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Chapter 17 Career Path

  "How's it gonna look that a senator left the country the day after she won re-election?" Jeremy asked as Maddie climbed into the passenger seat.

  "Like they care where I am," Maddie shot back. "As long as I'm doin' what they elected me for, my vacation plans aren't their concern."

  "Is this a fuckin' vacation?"

  "I thought that's how you sold it to your boss."

  Jeremy shrugged. "Close enough. Told him I wanted to go see the beautiful B.C. sights."

  Maddie glanced pointedly at the apartment complex down the street, with graffiti covering one wall. "Uh huh."

  "Someone thought their work was beautiful."

  "It's a dick, bro."

  "What?" Jeremy looked at it more closely, slowing down Lani's car. "Fuck me, it is."

  "Yeah, little bro, that's what that's meant for." She sighed exaggeratedly. "You gotta find yourself a new man. You get blind if you ain't gettin' laid."

  "I'm busy workin'," he grumbled. "I'm runnin' solo up here, 'case you forgot."

  "And whose fault is that?"

  "Some bitch-ass gunman with a cheap rifle?"

  "I wasn't talking about Lani, you asshat. I meant why didn't you invite me?"

  Jeremy pulled around the corner. The cheap hotel he was staying it was only a couple blocks away from the train station and they were nearly there. "Weren't you busy with election shit?"

  "Elections are won and lost way before Tuesday. Especially in our state. Thank you mail-in voting."

  "Well how the fuck was I supposed to know that?"

  Maddie rolled her eyes. "Because both your sisters are in politics, you fucker. Now let's go get something to eat. The food on the train was shit."

  "What are you feelin'?"

  "Anything. Pick the first goddamn fast food joint we see if you want. I'm starving."

  As they chewed through cheap fast food in hard plastic seats, Jeremy brought her up to speed on everything he'd found so far. He'd woken Maddie up minutes after the mysterious girl vanished from his apartment. It took a few minutes for her to understand what he was trying to say, but neither of them got another wink of sleep that night.

  The brief snatches of magic he'd witnessed until that point were one thing, but a girl teleporting in and out of his living room in the middle of the night was something else.

  He'd left for Vancouver the next day.

  As soon as he'd arrived, he started combing the town. The mysterious visitor hadn't given him an exact location, because nothing was ever allowed to be easy, but he knew what Rachel looked like. They had her on file, and a few photos from Hailey Winscombe's old social media feeds were more than enough to give him a good idea of who to look for.

  A six-foot-five white girl in Vancouver? Couldn't be that hard, right?

  Wherever Rachel DuValle was hiding though, she was hiding smart. Jeremy pulled out every trick of the trade he knew, and liberally abused some of the discretionary fund he still had on hand. He figured he could just talk his way out of any trouble with Aderholt later, especially if he actually found Rachel. But after three days, he didn't have a single lead.

  So he widened his search. And then he widened it again. Soon he was setting up a grid search across the entire town. Finally, on Tuesday, he struck something that sounded just close enough to work.

  It wasn't a report of a ridiculously tall girl, because Jeremy wasn't allowed to get that lucky, but it was a report of someone purchasing pain medications on a frequent and regular basis, combined with several reports of strange occurrences in the area. The police had investigated and found nothing, but Jeremy wasn't about to let even the slightest possibility escape.

  The pain medication purchases were really the big tip-off, in his mind. He'd suspected that someone had to be taking care of the missing Will Carbonell, who was in no condition to do so himself. There wasn't any particular reason it should be Rachel, but there wasn't any reason it couldn't be.

  "Maybe they were dating," said Maddie as they cruised through the Vancouver streets.

  "You're just stuck on my dating life."

  "I gotta live vicariously through someone, Jere-bear."

  "Why don't you try dating someone yourself for once?"

  "No time," she said, like she always did. "The people need me."

  "The people need someone stable."

  "Well, they keep electing me," she cackled, "so apparently not." She reached over and picked up the stone he'd left in the tray below the center console. "So what's up with this fucker again?"

  "I think it can feel magic or some shit."

  "Feel magic, huh?" She stared at it. "It definitely feels like it's doin' something."

  "Feels wrong."

  "Huh?"

  "That pulling. Feels fuckin' wrong."

  "I dunno." Maddie still had her hand on it, and every second was making Jeremy feel a little more uncomfortable.

  "You should let go of it."

  "Nah, hang on. I think I got this." She closed her eyes. "Yeah. You can make it stop."

  "Huh?"

  "If you just tell it to stop, it stops. You got control over it."

  "The fuck you talkin' bout? You didn't tell it to stop."

  "I did. With my mind."

  Jeremy shook his head. "Fuckin' magic."

  
  


  
  

  It was a bright and sunny afternoon as they pulled into the neighborhood from the reports. As they got out, Maddie pocketed the stone, "just in case." Jeremy still felt like they should just leave it alone, but he couldn't deny that it might be useful in the short run.

  "She didn't happen to tell you where in Vancouver, did she?" Maddie asked, glancing around as they got out. He'd parked the car a block away from the pharmacy in his reports. It was a longshot, but all his other leads hadn't panned out, so here they were.

  Jeremy shrugged. "Nothin's allowed to be easy, right? Probably some shitty rule of magic."

  "How many rules you gonna make up before you just give up and ask someone?"

  "Fuck that. I don't want to know." He shook his head. "I'm here to find Jackie, and that's it. I don't care about fuckin' magic or monsters or any of this crap."

  "You're lyin'."

  He wandered over to an alleyway next to a bowling alley, where he felt like he looked reasonably inconspicuous, and pulled out a cigarette. Jeremy didn't smoke, but it made for a good excuse and a good opener with suspects, so he usually kept a pack handy.

  Maddie took up the wall opposite. "You want to know what happened to that town. I smell it on ya."

  "I know what happened. They fucked up and killed each other over this shit. Easy enough."

  "Nah, that's too simple for you. You gotta know the whole story."

  "I only gotta know enough to finish my report and get the next case."

  Maddie grinned. "See, already one step back. Trust me, the sooner you admit you're not just in this for Jackie anymore, the better off you'll be."

  An hour passed. Jeremy and Maddie rotated around the building once, just in case, and ended up on the other side of the pharmacy. He still had a good line of sight on the door. A long stakeout was nothing new to him, but his sister wasn't used to staying still for so long.

  "I forgot how much I hate this," she muttered.

  "You wanted to come."

  "Yeah, your job is boring as fuck. How do you put up with this?"

  "You learn to entertain yourself."

  "How?"

  Jeremy nodded toward the pharmacy. "Makin' up stories."

  "Huh?"

  "Every guy that comes through, I make up a story about him. Stuff like what he's interested in, what he does for a livin', his hopes and dreams. His fears. Who he is."

  "What he's like in bed?"

  He rolled his eyes—though if he was being honest, it'd crossed his mind a few times. "Sometimes I go ask 'em later when the case is done. Buy 'em a drink, see how close I was. It's good practice."

  "For what, profiling?"

  "Don't make this political. No P.D. would ever survive a day without some profilin'. It's impossible."

  She sighed. "Yeah, I know. But it's my job to make sure you don't go too far." She glanced at the pharmacy, while Jeremy looked away so they didn't seem too suspicious. "Mmkay then. That guy. He's… well, he's mid-forties. Blue collar guy. Probably a family man. Watches the game every night, doesn't get paid enough, not a heavy internet user—"

  "—and votes Republican, yeah, we got it." Jeremy shook his head. "You gotta get off demographics and onto real details. Stop playin' politician for a sec."

  "Okay, your turn." She turned away, shoving her hands in her pockets, giving Jeremy a good look at the guy. He was walking toward them, though on the opposite side of the street, so Jeremy could easily watch him without being noticed.

  His jaw dropped.

  "He's a software engineer from Redmond, never married, and he's not supposed to be here."

  "Fuck me, how'd you get that?"

  "That's Eric fucking Hurwitz. Rachel DuValle's father."

  
  


  
  

  Eric Hurwitz was way better at evading a tail than Jeremy expected.

  They'd been pursuing him through the streets from a few car lengths behind, and it became obvious pretty quickly that he'd noticed them following him. In fact, Jeremy would have sworn he'd been trained. As soon as possible, he'd gotten on the highway and taken a few aggressive weaves through traffic, using every truck he could find to try and lock Jeremy into a wall of heavy traffic. More than once, Jeremy almost missed him taking an exit, and as soon as he'd followed Hurwitz down, the man changed lanes and went right back onto the highway.

  "Man, fuck this guy," Maddie grumbled.

  "This is pretty normal. Just be glad no one's shootin' or crashin' into shit yet."

  "Was that common?"

  "No, thank God. If it was, I'd've left sooner."

  The chase continued, street by street, totally unknown to the typical Vancouver traffic. Just Hurwitz in his sedan with his bag of groceries, and Jeremy and Maddie in pursuit in Lani's much nicer and sportier car. If it were the open road, Jeremy could overtake him in an instant, but there was just too much civilian traffic in the way.

  Hurwitz is a civilian too. For now. Don't jump the gun yet.

  "He's not givin' up, is he?"

  Jeremy shook his head. "I can't actually pull him over 'cause we aren't supposed to be here, and he can't shake me. It's a goddamn stalemate."

  "Well he ain't supposed to be here either, right?"

  He felt like punching himself. "Shit, why didn't I think of that?"

  "You fuckin' said it, bro," Maddie pointed out, confused. "I'm just repeating you."

  "Yeah, but..." He shrugged. "Fuck it. Hang on."

  He gunned the engine. On the next off-ramp, he made his move. Sliding into the shoulder, they sped along past traffic, ignoring the angry onlookers, catching up with Hurwitz in a heartbeat. As soon as they got close, Jeremy flicked on the lights carefully embedded around the upper windshield of Lani's car.

  Hurwitz didn't give them any trouble. They followed him a block away and into a busy retail parking lot, parking at the far end. Jeremy got out, Maddie only a few steps behind. They approached the car, with Jeremy's hand itching towards his gun. Please don't be another fuckin' psychopath.

  He knocked on the window. It slid down.

  "Eric Hurwitz?"

  The man nodded, staring straight ahead. "Is there a problem, officer?"

  "Look at me, man."

  He did, and his eyes immediately widened in recognition.

  "Good. We can drop the fuckin' formalities."

  "I don't want any trouble," he said quickly.

  "I've been lookin' for you. We tried to contact your place of work, but they said you were on an 'unexpected sabbatical'."

  He nodded. "That's right."

  "Let me be clear. I'm not lookin' for you. I don't care about you at all. Far as I'm concerned, you tell me what I want to know and you can go home as if nothin' happened. No strings attached. Sound good?"

  "Sure."

  "I'm lookin' for a woman named Jackie Nossinger. Heard of her?"

  Hurwitz shook his head. "No, I haven't."

  Fuck. He doesn't look like he's lying… maybe she used a different name. "Older lady, about fifty seven, short-ish brown hair. Always wears it up. Tough-as-nails. Probably still fit, even though she had a pretty quiet job recently as a small town sheriff. Ringing any bells?"

  He gulped and nodded slowly.

  "I need to find her. Help me out, you never hear from me again."

  "I don't know where she is."

  Jeremy sighed audibly. "That's not the answer I wanted, Mr. Hurwitz."

  "Honestly!" he added frantically. "I haven't seen her in weeks!"

  "Weeks," Jeremy repeated pointedly. "But she was missin', presumed dead months ago. Care to explain?"

  He gulped again. "I… uhh…"

  "Look, Eric," Maddie cut in unexpectedly. "I get it, you're protectin' someone. Would it make a difference if we told you we're on the same side?"

  "...Why are there sides?" he asked. "How did I get dragged into this?"

  "Who dragged you in?" asked Jeremy.

  "I mean, I wanted to. I…" He shook his head. "I shouldn't tell you any of this."

  "Eric, we're not here officially," said Maddie. "I'm on vacation, celebrating my re-election, and he's here as my escort."

  "Your escort?" said Jeremy, rounding on her.

  "You ain't handsome enough to pass off as my boyfriend."

  Jeremy shook his head. "Point is, Hurwitz, this isn't for the fuckin' feds. I'm just lookin' for my friend. So whoever you're protectin', they stay protected. Fair?"

  He shook his head. "I can't do that."

  Time to play all the cards, I guess. "It's your daughter, right?"

  Right on the money. "...How did you know that?"

  "It's my job to know this shit, man. I need to talk to Rachel, and I'm gonna find her one way or another. It's a matter of fuckin' time. If I found you, you don't think I can find her?"

  He shrugged. "She's a lot smarter than I am."

  "Yeah, but I got the weight of the entire fuckin' FBI behind me. No one outruns us forever."

  "You don't know what you're up against," he said, with a touch of pride.

  "Let me guess, she told you about what she can do. Magic, right?"

  Hurwitz looked even more surprised than when he'd named his daughter. "...You already know about that?"

  Maddie laughed. "Eric, the quicker you assume we know everything, the easier this goes for you."

  Jeremy tried to soften his tone. "I get it. You're tryin' to protect your daughter. Can you trust me that I don't mean her any harm?"

  The man hesitated. "You got kids?"

  "...No. Never really thought about it."

  He nodded. "Then you really don't get it."

  "What's not to get?" said Maddie with a shrug. "You'd die to protect her. We don't want to hurt her though, we just want to talk."

  "I wasn't there for her growing up," he continued, as if she hadn't spoken. "I mean, I was in touch, but she mostly just grew up with her mom. We never married, and after a while we just knew it was over. But then I get a call, out of the blue twelve years later from my ex. She tells me that Rachel's in trouble, and that they both need me." He glanced up at them, hand still clutching the steering wheel of the car. "And I didn't wait a moment. I left my whole life behind, and I don't regret a second of it. But my daughter's in real danger. So when I see a man world-famous for trying to hunt her and her friends down, what am I gonna do?"

  "...Be contumacious?" suggested Maddie.

  Jeremy glanced at her. "McDonough again?"

  "Man loves his thesaurus."

  "The fuck does that even mean?"

  "Means recalcitrant."

  "...The fuck does that mean?"

  "Aren't we getting away from the point here?" she said, nodding at the bemused Hurwitz.

  Jeremy turned back to the man. "I'm gonna make you an offer, and it's the best one you're gonna get. See, if I found you, I can find everyone else. Just you is more than enough to take back to my chief and authorize a full fuckin' sweep of this city. Trust me, with the pressure on the Rallsburg case, it ain't hard to swing that. Between us and the Canadians, we'll be a goddamn invading army if we have to, just to find your daughter and bring her in, because we don't have a single witness otherwise."

  "Or?" he asked nervously.

  "Or you take me to see her. Just me—"

  "Hey!" Maddie interjected indignantly.

  "Just me," Jeremy repeated firmly. "No tricks. We talk, any location she likes. I get my answers and I leave. You guys get to stay in hiding. Trust me, the Bureau ain't gonna find you after that. We're good at burying people who don't want to be found."

  "Burying in a good way," Maddie added quickly.

  "You mean like witness protection?" asked Hurwitz. "Is that a possibility?"

  "Well not exactly, since you're not gonna be witnesses. I'm assumin' you don't want to appear in any court."

  "Right."

  "It'll be off the books, just how you like it." Might be tough to pull off, but I think Lani can probably cover it for me. He'd know how to slip records into the system unannounced. Assumin' it's even possible… but that's not my problem. I just gotta convince Hurwitz it is.

  Hurwitz stared straight ahead for a long while, considering. Maddie was glancing around nervously at passerby. A few people wandered near as they crossed the lot, heading for the fast food places across the street or returning from it. No one had listened in on them, but with the police lights off it didn't look like a traffic stop anymore. He wondered how much they looked like a random drug buy. A retail parking lot was common enough.

  If some civvie calls us in right now, I'm gonna be pissed.

  "...Just you," he said, finally.

  Maddie opened her mouth to protest again, but Jeremy shook his head. She stopped mid-breath. "Good. You drive."

  "Huh?"

  Jeremy walked around to the passenger side of his car and opened the door, taking a seat. He leaned out of the window and tossed the keys to Maddie. "I'll call you later. Go see the sights or somethin'."

  Maddie glared at him. "You owe me for this, bro."

  "I'll send you a postcard." He nodded at the dumbstruck Hurwitz. "Well?"

  
  


  
  

  They drove silently most of the way. Jeremy didn't bother to ask Hurwitz any more questions. He doubted the man had any real answers, and even if he did, Jeremy would rather hear them from the real source. Hurwitz was never in Rallsburg. They could place him at his work up until the day of the incident. By the next day, he'd vanished, presumably along with his daughter and her mother, who'd also vanished that same day despite having a scene to shoot for a cable show. All three in the family, gone in an instant.

  Those details had never been released to the public, because they couldn't definitively link them in any way. Jeremy had kept an ear out, just in case, but Rachel and her parents had been thorough. None of them had ever surfaced in the public eye even once, visibly or financially. He wondered how they were getting by.

  "You didn't call her to ask," he commented.

  Hurwitz didn't answer, staring at the road ahead. They were driving off to the opposite end of Vancouver, as expected. Even their pharmacy location was calculated.

  "'Cause you already knew what she would say, right?"

  "...Yes."

  Jeremy shrugged. "You'll both get it eventually. I really don't care about you. I'm just tryin' to find Jackie and make sure she's okay, and get some answers."

  "She was the last time I saw her."

  "Yeah, I can't just take your word for it. After the shit I've seen, I need to talk to my old partner."

  Hurwitz finally glanced over at him. "You were partners?"

  "Eight years, Seattle homicide. Way back in two thousand. Best partner I ever had, and the last time I ever really cared about the fuckin' job."

  "Oh."

  "You saw her, though?" Jeremy prompted. "When?"

  "...That night."

  "That'd be Tuesday the fifteenth, back in May?"

  "Yes."

  "And she was okay?"

  "...Honestly?"

  "That'd be why I'm fuckin' askin', yeah. Honestly."

  "She looked scared."

  Jeremy frowned. "...Bullshit. Jackie didn't get scared."

  Hurwitz braked a little too hard at a red light as he shook his head. "You weren't there that night. First Andy calls me, saying that our daughter's in trouble and that we might have to get out of town. I start packing. Then, about twelve hours later, I get another call from God knows who. Some girl with a weird voice, who tells me to go to Issaquah under a fake name, meet Andy, and get ready to go into hiding." He stepped on the gas a bit too hard. Jeremy's head smacked against the rest as they jerked across the line. "And I did, you know? I dropped everything, called into work, and I was there for my family. But when I saw them that night… If you saw Will, you'd understand."

  "I did."

  "What?"

  "They took photos of him at the hospital when he checked in. Pretty standard in a case like that when the victim can't speak for themselves. Just in case they need to pursue a criminal case."

  He shuddered. "Your partner looked haunted, that's all I'm saying. And from what Rachel's told me, she had every reason to be."

  "...When did you see her last?"

  "She left right after we settled down, about a week later. Never saw her again."

  
  


  
  

  The place was totally unremarkable, which didn't surprise Jeremy in the slightest. A modest one-story home with a garage. No front yard, though, just a odd rock garden in front of a walkway leading up to the door. Easier to take care of, he guessed. They couldn't risk being outside too frequently, and the trips to the pharmacy were bad enough.

  Obviously, since that's how I caught him, Jeremy mused. "After you," he added aloud.

  Hurwitz gulped and nodded. He pulled up to the curb, turned off the car and got out. Jeremy picked up the bag of medicine. Anythin' to appear less threatening. He followed Hurwitz up the driveway to the front step, where they stopped.

  "No trouble," he repeated weakly.

  Jeremy nodded. "No trouble. We're just gonna talk."

  He nodded again, digging through his jacket pocket. After a moment, he came up with a house key, which he fumbled into the lock.

  The place was sparsely decorated, but it was clear someone had tried to turn it into a new home. There were pictures on the walls, and touches of personality throughout, but it was clear that the place just hadn't been lived in that long. Nothing was settled into its spot. It didn't have the natural mess and clutter of a real home. They'd been forced here, and it was painfully obvious even to an outsider like Jeremy, who hadn't lived with a real family since he was young.

  "In the back, Dad!" called a voice. Female, young, strong, confident. Must be Rachel. Without waiting to be prompted, Jeremy started down the hall to the open door. He turned the corner and stopped, staring into the room and a group of people that clearly wanted nothing to do with him.

  The room was dominated by a full-sized motorized hospital bed, with an occupant that could only be Will Carbonell. Compared to the hospital photos, the bruises had faded, but he certainly didn't look to be walking any time soon. His head lolled over as Jeremy walked in, and his eyes widened in surprise. Rachel and her mother, both tall brunettes, flanked the bed. Jeremy opened his mouth to speak, but Rachel beat him to the punch.

  "Jeremy Ashe," she stated. Jeremy looked past Will to the girl sitting at his bedside. Her hair was tied back rather than the sheets of straight brown he was used to seeing in her photos, but she looked mostly the same otherwise.

  Less familiar to him were the twin fireballs that burst into life on either side of her head, flickering ominously. By now, he knew they were very real.

  He froze in place. "I'm alone," he said, slowly lifting his hands into the air.

  "Then you're an idiot," said Rachel. Her mother shot her a disapproving look, but Rachel ignored her.

  She got to her feet. In spite of himself, Jeremy was intimidated. He'd known she was tall, but this was ridiculous. He wasn't exactly the tallest guy around, but at five foot ten, he could walk into a crowd and usually not feel too outclassed. In front of Rachel, he found himself looking up. She held a good eight inches on him at least. Rachel was taller than him, taller than even her own father.

  Jeremy noticed as she walked around the bed that her clothes didn't fit very well, before his eyes were drawn right back to the fireball floating above her hand. She stood a few feet away, staring him down.

  Her eyes flicked to the bag in his hand. "Where's Dad?"

  "I'm here," Hurwitz called, finally appearing at the doorway behind him. Jeremy didn't dare move.

  Jeremy held out the bag very slowly. "I just want to talk."

  Andrea got up and snatched the bag out of his hand, pulling out a bottle and hurrying to the bedside. Will was still watching Jeremy with a curious look, though he hadn't yet said anything. The room was clearly dominated by Rachel, and aimed to stay that way unless he did something about it.

  "I'm here to help."

  Rachel raised an eyebrow. "You started a manhunt for some of my people."

  "Your people?"

  "Yes." Rachel glanced at her father. "Dad, did you check him?"

  "What?"

  "Is he armed?"

  "I am," Jeremy cut in. "But I'll surrender my weapon right now, if you'll answer some questions."

  "...Like what?" she asked suspiciously.

  "Where's Jackie?"

  She looked surprised. "I don't know."

  Jeremy's heart sank. "Goddammit, if they're your people why don't you fuckin' keep track of them?"

  "I do." She held out her hand, while the fireball continued to spin in midair above it. Reluctantly, Jeremy pulled out his pistol and handed it over, grip-first. Rachel checked it with an experienced eye, and clicked off the safety. She took her seat again next to Will, with the pistol casually trained on him. The fireball dissipated, at the same time that Rachel's body released a lot of tension.

  That took a lot out of her… She ain't good at magic, I guess. But she knows a 1911, and she's not stupid enough to take me at face value. Jeremy had hoped to just walk in, bully a location out of her like he had her father, and leave a few minutes later. Rachel's expression told him otherwise. That's the face of someone who's used it before… This is gonna be harder than I thought.

  "So where's my partner?"

  "She hasn't been your partner since April of 2008," Rachel replied.

  "...How'd you know that?"

  "They did a profile of you in a local paper, after you were announced as the lead investigator. Your days in the precinct. It didn't see much circulation, but I read it."

  "And you remembered?"

  Rachel smiled grimly, which was a terrible thing to see on the face of someone with a gun trained on him. "Is she the only reason you came here, Agent Ashe?"

  "Honestly? No." Jeremy took a breath. "I've seen some fuckin' wild shit over the last couple months. My partner got shot. I nearly got my face beat in by a giant monster without a face. I watched a girl fly across a room, and another guy moving stuff with his mind. Then out of the blue, someone fuckin' teleports into my living room, middle of the night, and tells me to go find you. And hey, I'm a sucker, so I drove straight north. Took me a few days but here we are." He paused for breath again. "So let's get somethin' straight. I don't understand what the fuck's goin' on, and honestly I don't really want to know. But this shit ain't goin' away, so I need some fuckin' answers."

  Oh, and Maddie? Fuck you for being right. Again.

  When we get home, I'm buyin' dinner.

  Somewhere in the middle of his speech, Rachel visibly relaxed, which eased a lot of tension out of the room. Still tense as fuck, but at least she doesn't look like she's about to break down anymore. "It's magic, right? Y'all can cast spells and shit. And, right on schedule, everyone's fightin' over it. Am I on track?"

  Rachel nodded slowly. "More or less."

  "How long?"

  "Two and a half years. The first discovery was in May, two years ago, as far as we know."

  "And where did it come from?"

  She shrugged. "Rallsburg. Where else?"

  Jeremy rolled his eyes. "No, I mean, where did it come from?"

  "We don't know."

  "Seriously?"

  "No one does. Not even the first to discover it."

  "And y'all are the reason Rallsburg blew up. Right?"

  "...Yes." Rachel glanced away.

  Personal guilt. There we go. "It was your fault?"

  "Not directly. But yes."

  "...You realize you just admitted that to a federal agent, right?"

  She shrugged. "You're under effective suspension, and you're well outside your remit of office. You're here off the books, and you aren't even carrying your standard sidearm. This isn't an FBI service weapon, except for Special Forces groups, which you have never been a member of. At the moment, you have no real authority." Given that she held his gun, in addition to whatever magical powers she could conjure up, Jeremy wasn't about to disagree with her. "I'd be more afraid of your sister than of you right now."

  Play up humor, build the relationship. Same as the hostage situation, even though I'm the only hostage here. "Good move. She's always been the smarter one of the family."

  "Congratulate her for me on the election. Two million, two hundred and thirty thousand, four hundred and six votes was a good landslide. She deserves it. Moreso than your other sister."

  Jeremy was starting to feel more than a little unsettled. "Studyin' me, are you?"

  "I study everyone. But I did take an interest once you set yourself up as our enemy."

  "My partner was shot," he fumed. "I needed answers and that was the only lead I had. Tell me you wouldn't've done the same."

  "...I did, and I regret it." Rachel finally set the pistol down in her lap. Her parents finally relaxed, and tension tangibly eased out of the room. "Well, since she isn't going to let me rest, I guess I'm supposed to help you."

  "...She?"

  She didn't answer him. "Mom, could you get us something to drink? We could be a while."

  "Hang on," Jeremy interrupted, as Andrea started to move out of the room. "What's going on?"

  Rachel shrugged. "Call it a liaison. A first contact, if you prefer, though it really isn't the first."

  "First contact? You tryin' to say you're aliens?"

  "No, not aliens. Just different." She glanced at her mother again, who shuffled out of the room. It was strange to see her parents taking orders from her, but then again, everything about her was off. She should have been a college junior, but she had something much darker behind her eyes. It took a minute for him to place, because it had been a long while since he'd seen it in person.

  That girl's killed before, with her own hands.

  Suddenly, the pistol in her lap didn't seem like an idle threat by an overly confident college co-ed. Jeremy was starting to take her much more seriously. He finally understood why he'd been sent to find her, of all people, and it wasn't because of Jackie. However much he wanted to find his partner, the bigger picture was settling in bit by bit, and he couldn't escape it forever.

  "If you don't mind me askin'," he started, "why'd you decide to trust me just now?"

  She sighed. "For the same reason I once trusted your partner. When I saw you go on the news in front of hundreds of reporters and lie, for the sake of one of ours that you probably didn't even know..." She paused, waiting for confirmation. He nodded. "You follow the rules and do your job well, right up until the moment when the rules don't account for something new. Something the world's never seen before. When that moment came, you took our side, even with the little information you had. That's something."

  Jeremy shrugged. "She saved my life. I figured I owed her one back."

  Rachel nodded. "You probably saved a lot of grief doing that, so let me be the first to thank you."

  Not exactly the first, but whatever. "Just doin' my job, like you said."

  "Will you help us again? Help the world transition into… well, whatever comes next?"

  Fuck that. Even more press? "If it's all the same to you," he said suddenly, "I'd like to call my sister."

  "What for?"

  "Well, to tell her I'm alive, for one. But more importantly, 'cause this is really her scene. You want a fuckin' first contact, you want Maddie."

  Rachel nodded. "Go ahead."

  
  


  
  

  "Wait, what's goin' on?" Maddie hissed to Jeremy as he walked her back up the driveway to Rachel's little hideout.

  "You're representin' the people who elected you. You're about to meet the leader of their people."

  "...You know I gotta be appointed to do that, right? That's all part of the Executive."

  "Goddammit, Maddie, she's not a foreign country."

  "Just sayin', if you want to play political metaphor, you gotta get 'em right."

  Jeremy shook his head. "Just get in there and do your thing."

  Maddie took a second to glance at her reflection in the front window. "Shit, I look terrible."

  "No you don't. Come on."

  Jeremy opened the door and pulled a reluctant Maddie over the threshold. They made their way back into the rear bedroom. Rachel sat next to Will's bed, waiting for them. She was typing away on a laptop, but set it aside and stood up to greet them. Maddie's slowly made their way up to her face, as if she couldn't believe what she was looking at.

  Jeremy nudged her, and she instantly reverted to her professional self. "It's an honor to meet you, Miss DuValle," she started, holding out her hand.

  Rachel shook it gently. "Likewise." She glanced at the doorway, where her mother had appeared. "Can we offer you anything? Coffee, tea?"

  "No, thank you."

  Rachel nodded, and Andrea disappeared back into the living room. As she did, Rachel reached into an expensive-looking leather pouch with a gold buckle at her side, and withdrew a handful of small rocks. She set them in Will's hand. His eyes closed in concentration, before his hand jerked upward in an uncomfortable way. The rocks vanished.

  The monitors by his bed flickered off, as did the lights in the room. The room was suddenly lit only by the pale sunlight streaming through the window.

  "Sorry, but it's a necessary precaution."

  "What did you just do?" Maddie asked curiously.

  "Disabled all electronics in the room."

  Maddie spun around to her brother. "She can do that?"

  Jeremy shrugged. "I've stopped askin' that question."

  Rachel coughed gently. "I needed to ensure this conversation was not recorded by electronic means. Feel free to take notes if you wish." She held out a notebook and pencil.

  Maddie shrugged. "I've never liked being on record anyway."

  Jeremy frowned. "If you're ever gonna return to society, though, then you'll have to have somethin' on record."

  "I don't ever plan on that," Rachel murmured.

  "Your people, then. I'm guessin' not all of them feel the same way?"

  She hesitated. "You're right, of course. When the time comes, if it is necessary I will testify under any form you require. For them." She glanced away. "Besides, she's already made it clear that I'm not ever going to stay in hiding."

  Maddie smiled. "You're already a better leader than half the people I work with."

  "Only half?" Rachel asked, the corners of her lips twitching. Oh thank God, she still has a sense of humor. This isn't gonna be as bad as I thought.

  She laughed. "Okay, a lot more than half. But you work with what you get, you know?"

  "Yes." Rachel pulled up her legs onto her chair, which was a wide comfortable one she clearly spent a great deal of time in. She settled in, obviously expecting a long conversation. "Do you go by Madelaine, or just Maddie?"

  "Either works."

  She shrugged. "Everyone I've ever met has had a preference for their name."

  "Honestly, I couldn't care less."

  "Well then." Rachel cleared her throat, as if speaking officially. "Maddie, my name is Rachel DuValle, and until May of this year, I was an elected member of the Council of the Awakened, representing the entire population of magic-wielding persons in the world."

  Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Finally, Maddie broke the silence. "Uh… huh."

  Rachel glanced at Jeremy. "She's never seen any magic, has she?"

  He shrugged. "Not like we've had a whole lot of chances."

  She nodded. Setting aside her drink, Rachel held up a finger and pointed at the notebook she'd set aside. A page ripped itself out and floated up into the air. Maddie's eyes were locked on it, quickly widening in amazement. As she watched, Rachel floated it into the middle of the room, before forcing it to crumple into a ball.

  A moment later, she set it on fire.

  "Shit!" Maddie fell backward over her chair onto the floor. The paper burned up into a tiny pile of ash.

  "Cute," Jeremy deadpanned, watching Rachel. As he'd expected, even the small demonstration had still taken a toll on her. He was beginning to see some massive power disparity between the so-called Awakened.

  "...You said was," said Maddie, getting back to her seat with a few shreds of dignity.

  "Yes. The council was dissolved following the… incident." Rachel glanced away.

  "What about the other councilors?"

  "One survived. The other… did not."

  "...I'm so sorry."

  Rachel nodded. "Thank you. We weren't exactly close, but I regret what happened to her."

  "What did happen to her?" cut in Jeremy. Both of them glanced at him. "What?"

  "If we're gonna do this," said Maddie, "we should start at the beginning. Or at least as early as she's willin' to go. We want the whole story, right?"

  "...Right."

  Rachel shrugged. "Whatever you prefer."

  "The beginning, then. If I'm gonna help you figure out how to start bringing this into the world, I want to know everything you can give me."

  "I wasn't there at the beginning. The Council was the first real attempt at organization. It was founded by the Three Gods—"

  "The what now?" Jeremy interrupted.

  "I'm sorry. There were three people, the very first among us, who had far greater power than we thought possible. They were the ones to form the original Council." She nodded at Jeremy. "You met one of them."

  "I did?" It took him a moment to figure it out. "...The teleporting girl."

  "Among many other talents." Rachel glanced at a corner of the room. Jeremy followed her gaze, but there wasn't anything there. She looked back to Maddie and resumed her story. "This was in March of 2017. At first, the Three Gods ran the show and made every decision for us. Most of us were so inexperienced and inept that we didn't even consider leadership ourselves. But it only took a few months for that to break down."

  She took a breath. "The Three Gods never really saw eye to eye. Alpha and Omega argued almost every time they met."

  Maddie snorted. "Sorry. They really went by that?"

  "Someone coined their names, and it stuck." Rachel shrugged. "It's hard to change a name once everyone's started using it. I never liked the term 'awakened', but here we are, years later."

  "Well, seems like the perfect time to change it. If you're gonna finally come out into the world, you could pick somethin' new," Jeremy pointed out. "You're in charge."

  She shook her head. "I'm not in charge, and I wouldn't feel right making that decision. I don't deserve that sort of authority."

  "The Council broke down," Maddie prompted, trying to get them back on track.

  She nodded. "Toward the end of June. Alpha and Omega's arguments about how the world should handle magic went too far. A fight broke out, and people took sides. It was so severe that they nearly destroyed the old library."

  "I saw it," Jeremy muttered. "Looked like an earthquake."

  "No earthquake could have caused that," Rachel continued. "They could have destroyed the whole town, and us along with it, but for Hector."

  "Hector Peraza?"

  She nodded. "Hector had learned a few tricks none of us understood. Not even the Gods knew how to beat him at the time. He forced them apart with his bare hands and stopped the fighting. Between him and Grey-eyes, the third God, they forced Alpha and Omega to a sit-down, where they made an agreement with the approval of a newly elected Council. They'd both leave the town, never to return, and let us govern ourselves."

  "Your doing?" Maddie asked.

  Rachel shook her head, looking embarrassed. "No. Actually, I… I didn't get elected to the Council until September. I wasn't… well I wasn't exactly Council material at the time."

  Jeremy could have sworn he saw an attempt at a smile from Will's face, still motionless on the bed.

  "It didn't go entirely smoothly. There were several attempts to overthrow the Council system. The first attempt occurred only a few weeks later, as a group that purported to worship the Gods as—well, as gods—the group tried to take over the Council and return it to its original state. They failed, and I doubt the Gods would have returned anyway, even if they'd managed it.

  "The second coup occurred in November. I was a Councilor by then. It was much more organized, and we were nearly killed in the attempt. No one had really used magic in combat before, and none of us were particularly inclined toward it, so they had a huge advantage. We were saved at the last minute by a friend of mine who had practiced it, but her actions were… well, they went over the line. I made a choice to force her away to unify the rest of the Council."

  Jeremy stood up. Maddie glanced over at him. "What's up?"

  "Nothing. I just need something to drink. Keep going." In truth, Jeremy wasn't particularly interested in all this ancient history. Fascinating for his sister, and probably for a great deal of people in the future, but all he cared about was what destroyed the town, and what they were planning on doing next. From the sound of it, those answers weren't coming any time soon.

  
  


  
  

  In the small kitchen bordering the living room, Jeremy found Rachel's parents. They fell silent as he walked in. He ignored them, fishing through the cabinets for a glass, until Andrea finally pulled one out and shoved it into his grasp.

  "Got any beer?" he asked.

  She shook her head. "Sorry."

  "S'okay." He opened the fridge and, seeing nothing else worthwhile, poured himself a glass of orange juice. After draining it, he turned back to Andrea. "So. Where do you two play into this?"

  "We didn't know anything until that day," Andrea said quickly.

  "Yeah, I got that. I meant going forward." He jerked his head back at Will's bedroom, where Maddie and Rachel were still talking. "Your daughter's in there talkin' to a United States Senator; you know that right?"

  They glanced at each other. "Yes," she said reluctantly.

  "Once she does this, there's no goin' back. She'll be a big face. The face of magic, worldwide." Jeremy shrugged. "This is probably gonna go all the way up to presidents and world leaders, you get that?"

  Andrea nodded. "We do."

  "It's crazy," Eric muttered. "All of this is insane."

  "You don't have to stay, Eric," she said. "I'd understand if you want to go home. You don't owe us anything."

  "Andy, she's our daughter." He frowned. "What kind of dad would I be if I let her do this all alone?"

  Well, a pretty typical one. "Look, take it from someone else who got famous by accident from this mess. It sucks, it's annoying as hell, and you'll never really get used to it."

  "When?" asked Andrea simply.

  "When?" Jeremy glanced back at the bedroom. "I dunno. As long as Maddie feels like she needs to get the story straight. Then we gotta figure out how to present it to the world. What media crews to hire, where to broadcast it, who to sell it to. How to handle the legal shit, what parts of the government to deal with. There's a whole fuckin' process. I don't do specifics, I'm just the muscle. Maddie's the brains."

  "...I voted for her," said Eric.

  "Well good for you, you picked a winner." Jeremy frowned. "You really voted, even from up here?"

  "Sure, why not?" He shrugged. "It's anonymous, and I'm a U.S. citizen. I still deserve to have my voice heard, right?"

  Democracy, ain't it a thing. "There's gonna be a lot of lawyers to talk to soon. Start practicin' your signatures and your initials, it's gonna be a pile of paperwork." He shrugged again. "Look on the bright side. You play this right, you could make a lot of money."

  Neither of them looked particularly pleased at the idea. Andrea glanced at the bedroom. "Half of the time, I don't recognize her anymore."

  "So it's not just me?" asked Eric, surprised.

  "No…" She paused. "She hadn't even settled on a major yet. She was thinking education, but didn't think she had it in her to go all the way to a masters… and now she's so far past school. I mean, she's a real leader. But… She's not the Rachel I remember. Everything's so different. We're never getting back to a normal life, are we?"

  Fuck me, I feel bad for them. Memories of other parents, victims of crimes he'd investigated, tumbled through his mind. He dropped his voice a little, and tried to talk more seriously. "Look, your daughter's been through a lot of trauma and way more pressure than most people her age are ever supposed to handle. That's always going to change someone. You gotta hold onto those parts of her you still know. She's still in there, but she's someone else now too." He briefly considered whether or not to tell them that his daughter had likely killed someone, but he shook his head. She can tell them that herself someday. Not my place. "You're never gonna get the girl you remember back, but your daughter's not gone. She's gonna need you more than ever now. You two are going to have the hardest job as parents, but you've got this."

  "She doesn't need us," murmured Eric. "She's the one running the show now. She even has her own lawyer. What kind of twenty year old has a personal lawyer?"

  "She does?" He raised an eyebrow. "What firm?"

  "Uhh… Luther-something."

  "Luther, Renalds and Portman," supplied Andrea. "We don't know why though. She wouldn't tell us. Feels like we're just… extras."

  Jeremy shook his head. "Everyone needs parents, some people just don't know who they are." He shrugged. "Sometimes they aren't even related to us, but they're our parents anyway. You guys are lucky enough to already know and care about each other. Hold onto that for me, would ya?"

  Andrea nodded firmly. "Always."

  Eric nodded too. "...You're sticking around, right?" he asked.

  Jeremy looked surprised. "I got places to be. I'm tryin' to find Jackie, remember?"

  He shook his head. "Trust me, we tried. We have a way to contact her, but nothing came back. We tried again while you were talking. Rachel will probably have another way, but I wouldn't get your hopes up." He paused. "We could really use your help. Neither of us really knows what we're doing."

  Jeremy let out a long, deep breath. Why am I not surprised…? Somehow, he'd known he wasn't getting out of this gig. He was going to be Rachel's personal agent for the time being; he already saw the next few weeks, months, even years laid out in front of him. And if he was honest, he didn't mind. For once in his long career in the agency, he felt like he was doing something actually meaningful and important. Where he understood exactly why he was doing it, even if he had no clue what he was going to be doing day-to-day.

  Besides, staying near Rachel is still probably the best shot at finding Jackie, sooner or later. Especially if everything is finally in the open, Jackie's gotta emerge somewhere. Right?

  "...Yeah, I'll be sticking around." They smiled. Jeremy nodded, then dug into his jacket for his phone, only to remember it had been knocked out by Rachel's spell. He glanced up shamefacedly. "Any way I can make a phone call?"

  Andrea reached into one of the kitchen drawers and pulled out a cheap burner cell phone. "Untraceable. Supposedly," she said, passing it over.

  Jeremy nodded, then went out into the backyard. He quickly dialed one of the few numbers he'd ever memorized.

  "Hello?"

  He smiled. "Lani, you're not gonna believe the fuckin' day I had."

 

 

 

 

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Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Professional Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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