Chapter 42 — Ghosts of the Present
Jeremy ate on the go. There was only an hour and a half from leaving the White House until he had to be back for the next session. He wolfed down a pair of sandwiches as he drove through the city—right back to DC Jail once again. Of course my life is goin’ in damn circles. I’m in D.C. Nothin’ ever gets done here, just like Makoto said.
He knew that wasn’t totally true, but it still made him feel better. Jeremy rolled up to DC Jail, waved his badge, and was immediately allowed through the gate. Simple and easy, checkpoint by checkpoint—until suddenly it wasn’t anymore.
”Sorry, you aren’t on the authorized list for that inmate.”
Jeremy sighed. “What does it take to be on the list?”
”Approval from her attorney or the inmate herself, or a court order.”
”And supposin’ I ain’t got any of those?”
The guard shrugged. “A miracle?”
”Special Agent Ashe?”
Jefferson Baux appeared around the corner, hands full of folders and a pair of coffees. He hurried up to the counter, joining Jeremy in front of the bored-looking guard. “Please, Mr. Ashe is my associate. He’s permitted to visit Miss Nishimura for counsel.”
”Is that true?” the guard asked Jeremy, voice a flat drone as before.
Jeremy nodded. “We’re associates.”
The guard sighed and hit a button, buzzing them through the next gate. Jefferson led the way deeper inside, straight to one of the counsel rooms where inmates could meet with their lawyers to discuss their cases. Rika wasn’t there yet, but as soon as they were inside, Jefferson quickly set down his things and shut the door.
”What can I do for you, Mr. Ashe?”
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. “You’re representin’ Rika now too?”
Jefferson nodded. “Miss Winscombe’s mother referred me, after hearing about Miss Nishimura’s arrest. Since I’m in town and Miss Winscombe’s case has been delayed, I decided I might as well act point for both of them until my firm can allocate more resources to this area.” He smiled. “I can’t say any of us expected to work so many cases across the country on such short notice, but we’re more than willing to put in the effort for our clients.”
Lawyers, almost as bad as politicians… Least he’ll seems like one of the good ones. “I need to talk to her. In private, no offense.”
”Of course.” Jefferson nodded again. “You’ve got an investigation, and it involves things I probably shouldn’t hear yet.” He glanced at the door. “If it’s all right, I’ll only ask her a couple questions first, so I can get to work while you conduct your interview?”
”Fine by me.”
A sharp bang on the far door. The guard swung it open, and Rika walked in—heavily chained down, muzzled, hobbling on restrained feet, with two guards escorting her.
Jefferson shot to his feet. “This is entirely inappropriate!” he started, and with real anger in his voice. Jeremy was surprised—most lawyers he knew never let emotion get in the way, unless it was carefully calculated for the judge or the jury.
”Required additional security,” grunted one of the guards.
”She surrendered voluntarily, has not been convicted of any crimes yet, and has not fulfilled any of the qualifications for highly dangerous inmates.” Jefferson glared at the two of them. “I insist you unchain and ungag her at once. Miss Nishimura deserves dignified treatment.”
”She set off every detector we’ve got,” said the third guard, who Jeremy believed outranked the other two, based on her uniform. “Refused to explain why. ‘Til we’re sure she ain’t got weapons on her, she stays chained up.”
”Of course she set them off!” said Jefferson exasperatedly. “It’s a condition. She can’t turn it off. Miss Nishimura is no threat to anyone in this room.”
I dunno about that… but she sure as hell doesn’t deserve this shit. “I’m with him,” said Jeremy, jerking a thumb at Jefferson. “And I outrank all you, I’m here on behalf of the President of the United States. Now take the damn chains off.”
”On your own heads,” said the lead guard, and directed her two subordinates to release Rika. Jefferson mouthed something at her as soon as they reached for the muzzle, and to Jeremy’s relief, Rika didn’t say a word—until the door closed again behind them.
After that, she released such a colorful stream of curses in three different languages, Jeremy wasn’t sure he’d heard its equal during all his years in law enforcement.
”Assholes,” Rika finished, falling into the chair opposite them with an exhausted thump. “Long time, Mr. Special Agent. Where the fuck have you been?”
”London,” said Jeremy. “And then the White House.”
”Shit.” Rika glanced between the two of them. “So is he here to take me to face the court or something?”
”Not yet,” said Jefferson. “Your trial date has not been set. Technically, you haven’t even been formally charged yet.”
”So why the hell am I in jail?”
”Proceedings.” Jefferson sighed. “I’m doing my best to get a bail hearing, but you’re considered a massive flight risk.”
”That’s the other chick.”
Jefferson smiled. “You know what I mean, though, yes?”
”Yeah, yeah. I’m a foreign citizen, I’m rich, I can do magic tricks with my brain, I’ve got a history of changing my name and running around the country doing whatever the fuck I like.” Rika sighed. “How’s Alden doing?”
”He’s staying with Hailey’s mom right now,” said Jeremy. “Took him there this morning myself.”
”So what are you doing at the White House?”
”Mostly sittin’ next to Cinza and listenin’ to her piss off half the Cabinet.”
”If I may,” interjected Jefferson. “I understand your reluctance, Miss Nishimura, but why didn’t you inform the prison of your condition? It could avoid all the extra conditions they placed on your captivity.”
”I did,” said Rika, with a deadly glare over her shoulder toward the door. “Fuckers didn’t listen. Just threw that shit on me anyway.”
Jefferson sighed. “I’ll put in a formal complaint and do my best to stir up as much trouble as I can, but no guarantees. I’m sorry.”
”What condition?” asked Jeremy, uncomfortably out of the loop. Just like always…
Rika held out a hand with a vague smirk. “Take my hand.”
Reluctantly, Jeremy did—and immediately felt a shock of electricity buzz through his fingertips. He snatched it back, wringing his hand in pain. “Jesus.”
She snickered. “Never gets old.”
”So what, you’re settin’ off metal detectors and shit with that?”
”Yeah.” Rika nodded to Jefferson. “Like he said, can’t turn it off. Ritual gone bad, so now my whole body’s lit up like a Christmas tree. I can force it down a bit, but I can’t get rid of it.”
”Ritual gone bad… like what happened to Jessica?”
A dark look crossed Rika’s face. “…Yeah,” she said quietly. “Not nearly that bad, but yeah. Same basic idea.”
No one spoke for a minute. Jeremy knew Rika had just flashed back to the exact same night he had—and as he did, Jeremy remembered how she’d acted, how she’d moved and spoken and fought. This girl ain’t no damn mass-murderer. Bit of an asshole, but she doesn’t deserve this.
Jefferson finally cleared his throat, shuffling a few papers around in his hands. “Well, I’ll definitely work on your bail, and with Agent Ashe’s assistance and his associates, we might be able to get you more freedom in here at the very least.” He glanced to Jeremy for affirmation. Jeremy nodded. “In the meantime, Miss Nishimura, I’m told that new charges are being filed against you.”
”What now?” asked Rika in a bored voice. “Did I hold all those people in Tacoma hostage too?’
”Several thousand instances of the Computer Misuse Act of 1990,” said Jefferson, paging through to his other folder.
”That’s not an American law,” said Jeremy. “That’s… London?”
”The accusation comes from Sir Thomas Laushire, and is corroborated by multiple arrested individuals within the Culver-Malton Group, who admit using the hack you perpetuated to gain significant financial gain over their rival Laushire Industries.” Jefferson pulled out another page. “They’re suing you for quite a bit of money.”
”…Goddammit,” said Rika, sliding down in her chair as she read the huge list of charges. “…Fuck. Fuck! I…” She choked up a bit. “I gave it to them because I was gonna die,” she murmured. “I bribed them to get me out of that fucking town. We were all gonna die. What was I supposed to do?”
”You can claim duress by agents of Malton?”
Rika shook her head. “It was Omega. Viper didn’t threaten me. I offered it, ’cause we’d just been ripped apart by fucking golems and I knew he had the only safe ride out of town.”
”Well…” Jefferson frowned. “If this Viper is willing to testify to that effect, we may be able to reduce the criminal charge. I’m not sure we can eliminate the monetary damages—and please bear with me, I’m not very familiar with British law—but as long as we can lay most of the blame on CMG for actually using the hack and show that you were under extreme pressure, you might get off lightly. Lord knows they have far more assets to seize than you do.”
”You said it was Laushire suing me, right?” asked Rika. She turned to Jeremy. “You in touch with her?”
Kendra’s still tied to a bed, but Lily’s handlin’ shit in the meantime. Jeremy nodded. “I can reach out.”
”Thanks, man.” Rika smiled weakly.
Jefferson glanced between them. “…I suppose this isn’t someone I need to know about.”
”Wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” said Jeremy, smirking.
”Right.” Jefferson began to close up his folders again. “Well, if that’s everything—”
”Wait,” said Jeremy. “You oughta know about this. I just heard a recording this morning that wasn’t entered into evidence yet.”
”Is this privileged?” asked Jefferson sharply.
Jeremy shook his head. “Public domain and obtained legally. It was on a damn public cloud recording site. Apparently all I needed to do was have all the guy’s old television appearances and run them through some fancy software or shit.”
Rika nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, that’d work. As long as you had access to their API.”
”Yeah, okay, well anyway.” Jeremy glanced back at her. “It’s a recording about you.”
”What about me?”
”Meetin’ in Rallsburg. A town hall.”
Rika leapt to her feet, slamming a fist onto the metal table. The guard looked in through the window, concerned, but since neither Jeremy nor Jefferson had moved, turned away again a moment later.
”You’re fucking kidding me,” said Rika, staring at Jeremy ashen-faced. A tear actually rolled down her cheek, startling him.
”Every single fucking time…” Rika stared up at the ceiling, muttering something under her breath that Jeremy couldn’t hear.
”What is this recording?” asked Jefferson gently, when Rika didn’t respond.
”Gordon Merrill had a cloud recordin’ of the town hall where magic first came out,” said Jeremy. “Right before they actually get into that bit, they were talkin’ about the deaths of Alex Nelson, Jay Miller, and Jenny Wilson. Guy who owns the town diner, Dan Rhodes, throws out Rika’s name as a possible suspect.”
”Fuck me,” Rika whispered to the ceiling.
”The recording cuts off right after her name, when Rachel DuValle tells Hector Peraza to ‘cut it’, whatever the hell that meant. Point is, the next day, the mayor issued an arrest warrant for Rika for questioning about the murders.”
”I didn’t do it,” snapped Rika, her head shooting down to meet the two of them.
”I don’t think you did,” said Jeremy firmly. “Just relayin’ what happened this morning. In front of the President, the Attorney General, and a whole fuckload of other senior staff.”
”Well, I can definitely hit them for not informing defense of new evidence in a timely fashion,” said Jefferson. “But this still hurts.”
”I got good news too,” added Jeremy, though he knew it wasn’t nearly as strong. “Alden’s ready to testify for you. Says you’ve got solid alibis for both the sets of murders.”
Rika smiled. “Cool.”
”Got anyone else who could testify?” Jeremy went on, not wanting to mention how flimsy Alden’s testimony likely would be in court. “Walker, maybe?”
”He could cover the Seattle ones,” said Rika with a shrug. “Doesn’t help at all in Rallsburg, he ditched before I did.” She frowned. “Only other people who’d know are Viper and Rook. I’m guessin’ you can’t get either of them to back my story?” she added with a crooked grin.
Jeremy shook his head. “Not in a million fuckin’ years for Viper. He’s goin’ down with the ship for Malton, apparently. Motherfucker’s loyal if nothin’ else. Rook, though…” He swallowed hard before continuing. “It’s possible.”
”Who knows what side that bitch is on?” said Rika knowingly.
Jeremy nodded. “Exactly.”
”Well, I can get started now, I think,” said Jefferson. “Mr. Ashe wants to—”
”Nevermind,” said Jeremy, getting to his feet. “I got what I need. You two keep goin’.”
”Are you certain?” asked Jefferson, surprised.
”Yeah.” Jeremy glanced at Rika as he walked to the door. “I’ll get her to testify.”
Rika smiled again, and this time there was a bit more confidence in it. “Thanks. I’m glad I met you, fucked up as it was.”
Jeremy grinned. “Best friends you ever meet are in completely fucked up situations.” He opened the door. “Good luck, Rika.”
Jeremy made it back just in time, sliding into his seat moments before the President strolled in. He didn’t have time to answer Maddie’s hissed question, but he gave them a reassuring glance before they all rose to greet the President—except Cinza, of course.
”Well,” said President Stafford, “where were we?”
”We’re shifting gears, sir,” said Ioannis, “to address something that’s seen increasing pressure from the public.”
”Oh?” The President glanced across the table, but Cinza seemed equally surprised.
”What do you wish to discuss?” she asked, and for once, she opened with something akin to a warm tone. Finally, we’re tryin’ to start on the right foot. Maybe this is what she meant earlier.
Ioannis took a deep breath. “Hannah Newman.”
Cinza stood up from the table immediately. “I did not come here to discuss Ruby,” she said, with considerable emphasis on the name. “That is off the table.”
”With respect, Cinza, it can’t be.” Ioannis gestured to an aide, who quickly distributed a new sheet of information. “Washington State law is quite clear on runaways and minors. Hannah—excuse me,” he added quickly, as the tangible disgust from Cinza flooded the whole room. Jeremy half-believed she was doing something with magic to create the effect, so thoroughly did it permeate the place. “Ruby still has several court orders in place for her incarceration due to fleeing home.”
”An abusive home where she was driven to attempt suicide,” Cinza snarled, still on her feet. The effect was a bit diminished, since she was so short, but the venom in her voice was anything but. Accentuated by the echo in her voice, she held the whole room’s unblinking attention. “She was beaten by her scum of a father for being herself and daring to love whomever she loved.”
”None of that is on record,” said Ioannis quietly. “Never reported, never claimed.”
”These are clearly extenuating circumstances,” said President Stafford, glancing at Ioannis with a frown. “How old is she?”
”Turned seventeen in September.” Ioannis pointed to a part of the sheet he’d handed out. Cinza finally sat down to read it, examining the statistics and details carefully. “Washington State heavily favors short or moderate incarcerations to rehabilitate runaways, nearly three times as often as the next highest state, Kentucky. Over twenty-seven hundred cases in 2015 alone.”
”That actually happens?” asked the President, shifting his glare to Courtney.
The governor nodded. “It’s an option for judges when dealing with status offenses. I’m not exactly in favor of it, but it’s a standard choice and often employed.”
”In a case where a minor ran away from home multiple times and joined a cult, missing school for more than a year and having no alternative education,” said Ioannis, “I hope you can see the difficult position this puts everyone in.”
”Ain’t this just a state-level thing?” asked Maddie. “Why do we even need to bring this up here?” Tryin’ to keep it between us and Courtney. Smart.
”Because Cinza and her people are no longer state-level,” said Ioannis. “She’s an international figure, and she’s engaging in diplomacy on an international stage. Harboring such a scandal within her organization is… troublesome.”
”Ruby saved my life,” said Cinza. “I gave her a home and a family which actually cares for her and raises her. She is far more intelligent than most of the people in this room. Tell me how any of this could possibly deserve punishment.”
”None of us believe you do,” said Ioannis firmly. “I’m just trying to explain the public perception.”
”It’s worse than that,” added the deputy behind him. “I don’t mean to sound blunt here—”
”That certainly appears to be your job,” said Cinza dryly, and quite a few people on the President’s staff laughed. Even the deputy grinned sheepishly.
”Like I said. This is going to be blunt, but… you’re being accused of statutory rape.”
Deadly silence for a beat—and Cinza was on her feet again, Jeremy right along with her.
”The hell?” Jeremy snapped, before even Cinza could get a word in.
”Explain,” said Cinza right afterward, and the glare she shot at the deputy could have killed the man all on its own.
”Because she was only sixteen when she met you and the general estimate of your age is twenty-three,” said the deputy. “Nobody can say it for sure, and the law requires proof of an abusive relationship since sixteen is the age of consent in Washington State, but—”
”Your estimate of my age is incorrect,” said Cinza, not relinquishing her deadly glare.
”Let’s lay off my deputy, please,” said Ioannis firmly, matching Cinza’s stare. “He’s doing his job, not accusing you of anything.”
The room was more tense than it had been all week, and for once, Jeremy was entirely on Cinza’s side. This was an absurd line to take. No one truly believed Cinza guilty of any such crime, and the state certainly wasn’t going to pursue such a case—Courtney, the governor of Washington, sat only a few seats away, and she looked as shocked as he felt. Jeremy wasn’t sitting down again until they backed off, and apologized on top of it.
”Cinza,” said President Stafford gently, in the typical charismatic tone he could summon in an instant, “it’s their job to be worried about how we look. They intend no offense.”
”You would stand there and accuse me of the most horrendous crimes,” said Cinza slowly, every syllable edged in icy contempt, “and expect me not to react in kind?”
”Let’s take a break,” said Maddie quickly, standing up next to Jeremy. “Mr. President, you said you had a security briefing this afternoon, right?”
”Yes. Thank you, Senator Ashe.” President Stafford got to his feet, and again, everyone else followed suit—though Cinza’s eyes still hadn’t moved an inch from the deputy’s face. “We’ll reconvene later this afternoon. Back to whatever the hell it is you people do around here.” He tried for levity, but the room wasn’t ready to lighten up yet. They trooped out in silence, until finally, it was just the five of them—Courtney stayed behind as well, joining the rest of the group who called Washington home.
”I can assure you, Cinza,” she said immediately as the last door closed, “there has not been an iota of such an idea in the state prosecutor’s office, and there never will be.”
Cinza nodded. “Thank you.” She glanced over the rest of them. “I knew this would become an issue, but I did not expect them to pursue such a disgusting path.”
”I can’t even imagine why,” said Maddie, slouching in her chair. “The fuck do they gain from pissing you off?”
”I think they felt Cinza was too strong a negotiator,” said Courtney, raising eyebrows from the rest of them. “What? I can’t recognize her talent?”
”We’re just not used to you bein’ nice,” said Jeremy.
”Thought it must’ve just been on Dad’s side,” added Maddie.
”Ha-ha,” said Courtney sarcastically, rolling her eyes. “I meant what I said. Cinza has held her own against an intimidating bench. She’s not what they’re used to, and it’s throwing them off balance. They must believe they’ve given up too much. I think they wanted to unsettle her, show her they still have power.”
”And did it work?” asked Makoto, glancing at Cinza.
”Yes,” she answered, and the contempt hadn’t diminished in her tone. “They will apologize, or they will hear no more negotiations.”
Jeremy sighed. “I can’t blame you, but this is gonna get ugly.”
”It already is.”
Cinza turned and walked out of the room, Makoto fast on her heels. The door swung closed behind them, an eerie snap echoing through the suddenly quite empty room. With only three of them left, the place felt so much more massive than it had before, huge paintings adorning the walls and doors in every direction.
Jeremy dropped into a chair, matching Maddie’s slouch. “Jesus Christ…” he muttered.
Courtney pulled out her phone. “This was quite a bit easier with Rachel,” she said, almost to herself.
Maddie chuckled. “Yeah, but we didn’t actually do anythin’. That was all just planning.”
”True.” Courtney sighed. “Oh, God…”
”What now?” asked Jeremy, scrambling to sit upright. Don’t be another fuckin’ attack. No more shit right now.
”…Shit, I was expecting something bad,” said Jeremy. He leaned back again. “What’s the kid up to now?”
”He won his case.” Courtney was scrolling through an email. “The land belonging to the Price family and all remaining assets either on or seized from the properties are under his control once again.”
”Good luck gettin’ back anythin’ looted,” said Jeremy, rolling his eyes.
”That’s not the real problem.” Courtney set the phone down again. She looked back to Jeremy and Maddie. “It includes significant portions of Rallsburg and the surrounding forest which were never properly ceded to the state and remain privately owned land… including the Greywood.”
”How did that even happen?” asked the President, glancing between the three of them. Courtney had decided it was probably best to let the President know privately before they mentioned it to Cinza, since he’d already promised it to her. “Did nobody actually check to make sure it was actually my damn land?”
”The country’s land, sir,” Ioannis gently reminded him.
”We still have options,” said Courtney. “My people are working on it, sir. We can employ eminent domain, but it will be difficult, since we have already declared our intention to cede it back to private ownership.”
”So justifying its for public use doesn’t really work…” the President agreed, nodding along. “I don’t suppose we’ve got enough money to just buy the damn place off him? Does he even want it?”
”He just spent months getting it back after losing it twice over,” said Courtney. “I’m certain he wants it.”
”The estimated worth of the land is incalculable now,” added Ioannis. “It’s the primary site of magic and the suspected location of the largest concentration of potential book pieces. Beyond that, Rallsburg itself is an important historical site, and the whole region will be a massive tourist location.”
”It already is,” added Courtney.
”I’d hazard to say it might be the most valuable undeveloped property in the country. Mr. Price could command a fortune for mere pieces of it.”
”It’s not even totally undeveloped,” Jeremy pointed out. “Cinza spent years makin’ the Greywood into a magic utopia. And some of the Rallsburg infrastructure is good. There’s still train tracks most of the way there and back.”
”Anyone with half a brain could pull it together,” said Maddie.
Ioannis sighed. “And now that work has changed hands.”
”It’s my fault,” said Courtney. “Reclaiming the land when we declared them dead back in June already raised eyebrows. We could have done that better.”
”Careful, Madam Governor,” said President Stafford, a twinkle in his eye. “A career politician should know better than to ever accept blame.”
”Only among friends,” she replied, matching his smile.
”Who’s drawin’ the short straw, then?” said Jeremy.
”What do you mean?” asked Ioannis.
”Informing Cinza that she just lost her home to the man who stole her diaries,” said President Stafford. He shook his head. “This will be a nightmare no matter how you slice it.”
They turned around. Cinza stood in the doorway, Makoto hovering just behind her looking a bit winded. Secret Service just let her waltz through two rooms to reach the President? Unless… Jesus, did she just—
”I’m guessing my bodyguards couldn’t see you,” said the President, obviously curious.
Cinza nodded. “I felt it prudent to know what was being said behind closed doors, especially after such a vicious attack on my person this afternoon.”
”Cinza—” started Ioannis, but President Stafford talked over him.
”Well, you heard then: Nate Price won his lawsuit and controls Rallsburg, plus the land formerly belonging to his family, which includes where we outlined the Greywood territory.”
”As if a piece of paper could give him power,” said Cinza, a vague smirk curling at her lips. The President grinned. “Regardless, I intend to return home tonight. Our negotiations will resume at a later date.”
”I’m sure my deputy will apologi—”
”Greater men have said far worse to me, Ioannis,” said Cinza, glancing briefly up at him. The star tattoo on her neck seemed to stand out again, as if emphasizing her history and her position. “I won’t pretend it didn’t offend, but I must return home. My family awaits while new challenges arise, and the crusaders continue to grow in numbers and strength. I’ve heard two awakened attended a meeting only three days ago and were nearly killed.”
”They just went to a meeting of people openly calling for genocide against them?” asked Ioannis, raising an eyebrow.
Cinza shook her head. “Why they ended up there, I can’t explain. I only know that Brian Hendricks was supposedly present, and the golems returned once again. The goddess saved our people this time, but she cannot always be there. Her work is too important for us to rely on her constant protection. We must provide our own.”
”I can—” started the President, but Cinza spoke over him. Ioannis drew a sharp breath as she did—no one interrupted the President, particularly not in the west wing of the White House.
”We’ve seen the results of police intervention in the past,” Cinza said dismissively. “I’ve no faith in it now. If you want to pursue Brian on your own terms, by all means, pursue. I will neither trust in your protection nor grant you any access to my home. We have been betrayed before; we shall not be again.”
”Well, at the very least, allow me to give you a ride home?” said President Stafford, with a rare show of exasperation.
Cinza paused—she had seemed about to leave the room. Slowly, she nodded. “We’d gratefully accept fast transport home.”
”Ioannis?” prompted the President, and his chief of staff immediately scurried off through the other door to set up the flight. Cinza followed him out. Stafford turned to Jeremy. “Special Agent Ashe, you’ll be accompanying her back, of course.”
Jeremy sighed. “Yeah, I figured that was comin’, sir.”
The President grinned. “Come on, you can’t possibly have been enjoying all the political bullshit.”
He shrugged. “…Beats getting shot at.”
Stafford laughed. Well, he’s still a damn politician, but he’s better than most. “Good luck out there. Any reports you have can either be passed up straight to the director or to Wesley and the DTA.”
”Will you be deploying more elements to the area, sir?” asked Jeremy. “What with them bein’ labeled a terrorist movement now.”
The President hesitated. Maddie jumped in to fill the silence. “Jeremy, they didn’t get labeled terrorists yet.”
”…Why the fuck not?” snapped Jeremy, completely forgetting who he was standing next to. “What more do they gotta do before we recognize the threat they are?”
”Optics,” said Courtney. “Brian’s followers look like ordinary American citizens, and he has too much grassroots support right now. The only visible attack which can be concretely attributed to him is the Lakewood battle, and the explosives there were used against him. As far as the public’s concerned, nobody’s proven anything. All we’ve got is Brian’s people getting attacked themselves, by shady paramilitary forces or by supposed awakened assassins.”
”We know it’s bullshit,” said Maddie exasperatedly, “but confidence in the government’s been rock-bottom ever since we spent four damn months comin’ up with jack shit to explain Rallsburg. All we’d do is provoke more damn protestors, drive even more people right to his side.”
”So what, then?” asked Jeremy, frustrated. “Do I wear a fuckin’ bodycam and just wait to get attacked again? How you think Cinza’s gonna feel about that?”
”We’ve put through hate crime legislation,” said Maddie. “It’s working through Congress as fast as we can, full bipartisan support. Even the other side of the bench is backin’ us right now, so let’s not waste that chip while we’ve got it.”
”And in local resources, I have committed every non-essential resource I can toward handling Brian,” added Courtney. “We’re overwhelmed by the pilgrims and the crazies, but we’ve tripled patrols and authorized all the overtime they need. The national guard’s come in, and we’re rolling out staggered training for all our officers and enforcement on magic and awakened. The rainy day fund is digging deep here.”
”And we’re here to get more help,” said Maddie. “So suck it up and don’t fuck it up, Jeremy. Get home, stay in touch, and try to keep Cinza from throwin’ away all our current goodwill for her own agenda.”
”Like Cinza would do that before you fucks,” grumbled Jeremy.
”Well,” said President Stafford sharply, surprising the three of them. Somehow, Jeremy had completely forgotten he was even in the room. “That seemed like a productive family meeting. I’d love for you to have me over again sometime.”
”…Sorry, Mr. President,” said Courtney sheepishly, and Maddie echoed her a half-second later.
Stafford smiled. “I’ve got a security briefing now and a whole lot of other business today, so I think I’ll see myself out. Madam Governor, Senator Ashe, we’re back for the legislation strategy meeting at four?”
”Yes, sir,” said Courtney.
”Excellent.” Stafford glanced at Jeremy. “I believe you’ve got a flight to catch.”
Jeremy nodded. “Good luck, sir.”
Stafford left. Maddie glanced at Jeremy sideways, looking worried. “Jere-bear, you gonna be okay?”
”Huntin’ terrorists is literally my job.” He shrugged. “Besides, I’m Cinza’s liaison now, not an investigator or a detective. She ain’t a frontliner, neither am I.”
”I dunno, she seemed plenty gung-ho about runnin’ out into the field in London.”
”I’m gonna be fine, Maddie.” Jeremy hugged her. To his surprise, another hug came in and enveloped them both. “…Thanks, Courtney.”
”We’re family,” she said, and the uncharacteristically warm action was not reflected even slightly in her voice. “And since none of us seem to have any plans for children, we’re all the family we’re ever going to have. So Jeremy, as your eldest sister, I expressly forbid you from getting hurt. Understood?”
”Shit, how am I supposed to hate you now?” said Maddie, her voice choking up slightly.
”Give it an hour, I’m sure you’ll find a way.”
Jeremy texted Alden as he was leaving the White House (this time through the basement again), and to his surprise, the kid accepted his offer.
”She told me to,” he said sheepishly, climbing into the back seat with Jeremy. The Secret Service agent took off as soon as the door snapped closed, headed for the airport. “Makes sense, I guess. Like you said, I’m kind of a useless witness for her, and I can do more good back home. I told her I’d be back in time for the trial.”
”Welcome aboard,” said Jeremy. “Am I droppin’ you off at home, then?”
”I guess. I want to go back to the Greywood first though. You’re going there, right?”
”Yeah. I’m Cinza’s liaison.”
”Like… her assistant?”
”In her fuckin’ dreams,” grumbled Jeremy. “Just a middleman between her and the White House.”
”So what do you do, then?”
”Whatever they need me to. Mostly I plan on stayin’ the hell out of the way and just passin’ messages when they get too annoyed to talk to each other ’emselves.”
”Sounds like an assistant to me…”
”Difference is, I don’t work for her,” said Jeremy, while their car pulled up to the waiting jet on the tarmac. I’m really lovin’ not havin’ to go through the damn airport anymore. Perks of bein’ so damn important lately. “I’m there to spy on her, if anythin’, and she knows it.”
”And she’s okay with that?”
Jeremy shrugged. “I think she knows I won’t say a fuckin’ word unless it’s serious. I don’t care about the little things, and it’s way too much paperwork to worry about.”
Alden grinned. “So you’re just lazy.”
”Damn right.” The Secret Service agent popped the door open for him, and Jeremy climbed out. “Come on, kid. Time to go home.”
As they entered the mostly-empty cabin, Cinza glanced up with surprise. “Alden?”
”Hi again,” he said nervously.
”I wasn’t aware you were even in town.”
”I got picked up with Rika.”
Cinza frowned. “Why on earth did they arrest you?”
”…I told them to.”
Makoto looked like he might laugh aloud. Cinza visibly suppressed a smirk. “It’s good you’re back among us.”
Jeremy glanced up at the cockpit. “Can we get movin’ already?”
On cue, the staircase pulled away and the door sealed up. Seatbelt signs flashed up as the plane began to rumble slightly, taxiing out onto the runway. Jeremy quickly took his seat, Alden plopping down across the aisle and pulling out a pair of earbuds from his pocket. Cinza leaned back and closed her eyes, perfectly relaxed and calm, while Makoto clutched the seatrests a little more tightly than before.
He’s got the right fuckin’ idea… Jeremy copied all three of them, closing his eyes and putting some music in his ears, all while holding on for dear life. Fake ground. It’s fake ground, just like I told Hailey. He felt far more nervous and uncomfortable than usual, though, and he wasn’t exactly sure why. Something about his day was bothering him too much to sit still and relax, even as the plane reached cruising altitude and leveled off, so he could forget he was in the air.
An attack involvin’ golems two days ago… Cinza mentioned awakened were there. How didn’t I hear about that? He took out his earbuds and sat up straight.
”Cinza,” said Jeremy. She opened her eyes and glanced over, curious. “Where was that meetin’? The one you said two awakened got attacked at.”
”West Olympia, I believe,” said Cinza, frowning. “I only heard about it secondhand. Why do you ask?”
”First meetin’ was in New London, tiny place west of the forest, by all the rumors. Then Aberdeen is the next one we heard about, and then the assassination attempt in Satsop. Now he’s in west Olympia. He’s movin’ east. Could be a pattern.”
”Hm.” Cinza nodded. “Are we certain he was actually at this meeting, though? I was informed golems were there, but Brian could have given the summoning rod to a trusted subordinate.”
Jeremy shook his head. “Man wouldn’t let go of the damn thing when I met him. No way he’d let anyone touch it, even his own mother.”
Cinza shrugged. “We’ve never been certain of the range he can utilize it, either. After all, he was nowhere to be seen back in October when he attacked the bar in Tacoma.”
”He was there,” said Alden quietly, joining the conversation. His expression was dark and clearly unsettled.
”No, in Olympia. The meeting was in an old church on Jenkins Road. Me and Jonathan Hudson were the two who got attacked.”
Cinza frowned, not saying a word. Her eyes were darting slightly back and forth, focused on some distant point in the sky, as if deep in thought.
”The hell did you go there for?” asked Jeremy, raising an eyebrow.
”Didn’t mean to,” mumbled Alden. “Jonathan was driving and I was half-asleep…”
Jeremy sighed. “…’Course he went there. Fuckin’ moron…” He leaned back in his chair again. “You both okay, though?”
”Yeah. We got out okay. I don’t know why, but… well, we just got lucky, I guess.” He looked uncomfortable again, and looked back toward his window, out into the wide blue expanse. “If Hailey had been there, maybe we could have…”
Jeremy didn’t answer. Cinza said somethin’ earlier… She said the goddess helped them escape. I thought she was bein’ metaphorical or some shit. But… how the fuck else would this kid get away? Jonathan ain’t got anythin’ besides tricks, and Alden fell apart the last time he ran into those golems.
”How many were there?” asked Makoto, looking back over his shoulder at them.
”A few hundred?” Alden guessed. “I couldn’t really count, I was trying to stay quiet and get out as soon as I could. The place was pretty full though.”
”Odds are most of ’em are slacktivists at best though,” said Jeremy, trying to reassure the worried looks on both of their faces. Cinza was still deep in thought and ignoring them entirely. “They won’t come out to an actual fight, or they’ll bail at the first sign of real trouble. Hendricks is used to the guys he found, tough shits with real hate in their guts. These are lots of middle-class assholes who’ve never seen a real brawl in their lives. They won’t be ready for shit.”
Makoto frowned. “You might be surprised.”
Alden nodded, shivering slightly as he spoke. “…Everybody in Rallsburg was ready to kill when they were pushed too far.”
”Nah,” said Jeremy, shaking his head. “Difference is, they were pushed up against a damn wall. Defense, not offense. It’s fight or flight, and Jackson took away their flight. All they had left was fight, they just got pushed toward the wrong people.”
”I hope you’re right.”
Me too, kid. Me too. Jeremy nodded. “There’s still gonna be the hardcores, and we’ll deal with ’em. But the masses ain’t gonna rise up.” He leaned back in his chair, put his earbuds in and tried to relax again. The masses ain’t gonna rise up… but then again, witches and shit are one of the better ways to rile ’em up. God, I hope we ain’t that stupid anymore…
We’re probably fucked.
The plane landed at SeaTac around five o’clock in the evening. Jeremy called up Stebbins for a ride, while Makoto and Alden stretched from sleeping on the ride. Cinza hadn’t slept the whole way, though she did mumble to herself a few times inaudibly, only the whispery echo of her strange altered voice reaching Jeremy’s ears.
Two SUVs pulled up—the first driven by Stebbins, the second by the lieutenant from the Tacoma standoff, of all people. Jeremy glanced at him pointedly as Stebbins hopped out.
”He’s good, sir.”
The lieutenant walked over to join them, while the other men expertly secured the perimeter—even at SeaTac on a private runway cleared personally for them, Jeremy appreciated their vigilance. No clue when they might decide to jump us, or a golem might grow out of the damn tarmac. Fuckin’ magic.
The lieutenant surprised Jeremy by throwing a sharp salute. “Special Agent Ashe, Alexander Malich. I’d like to formally apologize for my conduct in our previous operation, and I am hereby granting you full authority over myself and my men. Use us however you need to, sir.”
”…You don’t have to salute me, kid,” said Jeremy uneasily. “I’m not in the damn chain of command.”
”Yes, sir.” Malich dropped the salute. Stebbins was grinning behind him.
”You here for revenge, Malich?”
”No, sir. Here to do the job.”
Jeremy nodded. “Good.” Don’t need a fuckin’ hothead tryin’ to fix his wounded pride. “Well, let’s get out of here. We’ve still got a long drive back to Rallsburg.”
They split up—Cinza and Jeremy in the lead car, Makoto and Alden in the tail. Jeremy raised an eyebrow at Cinza’s choice, but she quickly shook him off before he could say anything. Once they were inside and moving, she turned back and answered before he could even ask.
”If one of us is hit, the other can report back and make sure the Greywood does as it needs to. Besides, Makoto is an excellent source of calm, and Alden looks as though he’s still completely in over his head. I thought it best they stay together for the time being.”
Damn. “Smart thinkin’.”
Cinza glanced at the heavy tint in the windows. “Are there any tools that will allow them to see through this?”
Jeremy shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Never had anythin’ when I was on the force. Maybe some military shit.”
She leaned forward to speak to Stebbins in the driver’s seat. “Take us on the normal road to Rallsburg, please.”
”Thought we wanted to go north and come in from the east, offroad,” said Jeremy. “Avoid potential ambush.”
”We flew on a non-government jet and did not enter the public airport,” said Cinza calmly, leaning back in her seat again and brushing her hair out of her eyes. “I do not believe anyone will think we’ve returned yet, particularly since we weren’t expected home until Saturday evening at the earliest.”
”Still takin’ a risk.”
”Every day is a risk,” said Cinza. “I wish to see the pilgrimage for my own eyes.”
”The what now?”
”There is a camp near the town ruins where pilgrims of magic have been gathering. They trade food and supplies, and teach each other magic. They’ve formed a community. My people have visited them a few times in secret.”
”And now you’re thinkin’ it’s time for a grand entrance?”
Cinza smiled. “Nothing so bold yet. I will be invisible while we explore. It will be a good opportunity to practice my abilities.”
”You’re pretty weak lately, aren’t you,” Jeremy commented.
She raised an eyebrow. “You noticed?”
Still assumin’ I don’t know shit. Catch up, girl. I’ve been doin’ this shit a long time. I can figure out some things for my own damn self. “Guess so.” He shrugged. “I know everyone’s a bit different, but you get tired faster than I’d expect. Way worse than how she described you.”
”She meaning our mutual tall friend, I presume,” said Cinza with a knowing smile.
”I’m glad she found herself again, even if it is not what I would have hoped for.” Cinza sighed. “You’re correct. She was not aware how much the ritual to kill Jackson had taken from me, nor how long it required to recover. I am recovering, but it has taken months of hard work. You might think of it as therapy of a sort, though magical rather than physical or mental.”
”And you’re gettin’ your strength back.”
”Precisely. In the first month, I could barely cast a simple spell. I hid this from Rachel—that first night, the magic was entirely cast through the efforts of my family, with only the smallest guidance and shaping through my own skill.”
”So you can just share magic?”
”In a sense, yes. It is difficult to describe unless you have felt it, but in essence, Ruby or another of my family would grant me their energy, and I take it into myself to shape as I desire into whatever magic I wish.”
”But doesn’t that break…” Jeremy paused. “Mason’s Law. The whole fuckin’ no-magic-on-other-people shit.” My favorite part of this whole damn adventure. If someone could just snap their fingers and break my neck, I’d be on the other side of the planet right now.
”The magic never enters me. If I do not use it, it would dissipate. They could not give me energy to sustain my life, for example, unless I found a way to heal myself using it.” Cinza frowned. “That would be useful, actually. We should be researching that. I’ll ask Brittany and Josh to start when we get to the Greywood.”
”You never thought to include healing in your damn spellbook?” asked Jeremy, raising an eyebrow.
”We assumed it would be impossible, or impractical at best,” said Cinza. “Since the person injured would be the one who needs to cast the spell. The laws of energy still apply to a degree, so any energy expended to heal would likely counteract the life regained as a result. Beyond this, there are so many things that can go wrong. Imagine self-surgery with the capability to reach any part of your body at any time. Brain damage or permanent disability are certainly possible. But if in dire need, and we combine it with sharing…”
”Could’ve saved some lives,” said Jeremy quietly. “More than once.”
Cinza nodded, her eyes softening. Neither of them wanted to say her name, but both knew exactly to whom he was referring. “You’re right. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it. No one has invented consistent healing methods, but we can start the research.”
Self-obsessed, every last one of you, that’s why. Even with all your damn rhetoric, you’re hung up on your own image. It just happens to coincide with helpin’ your family most of the time. Jeremy was getting a clearer picture of Cinza every day, and while he liked parts of what he saw, he definitely wasn’t sold on the whole package yet.
”What’s our next step?” he asked. More than anything, Jeremy wanted to get an impression of what Cinza’s real plans were. He fully expected something vague, or at least misleading, but he was confident he could read between the lines.
”Precisely what I said in London,” Cinza replied. She turned to Jeremy with a steely glint in her eyes. “Prepare for war. Brian heard my declaration and has responded in kind. We must do the same.”
”So what does preparin’ for war look like in your book?”
”If you had attempted to enter the Greywood without one of us, you would have witnessed the breadth of our power.”
Jeremy frowned. “So you’re settin’ traps.”
”In a manner of speaking.” Cinza glanced up front. “Your man is trustworthy?”
”Only damn person I trust still in the state, unless Jackie’s around somewhere.”
”The sheriff is actually in the Greywood,” said Cinza. “She arrived earlier this week.”
”…Well shit.” Jeremy settled back into his chair. “Now I’m actually lookin’ forward to this trip.”
Cinza explained the basics, but to Jeremy, it still just sounded like traps—landmines that could easily blow up any poor innocent bystander who happened to wander in the wrong direction too far. Cinza assured him it was virtually impossible unless they were deliberately hunting for the Greywood, but “virtually” didn’t sit well with him. The rest of the defense plan went way over his head, as Cinza delved into descriptions of magical interconnectivity and networks of relayed spells tied to trees somehow.
The gist Jeremy got was: they were certainly ready to react to anything. Whether or not that reaction could actually accomplish something was still up in the air.
The SUVs rolled down the road, past the remains of the landslide which had once blocked the route to Rallsburg. Jeremy could still tell it was there, but after so many months and rains, the land was smoothing out again. There was a clear line of plants missing and fresh growth, but the blend back into the forest proper had begun in earnest. The place is healin’. Let’s keep it that way.
As they cruised into sight of the town, a rough gravel road curved off to the right. The barricades around the town proper were still in place, and—as promised—the guard in the town had doubled. Jeremy wasn’t sure the effort was worth it anymore, since the FBI cleaned out the place so well, but it was better than having it crawling with tourists and pilgrims. Rallsburg had been preserved, every ruin intact, every broken street where a golem had ripped through the pavement in the same place as six months prior.
Stebbins pulled them off the road well before the faint lights of the camp in the distance. The clock in the dash said seven-thirty, and the darkness outside reflected that all too well. Jeremy squinted forward, but he couldn’t make out anything past the lanterns and the brief flashes of light, coupled with smoke of various colors. Jeremy sniffed the air experimentally, but couldn’t pick up anything—just the smell of petrichor from the recent rainfall, mixing with the thick scent of the forest.
Magic smoke don’t have a smell, unless they want it to. No real temperature difference either. Weird shit.
Cinza smiled at the sight of the camp while Makoto and Alden moved up to join them.
Jeremy rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything. Together, they trooped forward, while Stebbins and his men moved the SUVs into more discreet parking. Cinza gestured to Jeremy, offering her hand.
”Do you wish to stay hidden?”
He shrugged. “Someone should probably stay visible, just in case.”
”As you prefer.”
Alden shook his head at the offer too, to Jeremy’s relief. He was worried he’d have to pretend to talk to himself the whole time. Cinza took Makoto’s hand. A moment later, they vanished, as if they had never been there. So that’s what it looked like when Kendra did that to me. Huh.
”Shall we?” asked Cinza’s disembodied voice, the ethereal echo even more appropriate.
”This place is a lot like the old market,” said Alden as they started walking. They got a few odd glances, more than enough to make Jeremy uncomfortable, but nothing that seemed like an active threat. If anything, the place gave off the same vibe he got from Julian Black’s makeshift hidden casino out in the forest.
”The what?” asked Jeremy.
”Kendra Laushire’s Market,” replied Cinza from somewhere on his left. “This exists in our world, of course, but I do see the resemblance.” She paused. “You’ve been here before, Zack?”
”Alden’s fine,” he said uneasily. “And yeah. I was here on Tuesday when they grabbed Rika. That’s how I ended up in D.C.” Cinza didn’t reply, and Alden seemed to think she was accusing him. “It’s probably my fault. We were going to head back, but I wanted to talk, so we went off on our own without Josh.” He sighed. “I mean, they’d probably get her sooner or later, but still… we could’ve had time to figure out a plan.”
”She will be free,” said Cinza.
…Shit, doesn’t sound like he knows Cinza okayed it, and told ’em exactly where she’d be. Jeremy didn’t say anything—he worked for her now, after a sense, and he wasn’t about to ruin that relationship only a few days in. He kept his eyes straight ahead.
”Makoto said you called a few people to meet us?”
”I did,” said Cinza. “They should be here soon.”
”Anyone special?” asked Jeremy.
He could practically hear Cinza smirk. Shaking his head, Jeremy beelined for the Chinese food cart—damn the magic everywhere, he wanted some good cheap normal food. To his relief, the friendly couple running the thing weren’t trying to nickel and dime the market. They sold him a full meal at a pretty good price, considering how hard it probably was to get resupplied this far out from civilization.
Alden wandered away, murmuring something about wanting to meet up with a friend he’d met previously. Jeremy stuck to his meal, and to his surprise, Cinza had stayed nearby the whole time.
”Would you mind ordering another and setting it aside here?” she murmured. Cash appeared just under the countertop, which Jeremy quickly snagged out from midair. He did as asked, and the food disappeared in quite the same manner.
”So how’s that work, anyway?”
”I create an area where photons do not follow the usual rules,” she replied. “What you normally see is merely what reflects back to you, but those photons which would have touched me simply pass through unhindered. Thus, you see what would be behind this space, no matter what that is. Anything inside follows this rule.”
”And that affects other people?”
”Yes, because it is the space, and not the person inside.”
Jeremy finished off the rice before speaking again, quickly grabbing up a couple napkins from the box nearby to clean his face. “So what stops this sort of area shit from bein’ able to hurt people directly?”
”Nothing, except that it would be impossible to force someone to stay within the area.” She paused. Jeremy assumed she was eating as well. “We considered using such a method against Jackson, in fact. Hailey would have created a region without air surrounding him to choke him. However, without a way to hold him in place for long, it would not have accomplished much.”
”So you went with the magnetic thing.”
”Exactly. Similar idea, but we created a region of hyper-attuned magnetic force, all pulling in one direction and focused as tight as possible on the target. It would have pulled out all the blood in his body in an instant.”
”But that didn’t work.”
”Not because it wouldn’t accomplish that result,” said Cinza quietly. “We used it on another the day before.”
”…So that’s how Paul Wilson died.”
”I assumed she had told you.”
”Think she wanted to try and keep you seemin’ innocent,” said Jeremy with a shrug. The food cart vendor shot him an odd look. He’d spoken too loud. Jeremy waved him away and dropped his voice lower, trying to move his lips less. “We didn’t cover specifics for the riot. I saw the video though.”
”Ah.” Cinza paused. “Is that stream still available?”
”FBI’s got it, so yeah. Lani buried it after we met up with her, once we realized what was goin’ on, but it’s still attached to the case files. Can’t delete that. They might bring it up someday.”
”I would like a copy when you get the chance.”
Jeremy nodded. “Anything else you want to do here while we’re waitin’ for your people?”
”Waitin’ for who now?”
He froze. Son of a bitch…
Jackie Nossinger plopped onto the stool next to him, the widest grin on her face. “You look like shit,” she said cheerfully.
”Must be all the politicians,” grumbled Jeremy. He glanced over at the cart vendor. “Another one of what I just ordered for the lady.”
”Lady?” said Jackie with a raised eyebrow. “Has it been that long? I ain’t no lady. Get your head out of that high society crap, Ashe.”
”Blame my companion,” he muttered.
”Oh, we got a guest?” Jackie glanced around. “Guessin’ it’s the one and only, then.”
”On the money.”
”Hello, sheriff,” said Cinza, her voice now issuing from between the two of them.
”Nice to hear you too, dear,” said Jackie. “Josh should be along in a minute, I think he got sidetracked by somethin’.” A minute later, her food slid out onto the counter. “Well, at least you got my order down.”
”Easy when it’s the same as mine. I got you to like Chinese in the first place.”
She grinned. “And I got you to like every other damn thing. Call it even?”
Jeremy threw an arm around her shoulders, pulling her for a side-arm hug. “You have no fuckin’ idea how long I been lookin’ for you, Jackie.”
”And over here I forgot you even existed.”
”Don’t you fuckin’ start,” said Jeremy. “You’ve been through hell and I’ve been tryin’ to pick up the damn pieces.”
”I saw.” Jackie stopped eating and turned to him. “You have no idea how much I wanted to reach out, Ashe. I heard about your partner from Dan and Boris. He pulled through, right?”
”…Yeah, he did.” Jeremy didn’t want to elaborate for the moment, too overjoyed to see Jackie to delve back into that particular swirling pit of emotions. “Full recovery.”
”Good shit.” Jackie dug back in. “I was up in Vancouver this whole time, to answer that burnin’ question in your thick head. Keepin’ my head down and keepin’ my people safe. Doin’ my job as their sheriff.”
”Best one I’ve ever known, Jackie.”
”Uh-huh,” she snorted. “You found a man yet?”
”Found plenty of men.”
”Get on it, Ashe,” said Jackie, starting in on her noodles. “I got a bet to win.”
”…You took a damn bet on when I’d get married?”
”Yeah, and Maddie’s gonna lose.”
Jeremy grinned. “Maybe I’ll do it just to win for you.”
”Nuh-uh. Marriage gotta last.”
”Jesus, this is complicated. The hell did you bet?”
”Doesn’t matter, so long as I get to rub it in.” Jackie finished off her food and took a long drink of water. “Good shit.”
”Yeah. Thanks again,” he added, leaving a tip for the cart vendor as they left. The couple waved after them gratefully as they wandered back into the camp proper. “Glorious leader still nearby?”
There was no response from Cinza, just the bustle of the people in the camp. Jeremy was starting to build up an estimate—probably a couple hundred people in the whole area, includin’ the RV section out there. Three, if we wanna push it.
”Three hundred,” said Jackie with a nod, following his train of thought without asking.
”You already knew?”
”Nah, but I know the area. Used to drop by that RV park every couple weeks to check in.” Her face got dark. “Original residents are all dead. You don’t want to know what happened to ’em.”
”…Just heard your voice this mornin’, actually, talkin’ about it,” said Jeremy. “There was a recordin’ of a town hall where you were talkin’ about the murders out there.”
”Weren’t murders, but yeah,” said Jackie. “Those poor kids got ’emselves killed, and then the rest got killed by Omega, since they were outside the protection of the town and whatever deal he made with his counterpart.”
”Jesus Christ…” Jeremy shook his head in dismay.
”Good to have you on board,” said Jackie, and though there was warmth and truth to her statement, Jeremy didn’t miss the dark undertone, nor the grim expression on her face. This shit ain’t over. We both know it. One threat’s gone, more popped up.
”Tell me about Hendricks.”
Jackie stopped walking. They were next to a tent where a young woman with endless necklaces and bracelets sold charms, gemstones, cheap jewelry and other accessories. Jackie took a few steps away into the makeshift alley between that and a tent where the occasional burst of smoke filtered through the tears in the roof.
”Brian Hendricks was a good man,” she said quietly.
”…Didn’t expect to hear that,” said Jeremy honestly.
She shook her head. “I don’t know how he ended up like this. Maybe Omega did somethin’ to him, maybe he just went mad. All I know is, Brian Hendricks came to my town four years after I became sheriff, back in twenty-twelve. He was runnin’ from an insane wife and circumstances way beyond his control back in Chicago, and he had a little kid in tow.”
”Natalie,” said Jeremy, more to confirm than anything.
”I love that girl like she were my own. Wanted to take her up to Vancouver with me, but we decided it would be easier to get her to school with Kendra backin’ her in Seattle. Missed her every day. Made the town feel alive,” said Jackie wistfully. “Brian brought her at seven, and she acted like she was just along for the ride, but you could tell. She understood what was up with her mom, she knew why they had to run. It was my job to keep ’em safe.”
She sighed, and from her jacket she produced a hip flask. Jackie only drinks when shit’s real…
”I did, too, you know? When Lori Hendricks tried to come to Rallsburg, I kept her out. Natalie never had to meet her mom again. I could tell from one look she was trouble, and the courts agreed. I had the law on my side, so I had no reservations about givin’ her the boot.” Jackie took another swig. “Brian and I got along. Wouldn’t call us friends—man only had a few of those. Robert, Neffie, Reverend Smith for sure. Boris, probably. Never saw ’em together, but Boris was friends with every damn person in the town. And the Wilson family. All thanks to Natalie.”
”She got him to make friends?”
”Way I heard it, she introduced him to Robert, and the Wilsons, and after that, he actually got to talkin’ to Neffie rather than just workin’ her as an assistant. Neffie Bowman was like a therapist to the man after a while.” Jackie smiled. “Therapist to a lot of us, to be honest. Kept me sane up in Vancouver, that’s for damn sure.”
”Sounds like a hell of a woman.”
”You’d hate her,” snorted Jackie. She took another drink. “Brian kept to ‘imself. Ran his apartments, called me up when one of the college kids was actin’ up, raised his daughter. Only kid in town to be homeschooled. We didn’t have a whole lot, to be fair, but the rest got proper schoolin’, usin’ spare classrooms in the university. Natalie got taught at home. All proper, Brian cleared it with the state and everythin’, but still. He didn’t want to connect with people.”
”Classic anti-social, then?” asked Jeremy, thinking back to a few of their old cases.
”Not really. Just… paranoid, y’know?” She shook her head. “Man saw enough already in his life, and that little girl was everythin’ to him. I don’t know what set him off to joining Omega in the end, but I got a pretty good guess.”
”…The kid who died.”
Jackie shuddered. “Jenny Wilson. Natalie’s best friend. You heard the recordin’, you know what happened to her.”
”Man sees that, done to a girl the same age as his own, her best friend even, and he’s already had a paranoid-as-hell life. Omega comes in, wrong time wrong place, convinces him to start this insanity together.” Jackie shrugged. “That’s my workin’ theory, anyway. One of ’em’s dead and the other’s tryin’ to kill us all, so can’t hardly prove it anymore.”
”Sounds about right to me.”
”Missed workin’ with you, Ashe,” smiled Jackie, taking another sip. “Don’t miss the city or the murders, but I missed you for sure. How’s the big government job?”
”Which one? The Federal Idiot Bureau or this political bullshit?”
She grinned. “Well, that about sums it up, doesn’t it?”
An explosion echoed through the lines of tents. A vague cheer followed it. Someone started laughing. Jeremy twisted around, but Jackie put a hand on his arm.
”We’re good. There’s someone who teaches that. Costs a hell of a lot and it’s hard to do, but it’s there.”
”Nah,” said Jackie. “You?”
”Nope. My partner was, though.”
”…Was?” asked Jackie, frowning. “Thought you said he pulled through.”
Jeremy winced. Shit… wrong word. I can’t lie to Jackie. “He did… but he ain’t my partner anymore.”
He held out his hand, and Jackie passed over the flask. Jeremy took a huge swallow before speaking again. He coughed—he’d forgotten how strong Jackie liked her whiskey. “Stabbed us all in the damn back in London.”
”Oh hell,” said Jackie. “Take the rest of that, you need it. Got it out of Rika’s old stash. I figure I can replace it before she gets back.” She glanced over as another explosion echoed through the camp—without an accompanying laugh and cheer this time. “Usually aren’t two in a row…”
The radio at Jeremy’s belt squawked. “Boss, come in.”
Jackie glanced down. “You still wear one of those?”
”Beats cell phones, and we got upgrades from the DOD. They shouldn’t be able to jam these.” Jeremy clicked the tiny headset in his ear. “Go ahead, Stebbins.”
”Got movement on the perimeter. I thought it was just tourists, but Malich ain’t sure. West and him are moving closer. Over.“
”Copy that, Stebbins. Make sure they update you ever couple minutes. Stay in contact. Over.”
Jackie grinned. “Glad you still remember how to use a damn radio correctly.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “After the number of times you beat it into me? Fuck me if I’m ever usin’ ‘over and out’ again in my whole damn life.”
”Got a spare one of—” Jackie cut off, as Jeremy was already fishing one out of his side bag. “Damn, Ashe, you know how to treat a girl.”
”Four of us on the net, plus Makoto’s listenin’ in too.”
”Sounds good. Standard signals?” Jackie asked while she wrapped up the radio in her ear and clicked the button four times. “Got me?”
Jeremy nodded as the clicks echoed in his ear. He clicked on his own transmitter. “Team update. We got a fifth, Jackie Nossinger. Over.”
No clicks returned, but that was fine. It didn’t need a response, and the click system wasn’t really complex enough for anything like that. Four clicks meant a radio check, and not to respond. One click was a silent acknowledgment, if they couldn’t respond aloud, while two was a silent negative. Three was a call for help, and anything more than four… well, at that point, Jeremy just assumed they were either in serious trouble or a woodpecker got ahold of the button.
Speak of the devil. Three clicks echoed in his ear. Jeremy immediately grabbed his own transmitter. “Ashe clear.”
Jackie waited, every second more tense than the last, her finger twitching just above the transmit button. She was the newest member of the net, so she would identify fifth in any call out. Makoto wouldn’t acknowledge unless specifically called. They were still waiting for West to check in. After a minute of no response, Jackie finally closed off the loop.
”Nossinger clear,” she said gravely.
Jeremy tried again. “West, this is Ashe, come in.”
No response. Jackie shot him a worried look.
”I don’t know him very well,” said Jeremy. “Stebbins vouched for him, and I trust Stebbins with my damn life at this point.”
”Then so do I,” said Jackie. She clicked her radio on. “Stebbins, Nossinger. Give me the last known location of West, over.”
”…This is Stebbins. Good to meet you, sheriff. West should have been moving southeast, fifty meters south of Malich’s position. Over.”
”This is Malich,” cut in the young lieutenant. Jeremy sighed. He’d jumped into the middle of an open communication, when Jackie should have been the next response, and cut her off. It wasn’t the worst mistake, but it still created confusion on the net. “I’m moving south now.” A beat passed before he hurriedly added, “Over.“
Jackie smirked at Jeremy while they walked fast through the camp, passing tourists and pilgrims alike—the difference was clear simply in how they looked at the tents which taught magic. Jeremy wanted to respond in kind, but something felt off. Jackie hadn’t been in the middle of a fight in ages. Jeremy knew she was usually sharp, but her senses had to be a bit dulled from months in hiding, and years beyond as the sheriff of a quiet town in the middle of nowhere.
Josh Miller appeared out of nowhere at their side as they crossed the camp. “Jackie, Makoto said something was up.”
”Hello to you too,” Jeremy grumbled.
”We aren’t sure yet,” said Jackie. “One of Ashe’s guys didn’t call back on the net. Could be nothin’, could be somethin’.”
”Should we get ready?”
”Yes,” said Jeremy, before Jackie could respond. After a brief hesitation, she nodded. “Find Cinza and Makoto, right now, and do whatever you gotta do.” Josh hurried off, and Jeremy clicked his radio again. “West, status.”
”Malich. No sign of him. Over.”
”Stebbins. Still on the north side. Nothing here. Over.“
Jeremy got to the edge of the camp, and the forest loomed in front of him. The scent of petrichor was still heavy in the air, and the rain was picking up again. The crickets chirped, and a chorus of frogs echoed in the distance. Spice still lingered on Jeremy’s tongue from the Chinese food, mixed with the whiskey from Jackie’s flask.
A wolf howled in the distance. A half-lit moon hung above the treeline, lighting up the world in an eerie glow. Jeremy squinted through the dim trees, desperately looking for any signs of trouble, but nothing came back. Beside him, Jackie’s hand hovered near her holster, watching every other direction. Jeremy cranked his radio volume up high and increased the gain, hoping for a garbled weak signal, or a whisper of life—anything.
”West, status,” Jeremy called a third time, but the radio only returned painful, empty static.