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chapter eight

Billy crumpled the wrapper that had contained his egg mcmuffin sandwich. Since Iris didn't have any food in her apartment, he'd gone to McDonald's that morning to get food for him and Jaq. Jaq was appreciative. After all, she hadn't had any McDonald's in quite some time. Iris had been appreciative too, since she hadn't known what she was going to do about their needing food. Breakfast had gone well, all three of them sitting at Iris' kitchen table. Then, of course, the women started talking. And everything went downhill from there.

"You think we should get guns?!" Jaq was saying.

"I'm just saying if we kill Mischief, it should stop the sacrifice," said Iris. She was clearing the McDonald's wrappers from the table.

"I'm an escaped convict," said Jaq. "I can't run around with a gun." She handed Iris an empty McDonald's coffee cup.

"You're the one who said we need to come up with ideas other than finding the daion queen," said Iris, snatching the cup from Jaq.

"Guns are not a good idea."

"Okay, well, did you have a better one?" Iris asked, shoving the wrappers in the trash can.

Billy cleared his throat. "Um, ladies. This isn't very productive." He hadn't expected the two of them not to get along. He hadn't thought they'd be bosom friends, but�actually, he hadn't thought much about it at all.

"I think," said Jaq, "that we need to find more out about Zain."

"That was my next idea," said Iris, sitting back down at the table.

"Sure it was," said Jaq, turning to Billy and rolling her eyes. "Billy, do you ever talk to Oric anymore?"

"No," said Billy. "He moved after that fight he had with Kei about framing you."

"Can you get in touch with him?" Jaq folded her arms over her chest. God, she was always so disappointed in him.

"I think so," he said, folding his own arms over his chest. "Why?"

"He's a daion," said Jaq. "He might know about Zain. Where did he move to?"

Billy told her.

"Oh, that's good then. It's on the way to where my witches' circle relocated. We'll make a trip." Jaq looked satisfied.

"Um," said Iris, "Billy? Didn't you say Kei had you make photocopies of the Zain myths?"

Billy looked around Jaq at Iris. "Yeah," said Billy, "but I didn't keep any of the copies."

"Would she still have them?" Iris asked.

Billy considered. "Probably. She used to bring them when she traveled."

"We can ask Rhett to look for them," said Iris. "He's the closest link to Mischief we've got."

"Sounds good," said Billy.

"If you think Rhett can handle it," said Jaq, without looking at Iris.

Iris shrugged. "It's our best chance to get our hands on the texts of the myths. Unless Oric knows a way to get them."

"Maybe," said Billy, "you should just ask Scott about the guns."

"But Billy�" said Jaq.

"We might be able to use them," he said. "And don't worry, you don't have to carry one if you don't want to."

"Fine," said Jaq.

"I'll ask," said Iris. "I was going to ask him to watch my apartment while we're gone anyway."

Jaq turned to Iris, smiling. "Oh, you don't have to come along."

Billy looked at her in shock. "Hey. Of course she's coming."

"The witches won't accept ghouls into the circle," said Jaq, shrugging as if it weren't her fault.

"They don't need to know that she's a ghoul," Billy said. He couldn�t believe this. Not only were they snapping at each other, Jaq was trying to nudge Iris right out of the picture.

"Oric will be able to tell," said Jaq.

"Oric won't care," said Billy. "Iris is part of this. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be doing this. I wouldn't have found you." He wanted Jaq to understand. Iris was important.

Jaq rolled her eyes again. "Look, Iris, I'm sure you used to be a very nice person, but I don't like ghouls."

"I hadn't noticed," said Iris. She stood up and went back to the trash can, trying to shove the trash deeper inside.

Jaq got up too. She turned to Billy. "It's just that according to the teachings of gatherer witches, I know that ghouls don't have souls. Their humanity is taken from them at the time of transformation, and they become monsters."

Iris stopped messing with the garbage and straightened up, her back to Billy and Jaq. No one spoke for a few seconds. Billy couldn't believe that Jaq had just said what she'd said to Iris. Finally, without turning around, Iris said, "I'm about two seconds away from throwing you out of my house. So, I'm going to go outside and smoke a cigarette and calm down." She walked out of the kitchen and slammed the door behind her.

It was quiet. Billy couldn't figure out what to say to Jaq. How could she have said that? He stood up too, shoving his hands into his pockets. That was the cruelest, rudest thing he'd ever heard come out of Jaq's mouth. Iris wasn't a monster. She was a lovely woman, who did the best she could with the cards life had dealt her. Jaq had no right�"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he said.

"Me?" said Jaq, spreading her hands. "What's wrong with you? Being chummy with a ghoul? Have you lost your mind? She'll kill us while we sleep and eat us."

Billy shook his head in disgust. How could Jaq think that?

"She's not a person anymore," said Jaq. "Don't you understand that?"

"She is a person. Sure, she eats dead people, but she doesn't hurt anyone. To be fair, those dead people don't need their bodies anymore."

Jaq folded her arms again. "Not the point. A magical thing happened to the person who was Iris Tanner, and her body might still be walking around, but she's not inside it."

Billy just looked at her. She was saying crazy stuff, but she was so earnest. She really believed what she was saying. She used to get that look when she told him she loved him. Neither of them had said that since their reunion. "How could I have been with you and not known this is what you thought?"

"What do you mean? We never talked about ghouls. There was no reason to�"

"If you feel this way about ghouls, how do you feel about black people?" Billy said.

"How could you compare�"

"Because it's the same thing. It's prejudice. You've never known a ghoul, and you won't give Iris half a chance, but yet you've decided she's not human. And correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that what they used to say about slaves?"

Jaq sputtered. "You're incredible," she said finally. "I've studied ghouls."

"You've never known one."

"You can't know one. There's nothing in them to know."

"That's it. I'm calling off our marriage."

"Oh, Jesus, Billy. You didn't think we were still engaged."

He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He closed it.

"Oh. I guess you did."

Billy felt as if he'd just had the wind knocked out of him. "At the jail, you said you were waiting for me . . . . I thought you meant . . ."

"I never said I was waiting for you." And her voice was soft, sympathetic.

He wanted to anger her, make her argue. Anything to get that pity out of her voice. "You said something about my getting away from Kei. I thought you said�" He stopped. "Never mind."

"Billy," she said, reaching for him, "it's just that it was a long time, and in jail, you have a lot of time to think, and I�"

"It's okay," he said, struggling to keep his voice from sounding gruff. "You don't have to explain."

"I never wanted to hurt you. I didn't know if we'd even see each�"

"I said it's okay," he said. He moved past her, looking for any wrappers that might have been left behind. There weren't any. Damn Iris. "We've got other problems."

Jaq went after him, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Please. I don't want it to be like this between us. When we were together, did you think that we were right for each other? I mean, deep down, did you really�"

He turned around, moving her hand. "I don't want to talk about this." He didn't. This was just like Jaq, always pushing. Everything had to be her way.

"If we don't talk about it, how are we going to get past it?"

"I'm past it," he said. "It's over. There's nothing to say. If you'll recall, right before this relationship discussion started, I'd just broken off our engagement. So clearly, I'm over it."

"Just because you're a guy doesn't mean you have to hide your feelings. If we get this out in the open�"

Iris burst back inside. "All right, listen to me, because I'm only going to go through this once. First of all, I am not some sort of power tripper, magic seeker, okay? I became a ghoul because I got black pixie dust by accident. I admit it was stupid to mess with pixie dust in the first place, but I was young and I was the lead singer in a ROCK AND ROLL BAND!" She paused. Took a deep breath.

"I promised myself I wasn't going to yell. I'm sorry. I just want you to understand that I was young, and I thought I was invincible, and I took some risks. All kids do that. I just got burned. I'm no worse than anybody else, okay?

"Second of all," she continued, "whatever you think you know about ghouls you obviously got from the evening news. Whenever you see some ghoul going crazy, gobbling up people's grannies in the hospital morgue or funeral home, it's because that ghoul went mad from hunger. We all try to keep from eating human flesh. All ghouls. After the change, we don't want to eat dead people. You think I want to live like this? I don't. But I get so hungry if I go even a few days. If I fight that hunger too long, if I don't feed it, my brain will come unglued, and I'll have to feed it. If we don't feed the hunger, we become the hunger. And maybe living to serve hunger is soulless, I don't know. I know sometimes in those pictures on TV ads, when they're asking you to feed the starving kids in Africa, I think those kids' eyes look like they're already dead. So maybe you're right. But not all ghouls give in to their hunger. Some of us manage it."

Iris sat down at the table. No one said anything. Iris had pretty much said it all, Billy decided. Also, she was cute when she was angry. Iris put a cigarette between her lips and lit it. That looked good to Billy, so he lit a cigarette too. The two blew smoke at the ceiling contemplatively.

"I never liked the fact that you smoked," said Jaq.

"I know," said Billy. He took a big drag.

* * *

Buckingham gathered together the Schmerfeld bulletin, his notes, and a copy of the report he'd filed on the coffee shop couple. He tried to shuffle them together as he weaved between the desks in the research office. He was on his way to his superior's office. The shuffling was unsuccessful. The bulletin fluttered out of his hands, and he chased it across the floor. When he picked it up, he crumpled it, and he didn't bother to smooth it out, just smashed it down on top of the other papers. As a result of his clumsiness, he was out of breath when he opened the door to Investigator Jim Price's office. Price was young�nearly half Buckingham's age. He didn't remember Buckingham's glory days with the organization. He humored Buckingham�treated him the way he might treat an eccentric uncle.

When Buckingham walked in, Price's secretary was sitting on Price's desk. Price was standing next to her, very close, gazing down at her body. At the sight of Buckingham, she leapt off, blushing.

"I'll, um, get right on that, Jim�Mr. Price," she said and fled from the office.

"Mr. Buckingham," said Price, walking around his desk to sit down. "Might I suggest knocking in the future?"

"This can't wait, sir," said Buckingham. "I know where Jaqueline Schmerfeld is."

"Who?"

Buckingham handed Price the crumpled bulletin. Price set in on his desk and ran his hand over it. Then he shook his head. "I can't read this."

"The woman who escaped from prison."

Price looked at him blankly.

"Upstate."

Price knitted his brow in thought. "Oh yes. I know what you're talking about. Yes, we've ruled out magical involvement with the visitors that day."

"How?"

"The couple, her cousins, of course claim they weren't there, but the guard on duty recognized them. They're obviously just too frightened to admit�"

"The guard's lying. He's trying to save his job because he doesn't remember a damned thing about those visitors."

"Oh?" said Price.

"The visitors weren't her cousins. They were a couple I saw at a coffee shop. At least the girl was. I filed a report . . ." He dug through his papers and handed it to Price.

Price looked over it. "I've never seen this."

"I filed it�"

"Are you sure, because we investigate all files, and I assign all investigations, and I've never seen this."

"I did. I filed it yest�well, it's not important. I checked it out myself."

Price put his hands together and looked thoughtful. "Mr. Buckingham, I have to confess I'm having a hard time following you."

* * *

Jaq didn't have any response to Iris' outburst. Which was fine as far as Billy was concerned. The last thing he needed was to have the two of them at each other's throats the whole trip. Iris was coming. He made that abundantly clear. They were all going. They just hadn't decided when to leave. Jaq wanted out as soon as possible. The pixie police wanted her. They'd issued an order of execution for her. The sooner she got away, the better, in her mind.

There were just a few things to take care of. Billy had to talk to Oric and set up their visit. He didn't have Oric's phone number because it was in his house. So, he had to make about a dozen calls to get it. Finally, he got the number and called Oric. Oric was delighted to hear from them. He lived out in the middle of nowhere and rarely got visitors. He was happy to have them come for a night. Jaq called the witches' circle and arranged for their stay there. Billy also thought that Jaq should have a magical disguise, since she was wanted. Since Iris produced magic by being, he figured it was better if she did it. Jaq, of course, hated the idea.

"I can do it," said Jaq. "I can gather enough magic tonight�"

"Don't get upset," said Billy, "but you've never been able to gather enough magic to pull one off properly before."

There were more protests, but eventually Jaq agreed to let Iris alter her appearance. Iris wasn't exactly kind. She made Jaq look like a small woman with mousy brown hair, but at least Jaq wouldn't attract attention. That taken care of, Iris went to make the last of the phone calls, those to Rhett and Scott.

* * *

"Wait a second," said Price, holding up his hand to stop Buckingham, "You went to the bar in order to find the woman you saw at the coffee shop?"

"Yes," said Buckingham.

"But they weren't much help?"

"I got her name."

"Right," said Price, smiling indulgently. "And as you were coming out of the bar, you saw her?"

"Yes."

"Well, that was lucky, wasn't it?" Price smiled ironically.

"Actually, it was. Very lucky," said Buckingham. He wanted to wring Price's neck. He'd be farther along in this explanation if Price didn't continually interrupt him.

"All right then. Continue."

"So, I followed her, and I listened at her door. I overheard her talking about someone named Jaq."

"Just so we're clear, why was it you followed her exactly?" Price leaned back in his office chair.

"I suspected her because of the coffee shop and her similarity to the description in the bulletin on Schmerfeld."

"Ah," said Price. He took a long pause. Then he smiled smugly. "So, Mr. Buckingham, you work in research, correct?"

"Yes, sir." He really wished Price would stop using his name. Every time Price said it, Buckingham heard mocking in his tone.

"And is it part of your job description to follow suspects to their homes?"

"No sir, but it seemed serendipitous that she had appeared�"

"Or for that matter, to investigate suspects by checking for them at bars?"

"Sir, you know that it's not." Where was Price going with this?

"So, why, Mr. Buckingham, did you do these things? Why didn't you report your suspicions?"

Aggh. Price had said his name again. "I guess I didn't think anyone would believe me."

"Ah," said Price, scooting back up to his desk. "So you found your own suspicions rather ludicrous?"

How Price had ever gotten so high in the organization, Buckingham could not fathom. He was a self-righteous prick. "I'll admit, it seems a little farfetched, sir, but I was right."

"Were you? Why do you think that?" Price laid his hands on the desk.

"I heard voices talking about someone named Jaq, who was wanted. Jaq is Jaqueline Schmerfeld."

"Is that what they said?"

"No, they only referred to the person as Jaq. But certainly, sir, it warrants checking out. I have the address. Last night Jaqueline Schmerfeld was under that roof, and every second we spend her is another second she has to get away."

"Mr. Buckingham, you don't have to be so melodramatic," said Price, throwing up his hands. "We have our best working on this, and�"

Buckingham took a deep breath. He wasn't going to explode. He wasn't going to�okay, he was. "There was a time," said Buckingham evenly, "when my suspicions were carried out by this organization immediately with no questions asked. I don't want to return to that time, but I don't think it's too much to ask to send someone round to this address and see what they find."

Price stood up. He squared off with Buckingham. "I assure you, I will have someone drop by sometime this week."

"You don't seem to understand that Ms. Schmerfeld is an escaped murderer. I think time is of the essence in this matter."

Price rounded his desk, going to the door of his office and holding it open. "And I think the tone you are taking with me is quite inappropriate."

Buckingham started to reply sharply, but checked himself. "I apologize," he said slowly. "As you can see, I feel quite strongly about this matter."

"Yes," said Price. He was quiet for a moment. "Your previous record with the organization is not unknown to me, Mr. Buckingham. I will send someone. And I will do it immediately."

"Thank you, sir."

* * *

Scott had no problem watching Iris' apartment while she was gone, but about the guns he was iffy.

"I might know someone," he said, but he didn't want to get mixed up in anything illegal now that he was a ghoul. He was trying to keep a low profile. Iris pointed out that he dealt drugs on the side. That was different, according to Scott. He wanted to know what Iris wanted the guns for, but Iris said she didn't want to get into it. There wasn't time. Eventually, she convinced Scott to look into it, but he didn't sound particularly happy about it. She couldn't get Rhett on the phone, even after trying several times. She hoped he was okay. More than likely he was sleeping off a bad hangover. Still, with Rhett being so close to Mischief, she couldn't help but worry.

They watched the news. Jaq was still wanted, but they weren't saying anything about Billy or Iris. In light of this, Billy wanted to go back to his house to get clothes and cash. He had credit cards on him and a checkbook, but only a little money. The credit cards were traceable and so were the checks. He thought it would be safer, if they did start to suspect him, not to leave a paper trail.

Both Iris and Jaq were against the idea of Billy going back to his house. (To Iris, what Billy thought of as a little money seemed like an awful lot to carry.) It was too dangerous. The pixie police might be keeping his name off the news to draw him out. He was the closest link to Jaq, and they didn't think it was wise for him to do it. They went back and forth for a while. Eventually Billy caved, but he said he was stopping at the bank first thing tomorrow when they left.

* * *

Officers Randy Fields and Nicholas Rose were parked beside a carwash. They stood outside their car, doors open, lounging against the roof. The members of the local high school's cheerleading squad were washing cars to raise money for new uniforms. The cheerleaders were working hard and had managed to get themselves sopping wet in the process. Both officers were smoking and taking in the view appreciatively.

"That one chick kind of looks like the lead singer of that band Satin Blades," said Fields. "I think her name's Rosalyn."

"I wouldn't know," said Rose. "I don't listen to that shit."

"Oh come on," said Fields. "That Rosalyn chick is hot."

"Yeah, but I hate those kinds of bands. All the guys look like girls."

"But Rosalyn is a girl. And a fine looking girl at that."

"But her band. They've all got long hair and fuckin' makeup. Man, I don't get it. All the chicks are swooning over those dudes, and they just look like fags in their spandex and their eyeliner."

Fields snorted. "Yeah, they're like drag queens."

"And they get more pussy than you or me will see in a lifetime."

"Doesn't seem fair."

"Hell, it's a sign something's not right with the world is what it is. It's like�"

The radio in their car crackled.

Fields slid into the front seat and grabbed it. He acknowledged the voice on the other end of the radio.

"We might have a lead on the Schmerfeld case. We need you to check out an address for us," said the radio.

Fields noted the address, a few blocks from their location. He motioned Rose into the car, and the two reluctantly drove away from the cheerleaders.

* * *

Iris took a stab at explaining to Jaq and Billy that she'd need to bring food along on their trip and that even though she'd wrap it in plastic, they'd probably still smell it. Jaq didn't seem thrilled, but Billy told her not to be a bitch.

"Fine," said Jaq. "You do what you have to do. How long would it take you to pack?"

It wouldn't take Iris long, but she failed to see how that was relevant to the conversation.

Jaq wanted to leave immediately. She'd been thinking about the court order and she was getting nervous. The sooner they got on the road, the better.

Billy had just told Oric they'd be there the following day. If they left now, they'd arrive tonight, and Oric wouldn't be prepared. There was no reason to leave so early. They'd never look for Jaq here. She had no connections to Iris.

"But I have connections to you," Jaq said to Billy, "and you have connections to Iris."

Iris and Billy didn't really have connections. They'd been together in public a few times, but beyond that, there was nothing.

Billy assured Jaq that she was safe.

* * *

Fields and Rose drove in relative silence. Occasionally, their radio babbled something about another location to another group of officers. The first time they went down the street they were looking for, they passed the address. The street was one-way, so they circled back, and the next pass, they saw it. It was an upstairs apartment, which was why they'd missed it the first time.

Fields parked the car, and they both got out. Drawing their guns, they made their way up the steps, Rose first. When he reached the top, he pounded on the door. "Magic Management," he announced. "Open up!"

There was no answer.

Rose looked at Fields.

Fields shrugged. "Kick it in."

Rose nodded, backed up, raised his leg, and forced the door open. They hurried inside and shut the door behind them. The apartment appeared empty inside, but Rose immediately stood in front of the door, spreading his arms and legs to cover it. It was standard procedure in case the occupants were invisible. Occupants could make it seem like they weren't there, but they couldn't get past someone at the door if they were there and wanted out. Fields flipped open his handheld heat sensor and began checking the room with it. "Kitchen's empty," he reported, and disappeared into another room. A few moments later, he came back into the kitchen. "Nobody's here," he told Rose.

Rose relaxed, moved away from the door. "Damn, do you smell that? Smells like somebody died." He sniffed the air and began walking in the direction of the smell. Once in the pantry, he swore.

"What?" said Fields.

"We got ourselves a ghoul."

* * *

Billy's car, appearing to a Blue Ford Festiva, made its way up the interstate ramp.

"Thanks for listening to me about leaving," said Jaq from inside.

"Anything to shut you up," Billy said.

chapter nine >>

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