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Mudflat Magic Book 2
Olympic Peninsula, Washington State
“Got a son about your age, up at Bellingham, majoring in computers, but I think he wants to teach. I tell him, Brad, no money there, think Microsoft or one of those companies, still, must be a lot of competition for those jobs, huh? You in college, kid?”
He shook his head, had no idea what the man was asking, but it didn't seem to matter.
“Yeah, that coat and boots, bet you're hitching, what, take a year off to see the country? Where's your backpack? Lose it? Damn woods, too wet for camping, always are.”
His head snapped forward, and he realized he'd been asleep. They were stopped now, off the road, and the lights kept flashing by.
“Get a little shuteye, son? Well, we're here. You go in and tell Ella you're looking for a ride to Seattle. Should be a trucker along soon.”
“Where am I?”
“At the diner. Best place to get a ride. That seatbelt caught?” The man reached over and clicked the buckle. The strap fell away from him.
The door made a noise, and he turned to look at it.
The man said, “Pull it out.”
He couldn't see anything to pull, then saw a gleam in the dim space, a shiny bar, and he pulled on it and almost fell when the door swung open away from him.
This large metal box on wheels, with its bright lights that had no fire or smoke, would have delighted him at another time. He would have questioned its purpose and its source of power. There were no horses pulling it.
Tonight he was too tired, too hungry. His hunger was partly for food. The hunger chasing him out of his own land and into unknown places was so much stronger. He would go anywhere, do anything, to find her.
Carefully, he held onto the edge of the doorway and jumped down to the road. As he walked in front of the thing, squinting against the glare of its lights, he saw a building, and he could see right into its brightly lit interior. He walked around to the man's door, looked up at him, didn't know what to say, and so he said, “Thank you.”
“Sure. Good luck. Uh, listen, you got any money on you?”
Not knowing what that meant, and he was learning fast that he had a lot to learn, he said, “No.”
“Lost your wallet, too? What'd you do, leave it in your backpack? Okay, son, better take this and go get yourself some supper.”
He said thank you again and guessed that was the right thing to do, because the man said something about “take care of yourself.” Then the man and the metal thing on wheels crunched across the gravel and went back out to the road.
He watched the red lights move faster, rush away from him and disappear in the distance.
Turning, he walked toward the building. It was down the road a short way and as he walked along the roadside he saw a woman come out of the door. The building went dark. He blinked, squinted into the night, saw her move toward a dark shape. Small lights went on, another box on wheels. He heard a low humming, more crunching gravel, more lights flashing past and away.
When he reached the building it was dark and the door locked.
He stood looking out into the night, thought about walking back to the roadside to see if someone else would stop. He wasn't sure he could stay awake on his feet and he didn't want to fall down asleep on the road. With his back against the closed door he slid slowly down until he was sitting on a step, then leaned sideways until his head rested against the door frame.
Sleeping sitting up was something he had always been able to do. With the narrow strip of roof above him, at least the rain wasn't actually falling on him.
* * * *
“Hey, you. Move it.”
When he looked up, rubbing at his wet face with his balled fists, morning light reflected off the mist. The woman was a dark silhouette shape.
He said softly, “I am sorry. Are you Ella?” Standing, he slid sideways out of the doorway, his back to the building.
“Yeah, so?” She walked past him and opened the door into the building.
“The man who brought me here last night said that you might know someone who would take me to Seattle.”
Her expression reminded him of the man, harsh at first, then softening into a smile when she peered closely at him.
“Come on in,” she said and waved him toward a row of tall stools that faced a waist-high shelf. “Let me get the coffee going.”
He held out his hand. “I am to give you this for supper.” Then he grinned at her. “I think that I have missed supper.”
She grinned back. “You been here all night? You're soaked through. Okay, sit. Give me a chance to get the grill heating.” As she bustled around him, hanging her coat on a hook, grabbing pans down from a rack, she kept up a steady stream of questions. “Where you headed? Seattle? Live there? No?”
He said yes and no until she stopped in front of him and banged down a mug of something steaming and black.
“So what's in Seattle?” she asked.
She was a tall woman, thin-faced, her hair scraped back from her head, his father's age he guessed.
He said softly, “A girl.”
“Duh. So where does she live in Seattle?”
“Is it a big place?”
“Well yeah! Never been there?”
“What's the accent? Are you Canadian?”
Not knowing what that was, he shook his head.
Placing her hands on the shelf, she leaned toward him. “So how do you figure you'll find her? Have a name, an address, a phone number?”
He thought about that, then reached inside his cloak and pulled out the blue thing, tossed it on the counter. “That belongs to her.”
“You have her billfold?” She picked it up, looked through the little pockets. “It's empty, no credit cards or driver's license. Don't see anything here that's much use. Wait, there's a card here. Hmmf. Neighborhood Center and Referral, what's that?”
“I don't know.”
“Well, it's got a street address in Seattle. You could ask for her there but it seems like a long shot.”
“Could you tell me how to get there?”
She slapped a plate down in front of him, fluffy eggs and crisp bread in thin slices, and other things that smelled wonderful, even though he didn't know what they were and didn't want to ask. When he looked up at her, she said, “Eat before you pass out.”
He picked up the fork and bent over the plate, dug into the eggs, then worked his way through the rest of it. As hunger finally lessened, he realized that someone else was in the room now.
“Yeah, he needs a ride to the city,” he heard the woman say. “I don't know, looks like some kind of costume, one of those medieval fair things probably. Met a girl there. He wants to get to this address. Do you know where it is?”
A man's voice said, “It's not far off the I-5, not much out of my way. He's a friend of yours?”
“A friend's kid,” she said, which surprised him, because of course he wasn't.
They all called him son or kid, odd that, but everyone was tall, even the woman, and so he guessed that they thought he was younger than he actually was because he was shorter than they were. He was too tired to care. They could call him whatever they wanted if they would help him reach Seattle.
When I heard that low, sexy whine of Darryl's BMW, I grabbed Nance's arm and slammed us both down the drive and against the cement retaining wall. My cousin's house is built on a hillside. Actually, the whole city of Seattle is built on hills, but anyhow, this particular house is a half flight of stairs up to the front door and a six-foot drop down a sloped driveway from the street to the garage.
That's where we were, huddled in the corner between the garage door and the wall, hiding.
Nance swore. Fast learner, that girl.
“Sorry,” I muttered. “That's the car we don't want to meet.”
She's a tough little blond teenager. She moved free of me to creep up the drive, peek out at the street.
“Stay down,” I said.
Teenagers are fearless. At twenty-three, I am a whole lot more careful. Kind of like to make it to twenty-four.
Bent low, Nance scurried back down to me.
“He's about two houses down. Claire, we need to get a gun.”
Late November rain didn't sweeten my attitude.
Her suggestion was tempting on an emotional level, impossible on a practical level. Sure, I'd love to shoot the bastard. Only I really wouldn't. Unlike Nance, I don't approve of violence and certainly not of murder.
I'd been home since the previous winter and avoiding creepy Darryl Decko all that time. I was really, really sick of it. I had to earn a living despite the Decko brothers.
Half my living is earned working at the Mudflat Neighborhood Center. I do a lot of paper shuffling for the counselors during the day. Two nights and a couple of afternoons a week I also teach teenagers. That means going home after dark in the winter.
Funny thing about tough-talking guys like Darryl, they never want daytime confrontations where there might be witnesses to see them bullying a skinny, helpless-looking woman. He was a big, handsome guy, dark hair and a cap-toothed perfect smile that never lit his eyes. Instead, he managed to chase after me a couple of nights a week when I headed home.
This night Nance and I were wearing dark rain jackets, jeans, sneakers. Nothing to reflect light except Nance's blond hair. I reached toward her and pulled up her hood to cover it.
He didn't see us in the sloped driveway, but he knew we were close. The creep didn't want to catch me. He wanted to scare me. A shot rang out, and yeah, the scare part worked.
We huddled against the retaining wall of the drive, shivering and sweating at the same time, one of those body reactions that requires a massive dose of fear. Wasn't there anyone in the neighborhood to hear a gunshot?
My cellphone rang in my jacket pocket, because that's what cellphones do, ring when I don't want to make noise. I'd forgotten to turn it off.
Digging it out of my pocket, I flipped it open to shut it up.
The voice I expected was the one that spoke.
“All I want to do is talk to you, Claire. Where are you?” Darryl said.
Like I'd tell him that, a guy who follows me with a gun in his hand. And then I had a bad thought. Did he have one of those global positioning things in that car or some other device that could locate my phone?
I hit the off button fast.
“We should have headed the other way,” I whispered to Nance.
“Jimmy will help us.”
The girl had an odd amount of confidence in my scudzy cousin. Not that Jimmy was what worried me. It was the block. Trouble doesn't stay in one place. But that doesn't mean I go looking for the place it stays. And trouble was here, all right, on Jimmy's street.
A family who lived two doors down from Jimmy had disappeared. Not magic disappeared. Literally disappeared. No break in, no signs of robbery, and worse, purses, billfolds, money, car, all the stuff people take when they intentionally go on a trip? That stuff was still in their house and garage.
The Lettiwick family had been missing for a week now, long enough that we'd had police all over the place and way too many TV vans and cameras.
Except when they might be useful.
“A guy is shooting off a gun and there's not a TV van in sight,” I complained.
“How long are we going to hide here?”
“Until he leaves.”
“He can corner us down here.”
“He didn't see us run this way, or he'd be pulled up at the top of the drive now. He thinks we're in somebody's backyard.”
A Mudflat backyard is capable of containing anything, because Mudflat is where old magic lives.
Fortunately, none of the Seattle city reporters know the name Mudflat. When they follow crime reports here, they haven't a clue that they are in a space between Seattle’s designated neighborhoods, an area that is so well organized it has its own council.
Now the Mudflat council was forming into an army of searchers. The missing family's history in the neighborhood went back three generations to some strong magic, and who knew, it might pop up again in the missing kids.
They had to be found.
Until they were, it was anyone's guess about why they were missing. Was it the Lettiwick family specifically, or was something bad going down for anyone on the street?
Obvious direction to look, according to the law, was adjacent houses used for meth labs or by pushers. That was Seattle law enforcement's theory. Mudflat knew better. That kind of stuff could happen anyplace else. But in Mudflat, look for a cranky wizard or a crackpot vigilante.
Either way, I didn't like to hang around near the Lettiwick house.
Another shot exploded.Chapter 2
I hate guns. Darryl liked to fire his off for fun, and did the idiot know that shooting straight up in the air did not carry the bullet to the moon? It would come back down. Or it could hit a tree limb and maybe ricochet.
He was hanging out his car window, I was pretty sure, even though I couldn't see him from where we were hiding. He'd hardly be stupid enough to shoot through the roof of his BMW. Although, who knew? The Decko boys could be incredibly stupid.
I hoped he was shooting straight up. Maybe that bullet would do a nosedive through his skull. Okay, I'm an optimist, always dreaming.
Didn't actually hear anything smash into anything, didn't hear glass break.
As soon as I thought it, I was sorry I had that thought.
The next shot continued through an explosion of glass, and a streetlight went out. As there were three lights in that block, taking one out of the middle left the street almost pitch black. It's not as though this was some desert neighborhood. In rainy Seattle shrubs and trees grow so fast, the front yards are full of them. At night they block out light from house windows.
Darryl gunned the BMW. It was pretty obvious, that car. Anyone who heard the shot and looked outside would recognize the car. He must have suddenly realized that. He wasn't looking for trouble with the Mudflat council, who tended to get cranky about vandalism.
All the creep wanted to do was let me know that any time at all when he wanted to, he could aim his gun at me.
After the BMW disappeared down the street I grabbed Nance by the hand and we ran back up out of the drive, cut around the side yard, and pounded on my cousin Jimmy's back door.
No answer. It was a family house, belonged to one of Jimmy's ex-stepdads who'd run off to Arizona. His mama'd gone the other direction. Jimmy had claimed squatter's rights.
Stupid Jimmy was the person who got me involved with Darryl. Therefore, I took a su casa es mi casa approach to his house. Grabbing the strap of my shoulder bag, I swung it behind me, prepared to swing it around and smash it through the window. That way I could reach in and turn the doorknob.
Nance held up her hand to halt, then tried the knob. Not locked. Nance found our locks and keys confusing and so did not actually expect doors to be locked. I did. Why would Jimmy leave the door unlocked? I mean, we were in Mudflat, an area of Seattle where theft is the favorite method of shopping.
Nance marched ahead of me into the dark kitchen and hit the switch by the door. The overhead fixture held three bulbs but only one of them lit up, casting shadows under the cabinets in the corners.
I pushed strands of my long dark hair out of my eyes and took a careful look around. A silence as thick as the shadows hung around us.
Jimmy's housecat darted out of a doorway, skidded to a stop, looked at us and hesitated. Sounds in the kitchen meant food.
I bent down and held out my hand. “Here, kitty.”
It moved carefully toward me and sniffed my fingers, then wound around my ankles. I petted it and it let me do that but it stayed alert, all watchfulness, no purr. Probably smelled my cat on my clothes.
“Hey, Jimmy,” I said, not very loudly, because I had no idea who lived in Jimmy's house besides Jimmy. Dropping in on my scudzy cousin was not part of my routine.
He had to have renters. Jimmy seldom had a job and somebody was currently paying the electric bill.
“Do you think he is home?” Nance asked. “I do not see any other lights on.”
The silence in the house was more than emptiness. It was almost a sound of its own.
“Maybe we should look.”
She trailed me across the dark hallway and through the living room and then we checked the bathroom and the small bedroom behind the kitchen.
“Nobody here,” I said.
Phoning for a cab was an option but not a good one. First, cabs don't like to make pickups in Mudflat at night, and second, my credit card was in really bad shape. With the insane levels of credit offered, I wouldn't be overdrawn, but add much more to my balance and I'd be in debt right through Social Security. And that wouldn't kick in for another forty years.
Nance rolled her eyes and threw up her hands. “Maybe he's lying in a bed upstairs and dying of fever.”
“You want to go upstairs? Anybody could be up there.”
“Anybody could be waiting for us out front.”
Couldn't argue with that. Nance walked boldly through the unlit house calling Jimmy's name and I followed. No answer. Either the place was empty, or somebody was hiding behind a door, hiding because they weren't supposed to be there. Folks like that are apt to be a little desperate. Desperate leads to stupid reactions, like hitting or shooting.
“Shut up, brain,” I muttered to myself.
We creaked up the stairs, flipped on dim lights, waded through dirty laundry scattered everywhere.
The house smelled of unwashed clothes and unwashed dishes. Cigarette smoke, old and stale, had soaked into every fabric.
Hard to tell if anyone had been around lately. Could be Jimmy was on a beer run and would return in ten minutes, or maybe he'd been gone a week and wasn't coming back. Whatever, he wasn't home now. We trailed back to the kitchen.
Bowls of dried-up cereal on the kitchen table should have given us an idea of how long the house had been deserted but didn't.
“These look a week old. Eww, there's mold,” Nance said.
“Doesn't mean he's been gone a week. It just means he hasn't done dishes for a week, which is about what I'd expect of my cousin the slob.”
Nance shrugged and called again, “Is anyone at home?”
“What, you think he's sleeping in one of the closets?”
“We could look.”
“Don't think so,” I said, because whatever Jimmy had in his closets, I didn't want to see it.
We wandered out the kitchen door and circled the small garden, crunching through a soggy yard full of winter leaves. Garden is probably not quite the word for Jimmy's yard. It was ankle deep in leaves and in the pale moonlight I could see piles of junk by the fence, metal stuff, auto fenders and motorcycle parts.
“What are you finding, Claire?”
“Nothing that is going to give us a ride home.”
A brisk wind circled us, blowing down the hillside behind the garden. I caught my flyaway hair in both hands and tried to smooth out the tangles that blew in front of my eyes.
“We should start walking,” she said in that fearless tone that I did not like.
Nance is a small girl with short curly blond hair. She is far stronger than she looks. Because of her size, because at sixteen she's barely as tall as most ten-year-olds and has the round face and round eyes of a child, people underestimate her. That sort of gives her an advantage.
No one underestimates me. I am a medium-height brunette, a bit on the skinny side--hate that word "anorexic," because I am not, but I also do not look like a threat. The previous winter, Nance had helped me escape from some really weird stuff and then followed me home to Seattle.
“Jimmy?” she called again.
Something rustled. We both froze. The cat oozed out from behind a tree. I let out a slow breath.
“Come on, let's go back inside and wait a few more minutes,” I said.
Nance is seven years younger than me, a kid, and when she first followed me home, I didn't know how she would fit in. But once my coworkers at the Neighborhood Center got past the shock of me bringing home an illiterate teenager, they fell in love with her.
Falling hardest was my cousin Jimmy, who amazed me with his offer to teach her to read. Hadn't been sure the boy knew how. He designated himself as her mentor and started in tutoring her.
Okay, Jimmy is my age, twenty-three, and Nance is a minor, and although that means nothing to Nance, it keeps Jimmy at a distance and Nance confused. Also, she is fearless, probably because she was raised as the niece of a barbarian warlord, information I absolutely do not want to pass on to Jimmy. He is already way too intrigued.
Glancing around Jimmy's front room, Nance asked, “Are we waiting for Jimmy? Maybe he can get rid of Darryl.”
Hmm, Jimmy as hero. Don't think so. “I suppose we could stay here all night. Go home in the morning.”
“Did you look in his refrigerator?” Nance shouted. “Nothing in there that isn't spoiled!”
Unlike Nance, I could make it through the night without food. But under layers of smelly clothes and empty pizza boxes, the couch had spots I didn't want to identify. I definitely didn't want to sleep on that couch.
“Right. Let's give it a half hour. Darryl should be bored and gone by then. And we can walk home.”
When the front door banged open, I screamed.
Copyright (c) Phoebe Matthews
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