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chapter seven

The night air swelled sweetly in Iris' lungs. She was walking alone down the street near her apartment. She had no destination in mind. She just walked. The lights of the corner convenience store illuminated her path. In the far distance, the lights of the city glowed orangey-green. If she had any reason to be out, it was simply to get away from her cramped apartment. She, Billy, and Jaq had only been there a few hours and it was already claustrophobic. On top of that, she thought Billy and Jaq needed to talk on their own. They were reunited lovers, after all.

It didn't help that she felt awkward having slept with Billy. Sure, it hadn't meant anything, and there was nothing between them, but she felt almost guilty about it, as if she were an unknowing party to adultery or something. She didn't suppose there was any reason to tell Jaq about it. It would only make things weirder than they were. And things were weird. She couldn't tell how she felt about Jaq. Okay, that wasn't true. She took a deep breath and admitted it to herself. She didn't like Jaq.

She didn't know why. Jaq certainly hadn't been rude to her. Well there was that, "She's a ghoul?!" comment that Iris hadn't appreciated. Yeah, Iris was a ghoul. She didnít mean to be. It had happened. It had been a huge accident that wrecked her life. Given a choice, she wouldn't be a ghoul. Where did Jaq get off? She was a witch. She sought out magic, fought for it. But Iris' being a ghoul made Jaq squeamish? "Get a spine," Iris muttered. Jaq could at least acknowledge that Iris was going out of her way to give Jaq someplace to stay. Iris didn't have to do that. Hell, right about then, she was almost wishing she hadn't. Three people didn't fit comfortably into three rooms.

And then there was that whole business about Jaq not believing Billy about Zain. And what had she said to Billy in the car? Something about it being just like him not to plan anything? If Jaq thought Billy was so irresponsible and gullible, why was she even dating him? Iris sighed. Maybe she should cut Jaq some slack. After all, Jaq had been incarcerated for a crime she didn't commit, and Billy had done a botched job of being a knight in shining armor, what with waiting so long to rescue her and carrying out the rescue in the manner that he had. Iris was angry with him herself. Still, Jaq was so . . . self-righteous. How could Billy stand to be with someone who thought she was so much better than everyone?

Iris had reached the end of her street. She debated turning around, then decided against it. She didn't want to go back home yet. She was stressed out and confused. The last few days had been extraordinary. She'd been stalked, confronted her stalker, found out the human race was in danger, gotten laid for the first time in a year, been an unwilling participant in a jailbreak, and been told that Rhett was fucking Ros. Bastard. It was no wonder she felt a little on edge. She had to give Jaq a chance. Between the two of them, they'd had a lot to deal with recently. Neither of them was at their best. And Jaq had been right. They needed to do more than just try to find the daion queen. What that could be, she didn't know. It was pretty much a given that they couldn't face the pixies alone.

She stopped walking for a second. Why couldn't they face the pixies alone? She had cigarettes with her. They always helped her think so she took one out and lit it. She started walking again. Pixies had more powerful magic than they did, sure. But the pixie police didn't have any magic, and they could stop any pixie with a bullet. Maybe what she, Billy, and Jaq needed were guns. But how could they get close enough to Mischief to shoot them? Mischief had security; all rock bands did. Even at a concert, they'd be taken down before they could aim. Or maybe not, if they used magic to hide what they were doing . . .

Yeah, but how were they going to get guns? They'd need licenses, and that took time. Plus, they probably couldn't even get licenses, or if they could, they could only get ones for hunting rifles or something, and hunting rifles were awkward. Maybe they could steal guns. Using magic to steal couldn't be that hard. Of course, a lot of places were going to those heat sensor security systems. Illusions couldn't fool those so easily. Maybe Scott could get them guns! Scott had some seedy friends. He was a drug dealer after all. The guns might be expensive, but Billy had a lot of money . . .

Well, say they could get the guns, and they could go to a concert and kill all the members of Mischief. Would that stop Zain? He had to get a sacrifice to come into his full power, right? So, if they killed Mischief before the sacrifice, that should do it. Zain would be relatively powerless.

She thought.

She didn't know very much about Zain. That was a problem. How was she supposed to fight this thing when she knew next to nothing about it? So maybe step one was to find out more about Zain, and not to go get guns. Maybe getting guns came later. On the bright side, thanks to Scott, she had enough food to last her for quite a while. On the down side, having two humans in her apartment who wouldn't appreciate the smell was going to make her feel uncomfortable. She could not possibly live with the two of them in that tiny space for any amount of time. She couldn't eat in front of them. She didn't like eating in front of Scott, and he was ghoul.

Eating was . . . embarrassing. The hunger often was so intense that when she ate, she did it compulsively, shoveling flesh into her mouth at breakneck speed. And she didn't even like to think about what she was eating. It was abhorrent and disgusting to consider. She didn't want anyone to watch her doing it. Maybe when she got home, she could eat in the bathroom tonight. Maybe if she hid a few sandwich bags in her clothes, they wouldn't even know what she was doing.

She really didn't want to go home.

She looked around. She was several blocks from her apartment, maybe a block from downtown. She was pretty sure there was an open mic night tonight at Nick's. She didn't play open mic nights anymore. She didn't want to waste her time when she couldn't get paid. But tonight it sounded like a great idea. She didn't have her guitar, but if Alan still ran the operation, he'd loan her his. Of course, Nick's was right next door to Martino's, and she could never go to Martino's again. She didn't have to go to Martino's, though. She could just go to Nick's, find Alan, and play a few songs, maybe have a beer . . .

Nick's was a darkly lit sports bar with stained glass windows and wooden booths. When she walked in, a guy was murdering a Rick Springfield song in the corner. Not that that took a lot of work. Alan was at the bar, and, as she'd suspected, had no problem loaning her his guitar. "Let me bump you up on the list," he said. "Can you go next?"

She could. It felt nice to settle in behind the microphone, like coming home, the way it always did. She gripped the neck of the guitar and gazed out at the bar before launching into one of her originals. A real old one, one she'd written in high school about her unrequited love for Rhett. She played three songs total, all originals. When she was done, the crowd whistled and cheered for her. She hadn't used any magic. She was just damned good, she mused to herself. She slid out of the bar grinning. She was ready to head home. She didn't even notice the slightly balding man in a suit who was coming out of Martino's.

* * *

Buckingham left his office around 9:15 PM. Some evenings, he worked late. He tried to tell himself it was because he was needed, and it was true he always found something to do. But it might have been just as likely that he had nothing better to do. He didn't like to think that way. After all, working for Magic Management had been his dream job since he was a small boy, and working made him happier than anything else. Perhaps happy was stating it too optimistically. Working made him feel useful. It made him feel occupied. It made him feel engaged. There were basically two groups of people who ended up working for Magic Management. The first, rather larger, group was made up of those who feared magic. They wanted to control it and eradicate it. The second group was made up of those who were intrigued by magic. They wanted to study it and understand it. Buckingham belonged to the latter group.

Though Magic Management concerned itself primarily with "managing" magical creatures, it didn't exclude study of them. The organization had grown out of the scientific experiments conducted on pixies and black pixies in Europe in the 18th century. The scholars of the past had worked with a divided purpose too, some seeing magic as a threat, others as a curiosity. Currently, Magic Management, an international organization, attempted to encompass both views. As he pulled out of the Magic Management parking lot, he mused over the past. Buckingham's interest in magic had begun when he'd read a book by Sir Thomas Adams entitled The Practices of Magick Peoples. Adams had interviewed, well tortured really, a number of captive pixies in order to learn about their way of life. The idea of a group of creatures living among humans and trying to hide their existence utterly fascinated Buckingham. He began to read everything on the subject he could get his hands on.

By adolescence, he fancied himself quite the expert on magical creatures. Even though he was most interested in studying them, he also recognized the importance of dealing with the creatures when they committed crimes. When he was seventeen, a string of attacks on locals in his town left four people killed by what the police speculated was a small predator, perhaps a fox or a rabid dog. Buckingham studied the news stories and came to the conclusion that a black pixie was responsible. At his persistent urging, the police chief reported the incidents to Magic Management, and an investigation was opened.

Several more such tip-offs during his days at university resulted in his being hired by Magic Management right after graduation. He was known, during his early years, for sniffing out magic where there appeared to be none. He scoured the national news for possible stories. At his behest, teams of officers were deployed, magic creatures executed. In those days, identification of a magical creature meant a no-questions-asked execution. And Buckingham was so good that if he suggested it, it was done.

It was a fine time for him. He was respected. He was successful. And then he was wrong. The case involved two girls, both in university, who reported having gone to a party and awakened the next morning with the knowledge they'd been violated, but with no memory of the event happening. There was physical evidence of their rapes, but nothing conclusive. It smelled to Buckingham like magic. He brought the case to the attention of his superiors, and the boys who hosted the parties were executed. They were human.

It came to light in a subsequent investigation that they had been guilty, but they'd used drugs, not magic, to carry out their crime. Buckingham had gotten cocky, and he'd gotten sloppy. He knew that pixies didn't rape human girls. They didn't desire them sexually, nor were they sexually compatible in a physical sense. Nor, indeed, were such a union to occur, would they leave the kind of evidence behind the boys had, pixies' sexual organs not being nearly large enough. He knew all of this. Still, he had ordered the deaths of human boys. They'd been executed without a trial.

The penalties within the organization had been minimal. Buckingham was barely blamed. But the penalties he'd imposed upon himself had been severe. Buckingham no longer trusted himself, and he counted the deaths against his conscience. He lost his edge. He began to second-guess himself. Within a few years, he came out as a proponent of court orders for execution. Many of his colleagues opposed the idea, claiming that the time it took to get a court order gave the pixies too much time to get away. But Buckingham believed it was worth waiting if it meant no more humans would die without trial.

Lobbying for the new legislation put him in touch with other activists, who supported the court order because it stipulated that magical creatures had to be proved to pose a threat to humanity in order to be executed. Buckingham had never given the matter much thought. The popular belief within Magic Management was that the only good pixie was a dead one. But the argument of the activists was compelling. Why should a creature be killed because of what it was? If pixies didn't use their magic for harm, why should they be executed?

His newly adopted views didnít win him any popularity contests at the office. Buckingham was soon relegated to a paper pushing research job, often preparing evidence to be presented when petitioning a court order. He did little actual research and more typing of witness accounts onto the proper documents. Still, there was nothing that interested him more than magic, and nothing else he'd rather be doing. But it galled him when he filed reports, and they went nowhere. Years ago, his mention of the coffee shop couple would have sparked an immediate execution. Buckingham was glad that wasn't the case anymore, but he couldn't help missing the respect his suspicions used to warrant. He didn't know if he wanted the coffee shop couple dead. He'd only caught bits of their conversation. They'd used words like witches and magic and ancients and pixies. None of that meant they were doing anything criminal.

But if they had been involved in this prison break earlier that day, then that meant that they were criminals. As he'd decided earlier, he stopped by Martino's on the way home, parking his car on the street. He went inside and took a seat at the bar. After waiting for the bartender to speak to him for nearly fifteen minutes, he cleared his throat. That didn't help, so he finally waved at him and said, "Excuse me."

The bartender wandered over. "What?"

"I'm looking for a woman who I'm told sometimes plays music here," said Buckingham.

The bartender shrugged. "Nobody's playing tonight."

"No, I can see that. She's rather small. Has very long blonde hair, dresses like what the kids call punk, I believe."

"You must mean Iris Tanner."

The cashier at the coffee shop had said the girl's name was Ivy or something similar. Iris sounded about right. "Yes," said Buckingham.

"Well, she don't play here anymore. Ran out in the middle of her set a week or so ago. No one's seen her since."

Curious. "I see," said Buckingham. "And you've no way of contacting her?"

"Look, what's this about, Gramps?" demanded the bartender.

Buckingham debated showing his badge. If the girl had friends here, they might warn her that the authorities were asking after her. "I work for . . . the recording industry," he said. "I hear she'd quite good."

"Oh," said the bartender, relaxing. "She is. She's awesome. Sounds just like that chick on the radio. In that Silk Knives band or whatever. Just fuckin' like her. The last night she played, I didn't even want to serve drinks. I just wanted to listen to her. She kicks ass."

Buckingham nodded. "I'd love to hear her play."

"Like I said, she ran off. I'll go ask the manager if she knows where Iris lives. Maybe you could drop by."

"That would be most helpful. Thank you."

The bartender disappeared into a back room off the bar for a few moments and then reappeared. He shook his head. "She doesn't know anything," he said. "Iris wasn't on the payroll or nothing. She just got paid cash at her gigs."

"That's disappointing," said Buckingham. "But thank you all the same."

"Maybe you could leave a card or something," said the bartender. "If I see her . . ."

A card? "Oh," said Buckingham. "Oh, indeed." He made a show of going through his pockets. "Must have left them at home," he said.

"Too bad."

"Yes," said Buckingham. He thanked the bartender and left. He hadn't gotten much from the trip to Martino's, but he had a name: Iris Tanner. It was a start.

Outside the bar, he retrieved his car keys from his pocket. With them in hand, he looked up. He couldn't believe his luck. He was looking at her. Iris Tanner, the woman from the coffee shop, was headed past him down the street, humming to herself. He should talk to her. No. What would he say? "Are you involved in magic, ma'am?" That would get him nowhere. He should follow her.

He waited until she was at least a block ahead of him before starting after her. Buckingham had never followed anyone before, but he kept his distance and stepped slowly. She didn't notice him. She led him a few blocks out of the downtown area and into the residential section. Stopping at an apartment building, she went up some steps and into an upstairs apartment where the lights were already on. Buckingham took out his notebook and wrote down the address. He stared at the apartment for some time, working up his nerve. Then he tiptoed up the steps and crouched next to the door Tanner had entered. At first he heard nothing. Then a male voice said, "It's about time you came out of the bathroom."

"Where's Jack?" said another voice, female.

"Sleeping."

"In my bed?"

"You don't mind, do you?"

A heavy sigh. "No."

"It's on the news. Jack's wanted. But they don't think it was us."

"We'll talk about this in the morning," said the female voice. "Let me see if I can find some blankets."

A door opened and closed. There was more talk, inane chattering about the lack of bedding. Then it was quiet for a long while. Buckingham made some notes and went back to his car.

As he walked, he turned the conversation he'd just heard over in his head. There was someone in that apartment named Jack who was wanted. Wanted by the police? He knew there had been a burglary case on the news, but he thought the suspect had been named Tom. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe there wasn't any magic involved here at all. Still, he had friends in the local police department. Perhaps he should bring this to their attention. He drove home, still puzzling over what he'd heard. The whole idea had been ridiculous, hadn't it? The prison escape had been upstate, hours away. Why should he think that the couple he'd seen in the coffee shop could have anything to do with it? He really was losing it, as everyone at work whispered behind his back.

He slept fitfully. He had a feeling there was something that he just wasn't able to put his finger on. When he arrived at work the next morning, he found the bulletin on his desk. He scanned it one more time before throwing it away and a name caught his eye. Jaqueline. Schmerfeld's first name was Jaqueline. Jaq.

He'd been right. Iris Tanner had Jaq Schmerfeld in her apartment.

chapter eight >>

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