Home > Twilight Watch (Watch #3)(10)

Twilight Watch (Watch #3)(10)
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko

Somehow it felt awkward to call the waitress over. I walked to the counter and asked her to make me a fresh cup of coffee. Then I leaned against the railings and looked down.

Below me I spotted my acquaintance from the night before. The guitarist, collector of amusing T-shirts and happy owner of a large English toilet, was standing beside a small open pool full of live lobsters. Las's face reflected the intense workings of his thought. Finally he laughed and pushed his trolley toward the checkout.

I pricked up my ears.

Las unhurriedly set out his modest purchases on the moving belt, with a bottle of Czech absinthe towering over everything else. As he was paying, he said, "You know, that pool of lobsters you have over there..."

The girl at the checkout smiled, every element of her pose confirming that there was a pool and there were live lobsters swimming in it, and a couple of arthropods would go remarkably well with absinthe, kefir, and frozen pelmeni.

"Well," Las continued imperturbably, "I just saw one lobster climb on another's back, crawl onto the edge and hide under those refrigerators over there..."

The girl started blinking rapidly. A minute later two security men and a sturdy cleaning lady appeared at the checkout. After listening to the terrible tale of the escape, they rushed over to the refrigerators.

Las finished paying, glancing back into the hall every now and then.

The pursuit of the nonexistent lobster was in full swing. The cleaning lady was poking her mop under the refrigerators, with the security men bustling around her. I heard one of them say: "Drive it this way, toward me! I can almost see it already!"

Las moved toward the exit with a smile of quiet joy on his face.

One of the security men warned: "Go easy with that poking. You'll dent its shell - it'll be damaged goods!"

Trying to wipe a smile unworthy of a Light Magician off my face, I took my coffee from the girl. No, that guy wouldn't have cut letters out of newspapers with nail scissors. That would have been far too tedious.

My phone rang.

"Hi, Sveta," I said.

"How are things going, Anton?"

Her voice sounded a bit less alarmed this time.

"I'm having a coffee. I've had a chat with my colleagues from the competing firms."

"Aha," said Svetlana. "Well done. Anton, do you need my help at all?"

"But you... you're not on the staff," I said, perplexed.

"I don't give a damn!" said Svetlana, flaring up instantly. "It's you I'm concerned about, not the Watch."

"No need yet," I replied. "How's Nadiushka?"

"She's helping me make borscht," Svetlana said with a laugh. "So dinner will be a bit late today. Shall I call her?"

"Yes," I said, relaxing, and took a seat by the window.

But Nadka didn't take the phone, and she didn't want to talk to her daddy.

They can be stubborn like that at the age of two.

I talked to Svetlana a little bit longer. I felt like asking if her bad premonitions had disappeared, but I refrained. It was clear enough from her voice that they had.

I wound up the conversation, but I didn't put my cell phone away. There was no point in calling the office. But what if I had a word with someone in a private capacity?

Well, I had to go into town, meet people, keep the wheels of my business turning, sign new contracts - didn't I?

I dialed Semyon's number.

It was time to stop playing the sleuth. Light Ones don't lie to each other.

For meetings that are not entirely business, but not exactly personal either, the best places are little pubs, with five or six tables at most. There was a time when Moscow didn't have any places like that. Public catering always meant premises large enough for a full-scale bash.

But now we have them.

This particular entirely unremarkable pub-cafe was right in the very center, on Solyanka Street. A door in the wall leading straight in from the street, five tables, a little bar - back at the Assol complex even the bars in the apartments were more impressive.

There was nothing special about the clientele. It wasn't one of those special-interest clubs that Gesar loved to collect - scuba divers get together here, and recidivist cat burglars here...

And the cuisine had no pretensions of any kind. Two kinds of draft beer, other alcoholic drinks, sausages out of a microwave and french fries. Booze and junk.

Maybe that was why Semyon had suggested meeting in this cafe? He fit right in there. And I didn't exactly stand out from the crowd either...

Noisily blowing the froth off his Klin Gold beer - I'd only ever seen that done in old movies before - Semyon took a mouthful and looked at me amiably. "Let's hear it."

"You know about the crisis?" I asked, taking the bull by the horns right off.

"Which crisis is that?" Semyon asked in reply.

"The one with the anonymous letters."

Semyon nodded. He even added something. "I've just completed the temporary registration of our visitor from Prague."

"This is what I think," I said, twirling my beer mug around on the clean tablecloth. "They were sent by an Other."

"Sure they were." said Semyon. "You drink your beer. If you want, I'll sober you up afterward."

"You can't, I'm shielded."

Semyon screwed his eyes up and looked at me. And he agreed that yes, I was shielded and it was beyond his powers to break through a magic-proof shell installed by none other than Gesar himself.

"Well then," I went on, "if they were sent by an Other, what is he trying to achieve?"

"The isolation or elimination of his human client," Semyon said calmly. "Evidently he must have rashly promised to make him an Other. So now he's on the hook."

All my heroic intellectual efforts had been pointless. Without even working on the case, Semyon had figured it all out in his own head.

"It's a Light Other," I said.

"Why?" asked Semyon, surprised.

"A Dark Other has plenty of other ways to go back on a promise."

Semyon thought for a while, chewed on a fry and said yes, it looked that way. But he wouldn't entirely rule out any involvement by Dark Ones. Because even Dark Ones could swear a rash oath there was no way to get around. For instance, swear on the Darkness, call the primordial Power to bear witness. After that, they couldn't wriggle out of it.

"Agreed," I said. "But even so, the chances are greater that one of us has slipped up."

Semyon nodded and said, "Not me."

I looked away.

"Don't you get upset," Semyon said in a melancholy voice. "You've got the right idea and you're doing the right thing. We could have slipped up. Even I could have blundered. Thanks for asking me to talk, and not just running to the boss... I give you my word, Light Magician Anton Gorodetsky, that I did not send these letters that concern you and I do not know who sent them."

"You know, I'm really glad about that," I said honestly.

"Not nearly as glad as I am," Semyon chuckled. "I'll tell you something, the Other who did this has got some neck. He hasn't just got the Watches involved in this mess, he's dragged the Inquisition into it as well. To do that, you either have to be way out of control or calculate every last little detail. If it's the first, he's done for, but if it's the second, he'll squirm his way out of it. I'd lay two to one he'll squirm his way out."

"Semyon, so an ordinary human being can be turned into an Other after all?" I asked. Honesty is the best policy.

"I don't know," said Semyon and shook his head. "I used to believe it was impossible. But if recent events are anything to go by, there's some kind of loophole. Very narrow, pretty nasty, but still a loophole."

"Why nasty?" I asked, jumping on his words.

"Because otherwise we would have made use of it. What a coup, for instance, to make the president one of your own. And not just the president, but everyone who has any kind of influence. There'd be an amendment to the Treaty, determining the procedure for initiation, and there'd be the same standoff, only at a new level."

"But I thought it had been absolutely forbidden," I admitted. "The Higher Others got together and agreed not to disrupt the balance... threatened each other with the ultimate weapon..."

"With what?" Semyon asked, astonished.

"You know, the ultimate weapon. Remember, you told me about the incredibly powerful thermonuclear bombs? We have one, the Americans have one... There must be something of the sort in magic too..."

Semyon started laughing. "What nonsense, Anton! There aren't any bombs like that - it's all fantasy, fairy tales! Learn some physics! There isn't enough heavy water in the oceans for a self-sustaining thermonuclear reaction."

"Then why did you tell me that?"

"We were spinning all sorts of yarns at the time. I never thought you'd believe it..."

"Ah, dammit," I muttered and took a mouthful of beer. "And you know, after that I couldn't sleep at night..."

"There is no ultimate weapon, you can sleep easy," Semyon chortled. "No real one and no magical one. And if we accept that it is possible to initiate ordinary people after all, then the procedure is extremely difficult and disgusting, with unpleasant side effects. In general, no one wants to get their hands dirty. Neither us nor the Dark Ones."

"And you don't know about any such procedure?" I asked, just to make sure.

"I don't." Semyon thought for a moment. "No, I definitely don't. Reveal myself to people, give them orders or, say, recruit them as volunteers - I've done it all. But as for turning someone into an Other when you want to - I've never heard of that."

Another dead end.

I nodded, gazing gloomily into my beer mug.

"No need to knock yourself out," Semyon advised me. "There are only two possibilities. This Other is either a fool or he's very cunning. In the first case the Dark Ones or the Inquisitors will find him. In the second case they won't find him, but they will find the human being and teach him not to wish for such strange things. Similar cases have been known..."

"What am I going to do?" I asked. "I must admit that place is interesting, it's amusing to live there. Especially on expenses..."

"Then enjoy living there," Semyon said calmly. "Or is your pride offended? Do you want to out-gallop everyone else and find the traitor first?"

"I don't like leaving things half-done," I admitted.

Semyon laughed. "All I've been doing for the last hundred years is leaving things half-done... For instance, there was the little business of the hoodoo laid on the prosperous peasant Be-sputnov's cattle in the Kostroma province. Ah, what a case that was, Anton! A mystery. A tight tangle of intrigue. It was magical all right, but it was all done so cunningly... the hoodoo was applied through a field of hemp."

"Do cattle actually eat hemp?" I asked, intrigued despite myself.

"Ah, who'd let them? The peasant Besputnov used to make rope out of that hemp. And he used the rope to lead his cows around. And the hex went through it that way. A cunning hoodoo, slow and thorough. And not a single registered Other for a hundred miles around. I moved into the little village and started searching for the evildoer..."

"Did they really work that thoroughly back then?" I asked, amazed. "Sending in a watchman for the sake of some peasant and his cattle?"

Semyon smiled. "I did all sorts of work back then. This peasant's son was an Other, and he asked us to step in to help his father - he almost made himself a noose out of that rope... So anyway, I moved in, all on my own, got myself some property, even started cozying up to a certain little widow lady. But at the same time I was searching, and I realized I was on the trail of an ancient witch, very well disguised, not a member of any Watches and not registered anywhere. It was really fascinating, just imagine. A witch who was two or three hundred years old. She had accumulated as much power as a first-level magician. And there I was playing at Nat Pinkerton... detecting... I felt ashamed somehow to call in the Higher Magicians to help. And gradually, bit by bit, I turned up clues, and put together a list of suspects. One of them was actually the young widow I found so attractive..."

"Well?" I asked, entranced. Semyon certainly liked to stretch the truth a bit, but this story seemed like the real thing.

"That's all there is," Semyon sighed. "There was a rebellion in Petrograd. Then the revolution. So you can imagine, there were more important things to deal with than cunning witches. Human blood was flowing in rivers. I was recalled. I wanted to go back and find the old hag, but I never had the time. And then they flooded the entire village and everybody was resettled. Maybe that witch isn't even alive anymore."

"Frustrating," I said.

Semyon nodded. "And I've got an entire wagonload of stories like that. So there's no need for you to go working overtime on this one."

"If you were a Dark One," I admitted, "I'd definitely think you were trying to divert suspicion from yourself."

Semyon just smiled. "I'm not a Dark One, Anton. As you know perfectly well."

"And you don't know anything about the initiation of human beings," I sighed. "And I was really hoping..."

Semyon turned serious. "Anton, let me tell you something. The girl I loved more than anything in the whole world died in nineteen twenty-one. She died of old age."

I looked at him, but didn't dare risk a smile. Semyon wasn't joking.

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