Low Midnight Page 11

They looked at each other, a silent conversation between old friends, and he guessed they wanted more from him than the book.

“I have a question, Mr. Bennett. Why? I know—knew—Amy, and maybe I didn’t know exactly what she was working on, but I have some idea what she was capable of. Why do you want access to that? Why should I help give you access to that? Assuming I can.” She stood resolute, though her eyes were pink, on the edge of shedding tears.

He looked away, chuckled. “That’s a really long story.” He should have known just asking them wouldn’t work—he looked like a hit man.

“It’s Amelia Parker, isn’t it?” said the ever-suspicious Frida. “She was a wizard then, and she still is. So what’s she need Amy’s book for?”

Tell them it isn’t for me, it isn’t for us. Tell them the fate of the world—

They’d never believe that, he thought back. However true it might be.… The whole story really was long and unbelievable—even more unbelievable than him carrying around Amelia. Kitty could get away with just asking, and would be able to think up an explanation that sounded important without sounding outlandish. He gave it a try.

“Amy got mixed up with some very dangerous people,” he said simply. “I need to find out what she knew about them, so that no one else gets hurt.” There, that sounded good. Didn’t it? In the back of his head, Amelia was watchful.

That seemed to put Judi at her ease. Frida, not so much, but Judi was the one who gave the decisive nod. “I think I can decode this for you, Mr. Bennett. But I need something from you first.”

“That’s fair.”

“You’re obviously experienced in the arcane. You certainly seem to have a unique perspective on things—Amelia Parker is here now, isn’t she? She’s listening to all of this?”

“That’s right,” he said.

“Then you might be just the person we need for this.”

Out with it, Amelia grumbled.

Settle down, Cormac thought.

It was Frida who said, “I think we need your help.”

He didn’t show the surprise he felt. What could these two biddies possibly need his help for?

Judi said, “Let me tell you a story, Mr. Bennett.…”

*   *   *

“IN 1895, a man named Milo Kuzniak came into Manitou claiming to have found gold in the hills west of town. No one believed him—people had been looking for gold in the area for going on fifty years, any gold to be had was already found. The rush was over. He persisted, filed claims, bought equipment, camped in the hills, ran off passersby with a shotgun, and bragged in town about what he would find. Generally made a nuisance of himself.”

They’d retreated to seats in the back of the store. Customers came in at one point, and Frida helped them when they bought some candy. She came back with a teapot and refilled their tea.

“Then some strange things started happening. Horses shied away from his claim. A photographerhiking with his equipment in the area fell and broke his leg, and the men and burro sent to carry him back to town became hopelessly lost. Moans and screams were heard from the land late at night, but no one ever saw mischief afoot. Those who went to investigate didn’t find anything, but they felt a powerful dread the further into Milo’s claim they went. A point came when most men refused to go there at all.

“Milo started telling wild tales, that he’d found a book of spells and was now a powerful magician, that he’d summoned ghosts to do his bidding and guard his territory. He had otherworldly traps and torments designed to repel intruders. This must have been intriguing as well as frightening, but no one had any way of proving it. The stories grew more sinister as time went on. The people of Manitou loved nothing more than a good scary story, and this was a whopper.”

You ever hear about this guy? Cormac questioned Amelia.

No, I never did.

Judi continued. “Then local gentleman Augustus Crane decided to do something about Kuzniak and his tall tales. He was a great believer in magic, held séances in his house, was well known in Spiritualist circles. The town held him in high esteem, because he brought such a scientific gravity to his proceedings. One could not help but take him seriously. It was, he decided, up to him to stop this magical menace before he did real harm. The area wasn’t big enough for two self-proclaimed magicians. He studied his books, asked advice of the great Spiritualists of his day, organized the spell he would use to put Milo Kuzniak in his place. Then he went to Kuzniak’s claim, where the man had camped out.”

I have heard of Augustus Crane, Amelia said. People were still mourning him when I arrived in town.

“They had what might be called a wizards’ duel, a showdown at midnight under a full moon. Some of the folk from town, other members of Crane’s Spiritualist circle, came with him to witness. None of them could say exactly what happened. Crane challenged Kuzniak. Kuzniak refused to give way. So Crane cast a spell that was designed to weaken Kuzniak, remove his magic—remove his will to antagonize the town. Crane believed the spell would weaken him to the point of sickness and drive Milo back to wherever he’d come from. But that didn’t happen. None of that happened.”

The flair for storytelling Judi had brought to the walking tour came through here. “Milo stood unflinching before him—at a loss, observers said. Not even bothering to work a magical defense. But this was a ruse. Milo had made preparations before Augustus arrived, and he was very well defended when Augustus cast his spell. As soon as he did, Milo’s defenses came to the fore, and rather than defeating his opponent, Crane himself was struck dead where he stood. Some claimed they saw a bolt of lightning strike him from the clear sky. Some say the burst of electricity traveled up from the ground and electrocuted him. Others say the power came from Milo Kuzniak’s eyes, or his outstretched hands. Whatever it was, Augustus Crane ended up flat on the ground, dead.”

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