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Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Belle of Eerie, Arizona - Chapter 1, Part 1



Posted 04-07-19 


By Christopher Leeson
 
Chapter 1, Part 1

December 19, 1871, Continued

Tuesday, December 19, 1871

A prairie chicken, bursting from the roadside weeds, startled the carriage horse. “Easy now, Hazel” Mrs. Fanning shouted to the beast, tugging at the reins to settle it down.

Myra Olcott, next to her aunt, bounced once on the hard seat and then forgot about the mishap; she was too angry to care. All she could think about was how her life had crashed into flames like a burning building.

Abigail Myra Olcott hadn't wanted to make this trip but Aunt Irene was insistent: “Everyone knows that a young lady has arrived from 'the East.' They'll all be curious to meet you and we shouldn't keep you out of sight for too long. They might start wondering whether you have a contagious disease, or something worse.”

Those words struck Myra like a blow.

Irene Fanning realized her mistake. The girl's parents had died of cholera five years past, and she was still angry with the entire world because of that.

What I'm saying,” Mrs. Fanning explained, “is that you can't afford to have curious people watching you too carefully. You have secrets to keep. Or have you stopped caring?”

I've already met everybody in town,” the girl said, “and what I've stopped caring about is the whole pack of them.”

But they've only met you as Myron Caldwell, who's supposed to be dead. You have to introduce yourself as a totally new person.”

Myra scowled. She distinctly disliked the “totally new person” that she had become.

I asked Molly O'Toole to join us today,” continued Irene. “The storekeepers all know Mrs. O'Toole. If she seems to like you, it should carry weight with them. Make a good impression and they'll spread the word that you're a fine young lady.”

With clenched fists, Myra declared, “I'm sorry I ever came back from Stagecoach Gap alive.”

You've said that before. But tell me, my girl, would you truly rather be dead and buried, with your soul very possibly in Hell, or would you prefer to be alive – even as you are?

The maid gritted her teeth. The term “my girl” was a magical code-word that compelled her to follow her aunt's orders. She hadn't really believed in magic before, but the week before, it had come out of the brush like a rattler and stung her. It compelled her to tell the truth, for one thing, and that was something that could only get a person into trouble.

I don't believe in Hell,” the maiden replied grudgingly , “but I sure wouldn't want to go there if it's real.”

Irene turned her head and spoke seriously. “Most of the people who fall into the flames don't believe in Hell either, I imagine. People who don't believe in Hell can't honestly believe in Heaven. And only people who believe in God are allowed to live with Him.”

The demons must believe in God,” Myra retorted. “They don't live with him.”

Yes, but they don't love him or obey him willingly. That's the difference.”

I'd rather be a ghost and live by myself.”

Whatever you want, I rather believe that it's not you who will be judging such matters.”

It's the parsons that fill people's heads with ideas like yours,” the ginger-haired maid returned. “What does a bag of straw like Reverend Yingling know?”

The two of them had argued along these lines before. This time, the woman just sighed and kept driving.

By now, the buckboard had passed the town welcome sign and Riley Canyon Road was widening into the main street of the town. Eerie, Arizona was small compared to many Eastern towns, but here, south of the Superstition Mountains, it was the largest settlement to be found, except for Phoenix, sixty miles to the west. As they passed the false-fronted buildings on either side, the people turned to look. Few could have missed the very attractive young lady seated next to the Widow Fanning.

Irene waved to those who waved at her first, but her forced smile was masking tension. How would Myra behave in public? Only a few people in the world knew the girl's real identity. Not even George Severin, the neighbor boy who helped them on the farm, had been told the truth.

The woman driver slowed as she came up to the O'Hanlon Feed and Grain Store. She brought Hazel to a complete start and then climbed down to the dusty street. While tying the horse's tether to a post ring, Irene told Myra, “Come down, please. We'll go over to the Eerie Saloon and to together with Molly.”

Molly! Of all the people in Eerie, the saloon-keeper's wife infuriated Myra the most. Irene didn't like ordering her around magically, but Molly O'Toole was bossy by nature. In fact, she had become the local prison matron, directing several “potion girls” at their duties at the Eerie Saloon. The idea of entering what was a disguised jail tied her stomach up in knots. The saloon owner, Shamus O'Toole, the son of an Irish witch and the step son of a Cheyenne medicine man, had concocted a magic potion. It turned any man who drank it into a woman who was referred to as a “potion girl.” Why hadn't someone holier-than-thou Christian shot him in the back of the head by now?

Irene led Myra to the saloon's bat-wing doors and there she paused. The young farm woman had been brought up thinking of a saloon as an antechamber to Hell. The only time she had walked into a saloon she had been under escort by Eerie's Judge Humphreys. She had half-expected to be insulted by some drunken scoundrel, but that had not happened. Surprisingly, the young man at the bar had actually been courteous. Similarly, the O'Tooles, the owners, had received her, a near stranger, with warmth and sympathy. They had saved Myron's life, albeit by an unheard of means. Though she would have paid him almost anything for his help, Mr. O'Toole had not asked as much as a penny for his life-preserving help.

Trying hard to stay steady, Irene peered through the window. The sign against the glass said that no drinks would be served until eleven o'clock in the morning. The woman wasn't quite sure whether the tavern owners were respecting decorum, or that they were simply late risers, kept up late by their night-owl customers.

Resolved, Irene guided her niece through the swinging doors. The barroom was almost deserted, with only two people to be seen. One was a very attractive red-haired woman seated at a small round table and playing a game of solitaire. The other was a boy sweeping the floor. This youth she recognized as the son of a local Mexican laundress. He looked to be about sixteen.

Young sir,” Irene said. “I think Mrs. O'Toole may be expecting me. Would you be so kind as to let her know that my niece and I have arrived? I'm Mrs. Fanning.”

The boy, Arnie Diaz, looked up and the attractiveness of the lady's younger kinswoman caught his eye. She looked smart in a flowery “town dress” worn under a blue cloak trimmed with rabbit fur. Myra, espying the smile at the corners of Arnie's mouth, felt miffed. She remembered him from her school days a layabout and a scared chicken who was easy to bully. The girl's frown warned off the youth and he shifted to address the aunt.

Si, Señora,” he said. “I will let Señora O'Toole know you are waiting.” He went up the nearby stairs. Up above, Irene knew, the O'Tooles had their living quarters.

A few minutes later, a cheery Molly descended the stairway, already dressed for the outdoors. Her hat was fur and she was wrapped in a sleeveless cloak of evergreen hue.

Top of the morning to ye, Irene,” she said. “And to ye, too, Myra, me girl.” The maiden showed Molly her teeth, but she wasn't smiling.

I have the shopping list,” volunteered Mrs. Fanning. “Anytime ye're ready.”

I'm ready when ye are,” Molly replied. “Too bad it is that so few of our friends're off somewhere or still in bed, or else I'd be introducing them to ye. Maggie is back in the kitchen, but ye've already met her.”

Yes,” nodded Irene. “That was a very fine breakfast that she brought to the doctor's office.” The farm woman now searched her reticle until she found an envelop. This she handed to her hostess. “Here is the payment for that meal, along with a gratuity. I should have remembered to settle up when you visited our place on Sunday.”

The proprietress accepted the envelope. “I'll run it right back to her, but first...” She indicated the redhead at the table. “I'd like to introduce ye to Miss Bridget Kelly. Whenever ye come by, ye'll be just about as likely t'see her out front as ye will me or Shamus. Bridget, this is a new friend of mine, Mrs. Irene Fanning.”

Miss Kelly looked up at Irene. The farmer had known for a while that one of the “potion girls” at the saloon was a gambler. Mrs. Fanning happened to slightly know only two other potion girls, Trisha O'Hanlan and Laura Caulder, and it was hard to know how to behave politely around people with such strange life histories. Did the potion girls dislike being looked at by strangers, especially those who knew what they were? She said to Molly, “Any friend of yours is, or I hope shall be, a friend of mine.”

Molly led her visitor in to Miss Kelly's table and Irene could see that the young lady was even more attractive up close than from a distance. She looked rather Irish, as Irish as the taverner herself. As with other potion girls, Mrs. Fanning observed no trace of masculinity in Bridget, but, surely, her liking for card-playing had to be a mannish trait.

Bridget, this is Irene Fanning,” said Mrs. O'Toole. “She owns one of the farms to the east, along Reilly Canyon Road. Ye've probably ridden past it a few times by now. She and I will be going shopping. Please be making her feel at home whenever she drops by for business or a visit.”

Of course, Molly,” Bridget said good naturedly. She met Irene's glance and extended her hand. “How do you do, Mrs. Fanning?”

Irene took the hand. “Very well, thank you,” she responded. “I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Kelly.”

Bridget shifted her gaze toward Myra. “Is this attractive young person a member of your family?”

Yes. That's my n—niece, Myra. Myra Olcott. She's—she's staying with me. I'm hoping that she'll decide to make herself a permanent home here in Eerie.”

The gambler nodded. “Let's hope so. The town needs young people. By the way, I recognize your name. You have my sincere condolences for your nephew's unfortunate accident. The loss must be very hard for you.”

It is, thank you. I'm afraid that I still haven't quite recovered from the shock. If my dear Myra were not with me, I don't know how I could have held myself together.”

The distaff gambler appeared sympathetic. “A death in the family is always hard to bear. But, for now, I hope that the two of you shall have a fruitful shopping day with Molly.”

I'm certain that we will. Thank you very much, Miss Kelly.”

#

Not long after, Mrs. O'Toole, Irene, and Myra arrived at Silverman's dry goods store. “Maybe we'll be finding a thing or two that Myra can use,” the older woman speculated.

Within the clothing shop, Ramon de Aguilar was tending to business alone. “What can I do for you ladies?” the clerk asked, his English only slightly accented. Most of the town ladies had formed a good opinion of Ramon since he had taken the store job. Oddly enough, it was common knowledge that the well-spoken Mexican was courting Maggie Sanchez, the restaurant owner. People said that the latter had been a bandit, one who had ridden with an outlaw leader who had befriended him in territorial prison.

Do ye see anything that ye might like t'be taking home with ye?” Molly asked Myra.

Not if my life depended on it!” declared the maid.

Irene looked dismayed. “Listen, my girl, be courteous. If you don't have anything pleasant to say to a person, just...just be demure.”

The widow wanted to make an apology. “Please excuse her outspokenness, Señor. Myra simply hasn't been herself since her mother died.”

Of course, Señora Fanning,” replied the clerk. “Feel free to look around; I will be here to assistant you.”

That is kind of you, Señor de Aguilar. Let me introduce my niece formally. Her name is Abigail Myra Olcott from New Jersey, and she's the only child of my late brother, Amos. Say hello to the gentleman, Myra.”

Hello,” the girl complied tonelessly. If “demure” meant not having to make conversation, demureness suited her well enough for now.

Very happy to meet you,” the young man replied.

Myra returned the best smile that her sour mood could manage. She didn't have any use for the Mexican clerk, but didn't have anything against him, either.

Irene and Molly now turned their attention to the dry goods on display. Real shopping was, of course, only incidental to the excursion. What Irene needed to know was how far she could trust her niece's behavior. So far, her doubts had not been allayed.

Something caught Mrs. Fanning's eyes that reminded her that she needed a new dress for the Christmas dance. Her old clothes simply would not do. Except for church wear, the widow hadn't been in need of quality clothing. But, lately, she had met a man who had offered her an invitation to the party. The idea appealed to her, since she wanted to further introduce Myra to the community. Appreciating Tor Johannson's courtesy, she had said that she intended to attend and hoped to see him there.

Silverman's shop had vestments that appeared suitable for what was the year's most important social function. But which of the array should she choose? What did she know about current fashion?

Molly,” Irene found herself asking, “what do you think would be an appropriate frock for the Christmas dance? I know you have good tastes, considering the nice dress you picked up for Myra in Phoenix.”

Mrs. O'Toole stepped up and looked things over. She knew only that her acquaintance seemed to be a very buttoned-down lady, one who tended to dress older than her years warranted. Regrettably, the death of a beloved husband sometimes shocked a young woman into thinking that she was nearer to the grave than she actually was.

Molly regarded one garment after another. She knew that well-dressed women wanted nowadays liked smart bodice-dresses, trim in the waist and riding low on the shoulders. Worn with a good corset, a gown like that tended to flatter a youthful woman. Molly recalled a line from a rollicking song that went something like,

The girls have no tops to their dresses at all,
As if they were bound for a bath, not a ball.

The Irish matron tried to imagine Irene gussied up. But could such a forlorn church lady be coaxed into appearing in public wearing something up-to-date and stylish?

At that moment, the widow remarked, “This one is rather nice.” Irene was holding up a selection that seemed much too sedate for Molly's tastes.

If I were yuir age, I'd be going in this one,” the older woman recommended. She picked from the rack the low-cut dress that she had most admired.

Irene drew her lips into a rather profound O. “Molly,” she said, “you'd be the belle of Eerie, Arizona in such a dress, but people aren't used to seeing me appareled...so carefree.”

That's what I was thinking. Isn't it time that someone like yuirself was sloughing off a whole boxcar of cares?” the tavern-keeper asked. “Christmas is the time for new hope, for bright colors, and smiling faces. New beginnings, really. Have ye never been wanting to let people know how...well, how alive and lovely ye are?”

Irene grimaced, as if a ghost had flickered past her eyes. “I did wear something like that at my wedding party,” she admitted. “It was a wonderful afternoon. But everything about my life went wrong right after that.”

Optimism, lassie, optimism. A seed in the spring may not look like much, but plant it in moist, warm soil and a wonderful flower will soon be blooming.”

Irene shook her head. “Spring is still a long way off.”

Molly smiled. “No, it's not. Ye're living ye'er spring season now. Enjoy it, because springtime is short.” She lowered her voice. “We both know that Myra is making a new start; she has to, or her days won't be happy ones. But the same thing might be true of yuirself.”

The neckline is frightfully low,” the farm woman observed.

Ye've got enough going for yuirself so it won't fall down. I know a lady or two that're mightily skilled with the needle, if it's a little alteration that it'll be needing. But whatever ye buy, ye'll have to get a move on pretty quick. There's not much time left for a fitting.”

It's probably too expensive,” Irene protested weakly.

It's tag says it's only $9.00. Any good dress is going to cost at least that much.”

What if it doesn't look good on me?”

Ye won't know until we give it the mirror test. Why the long face?”

You know Tor better than I do,” the widow whispered. “What would his sort of man think about a lady who would wear a dress so...frivolous?”

Molly smiled. “That's the best part of it all. Tor is a prospector, not a parson.”

#

Upon leaving the shop, Molly excused herself briefly to make a deposit at the bank. Irene and Myra, the former carrying her new boxed dress under her arm, walked directly to the Ritter livery stable. When the pair drew near enough to the stalls to smell them, Myra caught sight of a youth emerging from a hay shed. Winthrop Ritter. She knew him; he had been one year ahead of Myron at local school. When the boss's son smiled her way, the girl didn't feel like smiling back.

Hello, Mrs. Fanning!” a baritone voice spoke up. Aunt and niece turned about to face Clyde Ritter, a man in his 40's wearing a waxed mustache and a leather apron. Because she knew salacious gossip about Ritter, Myra didn't trust his smug professional smile.

Mr. Ritter,” the Irene said, “my niece Myra is new in town. She so much likes horses that I thought she might enjoy a visit to your very fine stables.”

The proprietor nodded. “Big, hard-bodied beasts appeal to so many of the younger women.” He turned his gaze to the maiden's wary expression. “Maybe you'd like some candy, Miss Myra?”

My ma always told me not to take candy from strangers,” she replied.

Ritter chuckled. “That's good advice. This is a rough corner of the country and a lady always has to be on her guard. Anyway, you'd be quite welcome to visit the horses whenever you like. I'll be right glad to find a gentle one for you to pet.”

May we stroll about the stalls?” Irene inquired. Ritter nodded amiably and then escorted the pair in a brief tour. Then, abruptly, he had to excuse himself, having seen a man in a dapper suit walking into his office.

Ritter's a bad one,” Myra hushedly cautioned her aunt. “Don't let the likes him get you cornered when you're all alone.”

Mr. Ritter?” she replied. “He's a married man and a town leader.”

I know what he is. I just hope that you figure it out for yourself, before you're made sorry.”

Just then, Myra noted that Winthrop was still nearby, peering out the door to the tool room. “Let's get out of here,” she suggested to Irene. “Young Ritter is staring at us. He was the worst killcrow at school and all the kids hated him.”

Irene looked at the tall, sturdy boy and nodded coolly his way. “All right, let's go back and find Molly. Then we'll visit the bookstore. I know how much you like to read.”

Fine. Any place is better than this one,” the girl agreed.


TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 1, PART 2

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Wounded World, a story of Mantra, Chapter 7

By Aladdin 

Edited by Christopher Leeson


The Wounded World
Originally written 2006
Revised and posted Mar. 21, 2019 




Chapter7

THE KILLING MACHINE



When a sinister person means to be your enemy,
They always start by trying to become your friend.

William Blake


“It sure seemed like you were dead,” the teenager insisted.

“If you say so,” I said. “What happened next?”

“Gus wanted my blood. What he could do was incredible; he turned your house into a holodeck full of monsters and warriors.”

As Lauren continued her report, it became clear that these magical constructs had been imagined to kill a schoolgirl, not a powerful ultra, and Lauren quickly “zapped” them out of existence. The victory had given the girl confidence, but was taken aback when a ghostly image appeared. Lauren had found herself looking at a phantom of Eden Blake. This insubstantial Eden began speaking in a small voice, as if from far away. She outed herself as the secret identity of Mantra and appealed to the sixteen-year-old to save her. 

“To do that, you need more magic than you have,” the specter said. “Find it before it's too late.” Before the babysitter could ask how on earth she was supposed to pull off such a feat, Gus injected himself into the arena, his face a distorted mask of hate and fury. The boy launched a rage-driven attack that the girl barely managed to fend off, until one of her power-bolts blasted into shards the plastic joystick that he had been using like a magic wand. Startled, the boy vanished.

Now that the fight was ended, the vista around her faded and Lauren found herself back inside the Blake household. Mantra's “dead body” and Evie were gone, and so was Gus. Not knowing what else to do, Lauren dashed outside to see if she could spot them. But she'd no sooner gotten out the door when a police squad started to bawl at her, demanding that she drop her sword. In the teen's startlement, she hesitated a moment and the panicky police started shooting. Somehow, without a ny conscious thought, the girl ghosted, becoming like a living hologram which allowed bullets to pass through her harmlessly. That was a defensive measure that I had used many times myself.

When the rioting officers rushed her, a surge of power flashed out from her body and tossed them away like leaves on the wind. Fortunately, weren't smashed to death against the trees and walls; instead it looked like they were floating. They kicked and beat their arms against the air, but they were helpless. “That's how Mantra flies” the newly-empowered ultra thought. Immediately wanted to get into the fun herself and so sprang up into the air. Yet she found herself little better off than the police squad. Fortunately, being a Mantra groupie, she'd read the fan articles and interviews. Mantra's power came from levitation and she created direct flight by creating and controlling brisk wind. “Wind! Come!” she yelled mentally. In a blink, Lauren found herself sailing through the moonlight like a paper airplane. Flight was exhilarating, but also disconcerting. As soon as the girl started thinking about how to land, she dropped precipitously into a park, her forward momentum throwing her into a bumpy roll across the grass.

With even more bruises than before, the young ultra limped to boulder and sat down to get her breath. She needed magic, she knew, but where did one find magic on such short notice? As Lauren concentrated, a tingle spread over her skin and a tart odor drifted to her nostrils. On top of that, she saw that the turf was faintly blinking, as if she were sitting under a string of Christmas lights. A glance upward beheld sky in chaos. The full moon was beaming brightly and the sky was somehow glowing violet. More amazingly, dazzling green zig-zags were hanging under the stars, resembling forked lightning. Whatever it was, it certainly was not a normal phenomenon. The more she stared, the stronger grew the tingle and the smell! Instinct told her that the forked lightning was magical in nature and she might make use of it somehow if she could find where it was striking the ground.

Lauren's made a second attempt to fly and followed the trajectory of the magical streak er to what she recognized as Heather Parks' home. Two squad cars were parked in front of it, probably inspecting the considerable damage. There was a gaping hole in one wall, large enough to give free passage to a buffalo. While the untutored heroine was trying to make sense of things, the jumpy police on hand started shooting at her. Spooked, she got out of there as swiftly as possible.

Lauren's random flight-path brought her over the Mall at Sherman Way, where she began to hear a jumble of frightened shouting. Thinking that there might be people in need, she flew through the Mall's glass doors and into the front hall. Before her startled gaze, skulking reptile-like near decorative fountain, stood a monstrous armored being that was tearing up a metal bench, for no apparent reason except for pure meanness. She stayed in flight and eased in closer, wondering if she had to attack the ting, or should only drive it outside. But her close pass made Lauren recognize that the creature had four faces, the faces of Heather Parks and her three mean-girl friends! 

The discovery was startling, for sure, but Lauren kept her wits. Harming the girls was out of the question. They had been assaulted by evil magic and turned into a monster, just like Gus had been. So, ruling out violence, she started to shout, wishing to attract the mutant's attention to herself and away from the panicked mall-crowd. The ploy succeeded only too well. The creature heard the abuse that she was hurling down at it and replied with a demonic shriek. As fast as a speeding bullet, the adversary sprang up and put a fist into the teenager's face.

Then there followed a flurry of clawing and grabbing. The abomination was stronger than the four girls it was made from and threw Lauren into the fountain, in which it tried to drown her. But, maybe because the monster was no more experienced than the heroine, Miss Shepherd managed to break away. Aching from all the additional blows she'd received Lauren found an empty spot on the roof to land upon for rest. Her mind was spinning. What kind of night was this? Everywhere she turned she was being forced into another battle.

The girl realized that fate had piled a load of incredible responsibilities upon her shoulders. She had to try to bring Eden Blake back from the dead, had to find and corral Gus, and also had to stop a force of nature from the pits of nightmare. She simply couldn't go against it toe to toe. Probably only Gus himself was strong enough to give it a fair battle. That was it! What an inspiration!

Lauren urgently sniffed the air, trying to get a bearing on Gus's location through tracking down his pungent sorcery. The aura of it smelled like spoiled apple juice. Once she had ascertained his location, she flew back to confront “Coven,” a name which seemed to pop into her head automatically. Her brutal opponent was no longer at the mall. The girl realized that the rampaging thing couldn't be allowed to wander free. Following the magical traces that it left behind, Lauren spotted the monster below, digging through the trash of the area dump, probably hungry. She flow in warily, keeping her distance, mocking and jeering at the monster, trying to provoking it enough to chase her.

Apparently frantic to commit murder, it sprang into the air and during her fighting retreat it was all that Lauren could do to keep out of its reach. Keeping ahead of her pursuer by riding on a strong wind, the girl made good time, until she espied on the ground below a squad of heavily-armed men skirmishing with the power-packing Blake boy. Whoever these military types were, they weren't the local police; they wore dark suits of armor of a design that would have made Star Wars stormtroopers envious.

Coven, coming up on Lauren's heels, espied Gus, too, and reacted like a wild animal driven to seek a kill. For his part, the empowered boy didn't want some scary-looking monster violating his personal turf, and so attacked this new enemy with a green bolt of primordial power. The fight, brief but ferocious, ended with both combatants being knocked out cold. Amazingly, the armored creature broke up into its original four teenaged bodies, looking not too much the worse for wear. The armed men, having drawn back during the brawl, now stampeded forward as a well-drilled team. They used anesthetic on Gus to keep him unconscious, and then bum-rushed him into some sort of high-tech booth. Fortunately, these strangers were pretty much ignoring Heather and her friends, who – an observer would have to admit – didn't look particuarly threatening at this point.

The four teens, bemused and seemingly not remembering much from the last hour, took off for their homes, while the soldiers manhandled the encapsulated Gus into their van and sped away. To Lauren's surprise, my daughter Evie suddenly rushed out from the shadows, overjoyed to rejoin her babysitter friend. The youngster handed over Mantra's diminutive and inert body to Lauren, asking her to save her mother's life.

Promising the little girl that she would do everything she could, Lauren took to flight with Mrs. Blake's body clutched in her right hand. Lauren was back on the original quest to find magic. The girl's occult senses didn't fail her; they locked onto a new trace of what she was looking for -- a distinct and very disagreeable reek of sorcery. The odor became barf-worthy outside a junky warehouse on Hollywood Boulevard. With no time to waste, she ghosted inside without first checking things out. Lauren, having found lots of shelves and cluttered cabinets full of powerful magical signatures, saw something move forward from the shadows. It was a woman wearing a cape and a costume that left little to the imagination. The scale mask on the stranger's face and the dragon tattoo on her left thigh were making her look as sinister as all hell.

As she described the confrontation over the phone, I realized that she had run into someone I knew all too well – the witch who had named herself Necromantra. In better days, she had been named Thanasi, and the two of us had been the best of friends. But that was before she'd gone psychotic and become my most bitter foe. From what I'd seen, she was a pathological murderer. What in the world was the likes of her doing haunting Canoga Park, unless it was to lie low until she could assassinate me? Why did this feud never end? I'd seen her sucked into dimensional vortex on my own world. Since then, I had dearly hoped that she had at that point met a painful and terrifying death – a death that she had earned through her murder of Eden Blake!

The mad sorceress, who introduced herself to Lauren as “Marinna,” tried at first to pump the wary teen for information, but when the teen remained close and guarded, she opted instead for homicide. Their free-for-all carried them outside into the early morning traffic. Recognizing the witch as a menace, an armed civilian drew a pistol and shot at Necromantra, distracting her long enough for Lauren to slip away. She wanted to make it back to the warehouse, where she had left Mantra's body. But she hadn't been there a minute before Necromantra flew in through the wall right behind her. Lauren had to fight for her life and Mantra's but Marinna had prepared that chamber with numerous magic books and ensorcelled tokens. It was her arsenal for war, an array was keeping her mystically hyper-charged while she did battle, but, in contrast, Lauren's reserve of magic was wearing thin.

“Just then I heard your voice again,” said Lauren. “This time you were telling me that I had to use that mantra of yours – “Change, growth, power.”

Lauren, near her limit, could barely croak out the words, but once she'd gotten them out, her vitality soared and Mantra's Sword of Fangs materialized in her fist. The re-energized ultra got in a few effective blows in her own defense, but suddenly the magical blade vanished from her hand.

“Necromantra really came at me then,” Lauren recounted. “I don't remember anything of the next few minutes. But when I came to, you were kneeling over me, telling me what had happened.”

“What was that?” I pressed.

“You said were inside something you called the Soul Walk. You used magic to call in the Sword of Fangs. As soon as you had it, you slashed your way out of the spirit world. As far as I could figure, your spirit right away into that little dead body of yours, making it come back to life at full size. But when you tried to use Mantra magic against Necromantra, you couldn't. When the witch realized your were no match for her, she went at you, as if she wanted to kill you slowly with her bare hands. Luckily, she let up a little, wanting to hear you beg for mercy. But instead you told her that the reason that your power was down because you'd just used a huge slug of it to summon the 'Tradesmen' to Earth. That really shook up the witch and she took off like a bat out of hell.”

That gambit certainly sounded like something I'd try in a spot like that. The Tradesmen were an alien race that traded in items of power. They considered Necromantra to be their slave, a product for sale. She had escaped, apparently, but they were not going to let such a cash cow stay at large.

So, that was the secret origin of Eden's ghost. Mantra's spirit had been sent to the Soul Walk. The Soul Walk was a pocket dimension on the astral plane, a sort of ante-chamber to Death's door. If a newly departed soul didn't receive another living body very soon after arriving there, it would slip away into true death. Mantra had had a very, very close call.

Lauren continued. “When you shook me awake, you were wearing a black outfit that I'd never seen you in before. It looked super-cool.”

I knew the costume that she was talking about. “Yeah, well, I only use that suit when I can't get at my better one. It's not very magical and doesn't pump me up with magical power like the golden armor does. If I understand what you're saying, I still had my magic when I was on the Soul Walk. But why did I retain power in that place, but not on Earth?”

“You didn't have any idea why. And I surely didn't, either.”

#

“I've got so many questions I want to ask,” the schoolgirl said.

“I'll explain everything, later,” I told her, “but I'm in a crunch for time right now. Let's talk about the Mall fight on Sunday. Do you happen to know why I was there?"

"You'd come in with an armed group from Aladdin. You were wearing a gun on your hip and calling yourself 'Agent Eden Blake,'” answered the girl. “Does that mean that I've not only been Mantra's personal babysitter, but La Femme Nikita's, too?"

"I wouldn't call myself a La Femme Nikita type. I'm not expected to do field work, usually. In fact, I normally do the job of a data analyst in a back office."

“Too bad you're not still working there. I'm really sorry that you left town.”

I chuckled. “Because I was so generous with the milk and cookies?”

“You know what I mean! There's so much about being Mantra that I could learn from you. Are ever coming back?"

“I want to, I really do. Unfortunately, with Gus in Aladdin's clutches, I don't know how I possibly can. But, please, tell me everything about NM-E and the mall confrontation.”

“Well, okay,” she sighed, sounding dejected. “Once I helped you get back to Evie, I made a quick stop at home to chow down with my dad. He knew that I wasn't home all night and wanted to know why. I made up the usual kind of excuse, but it must have sounded pretty lame. He's never had to worry about me drinking or hanging out with boys before, but now I must be looking pretty bad. He told me, “If you've done something a girl your age should be ashamed of, think again. You can be better than that.”

“I told him I was sorry, and I'd learned my lesson, so he let the matter drop. But I felt bummed out. I'd been trying so hard not to give him and Mom the kind of problems that so many of the kids at school give their parents. I wanted to come up with some excuse to explain it all and him feel better, but I couldn't. Instead, I went off by myself and practiced magic until sundown. Two days of nervous exhaustion hit me after dinner. I slept like a log that night. In the morning, I tried to catch up on my homework, but on Sunday afternoon I made a trip to the mall with my mom. That was a mistake! All of a sudden, NM-E came out of the sky like a one-unit bomber squadron!”

“How were you able to stand up to such a thing?”

“It wasn't easy! I slipped away from Mom and flashed into my Mantra armor. The robot was just standing around, looking tough, but not doing anything. I gave it a shot of power to drive it back outside, but it attacked me. I pretty soon decided that it might be in control of humans, so I broke off the skirmishing and went looking for anything suspicious. I found a van and inside it was one of the guys that had taken away Gus away. It looked to me that he was up to no good, so I fried his equipment, hoping that it would deactivate the 'bot.

“Unfortunately, without its controller, it went absolutely crazy. It plowed into same crowd where my mom was! Then it came to me! I got the idea that I might be able to phantomize it, just like I can do with myself. It worked, and once it wasn't able to hurt anyone, I dragged Mom to safety, without letting her realize who Mantra really was.”

To phantomize an enemy to make him harmless? Quite a gambit! It was something that I'd never thought of doing before. I was beginning to think that Lauren was a damned smart tactician, as well as a natural ultra. What she'd come up with I could try, too, if I ever got my powers back.

“As soon as I could slip away from Mom again,” said Lauren, “I checked on the robot. It was crouching passively where I'd left it, like a computer working on a problem. It sure had a scary design. It look like something that could be put together by invaders from outer space. But it reminded me of a news story that I'd watched years ago. It was like the robot that had wiped out the entire Squad! I thought it could be the same one! It was amazing to think that I could have defeated it.”

While the teen was congratulating herself, the new Wrath burst into the room and seemed as mad as hell. He accused her of destroying the control center and allowing the automaton to run wild. The pair of them didn't have much time to argue, because a crowd of television reporters was stampeding into the part of the parking lot where they were. They started jabbering questions and seemed more interested in the man in red than in NM-E or the mysterious new heroine.

But NM-E was by no means down for the count. Sometime in the remote past, a genius had created it. Because it was capable of controlling its own material density, it suddenly came back with a slashing attack. Lauren responded with a second attempt at "ghosting" it, but NM-E had become immune. As a fall-back plan, she opted to lead the thing away from the shoppers with a pretended retreat. Unfortunately, the robot could fly faster than she could. Forced to do battle in midair, the newby ultra hacked at the mechanism with the Sword of Fangs, but to no good effect. Its mechanism was able to repair itself almost as quickly as it took damage. Lauren next phased into the ghost plane to get a breather, but NM-E changed its density likewise and came after her. While fending it off, Lauren was struck a glancing blow and dropped toward earth like a stone.

Hearing all this, I shook my head. NM-E had been a menace to the ultras of the world for years, and I never heard of anyone putting it out of action except once, when Hardcase and Prime worked against it together. Now, in the future, it would be able to move through walls, avoid blows, and be harder than ever to defeat.

“I fell through the mall roof and crashed onto a pile of boxed toys,” the teenager went on. “They had a lot of air packed inside them, so I lucked out.” She suddenly quieted. If it was dawning on her that she could have died from such a fall, she was right on target!

“Do you need a minute?” I asked.

“No. I'm okay. After I hit the toys, I was lying there, alive but bruised, cut, and aching. That's when that Wrath guy charged in and attacked the robot. He was trying to save my life, I guess. But with my body full of magic, I heal fast and I was able to get on my feet to lend him a hand, but he was already badly hurt. I didn't want to be responsible for anyone's death, so I decided to command the solid earth the way I can command water. I used the concrete layer of the parking lot make like an anaconda. I wanted to crush NM-E, but it was a hard nut to crack. It looked like it would slip away, so I started punching with cement fists. The robo must have been taking a lot of damage from that, because it shot out there like a rocket.”

“The newspapers didn't say that anyone was killed. Is that right?”


“As far as I known,” she agreed. “I think Wrath came closest to chalking out”


“Then you did a good job, gal,” I told her. I could have said a lot more, but didn't want to give her a swollen head. Overconfidence in battle might kill her. All her battles over the weekend would have been hard ones even for me. And I have to say she did a lot better against Gus than I had. Lauren had turned out to be a dogged and creative fighter, but the daring she had shown and the risks she had taken were crazy. I think she was surviving on beginner's luck. The girl could easily have lost any one of those battles and died.


"Right after NM-E took off, you showed up, Eden," Lauren said.

"Yeah? Where had I been up to then?"

"I'm not sure. You were pretending not to know me and tried to make it look like you were trying to arrest me. I took off, and ghosted myself when her men started shooting at me. Once out of sight, I switched back into my street clothes and joined Mom on the other side of the mall. I was super-draggy by then and fell asleep at the supper table. Dad actually had to carry me to bed."

I shook my head. “Lauren, I have to warn you. Even with magic powers, you're going to get killed if you go on this way. You can win a hundred battles, but losing just one can end you.”

“That goes with being an ultra, doesn't it? Isn't that the risk you've been taking for years?”

“Yes, but you don't have to live a life like mine.”

“I know. But dying for something that's right makes the life you've lived worth something, doesn't it?

“Try to sell your life dearly. You're totally untrained for battle. The good guys don't always win. Have you ever seen a military graveyard? You don't don't know what you're asking for. By accident or by a wrong thought, I've found myself on different planets in a blink of the eye!” I could also have told her that, even being careful, I had died hundreds of times. To her, Eden Blake was just a working mom and suburban housewife who had suddenly gotten powers, just as she had. I didn't want to make the truth common currency. “Anyway, I don't think your life could ever be without worth, no matter how you choose to live it,” I concluded.

“Oh, Eden, that's sounds like the sort of thing that grownups are always telling kids.”

“That doesn't make it untrue,” I assured her.

I let the matter go and asked Lauren an array of follow-up questions, sounding her out for details that would look good in a field-operation report. By the time that the interview was over, I was fully satisfied that Aladdin had brought the robot to the mall and set it lose. What, exactly, had they been trying to accomplish? I thought I could guess. Odds-on, their plan was to manipulate some ultra's sense of civic responsibility by menacing a crowd of innocent people. When he stepped in to save them, they'd be prepared to swoop down and snare him. The black ops organization had been imprisoning ultras for years, examining their captives to learn where their powers came from, and trying to brainwash them into become obedient little drones.

Deep State, thy name is Aladdin.

"When does the glamorous stuff in an ultra's life get started?" my young friend interjected.

"What are you talking apart? There's no glamorous part."

“That's cynical. Look at what a lionized hero Hardcase is.”

“I doubt that praise and cheers means much to Hardcase. He's a man who carries around a lot of hurt. The stuff about being on television, about awards, about newspaper and magazine stories, about celebrity interviews, and fan clubs, that's just the illusion. It's a meal of straw. If its a decent and praiseworthy life that you want, I recommend plumbing.”

“I'm not so sure about that.”

“Then if you don't like getting your knees wet, start a flower shop. But do something safer than disaster-prevention and crime-fighting before it's too late.”

“I'd love what ultras do, except for all the pain and fear that goes with it. Isn't it a good thing to protect people?”

"I shouldn't be the one to talk, but protecting people is a career with a high casualty rate. I'm just saying, look before you leap. Innocents will be caught in the crossfire; friends will die around you. Ultras have been crippled, their lives ruined. Remember the first Prototype, who lost an arm? Because of NM-E, Starfire has lain in a coma for years. What's the upside to it all? Getting your picture on a trading card?”

“If you can help people, why can't I?” she asked.

“Even if you have powers, there are so many safer ways to help people.”

Her tone told me that she wasn't agreeing. “I think a lot of folks could have died at the Mall if I hadn't been there. If I hadn't been willing to fight on Friday night, you'd be dead, too. The Mantra fan club would still be doing the wandering monster thing, probably. Think what harm could Gus have caused if he'd been running around the town for all this time?”

“Sometimes we do things that don't really need to be done. I once visited a world like ours that never had had a Mantra in it. Even so, it wasn't much different than our world, except in unimportant ways. That experience taught me that the world has a way of taking care of itself. Taking too many chances leads to short lives.”

When she didn't reply, I continued. “Listen, Lauren, we'd better finish this off quickly. I have a few more questions about Friday night, and I don't want to keep you up too late."

"Yeah, you're right, Eden. I have school tomorrow."


#

After Lauren and I had said our goodbyes, I looked back at Pinnacle, who was at the moment lounging on the couch. "I got a few more details about when Mantra losing her powers," I told her.

The blonde nodded. “I know. I was following the conversation psionically. But there were too many things that your protégé didn't know. We still have to find out what Evie can tell us."

"So, are we done for tonight?"

"You can sleep over if you want to."

"It might be the simplest thing. But I can't lose the feeling that I'm still sitting on square one."

"I wouldn't say that. Even learning where the dead-ends are amounts to progress. For now, getting some rest will be the best thing for you. And if it will cheer up, I've come up with a new idea about how to restore your powers."

“Yeah, what?”

"It was possible that Gus subjected you to some sort of pulse that destroyed the nanites in your tissue. Think of it like an EMP frying electronics. If you've really lost the nanites that allow you to access dormant abilities within your junk DNA, a cloning might not successfully produce a Mantra-body that's able to channel magical forces better than you're able to channel them now."

"So you're talking about cloning again?"

"That won't be our first recourse, but, if all else fails, it's the last best hope. If we got you a clone body derived from a functioning witch – such as Necromantra or Lauren – you might be home free. Or would you prefer to be a male sorcerer the next time around?"

I looked away. Her question was one that struck at the very heart of the matter. “I have two reasons that I've wanted to stay with Eden Blake's body,” I told her. “First, she asked me to take care of her family. But it isn't an onerous task. If a person has a shred of decency inside, having children makes him want to be a better person. Secondly, I liked having the kind of magical abilities that Eden had. If I went home looking like Necromantra or Lauren, I'd have no claim to my family. If my family is going to be lost to me no matter what I do, I might as well go home in a male body. I'd have to start a whole new life, but it would be the sort of life that I'm already used to.

"I see your point."

“But why make a whole body? Why not just take a culture of someone else's nanites, like a doctor takes a culture of someone's antibodies?"

She looked at me. “Very good. I apologize for not appreciating you as a scientific thinker! It might not work, but it's something to experiment with. In the meantime, we'll be watching to see if your own nanites are on the increase. We also have to check you out psychologically; you've shown some negative attitudes toward living the ultra life. When the other Mantra was traumatized on Friday, her own subconscious might have switched the nanites off.”

“Has anyone ever proven that nanites are the key to an ultra's power?”

“Not exactly, but some investigators believe it. The most convincing study concerns Hardcase. Either he was born with nanites, or that pulse from the Entity on the moon put them into his blood and tissue, right?”

“You're asking me?”

She shrugged. “Don't you have files on all the known ultras?”

"Yeah, but a person can't trust what Aladdin puts into its own secret files. What I want to know is how long is the study phase going to take? I can't be waiting for the grass to grow, not with Necromantra out there gunning for me."
 #

Over breakfast, I was trying to make conversation, filling Penny in on what I'd been doing over the summer, telling her about all those times that I was nearly killed. But she wasn't listening.

"You seem preoccupied, Pin."

The blonde sighed. "Cloning facilities are expensive. I built this lab using Las Vegas winnings, but they started banning me. If one casino figures out that a person is a cheat, they'll put him on a blacklist that all the casinos draw from. Even if I wanted to earn money the slow way, by practicing medicine, I don't have the credentials. I'm self-taught. I'm sure I can invent some new technology with a market value, but the required testing, production, and marketing would be time-consuming. To earn money overnight takes criminal activity, I suppose. What about you, Lu? Do you have any resources?"

"Back home, I live from check to check. I've got about $42.00 in my Christmas club account. But at home I could get help from the only billionaire I know, Brandon Tark."

“I see. Our Brandon Tark is an international fugitive these days.”


“Oh, no! So now you've read my mind to make me out a fellow ultra's secret identity?”

“Sorry. I always find out so much more than the basic facts I'm looking for.” Pinnacle stared down into her bacon and eggs, as if studying a logarithmic formula. "If I put my mind to it, I could probably hack into some trillionaire's Cayman Island bank account and suck up a few of his billions for my own use. If his money is dirty enough, he won't even be able to report his losses openly. In fact, I've had a tempting target in mind for a while. The Skragg Global Initiative is all corruption, all the time. I'd love to dip into that.”

"Those people! Go to it, gal, but don't do anything to get yourself into trouble just to help me. I meant to ask you something. We haven't talked much about those celestial energy surges. I can't get them out of my mind. They might be behind whatever happened to Gus, and maybe to me and Lauren."

"I haven't looked into it. I was pretty much out of things on Friday night Are you supposing that these energy waves could have had some sort of trans-dimensional effect, one that swept you out of your own universe into this one?"

"If only it were so easy, but the timing seems wrong. Whatever hit me, it hit me on Thursday, not Friday. Can two universes have different time-lines?"

"Time is a lot trickier than people used to think."

"I only know enough science to get along," I admitted. "I just hope that our two worlds are very different. I'd hate to think of my Gus ever suffering the things that the Gus Blake of this planet has gone through."

The scientist shook her head. "Well, first things first. We need to get the full story about Friday night from Evie. You ought to bring her over as soon as possible.”

"She's awfully fragile, Pin. You'd be asking her to remember the most terrifying night of her life."

Pinnacle grimaced. "It may actually be good for even a child to talk things out. If Evie keeps holding down memories that are too big and strong for her to face openly, they could twist her psyche into knots as the years go by."

We discussed the subject for some while and I finally agreed that Penny should question Evie. But was I being selfish? Would I have given in so easily if the tyke of this world had been my true daughter, and not just her doppleganger?

"I think you'd always try to do the right thing, no matter which world you find yourself in," my companion conjectured.

I looked hard at Penny. "Am I always that easy to read?"

"Not always, but I don't want you holding back. I have to know your psychology in-depth. I wouldn't blame you, though, if you felt reluctant to put your most anguished thoughts into the hands of a nutty professor."

"Aren't you getting past that?" I asked.

She shrugged. "Twelve hours ago, I was still trying to think about nothing except my next liquor delivery. I appreciate you being here; it's made a difference. Concentrating on your misery gets my mind off my own."

“If we move against my misery, how long will it take? I keep getting the feeling that something is very wrong, that time is running out."

"Time for what?"

"I'm not sure. But what if that energy bath that came in from outer space last Friday isn't really over? I think we should talk to Evie before --"

"Before it's too late?"

"That's about the size of it," I confirmed. 


#

I didn't want Mother and Evie to worry, but decided not to call them. It would be remiss of me to wake them up at such an hour. Instead, I slept in Penney's guest room and made the call-in as soon as I woke up, a little after 8:00 A.M. When Evie came on the line, I told her that I was fine and would be seeing her and her grandma soon. Before we went out, Penny gave me her cellphone number. Then we drove back to the motel. She let me know that she'd be shopping nearby until I phoned in for a pick up.

When I told Mother that Dr. Lammers might be a good choice to treat Evie for fear trauma, she launched into an argument.

"Are you sure that your friend isn't just angling to collect two fees instead of just one?" she asked pointedly.

"Mom," I said, "how can you be so suspicious? We can't leave Evie the way she is. Taking her to a psychologist is something that I've felt forced to put off until we got settled into San Francisco. But now that we're here, I don't want to wait any longer. My federal health insurance at the C.I.A covers psychiatric care for dependent minors, so money isn't a factor."

Her lips puckered with self-assurance. "I wasn't thinking about money, Eden, but I'm glad that you're keeping your mind on the practical things. By the way, how did your talk go last night? Are you remembering anything?"

"No, not really. There'll be a lot of tests and psychological profiles. The doctor says that my memories could slowly come back by themselves. Or they could return all at once."

"Hmm. She's got herself covered both ways."

"Mother, do you know of some other psychiatrist that you trust more than Penny?"

"Thankfully, no. I've never needed one. I do watch Dr. Rasmussen's TV show now and then...."

"Mom" had a contrary streak -- that was for sure. I have sometimes wondered why she and Eden grate on each other the way they did. Was it that, deep down, something was telling her that I wasn't the daughter she knew? Had she treated the real Eden differently? At least Mrs. Freeman consistently showed a better side to Gus and Evie.

Evie was dressed for going out by this time and I phoned Penny to come and get us. Hopefully, Barbara Freeman would appreciate having the family vehicle to herself for exploring the city. Dr. Lammers, when she arrived, greeted the little girl with a professional charm that seemed to put her more at ease.

Once we were comforatable at Pinnacle's apartment, she showed us to a love seat. It kept Evie and I so close together that I could sit with my arm around her.

Our hostess next drew up a chair for herself. "Evie," Penelope began, "let's hold hands, and then I want you to look right into my eyes."

"Are you gonna hippytize me?" the tyke asked warily.

"Something like that," Penny replied, holding back a smile. "You're not nervous, are you, not with your mommy right beside you?"

"I guess not."

"That's a good girl. Okay Evie, take a deep breath, relax, and let me look into those pretty blue eyes of yours."

I thought I felt the backwash of powerful brainwaves being projecting into Evie's mind, soothing, calming. I could sense the tension going out of the tyke. Then Penny started speaking, softly and slowly: "Evie, you're drifting off to sleep, but you'll be able to hear your mommy and me asking you questions. You'll be able to talk just as if you were still awake. This a good kind of sleep. You won't be afraid of anything at all. You'll be able to think about the most ugly Halloween mask or the creepiest monster movie that you e
ver saw without being scared. Relax, relax, relax. You're completely asleep now, Evie. Tell me how you feel."

"I feel good."

"Excellent. First, tell me, do you know that your mom has lost some of her memories?"

"Yeah. I know," answered Evie, her voice clear but soft.

"If you could help her remember some of what she's forgotten, wouldn't that be nice?"

"Uh-huh."

Pinnacle looked at me just then. "Okay, Eden. I think she's ready. It will be for the best if you did most of the talking."

I nodded, bent my head, and kissed the youngster on the top of her head before beginning my interview.

"Evie, I want you to tell me all about what happened last Friday night. Begin the story just before any bad things started to happen. You don't feel scared, do you?"

She regarded my face with soft, dreamy eyes. "No, Mommy. I don't feel scared."

"That's my brave little pumpkin. Okay, tell us in your own words what happened. You don't have to be in a hurry. Just do the best you can. What happened after I got home from work?"

Evie took a deep breath and started talking about what she remembered. "When you got home I was playing Mantra with Mr. Paws."

Mr. Paws, I knew, was Evie's favorite toy, her teddy bear. I had seen her fondly clutching it in our motel room. How odd it seemed that such a small detail could be duplicated in another reality, while so many great differences existed.

"I was being Mantra, an' Mr. Paws was pretending to be me," the little girl explained. "I was telling him about how I'd turned into Mantra right after breakfast so I could go out and spent the whole day saving people. Mr. Paws got really excited and wanted to hear all about it. That's when you came in. I told you that Grandma had to leave a little early 'cuz she was having dinner with some nice old man."

I bit my lip. Back on my own world, Barbara Freeman had told me Wednesday evening that she'd only be able to baby-sit until six-thirty on Friday night because some retired gent named Mr. Finch had asked her out. Maybe the two worlds weren't all that different -- and that worried me.

"That's when we heard Gus yelling and throwing things at the wall," continued Evie. "You an' me went to his room see what was wrong. Gus's face was red, he was so mad. He said that Daddy'd called and said he couldn't take him to the ball game, even though he'd promised. Gus started using naughty language about Daddy and you said he shouldn't say such things. That made him even madder and so... he did something really awful!"

I noticed how she had emphasized the word “awful,” I squeezed her hand. "What did he do, Button? I quietly braced myself, prepared to hear something that could be extremely bad.

TO BE CONTINUED