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chapter fourteen

As far as Billy was concerned, Jaq had made her choice. She could have come with him and Iris, but she had chosen to stay with the witches. Iris said that Jaq had stayed in order to buy them time. She said that the witches might have found out that Jaq helped with the escape and might be subjecting her to torture. Iris thought Billy could just whip up some guns and they could put one to Mother Constance's head.

"I didn't get the impression you liked Jaq," he said to Iris.

Iris shrugged. "She saved my life. I kind of owe her."

"Whatever," said Billy. "They weren't going to kill you. I wasn't going to let them kill you. And we were two seconds away from cutting our own ropes. We would have gotten away without Jaq."

"Maybe," said Iris. "But we don't know the location of the court, and the witches do. So if we don't go back there, what are we going to do? Sit around and wait for the world to end?"

Billy didn't answer. She had a point. What did they really have to lose anyway? "Fine," he said. "We'll go back."

Trouble was, he wasn't exactly sure how to get back. The witches were east of the highway. Currently, their car was east of the highway. Were the witches east or west of their current location? Iris certainly wouldn't know, so Billy made the best estimate he could and kept driving. The road they were traveling on dead ended after about twenty miles. Billy had to turn around. Try as he might, he couldn't find a way back to the road they'd been traveling on when Buckingham picked them up. He even tried to buy a map at a Mom and Pop grocery when they stopped to fuel up, and the guy behind the counter just laughed at him. These roads weren't on any maps.

Back in the car, he related the exchange to Iris, who wanted to know why he hadn't just asked the guy for directions.

"Directions to the witches' coven?" he mocked.

"No, you idiot. To the main road," she said. "That is just like a man."

If she hadn't said the last part, Billy would have turned around and gone back to ask the clerk for directions. But, feeling insulted, he wanted to prove to her that he could get them back to the coven all by himself. So they drove for a very long time. It was dark when they made it back to the highway. Being on the highway was good, insofar as they were at least back at a familiar place. However, they were miles away from the witches' house. Billy took the highway north, but missed the proper exit and ended up taking the one Jaq had them take on their way down. By the time he realized his mistake, it was late. Iris was asleep, and Billy could hardly keep his eyes open. He pulled into the parking lot of a church, figuring they wouldn't try to tow his car. After checking to make sure Buckingham was secure in the back seat, Billy slept too.

He awoke a few hours later to Iris' moaning in her sleep. She was huddled up against the door, her knees drawn into her chest. She was shaking.

Billy reached over and nudged her gently. "Iris," he murmured.

Her eyes fluttered open.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Hungry," she said. "I'm so hungry."

Billy suddenly flashed on Iris' speech to Jaq about how ghouls could go crazy if they didn't eat.

"How long has it been?" he asked. "Are you . . ." Was she going to go nuts?

"I ate at Oric's," she said. "Three days?"

God. How had he not thought of this? He and Buckingham had eaten some snacks when he'd stopped at the Mom and Pop store. It hadn't been enough. His stomach was growling. But three days? It would drive the average human a little batty. She sounded so weak and pitiful, and that made Billy angry, because he was powerless to help her. Where could they find a dead person?

Iris was rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. "Where are we?" she asked in a small voice.

"I pulled over to sleep," he said.

Iris sat up and peered out the window. Immediately, she threw open the car door and tore outside, running into the darkness.

Billy got out of the car. "Iris?" he called after her. Maybe it was too late. She'd already gone mad. Then he saw that she was headed for the graveyard attached to the church.

Billy followed her as she rushed between the headstones, weaving in and out with her long hair streaming behind her. She collapsed to her knees by a gravestone with loose soil in front of it and began digging frantically with her hands.

"Iris," said Billy. "Iris, don't."

There had to be a shed where the church kept tools somewhere, even if only for landscaping the church's front lawn. Maybe even in the church's basement. He glanced around him, noticing a small wooden building at the edge of the graveyard.

"I'm going to go find a shovel," he said.

Iris ignored him, still scraping the dirt furiously with her bare hands. He could see that her fingers were starting to bleed.

"Stop," he said. "I'm going to�"

He got behind her and tried to yank her backwards. She was tiny�hardly weighed anything�but she fought him, her fingers raking across his face and her foot connecting with his shin. He dropped her; she went back to digging.

"Iris . . ."

Hesitating, he looked from Iris to the shed a few times, then took off for the shed. For all he knew, she was too far gone. The ghoul madness had seized her. But he couldn't let her keep digging that way. She was hurting herself. The shed was locked, but the door was made from old wood. White paint peeled from it, and it clung to rusted hinges. Billy slammed the door with his shoulder. It gave a little, but didn't break.

He tried again. And again. And again.

With a loud crack, the wood of the door splintered and gave way. Billy tore the wood out of the way until he had a space big enough to get through. The shed contained a riding lawnmower, two weedwackers, handful of rakes, and yes, in the corner, a shovel. He snatched it and raced back to the grave, where Iris was still digging.

"I have a shovel," he rasped.

No response from Iris.

"Stop Iris," he said. "Stop."

Iris kept going, unaware of Billy. "For God's sake," he screamed, his voice cracking, "I have a shovel!" He picked her up and threw her away from the grave.

As he began to dig, he realized he was terrified. Iris seemed to have lost her mind. What if, even after she ate, she was like this? What would he do with her? Would she have to be locked up? Killed? He shivered involuntarily and redoubled his digging efforts.

Iris tried to crawl back to the grave and continue to use her hands, but Billy pushed her away. He was being rough with her, and he felt bad, but she was like an animal, and it scared him. Streaks of blood and dirt ran down her elbows, and there were smears of it on her face where she had pushed her hair out of the way. Now, she sat very still, watching Billy dig with a blank expression on her face and the glimmer of hunger in her eyes. She looked utterly insane.

Billy kept digging. He uncovered the coffin at last and used the shovel to pry it open. Iris leapt inside the coffin. She straddled the body, still recognizable as an elderly gentleman in his army uniform. Her mouth wide, she lowered her face to his bare neck.

Billy swallowed and looked away. He stared into the night, leaning on his shovel next to the mound of dirt he'd created. From beneath him, he could hear the sounds of flesh ripping and Iris chewing. He stifled the urge to scream. The sky was dark. The stars were bright, and there were so many of them. He'd never seen so many stars in his life. Maybe that was why people lived in the country. For the stars. In that moment, it seemed to Billy that the sight of so many stars could make nearly anything okay.

He turned back to Iris. She'd eaten out the man's throat. It gaped, a second mouth, open and glistening.

Iris looked up at him. "Don't watch," she said.

Oh God! She could talk. She could still talk. And she could feel embarrassment or shame or . . .

"It's okay," he said. "It's okay if you're okay." He felt dangerously close to tears, and he couldn't remember crying since he was seven at his grandfather's funeral. His father had seen his tears and punched him on the shoulder and said, "Buck up."

"Thank you," whispered Iris.

* * *

Iris took a couple pieces with her. They put them in the trunk of Buckingham's car. She and Billy took turns filling in the grave. When they finished, they were both filthy and exhausted. After checking on Buckingham, who seemed to have slept through the entire incident, they used the shovel to break into the church so they could get cleaned up as best they could in the restrooms. Billy felt guilty. It was church, after all, so he wandered into the sanctuary and left some cash in the top offering plate of a stack he found behind the altar.

When Iris was clean, she found him the in sanctuary, staring up at the huge crucifix on the wall in front. She touched him lightly on the back, and he turned. Her hair was wet and it clung to her face. It made her eyes look huge. She looked . . . angelic. Which was odd. Which was fucked up, considering what she'd just done. What he'd just helped her do.

And yet . . .

He should have felt appalled. He'd desecrated the grave of man and watched Iris devour his flesh. He should have felt guilt. But all he felt was relief. All he cared about was that Iris was okay. If anything had happened to her, he didn't know what he would have done.

They went back to the car. They both went back to sleep.

Iris woke Billy up a few hours later and offered to drive. She didn't think it was the best idea to spend too much more time at the sight of all the damage they'd caused. Billy agreed, but didn't let her drive. It was still early morning, and, maybe because it was light or maybe because he'd rested, Billy had no trouble retracing the route to the witches' coven.

* * *

Jaq was in the kitchen when she heard it. Now a full member of the coven, she'd been required to take on work responsibilities. Due to her intense distaste for domestic duties, Mother Constance seemed to think dishwashing was Jaq's calling. Jaq didn't even enjoy loading dishwashers. Rinsing the dishes before stacking them disgusted her. What she couldn't stand was the thought she was touching other people's leftover food. When her mother had given Jaq this particular chore as a child, Jaq's strategy had generally been to hold a dish gingerly under hot running water hoping that the water pressure would force most of the bits of stuck on food off. As an adult, she did this immediately with her own dishes. As soon as one was soiled, she dropped it in the sink and turned on the faucet. She found that the sooner she got the dish to the sink, the more likely it was that running water would do the trick and she could load a relatively clean dish into the dishwasher.

The witches' house didn't have running water. In order to wash dishes, Jaq had to go and get water from the well, then heat it over an open flame, then transfer it a washing basin. By the time she got that far, the food was always dried on and gross.

No one had come right out and accused her of helping Billy and Iris escape. No evidence pointed to her, and they'd all witnessed her presence in the council room the entire time. But Jaq wasn't sure that she'd convinced them. She felt like the dishwashing chore was a punishment of sorts. In the old days, when Mother Lucy had headed the coven, it used to be a running joke that Jaq hated washing dishes. The other witches had teased her good-naturedly about it. Funny thing was, now everyone was so freaking solemn. Magic was supposed to be fun. Constance made it work. Constance made everything work.

Jaq had thought about running off a few times. She wasn't particularly enjoying herself here, after all. She hadn't run, mostly because she knew that she was an escaped convict, and it wouldn't be safe for her if she left. In some ways, this place was almost worse than jail. At least there was electricity in jail. One thing was for sure, she didn't want to spend the rest of her life roughing it like this. Of course, if the pixie police caught her, the rest of her life wouldn�t be a very long time. Long miserable life or death. Neither seemed very appealing. And they were her only options if somebody stopped Mischief from unleashing Zain the Devourer. If no one did, then the rest of everybody's life was going to be short.

Jaq had tried subtly to get Constance to give her the location of the daion queen. She hadn't had any luck, but she thought that if she could get the information, maybe she could find a way to tell Billy. Maybe leave him a message or something. She didn't think that he and Iris could go back to their houses. But maybe she could tell that friend of Iris'. Scott or something. Oddly enough, the witches had a phone. No electricity. No running water. But they wanted to stay in touch, so they had a phone.

Jaq briefly contemplated the irony of this, after she heard the noise, and someone was yelling at her to call the police.

When she heard it, at first she thought it was a firecracker. She'd just poured a steaming pot of water over a mound of dirty dishes, and the sound made her jump. Water sloshed onto her hand. It was hot; she cried out. Then she heard screaming and someone yelling for a police call. Jaq left the kitchen to investigate, yelling back, "I can't call the police! I'm an escaped convict!"

Besides, what would they say? We're a group of peaceable witches being attacked by�

Billy and Iris were standing in the main hallway, both toting Rambo-style guns. A pudgy middle-age man trailed behind them. He was handcuffed and looked frightened. All three of them looked unkempt. Their hair was mussed and tangled. Iris' clothes were even dirtier and raggier than usual. Billy had his arm around Sister Jennifer, pinning her against his body. He held the gun to her head.

Jaq tiptoed into the hallway, wiping her hands on her apron. "Uh . . . guys?"

"Hi Jaq," said Billy. "We're here to rescue you."

Iris grabbed the pudgy man by the arm and yanked him forward. "This is Officer Ed Buckingham. We stole his car."

"Okay," said Jaq. "Well, here I am. So, you can let Jennifer go, and the three of us will�"

"Not without the location of the daion queen," said Iris.

"Jennifer here says she doesn't know where it is," said Billy, removing the gun from Jennifer's temple and firing a few more shots into the ceiling. Jennifer let out a little whimper.

Jaq flinched. What was going on with these two? Had something really bad happened to them while they were gone?

Jennifer started crying.

Iris pointed her gun at one of the surrounding witches. They'd all come running at the sound of the gunshots and now stood frozen fearfully. "You," said Iris. "Go get Mother Constance."

"I'm here," said Mother Constance, sweeping into the room. She was still wearing her big straw hat and gloves from working in the garden.

"Great," said Billy. "Tell us where the daion queen is or I'm going to kill Sister Jennifer."

Mother Constance stripped off her gloves. "Those guns aren't real."

"Sure they are," said Billy.

She just looked at him.

"Okay fine," he said. "They're magic guns. The bullets still fucking hurt."

Mother Constance shrugged. "Two can play at that game." A very large machine gun appeared in her hands. "Fully automatic," she said.

Iris looked at Billy.

"Use Buckingham as a shield," Billy said.

"Listen," said Buckingham.

"Shut up," Iris snarled, digging her gun into his ribs.

No one moved for a few seconds.

"Why don't you let Sister Jennifer go?" Mother Constance suggested.

"Why don't you tell me what I want to know?" Billy replied.

Mother Constance leveled her gun. "Let her go."

"Fuck off," said Billy.

Suddenly, Constance shifted her aim and fired a round into Iris' stomach. Iris let go of Buckingham and her gun and stepped backward, her head slowly dropping to stare at the growing red stain of her belly.

"You bitch," Billy said, tossing Jennifer away and bringing up his gun.

"Billy no!" said Jaq. She leapt forward and tackled Mother Constance, knocking her out of the way just before Billy fired.

"What the hell is your problem?" Billy growled at Jaq. "She shot Iris!" He knocked Jaq off Constance and straddled Constance, putting the barrel of his gun under chin.

"Don't Billy," said Jaq. "You could kill her."

Billy ignored her, focusing instead on Mother Constance, who was smirking up at him. "Reverse it," he said. "Take back the illusion."

"You silly man," said Mother Constance, "with your paltry magic. You can't hurt me."

"My magic," said Billy, "comes from the daion Kei, whose illusions are so powerful, she's fooled the whole nation into thinking she's a rock star."

Mother Constance laughed. "Right. The pixie rock group. You're insane."

Billy pulled back his gun and shot Constance's hand. Bones shattered. Blood gushed. Mother Constance cried out. The witches gasped. None of them, Jaq included, had ever seen Mother Constance fooled or affected by someone else's illusion.

Billy shut down his illusions. The guns disappeared. Mother Constance's had went back to normal. She moved it in front of her face and flexed it. "Who are you?" she whispered.

"Drop the illusion," said Billy.

She nodded once sharply.

The red stain on Iris' body faded away.

"The court of the daion queen?" Billy asked.

Constance told him.

Billy stood up. He went for the door, grabbing Buckingham along the way. Iris and Jaq followed wordlessly. Outside, Billy gave the keys to Iris. They drove off, and for a long time, none of them spoke.

* * *

After some time on the highway, they crossed the state line. Iris drove. Jaq sat in the passenger seat up front. She was still wearing her apron. Buckingham was still handcuffed, but not to the door handle. Billy slumped beside him, staring out the window.

Iris was trying to figure out how to thank him for saving her life.

"What is it," said Buckingham from the back seat, "exactly that the three of you are up to?"

No one replied.

"I don't really know anymore," said Jaq. "Why do you guys have a hostage?"

Billy had saved her life twice, really. Last night in the graveyard and today. Iris was grateful to be alive, but she didn't like it. She didn't like owing him.

"I suppose they think it's better to have me here where they can keep an eye on me," said Buckingham. "After all, I'm the officer investigating your case, Miss Schmerfeld."

Iris had always thought she did a great job at taking care of herself. But now, twice in two days, she hadn't been able to do it alone.

"Oh," said Jaq. "You aren't very good, are you?"

"Excuse me?" said Buckingham.

"You got yourself captured by the people you were trying to capture," said Jaq.

Buckingham chuckled. "There is that."

Iris knew she should be grateful to Billy. But mostly, she just felt terrified that she was becoming dependent on Billy. Anytime she'd ever depended on anyone, it had turned out badly. Her mother had never been there for her. Rhett had kicked her out of his band and his life.

"And for the record," said Jaq. "I didn't kill anyone."

"Didn't you?" said Buckingham. "Did Mr. Jordan kill his wife and let you take the fall? He seems quite capable."

"My 'wife,'" said Billy, "isn't dead. She's a pixie. She set the whole thing up. The fake murder. She thought it was really funny."

"Of all the stories I've heard from convicted murderers claiming to be innocent," said Buckingham, "that is the most creative."

Iris struggled to concentrate on the conversation going on in the car. "It's true," she said. "Kei is the kind of being that your organization should be punishing."

"I'm afraid it's not quite my organization anymore," said Buckingham. "I was fired."

"I knew it," said Billy. "I knew you didn't put any requests in for court orders."

"Does that mean you'll let me go?" asked Buckingham.

Billy snorted.

"Maybe we should," said Jaq.

"That would be stupid," said Billy. "He knows where we're going."

"Hell," said Jaq, "we might as well just kill him."

No one said anything.

"Come on, guys," said Jaq. "What's going on with you? I don't see you for two days, and suddenly you've got hostages and you're threatening to shoot people."

"We're trying to save the world," said Billy. "Or did you forget that?"

"You're a dick," said Jaq.

"Hey," said Billy, "we just rescued you."

"I didn't ask to be rescued," said Jaq.

"Iris, pull over and let Jaq out," said Billy.

"God, Billy," said Jaq. "Grow up."

Iris glanced in the rearview mirror at Billy's reflection. He looked so tired. It shouldn�t be like this. This whole crazy quest had been her idea in the first place. She needed to take some responsibility. So far all she'd done was get rescued. Not anymore. No one would have to worry about taking care of her anymore. She was gonna pull her weight.

"I thought you were going to kill Mother Constance," said Jaq.

"I was," said Billy. "If she killed Iris, I was going to kill her."

"No," said Iris. "It was my fault."

"You were shot in the stomach," said Billy. "How could it possibly be your fault?"

"I won't put you in that position again," said Iris. "You won't have to save me. I can take better care of myself."

"Iris," said Billy. "No one's saying that you did anything wrong."

"I'm saying it," said Iris.

chapter fifteen >>

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