Renninger looked like trouble.
Of course, they’re all trouble, or they wouldn’t be coming to me. By definition.
But it’s a sliding scale.
My office was at the end of what most people would consider an excessively long and narrow corridor. It had no door, affording me a clear view of the entire passageway; a necessary concession to my unique brand of paranoia. I need to see them coming, and from as far away as possible.
Renninger strode down the corridor with his hands planted firmly in the pockets of his tailored gray slacks, affecting a nonchalance he didn’t feel. His silk shirt was the kind purchased by people who unwaveringly equate “expensive” with “tasteful,” but it had the virtue of distracting the eye from his open-toed shoes. The egregious condition of his toenails would have put me off my breakfast, if it hadn’t been years since I’d taken that meal.
I made a show of consulting my watch, though this was the sole appointment of the day—of the month, in fact. “Nine o’clock,” I said. “You would be Mr. Renninger?”
“Wally Kim sent me,” said Renninger.
“Wally’s a good customer. Do you have anything else to say for yourself?”
“Huh? Oh. Yeah.” His brow furrowed as he struggled to recall the security phrase he’d been given. He hadn’t been told it was a security phrase, so it was going to take an intuitive leap. By my reckoning, he had about thirty seconds to make the connection.
Suddenly his eyes brightened. “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the—” and his lips and tongue were poised to utter what is known to linguists as the voiceless velar plosive, and to the rest of us as the “k” sound. He was going to say “country.” The word hung unspoken in the air for a second, during which I could sense Renninger’s mental tires spinning. Finally, they found purchase, and he concluded the sentence correctly: “party,” not “country.”
“Very good,” I said. “Now we’re in business.”
Renninger wiped his sweaty palms on his shirt, leaving broad damp tracks across the silk. “I wondered why Wally kept going on about that. He didn’t say it was a password.”
“A password is easily compromised; it’s best if you don’t realize you know it.”
“What if I hadn’t said it?”
“The entire section of floor you’re standing on, and its analogues on the lower stories, would have teleported away, and you and the area rug would have enjoyed an express trip to the basement. Triggered automatically, even if I were incapacitated.”
“Can’t be too careful, I guess.”
“I think it’s this teleporting business I came to see you about. Wally Kim wouldn’t come out and say it—he kept skating around it—but he managed to imply pretty heavily that your shipping services work by—”
“Yeah, magic. Wizardry. Sorcery. Voodoo.”
“Well, voodoo is something entirely different.”
“Yes, I use magic. Conjuration. Sometimes called abjuration, but the only difference is point of view. ‘Magic’ will suffice, between us.”
“And your services—”
“I will move your cargo, instantaneously, from anywhere in the world, to anywhere in the world, using only my mind. Tell me, what is your stock-in-trade?”
Renninger wiped off his palms again. His slacks now sported streaks of perspiration to match his shirt. “Well, it’s—does it matter? I was told—”
“If you were a saint, you wouldn’t be here, Mr. Renninger. What do you deal in?”
“Fine. Then the advantages of my service must be immediately apparent to you. In exchange for my fee, I eliminate all of your risk and most of your overhead. No more bribes; no more border crossings; no more transoceanic shipments. No more flying the stuff in at night in a disused airliner with the running lights off. No more entrusting a million dollars’ worth of merchandise to a lead-footed flunky who can’t drive from here to there without getting pulled over for speeding.”
“Would it be presumptuous if I were to ask—”
“For a demonstration? Of course.” I didn’t know to what degree my finishing Renninger’s sentences actually intimidated him, but it took negligible effort on my part. They always ask the same things.
I backed away from the desk and turned slightly in my chair, glancing out the window behind me. “Is that your yellow convertible parked on the street out front?”
“Hold out your hand.” I closed my eyes, opened my mind to allow the formation, and release, of a particular thought. It was done. For one of my faculties, such a simple conjuration over so short a distance requires no gestures or verbal incantation. I heard Renninger gasp as the sport coat that he’d left in his back seat suddenly appeared, draped over his outstretched arm.
The rest was negotiation.
When it was over, I handed him a folder containing a set of blueprints and drawings. Taken together, they delineated the twin chambers Renninger would have to construct, one at the point of manufacture—somewhere in Thailand—and one here in the States. And ugly chambers they were, with floors whose tile pattern was a deliberately-chosen dog’s breakfast of clashing hues, and walls painted in swirls of avocado, burnt orange, and harvest gold that would make Peter Max reach for Dramamine.
“Their uniqueness,” I explained, “eliminates the possibility of misdirected shipments caused by my accidentally visualizing a similar, but incorrect, location during the procedure. And having an identical origin and destination eases the stress of sending such a large mass.”
“Can I ask you something, one non-saint to another?”
“This power you have, you just use it to make money?”
“If there’s a better way of keeping score in this life than money, I haven’t found it.”
“But you could do anything…teleport a tumor out of someone’s brain, or place a Green Beret squad in the middle of an al-Qaeda den—”
“No living matter. It’s the main shortcoming of my discipline, I’m afraid.”
“Nothing alive at all?”
“At all. But, like Microsoft, I can repurpose a bug into a feature. In this case, I can offer all my clients free decontamination of each shipment.”
On that jovial note, we parted company—briefly. Renninger only got as far as the doorway before turning back. He gave a nervous little laugh. “Say, what happens if I renege? I go blind? Turn into a toad? Get struck down by blue bolts from the heavens?”
“Not at all. You can terminate our arrangement at any time. In any case, the punishments you mention are beyond my capability. A magical discipline, such as teleportation, takes a lifetime to master. Dabbling gets one nowhere.”
To reiterate a prior point, Renninger was trouble. It would be some time, however, before I would appreciate just how much greater than the ordinary allotment his particular brand of trouble extended.
At the outset, everything went normally. Renninger paid his fees promptly and in the agreed-upon manner, and I moved his cargo; he quickly became just another client. At the time, I didn’t have any reason to think I wasn’t teleporting enormous quantities of “pharmaceuticals” from southeast Asia to the USA, just as he’d claimed. All I knew was that he’d set up the chambers just as he’d been instructed, and I was moving large masses between the two on a regular basis. Beyond that, I didn’t want to know anyway. Ignorance, in particular instances, really is bliss.
If I’d made a habit of watching the news, I might have gotten wise to the situation sooner. Instead, I didn’t find out anything was amiss until I came home one evening, having earlier facilitated one of Renninger’s shipments, to find the police waiting.
That in itself didn’t bother me very much. The chances of any of my clients’ misdeeds being pinned on me are miniscule. Even if I confessed, no one would believe me. For that matter, even if everything went wrong and I ended up taking the fall for my part in a particular act of smuggling, a few years spent out of circulation in some correctional institution wouldn’t be any great shakes for someone like me.
But they bundled me into the car, not to haul me in for questioning, but to take me downtown to the smoldering remains of the office building whose top floor I had occupied until a few hours prior.
It was a Hiroshima in miniature; all the material of an eight-story building condensed into a single story’s worth of refuse. The surrounding structures hadn’t fared so well either; each had lost about a quarter of its mass and would likely have to be pulled down altogether.
As we threaded our way through the conglomeration of emergency vehicles clogging the street, they reassured me that I wasn’t a suspect, but that I had the longest tenure of any tenant in the building and was therefore their best prospect for a witness.
Had I noticed any suspicious characters lurking around? I had not. Did I have any enemies? Not that I knew of. What did I know about any of the more recently-arrived tenants? Not a thing. In this economy, people moved in and out of the building faster than they could change the names in the directory: lawyers, tax accountants, one-or-two-man design firms, would-be entrepreneurs of all sorts. The entire building turned over every two years or so, except for my own eighth floor (and the seven offices directly beneath mine, which I rented under various names and kept vacant to facilitate my aforementioned booby trap; needless to say, I wasn’t telling them that).
My first thought, I must confess, was that it had been magic and that I had been the target. Unlikely; we practitioners of the arcane arts were not in competition, and we generally kept out of one another’s way. In fact, I didn’t think I could even locate more than a few of my colleagues off the top of my head.
And no, it wasn’t magic—not that I suggested this possibility to the constabulary—just a whole lot of TNT, which had filled the largest of the first-floor offices from floor to ceiling, and had I noticed any tenants keeping odd hours or taking strange deliveries? Again, no. And had I noticed any sudden increase in nearby drug activity, because they were trying to connect this to the other bombings…
Yes, other bombings. All over the country, various highly-placed figures in the drug-trafficking game had died early deaths after having some piece of real estate—an office, apartment, or warehouse—blown out from under them by astonishing quantities of dynamite concealed nearby. Apparently everyone knew about this except me.
I told the police what I knew, which was nothing, and we dutifully stood and shook our heads for a moment, and they dropped me back at my house with instructions to call if I thought of anything helpful.
By the following dawn, the fact that I recalled no suspicious activity of the mundane variety had convinced me that the explosion had to be related to me. I made my way back to the site; the street was taped off, but otherwise deserted this early in the morning. The air was thick with the stink of smoke and ash.
At first, I saw nothing. There’s little useful difference between a pile of rubble at night and a pile of rubble in broad daylight. But as I scanned the wreckage, my eye settled on some very familiar sights.
Anyone else would have had to clamber through the treacherous ruins to investigate. For me, of course, it was the work of a moment to reach out with my mind and retrieve the artifacts in question. They appeared at my feet.
Several floor tiles of wildly mismatched colors. And a section of drywall, painted in a hideous pattern of avocado, burnt orange, and harvest gold.
It all fell into place.
For some weeks, I’d been teleporting TNT for Renninger instead of drugs. How would I have known? Not being clairvoyant, I can’t see the stuff; I can only feel the mass with my mind. Renninger had selected a target, built his receiving chamber nearby, loaded up his origin chamber with dynamite connected to timed detonators, and contacted me. In each case, I’d been the one to pull the trigger, placing the bomb—utterly untraceable—at ground zero with my mind. And as long as only one receiving chamber existed at a time, I’d never know the difference. I orient on the pattern, not the physical location.
So Renninger had knocked off his top competitors one at a time, presumably intending to expand his business to occupy the resultant vacuum, and for a coup de grâce, he’d meant to tie up the solitary loose end by tricking the assassin into assassinating himself.
He couldn’t know that I do all my work in an apartment I maintain specifically for that purpose, whose layout and decoration are conducive to the massive degree of concentration required. The office is only for meeting prospective clients; my net losses from the explosion were the desk, chair, and rug. I’d have to find another one before I resume taking new clients.
But I had outstanding business to attend to first.
There are those who would argue that I brought this on myself; that I should have maintained the proper wizardly air of mystery instead of explaining my work to Renninger in such detail. That it was my fault for exposing the weakness he turned to his advantage. That may be. But Renninger isn’t the only one who can mislead.
I told him that a single magical discipline takes a lifetime to master. That is true.
That’s why I learned necromancy first. Once I’d learned that, I had all the time in the world to acquire the others, of which teleportation was only one.
I told him that living matter can’t be teleported. That, also, is true.
Unfortunately for Renninger, I haven’t been alive for decades.
I’m going to find out where Renninger sleeps. I’ll appear from thin air at his bedside, wake him, and wait until I see that precise instant of recognition in his eyes. And then I’ll exact my revenge, bit by bit, bringing to bear every wizardly discipline known to humanity and some that are not.
“Blue bolts from the heavens,” Renninger had said. I don’t know where he got such a florid turn of phrase.
But it’ll do for a start.
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