Dwarves of Whiskey Island Excerpt

Chapter One

“We must never forget that Cleveland is a city.”

Gregory Washington stood at a podium at the head of the Lakeside Baptist church. The rally was deep in his home territory on the East Side— “Energizing the base,” as political wonks like myself would say. I sat in a front pew reserved for local press, keying shorthand notes into my PDA with a stylus.

The man oozed charisma, and had the presence of a young James Earl Jones. There’s a fair bit of lay preaching in his background and it came out in his speaking voice without devolving into parody.

“Let me say again. Cleveland is a city. Homes. Businesses. People. Too long our leaders have bowed down before this ‘Portal’ which has appeared on our shores. The city’s budget has tripled in ten years. Have you seen that money?”

A chorus of “No”s.

“Have your schools seen that money?”

No.

“Is it in the roads? Is it in the fire department?”

No.

“You know why? Because almost all that money has been fed into the Portal. We’ve paid lawyers millions of dollars help us to keep this thing that’s costing us tens of millions. Last year, half our city budget— I said half— went to expenses related to the Portal. Let the federal government have it.”

I made a silent promise to myself that I would be the one political reporter this election that would refrain from using the phrase “paradigm shift” in an article. The rhetoric that Washington was using would have been politically inconceivable two years ago. The Portal, a mystical phenomenon about twelve years old now, had been the raison d’être of city government for a decade. The Portal had granted Cleveland, Ohio an association with the supernatural so pervasive and widely acknowledged that my home town’s relationship to elves, dragons and sorcerers was as fundamental as gaming was to Las Vegas, technology was to Silicon Valley, and politics was to Washington D.C.

However, some politically disastrous moves by the administration of the outgoing Mayor Rayburn, followed by a series of new Supreme Court rulings, had cast the relationship of the Portal to city government in a whole new light. The fact was, the Feds now had physical control of the Portal and passage through it, and the world had not ended. The streets of Northeastern Ohio were still awash with manna, mages still brokered their potions, and dragons still flew in the nighttime sky.

Of course, when federalization happened, people started asking the obvious questions; What was the big deal? Why did we waste all that money on lawyers? Even Gabriel Clifton, Mayor Rayburn’s spiritual successor and Washington’s only real opposition in the race for the Democratic spot in the next mayoral election, did not go to the mat defending the city’s stand against Federalization.

Even Rayburn himself didn’t much talk about it any more.

The fact was, what marked Cleveland’s economic boom wasn’t the Portal. It was the supernatural radiation flowing out of it. Immigration had been important, at least at the beginning, but while the novelty of passage to another universe initially commanded prices usually reserved for tickets into sub-orbital flight, the income from that had been surpassed by income from tourism within two years. It was always the case that more people wanted to visit the circus then there were who wanted to run away and join it.

So even with Federal regulation of passage, customs, and a drop in ticket prices to be closer to a one-way flight to Europe than a seat on the space shuttle, the hit to the Northeast Ohio economy was practically nil.

Even if the Feds ever shut the door completely, a dozen years of near-unlimited passage from the universe next door gave Northeast Ohio enough local color to last into the next century.

So, despite the protests from the folks who run the city, in pure economic terms it was pretty much irrelevant who had physical control of the Portal. One councilman had put it this way, “If we gave the Feds immigration control over the Sun, it wouldn’t make our streets any darker.”

People linked to the current administration were having a lot of trouble explaining how they had been on the wrong side of that argument.

Washington’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Gabriel Clifton, might have the establishment’s blessing, and the support of the man who was, at one point, the city’s most powerful and popular mayor, but people had been talking about “Rayburn Fatigue” for six months before the current mayor made the announcement that he wasn’t going to run for re-election. And there wasn’t enough daylight between Gabe Clifton and Dave Rayburn to grow a mushroom.

And, given the state of the Republican party in Cuyahoga County, that meant that there was a pretty good chance that I was watching the next mayor of the city. Unlike Clifton, Washington had both street cred and the currently enviable position of being a complete outsider. That gave Washington, a relative unknown, a better than even chance to win the nomination, and— barring a massive screw-up— the election.

“Do we want a city government that gives away millions in tax ‘incentives’ to corporate cronies? Two billion dollars— I said billion— two billion dollars in new construction downtown. Office buildings, hotels, malls. Do you know how much of that pays back the city any property taxes? Any?Fifteen million.”

There was a chorus of hoots.

“Ninety-nine percent of new construction since the Portal opened has been built under an ’emergency tax-abatement incentive’ begun under the previous administration. Don’t you think the emergency is over?”

Yes.

I shook my head. His figures were a little dubious. A hell of a lot of that two-billion figure represented construction by the city itself for city facilities, including the containment structure around the old Browns Stadium and the Portal inside. That probably accounted for a quarter of that figure.

Still, he did have a point. A lot of the executive bureaucracy of the city was a patchwork of ad-hoc measures and emergency provisions that, when examined as a whole, made little sense. The blanket tax-abatement was a case in point. The Portal opening had been an economic disaster in the short-term. No-one had been thinking about what things would look like a decade hence, the worry was about the social and economic collapse of the city.

But, while the emergency was long since over, it’s a fact of politics that it is a lot easier to get a tax abatement passed than it is to get one repealed.

About the time Washington began delving into a comparison between the growth rates between the city budget as a whole, versus the budget for the city schools— along with the same figures for various outlying suburbs that stilloutperformed the city in proficiency achievements and graduation rates— my cell-phone started vibrating at me.

I spent a moment assessing the likelihood that Washington might deviate from the speech he distributed to the press, and whether any extemporaneous comments might be newsworthy, before I slid out of the pew and headed toward the back of the church.

When I was back and off to the side, I pulled the phone out, flipped it open, and said, “Kline Maxwell, Cleveland Press. Make it quick.”

“Mr. Maxwell, I wish to meet with you.”

It wasn’t a voice I recognized. I glanced up toward Washington. “I’m on assignment at the moment. You can call the main desk at the Pressand leave me a message.”

“Please. I expended much effort to contact you. You specifically.”

The voice had an accent. I couldn’t identify it, because my caller was disguising his voice. All I got was the occasional too-hard consonant. Middle-eastern, Dwarven, or German, I couldn’t tell.

“I’m flattered,” I said. “Tell me who you are and what you want to discuss, and we’ll see if I can accommodate you.”

“I can not over the phone. My life is in danger.”

Not German. . .

“You have to tell me something if you want me to take you seriously. Why should I be interested?”

The crowd in the church broke into a standing ovation. I had to turn to the wall and cover my other ear to hear what my caller was saying.

“What?”

“—Mazurich.”

Mazurich?

“What about him?”

“Why did he die, Mr. Maxwell?”

I grunted. “My friend, you are the latest in a long line of conspiracy theorists. I have more letters on who killed Mazurich than you’d ever care to write. I could write a dissertation of the cover-up using theories more creative than you could think up—”

“Mr. Maxwell—”

“You also want to know what I have? Police reports, forensic reports, digital images of the scene. The man killed himself. If there was anything to any of these conspiracy—”

“Mr. Maxwell—”

“I’d be the first to report it—”

Mr. Maxwell!

I stopped talking for a moment.

“Mr. Maxwell, I am not delusional. I offer you nothing that can not be substantiated. I am aware that he killed himself.”

“What then?”

Whydid he kill himself?”

I remained quiet.

“Mr. Maxwell?”

“Ok,” I said, “Why did he?”

“Not over the phone. I’ve talked too long already. Meet me in the Old Arcade, mezzanine level, at six thirty.”

“How will I know you?”

“I will know you.” The phone clicked. I switched it off, turning around. As I watched Washington basking in the glow of potential constituents, I told myself that the call was a wild goose chase.

I also knew where I was going to be at six-thirty tonight.

#

When I left the rally and returned to my Volkswagen someone had brushed the snow away enough to slip a neon-green flyer under my windshield wiper. I had parked only a block away from the church, so I wasn’t particularly surprised when I pulled it free. On the cover was a stylized whirlpool graphic around which swirled the phrase “God’s Plan or The Devil’s Handiwork?”

The question was rhetorical for anyone who had seen one of these pamphlets before. The whole tri-fold was a warning how the Portal was a threat to my immortal soul and a gateway to Hell itself. The inside showed a crude graphic of Satan lording over the Cleveland skyline, surrounded by half a dozen quotes from Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

“Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God.”

I looked around at the other cars parked down the street. All had day-glow flyers tucked under the wipers. I wondered if the author was independently motivated, or was part of Washington’s base. Attitudes might be shifting, but I was pretty sure that the voters in this city were still a few steps away from condemning the Cleveland Growth Association to “the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.”

I pocketed the evangelical pamphlet and got into my car.

The drive back to the Pressoffices was a little rougher than usual. In addition to a short flurry of lake-effect snow that unloaded during the rally, an accident on the Shoreway tied up pre-rush hour traffic downtown in both directions. A semi had jackknifed on dead-man’s curve trying to avoid a griffin. The guy on the traffic report speculated that the griffin had been a brand-new arrival out of the Portal, which was pretty close by, and it didn’t know about interstates, and that a semi wasn’t a good choice of prey.

While it was true that the griffins that had been here any length of time knew enough to hang out in the Metroparks and thin out the deer population, the idea that the victim of the accident had just popped from the recently Federalized Portal implied that the Feds didn’t have as tight a lid on things that the Port Authority had, which was kind of scary.

I passed by the mess, where the cops had traffic downtown narrowed to one lane. Not pretty. The griffin carcass had been removed, but the signs remained. Blood and feathers covering the eastbound lanes like a voodoo ceremony gone horribly awry. Police wreckers were still trying to remove the semi, the front of which was caved in as if it had run into the business end of God’s own place kicker.

The driver had probably taken the curve going fifty, and from the looks of things, the ill-fated heraldic beast had been diving the other direction, from the lake, just on the wrong side of an overpass for the driver to see him in time.

As I inched by the scene, the radio informed me that the driver had lived, and had been life-fligted to Metro Health medical center.

Well, I knew what the lead Metro story was probably going to be. The driver’s miraculous survival cinched it. The Portal might have killed local television, and TV journalism, but the ascendance of blogs and print hadn’t changed the dynamics of local news coverage all that much— and the only thing better than a gory accident, was a gory accident with survivors.

Gave you someone to interview.

#

Back at the office, I wrote my piece on Washington’s political destiny. I even managed to work in a bit of evangelical politics, a nod to the serendipitous pamphlet. I would probably be the only reporter to give even a passing mention to the born-again vote, given the fact that Cuyahoga County was one of the most aggressively liberal piece of real-estate between Boston and San Francisco, but there’s always something to be said for the organization and passion of a vocal minority in the political process.

As I typed, I heard with half an ear people talking about griffins. Someone walked up to my desk and said, “Say, Maxwell, who’s the prof. at Case, the guy you used on the Dragon story?”

I kept typing. “Shafran, Dr. Newman Shafran.”

“Thanks.”

I muttered something polite, keeping my annoyance in check. I was a political reporter, but one story about a dragon’s murder and I was the expert on any supernatural critter that met an untimely end. I had been dealing with this for the past two years.

Even if it had been, arguably, the biggest story to break out of the Portal after the Portal opening itself, I didn’t want to be the dragon expert, or the elf expert, or the talking frog expert.

We supposedly had a reporter on the “fuzzy gnome” beat. It was unfortunate for me that the position had a high turnover and the people Columbia Jennings, my boss, tended to pick for the job tended to creep out the other reporters.

“Mr. Maxwell?”

Speak of the devil.

I looked up to see Nina Johannessen standing next to my desk. The current Cleveland Pressjournalist on the supernatural beat. She was a Nordic blonde suitable for a Wagner opera, or a lite beer commercial during the Superbowl. The only disconcerting note were eyes that were nowhere near shallow enough to make the average male comfortable talking to a woman that attractive.

“Please tell me that you don’t want to talk about griffins. . .”

She gave me a puzzled look and shook her head. “Why would I?”

“I wouldn’t know. . .”

She reached over and picked up the neon-green pamphlet off of my desk. I felt slightly embarrassed when she opened it. Considering the kind of sources she used for her stories, it was sort of like having one of my Jewish co-workers pick up a neo-Nazi tract from my desk.

She stared at the devil picturefor a long time and I mentally prepared a long explanation about Washington’s candidacy and changing attitudes toward the Portal.

She set the pamphlet devil face-up on my desk. “Has anything strange happened to you lately?”

“No, what?” I was left conversationally disoriented by a question I wasn’t expecting. She looked at me deeply enough that I had the uncomfortable sense that she was seeing much more than I was saying. “What do you mean?”

“Unexpected changes or influences? Anything new or threatening?”

I was suddenly looking for sinister influences in every part of my life over the past few days. It took a bit of an effort to reign myself in. As a reporter I was naturally paranoid, but that impulse did quite well enough without outside help.

“Nina, the only thing I can think that might match that description is that question.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“The only thing disturbing me is wondering why you’re asking in the first place.”

“A vision.” She tapped the pamphlet. “It wasn’t completely clear, and I thought it might involve you.”

“Might? You don’t know?”

“Sometimes the Oracle is unclear.”

“And how would you know?”

She shrugged. “Have you seen Death or the Devil recently?”

I had the feeling she wasn’t kidding.

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