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Chapter 26 Picking a Side

  "Today I was invited to the Marketplace. What wonders I had never imagined in a thousand lifetimes! Whole cities could exist in the space of a marble, floating in voids of purest night. The place seems to run itself, and even the kind old man who invited me knew nothing of its creator. But of course, it must have one, and they are a wicked soul indeed. They have such beautiful, incredible gifts and knowledge of spellcraft beyond the bounds of dreams, yet they purport to use such a space for commerce! They have commoditized magic itself! If I were not in awe of their sheer power, I would consider hunting down this monstrous person to set an example.

  It is the unfortunate curse of all humans to label everything they find with value. It is the engine upon which capitalism runs rampant. I had hoped that we, ascending to the next stage of the world, would find a new way—but alas, we remain chained by our basest nature."

  ~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries

  
  

  Jeremy stumbled backward as the beady-eyed, greasy-haired man approached.

  "Now hang on there," Julian started. "Come and sit down, friend."

  Doesn't know who I am… but is he a threat? Rachel called him an enemy. But who knows if Rachel's that reliable anymore… I still don't have a fuckin' clue where I am.

  Reluctantly, Jeremy stopped and waited. Julian kept eyeing him, while the couple dozen or so occupants of the tented clearing watched with baited breath. A fair few looked ready to bolt in an instant.

  "Are you lost?" he asked.

  "...Somethin' like that," Jeremy replied.

  "Well, maybe we can get ya goin' in the right direction." Julian gestured to the nearest empty seat, taking the side opposite. Jeremy followed suit, still followed by every eyeball in the whole place. "Bit surprised you found your way into our little get-together, to be honest."

  A whiny voice two seats away piped up—a teenager who looked totally out of his depth. "I did it right! Exactly like you told me! If it—"

  "Calm down, calm down, we're all friends here," Julian scolded gently. "It's just a glitch."

  "You think she sabotaged it or something? What if she gave us the wrong spell?"

  "Kyle!" Julian snapped. The kid faltered. "We've got a guest," he added, nodding at Jeremy.

  This is gettin' nowhere. Jeremy shrugged. "You're all awakened, right?"

  Julian recovered remarkably fast from the shock. His smile grew to twice its usual size. "Well then. Didn't realize we were among a fellow practitioner." He extended a grubby hand for Jeremy to shake.

  Jeremy shook it, doing his best not to wince. Wash your fuckin' hands. Jesus. "Not exactly. I'm not one of you."

  "Ah. Not a problem, not a problem, you're just as welcome here."

  "Where's here, exactly?" he asked, glancing around.

  "Well, it's supposed to be a secret," Julian went on, shooting a look at Kyle.

  "I did it exactly right!" snapped Kyle.

  "This here is the new Market," said Julian, gesturing in a wide sweep. "Neutral ground, where us magic folks can buy and sell our new trade… with a bit less of the stuffy rules and taxes from the old proprietor. I run a free market here."

  A vague cheer went up from a gaggle in the back, raising mugs in toast.

  Julian grinned. "If you've got cash or somethin' to sell, or you're just lookin' to swap drinks and cards, you're welcome to stick around. We don't put no restrictions on people just tryin' to have an honest evening."

  Conversation was starting to pick up at the other tables while Julian spoke, returning to a normal bustle he might expect from a tavern or pub. Sure, they were outdoors, but the place was still warm and cozy despite the time of year. The large tent awning kept the rain off, and the trees kept the wind down. Jeremy could even hear some faint music playing from a portable speaker somewhere in the center.

  A handsome young man with a towel over his shoulder and a tight-fitted shirt brought Jeremy a mug of the best-tasting beer he'd had in years. He savored it while Julian held a brief conversation with Kyle, which he couldn't hear in the slightest despite being only a few feet away—and they definitely weren't whispering. Fuckin' magic…

  As Kyle disappeared behind the huge food and drink table, Julian turned back to Jeremy. "So tell me, how'd you find out about our little brand of wizardry?"

  He shrugged. "Friend of a friend." A fresh burger from the grill slid down the table to stop perfectly in front of him. He eyed it warily.

  "Somethin' wrong?"

  "Nope." Jeremy picked it up and bit down. The burger wasn't anything special, but he was hungry enough that it tasted like pure, delicious manna from heaven. "Thanks for all this."

  "Share 'n share alike," said Julian. "This here bounty was a lucky find. I'm just makin' sure it goes around."

  "Bounty?" Jeremy cleared his face with a napkin. "What'd'you mean?"

  "Well, let's just say I was on my last leg. End of my rope, y'know?" I thought Kendra was sendin' money to all the Rallsburg survivors. Did Rachel lie on that too? Or maybe she didn't know about this… "I was broke and couldn't rightly earn a proper wage anymore. Consequence of bein' a wanted fugitive and all."

  "Hm," he grunted noncommittally.

  "But then! I heard back from a good friend I thought long dead. He'd found a veritable fortune, an invaluable cache of otherworldly treasures—and, of course, a few abandoned assets from the dearly departed. So, what was I to do? Penniless man without a home and the long arm of the law on my falsely-accused back, I had no choice. I came home."

  Jeremy's wits were returning quick with the food and drink. "And you two decided to start up a charity?"

  "Charity's too noble, even for a changed man like me," Julian said with a tip of the hat. "Jerry and me were lookin' to bring back somethin' we lost in Rallsburg. We're here to trade, old fashioned-like. A safe place for us awakened. No councils or gods or cults. Just us folk, doin' business and enjoyin' life again."

  "Councils, huh?" Jeremy asked, doing his best to sound casual. "Heard about them."

  "Don't get me started," Julian groaned. "So much hemmin' and hawin' about rules they just made up on the damn spot, you know?" He waved in greeting to a man who had just emerged through the solid hedge wall on the other side. "Mabel was the only smart one of the bunch. She was a tough old bird. Shame what happened to her."

  No shit… her head was flattened into the pavement. "The other two, then? Worthless government trash?"

  "Oh no, don't get me wrong, friend," Julian went on, pouring himself another drink. "They weren't worthless. Hell, without Rachel, we'd probably all be dead, you included."

  "But I'm not—"

  "He didn't give a rat's ass, you know? Pardon my language." The toothy grin returned, followed by a deep swill of beer. "That girl killed him, sure as sure. But everything else she did, you know? She stomped all over her own damn rules the moment they got in her way. Can't really trust a leader does somethin' like that, y'know?"

  "What'd she do?"

  "Which time?" Julian shrugged. "She deputized her best friend to act as the sheriff and nearly kill a bunch of people once. She added all sorts of rules restrictin' us from usin' magic, even in our own homes. Public safety." He rolled his eyes. "Nobody ever hurt no one, but big and mighty Rachel can't be takin' any chances."

  "Seems like she wasn't wrong, though. In the end," Jeremy pointed out. Not that it justifies shit, but it'll get him to keep talkin'.

  "How far is too far?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah, she killed 'im. But she had her techie friend cut all the lines out of town. Couldn't call for help, couldn't call friends to tell 'em we might die that night. I didn't run from the fight, but I sure as hell would've wanted my mother to know why she wasn't gonna hear from me again."

  What the hell…? "She blocked phone lines?"

  "Hell, she did worse than that. She was tappin' everything with her boyfriend's help. Internet, phones, you name it. Little sprinkle of magic to help them take it all in and bam—best spyin' you ever saw."

  I know a few people who'd sell their souls for that sort of power. "Crazy."

  "On top a'that, she goes and outs magic to the whole town, without even talkin' to her supposed council. Outs all of us, and just to save her best friend. That ain't no leader."

  That one I heard about. Rachel admitted it up front. "She sounds like a piece of work."

  "You got it." Julian finished off his drink with a satisfied gulp. "But here I am talkin' your ear off. I didn't catch your name earlier."

  "Jeremy."

  "Well, Jeremy, I'm Julian, and this here's the Market. No fancy name because we ain't fancy folk." Julian gestured around in a grand fashion again. "Stay as long as y'like. Only rules are no fightin', no magic in the games, and no tellin'. If we get wind of someone spillin' the beans—and we will get wind of it, trust me," Julian added with a smirk, "you ain't invited to the next gathering. Make sense?"

  Jeremy nodded. "If you don't mind my asking, where are we at, anyway?"

  "Oh, somewhere near the highway," Julian said with an airy wave. "It ain't important. Nobody can find this place unless we let 'em."

  Except me, apparently… "I'm just wonderin' how hard it would be to get back to civilization."

  "Ah…" Julian shrugged. "Guessin' you didn't drive here."

  "Nope."

  "Well, that sounds like a story all on its own," he grinned. "Well, I'm sure you could probably find someone to hitch a ride back with when we're done here."

  "When's that?"

  "I don't close up til the sun's yawnin'." Julian smiled. "But I'm sure if you play your cards right, you could win yourself out a bit early."

  Well… Hope Maddie and Rachel aren't missin' me yet. "Thanks."

  "Anytime."

  
  


  
  

  The generosity of the Market gathering left something to be desired.

  Jeremy didn't have much to wager, and nothing at all to trade, since he barely carried any cash around with him. He was forced to play extremely cautious, lest he lose every penny in a bad bet and be stuck there bored for the whole damn night, or try hitchhiking and hope he didn't get murdered or run down in the middle of the night. Without his gun and stuck in the middle of the woods, looking like he did, Jeremy definitely didn't want to risk it.

  "Fold," Jeremy grunted, tossing his cards forward.

  "Again?" asked a twenty-something girl with way too much makeup on, and not nearly enough basic care applied to her hair. "Jeez, man, you fold every hand. How're you ever gonna win anything?"

  "Someday," he murmured.

  "More for the rest of us," piped up a middle-aged guy looking just as disproportionately disheveled as the girl. His teeth and hair were practically perfect, but his entire face was covered by the ugliest beard Jeremy had ever laid eyes on. "I call," he added, tossing a few bills in.

  "Call," echoed Kyle, the last of their four-person game. He was a short, curly brown-haired kid trying to look way tougher than he appeared with a leather jacket and skull t-shirt. In all honesty, though, Jeremy actually thought he looked great. Man, if I were still nineteen…

  "Hey, what the fuck!"

  Someone two tables down was shouting. They all looked over. Julian was already there, holding the guy's arm in midair. He'd been about to strike someone. The dealer said something calmly to Julian, and in a minute the offender had been escorted away.

  "What was that?" Jeremy asked, turning back to their game.

  "Probably tried to cheat," said the middle-aged guy, as their dealer flipped over the next card.

  The girl next to Jeremy whistled at the new draw. "Ah, fuck yeah."

  "How can you tell?" he asked the guy.

  "Well, I suck at it, but there's ways for you to feel out other people using magic nearby. All the dealers are trained at it, y'know?"

  The dealer nodded, holding a very professional air. Some kind of Market… more like a fuckin' casino. "Bid to the lady."

  "Thaaaaaank you," she said, glancing at her cards again briefly.

  She's full of it. Doesn't have a thing. Jeremy tried to keep from rolling his eyes, curious to see what sort of bids would come out now that he was actually playing with two awakened. He'd been relegated, either on purpose or by sheer chance, to only play with other 'normal' people until now.

  "You're full of it," said Kyle, glaring at her.

  "Am I, Kyle?" she asked, eyes glittering. "How much are you willing to put on it?"

  "Your bid," he reminded her.

  "Tell you what. Since I know you're broke as fuck, I'll put one thousand on the next hand if you bid your copy."

  "Done," Kyle snapped, even as the other guy leaned forward slightly to object.

  "Now hang on a second—"

  "Let's see it," said the girl.

  Kyle twisted around and pulled a plain white sheet of paper out of his bag. It looked totally unremarkable, except that it had some sort of writing that Jeremy couldn't make out even from only a few feet away.

  Holy shit, is that…

  He held it up just long enough for them to peek at the contents. "Let's see the thousand."

  The girl grinned, and withdrew a tattered mixed stack of hundreds, fifties, twenties—even a couple rumpled tens and fives. The dealer counted it out in front of them. Sure enough, one thousand dollars and change. The middle-aged guy started protesting, something about bid limits, but the dealer overruled him.

  "Bid's down. Are you in or out?"

  "For a thousand?" the guy stammered. He checked his cards. "I fold."

  "Show 'em," said the girl, nodding at Kyle.

  "There's still one more round."

  "What, you got somethin' else you wanna lose?"

  "Giving you a chance to fold and save some dignity."

  She rolled her eyes. "Get real. Dealer, let's go already."

  The dealer nodded and flipped over the last card. The girl's face fell, but she was back to her cocky persona an instant later. "I'm raising another two-fifty." She pulled out another wad of cash and dropped it on the table before Kyle could ask for proof.

  "Jesus, how much money do you have?" Kyle muttered. "What do you want?"

  "Uhh…" she glanced around. "Teach me how to do this spell. This whole secret hideout thing."

  Kyle gaped at her. "For only two-fifty? You know how valuable this is?"

  "Big deal, didn't you copy it from someone else anyway?"

  "...Three hundred."

  "Done." She tossed another crumpled fifty onto the pile. "Dealer and this dude as witnesses."

  "Of course," said the dealer. Jeremy shrugged. The other guy at the table had since wandered away in search of a less intense game.

  "No refund if you aren't the right affinity," Kyle added. "It's not my fault if you can't actually do it."

  "Just so long as you don't wuss out teaching it," she shot back.

  "Show your cards," the dealer said, nodding at Kyle.

  Kyle grinned. "Nice try, Laura," he smirked, flipping over a straight.

  The girl stared at his cards for a few seconds, dumbstruck. She started to giggle, a little at first, until it boiled over into a full-bodied, bent-over laugh. "You went… all in… with that pool… on a fucking straight?" She choked back her laugh, reaching up to flip over her cards.

  A flush, with four cards in order. Only the last card prevented her from picking up a straight flush.

  Jeremy whistled. "Well played."

  Kyle dropped the paper onto the pile with a groan. Laura grinned, before sweeping up the pot onto her side of the table. The dealer started to gather up the cards for the next hand.

  "So when d'you—Jesus Christ, Laura!"

  Without warning, she'd grabbed the piece of paper and shoved it in front of her eyes. Jeremy could hear her muttering something, but couldn't make out the words.

  "Here? Are you serious?"

  The dealer inched his chair away uneasily, watching as Laura's murmuring sped up. Her pupils dilated wildly.

  Is she…

  Without warning, Laura pitched over backward, falling off the bench into the mossy dirt. She was twitching on the forest floor, gasping for breath. Choking.

  Jeremy leapt from his seat, hurtling around the table to get to her. Nobody else moved. He was running through his CPR training in his head, trying to remember exactly how to apply pressure.

  An invisible wave forced him back. The dealer's hand had snapped out at him, palm open.

  "What the fuck?"

  "She's quite all right," the man said calmly. "Please, restrain yourself."

  Even Kyle, who had protested initially, looked mostly bored by the proceedings. Jeremy's heart was racing, but obviously something was off here. He stared down at the convulsing girl on the ground, still clutching the piece of paper in her hand. The paper looked like it was turning to ash, burning without a flame. In only a few seconds, it disintegrated.

  She appeared.

  Right next to the girl, sitting on her knees, leaning down next to Laura's head. She whispered in Laura's ear, and the girl's seizure ended as abruptly as it began. As she kept whispering, Laura's mouth echoed the words, and slowly her eyes fluttered open.

  The girl helped her up to a sitting position, holding Laura's hand while she recovered. They held a brief, silent conversation. Jeremy tried to read their lips, but it was too fast to catch, and the girl's thick brown hair curtained away her face from every oblique angle.

  Laura sighed, as if she'd just taken the most satisfying drink in history, and laid back down again. "Holy shit," she murmured.

  The girl looked up—directly at Jeremy.

  Hang on… don't I know her? I recognize those damn eyes.

  "Don't say anything," she spoke, barely above a whisper. No one else reacted. No one else even seemed to realize she was still there. Kyle and the dealer had returned to the table, already prepping another game.

  Jeremy inclined his head, just enough for her to notice.

  "Can we talk? Over there." She pointed to the space behind the food table, where an area was walled off by forest-green tarps.

  Well, I'm not about to say no…

  She vanished a moment later, right before Laura's hand was about to pass through her head as she got to her feet. "That was incredible," Laura continued, still breathless. She took a few uneasy steps to steady herself, falling back onto the bench with a thud. "So, Kyle, when are you gonna deliver?"

  "You haven't even cast a single spell yet, how the hell are you gonna do something this complicated?"

  "Try me," she cackled. She looked around. "Hey, what the fuck?"

  "What?"

  "Where'd it…" She glared at Kyle. "You asshole, you didn't tell me it was a second-gen."

  "You got what you wanted," he shot back.

  No one was paying Jeremy any mind, something he hadn't felt in a long time. It was refreshing. He simply got up and walked away without a word.

  
  


  
  

  Coming around the tarp wall to a small supply area lit by hanging lamps, Jeremy finally got a good look at her.

  She stood leaning up against a rack of bottles, eyes drooping slightly. She wore plain blue jeans, a warm jacket, and a faded t-shirt advertising something he didn't know—a band, if he had to guess. Her hands were deep in the jacket pockets, fidgeting as she waited. Her eyes, exhausted and sad, were pure silver-grey.

  "...Hi."

  Jeremy just stared at her.

  "I… well I guess I did ask you first. I need your help."

  "The fuck is going on…" Jeremy muttered to himself.

  "A lot."

  He wasn't even surprised she could hear him from across the way. "I assume no one's gonna come back here uninvited?"

  She nodded. "They can't hear us, either."

  "So why me, then?"

  "Huh?"

  Jeremy sat down on the edge of the card table behind him, trying to suppress his frustration. He was dealing with someone impossibly powerful, but that was basically par for the course of his life by now. "I'm done getting jerked around by all you people without a fuckin' word of explanation. Why is it always me, huh?"

  "I… I'm sorry."

  "How's that then?"

  She glanced away. "I'm bending the rules by talking to you at all."

  "What rules?"

  "Well… my rules."

  "Your rules," Jeremy sighed. "Well, your rules seem to be causin' a lot of people a fuckload of trouble. Including me. Ever thought about breakin' em?"

  Her eyes snapped up like lightning. Jeremy recoiled. There was so much palpable, repressed fury behind those silver-grey eyes that he felt utterly humbled. She was not someone to cross, ever.

  "Every single day."

  Fucking hell… Jeremy felt the temperature of the place drop just from her tone. He took a few seconds, waiting to see if she'd say anything else, but she seemed to be waiting for him. Finally, he gave in.

  "So… you said you needed somethin' from me."

  "Yeah…" She rubbed at her eyes.

  "You good?"

  "Just… just tired. I'm okay." She blinked a few times, wincing. "Sorry. I need you to help Hailey."

  "...Help her with what?"

  "She's had a really bad day…"

  Jeremy couldn't help it—he chuckled. She'd sounded so gloomy, it was like an old cartoon character. "No kiddin'. That interview was a train wreck."

  "Don't be mean."

  Oh shit. He gulped. "Sorry."

  She shook her head. "I wasn't talking about the interview. She made a deal with the FBI."

  "...Shit. What kind of deal?"

  "A cooperation agreement?" She hesitated. "There was a lot of legal talk. Hailey agreed to tell them what happened in Rallsburg. Plus a bunch of other stuff, like consulting on magic. There was an agreement she wanted that they didn't sign, and they offered her a full-time job she didn't take. But after tonight…"

  "After tonight you aren't sure who's got the upper hand," Jeremy filled in. "So you go to the only G-man you've got an in with and ask him to take over."

  "I guess so?"

  Okay, is she more manipulative than the devil himself, or really this naive and sincere? Fuck, I can't tell. "You know I'm still suspended, right?"

  "You are?"

  "Huh. I just assumed you knew everything."

  She laughed—just a single, sad syllable, but it was there. "I feel like I don't know anything."

  "So why am I helpin' Hailey?"

  "She's my friend."

  "Nice to know you have those."

  Grey-eyes smiled. "Just a couple."

  Even if I'm suspended, I can probably still pull some strings… Might have to use Courtney and Maddie, but I'll figure it out. "Well, she's my friend too."

  "That's why I came to you."

  "Thought you came here to save that other girl. Laura."

  She shifted uncomfortably. "I was already here, I just… hadn't figured out when to talk to you."

  "The whole time?" Could've done something when I got fuckin' abducted...

  "No… Only a couple minutes earlier. I hoped, you know, since you're friends with Hailey too..."

  Jeremy grinned. "Guess we're all on the same side, then."

  "You two are. I… don't know what side I'm on."

  "I don't even know what the damn sides are."

  She looked up, dismayed. "I was hoping you knew."

  Jeremy sighed. He glanced over, spotting an open bag of peanuts, and crunched through a few before answering. He was still pretty hungry, since he'd missed out on his planned dinner with the save-the-world committee. "I thought I did. After tonight, though…"

  "What do you mean?"

  Fuck it. "You sent me after Rachel. Why?"

  The girl took a long time to answer. Her eyes flicked around the whole small area, jumping from object to object. "I think she knows what's she's doing."

  "I don't think anybody's gonna disagree on that," muttered Jeremy.

  "I think she's probably the best chance everyone has at working together."

  "...I get the feelin' you don't like her."

  Her eyes flashed red. "I despise her."

  Jesus. "So then—"

  "I can't do anything to her."

  "'Cause of your rules?"

  "No."

  Then why the fuck… whatever. She ain't gonna tell me. "I've been told a lot of stories tonight by some pretty unreliable witnesses. You tell me. Is she one of the good guys?"

  Grey-eyes shook her head. "I don't know."

  "Easier question, then. Should I keep helpin' her?"

  "...Yes. I think so."

  "Why's that?"

  She hesitated. Her eyes flashed, and Jeremy felt a chill run down his spine. He wasn't one to scare easy, but this girl? Grey-eyes scared the shit out of him.

  "So you can stop her before she goes too far."

  
  


  
  

  Jeremy plopped down at the table again. "Deal me in," he said, nodding to the dealer.

  "Back to fold some more?" asked Laura, with a sizeable pile of bills in front of her. Kyle had vanished, but the middle-aged guy was still there, and Julian himself had joined the table as well.

  "Just lookin' for a quick out," he replied. He glanced up at Julian. "Got a question though."

  Again, the toothy grin. "Shoot, friend. I like to think of myself as an honest proprietor."

  "Know anyone who can give me a ride out to Seattle?"

  "Long drive. I'm sure someone's headin' that way end of the night though—"

  "Right now."

  Julian scratched his chin. "Well, that all depends on what you've got to bid, don't it?"

  Jeremy checked his cards. As he watched, the six printed on the card faded away, replaced by a king right under his fingers.

  He grinned. "We'll see. Now let's play."

  As expected, the cards seemed to line up perfectly for him with each draw. He didn't have much to bid with though, and Julian didn't seem to be biting on his paltry bait. He needed something more… enticing.

  Jeremy dug into his pocket reluctantly and withdrew the little stone. He set it on the table, with the Korean glyph face-up.

  "...It's a rock," said Laura dubiously.

  Julian stared at it, completely silent. He's seen one of them before… I'd bet anything.

  "This stone against that ride home," Jeremy added, watching Julian carefully.

  The toothy grin got even wider. "Done and done," he replied.

  
  


  
  

  The truck thumped over the edge of the asphalt as they mounted the road proper. To Jeremy's relief, he recognized the area. They really weren't that far out from Olympia. It was way past midnight though, according to his irritated and increasingly suspicious driver.

  "So tell me, friend," Julian said, the first word he'd spoken since they'd gotten in the truck. "Where'd you find a trinket like that?"

  "Found it on the ground," Jeremy said with a straight face.

  "Uh huh."

  "I'm surprised you let those two run your show while you're gone," he added, before the man could ask anything else. Julian had directed a subordinate to take over, and Kyle to take the place down at the end of the night if he wasn't back in time.

  "I trust 'em." He left off pointedly, waiting for Jeremy to respond.

  "Well, you seem to be runnin' a solid operation." Jeremy shrugged. "Who am I to tell you what to do?"

  "You weren't in Rallsburg, were you?" Julian asked suspiciously. "I think I'd remember you."

  Well, this is a nice fuckin' change of pace… "Nope. Not until after it burned down, anyway."

  Julian snorted. "Burned down, as if. More like exploded, y'know?"

  "Actually, I was wonderin' about that. How did the grocery store explode?"

  Julian grimaced. "Bit of this and that. Sad to say that was my fault, actually. I owe my friend Hector a good chunk of change for his store. But I'll pay up, don't you doubt! Julian Black pays his debts, sure as sure."

  "Wasn't the fault of your council, then."

  He frowned. "Actually, when you put it like that… It was her fault they stored all them boxes in the store. I made 'em, but she was in charge of cleanin' em up. So yeah, I guess it is her fault too!" He shook his head. "Nah, it don't matter. I still gotta pay Hector back. I know she sure as shit ain't gonna, so I'll take care of it."

  Julian continued rambling on about his debts and his history of clearing them. Jeremy leaned back and reclined his chair, watching the street lamps go by as they drove. Julian was the worst type of driving buddy, the kind Jeremy had spent far too many stakeouts with back in the day. He couldn't fall asleep though, not in the presence of a man he still couldn't quite trust.

  They passed Olympia in good time, thanks to the late hour. It was still a good ways to Seattle, though, and Jeremy decided to try and get some more information out of the talkative man.

  "You really think this market such a great idea?" he asked, interrupting a long talk about how Julian had practically invented the idea of trading money for a service like magic.

  "Oh, absolutely!"

  "But… seems a bit dangerous, doesn't it? Sellin' magic."

  Julian shook his head, so enthusiastically that the car swerved slightly. "Nah, see. The way I figure, people are always gonna want to buy and sell this stuff. End of the day, they need someone to run the show, don't they? I've been around longer than most. I know the ins and outs. Hell, I was gonna be elected to the council once, didn't I mention?"

  "You did."

  "So yeah, I got the leadership skills and all that jazz. I can run somethin' as simple as a barterin' post."

  "And you set it all up with your friend. Jerry, right?"

  Julian sighed. "Yeah. Bad deal, what happened to him."

  "What did happen, if you don't mind my askin'?"

  He shook his head. "Jerry was scoutin'. Tryin' to find us some new paper, y'know? But… well, he ran into the other guy."

  Jeremy nodded. "Sorry."

  "Thanks." Julian smiled. "Truth is, Jerry was always a sonuvabitch, but he was a friend. I've got all his money stashed away for his kid. Just haven't figured out how to get it to him yet."

  "He had a kid?" Jeremy asked, more to keep the conversation going than anything. In fact, after Jerry's body turned up so late, he'd gone to interview the ex-wife personally—little good it did him.

  "Oh yeah. Cute little critter, can't remember his name for the life of me. I got it written down somewhere."

  "What about the other guy? You know, the one who offed him?"

  Julian frowned, hesitating a long while. "...I'm stayin' the hell away."

  No honor among shifty fuckin' merchants, I guess. "So you got an idea where he is?"

  "What, you fixin' to go after him yourself? You ain't even one of us."

  Jeremy shrugged. "Doesn't mean I can't take an interest."

  Julian shook his head. "I don't have a clue, and I'm happier that way. If I ever see that psycho, I'm bookin' it in the opposite direction and I ain't lookin' back."

  "What about that council you mentioned? Think they'd do somethin' about him?"

  "Shit, friend, if I see them I'm bookin' it too!" Julian snorted. "I'm… what do you call it. Neutral. I'm a neutral party in this mess."

  Until Brian hunts you down and kills you anyway… "I get the feelin' there aren't gonna be any neutral parties."

  Julian shrugged. "Well, in that case, I'll just side with the winner."

  
  


  
  

  Jeremy got out on the curb in the middle of the city, a couple blocks away from the hotel where Maddie and Rachel were sequestered. He waited long enough to be sure Julian wasn't sticking around to follow him (though he put such subterfuge beyond the cheery man), then headed straight for the hotel lobby and right up to the reception desk.

  "Excuse me," he prompted.

  The handsome man sitting behind the counter looked up, shocked back to full awareness. Jeremy couldn't fault him too much, given the hour. Besides, in that suit and well-trimmed beard… If I wasn't so fuckin' tired and in a hurry… "Hi! How can I help you?"

  "I need to get to my room and I lost my card."

  "Okay… What's the room number?"

  "...I don't remember." And I don't have my phone to ask her, either. Fuckin' hell.

  "What name is it under?"

  "Ashe, probably. A-S-H-E."

  "Can I see some identification?"

  Screw it. Let's show off a bit. Jeremy pulled out his FBI envelope, with the full badge and details. "Jeremy Ashe, FBI."

  "Oh!" The guy turned to his computer and started typing very fast. "I… err, the room isn't registered to you, sir."

  "Yeah, it's under my sister Maddie. And I really don't want to wake her up, if you don't mind."

  "Well, sir, it's not exactly allowed…"

  Goddammit… competent employees. "Okay, call her then. I'd hold the phone a bit away from your ear though."

  One amusing angry rant and hurried apology from Maddie later, the receptionist was handing him a new key card. "Sorry about that," Jeremy added. "Guy like you doesn't deserve that, just doin' your job right. Keep up the good work."

  "Thank you, sir."

  Jeremy took the elevator up. It wasn't the nicest floor, but not the cheapest either. Plenty comfortable for Maddie and her guest, though of course Rachel wasn't listed on the system. Jeremy took a deep breath before he opened the door.

  Instantly, a pillow slammed into his face.

  "And another thing!" Maddie shouted.

  "Nice to see you too," Jeremy grumbled, closing the door behind him before they woke up the whole floor.

  A second later, the pillow was followed by Maddie herself, hugging him tight. "Where the fuck have you been all day? I thought you were dead!"

  "It's a long, long fuckin' story." Jeremy glanced around. "Rachel awake?"

  "She's always fucking awake," Maddie muttered.

  "It's not all it's cracked up to be," Rachel added, coming around the corner to the little entry hall, gazing over Maddie at him. "What happened?"

  "Well… Lani's gonna be pissed for one." Jeremy grimaced. "His car's probably totaled."

  "What did you do?"

  "More like what did Brian do."

  "Jesus," whispered Maddie. She sat down on one of the office chairs in the room. Jeremy followed her in, to find piles of papers scattered everywhere on the floor. They'd set up several cork boards hanging from the walls with tons of sticky notes, pinned papers and more notes. Multiple laptops on each desk had more information. "You were attacked?"

  "Not as bad as this place was…" Jeremy could only see two clear spaces besides the bed, which were the hallway he'd just walked down and the space right in front of the balcony sliding door.

  "Is Jonathan Hudson all right?" asked Rachel.

  "As far as I know. I lost my phone."

  "Well, that explains a lot," said Maddie. "Didn't you get that one guy? Stebbins?"

  "Yeah. Stebbins probably kept him safe. I came right here after I lost Brian."

  "He chased you?" said Rachel, raising an eyebrow. "That doesn't sound like him. He doesn't have any reason to attack you. You aren't awakened."

  And neither was the reverend, but you said Brian killed him. Somethin's not addin' up here. "Well, I'm not exactly on his side," Jeremy pointed out.

  "True." Rachel frowned. "We should contact your team and make sure Jonathan's all right."

  Jeremy held out a hand. "Can I get a phone, then?"

  After confirming with Stebbins that Jonathan was still safe and sound in the motel, Jeremy let him know he could shut down for the night, out of Rachel's earshot. No reason to make him stay up all night when Brian's not gonna hit 'em anyway.

  "All good," Jeremy reported, returning to the hotel room. "Lani's car didn't survive, but I guess my phone did. Stebbins found it under the seat. So what did I miss, anyway?"

  "Not much, to be honest," said Maddie, still grumpy from being woken up. "I've had my people trying to contact Hailey, but I think she's totally dropped off the grid. There's a couple crowd videos of her flying out of the building after the interview shut down, but nothing else."

  "Soon as I get my phone back, I can try her personal number," Jeremy offered. "Maybe she'll talk to me."

  "I suppose you still won't share that with me?" asked Rachel.

  "You said you weren't gonna talk to any of them yet," he pointed out. "She trusted it to me, and you people are real big on secrets, is what I'm gettin'."

  Rachel nodded. "Fair enough."

  "What about Laushire?"

  "Same deal. One hundred percent incommunicado," said Maddie. "Even through Courtney's business contacts that've been dealin' with her for weeks now. They all knew she was alive," she added bitterly. "Guess we aren't good enough to join the billionaire club."

  "Hell, Maddie, we barely crack the half-millionaire club. And you're in politics."

  "The life of an honest politician," she grinned.

  Jeremy saw his chance and took it, praying Maddie would remember their old signal. "Come on, you aren't totally honest. Remember that heckler at the campaign stop in Walla Walla?"

  "...Yeah, but he deserved it. Couldn't keep his mouth shut for all the money in the pool."

  To his relief, Rachel didn't react in the slightest, digging through a pile on the desk for something.

  "Well, I'm too hungry to sleep. I'm gonna go find a bite to eat before I turn in." Jeremy turned to leave. "Rachel, you gonna be awake to fill me in on everything when I get back?"

  "Of course," she replied absently.

  "Thanks."

  Ten minutes later, Jeremy was sitting on the edge of the hotel pool ten floors up with his legs in the water, enjoying the view out the window.

  "It's been a decade since we used that goddamn code," Maddie grumbled, walking up and taking the seat beside him. She peeled up her pant legs and dropped her feet in too. "Oh God, that feels great."

  "Glad you remembered it."

  "So what's going on? What did you need to talk about in private?"

  "I wasn't attacked. Not exactly." Jeremy explained everything that happened in brief, with all the important details he could remember.

  "So you're thinkin' that Rachel isn't who she says she is," concluded Maddie, laying back on the warm stone floor and staring out the window too. "That she's what… corrupt? Evil? Crazy?"

  "Nah, that's just you."

  Maddie laughed and nudged him. "But seriously, Jere-bear."

  "I talked to three people tonight, and all of them told me she's done some terrible fuckin' things and can't be trusted." Jeremy sighed. "None of them are the most reliable people. Hell, I don't even know that girl's name. I just know she scares the shit out of me."

  "Me too, and I've never even seen her," agreed Maddie, shuddering.

  "What's your take on Rachel? You've been workin' with her all weekend."

  She shrugged. "Honestly, she seems okay to me. She's got some serious pent-up guilt, but I don't think that's what's driving her. She wants something."

  "Everyone in your business wants something."

  "Yeah, but I can usually figure it out. Rachel's a real trip."

  Jeremy splashed the water with his feet idly. "Any chance she's genuine? Actually just wants to save the world?"

  "That'd be a first in politics."

  "Isn't that what you wanted?"

  Maddie laughed. "Come on, you know better than that. I got into this because I love telling people what to do. It just so happens that what I'm tellin' them to do will probably save 'em in the end."

  Jeremy snorted. "You're gonna save the world by coincidence."

  "Better than not at all, right?"

  They both fell silent for a while, listening to the gentle lapping of the water against the sides of the pool, watching the moon pass by through the huge window.

  "I'll keep an eye on her," said Maddie quietly.

  "Yeah?"

  "Yeah. I gotta say, some of her ideas for handling everything have rubbed me the wrong way. I thought I was just biased for a while there, let a lot of things slide, but after hearing all this… I dunno. Kind of… Totalitarian."

  Jeremy sighed. "Sorry to ruin the bright and shining future."

  "You know, Courtney actually called her out on it."

  "Really? Our Courtney?"

  Maddie grinned. "Guess the devil doesn't like company." She nudged Jeremy back. "You gotta keep doin' your job though. Keep these people safe."

  "It'll be a lot easier when I get Lani back."

  "He's done with his PT, right?"

  "Mostly. Still a couple weeks, but it's all pretty light actually. Then another few weeks of required medical leave, but we can smudge that."

  "Aww, let him rest."

  Jeremy laughed. "Have you visited him lately? He's practically jumping off the bed to get back in the field. If it were anyone else they'd milk that medical leave for all it's worth."

  "I haven't actually. I've been so busy… You?"

  "Not for a week, actually." Jeremy sighed. "Things kept… coming up."

  "First thing in the morning, then. Let's go. I'll be there to help beat you up when he finds out you totaled his car."

  "Don't you mean keep him off me?"

  Maddie gasped in mock outrage. "Jeremy, the man's been shot!"

  "He'll live." Jeremy tried to suppress a yawn, but it forced its way out.

  "You might not if you don't get some sleep. It's four in the morning and you spent all day on a stakeout."

  "Yeah."

  Neither of them moved though, still relaxing with their feet in the pool.

  "Things are gonna get crazy, aren't they?" Jeremy muttered.

  "Things were already crazy," she replied. "Now we're gonna see crazy with a dose of mass hysteria, an arms race, and every single government on the planet wanting a piece of the pie."

  "...Fuck."

  
  


  
  

  "Lani!" Jeremy called, letting himself into Lani's little house. "Lani, pick up your damn phone!"

  "We brought doughnuts!" added Maddie, following him in. "And a guest!"

  "Did you really need to—" murmured Rachel.

  "Yes. Lani's part of the team, so deal with it. You gotta meet him."

  Plus, we want his impression of you, because neither of us are sure if we can trust you anymore. Jeremy climbed the stairs two at a time. "Lani, where the fuck…"

  Lani's bed was empty. The TV across the room was still paused on the Hailey interview from the night before, which he'd evidently recorded. The computer monitor had satellite maps of the Rallsburg forest open, which he'd been too careless to shut down before leaving.

  Too excited, actually, Jeremy corrected as he picked up the hastily scribbled note laying on Lani's desk next to the keyboard.

  Jeremy,

  Went to find some answers. Will be off-grid. Good luck with everything.

  See you soon,

  Lani

 

 

 

 

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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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