By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor
San Francisco was wet, noisy, crowded and smelled like salt air and fish. And it was cold. My canvas duster was better at keeping the sun off than keeping body heat in. Worse, the city was heavy in water magic. No matter where I went I felt its wet blanket weight dragging me down. I get my power from earth and air, not water.
So why was I there instead of selling charms to little old ladies in Tucson? Let’s just say I’d been press-ganged by a lawman. A colleague of mine, may he rest in peace, tried to summon and bind something a lot stronger than himself, an afrit. He did it wrong and the critter got loose and killed him and a bunch of other people.
That’s me, John Copper, wizard, shopkeeper, deputy US Marshal and now, demon hunter.
I’d been able to track the demon to the West Coast, but the trail ended there. The smothering fog of water magic combined with something else, something that felt strangely ancient and very new, that hid the fire magic of the afrit. It pulled at the edge of my mind and I followed it without really thinking.
After an hour or so I found myself in a part of town as different from Frisco as the city was from Tucson. All around were signs and banners in strange writing, shops selling fish and vegetables, and the smell of incense and frying food filled the air. People bustled about, small and lively, and I felt the buzz of trade, conducted in a language filled with tradition and power. Some eyed me warily; most just ignored me.
I’d heard of Chinatown, but never thought I’d see it. I grounded my staff to gather power and tried to clear my head. After a minute, I noticed I was being watched.
In front of a small shop, behind a table covered with small tiles, sat a pretty Chinese woman in red silk emrboidered with dragons. Her hair slicked back and pinned into a bun by a pair of sticks. A silver coin dangled on a chain around her neck.
“You are looking for something,” she said in heavily accented English. Smiling, she waved at a chair on the other side of the table.
There was magic about her. Cautiously I stepped toward the table and she shuffled the tiles.
I didn’t recognize the game and didn’t trust it. Gambling with wizards is dangerous business; even if you win, you end up owing more than you can pay. Without sitting, I took the stone from my pocket and held it up.
Her eyes widened and she let out a stream of Chinese. She tried to grab it but I pulled it away.
“Where did you get that?”
“Why do you want to know?” I held back a smile. “But if you must know, a friend gave it to me.” Well, it was kind of accurate, if not entirely true. “It has a name on it. I’m looking for the name’s owner.”
I took the copper Deputy Marshal badge from my other pocket.
She stood and her silk dress hugged her figure. “Show me.”
I held the stone up again, displaying the silver star with the ring of Arabic writing. She studied the stone without touching it. After a minute she whispered a word.
“You know something.” I pocketed the stone and badge.
“Yes,” she said, sitting gracefully and setting out the tiles. “But there is a price.”
Of course. I didn’t know how far my authority as Deputy Marshal stretched, and in any case it probably wouldn’t do any good here. This wasn’t my world. They played by different rules. “Name it.”
She smiled up at me coyly. “Later,” she purred. “First you must see the prize. Then you may pay. If you still choose to make the purchase.”
She put away her tiles and led me through the streets of Chinatown, down a narrow alley, stopping outside a door painted with red characters. She knocked once and a slot in the door opened.
“Asabadiel,” she hissed, and the slot slid shut. The door opened a second later. The room beyond was thick with the smells of opium, hashish and sweat. Men and women in varying stages of undress and states of consciousness lounged on sofas and divans. The smoke made it hard to see and harder to think, and I forced myself to concentrate as the woman led me through the lounge to an upstairs room. The air was noticeably clearer here, and I breathed deeply.
“Wait here,” she said, opening the solid wooden door. The room looked like a cathouse boudoir, having a bed in the middle and a single, small window. The walls were festooned with red and gold drapes, and a candle burned in a brass holder on the wall. It was all a bit tawdry.
I went in, relieved I’d gathered power when I had the chance. The woman closed the door behind me. I sat on the bed.
I didn’t have to wait long. Seconds after the door closed, the room darkened as it filled with black smoke and a low, sultry woman’s voice spoke from the shadows.
I released power and surrounded myself with a shield.
“Cut the shit.”
The smoke cleared, the door opened, and in walked a tall, beautiful red-haired woman in a green dress. She approached the bed, stopping at the edge of my shield.
I revealed the stone and the badge. “I’ve been deputized to investigate a murder.” I still didn’t know the creature’s name, but on a whim I repeated the word the Chinese woman had spoken earlier.
The afrit hissed angrily, its eyes glowed like fire, and I knew I’d found the right creature.
For all the good it would do me.