Sunshine, p.9
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       Sunshine, p.9

           Robin McKinley
 
Chapter 9

 

  I nodded. I picked up my jackknife and put it back in my pocket. I looked at Jesse. Then I looked at the blood-smeared table knife lying on his desk, and he watched me looking. "That's the next thing, isn't it?" he said. "Okay - you have some kind of line on worked metal. Some pretty astonishing line, it must be. But that doesn't explain. . . "

  The phone rang. He picked it up. "Ah. Well, better send him up then. " We all looked hard at Pat. He wasn't blue at all. Theo unlocked the door.

  Mel came through it about ten seconds later, looking fit to murder battalions of SOFs with nothing more than a table knife. "What the dharmic hell do you red-eyed boys think you are up to, keeping a law-abiding member of the human public incommunicado for over an hour?"

  I managed to keep a straight face. "Red-eyed boy" (or girl) is an accusation of Other blood: just the sort of thing a pissed-off civilian would say to a SOF. They all looked perfectly blank. "Sorry," said Jesse. "We didn't mean to keep her incommunicado. We were getting her out of a bad situation as fast as possible - brought her in the back way, of course. The media jokers can't get to her here. But we forgot to send word to the front desk that we weren't - er - holding her. " Sure you forgot, I thought. Mel, still quivering with fury, and equally aware Jesse was lying, turned to me. "I'm okay," I said. "I was a bit - hysterical. They let me have a shower," I added inconsequentially. I'd had a rough night, and it was getting harder and harder to remember what I'd told whom and why.

  "A shower?" said Mel, taking in my fuzzy-bunny clothing - probably the first time he'd ever seen me in anything that didn't involve red or pink or orange or yellow or at least peacock blue or fluorescent purple - and I realized he didn't know what had happened. He wouldn't, would he? You don't destroy vampires by rushing up to them and sticking them with table knives. The only sure thing about the night's events was that there'd been some kind of fracas - some messy kind of fracas - and I'd disappeared with some SOFs. There were probably half a dozen incompatible versions of what had happened out there by now.

  No wonder Mel was feeling a little wild.

  "It's sort of a long story," I said. "May I leave now, please?" Before you start asking me about tonight, I thought.

  "That's what I'm here for," said Mel, throwing another good glare around.

  "See you tomorrow," said Jesse.

  "What?" said Mel.

  "I'll tell you on the way out," I said.

  "Sleep well," said Pat.

  "You too," I said.

  They gave me my soggy clothes in a plastic Mega Food bag and I managed to jam my feet into the clammy, curled-up sneakers so I could walk. Jesse offered to call a taxi, but I wanted some outdoor air. Even midtown civic center outdoor air.

  We had to go back to the coffeehouse: the Wreck was there. Mel had walked over. Well, I don't know about walked. He had come over without vehicular assistance anyway. He was still putting out major anger vibes, even after a successful rescue of the damsel from the dragon-encircled tower. The dragon had been blue, and essentially friendly. The real problem was about the damsel. . . I had never wanted someone to talk to so badly, never been so unable to say what I wanted to talk about.

  And if I managed to tell him, what was he going to say? "I'll start ringing up residential homes for the lethally loony tomorrow, see where the nearest openings are"?

  "Don't even try to tell me what happened till you've had some sleep," said Mel. "The goddam nerve of those guys. . . I thought Pat and Jesse were okay. "

  "I think they are okay," I said, regretfully. In some ways it would have been easier if they weren't. "Jesse and Theo did get me out of there - um - and they couldn't help being, you know, professionally interested. "

  Mel snorted. "If you say so. Listen, the whole neighborhood is talking about it. Whatever it is. The official SOF report - what they've already fed to the media goons - is that you were an innocent bystander. None of us is going to say anything, but there were a lot of people in that alley by the time Jesse and Theo got you away, and it's unanimous that you were. . . "

  There was a pause. I didn't say anything.

  He added, "Charlie seemed to think Jesse was doing you a favor. That SOF could protect you better than we could. "

  Yeah. Further destruction of personal world view optional.

  Mel sighed. "So we hung around the phone at the coffeehouse, waiting - Charlie and me. We sent everybody else home - including Kenny, sworn on pain of having his liver on tomorrow's menu not to tell your mother anything. The phone didn't ring. So then we rang SOF and got yanked around by some little sheepwit on the switchboard, and that's when I came over. . . "

  "I'm sorry," I said.

  The coffeehouse was dark and the square silent and empty, although there was some kind of distantly audible fuss going on somewhere it was easy enough to guess was a block or two over and down a recently defiled alley. We went round the side of the coffeehouse and I could see a light on in the office. Charlie, drinking coffee and pacing. He had his arms wrapped around me so tight I couldn't breathe almost before I was inside. Charlie is such a mild little guy, most of the time.

  "I'm okay," I said. Charlie gave a deep, shuddering sigh, and I remembered him backing me up with Mr. Responsible Media. I also remembered all the time he'd spent in years past, encouraging my mundane interest in learning to make a mayonnaise that didn't crack, how much garlic went into Charlie's famous hash, my early experiments with what turned out to be the ancestors of Bitter Chocolate Death et al. There was no magic about Charlie. Nor about most restaurants, come to that. Human customers tend to be a little twitchy about anything more magical than a waitress who could keep coffee hot. I wondered about my mother's motive in applying for a job as a waitress all those years ago: I was already making peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies while we were still living with my dad (if there was a grown-up to turn the oven on for me), and if she was looking for nice safe outlets. . . "Tonight. It's - it's connected with what happened - when I was gone those two days. "

  "I was afraid of that," said Charlie.

  "Jesse wants me to try to find the place it all happened. Out at the lake. They're taking me out there tomorrow. "

  "Oh bloody hell," said Mel. "It's been two months. They don't have to go tomorrow. "

  I shrugged. "Might as well. I have the afternoon off. "

  "The lake," said Charlie thoughtfully.

  I'd told everyone I'd driven out to the lake. I hadn't said that what happened afterward also happened at the lake. Till tonight my official memory had ended sitting on the porch of the old cabin.

  "Yes. I was - er - held - at a house on the lake. They want me to try to find it. "

  Either Mel or Charlie could have said, when did you remember this? What else do you remember? Why did you tell SOF when you haven't told us? Neither of them did. Mel put his arm around me. "Oh, gods and frigging angels," he said.

  "Be careful," said Charlie.

  One of the (few) advantages to getting to work at four-thirty a. m. is that you can be pretty sure of finding a parking space. When I come in later I'm not always so lucky. I'd had to park the Wreck in a garage lot that evening, and it was locked at eleven. Mel took me home. When we got there and he turned the bike off the silence pressed against me. The sudden quiet is almost always loud when you've been on a motorcycle and got somewhere and stopped and turned it off, but this was different. Mel didn't say any more about the night's events. He didn't say any more about SOF taking me out to the lake the next day. I could see him wanting to. . . but as I've said before, one of the reasons Mel and I were still seeing each other after four years was because we could not talk about things sometimes. This included that we both knew when to shut up.

  It was blissful, spending time with someone who would leave you alone. I loved him for it. And I was happy to repay in kind.

  It had never occurred to me that leaving someone alone could harden into a habit t
hat could become a barrier. It had never occurred to me before now.

  I had to repress the desire that he not shut up this time. I had to repress the desire to ask him if I could talk to him.

  But what could I have said?

  We stood there in the darkness for a minute or two. He was rubbing another of his tattoos, the sand wheel, on the back of his left hand. Then he came with me to check that I still had Kenny's bicycle and the tires weren't flat. Then he kissed me and left. "See you tomorrow," is all he said.

  I reached over my head to touch the wards strung along the edge of the porch roof on my way indoors. These were all Yolande's. Her wards were especially good and I'd often thought of asking her where she got them, but you didn't really ask Yolande questions. I had noticed that her niece, when she was visiting, didn't seem to ask questions either, beyond, "I'm taking the girls downtown, can I bring you anything?" And the answer would probably be "No, thank you, dear. "

  I wiggled my fingers down the edges of my pots of pansies on the porch steps, to check that the wards I'd buried there were still there, and that a ping against my fingers meant they were still working. I straightened the medallion over my downstairs door and lifted the "go away" mat in front of the one at the top of the stairs to check that the warding built into the lay of the planks of the floor hadn't been hacked out by creature or creatures unknown. I fluttered the charm paper that was wound round the railing of my balcony to make sure it was still live, blew on the frames of my windows for the faint ripple of response. I didn't like charms, but I wasn't naive enough not to have good basic wards, and I'd been a little more meticulous about upkeep in the last two months.

  Then I made myself a cup of chamomile tea to damp down the scotch and the cheese. I took off the bunny pajamas and put on one of my own nightgowns. The toilet paper had held; there wasn't any blood on the SOF thing. I put my still-wet clothes in a sinkful of more soap and water. Tomorrow I would put them through a washing machine. I might throw them out anyway, or burn them. (I still hadn't burned the cranberry-red dress. It lived at the back of my closet. I think I knew I wasn't going to burn it after the night I dreamed that it was made of blood, not cloth, and I'd pulled it out of the closet that night, in the dark, and stroked and stroked the dry, silky, shining fabric, which was nothing like blood. Nothing like blood. ) My sneakers would live. I had dozens of T-shirts and jeans if I decided I wanted to burn something but I wasn't going to sacrifice a good pair of sneakers if I could help it.

  I pushed open the French doors and went out and sat on my little balcony. It was a clear, quiet night with a bright quarter moon.

  When Yolande had had mice in her kitchen I had set take-'em-alive traps and driven the results twenty miles away and released them in empty farmland. (Wards against wildlife are notoriously bad: hence the electric peanut-butter fence to keep the deer from eating Yo-lande's roses. And a house ward successful against mice and squirrels would be almost the money-spinner that a charm to let suckers walk around in daylight would be. ) I couldn't kill anything larger than a housefly. I'd stopped putting spiders outdoors after I read somewhere that house spiders won't survive. When I dusted, I left occupied cobwebs alone. I hadn't drawn blood in anger since the seventh-grade playground wars.

  I don't eat meat. I'm too squeamish. It all looks like dead animals to me. On the days I cover in the main kitchen, the only hot food is vegetarian.

  Maybe my mother had successfully coerced and brainwashed her daughter into being a nice, human wimp.

  But I'd blown it. I'd blown it when I'd turned my knife into a key, because it was the only way to stay alive. Because - maybe only because I didn't know any better - I wanted to stay alive. I looked down at my arms, at my hands cupping the tea mug, as if I would start growing scales or fur or warts - or turning blue - immediately. Most demon blood doesn't make you big or strong or blue though, whether it comes with magic ability or not. A lot of it makes you weaker or stupider. Or crazier.

  I'd been doing okay as my mother's daughter. My life wasn't perfect, but whose was?

  Yes, I'd always despised myself for being a coward. A wuss. So? There are worse things.

  And then I had to drive out to the lake one night. They'd started it. And I may be a wuss, but I've never liked bullies. Maybe, if it was all about to go horribly wrong, I could at least go out with a bang.

  How cute and sweet and winsome and philosophically high-minded, that I didn't like bullies, that I wanted to go out with a bang. I was still a coward, I had a master vampire and his gang on my tail, I was all alone, and I was way out of my league.

  "Oh, Constantine," I whispered into the darkness. "What do I do now?"

  I slept the moment my head touched the pillow, in spite of everything that had happened. It was very late for me though, and I'd had two generous shots of scotch. The alarm went off about three hours later. I woke strangely easily and peacefully. I can get by on six and a half hours, just, and only if I'm feeling lively generally, which I hadn't been lately. Three hours' sleep doesn't cut it under any conditions. But I sat up and stretched and didn't feel too bad. And I had the oddest sensation. . . as if someone had been in my bedroom with me. Given the events of the night before, this should have been panic stations, but it wasn't. It was a reassuring feeling, as if someone had been guarding me in my sleep.

  Get a grip, Sunshine.

  I had to get moving quickly however I was feeling, because it took so much longer to bicycle than to drive into town. But as it turned out, it didn't. When I went round to the shed to fetch Kenny's bike there was a car parked at the edge of the road, engine off, but SOF spotlight on, illuminating the SOF insignia on the door, and the face of the man leaning against the hood. Pat. " 'Morning," he said.

  "We are not going to the lake at this hour," I said, half scandalized and half disbelieving. "I am going to make cinnamon rolls and oatmeal bread and brownies and Butter Bombs, and you can call out the cavalry at about ten. "

  "Sheer. I know you're going in to make cinnamon rolls. You want to be setting some aside to bring with you later on. The only good Monday is a holiday Monday when Charlie's is open. But we figured that Mel would bring you home last night which would leave you with only two unmotorized wheels this morning. And we don't want you tired this afternoon. "

  Tired but alive would do, I thought. Dawn isn't for another hour and a half, and if I'm the first person to stake a sucker with a table knife I could be the first person to get plucked off a bicycle. . . I had been thinking about this as I walked downstairs in the dark. Living alone has its advantages in terms of warding: your wards don't get confused, nor do they blunt as fast as they will if there are several of you. A big family with a lot of friends will go through wards like the Seddons through popcorn on Monday nights. And unless you are so fabulously wealthy that you can spend millions on made-to-order wards, there are always going to be some holes in the barrier. Someone living alone who isn't constantly having different people over can probably build up a pretty good, solid, home ward system. That's probably.

  But wards are unstable at best, and they tend to blow up or fall over or go rogue or get their attributes crossed and morph into something else, almost certainly something you don't want, pretty easily, and generally speaking the more powerful they are the more likely they are to go nuts. And wards are the sober end of the charm family. Most of the rest of them are a lot worse. One of the most dependable ways to make a ward kali on you is to expect it to travel. All charms, including wards, that you wear next to your skin, are different - hence the perennial, if problematic, popularity of tattoos - but wards you hang at a distance have to stay put.

  Consequently the eternally vexed question of warding your means of transportation. And while it's true that the chauffeur-driven limos of the global council are almost more ward than limo, it's also true that no council member travels anywhere without a human bodyguard stiff with technology, including to the corner store for a newspaper. If t
here are any global council members that live in neighborhoods with corner stores, which there probably aren't.

  The irony is that the best transport ward for us ordinary schlemiels remains the confusing fact of motion itself. (There's a crucial maintenance speed of a little under ten mph. This is a brisk pedal on your bicycle and sensible joggers, if this isn't a contradiction in terms, get their exercise during the day. In the horse era a harness or riding horse that couldn't maintain a nine-mph clip for a useful distance was shot. This made horses short-lived and expensive and most people stayed at home after dark: but at least travel was possible. ) The protection of movement is nothing like perfect, which is why they keep trying to create transport wards, but it exists - and thank the gods and angels for it, since without it I don't think there would be many sane humans left. There's only so much constant relentless constrictive dread you can live with. Anyway I knew to be grateful for it, but it had never made much sense, at least not till a vampire had told me it is not the distance that is crucial, but the uniformity and given me an inkling.

  But what kind of homogeneity is it, about sucker senses? Had the goblin giggler's last sight of the human who offed him been transmitted anywhere?

  I'd felt relatively safe inside my apartment. I had good wards, and you can kind of feel the presence of the screen they put up, that it's there, and there aren't any big drafts coming through it. And you feel it when you come out from behind it too.

  But I'd never been able to bear a charm against my skin. They make me a total space cadet. I'd agreed to the key ring loop to make Mom feel good, and that was pushing it. Poor thing. It had probably been grateful to be drowned in the shower, last night, if it had survived the little incident shortly before.

  I said to Pat unkindly, "You might have thought of that last night. "

  He grinned, and opened the passenger door. I got in. "Why did you draw the short straw?"

  " 'Cause I'm best at going without sleep. My demon blood has its uses. "

  There were at least two classes of demons who didn't sleep at all. My favorite is the Hildy demon, who gets all the sleep it needs during the blinking of its eyes. You'd think this would seriously interrupt any train of thought that takes longer to pursue than the time between one eye blink and another, but not to a Hildy. (They're called Hildies after Brunhilde, who slept for a very long time surrounded by fire. Hildies also breathe fire when they're peeved, although they're even-tempered as demons go. ) Hildies aren't blue though.

  I certainly couldn't get all the sleep I needed by blinking my eyes.

  I stayed in the bakery all morning. Charlie and Mel kept everyone who didn't belong behind the counter on the far side, Mom answered more phone calls than usual and said "she has nothing to say" a lot. With the bakery door open I could sometimes hear conversations in the office. Mom is good at hanging up on people. It's one of her great assets as a small-business manager. (She and Consuela had lately been working up a good cop/bad cop routine that was a joy to eavesdrop on. ) I had no idea what Charlie had told her about the events of the night before. I didn't want to know. But he must have told her something. Miraculously, she left me alone, although a particularly lurid new charm was waiting for me on my apron hook that morning. I left it there, glowering to itself. I like orange, but not in over-decorated feather whammies.

  It wasn't as bad as it might have been by a long shot. I felt some grudging admiration for SOF.

  Nobody tried to follow me when I left the coffeehouse at ten, or at least nobody but some of the overweight so-called wildlife that hangs around the pedestrian precinct and tries to cadge handouts from the weak-willed. They know a white bakery bag when they see one, and I was carrying a dozen cinnamon rolls. I swear some of our sparrows are too fat to fly, but the feral cats are too fat to catch them. And the squirrels should have had teeny-weeny skateboards to keep their bellies off the ground. One of the recent rumors about Mrs. Bialosky's neighborhood activities was that she ran a commando unit that protected us from some of Old Town's larger, more threatening wildlife, the rats and foxes and mutant deer that never shed their short but pointy horns. If Charlie's had had to keep all of that lot too fat to intimidate anybody we'd have gone out of business.

  It was just Jesse and Pat today. They put me in the front seat - of an unmarked car - with Pat alone in the back. Jesse ate four cinnamon rolls and Pat ate five. I didn't think this was humanly possible - but then maybe it wasn't. I ate one. I'd had breakfast already. Twice. Ten o'clock is a long time from four in the morning.

  We drove first to the old cabin. I was still clinging to that mysterious sense of someone keeping a protective eye on me, but I was beginning to feel a little rocky nonetheless. Maybe I should have brought the feather whammy instead of hiding it under my apron when I left. As the weed-pocked gravel of what had once been a driveway crunched under my feet, I put my hand in my pocket and closed it round my little knife. I had been not remembering what had happened two months ago so emphatically that the edges of my real memory had become a little indistinct. Standing on the ground where it had begun brought it horribly back. I looked at the porch, where I hadn't heard them coming from. I looked at the place where my car had no longer been, two days later.

  I went down to the marshy reach near the shore, where the stream had run fifteen years ago. It didn't look like anybody had been there playing in the mud recently. I went back to the cabin. "Yeah," Pat was saying.

  "But it's been a long time, and they haven't been back," said Jesse.

  They were just standing there, no gizmos in sight, no headsets, no wires, no portable com screens with flashing lights making beeping noises. I guessed it wasn't technology that was helping them draw their conclusions.

  What a good thing Pat hadn't walked on my porch this morning, and up my stairs and knocked on my door and, maybe, walked into the front room where the same, if savagely stain-removed, sofa still stood, and the little square of carpet beside it, and maybe even the handle of the fridge door, the same handle that had been there ready to expose a carton of milk behind it if someone pulled on it, two months ago.

  What a good thing that good manners dictate that you don't idly cross people's probable outer ward circle and knock on their doors unless invited.

  Carthaginian hell.

  We got back in the car and drove on the way we'd been going, north.

  There was a bad spot almost at once. I picked it up first, or anyway I was the one who said, "Hey. I don't know about you, but I don't want to go any farther this way. "

  "Roll up your windows," said Jesse. He hit a couple of buttons on the very peculiar dashboard I was only now noticing and suddenly there was something like heavy body armor enclosing me, oppressive as chain mail and breastplate and a full-face helm, plume and lady's silk favor optional. I could almost smell the metal polish. "Ugh," I said.

  "Don't knock it, it works," said Jesse. Our voices echoed peculiarly. We drove very slowly for about a minute and then a red light on the dashboard blinked and there was a manic chirping like a parakeet on speed. "Right. We're clear. " He hit the same buttons. The invisible armor went away.

  "Spartan, isn't it?" said Pat.

  "No," I said.

  We drove through two more bad spots like that and I hated the body armor program worse each time. It made me feel trapped. It made me feel as if when I woke up again I'd be sitting at the edge of a bonfire with a lot of vampires on the other side.

  It was a long drive. Thirty miles or so. I remembered.

  Then we reached a really bad spot. Jesse hit his buttons again but this time it really was like being trapped - held down while Things slid through the intangible gaps between the incorporeal links, reached out long taloned fingers and grabbed me. . .

  Big. Huge space. Indoors; ceiling up there somewhere. Old factory. Scaffolding where the workers had once tended the machines. No windows. Enormous square ventilator shafts, vast parasitic humps of silent machiner
y, contortions of piping like the Worm Ouroboros in its death throes. . .

  And eyes. Eyes. Staring. Their gaze like flung acid. No color. What color is evil?. . .

  When I came to, I was screaming. I stopped. Even the guys looked shaken. I could see the scuff marks in the road ahead of us, where Jesse had slammed us into reverse. Good thing the driver hadn't gone under. I put my hands over my mouth. "Sorry," I said.

  "Nah," said Pat. "If you hadn't been screaming, I'd've had to do it. "

  "What now?" said Jesse. They both looked at me.

  "Maybe this is the really big bad spot behind the house," I said. "I told you there was one. We're pretty well north of the lake now, aren't we? Seems like we've come far enough, but I keep losing the lake behind the trees. "

  "Yeah," said Jesse. "The road's well back here, because this is where the big estates are. Were. "

  "Okay," I said. "So we walk. " I opened the car door and clambered stiffly out. This was harder than it would have been if I hadn't been squashed by SOF technology four times, especially the last time when it didn't work. I patted my stomach as if checking to make sure I was still there. I seemed to be. The cut on my breast was itching like crazy: the sort of variable itch that reinforces its performance by regular nerve-fraying jabs of pain.

 
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