threatened the world. Terrorists could blow things up, but the scope of the damage they could do, while appallingly horrific, was still limited in comparison to what an evil warlock could do with a few well-placed spells. Biologically engineered etiological agents were tame compared to magically created plagues.
I shook my head as I pulled into my reserved parking space behind the Museum. It was a good thing that humanity lacked the innate capacity to use magic. As aggressive and territorial as we were as a species, I had no doubt that our earth would look like some of the darker worlds envisioned by fantasy authors, with the forces of evil forever battling the forces of good. I personally didn't want to live in a world where the common person struggled to survive every day, where crops were daily ravaged by dragons or marauding beasts, and evil wizards loosed their spells upon the hapless masses and took the survivors as slaves. No, earth, despite all its problems, was just fine as it was. And that's why I was willing to do what I did.
I guess you could say I was a cross between Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer and Fox Mulder, although I worked for a secret branch of the DOD rather than the FBI. We were called Operation Tinkerbell, but I wished that killing fairies were as easy as saying "I don't believe in fairies." Ha. Pesky goddam things. Oh, you could kill them all right; in fact, the nation's highways took a fairly high toll on them at night thankfully (it was a good thing most people didn't bother to examine the bug goo on their windshields before cleaning them off, or they might be appalled at what they found…), but short of luring them into an HVFT (high voltage fairy trap) with the promise of Swiss chocolate or some other sweet treat, killing them was no easy task, especially after they became wise to your tricks.
Mind you, despite the Tinkerbell name, fairies weren't our highest priority. As long as they stayed hidden and didn't cause any more trouble than stealing a few socks from peoples' driers every now and then, I was rarely dispatched to deal with them. That was more a rookie's job, anyway. I was Operation Tinkerbell's highest-ranking field agent, code named "The Black Scarab," and it was me they sent to take care of the ghost (probably a malicious spirit from another dimension) in the haunted house that was actually murdering the residents. It was me they dispatched to the graveyard to kill the army of ghouls animated by the necromancer visiting from another world. (And then, of course, I would dispatch the necromancer.) I was efficient, I was effective, and I protected the public from their worst nightmares. Literally. It was because of The Black Scarab that little children could sleep safely at night, free from the magical, supernatural horrors that threatened our great nation on a routine basis.
The air was crisp as I pulled myself out of my car, and my cappuccino steamed in the winter cold as I headed towards the basement entrance at the back of the museum. Initially, Operation Tinkerbell had been housed at the Pentagon. However, it hadn't taken them long to figure out that trying to hide their premiere anti-magic defense unit in a building shaped like the world's largest pentagram was not a clever idea. After the second attack by the Alliance of Crimson Warlords (a powerful group of wizards needing large quantities of silica for spell casting purposes on their own world) nearly gutted the place, they realized that the shape of the building actually magnified spells' efficiency, and it was virtually impossible to protect from magic of any sort.
So, Operation Tinkerbell was moved into the basement of the Air and Space Museum. While magic and technology do not necessarily interfere with each other, BELIEF can play an important part in magic's effectiveness. Suffice to say that the Air and Space Museum would be an uncomfortable place for even the most powerful of magic users, as would, no doubt, anyplace filled with science geeks (who were, for the most part, magic skeptics) and their technological marvels.
I took the stairs down to the entrance carefully; the slippery remains of the weekend ice storm still hadn't melted entirely, and just yesterday I had tried to unsuccessfully (and unexpectedly) ski my way down, nearly knocking myself senseless in the process when my head hit a concrete step. (While it had taken me a while to shake the cobwebs from my bruised noggin, I took pride in having managed to not spill more than half my cup of coffee in the process.) At the bottom of the stairs I pulled my access badge out of my coat pocket and ran it through the scanner beside the door.
The LCD flashed green and asked for the password, and I joylessly typed in "opensesame." I hated our security supervisor with a passion. At least "opensesame" was somewhat comprehensible compared to November's "salagadoolaminchakaboola," or October's "bibbitybobbityboo." How the Hell was I supposed to remember something like that? It sounded like the title of a bad porn flick, and I wondered, not for the first time, where she came up with this shit.
I suppressed my annoyance as the door slid open with a hiss. While we may have been stuck in a basement, our department was actually very well funded, and our offices could have been passed off as an exhibit of "things to come" in the museum overhead. Some of the most sophisticated detection equipment on the planet was housed in our facility, as well as some of the most advanced technology. Additionally, we had a safe room stocked with magic items - weapons, rings, clothing, carpets, wands, crystals - anything confiscated or claimed in the course of our operations that hadn't yet been destroyed or might prove useful to agents in future endeavors.
Personally, I disliked magic so much that I rarely resorted to magical assistance, but some of my colleagues were not so squeamish. I kept my eye on them, and so, I knew, did the agency. Magic, like power, had a tendency to corrupt, and we'd lost more than one good agent to "the dark side." They turned against us, using magic at will rather than necessity, refusing to do their jobs, siding with the same monsters they were originally hired to destroy.
"Good morning, Beet," the secretary at the front desk nodded at me with a smile. Ms. Perkins was the perfect model of secretarial professionalism, but I knew that the curly-blonde haired, 30-something, single mother of two was anything but your usual office assistant. She was, in fact, an Amazon in disguise, the first line of defense against a magical attack, and concealed behind her desk were a variety of weapons she was well trained to use, everything from an M-16 loaded with silver bullets to a squirt gun filled with holy water blessed by the Pope himself. After me, Ms. Perkins was quite possibly the most deadly person in the department. And it was for that reason, and that reason alone, that I allowed her to call me "Beet," short for "Beetle," a grotesque and belittling take-off of my proud and dignified code name.
"Any problems with the stairs this morning?" she asked cheerfully, adjusting the reading glasses on her nose. I often wondered if she actually need the glasses, or if they were just another part of her secretarial costume.
"No, I managed them quite fine, thank you," I responded, trying to decide if she was mocking me. If she was, however, she was being too subtle for me to detect. Damn but the woman was good. We'd be in trouble if she ever turned to "the dark side."
"Have a good day, then. Colonel Harrington would like to see you first thing in his office. Apparently Miss Ads had an orange hit last night on the West Coast."
I acknowledged this information with a grunt and headed down the hall towards my boss's office. Miss Ads was our "Magic Imaging Scanner and Detection System." An orange hit indicated that it had detected a strong level of magic being used. Miss Ads could actually detect five different levels of magic, white, being the lowest and most common, was usually tuned out and not recorded, yellow indicated a moderate level of magic, orange was for a strong level, red was for a very strong level, and fuchsia usually indicated a very, very big problem. The last time we'd had a fuchsia hit, a badass skeleton, newly escaped from the Third Plane of the Undead, had killed three of our best agents and almost killed me. I'd finally managed to snuff the thing (we didn't say "kill," because you couldn't really kill what was already dead) by slicing off its skull with an ancient, magical, Greek throwing weapon called a chakram that, mysteriously, only I seemed to be able to use. Anyhow, nobody looked forward to fuchsia hits. Orange, on the other hand, were usually manageable.
I poked my head in Colonel Jim Harrington's door. "You wanted to see me, sir?"
My boss, a balding, heavy-set African American wearing so many medals that his uniform would have sagged on one side if he hadn't used so much starch, looked up from his expansive desk and the MAR (Miss Ads Report) he'd been studying. He smiled, revealing a gold front tooth. "Scary!" he said, using his favorite abbreviation of my code name. "Glad you made it down the stairs safely this morning. We had an orange hit in Menlo Park California last night." He tapped the paper, turning serious. "Short blast - resonant imaging indicates it was probably a one-time spell casting, possibly transformative in nature."
I frowned. Transformative spells were tricky. Correctly changing a donkey into, say, an apple required a high level of skill. Whoever had done it was probably capable of wreaking serious havoc. "Did Miss Ads pinpoint the location?"
He pulled a file folder off the top of a stack and handed it to me. "It's all in here. Ms. Perkins has booked you on a 10'oclock flight from Reagan National."
"A commercial flight?" I asked, surprised. Although only red and fuschia hits normally received military transport priority (the Operation had jets equipped with anti-magic defenses ready to scramble at a moment's notice from several different airbases across the country), the Colonel knew the implications of a transformative spell as well as I did.
"Budget cuts," he growled.
I swore under my breath. This damn war on terror was costing more than damned Christmas. "Great. Next thing you know, they'll have us hitchhiking."
"There's always the portal, you know," the Colonel chuckled.
One of the most highly guarded secrets of Operation Tinkerbell was the magic portal in the safe room. Used to transport objects, including people, from one place to another in the blink of an eye, it had been removed from the body of a world-hopping weather witch who had formed the May 3rd Oklahoma City tornado in a fit of spite after losing big at a Chickasha bingo parlor. She'd lit up Miss Ads like a Christmas tree and wiped the casino from the map, but she didn't have long to enjoy her revenge. Weather witch today, dead bitch tomorrow. I smiled at the memory.
Harrington misunderstood my smile and grinned. "Yeah, yeah, I know you only use magic as a last resort." He tapped his watch. "Don't you need to be going?"
"I suppose," I grumbled. All the travel was catching up to me, I guess, after 7 years of field work. Maybe I was getting tired of living out of suitcases and plucking the wings off of pixies. But I pushed that thought aside. I had a job to do. The Black Scarab never neglected her duty.
"Hey, at least it's warm out there sunny California. No snow to worry about in the Bay Area."
"That is something," I agreed. The less it looked and felt like Christmas time, the happier I would be.
Despite my permit to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the country - including on board commercial airplanes - it was a long and difficult day before I saw the foggy mists of San Francisco through my window as we approached the landing strip. So much for sunny California. It looked more like somebody was filling the Bay with dry ice, pouring the fumes down from the surrounding hills, but I could tolerate the gloomy weather as long as it didn't start snowing.
After landing I went in search of Hertz. I never checked any luggage, keeping a small carry-on packed at all times with all the necessities I usually needed for a standard trip. While waiting in line at the counter, I reviewed the information from the folder that Harrington had provided me that morning.
The hit had been located at a residential house in Menlo Park. It was a good neighborhood, but not one of the more expensive ones, decidedly middle class. The house in question was actually a rental, and, due to its close proximity to Stanford, it was a good bet that it was being rented by a group of students or perhaps some university employee with a family. The owner was one Stanley Bickford, a Stanford engineering professor, an unlikely candidate to be using magic himself. The surrounding houses were owned by equally improbable culprits, one being a CPA married to a legal secretary with three children, the other being a silicon-valley bachelor, a high tech almost-millionaire who was still living in the same house in which he grew up.
Hertz didn't have any Volkswagens, so I rented the only black vehicle they had, a roomy, gas-guzzling SUV. Oddly enough, I actually preferred driving my bug, despite the lack of leg room. After 6 years, I'd gotten used to it. The bug had started off as my boss's idea of a joke. "A beetle for the Beetle," he'd ribbed me as he'd handed me the keys. "And it's black, too. Your favorite color." I had not been amused, despite the color. "You can call it the Beet-mobile," Ms Perkins had quipped the next day. I hadn't seen the humor in that, either. But the bug had grown on me, and when Harrington offered me a souped-up jag the next year, complete with electronics that would put the Bat-mobile to shame, I'd politely declined. BB (short for bug's bug) was good enough for me.
Menlo Park was south of the airport, and I stopped to check into a hotel before going to scout out Dr. Bickford's rental house. It was dark by then, of course, but that didn't bother me. All the better, in fact, for snooping without being noticed.
The single story house was set back from the street a bit, with a rock garden, lemon tree, and giant bottlebrush tree shading the recessed front door. To my surprise, there was a pumpkin orange VW bug parked under the carport. Very odd. Volkswagen didn't offer a pumpkin shade among their standard factory colors, so either it was a custom paint job or.... I got out of my car and pulled out my handheld RMD (Residual Magic Detector). Sure enough, the bug was radiating high levels of residual magic. Scanning the carport I noticed two old pumpkins in the corner by the garbage can, no doubt left over from Halloween or Thanksgiving. In between them was just enough space to indicate that there might once have been a third.
I shuddered. While I couldn't fault the choice of cars, it disgusted me that anyone would use magic to transform a helpless pumpkin into any kind of vehicle. My blood began to boil, and my spine began to tingle with the thrill of the hunt. Knowing that I was nothing more than a shadow amongst the shadows (except for my legs, of course, as my pantyhose was not dark enough to readily conceal them, and I hadn't bothered to change into my ninja/stealth outfit at the hotel), I slipped to the side of one of the lit front windows to see if I could spy my perpetrator.
The drapes to the large window were closed, but a smaller window to one side was unobstructed. It turned out to be a kitchen window above the sink, and it afforded me a glimpse into the rest of the house. What I saw astonished me.
The house itself appeared normal. I could see a living room with a small entertainment center, a comfortable looking couch, and a coffee table. There were a few unremarkable paintings on the walls, and several sets of bookshelves. But seated at the kitchen table, reading a large book centered in a scattering of loose papers and notebooks, was simply the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen in my life. Her hair was long strawberry blonde, and though I couldn't really see them from where I was standing, somehow I knew her eyes would be sea green. Or maybe gray. Or maybe they would change back and forth between sea green and gray depending on the light. That is, if they didn't look sort of bluish in the throes of passion.
Throes of passion... I shook my head, appalled at where my thoughts had traveled. I had a job to do. Her lips were a pleasing shade of red, and I watched, fascinated as she pushed a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. She turned the page, then paused to scribble something in one of the notebooks. Her hands... her fingers were long and delicate... I shook my head again, appalled by what I had suddenly envisioned those hands doing. To me, the Black Scarab.
That called me back to reality. This, I realized, was not going to be an easy case. Straightening my skirt and blazer, I stepped onto the welcome mat and rang the front doorbell.
A moment later she opened the door, and, standing there with the light shining upon her from behind, she looked like something out of a dream. "Hello?" she asked with a slightly puzzled smile.
I cleared my throat and flashed my wallet badge at her, closing it before she actually had a chance to read it. "Yes, I'm Inspector Betty Basset with the Menlo Park PD," I lied smoothly. "I have a few questions for you about the VW Bug parked in the driveway." I pushed by her into the house while I was speaking, but that didn't stop me from noticing the alarmed look on her face.
"Uh...uh... well... yes, certainly, officer," she finally stammered, schooling her expression into one of curious innocence. "How may I help you?"
"I'm following up on a stolen vehicle report made in San Jose yesterday. A 2002 orange Volkswagen Beetle was taken from a residence there. I'd like to see your driver's license, insurance documentation, and vehicle registration, please."
Momentary panic flared in her eyes (which turned out to be an interesting shade of blue green), but she forced a nervous smile. "Oh sure, but I can promise you that it's not stolen."
"If I may see the papers, please?"
She pushed her hair behind her ears and wiggled her fingers in the direction of the carport. "They're in the glove compartment."
The hair on my arm stood on end, and I suspected that she'd just cast a spell with those wiggling fingers. My teeth grated together, but it was too early to tip my hand without definitive proof. I gestured in the same direction. "Lead on," I said.
She led me through the utility room to the door leading to the carport. She flipped on the carport light and unlocked the passenger side door, flipping open the glove compartment. I noticed that the glove compartment was empty except for the few papers that she proceeded to pull out and hand to me.
"I also need to see your driver's license," I reminded her.
"Oh, right. Um, it's inside."
"I'll stay here and look these over while you get it," I said, and she hesitantly disappeared back into the house.
As soon as she was gone I whipped out my RMD and scanned the papers. The meter pegged out. I looked them over distastefully, trying to find something overtly suspicious that I could hold against her right away, but they seemed to be in order, although I'd never heard of the insurance carrier before, one Avalon Inc. Seeing as she'd probably created them with a wiggle of fingers and a thought, I was impressed. She was obviously a masterful magic-user to pull something like this off. And that meant she was very, very dangerous.
I looked up as the door opened again, and she came out holding her driver's license. "Here you go, officer," she said. "I trust that everything is okay?"
She sounded so hopeful that I had to smile. You wish, bitch, I thought to myself. Out loud I said, "Yes, it appears that everything is in order." I took out a small notebook and copied down the information off her driver's license and a few items off the insurance papers and vehicle registration. "You don't mind if I contact you if I have any further questions, do you?"
"Oh no, of course not," she said, scratching the back of her head as she eyed my notebook nervously.
"Well, then, have a good evening Ms...." I glanced at my notes, "Eledril."
She flashed a brilliant smile that lit her face. "Thank you, Inspector Basset. You too."
I called the office as soon as I got back to the hotel and finished dinner.
To my surprise, Harrington answered the phone. "Scary? That you?" he barked.
"Goddamn it, Miss Ads is going crazy and the last MAR looked like a fucking valentine there was so much red on it! What the Hell is going on out there? I figured you'd been turned into a frigging toad. I was getting ready to scramble the jets and send Lavender Fish and Blue Moose to pick up the pieces!"
"No, sir, I'm fine. Everything under control. I just need you to do a background search for me on..." I reached to pull out my notebook from my blazer pocket but found it empty. I patted my other pocket and quickly scanned my room. My notebook was gone. I started swearing under my breath.
"You okay Scary?" Harrington asked from the other end.
"Son of a bitch, she zapped my notebook!" I growled. "She's dangerous, sir. Not only can she do transformative magic, but she's made my notebook disappear, now, too. Created false vehicle registration papers without any chanting or spell components."
Harrington listened quietly as I told him about my findings. "This is scary, Scary. I'm sending you the chakram through the portal. I'll leave it to your judgement, but if you don't think you can persuade her to leave peacefully, I want you to take her out."
"Right, sir. According to her driver's license, her name is Jennifer Eledril. I'd be curious to see what a background check would pull up."
"You bet, I'll have it to you by morning."
A loud clang woke me from a fitful sleep at 5am sharp. Upon investigation, I found the chakram and background report had been delivered via portal, falling out of nowhere in the bathroom. The pages of the report were scattered on the cold tiled floor, and I had to fish the chakram out of the toilet. I swore, not for the first time, that I needed to have a talk with the safe room boys about their timing and their portal placement. And they actually expected a person to go through it? It's not like they didn't have a crystal ball to scry the place in advance. You'd think they could do better than dropping stuff in the john.
I turned the coffee pot on with a yawn, and sat down to read the report. Jennifer Eledril, aged 22, was studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Originally from far northern Canada, she'd been accepted to Stanford on partial scholarship at age 18. There was no family information available, and her record from Canada was extremely sketchy.
I pondered this for a while. The Canadian anti-magic division had never been well-funded. On rare occasions they'd asked us for assistance with a problem, but by and large the Canadian government's tolerance for magic was much higher than ours, so it was impossible to guess just what Ms Eledril had been doing up in Canada or how long she'd actually been there. But it was fairly clear that she'd been living quietly here in Menlo Park for the past four years, and Miss Ads hadn't detected a thing until now. And mechanical engineering? What the devil was a magic-user doing studying mechanical engineering? It was very fishy, and I smelled a rat.
I had Colonel Harrington's blessing to snuff Ms. Eledril without any questions asked, and under normal circumstances I might have done so. It was obvious that she was a powerful magic-user, and frankly, I was at a severe disadvantage if it came to a fight. A surprise assassination might have been my best chance to get rid of her. But there was something about her that stopped me... maybe it was the fact that she apparently had not used any magic prior to this in all the years she'd been here, or maybe it was because I was curious to find out why a magic user was studying engineering. Maybe it was just because she'd chosen to turn her pumpkin into a VW Bug (out of all the vehicles she could have made), and I was going soft in the head. Whatever the case, I decided to give her a chance leave peacefully.
I rang Jennifer Eledril's doorbell at 6:30am. It was still dark outside, and after several minutes the porch light turned on before the door opened. Ms Eledril's blonde hair was mussed, and I couldn't help but think that she looked, well, rather "cute" (even though I personally detested the word) in her yellow cotton pajamas and pink bunny slippers. "Officer Basset?" she asked bemusedly, and I thought she sounded only half awake.
"Yes," I said, "May I come in?"
She looked at her watch. "It's 6:30 in the morning, and I was up until 4am studying for a final exam at noon. I don't suppose you could come back this afternoon?"
"No m'am, I will not. We need to talk. Now."
"About what? Oh, wait, I bet you want your notebook back, don't you? You know, you dropped it by the car last night. I can go get it for you..." She gestured vaguely behind her and tried to close the door.
I stopped her. "I know damn well I didn't drop my notebook, Ms Eledril, just as I know you haven't had your car for more than two days. And I'd be willing to bet a pretty penny that you had three pumpkins in your garage rather than two before you got your car. Am I not correct?"
"I... I don't know what you mean," she said, suddenly looking much more alert.
I pushed open the door and forced my way inside again. "Yes, I think you do." I closed the door behind me. "I'm not with the Menlo Park Police Department, Ms. Eledril. I'm with the Department of Defense. I know you use magic, and I'm here to give you a chance to leave our country peacefully." I delivered the standard "Sabrina Warning" from memory. "It is against the law to use magic in the United States, Ms. Eledril. Using magic is a crime punishable by death, with accusation, prosecution, and penalty carried out without trial or public notice. You have no rights, no legal recourse. If you are not out of the country by this time tomorrow, you will be executed."
"Oh," she said, and sank down into the same chair at the kitchen table she'd been seated at last night when I peeked through the window. "Oh," she repeated, sadly touching the textbook on the table, dejection radiating from her countenance.
"Do you have any questions?" I asked, reminding myself that she was an abominable monster, and I had no business feeling even the tiniest bit of sympathy for her.
She shook her head, and wiped a tear from her eye. "I didn't think anyone would know," she said. "I just wanted to go on a cross country trip after graduation. I wanted to see New York City and Boston..." She looked up at me hopefully. "I'm so close! I just have two more finals... one today and one tomorrow. I'll skip the trip. And I swear I won't use any more magic. Just give me two more days so I can pass my tests and graduate, and I'll leave forever. I promise."
"No deals." I turned my back on her and opened the door. "This time tomorrow," I said without looking back, and closed the door behind me.
It was 6:30am the next day when I picked the lock to Ms. Eledril's back door. I was dressed in my black assassins outfit and armed with the chakram. The foolish bitch had gone to class the day before, and she'd come home afterwards at dinner time. She'd stayed up late again, either packing (one hoped) or studying until 2am, at which time she'd turned off the lights in the house and apparently gone to bed.
But she'd been given fair warning. If she was still in the house this morning, I would kill her.
The door opened into a small utility room, and I heard noise from down the hall... she was taking a shower in the bathroom. And she was singing. Badly.
I decided to wait until she left the bathroom to make my attack. Although it was doubtful she would have noticed an earthquake over the god-awful racket she was making, I decided it would be too risky to try to open the bathroom door before attacking. Besides, attacking her in the hallway would give the chakram more room to pick up speed.
I waited nearly half an hour before the water finally turned off, and I heard the handle of the bathroom door turning a few minutes later. There was a flash of movement as someone stepped forward... and I let the chakram fly.
It hissed down the hall towards its intended target...
I blinked. A very naked Jennifer Eledril was holding my chakram in her hand.
And she looked very pissed. "You again!" she finally exclaimed.
Under normal circumstances at that point I would have taken some sort of action. I might have pulled my gun to see if a bullet might have had more success than my chakram, or I might have rolled into the doorway across from me to see if I could escape through a window before she turned me into toast (literally). As it was, I just stood there stupidly, dumbfounded by the fact that she had caught my chakram in her hand and the fact that she had, without any question, the sexiest body I had ever seen in my life.
She wiggled her fingers angrily, and my hair stood on end as a blast of magic washed over me and the world turned upside down. It took me a moment to reorient myself and get my breath back, but I knew I was bested. I would have to try to bluff my way out, now. "Do you know who I am?" I grated.
She walked down the hall toward me, twirling the chakram on her finger. "Well, I sort of decided yesterday that your real name probably wasn't Betty Basset," she said with a shrug. "But besides that, I have no idea. Should I?"
"I'm the Black Scarab." Usually, that was all that was needed to scare the local magic users out of their proverbial britches and back into line. Of course, it didn't work for off-worlders or other-planers, but the earth natives - the fairies, the pixies, the leprechauns, wizards and witches - they knew who I was and feared me.
"Oh?" she smiled. "Can I call you BS for short? It seems fitting somehow."
If I thought my gun would have worked, I would have tried to shoot her. But I supposed the mention of my name alone might have lost some of its intimidation factor due to the fact that I was hanging upside down from the ceiling like some goddamn piñata. "No, you may not," I growled.
"Well, I didn't ask you if I 'might,'" she said, looking at me eye to eye. "I asked you if I 'could.' And, I think I can... and, not only that, I think I will, BS."
"Put me down," I growled.
"Okay," she said.
The last thing I remembered was landing on my head.
"Wake up, Veronica!" A voice interrupted my quiet darkness.
I groaned. My head hurt. My neck hurt. My back hurt.
"C'mon, time to get up!" Someone was shaking my shoulder, and I tried to remember where I was. Why did I hear.... waves crashing? Surf?
"Earth to Veronica Chase!"
I pried open one eye and looked around. I was lying on a beach, and Jennifer Eledril was leaning over me, her hair blowing in a light breeze.
"Hey," she smiled. "How's your head?"
"It hurts," I said, struggling to sit up, surprised that I appeared to be alive... and still human. She helped me up with a hand on the back, and I started shivering. The wind off the ocean was cold. "Where am I?" I wondered for a moment if she had zapped me back to her own planet. The beach was desolate and lonely.
"Pescadaro State Beach," she said, dispelling that notion. "It's late afternoon. I figured your cohorts would come looking for us, so I drove us out here after I finished my test this morning. I like it here, especially during the winter. It reminds me of home." She looked out the crashing waves with a faraway look in her eyes.
"If you're so homesick, why didn't you leave while you had the chance?" I asked sourly.
She smiled and cocked an eyebrow. "I wanted to get my degree," she said. "Is it a crime to want to graduate?"
"In engineering?" I said, disbelieving. "A magic-user wanting a degree in engineering?"
"What's wrong with that?" she asked. "You, an employee of an anti-magic defense unit use magic, so why can't I, a magic-user, be interested in engineering?"
"I only use magic as a last resort," I said, tenderly rubbing the knot on the top of my head. It was huge. No wonder I'd been out for hours.
She looked at me curiously. "Uh-huh," she said, holding up my RMD and the small HVFT that I carried in my suitcase.
The significance of the latter struck me immediately. She's been to my hotel room. Of course, that would explain how she knew my real name, and who I worked for. She'd found my wallet, badge, and ID.
"These both incorporate magical elements," she continued, "and I assume they are both standard tools of your trade?"
I stared at her. Was she out of her mind?
She set them down. "You didn't know? You really didn't know?"
"They aren't," I finally sputtered. "They don't!"
"You don't honestly think there is any kind of technology that can detect magic, do you?" she asked.
"It's just a unique type of energy," I said. "Of course it can."
She smiled. "If it were an energy that obeyed the laws of the physical universe, that would be true. But it isn't, and it doesn't. This one," she jiggled the RMD, "has a magic detection spell on it. And this one," she held up the HVFT, a look of distaste on her face, "has an anti-magic field around it. Otherwise the poor fairies could easily escape."
"You're lying," I said.
She shrugged and stood up, staring out at the sea again. She tossed the RMD and HVFT into the sand at her feet. "It's funny, how people can be in such denial. Why do you hate magic so much, Veronica Chase?" she asked sadly.
"Because it's unnatural," I replied without hesitation. "It's evil. We have little defense against it."
She made a face. "It's as natural as anything else." She pointed at a contrail crossing the Pacific sky. "You call that natural? All your technological wonders natural? Pollution natural? You use technology to destroy nature. How can anything that is part of the universe be 'unnatural'?"
I didn't answer. Damned if I knew how fucking airplanes flew. She was right on the money there; it did seem unnatural.
"And you say it's evil. But that's not true, either. Or, at least, it depends on your definition of evil. See, I would say that magic can be used for good or evil, just like there is good technology and evil technology."
"Technology isn't evil!" I said.
"Oh? Nuclear weapons aren't evil? They can do just as much harm as the worst magic spell."
My head was still throbbing, and I cursed myself, unable to come up with a witty rebuke to her statement.
"Magic," she said, "is really neither good nor evil. Those who wield it cause it to harm or to help, just as with your technology. And as for the argument that 'you have no defense against it,' your very presence here refutes that."
She crossed her arms and looked at me expectantly. She looked like some kind of wild, elemental goddess standing there against the setting sun with the wind whipping her hair and the sea crashing behind her.
I fumbled for a reply, wondering if she had cast some kind of "stupid" spell on me. I stood up stiffly, thinking I should have killed her while I still had the element of surprise on my side.
"I should have killed you," she said, looking at me sadly.
I was shocked to hear my own thoughts echoed so closely. "So why didn't you?" I asked, curious.
"Do you really want to know?"
I nodded, wondering if I really did.
She walked forward slowly, her eyes locked on my own, until she was standing so close that her blowing hair was tickling my face. "Do you really want to know?" she asked again.
I swallowed. "Yes," I whispered hoarsely.
She smiled, and closed the remaining distance between us. I closed my eyes, and then she was kissing me.
My hair stood on end and the world started spinning. I felt like I was dissolving, then reintegrating, then dissolving again. I'd never felt anything like it. Magic. It was magic, I knew, and I pushed her away angrily. "Stop it!" I said. "No magic!"
She laughed and turned back to the ocean where the sun was sinking into the sea in a blaze of red. "Magic!" she said, holding her arms out wide. "Look at that glorious sunset, Veronica, and tell me it isn't magical! Tell me that the sound of the sea isn't magic to the ears!" She turned back to me, still smiling. "Tell me that life isn't magical. Tell me that kissing your soulmate for the first time in this lifetime isn't a mystical experience." She stopped for a moment to let her words sink in. "Would you take all that away, Veronica? Would you be such a Scrooge as to take away all the joy and beauty in the world? Emotion is magic, you know."
"You think I've cast a spell on you? I haven't, Veronica. What you felt was the bond between us, the most powerful magic of all."
I stared at her, thinking that she had quite possibly lost her little blonde mind. Cute little blonde mind. Beautiful little blonde mind. Criminey. I was losing my mind, too. But if what I felt when I was kissing her wasn't magic, what was it? And even if it was, was that really so bad? How could something that felt so right be so wrong?
"Who are you really?" I asked, irritated. "What are you? Where are you from?"
She cocked her head to the side as if debating whether or not to answer. Finally she said, "Gwennivar Eledril, elf and hopefully soon to be engineer, Avalon."
I rubbed the knot on my head again. "Elf? You're an elf? You don't look like one of Santa's little helpers."
She nodded. "Yeah, well, I hate to break it to you, but Santa isn't real."
"Good. That saves me from having to kill him," I said. "I've never met an elf before."
"I don't doubt that. We don't normally mingle with humans."
"Avalon. I don't suppose you mean the car. Is that another planet?"
She rolled her eyes. "No. It's... well, it's a hidden place."
I raised an eyebrow. "A hidden place?"
"Hmmmm. We'll come back to that. What are you really doing here?" I asked.
"Getting my degree in engineering."
"Why can't an elf be interested in engineering?"
"I don't buy it."
Finally she laughed. "You really are good, aren't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"The Black Scarab is persistent, intuitive, and ruthless."
"That sounds like me," I agreed, not quite understanding what she was getting at.
"That's how you were described in your dossier."
"Yeah, you see, I was, well," she scratched her head nervously. "See, I actually work for Avalon's anti-technology unit. We're having trouble staying, well, hidden, against all the latest technological advances. Magic has it's limits, you know, particularly where technology is concerned. So the Lady of the Lake finally decided that we needed to fight fire with fire, so to speak, and I was sent to get my engineering degree. We're hoping to learn more about your machines so we can disable them either with magic or technology or a combination of both."
I know I was gaping at her. I also knew that I should do everything in my power to take her out and report this stunningly vital information back to Colonel Harrington. The future of the world was obviously at stake.
But somehow, all I really wanted to do was kiss her again.
She scuffed her shoe in the sand. "Truth is, I created the car deliberately. We didn't know which agent they would send to investigate, but I was hoping it would be you. I thought about killing you the first night you showed up - we hadn't expected anyone to show up so soon, to be honest - but you hadn't tried to hurt me. And the next morning you just gave me the Sabrina Warning. I wasn't expecting that. It was then that I realized you must have felt it, too."
I found myself smiling. "You mean, you thought I was the most beautiful person you'd ever seen in the world?"
"What's your code name?" I asked.
She blushed. "Blue Satellite."
"BS," I chuckled. "It suits you."
"Shut up and kiss me," she said, grinning.
I was happy to oblige.
I stared up at the dark clouds rolling off the sea, the sand scratching my back, and a cute, naked blonde elf on top of me. "Magic," I breathed. "I believe in magic."
Gwennivar chuckled happily. "Oh yeah, baby."
Something cold and wet landed on my face. I blinked, noticing snowflakes falling around us. Yet I was warmer and happier than I could ever remember.
Gwennivar captured a snowflake on her tongue, giggling.
"Is this your doing?" I asked, nuzzling her neck.
"The snow?" she asked innocently.
"This is California," I said.
She shook her head. "Nope, not me." She kissed me deeply, passionately. "Merry Christmas, Black Scarab."
I smiled. "Yes, yes I believe it is."
She laughed and pulled me to my feet. "It's a miracle! Now come on, I'm getting cold." She grabbed my arm and led me back to her now green VW bug parked in the parking lot.
I didn't bother retrieving my RMD and HVFT from the sand. Lavender Fish and Blue Moose would find them soon enough and know I'd turned to "the dark side."
"Where are we going?" I asked as we pulled out on to Highway 1.
"Canada, I think. At least until I get my diploma in the mail. That okay with you?"
I nodded. Cold and snow had never sounded so good.
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