Miles was right about my ward. What would it feel like, if you were trying to cross a ward and couldn’t? Would you think there was a glass wall there, or would you just decide it was uncrossable without even trying? I didn’t fully realize how strong it was until Zoë mentioned that we hadn’t gotten any mail for two days, and the electric company left messages on our machine saying that they needed to read the meter but didn’t have access to it.
The insurance adjustor gave up after the third visit, and met Zoë at work instead. He tried to give Zoë a hard time, but Zoë had regained her spunk. She lit into him at the implication that she’d done the damage herself, and since she had a police report and stacks of before-after photos, he agreed to cut her a check for enough money to repair the damage. That wouldn’t account for Zoë’s time and the effort that had gone into renovating this old house, but she said all those zeros comforted her in a way even a loaded shotgun wouldn’t.
I’d been carrying my gun with me. Susie, because of the synchronicity between her reality and mine, had gotten her concealed carry permit the same month I had. Instead of going to the climbing gym I went to the shooting range, grateful for the first time in my life that I lived in a redneck conservative state where firearms were considered as wholesome as trucks and the American flag.
After the third day of not receiving mail, followed by a call from FedEx about a package they couldn’t deliver, Zoë’s irritation overcame her fear and she asked me to tone the ward down. More importantly, the furniture gallery wasn’t able to deliver my mirror. I wanted my mirror. I needed my mirror. My mirror might get me home again.
I’d been reading and rereading Susie’s spellbook until I had it almost memorized. It wasn’t hard. It felt like reading old letters, or walking a path I once walked to kindergarten: a nearly constant feeling of déjà vu. I found a second protection spell, very similar to the full-powered version. It too relied upon cholla, that spiny cactus so detested by hikers. That Saturday, I filled a wheelbarrow from the neighbor’s yard, and I’d just finished encircling the front yard and the back fence with it when a silver sedan pulled up in front of the house and an elderly woman in a beige suit stepped out.
She was a mage. I froze on the driveway, hands still clutching the wheelbarrow handles, and tried to use logic to figure out how I knew that. Maybe it was the aura of confidence. Maybe it was the way the ward seemed to bend and pull towards her, like hair towards a static-y balloon. She sure wasn’t dressed like a mage. No amulets, no black gowns. Then again, none of us dressed that way, so why should that make a difference?
Why was I positive she was a mage? Why was I sure I didn’t like her? I frowned, and clutched the handles. There was grit and thorns in the fingertips of my gloves, and I wanted to take them off, but then I’d have no excuse not to shake hands with this woman. Then again, if I took my gloves off I could get at the gun holstered under the hem of my Capri pants. I began tugging at the fingertips. I don’t know why I’d bothered wearing gloves to handle cholla anyway. Those inch-long spikes would go through the thickest leather.
“Nice ward,” she said, pushing up against it. She was still standing on the sidewalk. “Keeps out only those who mean you harm. Clever bit of work. Who taught you that?”
“Family secret. Why are you here? It’s too hot to be chatting in the sun.”
The woman stepped over the ward and onto the driveway. She extended her hand. “Agent Thule, Magical Investigation Bureau. And don’t think ill of me because of my name. Even the Stillwaters have a few black sheep in their past. You got my message, I presume?”
“Message? No.” I shook her hand, feeling mystified, then dropped the gloves into the wheelbarrow and pushed it onto the carport. “Um, you want to come in and have a drink?” Stupid ingrained politeness. Shouldn’t have asked her inside.
Agent Thule came in through the kitchen door, and only paused long enough to accept a glass of water before pushing a clear spot on the table for her huge folder. Zoë had spent the day working on the house, and as usual had used the table as a dumping ground for her tools and supplies.
“This would be so much easier if you had decided to cooperate.”
“Um…” I managed, glancing down at the forms she shoved at me. They looked governmental, asking for name, date of birth, address, social security number, and every other morsel of personal information that a bureaucrat might desire. “Look, Agent Thule, I’m going to have to get back to you on this. I’ve got this problem I need to work out first.”
“Tell her your memory has been damaged,” Miles piped up, scampering in from down the hall. He’d gotten quite cheeky since Spaz’s death, walking around the place as though he owned it.
“My memory’s been damaged. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Memory damage?” Agent Thule frowned and touched her finger to her lips. “Oh, is that so? So you know nothing about a summoning ring that happened two weeks ago Monday?”
“And you don’t know anything about Nightjack?”
“I’ve heard the name recently, but I don’t know anything about who Nightjack is. Like I told you, I have a memory problem.” I sat down and folded my arms.
“How can I be sure you don’t actually remember what happened?”
“You believed the WMD lie, didn’t you?”
Agent Thule gave me a wry smile at that. “Let’s grant, for simplicity’s sake, that you actually have a memory problem, that you’re the victim of a malicious spell designed to make you forget in whose circle you’ve been spilling your blood.”
I flinched at that.
“We have ways of finding these things out, Ms. Stillwater. Aetheric evidence gathering takes time, but the truth will out.”
“Why should you care if I did or not? What does it matter to you?”
For an answer, Agent Thule reached into her briefcase and pulled out some snapshots and dropped them on the table. I thought they were pictures of pasta at first; that’s what they looked like, great big plates of spaghetti. Upon closer inspection, the marinara sauce appeared to have an eye and some teeth.
“Dogs,” she stated. “Racing dogs.”
“Who would want to kill racing dogs?”
“Someone who bet on a dog that wasn’t killed.”
“But wouldn’t they cancel the race, if all these dogs ended up dead unexpectedly? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Exactly. Who would want to win a dog race if it meant they wouldn’t get any money from it? No one. It’s a twisted djinn reward.” Agent Thule had her arms folded. “That’s why when we found out that Jason Adler had a sizeable bet on one of the unharmed dogs, we put two and two together and suspected a djinn.”
“So, go talk to Jason Adler. This has nothing to do with me.”
“Jason Adler is not a thaumaturge. He’s a dilettante, a groupie who schmoozes and flirts better mages into casting spells for him.” Agent Thule’s eye flickered, and she suppressed a sneer. Sounded like she knew him personally. “The Stillwaters are one of the oldest thaumaturge families in the valley. If anyone were to know about aetheric disturbances, it would be you. However, Margaret’s missing, and you’re hiding something. Either you’re directly involved in this, or you are protecting the person who is.”
“Why, of all the base accusations—“ Miles spluttered.
I glanced at Miles. My glance didn’t go unremarked, because Agent Thule suddenly reached out and snatched Miles off the table.
“Robert Jefferson Miles,” Agent Thule drawled slowly, leaning back in her chair. She held him by his abdomen, only a few inches from her face. “Still paying the price of Anamala’s fury, I see?”
“And shall I mock you for your mistakes as well?” Miles crossed his forelegs in front of him. He looked quaintly human when he did that.
“You know him?” I asked.
“Don’t bother to translate, Ms. Stillwater. I think I know what Bobby Miles might like to say to me, and you can tell him the answer is still no. I live in the desert. I’ll abide by her decision. Besides, you haven’t yet paid for what you did.”
“Go to hell,” Miles spat. “Miss Susan, tell this, this woman that it’s time for her to go.”
“Agent Thule, I think I’ve answered all your questions.”
“Very well.” Agent Thule rose quickly, and the papers vanished into her folder. “May I be blunt, Ms. Stillwater?” Without waiting for my reply, she continued. “There are a lot of curious incidents surrounding you these days: your mother’s disappearance, a seizure in a bar, and now one of the djinn destroys your house, while curiously sparing both you and your roommate. We at the Bureau do not like public displays of magic. It makes work difficult for us. If you don’t find who’s responsible for these actions, you might find yourself on the other side of our interest.”
“I see.” Bitch. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes. I’ll need to interview your fey,” she said, with exactly the intonation that the electric company guy had when he asked to read the meter.
Agent Thule insisted that I not be present for the interview, but I watched through the window anyway. The fey all gathered around her: insect-like winged faeries and the mushroom-gnomes and thornwights. Even a few of the bramblemaes perched on the branches of the ash tree to listen to her. She spoke with them seriously, making notes on a PDA, and when she was finished, she handed them each a piece of dark candy that looked like those Ricola cough drops.
“I didn’t know they could even talk,” I said to Miles.
“They don’t, not exactly. They’re smart enough to understand her when she asks them the right way, so she’ll ask them yes-no questions.”
“Do you think they’re going to narc on me?”
“These sort of garden fey generally tell only the truth,” Miles said, peering into the garden from my bedroom windowsill. “That’s why she wants to interview them. They’re as reliable as security cameras.”
“Cameras don’t show you everything, and pictures can lie even better than people.”
“Exactly, Miss Susan.” He beamed at me. I didn’t know lizards could beam, but somehow he did. Kinda like Kermit, actually. “But if you know what you’re looking for, you can get confirmation.”
“Confirmation of what?”
“Help me get out and I’ll spy for you.”
The windows were cheap single paned ones that had come with the house, and the aluminum frame was bent in one corner. Miles shoved his nose into the crack, and when I tugged on the window, it opened enough for him to slip out. Zoë had replaced all the other windows in the house, but she knew I hated the chaos of renovation so she saved my room for last. Miles scampered up between the screen and the window.
“She doesn’t think you summoned the djinn, but she is certain that you know who did, and that you’re protecting whoever it is.” His voice was a little muffled by the glass.
“Why would I protect someone who tried to kill me? And what are the fey saying?”
“I don’t know,” Miles confessed. “I can’t hear them well. Agent Thule doesn’t look happy with the answers though.” Miles held still, apparently listening. His belly heaved in and out and his newly grown tail hung down limply, like a rope. Nightjack must not have removed it all the way, if it were already grown. Had it just squashed him? Poor Miles. It must be hard to be a lizard in a human’s world.
“She’s asking them who attacked you that night at the Black Bean. I wonder who told her about that? Perhaps Derek is spying on you.”
“Oh.” I’d almost forgotten about it. Funny how being kidnapped, trapped in a well, and attacked by a dog made minor inconveniences like a burning aura curse seem unimportant. “Well, can’t we just read tea leaves or use a ouija board to find out who did it?”
“Not you or I. True diviniation is a very specific skill. Only a few possess such talents.”
“I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. There are a lot of questions I’d like answered. Where’s Maggie’s spell book, how do I get rid of Nightjack, and who cursed me at the Black Bean are good ones.”
“Well, I don’t know anyone who can do it. There’s a soothsayer downtown who might, but I heard she’s better with cards than anything else, and you certainly don’t get good—Susan?” Miles asked. “Miss Susan? What’s wrong?”
I did know someone who was good at divination. Susie’s brain gave me a memory, clear as daylight, of a pale freckled hand reaching into a Crown Royal bag. He’d help me if I asked. I so did not want to ask. I slumped onto my bed and put my face in my hands.
Bo: about eighty pounds heavier than me, six inches taller, dangerously unstable, and fond of wearing a survival knife strapped to the inside of his thigh. I’d dated him twice, the first time because he was a blind date and the second time out of pity and the mistaken idea that dating a real woman would boost the poor boy’s confidence. No good deed goes unpunished. After the second date, I told him there wouldn’t be a third. Following that, I lived in fear for two years. The guy was a menace, a creator of fantasy worlds in which the way to show you care about a girl is to treat her like an eight-point buck in November. He was the reason I begged Ruby to teach me my first ward. (Susie’s memories were taking over my own, how odd.) He was the reason I paid for an unlisted number. If I hadn’t thought my life were in immediate danger, I would have run the other way instead of speaking to him.
Bo would want us to date again as payment for answering my question. He’d want my phone number and if he got that, he’d call me non stop and I’d have to get a new one.
But on the other hand, he wasn’t dangerous while I was dating him, he was only dangerous when I broke up. If I had to, I could remain his ‘girlfriend’ until Susie and I switched back. It would serve her right for dumping this on me.
“Bo. I’ll ask him how to get rid of Nightjack.”
“He can scry?”
“Yeah. He’s good at it.” So that’s what his Jew’s harp ability translated as.
“Excellent!” Miles leapt off the desk and clung to my shirt, then scampered up to my shoulder. “And you know, Miss Susan, this might be the start of something with you and that boy. I may have forgotten a lot about human behavior, but I daresay that Bo is fond of you.”
Miles apparently missed my sarcasm, because he began singing, “So this is love, ya dad a daaaa,” and then humming the rest of what sounded like one of those crooning fifties ballads that make me want to hurl: the ones that don’t need much to be converted into musak. After a polite, “Knock it off, Miles,” he sang louder. I was tempted to break his tail off to shut him up, but he’d had a rough morning so I let him get away with it.
Bo had a crappy retail job with seemingly random hours, so it took four calls over the next day and a half before I caught him at home. I suppose I could have just left a callback number, but we Stillwaters are known for optimism, and I was hoping against hope that he wouldn’t get it from me. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” is sound advice when dealing with a guy like Bo.
By the time I overcame my revulsion enough to visit him at SupplyMax, it was Tuesday. Zoë had put plywood over all the broken windows, the insurance adjustor had come and gone, and we’d vacuumed most of the dust up. Zoë started crying at the suggestion that we go to the pound and look at kittens. When I suggested that we at least get a replacement fish, she yelled at me for being an insensitive friend. At work, the Hag criticized me for not netting Jason Adler as a new client. When Miles berated me for stepping on his tail (he lost it again), I finally felt bad enough that visiting Bo at work was almost a pleasant diversion.
Everyone at SupplyMax wore red vests and black slacks, but Bo stood a head above the rest of the teenage staff. His nametag said ‘assistant manager’. Dangling from his belt was his ever-present Crown Royal bag, bouncing against his fannypack when he strode towards me.
“Susie! Hey doll, what’s up?” Bo not only kissed me (a quick turn made it land on the side of my mouth) but he cupped my rear suggestively, which meant he was probably showing off for the rest of the staff. (I hoped I never saw any of them again.)
“I need your help. Can we talk in private?”
“Oooh, private. Yeah, that’s what I got in mind.” Bo swept me off my feet and began to carry me towards the back of the store. If some other guy had done it, it might have been whimsically chivalrous, but with Bo it came off as just dumb. Bo grunted and tried to get his arm far enough under me to reach around and touch my breast. It sounded like someone snickered, but none of the other staff were visible.
“I can walk on my own.” I tried to slip out of his grip, and caused him to trip over a stack of printer paper. We spilled onto the floor, and a box of ballpoint pens landed on my head. Bo fell on top of me, and his arm knocked a canister of paperclips off the display, scattering them across the floor. Something poked me in the back, and some of the paperclips had fallen into my bra.
“Ouch. Get off me.” He had an erection. Oh yuck.
“You want me too, don’t you Susie?” Bo whispered. “I know a way to block off part of the storeroom. We could go, and you know.” He made a squeaking sound, accompanied by a crude gesture. God, they had no idea. He’d do it too. If he got me somewhere private he’d rape me, completely oblivious that it wasn’t my idea too. The guy just did not understand “no.”
“That’s not why I came here. I want your help.” I shimmied backwards and put a case of envelopes between us. No way did I want to play the sex-card with a louse like him, but Bo was technically male, and he might have a manly protective desire under that pasty freckled skin. “Someone’s trying to hurt me, and I want you to tell me who it is.”
“Oh.” He sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, but didn’t completely get off of me. “Okay. Let’s go to the storeroom.”
“How about right here?” I snaked my arm forward and grabbed his Crown Royal sack. My gun, which I’d taken to wearing every day since Nightjack killed Spaz, dug into my back. I didn’t dare readjust it because some people acted all funny when they saw someone packing in a retail establishment.
“Yeah, I dunno. It’s not real private here.” He sat up even more, but couldn’t move completely away because of my grip on his sack.
“I really need it, Bo,” I pleaded, twisting the sack around on its string. I could feel the wooden tiles inside. What was more disgusting, being with Bo, or manipulating him like this? “It will only take ten minutes. Please?”
“I can’t. They can’t know I’m a mage, I’ll get fired,” he said. “I can meet you somewhere. I can’t do a good reading here anyway. It takes time.”
“Fine. When? Where?”
One of his co-workers poked us in the feet with a dust mop. “Hey Bo! Quit making out with your girlfriend and clean up that mess!”
“I dunno. Give me your phone number and I’ll call you when I get off work tonight.”
“How about I just call you?” I still had a grip on the purple felt bag, but Bo was disentangling my fingers.
“Nope. I want your number.”
“I know. That’s why I want it.”
“Fine.” I grabbed a loose pen off the floor and scribbled my number on his forearm. His co-workers gathered around, staring at me. They were probably wondering what was wrong with me, that I’d date a guy like Bo. That’s what I’d be wondering, if I were in their shoes.
“Don’t make me wait too long.”
“I love it when a girl says those words to me,” Bo gloated, and showed my phone number like a badge to the rest of his crew.
Oh, the humility.