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Darius was right about Zoë. She started working longer hours, and never seemed to be around when Griff was. Not only was Darius right, but he was smug about it. It didn’t make any sense. What had he done, really, except give her a present on her birthday? She’d left the pomegranate on the mantel over the fireplace, with a saucer underneath to keep the juice off the wood. He saw it every time he went into the living room. It looked less golden by the day. At the end of the week it was only a third golden. By the end of the month, it would be nothing more than a rotten pomegranate. No wonder Alex wanted to sell the seed pod to a pawn shop.
Still, it was the thought that counted, right? Maybe Zoë didn’t think so.
Why did he have such bad luck with women? He had a girlfriend in college, an anthropology major named Amy. She was great, not just attractive, but smart and funny: a good companion. He’d known all along that she’d planned on going to law school after she graduated, but it had still hit him hard when she packed her car two days after commencement. She just said goodbye and walked away as though the twenty months or so they’d spent together didn’t mean anything.
He couldn’t even have fantasies about getting back together with her, because they were still friends on Facebook, and he knew she was dating someone else. It was evident that Amy had created a perfectly good life for herself in Boston. She called now and then, or forwarded a funny email, but it didn’t seem like she missed him very much.
He knew he was pretty good looking, and he wasn’t fat or a drinker. He didn’t even smoke. Amy had always said he treated her right, so it must have been something else, like maybe the fact that he didn’t have any money. He and Amy had a debate about that once, when he’d complained that all women cared about was money. She said women cared more about status and kindness than money. He said that wasn’t true, and had what he thought was a good argument, but Amy cited reference books and case studies, using examples from many different cultures, until he had to just say she’d won, as he’d inadvertently stumbled onto the subject of her undergraduate honors thesis. She’d kissed him then, and called him beautiful. Griff had asked her to buy him dinner. She’d laughed and put a sock on the door so his roommate would know they wanted to be private.
He sighed. He really missed having a girlfriend.
Griff grabbed his motorcycle helmet and went to the Game DeSpot. He didn’t think there’d be any girls there, but at least he could hang out with guys who were worse off than he was. It was late afternoon, so anyone with a real job would be at work or just now driving home rather than hanging out at a game store. It was getting dark already, and the air was redolent with exhaust and dust. The Christmas traffic was pretty bad, but since he moved in with Darius and Zoë, he didn’t have to go down any major streets to get to the Game DeSpot.
To his surprise, Fallon was there. She was squatting backwards on the seat of a metal chair, her arms folded up with her fingertips lightly touching the back. She looked like a gargoyle, but of course a woman like Fallon could do anything she wanted and still be hot. She wore what looked like a leather jacket, except that it was thin, and blue jeans that were perfectly normal jeans except that they were shiny. Griff saw her before she noticed him, so he checked her out, matching the image of her with his memory. Yes, she was strange. Her eyes were bigger than they ought to be. And the way she held perfectly still, watching the game of D&D like a velociraptor watching a schoolyard; that wasn’t natural either.
He pushed the door open, rattling the old Warhammer figurines that were tied to the door handle as bells.
Fallon’s head twisted, just her head, so that she watched him while the rest of her remained perfectly still. Yeah, predatory. That was the right word for it. He ignored her and went to the back of the store like he was interested in a chess set. She was just a creepy girl, she couldn’t do anything to him.
He didn’t hear her approach, and when she laid her hand on his shoulder, he just about jumped out of his skin.
“Oh hey, Fallon, what’s up?” he said, trying for casual except that his voice squeaked.
“I have come to warn you,” she said, in her fluting accent. I have cume tue warn yuuu. The accent didn’t sound cute anymore. Now it just sounded weird.
“Warn me?” he said, casually again, as though his heart weren’t racing. Shit, and now she was threatening him? Not cool. “About what?”
“My people will kill you if they discover you are the cause of the fey death.”
“I don’t follow,” Griff said. “What fey death?”
“The fey, the ones that look like hedgehogs. They are dying. You are not the cause, are you? You are not the mage who is taking their essence?”
“No,” Griff said. “What are you talking about?” Maggie. Maggie and Alex. Something about the hedgehog-like garden fey?
“We know there is a mage who has been harvesting these creatures, and we know that you have been helping her.”
“I don’t see why that would be any business of yours, even if it were true. You’ll have to explain it to me,” Griff said, somewhat perversely. Fallon hated to talk.
She frowned, briefly, then continued. “We share the mice and lizards with the cats, and we share snakes with the coati and songbirds with the falcons, but we do not wish to share this prey with anyone. These fey are rare, and the ones in this area are stronger than any to be found for many, many miles. We will kill any who take them from us.”
“That’s hardly fair.”
“Fair?” She raised an eyebrow. He used to think it was adorable when Amy did it, but on Fallon it made him think of Leonard Nimoy, which wasn’t as sexy. “We are many, and you are few. There is no fair or unfair, only strength of might.”
He scoffed and curled his lip. He wasn’t sure if he felt more angry or afraid, but he was shaking. “You’re threatening me? I thought we were friends.” He was aware of how appropriate the word ‘friend’ was in this situation. ‘Friend’ is what you called a girl after she broke up with you. Publicly, anyway.
She tilted her head at a seventy degree angle, not shifting the rest of her body. “Friends. Yes. We are friends. You are my man-friend. That is why I am loyal to you, because I like you.” She hesitated over the word loyal, as though she’d never used it before but thought it sounded cool. “This is why I did not tell the other owls in the desert where you had fled to, when some of them wanted your bones to mingle with the mage’s.”
Griff felt a cold tingliness overcome him, as though his body were losing circulation. He knew, without a doubt, that she wasn’t just bullshitting him. Alex was dead, and it had almost happened to him. It wasn’t quick thinking that had saved him, only luck, and the mercy of a very weird girl.
Fallon tilted her head back up to ninety degrees. “Now you understand.”
She’d used him to get to Alex. Was he partially responsible for Alex’s death? God, he hoped not. Poor Alex. He was a loser, but he didn’t deserve to die.
“I could still tell the parliament that you were involved. You could still feel our claws. Some of the parliament want to kill any human involved, not just the mage.” She tilted her head again, and looked up at the corner of the room.
“I see how it is. You’re blackmailing me.”
“Blackmail.” She tasted the word, like she knew what it was but didn’t know its name before. “Yes. I will keep silent, and you will do me a favor, some day in the future.”
“Fine,” Griff said.
She tilted her head back up to ninety degrees. The head-tilt thing was sweetly eccentric when she was just a hot girl he thought might like him, but now that he knew she was a cold-hearted psychopath, it was just creepy and annoying.
“You are angry? Is this not a good bargain?” She tsked. “There’s no pleasing a human.”
“I don’t want to see you again,” Griff said. He wondered, belatedly, if the others were listening. He hoped none of them were stupid enough to get involved with Fallon. “Stay away from me.”
He turned and left, knowing full well he was being dramatic. He heard the D&D game stop as he pushed open the door. He pushed the door too hard, and it locked open instead of shutting. As he turned back to close it, he saw Fallon slink out. She was watching him.
She was tailing him.
He was pretty sure she didn’t want to have make-up sex, and he was also pretty sure she was done with the conversation. The only reason he could think of for her to follow him was that ‘her people’ didn’t know where Maggie lived, and they hoped he would lead them to her.
No, that was ridiculous. She couldn’t follow him on foot, could she?
But what about the others?
He got on his motorcycle and rode slowly through the parking lot. With his helmet on, they couldn’t see where he was looking. He scanned the rooflines. It was pretty dark, and he couldn’t see much, but the Taco Bell across the way had a string of blinking Christmas lights along its roof, and in the flash of red and green he thought he saw the oval outline of an owl.
He wasn’t being ridiculous, he was being smart. They really were following him.
He pulled into the parking lot of an apartment complex, finding an empty spot as though he were going to visit someone there. The complex had a line of wispy mesquite trees separating it from the street, and some bushy grass-like shrubs underneath. He listened for the sound of owls in the trees near him, but of course, he heard nothing.
He listened more carefully.
He heard birdsong, but not in the trees around the parking lot, only in the surrounding neighborhoods. Near him they were silent. They knew there were predators here. He looked up at the yellow streetlight through the branches overhead. He saw the outline of an owl.
And then he looked across the walk to the management office, and he saw something even stranger: a phone booth.
Griff tried not to run as he walked across the open space to the phone booth. It had a light which worked, and a phone book which appeared to be intact, and the phone didn’t even have graffiti on it, though of course he didn’t use it because he had his own phone. He called Maggie.
“Yeah?” she said. Music was blaring in the background. “Hang on.” She turned it down. “Yeah?”
“Maggie, it’s Griff. We’re in trouble.” Actually, Maggie was the one in trouble but he thought it would sound better if he didn’t point that out.
“Shit,” she drawled, as though she had a cigarette in her mouth. She exhaled. “The MIB?”
“No. You’re going to think this is weird but it’s, um, it’s owls.”
“Oh, them.” She made a grunt of disapproval, not unlike the sound someone made when they couldn’t open a pickle jar. “Damn owls.”
“We can’t do the wands anymore. I’ll pay you for the other ones,” (even terrified, Griff realized that being the only owner of magic wands in a buyer’s market was a good business strategy) “but they said they were going to kill the mage who was de-magicking the rumblers.”
Griff waited for this to sink in.
Maggie exhaled again. “Okay.”
“I don’t think they know where you live, but they’re looking for you. You might want to get out of town.”
“I’m not going to let Sunwards tell me what I can and can’t do. Come over in a couple days.”
“You don’t understand, I think they’re trailing me. If they find out where you live, they’ll ambush you. I think …” no, he didn’t think, he knew, “they killed Alex.”
“He musta been stupid. They’re not normal owls, they’re Sunwards. Stay where the lights are really bright and they can’t hurt you.”
“What about at night?”
“Sleep with the light on if you’re scared.”
“You don’t understand. They’re coming for you. They want to kill you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m mage enough to take care of a bunch of owls,” Maggie said. “And, hey, can you bring me a couple packs of smokes next time you drop by? I’m getting a little low.”
Across the street, a soccer field abutted a parking lot. Three large birds perched on the back of the goal post, watching. That tree next to the alley, were there owls perched in it? Were they watching him?
“You listening?” Maggie asked. “Relax, man, it’s going to be okay.”
“Alex is dead, and Susan is missing. How is that okay?”
“What? Susan? What about her?”
“She’s been missing since the beginning of November.”
“She’s what? Why didn’t you tell me?” Maggie didn’t sound nearly as stoned now.
“I told you weeks ago.” Griff felt guilty. He’d told her, hadn’t he? When he dropped off the cat trap? He was sure he’d said something, but maybe she’d been too stoned to hear it. Or maybe his memory wasn’t good. Maybe he’d just thought he’d told her, but had been too wrapped up in Zoë to remember.
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know. Her roommates don’t know either. They say she just disappeared.”
“Susie? They did something to my little girl?” she said, voice breaking. “Damn owls. They’ll be sorry they messed with me.”
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Griff said. “Maggie?”
But Maggie had hung up.
An owl was sitting on the fire hydrant not four feet outside the phone booth, watching him. Listening.