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The Last Watch (Watch 4) - Page 5

THERE'S NOTHING MORE absurd than to arrive in a new city and spend your time in a hotel room. That's okay for the red-hot after noon of the Spanish siesta. Or for newly-weds on honeymoon, when the size of the bed is far more important than the view out of the window.

But then, Valeria was caught in a hopeless situation. The police had told her not to leave the city. And she simply didn't have the strength to go out into that crowd of merrymakers, that swirling mass of tourists.

She opened the door immediately, as if she had been waiting just behind it. Although, of course, no one could have warned her, since I'd walked past the receptionist under the protection of a Circle of Inattention.

The girl was wearing nothing but shorts and a bra. Well yes, it was quite hot, of course. Even the good hotels here didn't have air-conditioning, the climate didn't really require it. As I said, it was quite hot - especially if you were drinking.

'Yes?' Lera challenged me drunkenly.

Her black hair was styled in a square cut. She was attractive, thin, quite tall.

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One of her hands was on the handle of the open bathroom door. I had arrived just as she was on her way to the toilet.

'Hello, Lera,' I said politely. I wasn't exactly looking super-respectable, just shorts and a T-shirt, but I still chose the 'representative-of-the-authorities' tone of voice. 'Can I come in?'

'Why not?' Lera asked in surprise. 'Come...' She hiccupped. 'Come on through. Only ... I'll just be a moment.'

She went into the bathroom without even bothering to lock the door behind her. I shook my head, walked past the unmade bed and sat in an armchair by the window. It was a small room, quite comfortable in a formal sort of way. There was a bottle of Glenlivet whisky on the coffee table. It was more than half empty. Glancing at the door of the bathroom I sent a simple spell in Lera's direction.

I heard the sound of coughing in the bathroom.

'Need any help, Lera?' I asked, pouring myself two fingers of whisky.

Lera didn't answer. She was being sick.

I found some cold mineral water in the mini-bar and rinsed out Lera's glass ?it smelled strongly of whisky. Then I poured in a little bit of water and splashed it out straight on to the carpet. And then I poured in more water.

'I'm sorry...' said the girl, as she emerged from the bathroom, looking a lot livelier. 'I ... I'm sorry'

'Have a drink of water, Lera,' I said, holding out the glass.

A good-looking girl. Very young. And with very sad eyes.

'Who are you?' she asked and drained the glass avidly. 'Hell ?my head's splitting.'

She sat down in the other armchair and took her head in her hands.

We'd never be able to make conversation like that.

'Can I help?'

'Do you have any aspirin? Something for a headache...'

'Ancient Chinese massage,' I said, standing up and going round behind her. 'The pain will soon be gone.'

'Oh sure, I believe in massage, all the guys say they can do massage, anything to get their paws on you, . .' Lera began, and then stopped talking the moment my hands started taking away the pain.

Of course, I don't really know how to do massage. But I can disguise healing magic as massage.

'That's really good... you're a magician...' Lera murmured.

'Yes, I am,' I agreed. 'A fully qualified Light Magician.'

Right... stop the blood vessels cramping... draw the alcohol out of the blood... okay, pass it through the kidneys... neutralise the metabolites... balance the serotonin and adrenalin... restore the pH of the blood to normal... okay, and at the same time we'll reduce the output of hydrochloric acid in the blood...

Of course, I'm nowhere near as good as Svetlana. She could have done all this with a single touch. I laboured away for about three minutes. I had the Power, but I lacked the skill.

'Miracles like that don't happen,' Valeria said nervously. She turned round and looked at me.

'Oh yes, they do,' I said. 'You'll want to go to the toilet now. Don't be embarrassed and don't wait, you'll pass water every fifteen minutes. Until you get all the garbage out of your system... Stop. Wait a moment... '

I looked at her closely. Well, would you believe it...

'Don't drink any more,' I told her. 'Not at all.'

I went to the bathroom to wash my hands. The running water carried away the fatigue from my fingers and the imprint of an aura distorted by suffering. I could have used Power to clean myself, but the old folk methods are still the best.

'Why are you ordering me about?' Lera said darkly when I got back.. 'But thank you, the massage was good... I'll just be a moment!'

I waited for her to come back from the toilet, clearly shocked by the speed and efficiency with which her organism was being purged. Once she had sat down, I explained.

'You're pregnant. You shouldn't drink now.'

'My period is due to start tomorrow,' Lera retorted so furiously that I realised she could sense it. Through sheer feminine intu ition, without any outside help, she had realised she was pregnant. Then she had rejected the idea and started binge-drinking.

'It won't start.'

She didn't argue. She didn't even ask how I knew. Probably she put it down to the wonders of oriental medicine. She asked:

'Why would I want a child without a husband?'

'That's for you to decide,' I said. 'I'm not going to try to persuade you either way'

'Who are you?' Lera finally asked.

'Gorodetsky. Anton Gorodetsky. I'm from Moscow. I ... I was asked to investigate the circumstances of Victor's death.'

Lera sighed and said bitterly:

'Vitya's father using his contacts... What's the point now...'

'To find out the truth.'

'The truth...'The girl poured herself some water and drained the glass in one. Her body was driving her blood through her kidneys at a furious rate, removing the alcohol and its metabolic products. 'Victor was killed by a vampire.'

'Vampires don't exist, Lera.'

'I know. But what do you do when a guy says "There's someone drinking my blood", and then they find him with a bite mark on his throat and no blood left in his body?'

There was a subtle note of hysteria in her voice.

'I checked the channel that the boat was sailing in,' I said.

'There's blood in it. A lot of blood. Calm down, Lera. Vampires really don't exist. Someone killed your friend. He bled to death. That's terrible, it's cruel, but vampires don't exist.'

She said nothing for about a minute. Then she asked:

'Why didn't the police tell me that?'

'They have their reasons. They're afraid of leaks of information. Perhaps they even suspect you of something.'

That didn't frighten her at all - in fact, it seemed to make her angry.

'The bastards. I can't get to sleep, I get sloshed on whisky in the evenings. Yesterday I almost dragged some guy into bed... I'm afraid to be alone, understand? Afraid. And they don't tell me anything... Excuse me, I'll just be a moment.'

I waited for her to come back from the toilet, then said:

'I must have overdone it a bit with the massage. But I'm not a professional, I've just picked up a few moves.'

'The things they teach your crowd,' Lera said, and I realised she was as certain that I worked for the KGB as the young Frenchman in the Dungeons had been. We're all children of mass culture. We all believe in its cliches. You don't even need any documents if you behave like a secret agent in an action movie.

'Lera, I want to ask you to make an effort to recall all the circumstances of Victor's death,' I said. 'I know you've said it all over and over again. But please try.'

'We got into that stupid boat,' Lera began. 'I almost fell over, it was a very awkward step down, a long way, and I couldn't see the bottom of the boat in the darkness.'

'Tell me everything from the very beginning. Start from the moment when you got up that morning. Every detail.'

Lera's eyes glinted mischievously.

'Well... we woke up at ten, we missed breakfast. Then we had sex. Then we went into the shower, and we got a bit carried away in there...'

I nodded and smiled benevolently as I listened to the girl's story, which really did include all the details. And when she broke into tears, I waited for a few minutes without saying anything. The tears stopped and Lera shook her head. She looked into my eyes.

'We went into a pub, the Oak and Ribbon, and had some thing to eat. We drank a pint of beer each. It was hot, and then we saw the sign for that damned tourist show. Victor thought it would be interesting. Or at least that it would be cool inside. So we went in.'

Nothing. Not a single clue. I realised that Lera had been ques tioned by professionals before me: they had drained her, forced her to remember, asked the same questions ten times. What else could she possibly remember out of the blue now?

She started describing the boat again, the awkward step down into it, and I raised my hand.

'Stop there, Lera. That mirror maze ?you said it was the most interesting thing. Didn't anything odd happen in there?'

I didn't know why I'd asked that question. Perhaps because I was still thinking about Egor. Perhaps I'd remembered the old wives' tale that vampires have no reflections in mirrors.

'In the hall of mirrors...' Lera knitted her brows. 'Ah! There was something. Victor started waving to someone. As if he'd seen someone he knew. Afterwards he said he must have imagined it.'

'How about you, Lera? Did you see anybody you knew?'

She shook her head.

'No. There are mirrors on all sides in there. You really get lost among all those faces, all those people. And it gets a bit annoying after a while ... I tried not to look.'

'Can't you even make a guess at who he might have seen?'

'Could that be important?' Lera asked seriously.

'Yes,' I replied with no hesitation.

It was very important. It was a clear clue. If there was a vampire in the Dungeons and he was diverting people's eyes, he could have been seen in the room of mirrors. And Victor hadn't just seen someone ?he had recognised him.

So what was dangerous about being recognised? Someone had gone into the Dungeons ?what of it? Why had the vampire panicked and killed the unsuspecting student?

I didn't know. Not yet.

'I think Victor thought he had seen a friend of his ... not someone from here,' Lera said after thinking for a moment.'Because he was very surprised. If he'd seen someone from the university, he would have waved to him and shouted "Hi." But he just waved and didn't say anything. You know, the way you do when you're not quite sure if you've seen a friend or made a mistake. And afterwards, when he couldn't find anyone, he really seemed quite upset. And he said it was all nonsense. As if he'd persuaded himself that it couldn't have happened. Anton, did Vitya see his killer?'

'I'm afraid he did,' I said, nodding. 'It's possible that was why he was killed. Thank you. You've been a great help.'

'Should I tell this to the police?' Lera asked.

'Why not? Only, if possible, don't mention that I was here, okay? But you can tell them what you've remembered.'

'Will you tell me if you find the killer?'

'Definitely'

'You're lying,' Lera said, shaking her head. 'You're lying ?you won't tell me anything.'

'I'll send you a postcard,' I said after a pause. 'With a view of Edinburgh. If you get a postcard, it means that Victor has been avenged.'

Lera nodded. I was already at the door when she asked:

'Anton, if I ... What should I do about the child?'

'That's for you to decide. You must understand that nobody else will ever decide anything for you. Not the president, not your boss, not even a kind magician.'

'I'm nineteen,' Lera said in a quiet voice. 'I loved Vitya. But now lie's gone. Twenty years old, with a child and no husband...'

'You have to make up your mind. But please don't drink in any case,' I said.

And I closed the door behind me.

Evening arrived, and I hadn't slept the night before, which had been divided between airports and aeroplanes. I had another coffee and glanced regretfully at the beer pumps: one pint would be enough make me completely dozy now. I phoned Geser and gave him a summary of what I'd found out during the day.

'Look for a vampire in Victors circle of Moscow acquaintances,' Gesar mused thoughtfully. 'Thank you, Anton, all his Moscow contacts have been checked already . . . All right, we'll look a little bit harder. We'll start digging as far back as the kindergarten. What are you going to do now?'

'Go and catch up on my sleep,' I said.

'Any provisional conclusions?'

'There's something going on here, Geser. I don't know what it is, but it's something big.'

'Do you need any help?'

I was about to say no, but then I remembered Semyon.

'Boris Ignatievich, if Semyon isn't too busy...'

'Is he missing Scotland?' Geser chuckled. 'All right, I'll send him over. If he gets a move on you'll meet in the morning. Get some rest.'

I didn't tell Geser anything about Egor. I put my cellphone away, with a quick glance at the charge indicator. Well, well ?the battery was almost full. In Moscow my phone went flat in a single day, even though I didn't talk very much. But abroad, it worked quite happily for a week. Were the pylons here planted closer together, or something?

Now for another part of the job. An unpleasant part.

I took out the carving of the wolf and set in on the table.

Contact, advice, protection?

I grasped the figure with both hands and closed my eyes. Perhaps that wasn't how it worked?

'Zabulon!'

Was that someone's gaze I seemed to sense?

As far as I could recall, Zabulon never responded immediately Not even when his lover called.

'Zabulon!'

'Why are you shouting like that, Gorodetsky?'

I opened my eyes. There was no one there, of course.

'I need some advice, Dark One.'

'Ask.'

It was a good thing that almost no emotion at all is transmitted in this kind of conversation. Zabulon was probably chuckling to himself. A Light One coming to him for help!

'Zabulon, when the Mirror Magician came to you, did you summon him?'

That obviously wasn't the question he'd been expecting.

'The Mirror? Vitaly Rogoza?'

'Yes.'

A pause. No, he knew the answer all right: he was deciding whether to tell the truth or to lie.

'A Mirror cannot be summoned, Light One. They are children of the Twilight.'

'Then what has to happen for a Mirror Magician to appear?'

'One Power has to acquire a significant advantage over the other. And it has to be a sudden imbalance, acquired too quickly The Mirror came because Geser was raising Svetlana's level too rapidly, he brought Olga back into play and... and he rewrote your future daughters destiny to make her the Greatest of the Great.'

'Is it possible to foresee who will be the next Mirror Magician?'

'It is. He is an Other whose own fundamental Power is minimal. He must have no love for the Light or for the Dark. Or, on the contrary, he must love the Light and the Dark. A human being, and an Other, who stands at the fork in the road and makes no distinction between Light and Dark. There are individuals like that, but they are rare. In Moscow there are two of them ?Victor's father and... your little friend Egor. But then, he's already grown up now, isn't he?'

'Why did Rogoza come from Ukraine?'

'Because we're not the ones who decide who's going to be a Mirror. I was rather hoping that he would show up, but nobody ever knows anything in advance. A Mirror Magician might come, or he might not. He can appear straight away, or he can take days, even months, to reach the place where the equilibrium has been disrupted. Have I satisfied your curiosity?'

'Yes.'

'Then I expect a courtesy in return. Who killed Victor? And what have Mirror Magicians got to do with it?'

'You won't like this information, Zabulon. I think that Victor was killed in order to discredit the Scottish Night Watch. They own the tourist attraction. And as for the Mirror ... I'm afraid that the situation here might be destabilised. So badly that a Mirror Magician will turn up. Are there any candidates for the role in Edinburgh?'

He believed me. At least, I thought he believed me. He answered thoughtfully:

'I don't know. I've never tried to find out.'

'Then that's all for the time being. If you do find out, please let me know, if you would be so kind.'

Without bothering to wait for his mocking chuckle, I opened my hand and cut off the contact. The figurine was gleaming with sweat, which made it seem almost alive.

That was it: time to go back to the hotel. To that cosy deluxe apartment for Light Ones, that kingdom of white and pink and beige, those lace curtains and silk sheets.



My phone jangled.

'Hello?' As I pressed the phone to my ear, I caught the waiter's eye and ran one finger across my open palm, as if I was writing out a bill. The waiter gave a laboured smile, glanced at the soli tary cup standing in front of me and scribbled '?' on a piece of paper.

'Anthony, my friend,' Lermont said in English. That 'Anthony' told me immediately that there was someone there who was not supposed to know that I was Russian. 'How was my employee feeling when you left the Dungeons?'

'Just fine.'

'He's been killed, Anthony. Do you think you could come over?'

I hissed something unprintable and scooped the small change out of my pocket. Right ?the castle was there, the ravine and the bridge were there...

'If I can catch a taxi straight away, I'll be there in five minutes.'

'Make it quick,' Lermont told me.

I found a free taxi immediately ?I didn't need to resort to magic in order to get someone out of a cab that was already occupied. Edinburgh was remarkably good for taxis in general. I got in, took out a cigarette and lit it. The driver looked at me rather disapprov ingly, but didn't say anything. I wound the window all the way down. Of course, his next passengers would be non-smokers...

But I felt like smoking.

Idiot. What an idiot I was! I'd felt alarmed for Egor, concerned lor Valeria... But I hadn't bothered to use my head for what it was really meant for. My visit to the Dungeons had been observed. And now poor Jean, the nervous French student, would never go back home to Nantes...

It was my fault.

But what about Lermont ?closing the place down and only leaving one man on duty to watch it? Not an Other, not a Battle Magician who could fight vampires on equal terms, but a fright ened kid in make-up and fancy dress.

I imagined the young red-headed guy with his face pale from loss of blood instead of make-up, lying there surrounded by those appalling instruments of torture. 'It's a bit creepy here on your own.' And I started swearing wildly under my breath.

I'm a fool, a fool... '

Lermont was waiting for me at the entrance to the Dungeons. He looked dark-faced and angry, the way only a Light One can be angry.

'Let's go,' he said and tramped off without even looking round. We walked quickly through a string of empty rooms and came out at the River of Blood. This place again?

But Foma got into the boat without saying a word. I followed him in. He waved his hand, the mechanism creaked, and the boat moved forward.

'Haven't you called the police yet?' I asked.

'Not yet. Only our own people ?and observers from the Dark Ones.'

'Where are they?

'I asked them to wait a few rooms away. I said I wanted to bring in an independent expert to examine the body. An ordin ary human being. No point in anyone knowing about you at this stage...'

The boat crept across the small dark space and docked at the other mooring.

'There,' Foma said morosely.

I clambered out of the boat and followed Foma into the next room, which contained an exhibition of methods of execution. There was a dummy hanging in a noose from the ceiling, and over there on the guillotine ?it wasn't a dummy on the guillo tine. The killer had demonstrated his sense of humour once again.

To cut a man's head off with the sham blade of the fake guil lotine must have taken superhuman strength ?the kind of strength that a vampire has, for instance.

The white plastic bucket under the guillotine was half full with blood. The severed head was lying beside it. I squatted and picked the head up cautiously. I felt like screaming at the helpless aware ness of my own stupidity.

'I wish I knew what bastard did this,' said Foma. 'That man worked for me for seventeen years.'

'The bastard was a young red-headed guy,' I said. 'He pretended to be French and spoke with a slight accent. He looked twenty years old. And he had a liking for theatrical effects. Very quick witted, a remarkable actor.'

Carefully laying the severed head back down on the floor, I looked at Lermont's dumbfounded face and explained.

'He made a total fool of me. I was talking to the killer only two steps away from the body. And I didn't suspect a thing. Not a thing!'

The head of the murdered guard ?black-haired, but with a sprinkling of grey quite appropriate for a man over fifty ?stared up blindly at me from the floor.

'You can only mask your true nature from someone who's very weak,' said Lermont, drilling into me with his mistrustful eyes. 'That's axiomatic. Try to define my aura.'

A strange conversation over a dead man whose head has been severed. A strange place, a strange crime, strange conversations...

Lermont's aura ?a blaze of bright yellow-green discharges, a prickly hedgehog of Power ?dimmed. The pointed discharges were drawn in and faded. A few seconds later Lermont was surrounded by the smooth multilayered aura typical of a human being.

A ragged open aura is a sure sign of an Other. It can have sharp needles and prickles, swirling vortices, gaping holes. All these are indications of an open-energy pattern and the ability to absorb energy, not just give it out like human beings. To absorb, process and perform miracles.

A human aura is smooth, multilayered, integrated. People only give out Power, they don't absorb it. And the smooth membrane of their aura is an attempt to protect themselves, to halt the slow, implacable draining away of life.

Yes, now Lermont looked like a human being.

Almost like a human being...

I looked a bit more carefully and saw the pale needles of his aura. Foma had disguised himself very well, but I had broken through his defence

'I see it,' I said, 'but I didn't look at that young guy so care fully. He could have masked himself

'In that case, your red-headed companion is a Higher Vampire. Or a Higher Magician pretending to be a vampire.' Foma nodded in satisfaction. 'And he was not able to put on a mask while disguising his aura at the same time. This is good, Anton, this is already good. We know his physical appearance: young, red-haired ?there aren't all that many Higher Others in the world.'

'He must have got the cloak from somewhere here,' I said. 'And the false fangs. He heard me coming and instead of running away he came out calmly to meet me ?and invented a cover story on the spot.'

'I think I can guess why he needed the cloak,' Foma said gloomily, glancing at the blood-spattered floor. 'He must have got blood on himself... Send me his image, Anton.'

I closed my eyes and tried to remember the Frenchman as clearly as possible. Then I sent the mental picture to Lermont.

'Aha,' said the Scot. 'Excellent. I'll check out all the files.'

'Perhaps we ought to inform the Inquisition?' I asked.

Lermont shook his head.

'No, not yet. The events have not exceeded the limits of a crime committed by a solitary Dark One. The Day Watch of Edinburgh has not lodged any protests. We'll manage without the Inquisition, Anton. For as long as we can.'

I didn't argue. There's not much fun in calling the Inquisition in to help.

'Is my help still required here?'

'No - go and catch up on your sleep,' said Lermont. 'We won't inform the police: this is purely our business. My lads will try to find some clues, and I'll start checking the Higher Others.'

He grunted as he bent down over the severed head, as if he was hoping to spot some kind of clues carelessly left by the crim inal. Lermont could do with losing that belly.

'Foma,' I asked in a quiet voice. 'What is there in here, in the Dungeons of Scotland?'

'Eh?' he asked without even turning round.

'What are the Dark Ones looking for here?'

'It's a tourist attraction, Mr Gorodetsky,' Foma said coolly. 'Just that, and nothing more.'

'Well, all right,' I said and left.

The killer had not needed to come back. If he had left any clues, they would already have been found - both the ordinary ones and the magic ones.

But he had come back and killed again. In order to anger the Night Watch even more? Nonsense. In order to put pressure on Lermont? Total nonsense.

So there was something he hadn't managed to do the first time around. And he had had to come back again.

What could Lermont be hiding? This place wasn't as straight-forward as it seemed. For example, the blue moss didn't grow here. That was already a significant anomaly. The structure of the Twilight is heterogeneous. For instance, in some places it is harder to enter than in others. I had even heard about zones where it is quite impossible to enter the Twilight. But the blue moss was a universal parasite...

I walked about a hundred metres away from the place and looked through the Twilight.

Aha.

Where I was standing, the moss was flourishing. There were thick garlands of it outside the pubs and cafes. It was thicker on the houses where people lived and thinner on the offices and shops. And there was more moss on the crossroads, where drivers get nervous.

All perfectly normal.

But when I looked towards the bridge, the closer to the entrance to the Dungeons, the more blue moss there was! It was drawn in that direction... And no wonder! The moss got thicker and thicker and then suddenly, ten metres from the doors, it started to dry up, as if it had hit some invisible boundary line.

Strange. If there was some factor that was harmful to the moss, it ought to have thinned out gradually. This had to be something else...

I reached out one hand to the closest colony of moss ?a luxur iant blue clump on the asphalt. I said:

'Burn!'

The Power flowed through me, only I held back the pressure. The moss didn't burn up immediately. It swelled up and started growing, trying to process this free dose of energy. But the Power increased, and the moss couldn't cope. It started turning grey and drying up ... and finally it burst into flames.

Now I could see it. When you know exactly what to look for, everything becomes extremely clear.

The Power scattered through space, the vital energy given out by human beings, drained into the twilight unevenly. Yes, it constantly seeped through the fabric of the universe, down to the first level, the second, the third... but somewhere in the region of the Dungeons there was a gaping hole ?and there was a constant stream of Power gushing down into it. As if someone had cut a hole in a piece of cloth through which water normally filtered slowly...

Too much food for a brainless parasite. The moss crept towards the tourist attraction, attracted by both the stream of Power and the emotions of the frightened customers. It crept up close ?and then dried up.

I thought I could understand why Foma Lermont had chosen this precise spot to open his attraction. All this energy flowing into one place had to be concealed from rank-and-file Others. The excessive free Power here could be attributed to tipsy tourists, frightened children, the endless carnival that was Edinburgh...

I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that Foma had put a lot of effort into popularising Edinburgh for just one reason: to conceal this spot.

Even Light Ones sometimes have dark secrets. It can't be helped.

I walked slowly uphill along one of the streets leading to the Royal Mile. It wasn't a very touristy kind of street. Dark, with the only light coming from the windows. All the shops on it were closed. But it had to lead straight to my hotel. I was feeling desperately sleepy. Maybe I ought to take a taxi after all? But it was only a ten-minute walk...

I turned in to a narrow street between the houses and found myself in something between a small square and a large court yard. I walked over to a small monument, only one metre high, in the roadway. There was a bronze parrot sitting on a stone chalice with a thin stream of water flowing from it ?it was either an undersized street fountain or a drinking-water fountain. Lighting my cigarette lighter to examine the plaque below the parrot, I learned that this fountain had been erected by the inhabitants of the city in memory of a beloved parrot who had died of pneu monia at a very advanced age...

Something clicked behind me and I felt a powerful jolt in my shoulder. So powerful that I had to take several steps forward to avoid falling face down in the chalice of water.

Something hot trickled down my back

What the hell?

There was another click and something ricocheted loudly off the bronze bird. The hot bullet hissed as it fell into the water, finally convincing me that I had almost been killed beside the parrot fountain.

Someone was shooting at me!

At me, an Other!

A Higher Magician.

Who could destroy palaces and raise up cities with a wave of my hand!

Well, all right, the cities are a bit of an exaggeration ?breaking down is always easier than raising up.

Squirming in my hiding place behind the fountain, I looked hard into the darkness. No one. Okay, how about through the Twilight?

The result astounded me.

The shots had clearly come from the side street next to the one that had led me to the fountain. But I couldn't see anyone, either human or Other!

At least it was only a flesh wound. The bullet had passed straight through the soft tissues. I had stopped the bleeding in a reflex response, within a second. Now I could recall a couple of good healing spells to knit the damaged muscles back together.

Another shot ?the bullet passed over the top of my head and a wave of heat tousled my hair. The soft sound suggested that the gun must have a silencer. The fact that they hadn't killed me yet suggested that they were firing from a pistol, and firing very well, or from a sniper's rifle, and extremely badly.

But why couldn't I see the gunman?

I waved my hand and spread a five-minute Morpheus spell over the entire street. Then, after a moment's hesitation, I spread it across all the windows. And the roofs of the buildings, and the nearby side streets. Morpheus is a gentle spell, it gives a man about five seconds before it puts him out altogether: if he's standing, he can sit down, mothers holding children can put them down, drivers can slow down. There wouldn't be any casualties. Or probably not.

Silence.

Had I got him?

I got up and looked through the Twilight again. Well now, whoever you might be, if you've fallen asleep, your camouflage will fail?

A click. A faint flash in the side street. And another bullet went flying into my poor right shoulder! In exactly the same spot!

Well, I could take some comfort in the fact that I already had a wound there in any case. But it was really painful! Why did it hurt so badly if there was already a hole there?

I squatted down so that the fountain shielded me from the gunman. Now there was no doubt that the shots really were coming from the side street.

What was I going to do? Hurl fireballs into the darkness and try to get the camouflaged gunman that way? Scorch everything around me with the White Mirage? Put on a Magician's Shield and go into open battle... but if I couldn't see my enemy, then I was facing a magician more powerful than I was!

Or call for help, ring the police, call in Geser and Foma?

Stop.

It didn't have to be Geser and Foma.

What was that Zabulon had said? Contact, advice, protection?

A bit of protection wouldn't come amiss right now.

I took the little figure out of my pocket and set it down on the cobblestones of the roadway. I touched it gently with Power and shouted:

'I! Need! Help!'

It all happened in a split second. The air struck my face so hard that for a moment I thought the invisible gunman had switched to grenades, But it was the figure being transformed ?swelling up and softening and turning into a shaggy grey shadow. White fangs glinted in the darkness, yellow wolf's eyes glittered, and the werewolf leapt straight over the fountain, then immediately jumped to the right. There was the click of a shot, but obviously it missed. Skipping from side to side as precisely as only a creature that is targeted by gunfire can, the beast went dashing into the side street. I heard growling, then there was a rumble and a metallic clang. The clicks of the shots carried on sounding in the same way, at regular intervals of a second or two, but something told me the bullets were going astray, and the gunman was not dangerous any more.

I jumped up and ran after the wolf, covering myself with a Shield just in case. And I finally did what it would have been a very good idea to have done in the first place: I created light. A simple spell that any Light Magician can manage. An appeal to the primordial Power ?and there was a bright white light swaying in the air above me.

And I immediately saw the one who had nearly killed me. The one who had not been visible in the Twilight.

A fancy metal tripod similar to a professional stand for a video camera. Standing on a rotating disc on the tripod ?a cylinder with gleaming lenses. Attached to the disc by a spring-recoil clamp ?a short rifle with a round magazine like that of the old Soviet PPSh and a long ridged silencer on the barrel. A metal-clad cable ran up to the trigger, ending in a clamp with a wire that ran round the trigger.

The robot was still functioning. The cylinder was twitching with a quiet buzzing sound, the clamp was pressing the trigger ?and the rifle, now pointing upwards, was firing into the sky. I leaned down, feeling the blood flowing over my shoulder. I put my good hand on the cylinder. On the side I found a little lid with an inscription in Chinese characters ?'Shooter I' ?followed by a number:'285590607'. Below the hieroglyphs a round, smiling child's face was sketched in a few simple lines.

Humorists.

I prised open the little lid with my fingernail and turned the power switch to 'off'.

'Shooter I' gave a quiet whir of its servomotors and then fell silent.

'Greetings from the Heavenly Kingdom,' I said and sat down beside the robot. I looked at the short rod of the aerial, protruding from the cylinder. Yes, the real gunman could be absolutely anywhere. I had been fighting a robot.

And it was very lucky for me that its sights had been slightly off-centre.

'Would you believe it?' I said, examining the robot. 'What are we going to do about this sort of thing? Start inventing spells against technology?'

The wolf walked out of the darkness. He sat down facing me and started licking his paw. I couldn't see any wound ?he had probably burned himself on the hot gun barrel when he knocked the tripod over.

'If Martian tripods had fleas, they'd look like this,' I said to the wolf. 'Have you read War of the Worlds?

At first I didn't think he would answer. Not all werewolves are capable of speech when they change into animal form. But the wolf looked up at me gravely and barked:

' On-ly-seen-the-mo-vie.'

'Then you know what I mean,' I said. 'Thanks.'

'Lick-the-wound.'

'I'm no shape-shifter to go licking my wounds...' I said, pressing my palm to my right shoulder and concentrating. I felt sick and the pain pulsed in my hand. A gun wound is a nasty business. Even for a magician. Sveta, now - she'd have healed me in a couple of minutes...

'Whose-tail-have-you-stepped-on?' Words were coming more easily to the werewolf now. 'The-Ei-ffel-Tow-er s?'

I didn't realise immediately that he was joking. I shook my head.

'I see you're as witty as Petrosian. Thanks for your help. Were you hurt?'

'My-paw,' the wolf said indistinctly, starting to lick himself again. 'The-ma-chine-burned-it.'

'Change to human form and I'll heal it,' I said, standing up. I wasn't bleeding any more. Casting a camouflage spell on the disabled tripod (everyone would see something quite ordinary and un interesting in its place), I put it under my left arm. It was heavy, with a strong smell of hot metal, sour gunpowder smoke and something oily. But I'd have to carry it, I couldn't just leave a weapon lying in the centre of the city.

'La-ter,' the wolf said evasively. 'In-a-safe-place. Where-are-you-stay-ing?'

'In a hotel. You'll like it. Let's go. Only stay by my leg all the way and try to look like a good dog.'

The wolf growled, but then immediately hid his fangs. He wasn't really such a big beast. In the darkness he could pass for an Alsatian.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting that to be the end of the day's unpleasantness. But we reached the hotel with no problems. There was a new receptionist looking bored behind the counter, but he didn't ask any questions: he'd obviously been given instructions and guidance about me. He gave the werewolf a curious look, but didn't make any comment about him either. I walked up to the desk and said:

'The key to the Dark suite upstairs, please.'

The receptionist didn't argue, but he did enquire:

'Could you not spend the night in a single suite?'

'I have an allergy to animal hair,' I replied.

I could hear voices and glasses clinking in the restaurant. Guests relaxing. But I didn't really feel like joining in a party at which a Bloody Mary was the most popular drink, and its name was taken quite literally.

Source: www.NovelCorner.com
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