Maggie Blood looked as ominous as her name as she came spinning down Royal Route One that fine Spring day. In her black road armor she came, the big black bike-- a Valkyrie, of course-- sucking down mile after mile of the smooth pavement in a fine high whine of motor, tires, and gears and the thunder of the wind of her passing.
She must look like onrushing death. It made her grin, thinking about it.
Once she had cruised through the traffic of Disraeli and past its outskirts, traffic fell away almost to nothing. It was just her, the bike, the highway, the sea to her right, the pine woods to her left, and the sky above, pale blue patched with ragged springtime clouds.
Somewhere a few miles short of the Linden River she stopped beneath the awning of an unmanned fuel station, letting the bike sip a bit of single-H while she bought hot coffee and two donuts from the stasis machine. She sat on the planks of a weathered picnic table, watching a spring shower mist the world. But it passed quickly enough, and she was on her way again, on damp pavement this time.
And here, finally, was the Haunted Coast. The trees retreated away to the north, leaving miles of sand hill and scrub to her left. There was nothing but sand, even drifted across the pavement in places.
A crescent of golden beach stretched horizon to horizon on her right. With the sun nearing the western horizon, the tide was out, but the beach would have been broad even with it in.
She felt naked in a place so open, so barren. In such a waste of sand, it was easy to imagine you were back in the early days, when the Redwoods covered the continent and humans were merely a few castaways, living in fortified settlements, trying to survive on a world that wanted to kill them. Even the Redwoods wouldn't have grown in this sand, she thought. The Haunted Coast looked now as it must have then, as it must have forever.
Perhaps that was what really haunted it; the fact that it didn't change. It couldn't change. Time didn't seem to pass here.
But the sun was definitely setting. She'd better find a place to settle in for the evening.
She spotted a forlorn little patch of cedars between the road and the sea. She eased off on the throttle, downshifted through the gears, and finally let her bike creep behind the cedars. This would be enough to hide the bike from the road. This might be the Haunted Coast, but her life had taught her to fear the living more than the dead.
Did the dead walk here? With nobody to see into her thoughts, she could admit to herself she imagined-- rather liked to imagine-- that they could.
But there was nothing here, nothing but the wind in the branches of the stunted cedars and across the sands, the rushing of the waves breaking gently on the beach, and the faint whirr of the bike's gyros. She could hear it behind her, balanced on its two wheels, as she walked down to the edge of the water.
"I'm here!" she shouted. "Where are you? If you're going to drive me mad like the Lady Linden, do it now! I'm a busy woman. I need my sleep!"
Nothing. Just the wind, and the rush of the waves. She looked west, back toward the life she had left. There was no mirage, no swirl of sand, no hint of someone or something half-seen trapped in a shift of light that was of this world, and not of this world, nothing but the red ball of the setting sun. She looked the other way, east into the purple of the oncoming night. Nothing there either, except on the horizon, nearly invisible, a dark point that might be a mirage, or a bit of cloud, or the very top of a distant hill.
She smiled and walked back to the bike. Dinner would be a pouch of soup, heated over her tiny camper's stove. And then she would sleep, the sand beneath her sleeping bag for a mattress, the stars for her ceiling tonight. Right now she wanted nothing more.
Cal looked up from his sweeping as something stepped into the doorway, blocking the reflected sunlight from the windows across the street. He looked up and squinted at the dark figure who stood there, surrounded by a halo of glare. "Morning," he said.
"Morning," the stranger replied, and stepped through the doorway. She was short, with red hair and freckles, but she wasn't cute. Nobody ever looked cute in road armor. "Do you have anything to eat in here? Your place seems to be the only one open." She dipped her head toward the glowing clock in the window. Even from behind, you could read it; its hands were reflected in the window glass. Its hands pointed to 5:30, in a glow of pink and green 'neon.' "I didn't realize it was so early."
"I have candy and some snacks. This is a pharmacy, not a restaurant. Sorry."
"No problem. A bag of nuts will hold me over until the coffee shop opens. I would have sworn it was later than 5:30, though. I guess it's as they say, time is always a bit strange at Hilltown."
Cal laughed, glancing at this motorcyclist's left armpit while she was looking through the snack racks and, presumably, wouldn't notice. Yup, there was a seam for a hidden compartment there, just where you'd hide a gun. "Don't believe everything you hear about this place," he said. "Don't believe any of it, in fact. It's not that time's funny here, it's that we're at the eastern end of the continent. We keep time about two hours behind the sun. We keep Disraeli time, in fact. And they're a bit behind the sun themselves."
"I'm glad it's not the ghosts, dragons, sand devils, whatever you call them." She picked a bag of mixed nuts and turned toward him. Then she saw the look on his face. "What's wrong?"
"I'd rather you didn't mention them. Those, those I believe in."
"Oh." She waved her ring at the cash register, and it beeped as it recorded the sale. "I don't suppose you'd tell me where I could see one, then?"
He shivered in spite of himself. "You'd better hope you don't. You planning to stay around town for a while?"
Cal waited for more information. More information was not forthcoming. Finally he said "You'll want to talk to Duke, then."
"Duke Lansen. He's the real-estate baron around here. Got a stranglehold on the market. I don't like that."
"Monopolies are bad. How bad does he gouge people?"
"Well, it's not that he gouges. Rents are cheaper here than nearly anywhere on the Continent. It's just wrong, that's all."
The stranger nodded. "Well, where do I find him?"
"Head back down the Scenic."
"The Royal Route. The old road, the abandoned one, ran a few miles in from the Sea. The locals here still call the Royal Route the New Road or the Scenic Highway. Why not? It's only been there for about a century and a half now."
"Anyway, head back south down the Royal Route. A ways before you get to the corner, where the Royal Route turns west, you'll see the barber shop on the left-hand side, between the road and the harbor. Red brick building."
"Got the traditional octagon windows in front? The barber pole?"
"Of course. Duke's office is upstairs, in back. Just walk right in. He won't mind."
"He'll be there at this hour?"
"He's the only person in town more of an early bird than I am. He'll be there. The Duke is never late."
Cal smiled. "That's Dunworth custom-fitted motorcyclist's armor, isn't it? Expensive stuff, and rare. They say most of it goes to the Continental Police."
"That so?" the stranger said. "See you later." She walked back out onto the deserted street, pulling a few nuts out of the plastic bag and tossing them into her mouth.
Cal watched her go. Once she was out of sight he picked up the phone handset. "Lansen real estate office," he said. The phone beeped at him, and then he heard the sound of a phone ringing.
"Hey, Dean? Cal. Listen, someone's coming to see you. And I think she's packing a gun. No, no reason to think she's trouble, she wasn't looking for you by name, just wants a place to stay. But I thought you'd want to know. OK, Dean, you're welcome."
Cal hung up the phone. A cop, going to see Dean Lansen. Were the police finally onto the old scoundrel? This could become interesting, very interesting. Picking up his broom, returning to his sweeping, Cal smiled.
Not that she thought about it, but her footsteps up the steep, dark stairway were silent. Her armor's foot pads saw to part of that; the building's heavy construction saw to the rest. But the man in the office knew she was there. He had his back to her, as he stood by a picture window in the brilliant sunlight, looking out at the harbor and the passage beyond, but his head turned just a tiny bit as she entered.
"Morning," Maggie said. "Are you Duke Lansen?"
He laughed and turned toward her, and his desk, which sat in the middle of the office, between them. He was a rather undistinguished man, of medium build, with brown hair, dressed in the jeans and plaid shirt that seemed to be the uniform of this part of the world. She would have said he was young, but it was hard to tell; his eyes looked experienced, like those of an old man who had seen it all. And yet that face was unlined.
"No, I'm not Duke Lansen. The name's Dean. You've been talking to Cal Redfield."
"You know because I called you Duke?"
"That, and of course the fact he phoned me and told me you were coming." He grinned. "Cal's one of our civic leaders, you know. He's on all the volunteer committees, he's on the Chamber of Commerce, the Welcome Home association, he's an activist for all the good causes, he's on all the charitable boards and has a part in all the collections for every good cause. In short, he's the biggest pain in the rump in Hilltown. But I don't mind. He's amusing."
"Ah. A kind of busybody, or control freak, you're saying."
"Sort of. I'd guess he hopes you'll take a shot at me, assuming the holster compartment of your armor isn't empty. If I got shot, he'd probably say I have it coming to me. I don't think I deserve it, myself, but then I wouldn't, would I?"
She blinked. "Does my being armed bother you?"
"Why should it? Everyone's armed around here. It's traditional, ever since the days of the Redwoods. Except me, of course. I shoot a bit from time to time, but I don't need guns, I don't carry them, I don't fear them."
"A man who doesn't fear guns is a fool."
"I suppose so. But you came here to ask about a place to stay, didn't you?"
"Of course. I presume you have places to rent?"
"I do. But could we wait on the business for a few minutes? I have to say goodbye to some old friends." He turned back toward the window. The whole back of the office was walled with windows; two broad picture windows side by side facing east toward the water and the dark island beyond, a third in the north wall, a fourth in the south.
He waved to her. "Step to the window and see."
The view of the harbor was perfect. There, in the middle of it, floated a sturdy-looking schooner, at anchor. Her sails were bent on, but furled. A last boat was alongside; the crew brought a few last items, a few small wooden crates, aboard and were carrying them belowdecks. Perhaps thirty people stood on the docks and the shore, watching.
"They're heading out to search for the Southern Lands," Dean Lansen said. His voice was dark with grief and... guilt? "They always do. They come here, I bring them here, and in the end they sail away to the southeast. They vanish beyond the horizon, and they never come back."
She felt a strange need to comfort this man she didn't even know. "It's not your fault," she said.
His head snapped toward her. "Isn't it? Isn't it my fault? I could destroy this town, you know. I could return it to the empty wasteland it was before the first humans came here. But I don't. I let them come here, and in the end they always destroy themselves, chasing an impossible dream. And I know they will, but I need them, so I let them keep coming."
She shrugged. "Everyone has to earn a living. I don't blame you for making yours by renting homes to people who would have come here anyway, whether you believe it or not."
"You think this is about money?"
"Well, it is, isn't it? What else could it be?"
"What do you call it when a protector fails in his mission? When somehow, he doesn't even know how, he makes a terrible mistake and by it destroys those he was meant to protect, and everything they had? Casting a blight on his whole world, marking himself with blame he can never wash clean. And the to top it off, he needs someone to protect so badly that he summons others to replace the ones he lost. Never mind that most of them will die, thrown on a hostile shore they're not equipped to survive."
"What are you talking about?" What he said seemed to make sense, but there was something hidden in the words, something that made her shudder.
He turned and smiled at her, and there was nothing so deep and wonderful as the smile in his eyes, his glittering eyes. "We were talking about the Dawn Treader, down there, and how I'll miss those who sail with her. And you were asking me about protectors, and about the name Duke."
She blinked. The sunlight on the water made her head spin. But of course he was right. "Just why does Cal call you Duke anyway?"
"He figures it would annoy me. Duke's a title, and he thinks I'll get angry at you when you mention it to me."
"You're saying you're titled?"
"Maybe. I'm the Thirty-Third Duke Lansen, Lord Protector of Hilltown, Land's End, the Olgraffa Archipelago, and the Southeast Coast. Or sort of. The line of succession isn't clear. We Lansens never had large families; in fact, I'm only a Lansen by adoption. I never met my Uncle Carl until he called me here and adopted me as his heir, and I was full-grown even then."
"The Lord Protectors," she informed him, "are gone. The title is only honorary."
"Ah, but personal title to the Ducal Estates remains, and my family's estate is rather large. From the top of Odin's Peak, I have sole title to all land, sea, and bottomland within a radius of twenty-seven and one-third miles. So I rent parts of it out to anybody who wants them. It's a living."
"That's bizarre! Why would your estates be so large, and why a circle of.. whatever odd number of miles you mentioned?"
"Twenty-seven and a third. I'll be glad to show you why some day soon. And we have so much, and nobody's ever challenged the title, simply because nobody else wants this ill-omened stretch of sand, pine forest, and angry sea. Except Cal Redfield, of course, and I don't know why he does. I'm not sure even he knows."
She shrugged. "The Haunted Coast is the last place on the Continent. Doesn't have a good reputation as a place to raise a family. That does lower property values, I suppose."
He chuckled. "Indeed." He turned back to the window, where the Dawn Treader was putting out, under motor power, into the passage. Her crew was unlashing the sails, getting ready to hoist them.
"Farewell, my old friends," Dean whispered. "May the gods of your green Earth, lost to your ancestors so many centuries ago, lead you on. Though your dream be impossible, may you find it."
"Amen," Maggie said. She didn't know why. She walked to the window, and she and this strange Dean Lansen watched the schooner set sail, heel in the brisk breeze, and head south across the glittering water.
"Do you think they'll find another continent?"
"No. But they have a chance. Perhaps they will. Someday, somebody will." He turned away from the window, visibly forcing himself, and sat down at his desk. "It's bad luck to watch them out of sight. Well, to business, then. What do you want of me?"
"A place to stay, that's all."
"Ah, but you will want to do something here, no doubt? Work on building ships? Teach? Preach? Study? Patrol the midnight streets, fight crime, arrest evildoers? Something. Consider what you want to do. Perhaps I have a property that would suit your needs better than the average plain-old place to stay."
"Well... perhaps something in town, near the center of action."
"Ah. There's a very nice apartment three doors down from here. It's above the bank, and the Bank Presidents used to live there, once upon a time. Very solid, quiet, but you can keep an eye on the harbor, and the tavern across the street. And the bank, and the businesses in town, of course."
"Um.. that would do."
"It's too big," Dean apologized. "Got two bedrooms, a huge living room overlooking the harbor, bathroom, office in front overlooking the street, kitchen, dining room. So it's not cheap. Two hundred Bux a month."
That was half the rate for an ordinary two-bedroom apartment in New London. Indeed, her pension would go very far here! She'd been right to come here. "It sounds delightful."
He walked to a pegboard beside the door and pulled a key off one of the pegs. "Here's the key. Take a look at it and let me know what you think. Do you have furniture and things coming by autofreight?"
"They should be here in a day or two. You know how it goes; the truck never comes in when they say it will. You don't want a deposit?"
"If you like the place, sure. I think you're good for it, though. You seem trustworthy, and I can usually judge people well enough."
"Thanks, I think."
"Any time. Oh, yeah, City Hall's two blocks north on the west side of the Scenic--"
"Big field-stone place with the flagpole? Why's it flying the white star flag, by the way?"
"That's the place, and the Carpathia Lines flag is traditional here. Which means there's no reason for it, that's just the flag we fly. Anyway, our town constable's named Ralph. He's got an office there, right beside the entrance. You can always find him there around lunchtime, if you have any business you'd like to transact with him. 'Course, he's a busy man; always complains that he's got more hours of work than he can handle."
She grinned and mock-saluted. "Thanks."
The apartment was breathtaking, with lovely woodwork everywhere including bookshelves enough for her entire collection of paper books. The woodwork seemed to be solid walnut. The windows facing east were picture windows, smaller than the ones in Dean's office, but with fanlights of stained glass above. In the distance, on the horizon, she saw a flash of sail, but she quickly turned and looked the other way. It was bad luck to watch a ship out of sight, she'd heard.
Dean. He was a strange one. For all his warmth and seeming openness, she knew there was something to him that he was trying to keep hidden from her, and from everybody.
She didn't quite trust him, although she didn't know why. And yet she felt he meant no harm to her or to anybody else. Perhaps they could become friends.
If she could just get over that strange twinge of fear she felt when she thought of him.