On a dusty brick shelf in a dusty brick alcove sat an oversized coat button and a three by five card with the words DEPRESS BUTTON written on it in neat block letters. Summermoon thought of it as an alcove, though she would not have objected if another person thought of it as a porch or an entryway. At least she would not have objected if there were a door at the end of it. Currently there was just the shelf with its two display items.
The button and card were lit from no discernable source, which wasn’t unexpected, since the alcove itself was much darker than the afternoon shadows would have made it, naturally, even five paces in. Typical decorator’s magic. Nothing to impress. Apparently Charles thought that the items on the shelf were of a higher order.
“You see. This is exactly your sort of thing. I’ve tried all of the usual methods of entry and nothing has worked. It’s almost a puzzle.”
Charles Lindwood rocked back on his heels, hands gently clasping the lapels of his morning coat. The coat was an affectation just a little short of costumery. In addition to the coat, his hair had been thinned and grayed for an appearance of added age and his easy movements made it obvious that his rounded belly was adding no actual weight to his frame. His use of cosmetic magic annoyed his guest on many levels, but his countenance annoyed her more. His round face was beaming with satisfaction.
“Yes, yes. I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.”
“Oh, come now. You can’t let a thing like this just go.”
“No payment, no performance.”
Summermoon Dempsey, Sums for short, was, unlike the smiling man beside her, a person of actual, rather than faux middle age. She did not believe in cosmetic magics and currently had to decide whether one or two little medical procedures that her doctor was recommending were too close to cosmetic to accede to.
“Be reasonable.” His face was still looking smug and amused, chins tucked down to his chest. One day Sums would get annoyed enough to trace his actual age. “It would take weeks to set up a purchase order. The Council. . . “
“The Council has allowed your department the use of charge cards for purchases under a thousand.”
“Yes, well, perhaps after we’re inside there will be enough for you to do to justify an expense. . .”
“They also,” Sums cut him off, “allow you to request an emergency amendment to my professional services master contract.”
“This is hardly an emergency.” He began an avuncular chuckle, which cut off suddenly as the unpleasant thought sank in. “You have a master contract? But they take months to process.”
“You annoyed me last time. I warned you that you were annoying me and you persisted. If this isn’t an emergency, you can run an expedited amendment through the departments in three days, if you carry it.”
“You can’t hold me up for three days, this is urgent.”
“Either it’s an emergency and you can get the purchase order now, or it’s not and it can wait three days.”
Charles began tugging at the bottom of his vest.
“Perhaps after we’re in.”
“$500 to get in, on the card, and $5,000 minimum on the PO. You can begin by explaining the situation. The display of a button is not nearly enough introduction to a new project.”
$5,000!” Charles sputtered.
“At least. I’ve checked the going rates.”
“You don’t even have a certificate!”
“I don’t have a systems certificate. Fortunately, I’m listed as an auditor. I’m credentialed well enough for that.”
“Auditor? I don’t need a summary of energies expended. I need creative thinking.”
“You need to get into this building. You also need something else after you get in, but you’re not willing to tell me what. Very well. I’ll get you in. I may do whatever needs to be done once we’re inside. The main portion of my contract will be to provide you with an energy expenditure analysis for your files so that other inspectors and city engineers can refer to it in similar cases.”
“Very forward thinking of me.”
“Yes. Unfortunately, it will appear as if you contracted the analysis and then used the results to determine your course of action.”
She knew she had him there.
Charles tried looking at her in varying poses of incredulous distress and disappointment, but it impressed her as much as his sartorial magic did. Eventually his efforts collapsed like a badly shored trench in the rain. Which is to say, gradually and messily right up to the big final slump.
In the end, he admitted that this was a building inspection. The alcove they were standing in was located in the Transitional Area of the City, out beyond the suburbs. Low Density Residential uses were fine, as were Light Manufacturing, Distribution, and mixed Residential/Light Manufacturing. They had gotten an anonymous report that the building was being used as a High Density Residence, perhaps even as an illegal Hotel.
“Is there any reason that you can’t call them and demand that they open their doors for an inspection?”
“Well, you’ve heard about the recent spam attacks? With the person information extraction?”
Sums shuddered. “Yes. A nasty piece of spellware. Walk through one and suddenly you’re surrounded by garish advertising illusions. Everyone involved should be jailed or expelled.”
“Do you have the current dismissal filters?”
“I don’t have that sort of connection. I have a reversal amulet.”
“Surely that interferes with your communication?”
“It doesn’t seem to be stopping you.”
“But, dammit, I had to track you down and physically talk to you.”
“Yes.” Sums smiled contentedly.
Charles blustered a bit, but quickly deflated into, “Well, at least it won’t interfere with communications here. The owner, a Mr. Asmundson, has complained repeatedly about being the target of spam attacks. It has been an escalating item between him and the City. It’s not over, by any stretch of the imagination, but the most recent upshot was a notice sent to the City that he was installing a blocker, much like your amulet, but larger and more powerful.”
“So he can’t be contacted and he can say that it’s the City’s fault that they can’t contact him.”
“Essentially. With more recrimination, of course.”
“Any chance that the anonymous complaint came from someone in the City?”
“I certainly hope not. It came in from the access point at the Public Library.”
“Any chance of just waiting for him to make his next complaint?”
“Not with as many feathers as he’s ruffled. We can’t be seen to be paying back in inconvenience, but we can’t give special consideration to a complainer, either. That sort of thing would get around too quickly.”
“I can imagine.”
“And it doesn’t help that this whole building is so obviously sealed off. No doors. No windows.”
“Sure they’re not just hidden?”
“No. I had it scanned. There’s an access spell, here, but no door. No windows. There may be something on the roof, but nothing in the walls.”
“So. Either I depress the button, or there’s no inspection until the next time Mr. Asmundson comes out to complain.”
Charles signed elaborately. “All right. $500 on the card. An amendment to your contract for up to $5,000 if there is an analysis or written report required. I’ll have to do that back at the office and it will take at least a week.”
“No written work delivered without the amendment.”
Sums turned and bent down to address the button.
“You call yourself a button? Look at you. You’re a disgrace! Scratched and faded! Do you think that anyone is ever going to look at you twice, let alone use you to hold two pieces of cloth together?”
Charles was confused, but before he could complain the light in the alcove began to dim. Something was happening.
“You might as well crawl into the nearest wastebasket now. You’re a cheap little bit of unmatched plastic! You’re too small to use as a hopscotch marker and too dull to use for decoration.”
The alcove was now completely dark. The street noises faded. Perhaps the other end had sealed off. It was too dark to tell.
“You can’t be recycled. You’d be nasty to burn. You’re just a waste of space.”
A dim light rose in the front of the alcove. The wall and shelf were gone. Ahead was a dim room. They stepped forward and let their eyes adjust. An unpleasant smell rose up through their nostrils and insinuated itself against the base of their brains.
As they were trying to pick out what sort of bad smell this was, they began to notice the bodies.