Storm Born Chapter Two

 

Wil Delaney was in his early twenties, with straw-yellow hair in need of a haircut. He had pasty white skin and wore wire-rimmed glasses. When I showed up at his house the next morning, he had to undo about twenty locks before he could open the door, and even then, he would only peek out with the security chain in place.

"Yes?" he asked suspiciously.

I put on my business face. "I'm Odile. Lara set up our appointment?"

He studied me. "You're younger than I thought you'd be." A moment later, he closed the door and undid the chain. The door opened again, and he ushered me inside.

I glanced around as I entered, taking in stacks and stacks of books and newspapers - and a definite lack of light. "Kind of dark in here."

"Can't open the blinds," he explained. "You never know who'll be watching."

"Oh. Well. What about the lights?"

He shook his head. "You'd be amazed how much radiation lights and other electrical devices emit. It's what's making cancer run rampant in our society."

"Oh."

We sat at his kitchen table, and he explained to me why he thought his sister had been abducted by the gentry. I had a hard time concealing my skepticism. It wasn't like this kind of thing was unheard of, but I was starting to pick up on Lara's "schizo" vibe. It was highly possible that the gentry could simply have been a figment of his imagination.

"This is her." He brought me a five-by-seven picture showing him and a pretty girl leaning into each other against a grassy backdrop. "Taken just before the abduction."

"She's cute. And young. Does she...did she...live with you?"

He nodded. "Our parents died about five years ago. I got custody of her. Not much different than how it used to be."

"What do you mean?"

Bitterness crossed that neurotic face, an odd juxtaposition. "Our dad was always off on some business trip, and our mom kept sleeping around on him. So it's always just sort of been Jasmine and me."

"And what makes you think she was taken by gen - fairies?"

"The timing," he explained. "It happened on Halloween. Samhain Eve. That's one of the biggest nights for abductions and hauntings, you know. Data supports it. The walls between the worlds open."

He sounded like he was reciting from a textbook. Or the Internet. Sometimes I thought Internet access was like putting guns in the hands of toddlers. I tried not to roll my eyes as he rambled. I didn't really need a layman explaining remedial information to me.

"Yeah, I know all that. But a lot of scary people - humans - roam around on Halloween too. And lots of other times. I don't suppose you reported it to the police?"

"I did. They weren't able to turn up anything, not that I really needed them. I knew what had happened because of the location. The place she disappeared. That was what made me know fairies did it."

"Where?"

"This one park. She was at a party with some kids from school. They had a bonfire in the woods, and they saw her wander off. The police traced her tracks to this clearing, and then they just stopped. And you know what was there?" He gave me a dramatic look, evidently ready to impress me. I didn't give him the satisfaction of asking the obvious question, so he answered it for me. "A fairy ring. A perfect circle of flowers growing in the grass."

"It happens. Flowers do that."

He shot up from the table, incredulity all over his face. "You don't believe me!"

I worked hard to keep my face as blank as a new canvas. You could have painted a picture on it.

"It's not that I don't believe what you're describing, but there are a lot more mundane explanations. A girl alone in the woods could have been abducted by any number of things - or people."

"They said you were the best," he told me, like it was some kind of argument. "They said you kick paranormal ass all the time. You're the real deal."

"What I can or can't do isn't relevant. I need to make sure we're on the right track. You're asking me to cross physically into the Otherworld. I almost never do that. It's dangerous."

Wil sat back down, face desperate. "Look, I'll do anything at all. I can't let her stay there with those - with those things. Name your price. I can pay anything you want."

I glanced around curiously, taking in the books on UFOs and Bigfoot. "Uh...what exactly do you do for a living?"

"I run a blog."

I waited for more, but apparently that was it. Somehow I suspected that generated less money than even Tim made. Hmphf. Bloggers. I didn't get why everyone and their brother thought the world wanted to read their thoughts on...well, nothing. If I wanted to be subjected to meaningless blather, I'd watch reality television.

He was still looking at me pleadingly, with big blue puppy dog eyes. I nearly groaned. When had I grown so soft? Didn't I want people to think of me as some cold and calculating shamanic mercenary? I'd vanquished a keres yesterday. Why was this sob story getting to me?

It was actually because of the keres, I realized. That stupid sexual suggestion had been so revolting to me that I just couldn't erase the image of little Jasmine Delaney being some gentry's plaything. Because that's what she would be, though I'd never tell Wil that. The gentry liked human women. A lot.

"Can you take me to the park she disappeared from?" I asked at last. "I'll get a better sense if fairies really were involved."

Of course, it actually turned out that I took him because I quickly decided I wasn't going to let him drive me anywhere. Having him as a passenger taxed me enough. He spent the first half of the ride slathering some really thick sunscreen all over him. I guess you had to take precautions when you lived in a cave and finally emerged into the light.

"Skin cancer's on the rise," he explained. "Especially with the depletion of the ozone layer. Tanning salons are killing people. No one should go outside without some kind of protection - especially here."

That I actually agreed with. "Yeah. I wear sunscreen too."

He eyed my light tan askance. "Are you sure?"

"Well, hey, it's Arizona. Hard not to get some sun. I mean, sometimes I walk to the mailbox without sunscreen, but most of the time I try to put it on."

"'Try,'" he scoffed. "Does it protect against UVB rays?"

"Um, I don't know. I mean, I guess. I never burn. It smells pretty good too."

"Not good enough. Most sunscreens will protect from UVA rays only. But even if you don't burn, the UVB rays will still get through. Those are the real killers. Without adequate protection, you can probably expect an early death from melanoma or some other form of skin cancer."

"Oh." I hoped we got to the park soon.

When we'd almost reached it, a traffic light stopped us under an overpass. I didn't think anything of it, but Wil shifted nervously.

"I always hate being stopped under these. You never know what could happen in an earthquake."

I again schooled myself to neutrality. "Well...it's been awhile since our last earthquake around here." Yeah. Like, never.

"You just never know," he warned ominously.

Our arrival couldn't have come a moment too soon. The park was green and woodsy, someone's idiotic attempt to defy the laws of southern Arizona's climate. It probably cost the city a fortune in water. He led me along the trail that went to Jasmine's abduction spot. As we approached it, I saw something that suddenly made me put more credence in his story. The trail intersected another one at a perfect cross. A crossroads, often a gate to the Otherworld. No circle of flowers grew here now, but as I approached that junction, I could feel a slight thinness between this world and the other one.

"Who knew?" I murmured, mentally testing the walls. It wasn't a very strong spot, truthfully. I doubted much could pass here from either world right now. But on a sabbat like Samhain...well, this place could very well be an open doorway. I'd have to let Roland know so we could check it when the next sabbat rolled around.

"Well?" Wil asked.

"This is a hot spot," I admitted, trying to figure out how to proceed. It appeared I was zero for two in gauging the credibility of these last two clients, but when 90 percent of my queries were false leads, I tended to keep a healthy dose of skepticism on hand.

"Will you help me then?"

"Like I said, this really isn't my thing. And even if we decide she was taken to the Otherworld, I have no idea where to look for her. It's as big as ours."

"She's being held by a king named Aeson."

I spun around from where I'd been staring at the crossroads. "How the hell do you know that?"

"A sprite told me."

"A sprite."

"Yeah. He used to work for this guy Aeson. He ran away and wanted revenge. So he sold the information to me."

"Sold it?"

"He needed money to put down a deposit on an apartment in Scottsdale."

It sounded ludicrous, but it wasn't the first time I'd heard of Otherworldly creatures trying to set up shop in the human world. Or of crazy people who wanted to live in Scottsdale.

"When did this happen?"

"Oh, a few days ago." He made it sound like a visit from the UPS guy.

"So. You were seriously approached by a sprite and only now thought to mention it?"

Wil shrugged. Some of the sunscreen he'd missed rubbing in showed on his chin. It kind of reminded me of kindergarten paste. "Well, I'd already known she was taken by fairies. This just sort of confirmed it. He was actually the one who mentioned you. Said you killed one of his cousins. Then I found some locals that backed up the story."

I studied Wil. If he hadn't seemed so hapless, I almost wouldn't have believed any of this. But it smacked too much of truth for him to be making it up. "What did he call me?"

"Huh?"

"When he told you about me. What name did he give you?"

"Well...your name. Odile. But there was something else too...Eunice?"

"Eugenie?"

"Yeah, that was it."

I paced irritably around the clearing. The second of two Otherworldly denizens to know my name in as many days. That was not good. Not good at all. And now one of them was trying to get Wil to lure me into the Otherworld. Or was it truly a lure? Sprites weren't really known for being criminal masterminds. If I'd killed his cousin, I suppose he might hope some other motivated creature would take me down.

"So what? Are you going to help me now?"

"I don't know. I've got to think on it, check up on some stuff."

"But - but I've shown you and told you everything! Don't you see how real this is? You have to help me! She's only fifteen, for God's sake."

"Wil," I said calmly, "I believe you. But it's not that simple."

I meant it. It wasn't so simple, no matter how much I wanted it to be. I hated Otherworldly inference more than I hated anything else. Taking a teenage girl was the ultimate violation. I wanted to make the guilty party pay for this. I wanted to make them suffer. But I couldn't cross over with guns blazing. Getting myself killed would do none of us any good. I needed more information before I could proceed.

"You have to - "

"No," I snapped, and this time my voice wasn't so neutral. "I do not have to do anything, do you understand? I make my own choices and take my own jobs. Now, I'm very sorry about your sister, but I'm not jumping into this just yet. As Lara told you, I don't generally do jobs that take me into the Otherworld. If I take this one, it'll be after careful deliberation and question-asking. And if I don't take it, then I don't take it. End of story. Got it?"

He swallowed and nodded, cowed by the fierce tone in my voice. It was not unlike the one I used on spirits, but I felt only a little bit bad about scaring Wil with it. He had to prepare himself for the highly likely possibility that I would not do this for him, no matter how much we both wanted it.

On the way home, I swung by my mom's place, wanting to talk to Roland. Sunset threw reddish-orange light onto their house, and the scent of her flower garden filled the air. It was the familiar smell of safety and childhood. When I walked into the kitchen, I didn't see her anywhere, which was probably just as well. She tended to get upset when Roland and I talked shop.

He sat at the table working on a model airplane. I'd laughed when he picked up this hobby after retiring from shamanism, but it had recently occurred to me it wasn't so different from working puzzles. God only knew what stuff I'd find to keep me busy when I retired. I had the uneasy feeling I'd make a good candidate for cross-stitching.

His face broke into a smile when he saw me, making laugh lines appear around the eyes of the weathered face I loved. His hair was a bright silver-white, and he'd managed to keep most of it. I was five-eight, and he was only a little taller than me. But despite that height, he was solidly built and hadn't lost muscle with age. He might be pushing sixty, but I had a feeling he could still do some serious damage.

Roland took one look at my face and gestured me to a chair. "You're not here to ask about Idaho." I hadn't really understood their recent vacation choice, but whatever.

Giving him a quick kiss, I held my arms around him for a moment. I didn't love many people in this world - or any other - but him I would have died for. "No. I'm not. But how was it anyway?"

"Fine. It's not important. What's wrong?"

I smiled. That was Roland. Always ready for business. If my mom would have let him, I suspected he'd still be out there fighting, right by my side.

"Just got a job offer. A weird one."

I proceeded to tell him all about Wil and Jasmine, about the evidence I'd found for her abduction. I also added in Wil's bit of information about this Aeson guy.

"I've heard of him," said Roland.

"What do you know?"

"Not a lot. Never met him, never fought him. But he's strong, I know that much."

"This gets better and better."

He eyed me carefully. "Are you thinking about doing it?"

I eyed him back. "Maybe."

"That's a bad idea, Eugenie. A very bad idea."

There was a dark tone in his voice that surprised me. I'd never known him to back down from any danger, especially one where an innocent was involved.

"She's just a kid, Roland."

"I know, and we both know that the gentry get away with taking women every year. Most don't ever get recovered. The danger's too high. That's the way it is."

I felt my ire rising. Funny how someone telling you not to do something can talk you into it. "Well, here's one we can get back. We know where she is."

He rubbed his eyes a little, flashing the tattoos that marked his arms. My tattoos depicted goddesses; his were of whirls, crosses, and fish. He had his own set of gods to appeal to - or in this case, God. We all invoked the divine differently.

"This isn't a drop-in and drop-out thing," he warned. "It'll take you right into the heart of their society. You've never been that deep. You don't know what it's like."

"And you do?" I asked sarcastically. When he didn't answer, I felt my eyes widen. "When?"

He waved a hand of dismissal. "That doesn't matter. What matters is that if you go over in body, you'll get yourself killed or captured. I won't let you do that."

"You won't let me? Come on. You can't send me to my room anymore. Besides, I've gone over lots of times before."

"In spirit. Your total time over in body's probably been less than ten minutes." He shook his head in a wise, condescending way. That irked me. "The young never realize how foolish something is."

"And the old never realize when they need to step aside and let the younger and stronger do their jobs." The words came out before I could stop them, and I immediately felt mean. Roland merely regarded me with a level look.

"You think you're stronger than me now?"

I didn't even hesitate. "We both know I am."

"Yes," he agreed. "But that doesn't give you the right to go get yourself killed over a girl you don't even know."

I stared at him in surprise. We weren't exactly fighting, but this attitude was weird for him. He'd married my mom when I was three and adopted me shortly thereafter. The father-daughter bond burned in both of us, obliterating any longing I might have had for the birth father I'd never known. My mom almost never spoke about him. They'd had some sort of whirlwind romance, I knew, but in the end, he didn't want to stick it out - not for her, not for me.

Roland would have done anything for me, kept me away from any harm that he could - except when it came to my job. When he'd realized I could walk worlds and cast out spirits, he'd started training me, and my mother hated him for it. They were the most loving couple I'd ever met, but that choice had nearly broken them apart. They'd stayed together in the end, but she'd never been happy about what I did. Roland, however, saw it as a duty. Destiny, even. I wasn't like one of those silly people in the movies who could "see dead people" and go crazy from it. I easily could have ignored my abilities. But as far as Roland was concerned, that was a sin. To neglect one's calling was a waste, especially when it meant others would suffer. So he tried to treat me as objectively as he would any other apprentice, fighting his personal feelings.

Yet, for some reason now, he wanted to hold me back. Weird. I'd come here for strategy and ended up on the defensive.

I changed the subject abruptly, telling him about how the keres had known my name. He cut me a look, not wanting to drop the Jasmine topic. My mom's car pulled in just then, giving me a temporary victory. With a sigh and a look of warning, he told me not to worry about the name. It happened sometimes. His had eventually gotten out too, and little had come of it.

My mom came into the kitchen, and shamanic business disappeared. Her face - so like mine, down to the shape and high cheekbones - put on a smile as warm as Roland's. Only hers was tinged with something a little different. She always carried a perpetual concern for me. Sometimes I thought it simply had to do with what I did for a living. Yet, she'd had that worry ever since I was little, like I might disappear on her at any moment. Maybe it was just a mom thing.

She placed a paper bag on the counter and began putting away groceries. I knew she knew what I was doing there, but she chose to ignore it.

"You going to stay for dinner?" she asked. "I think you've lost weight."

"She has not," said Roland.

"She's too skinny," complained my mom. "Not that I'd mind a little of that."

I smiled. My mom looked amazing.

"You need to eat more," she continued.

"I eat, like, three candy bars a day. I'm not depriving myself of calories." I walked over and poked her in the arm. "Watch it, you're being all momlike. Smart, professional moms aren't supposed to be that way."

She cut me a look. "I'm a therapist. I have to be twice as momlike."

In the end, I stayed for dinner. Tim was a great cook, but nothing could ever really replace my mom's food. While we ate, we talked about their vacation in Idaho. Neither Jasmine nor the keres ever came up.

When I finally got back home, I found Tim getting ready to go out with a gaggle of giggling girls. He was in full pseudo-Indian regalia, complete with a beaded head wrap and buckskin vest.

"Greetings, Sister Eugenie," he said, holding up a palm like he was in some sort of Old West movie. "Join us. We're going to a concert over in Davidson Park, so that we may commune with the Great Spirit's gift of springtime whilst letting the sacred beat of the music course through our souls."

"No thanks," I said, brushing past him and going straight to my room.

A moment later, he followed sans girls.

"Oh, come on, Eug. It's gonna be a blast. We've got a cooler of beer and everything."

"Sorry, Tim. I don't really feel like being a squaw tonight."

"That's a derogatory term."

"I know it is. Very much so. But your bleach-blond posse out there doesn't deserve much better." I eyed him askance. "Don't even think about bringing any of them back here tonight."

"Yeah, yeah, I know the rules." He flounced into my wicker chair. "So what are you going to do instead? Shop on the Internet? Work puzzles?"

I'd actually been thinking of doing both those things, but I wasn't about to tell him that.

"Hey, I've got stuff to do."

"Fuck, Eugenie. You're becoming a hermit. I almost miss Dean. He was an asshole, but at least he got you out of the house."

I made a face. Dean was my last boyfriend; we'd broken up six months ago. The split had been kind of unexpected for both of us. I hadn't expected to find him screwing his real estate agent, and he hadn't expected to get caught. I knew now I was better off without him, but some niggling part always wondered what about me had made him lose interest. Not exciting enough? Pretty enough? Good enough in bed?

"Some things are worse than staying home alone," I muttered. "Dean is one of them."

"Timothy?" one of the girls called from the living room. "Are you coming?"

"One moment, gentle flower," he hollered back. To me he said, "You sure you wanna hole up here all night? It isn't really healthy to be away from people so much."

"I'm fine. Go enjoy your flowers."

He shrugged and left. Once by myself, I fixed a sandwich and shopped on the Internet, exactly as he'd predicted. It was followed by a puzzle depicting an M. C. Escher drawing. A bit harder than the kitten.

Halfway through, I found myself staring at the puzzle pieces without seeing them. Roland's quiet, fierce words played over in my head. Let Jasmine Delaney go. Everything he'd told me had been true. Dropping this was the smart thing to do. The safe thing to do. I knew I should listen to him...yet some part of me kept thinking of the young, smiling face Wil had shown me. Angrily, I shoved some of the puzzle pieces aside. This job wasn't supposed to be about gray moral decisions. It was black and white. Find the bad guys. Kill or banish. Go home at the end of the day.

I stood up, suddenly no longer wanting to be alone. I didn't want to be left with my own thoughts. I wanted to be out with people. Clarification: I didn't want to talk to people, I just wanted to be around them. Lost in the crowd. I needed to see my own kind - warm, living and breathing humans, not undead spirits or magic-infused gentry. I wanted to remember which side of the fence I was on. More important, I wanted to forget Jasmine Delaney. At least for tonight

I threw on some jeans and the first bra and shirt I could find. My rings and bracelets always stayed on me, but I added a moonstone necklace that hung low in the shirt's V-neck. I brushed my long hair into a high ponytail, missing a few strands. A dab of lipstick, and I was ready to go. Ready to lose myself. Ready to forget.
    
 

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