Authors: David J. Schwartz
Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic
The Thirteenth Rib
Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic
The Thirteenth Rib
David J. Schwartz
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2013 David J. Schwartz
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by 47North
PO Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
For Haddayr, best friend and most outspoken fan
Table of Contents
A squirrel trap.
As Joy Wilkins climbed the stairs from Stagecoach Trail, she realized that the main building of Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic looked exactly like a squirrel trap. One of those two-door cages, where you put the bait inside on a levered platform; the ones that were supposed to be humane. The building was a long, rectangular box, with the roof sloping down at either end where the two big lecture halls stood and windows breaking up the main structure like squares in wire.
It had nagged at Joy for weeks, through all the interviews and orientations and receptions. She’d known that the building overlooking the St. Croix River reminded her of something, something to do with her dad, but she hadn’t been able to put her finger on it. Her dad had been a train engineer, so she kept trying to match the building to different types of railroad cars, without any success. But now she remembered how for three summers in a row squirrels had moved into their attic, and her dad would bring the trap up out of the basement to capture them. She remembered him bringing the occupied cage down from the attic, the squirrel scurrying around the inside in a panic. Joy used to sit in the backseat with the trap while they drove out to the suburbs to let it out. Her mom would put on Taj Mahal, because James Brown was too upsetting for the squirrels. They always let the squirrels out in the same park and stopped for hamburgers on the way home.
Squirrel Trap College, then. It wasn’t really any sillier a name than Gooseberry Bluff.
There were no gooseberry bushes on the campus, as far as Joy could tell. There were a couple of sixty-year-old red oaks, a dozen elms and maples, and a few stands of Norway pine. Each tree had half a dozen crows or more perched on it, and Joy could swear they were watching her — just like everyone else on the campus — waiting for her to screw up and give herself away.
It was a warm, clear day in late August, the first day of classes, and students were hanging around outside. Gooseberry Bluff was one of the highest ranked community colleges in the country, but most still viewed it as a starter school, so it attracted an odd mix: older students whose careers had hit a dead end; younger students who’d had less than impressive high school careers; international students seeking the prestige of an American education without the expense. A girl in a burka sat reading in the shade under the trees; others lay on the lawn in bikini tops and jean shorts, sunning themselves. An Asian boy lit a cigarette from a flame that he produced from the tip of his finger. Although this was small-town Minnesota, no one took a second glance at Joy’s brown skin and short natural haircut.
Joy paused to watch a pair of jugglers. They stood back-to-back, tossing red balls through a pair of spatial distortions about six feet in front of each of them — every time one juggler threw a ball through his gate it came sailing through the other’s.
Joy knew that this was small-scale stuff, temporary and requiring little preparation or concentration. She also knew that she couldn’t do it. Most of her own magical training had come late in life, aside from the skill she had been born with, and she had only really mastered a few things. The kids — not just kids, she reminded herself, spotting a middle-aged man with a backpack and a business suit — would know more than she did soon, if they didn’t already.
A small crowd gathered to watch the jugglers. Joy scanned the auras, not expecting to find much. There were about ten thousand students enrolled at Gooseberry Bluff, but Joy wasn’t expecting to find the person — or persons — she was looking for among them.
Someone was listening to a radio and shushed the crowd as a news report came on. “A Heartstopper,” someone said. Joy took a few steps closer to the radio.
“—attack was foiled by the KNPA in Seoul. The discovery was made less than an hour ago, and details are still coming in, but it appears that a downtown subway station was the target. We’ll have more on this story as it develops.”
Joy listened until it was clear that there was no more information on the story, and then she went inside.
The inside of the building was pleasantly cool after the hot sun. She checked the big clock in the lobby and hurried across to the open staircase ascending to the second floor.
. She squeezed her eyes and shook her head. She couldn’t do anything about that; not from here. She had to focus on the job at hand.
The college library was at the top of the stairs. As she was about to enter, she noticed a table next to the door and a sign above it:
Please spray hands and face
Joy stared at the antique perfume spray bottle on the table for a moment. Then, because she was not allergic, she just opened the library door and walked in.
The smell of books — wood pulp and ink and glue and just a touch of must — was so thick inside that for a moment after inhaling it Joy thought she might be drunk. She blinked and leaned against a nearby study table. Opposite the entrance, floor-to-ceiling windows looked out over the river to the east. Tables and reading chairs were set near the windows, but to either side of them the shelves extended as far as Joy could see — farther, she felt certain, than the length of the building itself.
She spotted the circulation desk and crossed over to it, but no one was there, and there was no bell or buzzer that she could see. She looked around for some kind of a reference desk. The place seemed to be deserted.
A gray-and-black cat leaped up onto the circulation desk next to her, glanced at her sidelong, and stretched its forepaws out in front of it. Joy could see that the wood was already lightly scratched in many places.
“Hello there,” she said.
The cat finished stretching its front legs, straightened up, and sat down in front of her.
“Are you the only one here?” she asked.
The cat curled its tail around its feet and stared at her.
Joy had heard of working animals. Supposedly the Canadians had wolves helping them with their border patrols, and there were all those rumors about the navy and its dolphins. She’d just read an article about a treaty that the Maasai had signed with the elephants of Kenya and Tanzania. She had never heard of a cat running a library, but she didn’t see anyone else here.
She looked around once more but saw nothing but the shadow of the bluff crossing the river and the stacks extending off into infinity. “So,” she said to the cat, “can I talk to you about placing some books on reserve?”
“He’s not much help with books unless they’re dangling from a string.” A tall man with dark hair graying at the sides approached the desk. He wore a pair of reflective silver pants and a drab gray polo. His shoes were black patent leather, shined to a midnight sheen.
Joy jumped and let out a breath. “Oh, you surprised me,” she said. “Where did you…?”
“I’m sorry.” The man’s aura was unusual — indigo, with a corona of orange red; Joy read him as confident, intuitive, and sensitive. “We don’t have any student aides at the moment, so I was doing a little shelving. We usually don’t do much business the first week.” He had an accent, probably Australian, or maybe New Zealand.
“You nearly had an ambulance crew and a coroner in here.” Joy dug through the leather satchel at her side and produced a form. “Because I almost had a heart attack, I mean.”
The man nodded, his expression serious. “I’m trained in CPR,” he said. “Let me know if you’re feeling short of breath.”
Joy’s laugh was equal parts politeness and discomfort. “No, I was joking. I’m fine.”
“I’m good at it,” he said. “I’ve never had any complaints.”
Joy raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know what that means. Either you’ve successfully performed CPR on everyone you’ve ever attempted it on, or not. Why would someone complain about it in either case?”
“Well, I could have broken their xiphoid processes.” He waggled his eyebrows and grinned. “I was really trying to imply that I was good with my hands and mouth. Like in a sex way.”
Joy decided that the only way to get through this conversation was to pretend that part of it was not happening. “Anyway, I’m Joy Wilkins, the new history instructor, and I was told I should drop off this list of reserve materials with you. If you’re the librarian, that is.”
“Yes, I’m Fredrick Larch.” He held out a hand, but Joy didn’t shake it. “I saw you at the reception last week. You’re even more attractive up close.”
“OK,” she said. His gaze was intense. He might have had a sort of older-man sexiness about him if not for his bizarre fashion sense and even more bizarre attempts at flirting. “I have to teach a class shortly, though.”
“Ah, your first day, is it?” He scratched the cat behind the ears, his eyes never leaving hers.
“Yes. You’ll take care of the reserve books, then?”
“Certainly.” He smiled, and Joy mumbled her thanks and left.
She arrived at the classroom early and chalked a lecture outline on the board before the students arrived. She’d done everything she could think of to stay calm — she’d had a good night’s sleep, she’d been over her notes five times, and she hadn’t had any caffeine since lunch. She hadn’t had any food since lunch either, but she was hoping she could get through her first lecture without getting the shakes.
“Professor Drake?” A young woman with black jeans, a blue blouse, and a dark-gold aura stood by the platform behind her. Introduction to Magic met in the one of the two big lecture halls, a two hundred and twenty-seat amphitheater at the south end of the main building — one of the lift-gates of the squirrel trap. The seats were hard wood with retractable desks, and the walls were a creamy white bleeding toward yellow at the corners of the room, except where the paint had peeled to reveal what looked like scorch marks. There was a smell in the room of mildew smothered in bleach.
“Actually, I’m Ms. Wilkins,” Joy said. “Professor Drake is…”
“Oh, shit, right,” said the girl. “I mean — sorry for swearing. I just forgot.”
“I understand,” Joy said. “I’ll be covering her courses this semester. What’s your question?”
“I wanted to ask about extra credit.”
“Extra—? This is the first class. You’re not behind on anything.”
“I know,” said the student. “I just really need to do well in this class.”
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Margaret, just do what you’re already doing — show up for lectures and do the readings. If we get to the midterms and you’re not happy with your grade, then we’ll talk.”
For a moment Joy thought Margaret was going to argue, but then she nodded and took a seat in the front row.
By the time Joy finished putting her outline on the board the lecture hall was two-thirds full. Every freshman at Gooseberry Bluff was in this section or the Saturday morning seminar, and most of the transfer students as well. Joy had been trying not to think about this, because it made her nervous. Now it was too late.
She was about to start the class when the school’s president, Philip Fitzgerald, entered the room. He was a smallish man with freckles and red hair fading toward gray. He shook her hand and patted her on the arm.
“I’d like to say a few words, if you don’t mind,” he said. “Just to introduce you.”
“Oh, Philip, that’s really not necessary—” she said, but he had already turned to the class and begun talking.
“Welcome to Gooseberry Bluff!” he declared. “Now, you.”
The students sat in silence. Someone coughed.
“Come on, now. Repeat after me: welcome to Gooseberry Bluff!”
The students mumbled something that sounded closer to “Wedded to Hilary Duff.”
“Now please extend that welcome to our newest instructor, Miss Joy Wilkins!” The president raised his arms like a conductor; the class lagged behind him by about half a measure on the welcome and finished with an arpeggio of giggles. Joy smiled and nodded her head.
“Ms. Wilkins comes to us by way of the Universities of Maryland and Kentucky, and she’s here to replace Professor Drake who — as you may be aware — is currently missing. If we find her, we’ll be sure to let you know!”
Joy couldn’t decide whether or not it would have been worse if the students had laughed at that. But before they could react, Philip continued.
“One thing that’s important to know about Ms. Wilkins is that she’s face blind! She has a lot of trouble distinguishing individuals by their facial features. But she’s very good with auras, so don’t think you’ll get away with anything in here! Ha ha!”
The class, as a unit, was staring at her. Joy cleared her throat.
“All right, I’ll leave you in her capable hands,” said Philip. “If there are any problems Ms. Wilkins can’t help you with, just notify Dean Liddy’s office. Carry on!”
“Thank you for that, uh, introduction, President Fitzgerald,” Joy said. She managed, with an effort, not to add
Thank you for undermining my authority with the entire class before I have even opened my mouth
Philip smiled and bowed as he swept out of the room.
“So,” Joy went on. “This is Introduction to Magic 101, and as the president says, I am your instructor, Joy Wilkins.” She hoped that the students couldn’t hear the tremor in her voice. Sweat was already bristling on her upper lip and prickling under her arms.
“This is primarily a history course, but we will also discuss some basic theory and technique. There’ll be no practical application here, though; actual spell casting is not allowed in this class. Pay attention, take notes, and do your readings, and you should be fine.” She glanced at Margaret as she said this last, but the girl had her head down over her notebook and was scribbling furiously.
Joy handed out the syllabus and talked for a while about the practicalities — grading, textbooks, exams. She inventoried the students’ auras as she did this. Most of them were some shade of yellow, and at least a dozen were the same anxious dark gold as Margaret, which meant that they were already trying too hard. Joy tried to remember what her first day as an undergraduate had been like; was she already so terrified of failure? There were other colors in the mix: oranges, browns, lavenders, a few muddy greens — and a trio of clear, bright reds near the back that she’d have to keep an eye on.