The World in Play
Martin eyed the BMWs and Mercedes cluttering the South Of Market Area alley. Damn, he thought. Another new warehouse conversion.
Newcomers were changing the face of SOMA, and not, in his opinion, for the better. Every month, a new batch of uninformed humans tried living here. Every month, some of the newcomers either got into trouble or caused trouble. If they don't want to live with what's already here, why do they come? The newbies often discovered living next to the currently popular bar or theatre or restaurant wasn't like living in Atherton or Danville. One loud late Saturday night or noisy early Sunday morning, and they were on the phone to their Councilman, complaining about the rowdy element.
They have no real idea about the rowdy element at all. And me short a bartender, he thought. Compatible bartenders were in short supply. Until he hired one, he was stuck behind the bar more often than he liked.
He passed another alleyway and automatically checked it out: This one had dumpsters, stacks of pallets, crates - the more usual static landscape. There was no streetlight nearby but he could see it clearly. Well, this is promising; a nice way to end an otherwise dull patrol. A woman was being attacked by two vampires who were either from out-of-town or really ignorant. Walking forward, he eyed their clothes: Richmond gang, he decided. Out of town and ignorant. They should know better.
They were too intent on the woman to notice him. Without yelling "Stop!" or getting the attacker's attention, he staked the nearest. "Don't be afraid," he said as the first gang member went to dust and cascaded silently down to the alley.
The other vampire looked up and released her. He was already in full display and at once swung at Martin.
"I'll work on it," said the woman he was saving. She stepped away from the remaining vampire, but didn't flee.
He used the same stake, in an up thrust into the heart, on her last attacker and thought about what she had said. Shaking the dust off his stake he turned back to her. Yes, lovely, definitely worth bedding - tall, slender, dark hair in braids wound around her head; calf length white silk trench coat, longer green scarf, dark pants and boots - but strange - she was standing calmly, her hands in her coat pockets, watching him as he staked the second vampire. Most women who had just been rescued from a pair of vampires would have said and done something very different.
"Do you need to sit down?" He attempted to take her arm, ready to support her to a nearby crate, but she failed to cooperate, keeping her hands in her pockets and shifting her posture away from him slightly. He began to feel the event would not live up to its promise.
"No, thank you." Her voice was deep for a woman, rich and full, very beautiful and totally unmoved.
"Did you notice what happened just now? Or are you in deep shock? Are you sure you wouldn't like to sit down?"
"No, I am not in deep shock and I'm perfectly capable of standing, thank you. If you mean, did I notice my attackers were vampires, yes, I did. I rather wish you had waited a while longer."
"You get off on being attacked?" He took a step back. Right. The evening was going to be a disappointment. The last thing he wanted was a rich and playful tourist. Slumming victim wannabes almost always led to trouble and could stick like foxtails. "That's not only really perverse, that's potentially fatal." He was debating telling her to visit Oakland, where the action seemed to be this year, when she spoke again:
"It seemed like an excellent opportunity to be bitten. I did warn them, biting me is dangerous. You should heed that, too."
"I beg your pardon?"
"My blood may be poison to vampires. Tonight was in the nature of an experiment."
Interesting. The light here wasn't good enough for a human to be able to notice his pallor, and he hadn't been excited enough to display in front of a stranger. "It shows?"
"Yes. Why did you save me? Do you have a calling, a mission? Are you hoping for redemption? Are you under a curse? Have you been subjected to behavior modification? Do you hate all other vampires because of what was done to you or someone you love? What motivates you?"
He was sufficiently surprised by her sudden eloquence to be explicit: "I was hoping to get laid."
Apparently he had succeeded in startling her in return, because there was a meditative sort of pause before she said: "I don't immediately perceive the connection between your hopes and your actions."
"I was after a little horizontal gratitude, and maybe a quick drink before I left."
"This works?" the woman demanded.
"More often than not. I think it's the adrenaline surge."
She laughed. "It's not working this time, and while I won't fall into bed with a sexual opportunist, I will buy you a drink." She turned north, towards the No Mirrors Bar.
He didn't know what to make of her. She didn't seem like a random whacko, and he found that he wanted to know more about her. He shook himself out of his bemusement and walked with her.
"Call me Ann."
"Ah," he couldn't remember for a moment what he was calling himself. "Ah, Martin Stevenson."
"Very euphonious," she approved.
As they approached the large concrete and sheet metal building, he fell back a half a pace, watching which way she would go. She passed the entrance on 12th Street - which was to the White Elephant, the gay bar that shared the first floor of the building - and turned onto Sorkin Alley, where she also passed the entrance to the No Mirrors Bar proper and went around the back of the building and mounted the outside stairs leading to the No Mirrors Lounge. She knows her way around the area, he thought.
Inside, she stopped by the blanket check and waited as Martin took her coat. Behind the counter, Karelle glanced quickly up at Martin, who managed to shake his head calmly, as if all he meant was that he would keep his jacket.
Under her coat, Ann was wearing a dark green pant suit, with a collarless open jacket over a silvery gray top, both of thin silk. Her skin was pale, although not as pale as his, and in her flat-heeled boots she was only a little shorter than he was. Her hands were well proportioned and graceful, the nails square cut and short, without polish, and she wore no rings.
Boyish figure, Martin thought. I can get used to that. Nice moves, and no strong scent. I can't stand heavy perfumes. I wonder what's underneath all the control and calm. Hurrying might annoy her. Patience.
"You seem to have made what a friend of mine would call a healthy adjustment to vampirism," she said, as they waited.
"Your friend sounds like a shrink."
"She's a healer; some jargon is inevitable. How is it you handle becoming a 'curséd fiend' so well? You don't even seem to be in agony over the loss of your soul."
"Please," Martin said. "I know sensationalist writers and the people who contribute to the store of urban legends use those words, but I come from a long line of atheists."
She chuckled. "My apologies. I meant no insult. I try to use a common vocabulary with whomever I am speaking and recently most of those with whom this topic has arisen have been traditionalists. How did you and your disbelieving kin deal with your return to life?"
"That was complicated. My mother and her sister were both physicians and my aunt had trained with Adler. They ignored a lot of awkward facts and treated the symptoms."
"What will you have?" she asked Martin, as the waiter arrived.
"Cambells and vodka, double Tabasco," Martin said, before Galley could say anything. Galley's eyes flicked at him, then he nodded.
"And a whiskey sour for me," Ann said to the waiter. "Why let theory interfere with reality?" she said as Galley departed.
"Exactly. For a human, you're very calm about all this."
"I'm not human," Ann said. "But don't worry about it."
Silently, Martin took that under advisement. He said: "And not a fearless vampire killer on crusade, for all that you seem to know more about us than most outsiders. May I know the rest of your name?"
About ten days after his meeting with Ann Grove, Martin was again patrolling the neighborhood around the No Mirrors Bar, this time with a young trainee.
"I think I'm old enough to patrol alone," Jan said.
Jan was very handsome and dressed in expensive avant-garde Folsom Street fashion, which still included a lot of black leather and many chains. He was also intelligent, opinionated, self-centered, tactless, and knew all there was to know about everything.
Martin eyed the younger man sternly. "You're not old enough to vote, even in Holland, let alone drink in California, which makes your inclusion in a group of debatable legality that has its headquarters in a San Francisco bar questionable, to say the least. All things considered, caution seems to be indicated."
"And that's just a stupid, arbitrary rule."
"Arbitrary, yes; stupid, not necessarily. The adolescent brain is still developing the ability to think logically and…"
"What do you do, read all day?"
"Since I can't go out easily, pretty much," Martin said.
"Anyway, I'm not an adolescent. I'm 18; or nearly."
"Everyone has a probation period." Jan seemed ready to object again, and Martin continued: "And before you carry on griping, remember that for vampires it's three years, while for you humans it's only one."
"Doesn't that bother you? Always on trial?"
"It's a compliment, of sorts," Martin said. "We are so complex, layered and subtle, you simpler and more direct humans have difficulty appreciating us in any shorter time period."
"Hey, where'd all the water come from?" Jan asked.
Martin wondered what the boy was talking about. It was late April, and the rainy season seemed to have ended. He followed Jan's gaze. The boy was right, water, a lot of water, was flowing down the street. It was pushing and soaking the street litter, some of which sank and some of which floated along with the flood. Under the streetlights it was almost beautiful. However, it had no business existing at 0130 on a spring night. "The fountain's that way," he said. He and Jan walked up 13th Street.
"Oh, there's Edward," Jan said.
Edward Hopkins looked like an archetypal Irish-American politician, with thinning short sandy hair and straight heavy brows over bright blue eyes. He was standing, watching, on the outskirts of a growing crowd.
The Abigail Fountain usually had an air of tired dignity. Of an uninspired and ruthlessly symmetrical design involving tiers of basins and lions' heads in granite, it had somehow managed to remain in operation despite being covered by an elevated freeway. Isolated in an expanse of pavement, between columns of cement, the fountain was beautiful only at noon during the summer, when light found its way between the east- and west-bound roadways. At the moment, the water was arcing forcefully out of the lions' mouths and overflowing the tiers in a steady flood instead of the gentle irregular veil the fountain usually displayed.
"Earthquake damage?" Martin asked.
"No idea; there hasn't been anything at all strong recently. Broken water main maybe," Edward said, looking at the overflowing water.
"Cool," Jan said. "Let's go play in the fountain."
"It's cold," objected Edward.
The six jets in the lowest basin of the Abigail Fountain suddenly emulated geysers - increasing in volume and power and shooting up three stories. Two of the jets hit the underside of the freeway, the water falling down on the surrounding crowd, while the other four arced through the median gap and fell on the late night traffic on the Central Freeway. The top basin cracked as the already stronger than normal jets from the lions' heads suddenly grew to fire-hose intensity. Two of the lions' heads broke loose and shot out, one landing against the base of one of the freeway pillars while the other crunched into a parked car. The movement of the crowd increased, as they backed up from the horizontal blasts of water and milled around for a better look.
"That's not a wading pool," Martin said.
"No," Edward said, stepping back on the sidewalk to avoid the growing flood, which now swept up much of the trash from the surrounding area. He was dressed in a conservative London cut suit in navy leather and wore custom boots. He eyed the dirty water at his feet with obvious distaste.
"Martin Stevenson," a woman said from behind the vampire.
Ann Grove stood there, and he hadn't heard her approach. Tonight she was wearing another pantsuit, this one in fine wool, black, over a green silk top with a deep V-neckline. Her hair was down, just fastened at the nape of her very lovely neck. Her gaze was intent on the fountain as she stepped up beside him.
"Miss Grove. Good ev…"
"There's a frightened water elemental trying to hide in the fountain. The people are scaring it."
"Scaring it?" Jan muttered.
"You three" - a quick emerald glance took in the two Folsom Street Irregulars and the vampire - "quiet the crowd and suggest that they leave before the poor thing panics."
Not heeding Edward's skeptical "Water elemental?" or Jan's indignant "Hey!" Ann Grove started across the street.
Martin touched her arm. "What happens if it panics?"
"Floods, destruction, and a lot of unexplained drownings, starting with every human here. Keep the noise down." Ann walked over to the fountain.
"She the one you mentioned?" Edward asked.
"She know what she's talking about?" Edward continued.
"I would guess so," Martin said, watching the fountain.
"Hey, look at that," Jan said.
"I think she's making our job harder," Edward said, also looking over at the fountain.
Martin could hear the murmurs from the crowd:
"I've never seen water do that before."
"Just like The Abyss."
"Like Terminator II, you mean."
"No, I mean The Abyss! When the water's doing that mimic thing."
"He's right. It's in The Abyss, too."
"How do we get people out of here?" Jan asked.
"Sewage," Martin said.
"Back flow," Edward agreed.
"OK," Jan said.
"Sewage," Martin said, walking over to the nearest members of the crowd. "It's so thick and contaminated, it can't flow like water."
"No shit, man?"
"Just the opposite, actually. The biohazard level is extreme."
"Don't you notice the smell?" the vampire suggested.
"Yeah, I do. Wow, that's foul."
Behind the vampire, Jan and Edward turned the other way. Jan was saying: "Heavy metal contamination. It's reacting to the magnetic flux of the earth and all the steel in the overpass. Really unhealthy, worse than X-rays or the old fashioned cell phones." Beyond the boy, Edward's suit was getting wet as he spoke to the crowd under the freeway. Martin wondered what he was telling them, but even Martin's vampire-acute hearing couldn't function at that distance with all the crowd and traffic noises.
No one in the crowd seemed to be noticing Ann Grove anymore, even though she was now standing in the lowest basin. That was fine with Martin, since he hadn't figured out how to spin that aspect of the situation.
The crowd was strangely agreeable to dispersing, and in less than fifteen minutes only Martin and the other patrollers were still in the area.
"You guys get out of here, too," Martin said.
"What about you?" Jan demanded, always ready to argue.
"Vampires don't drown. I'm going to see if she needs more help."
"Check in," Edward said.
Martin walked around the fountain until Ann could see him. The nearest column of water, now coiling around her, turned to follow him. Somehow, it conveyed an impression of alarm and suspicion. Martin stopped, and remained still.
"That's Martin," Ann Grove said, very matter-of-factly. "He's not a magician; or even an air-breather, for that matter."
The water expressed doubt.
"He's a vampire, which means he's a little resistant to my magic, so he wasn't very affected by my riot act, unlike all the humans. He has no designs on you."
"Come over here, Martin." Ann sat down on the wide rim of the fountain, ignoring the water still overflowing the basin. The jet of water shifted to an upright posture in front of her.
"Hi," Martin managed to say, stepping into the basin and sitting beside Ann.
This close, he could see that the jet of water was flowing through and around a figure, which remained before them. It really was like The Abyss, Martin thought. The figure within the jet kept shifting: a transparent nymph changed into a triton, who shifted to a slender dragon, which became a long crystal eel. Whatever its form, Martin perceived it as young, and frightened.
"Martin and I were wondering what scared you," Ann said.
Martin caught something involving a swimming pool.
"Ah," Ann said. "I see. Well, some water, not elemental water necessarily, doesn't mind being contained."
A girl, screaming.
A male human.
"I see," she said again. "And when you refused to help kill this girl, you tried to leave?"
"What stopped you?"
"Hey! That's my elemental!"
"It belongs to itself," Ann said, rising to her feet. Her dignity was not impaired in the least by standing in water up to her knees.
Less gracefully, Martin stood and turned.
A human boy, younger and much less attractive than Jan and carrying a stage magician's black and white wand, was walking toward them from a cream colored Porsche Boxster pulled up haphazardly on 13th Street and left with its lights on and its driver's door open.
The jetting water sank to gentle bubbling as the elemental cringed. Ann reached out and stroked its crystal form. "Stay here with Martin," she told it and stepped out of the fountain.
The water disappeared up Martin's sleeve and coiled around him under his shirt. Martin noted that it didn't seem to be getting him any wetter than he already was. He stepped out of the basin and watched the woman approach the boy, who pointed the wand at Ann and opened his mouth.
Ann waved one hand at the boy, who froze, mouth open and wand extended. She glared at him, and said firmly: "That is really stupid. You don't even know who or what I am, what I'm capable of, or what my temper is like. People have been killed outright for acts of less egregious stupidity!" She held out her hand and the wand left the boy's hand and sped over to her. She resumed walking toward him. "And despite J. K. Rowling, wands are neither appropriate nor necessary for every spell!" The wand turned to dust in her hand.
Martin felt the elemental bubbling along his ribs. Laughter surrounded him and he whispered, "Hush. You're hiding."
She put her palm on the boy's forehead. The boy's eyes darted around and he seemed to be struggling to avoid her touch, although he remained motionless. Ann removed her hand, then inspected him, from expensive cross-trainers to salon haircut. "I see. This stops, all of this stops." She appeared to think for a moment, then touched the boy again, one fingertip between his eyes. "Logan Powell Turner, you will do no more magic. You are on probation for the next five years, during which time you will stay away from Gillian Ferguson and from that little magic shop on Grand. In five years, if you haven't managed to get yourself killed, report to me." She waved at the boy, who vanished.
Well, hell, Martin thought. Neat, in both old and new senses of the word - tidy and well performed - not a pile of dust nor an over-the-top thunderclap.
Turning back to Martin and the elemental, she smiled. "He's gone," she said, holding out her hand.
The water elemental slipped down Martin's arm, then flowed into her hand, where it rested in the form of a mirrored ball for a moment, then it shot up in the air in a wide spray that seemed to catch more light than the street lamps gave off.
"You're welcome," Ann said, as the ball reformed on her palm. "I'll keep an eye on him, but he shouldn't bother you anymore. I charge you, if he calls you again, come to me at once. Are you ready to go home?"
"Child of water, depart, and return safely to your home."
The water went, leaving Martin and Ann as dry as they had been before the fountain exploded. "Thanks," Martin called, looking around, then shrugging. He looked over at Ann and said, "Elementals?"
"Sentient, sometimes intelligent, embodiments of earth, air, fire and water. Occasionally mentioned in modern fantasy fiction and prominent in many religions. Yes, they really exist. They're elusive, but you can find them, if you have the power or the right tools." She turned to the fountain. "Let me fix this." She put her hands on the rim of the lowest basin, then raised them.
The Abigail Fountain, lacking the patina of age that it had had earlier that evening, was whole. Right. Martin surveyed it critically. "I think the flow was a little faster."
"Oh? Like this?"
Ann looked around, then waved her hand at the mess of standing water and wet litter, which disappeared. The little triangular plot under the freeway looked almost pleasant.
Martin nodded. "Good job. It deserves a drink. I know I want one."
"Your adrenaline surging?" she laughed.
He ignored that and asked: "Miss Grove…"
"I said to call me Ann."
"Ann, are you a witch?"
"No. The No Mirrors Lounge all right?"
"Fine, and besides, it's handy," Martin said.
She nodded and lightly covered his hand with hers, which was noticeably warmer than he expected. Abruptly, they were standing on the second story landing in front of the door. The transition was smooth and silent, and they arrived on the same level in relation to the landing as to the street they had left. A very professional job from this perspective, too, Martin thought. "I didn't realize it was this handy," Martin said, and held the door for her. "Do you do this sort of thing often?"
"It's my job," Ann said. "I tidy up after magic-users; rather like litter patrol."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Magicians can be incompetent or ignorant or just plain sloppy, sometimes with dangerous, sometimes with simply annoying consequences. I clean up the ambiance - straighten things up, smooth things over."
"'Magicians' wives clean up the mess that demons leave behind'," Martin quoted.
"One of his most felicitous phrases," Ann agreed.
"Does this pay well?"
"So why do you do it?"
"There are some compelling reasons." Ann smiled. "You have an interesting habit of arriving just where things are happening. What brought you to the fountain this evening?"
"So what did you say?" Edward asked.
"That I was out for a walk and saw the crowd; which is true." Martin took a sip of coffee, then continued: "It just wasn't the whole truth."
"Did you ask her if she dealt with elementals often?" Jan asked, putting one of the ejected lions' heads on the table. It was a little smaller than a basketball, with a patinaed copper tube sticking out of its mouth. One ear was broken.
"No, but she knows about a lot about them. I'll tell you something else: I think she was telling the truth when she said her blood might be poison to us."
"I thought you said that was an attention getting mechanism?" Jan asked.
"I changed my mind. I don't think she lies, even though what she says may not be the whole truth either."
"Why'd you go back?" Edward asked Jan
"I wanted to make sure it really happened," the boy said. "I guess it did." He rapped the granite head on the table. It made a solid sound, and Jan smiled.
Edward nodded, then turned back to Martin, "Are you seeing her again?"
"I said I'd buy the drinks next time, and she said sure, no hurry, she was probably going to be here until at least 2015. Then she disappeared, which I guess is teleportation."
"Was there noise?" Jan said. "There should have been a sonic boom."
"None, neither as luggage nor as witness."
"Well, there wouldn't be if you were moving, but I'm surprised there wasn't any when you watched."
"She probably considers thunderclaps poor technique," Martin said.
Edward gave a short laugh. "Still, we seem to have a new player in town. If the occasion arises, find out more about her."
"She's listed in the phone book," Jan said. The two older men turned to him. Martin spoke first:
"How do you know?"
"Last time, when you told us her name, I checked new listings, on my laptop."
"Got an address?"
"Fifteen Compass Place, off Chestnut, on Russian Hill."
Martin considered. The address could indicate anything from a shack sliding into the bay or a many-roomed multi-storied townhouse with a bridge to bridge view. "What are you going to do with that?" he asked, nodding at the lion's head.
"I'll think of something, maybe my mother would like it. Tonight's going to look weird in the books."
"The rule is everything gets written down," Edward said. "We never know what will matter."
"Cahiers are so old fashioned."
"Perhaps, but these notebooks don't depend on batteries," Martin said, taking out his pen and starting his report on the night's happenings.