Deirdre Kane strode down the hospital corridor, flowers in hand, worry on her face. Her wire-rim glasses slid down her nose as she walked and she pushed them back into place. The corridor, empty this time of night, rang with the echoes of her footsteps. Her long red hair swung loose behind her, rocking with every step of her long legs.
She found the room and opened the door. An old woman lay in bed in a private room, tubes in her arms and monitors evaluating her condition at all hours. The old woman appeared to be asleep, but Deirdre could sense that she was awake, awake and in dull pain and very tired.
“Hi, Deirdre. You brought flowers.” The woman’s voice came out a faint whisper.
“You’re such a good girl, Deirdre.”
“You deserve it.” She smiled.
“Thank you, sweetheart. Don’t worry about me, please. It’s all right. I’ve had such a good life. You have to live your own.”
“I do. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“But I feel so guilty. I know you’re spending a lot of money on me.”
Deirdre grimaced. She’d expected this conversation, of course. They had it every time she came to visit.
“Not as much as you spent on me over the years.”
“Yes, but honey, you know my Medicare would cover the treatments. As if they did any good anyway.”
Deirdre sighed. “Medicare would cover some of it, yes. And does. I’m not paying for it all. But it wouldn’t get you a private room or the services of the best specialists. I want you to come out of this and be healthy again.”
The old woman laughed. It turned into a ragged cough. When she had control of her voice again, she said, “Deirdre, sweet girl, you know I’m not going to beat this. They missed the cancer for too long and it’s all over my body now. I’m going to die soon.”
“I don’t accept that, Mother, and you shouldn’t, either.”
“Everyone dies, you know.”
Deirdre’s lips formed a thin line and her eyes became small and hard. “You’re only sixty-nine. That’s too young to die.”
“Nonsense. Young men die in wars. Children die in car accidents. Babies die for no reason at all. It comes when it comes.”
“Well, if I have anything to say about it, it won’t come for you for many more years.”
The old woman sighed and closed her eyes. “Deirdre, I know you love me and you mean well.”
“I can’t lose you. I’m too young for that.”
The old woman just shook her head. Deirdre said no more, but held her mother’s hand and worked with her mind, stroking the nerves, amplifying the drugs to gentle the old woman’s pain, until she could tell that sleep had taken hold. She put the flowers in a vase and left the hospital fighting tears.
Maybe her mother was right and it was too late to beat the cancer, but Deirdre was determined to fight until the fight was over. Family was all she had, all that mattered. The rest of the world only meant to use her — she was valuable to it as a network engineer, a pretty woman, or for something else they wanted — and didn’t care. Nobody cared about Deirdre except the old woman in that bed, and she was dying.
Deirdre stopped off at the Eye of the Storm cafe on Capitol Hill for a latte and a chance to unwind. The Eye was a good place for that, and she needed it. Her nerves were rattling like coins in a pocket.
Lightning, the proprietor, huge and hairy, took her order at the counter with a toothy grin. Deirdre accepted her perfectly-made caffeine dose and made her way to an empty table.
The usual hangers-out for a Saturday afternoon were all hanging out as usual. Greg Sano, bespectacled, blond, and disheveled, had his nose buried in an e-reader and scribbled notes on a pad of paper while ceremonial magician Mark Silverman grabbed the other third of his attention to expound some item of philosophy he thought he’d discovered. Ginger Palticos sat with Thundercloud, the two of them thick as thieves although they looked a perfect mismatch, she a freckle-bedecked ice-pale woman with hair more flame-red than Deirdre’s own, he a Native American with his long black hair going gray and a slight dusting of mixed-heritage facial hair. Anyone seeing them for the first time would suppose them to be a couple, but in fact he was gay. And there sat Karla Jasovitch, alone as always, impeccably gorgeous with her long chestnut hair and huge green eyes, but somehow none of the guys ever approached her. Too scared to, that was Deirdre’s theory. Not just fear of rejection, either. Karla oozed scary for some reason Deirdre had never figured out.
Deirdre pulled her tablet out of her purse and opened it to the book she’d been reading. The story was a fantasy about rival orders of magicians secretly ruling the world between them and fighting each other. It had enough reality to resonate and little enough of it for escape. Just what she needed to forget about her mother for a few minutes. She kept a corner of her eye focused on the people in the cafe as she read, and so she saw Janice Marx when the thin little Witch entered, the light from the fluorescents reflecting from her thick glasses and rendering her eyes invisible. Dark, frizzy hair enfolding her head like dandelion fluff, Janice looked stereotypically Jewish, which she was not even in family background — her parents were hardcore atheists — and sometimes acted as if she were visiting from another planet. But then, they all did that. She smiled and waved when she saw Deirdre. Deirdre waved back.
Janice’s smile disappeared as she approached Deirdre’s table, and Deirdre had a bad premonition.
“Glad you’re here,” Janice said. “I need to talk to someone. I —” Her face screwed up. She looked like she was about to cry.
“Janice!” Deirdre fished a tissue from her purse and handed it to Janice. “What’s wrong?”
“Tim is dead.”
“He was murdered.”
“Three days ago. Stuck about ten times with a knife. Right in his apartment. Someone broke in and killed him.”
“Wow. Have the cops caught the killer?”
Janice shook her head. “They probably won’t. There’s no clue. Nothing to say who did it or why. Why? That’s what I don’t get. Tim never hurt anyone. Everyone liked him.”
“That’s true. Do you think he was killed because he was gay?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Or a Witch?”
“I don’t know, Deirdre. It could be anything. Maybe someone didn’t like redheads.”
“Sure hope not. I could be on their list next.”
“Yeah. Or it could be totally random. Someone just felt like killing someone and Tim got picked for no reason at all.”
“Not likely, Janice. That kind of wacko shoots people in public places.” Deirdre drummed her fingers on the table. “There’s another possibility. But let me get you something to drink first.”
“Sure. The usual soy latte. Here.” She fished in her purse for cash.
Deirdre touched her wrist. “On me.”
After getting Janice’s soy latte with a dollop of added vanilla, Deirdre said, “You have to consider the possibility that they’re targeting your coven.”
“Oh.” She frowned. “I don’t think — why would anyone do that?”
“Why would anyone kill Tim?”
“I don’t know.”
“There are plenty of people in the world who don’t like Witches, right?” Including me, usually. Deirdre didn’t voice that thought aloud. Janice’s coven weren’t as silly as most Wiccans, anyway.
“Christian loonies, people whacked out about Satanic baby-sacrificers, that kind of thing.”
“They don’t usually kill people, though.”
“No, they don’t, but most pro-lifers don’t shoot doctors, either.”
“It only takes one.” Deirdre took Janice’s hand. “I could be totally wrong here, Janice. Probably I am. But I think you ought to consider the possibility that you’re all on the list. Better safe than sorry.”
“I guess. But what could we do?”
“Besides the usual protection spells? Which didn’t help Tim. You might give some thought to leaving town for a while.”
“I’d at least consider it if it were me. Or you could wait. If they kill another of you, that’s confirmation.”
Deirdre stood up. “Tell you what. Is Tim’s apartment still under police barricade?”
“Then I’ll go by and see if I can pick up anything.”
“All right. You’re better at that than I am.”
“Especially right now. You go home, lock your door, and be ready to run out the back.”
Deirdre tossed off the last of her drink and left the cafe. Tim’s apartment was only a block away from the Eye. She came prepared to pick the lock, but the door was open, making that unnecessary. All of Tim’s possessions had been cleared out, and the carpet removed but no replacement carpet laid down yet. The place couldn’t be rented again until that job was done. Hence the unlocked door. There was nothing left to steal.
Deirdre stood in the middle of the room and opened her second sight. Impressions of fear and pain rolled over her as expected. She sensed Tim, recognizing his emotional leavings as clearly as she could smell a familiar scent. His killer — no, killers, plural — were harder to identify.
Cold. Cruel. Well, that was predictable enough.
Magical. That was more of a surprise. Very magical. If she was getting this right. And — something else, something really strange, unlike anything she’d ever picked up before. She frowned.
Then she smiled. She’d wanted a diversion, right? And now she had a first-class mystery. This was potentially dangerous, but it certainly could prove interesting.
She closed her eyes and breathed rhythmically, opening her second sight wider. Spending a little more time here would be worthwhile. She wanted to make sure she got it right and found a lead on where to pursue the investigation next.
“Richard, what about my medication?” An hour or so after leaving the alley where her attackers had died, Claire felt little pain. Her horizon seemed dimmed and numb. But that wasn’t necessarily an effect of the pain killers. It might instead be an early sign of a depressive episode. That was not surprising considering she’d been wounded by someone who wanted to kill her and seen three people brutally slain a few feet away. Her maintenance drugs, lithium and ziprasidone, were in her apartment. So were her antidepressants, and also her anti-mania medication although she didn’t feel like one of those episodes was coming. Just the opposite.
“It’s not safe to pick it up right now,” Richard said. “We can’t go back to your apartment or to the pharmacy. We might be able to get some on the road if you can access your prescriptions.”
“So I’m stuck. For how long?”
“A few days at least to let your wound heal a little.”
“We might chance it if one of the Droon hadn’t survived. As it is, we need to get our families here. I expect them to figure out we were responsible and hit all of our houses.”
Claire’s jaw dropped. “You mean they know who you are?”
“Oh, yes. They’ve known for years.”
She looked away and frowned. “My God, how do you stand it?”
“I’m used to it by now.”
“If it were me, I’d curl into a ball and try to compress myself out of the universe.”
“Well, I might be tempted, too, if I thought that would work.”
She laughed. “Wait — is this place safe?”
“Should be. I don’t think they know about it.”
“You don’t think they know.”
“There’s no such thing as perfect certainty.”
“What do we do if they show up here?”
“Fight or run. Not much else to do.”
Claire shook her head. “How many of those Droon people are there? Total.”
“World-wide? About ten thousand or so.”
“Of course, they’re not going to come after us with all ten thousand. There aren’t more than fifty, probably, in the Seattle area.”
“So we could be facing fifty of them?”
“Well, theoretically, yes, but it’s not very likely. Maybe ten or fifteen, tops.”
“Ten or fifteen.” She wailed softly. “I’m going to die. We’re all going to die.”
“Stop that. It’s the depression coming on. You’re not going to die.”
“Yes I am. I know the depression is coming on. I can feel it. But this is a perfectly sober, rational assessment of the odds, and damn it, I am going to die.”
Richard rolled his eyes. “Look, get some rest. I’m going to make some phone calls. I don’t know how much time we have. It might be days or it might be hours.”
“I’ll try to rest.”
A few minutes later, she fell asleep.
Claire woke up after a while. She wasn’t sure how long. She was even less sure why it was important, but she rose mechanically and checked a clock, discovering that it was eight o’clock, which meant she had slept either four hours or sixteen. She supposed four was the more likely, although sixteen was not altogether impossible.
The basement room where she had slept had windows and through them she could see that it was dark. Evening, then, and she had slept four hours. That was good. On the other hand, she still felt lethargic. That was bad. It could be due to her injury or her depression, but in either case it meant something was wrong.
The basement had a bathroom, so she relieved herself and washed her face. Washing her face was a good sign. She even fished a hairbrush from her purse and brushed her hair. Examining her face in the mirror, she saw little to admire. Her Asian features, which some might have found appealing, seemed to her listless and devoid of expression. Claire got plenty of attention from boys and men, especially when she wasn’t depressed, so she supposed she was pretty enough. At least, reason said that had to be true. She couldn’t see it herself, though. She shrugged. It really didn’t matter. She wasn’t interested in Richard that way, or any of his friends, either. Anyway Richard was married. Actually, at the moment she found the whole idea rather pointless.
She considered fixing her makeup but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Then she considered taking a shower. Was that worth doing? Her hair did feel pretty greasy. She ran her hand along the shower door handle and thought about it for a while. Finally she pushed herself into pulling her borrowed shirt off over her head and opening the shower door. Now she was already half-naked and would have to exert some effort before she could go upstairs, no matter what she decided. That thought motivated her enough to slip off her pants and her underwear. Now she was completely naked except for her bandages, if those counted. Should she take a shower with those on? They were supposed to be waterproof, Richard said, so it was all right, she supposed. Anyway they could be changed if necessary.
Shower or get dressed again? The idea of getting dressed again seemed absurd; it would mean that the effort of taking her clothes off was all wasted. All right then, shower it was. She stepped in, closed the door, and started the water. Brr! It was cold! But then it warmed up and felt all right. It didn’t feel particularly good, because she was already down enough that nothing did, but it didn’t feel bad, either.
Bright blue sparks shot up and down her arms. They tinted the water a shade of blue. Claire was used to that. The sparks didn’t hurt. She wasn’t sure what they were, and she thought she was seeing them with second sight rather than her eyes. Nobody else had ever seen them. They tended to come on during a depressive episode, although not always.
Richard thought her magic was connected with her mental illness. He might be right. He had been the one to give her some simple, basic lessons four years ago, after they had met when she went by herself during a lucid phase to pick up a prescription. Before she began meditating, doing breathing exercises, and using her second sight, her sickness had been worse. She had even been hospitalized twice.
Maybe it was like the pressure in an abscess. Her magic, bottled up inside her, pushed at her brain and wanted to get out. According to Richard, that was what caused her mood swings and hallucinations. If she learned more about it and gave it ways to come out, the pressure would drop and her symptoms should go away, or at least get better. That’s if Richard was right. Claire wasn’t totally convinced about that.
The sparks were kind of pretty to look at, too.
She found some shampoo, not her brand but it would work, wet her hair and lathered up, rinsed, scrubbed her body with a washcloth and soap, rinsed again, turned off the water, got out, toweled off, and put her clothes back on. Excellent. She was clean. That was an achievement.
She trudged up the stairs. Each step took an effort of will. Her legs and feet felt heavy. That wasn’t just the depression, either, because her side hurt with each step as well. Maybe Richard was right and she needed a day or two to recover before they hit the road. That thought almost sent her back downstairs, but by then she was already almost to the top, so she trudged on.
The lights were on upstairs. Someone was cooking or something had already been cooked. It smelled like chicken soup, or maybe roast chicken. Chicken, anyway. Claire thought about eating, although she wasn’t really hungry.
She heard two men talking and headed for the voices, which were just the other side of the door in front of her. The stairs opened onto a laundry room and the door of the laundry opened onto a dining room where two of her rescuers sat at a table with bowls of chicken soup and some bread. One of them, a blond man in his thirties with beard stubble, turned to her and smiled. “Welcome to our hideaway,” he said. “I’m Jack. This is Peter. And I know already that you’re Claire.” He held out a great big hand. After a moment’s hesitation Claire took it and shook it.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” said Peter with a wave. He was black, short, and stocky, maybe in his early forties by the slight tint of silver in his hair. Both men were dressed in casual clothes, jeans or corduroys and work shirts. “There’s plenty of soup if you want some.”
Claire nodded. She stepped around the table and into the kitchen. Bowls were set out and a big pot of soup sat on the stove with a ladle hooked over the edge. Claire told herself she really ought to eat something. She ladled soup into a bowl, found a spoon, and made her way to the table where she joined the men.
“Is Richard around?”
“No,” Jack said. “He and the other brothers are making sure our families get here all right.”
“Oh, yeah. Because he thinks the Droon are going to attack your houses.”
“Do you think they will?”
“They never have before,” said Peter, “but they’ve never had much reason to, either. This is different.”
“Just because you stopped them from killing me?”
“We also killed three of them doing it,” Jack said. “Killing three of them at once while stopping what they were trying to do, they might have a problem with that.”
“Anyway, better safe than sorry,” said Peter. “That’s why we’re here and bringing our families here, those of us that have them.”
Claire tasted the soup. It was pretty good, not too greasy and full of rice as well as chicken meat and vegetables. She didn’t feel hungry, but told herself that her body needed food to heal, and made herself eat.
“So how long have you guys been part of this — what did Richard call it?”
“The Scourge of God,” said Jack. “Ten years for me.”
“Only one and a half for me,” said Peter.
“We had a revolution just before Peter joined us.”
“A revolution?” Claire said.
“Yes. It started when Mike Cambridge, the Order Master, invoked the Pact of War and got information from a Droon. Did Richard tell you about that?”
“He mentioned it, but he didn’t go into details.”
“This Droon told Mike about the Andol. Mike went looking for them and found one of them. He went off with her — with Amanda Johnson, that is — and fell in love with her.”
“Which is kind of kinky if you think about it,” Peter said. “I mean, she’s an alien.”
“What?” Claire looked from one man to the other, frowning.
“He’s kidding,” Jack said. “The Andol don’t have tentacles. Anyway, Mike passed on what he’d learned to the Chapter Masters.”
“And then all hell broke loose,” said Peter.
“Why was that?” said Claire.
“You have to understand that the Scourge of God was a very conservative, very devout Christian order,” said Jack. “What Mike told them was bothersome because he wanted to make alliance with the Andol. A lot of the Chapter Masters thought the Andol were another kind of demon. They thought allying with them would turn the order away from its Christianity into some kind of New Age thing.”
“Which is pretty much true,” said Peter.
“I’m still Christian,” said Jack.
“You think you are. I think you are, too. Ask Jim Anderson and you might get a different opinion.”
Jack waved his hand. “Jim Anderson can go soak his head.”
“Jim Anderson is the Order Master of the hard line chapters of the Scourge, the ones that stick to the old ways,” said Jack. “Anyway, Christians have been fighting over who is really Christian for centuries and we all lose when we do. Catholics against Protestants, both against the Orthodox, and then you have the Coptics, the Quakers, the Gnostics, the Mormons — it’s obvious God doesn’t want us to be unified, or we would be, so there’s no point in worrying about it. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who says he’s a Christian and tries to follow Christ’s teaching is a Christian, whether or not I agree with him about anything else. We can disagree with each other. Jesus never said different.”
“I see.” She kept her face carefully neutral.
Jack smiled a lopsided smile. “I guess it sounds like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, doesn’t it? I feel the same way. It’s what you have in your heart that counts, not what’s on your lips. But anyway, I was telling you about the revolution in the order. Five of the Chapter Masters had a meeting and called a Council of Chapter Masters. The Council was supposed to consider the new information that Mike had found, but some of the Chapter Masters wanted to impeach him and execute him for heresy. So they called the Council to meet in New York, ready to put him on trial. Mike went there to make his case. I don’t know all of what went down, but somehow the Droon found out where the Council was being held, and they attacked it and killed almost all of the Chapter Masters.”
“Yes, it was a mess. Mike got away. Our Chapter Master didn’t. The Droon killed him. When we got word of that, we had an election and Richard became the new Chapter Master.”
“He and Jack are the only ones left who were in the order at that time,” said Peter.
“What happened to the others?” Claire said.
“After Richard became Chapter Master, the Andol found him and talked him into allying with them. When the rest of us found out, the others turned on Richard and tried to kill him.”
“I wish. They weren’t supposed to do that. They should have reported him and gotten the Order Master and three Chapter Masters to authorize the killing. Those were the old rules, but it was a chaotic time.”
“Even those rules aren’t in force anymore,” said Peter.
“No, that’s true, we don’t kill people as much as before. Only in self-defense or defense of others, like we killed those three Droon to protect you. But anyway, even by the old rules they shouldn’t have done that, but they did.”
“What happened?” said Claire.
Jack shrugged. “We won. They lost. Andol training helped a lot.”
“In other words,” said Peter, “they’re dead. That left some vacancies in the chapter and Bill and Tom and I filled them.”
Claire made herself eat some more soup. A few minutes later the front door opened and several people came in. Richard was one of them. The two other members of his chapter, Bill and Tom, were with him. Two women, a boy, and a girl completed the party. One woman and the boy ran to Peter, who jumped out of his chair to embrace them both. The other woman and the girl were connected to one of the other guys, Claire decided, not to Jack. Richard’s wife was not among them.
“Where’s Linda?” Claire said.
“I don’t know,” said Richard. “She wasn’t home and I can’t reach her by phone. I’m worried.”
At that moment, Richard’s cell phone rang. “Maybe that’s —” he began, but then stopped. He answered the phone. “Hello?” He swallowed. “What do you want? I see. I’ll call you back. Do anything to her, anything at all, and you’re all dead. I swear it. No, it won’t. I’ll call you. Give me half an hour. Very well.” He hung up the phone and sighed.
“What is it?” Claire said.
“The Droon have Linda.”
A minute of frozen silence, and then Jack said, “Who was that?”
“Jennifer Olson.” He looked at Claire and said, “She’s the Droon administrator for the Pacific Northwest.” He closed his eyes. “Dear God.”
“What do they want?” said one of the other men, Tom or Bill.
“I know what they want,” said Claire. “They want me.”
Richard nodded. “That’s right.”