The judge was finishing lunch when he saw them coming. Through the open front window, he watched the procession moving toward the house. The townsmen were gathered in a tight, angry knot around the prisoner, limiting his chance of escape. From the way the man’s head was darting from side to side, though, the judge thought there was an even chance that he would bolt before they arrived at his door.
Donner the blacksmith saw his intention too, and put a callused hand on the man’s shoulder. At the touch, the man sagged in defeat, stumbling. Then, taking a strengthening breath, he straightened and stuck out his chin in a show of bravado.
They filed into the front room quietly, not wanting to be here at all, but having little choice. They were curious too, for there had been no judgings in this place in any living man’s memory.
Donner, hat in hand, was to speak for the townsmen, but the judge waved him away. "I know the charges," he said, tiredly. Donner looked relieved, and backed as far away as he could.
The judge studied the man before him with interest. Santos was ragged and dirty, two years removed from the comforts of civilization. His un-town-like beard was carelessly knife-cut, and stained with the remains of past meals. His clothing was ragged, but tolerably clean-a mark in his favor. Insect bites welted his arms and face, and the scar of some past encounter with trouble crossed one cheek. His had not been an easy life.
The judge sighed, reflecting that nothing could be gained by prolonging this; the townsmen didn’t need the lesson, and the prisoner wouldn’t listen. He moved to stand behind his desk, emotionally distancing himself and assuming the mantle of his office.
"Santos," he said, allowing his voice to harden, "this is the second time I’ve seen you like this. You never seem to learn, do you?" The man just glared, so he continued.
"The first time, it was just the two of us." He gestured at the townsmen. "This time, we have company...and there will be no next time." He studied at the man for a moment, and then shook his head and continued in a more formal tone. "You are charged with shoplifting, and out-and-out thievery. What do you have to say for yourself?" The judge already knew how it would go, but there were forms to observe, and those forms said he had to ask the question. No one showed surprise that he already knew the charges the man faced.
Santos drew himself to his full height, and with his eyes, dared the judge to contradict him as he said, "I did nothing. I-ahhh!" His face twisted in pain for a moment, and then became a mask of fury. "Damn you!"
More for the onlookers, whose shock at the disrespect was obvious, the judge dismissed the man’s words with a sigh and a tolerant shrug. "You of all people should know better than to try to lie to me, Santos. You’ve tried it before." He knew a lecture would change nothing, though, so he returned to the business at hand and opened the storage cabinet on the wall behind him.
"Let me tell you what’s going to happen," he said, as he reached into a drawer, searching. Finally, finding what he sought, he returned to his seat and held out both hands to display the contents. "One of these is for you."
The man blanched and tried to draw back. He was stopped by the hand of one of the townsmen, and then shoved roughly forward, almost falling.
The judge gave the man time to compose himself, and then went on. "Here in my hands lies your future, Santos. The choice is yours. You’ve demonstrated that you cannot live in the company of other people and play by society’s rules. That has already cost you a great deal." He gestured at the stigma of Santos’ bare arm and neck. "Now it will cost you more. In my right hand is the key to your acceptance into polite society, and in my left is our protection from you. The choice of which one you wear is yours, but you will be wearing one of them when you leave."
The man was pale, and his finger visibly trembled as he pointed at the judge’s left hand. "What...what is it?"
The judge looked down at the dark ovoid, its chain draped carelessly across his hand. Then he looked into the eyes of the accused man once more, wondering which choice the man would make. He nodded toward his left hand. "This will make sure that you never enter a human settlement again. The other will allow you to live where you like-if you’re willing to pay the price. You rejected it at our last meeting."
The man twisted his hands together in an agony of indecision. Several times he reached out for the left hand. Each time he drew back without having made a choice. Sweat sprang out on his forehead, mingling with the dirt there, though the day was comfortable.
"Choose or I choose for you!" The judge allowed anger to enter his voice. "I have no time for fools, and this has gone on long enough."
The man was in obvious distress. He tried, several times, before he was able to say, "But I don’t want either! Please, let me go, I’ll keep straight. I promise!" He clutched at his head in horror as his own words betrayed him.
"I can’t, I can’t," he said in a tortured whisper. "Please...you choose."
The judge shook his head and sighed. "You know how I choose," he said, as he placed the left-hand amulet back into the drawer, and then closed the cabinet. "I always choose truth." He stepped out from behind the battered old desk and dropped the chain over the bowed head of the man in front of him, muttering an incantation as he did so.
With that, the trial was over, so he stepped back out of the man’s way, symbolically releasing him and the others. "You’re free to go now, Santos."
Santos looked up at the judge, his eyes unreadable. Then he turned and walked toward the door, his steps quick and controlled. Halfway there he stopped, sagging, his face locked in a grimace of unbearable pain. Holding his hands to his head and moaning, he staggered as though deep in his cups, dealing himself a sharp but unnoticed blow to the shins on a nearby chair. Finally, he sank to the floor, whimpering, his hands still clutching at his head.
The townsmen watched for a few moments in unhappy silence. Finally Donner asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. "Pardon sir, but...will he die? I wouldn’t want to have him die over a shirt and a few trifles."
The judge reflected that he was getting too old for this and sighed. "No, Donner, he won’t die-but for some people, I’m afraid the truth hurts."
* * *
The sound of the telephone was just about the last thing Miles Grant wanted to hear. Lying warm and sleepy next to Mina in the afterglow of their loving, the outside world was a most highly unwanted intrusion. Mina sighed irritably at the sound and snuggled her back a little closer to his chest, her muttered annoyance a mirror of his own. She was soft and bed-warm, and awfully sweet to lie next to. Miles pulled her close and yawned, fighting down the urge to ignore the summons. It would have been easy to do, but it was a luxury he didn’t have.
Half-asleep, Mina reached back and pulled his arm more tightly around her. "Don’t answer it, Miles. I’m much too comfortable."
He sighed, and then kissed the back of her neck. Sighing again, he began to free his arm and move away. With reluctance, he let the world come crashing back; there was unhappiness in his voice when he said, "You know I don’t want to, my love, but I have to. It might be Him."
Reluctantly, Miles picked up the phone, trying to suppress his annoyance; he was almost successful. "Miles Grant here."
"Miles, this is Jack." President Postem liked to be on a first name basis with his people. They, of course, called him "Mr. President." "I need a reading from you on a rather strange issue."
Miles perked up and drew himself into a sitting position against the headboard. No matter how he felt about the intrusions on his personal time and the other frustrations of the job, it was a great feeling when the President of the United States called for advice. Mina put her head on his leg, and in response he absently stroked the nape of her neck and threw her a wink. "Shoot, Mr. President."
There was a pause, and the sound of the president taking a deep breath. When he finally spoke, there was a faint note of apology. "Miles, I know this must sound a bit silly, but...is real magic possible? I mean, wave a wand; smoke puff; things appear from the air...that sort of thing?"
Miles frowned, wondering. What the hell was going on at the White House-another of the famous, all night card games? The president sounded deadly serious, though.
"No, Mr. President," he said, keeping his voice professionally neutral, as befitted the presidential science advisor. "It’s not. Sure, you could have the appearance of magic, but somewhere backstage is the gimmick, the hardware, and the prop man. It’s always there."
"That’s what I thought. Thanks, Miles." There was a click, and then the quiet hiss of a dead line.
Miles put the phone back in its cradle and settled his chin firmly in his hand, his eyes momentarily unfocused and his head shaking in negation. "Now, what in the hell was that all about?"
Mina drew herself up into a sitting position, leaning forward, elbows resting on her knees, and her chin cupped in both hands. Her long, black hair swung forward to frame her face, and Miles couldn’t help smiling at the sight. She was lovely like that, and he never tired of watching her.
She shook her head and laughed. "Miles, you should have seen your face. You looked worse than a pickle taster on a bad day. If you don’t mind my repeating your question, what was that all about?"
"Well," he said, with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders, "I don’t know for sure, but I think old Roast-em Postem has finally gone ’round the bend. He asked me if there was such a thing as magic. Can you believe it? I get this really strange vision of the White House staff gathered around a pentagram trying to make a deal with the devil-or maybe interviewing candidates for the position of White House witch."
Mina chewed her lip. "I’d like to be a witch, and be able to do magic," she said thoughtfully. She saw his expression, and anticipating his comment, slapped him playfully on the leg. "No, not like Snow White’s stepmother, you smart-ass."
Miles chuckled, and returned to important things-like rubbing her foot-that had been lost when the call interrupted their cuddling. She hummed in pleasure for a moment, her eyes half closing. Then, remembering what she had started to say, she frowned in mock anger and trapped his hand in both of hers. "Stop for a minute."
"I would like to be a witch, and wear beautiful gowns like Glinda the Good from the Oz books." Her eyes turned dreamy, and she held his hand softly to her cheek before kissing his palm. "But mostly, I’d like to be able to really help people, instead of just putting Band-Aids on their problems the way I do now."
Mina Scotia was a city social worker who believed deeply in her work. She tried her best to help those trapped in the seemingly endless cycle of poverty, but she knew that in the end, the programs she administered were usually of little lasting help. They were just "Band-Aids," as she liked to call them.
Miles had met her one rainy, cold night, as she was struggling to change a flat tire on the Capital Beltway. She had been determined to do the job herself, and had been angry when she was not strong enough to free the frozen lug nuts. Miles had struggled vainly with them himself for a time, with no more success, and finally had to use his phone to call for help. In the warmth of the car, with the windows slowly fogging them out of the night, Miles had wiped his hands on a towel and smiled as she graphically listed the attributes of the mechanic who had over-tightened the lug nuts. She spent a great deal of time, in several languages, describing his sexual habits and parentage. Miles was impressed that she was able to do this at length without getting obscene, or even very coarse. Eventually, though, she ran out of languages and inspiration, and finally cooled down enough to apologize and to thank Miles for his help. He was pleased to discover that she had a blinding smile to complement and offset her fierce temper.
Miles was initially taken by her dark beauty and endlessly deep eyes, with their pitch-black irises. Later, over coffee, he found that she was as dedicated to her calling as he was to his. To his intense pleasure, he also found that she had a mind as curious and active as his own.
She was small, only five feet three to Miles’ six-two, and looked like the kind of woman you wanted to take home and cuddle-but no one was going to push this lady around. Lean and active, she was a brown-belt in a style of self-defense originally designed for Israeli combat soldiers. Because of her occupation, she sometimes went into neighborhoods that were unsafe for a woman alone. More than once, she said, she had been forced to convince a macho Romeo that she was not up for grabs. As she told Miles, "I’m dedicated, not stupid." On the inside though, when she relaxed, she was a warm and witty human being.
Neither was of a mind to become emotionally entangled. The needs of their growing careers needed no further complication. But they were compatible in so many ways that friendship was, literally, unavoidable-and without Miles noticing, that friendship grew ever more necessary to his well-being.
One snowy Washington morning, dawn brightened the window as Miles realized they had been in her living room for most of the night-sipping coffee and arguing over the best way to solve the world’s problems. That discussion that had been going on sporadically for months. There was no possibility that they would resolve the issues, or even fully agree about the problem, but it was fun to try. Her way of looking at things was so different, and yet brought such intelligence and insight to the human aspect of the argument; as he watched her finish up in the kitchen, he wondered if he should write his next book on the middle ground that they had found through their conversation. Then he stopped thinking as she came to sit in companionable silence. That was as nice as the conversation-maybe even better. She leaned against him-catlike, settling in-and after a time, her breathing turned deep and regular as sleep claimed her.
For a time Miles sat thinking, as he stroked her hair. He decided that being with Mina gave him a feeling of completion-which seemed an odd notion. Before he could analyze that idea, he was asleep.
Mina blinked her eyes, coming awake to find the living room cloaked in shadows. A glance out the window showed that the snow outside had deepened. She listened for traffic noises, but there was only that special silence unique to a fresh snowfall. Coming more fully awake, she rested comfortably in the quiet, gray-tinted world surrounding them, cradled against Miles as he slept. This was very nice, she decided. She smiled at the thought that he didn’t snore-and then wondered why she should care.
For a time she thought on that. Then, in response to the fading light, she glanced at the clock on the end table and noted that it read 4:30 p.m. They had spent the day in shared sleep. She had just slept with a man she’d never even kissed properly-she wondered why she hadn’t done that yet.
She turned a bit, then, careful not to wake him, and studied his sleeping face for a time. Strength was there, and a vulnerability that seldom showed when he was awake. He was handsome, in a rugged, masculine way, but it wouldn’t have mattered if the world had thought him ugly. It was the sum of what he was that she saw when she looked at him, and that was beautiful. Never before had she felt so secure and comfortable-what a surprising realization that was, she thought. Finally, she whispered in growing wonder, "Dear God, how I do love this man."
It was that simple. She shook him gently and said, "Miles, wake up...I love you."
He stirred. "Mmm...what?" He stretched-his joints crackling and popping with disuse-and flexed the arm that had been around her as though working out stiffness. Then, he settled her back against him, yawning. "Mmm?"
"Pay attention, Miles," she said, punctuating that with a kiss on his cheek. "I said, ’wake up...I love you.’"
He blinked, and then smiled and held her tightly against him for a time before saying, "How nice." He kissed her gently, then, with more than friendship for the first time-and that was nice too. Eventually, she suggested that they move into her bedroom. That was even nicer.
"Why can’t there be magic?" Mina said, beating her fists on his leg. "There’s so much I want to do!"
Miles frowned and leaned back against the headboard. "You mean you’d wave your magic wand and conjure a pile of gold for each of your clients?"
She beat on his leg again, her expression serious. His teasing had apparently struck a sensitive spot. "No, you big dummy! Not a free lunch. That won’t help them any more than it’s helping now. I’d conjure skills into their heads, and give them tools to get themselves out of the bind they live in. I’d conjure up jobs that needed doing." She softened, almost whispering. "And most of all, I’d give them self-respect." She came into his arms then, like a little girl needing cuddling and love, her voice a tickle in his ear. "Why can’t there be magic, Miles? Wouldn’t you like it, too?"
Miles thought for a moment, just savoring the feel of her in his arms for a time before pulling back and gazing into sad eyes. "No, Mina…I wish I could answer differently, but I don’t think I want there to be magic. I could never accept it at face value." He sighed. "You of all people should know that I could never believe in ’something for nothing.’ If you had a pet demon who could pop things into existence, I’d want to study him, to find out about the laws that governed his operation." He shook his head gently. "I’d love to be able to give you what you want, Mina my love, if for no other reason than that you want it. But as for me...no, I could never accept it." He smiled then, and stroked her hair. "There’s only one magic thing that I can accept without question or thought, and that’s you." He slid himself down next to her and placed a kiss on each eye, her cheeks soft against his hands, and her tears precious. "For your sake, Mina, I almost wish there were such things. But there aren’t."
"No," she said with a sigh, "there aren’t. But you, Miles, are my wizard and my magic, and I do love you." Then, she melted into his arms, content.
They were both wrong. At 4:15 p.m. eastern standard time, in the city of Salem, Massachusetts, the first wizard arrived.