For a hundred years, he’s stolen art and gems from around the world, and he can look like anyone. Now Solomon Oni has taken a commission to rob something of devastating power from the Smithsonian’s religious artifact vault. His only friend, other than a magical tattoo artist and the odd djinn, is a young misfit witch named Morgan. When supernatural thugs threaten her, he demonstrates just how much a former servant of the underworld can do to punish the wicked. Sometimes it takes a monster to catch a monster. Fans of Oceans 11 and Beauty and the Beast will enjoy this fantasy adventure.
Nothing could go Wrong
I’ve been called many things—monster, abomination, and thief—but I prefer the Japanese term Oni. Like them, I could reshape my face to look like anyone I want. However, instead of working to punish of the wicked, I became the wicked.
On Memorial Day, I wore the face of Solomon Bourne, a fortyish mouse of a man who dressed like a bank clerk from Mary Poppins. Because my parents never gave me a name, I could choose any I liked. This identity came from the children’s nursery rhyme, “Solomon Grundy, born on a Monday.”
I climbed the stately stone steps of the Maryland Smithsonian office and tugged on the door. I feigned surprise when it was locked. Then, I held up my ID from the Knox Vault Company toward the security camera.
A hefty guard limped over from his
desk, powdered sugar from a donut staining his solid-blue tie. Donut-stain was
an ex-football player from
He recognized me the way people did the moving boxes in their basement that they never opened. “Why are you here? Don’t you know what today is?”
My big score. I tapped the tickets in my left vest pocket. “The comic-book convention?” I asked with a faint British accent. The success of any magic trick is based on staying in character and selling the lie.
“It’s a federal holiday. The place is closed. You don’t need to be here to open the vault.”
He was referring to Dangerous Religious
Artifacts department, so named because the
I pulled an authorization form out of my doctor’s bag. “That’s why the company wants me to drain the tanks today. With all the arrests and artifact seizures this year, you have record levels of dark Kirilian radiation.” That was the polite 1970s term for black magic that would melt your eyes out for even looking at it. “Wouldn’t want any of that stuff leaking out, would we?”
With a sigh, he let me in. Officially, this facility was storage for overflow Smithsonian exhibits, and the workers rotated the items in the lobby to keep up appearances. The current display had to do with Watusi ceremonial dress, but the wooden staff in the mannequin’s hands wasn’t Watusi; it was Northern Chinese. I couldn’t read the runes to be more precise. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Bourne wouldn’t know the difference, so I can’t say anything.
While Donut-stain radioed his boss in the control room, I signed the logbook in front of a surly African-American woman. She must have started her civil service career in the TSA because she had me take off my leather sandals first. Then she patted me down thoroughly. In the process, she failed to notice that I had removed the prints from the pads of my fingers.
“Pass your bag through the scanner.”
I had latex gloves, tools, Chiclets gum, and a dozen other suspicious devices in my kit, but the only thing that raised an eyebrow was the plastic box of medicated wipes in my jacket. “It’s for hemorrhoids.” I didn’t say mine. The container had a gel-filled false bottom the exact size and shape of the gemstone I was here to liberate. I used a gel because I didn’t want anyone to rattle the container and find the cubic-zirconium replica.
“It’s okay. He always carries them,” said Donut-stain.
I’d included them in my identity since the beginning, making the prop invisible.
She grimaced. “Proceed to the elevator on the left. You must be escorted at all times.”
Yeah, but they never follow me into the bathroom. I had tested the switch technique on a smaller item. I could toss the container out the narrow bathroom window and walk out scot-free. Within a minute of the drop, my associate Elaine would pass by walking her dog and scoop it up in a plastic baggie.
Another side of beef in uniform stood at attention beside the elevator. They both had six inches on me, but with my superhuman strength, I could knock them out if I had to. The trick was to get away with the crime without leaving evidence that anything supernatural had been involved.
Bored by the holiday closure, guard two did something unheard-of. He asked me a social question. “How about that Polish soccer game last night?”
He meant the FIFA tournament, but I didn’t own a TV. However, I didn’t want to reveal a personal fact that they might use to track me later. So I touched the hearing aid in my right ear. “Pardon?”
Soccer guard averted his eyes. It’s a trick I learned. People avoid looking at what they perceive as disabilities. It makes them uncomfortable and leaves fewer witnesses for me. I can lip-read for other reasons.
The guards put their keys in on either side of the ancient elevator and turned them simultaneously. Donut said to Soccer, “The people downstairs like that he can’t listen in on secrets about m-a-g-i-c.”
“How did it happen?”
“Testing one of their vaults with dynamite. Long story. His family has been in this business for generations. His grandfather met Jesse James.” A good legend grows with each telling.
The doors opened, and I stepped inside. The elevator had two buttons. I hit B. In twenty minutes, I would be holding the thing I’d worked for two months to steal.
As the doors began to close, a woman’s voice called from the lobby, “Hold the lift!”
When I saw her long, white hair, I pushed the Close button frantically. It didn’t help.
Soccer guard put his foot in the gap.
I froze in terror. What is she doing here? She’s supposed to be attending law school.
Delilah could expose everything. Her undergraduate degree in history made her an outstanding researcher and archivist, and her minor in psychology had sharpened her ability to unearth the truth from obscure clues. If I weren’t working for a god, I would’ve run away then and there. However, the Drinking God always enforces oaths; he’s touchy about that. She won’t recognize me if I don’t speak. This can still work.
Slightly out of breath from the run,
the gorgeous blue-eyed Nordic woman passed over credentials from the pocket of
her business jacket. “Delilah Theowin,
Donut-stain frowned. “Why not Agnes?”
My sentiments exactly. Agnes was a half-blind bureaucrat and let me get away with anything. If the heist went south, I couldn’t choke Delilah unconscious and look myself in the mirror again.
“The theonic radiation in the DRA is a concern, so they brought me in as a specialist. I’m skilled in handling sacred items.” Witches referred to lethal levels of raw, undirected magic from another realm as “theonic,” leaving the nature of the god unspecified. She didn’t use judgmental terms like dark or evil, even though her last scrape with the supernatural had permanently bleached her hair corn-silk white.
“Yeah,” said Donut, glancing at me. “I heard something about that.”
I’d brought this on myself by spreading the backstory too far.
From a long line of witch priestesses, Delilah had a rare resistance that had been strengthened by the tattoos all over her body. With their aid, she could pick up cursed items, absorb, and redirect the harmful energy. Instinctively, my eyes went to the ward spiral visible through her white nylons. Don’t stare! With great effort, I raised my chin to be a gentleman.
Stay in character, and this will all work. I stepped to the back of the elevator car to hide as Donut-stain escorted her in. Why is he starting to take an interest in his job now?
Her hair smelled of lavender, just like it had ten years ago. With her heels, she was an inch taller than me. She said one word, and I knew I was doomed. “Morgan!”
The ten-year-old girl came galloping through the lobby like a wild horse, her wavy black mane flowing unbound. Small for her age, she made up for it with attitude. She wore a private-school uniform with a pleated skirt but no shoes. She’d removed them for the security search but never bothered to put them back on.
Her mother growled, but the infraction didn’t merit an argument in front of people she worked with.
Donut-stain frowned. “Hey, this is no place for kids.”
Delilah pushed the down button. “Yeah? Well, nobody told me her new school would be closed today, and she’s been banned from the only suitable day care. Anger issues.”
“Mr. Mask?” said the girl, gazing at me with her chocolate eyes.
How did she recognize me with implants and surgical alteration? Despite having a mouth like a truck driver, this child was the most dangerously smart person I had ever met. I tried to reason with her, putting a finger to my lips.
The doors closed with glacial slowness again.
Donut-stain said, “He can’t hear you, kid. He’s deaf.”
“She’s talking to her imaginary friend,” explained Delilah.
Morgan opened her mouth to contradict them both, but I took a chance and signed, “Play along. I can’t talk, or your mother will know my secret.”
Her eyes grew huge. “I understand,” she said aloud. Then slowly, she signed back. “How am I understanding?”
“Magic.” I was vague on purpose. You don’t tell a little girl about mommy’s nasty deal with an elder god.
Her mother smiled at the girl’s “pretend” sign language and chatted with the guard.
“I suck at magic.” Morgan made a gesture that she shouldn’t have known for several years. “I’ve been thrown out of three schools. Can you help?”
I recognized the symptoms from other crossbreeds. “Then those schools suck. They only know how to teach people to do magic. You are magic. You have a rare and precious gift. You can speak any language the person you’re with knows.” Other abilities should manifest as she matured. “Some of your anger may be due to the disconnect between what people are saying with their mouths and the truth that their body language is revealing.” My mother had been an oracle, and personal information sometimes popped into my head when I met people. The talent came in handy when planning a new job. Hacking people is easier than cracking safes.
“I’m a bloody unicorn,” she muttered aloud. Her face lit up like I’d given her the keys to her own life.
“Language!” her mother said sternly without turning.
The elevator stopped, but our signing conversation continued as Donut led us down the hall toward the head archivist’s office. “Are you my guardian angel?” Morgan asked, pointing toward my sandals.
They don’t have a word for what I am. Not a nice one. “Not an angel, but I watch over you whenever I can.”
Her mother pointed to a row of chairs. “Sit!”
Both Morgan and I obeyed reflexively.
Harrison Tweed stepped out of his boss’s office, the holiday replacement. This buffoon was everything I hated in an Ivy League bureaucrat—attractive, oily, and fond of claiming the accomplishments of others. “Hello… I’m the security officer, the acting supervisor at this site. Whom do we have the pleasure of meeting?”
Pompous ass. I shouldn’t complain. His incompetence made my job easy.
Donut made introductions.
Harrison actually kissed Delilah’s hand before he took her into the office to sign some forms.
I whispered, “Call me Pepe Lepew. Mwah.” I kissed the little girl’s hand.
Morgan burst out in a fresh round of giggles.
“You two know each other?” Donut asked.
“What? You mean do I break into her house once a year and leave her presents, while she puts cookies out for me? That would be creepy.”
Covering her face, Morgan held in a snicker. That’s exactly what we’d been doing. When she turned three, she’d left her favorite platypus plush doll in a hotel. I had tracked it down with my divination skills and returned it, but she caught me in the act. To buy her silence, I’d taught her how to tie her shoes. Her mom was a righty while Morgan was a lefty like her no-good absentee father.
The guard took out his phone and pulled up a video of some sporting match. I used his moment of disinterest to transfer the Chiclets into my jacket pocket.
She signed, “Why are you here?”
“To rescue someone.”
The most powerful genie of his age, trapped in a vault. I made a locking gesture over my lips.
“Angel stuff. Got it.”
I wanted to hug her, but that would get me arrested for other reasons. Instead, I asked, “What happened at the day care?”
“I don’t know what the big deal is. I took a nap during some boring movie, and one of the other kids woke me up, screaming that I was a freak. So I washed his mouth out with hand sanitizer.”
She’s glowing in her sleep again. “You can’t do that.”
“They didn’t have any soap.”
“You can’t sleep anywhere but in your own bed! I warned you.”
“Why not? Normal kids do.”
“I agree it’s not fair,” I replied. “For now, you have to trust me.”
The manager’s door opened, and
Access to the vault area was through the back of the manager’s office.
I glanced down the hall toward the exit. Delilah could lose her job for what I was about to do. Watching her cry about that would be hard, but facing a berserk god would be worse.
Just to throw him off his smug stride, I pointed to the two-foot plus sphere in the left corner.
“Like a mailbox,” Delilah said.
“We catalog and shelve them the next morning. To drain the energy sink, we’ll need to open that impenetrable door.”
She smiled at the dramatic flair. “I’ve read the specs, sir. It’s a simple three-person lock. Mr. Bourne turns off the antimagic sponge. I suspend the wards, and you turn the combination. If you don’t mind my asking, why is he here instead of a federal employee?”
“Ah, well… one of the Special Branch geniuses invented a dimensional-gate detector last Halloween, and we’ve been busy rounding up artifacts ever since. Unfortunately, this storage facility isn’t rated for such a large influx, and our last two specialists passed out. Mr. Bourne’s disability has reduced the effects of aetheric resonances. Besides, losing a contractor doesn’t impact our safety reports or insurance.” He said the word “contractor” with the same distaste as “cockroach.”
The first collapse had been a fluke, but I’d arranged the second with chemicals. I relied on the collapse fallacy for my plan B. If nobody gave me the time I needed to switch gems, the chewing gum in my pocket contained blood caps. I could fake internal bleeding. While they ran outside the cell-blocker radius to call an ambulance, I could do the deed.
Delilah frowned at the idea that anyone was disposable.
Tapping his watch,
I opened the access panel and worked the override levers and knobs like an eighties kid with a Rubix cube. I wasn’t as dexterous as one of those teens, but I was a great deal stronger. Mechanical devices respect that about me. I twisted the final valve into the off position and nodded.
“That’s your cue, Miss Theowin,”
Delilah pulled a delicate Sterling silver rod from her purse, slashed downward, and uttered the release phrase. When that didn’t work, she cleared her throat and repeated the incantation.
“We don’t have all day, miss. Are you sure you’re qualified for this?”
Nope, that was the spell to reveal asshats. Undoing wards required the precision of an orchestra conductor and the brains of a calculus instructor. He had neither. Delilah flipped through her manual, looking for the part of the formula she might be missing. I had seen others perform this ceremony enough times that I had spotted her mistake early on.
Mr. Sphincter tapped his right wingtip.
During the third try, her voice and hand were shaking so much that she botched it worse than a first-year student. Three minutes. We didn’t have time to be delicate, so I let go of the valve and cleared my throat. Using my hands, I formed a hollow circle and moved it in an arc over my head.
She slapped her forehead. “You’re right. I didn’t adjust the equation for the phase of the moon. Let’s see…that results in a revised angle of—”
Delilah’s eyes sparked with dangerous fire. She wanted to spend the last few minutes of my window reaming him out.
It might have been worth the loss of the gem to watch this, but an explosion near the elevator knocked us off our feet. White dust rained down from the acoustic tiles.
As I helped the witch to her feet,
I realized someone else had figured out that today would be ideal to rob the
vault, but Delilah had blown the timetable. Such precision meant an inside job.
I began to suspect