“You can’t go back there!” the waiter cried. I brushed him off and swept into the kitchen. Hollister’s notepad said something about a short-order cook, after all.

I’d barely taken three steps in the kitchen when a green flash of something wrapped itself around my neck, just tight enough to be uncomfortable. “Didn’t you hear him? The kitchen’s employees only, hun.”

The short order cook, as it happened, was a Cantonese Wyrm–a younger one, probably less than two hundred years old, but still large enough for her front end to be working a wok while her back legs washed dishes in the kitchen sink ten feet away. She regarded me with intense yellow eyes, framed by the pink rollers that held her whiskers up and away from the food under a hair net.

“I need to speak with you,” I squeaked. “About Hollister.”

“Don’t know nobody by that name, sugar,” said the wyrm. Her rear claws emerged from the suds, each wearing a rubber glove. “But I bet wherever he is, it ain’t my kitchen.”

“He says otherwise.”

“And I say maybe I’ve got a new hunk o’ meat for the dinner rush.”

I had to think quickly. “I think you know that wyrms aren’t on the approved list of foodservice workers,” I said. “Health inspector’s coming on my tip in half an hour. What d’you think he’ll think of that? Let me go and I’ll cancel the call, then we can talk over tea.”

Meediv balked at the suggestion. “We agreed upon our price earlier,” he said.

“Yes, but that was before you delivered the merchandise. You broke the first and oldest rule of the business: don’t deliver the guns and ammunition at the same time.”

Ogaden’s men had surrounded Meediv by this point, holding the assault rifles they had just been sold.

“Take this as a friendly lesson,” Ogaden said, clapping Meediv on the back. “The next time you sell weapons, you won’t make the same mistake thanks to this generous gift. Unless you’d prefer to experience the irony of being shot with your own guns, of course.”

Culbertsen had laid a chain of spells about the summoning circle, which Anya perceived as glittering spiderwebs in the air. Glancing at each filled her mind with images of what snapping that gossamer string would bring, brought into her waking consciousness by the gentle, patient voice of the brooch. One would open up a fissure around the circle; another would call down a discharge from the stormclouds circling overhead. Still another would rouse the dead buried as part of the circle’s construction, murderers all slain in cold blood and buried with silver arming swords.

But Culbertsen hadn’t reckoned with the brooch.

Anya snapped each thread as she crossed it, and the brooch hungrily devoured the magical energy stored within each trap and contingency. Even the circle itself, which would normally present a barrier impassible to all whose blood was not part of its phylactery charm.

Culbertsen turned as Anya penetrated the barrier. The physical component of the summoning was clasped in one hand, but in the other was something wholly unexpected–something against which the brooch had no power: a handgun.

Benedict was seated on an ammo crate, feet up. The tropical sun reflected off his Ray-Bans and the foil highlights on the Metallica shirt that peeked out from under his body armor.

“I don’t get it. The sunglasses, the t-shirt, the sneakers,” Cameron said. “You’re a professional. Why don’t you dress like one?”

“Does it really matter what I wear as long as they’re dead?” said Benedict. Seeing that wasn’t going to satisfy Cameron, he continued. “There are exactly two kinds of fighters out there. Those that’re intimidated by a uniform, and those that aren’t.”

“I…don’t follow.” Cameron said.

“I’m not here to intimidate anyone. You want to pay me for intimidation, fine. I’ll pour myself into a uniform, but it won’t come cheap. Otherwise, it’s better for my peace of mind and your bottom line if you let me dress however I please.” The sneer on Benedict’s face said that he’d given that speech before, and enjoyed it.

Cameron swallowed. “Point taken.”

“You think Lassiter’s out there wearing some itchy uniform instead of fighting comfortably?” Benedict said. He picked up a nearby magazine and began filling it with 9mm rounds. “Not bloody likely.”

A cigarette flared to life between her fingers. Technically smoking wasn’t allowed anywhere on school grounds, not even on the loading dock. Then again, the rock keeping the battered door to the teachers’ lounge open wasn’t technically kosher either, and it had been placed there by the principal.

Gene lit his own coffin nail after Weatherby proffered her lighter. “Not exactly being a role model for all the kids, are we?” he said.

“You know damn well they’d smoke whether we did or not. It’s all they have to tide them over before dope and meth, after all,” Weatherby sighed.

“I can see that the beginning of a new school year has you nice and uplifted,” Gene countered.

“Seeing the new wave of children come in…all so young, all so beautiful,” said Weatherby. She coughed. “And then looking at myself–never beautiful, no longer young–frankly, I can’t think of anything so depressing. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little grumpy, Mr. Ulrich.”

Gene fiddled with his cigarette, unsure of how to respond. He’d been warned about Weatherby, but he also had to get along with her if he intended to continue smoking out back. “There’s always what you teach,” he said. “Advancing the state of knowledge ought to count for something.”

“You’re an art teacher, Mr. Ulrich,” said Weatherby. “You get to talk to the children about finding their inner voice, expressing themselves, following their dreams. I teach mathematics. I doubt even a Harvard statistician had youthful dreams of solving equations all day.”

“The kids still make mistakes, even in my class,” said Gene. He flicked his ashes into the football helmet-cum-ashtray provided by Hanretty in Phys Ed.

“When your children make mistakes, it’s cute. It may even be modern art. But when my children make mistakes, they’re just mistakes. I get to mark with red ink because no new school of mathematics was ever founded by someone who thought two plus two equals twenty-two.”

“It’s all about possibilities,” Gerald said. “Most people can’t see the possibilities in their daily lives. They’re acted upon instead of acting.”

“Sure, yeah,” Mindy said. “People who are acted on, they’re the real villains.” She wasn’t about to argue with the man who had a loaded gun.

“Take this book,” Gerald continued, sweeping a battered Harlequin off the table. “Dime a dozen at any garage sale. Hundreds come out every month. But think about it for a second.”

It was very pink–that’s all Mindy’s fear-addled mind could perceive. The pink of freshly-shed blood sinking into an immaculate white carpet…

“Imagine all the steps that they had to go through to get this terrible thing published. Someone had to write it. Someone had to proofread it. Someone had to sell if. Someone had to bind it. Almost anyone off the street could do the same, and better. But they don’t. ‘Priss McClachty’ is the one with the fat royalty check in her bank account. Why is that?”

“Because she acts,” Mindy whispered. “And isn’t acted upon.” Someone should have been there by now. Did they not get the message? Had her code been too subtle?

“Now you’re on the trolley,” Gerald said. “Let’s see what’s at the end of the track.”

Things had a funny way of happening in town, and this was as good an example as any you’re likely to find.

“Slim” Whitemore, a local stockyard worker, was out leaning on the local Greyhound bus building. He’d just gotten what was left of his paycheck after alimony and garnishments and was nursing a forty in a plain paper sack as local statutes demanded. Thing is, he was wearing a plaid shirt and jeans he’d bought secondhand–not unlike the outfit favored by one Davis Cunningham, especially when you throw in the John Deere cap and long afternoon shadows.

The brother of Davis’ ex-wife happened to be passing by on the other side of the street, and mistook Slim for his erstwhile brother-in-law. This led to some rather uncomplimentary remarks being exchanged. Slim, never a particularly subtle man even when sober, responded in kind. Then he pulled out the .45 revolver he kept for putting down diseased stock at the yard, and things started getting interesting.

A pistol’s not too accurate at that range in the best of circumstances, and tipsy trigger finger doesn’t do much to improve things. Despite emptying all five loaded cylinders, Slim didn’t come close to hitting his target. And if that had been all there was to tell, it might not have gotten any further than that–a story people told when they saw Slim sauntering into Carrie’s Red Dot, maybe.

But Slim and Davis’ ex-brother-in-law weren’t the only people on the square that day.

Hollister had a Sphynx for a secretary; she was filing her long claws–red not from blood but from polish–with an emery board. She glanced up at me through heavy rouge and a delicately coiffed perm.

“I need to see Mr. Hollister at once,” I said, withdrawing the Smith & Wesson from my shoulder holster. “Here’s my heater.”

“I talk, but I do not speak my mind,” she said with a nasal twang–a Brooklyn sphynx. “I hear words, but I do not listen to thoughts. When I wake, all see me. When I sleep, all hear me. Many heads are on my shoulders. Many hands are at my feet. The strongest steel cannot break my visage. But the softest whisper can destroy me. What am I?”

I sighed. Sphynxes love their riddling talk–it’s a cultural thing, I suppose–which is why they’re in such demand as bouncers and secretaries. Easy enough for someone who doesn’t want to be disturbed to have their sphynx riddle all comers, even though it’s technically illegal. These days they’ll just turn you away for a wrong answer, mostly. But in the old days, and in some dark alleys now as the scuttlebutt has it, they’d strangle and eat you. Hell, their name comes from the old Greek word for ‘strangler.’ Same root as ‘sphincter,’ too; appropriate, since I’d yet to meet a sphynx who wasn’t an asshole.

“An actor,” I said. “Can I go in now?” Teddy Roosevelt loved that one, and a lot of the dimmer or less imaginative sphynxes used it. But you don’t get to be where–or what–I am without knowing all the old sphynxy standbys.

A red claw descended on the intercom. “Someone to see you, Mr. Hollister.”

“Have a seat,” I said, gesturing Harriman to the beat-up chair that comprised my office’s lavish guest quarters. “What brings the OET to my doorstep?”

Harriman sat. “The Office of Extranet Technology is, as you may know, involved in an ongoing investigation of a rather serious security breach.”

“I wasn’t aware of that, actually,” I said. “Haven’t been following the evening news much. Nothing serious, I hope.”

“Very serious,” said Harriman, steepling his fingers. “A rogue program has made its way into our network from the unregulated sphere outside, and has begun enslaving–some of the boys call it ‘zombifying’–our secure systems to run unauthorized processes without user input.”

“I’m not quite sure I understand…technology was never my strong suit, aside from what I need to know for my job,” I said. That wasn’t entirely true, as I knew the workings of the game net like a master sensei, but now didn’t seem to be an opportune time for such a confession.

“Suffice it to say that our systems are being used, illicitly, in an attempt to bring down the network through the mass distribution of malicious code,” said Harriman. “You can see why the OET is involved, especially since we have been unable to perfect a software solution to the problem, and the hardware solution is…inelegant.”

“Inelegant how?”

Harriman removed a pistol from his jacket and pressed it to my temple. “Like this,” he said. “Your cranial rig has been compromised, and an immediate shutdown is authorized, so long as you are advised of the circumstance beforehand.

“Why do they call her Apostle Alexandra?”

“Because folks what meet her tend to have a very personal interview with the Lord not long after. Folks don’t rightly know what her Christian name is, or if Alexandra’s any natural part of it. Has a nice snap to it, it does, but not much for truth in it.”

“Surely people must know something.”

“You might think so, but no,” Yarbough said. “Hardly ever comes into town and only then visits a handful o’shops…buyin’ what she can’t make, I reckon. Even then she usually keeps a kerchief on.”

“So nobody can identify her face…” Sands mused. “That’s one hell of a story, Mr. Yarbough.”

“It’s probably been embellished a might bit,” Yarbough averred. “Folks ’round here don’t have much but the cattle and settler trade to sustain ’em, meaning a teaspoon of gossip does a tablespoon’s work.” He narrowed his eyes. “You’re not thinkin’ of seekin’ her out, are you? That ain’t the sort of thing a paperman’s built for.”

“Maybe not,” Sands said, finishing his whiskey and sliding the glass down the bar. “But that also means that no one else has tried.”