Authors: Robert Asprin
Time Scount 5 - License Invoked
“Damn it to Hell anyway!”
Hearing the utterance of these words by the head of the United States Secret Service, his aide materialized in his office like a genie answering a magical summoning.
In actuality, the simile was not that far from the truth. The men had been together for years (a professional, working relationship, of course. It's not that kind of a book!) and the aide had long since learned that on the rare occasions his chief resorted to swearing, it was best to stand by even before being called. Even then it would sometimes be too late.
“Trouble, sir?” he said.
“Where have you been?” the chief snarled.
(See what we mean?)
“Sorry, sir. It won't happen again,” the aide replied, deliberately bland of countenance.
Washington, D.C., was a city of power, both built on and undermined by petty tyrants and obscure pecking orders. One did not survive there being thin-skinned.
“I can't believe we're getting this dumped on us!” the chief raved. “And in an election year, too!”
The aide waited patiently. Eventually the vital points of information would be forthcoming. Trying to rush it would only focus attention on himself.
“Every no-name power monger in Washington up for re-election bugging us for protection . . . not to mention the `equal treatment' demands from their opponents . . . and now we're supposed to provide protection for some foreign nut touring the U.S. And with our limited budget, we can barely—”
“Excuse me, sir, but providing protection for foreign dignitaries is a normal part of our department's function.”
“Dignitaries, yes,” the chief said. “Ambassadors, royalty. But this falls well outside that description. Did you ever hear of a rock group called Green Fire?”
“You have?” For the first time in the conversation, the chief abandoned his mad long enough to look directly at his aide.
“You forget, sir, I have two teenagers at home,” the aide said with a smile. “Green Fire is currently all the rage in the younger set. An Irish group, I believe.”
“Well, those are the `dignitaries' we're supposed to be providing protection for,” the chief said, returning to his tirade. “At least for their lead singer. What's her name . . . ?”
“Fionna Kenmare,” the aide supplied.
“That's the one. Anyway, the group's about to start a performing tour of the U.S., except the lead singer has been getting threats and had a couple unverified attacks on her. Normally, I'd try to dodge it, but the Brits are taking it seriously and sending along a protective escort of their own. That means we're stuck. There's no way we're going to let someone from a foreign agency wander around over here without someone from our side tagging along.”
“Excuse me, sir,” the aide said with a frown. “Did I understand you to say `unverified attacks'?”
“That's the kicker.” The chief nodded. “It seems the threats she's been getting, as well as the unconfirmed attacks, have been of a psychic nature. In short, magic. Real bibbity-bobbity-boo stuff. Just what we need to help us with our leisure time problem. We're already spreading our manpower dangerously thin and— What are you smiling at? Did I say something funny?”
“As a matter of fact, sir, you've already solved your own problem.”
“Yes, sir. You have. As soon as you mentioned `bibbity-bobbity-boo.' It reminded me that there happens to be another department you can delegate this whole problem to.”
The chief began to smile, too.
* * *
No one could remember exactly how Department BBB got its designation or what BBB was originally supposed to stand for. It might as well have stood for “Bibbity-bobbity-boo,” however, because that's how everyone referred to it. That is, everyone who knew of its existence . . . or remembered it at all.
Department BBB got its start back in the '60s, roughly about the same time the CIA was conducting its clandestine experiments on the possible military uses of LSD. “Red phobia” was rampant, and all one needed to do to get funding for a department or project was to report (or speculate out loud) that Russia was already channeling resources into research of a similar vein. The thought that the U.S. might drop behind the Russians in yet another field (people were still wincing over Sputnik) loosened governmental purse strings on countless strange and dead-end endeavors, most of which, thankfully, the voting, tax-paying public remained blissfully ignorant of. Department BBB was one such project.
Anything weird and not already nailed down by another department (like Telepathy and Telekinesis) got delegated to them for investigation or experimentation. Everything from crystal power to totem animals, secret names to ethereal spirits, came across their desks or ended up in their voluminous files. They imported “experts” from every accredited earth religion (and from most that were deemed “crackpot” even by the loosely wrapped) to assist them in their quest. All in all, a good time was had by everyone concerned.
In the '70s and '80s, however, the Department fell on hard times. Waning interest in the supernatural, as well as countless exposes and investigations into needless government spending, forced major cutbacks in the program, until its survival seemed to hinge almost entirely on its anonymity.
Currently, Department BBB consisted entirely of only two full-time employees: Sherry Meyers, a middle-aged woman who used to be the mistress of a senator until he bought her silence by appointing her to the chairmanship of Department BBB; and Don Winslow, her male secretary and occasional lover. (We aren't going to try to kid you that nobody in Washington, D.C., has lovers!) These were the administrators, whose main function was to answer the phone and deal with the endless paperwork associated with running a government office. Any actual assignments were delegated to a handful of “agents” they kept on retainer.
Even though romantically involved in a haphazard, casual sort of way, the administrators were not so engaged when their phone rang. To be specific, Don was reading a current bestseller while Sherry was updating her address book.
Neither looked up when the phone rang.
It rang again.
“Aren't you going to answer that?” Sherry said.
“You're closer,” Don replied from the depths of his novel.
“Yes, but you're the secretary and I'm the boss—”
Don looked at her over the top of the book.
“—the boss who signs your pay vouchers and approves your raises,” Sherry continued pointedly.
The secretary heaved a sigh of martyrdom and rose from the sofa where he was comfortably reclined.
“It's probably a wrong number, anyway,” he said darkly, timing his comment so it would be over before he lifted the phone from its cradle. “Department BBB. Can I help you?”
He listened for a moment, then raised an eyebrow.
“May I say who's calling, please?” Sherry looked up at the tone of his voice.
His other eyebrow elevated to join the first.
“Just a moment, I'll see if she's available.”
He artfully punched the “hold” button and turned to Sherry who was already on the alert, having tracked the progression of his expression during the exchange.
“It's for you,” he said, needlessly. “The Secret Service, no less.”
“No fooling?” Sherry asked.
The question was rhetorical. Even though Don had a bent for practical jokes, he never sounded a false alarm when it came to the working of the department. If nothing else, he felt that to do that would be so easy it would be beneath him. He shook his head. Sherry's eyes widened.
“Sherry Meyers here,” she said, punching in on the call. “Yes, sir. I see . . .”
She began to quickly scribble some notes on the legal pad on her desk.
“And when will they be arriving?”
“Do you have a description on the agent who will be with them?”
A few more notations and the pencil was cast aside.
“Very well, we'll get on it right away . . . Don't mention it. That's what we're here for . . . Thank you. Good-bye.”
She replaced the phone on its cradle and sat staring at her note pad.
“I take it we have something other than a senator's wife seeing a ghost or having a dream that needs to be interpreted?” her secretary said, urging her gently.
“Here's where we justify our budget for the year,” Sherry responded, snapping out of her trance. “It looks like we have a full-blown assignment for a change, Donald. There's an Irish rock group, Green Fire, that's about to start a tour of the U.S. It seems one of their members has been getting threats and even suffered a couple attacks. The rat in the woodpile is that the threats and attacks have been of a psychic nature. That makes it our problem.”
Don began to smile. “The kind we can solve without leaving the office? Good. Who's the target?”
“Fionna Kenmare? Their lead singer? Isn't she the one with the green hair?”
“I guess.” Sherry shrugged. “I don't keep up with that world much.”
“What kind of attacks are we talking about here?”
“Mysterious illnesses, disembodied voices, and cuts appearing on her arms when there's no one around.”
“All of which could be staged for publicity,” the secretary said with a frown. “The Secret Service is taking it seriously, though?”
“The Brits are,” Sherry said through tight lips. “They sent someone to check it out, and that person is out of the running with a mental breakdown. Because of that, they're sending along an agent of their own to watch over Ms. Kenmare while she's on tour.”
“ . . . And if there's one of theirs tagging along, there has to be one of ours tagging along as well, right?”
“You got it in one.” The department head grimaced. “Run a quick check for me, will you? Have we got anyone in New Orleans, or do we have to air-drop someone in?”
“I think . . . Let me check.”
The secretary ran his finger quickly through the Rolodex on his desk.
“Here we go . . . Oh boy!” Don said, dismayed.
“What is it?” Sherry was suddenly concerned by the change in his voice.
“If you're ready for this, our agent in the New Orleans area is none other than one Beauray Boudreau.”
“Beauray . . . Oh God! You mean Boo-Boo?”
“Mayfield!” Ringwall shouted.
Elizabeth put down her copy of Paranormal magazine. “Sir?” she said, springing to her feet. Director Ringwall peered out of his office at her, his plump-cheeked face glowing pink. He was beaming.
“In here, please, Mayfield,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” she said, keenly aware of the curious glances shot her way by the other agents of the Office of Paranormal Sightings Investigation branch of MI-5 as she scurried in.
Ringwall gestured to her to shut the door. Elizabeth stood, breathless, on the threadbare rag rug in front of his desk. What was so exciting that it could make her notoriously moody boss smile?
“Mayfield, I don't have time to make this long. Have you heard of Fionna Kenmare?” Ringwall asked, snatching up a sheet of fax paper from his desk.
“Er, yes, sir.” Elizabeth immediately drew a mental picture of a skinny woman with weirdly cut hair and Halloween makeup. She racked her brain for specific details. “Irish. Sings what she calls acid folk rock. Something to do with magic, sir.”
“That's right, magic,” Ringwall said, with savage delight. “Puts it right into our field, doesn't it? I've got an assignment for you. We got a call, from, er . . . Upstairs. I don't need to tell you how far Upstairs. Truth is,” he said, leaning over the desktop toward her and lowering his voice, “I can't. I don't know. But this is a very important mission. There is reason to suspect that this Fionna Kenmare is under some kind of psychic or magical attack. She's reported seeing bleeding cuts appear on her skin when there's nothing sharp nearby. Suffers mysterious illnesses. Hears voices. In other words, the lot, and all gloriously unproven.”
Elizabeth made a face. “The cuts could be self-inflicted, sir. As for the rest . . . it'd make good publicity, wouldn't it?”
“Right you are,” Ringwall said, with a curt nod. “It's certain to be nothing; it always is, but because it might have to do with the paranormal, it's us instead of the fancy boys with their big budgets and their Porsche automobiles. But not this time.”
OOPSI took precedence over the other branches of British Intelligence when the mission had to do with its special field of expertise, although that garnered them no extra respect from the other agents. Paranormal investigation was still regarded as a bit of a joke. They took all the calls for the hauntings at stately houses, apparitions in churchyards, bogeys at Wookey Hole, and so on. The other agents called them the “Ghostbusters,” but not with the kind of affection that meant they respected the department. Elizabeth took the slight personally, although she tried not to.
“What do you need me to do, sir?” Elizabeth asked, starting to take fire with the idea of putting a finger in the eye of the high-profile boys. They'd be in the headlines for a change.
Ringwall ran a finger down the fax. “Kenmare and her group are about to embark on a tour of the United States, starting in New Orleans. I need you to keep close tabs on her, at all times, from the moment she touches down in Heathrow, until she's safely on her way back to Ireland after the tour is over. How can I say this without getting the gender-equity people down my back? I want a female agent on this case, because you have to be able to go anywhere she does, any time. A male agent can't barge into the Ladies', no matter what credentials he's carrying. Do you follow me? And if the attacks should prove to be coming from a supernatural agency, then it's a cockadoodle for us. And for you.”
“But why us?” Elizabeth asked, not wanting to have this fabulous plum snatched away from her, but at all costs she must be professional about it. “Surely she's an Irish citizen.”
Ringwall pushed a fingertip toward Heaven. “Ours is not to question Upstairs, Mayfield.”
“No, sir,” Elizabeth said, letting her mouth snap shut on her next question. She was agog with excitement. “Please go on.”
“The whole thing is absolutely hush-hush. We are not to appear to be working in this matter. Only Kenmare and her immediate intimates are to know the British government is involved. You'll be working with an American agent.” When Elizabeth inadvertantly made a face, Ringwall actually looked sympathetic. “Sorry, lass. The Yanks insisted on having a finger in the pie. But it's your pie. You decide how far they can push it in.”
“Yes, sir!” Elizabeth said. Her pie! How marvelous that sounded. Well, she'd be very careful about anyone shoving in an unwanted digit. Ringwall stood up and extended a hand.
“Your briefing is being prepared now. I'll have the courier meet you at your flat to deliver it. Jump to it! You've got two hours to pack and get to the airport. You'll receive your ticket at the information desk.” He picked up the telephone and dialed an internal number. “I'm calling a car for you from the motor pool. You'll never get a cab at this hour of the afternoon.”
“No, sir,” Elizabeth breathed, watching with awe as he spoke tersely into the mouthpiece and replaced the receiver. “Thank you for giving me the chance, Mr. Ringwall.”
“I'm sure you'll do well,” Ringwall said, nodding significantly and touching the side of his nose with his finger. “We're all counting on you, Mayfield.” The director put out a hand to her. Elizabeth shook it energetically. “Good luck.”
“Thank you, sir,” Elizabeth said. Her head was quite spinning with joy, fear, and lists. She had so much to do. In only a little while she'd be on her way to her first international assignment! What should she pack? How much could she take with her?
Ringwall's voice penetrated into the whirlwind of speculation bumping around in her mind. She looked back.
“And, Mayfield, don't let the woman out of your sight, whatever you do. As I told you, this assignment comes from Upstairs.” He pointed toward the ceiling. Elizabeth nodded reverently.
“What's all that about?” asked Michael Gamble, springing out from the wall behind Ringwall's door the moment Elizabeth emerged. He was a fellow agent, nice to look at with his shock of dark hair a la Tom Cruise, but prone to popping up almost under one's nose. He trailed behind her as she hurried to her desk.
“I've got to follow an Irish singer around and see if she's being haunted by something from the unknown,” Elizabeth said, yanking open her desk drawer for her purse and briefcase. She might as well tell him; he'd uncover it soon enough from office gossip as soon as she was gone.
“What, not another alleged poltergeist?” Gamble laughed derisively. Elizabeth made a face at him. “Is her boyfriend beating her up, eh? Sifting through her purse while she sleeps?”
“Need to know, Gamble!” Ringwall's voice roared from the office door.
“Yes, sir,” Gamble said, disengaging without a trace of guilt, and sliding smoothly back into his desk chair. “Bugger all. Good luck, Mayfield.”
“Thanks, mate,” Elizabeth said. With her possessions in her arms, she bumped her way out toward the lift to wait for the car.
Gamble's attitude was similar to the others in the small branch, and to everyone else in British Intelligence. The government most fervently did not believe in magic. They felt there had to be a mundane explanation for anything that happened. Even that which was completely inexplicable was told off as having a cause that they were not yet able to ascertain, just that it wasn't and never could be magic. Well, they were wrong.
Elizabeth often wondered what Mike and the others would say if she told them that she knew poltergeists and visitations and, indeed, magic, were real. An admission like that would tag her as a genuine loony, and she'd lose the credibility she had established painstakingly over the last six years. Salaries in the public sector were by no means generous. She needed to stay on the promotable track in these budget-conscious days. So she laughed when the others laughed, and made disparaging comments about the trippers who mooned around Stonehenge and Britain's other mystic sites. All of them had their government-issue wands, bells, and censers, and an officially sanctioned grimoire full of exorcisms, invocations, and exhortations that everyone used but considered to be a huge joke. The spells didn't work for most of them. Any actual effect was put off to coincidence.
If the official word was that these things did not really exist, it was fine with her. Some day the opportunity might come along that would prove to the scoffers once and indisputably for all that magic was real. The best way to do that would be to find some real magic and bring it to her superiors' attention. But her superiors, like the rest of the world, did not really want her to find any. It was much more comfortable to keep the department going on speculation, hope and fear.
She hoped sincerely that the Irish singer was not really mutilating herself, or being attacked by another person whom she was shielding. In order to justify OOPSI's actions—and budget—Elizabeth needed to produce results of some kind, but on that point the department was torn. To uncover magic would justify their funding forever, but they were not prepared to handle the publicity attendant on proving that magic existed. It was a conundrum. Elizabeth wanted to succeed in her mission. She half-hoped she could offer up a magical result, so that there would be less scepticism around the office, opening the door so that one day she could come out of the broom closet, so to speak, as a genuine practitioner. She suspected that her q.v. in the office files included mention of her grandmother and female ancestresses stretching back to the Ice Age, but nothing official had ever been said to her about it. The others were mostly here because they were fans of speculative fiction or wanted a cushy government position that didn't require much work except to visit suspected sites and look knowing.
In the meantime, she was on her way to her very first international assignment. Though it was only logical to use a woman to protect a woman closely, giving her the job still meant that the brass believed in her ability to do the job. She was very proud.
Proud and astonished, when, instead of the usual antique, miniature Peugeot minicab, the car that pulled up to carry her to Heathrow was a long, black limousine, the kind used to convey senior officials to white tie dinners at Buckingham Palace. The driver, an older man in a peaked cap, leaped out to open the door for her. Feeling like royalty, albeit royalty in a hurry, she jumped into the back seat. As the car pulled away, Elizabeth got a glimpse of her co-workers gazing enviously down from the office windows. This piece of luck boded well for her mission.
“Just five minutes, miss, or you'll be late for the arriving flight,” the driver said as he double-parked at the kerb outside of her flat. Elizabeth hopped out the door.
“I'll hurry,” she said, giving the limousine door a pat as she closed it. It was so nice to be given a bit of luxury. She glanced up and down the street. No sign of the courier as yet. It would probably be some spotty youth wearing a Day-Glo tabard and mounted on a motorbike who could negotiate the traffic faster than her car. No doubt he'd be waiting when she came down.
Although she had always regretted not being able to have a cat in the apartment, this time she was grateful. Now she had no need to call a friend or relative to come and feed it, unable to explain how long she'd be gone. At last, Elizabeth experienced the excitement she'd always pictured when she first joined the service. She was the agent in charge of a high profile international case! She was still quite breathless over the suddenness of it all.
Elizabeth ran upstairs, mentally sorting out her wardrobe. She had no idea what kind of clothing she'd need in New Orleans, a place whose name she recognized, but had no actual knowledge of. She had a vague idea that it was hot there. That would be a welcome change from the chilly London spring where it had yet to rise above 15 degrees Celsius.
She sorted through the built-in closets in her tiny, well-lit bedroom. Very little of her everyday wardrobe was suitable for high temperatures, and she didn't think that the colorful bandanna skirts and halter tops she wore on Costa del Sol holidays would be appropriate for an MI-5 field agent on the job. Still, on a high-profile assignment like this she could surely cadge a clothing allowance out of the accounting department, the better to fit in with the locals. In the end, she stuffed her suitcase full of clean knickers and all the protective spell impedimenta that would fit. Always pack your own underwear, Elizabeth told herself virtuously. She stripped off her dress, and put on her most wrinkle-resistant suit, a very upper-class skirt and blazer of a cream-colored fabric that looked like linen but wore like iron. That was the way she must appear to those she encountered: neat and approachable, but inwardly tough. There, she thought, pleased at her reflection. Ready for anything.
With a last backward look at the photograph of her grandmother, who'd taught her everything she knew about the unseen world, she locked up her flat.
The limo driver hooted his horn when he saw her coming.
“Hurry up, miss!” he shouted.
“Did the courier come?” she asked.
“Not a sight of 'im,” the man said, pinching out the cigarette he was smoking. He got out of the car and opened her door for her. “Stuck 'alfway between here and Marble Arch, I'll bet. 'E'll catch up. Come on, 'op in.”
“Just one minute more,” Elizabeth pleaded. She made for the bare bit of garden between two forlorn London trees that stood before the building.
Undoubtedly the limo driver had thought her quite mad standing there barefoot in the patch of earth with her arms to the sky, but she couldn't take the trip entirely unprepared. Ignoring him, she concentrated on reaching her mental roots deep into the earth and far up into the sky, making herself a conduit to gather together the two halves of energy that made up Earth power. It took a moment to ground and center herself. The familiar, warm tingle rushed along her limbs, feeling like the terror and pleasure of a steep roller coaster ride where they collided in the middle of her belly. Elizabeth took a deep breath as she joined the two elements together. She wound it into a skein of power deep within her that she could unreel at will.
Unlike the driver, her neighbors were accustomed to seeing Miss Mayfield in the garden patch recharging her magical batteries. While she stood there, feeling mystic, the power of nature flowing into her body from the earth and sky, one of the little old ladies who lived next door tottered by with her arthritic Pekinese.