It’s Storytelling day, and I have a short story for you all. This one is about a year old. I finished it and sent it off on the rounds to the usual suspects. No one nibbled, and I’m not sure I can blame them. But still, it’s grist for the mill, right?
This is fantasy — urban fantasy, which starts from a relatively shopworn fantasy trope (the Mayan Long Count Calendar expires in 2011-2012ish time, and then the whole world changes and magic comes back yadda yadda yadda) in use most prominently in Shadowrun, but takes a real world approach on it. It’s not magical warriors throwing spells in the darkness that would most show a change from a scientific world to a fantasy world, it’s the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Or in this case, the automobile industry.
*** *** *** ***
“May I have your attention, please? We’ve been informed that our fight has been accepted at Manchester International Airport, and we expect the spirits to be cooperative in landing. That will put our gate arrival at 4:33, which is about ten minutes from now. If you could please return to your seats, our flight attendants will begin preparing the cabin for landing. When directed, please cease all portable electronic or magical activity, return your tray tables and seat backs to their full upright position, and place yourself in a conducive frame of mind for landing. We thank you for riding the spirits with American today.”
Donald muttered, closing his notebook computer. Next to him, Ellen stretched, half-smiling. “Don’t look so sour,” she said. “This was a pretty good flight. I remember once I flying from Chicago to Arcadia. This pack of sylphs decided to play dodgeball using the left wing—”
“Whatever,” he snapped. “Better put your orchestra away. The wind might not like classical music.”
Ellen shook her head slightly, turning the orchestra off and slipping it into her bag. “You know, you’d better get in a better frame of mind.”
“Why? Or we’ll crash?”
“Maybe. But even if we don’t, we’re supposed to meet Markham in two and a half hours. It might be a good idea to drop the whole ‘the spirit world hates me’ attitude before then.”
Donald snorted. “I didn’t ask to be sent to New England.”
“No, you asked to be promoted to Senior Executive in Customer Relations. You happy with our customer relations right now, Donnie?”
“Whatever.” Ellen rubbed her eyes. “Look. I plan to still have a job next week. Want to postpone your dramatic flameout until then?”
Donald rubbed his eyes. “Can’t we just take the Twenties off before the rules change again?”
“The Twenties?” Ellen sounded amused.
“There’s seven billion people on this planet who say it’s Twenty Twenty-four. Just because a few witch doctors say it’s ‘year Twelve—'”
Ellen shrugged. “If you haven’t figured out that means the seven billion are wrong, I’m not going to correct you. I’d enjoy redecorating your office too much.”
“Excuse me, sir,” the flight attendant said, leaning over the pair. “I need you to put your seat back up and calm down? If you’re having trouble, there’s relaxing music on channel four on your headphones and meditation techniques on the back of your Emergency Information Card—”
“I know the drill,” Donald said, curtly.
“Okay! I’ll check on you in a few minutes.” Donald knew if he couldn’t at least fake relaxation, she’d have him sedated.
Donald shifted his seat upright, and folded his hands in front of him. He took a deep breath, focusing on the green dot embroidered on the back of the seat in front of him. He slowly breathed out, and back in, continuing to focus… burying his negative emotions so the spirits wouldn’t be offended as the plane slid through their backyard.
There were a lot of old cars in New Hampshire. That was a change from the glory days of the Nineties and Naughts. Cars used to rust out quickly in New England. They had used salt on their roads and the temperature extremes were hard on engines. People had good reason to trade cars. These days, old cars could last forever if they were well taken care of.
“Hello there,” the Hertz representative said, cheerfully. “Are you two traveling together?”
“Yes,” Ellen said, passing over her Hertz card. “We’ve got a reservation for a Ford Mythic?”
“Oo — one of our luxury cars.” The representative grinned. “You’ll enjoy it. It’s got a platinum orchestra and a built in guide.”
“We’re aware,” Donald said dryly, handing over his platinum Corporate Card. The one from Ford.
“So I see,” the representative said, laughing.
“Mm. Tell me something,” Donald said. “Have you noticed any… problems, with your cars?”
The representative blinked. “Problems?”
“Mysterious breakdowns? Airbags deploying for no reason? Orchestras playing only Disney songs?”
“No. No, nothing like that. Really, everything’s going great. Why — is there some problem with Fords?”
“With Fords, no.” With all cars, yes, Donald didn’t add. But not rental cars. Or old cars. That’s what made it a mystery.
The Hertz representative shrugged. “Well, I’ve never heard of it. Oh — wait, yes I have. My neighbor Todd? He’s in real estate. Anyway, he got this new BMW — oh, it must have been six or seven months ago. I guess it’s been in the shop six or seven times in the last couple of months. Last time they gave him faulty tires. I guess he went out to go to work in the morning, and they were all flat. Every last one of them.”
“Mm. Sounds like bad luck.”
“Well, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,” the representative said, eyes gleaming. “He was positively lording that car over us for a couple of months. I love driving my nice, reliable Accord past his place every morning. Had it nine years, and not problem one.”
“Sounds nice,” Donald said, blandly. “Are we ready to go?”
“Oh, absolutely. Just sign right here.”
Everett Markham’s estate was on an old farm. Donald noticed it was in production as they turned onto the private road and drove to the main house. There was a dairy herd and it looked like were operating a maple sugar farm.
“He does pretty well for himself,” Donald said.
“What? It’s true. This is a nice piece of property.”
“Donald, he’s a Peer. He could have a floating castle of glass if he really wanted it.”
“It’s so funny you think I haven’t noticed the Crystal Duchess’s quaint little sky cottage back home.”
“Don’t.” Ellen’s voice had grown an edge. “Don’t you get snotty about the Crystal Duchess.”
“I’m sorry. Strike a nerve?”
“Damn right. I lived in old world Detroit. If you want to go back to those days, please feel free.”
“I want to go back to being free.”
“You know, poor people say they’re a lot more free now.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Now that I think about it, I pretty much do whatever I want outside of work. And if I get sick of working, I’m not worried I’ll lose my house or starve.”
“Jesus Christ. We’re not having this conversation.”
“In fact, the only people who’ve lost freedom lately are people like you. The ones who had wealth and power in the old world. You guys aren’t free to mess around with the environment or peoples’ pension funds any more, are you?”
“That’s enough.” Donald’s voice was harsh. “You are this close to being fired.”
“For having an opinion?”
“For continuing to talk about it when I said to drop it! That’s one the Crystal Duchess would agree with!”
Ellen narrowed her eyes, then looked away. “Consider it dropped, Mister Gaines.”
Donald took a deep breath. He considered trying those relaxation techniques again. “I’m sorry, El,” he said after thirty seconds or so. “You’re probably right. It just strikes a nerve.”
“Maybe it should,” Ellen said, not looking at him.
“Look, I didn’t invent the rules. But I spent my whole career working under them. I got good at it. I had plans and a future and I knew that whatever happened, things would work out more or less like I expected them to. And then….”
“And then the old world died in 2012, and the New World was born, and all the rules went out the window,” Ellen relented, turning to look at him. “Donnie… it was like that for all of us. When the Mayan clock struck midnight and the New World began… it blew us away. But we live here now, and you’ve got to acclimate to that. It’s been twelve years.”
“Twelve years…” he shook his head. “You know, I was at Ford when they changed the cars.”
Ellen didn’t answer. She clearly didn’t know what to say.
“It started in Seattle. The Gaian Witch had started small. Walking down the streets, touching cars. Doing… I don’t know. Whatever they do. One minute they were normal, and the next they didn’t need gas, didn’t need oil, never wore out….”
“Didn’t she get sued?”
“Like she cared. Like any of them cared. Yeah, she got sued. Sued by the car companies and the gas companies. They got the government to issue an injunction. And when she ignored it they issued an injunction to the Peerage to stop her.”
Ellen smiled, not unkindly. “And the Peerage responded by changing all the automobiles, everywhere.”
“Yes, they certainly did. Yes, they certainly did.” He shook his head again. “Twelve years. And I’m just making Senior Executive in an industry that’s being rendered obsolete. And now the cars we are managing to sell are failing for no good reason.”
“There’s a reason, all right. We just don’t know what it is.” Ellen put her hand on Donald’s arm. “That’s why we’re here; to find out why it’s happening so we can fix it.”
“If we can fix it, you mean.”
“Well, yes. If we can fix it.”
A seventeen year old girl met them at the door. She wore a grey tunic with the device of a black cat on it — Markham’s livery — and a black knee length skirt. And comfortable looking sneakers with white socks, Donald noticed. That was good at least. The Crystal Duchess’s servants wore boots that looked like ankle breakers to Donald. If we have to work with Markham, he might as well not be a bastard.
“You’re Mister Gaines and Ms. Tanner?” the girl asked.
“That’s right,” Ellen said. Donald knew to let her do most of the talking in the house, given his biases.
“Hi there.” She grinned. “My name’s Becky. The Shaman told me to expect you. He’s busy right this second, but he wanted me to make you two comfortable until he was ready.”
“Thanks,” she looked around the house. It was a big colonial. It would have looked at home in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, barring the light bulbs. “This is a beautiful place.”
“Thank you.” Becky’s grin widened. “Of course, you don’t have to vacuum it.”
“And thank God for that.” Ellen’s face faltered. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Becky said. “The Shaman’s not dogmatic. He doesn’t care whose name you take in vain.” Becky led them through the entryway, into a large living room armchairs and a couch in front of a beautiful coffee table angled to face a huge fireplace. They looked like antiques in pristine condition. Donald didn’t doubt they were. The Peerage weren’t known for denying themselves creature comforts.
“Tyler,” Becky said sharply, suddenly. “You know better.” She leaned down over one of the chairs, scooping up an armful of fur. Tyler seemed to be a Maine Coon Cat, squirming as she picked him up. “Sorry,” she said. “They think they own the place.”
“Don’t they?” Donald asked. “You’re wearing a cat logo on your clothes. They’re not wearing a human logo on their collars.”
Ellen shot Donald a look, but Becky laughed. “The Shaman’s totem is the cat. He likes having them around, and they like being around, But they claw the furniture and they shed.”
“And you have to vacuum it up?”
“How’d you come to work here?” Donald asked, sitting down.
“Oh, I volunteered,” Becky said. “We all did. The towns all offer volunteer workers, and he gives his services to us in return. He says that’s the Shamanic tradition.”
“But you’d have to do what he said, anyway,” Donald said. “Wouldn’t you?”
“Well, he’s pretty hands off when it comes to how we live. People seek him out for things, usually. Unless someone’s hurting his neighbors or pissing off the spirits.”
“Right.” Donald shut up then, before he got in trouble. How would the mundane people of the domain know when the spirits were pissed off, except when Everett Markham told them? “So you volunteered?”
“Oh yeah. You work here for four years, and you get four years free tuition at one of the colleges inside the domain. I’m shooting for Bowdoin.” She grinned. “You know how cool a free ride at Bowdoin would be?”
“Bowdoin’s in Markham’s domain?” Donald asked. “I didn’t think it extended that far east.”
“It goes to Freeport, ’cause he wanted L.L. Bean’s, I think.” Becky grinned again. “Bowdoin’s kind of a border case — but we have an exchange program. The Shaman’s policy is meant to bring a higher caliber of student into Saint Joseph’s and Plymouth State College.”
Donald nodded. He already knew that. “He’s not upset you’re not going to one of those?”
Becky grinned. “He says that it’s my path to choose, and putting up with him for four years means I get cut a lot of slack. In his words.”
“Can I get you guys something to drink? A cup of tea, maybe?”
“That’d be wonderful,” Ellen said.
“Sure. Be right back.”
Donald watched her go, then watched Ellen sit down across from him. “She seemed nice,” he said.
“Donald…” Ellen said, with a warning in her voice.
Donald raised his hands. “I’m being good.”
Unlike most of the house, Everett Markham’s office was downright messy. Piles of books and papers were everywhere, with overstuffed bookshelves and various knickknacks ranging from plastic toys to bird nests. And cats, of course. Everett Markham himself was stocky, but not overweight. He was maybe five-eleven, and had long salt and pepper hair. He wore several long, thin braids with beads, and beaded necklaces positively festooned his neck. That, a green tee shirt and jeans, and a slightly weathered face with a close cut beard set the stage. He looked like a thirty year old hippy.
Except he was a hippy you couldn’t take your eyes off of, and if the dossier were accurate, he was pushing fifty now. When you weren’t in the room with one of the Peerage, you could pretend they were just another human being with some strange additions. Confronted with the reality, you just couldn’t ignore them. Everett Markham was one of the cornerstones of the New World, and looking at him, you knew it.
“I’m sorry you had to wait,” he said, shaking both of their hands. “There was some trouble on the Sebago that needed resolving.
“Sebago Lake? I thought that was on the Maine side,” Ellen said.
Markham’s smile firmed slightly. “Actually, it’s not really Maine or New Hampshire anymore. We call it Rolandshire.”
“After someone?” Donald asked, professional smile firmly in place.
“My father. He wasn’t impressed. Thought it silly.” Markham shrugged. “I don’t indulge too many of my whims. That one seemed harmless.”
“Of course,” Ellen said, smoothly. She shooed a cat off a chair and sat down. “Lord Shaman… we need your help.”
Markham nodded. “Most people who seek me do. I usually stick to my domain, though. They provide for me, and I provide for them.”
“We understand that,” Ellen said. “But we understand you might have better insight into our specific problem.”
“Mm. Yes. The cars. Why don’t you go over it for me?”
“It’s really quite serious,” Donald said. “After the… incidents of 2014….”
“Year two,” Ellen cut in hurriedly.
“Actually, the Peerage Action in question was in year three,” Markham said, with a slight smile. “The calendars don’t quite sync up. But I knew what he meant. Go on, Mister Gaines.”
“Thank you. Anyway, when the bottom dropped out of the domestic market—”
“Miss Tanner,” Markham said, his tone less amiable, “please don’t keep interrupting. I’m more interested in what Mister Gaines has to say than making sure it’s said politely.”
“I… of course. I’m sorry, Lord Shaman.”
Markham nodded, turning back to Donald. “Go on.”
“Well, we received guidelines from the Peerage on how to manufacture cars after they — you — changed how they work. What was necessary, and what wasn’t. The symbolic elements needed, and how they matched up with traditional, old world parts.”
“Mm. Go on.”
“Well, the market for new cars got dicey. Since older cars weren’t wearing out — and since they didn’t consume much of anything except windshield washer fluid — people weren’t as interested in buying new ones. There was a flurry after we introduced the first several new models — people liked the larger interior room since fuel mileage and emissions were no longer relevant. But lots of others liked buying and keeping used cars.” Especially since they cost so much less, he added mentally. “After three or four years the big automakers got in trouble. Us, the Japanese, the Germans, the Koreans….”
“But you’re still here,” Markham said. “Clearly, Ford managed to survive.”
“Barely. We went aggressively after a very specific market.”
“Which market was that?”
“The upscale customer, interested in projecting a specific image.”
“Ah.” Markham smiled. “You went after the conspicuous consumers.”
Ellen half-smiled. “Exactly. The people who lease instead of buy, to make sure they always have the very newest cars, the very best and brightest.”
“We had an uphill battle, because we were competing with established luxury brands,” Donald said. “But we already owned Jaguar and Aston Martin, and we aggressively designed and developed, and we made sure to cut our overseas production instead of domestic. That meant something to people who still believed in America, and it carried over into the Six Nations.”
“We also have economy of scale,” Ellen said. “We produce a lot of cars, meaning that Fords are on the rental lots, in the limo companies… it’s less expensive for the companies who buy in bulk, and that transfers to a luxury experience that middle management can afford. We cut into Acura and the lower end of BMW that way.”
“So what’s the problem,” Markham asked.
Donald bit his lip. “They’re breaking down.”
Markham arched an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“The luxury cars. They’re breaking down. Failing. At first, we thought we had a defective product line. We spent a lot of money on computer modeling and even got some prognostications done, but it all came back negative. And then we started hearing it wasn’t just us.”
“Ford, you mean?”
“That’s right,” Ellen said. “Ford, GM, Honda, Lexus, BMW… all of them were having problems. And not consistent ones. Sometimes components fail. Sometimes parts break out of nowhere. And sometimes people die.”
“Die?” Markham frowned.
“Unexplained crashes. Sometimes the seat belts, airbags and brakes all fail at once. Statistically, it should be impossible.”
Markham waved his hand dismissively. “Statistics are garbage,” he said. “Irrelevant to the New World.”
“Our scientists and mathematicians—”
“Your scientists and mathematicians are still using ‘sciences’ from the old world. They don’t apply. Give them a few hundred or thousand years, and they’ll work out sciences for this world.” Markham half-smiled. “Just in time for the next long cycle to pass and another world to be born.”
“We’re doing the best we can,” Donald insisted. “But nothing we do helps. We thought that maybe we’d offended one of the Peerage… maybe walked into a curse, but when we petitioned the Crystal Duchess, she checked and said we were clean.”
“So why didn’t she figure out what was wrong?”
“She couldn’t be bothered,” Donald said. “She doesn’t like old world mechanical devices. She likes her own crystal clockworks.”
Markham nodded. “Bethany’s a sweet girl, but she wants a fairy tale kingdom. This isn’t her style.”
“But it is yours?” Donald asked.
Markham shrugged. “I’m not a mechanic, but I speak to the spirits of technology.”
“So… you can help?” Ellen asked.
Markham shrugged. “I can consult the spirits, and see what’s bothering them.”
“In automobiles?” Donald asked. “They’re manmade.”
“So’s a baby, but you’ll agree those are alive, won’t you?” Markham smiled wryly.
“That’s wonderful,” Ellen said. “When can you start?”
Markham arched an eyebrow. “I don’t have any reason to, yet.”
“Oh. Oh, I thought you said—”
“I said I can speak to the right spirits and see what’s bothering them. I didn’t say I would. My responsibilities are in Rolandshire, not the Crystal Duchess’s domain.”
“Your people drive cars, don’t they?”
“And if one of them has a problem, they can ask me to look into it. Ford Motor Company’s not in my domain, and I don’t really care if it goes out of business or not.”
“Thousands of people work for Ford,” Donald said, curtly.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll be provided for,” Markham said. “Fairy tales work better when everyone lives happily ever after.”
“Is that why people work the fields in your domain?”
“I happen to think people are happiest when they work,” Markham said mildly. “But none of my people go hungry or want for something to do. You’re not giving me reasons. Shall we end this petition now and save us all some time?”
“No,” Ellen said, sharply. She then controlled herself. “No, Lord Shaman. We have a proposal for you.”
“Money?” Markham snorted. “I don’t use it.”
No, of course not. You’re given whatever you want, Donald thought. “Not money, no. Something of greater interest to you, we hope.” He opened his briefcase, and took out a file folder. “We’ve got one hundred straight A students from the Detroit/Windsor area. Top students, good SATs, ready to go to college. The Crystal Duchess has granted permission for those students to travel here — half for Plymouth State College, half for Saint Joseph’s College, in a variety of fields. Ford Motor Company is prepared to subsidize all their expenses and provide grants to the colleges in question, then send another hundred students a year for the next eight years.”
Markham took the folder, scrutinizing it with interest. “What are the terms?”
“These hundred will be on their way immediately. The rest will come assuming our problem gets solved.”
Markham arched an eyebrow. “No, they’ll come regardless.”
“Look — we’re contracting for—”
“You’re contracting a Shaman for his advice, his insight, and his understanding. I will provide it. However, if you haven’t been cursed, something’s making the spirits upset. I can find out what it is, but it’s up to you to correct it. In the end, the spirits will do as the spirits will do.” Markham fixed his stare on Donald. “Your company will provide the students to my schools, regardless of whether you follow my advice or not. Is that clear?”
Donald shivered uncontrollably, caught in the stare. The power was palpable now. He felt like the Shaman was cutting him open, and examining his organs. He felt like a butterfly with a needle driven through it, mounting him to a board. “…yes,” he squeaked.
Markham relented, nodding. “Acceptable.”
“Though…” Donald adjusted his tie. “…though if Ford goes bankrupt, we can hardly subsidize college educations.”
Markham shrugged. “If Ford goes bankrupt, its shareholders had best not be stupid enough to bring a Shaman’s curse down upon their houses for ten generations. Are you a shareholder, Donald Gaines?”
Donald looked away. “I’ll have our lawyers revise the contracts.”
“Don’t bother.” Markham set the contract down. “The spirits of the contract have agreed to my terms. They did the moment you handed me the file.”
Donald blinked. “Your contract is with us.”
Markham shrugged again. “All things are alive, Mister Gaines. Who do you think is the authority? Your lawyers, or the contract itself?”
Donald took a deep breath. “Of course,” he said coldly. It’s just like the Gaian Witch. They don’t care about our laws, so why would they care about our lawyers?
“Good. It’s settled. We’ll leave tomorrow morning. I need to actually see one of the cars. Maybe more than one.”
“Of course,” Ellen said. “We have first class tickets out of Manchester to—”
“Not necessary,” Markham said. “We’ll walk.”
“It’s… quite a distance,” Donald said. “We’re on a tight schedule….”
Markham smiled a bit.
Donald clenched the arms of his chair, but forced himself to remain calm. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m old fashioned. I don’t have your perspective.”
“No. No, sadly you don’t. But maybe someday you will,” Markham said. “You’ll stay in the guest wing. Becky and Annabel will see to your needs.”
“We have a hotel in Laconia,” Ellen said.
“You’ll stay in the guest wing,” Markham repeated himself. “I’ll have your things brought and settle your bill. If you’ll excuse me, I have to make arrangements for our trip tomorrow. I need to ask formal permission of Bethany before we show up.”
“Thank you, Lord Shaman,” Ellen said, standing and offering a hand. “You have such a beautiful house, and we’re so excited you’re going to help us.”
“It serves my needs,” Markham said, shaking her hand briefly. “As does your contract. It’s been nice to meet you.”
Donald shook his hand and turned to follow Ellen out.
“Mister Gaines, wait a moment.”
Donald and Ellen paused.
“It’s all right, Miss Tanner. He’ll catch up with you.”
Ellen looked at Markham, before nodding slightly. She gave Donald a significant look — a glare, really — before walking out the door.
“She prefers Ms. to Miss,” Donald said, quietly.
“I prefer Miss and Mister, to Ms., Mistress, Madam or Master,” Markham said mildly. “You’re angry.”
“It’s… nothing to be concerned about, Lord Shaman,” Donald said. “I’m pleased we were able to come to terms.”
“I’m sorry the old world died, Mister Gaines. It wasn’t my idea.”
Donald blinked. “Excuse me?”
Markham looked sidelong at him. “You want so badly to live in the old world. I’m sorry you can’t. If I had a way, I’d send you there.”
“I… know that, Lord Shaman.”
“Perhaps.” He looked off to the side. “Your hostility calls spirits to you. Dark ones. They could plague you if you’re not careful.”
Donald worked his mouth. “I meant no offense, Lord Shaman.”
“You haven’t offended me.” He looked Donald in the eyes. “I don’t owe you my advice, but it is offered nonetheless.”
Donald shivered, and nodded. “Thank you, Lord Shaman.”
“What are you driving, these days?”
“What are you driving, these days?” Markham smiled a bit. “It’s not that hard a question, is it?”
“I… I’ve got an Olympic,” Donald said. “Perk of the job. I get a new car to drive every year.”
“And what’s gone wrong with yours?”
Donald took another deep breath. Nice and regular. In and out. “It’s fine, really.”
“But what isn’t fine?”
“It… the orchestra’s mistuned. I get things I don’t want. Latino music first thing in the morning. Organ music when I’m driving home. And the check engine light keeps going on, but of course there’s nothing wrong with the car. Hell, there isn’t even a real engine to check.”
Markham nodded slightly. “We’ll look at your car tomorrow.”
“We have several that have been returned….”
“They won’t tell me what I need to know. More importantly, they won’t tell me what you need to know. Yours will.”
“I wish that were true.” Markham sounded distant. “Enjoy dinner.”
It was drizzling the next morning. Markham led them out of the house, walking with an aspen wood staff in hand. It looked old, and weathered, untreated or finished in any way and worn from long use. He also wore a dark cloak, and sturdy traveling clothes, and had painted some kind of colored marks on his face.
Ellen, once she had let herself relax, had thoroughly enjoyed herself. She was animated and talkative with the servants, and had chatted almost conversationally with Markham that morning. Now, she was striding behind Markham, wearing her travel shoes instead of the pumps she had worn to the meeting. Donald had only brought dress shoes, but they were comfortable enough for walking.
The path they walked was crushed gravel, leading into the forest. The trees bracketed them as they walked. Underfoot, the crushed rock gave way to soil, and then tightly packed dirt. The trees were closer together, now, and low stone walls, made through piling in the New England way, were on either side. They got higher… more regular, the dirt path now cobblestoned… the stone walls now mortared… now brick instead of stone… now beginning to gleam with a golden shine of their own….
When they emerged from the alleyway, they were standing before Majestic Hall in Detroit. At the top of the gleaming crystal and gold stairs, dozens of the Crystal Duchess’s servitors stood at attention in their uniforms of satin and leather, while her crystal clockwork beings bowed in front of them.
“Everett,” the Crystal Duchess herself said. “Welcome. Welcome to my Shining Cities.” She was wearing an elaborate gown that matched her livery, floating above all the rest in a crystal sphere.
Markham smiled. “Bethany… you look wonderful, and you honor me with this display.”
“You’re such a dear,” she said, the ball drifting closer. She was radiantly beautiful, of course, and like always Donald couldn’t tear his eyes off her. This time, she was much closer, and the effect was exponential.
And yet, despite Markham’s dark clothing and primitive face paint, his sheer presence was equal to the Crystal Duchess. She knew it too, ignoring clothing she would never permit a subject to wear in her vicinity and greeting him like a beloved brother too long away. “So, have my subjects behaved themselves in your domain, Everett? The honor of the Shining Cities are at stake.”
“No worries,” Markham said, mildly. “Their problem intrigued me, and we came to acceptable terms. I thank you for allowing so many of your best and brightest students to travel to Rolandshire.”
“Think nothing of it. There are hundreds of thousands of citizens in my cities. You have chosen a domain that is sparsely populated. The least I could do is help you balance that equation.” She winked coquettishly.
“I’m happy with my woods and fields. You should see them. Perhaps in time for fresh apple cider and maple sugar candies?”
“You tempt me. When you’re done with this problem of Ford’s, won’t you come and tour Majestic Hall and the Shining Cities? Won’t you?”
Markham smiled a bit. “I pledge three days and nights to seeing your glorious domain, if you will grant me the same in my humble one.”
“Done and done. I’ll expect a chance to ride a horse.” She clapped her hands, the bubble popping and the Duchess drifting to the ground. She took the Shaman’s hands and almost bounced like a little girl. “It’s so good to see you, Everett.”
“You too, Bethany. You too.”
Donald forced his eyes away from their combined glory and took out his phone. He punched in a speed dial code.
“Mister Steele? Donald Gaines. We’re back in town, at the foot of Majestic Hall. Send a car as soon as you can — the Shaman’s with us.”
“What? Why didn’t you call me last night?”
“I couldn’t get a signal.”
“So why didn’t you call me from the hotel?”
“The Shaman insisted we stay overnight, and they don’t have a phone.” Donald rubbed the bridge of the nose. “Just send something ASAP. He’s chatting with the Crystal Duchess right now, but when he’s ready—”
“The Crystal Duchess is there too?” Steele sounded shocked. “Damn it, Donald.”
“Just hurry. I need to get back to him.”
“Go. Go.” Steele hung up.
The car was there ten minutes later. The peers talked for fifteen minutes after that, then separated with more promises to spend time together.
Markham looked the car over as they approached. “A Ford Olympic,” he said.
“Only the best for you, Lord Shaman,” Ellen said.
“Not yours, though?” Markham asked Donald.
“No. No, this is a limousine, Lord Shaman.”
Markham nodded, sliding into the opened door. “Tell me, have the limos had similar problems?”
“No, Lord Shaman,” Ellen said, sliding across from him. Donald slid next to her.
“What about rentals? You mentioned you sold a lot of rental cars….”
“No. Rentals have had no unusual problems.”
“Which is itself unusual, don’t you think?” Markham was looking off to the side, lost in thought or in the spirit world again.
“We can’t explain it,” Donald said.
“Mister Steele is expecting us at the headquarters,” the driver said.
“No,” Markham said, absently. He looked out the window, watching the clockwork servants and liveried servitors dispersing. “Take us to Mister Gaines’s house.”
“Do it,” Donald said.
The driver looked at the Shaman, shivered, then forced himself to turn around and begin driving.
“Have you known the Crystal Duchess long,” Ellen asked, quietly.
“Mm? In the spirit world. We’ve never met face to face before now.”
“She seemed… very glad to see you.”
“She was. And I was glad to see her. We’re spread too thin, for comfort.” He watched Majestic Hall recede into the distance. “It’s… nice, to meet in person.”
Donald didn’t have an answer for that.
“Mister Steele. Donald Gaines.” Donald was pacing in the carport. His new model Y13 Ford Olympic was there, bigger than life. And the Shaman was lying on the cement floor, eyes open but unseeing, next to it.
“Don. Where the Hell are you? We expected you in Dearborn two hours ago. We had to have the caterers put the finger sandwiches back in the coolers.”
“Sorry. Markham wanted to go to my house.”
“He wanted to look at one of the affected cars that someone still owned, instead of one of the returns. And he knew I owned one.”
There was a pause. “I didn’t know you were having problems with your car. A Mythic, isn’t it?”
“Jesus. Just what we need. We can’t even keep our own executives on the road when they’re driving our best cars.” By best, he meant most expensive.
“Yeah, well. I haven’t exactly been telling people about it.”
“Good. You want to know what drives me insane?”
“Our Aston Martin division just does the Vantage and the Lagonda now, and they pretty much only sell to rich old James Bond fans. We sell a few hundred a year, tops. And not one of them’s failed.”
“Really?” Donald looked at the Shaman, who was still lying like a board on his floor. “Why don’t we just mass produce those instead of putting out a few hundred thousand dollars a year in scholarship money?”
“Wouldn’t work,” Steele said. “Remember when we closed the Jaguar division and released the new Ford Jaguar?”
“The first two or three thousand that went off the line had no problems to speak of. Every other had worse problems than the Mythics. We managed to laugh it off — Jags had a reputation for being in the shop all the time anyway — but when Hondas and Chevys from twenty years ago never go in the shop, people lose interest in a prestige car they can’t drive.”
“So what’s Markham doing?”
“He’s… lying on the floor. He looks dead.”
“Nah. He called it ecstatic projection. He’s in the Spirit World chatting my car up, I guess.”
“Oh, sure. Are you keeping him happy?”
“Who knows?” Donald took a deep breath. In and out, in and out. “Mister Steele… he’s going to be satisfied. Period. If he doesn’t like something, he changes it. It’s why we’re here instead of in Dearborn. It’s why we didn’t stay at the hotel, and why we walked back to Detroit.”
“You walked from New Hampshire to Detroit in a morning?” Steele chuckled. “Twelve years into this, and that never stops amazing me.”
“Yeah. It was the time of my life. I’ll call you back when he comes out of the trance.”
“Do. Don’t screw this up, Donald.”
“Doing my best, Mister Steele.” But the boss had already hung up. Donald put his phone away and folded his arms.
“He’s not happy?” Ellen asked.
“They didn’t get to show off the ice sculptures,” Donald said. “How happy could he be?”
“Mm.” Ellen looked at Markham, who was still lying on the floor. “Hey, I didn’t know your car was having trouble.”
“What’re you driving?”
“These days? I got a sweet Mustang about three years ago. That car’s my baby.”
“Nope. I had an old Saturn before that. I gave it to my kid brother for his high school graduation. He’s still got it.”
“You could have gotten him a new Ford Volvo,” Donald said mildly. That was their current marketing blitz — make their first car a safe car, pushing the Ford Volvo sedans toward students and the Ford Volvo wagons to young families.
“Why would I do that, when I had an old Saturn in good shape?”
“Yeah yeah. Come on. I’m starved. Want me to call out for pizza?”
The pizza had just arrived when Markham walked in from the garage. He looked relaxed and cheerful, like he’d just had a good workout. “That smells good,” he said.
“Help yourself,” Donald said. “How’d it go?”
“Pretty well,” Markham said, scooping up a slice of pepperoni. He practically devoured it. “I always get hungry after walking the spirit world. It was six days from my point of view.”
“Really?” Ellen asked, “what’s it like?”
“What did you find out? Can you help us?” Donald’s stomach was knotted.
“Can I help you? No. But I know how you and your customers can help yourselves.” Markham took another bite, chewing and swallowing .
“What do we need to do?” Ellen asked.
“The spirits are offended, Miss Tanner. They must be made happy or they will continue to make mischief.”
“That mischief is killing people,” Donald snapped.
“Not to mention killing your last profitable division?” Markham asked mildly.
“What do we need to do?” Donald demanded. “How do we stop it?”
Markham didn’t react to Donald’s vehemence. He took another piece of pizza, and nibbled, considering his words. “You need to pay attention to your car, Mister Gaines. You and all your customers.”
Donald blinked. “What?”
“Think of a spirit like a puppy, or a three year old child, who’s being ignored and neglected. Eventually, it starts making trouble so someone will pay attention. It starts small — mistuning the orchestra, misguiding to destinations, putting on the check engine light — then starts breaking down. Developing faults. Finally, it gets upset and becomes violent. Crashing, and refusing to protect the passengers.”
“I… don’t understand,” Ellen said. “My car doesn’t do any of that.”
“Do you own a luxury car? Do you get a new one every year?”
“No, I have a Mustang.”
“And let me guess. You lavish it with care.” Markham smiled slightly. “It feels like a part of your life. And families who don’t care about having the best status symbols on the block rely on their cars. Sometimes they live out of them. They certainly spend a lot of time and energy on them, because they’ve got them for the long haul.
“But your luxury customers — specifically, the customers you’re most actively courting — don’t care about their cars at all. Someone else cleans them. They drive them to be seen in them. They do it to keep up appearances with their neighbors. And a year later, they let them go and start all over. The cars don’t like that, and so they’re acting out.”
Donald stared. “Our cars… are upset… because we don’t treat them like pets?”
“All things are alive, Mister Gaines.”
Donald sank back into his chair, hulled. He rubbed his face. “How do we make them happy? What do we have to do to them?”
“Your company? Nothing. But you have to have your owners care about their cars. It would help if they gave them names. Miss Tanner — does your car have a name?”
“My Mustang?” She smiled, almost blushing. “I call it Baby.”
“There you go. I can detail simple daily and weekly procedures for your customers to follow. Ways to make the spirits feel appreciated.”
“Wait — what about rental cars?” Donald demanded. “Why aren’t those ‘acting out?'”
“They’re taken out for a few days, then returned, washed and detailed, and gone over by mechanics before being prepared for the next customer,” Markham said. “They feel important. The same with limousines. They are the foundation of their businesses, so they’re treated with care.”
“So you… you’re actually saying we have to bond with our cars. We have to…” Donald threw his pizza across the room. “Damn it.”
“Donald,” Ellen snapped, horrified. “What are you—”
Markham was unruffled. “It won’t be hard,” he said. “Really, many businesses and their customers have had to learn to treat the spirits with respect to stay in business. Think of the rituals used on airplanes to mollify the spirits of the air and wind, or the rituals to keep gremlins and glitches out of manufacturing. You must use them yourself in your—”
“Don’t you get it?” Donald shouted. “Don’t you understand? We don’t want them bonding with their cars! We don’t want them naming them and spending time with them! People who care about their cars won’t replace them until they wear out, and cars don’t wear out any more!”
Markham looked down. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “Surely, there will still be a market for—”
“For trucks? For rental cars? Sure, for a while. But for consumer cars? Only when attrition and accidents make it too difficult to get a good used car cheaply.” Donald put his head in his hands. “Jesus, cars will become niche products. Handmade. The sort of thing you buy maybe twice in your life, and both of those used.”
Markham shrugged. “The death of the old world has changed many things.”
“You couldn’t leave us this? Who were we hurting? We weren’t polluting the environment any more! We weren’t causing trouble! We didn’t force anyone to buy Mythics or Olympics, for Christ’s sake! You couldn’t leave us this one market?”
“I didn’t cause this, Mister Gaines.”
“Then change the rules! You could change how cars worked before! Do it again! Make them happy just sitting in the damn garage!”
“We changed how automobiles operated in the physical realm. That was simple. But we cannot change the nature of spirits any more than you can, Mister Gaines.”
“This isn’t what we contracted you for!”
“As I told you before. You contracted a Shaman for his advice, his insight, and his understanding. You are receiving the benefit of all of those. What you do with that advice, insight and understanding is of no concern to me.”
“Jesus. No concern, he says.” Donald stood, fists clenched, wheeling to face Ellen. “He doesn’t care! Ford Motors, Honda, BMW, Chevy — they’re all just old world companies to him!”
“There are beautiful sea walls in Falmouth, back in Rolandshire,” Markham said. “But when the tide comes in they slowly erode away. I could strive to save them. I could shout away the spirits of the waters. I could reinforce the spirits of the sea walls. But in the end, I know that when the sea walls come down, the people of Rolandshire will build new ones. Walls meant to withstand the tide.” He fixed Donald with a look. “I do not choose to fight the tide, Mister Gaines. Not for them. Not for you.”
Donald whirled, hand cocked back to slap or punch Markham. But he didn’t follow through. He couldn’t follow through. He stared, and he hated, but he couldn’t strike the Shaman. He wanted to wipe the smug look off his face, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t possible. The universe wouldn’t allow it.
“Mister Gaines,” Markham said, evenly, “you are upset. I have chosen to make allowances for this. I suggest you find a way to comport yourself, before you say or do something I cannot make allowances for.” He turned to Ellen. “Let us step into the next room, and I will give you my recommendations. You can present them to your company officers, and they will make whatever decision they choose.”
“Right… sure.” Ellen looked at Donald. She was worried, but didn’t say anything. She simply led the Shaman into the next room.
Donald watched them go, dropping his arm helplessly. He looked back at the remains of their meal. With a harsh cry, he shoved the boxes and pizza onto the floor, and then sank down onto the kitchen tiles and cried.
Ellen found him in the garage. He’d taken his coat and tie off, and was sitting on an old lawn chair, staring at his Olympic. He’d opened the garage door, and the afternoon light was spilling in.
“Hey. I made coffee. Hope that’s okay.” She handed him a cup.
Donald clutched it, feeling the heat. “Where’s Markham?”
“Gone. He went to see the Crystal Duchess. Spend those three days with her. He gave me detailed instructions.”
“Did you call Steele?”
“Not yet. You?”
Donald shook his head. “He called me once, but I didn’t pick up.”
Ellen nodded, then looked at the car. “It really is a beautiful car, you know.”
“Of course it is. I get it detailed weekly.” He made a face. “That wasn’t good enough for you?” he said to the car. “That wasn’t good? You didn’t like getting all clean and shiny?”
Ellen sat on the door stoop. “It’s weird. Twelve years into the new world, and talking to your car still seems insane.”
“Do you talk to yo— to Baby?” Donald asked.
“Well, yeah. Sometimes.” Ellen took a sip of her own coffee. “I guess I just didn’t realize she was listening.”
“Yeah.” Donald sipped his own. There was sugar in it. He didn’t say anything, though. “Well, you’ll get to redecorate my office now. You’ll look good in it, too.”
Ellen made a face. “I won’t tell Steele you freaked out at Markham. The Shaman didn’t care, so why should I?”
Donald waved his hand. “Not that. But trust me, when my name appears on a report saying we need to trash the only successful marketing campaign we have left, I’ll be packing cardboard boxes within the hour.”
“Then they’ll fire both of us, won’t they?”
“Nope. That would be an overreaction.” He looked down into his coffee cup. “Maybe working in the fields isn’t such a bad idea.”
“You’re not the farmer type.”
“No. I’m an old world executive. I’m as dead as Ford. It’s just neither of us have figured it out yet.” He sipped his coffee. “There’s nothing wrong with making and selling cars.”
“No. No there isn’t.”
“A car used to be a symbol. It said that you’d made it. You were a success. You had a shiny new car in the driveway.” He shook his head.
“We’ll adapt, Donnie. Ford will adapt.”
“Did Hyundai adapt? Did Kia? Do we still make Mercurys? Does Mercedes still make Chryslers?”
“People still drive, Donnie.”
“Yeah.” He gulped down the rest of his coffee. “People still drive. Someone will still be making cars. Just not so many.”
“Well… maybe that’s a good thing, you know? People are changing, just like the world changed. We’re becoming less….”
“Whoopie.” He stared at the Olympic. A big car, gleaming and black. A symbol of success, of wealth, of importance.
His new best friend, if he wanted to keep driving it.
“You know,” Ellen said, “Markham suggested that existing owners should replace their cars early — y’know, to end the bad relationship and start with a clean slate. We should have a pretty good quarter.”
“Especially because… well, there’s no reason for people to lease instead of buy, if they’re not going to replace their cars so quickly. More money for us, up front.”
“Up front, yeah. Though leases are more profitable. Especially when we sell the used car in the aftermarket.”
“Yeah, well.” Ellen sighed. “Maybe we won’t tell anyone.”
“And have it come out we held it back? We’d be sued for negligence.”
“Not to mention the chance we’d be haunted.”
“I remember when that was a joke.” Donald shook his head. “We’d better call Steele.”
“You want me to?”
Donald took a long breath. In and out. Focus. Calm. “Yeah,” he said. “Tell him I’m busy naming my car.”
Ellen nodded. “I’ll make it inside? Give you some privacy?”
Ellen went inside.
Donald turned back to the Olympic. “How’s Jezebel strike you? Will that seem teasingly ironic or will it piss you off and make you crash us some rainy night? Or maybe Hera. Hera lived on Olympus, and she was a jealous goddess, wasn’t she?”
Movement at the end of the driveway caught his eye. A cat — a somewhat scruffy looking calico — had paused in her neighborhood rounds to look inside the garage. She peered at Donald distrustfully.
Donald stared back for a long moment, then looked away. Satisfied, the cat sauntered away.