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chapter ten

"Come on, Kelly," said Maria, standing ten paces in front of her best friend in the back alley behind the concert venue. It had rained earlier and the pavement glistened in the scant light. The two were just a few feet away from the loading dock of the venue, and the metal garage door gleamed at them. Kelly hung back. She didn't know why she'd let Maria talk her into leaving the concert anyway. Maria was always talking her into stupid shit like this. One day she was probably going to get them killed. Strains of Mischief's closing number leaked into the air. The concert was almost over.

"Do you wanna get Snake's autograph or not?" asked Maria. "They're gonna come out back here, and this will be our best chance to catch them."

Kelly took one more look around, bit her lip, and then caught up with her best friend. Maria would go on without her if she said no, and then she'd be alone back here. They walked further into the alley until they caught sight of some roadies carrying speakers out of the back door. Maria pulled Kelly back against the wall, in the shadows where the roadies wouldn't see them. When the roadies' backs were turned, the two darted behind them and through the stage door. They emerged into a dimly lit hallway. The music, still playing, was louder. The girls crept forward, past a set of double door that read, "To Loading Dock."

A burly man burst through the doors. "Hey," he said, spotting the girls. "You aren't supposed to be back here."

A man with long blonde curls, carrying a guitar case, was following the burly man. "Terry, cut 'em a break," he said. He turned to the girls. "You know who I am?"

Of course Kelly knew who he was! But as usual, it was Maria that spoke. "You're Lucian," Maria said breathlessly. "From Satin Blades."

Lucian grinned. "They're with me."

"Lucian�" said Terry.

"You help us load up and you can hang," said Lucian. To Terry, "That cool?"

"Fine," grumbled Terry.

Kelly snuck an excited glance at Maria, who grinned back at her.

"Just grab whatever's behind these doors and bring it to this doorway," said Lucian, gesturing to the door they'd come in.

The girls nodded eagerly.

"We love your band," gushed Maria.

"Cool," said Lucian, holding the door open for them.

The girls lugged speakers and equipment to the doorway. It was all fairly small stuff. As Kelly understood it, the bigger, heavier pieces of equipment were being loaded directly off the loading dock. The music on stage stopped, met with thundering applause and cheers. The girls continued to make trips with equipment. Max and Rhett from Satin Blades showed up. Kelly could not believe her luck. She was backstage and face to face with members of rock bands. Maria might freak her out sometimes with her ideas, but sometimes her ideas worked out really well. That was why she was best friends with Maria. She was crazy, but sometimes it paid off.

"What are they doing here?" Rhett asked Lucian.

"They're helping us load up," said Lucian.

Rhett shrugged. "Anybody seen Ros?"

"She didn't watch Mischief's set," said Lucian. "I think she went back to the hotel."

"Right," said Rhett. He started out the door.

"Hey, Rhett," said Max. "Are you gonna hang with us tonight?"

Rhett started to answer, but the members of Mischief came down the hallway at that point. Snake first, the others flanking him. Both Kelly and Maria gasped. Maria dug a notebook out of her purse and rushed forward. "Could I get an autograph?" she asked.

Snake and the other members of the band stopped short. They sneered down at Maria. Kelly suddenly felt frightened of them. She'd thought all their scary stage stuff was an act. She wanted to pull Maria back, but she was too timid to move.

"Who let them in?" asked Snake.

"They're helping us load up," said Max.

"They're our fans," said Lucian. "At least, they're supposed to be our fans." He turned to Maria, looking wounded. "You didn't ask for my autograph."

"Oh, but I want it," said Maria. "Really."

Snake glared at Lucian. "Where's Terry?"

"Dude, chill out," said Lucian. "I cleared it with Terry."

"Did you," said Snake. His eyes narrowed. "Then I guess I need to have a talk with Terry."

"It's not a big deal," said Lucian. "They're just two chicks."

"Yeah, you know it wouldn't kill you to sign a couple autographs," said Max.

"Guys," Rhett warned.

Kelly could see the same fear she felt in Rhett's eyes. She didn't think she liked Mischief anymore.

But Snake just snatched the notebook from Maria and scribbled on it. He threw it back at her, and the band strode down the hallway and out the door. No one moved or spoke for a moment, then the members of Satin Blades all moved forward and signed the girls' notebooks.

"He's an ass," said Lucian. "The whole band is."

"Yeah," said Max. "But not all people in rock bands are totally rude."

"Hey," said Lucian, "you guys want a tour of backstage?"

* * *

"And this," Lucian said, gesturing to a tiny spiral staircase that towered high above the stage, "leads to the catwalk."

"Cool," said Maria. "Can we go up?"

"Totally," said Lucian.

"Um . . ." said Kelly, "I think I'll stay down here." Kelly wasn't really cool with heights. And besides, she kind of got the impression Maria wanted to be alone with Lucian.

"Okay," said Maria. "We'll be back down soon."

Kelly watched them as they began their ascent. For a while, she could hear them talking.

"So, you guys are like my favorite band now," Maria said. "I can't believe Snake was like that. I'm not even gonna buy Mischief's albums anymore. I'm gonna tell all my friends not to."

Kelly wondered if Maria was going to try to make out with Lucian. She wondered if Lucian would make out with a girl like Maria.

"Yeah," Lucian said. "They're too big for their own good. I always say that you can't forget that it's the fans that got you where you are."

It sounded like Lucian appreciated his fans. Maria was very pretty. Much prettier than Kelly. And Maria was bubbly and outgoing. Kelly was shy and scared.

"It's one of the things I like most about being an opening act," Lucian continued. "You can hang back during the headliner's act and sign autographs, talk to people . . ."

If Maria was going to make out with Lucian, Kelly would probably be stuck down here alone for a long time. She strained to hear the two of them talking, but they were too far away now. Kelly stared out at the empty, black stage. It was always like this. Maria always ran off to do things and left Kelly behind. Maria did everything first. She'd tried coke first. She'd had sex first. Kelly sometimes wasn't even sure if she'd wanted to do those things. If Maria hadn't tried them first and then urged Kelly to do it, Kelly might never have. And if Maria hadn't dragged her out of the concert early . . .

Sure, she'd never have met the guys in Satin Blades, which was really cool. It was definitely a story to tell her kids or something, but she also wouldn't be alone backstage. Alone in the dark. The crew had switched off the work lights ages ago, and now the only thing that lit the stage was a single 100-watt bulb on a pole that had been wheeled into the center of the stage.

Kelly half-wished she'd gone up on the catwalk with them. She was afraid of heights and embarrassed about it, so she was sure that if she had gone up, it would have been disastrous. But at least Lucian and Maria wouldn't have started making out. If they were making out. What the hell was taking them so long, anyway? She was all by herself, and she was getting a little spooked. The theater was quiet, no strange noises, thank God, but the silence was so complete, it seemed strange in itself. Every now and then, she heard a murmur of Lucian and Maria above her, but beyond that, she couldn't hear anything.

Biting her lip, she tried to catch sight of them by craning her neck backward. She couldn't see them. Minutes ticked by. She thought about calling up to them, but she didn't want to sound stupid and scared, so she didn't. She realized it had been a long time since she'd heard either of them talking. She walked to the light in the middle of the stage, feeling irrationally safer in its circle of brightness.

"Kelly," said a voice.

She looked around again. "Maria?" She couldn't see anything.

"Kelly," it said again.

"Who's there?"

"Back here," said the voice.

She walked in the direction of the voice, all the way to the edge of the light. She peered into the darkness. "Maria, is that you?" she asked. Her voice trembled.

"Come back here, Kelly," said the voice.

It didn't sound exactly like Maria's voice, but it was feminine. It was high. Melodious.

"Kelly."

Maybe it was male.

Kelly stepped into the darkness. Whoever it was knew her name. Maybe one of the guys had remembered it. Or maybe someone had overheard Maria call her by name. Unlikely, but everyone except Mischief had seemed really nice.

"I can't see you," she said.

"I'm right back here. Keep walking."

She did, slowly. "Who is that?"

"Just keep walking."

Kelly felt like the darkness was swallowing her. She looked back over her shoulder at the light. When she turned back, all she could see was the imprint of the light bulb. Several green bulbs danced in front of her, brighter when she closed her eyes. But she kept walking, feeling in front of her with her feet. After a long time, her foot struck something solid. The back wall of the stage?

"Hello, Kelly," said the voice, very close now.

Kelly put up her hands to feel what she'd just collided with. It was a tall, wooden box. When she touched it, it lit up inside. Green light streamed through the cracks.

Kelly tried to back up, but she couldn't move. She tried to scream, but she couldn't draw breath. The places where the green light touched her skin began to feel very hot. Her skin started to sizzle.

She wanted to scream. She wanted to run. She tried, but she couldn't do anything except watch as her arms began to melt and slide into the cracks in the box.

Her bones, joints, muscles collapsed�liquefied�starting at the point where the light touched her and traveling up her limbs to her torso.

Her heart beat staccato, then stopped.

* * *

Maria and Lucian were making out on the catwalk. From beneath them, they heard Kelly's voice. "Maria, is that you?"

"We'd better go check on her," said Lucian.

"She's fine," said Maria.

"No, come one, we've been up here too long."

The two began to make their way down. It was a laborious process, much more terrifying than coming up. The steps were narrow, and the slope steep. Maria clung to the railing. It seemed like hours before they got down.

Her feet on solid ground, Maria surveyed the stage. She couldn't see anyone. "Kelly?" she called.

"Who is that?" called a male voice, with a British accent.

"It's Lucian, and um . . . my friend," said Lucian. "Who's that?"

"Rizzo," said the voice. The lead singer of Mischief stepped into the light on the stage. "You two shouldn't be on the stage alone." He was holding a bundle of cloth.

"I was just showing the girls around," said Lucian.

"Have you seen my friend Kelly?" asked Maria. "We left her down here."

"Haven't seen anyone," said Rizzo. "You need to leave."

"Hold on," said Lucian, "we've got to find her friend."

"There's no one here," said Rizzo.

"She's got to be here," said Maria. "She's about my height. She was wearing a green dress. It was about . . . that color." She pointed to the bundle of cloth Rizzo was holding.

"Not here," Rizzo bit out, holding the bundle tighter.

Maria strode forward angrily. "Are those her clothes? Let me see that." She reached out to take the bundle.

Rizzo pulled it out of her reach. "This," he said, "does not belong to your friend." His face seemed to change. It went white and hollow and menacing. His teeth . . .

Maria swallowed.

"Let's go," said Lucian. "Maybe she's in the hallway."

* * *

"Am I under arrest?" demanded Tanner's friend, who sat in an interrogation room at Magic Management Headquarters, sucking on a cigarette and drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. "Because you're the third guy I've talked to, and if I'm under arrest, I want to talk to a lawyer."

Buckingham stood opposite him. "It's true," he said, "that we've no reason to hold you here. But then, Magic Management isn't really in the business of making arrests." He smiled, waiting for the young man to put together what he'd implied. "However, we do have close connections with the local police. And they might be interested in the large amount of pills you were carrying. Pills for which you do not have a prescription."

The young man sullenly stubbed out his cigarette. "I've told you people everything I know. I didn't know Iris was a ghoul. I swear. I was just checking on her apartment."

The young man was lying. Buckingham was sure of it. Didn't matter. Buckingham was patient. "Let's start at the beginning," he said. "What is your name?"

"Scott Martin."

"And how did you make Iris Tanner's acquaintance?"

"I've already been through this," Martin said.

"Humor me," said Buckingham, "and go through it once more."

"I met her at a bar. She was playing guitar. I thought she was good."

"And so you introduced yourself?"

"Yeah. I guess. I don't remember."

Buckingham suddenly felt an urgent desire to stop questioning the boy. He sat down. "That's a dangerous business," he said softly.

"What?"

"Using magic on Magic Management officers." That was what the desire was. Magical manipulation.

"I wasn't using magic."

That must be why no one had gotten very far questioning him. Buckingham shook his head. "I won't tell anyone you're a ghoul," he said, "if you'll kindly remove this desire magic and cooperate with my questions."

Martin started to protest, then stopped. "Okay."

"Thank you," said Buckingham. The desire lifted. "I assume you know Miss Tanner through the ghoul community, then?"

Scott didn�t reply.

"Well, that's not extraordinarily important. Let's see. Where is Miss Tanner?"

"I don't know."

"Is she with William Jordan?"

"Billy? How do you know about Billy?"

Jordan went by Billy, then. Buckingham showed Scott a picture of Jordan. "This man."

Martin nodded. "I think she's with him."

"And where are they?"

"I don't know. Honestly. She didn't tell me."

Buckingham showed Martin another picture. "This woman. Have you seen her?"

"Yeah. That's Jaq."

"And she's with them?"

Martin nodded. "Hey, what's this about? I thought you were after Iris."

"Oh. Indeed. She's traveling in the company of an escaped murderess. We are certainly 'after' her. Haven't you seen this woman�" he tapped the picture� "on the news?"

"I don't watch the news."

Buckingham sighed. "Very well," he said. "Perhaps you can help me with another matter. Do you know how Miss Tanner came to know Mr. Jordan�Billy, that is."

"He was following her around. He's a fan of hers."

"A fan."

"Iris used to be in Satin Blades."

"I'm afraid I don't follow you."

"Satin Blades. It's a band. They've got a top 40 hit. They're on the radio. She was in the middle of recording their album when she got turned into a ghoul. She wrote all their songs."

"Wrote songs? Does she get royalties?" If Tanner made money, then a bribe . . .

"Yeah. Well, now she does. I don't see what that's got to do with�"

"Would you consider Miss Tanner to be in a comfortable financial situation?"

"She's not rich or anything. Why do you wanna know that, anyway?"

Buckingham didn't answer. He stood up from the table and went to the back of the room. If Tanner made an income, any kind of income, why would she jeopardize herself to help Jordan? Certainly, large sums of money tended to make people act erratically, but springing a murderer from jail? She must have known the kind of attention that would draw, and living outside the law as she did . . .? Would she have done it for money? He turned back to Martin.

"She didn't tell you where she was going. Did she tell you why?"

"No. She wouldn't. But I think it was something important."

"Why?"

"Look, I've known Iris for almost a year, and she's not the kind of person to get mixed up in anything. She always kept a real low profile. She was always ragging on me�"

Buckingham cut him off and repeated his question. "Why?"

"I don't know."

"Mr. Martin, may I remind you that I not only have evidence that you are a drug dealer, but I know that you are a ghoul. At the very least, I can ensure that you go to prison. At the very worst, I can have you executed. We are clear on that, aren't we?"

Martin reached for another cigarette. "I know this guy who deals guns on the black market. Iris wanted me to talk to him."

"About guns?"

Martin nodded. "She said she might want some."

"Why would she want guns?"

Martin shrugged. "She wouldn't tell me that either. But like I said, Iris is a real upstanding chick. And if she was trying to get guns, she'd have to be in a pretty desperate situation."

"Desperate. Like sheltering an escaped murderer?"

"Look, she wouldn't have done that. I don't think she knew who Jaq was. She doesn't really watch the news either."

Buckingham studied the young man's face. He was telling the truth. At least, it was true that he believed what he said about his friend. If it was really true, if Iris Tanner wasn't the sort to use magic to free a murderer, then why had she done it? Maybe . . .

"Did Miss Tanner have any secrets?" said Buckingham, interrupting his own thoughts.

"You mean besides being a ghoul?"

Of course. Could Jordan have blackmailed Tanner? Used his knowledge of her condition as leverage to force her to help him free his girlfriend? It seemed to make more sense, especially if the young man's assessment of Tanner's character were accurate. "I'm going to let you go, Mr. Martin," said Buckingham. "But we will need to monitor your phone calls. If Miss Tanner contacts you, we'll need you to try to get her location. And you must not let her know you are cooperating with us. Are we clear?"

* * *

The drive to the witches' circle dwelling was taking longer than Billy had anticipated. Granted, they'd taken the wrong exit and driven down it for miles upon miles before realizing it, an unexpected detour that had cost them an hour. But that wasn't Billy's fault. Jaq had directed them down that road. She'd been so goddamned sure of herself too. The way she'd been sure of herself that morning, when she said they should find a pay phone because they were going to be arriving early at the witches' circle. Finding the payphone had actually turned out okay, because Iris had gotten through to Rhett and told him what was going on and asked him to look for Kei's myths.

Of course, Jaq had bitched about that, too, complaining Iris' conversation was costing them time. But the drive, earlier that day, had been pretty smooth. They'd laughed and listened to music. Jaq and Iris hadn't snapped at each other. It had been nice.

But Jaq was a freaking know-it-all, and it was driving him nuts. Even after they'd been driving down the wrong road for half an hour, she'd kept saying, "No this is right. I know this is right." Finally, they'd seen the road sign for a town 60 miles east of where they wanted to end up, and Jaq had relented. "Maybe it was the next exit."

It wasn't the next exit, she realized when got back on the highway. It wasn't the one after that either. The exit they actually wanted was five exits down from the one Jaq had originally made them take. Now, they were headed in the right direction, but they were still 40 miles from their destination, and it was dark.

Billy watched the white line of the road disappear to the right of the car. Both of the girls were sleeping. Iris was stretched out in the back, and Jaq was curled up in the front seat. When they'd first exited the highway, the road had been four lanes. It had dropped to two lanes with large shoulders on either side. Gradually, the shoulders had gotten smaller and smaller, until the road seemed barely to fit between the trees that grew tall on either side. The road slithered around sharp curves. Occasionally, eighteen-wheelers appeared around a bend, their trailers bleeding into Billy's lane. If freaked Billy out. He also didn't appreciate the few cars that had come up behind him, riding his ass with their brights on, then roaring past him at the first sign of broken yellow line.

Billy fucking hated the country. In the city, the roads were flat and straight and well lit. He didn't really live in the city; he lived in the suburbs, but in his mind it was the best of both worlds. He was in walking distance of a convenience store, but he had a yard too. And there were trees, but they grew out of little holes in the sidewalk, they had little fences around them, and they were pruned regularly. Somebody needed to prune this fucking forest that he was driving through. Getting to Oric's had been bad enough, but at least he'd been driving during daylight. Animals probably lived in the woods he was driving through. Deer, probably. Deer could fuck up a car bad.

Jaq stirred in the front seat. She sprang up. "Where are we?" she demanded.

Billy didn't answer.

"Billy, pull over," she said. "We missed the turn."

"We did not miss the turn," Billy said. He was going to strangle her. She was a know-it-all. How had he ever been remotely attracted to her?

"Where are we?"

"We're in the middle of the woods. Go back to sleep." Go back to sleep forever, he thought.

"Pull over."

"No." Not on her life.

"Billy, pull over."

He'd pull over. Okay, fine. But that was because he'd had it with Jaq. He would pull over, and then he would tell her exactly what he thought of her. He eased the car over as far as he could get it. His left wheels were still on the pavement, so he flipped on his four-way flashers and turned off the car. "Do you want to drive, Jaq?" he said.

"I don't think we actually missed the turn," she said. "Sorry."

Sorry? Oh, she was gonna be sorry. She was going to be really, really sorry.

Iris woke up too. Sort of. "Why'd we stop?" she asked thickly, sitting up. Her hair was mussed.

"It's my fault," said Jaq.

"Damned right it is," said Billy.

"I was having this dream," she said.

"Listen, Jaq, if you�" Billy started.

"I'm sorry," Jaq said. "I really just wasn�t awake yet. I had a dream that we got lost again. I'm sorry. Go ahead and start the car again."

It was hard to yell at her when she was apologizing. Plus, in the moonlight, her hair was all wispy, and he was kind of remembering finding her attractive. Remotely. "Fine," he said. He turned the key in the ignition. Nothing happened. "Son of a bitch," he said, trying it again. Nothing. The fucking lights were on. In fact, the dashboard console had the gall to flash the 'Check Battery' light.

"What's wrong?" asked Iris.

"Battery's dead," said Billy.

"But the lights are on," said Jaq.

"I know the lights are on," he said. "Jesus fucking Christ."

"Try it again," said Jaq.

"I just tried it," said Billy.

"Try it again."

Billy turned the key again. The car was unresponsive.

"Damn," said Jaq. "We're miles away from a pay phone."

"Maybe we can flag someone down," said Iris. "Get a jump?"

"I don't have cables," said Billy.

"Maybe they will," Iris said hopefully.

"Maybe," Jaq agreed.

"Shit," said Billy again. He tried the key one more time. Still nothing.

"I'll get out and stand by the road and try to get someone to stop," said Iris.

She stood outside for a long time. Billy swore some more. They were going to die out here. In the middle of nowhere. Jaq suggested they start walking until they got to a gas station. Billy didn't want to leave the car.

Finally, the lights of a car appeared in the distance. Iris waved her arms and jumped up and down. The car�an old station wagon�pulled in behind them. The driver's side door opened and a tall man with a shaggy beard, wearing a flannel shirt, got out.

"You kids having some trouble?" he asked. His hick accent was thick.

Billy glowered at him. They weren't kids. He didn't like the look of this guy.

"We think it's the battery," said Iris. "Do you happen to have some jumper cables?"

"Fraid not," said the man. "Left 'em in the truck this morning. But where are you kids headed?"

Jaq told him.

"I'm going through that way. Wouldn't mind giving you a lift."

"I don't think we should leave the car," said Billy, who was sitting inside it. The guy was weird. He talked weird. He was probably a psycho-killer or something.

"Aw, it'll be fine," said the man. "Lock 'er up tight, and you can come back for 'er in the morning."

"The wheels are almost on the road," said Billy. It was true. The shoulder was so small that the car really wasn't pulled over in the truest sense of the word.

The man laughed. "You kids ain't from around here, are you?"

Billy glared at him. No, they weren't. They were from the suburbs. And he'd give anything to just get back there.

"We're from up north," said Iris. "We're just visiting some friends."

"Well," said the man. "The offer stands. There ain't no gas stations between here and there, and it's late. Prob'ly won't be too many more cars through here tonight."

Iris looked at Billy. He shook his head. "We'd really appreciate it," she said.

Billy leaned his head back against the headrest and sighed. Iris never listened to him. She just did whatever the fuck she wanted, didn't she? "Fine," he said.

They locked up the car and transferred their bags to the man's station wagon. He turned on the car, and loud country music filled the air. Billy groaned silently and then gripped the seats tightly as the man began to take the curves at breakneck speed. Mercifully, he didn't try to make conversation. The music was too loud for that, anyway.

At the top of the hour, the station gave way to news. The woman news anchor droned on about the president's latest veto or something or other. Billy tuned out until he heard her mention Mischief.

"Kelly Jones, a young woman attending the concert, has disappeared. Her disappearance marks the third of such incidents involving the rock band's tour. Two crew members have also gone missing within the past two weeks. Police suspect foul play, and an investigation is underway.

"In other news, new information on the escape of convicted murderer Jaqueline Schmerfeld has come to light. Reliable sources at Magic Management believe former boyfriend William Jordan and a woman named Iris Tanner assisted Schmerfeld's escape. It is unknown if Tanner is a willing participant in the plot or a hostage. The trio is still at large, and is believed to be headed south. Anyone with information on this case should call the Magic Management hotline�"

The man driving the car shut off the radio abruptly. He jerked his thumb at Jaq. "I thought you looked familiar."

chapter eleven >>

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