© 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 Mill.”

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 reservations.

“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 been there!”

“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 things.

“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 what happened…”

“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 know the…”

“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 understand.”

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 the math.”

“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 handy.”

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?”

“Do what?”

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 you special?”

Vex cast him a significant look. “I know what I’m doing.”

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,” Vex said.

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 pooled.

“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 sabotaged cranes.

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 the book.

“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 enough.”

“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 retarded.”

“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 cabin.

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.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

The map in tow, he followed her back to the control cabin.


*   *   *


“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 rust.

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 its axis.

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.

She frowned.

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 standing.


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 doing?”

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 hair.

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 structure.

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 immense!

“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 moved.

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 crane!”

“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,” she said.

“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 glowing hands.

All around the shadows deepened, dark shapes rose from where the lines of the crane passed over construction equipment and half-made buildings.

“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 did that.”


She slid into the driver’s seat and fingered the keys.

The boy glanced around fearfully. “But it’s getting dark…”

“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 that started.”

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 my city.”

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.

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