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Orphans and Oligarchs

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Podfic Length: 18:12

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The traffic was terrible. But then, in LA, the traffic is always terrible, and at least these days I know the reason for that.

I finally made it to the 710’s downtown exit around 8:00 pm, found parking fairly easily, and fed the meter. Then I opened the trunk of my car, which, as always, was packed – the red backpack, the black backpack, the white one that I have never yet gotten to use. And then also two bags of giveaway books and cheap toys for classroom visits, and a bag of read-aloud books for when I have to cover for a different branch’s children’s librarian, because some branches, inexplicably, do not have Dragons Love Tacos.

Basically, my trunk is a reflection of my life: busy, crowded, and full of both magical and mundane library crap. I can never have my car searched by the LAPD or they’ll arrest me for being excessively weird.

I reached for my most-used backpack, the red one, spared a moment to be thankful I at least wasn’t using the black one, and started my hike.

“Park and walk,” I said out loud, and snorted.

A homeless man sitting on the curb looked up at me, his head moving just a little too fast. His eyes were bright, eerie blue, and they focused on me like lasers as he said, “You tell ‘em, sister!” I walked a little faster. Given my day job, homeless people don’t scare me – if you work in a public library, you either get comfortable with all the various kinds of public there are, or you move to headquarters – but my other job means I can sense the magical at fifty feet, and he had something about him that said Caution: You Are in the Presence of the Uncanny (Be Ready to Run).

I try to listen to my instincts. They’ve kept me alive so far, and when I started what we euphemistically call my Second Shift, Jessica gave me fifty-fifty odds of surviving two years. And then, yes, she taught me anyway, because her middle name is Pragmatic. Or if it’s not, it should be.

I hiked my backpack up a bit – the red one is unavoidably heavy – and realized I didn’t know Jessica’s actual middle name. Imagining what it might be kept me entertained for the next few blocks.

As I got closer to the freeway, the sidewalk got a little rougher, a little less crowded; the buildings were still biggish, here in what Long Beach very sweetly calls its downtown, but none of them was residential, so there were fewer people around. Good news for me, really. It’s better if the people who don’t know about magic and the Fae and the elves and the vampires and the weird folks who live in San Andreas Fault keep on not knowing. So I prefer to do my stuff with them not around.

I could smell the freeway long before I got within striking distance of it, that particular smell of emissions, heat, dust, and carbon dioxide. And I could hear the cars and trucks, of course, but I knew I was getting close when I started to feel the rumbling in my chest and belly, moving through me like the bass at the rock concerts I never went to in my teens. A novice might think it was vestigia, that’s how strong it was, but I knew better. It wasn’t vestigia yet.

Eventually, I struggled up an intentionally too-steep embankment covered with ice plants and reached the fence. Everywhere in LA County, they block off the undersides of freeways, and though they talk a lot about safety, it’s mostly because a lot of freeway underpasses are, not to put too fine a point on it, really fucking creepy. People just feel like they should be blocked off, so they are.

And, honestly, they’re not wrong. Muggles don’t belong under freeways around here. But I do, and that’s why I carry wire cutters with me wherever I go. Every backpack has a pair, and I have a teeny set on my keys as well. I took out the really top-notch pair I keep in the red backpack, checked to make sure my phone was turned off, and cast a quick notice-me-not, in case anyone was around. Then it was just a few snips, a quick push, and I was through.

As soon as I crossed over the fence line, everything instantly became way more. The smells kicked up in intensity and a few incongruous notes got added: water, greenery. I could still hear and feel the traffic, but now I could hear other things, too – a distant wail, a splashing noise, a siren.

Now that? That’s vestigia.

“Long Beach?” I asked out loud, and waited a minute.

No answer, which meant I was going to have to go through what Jessica calls the Forms and Figures. (For some reason, the more magical an entity is, the more they like the Forms and Figures. Sometimes I think magic is just a collection of rules that got too full of itself.) “Okay,” I said in answer to the nothing I was getting, and reached into the red backpack for my materia: flask of motor oil, flask of LA river water. Replenishing the river water is a pain in the ass – more wire cutters, plus the fun chance of an up close and personal interaction with Beaches and Harbors and the cops, and also a slight but extremely unwelcome risk of drowning – so I tried the motor oil first.

“Long Beach,” I repeated, and started pouring the motor oil on one of the cement pillars that holds up the freeway. “Hello? I’d love to talk.” Technically, there are fancy words you’re supposed to say, and Jessica did technically teach them to me, but even she never uses them. Our magical entities may like the Forms and Figures a lot, but they’re still Angelenos, after all.

“Assistant,” said a woman’s voice. From behind me, of course, because they love to see us simple mortal magicians jump.

“Long Beach,” I said, turning. She looked the same as always: golden-brown skin, long hair in braids and ribbons, and a sundress that came down below her ankles that she could have bought last month, but I knew from Jessica’s photo collection that she’d been wearing it since at least 1975. (The cyclical nature of fashion makes life a lot harder for those of us who need to notice when people are out of their own time.) She was uncannily beautiful – her whole family is – and her dark brown eyes met mine and didn’t blink. “Thanks for meeting with me.”

She shrugged. “And how is the Librarian?” Her head tilted inquiringly.

I didn’t say attending a city council meeting so probably bored out of her mind, because I have the sense god gave gravel. “She’s well.”

“How can I assist the Library?” Long Beach took a few steps forward, her bare feet flashing from under her sundress hem. Seeing that always makes me cringe, even though I know the broken glass scattered everywhere can’t hurt one of them.

“We’re looking for a rogue magic user,” I said, which is the kind of phrase that had a totally different meaning for me back when I just pretended magic existed for three hours every Saturday night. (You may suspect, what with the not attending rock concerts and the illustrious history of D&D, that I was not exactly one of the popular kids. You are correct. And I am still not one of the popular kids, not even among the magical community, but I can cast real fucking spells and I’ve got a friend who can turn into a coyote, so I don’t care.) “Have you sensed anything?”

I hear in the UK their genius loci are all associated with natural features – rivers and shit. And that must suck for whatever the UK equivalent of the Other Library is (and no, I don’t know, because dealing with the international magical community is Jessica’s job, but she did tell me once that the UK folks think they invented magic, which – ha). And okay, maybe it’s sad that we’re so out of touch with nature that all our little nature gods died off or fucked off or whatever they do, but talk about advantages. If you drive anywhere in LA County, pretty much, you’re going to be sensed by one of our genius loci.

Staying on “positive and mutually beneficial” terms with our genius loci is a big part of what the Other Library does. In return for our sacrifices and our community engagement and our attendance at their yearly get-together, the Freeways give us information sometimes. (And also Jessica somehow never gets into traffic jams. I’ve asked her – begged, really – for that power, but she just says it comes in time. Ugh.)

Long Beach concentrated. “There is an unlicensed magician, yes,” she said slowly. To the Freeways, if you’re not officially anointed, you’re unlicensed, so this was helpful news. “A red Subaru. My brother tells me it drives from Cherry to Bellflower each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It also travels south each Saturday, exiting on Beach.”

So probably a college student, then. “Did that start in September?”

“Yes.” That gave us somewhere to start. The rogue was probably a student at CSULB. I’d have to call the Adjunct Squad in on this. (I don’t love that universities don’t actually pay people or tenure them anymore, but it does make it easy to find people willing to “consult” for the Other Library on the side. That’s another job I took over from Jessica a few years back. If you’re wondering what Jessica still does: all the scariest stuff, and honestly there’s enough of that for four of her.)

“Thanks,” I said. I pulled another container of motor oil from the backpack, since that’s traditional, and I like to nod to tradition before I branch out.

She shook her head, declining the oil. “Please tell the Librarian that Arroyo Seco would like to see her,” she said, so apparently today’s price for information was for me to carry a message from Mama Freeway, who could pick up a phone if she wanted but definitely won’t. And also make sure Jessica bought an appropriate gift, because she tends to think you can bring motor oil to every Freeway. (I mean, you can. But Santa Monica collects puppets, because she’s a massive weirdo, and San Diego likes birds, possibly an unhealthy amount. Hollywood mostly wants gay porn, because of course he does. Century just wants toys and someone to play with; it’s hard being the youngest, I guess.)

I put the motor oil and water away and reached deeper into my pack for the real gift I brought for Long Beach. “Ooooh,” she said, and took it. “Original pressing?”

It was, of course. I had connections in every record shop that still existed in the County. “Hope you enjoy it,” I said, and I meant it. “Mr. Sandman” on vinyl wasn’t exactly to my taste, but Long Beach seemed happy, and when the Freeways are happy, my life is a whole lot easier.

I zipped up my backpack and when I looked up, Long Beach was gone. She forgets to say goodbye a fair amount. But then, every Freeway is weird in their own special way.

On the walk back, I found myself trying to imagine what it was like in Europe or back east, places where the genius loci (and, yes, I know that’s not the plural, but I don’t know what the plural actually is; sorry, my Latin doesn’t exist) are mostly associated with nature. I wondered if it made them less weird, or if “immortal spirit of a place” equaled weird whether the place was a river or a freeway.

Jessica told me once that a genius loci can develop anywhere that humans spend time, that the genius loci are born of our investment in places. (“So they feed off us,” I said. Jessica made a face and said, “That’s not an ideal way to think of it.” You’ll notice that’s not a no. I sure did.) So what a place’s geniuses really tell you is what the people who live in that place care about. A long time ago, before the missions, before colonization, this area had nature geniuses, and the LA River wasn’t just a river. But now we have Freeways and Studios and what Jessica calls, with her typically delicate touch, “the randoms.” (Like Miracle Mile. Or Grauman’s, who is an absolute creep who I am not allowed to talk to without Jessica there.) Because that’s where we invest our time and our energy.

I was thinking about that as I walked, and I forgot all about the homeless man I’d encountered on the way in until I was nearly on top of him. “Seeing the new girl?” he asked me, and suddenly all my attention was on him.

He had the tanned skin of someone who spends all his time in the sun, and his face was seamed with lines even though he didn’t seem that old. He had a bushy beard and overgrown hair, both brown. And he had those intense blue eyes, staring right at me.

“The new girl?” I asked.

He smiled. His teeth were yellowed and several were missing. “Our lady of the concrete,” he said, and spat on the sidewalk. On the opposite side from where I was standing, though, which was pretty courteous of him.

“Yeah,” I said.

“New girl,” he said, and snorted dismissively. He stared off into space for a minute and muttered. “Filth … rats … cockroaches,” he said, and I took the time to focus my magical senses on him.

The vestigia hit me so hard I stumbled back a few steps: rain, singing, the splash of oars in the water, smoke from controlled fires, all of it so intense it was like standing next to amplifiers cranked up to eleven. For a second, I saw double: the man in front of me overlaid with a different man, as tall as he was, built like him, but strong and clean and up to his waist in water, gentle waves lapping around him.

I looked from where we were back behind me, towards Queensway Bay, just out of sight but not out of smelling range. Then I looked at the man in front of me.

I bowed. “Queensway?” I said.

He nodded sadly. “Used to have a different name. Can’t remember it anymore.”

“I’m honored to meet you,” I said, rapidly riffling through the contents of the red backpack in my head. Then I just took the backpack off and set it down in front of him. “My name is Lena Cheng, and I’m the Librarian’s Assistant. Please. Take my tribute, as a token of my hope for a positive working relationship between us in the future.”

He looked at it, then at me, and nodded his head regally. Seconds later, the backpack was gone. I offered him my card, and as I did I understood why Jessica insisted I have a real paper business card. He took that, too. Then he waved at me in dismissal.

So we do have the nature geniuses, I thought as I walked back to my car, noticeably lighter without the backpack. They’re just dispossessed.

This was going to take a fuckload of research.

I got back in my car and turned on my phone. I had a missed text from Jessica: How is Long Beach?

I sent back, Same as always. She says our problem child is probably a CSULB student. Also, I met one of Long Beach’s distant cousins. His name is Queensway.

Jessica sent back a series of startled face, wave, and book emoji. (The day she installed her emoji keyboard was a dark one from which the Los Angeles magical community has yet to recover. Someday I am going to find out who helped her with that and hex the shit out of them.)

Going to the Library to check into that before I head home, I added. Jessica sent a thumbs-up.

I checked the time. 10:10. It would be almost 11:00 when I got to the Library, and then I’d have to page through a bunch of ancient, unindexed, hard to read books for a few hours before hustling home, showering the book dust off me, putting together a new red backpack, and passing out. And I had two classroom visits scheduled for the next morning, too. “Ah, the glamorous life of a children’s librarian magician dual class,” I said out loud to my car.

I looked over my shoulder, pulled into traffic, and headed for the freeway. Investing time, investing attention, going places: it’s what LA is all about.