© 2008 by Kyt Dotson
If it were any other day and any other fare, Vex Harrow would
have dismissed the shadow that flickered across her windshield as probably a
bird or a plane passing overhead.
It was another one of those stark blue, cloudless days
where the Arizona heat imprisoned her within the cool, air-conditioned confines
of her cab while her fare went about his work. This one was a construction
contractor who called himself a “troubleshooter” and cradled a blue hardhat in
his lap like a wounded animal. She hadn’t caught his name, only that his
construction company had left a sizeable amount with the cab company and she
would be seeing quite a bonus for spending her entire day chauffeuring him to
various sites around Phoenix.
His presence in her back seat also brought dark chuckles
and half-heard muttering to the voices that tended to plague her thoughts—as if
he were the butt of an inside joke and Vex wasn’t in on it.
The fare turned out to be pretty simple. Mr. Contractor
didn’t speak much, if at all; he spent most of his time worrying over his
hardhat and tapping away with frantic thumbs at a handheld computer. So far
their trek had taken them to two other sites. Both of which were in opposite
corners of the Valley of the Sun and every time he clambered back into the cab he
let out a long, exasperated sigh. The kind of sigh that made her want to ask
him, “Wassamatta, honey?” and listen to him pour his heart out the way that a
great deal of people who cushioned their souls on her back seats did.
Not this one. He gave Blue Collar stereotypes a run for
their money with his no-nonsense outfit, crew cut, and amiable face—or at least,
Vex imagined his face would be amiable. Grim determination to “troubleshoot”
whatever he needed shrouded his features. With each leg of the trip the number
of words exchanged between them dwindled. When she first picked him up, he
offered her a “Good day to you,” along with the obligatory street address of
the first construction site. The second trip he added “please.” This
particular site he directed her with only the crossroads: “Rio Salado and
Up until now, each trip culminated in Mr. Troubleshooter
tucking his hat onto his head, stepping out of the cab into the dust, and
stomping off with an ineffable strut that spoke volumes of get-it-done
attitude. An attitude, Vex noted, that diminished a little every time he set
foot out of the taxi; each time he seemed to move more slowly, with more deliberation—as
if with each trip he bore a greater weight on his shoulders.
Half-an-hour had passed to the sound of flipping pages
and the hiss of A/C. It had been the longest that the troubleshooter had taken
at any one site. When the shadow flickered across her book, a chill passed
through her unrelated to the air blowing from the dashboard vents.
Ordinarily the shadow wouldn’t have caught her
attention; it was the scream which followed that drew her from the cab.
Right then, dozens of men wearing white hardhats were
flowing like droplets of water down a funnel. People were rushing from every
corner towards a concrete hollow enclosed in a stand of metal girders like a
copse of leafless trees.
Above it all, a tall crane cast a wavering shadow onto
the ground, its steel lines sketching out a grey angle against the flawless
azure sky. She shielded her eyes for a moment to gaze up at it. The crane shuddered
against an unfelt wind, rattling and keening with the stress as its cables sang
warbling violin melodies of tension on wire. The object of the attention lay
below the crane, nearly plumb with its hoisting cable.
The smell of disturbed earth and machine oil mingled
with an indefinable scent that to Vex’s city tuned senses meant “construction
yard.” The circle of broad shouldered workers parted as she pressed between
them. She likened it to wading into a cornfield of blue jeans and muscle. From
the expressions on some of the faces certain men were genuinely surprised to
see her, while others took in her all-black outfit, makeup, and lack of a
hardhat without comment and simply let her pass.
When nearly to the other side of the human wall, her
fare’s blue helmet appeared like a buoy bobbing in a sea of white hardhats.
In middle of a clearing in the ring of men laid a
corpse—crushed and twisted by the impact of the fall. Mr. Troubleshooter and
his blue hardhat stood slightly aside, where he gesticulated vainly at the air
while speaking tersely into a phone. A construction worker wearing an orange
hardhat knelt, doubled-over with grief, and held one hand on the white hardhat
of the fallen victim. The sight sent a pang of sorrow through her as she took
in the scene and suddenly she wished she hadn’t come to investigate.
Vex had seen dead bodies before, but there was something
different about this one. The man on the ground looked as if someone had filled
his clothing with assorted coat hangers and crumpled them on the floor. Even
with blood beginning to puddle on the concrete, it was difficult to see the
human wreckage as once a living person. Mutters and shocked whispers informed
her quickly that she wasn’t the only person experiencing those same
“Wasn’t he hooked to a safety cable?” a red-faced worker,
whose hardhat was printed with the letters op,
said too loud. “What was he doing out on the boom anyway? He shouldn’t have
“It’s not your fault, Tony,” another man said nearby.
“You couldn’t have known.”
“His harness is…was on,” yet another added. “Look, you
can see the safety lines still attached.”
She squinted hard against the sunlight and tried to
identify something on the rumpled body that would have qualified as a safety
harness. A few canvass straps tipped with metal clips caught her attention
where thick white cords looped through them; the ends of the cord appeared to
have been sliced through—not cleanly, just enough to provide a smooth edge like
the cut stem of a flower, but fringed by frayed filaments of white.
It would probably turn out to be a case of rather
mundane murder or a freak accident, Vex realized. Even if dead bodies weren’t
exactly as rare for her as the everyday Joe, she doubted very much there was
anything she could add to the goings on. Only a stray sense of morbid curiosity
kept her, that and years of experience driving warned her that anything that
affected her fare also affected her pay. So she folded her arms and waited for
her flustered passenger to finish his business and let her know the state of
“Alright!” The man with the orange hardhat stood up. His
voice cut through the chatter with the force of desert thunder and his bearing
radiated authority. Vex could read the word foreman
printed across the brow of his helmet. “We’re closing this place until the
police get here. You heard me, clear out! Go home.” He glanced at Mr.
Troubleshooter, who simply nodded grimly and holstered his phone.
The gathering of white hardhats began to dissolve in
clusters, winnowing away as heat overcame curiosity. “Tony, not you,” the
foreman said, turning his burning eye in Vex’s direction but not quite seeing
her. “Mr. Kelling called the authorities and they may want to talk to you about
“You!” In that moment, Vex knew that her carefully
cultivated Somebody-Else’s-Problem field had just failed. “What are you doing
here?” the foreman shouted, taking several menacing steps towards her. “You’re
not wearing safety gear! This isn’t a sideshow for you to gawk at. A man is
dead here and—”
Mr. Troubleshooter cut him off before she could
construct an appropriate verbal barb. “She’s with me,” he said. “This is my
driver… The commotion would have brought me running, too.”
“Don’t mind me,” Vex said. “I’m just a cabbie.”
The foreman’s demeanor changed instantly and he fingered
the brim of his hardhat. “Ah, I see,” he said, “but you really shouldn’t be out
here without a helmet. We’ve been having problems with folks dressed like you
coming onto the property at night, but that’s not your problem. I suppose that
I can’t rightly send you back to your cab in this heat. You can sit in my
office while Kelling and I finish business.”
She glanced at Mr. Troubleshooter as the foreman turned
away, bellowing at the straggling workers to get a move on. Her fare shrugged
and gave her a come-along wave as he fell a few steps behind the briskly moving
orange helmeted construction worker.
“Justin Kelling,” Mr. Troubleshooter said abruptly, and
to her puzzled look he added, “I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier,
today’s been a bit trying.”
“Apparently,” she said. “I’m Vex, by the way. Did you
“No. I’m not from around here.”
The foreman muttered to himself as he walked, visibly
shaken but holding himself together with every bit of his authority he could
muster. Small knots of men came over to ask him questions or offer comfort but
he waved all of them away.
The foreman’s “office” turned out to be a dimly lit
trailer right inside of the site fence. Vex noted the loops of razor wire
coiled about the top. Once inside the trailer, the foreman briskly went about
pushing a long curtain out of the way, lit a couple lights to shine down on a
wide table, and pulled a chair out for her to sit in.
“You just set a spell there.” A sweating glass filled to
the brim with tea and ice came along with the gentle command. She sipped at it
while the foreman drew Mr. Kelling into another room for a discussion over some
faxes and photographs scattered about a desk. The foreman shut the door, but
their voices carried through an open vent and shadowy forms remained visible
through the frosted window.
Words like “sabotage,” “intentional damage,” and
“stealing in during the night” came up with a frequency in the foreman’s
speech. Although the foreman waved about grandiosely as he spoke, the
troubleshooter simply nodded and spoke a reserved word here and there, adding
little to the conversation and affirming nothing. As their tête-à-tête
continued the foreman became visibly more agitated, and the weight pressing
down on Kelling’s shoulders equally increased.
While scanning the photographs strewn about the table,
an oddity caught her attention. Pretending to stretch, she reached across the
table and slid the picture closer. The photograph framed the topmost span of a
towering crane. Vex didn’t know one crane from another—but something looked
subtly out-of-place about the one in the photo. Like the angles and lines
didn’t add up.
It took several moments of very intense staring, but
finally she found something distinctly out of place: here and there, in an
apparently haphazard pattern, structural brackets were removed and relocated
along the boom. The extra lines there seemed to suggest a pattern, a pattern
that sent ripples of ghostly voices through the back of her head. She
deliberately pushed the voices away.
The photograph discreetly found its way into her pocket.
She would have liked to get more photos, but the
conversation in the other room was ending on a rather sour note.
“Mr. Paull, I understand your concerns,” Mr. Kelling
began in a tone that Vex figured was his best “I am a troubleshooter, not an
executive” voice. “I will be noting all of them in my report to Mr. Davis and
the other coordinators. If you would like to type up your own addendum to my
report, I will gladly append it.”
“Hmph,” the foreman grunted. “I’ll do that.”
Vex set the now empty glass aside and tried her best
innocent look when the foreman strode over.
He held his hat upturned in his hands and a smile
cracked the beard stubble on his broad face. “If you ever want a tour of the
site, just tell one of the boys out front you’re here to see Darren Paull.
They’ll let you through, and get you a hat.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I really appreciate that.” She
turned to Kelling. “So… Where do you want to go next?”
“No, that’s enough for me today,” he said. “Don’t worry,
you’re still getting paid the full amount. I think that I’ve had about as much
of this as I can handle.”
Paull nodded grimly and put his hardhat on. The police
and an ambulance had arrived so he flagged them down and lead them away. Kelling
did his best to motion to her that he wanted to get off the premises as quickly
as possible—before the cops asked him for a statement and slowed up his
efficient day, likely—so together they made briskly for her cab.
“What is going on to cause this much trouble, if I may
ask?” she said.
“Well, most of the sites we’ve visited today are having
equipment problems,” Kelling said. “Cranes becoming inoperable, mostly. They
get stuck and will not swing; the gantries, cable winch, and hook move fine,
but they lock-up as far as changing the angle of the boom.” He reached up and
lifted his hardhat to scratch at his head. “I’m sure all of this is over your
head, anyway, so I’ll just say that I used to build and repair these things and
I cannot find a single thing wrong.”
“Do you think it’s sabotage?”
“Sorry,” he said. “As much as I’d like to go on and on
about my job, but that sort of finding would be confidential. I hope you
As they passed through the shadow of the crane, Vex
looked up and memorized what she saw.
“This is what it looked like.”
Vex smoothed a piece of paper out on the table and
pushed it into a pool of light cast by a low hanging, shielded reading bulb.
Adjusting his spectacles, the dim form of Andrew Cane leaned over, his birdlike
fingers scratching over the surface of her hesitating scrawl. In the brilliance
of the reading bulb his knuckles took on a pallid, skeletal look.
After a few seconds of running different patterns by
following the sketched lines, he leaned back and shook his head.
“I don’t recognize it as anything I’ve seen before,” he
said. “I’m sorry. Though, unless my eyes deceive me—and they don’t often do—I’d
say this is directly related to the pattern in the photograph.” He ran his
finger along his beard and hmmed.
“What is it?” she asked expectantly.
Vex had learned from her long experience dealing with
Andrew that when he started hmming it meant that a thought was forming.
As an archivist, Andrew’s thoughts were often dusty, slow-moving things with
their own sluggish and stubborn demeanors. The steel trap of his mind and spry
nature of his limbs often belied the slow and methodical manner in which he contemplated.
A shelf creaked nearby under the weight of a box filled
with ancient papers and a muffled voice groaned with the strain of lifting them
up onto said shelf. The sound itself didn’t seem out of place, but it caught
her off guard; Vex assumed that she and Andrew were alone in the vast storeroom
deep in the bowels of the Phoenix Public Library.
“Radley,” Andrew said aloud, raising his voice.
“Yes, Mr. Cane?” replied a voice from beyond the shelf.
“Please come here a moment, young man, you may take a
break from your shelving.” Andrew’s shadowy face turned towards Vex, his well-trimmed
orange beard seemed painted on in the half-light. “Radley is my new assistant.
He has joined me for much the same reason you did, not too many years ago. He
and you have some similar…aptitudes.”
The dust-covered individual who passed around the
nearest listing shelf possessed a frame so thin and spare that if she had not
heard him speak, Vex would have mistaken him for a child of twelve. His face
still retained the qualities of a young boy with rounded cheeks and watery
eyes, but even in the wan light of the dimmed fluorescents she could see a cold
purpose behind his gaze. His handshake felt like ice.
“You’re Vex Harrow,” he said, nodding as if comparing a
mental image to the real thing and finding the similarities acceptable. “I
thought that would be you. Mr. Cane has spoken of you on occasion. Mostly he
lets me know how astounding you were at trucking about periodicals and
journals. I’ve been told that I have some very big shoes—boots to fill.”
She answered with a wry smirk.
Andrew hmmed. “Time for you to earn your keep,
young man.” Thin fingers pushed the sketch and photograph back across the
table, once again into the light. “I suspect you are better at lines than I am.
Help us identify these.”
Radley plucked at the photograph first, his fingertips stilled
briefly in recognition, but he silently shook his head and moved on. The sketch
brought an entirely different reaction. “Interesting,” he said, scooping it up
from the table. He rotated the paper one way, then the other, but after a
moment’s consideration he flipped it over and held it before the light. “This
is a mirror image of representation of the Phoenician lines of ley. Or, at
least, it appears to be. There are some extra lines that do not correspond.” He
said the last sentence as if genuinely puzzled by it. He looked to Vex. “Where
did you find this?”
“I will leave you two youngsters to discuss this,” said
Andrew Cane. Two pairs of eyes watched him go. As his footfalls faded, the shadows
appeared to embrace his diminishing form like hands swaddling a child in murky
blankets. But, before the dark swallowed the last curve of his silhouette, his
hand raised, finger wagging. “You have the rest of the evening free, Radley.
Pay attention. You just might learn something.”
The dust-covered occultist waited a few breaths before
voicing an opinion. “Did he treat you like that too?”
“He still does,” Vex said. “Now, about the—”
“How old is he, anyway?”
Irritated, she realized the kid hadn’t even been
listening. “He told me once that he was at the ground breaking ceremony. You do
“Snappy, aren’t we?” he ventured, but one look at her
expression and he cleared his throat. “Right then, all business and no play.
What you have here,” he motioned to the sketch, which he had laid on the table
upright again, “is a map of the ley lines across Phoenix, except it’s backwards
and upside-down. Here, let me get a map and show you. As it happens, I have one
He drew a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket
and unfolded it accordion style across the table. At first glance it appeared
to be an ordinary street map of the metro Phoenix area: buildings, city
boundaries, surface streets, interstates all marked. Except that additional
lines had been added and the points of their intersections marked. The pattern
of lines on the map held an uncanny resemblance to the image Vex had seen
staring back down at her from the lattice of the crane.
“So, these are lines connecting Hohokam monuments and ruins?”
she asked. She tried to use her fingers to find the places where she knew they
would be, atop mountains, and clutched in valleys, but the lines didn’t quite
match up as she expected.
Radley shook his head, beaming with academic pride.
“These aren’t Hohokam ley lines,” he said, “they’re the ley of the city. These
lines are modern.”
Vex let her fingers follow the lines drawn on the map
and she found herself staring at a very familiar location. Two of the lines
crisscrossed right next to the Tempe Town Lake, and, if she recalled correctly,
one of the extra lines in the symbol she saw would have also intersected the
same two at the exact place.
“Get your sunglasses,” she said so abruptly that Radley
jumped. “It’s a good thing Andrew gave you the rest of the day off. We’re going
for a ride.”
“Where are we going?”
“We have a crane to catch.”
* * *
Getting from the Phoenix Public Library down to Rio Salado
Parkway, and thus the construction site, wasn’t a difficult matter. Using her
keen insight into the workings of the city and the traffic thereof, Vex decided
to take Van Buren down to where it morphed into Mill Avenue. The trip passed
through a certain ratty part of the Phoenix landscape and gave an interesting,
albeit cluttered, view of Sky Harbor Airport.
For most of the trip Radley kept to himself, but Vex
could tell that he barely kept himself contained. He drummed his fingers on the
door, fiddled with the seatbelt buckle, watched passing objects and people with
exaggerated interest, and more than once she noticed him staring
appraisingly—only to shyly glance away when she looked in his direction.
Finally, somewhere about Priest and Van Buren, Radley
broke his silence.
“How did you get Mr. Cane to do that for you?”
He turned himself in the seat as much as the seatbelt
would permit and faced her. “You walked in like you owned the place. Yes—I
know, I know—you used to work there. But, that’s not what really made me
curious. It was how you simply told him what you wanted and he went to it. He
didn’t hesitate, he didn’t tell you to look it up yourself—”
“I know him better than you do.”
“Or something.” The boy sounded flustered, impatient.
“He doesn’t treat me that way. I ask him about things and it’s always the same
boring refrain, ‘You learn for yourself best by doing. Do the legwork.’” He
mimed Andrew’s stiff accent with a nasal clarity; she had to suppress a
chuckle. “He doesn’t just do things for people. Except you. What makes
Vex cast him a significant look. “I know what I’m
The way he hunched his shoulders almost defensively
caused a smile to creep onto her lips. He reminded her of what she was like
some years earlier: eager, frustrated, and none-too-bright about the everyday
dangers of studying magick. Andrew had done the same to her, in fact, when she
first discovered the archives. Questions had to be framed in specific ways. They
had to be polite, and the query had to be seeking reference—not an end product.
She had butted heads with him more than once in the beginning, jumping too far
ahead of herself. Sure, he’d bring her a journal or a book even if she couldn’t
possibly digest its contents, but it always came with an admonishment. “You
have to learn to walk before you try to run,” he’d say. “There’s no free lunch,
and if you’re not careful lunch is you.”
The tires of the cab crunched over the gravel and dirt
of the access road to the construction site. The sun had sunken considerably
since her last visit earlier that day, and now long shadows hung like
tapestries from the half-constructed buildings, cloaking the ground in a
sunless chill that rebelled against the heat of the day. Just beyond the brown
and grey erections, over a lip of earth, the lap-lap of the Tempe Town Lake
echoed through the construction equipment and added an evening-by-the-lake
aroma to the ordinarily dry air.
Nothing substantial grew in or around the construction
site. Only dead tumbleweed bushes and blasted grasses that took root around
wash stations and near the bases of long unmoved vehicles and equipment. Even
wearing his sunglasses, Radley still shielded his eyes against the setting sun
when he stepped out of the taxi. It didn’t take Vex long to realize something
didn’t seem quite right.
“Did everyone go home?” he asked.
“I guess so,” Vex said.
Ignoring the warning sign proclaiming that hardhats had
to be worn at all times the second time that day, she strode wordlessly up to
the gate and opened the heavy padlock with an unlocking cantrip.
“Cool,” the boy said behind her. “Someday you’ll have to
teach me how to do that.”
She tossed him the padlock. “Someday.”
The sunlight glaring over the Town Lake and through the
construction yard began to bleed crimson as the sun began its heavy descent
into the horizon. Stretching shadows took on softer edges and began to encircle
them like tenebrous limbs.
“So,” Radley said. “I didn’t hear you tell Mr. Cane what
was special about the crane.”
“A man died today,” Vex said. “He fell from the crane
that I saw the ley map on.”
“Awesome. Are we going to do necromancy?”
“Then why are we here again?”
She shook her head and ignored the question. An eerie
quiet smothered the construction yard; the sound of the wind seemed muffled, as
did the twang and rattle of the cables from the crane she had so vividly
recalled hearing earlier. The sense of something watching brooded, as if
the buildings, construction equipment, and even the crane possessed a malicious
intent. It was not a feeling that she appreciated; but if it couldn’t be
helped, it couldn’t be helped.
“Tell me more about why you map these modern ley lines,”
Radley didn’t mind the change of subject. “I would like
to think that if all the ancient locus of the world hold some sort of power
then maybe that can be tapped and used. Like drawing energy from sunlight.
Sure, there are untapped histories and unplumbed resources in ancient cities,
the ruins of old places held a lot of power for those that made use of them. I
started out studying that, divining rods, trying to feel the ‘flow of
energies.’ I even visited Sedona a few times with my parents. It’s not all it’s
cracked up to be.
“From a young age, I could feel power in things. I think
the first time I noticed it was during a field trip of Canyon De Chelley. My
clique at the time acted like they felt something too, they were all New Age
types. Talking out their asses about magic and changing the world. What a gyp
they were. They probably wouldn’t know an actual ley line from a rug.
“So, I ditched them and started to study the real stuff:
people who took Watkins’s theories and applied them to Hermetic geometries.” He
made complex gestures in the air with his hands as he spoke, marking out angles
and lines. “If everything is connected then it only makes sense that those
connections are meaningful. And then there was the day I was walking down the
street near ASU and I felt the city the way that I felt the ley of De Chelley.”
The long boom of the crane angled overhead into the
darkening sky. Sunset clutched and scratched at the buildings, the sinking orb
of the sun refusing to give up the day easily to the night. Ahead of her, Radley
hopped up onto the cement foundation that supported the crane, leading her
almost like an eager puppy.
She came to a halt when Radley stopped up short and her
eyes followed his gaze down to the ground.
“Oh, hello,” he said.
“That wasn’t there before,” Vex added, frowning slightly.
There, etched into the concrete, a symbol exactly like
the one she saw on the underside of the crane lay. The fading red of the sunset
gave the lines an ochre hellfire glow. The haphazard chalk outline of what
could have vaguely been a human shape transfixed the map lines in a hasty
scrawl, curving and jaunting around awkward angles. The symbol, and its morbid
chalk lines, fascinated Radley so much that he took his eyes off her and
studied the image with grave intent. Even in the waning light, she could still
make out the darker ovals of stained concrete where the dead man’s blood had
“I’m going to guess this is exactly where that guy
landed, huh,” the boy said, his fingers reverently touching the etched lines. “I
wonder why this happened. I’ve never seen this before.” He paused, shaking his
head. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Whoever messed with those trusses—” Vex pointed up.
“—probably got that man killed as part of what they were doing. This would seem
deliberate; maybe a sacrifice is part of it. Whatever it is. I think it’s
affected more cranes. More people might die.” She squinted at the dark above.
The last dying rays of the sun illuminated the crane with a rusty glow,
revealing the clustered supports she saw earlier…but it wasn’t exactly the
pattern she recalled: the two extra lines were missing.
The aggressive sensation of watchful eyes slowly intensified
as dark curtained down behind the vanishing sun. Whispers rose in the back of
her skull, mouthing out warnings and protection spells—a sensation like spiders
skittering across the inside of her head. Somewhere in the dusky murmurs,
extremely potent magicks commingled and blazed, beckoning and enticing Vex to
use them. From past occasions, she had learned to take this as a very bad omen.
“I need pictures of this,” Radley said.
“Later,” she said. “We’re leaving. I get the distinct
impression this is not a good place to be right now.”
* * *
“Why don’t you have your own cell phone?”
This from a boy who had just spent the latter part of
the hour trying to impress her with his knowledge of arcane geometries and
ancient history—the juxtaposition of discussing energy flows old as the Earth
and modern contrivance brought a shake to Vex’s head. After having to tolerate
a day with the boy previously, she didn’t want to do it again too soon, but
events conspired against her.
“I don’t need one,” she said, slapping a piece of paper
onto the table with a telephone number on it. “You have one, after all. Dial.”
Two days had passed since their visit to the first site;
Vex and Radley were back in the archives overlooking a new map of Phoenix with
the extra lines added. With a little bit of research—and including the various
crane sites the troubleshooter had visited—those too were added to the map.
Each one matched a nexus of ley lines on the special map.
Several other deaths had been reported in the news: more
construction workers falling to their doom or being crushed by construction equipment
on other sites. The locations coincided uncannily with the map and the
Set to speaker, the cell phone on the table rang.
A man picked up. “This is a private line.”
“Justin Kelling?” Vex said. She had to prod her memory
to remember his name and not call him Mr. Troubleshooter. “This is Vex Harrow.
I drove you around a few days ago.”
“Oh,” he said. He sounded tired, very tired. “What can
do I do for you?”
“I am wondering if you can tell me the sites you wanted
to visit,” she said, “so that I can set up an itinerary for next time.”
“Well there was only one site left, and that was out on Scottsdale
and Greenway. Same problem… You saw the news didn’t you?”
“Yes. I figured that with, well, what’s going on, you
might be looking for my services again.”
There was a long pause. “No,” he said. “I’m afraid I
won’t. The Scottsdale site has been shut down. The people up top are flying in
extra troubleshooters and that site wasn’t a high priority. I think it’s
because nobody has died there yet. Our controlling interests are kinda
superstitious, if you ask me.”
“Ah, well, I’m sorry to hear that. If you need me, you
know who to call.”
“You did a good job,” he said. “I’ll keep in touch.”
The phone disconnected.
“Fat lot of help he was,” Radley said.
Vex waved his remark away with a gesture. “Actually,”
she said, bringing her finger down on the map where three ley lines intersected
in direct opposition to the site near the Tempe Town Lake, “he told us exactly
where the next crane is. Saves us a lot of driving around.”
The boy shrugged. “I could have figured it out.”
“Why waste time staring at diagrams when you can use a
phone?” Vex asked, flipped the cell closed, and tossed it to him. “Hand me the
top book from the stack Andrew left, please.”
Radley made an exaggerated motion of handing it to her,
staring wolfishly at the bare skin of her neckline in the bright reading light
as he did. An expression crossed his face like a cloud across the sun and he
sat back, shrouding himself in the shadows.
“Have you ever wondered if cities are alive?” he asked.
“I mean really alive. The idea of ley lines suggests that energies flow
from place to place, that they connect together places of power. This city has
a pulse, a heartbeat, and I can put my thumb on it—the cars rushing through the
streets are its blood, the people who cluster in the buildings its living soul.
“Yet, the very things that make ley lines for everything
else are old—very old. Did you know that Phoenix has almost no
architectural landmarks of its own: it’s all very new. Phoenix is a young city,
and it’s constantly wrecking the old to build up even more new.”
He leaned forward into the light, igniting his eyes with
an intense glimmer. “Don’t you think that people are disturbing that by
wrecking those old places? You wouldn’t want someone to destroy a Hohokam
monument to put up a condominium, would you?”
“There’s laws against that,” Vex said, turning a page in
“Maybe whoever is doing this is trying to stop that
destruction—trying to tap into that heartbeat. What’s going on here is
impressive, don’t you think? It’s power on a grand scale.”
She shifted uncomfortably. His fascination and near-admiration
for the person doing this seemed evident from the moment he crossed that sigil
on the ground. It wasn’t healthy and she wished that there was an easy way to
break him out of it. She could understand that this was his expertise and if
someone else was doing a better job at it than he. Vex herself felt impressed
by other magi who developed more elegant incantations than she—but the line had
to be drawn somewhere. Murdering construction workers for a magnum opus proved
a baleful portent for the end results indeed.
“Radley,” she said slowly, “what you don’t seem to be
getting is that when human lives are being ground up into a magickal machine
nothing good comes out of it. Six men have died already. Those six men probably
had families, children, people who loved them. Losing them like this diminished
all of us…and for what? I don’t know.”
The ominous warnings of the voices and the sensation of
hostility she’d felt as the sun set on the site that day came back to her.
Something sinister lurked in those pooling shadows, straining to be unleashed.
Vex wished she could bottle that feeling—the knowledge of
this is wrong—and pour it down his throat so that he would never forget
it. It was a lesson she herself nearly learned the hard way while growing into
her own magickal talents and it almost hurt to see someone else so promising
treading the same mistakes.
The boy appeared to want to say something, but instead
he sighed and nodded grudgingly.
“Oh yeah,” he said, moving immediately onto a new
subject. “I have more information for you on your cranes.” He placed another
book on the table and opened it to a bookmark. “They’re horizontal jib cranes,
I know that much from past experience—my father works in construction
engineering—but they’re a very specific manufacture if the spars that keep them
together can be moved around so easily... Like you saw. One thing that I find
strange about your description is that you saw the geometry as it is
supposed to be, not as it was rendered.”
He stopped to look at her and they shared eyes across
the table. Changing his tone, he smiled roguishly as he continued.
“Maybe nobody died at the last site because the whole
thing isn’t complete yet,” he said after a pausing to muse. “You and I
together, we could probably bring this whole thing to a close—if we move fast
“This will tell us how to operate the crane?” she asked,
pointing at the book under his palms.
“Yes. It would. I think I know who made it, this should
be the right operation manual.”
Sounding rather pleased with himself, Radley closed the
book and Vex scooped it from the table.
“What would impress you?” he asked.
Vex stopped and considered before answering. “An act
genuinely for the benefit of this community and its people.”
“No, no. I meant from a guy.”
“Aren’t I a little out of your league?”
Radley lifted his chin and puffed up his chest. “If I
solve this for you, wouldn’t that put me in your league?”
She thumped him in the ribs with the book and folded up
map, knocking the wind out of his lungs in a whuff!
“Keep to your own kind, kid,” she said and chuckled at
his pouty expression. “Less disappointment that way. Let’s go.”
Radley acted somber and a little withdrawn on the taxi ride
out to the final site. He held the book and the map in his lap, both hands down
like he was ready to toss them out the window. Vex let him mull. Kids,
especially those who found the time to discover they could unlock keys
to the mysteries of the universe did need time to muse—she did, after all. If
nothing else, he would have to get over hitting on her if she was going to be
able to get him to learn anything.
As the first buildings of the Scottsdale Airpark
resolved against the grey and brown mountains, he turned towards her and, in a
matter-of-fact tone, asked:
“Why do you do this?” He closed his eyes for a moment
and shook his head. “I mean, right now, you could be making money driving
people in your cab, but instead you’re running around with me trying to stop
this stuff. Why?”
“I think the answer to that is why Andrew sent you with
me.” The road hummed beneath the tires of her cab as she spoke and the boy kept
his curious eyes fixed on her. “The person you see sitting here today is
someone who learned not to mess with magick the hard way. I didn’t have anyone
to pull my ass out of the fire when I fell over the edge, and lucky for me,
nobody else would have suffered for my mistake.” She sighed grimly. “Well,
except maybe my mother, rest her soul.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Vex spun the wheel of the taxi, turning onto a road
riding alongside the construction site. The tall bearing of the crane shot up
into the air like a tower of metal tinker-toys. It was the tallest one she had
seen yet, almost scraping the wispy clouds that hung overhead in the darkening
sky. Dim red lights blinked sullenly along its trusses and boom; the dark
shapes of birds twirled around its gantries. Dusky whispers muttered warnings
into the back of her mind as she let it fill her vision. This was the real
thing; this was where it was all going to go down.
“Don’t be,” she said finally. “That’s long past and I’m
over it. You see, my mother lost her life to the mystic and arcane—a lot like
the guy who took a nosedive off that first crane, someone wielding magick
killed her. After that…and after I got over my want for revenge…I vowed that
nobody would go into that good night for want of someone to save them. Not if I
could help it.
“I study magick for one reason: to save people from the
things that took my mother and almost took me.” She yanked the parking brake
after stopping next a rather large, ragged gap in the fence. “Now, you tell me:
why do you do this? What do you want?”
Radley swallowed hard. “Well I want—”
“You want power,” she cut him off, trying to keep the
bitter edge out of her voice. “Oh, and you’ll get it, boyo. You have the
potential. Potence. That’s power alright. I’m just warning you: there
are more dangerous things than me out there. You want to know why Andrew treats
me like an equal? It’s because he’s sure I’m not going to go blow myself or
someone else up. I learned that lesson already. You haven’t.”
“Are you going to teach me that lesson?”
“I’m here hoping that you won’t have to learn it the way
I did. If you’re with me, you’re safe, as long as you don’t do anything totally
“I’m cool with that,” he said, nodding. “So, we’re here.
What’s next, boss?”
Vex glanced out the window towards the fading sun
hugging the mountains to the west and then let her eyes trace the looming
superstructure of the crane.
“You are going to stay with me while I figure out
how to prevent whatever is happening.”
Radley snickered. He was the first one out of the cab
and the first through the rent in the fence, with Vex’s fluttering black
silhouette taking up the rear.
The boy reminded her so much of a puppy that she had to bite
back a command to “stay”. He darted about, to and fro, with such eagerness that
it became difficult to keep up with him; so Vex started sending him back to the
cab to retrieve various magickal implements from the back seat. He needed
something to keep him busy while she scryed out the workings of the spell that
froze the crane into place. The sun had less than half-an-hour to set and that
gave a limit for how long they could take to figure this out—after sundown it
would be too late.
As per usual when she didn’t know what she was up
against, the first thing she asked for was her chalk. A great deal of
divination magick relied on the guidance of ritual sigils, and while she could
do it by just thinking them into being, it would be easier to channel the
results if it had something physical to work from. After he brought her chalk
set, she had sent him back to the cab to retrieve some reagents for suppressing
the magick being used to lock the crane up.
He had a pretty good idea of what each component did,
and even commented on the form of the scrying sigil she’d sketched out against
the dirty yellow side of the crane’s control cabin. She watched him go and
wiped sweat from her forehead. His footsteps cast up little puffs of dust as he
enthusiastically dashed back to the taxi at her bidding. Radley had the makings
of a very powerful mage even if he lacked the wisdom that would come with it—it
made her hope, as well, that she was totally wrong about him.
“Can you help me for a moment?” he asked upon his return.
He passed her the bag of odds and ends she’d sent him to retrieve. The supple
leather crinkled in her hands as she placed it atop the seat inside the control
Vex set down the piece of chalk she held and blew the
white dust off her fingertips. “Sure, what do you need? We have to keep it
short. I have a feeling that bad stuff is going down about sunset.”
“I need you to look up at the crane,” he said. “This one
has a map of ley lines as well… I just want to know if you see something different?”
He had laid out the map again, canted carefully with the
shadows cast by the construction equipment and the buildings on the horizon so
that it lined up with the angle of the crane. The red lines and the other
markings stood out vividly in the late afternoon light.
Standing next to the map, Vex glanced up at the boom of
the crane. Her eyes focused on the latticework where the struts had been moved
to create the eye-wrenching pattern she’d seen before.
“It’s pretty much the same,” she said, “except that
there’s an extra line added this time. It runs from the northernmost site to a
site at the very bottom, counterclockwise of the bottommost.”
Radley leapt to his map in an instant, red pen in hand.
He found the two locations and traced a straight line unerringly. “It’s done!”
he cried. “The map, I think you’ve found it. All of the ley lines must be here…but
it means that this crane is out of alignment. That might explain why the stadtgeist
is not working.” He looked up from the map at her, kneeling, with his hands
spread in exaltation. “We can complete this spell! Look. This is why
it’s going wrong; it didn’t take into account the missing lines. The lines that
you can see. It’s done! Nobody else needs to die. It can happen—we can help it
happen. We could have all that power…”
Vex shook her head. “Radley,” she said softly. “You
don’t understand. It’s not just going wrong—it’s getting the attention of very,
very bad things. I don’t know if you felt them at the last place, but it’s not
good. We need to stop this now, before it goes any further.
“I understand that you want to study the working that’s
being done, that you want to research it. You have a lot of info about it now,
you will always have your maps, but you must help me stop this. I don’t
know enough about how these city ley lines work, but I am going to bet that if
I bring down that crane—” She pointed overhead. “It will forever change the
face of that map.”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
“I will destroy this entire construction site if I
must.” If only he knew the truth of it. Surely Andrew had regaled him with her
previous exploits, the archivist wouldn’t even need to exaggerate how rash and
unbridled he thought she had been.
The boy stood there, his back ramrod straight,
considering her words. She could see the conflicting emotions battling in his
head: his hero worship of the person who had set up the ley line maps in the
cranes and his desire to impress her. It was difficult to tell which one was
winning. Finally, he bowed his head, and nodded.
“Fine,” he said. “I think that I know how the crane has
been locked in place. I’ll help you break the spell.”
“Thank you,” she said, and patted him on the shoulder as
he rose. “You’ve done the right thing.”
The map in tow, he followed her back to the control
“The crane is locked in position because it’s aligned to one
of the ley lines,” Radley explained. “It is kind of like being a sail in a wind
tunnel. With the wind blowing so hard it’s difficult to move the sail so that
it starts to block the wind, it will push it back into position again.”
“So we just move it out of alignment?”
“It’s not that simple,” he said. “I’ll go break the
attunement…at the source. That means up there on the boom—don’t worry, I know
what I’m doing. You will have to move the crane so that it points in the
direction I say. And that direction is…” He unfurled the map and ran his finger
over a few of the lines. After mumbling a little he looked towards the southern
horizon and pointed at one of the mountain peaks poking up. “See that mountain?
Aim the crane directly at it.
“What we need to do is cause this crane to act as a
ground, like a lightning rod. All of the energies that have built up in this
system will simply bleed out.”
Once Radley had shown Vex the generator motors for
operating the crane, and how they worked, she easily started them up with
simple ignition cantrips—the same type that started car engines without keys. Now
instructed, Vex would be able to swing the crane around as soon as she received
the signal to do so.
“How are you going to signal me anyway?”
“Oh,” he said as he climbed down out of the cabin and
headed for the tower. “You’ll know when it happens.”
And when the signal came, indeed she knew it.
Radley had been gone for minutes, presumably clambering
up the looming superstructure of the crane towards the boom where he was going
to change the attunement. The witch chalk she had patted onto his shoulder when
she touched him at the map let her easily track his progress. His clambering
figure moved along the ladders with a swift, monkeylike grace, as if he was
born to climbing.
In the distance, the sun was setting—banners of blazon
red unfurled themselves across the sky, dousing everything in bloody crimson,
casting the clouds with cotton candy pinks, and roiling the sky to a darkening
The crane suddenly jolted. Tiny hairs on the back of Vex’s
neck stood on end and prickled as a wash of energy flowed through it and
grounded. The whispers in the back of her head laughed and prodded, warned and
cajoled. The gauges on the crane really didn’t like it either; some of them
pegged into red while others just spun wildly.
After that moment, the crane responded to her control.
“Good job, Radley,” she said, pressing the joystick hard to one side. “I hope
he’s holding onto something.” Above, the crane rumbled as it slowly turned on
The crane almost had perfect alignment to the mountain,
or as close as Vex could make it—she didn’t exactly have the best view of the
crane’s angle against the horizon from inside the control cabin—when it
suddenly halted. The rumble stopped, the gauges locked, and the controls didn’t
cause a response.
A sensation from the witch dust passed through her like
an electrical jolt, someone was beginning an incantation, magickal energies
were exchanging hands, and the kid was at the center of it. She grabbed the side
of the cabin, leaned out, and looked up at the boom where he should have been
Fortunately, one of the things she’d asked him to
retrieve for her from the cab’s trunk happened to be her sage wrapped ash stave.
* * *
“Radley,” Vex shouted, “what the fuck do you think you’re
He turned so suddenly that he nearly lost his footing. He
stumbled and caught himself against one of the long cables affixed to the boom.
She could feel the slippery, cold metal beneath her boots, but the surefoot runes
on their soles held her steadfast. With the sun setting behind them, the red
light cast grim shadows across his figure, and a harsh wind whipped at her
Below his feet, the perfect, angular lines of the map
stood out against the latticework of the superstructure, laid out with keen
exactitude with the very spars of the crane itself. His hands and fingers
glowed with a residual luminescence from where he had them pressed against the
metal spars, which themselves were now limned with a blue radiance. The suffuse
light had already begun to crawl up his arm from his fingertips and on the
crane itself crept out from the sigil of ley lines into the rest of the
His eyes, no longer dark and compassionate, brimmed with
the cerulean shimmer that stood out from the ruddy light of the dying sun.
“You—you are up here?” he said. “How?”
She leaned on the ash stave. “That’s my little secret. What
I want to know is why you’re still up here.”
“I—I finished it,” he said. “I have found the stadtgeist.
I knew that she was there. I knew that I could touch her… Those men, they
didn’t die in vain, every one a flare to get the city’s attention. I can feel
her wings rising around me. It’s exactly as I expected it. The power is
“You—you helped me find her, the ever-beating heart of
the city is in my grasp, and she is angry. She has been asleep, barely aware
for too long. Her buildings neglected, her streets abused, she has suffered
long in a coma of the soul, but now—now I will become her living avatar.”
“You need to stop this now,” Vex shouted—the wind raged
all around her, it seemed to take on a life of its own, causing the warble of
the cables to sing menacing harmonies.
The voices returned in force, their laughter spent, only
concern and warnings—spells for destruction and ruin offered themselves as
solutions. The crane could be destroyed; the boy could be killed with a word. The
transformation was not complete. This made him vulnerable. Determined and
angry, she pushed them out of her mind.
He turned to walk away; blue body-tracers followed as he
An incantation came to her lips when a solution she could
accept flickered to her mind. Far below, four tires left the ground and a car
chassis groaned as its weight shifted. Wards crackled and flared around her,
burning into brilliant visibility as they activated in response to her consumption
of mystical energies.
“I can’t let you complete this,” she bellowed after him,
pointing her stave at him. “I will stop you if I have to bring down this
“Then you are my enemy,” he said over his shoulder.
A nearby cable snapped free and lashed out; she slapped
it aside with her ash stave. The impact sprayed sparks that showered down
around her as she jumped and rolled along the thicker trusses of the crane’s rigging.
Dodging the next loosed cable proved easier, but the kid had already retreated
too far for her to easily catch him.
“Enough of this Buffy shit,” Vex growled. She knelt down
and slammed a hand down against the metal of the crane. “Fulmen acht!” St.
Elmo’s fire sprang up along the superstructure like flames racing down a spill
of gasoline; arcs of electricity lunged out of the metal around Radley and
struck him in the chest, bowling him over with an explosive rush, and flung him
like a rag doll over the edge.
The boy screamed and, seconds later, crashed heavily
onto the hood of the taxi, cracking his head against the windshield. He
struggled to stand, mumbling curses, as Vex landed feet first behind him. The cab,
floating several stories in midair, began to descend with the pair atop. The last
crescent of the sun, vanishing behind the mountains, reflected back in the
glass as she glared down at him.
“If you left a dent, I am so going to kick your ass,”
“Do not interfere.” He pulled his hand back, drawing
blue light with him.
“Never mind, I’m going to kick your ass anyway.” Her
fist connected with his stomach and he doubled over with a yelp; then she
followed up the blow by pulling him up by his collar, drew back her fist, and
struck him with a right-cross that hurled him off the taxi.
This time a mound of freshly moved earth broke his fall.
A fortunately short fall; the cab hovered only a few feet off the ground then.
The ethereal glow of the energies he had drawn into himself began to falter. He
struggled to stand again as she slipped from the hood of the taxi and pulled
open the door.
“What’s happening?” he asked, looking at his dimly
All around the shadows deepened, dark shapes rose from
where the lines of the crane passed over construction equipment and half-made
“You see, kid,” Vex said as she tossed her ash stave
into the back seat. “In this life there are a few classic blunders. And one of
them, which happens to be your sin, is doing something huge and obvious. It’s
the blunder of a rank amateur.” She hunched her shoulders and leaned heavily on
the door. Wizards culled their own; if she didn’t take him out, someone else
would. Someone else would have noticed this. “Nobody with any experience
does anything like this because it attracts attention. Attracting attention
gets you killed—or worse.”
“But, I had it. I had the power under my fingertips.
It’s leaving me…”
“Oh yeah, that extra line?” A grim smile touched her
lips. “I lied. You’re not the only one who can research ley lines. I picked a
direction which would do exactly what you said—and grounded out the spellwork.
You only ate the residual ley energy that was tapped into the crane when you
She slid into the driver’s seat and fingered the keys.
The boy glanced around fearfully. “But it’s getting
“You’re a big boy now, suck it up.” Vex’s eyes flashed
angry in the red light cast from the cab’s dash as she started the ignition.
“My responsibility for your wellbeing ended after I saved your scrawny ass up
there. Don’t get me wrong, if I catch you trying this again I will finish what
Radley stumbled forward and she shot him a warning
glare. “You’re just going to leave me here?”
“If you manage to survive twilight, get the fuck out of
The door slammed and soon gravel crunched under the
taxi’s tires as it swung around. For a brief flicker of a moment Vex thought
that she saw a shadow move away from the harsh glare of the headlights, perhaps
there was a flash of swollen, crimson eyes. She didn’t spare a glance in her
rearview mirror as she turned out onto Scottsdale; she didn’t need to see to
know what would surely happen.
Terror seized Radley’s heart.
He fled…and the darkness gave chase.