Over, Under, Around and Through
I didn't even notice the guy until after he grabbed my bag. I darted after him as soon as I was able to process what was happening, but it did me no good. He was off the train just as the doors began to close, and I reached them too late. I punched the door-open button a few times just for stress relief as the train started moving.
I glared at the door for the entire fifteen minutes it took to get to the next stop – damn suburbs – and ran out onto the platform there as if I expected the guy to be waiting there, somehow, as part of his getaway.
I forced myself to stop as the train doors closed and it continued on without me. Going off on a tangent, running around like an idiot, that wouldn't accomplish anything. No, I had to figure out what I was dealing with.
First of all, I had no idea whether the guy who stole my bag knew what he was doing. I'm a freelance occultist, after all. My bag may not be ordinary, but it certainly looks it.
My friend Mark would laugh at me if he was here – his bag is enchanted so that other people can't touch it. I thought about something like that when he did his up. He even offered to do mine! But I thought it would draw too much attention if it was randomly shocking people who got to close on the train or in a crowd. Mark's a lot less social than I am.
I sat down on the train platform, trying to decide what to do. My tarot cards, my runes and my pendulum were all back in the bag, so I didn't have an obvious divination choice. I was going to have to wing it.
I looked around for inspiration. Some of the stones lining the station platform were light colored and some were dark. I took a quick dig through them and I was able to come up with one that was relatively light on one side and dark on the other. Thank god for landscaping and city beautification.
I tossed it, asking whether I should take the train back where I'd been robbed or I should start from here. The rock said to go back so I got on the train going in the other direction when it pulled up a minute later.
Flipping the rock idly, I rode the fifteen minutes back where I'd come from. The platform was empty when I got there; no one else was getting off. I took a look around. This was not a stop I used often, and I was unfamiliar with the neighborhood. No allies around here, as far as I knew, so I'd have to stick with what I could hand up.
I tried throwing the rock to see which way to go, but it seemed confused. Giving it north/south and east/west didn't do much good, and it wasn't very precise either. I started walking experimentally to see whether that would work, but it couldn't tell me when I was going the right way, only that I always seemed to be going the wrong one.
Frustrated, I went into the first dollar store that I passed and browsed the shelves. There had to be something in there I could use. There was something, in with the kids' toys. A wooden yo-yo, that would do. I paid for it and took it outside, unspooling it and letting it hang from my hand.
"Okay, which way should I go?" I asked it, leaving it to swing freely as if it were my regular pendulum. It took a minute to get used to my energy but then it was off, spinning clockwise in a circle- and then an oval. It was definitely pointing back the way I had come. I followed.
Before I knew it, I was back on the train platform. There was no further guidance from the pendulum.
Where the hell could he have gone from the train platform without heading in any direction? I flipped the rock to determine if he'd known what he was doing.
The rock said no.
That was worse, in a lot of ways. My bag is not just some random laptop bag or school bag, though it's bad enough if those get stolen. No, my bag was something else. If I was a shaman, you might call it a medicine bag or something like that. If I was a druid, you could call it a crane bag, though you might be selling it short. (I'm sure a druid would disagree.) I've seen pathwalking kits, nanta bags, dozens of different names for the same thing. Mine is just my bag, because I'm none of those things. I'm just freelance; I take the gigs where I can find them.
And sometimes they take me.
Hence rule one: Always bring the damn bag.
No, my bag was not a random bag; it was full of my magical working kit. All the stuff I used when I was going out on a job – as I was today.
Fuck! My job! I totally forgot about that.
Thankfully, my cell phone was in my pocket, and I was able to call my client and apologize.
"Hey, it's Garcia. I had a very bad emergency come up and I'm not going to make it today. How's Tuesday work for you?"
He was a regular, and very sympathetic, and he said that was fine. It was a house blessing and exorcism on one of his rental places that had just been vacated. No rush, there weren't any new tenants waiting to move in. I thanked him and went back to the task at hand.
Okay, so the guy didn't seem to be where everything said he should be. If he wasn't at the platform and he hadn't gone in any direction from the platform, the options were:
Up. I looked up, but there was just the framed cover of the station and no shadow showing from up there.
Down. I didn't see any manhole covers askew nearby, but I supposed it was possible I asked my rock just to be sure, but it said nope.
Okay, what else?
What did I have in the bag today? There was the usual stuff for an exorcism and a house blessing – holy water, feathers, incense, a few pennies for the corners. Nothing that could make someone disappear.
There was the stuff I always carried: semi-precious stones, wire, bits and pieces from the thrift store and other places that carried the right energy, bones, circuitry… all the things I needed to make charms and magical items. It's not actually that hard if you start with the right materials. If you're using raw materials that are magical, making magical items is just plug and play.
There's my own array of magical items, pendants, protection charms, and other things that are just good to have around. There are a few oils in there just in case as well.
And I hadn't emptied it out last night when I got home from my last little foray. It wasn't a job exactly, since there'd been no guarantee it would pay out, but I hadn't done half bad. That was my own little pathwalking kit, the things that get you into the other world through liminal places, and keep you going when you get there.
Liminal places are spots where the real world is a little thinner, like graveyards and crossroads and places where people are headed to other destinations, like airports.
Or train stations. Dammit.
I asked the rock, and it confirmed.
Could there have been a harder place for me to follow without any of my equipment? Well, probably. It could have been hell or something. So I guess I should take what I get.
He went ahead and touched something that would carry him through – probably my key ring – and now he and my bag were on the other side of the city and I had to get there. It's not easy to cross, even in a liminal space, without it being a special day or there being some reason for it. I frowned.
A little bird landed next to me and pecked at a piece of potato chip on the ground. "Need help?"
"Do you need help?" the bird asked again after a minute.
"Yes," I told it. I knew I was desperate if my totem was showing up to help me out without my asking for it. "Can you get me through?"
"I can," Starling said, fluttering up to land on my shoulder. "You shouldn't be going back there so soon."
"He's got my bag."
"He doesn't know what he's doing."
"Besides, if he's messing with my stuff, my energy will be all over the place. They'll think I'm back there anyway."
"That's true." The bird looked me dead in the eye. "Are you willing to do this just to get your bag?"
"It's not just my bag," I told Starling, and it was true.
Another bird landed on my other shoulder, and then a third, and soon there was a whole flock on the station platform, circling around me. There shouldn't have been room for them all to fly around me, but they were doing it nonetheless and the daylight above me faded. I felt my stomach turn like it always did when I went through, worse than usual without my protections, and then I was there. Most of the flock disappeared, though Starling waited a bit longer on my shoulder.
"Be careful," the bird told me. "It's harder for me to see you down here." And then it was gone.
Starling, like most birds, didn't seem to like it when there was no sky. And the other city, while not strictly underground, did seem to be lacking in sky. Overhead there was a pale grey light that sometimes lightened and sometimes faded but was constant.
I looked around, catching my bearings again. As in the world above, this neighborhood was not my usual territory. There were darkened buildings around the train stop, though this looked like a considerably nicer neighborhood than the one above.
I dropped the yo-yo again, letting it spin slowly. At first it didn't seem to be doing much, which was odd; magic is usually more obvious down here, not less. But then the underground train pulled up, screeching to a stop in front of me, and the yo-yo swung forward insistently.
Okay, that made some sense. Showing up in a foreign place, he'd probably panicked and tried to head for more familiar territory. It wouldn't do him much good down here, but it was a half-decent plan.
I rode, keeping an eye on the yo-yo the whole way. The train kept going, long past what would have been downtown in the city above. I guessed he'd been waiting to see something familiar. As I waited, I saw the inhabitants of the city getting on and off the train. Most of them were looked human enough, whether their ears were curved or pointed, whether their hair was brown or blue. But there were the more obvious non-humans too, fairies only a few inches high, taking the train to rest their wings, or stick-like wood nymphs, or salamanders with fire for hair.
Most of them could pass for human one way or another if they went topside, and lots of them did, but down here very few people bothered to try to pass for something they obviously weren't – and if you were, it was better to be subtle about it. I got a lot of dirty looks from people who could tell what I was, but I tried to ignore them.
After I felt like I'd been watching the yo-yo swing forever with nothing to show for it, a conductor got on. He was tall and pale-skinned, kind of handsome if you like men in uniform. I don't. He just browsed the tickets of most of the people seated at the far end of train, but when his eye set on me he headed straight for me, barely glancing at the last few tickets. Crap.
"You got a ticket?"
Of course my pass was in my bag. I knew I should have put the thing in my wallet, but I hadn't bothered. I figured I might as well try bluffing because I didn't have another option.
I pulled out the train ticket that was in my wallet, the one for the overground train system. I handed it to him, doing my best to look a little nervous and a lot confused.
"You seem to be on the wrong train, Miss," he said, his teeth suddenly quite sharp.
"Really? I thought this one was good on all the lines."
He shook his head. "Not this line. Didn't you notice? This line's a little different."
"I wondered… I thought maybe there was a convention in town. I remember the comic book convention last year, the train looked a lot like this."
The conductor laughed and I tensed, but when he looked at me again, his eyes were no longer red and his teeth looked normal.
"You get off at the next stop," he told me. "And then you pray for a way home."
The train was slowing down, and I noticed that we had reached the very end of the line. Hopefully my long lost bag thief had been here and someone told him to get the hell off the train too. I stepped out and waited until the train and the conductor were out of sight. Then I unspooled my yo-yo again, letting the yo-yo lead me down the platform and toward the Wal-Mart across the street. He'd probably been thrilled to see something that looked like home. Yes, Wal-Marts exist in the underground, presumably the product of some long ago deal between a business-minded elf and the Wal-Mart home office. I followed the yo-yo's pull through the parking lot and into the double doors.
The Wal-Mart had taken a lot of flak from local businesses when it opened. I guess some things never changed? I don't shop there myself – it's cheaper, but I don't like the quality of mass-produced hexes and the produce was never as fresh as the local stores. At least there wasn't a Whole Foods. Yet. But nevertheless, I crossed the threshold and nodded at the dwarf in the little blue vest who greeted me.
"Do you need a cart?"
"No, I'm good," I told him, busy following the tug of the yo-yo. It was getting more insistent, which I hoped was a good sign. There was a definite pull toward the back of the store. I passed shelves full of unicorn meat imported from New Zealand, plastic clamshell-wrapped poppets for spellwork, and the toy section, which was for some reason stocked with Tinkerbell dolls.
The yo-yo led me right to the stock room door, where I was left trying to decide what to do. The last thing I wanted or needed was more trouble for trespassing, but I also needed to get back there. I spotted a restroom nearby and hurried inside. Turning the sink on, I let the water run and spoke a Latin blessing over the faucet, then dunked my head under. I hated using Catholic spells down here – when people figured out what I was up to, it never went over well. With this spell, it shouldn't matter, though. I was wet, but I was invisible to them.
I left the bathroom and went boldly into the stock room – well, boldly for the first three steps or so, until a tall, furry troll with a handcart full of stock came my way. I pressed up against the wall, praying the spell worked and he wouldn't see me.
Spell or no spell, there wasn't much space between the troll, his pallet full of boxes, and the edge of the doorway. I dodged aside, pressing myself flat against the wall; the last place you want to be when you're invisible is between a troll and a hard place. I felt the cardboard brush against
After he'd gone by, I let the yo-yo drop again. Left, between the shelves, and further back. The longer I followed it through the shelves, the more sure I became that something was strange – even stranger than usual. How big was this place? I was pretty sure I'd walked further in here than I had in the store itself, and the yo-yo showed no sign of slowing down, nor could I see the back wall. It was getting darker and darker in here and I didn't have anything I could use for a light spell on me except my lighter and waving fire around seemed like a last resort. I kept walking, my left hand resting on the edge of the shelves so I knew where I was, my right holding the yo-yo so I knew where I was going. It was slow, but as weird as this was, I didn't want to go any faster.
Eventually I ran out of shelf. I let go, telling myself that I would have to trust the yo-yo. When I looked back a minute later, I couldn't even tell where the shelves had ended. I tried walking backward, going twice as far as I thought I was from the shelves, but nothing.
I wondered offhandedly if all Wal-Marts were portals to dark dimensions or if it was just this one. Both seemed equally likely.
Now, I decided, I was desperate enough to start throwing fire around. I pulled out my lighter and flicked it.
The flame illuminated my body, and the yo-yo, enough that I could clearly follow it. Beyond that, I couldn't see anything. I hate walking into things blind, but sometimes walking into things with a little light was worse than none at all.
I heard a dripping noise in the distance finally, and that at least reassured me that I was still on a physical plane. Finally I saw something up ahead of me. At first, I couldn't tell what it was, just that there was something that was not the empty space that otherwise surrounded me. I checked the yo-yo, which said I was going in the right direction, and then I ran for it. I hate to admit it, but I had scared myself by this point. I didn't even hesitate before opening the door.
I found myself in a tiny little office, badly decorated, with a giant Wal-Mart smiley face on the wall and calendars for this month and next with sales targets on them. There was a desk and in the chair before it, shaking with fear, sat the guy who'd grabbed my bag.
"Are you the manager? I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! I'm sorry I took your bag!"
"Manager?" That made sense. This was obviously the store manager's office.
He blinked at me. "You're not? Oh god, then you gotta get me out of here."
"How'd you end up back here in the first place?"
"I don't know. I mean, there were all these weird people on the train, and I didn't know where it was going at all, and then I finally see this place and I think I know where I am, but it's all crazy weird in here, and someone comes up to me and says he's a store detective and he needs to take a look in my bag. He brought me back here and said the manager would talk to me."
Manager, hell. Odds were good that they'd called the hunters, knowing what was in my bag.
"Do you have the bag?"
"He kept it."
I swore. "Okay, look, I'm going to get you out of here because leaving you here is dangerous to me, alright?"
"Um. Thank you," he mumbled. I opened the other door to the office. This one led into a second room, where a man was on the phone. Thankfully, he was facing the wall.
"Yeah, it definitely looks like the bugs that were stolen last night. No, I'm holding them in my office for the time being. Doesn't look like the description of her, but you know how those topsiders are."
He was on the phone with the hunters right now. Crap. Well, at least he wasn't facing me. I turned my head and spotted my bag on top of a file cabinet across the room. I stepped quietly, praying that the water spell would be enough to keep him from turning around.
I laid hands on my bag, finally, and picked it up, starting back the other way. I wasn't paying enough attention, though, and I stubbed my toe on his desk. I bit my lip, but I'd already made a noise.
"Hey!" he shouted, turning around. "She's here!"
I ran, knowing that for every minute of lead I got while he stayed on the phone was a minute closer to the hunters catching up with me. I grabbed the thief's arm as I dashed through the manager's office and back into the blackness.
I wondered for a minute if the blackness was liminal enough to get us through, but I decided not to chance it. This was corporate territory. There was no telling what kind of gate magicians Wal-Mart had on the payroll.
Blind running and panic, amazingly, got us back to the stock room faster than I'd expected. It's amazing what kind of magic fear can power, really.
We ran through the stock room and onto the sales floor. I could hear the detective yelling behind us. Employees and other shoppers stared as we ran toward the Wal-Mart entrance, bowling over the greeter as we went.
Out on the street, without any better ideas, I started for the train platform. I'd dropped the thief's arm; he had enough sense to follow me across asphalt-covered lot anyway.
We were almost there when the Hunters came racing up on their motorcycles. I swore and in English and Spanish and turned.
"Wait, where are you going?" the guy who'd gotten me into this yelled from behind me. I was tempted to leave him to the Hunters, but at this point, there wasn't much to gain from it.
"Away from them."
"What are they? Some kind of biker gang."
"What do they hunt?"
Either my yelling or a better look at the hunters satisfied him, because there were no more questions after that. We ran in silence, and I did my best to stay away from places that were easily accessible by motorcycle. As I ran across a park, we came up against some kind of pond. That was a little odd- usually the city down here was a pretty good facsimile of the city above, and you didn't get a lot of ponds on Phoenix during the hottest months of the year.
It wasn't an ordinary pond, though. I could tell that much. Once you got close to it, you saw it was much larger than it appeared, and the water level was below the grass. There was about three feet of rocky drop where the grass ended and the pond began. A quick look around the property told me why it felt liminal – there was a waterfall with some kind of space behind it not too far away. Probably a magical passage in its own right. I could feel the energy I needed here. The waterfall would get us though, though it would be painful. The thief came dashing to a stop beside me and sent a rock tumbling down into the pond.
I rifled through my bag, pulling out my key ring and holding it up as two mermaids came to the surface and grabbed at the rock until they got a good look at it. Realizing it was nothing interesting, one threw it back at us.
The rock plowed into my shoulder hard enough to knock me forward and my arm went numb. I stumbled forward, dropping the keys on the grass. My bag slipped from my grip and tumbled down, spilling a few things onto the grass before dropping into the pond.
"Fuck," I yelled, watching it fall.
"I'll get it," the thief said, kneeling at the edge of the pond. The mermaids were there in a minute, smiling, their mouths full of sharp, sharp teeth and pretty song notes.
"No!" I snapped at him, but he ignored me. One of them had grabbed the bag and was holding it out to him. The other was closer, reaching for him as if she was going to give him a hand.
"Get away from them," I told him.
"They just want to help," he said, his voice dull. Their song had gotten to him. I tried to scramble over to him, but I didn't make it in time. The closer one pulled him in and they both giggled. It sounded like breaking glass.
He began to thrash in the water.
"Give him back!"
"He came willingly. You know the rules," the one with my bag said.
"I do, but he didn't. He's never been here before."
She shook her head. "Ours. And this is ours too." She held up my bag. Her sister had sunk her teeth into their catch and he'd nearly stopped moving.
Behind me, I heard the scream of the hunters. Usually I stayed where they couldn't get on their bikes and I was okay. I'd heard, though, that if you got them off their bikes you were in trouble.
Mermaids in front of me, hunters behind me, and only… What did I have? I grabbed up what had fallen in the grass. There were keys, a necklace with a handful of charms on it, and the container from last night with the bugs inside. I jammed the necklace and the tube into the pocket of my jeans.
Well, at least last night's debacle hadn't been for nothing.
"You owe me in return," I shouted at the mermaids as I tried to hold the key ring steady. "I know the rules too."
"We acknowledge the debt. Thanks for the shiny things."
I sighed and shook the key ring three times, poured all my fear and frustration into the spell, and turned it. The backlash was so vicious that I all but blacked out. When I opened my eyes it was still dark, but after a minute my eyes started to pick out stars overhead and I knew I'd made it out.
I stood up and stretched, rubbing my shoulder where it was sore. I knew I'd have a bad bruise there tomorrow. I checked my pockets – tube, necklace, cell phone, wallet, house keys, yo-yo, smooth rock, pocket knife, lighter. I added the magical key ring to the collection. I felt naked without my bag, though, and knowing it was gone for good this time didn't help.
Looking around, I figured I was in a little park. The grass was dry and scratchy, and the air was still and hot. It couldn't be that late, then – if it were after midnight, the temperature probably would be a little under a hundred.
When I made it out to the street, I followed the sidewalk east to the light rail tracks. I made it a point to stand on the sidewalk until I saw the train approaching from the west and only then did I step up onto the platform and then onto the train.
I spent the ride home reading through the messages and email that had piled up while I was out of service range. I'd heard that there were arcane ways to get your phone to work in the undercity, and service plans that would cover it, but I was barely covering my cell phone plan as it was. The last thing I needed was magical roaming charges.
The train took me to my bus and the bus took me to my apartment. It wasn't much to see from the outside; you'd only know it belonged to practitioner of any stripe if you knew what you were looking for. I poured the salt along the threshold fresh every week, but it was a thin enough line to overlook, and all my protective sigils were written on the underside of the doormat.
I let myself in and turned on the light. The place looked just as I'd left it that morning – a mess. I'd been running late, and doing dishes or straightening was never high on my list of priorities anyway unless I had a client coming over.
Which I did, tomorrow, and the thought made me realize my loss all over again. I had a few tools in the house – my staff, basic things like candles and herbs, and a few larger pieces that weren't worth carrying when I didn't have a use in mind for them. But I'd lost almost everything.
Almost being the key word, I reminded myself. The thief had lost everything.
After all the effort I'd put into saving him, I'd gotten attached. It shook me, losing him like that. I didn't know him personally, but I was used to things going my way in the undercity. They didn't work out up here, but down there I could depend on my luck.
At least, I'd been able to in the past. Now I wasn't so sure. If I could avoid it, I wouldn't be going back down there for a while.
Before going to bed, I put the key ring away in my dresser and tucked the tube in beside it. I sat down on the bed and studied the necklace. Despite carrying it with me so often in the bag, I'd hardly looked at it since I was in high school. It was just a piece of cord with a bunch of charms hanging from it, not much to look at. They were all magical, though, with all the faith and belief that comes from being fifteen and in love with magic and thinking that the world will bow down at your feet any day now.
There was a rune pendant I'd gotten on a school trip, from some gift shop or other, and a dyed piece of quartz hung from a piece of wire wrap that I'd gotten on another trip. A gold cross, that had been my confirmation present. My best friend at the time had had her name written on a grain of rice and encased in a little glass tube. When she'd died later that year, her mom had given it to me with a few other of her things. I'd tried to bring her back and ended up tying her soul to the rice.
It occurred to me that maybe I hadn't come as far from that as I'd thought I had. I thought again about the dead thief and the favor I'd forced the mermaids to acknowledge.
I left the necklace on my bedside table and before I put out the light, I lit a candle for the man's soul – I realized I didn't even know his name – and asked that he cross quickly and easily. This wasn't out of the goodness of my heart; if he wanted someone to haunt, I'd probably be pretty high on the list.
Whatever sympathy I felt, a haunting was the last thing I needed.Part 2: The One That Got Away