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The Authenticator by Greg van Eekhout

My face surprises her when she opens the door to her trailer, but I’m not surprised by hers. I know what I look like. I’ve got the best nose money can buy, but rubber’s no match for bone and flesh. I used to wear glasses so the frames would cover the seam where the nose meets the little bit of bridge I have left, but glasses are a pain in the butt since I lost my ears, so I don’t bother with them any more.

‘‘Ms. Bradford?’’ I say. I use my most charming smile, which is still pretty charming. The tension in her shoulders releases and she offers me a handshake. I return it with my left hand, which has the most fingers.

‘‘It’s Edelle, as long as you’re Barrett Mink and not some brush salesman.’’ She smiles with her mouth and her eyes and steps back to let me in.

Now it’s my turn to be surprised. The homes of thrift shop queens no longer faze me. I’ve met collectors and pack rats and hoarders, and I’ve seen walls so covered by commemorative dishes and tobacco-stained oil paintings that you couldn’t find so much as an inch of plaster between them. But Edelle Bradford’s trailer is something else. It’s a cave of bone. The walls are a mosaic of leg bones and knuckles and teeth and knobby bits. More of the same in curio cabinets, mixed in with the pots and pans in the kitchen, everywhere my eye falls. The bones are stained dark, coffee brown, the color of bones from the La Brea Tar Pits, the richest source of magic bones in Los Angeles. I have to duck under a chandelier of ribs to enter the room, and I am not a tall man. Her coffee table is an arrangement of tusks with a plywood slab on top.

She offers me a cigarette from a pack beside an ashtray fashioned from the crown of a skull.

‘‘Do you mind if I?’’ she asks when I decline.

‘‘Not at all.’’

A suspicious squint. ‘‘It won’t mess with your ability to smell? I thought that’s what you guys relied on.’’

‘‘Magic has very distinct smells. I can filter out the non-osteomantic ones.’’

The squint doesn’t go away entirely, and she puts the pack down without taking a cigarette.

I breathe and try to take it all in.

I smell her unfiltered palm cigs, and chamomile, bacon, windowsill dust warmed by the sun, Edelle’s lilac perfume, and, somewhere in this mess, a cat.

But not magic.

Magic is a finite resource, because the bones of extinct magical creatures are a finite resource. And the bones I’m seeing didn’t come from osteomantic creatures. Moving along a wall, I see dog, cat, possum, squirrel, chicken, pigeon, rat, coyote, epoxy, and wood.

I turn to give Edelle the bad news, but she waves a hand at me, like she’s swatting a fly. ‘‘I know it’s all a bunch of junk. I never spent more than ten crowns on any of it. I just like the way they look, is all. When I was a girl I used to think this is what castles looked like, and I don’t care what nobody says, I like my castle.’’

‘‘Okay.’’ The trailer seems warmer now that I know she isn’t deluded about the value of her counterfeit bones. On the other hand, I fought through an hour of canal traffic to get here, and it’ll be rush hour by the time I head back, and I still have to pick up my suit from the dry cleaner for my date tonight with the violin dealer I met at an auction last week. We bonded when we caught each other both trying not to smirk at the auctioneer’s excessive gavel banging.

‘‘So, what can I do for you, Edelle?’’

She installs me on the bench seat of the breakfast nook in the corner of her kitchenette, impresses a cup of tea on me, and retrieves a small object from the back of her spoon drawer. She sets a dime-sized coin made from carved horn atop the peeling laminate table surface.

skull1

‘‘Hm.’’ I slip on my white cotton gloves with most of the fingers snipped off so they don’t just dangle uselessly and put on a headband with magnifying glass and lamp affixed to it. One side of the coin has the Hierarch’s Wings and Tusks emblem. The other is a face in profile, worn away to little more than a chin and a nose, which is almost more face than I have.

Bone coins were popular in the mid-1800’s, before the Hierarch unified Southern California into a single realm and regulated the magic trade. Back then, money and magic were literally the same thing. Maybe they still are. Wealth gets you comfort and luxury. It gets you sex. It gets you access to better doctors. Money buys influence, the ability to exert your will over that of another and make people say and do what you want them to. How is money different than magic? I’m not sure it is. Magic is maybe a purer form of money, but it takes money to acquire magic.

I give the coin a good sniff and sense newness, freshness, the impression of the early sun and dew on a virgin day. It smells like magic.

I’m a professional magic authenticator, and I start to feel a little jazzy about things.

‘‘How’d you come by this, Edelle?’’

Edelle settles in and holds forth. She has a nail-file voice and the flare of someone who’s told the same story for years, and she’s put effort into perfecting her delivery. I like listening to her. She found the coin eight years ago at the Cerebral Palsy Foundation Thrift Shop, which used to be in a Quonset hut in Long Beach down by the cranes. Her hairdresser broke her leg and was down in the dumps because she couldn’t work, and Edelle was looking for something to cheer her up. She ended up with an oil painting of a rodeo clown getting chased by the bull, and the idea was her hairdresser was the rodeo clown and the bull was, you know, life, because you can clown around all you want and run from your troubles but that bull always gets you in the end. That’s Edelle’s philosophy, and it’s also a joke. So, she gets the painting home and she’s dusting the frame before giving it to the hairdresser when she notices the corner of the frame is coming apart, and she looks close and realizes there’s something stuck between the frame and the canvas.

‘‘The coin?’’ I ask.

‘‘You got it, Mr. Mink. And I didn’t know what it was, but I had a hunch it wasn’t a chunk of raccoon pelvis.’’ She flutters her hands in the air, indicating her bone decor. ‘‘So, first thing I do is get the phone book, and the first name I find is Abrams Osteomantic Appraisals.’’

Abrams.

Of course, Abrams.

I sip tea to cover anything that might be showing up on my face.

‘‘What did Mr. Abrams tell you?’’

‘‘He said it was definitely fossilized horn, probably from the La Brea Tar Pits, and maybe unicorn.’’

That was pretty hopeful of him.

Other than hydra regenerative, there is no more powerful medicinal magic than unicorn. Unicorn cures cancers and weak hearts and heals grievous wounds and even restores missing limbs.

She watches my reaction. I used to have a good poker face, but after the firedrake job, I’m not really sure what my face is doing anymore.

‘‘Did Mr. Abrams give you an appraisal?’’

‘‘He said he couldn’t. Not without knowing who dug up the bone and where it came from and what so-and-so carved it into a coin and who bought it from which-what and so on, right down the line, until it ended up in my old claws.’’

‘‘Provenance,’’ I say, trying to be helpful. ‘‘We determine authenticity through physical analysis, by comparison to proven, authenticated specimens, by actually using the magic contained in the osteomantic fossil, and by provenance. So, that presents us with some problems in your case. The physical properties of your coin are interesting, but inconclusive. It smells like magic, but that can be faked. Also, there is no known other horn of this type to compare it to. The best way to test authenticity is to actually use the magic. But magic’s a consumable. To test it, someone would have to eat it, and thus destroy it. So, that leaves us with provenance. You got it from a thrift shop. I don’t suppose you have any documentation?’’

‘‘I got this.’’

She shows me a receipt for the rodeo clown painting.

Disappointing.

‘‘Mr. Abrams is a very skilled authenticator,’’ I say, trying to break it to her gently. ‘‘He’s also an honest man.’’

She’s is not convinced. ‘‘Oh, is he? Most people I’ve asked to look at my horn won’t even give me three seconds of their time, wilted old hag like me, wanting to show them a unicorn horn I found in a clown painting from the Cerebral Palsy Foundation Thrift Shop. But Abrams? He tells me my unicorn’s probably fake, but he offers me a million crowns for it anyway.’’ She laughs a nicotine-ravaged alto.

‘‘You should have taken the money, Edelle.’’

‘‘A million crowns?’’ She gives me a contemptuous look. ‘‘If my unicorn is real, how much is it worth?’’

‘‘I’m not an appraiser. I’m an authenticator.’’

‘‘Give it your best shot, Mr. Mink.’’

I sigh and give it some thought. ‘‘Real unicorn horn, preserved in the tar pits … ? It’d be priceless, Edelle.’’

Still not satisfied, she presses. ‘‘Nothing’s priceless. A Van Gogh isn’t priceless. C’mon, Mink, find your balls and give me a number.’’

I can see why she’s been kicked out of a lot of shops.

‘‘Fifty million. Minimum. But that’s with provenance, comparable bone, proof that it’s not just magic, but unicorn magic. None of which you have, I’m afraid. You should have taken the million.’’

‘‘I don’t care about money,’’ she says, steel in her eyes. ‘‘It’s the principle of the thing. I have real unicorn, but nobody thinks a dishrag like me is smart enough to know what she’s got. Nobody thinks someone like me could possibly find something so precious. They laugh and lord their magical pedigrees over me. They think they’re doing me a favor by offering me a pittance.’’

‘‘A million crowns is not a pittance.’’

‘‘I know what a million crowns is. Not interested. I’m 73, I smoke, how I haven’t broken a hip is beyond me.’’ I honestly thought she was ten years older. ‘‘What would I do with fifty million? Or a million? Or a half million? It’s all the same to me. I want people to recognize the value of what I’ve got.’’ She pauses, searching for understanding in my obliterated face. ‘‘What would you do in my place, Mr. Mink? I suppose you’d sell it for a fraction of its true value?’’

I measure magic by crowns and cents. Edelle measures it by the respect she’s never been afforded, an old woman living in a crummy Long Beach trailer park.

Outside her little kitchen window, cranes lift cargo from boats and move cargo onto boats. The warehouses here used to be stuffed with crates of magic, dragon turtle bones from China, kraken spines, Pacific firedrake, smilodon, mammoth, Sierra griffin. Now it’s electronics and paper for the boxes they come in.

There’s really not much more for us to talk about. She tells me a funny story about how her hairdresser friend broke her leg (tripped on a bowling ball), I finish my tea, we shake hands, and I leave her disappointed but with her pride intact, and I crawl through the floating market beneath molded plastic globes made to look like paper lanterns, and I pick up my suit and return to my tidy, clean smelling apartment.

What would I do in her place, if I was offered good money for something I was sure was worth so much more? Why else would Abrams have offered her a million? He doesn’t get much work anymore. To raise that kind of money, he’d have to sell everything he had. Probably borrow from dangerous people, with no way to pay them back.

A huge gamble for Abrams. And one he couldn’t afford not to take.

Removing my nose, I look in the mirror and can only think about what I’m willing to do in my place.

Edelle keeps the bone in a kitchen drawer with her spoons. I could hire some kid to break into her place. I could do it myself. I’ve got half a face and six fingers, counting on both hands, and she’s an old woman with weak lungs and a calcium deficiency.

I could have the unicorn tonight.

I should take a shower before my date with the violin dealer.

Instead, I make a phone call to an old broker friend of mine.

‘‘Otis? It’s Barrett Mink. I have some stuff to sell. A lot of stuff.’’

Three days later, I’m back at Edelle’s apartment, this time with a brief case.

She invites me in, I duck under the chandelier of ribs, take a seat at the same place in her kitchen, put the brief case on the table, pop the locks.

‘‘Don’t bother,’’ she says, pushing a tea cup at me and blowing steam across her own. ‘‘Not unless there’s fifty million crowns in there.’’

‘‘I don’t have fifty-million crowns, Edelle. But I had some investments in magic bone I’ve accumulated over the years. Griffin, wyvern, basilisk … small bones, but of very fine quality. And some stocks, and some gold, and cash reserves from an insurance settlement. I don’t know if your unicorn coin is authentic or not. But there’s two million, six hundred and three thousand crowns in this brief case. It’s my final offer. My only offer. Because I literally don’t have another cent.’’

The pulse in my temples is so strong I wonder if Edelle can hear it through my ear holes.

She gives me a sympathetic smile that breaks my heart.

‘‘I’m asking you again, Mr. Mink. It could be worth fifty million, and I don’t care about money. You’re offering me two million and change. What would you do?’’

I’m not a man who carries wisdom up his sleeve. I don’t have a philosophy or a moral compass that I’ve ever bothered to put into words. I just have a life of experiences. Some sweet, some beautiful, and a few pretty awful. I tell her the most awful.

‘‘Mr. Abrams and I were partners,’’ I begin.

Seven years ago, he acquired a bone from an old osteomancer who needed quick cash. Abrams thought it was dragon, and I agreed. Exciting enough, because even the sliver he bought, about the size of a snapped-off pencil lead, was a year’s income for both of us. Where Abrams and I differed was he thought he had Pacific firedrake, an ancient, molten creature, whose remains were so rare that only one in a thousand authenticators ever comes across it. If it was Pacific firedrake, it was a king’s fortune. Now, the way to test for dragon is to take a tiny sample of it, not much more than a grain of sand, and expose it to open flame. Authentic dragon bone will give you nice big whoosh of fire, so you have to be careful.

And I was careful. I’m a professional.

I took all the precautions a good authenticator takes for testing dragon. But not good enough for testing Pacific firedrake.

‘‘My fingers. My ears. My nose. A lot of stuff I keep under my clothes.’’

‘‘It must have been painful,’’ Edelle says, with sympathy, but not pity. I do like her.

‘‘It was exactly like burning to death. Only not quite all the way. But that’s not why I want your coin, Edelle. Mr. Abrams’ daughter kept the books. And she was in the office next door. When the firedrake flame had enough of me, it went after her.’’

Edelle looks into her cup until the tea is cold. ‘‘You believe my unicorn is real.’’

‘‘I don’t, actually. But there’s a chance it is. A chance. I’m willing to gamble.’’

She looks at my briefcase. It doesn’t contain all the money in the world. Just all the money in mine.

‘‘You asked me what I would do if I had real unicorn, Edelle? Well, I wouldn’t sell it. Not for a million. Not for fifty million. Not for 150 fifty million. We learn to bear the wounds we suffer. But how do we bear the wounds we inflict? Your unicorn is priceless.’’

In a realm that includes the La Brea Tar Pits, with such a rich foundation in magic, an authenticator of osteomancy is an obscure but important person. My father was an authenticator, as his was his mother before him. I’ve been around magic and wealth all my life. I’ve passed judgment on bones for studio heads, for tycoons, for barons and dukes, and, once, for the Hierarch himself. I know what power looks like.

Edelle doesn’t look away from me, brave enough to face my pain.

And I look at her, this little woman with tobacco-stained fingers, with a smoker’s rasp and osteoporosis. This woman with the ability to grant and deny.

She goes to her spoon drawer.

I believed I’d seen power before. I believed I’d understood it.

Right now, with creases channeled in her face and old, proud eyes, as she puts the coin in the palm of my ruined hand, Edelle is the most powerful creature I have ever beheld.

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Greg van Eekhout’s novels include Norse Code, the middle-grade novels Kid vs. Squid and The Boy at the End of the World, and a fantasy trilogy beginning with California Bones, coming from Tor Books in June 2014. His work has been nominated for the Nebula, Andre Norton, and Locus awards. He lives in San Diego and can be found at www.writingandsnacks.com and on Twitter @gregvaneekhout.

Posted in fiction, Issue 11

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