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The children huddled in the meager protection of the doorway on the Lower East Side across from the homeless shelter. They passed around hoarded cigarettes and drank from bottles of Coca Cola swaddled in brown paper bags in imitation of their elders. None of them was older than eight or ten, but their faces were already hard and set, the legacy of a life spent on the street.

Monday was just another day if you didn't have anywhere else to be. School was something to be avoided. Too many awkward questions, too many meddling adults wanting you to get with the program—or into a program. Only a few of them were enrolled anyway. Enrollment required a home address, or a fixed address, and none of them had homes to go to. Not really. In the wake of the unfathomable disaster that had struck New York a year ago, the city's social services had been stressed even further than before. People who had been marginally able to cope before the disaster were no longer able to manage, and those who had fallen through the cracks were being buried beneath the avalanche of lives falling through what were no longer mere cracks, but canyons in the system. New York these days, as many social commentators had said, was one large enclave of post traumatic stress disorder, and, as always, it was the children who were the invisible and largely-unnoticed victims.

For these kids as for many others, home was an single room occupancy or a bed in a shelter, if they still had a family. If not, it was whatever refuge they could find out of the chill November wind. And every one of them already knew that refuge came at a price.

Most of them were dressed in hand-me-downs and cast-offs, worn, dirty, nothing quite the right size, nothing quite warm enough for the cold November day. When clothes were so hard to come by, it was better to get something you could keep as long as possible, and not have to give up because it had gotten too small—though one boy in the group was wearing a new well-fitting leather jacket over a hoodie. The jacket was shiny and cheap, the thin leather already starting to craze and crack, but even so, it marked him out as someone with more resources than his peers. All of them kept a wary eye out for adults, ready to run if they were challenged, but the few pedestrians paid no particular attention to the cluster of young street kids.

* * *

"Where you been, Elio?" a very small child piped up—impossible to tell if it was a girl or a boy.

"Yeah—you got girlfriend?" Definitely a boy, this one, elbowing the kid in the jacket with a sly look.

Another about the same age, with an even more knowing look. "Nah—Elio's got a boyfriend!"

"He give you that mad jacket?" asked a third, with great interest, perhaps wondering if it was worth going that way himself.

"Cut it out, guys!" Elio hunched his shoulders, pulling his hood up over his head and leaning against the side of the building. He stared down at the ground.

"I seen her."

"Seen her? Seen who?" the little kid asked, not getting the hint.

"I seen her." Elio's dark face was pinched and pale, and so terrified that it was utterly blank. "La Llorona."

There was a moment of confused silence, as if his listeners wanted to ridicule him, but didn't quite dare. Finally another boy—darker-skinned than Elio—stepped forward.

"Yo, dog, you can't be just saying her name out like that."

"I seen her," Elio repeated, looking up into the other boy's face, sharply, his eyes dull and hopeless. "She's real."

"Then you gotta say," the other boy said. "That's the rule."

Elio took a deep breath. His face twisted, as if he wanted to cry, but when he spoke, his voice was flat.

"I was over at my uncle Esai's place. He had his crew there, and there was like a dozen pizzas, and everything, and he said I could eat as much as I wanted, and he let me watch 'toons on his big-ass television, and gave me a beer and everything."

Murmurs of derision and veiled disbelief greeted this part of the narrative, but nobody challenged it openly. They wanted to hear the rest, the part about La Llorona. 

"And he had to go out on, you know, his business, but he said I could stay, on account of Mama was working late, and everybody was still being nice to me 'cause Julio got whacked last month. So I fell asleep on the couch, but in the middle of the night I woke up, on account of beer makes you pee, and I went into the bathroom, and . . . there she was, in the mirror."

Elio's voice dropped to a whisper and his listeners drew in closer.

* * *

None of them noticed the older boy around the corner of the building. He'd been loitering, waiting for them to leave before going into the homeless shelter across the street, not wanting to be noticed—the oldest of them might be a good six or seven years younger than he was, but there were at least eight of them, and he knew several of them carried knives. Not good odds if they decided to mug him, and with that many of them, they could swarm him and cut anything off him that they wanted.

And besides, the story interested him. . . .

Elio's voice, thin and shaky, just carried to where he was skulking. "She was all blue, and wearing this floaty stuff, like curtains, and it was all blowing around her, like in the movies when there's a ghost. And she was crying, only it was all black, like blood, and she didn't have any eyes." 

The other children backed away now, as if suddenly afraid that the boy in the leather jacket had become dangerous to know. There was a moment of frozen silence, and then they all started talking at once, their voices low and urgent, creating a babble out of which a few shrill phrases emerged.

"Why'd you look?"

"Why'd you tell us?"

"You shouldn't have looked in the mirror."

"If you didn't see her, you'd be okay."

Then the oldest boy, demanding. "If you seen her, how come you still alive, Elio? Everybody know if you see the Crying Woman, you going to die."

No one laughed.

"I guess it too soon," Elio said, shaking his head, in a voice utterly without hope. "I guess I am going to die, just like Julio. She just waitin'."

"Maybe . . . maybe she didn't see you, dog."

The oldest boy smacked the other across the back of the head, and now his voice shook with fear. "You dumb or somethin'? Of course she see him! She in the mirror, isn't she? And once Bloody Mary see your face, you gonna die, you know that. She gonna find E. wherever he go, track him down an' drag him down to hell. She a demon. She got powers. Once she seen you, ain't no escape."

* * *

From his hiding place around the corner of the building, Magnus watched as the boy Elio tried to put a brave face on things, and failed. He hugged himself tightly, his heart beating in fear, watching the other boy. Bloody Mary—La Llorona—the Crying Woman. Now he had a name for the woman he'd seen.

It should have been easy to make fun of what he'd overheard. Just little kids telling each other ghost stories. Just urban legends, after all. Schoolyard tales.

But it wasn't quite so funny when you'd seen her yourself.

And if what the rest of what they said was true . . .

Elio ran off down the street, hitting out angrily at his friends. They followed at a little distance, still subdued, and watching him the way that cats watched one of their number that was dying—wary, and frightened, and a little in awe. It was easy to see what was uppermost in their minds. It wasn't me. Thank God, it wasn't me. 

Magnus moved cautiously away from the building in the opposite direction, his intention to visit the shelter forgotten.

Bloody Mary. He winced. It was like that story he remembered from when he was a little kid, that if you went into the school bathroom alone on a Friday and stood with your back to the mirror and chanted "Bloody Mary" three times and turned around really quick, you'd see a horrible demon face in the mirror.

And . . . something . . . would happen. He forgot what it was supposed to have been. Something terrible. Maybe there was a movie about it, too.

Only this was real, because he'd seen her, with his own two eyes.

Last week he'd gone out walking alone. Ace hated it when he did that, but he didn't care. He didn't have any money, and who was going to bother him except to mug him? And except for the raggedy kids that didn't have enough clothes to keep warm, nobody wanted what he had.

She always worried that he was going to get dragged into a big black car for a "date," but with his chestnut hair, green eyes, and choirboy looks, Magnus had learned how to deal with that sort of thing a long time ago. Besides, people looking for rentboys cruised under the West Side Highway or down on the Strip, not up in the Bowery, so he figured his virtue was pretty safe. And it wasn't like Ace needed help to watch Jaycie. Jaycie slept most of the time, anyway.

It'd been late, maybe two or three in the morning. He'd done gone out just to do it, just because he could, because there was nobody around these days telling him to do this, do that, be good, behave. Besides, he'd wanted to be alone. It was pretty noisy back at The Place at night. Most of the kids were up and out, but if they were there, they wanted to party, whether or not they had anything to party with.

And he'd seen her—the woman Elio had talked about.

He'd been all alone on the street—or he'd thought he'd been.

Then all of a sudden she stepped out from between two parked cars, right in front of him.

Tall. Fashion-model tall. And somehow he could see her clearly, even though it was dark and there weren't any lights on the side street. She hadn't been glowing or anything; it was just that somehow she was bright enough to see even in the dark. Pale blue draperies flowing around her, rising and settling, constantly in motion, even though there hadn't been much wind. Black tears flowing down her face out of two black holes where eyes should have been, and he'd been so freaked, because she'd just appeared, out of nowhere, that he'd barely had time to start getting really frightened when she vanished again.

He hadn't stayed to look around. He might have been in New York for only about three weeks, but he wasn't an idiot. He'd beat feet back to The Place, and by the time he'd gotten there, the snapshot image of what he'd seen—kind of like the Blue Fairy on crack—had fully developed in his head: tall, willowy, eyeless, weeping tears of black blood.

He didn't know where she'd come from, or where she'd gone, and he didn't care, just as long as he never saw her again.

And to tell the truth, even now he didn't want to admit, even to himself, how scary she was. In seventeen years of disappointing experiences, Magnus had learned that the best way to handle things he didn't like was silence. If you didn't talk about things you didn't like, you could pretend they hadn't happened, and sooner or later, it was almost like they never had. So he hadn't said anything to anyone about what he'd seen, not even Ace. And he hadn't gone out alone again late at night, either.

But now these kids said one of them had seen her too, and they'd all seemed to know about her.

Right. He had to think about this, right now, real hard, before he scared himself into holing up in the Place and never coming out. Did that really mean what he'd seen had been no-shit real? Or had the whole thing been a goof staged for his benefit?

Magnus considered the idea carefully. No. They hadn't known he was there, so they hadn't been putting it on for his benefit—and how could they possibly have known what he'd seen? Besides, they'd been little kids, half his age—and kids that age weren't that good at acting—not that kind of acting, anyway. The oldest of them couldn't have been more than ten. And he didn't even know them. Okay. They hadn't seen him and even if they'd seen him, they didn't know him. Why should they bother to ring his chimes?

That only left the other explanation. The worse one.

She was something real. 

And—if the rest of what those runt losers said was true, too—she was going to find him and kill him, because he'd seen her and she'd seen him.

Bloody Mary.

Magnus shivered, heading for home—or what passed for home these days. Even at its worst, it was still better than the one he'd left.

Even if it was going to kill him.

At least when it did, it would kill him on his own terms.

* * *

The Jacob Riis Shelter in Lower Manhattan occupied what had been—a century before—an upper-middle-class home in what had then been a well-to-do residential district.

Times had changed.

Now, suitably renovated—though too long ago, on the slenderest of shoestrings—the aging brownstone did the best it could with what it had to provide: beds, hot meals, and counseling to an ever-shifting population of the city's poor and homeless. These days, that was a precarious interlocking web of grant money, city stipends, and private donations, less every year, though sometimes there was still a little money for "extras"—the things that shelter director Serafina Macunado knew weren't extras, but necessities, if they were to bring any light and hope into the lives of their youngest clients. Color, creative play, laughter, music.

* * *

Hosea Songmaker shrugged Jeanette's strap higher on his shoulder and smiled down at the circle of children who surrounded him. Some of them—those who had been here longest—smiled shyly back. The others regarded him with expressions ranging from shocked blankness to outright suspicion.

For the last six months, Hosea had been spending four days a week here, providing "music therapy" to the shelter's children, a simple enough task for an Apprentice Bard, and one that required no more credential than his New York City busker's license and a willingness to help. The director insisted on paying him -- he made sure that it was a pittance, the minimum he could get away with and still be taken seriously. He enjoyed working with the children, and—since the previous autumn—had found his skills especially needed.

Paul and Toni were handling most of his training as a Guardian, and Hosea had been frankly surprised to find out how little there was: becoming a Guardian seemed to be pretty much a matter of "sink or swim." His lessons with Eric made a lot more sense, to his way of thinking—after all, he'd come East looking for someone to teach him the music magic in the first place. Eric took those responsibilities seriously, and Hosea felt he was making progress there. Well, Eric said he was, and one Bard couldn't lie to another, even if it had been in Eric Banyon's nature to lie to anyone. Which it wasn't, not unless there was a lot of call to lie, or the need to lie, and besides, they were both Bards, and Bards had to be honest with each other.

But this Guardian business was enough to scare a man blue, when it wasn't downright confusing, and Eric couldn't help him there. Haunted subways with phantom trains, were-coyotes in Central Park, stuff in the storm sewers that was a lot stranger than the alligators and giant rats in the urban legends, rogue gargoyles, that cursed opera up at Lincoln Center haunted by the ghost of its composer . . . Hosea'd begun to wonder why anybody would want to live in New York.

He'd barely begun to settle in to his dual duties as Guardian and Bard last autumn when the disaster had hit New York. Three numbers and a slash; say 9/11 and that was all you had to say these days. It had changed everything in ways that no one could have imagined before that morning. From now on, there was Before, and there was After.

It was not only the shock, the pain, and the trauma, the sudden senseless deaths of so many that hurt the soul of the city and the nation; it was the need for everyone to fight their way past the knee-jerk flash of hatred and the lust for revenge to an understanding that what was needed was not just an end to this, here, but an end to anything like this, everywhere, for all time. That was the aftermath. Going on. Living day to day in a world where all the rules seemed to have changed. Living in a world where the illusion of safety—and it had never been more than that, not really—had been brutally ripped away, a kind of innocence destroyed forever. Living in a city where every breath of air for months and months carried the stink of burning in it, having to run air filters for most of a year, having every air conditioner within a mile of Ground Zero break in the first couple of weeks on account of all the crud in the air; and where, for the psychically sensitive, every moment of every day was awash with tears enough to fill an ocean.

But . . .

Each day of After brought a small triumph for the city—the Thanksgiving Day parade, held right on schedule; the Christmas Tree Lighting at Rockefeller Center; the July Fourth fireworks display. Every day of business as usual in the months that followed was a triumph for New York and a defiance of the forces of darkness and destruction.

The healing was slow, but healing there was, and Hosea, working at the shelter with the most damaged of the city's residents, saw it clearly. The spirit of New York was as indomitable as the green of the Spring. Nature went on, no matter how cruel the storms of Winter. Life would go on. Everything was changed, but they would all go on.

But lately, here at the shelter, Hosea was hearing things that disturbed him: small, subtle things, too vague to be even called rumors, from the most unlikely of sources.

The children.

"What shall Ah play?" he asked them, his broad Ozark drawl bringing giggles from all but the most withdrawn. After a moment, one of the boldest children offered a suggestion—it was, as usual, a current hip-hop hit.

As always—it was a practiced routine by now—he only got a few bars into the melody before getting it hopelessly tangled up in something else. This time he chose the Muppets' "Rainbow Connection," slipping back and forth between the two tunes as if they were two warring radio signals. Finally he stopped and grinned at the children.

"What's that you say, Jeanette? You don't like that song?" Hosea asked, cocking his head toward the banjo and strumming its strings lightly.

:I said, these rugrats have no imagination,: Jeanette answered acidly.

Hosea pretended not to hear. Though he talked to his instrument for the children's benefit, only he knew that the spirit that inhabited it could hear him—and answer.

Jeanette Campbell had been an outlaw chemist, creator of the drug T-6/157—known as T-stroke—that had been responsible for hundreds of deaths in the city last spring before she'd been dragged off Underhill to serve the Unseleighe Sidhe Aerune mac Audelaine. Poisoned by her own creation, and faced with the choice between dying and going to Hell or staying in the world to try to make amends somehow for the wrongs she'd done, she'd elected to be bonded to Hosea's banjo until she had made reparations for the damage she had done in life—in effect, haunting it.

"You want me to play something else, Jeanette? Well, Ah guess Ah'll let you pick the song, then." And he segued back into "Rainbow Connection" again, by now with all the children sitting forward, and with some of them clapping enthusiastically.

Before they had come to Jacob Riis, many of his audience had never heard a live performer, unless it was a street-corner trash-can drummer or a rapper. Hosea fascinated them, and music was a way of bringing even the most withdrawn children out of themselves, encouraging them to talk about their troubles. For the next hour, he played for them—simple songs, weaving a tiny thread of Bardic magic into them, small spells of joy and hope, encouraging the children to sing along, until all but the hardest to reach were participating.

It was little enough that he could do for them. The shelter was not a permanent home—it couldn't be, with so many in need of its services. No one was allowed to stay at Jacob Riis for longer than two weeks now. The shelter was only a waystation, while the overworked staff frantically tried to find permanent accommodations for those who came to them, though that wasn't easy these days. Fortunately there was no limitation on its drop-in services, other than space and money. The shelter fed hundreds every day, for as long as the supplies held out, and was frequently the only place the city's burgeoning homeless population could go to get a shower, clean clothing, and even rudimentary medical attention.

Sometimes "his" children came back for weeks, sometimes even for a month or two, giving Hosea time to learn their names, and start to form friendships with them. But in the end, they always disappeared. Sometimes Serafina could tell him where they'd gone, but more often she'd only shrug wordlessly and turn away.

"Try not to care too much," she'd told him when she'd hired him. "It will only break your heart."

* * *

Music Therapy ended, and the children were herded off to Art Therapy—the grant-approved name for an hour spent with paints and crayons. One little girl hung back. Her name was Angelica. Hosea guessed that she was about four, but she wasn't sure herself.

She'd been here for a month now, in defiance of all the shelter's policies, but there was simply no place to send her. Her mother had begged them to keep her. The woman's name was Erika, Hosea remembered. No one had seen Erika for a week and a half. Next week Serafina was going to have to go to Child Protective Services and get them to take Angelica away. Serafina had done all she could, hoping Erika would come back, hoping they could get her into a program that would let her keep her daughter; hoping that Erika wouldn't simply come back and take her baby back out onto the streets.

Angelica's drawings were . . . disturbing.

Not in the way some of the other children's were, when they drew pictures that were obviously portrayals of violence or abuse at home, depictions of gang shootings, or worse. Angelica's were different. As if she was trying to set down on paper something that she'd seen, but as if that something were so far out of the ordinary that a four-year-old couldn't manage to share it.

"Would you like to hold mah banjo?" Hosea said, still sitting on the floor, running his hand lightly over the strings to make them shiver.

:Don't let her near me, you troglodyte!:  

Angelica came shyly forward, reaching out to pluck at one of the silver strings with a chubby baby hand.

"Sometimes she sounds like that," Angelica confided. "When she's the Blue Lady." She ducked her head. "I'm not supposed to tell you," she whispered confidentially. "Cause you're a grownup."

"I'm not so growed-up as all that," Hosea said, willing a thin thread of Bardic magic—what he'd always called his shine, before he'd met a real Bard—out to enfold the little girl. He needed to hear more about this, and he suspected he didn't have much time.

He'd started hearing hints of what he thought of as Blue Lady stories a few months ago, but he suspected they'd been going on for a lot longer than that. They were stories the youngest children told each other when they thought the adults couldn't hear, but there wasn't much privacy in a shelter crammed to overflowing. The Stories were things the children shared to give themselves hope in a world where all hope was dead. Slowly, from bits and whispered pieces, Hosea had started piecing the whole larger story together.

"They're a Secret," Angelica told him sternly, kneeling beside him. "They're the Secret Stories."

Hosea—over Jeanette's protests—slipped the strap of the banjo over his head and settled the instrument in Angelica's arms. She cradled it like a doll.

"But you wasn't going to tell me anything secret," he coaxed. "You was jest going to tell me about how the Blue Lady sounds like ol' Jeanette here."

"When she's nice," Angelica agreed. "Because sometimes she still is, almost like if you know her Secret Name. Bloody Mary is bad. It says on television. She makes girls her slaves, or to be in gangs. But sometimes, one in a thousand girls with no home is a Special One. When Bloody Mary comes to take her to Hell, the girl is so smart and brave that Bloody Mary disappears and the Blue Lady comes, and the Special One can protect all the other kids from Bloody Mary. Since I don't have a home anymore, do you think maybe I'm a Special One, Hosea?" Angelica looked wistful. "Like Buffy on television?"

"Ah think yore purty special, Angie," Hosea said softly. "Can you tell me the Secret Name?"

"Nobody knows—" Angelica began.

Just then Serafina came in. "Oh there you are! Run along, Angie—it's time to go draw pictures, okay?"

Sighing in disappointment, Hosea got to his feet and took his banjo back from Angelica. The little girl ran off into the other room.

"I just got off the phone with Child Welfare," Serafina said with a grimace. "They asked if we could keep her one more night. They'll be sending a caseworker down for her in the morning."

Hosea nodded. He'd known it was inevitable, but that didn't mean he had to like it. "What's going to happen to her?" He knew he shouldn't ask, but he couldn't help himself.

"We always hope for the best," Serafina said, her voice colorless. "She's a sweet kid. If she's placed with a good family. If her mother shows up again and releases her for adoption. If." Serafina shrugged. "Come on. I'll sign your voucher so you can get out of here. Unless you want to hang around and wash dishes?"

* * *

It was cold but clear—last winter had been mild, but this year seemed determined to make up for it—and Hosea decided to walk home. He wanted the exercise, and few people would bother a man his size, even in this neighborhood. Besides, he could use the walk to get Angelica's story—the Secret Stories—clear in his head.

Only the youngest children told them, and only to each other, though Hosea had managed to overhear quite a lot. He'd never heard them from any child older than twelve, and the boys seemed to concentrate on a different aspect of the Stories than the girls did.

All their tales spoke of a grim and frightening world—though no worse, Hosea imagined, than the one they themselves lived in.

In the Stories, God was dead, or gone away somewhere. Once he'd lived in Heaven in a beautiful palace of blue-moon marble, until on Christmas night a horde of demons led by Bloody Mary had come over the wall and smashed his palace to dust. Now Heaven was gone, and God was missing in action.

The reason that adults didn't know this had happened was because TV news had kept it secret, but word had gotten out, brought to the children themselves by their dead relatives. Now Earth itself was the battleground. Here angels fought in God's absence, defending His last Earthly strongholds from demonic attacks. The demons' gateways into the human world were mirrors, abandoned appliances, dumpsters, and SUVs with black windows. The demons' stronghold was a place called "Ghost Town," where the dead lived.

The dead figured more frequently in the childrens' tales than angels—dead relatives who paid them visits to warn of trouble, or to give them information to help them survive on the streets. Since Heaven was gone, the good dead had no place to move on to, but that didn't worry the children. In the Secret Stories, the good dead joined the angels in hidden military camps, fighting the ongoing war against the demon armies. They encouraged the children to study hard, and to be brave and strong and not get sucked into the gangs, so that when they died, they could be good soldiers too, and fight against the gangs who did the demons' work. Every child knew that the gangs belonged to Bloody Mary and worked for the demons.

Bloody Mary, the children's particular enemy, was feared even by the demons, even though she had led the assault on Heaven. As far as Hosea could tell, she took special joy in the destruction of children—they said she crooned with joy when a child was murdered. All the children knew that once Bloody Mary had seen them, they were marked for death. All knew that Bloody Mary could enter the heart of whoever a child trusted most, causing that person to betray them to the demons and their human helpers. It did not occur to most of the children Hosea met through the shelter to seek out adult help or protection, for adults had failed all of them—and in some cases, more than failed them—and they no longer trusted the adult world. Adults were the enemy, the predators—or at the very best, fellow victims. The best of the children wanted to grow up to be strong enough to protect themselves, and the rest . . . well, the rest of them hoped to grow large enough and strong enough to become predators themselves. For them, it was better to get into the gangs and serve the enemy—the demons -- because at least in the gangs, you had some protection from the real world, and as for the other, well, if you served Bloody Mary, she wouldn't come looking for you.

The girls told a special story about Bloody Mary as well, about how Bloody Mary could invade the souls of girls, making them become her slaves; drug addicts and whores for the gang members. As soon as a girl-child down here on the mean streets could walk, she knew just what the girls in the thongs and fishnets, the high heels and miniskirts were peddling. And she knew that one day it was likely that someone would be making her peddle the same commodity—and in the Secret Stories, that someone was Bloody Mary.

And now Hosea knew—thanks to Angelica—about the Special One—the one girl in a thousand who could resist Bloody Mary, making the Blue Lady appear instead.

Hosea knew that the Blue Lady was the homeless children's chief ally, a beautiful angel with pale blue skin who lived "in the ocean." She loved the children as much as Bloody Mary hated them, and often spoke to them, giving them messages of love and reassurance, but the demons had rendered her powerless with a spell. Only if her true name were known could she regain her full power and defeat Bloody Mary forever.

And Angelica said that nobody knew it anymore.

Well, here's a fine kettle o' fish, Hosea grumbled to himself. The Secret Stories might be just that, and known in their entirety only to the very youngest, but even the gangs believed in Bloody Mary. Just the other night, Serafina had told him about an execution down by the river, where the body of the victim had been left on top of a pile of broken mirror glass. According to the children, mirrors were demon gateways, but they were particularly special to Bloody Mary, who often appeared in them, and possibly came through them.

The execution—had it been an offering . . . ?

Or had Bloody Mary come to claim one of her own?

It didn't take a rocket scientist to see that the little'uns weren't just creating stories to make sense of their lives. They were doing more than that. As a Guardian and a Bard-in-Training, Hosea knew perfectly well that nightmares could step out into the Real World if sufficient belief energy was poured into them. From Eric, Hosea knew that the elves thought that creativity was the human form of magic—elves didn't have it, and thought it was as amazing and mysterious as most humans thought magic was. In the right—or wrong—hands, there was a very fine line between creativity and magic, and kids, especially desperate kids like the ones that filled Jacob Riis at the moment, were just bursting with creative energy and, more to the point, belief. And if a lot of them had been believing in the same thing for a long time—long enough to create the elaborate tales that Hosea had overheard and pieced together over the last several months—they might have even managed to create what Paul Kern called a mythago, a spirit form which had actual independent objective reality.

So Bloody Mary might be out there, walking around loose. Somewhere. And acting according to her created nature, as a sort of urban-techno Lilith: a night-stalking child predator.

Hosea considered the matter, turning it over in his mind. The trouble with being a Bard and a Guardian was that sometimes it was difficult to make up your mind whose business a particular kind of jinx or hoodoo was. But after a while, he decided to bring the matter to Eric first. It wasn't actually a problem. Not yet. He wasn't sure Bloody Mary was "real." The gangs could just be aware of her legend, playing on it to scare their enemies -- and, in the way of kids everywhere, each other. And with a little Bardic tweaking, he might be able to nip that in the bud. Remove Bloody Mary's power to frighten, and nobody would use her to frighten anyone.

Easier said than done.

The little'uns stories were so dark, so bleak. Even the Blue Lady, their only hope, didn't have any real power to help them. But maybe he and Eric could put their heads together and find a way to steer the Secret Stories—just a little bit. Maybe between the two of them, they could figure out a way to put a little hope into the kids' world, a kind of hope that didn't involve being dead first.

It was surely worth a try.

* * *

This was the part that always made her nervous, heading back home carrying all this stuff and money besides, because if anybody started up with her, it would take her a minute or two to drop enough of it to be able to run, and a lot could happen in a minute or two. Lord Jesus knew she'd learned that already, to her sorrow and cost.

Ace winced, the way she always did when she heard herself taking the Savior's name in—well, in anything. When she'd lit out on Billy Fairchild and the Salvation Gospel Choir and Ministry, she'd sworn she was done with God, Jesus, and the Book. And with music most of all. If she never sang another note of music, it would be fine with her. The way Daddy'd always gone on about how what she could do having been sent to him from God . . . well, as much as he'd slung the Gospel, she'd never heard anything in it about God sending anybody the gifts of the Spirit just to make somebody else rich.

It'd been bad enough when she'd been a little girl, when Daddy'd had his salvation show, and they'd traveled on the big bus from town to town all through the hills, with Daddy pitching Gospel and Mama passing the hat, and her singing at the head of the choir from the time she was old enough to walk.

It'd been worse when they moved to Tulsa and Daddy'd gotten his television ministry: Billy Fairchild's Salvation Ministry and Gospel Choir. She'd been so scared to be up there in front of the cameras, even though he'd told her, "Heavenly Grace, you are the keystone of my Cathedral of the Airwaves." It had all sounded mighty fine, and they'd had a big house to live in with wall-to-wall carpets and a bathroom for each of them, and Mama had gotten a fur coat and Daddy'd gotten a big car.

And along the way there'd been more cars, and bigger houses, and she'd learned to hate it, and then to be afraid of it, but that hadn't been the worst of it. No, the worst was when Daddy Fairchild's new bad friend had showed up from somewhere. Gabriel Horn. And if Gabriel Horn wasn't Mr. Splitfoot himself, it was Ace's opinion (she'd always hated the name "Heavenly Grace," and nobody in New York was ever going to hear of it, if she had any say in things), that he was a very close relation. When she'd left last year, Daddy Fairchild was talking about moving the Ministry from Tulsa to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to minister to the sinners right in the heart of their damnation to hear him tell it. And that was all Gabriel Horn's notion. She knew that for sure. Mama was perfectly happy in Tulsa, and Daddy'd been happy there too, until Mr. Horn had shown up.

And Heavenly Grace was still going to be the keystone of Daddy's new cathedral. Ace had realized then that she was never going to get out—was never going to be let to get out. That Daddy and Gabriel Horn were going to use her and what she could do to keep the money coming in forever, and as much as both of them talked about Jesus and the poor, she'd never seen the money going anywhere but Fairchild Ministries, Inc.

So she'd left. She'd hit the road and kept moving, always north and east. She guessed that New York was about as far from Jesus and Tulsa as it was possible to get, and maybe Daddy would give up on Atlantic City once his little "keystone" was gone.

She was almost back to The Place now. Once she was off the street and out of sight, she'd be as safe as safety came these days. Even all bundled up and with a hat pulled way down over her hair, she knew she didn't look right to be around here: too white and too womanly, and here and now, both those things were bad. She wished she wasn't pretty—she'd had to move on pretty damned quick because of it more than once, and here, it was just like having a target painted on your back—a big sign that said Fresh Meat: Come and Get It.

Not that it had been any better when she'd been a baby. Nobody'd ever looked at her that way, but what they'd done had almost been worse. Daddy's Little Angel, he'd called her, just like Mary in Heaven. They'd used to sell pictures of her on the Salvation Gospel Hour, until she'd felt like a doll, a thing, something anybody could buy for five dollars and put up on their wall next to Jesus and Elvis and John F. Kennedy. Sometimes she'd used to wonder if she was real at all, or just something Daddy'd bought from the same place he bought all those boxes of white Bibles with his picture inside, and the robes for the choir, and the big cross he stood in front of when he preached once the money started coming in.

She wondered what Daddy would think if he could see his heavenly angel now.

Better not think of that while you should be watching the street, or you'll be a heavenly angel double quick, she told herself sternly.

She checked to make sure the block was deserted, and went around the side of the building, down the little alley, climbing up the fire escape to the open second-floor window. It was hard work with the heavy backpack and several full grocery bags, but she managed. She'd had a lot of practice since she'd found The Place last summer.

Everybody knew about The Place, she guessed, even the police, but as long as all the ground-floor doors stayed chained shut and the windows stayed closed, and there weren't any lights showing upstairs, it was safe enough. At least, no one was going to hassle the kids living here.

Until something bigger and stronger chased them all out.

She went up the stairs, carefully avoiding the holes in the treads and trying not to step on the garbage and trash that littered them. She was just as glad it was almost as cold in here as it was outside; that way the place didn't smell so bad—not like it had when it was warmer. It wasn't like they had indoor plumbing or anything, and none of them was old enough to rent a room anywhere, even if they could come up with the money. Apartments in New York cost as much as a whole house back in Tulsa, it seemed like.

She reached the fourth floor and looked around. Most of the interior walls had been torn down long ago. All that remained were the support beams of the large interior space. When the building had been condemned, the glass had been removed from the windows facing the street and replaced with large pieces of sheetrock as a defense against vandals. The kids themselves had covered the ones at the sides with sheets of cardboard scavenged from the subway, so that it was always dark now, except for the little light provided by candles and battery-powered lanterns.

The building's new tenants had also covered the walls with posters—stolen from the subways mostly—but nobody wanted to put up things they cared about too much. People were always stealing from each other, and anything you really cared about, you kept with you all the time.

Ace was pretty sure they wouldn't steal from her and risk being cut off from the shopping—and the handouts that went with it—but she knew too much about human nature to test the theory. Most of them—all of them probably, except for Magnus and Jaycie—were hooked on drugs, and would do anything to get the money for them.

She sighed, shaking her head. It was because of the street life, she knew that. The other girls were always urging her to come out with them at night, to meet their "boyfriends," to go on "dates." Ace had no intention of doing any such thing, but that meant she had to be very careful. She had to watch where she went, and who she was with—and what she ate and drank, especially here. She didn't begrudge the need for caution. It was the price of freedom.

And she knew Daddy and Mr. Horn must be looking for her. It'd been months, but she knew they wouldn't give up. Sometimes she wondered which one of them was looking harder. Daddy would be missing his heavenly meal ticket, but she hadn't liked the way Mr. Horn had looked at her, no, not at all.

Well, if she could be careful for long enough, it wouldn't matter. She'd be seventeen in a few months. That meant all she had to do was hide out for another year, and she'd be free. Eighteen was a legal adult. After that, there was no way anyone could drag her back. She wasn't afraid of work. She'd get a job—scrubbing floors, waiting tables, something. She'd save up her money, and then—

College. Just the way she'd always dreamed. She'd finish high school, get her diploma, get the rest of her schooling, and then nobody could stop her, nobody could touch her, ever again.

And she'd never have to sing another note.

As she walked into the center of the room—neutral territory—and set down the shopping bags, shrugging off the backpack with a sigh of relief, the inhabitants of The Place began coming over to her. There were about a dozen of them living here, and this early in the day, everyone was here—except Magnus, she noticed, taking a quick glance around. Everybody had their own space, with mattresses (of a sort) and blankets, and the edges of their area marked off in playground chalk on the dusty splintery floor. Some even had lamps and tables—whatever they could scavenge off the streets and get inside. You'd lose everything if you had to run, but at some point the need to have something that looked like a home outweighed caution.

Sometimes I feel just like Wendy in Peter Pan, Ace thought with a sigh. It had been one of her favorite stories, until she'd realized what Wendy must have gone through taking care of the Lost Boys.

Quickly, she handed out her purchases—batteries, paper towels, candy (a lot of candy), bottled water, condoms. Nothing she couldn't buy legally, and she'd bought all of it. She'd told them all her rules at the beginning: she wouldn't steal, and she wouldn't lie about her age to buy booze or cigarettes. If they had money, they had to pay for what they wanted. If they lied about not having money when they did, she'd know. And they couldn't bring their friends around for handouts, because the money would only stretch so far.

It had worked pretty well, so far. And thanks to Jaycie, there was always enough money so that nobody starved. Being the one in charge of the money gave her enough power to set a few rules, and to protect Jaycie, though she wasn't sure how long that could last. If Magnus hadn't shown up like manna from heaven just when he did, her system would all have fallen apart. But that boy was as touchy as a wolverine with a toothache, and you just had to look at him to know you didn't want to mess with him.

Once she'd distributed the purchases—she shopped as often as she dared, about three times a week—the others went away again. Ace picked up the backpack once more—still half full—and went over to the corner she shared with Magnus and Jaycie.

He was curled up—asleep, as usual—with only the top of his hat showing at the top of the battered old sleeping bag. She watched until she was sure she could see the rise and fall of breathing, then sat down on her own sleeping bag to wait for Magnus to come back.

Neither of them knew anything much about Jaycie (other than that he had really long black hair and really green eyes) including his last name or where he came from—but then, neither of them knew that about each other, either. She thought his parents might be Scandinavian, because his skin was really pale, but he didn't have any kind of an accent. She also thought he might be sick, because he slept a lot of the time. Too much of the time, in fact.

He'd been here when she'd first found The Place last summer. He'd always seemed to have money—quite a lot of money, in fact. It hadn't taken her long to realize that the other kids picked on him and stole it from him like he was some kind of ATM, and that Jaycie didn't fight back.

She'd put a stop to that real quick.

But she'd known that wasn't a real solution. There was no way Jaycie would be let to just keep all that money when they knew he had it, and the fact of the matter was, he didn't really seem to want it, or really know what to do with it. The important thing was to keep fights from starting—and the second most important thing was to keep everybody from getting their hands on wads of cash, because, well, they never used it for the things they really needed. Like food.

She'd gotten the idea of using it for the good of all of them, within certain strict guidelines, providing Jaycie was left completely alone. It worked for a while, but she didn't think she could have made it stick if Magnus hadn't shown up and backed her.

The weird thing was, as she'd quickly come to realize, was that Jaycie always seemed to have money, no matter what.

'Cause I'll be switched if I know where you get it, Ace thought, looking down at him. I never see you go out—so if you do go out, you sure aren't out long enough to earn it. And I don't think you're stealing it. Who'd be afraid of you? A high wind'd blow you away, and you never eat much of anything but those sodas of yours, and that awful Baker's chocolate. . . .  

* * *

It was a couple of hours later by the time Magnus reached The Place. He went inside cautiously, listening for sounds from upstairs. Everything was quiet, except for the sound of music played low and some conversation. It was a good day then. He hated it when there were fights, and it seemed like there was always something to fight about, especially things like clothes, makeup, batteries, CDs . . . and cigarettes, booze, and drugs, though it was easier for kids their age to get their hands on grass, lady, or crack than a bottle of Mad Dog or a carton of Marlboros.

Magnus shuddered. Drugs and alcohol didn't tempt him. He'd gotten drunk. Once. And long before he'd come here. There was something frightening about being out of control, about being in a condition where anybody could do whatever they wanted to with you and there was nothing you could do about it. He even hated sleeping, but there wasn't much he could do about that. Everybody had to sleep.

He reached the fourth floor and looked around. It was late afternoon. Everybody was up; he could tell by the number of candles that were lit. It gave Magnus a kind of creepy feeling, like living in a bombed church. Sometimes he thought it was cool; there was a kind of surrealness about it, as if he was living in an old war movie; he half expected to hear the tanks and the shells any moment. But right now it just irritated him. Why did they try to make it look like home when they knew they were just going to have to leave it all behind when they had to move on? Because eventually they would; sooner or later, one of the gangs would decide they needed The Place as a crack house, or the city would make the landlord tear it down, and they'd have to find somewhere else, probably on five minutes' notice.

He hadn't gotten to that point yet, the point of pretending he had a real home when he didn't. Everything he had was in a big backpack that was chained to a pipe in the wall with a tamper-proof bike lock. He knew the others could get into it if they were willing to rip it up, but this way they couldn't just take stuff without him knowing. And he didn't think they wanted to rip it up and piss him off, not with Ace and Jaycie to watch his back. And if they did, he wouldn't lose too much. Just some clothes, and his sticks.

Maybe it was stupid to pay that much money for a couple of pieces of wood, but he'd wanted them—wanted what they meant, what they represented, the freedom to do music his way, not the approved way. And the balance was so perfect; he knew that the moment he got them in his hands. A pair of Greg Bissonette signature sticks, extra heavy, the best hickory—clear-coated, which was a little disappointing, but it was the feel that counted, not what color they were stained.

His folks had been ticked when he'd spent his birthday money on them instead of on clothes or something they approved of. But a drummer needed good sticks. And he didn't have enough money for a drum kit, not that they would've let him bring it into the house anyway, or practice on anything but the piano. He hated the piano. He'd tried to get an electronic drum kit, but the good ones were all expensive, and his parents had kept him purposefully short of cash. He got everything he needed, and often things that he wanted—or that his parents said he wanted—so what did he need money for? Or a car, or a drivers' license, or --

Or, well, anything that would give him the freedom just about every other kid he knew had.

That was all over with. He didn't know what was going to happen now, but he knew he was never going to see Mr. and Mrs. My-Son-The-Artiste again. He hoped they thought he was dead, not that they'd care much. Well, maybe they would, because their ticket to Fortune and Fame was gone along with him. But that was all they'd care about. They'd have been happier with a robot than a kid.

Ace was already waiting there, sitting on her bag next to Jaycie. He felt a flash of relief; he knew it was dangerous for her to go out. He walked over, trying to look as if he didn't care.

"Hi," she said. "Did you find out about the showers?"

Magnus felt a simultaneous flash of guilt and irritation. The reason he'd gone down to Jacob Riis today was to find out if it would be safe for them to go there to take showers, or if they'd be busted: held to be sent home to their parents by a bunch of busybody social workers. But when he'd heard the street kids talking about La Llorona, he'd completely forgotten about it.

"Never mind," Ace said hastily. "I got your stuff."

Magnus felt his mouth start to water. "I'll wake up Jace."

He knelt beside the sleeping bag as Ace dug around in the backpack, bringing out the rest of her day's purchases.

"Jace? Hey, Jaycie? Time to rise and shine, guy." Magnus shook the sleeping bundle gently and stepped quickly back. You had to be careful how you woke Jaycie up. Sometimes he woke up screaming and flailing, and that upset everybody.

There was a pause, and then the contents of the sleeping bag began to shift. At last it began to move, and finally, with a sound of zippers, Jaycie sat up, pulling his cap—only the top layer; he wore several at once—firmly down over his ears and all the way down to the bridge of his nose.

Jaycie dressed like the original Homeless Person, in Magnus' opinion, though at least he didn't smell bad. Magnus had no idea how many layers of clothing Jaycie wore, since he'd never seen him remove any of them, but there had to be at least three or four sweaters under that battered Army jacket, and at least two or three layers of sweatpants below. Hell, the guy didn't even take off his shoes at night.

He was skinny enough, though, from what Magnus could see from his hands and wrists and throat, and as pale as a vampire, if there were such things. He had long hair like a Goth, too, though most of the time it stayed tucked under his jacket.

He smiled wistfully at Magnus, blinking the sleep out of his eyes, and Magnus, as always, felt a moment of pure hate for whoever had driven Jaycie out of his home and made him cry and scream the way he did sometimes. For a moment, Magnus allowed himself to live in a fantasy world where the three of them—him and Ace and Jaycie—had a place where they could all live together. Somewhere that they didn't have to hide. Somewhere with plumbing, and electricity, and Internet access where they could all be safe and warm and do what they wanted to do . . .

"Did you go to the markets?" Jaycie asked hopefully of Ace.

"Yeah, I went shopping. I got your stuff," Ace said, handing him a wrapped bar of cooking chocolate.

Jaycie tore off the wrapper eagerly, and began gnawing at the thick block of bitter unsweetened candy.

"I can't understand how you can eat that stuff," Ace said, as she always did. "It tastes horrible."

"It's better," Jaycie said simply. "Oh. Here." He held out his hand.

In it was a crumpled wad of bills that would choke a very healthy horse. Magnus swore under his breath and grabbed it—quick, before anyone else in the room saw—and stuffed it quickly into his pocket. They could take it out and count it later.

Ace pretended to pay no attention. That was the way to keep a secret, both of them had learned. Pretend nothing was going on, and most of the time people would believe it. She pulled the rest of the backpack's contents out and arranged them on her own sleeping bag: a bag of fast-food hamburgers, two six-packs of Coke, a quart of milk for her (Ace hated soda and wouldn't drink it if she had a choice), and a box of Oreos. She passed a burger to Magnus.

By the time she and Magnus had worked their way through the hamburgers and milk, Jaycie had finished two cans of Coke (it was warm, but he didn't seem to mind) and most of the block of chocolate. Sighing contentedly, he wormed his way back down into his sleeping bag and went back to sleep.

"That's nothing like a balanced diet," Ace complained to the empty air.

"Who are you, his mother?" Magnus gibed.

"Closest thing he has, right here," Ace shot back without missing a beat. "And . . . I worry about him," she added, dropping her voice, though they both knew from experience that Jaycie would neither hear nor care that they were talking about him. There was something very strange about Jaycie, even by the loose standards of the street. Sometimes they'd speculated that he'd run away from some weird strict religious commune.

"Yeah, I worry about him," she repeated. "Like the money, you know?"

"Oh." Reminded, Magnus dug into his pocket, his body shielding the action from any watchers. They huddled together, as if they were necking, while they let just enough light show on the wad to make out the numbers. Carefully, they counted the wadded bills.

"Four hundred dollars," Ace said, managing to sound upset and frightened and disgusted all at once. "Where do you suppose he gets it?"

Magnus shrugged. He had no clue. He was just glad Jaycie did get it, wherever the source, because what he'd managed to bring with him when he bolted was long gone.

Ace frowned. "He's not mugging people," she said.

Magnus snorted and shook his head, unable to believe in that any more than she could.

"If he's turning tricks . . ." Ignoring Magnus' look of revulsion, she plunged on. "He could get sick. Or sicker, but this sleeping all the time, it doesn't look like AIDS to me, you know, like what Cleto probably had. I've tried to get him to go to one of the clinics, but he won't. And if he's sleeping all the time, when would he be going out and, well, working, if you know what I mean?"

Magnus made a face of disgusted acceptance, though he knew Ace was right. If you survived on the street, you sold your body or you joined a gang and did other things. And if you joined a gang, you had a clubhouse to live in, not a place like this. He'd even heard some of the girls talking wistfully about hooking up with a pimp, because a pimp would move them into a real apartment—one that they'd share with half a dozen other girls of his string, true, but . . .

"So where is he getting the money?" Magnus asked. It was the same conversation they had every time Jaycie came up with another wad of money, but somehow the question was like a sore tooth. You just couldn't stop poking at it.

Ace shrugged. "Maybe the Tooth Fairy's leaving it under his pillow. If she is, I sure wish she'd leave some stuff for me, like a valid New York State driver's license that says I'm twenty-one."

"You could rent an apartment then, if you had enough money," Magnus said, willing to play along, though even with a forged driver's license, Ace didn't look anything near twenty-one. He guessed she might even be a year or two younger than he was, though she'd never said.

Still, this was one of their favorite games. Ace sighed wistfully. "Take a shower, wash my hair. Have furniture . . ."

"A kick-ass kit, just like Rick Allen—"

"A television with all the channels—"

"Internet access—" That was what Magnus missed most, since half the time his parents hadn't know what he was doing on his computer, and what they didn't know, they didn't bother to forbid—or block. He'd spent hours on the Modern Drummer site, downloading clips and learning all he could. Someday—someday he was going to have a band. And it was not going to have a piano in it.

"A refrigerator and a stove," Ace said yearningly.

Magnus winced inwardly. Today the game wasn't going very well. He hated to see her like this. Ace was so strong; hard as nails, and ready to cut your throat if you looked crosswise at her. But sometimes she got a look on her face that made Magnus want to protect her almost as much as he wanted to protect Jaycie.

He'd never say so, of course. She'd kill him.

"Coffee any time you wanted it," Magnus said coaxingly, trying to make her feel better. It was what Ace talked about most, especially now that the days were so cold. She grinned at him.

"A bathroom and a door that locks," they finished in chorus.

Ace looked longing and vulnerable for just another moment, then the look was replaced with the determined one Magnus knew so well. "We'll have those things again. And on our own terms. You can bet the farm on it."


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