I only had to run for five minutes across the rolling expanse of golf course before a deep appreciation for electric carts set in. Susie’s body just wasn’t cut out for running. Neither was mine, actually, but she was the one who got me into this mess, so I was landing the blame on her. The golf course, or maybe there were two next to each other, seemed to stretch on endlessly. Floodlights pouring onto the grassy hills blinded me more than they illuminated my path. And behind me, the seca pursued.
The seca had a shape more squid than human, a transparent squid that had lost all but one of its tentacles. I could only see it with my second sight, and the fact that I was able to click my latent psychic vision on so easily didn’t cheer me up enough to counter the fact that the seca was gaining on me. It wasn’t fast, merely relentless. I don’t know how it avoided the paying guests, if it had some kind of sentience, or orders to avoid anyone who didn’t belong. For all I knew, it had been trained to follow people running away. That didn’t make me want to stop and chat with it. My skin felt dry from where it had brushed my neck, itchy and scaly as though I’d been hiking in the desert for a week or two. My lungs burned, and my tongue had that papery feeling like I get when I fall asleep on an airplane with my mouth open.
The tentacle had a reach of twenty feet or more. It brushed me once when I stopped to walk, and the feeling of moisture and coolness being sucked out of me (wasn’t there something about the seca’s power being diluted at the end of its tentacles?) made me lope into a jog again.
Secas were embodiments of heat and dryness. Okay, that was the definition Susie’s memory gave me, but what did it mean? Water. I strained for the telltale chk-chk-chk sound of sprinklers. It was just after sunset, so it was the right time for it.
My lungs burned, and my sandaled foot slipped on the damp grass. I swore and dodged to the side as the seca’s tentacle lunged for me. That answered that question. They’d already watered it. When the seca’s tentacle touched the grass, the air became papery dry and smelled like lawnmowing on a summer morning. I dodged again, and scrambled to my feet, asking already twinging calves to carry me just a little farther. This would never do. I couldn’t keep running like this, and I’d hate to end up as an inconvenient desiccated corpse that Celestine’s no-doubt slavish followers would find and dispose of quietly sometime before dawn.
Water. I needed more water.
And then my salvation appeared. An irrigation standbox: a large concrete structure with the rushing sound of water barely audible above my panting.
The damp grass slowed the seca down enough that by sprinting, (I was on my third wind) I got a few minutes ahead of it. I even managed to scoop up a beheaded golf club that someone had abandoned near a sandtrap, which was good because the irrigation standbox had a metal grille on top of it to keep out idiots like me who might want to climb in there. The club bent out of shape when I wrenched it against the padlock, and while the lock didn’t bend or break, the rusted hasp closing the gate snapped open.
I was raising the grille when the seca’s tentacle wrapped around me. This was worse than stepping from a chilly office into the baked heat of a 118 degree parking lot. This was worse than standing in front of an oven with the door open. It felt like being made into jerky, as though no amount of sunscreen would ever repair my skin, as though my blood were evaporating in my veins, as though every fever I’d ever had came back for a reunion. I tried to croak out a protest, but my throat cracked, too parched to vibrate. The seca pulled itself closer, wrapping its tentacle around me further and further, sucking out every bit of dampness with each horrible coil.
It felt like all of summer happened simultaneously, but it must have been only an instant, because a second later, the grille slammed down on top of me, knocking me into the water. The tentacle of the seca was still wrapped around my waist as I fell ten feet down, landing with a splash into irrigation water.
The seca made a hissing sound, like when rain falls on sun-baked clay. It yanked its tentacle from around my waist, spinning me like a top. I still felt dry, terribly dry, though irrigation water gushed over the spillway, drenching me. The inside of the standbox roared with the waterfall’s echoes. I let some of the water pour into my mouth, without a care about possible contamination. The water would have come up to chest level, but I ducked under, peering up with only my nose above the surface. The inside of the box was maybe ten by fifteen feet square, and the lower part, where I crouched, was maybe another fifteen feet below the top of the box. Dry flakes of algae-filled clay clung to the sides of the box. Huge screws, apparently used to open the diverter channels for the water, flanked either side of the chamber.
The seca’s tentacle writhed in irritation above me. It wasn’t the sort of creature known for sentience, but at the risk of anthropomorphizing, I’d say it was pretty pissed off. I crouched down further into the water. The water tasted stagnant and murky; small creatures writhed in it, and once or twice something more solid touched my head before plunging into the diverter pipes underneath my feet. I drank anyway. The seca had made me so dry I would gladly have chugged a bucket of seawater.
Susie would know some way to get around the seca that didn’t involve crouching in a pool with dead crawdads. I shifted my legs, and a black oval scuttled up the side of the concrete. And live roaches too. Yuck. Roaches. I had to get out of here. Through the metal grate the starry sky beckoned. As if in answer, a faint shadow passed overhead, followed by a breath of dry air. I hunkered down further under my blanket of dirty water.
I jerked as something swam past me. Must have been a catfish. We used to see them now and then when they’d flood the soccer fields at school. I shifted my legs again, and felt a faint crunch as something got crushed under my sandals. Yeah, a catfish. Just a catfish. More roaches skittered up the sides of the chamber. Was it safe to leave yet?
At least I’d finally figured out why Susie hadn’t dated Jason. He was a louse. Mr. “Oh please, Susie, give me one of your wishes” finally got tired of “no” and sold me down the river. At least he didn’t get what he wanted. Stupid jerk. Missed the djinn summoning but thinks everyone ought to share wishes because he was an important rich businessman and we were just pedestrian trash. If I ever got out of … no, when I got out of there, I was going to … well, I wasn’t going to date him, that was for sure. The jerk.
My gut cramped, and not just from whatever muck was in the water. Maggie had been afraid. I knew that. What if she was hiding? What if she wanted to stay at Celestine’s not just because of the good food and nice pad, but because the seca and Celestine’s warding kept her safe? Horrible thought, if I’d just escaped from the one place I’d be safe.
I sat under the irrigation waterfall long enough for my fingers to turn into raisins. My neck still burned from where the seca had touched me, and my chest felt chafed, but I’d survive, as long as I didn’t encounter it again. The moonlight crept up over the top edge of the concrete wall, making it too dark to see the roaches anymore. How was I going to get out of there? By the tug of the current at my feet, one of the diverter pipes was opened, not that I’d be able to get out that way. The walls were fairly smooth, except for the screws, which were about as thick as a rope. I grabbed one, and tried to climb it, but the ridges cut my hands. I fell back in the water with a splash. Okay, that didn’t work. What then? Close the diverter pipe and wait till the water level rose? That could take hours, and I wasn’t in good enough shape to tread water until then. Besides, there were things in the water.
The sky had been providing some light, but whatever it was—floodlight for night golfing, no doubt—got turned off suddenly, and the chamber became black except for the faint rectangle of stars overhead. The spill of water from the higher part of the chamber began to slow down, and then ceased, leaving me with nothing but darkness and the occasional drip of water echoing around my concrete prison.
There was a penlight in my purse, but the light had stopped working, probably from getting wet. My purse contained paper napkins, which could have protected my hands while I climbed out, but they, too had become a sodden lump. Even if my phone still had the battery in it, and even if my phone worked when wet, I couldn’t have called anyone because Celestine’s spell kept me from speaking.
“Poor little Susie, trapped in a box.” The voice came from within the chamber, a not-quite-human voice, more male than female. Water splashed faintly as whoever it was waded towards me.
I wanted to shout, to demand to know who he was, but all I could do was flatten myself in fear against the wall. Damn Celestine. Flame spells, light spells, spells to make myself fearless burst forth in my conscious memory, as the adrenaline rush of terror opened Susie’s memories to me.
And they all required speaking.
“I can help you, you know,” the voice continued, an arm’s distance from my ear. “All you have to do is make a little wish.”
Susie knew that voice. Me too. Nightjack.
“You think I can’t sense your fear? You aren’t free from me just because you haven’t made your other wishes yet. You’re mine, Susan Elizabeth Stillwater.”
Yeah, what part of “Go to Hell” was he having trouble with?
“And you still haven’t asked me for a wish to get out of here. Is it so hard to ask?” Nightjack moved in the darkness, water sloshing in his wake. “How are you going to get out?”
He came closer to me, close enough to make the tepid water near my legs warmer. The hair on my neck stood up. I jerked away and ducked as far under the surface of the water as I dared.
“Make a wish.”
Go. To. Hell. I telepathed at him. Really, Nightjack, was that such a difficult concept?
“Why do you make it so hard?” It sounded darkly amused. “You can’t get out without my help. Ask me.”
He came closer, and touched my damp hair with the back of his fingers. I tried to scale the wall, but only managed to dislodge flakes of algae and green clay. I swam/waded to the other side of the box.
“You’re trying to escape? Escape me?” Nightjack laughed. “It’s not going to happen. Tell you what, I’ll come back in a few days and see if you’re ready to bargain.” And then he vanished, leaving only the quiet echoes of splashes and my own breathing.
There was one good thing about being in abject fear. It had a tendency to dislodge Susie’s memories.
A thoughtbird is one of the few spells that requires no words, no components, only a few gestures and a lot of focused energy. It was like a bundle of telepathic messages, bound together with wings and fire, and sent off to pigeon my desires to someone who could help me. I sent three, actually, having plenty of time and plenty of desire. The first went to Zoë, the second went to Amber, and the third went to Derek.
Then I waited.
Surprisingly, Derek was the one who showed up, wrench and coiled rope in hand, shining his happy flashlight down into my dark prison. He pulled me up with those strong arms, and helped me into his car, which he had parked right on the golf course. I didn’t ask how he found me, or how he avoided the seca.
I couldn’t, because I still couldn’t talk.
Derek chatted the whole way to his house. He lived in Phoenix, in an older neighborhood that had small brick houses on large lots. Minivans and bicycles dotted the driveways of his neighbors, and the fact that a single guy chose a family-friendly place to live in made the ‘looking for a good man’ side of me smile. Derek gave me full credit for my damsel-in-distress role, holding me solicitously as he escorted me to his front door. He kept talking the whole time, using a super-calm voice like you do when someone is badly hurt and you’re trying to pretend it’s a scratch.
They say you can tell a lot about a guy by looking at the place where he lives. Ikea and Best Buy were the two stores fighting over custody of Derek’s wallet. One whole wall of his living room was filled with modular bookshelves, but instead of containing books, they contained movies. The other half had his shrine to modern electronics, and a few knickknacks of the sort which people buy because they come with the furniture set. Derek led me to the kitchen, where a line of glass jars stood on the white tile countertop. Everything was white. Wasn’t white supposed to be for purity or something? White rooms keep out negative influences? Was that a real memory from Susie’s brain, or some junk that I’d picked up on TV?
Derek sat me down on a molded plastic chair. The jars on the counter apparently contained witchcraft supplies, because Derek began to measure out herbs and powders into a white bistro bowl. I felt curiously content, as though I had walked a long way with a broken arm and was now waiting in the emergency room with the promise a doctor would see me soon. Maybe it was the white décor. It felt like a hospital.
The teakettle whistled, and Derek poured hot water over his herbs before straining it into a mug. It didn’t seem like much of a spell, no more complicated than making tea, but I drank it anyway, straining it through my teeth to keep from burning my tongue. The potion had a funny taste, a little like licorice. The chair scraped against the tiles as I fell over backwards.
I woke up in a pure white room, naked and sweaty in a sleeping bag that felt like it was rated for someplace artic foxes called home. My head ached, my mouth tasted like the inside of a birdcage, and if I’d had a good time the night before, I sure as hell didn’t remember it. The room smelled like gym socks and Febreeze, each fighting for dominance. One half of the room had a bed and a small dresser, the other half was filled with basic weight-lifting equipment. A clipboard hung on a nail. It had a chart showing his cardiovascular routine, weight amounts, and number of reps. So, that was why he was built so nicely.
Derek entered the room carrying a cup of coffee and my clothes.
“Why am I naked? Why did you make me fall asleep?” I could speak again. That was nice.
Derek handed me the clothes. They smelled like dryer sheets and were neatly folded.
“You’re naked because I had to wash the indigo off completely before casting the dissolution. You want some coffee?”
I shook my head. My stomach still felt off from the large meal of irrigation water I’d had the night before. “Dissolution?”
“I still do magic in an emergency.” He looked chagrined, as though I’d given him a pack of cigarettes then chided him for smoking after he’d quit.
“What did you put on me? My skin feels raw.”
“The indigo gave you a rash, and the pain is from the dissolution spell. That’s why I put you to sleep. I did a dissolution on an old girlfriend once, and she swore my spells hurt like having a tooth pulled without Novocain.”
“I never get Novocain.” I slithered out of the bag and stepped into my clean panties. They weren’t the ones I’d been wearing earlier. Susie had a set of clothes at Derek’s house? Hmmm. “And I changed my mind about the coffee. Gimme.”
“I thought you might.” Derek smiled. He didn’t look away when I dressed, which was kind of rude, but he refilled my coffee so I decided to be nice until the caffeine got me going. “Tell me what happened.”
I summed it up for him, from Jason screwing me over, to Celestine’s spell, to me being imprisoned in the plush room. I put on my bra quickly. Talking to a guy as hot as Derek was squirmy enough when I wasn’t naked.
“So Maggie is with Celestine, but she doesn’t want to leave?”
“I think so. That, and she’s somehow managed to make an arrangement where she gets to stay in a five-star resort without paying for it.”
“Maggie, you fool.” Derek cursed.
“What is it?” I asked, fiddling with my buttons. “The food was great there.”
“I had hoped Amber was the only one who took part in the djinn summoning. Now it seems that Maggie helped. The only way she could convince Celestine to part with a dollar is if she had otherworldly assistance. I can’t believe she was stupid enough to do something like that.”
“Um, Derek? I don’t know if it was just those two.”
“Jason helped too? I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“No, he wanted to, but he missed the summoning.” I rested the cup of coffee on the weight bench, and reached for my purse. It was squelchy, and smelled like frogs, so I set it back on the floor. My watch and jewelry were all right, at least.
“Who then? Not Darius. That’s not like him. Rico? Shelly?”
“Uh, it might have been me.”
By the look Derek gave me, I might as well have confessed to killing puppies in my free time. “Oh, Susie, why would you do such a thing?”
This would have been a good time to tell him the truth, but Derek liked Susie, and I wanted him to like me, so I continued the lie.
“I don’t know for sure it was me. See, ever since last week, I’ve had this memory problem. I’ve forgotten some of the events of last week, and things I should know have just vanished. So I think I might have summoned the djinn. Maybe. The djinn seems to think so. I can’t remember what happened.”
“How many wishes have you made?”
“Maybe one?” All I wanted was to make sure Maggie was safe, and then maybe find out how to get home again. I did the first, but still had no idea how to go about doing the second. “You’re not going to turn me in, are you?”
“No. Of course not,” Derek said, earnestly enough that I believed him. “The MIB contacted me a few days ago. They asked me about Amber. I said I’d met her, that she was my girlfriend’s co-worker, but I didn’t tell them your name.”
I rated the girlfriend title? Uh oh. He’d be pissed off if he found out I went out with Jason. And Amber would be pissed too. “Amber’s also in trouble. The MIB must suspect she helped summon it.”
Once again, the temptation to wish myself out of this mess came on hard and strong. But of course, I couldn’t make any wishes. It didn’t seem fair. I got all the trouble, and none of the wishes.
I put the earring in and scowled. This wasn’t the first time I’d been forced to clean up someone else’s problem. For as long as I could remember, I had to be the grown-up in the family. I got my first job at sixteen, and most of my paychecks went towards bills that Maggie “forgot” to pay. I was the one who had to deal with the finances for Smiling Politely, Christopher and Jess’ band, when Christopher’s girlfriend/manager proved to be hopeless at such difficult tasks as arithmetic and staying sober. Zoë had heard more than one bitch session about how sick and tired of it I was, and how one of these days I’d let them all deal with their own problems and just skip town, but of course I never did, because then Maggie and my sibs wouldn’t have anyone, and I couldn’t leave them in the lurch. Now I was going to get stuck taking care of Amber too. “Any way we can get the MIB off her back?”
Derek scoffed. “That’s the least of her worries.”
“What do you mean?”
“The MIB agent told me what happens if you make a third wish.”
“Jason thinks if you make your third wish, the djinn vanishes.” I searched around for my second earring. Why had Derek taken my earrings out? Had he cleaned them too?
“A djinn doesn’t give out wishes for free.”
“I thought they gave you wishes in exchange for being freed from their bottle, or whatever.”
“Why do you think people trap them in a bottle in the first place?” Derek raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t free him, you gave him a round trip ticket from the Elsewhere. He wants to be here. Here, he can cause all the trouble he wants, and his own people can’t reach him.”
“So, why did he grant wishes then?”
“Same reason a loan shark helps you out with a spot of cash when you’re low. No one does anything for free, not here, not in the Elsewhere. He’s going to make you ask for more wishes, and when you owe him too much, he’ll take you as payment.”
“He’ll kidnap me?”
“Or just take your soul. I’m not quite sure on that part.” Derek finished drinking his cup of coffee, and set the empty cup next to mine on the weight bench. “Either way, you don’t want that to happen.”
“Well, I just won’t make any wishes then.”
“That’s a start.”
“But what about Amber? How do I help her?”
“I don’t know. See, this is what you get for messing around with magic. I never regretted quitting when I did. It makes life easier.”
That sounded like the truth. Actually, Derek didn’t sound like a guy who was accustomed to deception. Maybe he wasn’t the one who cursed me at the Black Bean. Maybe it was Jason, or Nightjack. No, not Nightjack, not his style. I finished dressing and walked to the living room to find my shoes.
“I’ll ask around,” Derek continued, following me. “See if someone knows a spell to trap a djinn in a bottle. We’ll see if we can get rid of Nightjack before the MIB finds out that you and Maggie and Amber were involved. We’ll have to hurry.”
“If people are talking, someone knows.”
“If people are talking, everyone knows, or will know soon. The truth has a way of coming out.”
“Miles can help, and Darius.”
“Darius?” Derek sat down on his white couch and poured another cup of joe from the carafe.
“He’s this kid that’s one of Maggie’s mage buddies. He’s young, but it doesn’t matter, he’s sincere, and I’ve had too much double-crossing these days. I don’t even know if I trust Miles. He’s been trying to convince me you’re evil incarnate.”
“Miles hates me, remember?” Derek fetched the carafe of coffee from the kitchen. When he came back, he lifted it, offering me a second cup.
“He used to be a man,” I said, as Susie’s memory unfolded. It made sense. I should have figured that out on my own. But why? Was he a mage who did it by accident?
Derek nodded and sat down next to me. “Yeah, I remember you telling me about the gold mine. It’s an interesting story.”
Too bad I wasn’t being honest with Derek, or I could ask him.
Derek stroked my hair with his hand. “Susie, I can’t tell you how relieved I am to find you safe.”
“I’m not safe.”
“You will be.” He kissed the top of my head. “And I just thought of someone else who might be able to help.”
“Bible Ed? The guy’s a nutcase.”
“He’s helped you in the past.”
“He’s also whipped me. I can do without the flagellation. You know I’m not into the kinky stuff.” I hoped.
Derek smiled, but he didn’t make any flirtatious comments. He must have sensed a difference between us. I hadn’t kissed him, I hadn’t trusted him. He was probably wondering if he’d done something to make Susie angry. Poor guy. He didn’t know that Susie was gone and might never come back. For all I knew, she was dead, and he was stuck with little old me, haphazard mage, with many enemies and few friends.
I gave him a hug. “Derek, from now on …”
“Will you call me Susan?”
“Susan? Sure.” He released me from the hug. “Come on, I’ll give you a ride home.”
“Ride to work,” I corrected. “I’ll just have to show up like this. I already missed a day. My boss won’t forgive me if I’m late.” What day was it, Monday? No, it was Tuesday. Great, I was going to have to explain to my boss why I hadn’t shown up the day before. I could certainly see the appeal in using magic to make yourself win the lottery. Having a regular job sure got in the way of saving your friends.