Chapter 20

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Herman the Hermit doesn't look up from the DIY forge as Zandra approaches from behind a bale of trash. The recluse makes a living from creating otherworldly knives out of scrap, and his latest work is no exception. Over and over, he heats a billet of steel in the propane-fueled flames until it turns bright red before removing it for shaping with a maul.

Between that beard and the long hair, it's amazing he's not on fire right now.

It's a process that can't be interrupted, Zandra knows that much. She waits, not expecting him to stop even if he did spot her. She feels for the lawnmower knife up her sleeve. It still bears the sigil Herman engraved, the 27 with arms and legs. Wonders if it's only a coincidence how that number played into the Elle Carey case.

Of course it didn't. There's nothing supernatural about the way Elle Carey was found. I solved the case, not some squiggly lines on a piece of metal. Herman fancies himself some sort of shaman, able to glimpse into other realities through ritual knifemaking. I call bullshit. He's a master of self-deceit, someone so smart he's able to trick himself into believing anything. He used to be a lawyer, after all.

"They're going to evict me," Herman says and quenches the hot metal in a bucket of hydraulic fluid siphoned from an old truck.

Zandra knows to tread lightly. "Sorry to hear that, Herman," she says, brushing a knot of copper wire from her hair.

"I can usually keep the county off my back, but not this time. They made up their minds. I've got 30 days to vacate or they're putting me in a cage. They say I'm technically a squatter," Herman says, taking off the oven mitts he uses as gloves.

There's nothing technical about it, Herman. You live in a junkyard of your own making in woods owned by the county and leased by a timber company.

Zandra doesn't say that, though. She needs Herman on her side, and this bit of news actually plays to her advantage.

"Bastards," Zandra says and shakes her head.

"Yeah, well, you've only got yourself to blame," Herman says. His typical bombastic tone is far more reserved. Crinkled eyelids hide the usual brightness in his eyes. "Turns out some news piece did a feature on my living conditions. It was all over then. I moved out here to get away from the world, but my connection to you brought it right back."

"I know, and I'm sorry," Zandra says, doing her best to sound sympathetic. "Maybe I can make it up to you?"

Herman walks to the propane tank near the forge and turns a knob until the cinder block forge shuts down.

"Make it up to me how?" he says.

"I could pull some strings at the county, or maybe pay off the timber company," Zandra says, although whether those strings exist is debatable. Timber companies don't work like that, either. "Or I could get my producer out here with a camera crew. You could make your case for staying. I don't know how it works exactly, but we could put the video online. Media attention works both ways."

Herman looks up to the sky and sighs. "You'd do that for me?"

Probably not. Would I risk putting a nutjob like Herman on camera ahead of this TV show pitch? This is about saving my career, not piles of garbage.

"Of course," Zandra says.

Herman closes the distance between them in a single bound. He wraps his arms around Zandra in a hug. "Thank you."

Both Herman's beard and body odor go up Zandra's nose, but she manages to say "Anything for a friend" before gagging.

"A friend indeed. A friend indeed," Herman says and breaks the hug. He slips a hand up Zandra's sleeve, tugging out the lawnmower knife. "I never really finished making this thing, did I? Just cut out a shape from a lawnmower blade, ground an edge and wrapped some cordage for a handle. Will you allow me to...?"

"Spruce it up? I'd be honored, Herman. But leave that sigil you scratched into the blade. You gave it to me for protection. I'll be needing it again," Zandra says.

Herman's eyes open, allowing the warm spring sun to light a glow across his face. He's back to being Herman.

"Yes, yes, sigils are important. They manifest an otherwise intangible intention into physical reality, where the very act of them being perceived changes the fiction we humans create to make sense of the world," Herman says, beaming. "Take for example the U.S. flag. It's a perfect example of a sigil. The idea of a country only exists in the mind. You can't actually see a country, because it's only a concept. But we all agree that countries do, in fact, exist, correct? They are part of our reality. So how do we reconcile this? We make a sigil, like a flag, that manifests this concept of a country into physical reality. Once that sigil, that flag, is perceived and appreciated for what it represents, it has immense power. This is the very essence of something out of nothing, created only by our minds. We bend reality to our will simply by describing it, and sigils are the shortcut to that power. Your sigil works the same way, just on a smaller scale. Make sense?"

Nope. Sounds like the Red Car Effect. You buy a red car, and suddenly you notice all the other red cars on the road. It's almost as if the act of buying a red car attracted other red cars. It's not supernatural. It's stupidity disguised as something profound.

"Yep," Zandra says. "You are truly a modern day prophet."

Herman grins, showing the spaces where his teeth gave up. After a pause he says, "Wait. What do you need protection from?"

Zandra rubs her palms together and tells Herman her plans for tonight.

"You're not serious, are you?" he says.

"Oh, I'm very serious," Zandra says. "Best get that knife nice and sharp, Herman. I'm going to need it."

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