Chapter 15 — Making Friends and Influencing People
"I'm just sayin', I expected you to be on the damn warpath here, removed from the case and all," said Maddie, a wine glass cupped in her hand.
Jeremy shrugged. "No skin off my back." He nodded at the TV. "And besides, why ain't you there?"
"Conflict of interest apparently, according to my people. Really it's just McCullough makin' a power play. Keep me off the panel so I lose the screen time." His big sister shook her head. "It won't work. Press is already banging my phone for interviews."
"Did you mean McDonough?"
"No, McCullough. Different senators. Annoying as fuck."
"The Select Committee to Investigate Potential Misconduct in the Rallsburg Incident Investigation recognizes Michael Aderholt. Mr. Aderholt, please state your position for the common record."
"Isn't this already on record?"
"We've had to reconvene a new committee. Please state your position for the record."
"Michael Aderholt, Sub-Station Chief for the National Security Branch, Olympia, Washington."
"Mr. Aderholt, are you the ranking officer of the station that took control of the investigation into the incident that took place on May 15th, 2018, in Rallsburg Washington?"
"Around May 15th."
"Just answer the question, Mr. Aderholt."
"I want to make clear that the timeline was not sufficiently established."
"Yes or no, Mr Aderholt. Did you take command of the investigation?"
"Yes, Mr. McCullough."
"And in the course of that investigation did you do anything that might be considered improper conduct befitting a federal agent?"
"Here it comes," Jeremy grumbled. He leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes.
"You knew he was gonna fuck you." She got up to refill her glass.
"No sir, because I assigned the case to my best agent at the time."
"Which agent is that, please? For the record."
"Special Agent Jeremy Ashe."
"And this assignment took place…"
"On May 16th, shortly after we began the investigation."
"Why did you not take this case yourself?"
"With all due respect, Mr. McCullough, I have an entire station to consider, and Jeremy Ashe was assigned an investigation as a competent agent. This was standard protocol."
"Despite the fact that Mr. Ashe has several allegations of misconduct on file?"
"Motherfucker," Jeremy growled. "Those were buried. He gave them my sealed file."
"At the time, I was unaware of the allegations. When I discovered them, I removed Mr. Ashe from the case."
"And the incident on October 26th in Tacoma, where Agent Ashe took over a police standoff under the pretense of the Rallsburg case?"
"Totally unrelated. Mr. Ashe has since been temporarily suspended."
"Well you knew that was coming."
"No kiddin'. Why are we watchin' this again?" Jeremy started on the pizza his sister had brought over. "You're booked all week. You really want to spend your precious time watchin' a trial where we both get fucked?"
"There's somethin' you'll enjoy later. Jump forward about half an hour."
"Jesus Christ, it lasts that long?"
"Have you ever seen a Senate panel interrogate someone? You oughta be grateful Aderholt took your place down there."
He shook his head. "Motherfucker's just coverin' his own ass."
"Sure is, but you got bigger fish to fry. Just jump the damn video."
Jeremy leaned forward and tapped the keyboard a few times.
"...And the Bureau is unable to produce a single second of footage from these so-called 'golems'?"
"As I said, sir, we have no evidence they existed. We've had several medical professionals conclude it was mass-hysteria. Hallucinations spread by panicked people under threat by domestic terrorism."
"Yet there were several police cruisers visibly thrown into the air and rolled away from the scene."
"We believe there was some form of gas explosion, sir. It would also explain the exploded exterior of the bar."
"Not monsters, Mr. Aderholt? You have testimony from more than a dozen officers at the scene."
"And contradictory testimony from the hostages inside the bar. They all deny the presence of any monsters, sir, or this 'flying girl'. Since they were in the best position to see the attacks on the bar, being hostages, I'm inclined to believe them."
"Over the sworn testimony of the Tacoma Police Department, Mr. Aderholt?"
"It goes on for another couple minutes, but you get the idea." Maddie turned off the video and set the laptop aside. "Your girl's safe for now. Aderholt's covering for you both without even knowin' it."
"Anything to make his case go away."
"I thought you weren't actually suspended though? Did that change?"
"Nah, they just got me chained to the desk."
"Ah, in-school suspension."
"Cute from the girl who got it every month in high school."
"Anything for my fans," Maddie grinned. "Lani back to work yet?"
"Nope. Still stuck in PT. It's boring as fuck there. And I'm supposed to work a drug case from my desk somehow. Fuckin' six bodies and a shitload of meth from fuck knows where. Abandoned building, no witnesses, death by burnin', slicin' and shootin'. Fuckin' nightmare."
"I'm just actin' as liaison though. Hook up the Seattle detective who landed it with our tech where he needs it. So I'm a glorified errand boy."
"Gives you a good excuse though, don't it?"
"Hop all over Seattle, you amateur." Maddie shrugged. "You gotta find the Winscombe girl, and you gotta find Jackie. If you've got Seattle detectives callin' you for tech support, you oughta offer them house calls. You frame it right, there ain't no way they can keep you at your desk without pissin' off a whole lot of people. The Seattle mayor's under pressure to handle the increase in gang killings."
"Pressure from who?"
"Someone in the governor's office who got a friendly tip," she said nonchalantly. Jeremy grinned. "There's enough political clout in play that as long as you keep quiet, no one will bat an eye. Aderholt gives you the tiniest bit of lip, you call me." Maddie gave him a sideways look. "Get out there and find her, Jeremy. Figure this out. Don't you stop til you do. This shit's just heatin' up, whatever it is."
Jeremy had a way back into the field, but he still wasn't sure where to go next. The manhunt for Dan Rhodes and Boris Morozov had still turned up nothing from their Canadian friends. Jeremy couldn't contact them or get up there himself, since he was strictly limited to Seattle for the time being. At best, he might be able to swing trips out to Tacoma and Olympia, but he knew Aderholt was itching for any opportunity to punish him further.
His best bet was the phone number. He'd texted Hailey back a dozen times without a response, picking up a new burner phone for each one. He knew better than anyone that it wouldn't stop the Bureau from noticing a few texts, but it'd stall them long enough that he might find her first.
As soon as I find them, I tell the chief everything I know. Just so long as Jackie's safe. Jeremy had priorities, but he was still an agent. Whatever the fuck was going on with Hailey Winscombe and the rest of the Rallsburg survivors, it concerned the whole country.
No, the whole fuckin' world. This is some next-level shit.
He ignored the cases he was nominally working. Gangs murdered each other; that was just normal operating procedure. The police could handle it just fine. He logged every request to come assist and carefully timed his comings and goings from the field office to match, but as soon as he hit the streets he was on a completely different track.
Every hint of strangeness, every weird report or unnatural sighting. He even listened to the goddamn crazies hotline for tips. If it sounded abnormal, he was there. Off the books, no badge and plainclothes, but he was there. He listened to each of 'em, and gave them the most police help they'd probably ever seen in their whole goddamn lives.
Not that he was a cop, of course. He made damn sure none of them thought he was a cop, in case they tried to run it back to the legit police.
It took Jeremy a week to finally strike gold.
A kid doing a magic show, of all things. The tip line recording was a shrill old woman trilling about a 'warlock of Satan's highest order', which Jeremy had overheard a couple coworkers laughing about. It was practically on his way to Lani's PT place with the agency, so he decided to stop by the guy's next show for a few minutes. Might give Lani something to laugh about.
It wasn't exactly discreet, in spite of the attitude he'd seen from Winscombe. He filed in with the rest of the crowd into the city library, which had a small-ish theater for community productions. Jeremy stood in the back corner where he could see everything clearly. Up front on stage was a wooden easel with a sign, declaring "THE MARVELOUS MAGIC OF MR. HUDSON" in bold letters, with a stereotypical top hat and sparkling black wand underneath.
Jeremy got one or two furtive glances from the crowd, but he couldn't tell if they were because he was the famous Agent Ashe, or just because he looked painfully out of place attending a random kid's magic show in the Tacoma suburbs. As the lights flickered, everyone's attention returned to the front, and he stopped worrying about it.
"Welcome!" boomed a deep, theatrical from the stage. Kid's got some pipes.
Smoke billowed onto the stage from both directions as the curtain rose. A silhouette strode forward from center stage, and as he walked the smoke around him seemed to fly away, as if he had an invisible force field pushing it aside. As he reached the front of the stage, the fog seemed to spill out onto the floor, dissipating just before it reached the front row.
If Jeremy hadn't seen the same stunt in the bar a week earlier, and much more intense, he might've been impressed.
I need to talk to this kid.
The "Marvelous Mr. Hudson" went through a few magic routines while Jeremy tried not to get bored. He'd never cared for magicians, and the kid didn't really have a well-developed theatrical presence. High school plays maybe, but Mr. Hudson wasn't ready for the prime time by a long shot. Even the idea that some of his stuff might not actually be tricks wasn't enough to hold Jeremy's attention.
As Jeremy scanned the crowd, though, he saw something that could be interesting. Or fuckin' alarming.
A few others were standing as well, since all the seats were taken. Apparently Mr. Hudson was a big draw in the area. One man in particular, though, didn't seem awed or entertained. Jeremy couldn't really blame him for getting bored, but something else about the guy seemed off. He was concentrating very hard on something, and Jeremy couldn't figure it out.
Is he that into figuring out magic tricks?
"For my next illusion, I require a volunteer! You there! Dare you brave the mystical for a chance at the sublime?"
An excited young woman got to her feet and sprang onto the stage, breathless.
Hudson glanced around dramatically. "I'm terribly sorry, I seem to have forgotten your chair." He flourished his fingers, pointing back at the crowd. The woman's cheap wooden chair floated into the air and landed on the stage with a thump, sliding across the smooth stage to halt right next to him. "I hope this will do, my dear."
The crowd burst into applause. Okay, that wasn't bad. Jeremy ignored whatever Hudson's trick was, focused on the man in the other corner. He was fiddling with something in his jacket. A gun? Holy shit, they wouldn't, would they?
No, it didn't have the right shape for a gun. Jeremy forced his heart rate back down. The man turned slightly, and as Jeremy got a better look at his face, he recognized him.
It was the same man who'd been guarding Hailey in the bar.
Jesus Christ, they really might.
Jeremy's hand went for his own holster, reassuring himself it was still there, but the man didn't seem to be making a move. The show kept going, heedless of the sudden danger in the room.
Do I arrest him? I don't actually have jurisdiction here, and I'm not even supposed to be investigating this case. If I tap him, I'm gonna be fucked even more than I already am.
Follow the guy, maybe get an ID on the guys from the bar. Maybe catch a killer or potential killer. Or stay here, talk to Hudson, get in contact with Hailey and find Jackie, and get some fuckin' answers.
Whatever he's got in his pocket is important. I need it. Split the difference.
Jeremy had picked up a few tricks of his own over the years. If he was gonna pull this off, he needed to move now.
While the show kept going, he exited the rear door on his side of the theater, and crossed over to the opposite door immediately. The guy was already leaving, hands in his pockets. Jeremy only had a few seconds.
Keeping his face turned up toward the sign for the bathroom, Jeremy walked straight into the man. As they both stumbled, Jeremy's hand snuck into the suddenly handless pocket. There was a small, rough object inside, like a stone. He didn't have time to look at it. It went straight into his own jacket.
"Sorry," he grunted. The man grumbled something rude, but kept walking nonetheless, beelining for the sunlight outside the front door. He hadn't noticed the stone vanish from his heavy jacket. Jeremy continued right into the bathroom, into the first unoccupied stall and locked the door tight. And fuck you too, Skinny, sayin' I could never actually make a pull.
He pulled out the stone. It was a strange rock, with most of the surface almost featureless and gray. The same as the fuckin' monsters, Jeremy realized with a shock. It was the same plain gray they'd been made of—the ones that hadn't grown straight out of the asphalt, anyway. This stone was a bit different though, as if it had been merged with a different rock. Patches of purple crystal filled in the gaps, giving it the rough texture he'd originally felt.
As Jeremy touched it, he felt something. A kind of pulling, as if the stone wanted something from him. He recoiled and dropped it on the bathroom floor. It sat quite innocently, just a strange-looking rock, not moving or throwing police cruisers across the streets.
Gingerly, he reached down and touched it again. It still pulled, but Jeremy overcame his revulsion and picked it up. He prayed he wasn't about to be corrupted somehow by it, like it were made of evil itself. Suddenly, the wailing old woman on the tip line didn't seem quite so crazy.
But as he thought about how much he wished it would stop, it did. Quite suddenly, quite extraordinarily, the sensation stopped. The stone sat in his palm, still strange and unsettling, but no longer actively reaching for his soul.
Or I'm just being insane. Making this all sound mystical and shit. I'm turning into Lani.
Jeremy stuck around after the show, watching the Marvelous Mr. Hudson finish up his act. The finale was a show of fire-breathing and levitation, with the titular Hudson looking like he might pass out from the strain. As the final applause sounded and the curtains drew closed, Jeremy flagged down someone who looked like library staff.
"May I help you?"
Oh thank God, she doesn't recognize me from TV. "I'm interested in interviewing Mr. Hudson for a light story, and I was wondering if you could let him know for me."
The staffer brightened up considerably. "Oh, certainly! I'll make sure he hears before he leaves."
"I'd be happy to talk to him myself. I wouldn't want to trouble you."
She frowned. "Oh, all right. Just head up through the side door by the stage there. It's not a big place, you should be able to find him."
Finding the kid wasn't the problem, as it turned out. As soon as Jeremy came around the corner to the backstage, there he was—still sitting on the stool from his finale, munching through an energy bar and wiping sweat from his brow. As soon as he looked up—deer in motherfuckin' headlights.
Jeremy started to raise his hands, but it didn't make a difference. Hudson bolted. The stool went flying. Goddammit.
He took off after the kid, but Hudson still had some tricks left apparently. The fog bank from the opener swirled back in, as thick as ever. Jeremy had seen enough of the room to remember where the back exit was, and he doubted the kid would have the presence of mind to stay put and hide.
As they both emerged out into the sunlight behind the library, Jeremy leapt. He tackled Hudson to the grass.
"Shit, I'm sorry, I didn't— They approached me— Please don't hurt me."
Oh man, he's really just a kid. "I'm not gonna hurt you, kid," Jeremy growled. "If I let you up, you'll stay put?"
Hudson nodded frantically. "Right here."
Jeremy sat back against the wall. "Should've hid in the fog."
"Nevermind." Jeremy paused. "What d'you mean they approached you?"
"I… wait, you don't know?"
Hudson shook his head. "Nothing."
"Kid, do you know who I am?"
"...Agent Jeremy Ashe, right?"
"Good. So I'm a federal fuckin' agent. Which means lying to me is a very bad idea."
He gulped audibly. "Breaking my promise is a really bad idea too."
Jeremy shook his head. "You had one of them in your crowd today. He was scopin' you out."
"One of who?"
"You hear about the shit that went down at the bar last week? Hostage situation?"
Hudson nodded slowly.
"Fuck me, you knew about that and you still put on a damn magic show?"
"The show must go on," he said, with a hint of flair.
Fuckin' looney theater kids. "Well Mr. Wizard, if you don't want to end up on a slab, your best bet is to start cooperatin'. I'm the best friend you got right now."
Hudson really looked scared now. Good for him, he's learning quick. "What am I supposed to do?"
Jeremy pulled out the stone from his pocket. "First, tell me what the fuck this is."
"No shit it's a rock. Here—" Jeremy dropped it into his hand. "What's it doing?"
His eyes widened. "Where did you get this?"
"Stole it from the guy who was doin' recon today." Jeremy
"It's… well I don't know what it is. But someone made it. With magic."
"Yeah, I got that," Jeremy growled, getting impatient. "What does it do?"
"...I don't know. This stuff is way beyond me. I'm still learning."
"Shit, you can just learn this stuff?"
"Err, no, not really. I mean, even if I did learn it, this is way outside my affinity. I could never make this thing."
"Your what now?"
"The magic I'm good at. Everyone's got one, and some really lucky people got two. This stone does something with Knowledge magic, and whoever made it was also really good with Creation magic. Those are like… the two hardest out there."
Jeremy tried to keep up, though half of what Hudson just said sounded insane. "So it's somethin' to find out stuff. Like whether or not you've got magic, so the guy can kill you. Sound right?"
Hudson stiffened up. "...You really think he would have… killed me?"
"Wouldn't be the first time, either." Jeremy stood up, offering the kid a hand. At some point I just started talkin' about magic like it was totally normal. Shit, what happened to my life? "I'm on your side, kid. And not just in the usual 'tryin' to keep you alive' kind. I'm a… friend of Hailey Winscombe's." Friend might be pushin' it but whatever works.
Hudson nodded. "She said you were probably worth talking to. But no one had come up with a good plan yet, so we were supposed to avoid you."
"How many is we?"
"...I don't think I'm supposed to say." He looked pretty resolute. Jeremy doubted he could intimidate him into a real answer, not without actually hurting the kid.
And he's not gonna give me anything else about magic either. These guys run a tight ship. Jeremy shrugged. "Fine, whatever. Just tell me how I can get in contact with her again. She's not answerin' her phone."
"I… I don't know. She hasn't been talking to anyone for a while, as far as I know. I think she got shook up pretty bad last week."
Jeremy sighed. "...Yeah, I don't blame her. But seriously, kid. Anything you can give me. This is important."
"Jonathan. My name's Jonathan."
Are you fuckin' with me right now... "Jonathan," he drawled. "We're fightin' on the same team here, and in case you forgot, you just became a marked fuckin' man. I couldn't stop that guy from IDin' you. You're next on the list."
Hudon's eyes widened. "But… you stole his… I don't…"
"He's not alone, and I doubt this is the only stone they got. Even if it was, he knows what you can do, and his people want your people dead. They didn't give me a second fuckin' glance."
"I don't know anything!"
Jeremy sighed. "You talk to them somehow."
"I can't give you that."
"Kid, now you're flip-flopping in the same goddamn breath. You just said you didn't know anything."
"I'm sorry. I'm scared, okay? You just told me there's a bunch of guys out there who want to kill me."
"There's a lot out there who'd love to kill me too. You get used to it." Jeremy put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm on your side. Anything you can give me."
He hesitated a long time. "...Hailey's got a partner. Someone else goes with her to introductions."
"Yeah, no shit, I met him. Zack, right?" Jeremy had done a few searches, and Lani a few more, but neither of them came up with anything.
"...s'not his real name," he mumbled.
Hudson took a deep breath. "His real name's Alden Bensen. If anyone knows how to get in touch with Hailey, he does."
"What took you so long?" Lani asked, leaning up in his bed.
"I had to visit the library."
"You went to the library?"
Jeremy glowered at him. "I read books, thanks. When I feel like it."
"I've never seen you with a single book."
"Because I've got a fuckin' smartphone." Jeremy sat down in the chair next to Lani's bed. There were files scattered everywhere, and two laptops in reach with even more work. Lani wasn't letting his injury slow him down in the slightest, even if he did have to do a lot of it mostly one-armed.
"So what was at the library?"
"A cheap amateur magician with a really interesting story to tell." Jeremy glanced over the screens. "You go first though, before this mountain collapses and I gotta clean it up again."
"Well, after we ran out out footage to re-check and did all the background checks and family checks again, I decided I might try alternative sources. New social media."
"New like what?"
"Livestreaming sites. Geo-tagged videos from anyone in the area on May 15th."
"You really think we're that fuckin' lucky?"
Lani grinned. "We are that lucky. I had to get the company to pull it off a deleted account. Nathan Hurst."
"Dead in Rallsburg."
"Yeah, that Nathan. But here's the thing: those videos were deleted on the 18th, and his account was deleted a few days ago. Both by his own request."
"From a dead guy. Who we confirmed dead."
"Right. So the data hadn't been overwritten on the drives yet. I picked it up on an archive check, called them up and waved my badge around. Figuratively."
"What's on it?"
"Well they just emailed it this morning, and I figured you'd want to see it too."
"You waited for me?"
Jeremy shook his head. "Lani, you're a good friend and a good partner, but don't fuckin' wait for me when you're sittin' on new evidence. Follow that shit."
"Well, go on, play it."
They watched the two videos together, watched the riot unfold in the forest. Gunshots and fireballs, bursts of water and men flying through the air from devastating punches. The finale, with the man who seemed to evaporate into the air, and the tall girl—Rachel DuValle, one of the missing whose family they'd never been able to contact—striding out of the forest behind a girl seated on the back of a wolf.
"Jesus Christ…" Jeremy murmured.
"Dated May 14th," Lani added in a subdued voice. "And the later one is the 15th. This is what happened."
"Mostly," he pointed out. "The town looks pretty intact in that one. And we still have fuck all on who."
Jeremy shook his head. "I've got the why."
"Is this why you went to the library?"
"These kids have got magic, Lani. Real fuckin' magic. And someone else out there wants to kill 'em for it."
Lani stared at him for a few seconds blankly. "Magic."
"I know it sounds fuckin' crazy."
"No, it sounds like something I'd say. Not you." Lani shrugged. "So if you're saying it, I believe you." He pulled one laptop tray closer to him. "Who have you told?"
"No. You heard what they did to all the cops who testified about the golems?"
Lani nodded. "Full psych eval and suspended with pay."
"I ain't got time for that shit."
"So what's our next move?"
"What, did you think I was going to go back to normal old desk work?" Lani shook his head. "I'm in this too. They shot me."
Jeremy rolled back the second video to the brief clip where Hailey ran by. "That's Hailey Winscombe. I don't know the blue-haired girl, but the guy is Alden Bensen."
"...So he lied."
Lani scrolled through a few screens to a scanned-in form. "We checked with the train station, and there were four tickets sold to Rallsburg on May 11th on the last train. The train doesn't ask for ID, so we don't know who paid for the three in cash, but the fourth ticket was bought with a debit card. Name was Alden Bensen."
"What's the connection?"
Lani scrolled down the form to a brief scrawled statement from some agent Jeremy didn't know. "We called the Bensens, just a routine check-in. We were told he never got on the train, confirmed he was home and alive."
"So what the hell's he doing in Rallsburg on the fifteenth…" Jeremy murmured. "And how did he get home?"
"He's probably worth talking to, and now you've got leverage."
Jeremy nodded. "Give me your badge."
"Well I can't go investigating as me. I'm still chained to a desk."
Lani shrugged and handed it over. "You don't exactly look like a 'Lani Makaio'," he pointed out.
"They're middle-class white people in the suburbs. They ain't gonna know it's Hawaiian." Jeremy stood up to go. "You need anythin' before I head out?"
"If you change your mind, text Maddie. She said she'd stop by later."
"She's back in town?"
He nodded. "Campaigning. She's busy as fuck, so don't be offended if she can't stay long, but she wanted to say hi."
Lani looked embarrassed. "No, she doesn't have to—"
Jeremy rolled his eyes. "There's no possible way on earth to stop her." He walked to the door, but paused. "Hey, Lani?"
"Oh, I don't fuckin' know. Being a good partner, givin' me the benefit of the doubt, betrayin' your oath to the country. The usual."
Lani shrugged. "They told me to stick to you and follow your lead. I'm only doing as ordered."
Jeremy grinned. "Shows the shit they know."
As Jeremy drove through the suburbs, he realized just how out of place he felt in the evenly spaced, neatly trimmed neighborhoods. He'd been borrowing Lani's car ever since he'd gotten sidelined and his own vehicle had been locked down, and it was a damn sight nicer than his, but he felt weird even listening to his music. It all felt like he didn't belong there.
Jeremy pulled up a block away from the Bensen house and stopped at the curb, watching and waiting. He'd love to stake out the place and wait until he could catch Alden unaware, but he couldn't just rely on the guy to show up. With what he knew and what he'd seen, every moment wasted felt like another tick on the clock counting down to something horrific. Jeremy wasn't sure what would happen when it struck midnight, but he knew he wanted to be ready the moment it did.
He couldn't waste time sitting around. Time to flaunt my authority.
Jeremy got out of the car, and nearly knocked over a boy riding a tricycle down the sidewalk. He apologized hastily to the boy's mother and hurried down the street. Great fuckin' start.
As Jeremy approached the house, he noted that both spots in the garage were filled, as well as a bicycle leaning up against the wall. Odds were, everyone was home. Perfect.
He checked his gun again, just in case. Between the bar and the gunman in Canada, Jeremy felt like violence might erupt anywhere at this point—particularly when he was approaching someone he knew had access to magic.
Magic. Fuck this shit. Can I go back to my old job yet?
He took the steps up to their porch two at a time. Ignoring the doorbell, he rapped his knuckles loud on the wooden door, audibly echoing through the front hall. He adjusted his tie and jacket quickly in the window reflection. Jeremy had gone for the full FBI 'G-man' look, with a dark suit he'd pulled out of the depths of his closet. He figured it would be the most effective on the kid's family, since he was pretty sure they weren't in on the secret.
Leverage on top of leverage. Courtney would be proud. Bitch. Pushing his half-sister out of his mind, Jeremy knocked again.
"Coming!" called a pleasant voice. A woman bustled into view holding a laundry basket. She stopped on seeing Jeremy waiting patiently behind the glass, and quickly set it aside. "Can I help you?"
Jeremy winced at the burst of cold air that blew past him. Despite the quite comfortable weather, the Bensens apparently still had their air conditioning on and were accustomed to living in the Arctic. "Mrs. Julia Bensen?" he asked firmly.
"Yes, that's me."
"I'm Special Agent Lani Makaio with the Federal Investigation Bureau," he continued in his 'talking to civilians' voice. "I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Oh! I mean, yes, of course." She looked puzzled and a little frightened, which didn't surprise Jeremy in the slightest. "I'm sorry, what's this about?"
"May I come in, ma'am?"
"Of course." She stepped aside and gestured into the living room adjacent. "Can I offer you anything? A drink, maybe?"
"No, thanks." As Jeremy walked in, he saw a young face laying on the upstairs floor, watching him carefully from between a set of bannisters. She immediately inched backwards out of sight as soon as his head tilted upward. "Is anyone else home?" he asked dryly.
"My daughter Margaret, and I believe my husband is out back in the shed. Let me go get him."
Jeremy took a seat on the couch and waited. An inquisitive cat strolled through, eyeing him as the intruder he really was, before it wandered away to find something to eat. Jeremy had the distinct impression he was being watched, which had never failed him yet. The daughter, no doubt. He wondered what hiding spot she'd managed where she could still see him.
Julia returned a minute later with her husband. Jeremy stood again, offering his hand. "Mr. Bensen, I'm Special Agent Lani Makaio."
"Makaio?" Bensen asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I'm sorry, I just… you don't really seem Hawaiian."
Son of a bitch. "It's complicated."
Julia nodded sagely. "Dear, he didn't come here to give us his family history."
Son of a bitch, she noticed too? Jeremy pulled out his badge and showed it to them, and thanked God that Lani had never put a photo into the badge envelope. "I'm here on an investigation, and I just had a few questions for you. Nothing serious, I promise."
"What's this about?" asked Julia, settling down on the couch next to her husband. "Did something happen?"
"I'm afraid I can't discuss the particulars, ma'am."
Bensen shifted in his seat uncomfortably, drawing Jeremy's attention. Does he know? The wife kept talking though, taking the lead for the both of them. "Well I can't imagine what you'd want from us. We're just high school teachers."
"Both of you, your whole life?"
"Yes," said Bensen.
Julia nodded in agreement. "We met at college and knew we wanted to keep teaching the rest of our lives. It's just so rewarding."
Jesus, they're the most vanilla couple I've ever seen. If not for their son, I'd be bored out of my fucking mind. "And what about your son, Alden?"
Julia paused. "Did Alden do something wrong?"
"That's what I'm here to determine, ma'am."
Her husband stood up very suddenly. "I'm sorry!"
Jeremy flinched at the movement, but he didn't seem to be aggressive. The fuck…?
Julia looked just as shocked. "What's going on?" she asked.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jeremy saw the daughter, Margaret, peeking around the door from the kitchen, watching them all closely.
"It wasn't him, it was me, all right? You want me. Don't ruin his life for this."
Well shit. This just got interesting. Jeremy stood up very slowly. "Mr. Bensen, I'm here to talk to your son. That's all for now."
"No, he's got nothing to do with this."
Like hell he doesn't. I saw him with Hailey, and on video in Rallsburg. "We have evidence, Mr. Bensen. I'm afraid I can't leave until I speak with him."
"Well, he's not here," piped up the girl from the kitchen. "Guess you have to leave."
"Meg!" Julia admonished. "You should be upstairs."
"When there's something interesting going on down here? As if." Meg walked in and plopped down on the couch. "Who're you supposed to be?"
"Lani Makaio, FBI." He stared her down coldly. "So where's your brother, if he's not here?"
To his surprise, she didn't react at all. Most kids—and plenty of adults—crumbled under his glare, but Meg just shrugged. "Dunno."
"I told you, my son's got nothing to do with it." Bensen took a deep breath. "I used his computer, all right? I was the one who downloaded it."
Jeremy took a second to process. "...Downloaded what?"
"The movie, all right? I did it. I just wanted to see it early but I hate going to the theater. I'm sorry."
No one spoke for a full minute. Jeremy just stared at him dumbfounded, along with both his wife and daughter.
"Dad…" Meg started.
Jeremy burst out laughing. "Fuck me, that's what you were thinkin'?"
"I don't think that sort of language is called for," Julia snapped, grasping her husband's hand. "It was a mistake. I'm sure we're happy to pay the penalty."
"Lady, I don't care about a goddamn copyright violation." Jeremy choked back another laugh. He pulled out Lani's badge again. "I'm with the National Security Branch. I couldn't give a shit about piracy."
"But—" Bensen started.
"Delete it and move the fuck on." Jeremy shrugged. "I just need to talk to your son."
"What on earth for?" asked Julia. "What could my Alden have to do with national security?"
Jeremy paused. The parents were clearly as innocent and naive as their vanilla flavor implied. Telling them more wouldn't do him much good, and might set them off on reporting back what they'd heard. White people love talkin' to the news… and the police. "He may have been a witness to an incident. It's just a routine follow-up. I can't say more." He switched to what he hoped was a reassuring voice. "He's not in any trouble."
"Should we be getting a lawyer?"
"Like I said, he's not in any trouble. This is just routine."
Bensen shook his head, finally calmed down from his hysterics. "Meg was telling the truth. He's not here."
"So… where is he?" Jeremy asked, after none of them seemed to be forthcoming.
"We don't know."
"He's trying to figure out his life. Taking a year off," added Julia. "We're doing our best to help him through that. I'm sure you understand."
Nope. If I took a year off out of school, I'd have probably starved. "Can you contact him for me?"
"He asked that we don't."
Well isn't that suspicious as fuck. "This is really important."
"I'll text him," said Meg. "If he's gonna answer anyone, he'd answer me. What d'you want me to say?"
"Whatever you need to get him to come talk to me."
"Well he's not gonna do that," she said, rolling her eyes.
Jeremy pulled out a card and wrote down his personal number. He handed it to her. "Give him that number and tell him to call me, then."
Meg shrugged. "Sure. Does this mean I have a get-out-of-jail-free card now?"
Julia twisted around at her daughter. "Meg, why would you need something like that?"
"So I can go do something bad for free."
Jeremy shook his head. "That's just a phone number. Make sure he gets it." He turned to leave.
"Let me show you out," Julia said quickly, still trying to act the proper host despite the confusion.
"I'm sure he's fine," her husband interjected.
"Can I see your car?" said Meg suddenly. That got them all to pause.
"You've got a secret agent car right? Show it to me."
"Meg, I'm sure the man's got plenty—"
"Okay," Jeremy interrupted. She's up to something. "I'm only parked a block away."
"I'll be right back, Mom." Meg dashed out the front door, leaving her parents bewildered.
Jeremy shrugged again and followed her out. As soon as they were halfway down the block, Meg slowed down. Her voice dropped low, though she kept her eyes locked forward on Lani's rather unremarkable car.
"So, Agent Makaio," she said, the name laden with teenage sarcasm. "Whatcha want with my brother?"
"To talk to him."
"Bullshit. I know who you are. You met him at the big hostage thing a week ago, right?"
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "Smarter than you look, kid."
"Screw you, I look plenty smart. Kelly thinks I scare boys away." She stood next to the car, pretending to look inside. "You're not looking for Alden. You're looking for Hailey, right?"
Who the fuck is this girl? "...Yeah."
She glared at him. "If I get her to talk to you, you'll leave my brother out of it. Right?"
"Good, 'cause he can't do another one of those. He's already screwed up in the head."
Meg shrugged. "It's not your fault. You went in there to save him, right?"
"All of 'em."
She nodded at herself in the window reflection, still determinedly not looking at him. Jeremy checked his peripheral vision, and sure enough, her parents were watching from the porch. Just in case. She kept up the show of just being interested in his car. "That's the only reason I'm gonna help you. And don't you forget, I'm just an innocent teenage girl. You got nothing on me, so don't think you can turn around and get me to do more."
"You gonna lecture me?" Jeremy asked, astounded.
"I've got powerful friends, Mr. Agent Ashe. Friends you definitely don't want to screw with." She shook her head. "And just to be clear, you and me aren't friends either. One favor and that's it."
One step closer to finding Jackie. "Deal."
Meg smiled and stood up straight. "What a shitty car." She walked away, waving goodbye as she went.
"Fuck you too," Jeremy said through a gritted smile as he waved in return.
Jeremy went straight back to Lani as soon as he was done. He had no idea how long it might take for Meg to get the message to Hailey, and he needed anything to occupy his mind until then. Lani was the perfect foil to bounce theories off of, and one of only two people in the world he could trust with the whole story at the moment.
Luckily for him, both of those people were in the room.
Less fortunately, Maddie had a new bombshell to drop on him.
"I've just seen a damn ghost," she said as soon as she arrived, only a minute after he did. She was still dressed in her campaigning outfit, looking the perfect mix of professional and attractive carefully calculated to get out the votes.
"The fuck does that mean?"
"Hi," Lani cut in, before the two of them could really get into it. "How did it go, Jeremy?"
Jeremy shrugged. "Alden Bensen's long gone. No idea where. But it got interesting from there."
"Interesting how?" Lani prompted, since Maddie still looked distracted, watching the clouds drifting by overhead out the window.
Jeremy briefly explained his adventure at the Bensen house, though he made sure that Lani knew not to spread word about Alden to anyone else. His agreement with Meg was ironclad for the three of them. As he spoke though, Maddie was still clearly out of tune with the conversation.
He poked her in the shoulder. "Who's the damn ghost?"
"What?" she asked, looking around. "Sorry. It's been a long day."
"Too many speeches?"
"And too much gladhanding. Tuesday can't come fast enough."
"No shit." He grinned. "Already reserved our table at Luke's for Wednesday lunch."
"Oh God…" Maddie sighed. "I already promised Courtney I'd meet her for lunch Wednesday."
"Gotta pay the devil her due. She probably won me the election, after all that last minute shit-flinging." Maddie looked thoroughly displeased with the idea. "I can't believe I took her money."
"She offered it, Maddie. Take it and tell her to fuck off."
"Not if I want to get anything done this year." She shook her head. "That's not what I needed to tell you though."
"No kiddin'. What's got you spooked?"
"There was someone at Courtney's fundraiser tonight. Someone who couldn't be there."
"Why, 'cause he's a poor fuck like the rest of us?"
"No, 'cause she's supposed to be dead."
"She changed her hair, and she was talking without an accent, but I know who I saw." Maddie frowned. "It was Kendra Laushire. I'd stake the election on it."
Lani sat up in his bed so sharply that he pulled at his shoulder. Wincing through the pain, he pulled up her file. "One of the missing ones from Rallsburg. We had her father all over us for a month."
"Yeah, I remember. Rich old bastard who wouldn't shut up."
"I remember you almost decked him," Lani added, grinning.
"You were going to punch Thomas Laushire?" asked Maddie.
"Threatened to derail our investigation," Jeremy deadpanned.
She laughed. "If you'd touched a hair on his head, he'd sue you twenty ways to Sunday. Your grandchildren would owe him millions."
"You sure you saw his daughter?"
"I mean, like I said, she looked way different. She always stood out, but now… she changed her name to Lily, got rid of the red hair, got rid of the accent. If I hadn't worked as an aide for one of her father's personal Senate picks…"
"Ain't he British?"
"Oh please. Like other countries ain't pickin' up people in our government when they need 'em."
"What did you say to her?" Lani interjected.
"Nothin'. I wasn't sure it was her at first, then I wasn't sure I should say somethin'. She was just workin' the crowd like normal, makin' deals and hookin' up people while pocketing the difference, or just buyin' up stock in new investments. Smooth as silk, like usual."
"Except she's supposed to be dead," Jeremy repeated.
"So we can chalk one more up to the list of people who probably got magic."
"Is that what's going on then? Magic?" Maddie asked.
"If you knew the day I had…"
"What, did you get beat up by a wizard?"
"Fuck no. But I watched an amateur magician nearly piss himself when I asked him a question."
"You want me to try and find her? Kendra Laushire, I mean?"
Maddie shook her head. "You stick with your magicians. I'll find her. As soon as I have anything, I'll get it to you. Or Lani."
"Better you get it to Lani. He'll be better at handling the high rollers."
"Because I still have legitimacy?" Lani pointed out.
"No, because I'd probably punch one of them after talking for just a minute. Besides, you can play the injury card and get some sympathy."
"Shot in the line of duty always plays well with the fundraising crowd," Maddie agreed. "You'll slide in like butter."
"Great," Lani groaned. "Glad to be of help."
Maddie grinned. "Look on the bright side."
"You didn't get outplayed by a teenager today."
Jeremy punched her in the arm. "That girl's smarter than the both of you."
"Uh-huh. Come on. You promised me home-cooked dinner tonight. Let's go."
Maddie turned in an hour after dinner, to get as much sleep as she could before another early morning out campaigning. Jeremy was dozing off in his chair with the TV tuned to some movie he didn't recognize. A slight breeze drifted through the room.
He shook himself awake. There shouldn't be any sort of breeze. All the doors and windows were closed.
He groped around for his gun, but it wasn't where he'd left it.
"...Hi," said a quiet voice from across the room. The TV switched itself off, plunging the place into darkness. Jeremy squinted, and in the vague light he could barely make out the outline of someone sitting on the windowsill, framed by the light behind the blinds.
Early twenties, female, probably white, light build. Too hard to tell. Doesn't seem to be armed. "Well, you got my attention," he murmured. "How'd you get in here?"
"You're the one who came to up to Canada."
It wasn't a question, but Jeremy answered it anyway. "Yeah. I was lookin' for a friend of mine."
"And you found one of mine."
He vaguely recognized her voice. He took a shot in the dark. "You were there too, weren't you? I heard you."
"Who are you?"
She ignored him. Her voice was soft and melancholic. "You're not looking for Boris though. Or Hailey, not really. What do you want?"
"Like I said. I want to find a friend of mine."
"That's the one. She was my partner."
She didn't respond for a full minute, staring at him the darkness. He wanted to get up and turn on a light, or just get closer to her. Anything to figure out who she was. But he could feel it. There was a thrumming aura of power emanating through the room, something like he'd never felt before. Hair on his arms and legs practically stood on end from the sensation of the air.
Jeremy didn't dare move from his chair. This girl is not to be fucked with.
"Go to Vancouver. But you won't find her. You need to find someone else."
"The tall one. Rachel. Find Rachel DuValle."