“Monsters In Our Midst” by Wen Spencer
The station manager of WQED, Dmitri Vassiliev, was very hands off when it came to his top television show, Pittsburgh Backyard & Garden. He normally didn’t check up on its producer, Jane Kryskill unless the show’s host Hal Rogers had shot someone or caught them on fire. During the last twenty-four hours, Jane and her team had set an Elfhome Interdimensional Agency guard on fire, aided in the escape of an tengu prisoner, and rampaged through downtown Pittsburgh with a chain-fed autocannon. They’d killed six giant monsters terrorizing the city, but reduced the first floor of the EIA downtown offices to rubble.
Thus, it was not surprising that Dmitri called Jane and her men in for a meeting.
They sat staring at each other in complete silence as Dmitri did hand gestures that seemed to indicate he was sorting through possible openings and rejecting them. Jane had threatened to hit the first person on her team that spoke, so both hosts were unnaturally silent, waiting for the lines to be drawn.
“Please tell me that you at least filmed it,” Dmitri meant reducing the EIA offices to rubble.
“You told me to get footage,” Jane said. “We got footage.”
“Of the hospital?” Dmitri meant setting the guard on fire and the prisoner escaping.
“Nothing was usable at the hospital.” She meant that they’d deleted all video related to their visit to the hospital.
“I see.” Dmitri said.
Jane listed out the reason they weren’t dead at the hands of the elves or in the EIA prison. “Nigel and Hal studied the film and determined that the monsters had subtle variations in coloration and size that normally indicate an animal’s sex. Males are usually more colorful. Females are often larger. We believe there were three of each sex. We found a nest at Sandcastle. It means there are probably two nests that we need to find and burn before hundreds of those monsters are spawned. We have at maximum six to ten days from the time that the eggs were laid.”
She didn’t add that they knew that there had only been six of the beasts. Her baby sister Boo had watched the oni commander Kajo release the monsters into the river while she was his prisoner. No one could know that her team had rescued Boo from the Sandcastle fish hatchery, leastlest the news trickled back to Kajo.
Dmitri studied them for another minute in silence. He nearly spoke several times, opening his hands as he thought of something, closing them again as he decided not to mention it. He finally leaned back. “I probably don’t need to say this—I’m sure you’re well aware of your situation. You are walking on a very fine line. The Viceroy is grateful for your help toward finding his bride. The elves are glad you killed the monsters. Maynard is the type of man that shoulders the responsibility of giving you carte blanche when he asked for your help. If you lose the support of any one of those parties, you’re going down in flames. You have crossed the line that I’m willing to extend this station’s protection to you. If you go down, you go down alone. I can’t stick my neck out for you and keep the rest of my employees safe.”
“Yes, I’m fully aware of that.” Jane wanted Dmitri to protect the innocent employees of the station. It made her feel less guilty about endangering them. She said nothing more, committing to nothing. She didn’t want to make promises that she probably would need to break later. Nor did she want to add fuel to the fire.
Jane knew that it basically boiled down to how much Dmitri trusted her. He hadn’t even glanced at any of the men yet. He didn’t know Nigel or Taggart, who had arrived on Elfhome just days before. He knew Hal all too well. Dmitri saw the big picture. He put Jane onto the job because he knew how much rode on Jane’s team getting results. He knew that there would probably be collateral damage because there normally was. It was the nature of the beast, as Jane’s mother would say. Did he trust Jane enough to stay out of her way?
Things would get awkward if Dmitri completely pulled the station’s support. He could take the production trucks, the cameras, and the right to say they were filming for a television show. He had to know, though, that he wouldn’t actually be able to stop Jane now that she made up her mind.
They sat for another minute, measured out by the ticking clock on the wall.
Dmitri glanced one by one at the men sitting beside Jane in silence. He kept his face poker blank, so there was very little to judge what he was thinking. He flicked over Nigel quickly. Narrowed his eyes at Taggart. He considered Hal the longest with a slight crease to his brow that could have been. Hal had gotten two black eyes from his battle with a strangle vine in what now seemed a lifetime ago. The bruising had faded to the point where heavy makeup could conceal the worst of the damage. They were using the damage to Hal’s face as an excuse not to be filming Pittsburgh Backyard & Garden.
“I won’t insult you by telling you to be more careful,” Dmitri finally said. “Just try to be more discreet.”
He flicked his hand, indicating that they were free to go.
It had gone better than Jane had hoped. She herded her crews out of Dmitri’s office before someone (meaning Hal or Nigel) said something stupid.
“I will disavow of any knowledge of your actions,” Hal said once the door was safely closed behind them. “Good luck, Jane. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”
Jane pointed at Hal. “You better not have booby-trapped his office.”
“What?” Hal looked guilty and edged away from her. “No. Thought about it. Didn’t have any explosives on hand.”
Dmitri opened his office door. “Jane. I need to talk to you privately.”
Usually such private conversations allowed Dmitri to call the host of his best show all sorts of insulting names without crushing Hal’s weirdly fragile ego.
Jane pointed toward accounting. “Hal, take them to accounting and do something about their cash problem.” The network idiots on Earth had assumed that the Chased by Monsters team could use a credit card to cover their expenses. Most of Pittsburgh didn’t take off-world credit cards, leaving the team without proper finances. It would get Hal out of her hair without fear of him causing too much damage to the offices. “Be charming!”
Dmitri tapped on his desk for a minute and then cautiously said, “I just got off the phone with legal.”
The mind boggled over what legal may have talked to him about. They’d left a wide path of destruction behind them the day before.
“And?” Jane asked.
“You and Hal seemed to have bonded with the network crew. Normally this would delight me to no end because it makes my job easier. I’m concerned, though, that they might be taking advantage of you. You don’t have a lot of experience with men like them.”
The legal department had told Dmitri about her and Taggart getting married.
“I told legal to keep that private,” Jane said.
“You scare legal,” Dmitri said. “But they consider you part of our family. They’re concerned that you don’t know how to handle a situation that can’t be solved without a weapon.”
“I asked Taggart to marry me, not the other way around.”
Dmitri pressed his hands together and pursed his lips, obviously cautiously and carefully picking his words. “It is possible to manipulate a person into believing something is their idea.”
“I know.” She couldn’t have ridden herd on Hal for six years without witnessing it in action. The man could talk most people into anything. It was why she’d sent Hal to accounting. She controlled the kneejerk angry response that wanted to snarl out. This was Dmitri. He’d given her a job fresh out of high school, believed in her when she decided to take the show in a different direction, given her free rein once she proved that she could produce quality work, and always cleaned up Hal’s messes when she lost control of him. With his premature silver hair and leadership style, he’d always struck her as a father figure despite the fact he would have been approximately fifteen when she was born.
She’d talked to legal because she wanted to make sure her research was correct. If she married Taggart, he would be considered a Pittsburgh resident and could come and go without needing to jump through hoops for a visa. She didn’t want to be married to a man stuck in another universe.
Had Taggart manipulated her? She replayed the key conversations over. No.
“Taggart isn’t intimidated by me,” Jane said. “I find that very appealing.”
“I see.” Dmitri tapped on the desk for another minute. “It’s obvious that Hal doesn’t know yet. Please, let me know when you decide to tell him.”
He was afraid that Hal would self-destruct when he found out. Considering Hal’s love of explosives, this could be a very bad thing for the station.
“I will.” Jane promised.
According to Nigel and Hal, a male catfish built a nest in shallow water out of pebbles. It invited the female in to lay her eggs, then chased her out to fertilize and guard over them until they hatched. Somewhere in three rivers fed by countless streams were two nests.
They had a narrow, six-day window to find them.
The talk of “fertilized eggs” reminded Jane that she had no birth control. She hadn’t been out on a date since high school. Sooner or later, she wanted the chance to test the chemistry between her and Taggart. They hadn’t gotten beyond kissing as her house was overflowing with family and friends.
Taggart had lost part of his luggage just before driving to Pittsburgh and never replaced its contents. It meant that there was a high probability that he didn’t have any contraceptives on hand either.
The problem was how to get birth control without Hal finding out. She couldn’t just drop Hal at his apartment and go shopping. Their very public downtown fight might have made them a target with the oni. For the time being, all the men needed her watching their backs. It would mean, though, Hal watching her shopping cart. He knew full well that she wasn’t dating anyone prior to the Chased by Monsters’ crew arriving in Pittsburgh. He was smart enough to connect the dots.
The problem with living on the Rim, she couldn’t just slip out in the middle of the night and grab something quick. The only twenty-four-hour store in Pittsburgh was the Oakland Giant Eagle. The largest store of the Earth-based chain, the Oakland supermarket was geared toward college students that seemingly never slept and had a great love of ramen noodles. It would take her over an hour to drive from her house, buy what she needed and drive back.
She could send Hal and Nigel to Wollerton Hardware while she and Taggart went to the South Side Giant Eagle Supermarket. It would be nice to have a mature conversation on contraception options with the selection right in front of them. The two naturalists could buy equipment for the nest hunt. In theory, they’d be safe while she crossed the street to buy groceries.
She needed Wollerton’s to be still standing when she was done shopping. The hardware store was a sponsor of PB&G.
It left the choice of letting Taggart pick out the contraception alone or her deciding what they used when they hit that point.
She sent Taggart to Wollerton’s. As an extra measure of safety, she called Aaron Wollerton and warned him of Hal’s presence.
She grabbed a cart and headed into the Giant Eagle. The store had been restocked after Shutdown and the initial rush of shoppers was over. Perishable imported foods like bananas were sold out but there were still mounds of potatoes, apples and onions. Local tomatoes, sweet corn, zucchini and non-perishable vegetables from Easternlands took the place of the sold out Earth goods.
A young couple with that European flair stood puzzling over the purple gourd-like diki. New arrivals. Their fascination with the vegetable made Jane consider a possible segment for Chased by Monsters. Not a full episode—that would never fly—but certainly could be used to lengthen a short piece on some elusive animal. The whole point of marrying Taggart was to make sure that the film team wasn’t sent back to Earth without enough footage for an entire season.
That and he was the sexiest man she’d ever met.
Hal was handsome. He needed to be for network television. Sexy? Was there ever a time she thought he was sexy? She wasn’t sure: the only lasting memory from the first few months included lots of vomit and fire extinguishers.
She found the feminine product section. She loaded up for her period and then considered the birth control section, which was frightening close to the pregnancy tests. There were a lot more choices than she thought there would be.
How was she going to tell Hal that she was getting married to someone else? It still boggled her that she even needed to tell him. They’d never dated. Never kissed. Never held hands. When they’d met, Hal had been a drunken mess. She’d gotten the job because he’d run his production assistant over with a golf cart. He set fire to himself that first day. The rest of the week had gone nearly as bad. It was obvious that he needed her to do a drastic intervention to save his life. She found him a new, safer, cleaner place to live, one that was far away from any bar or liquor store. She used the move to steal all his booze. She stole the alternator out of his car so he couldn’t drink and drive. Twice she’d handcuffed him in her bathroom to dry out. She rode herd on him nearly every waking hour, taking him to family events so she could keep an eye on him. It was a long, tedious, trying year but in the end, all worth it.
Hal loved her. She didn’t feel the same way. She’d saved his life and probably his sanity. It had been a job for her. One she enjoyed most of the times. Other times, she struggled not to drown him in some convenient puddle. She was fond of Hal like a younger brother, even though he was nearly a decade older than her.
Would he self-destruct? Had he gotten stronger than he had been? Judging by Dmitri’s reaction, no one thought so.
She knew him best but she hadn’t realized how much he loved her until Taggart pointed it out. Hal never hit on her, at least, to the point that she knew he was. Maybe there been some kind of ninja-mode flirting going on?
She looked up from the box of condoms that she’d been studying to find her mother standing beside her. “Mom! What are you doing here?”
“Shopping. What you doing here?”
Jane controlled the urge to put the fling the box over her shoulder. “Shopping.” She dropped the condoms into her cart as calmly as she could manage.
Her mother’s eyes widen. “Jane! How wonderful!”
Jane blushed. She should have expected that reaction. Her mother raised her to believe she had the right to control her own body. Sex equaled a boyfriend which equaled possible son-in-law which meant future grandchildren.
“Taggart?” Her mother asked. “Or is there someone new?”
“Yes, Taggart.” Jane winced as she realized while they had a six to ten-day window on the namazu nests, they had equally narrow window for an elaborate Kryskill wedding. Every day she let go by, the more annoyed her mother would be with her for jeopardizing a lifetime of expectations. Jane may be one of seven children, but it would be the bride’s family that planned her five brothers’ weddings. All the years that Boo had been missing, Jane had been her mother’s one shot at going hog wild on planning.
“Mom. You can’t tell Hal.” Jane needed to get that in first, let it sink in, before popping the news. “I need to be the one that tells him.”
“Of course, he’s been in love with you since the first time he met you,” her mother said.
How did Jane miss this? “And you didn’t say anything?”
“If the chemistry was there, wild horses couldn’t keep you apart. I can see the sparks flying between you and Taggart. I’m so happy for you.”
“Mom. I asked Taggart to marry me.”
For a minute, her mother’s eyes only went wide with surprise. Then she turned away, hands over her face.
“I’m so happy.” Her mother said, or at least, that was what Jane thought her mother said, since her hands muffled the words.
“So, why do you have your hands over your face?” Jane said.
“Because I don’t want you to see me crying!”
They stood in front of the shelves of sexual products, pretending her mother wasn’t weeping in joy.
Just in case someone else who knew Jane would come walking by, Jane nudged her cart down the aisle toward the vitamin section. “I need to be the one that tells Hal, so don’t tell anyone who might talk to him—like your sons.”
“Oh, Jane, how am I supposed to plan a wedding without telling—wait—have you set a date?”
“Before the Shutdown in September. We’ll need a few days to file the paperwork after the ceremony. I don’t know the date at the moment. We’re kind of in a middle of something important.”
Her mother pulled out her phone to check the calendar. “Oh, Jane, less than two months to plan a wedding! We’re going to have to get the invitations out next week. There’s barely time to get them printed!”
“I wasn’t planning on invitations. We need to find these nests . . .”
“You will have invitations. This will be a proper wedding. I’ll take care of everything. There will be two Saturdays before the Shutdown in September. The sixth and the thirteenth.”
Jane knew better than to suggest that they pick a day other than Saturday. “The thirteenth.”
Her mom came to a full stop. “Oh, Jane, what about his parents? They won’t be able to be here for the wedding! He’ll have to wait until the August Shutdown to tell them and you’re getting married before the September one!”
Did Taggart have parents? Brothers or sisters? She wasn’t even sure how to pronounce his first name. “It can’t be helped. We’ll film it. We can send them a copy of the video.”
“I need to go to the printers today. I’ll get their names off the Internet. I’ll have to make sure we can use the church. I don’t know what we’ll do if we can’t—but I’ll work it out. You can wear my dress. Who is going to be your maid of honor?”
“I—I—I don’t know, Mom!” Jane started her cart toward the check-out line. “We just decided this last night. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem that important. We’re at war.”
“The human race will always be a war, somewhere or other. People will die. Babies will be born. Life plows on. You need to stop and say ‘this day is mine’ or every precious moment will be eaten up.”
Her parents had gotten married on an army base just days before her father was deployed the first time. It might be the reason her mother was so determined that Jane had an elaborate wedding.
“Brandy is probably my best girlfriend.” Jane remembered that she’d lied to Brandy last time she saw her. “If she’s still talking to me. Give me a few days.”
They stood in the check-out line as her mother cycled through a long list of choices. Color of cummerbunds: red. Type of flower: roses. Wedding party-size: small as possible.
“If I have all my brothers as part of the wedding party, I’ll have to find five girls to be bridesmaids. Six. Nigel is going to be best man. I don’t have that many close girlfriends. I’d end up inviting someone I barely know to be part of my wedding to keep numbers even. That would be stupid. I don’t want to do it.”
“You could use your cousins Julia, Cora, Ina and Rachel.”
“I would still need two more girls if Brandy is pissed off at me.”
“Well, you could have—oh. Oh! What are we going to do about Boo and Joey?”
“I could elope” would get her into trouble. “It’s two months. We’ll figure something out. Maybe we can just invite family.”
Her mother look so torn that it hurt Jane to look at her. Her mother had spent twenty-six years dreaming of Jane’s wedding. It was always supposed to be a huge celebration of everyone they knew—friends, family, neighbors and co-workers.
Her mother would kill to protect Boo. It would crush Boo to be excluded from something as important as a wedding.
“We’ll figure it out,” Jane said. “We could dye her hair black and introduce her as Taggart’s niece. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out. Just don’t tell anyone yet.”
“I’m going to have to tell the printer and Father Cunningham.”
Jane pinched the bridge of her nose. “Just make sure the Barkers don’t find out, or the whole city will know by dinner time.”
Only later did Jane remember that she needed to find a bride for Nigel too. She made a note to ask her mom to play matchmaker.
Aaron Wollerton had sold Hal an entire crate of dynamite. At discount. “You’re going to blow those monsters out of the water and save the city. I’m happy to do my part. Sorry about the fishfinder thing. People don’t fish that way here.”
Jane eyed the crate. Maybe she should wait on telling Hal about her getting married until after they needed to fling around lit sticks of dynamite. She handed out sandwiches she’d picked up at Giant Eagle’s deli. “What’s a fishfinder?”
“A mythical piece of equipment here in Pittsburgh,” Hal lovingly caressed the side of the dynamite crate. “Along with most other advanced technology.”
“Thank you!” Nigel accepted the sandwich that she handed him. “A fishfinder is an instrument used to locate fish underwater. It pulses sound through the water and reads the reflection to determine what the sound echoed off of. Fishermen use it to locate schools of fish, but it also can be used to find underwater debris, like shipwrecks. The more sophisticated versions can distinguish between fish and vegetation. We were hoping we could use one to find the nest.”
Aaron spread his hands helplessly. “With the jumpfish and river sharks, most people don’t go near the water. Some of the foragers work the streams that are too shallow for the bigger fish. They normally use a combination of fly fishing and fish traps.”
“Catfish do spawn in shallow water,” Nigel said.
“What is this?” Taggart held out his sandwich. He’d taken a bite out of it. “Ham?”
“Chipped ham and cheese,” Jane said.
“Chipped chopped ham is a local thing,” Hal added. “It’s luncheon meat made from chopped ham and spices ground together and then pressed into a loaf. The deli cuts it thin as possible. You’ll get addicted to it eventually.”
Nigel took a bite and made appreciative noises. “We need to do a ‘Food of Pittsburgh’ and cover all the different types of food. Do you think we could film at an enclave?”
“Possibly.” Jane tried to corral them back on track. “How are we going to find the nests? If they’re under water, we’re not going to be able to see the eggs. Not unless they nested in very shallow streams.”
“Magic?” Aaron said.
“What?” Both production crews asked.
“Elves have magic,” Aaron said. “Why don’t you see if you can find an elf who can use magic to see under the water?”
Contrary to what most newcomers believed, anyone could cast magic. Most elves had a number of utilitarian spells that they knew written down in well-guarded books. Her brother Geoffrey had spent his teen years talking the elves into teaching him their common day spells. The elves were as intrigued by his youth as he was with their magic. One of his teachers marked his height on the wall every time he came to visit, exclaiming at his “impossibly fast” growth.
Geoffrey started a furniture making business after he graduated from high school. He was the first, and so far the only human in Pittsburgh crafting ironwood. He took over an abandoned warehouse at the edge of McKees Rocks so that he could take delivery of massive ironwood logs either by road, or river, or train. It was only a few blocks from Tinker’s salvage yard and John Montana’s gas station. Lathes, saws, drills, lumber and endless sawdust filled the big warehouse. Pieces of furniture in various stages of completion were scattered everywhere.
“Oh, this is brilliant!” Nigel cried. “Simply smashing! We must do at segment on this!”
“Paired with what?” Jane asked since they couldn’t fill a full hour with carpentry. Maybe they could cover other elf crafts like pottery and weaving. They could ask Geoffrey’s best friend, Carl Moser, if they could invade his artist commune. Moser had set up his place like an enclave and had attracted several young elves to live with him and his lover, Briar Rose.
“Ironwoods and Black Willows!” Hal suggested as a pairing.
Jane didn’t want to tangle with a Black Willow with anything short of a tank or a missile launcher. “If the oni throw one at the city, then, maybe.”
“It would be good for your little brother!” Hal said. “Think of it as a TV commercial played on an Earth Network—for free!”
It would be good for Geoffrey.
They found her little brother in his office, asleep at his desk, buried under paperwork. Geoffrey had gone from Harry Potter T-shirts to full out elvish style. He wore a beautiful shirt of handwoven blue silk shot with lines of smoke gray, handmade carpenter pants made of denim and ironwood rivets, the lace-up knee high boots favored by the laedin-caste hunters, and a blue ribbon braided through his honey-gold hair. There were dark rings under his eyes. Jane had never seen him look so exhausted.
“What’s wrong?” Jane asked after waking him.
“Oh, it’s just I’ve been going non-stop since Shutdown.” He yawned, stretched, and shuffled to a coffee maker. “I’ve been working with the bunnies. Usagi and her crew. The newest bunny, Widget, the girl who hacked the surveillance cameras for us during the fight? She was helping me set up my books on the computer instead of doing them by hand. That got me talking business with Usagi.”
Geoffrey paused to yawn again and pour a cup of coffee. “Usagi is like some kind of business wizard. She got a MBA from Wharton, which is like the best business school on Earth. She set me up with this upscale furniture gallery in New York City, walked me through all the EIA export paperwork, the taxes forms, and lined me up with a reliable shipping company. We set this freaking ridiculous price on that big canopy bed that I made on spec, more money that I’ve seen in my life. I thought she was crazy, but Usagi kept saying that state-side, rich people spend like crazy on custom work. I got a call during Shutdown. Tinker’s marriage to Windwolf triggered a sudden craze and they wanted another bed, rush order. It took us six months to make that bed and they want a second one by September Shutdown. They called back a few hours later and ordered two more. They’ve already sold the one in the store to the first customer that walked in the door and the one that they’d ordered earlier. The additional two were because they figured that the beds will go like hotcakes.”
“Oh, that’s terrific!” Jane said.
“Yeah, good news is I’m freaking rich! Bad news is I’ve got to get three beds out in half the time it took me to make one. Between killing the monsters and working here, I’m ready to go down face first. What are you doing here? Is something wrong with Boo?”
“We need help finding the namazu underwater nests.” Jane explained how the naturalist believed that the monsters followed the catfish spawning patterns based on the nest that they found at Sandcastle. “Do you know any spells that work under water? Or know someone that can cast the spell?”
Geoffrey winced. “No, I don’t know anything like that. I’ve learned a handful of scry spells but they mostly find things like lei lines and the location of specific marked items. Like you can put a mark on a piece of paper, and then later pinpoint where that piece of paper is within the city. Or the dau mark like the one that Windwolf put on Tinker. Normally you should be able to track the person wearing it. I’m not sure how the oni are blocking that.” He frowned a moment. “Actually, you might ask Yumiko. The tengu might know more about magic than I do.”
“Could you do magic?” Nigel asked shyly. “We’ve heard so much about it, but we haven’t actually seen a spell cast. I don’t think anyone ever filmed someone casting magic before.”
Geoffrey looked to Jane to see if she allowed it.
Jane nodded. “Okay, let’s set up a shoot. I’ll see if I can get hold of Yumiko.”
Yumiko answered the phone with a cautious single word. “Yes?”
“Do you know anyone that can pinpoint fish eggs under water?” Jane said.
Yumiko snorted. “Maybe.”
Jane waited to see if the female elaborated. She didn’t. Obviously Yumiko didn’t trust cell phones conversations to stay private. Jane wondered if the tengu knew that the phones were being monitored by the oni. “I need help finding the eggs before they can hatch.”
“I’ll come to you.” Yumiko hung up without asking where Jane was.
Was the tengu watching her?
It wouldn’t be too hard to keep an eye on her team; they were driving around in the big Chased by Monsters production truck with the logo painted on the side. One could not get more obvious.
Tooloo was standing next to the CBM truck with a chicken. The old elf was wearing a gown of fairy silk, high top tennis shoes, and a red ribbon to hold her very long, very white hair in a loose braid. The chicken was a large gaudy rooster on a leash. Both elf and chicken were eyeing the CBM logo closely, cocking their heads back and forth as if puzzled by it.
Jane’s big elfhound, Chesty, had been trailing behind her. When he saw the roosters, he huffed with annoyance and hid behind Jane. He had a thing about roosters—they were short-tempered homicidal idiots that he wasn’t allowed to kill.
“Hi.” Jane knew Tooloo mostly by reputation and a handful of visits to her store to buy honey, milk and eggs. The elf (or half-elf, rumors conflicted to her nature) was known to be quirky to the point of possibly insane. She was, however, harmless, a potential fan of Hal Rogers (she rented DVDs, so she most likely owned a television) and possible source for information on the oni. “Can I help you?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Tooloo reached out and traced the jagged teeth of the logo.
The rooster noticed Chesty. It ruffled up. “Bok caw!” It strained on its leash, trying to reach the bear-size dog, clucking loudly. “Bok caw!”
“Have you ever played poker with a child?” Tooloo ignored the angry chicken.
“Yes,” Jane said slowly. It was not the direction she thought the conversation was going to go. She shifted to block the rooster. “I have five younger brothers.”
“Then you know playing with a child is always annoying. They don’t understand that the cards are just part of the game. They don’t have the maturity to grasp the hidden, unwritten side. They think everyone will play by the rules that they were taught and nothing else. They don’t realize people will lie to win. And most importantly, they don’t know how to keep their joy and sorrow hidden.”
“Yeah, I know.” No holds barred poker was the game of choice when her extended family gathered. Her cousins were ruthless. Her younger brothers had a baptism of fire when it came to developing a poker face.
Tooloo shook her head, continuing the odd conversation as if Jane hadn’t replied. “Oh the tears when they realized that you bluffed and made them fold with a pair of kings when you’re holding nothing. The eyes well up, the lip quivers, and then the name calling. Trickster.”
The rooster clucked loudly. “Bok caw.”
“Cheater,” Tooloo said.
“Bok caw,” the rooster clucked.
“Liar,” Tooloo said.
Chesty whimpered as if the insults were thrown at him.
Jane pinched the bridge of her nose. This was utterly surreal. Why was Tooloo telling her this? (Why did she have a rooster on a leash?) Jane had sat through the described meltdowns often when her brothers were young. It was a phase they all went through. Lying, though, was the gravest sin to elves. It would hit an elf hard to be called a liar. “They grow out of it. They forgive you.”
“Only if you’re careful never to take anything too dear to them,” Tooloo said.
Was that some kind of veiled warning? “Can I help you with something?”
“Perhaps,” Tooloo said again. “A few days ago, another player suddenly sat down at the table. A child. Clutching tight to her handful of cards. I didn’t see her coming. A first for me. I suspect things will not end well for her. I wonder if she’ll hate me for the loss of her cards.”
“You could let her win.” When her brothers were very young, Jane played without bluffing so they’d learn the basic rules. It made the game more a thing of luck than skill.
“It’s a cutthroat game,” Tooloo whispered. “The stakes are high. I have no idea how well she plays.” The elf reached out to run a finger over the Chased by Monsters logo. “So little in poker depends on the cards. It’s tiny things. Do you keep your cards well hidden? Can you keep count of the cards in play? Do you know when the person across from you is lying? Do you know how to misdirect attention away from you? Can you abandon all that you put at stake to guard what you have left?”
Jane wondered if they were talking about a literal card game or a figurative one. They were speaking English. Jane wasn’t misunderstanding the basic sentences, but everything Tooloo said could have a second meaning. Nigel had said that Lemon-Lime were two little girls. Chased by Monsters arrived in Pittsburgh just days ago, armed with the monster call and knowledge from the twins. If they were talking about a figurative game, then Lemon-Lime might be Tooloo’s “new player.” What side was Tooloo on? Unlike all the other elves in Pittsburgh, she wasn’t part of a large extended household. Tooloo lived alone without any elves or humans to call family.
“Do you want something?” Jane asked.
“Bok caw!” The rooster clucked.
Tooloo laughed. “If you live long enough, it all becomes a little hazy on the edges. What were you doing? Why was it all so important? You’re left standing in the kitchen, wondering what it is you planned. You open the fridge and stand there looking in, hoping that something jars your memory.”
The elf was bluffing now; Jane was sure of it. The dodge was a misdirection without lying.
Tooloo stared into Jane’s eyes as if looking into the very heart of her. This elf had sought Jane out, wanting to know something. The question was: what? Which side Jane was on? The fight with the namazu would have made that obvious. Lemon-Lime’s identity? Jane didn’t know it. What Jane planned to do next? Fight to the last breath in her body.
Tooloo’s lips upturned ever so slightly in what might have been a smile. “As you stand there, in cold blast of the fridge, yesterday’s leftover staring back at you, there’s this flash of memory. A touch of a hand. The brush of skin. The warmth beside when you sleep. It’s all you have left of someone that you loved with every fiber of your being—and you’ve nearly forgotten that too. Revenge is cold because all the warmth in your life has been stolen.”
“Bok caw!” The rooster clucked.
“Who did they take from you?”
“Myself.” Tooloo gave a slight tug on the leash, making the rooster squawk. The two turned and strutted away.
What the hell? Jane stared after them.
“Keep your cards close to your chest, my little storm fury!” Tooloo called before turning the corner.
Chesty grumbled at the indignation of having to be nice to insane fowl now that the rooster was out of sight.
“You ready, Jane?” Taggart asked through the headset.
She turned her mic on. “Yeah, almost. Give me a second.”
She unlocked the CBM production truck and let Chesty in. She glanced one last time at where Tooloo had vanished. What the hell was that all about? She replayed the conversation. Did Tooloo really mean that some secret spy skullduggery involving Nigel and the twins, or was she simply crazy as a loon talking about a weekly poker game? Except for the bit about the refrigerator and leftovers, certainly there wasn’t anything that didn’t fit into a conversation about a child sitting in on a high stakes card game.
“I don’t have time for this,” she muttered.
“What?” Taggart asked.
“Nothing.” She climbed into the truck and flicked on the monitors.
In Geoffrey’s workshop, Hal was tied to a chair while her brother showed off his tools sharpened by magic. When was Hal going to learn that her family meant it when they said “don’t touch?” Seriously, this was one of the reasons she didn’t find him sexy.
She clicked on her mic. “Hal is still in frame, Taggart.”
“Jane!” Hal whined as Taggart shifted slightly.
She felt a stab of guilt. He really was good natured about the casual abuse. She would feel guiltier if she didn’t know him so well. It was for his best interest to be contained. Last time they were here, he nearly cut the toes of his left foot off. “Shush, or I’ll have him gag you too. Light levels are good. Let’s roll.”
“Ironwood is an amazing and beautiful wood.” Nigel stood in front of a “speakeasy” door of ironwood that Geoffrey started out making. It was popular with the elves and humans alike as it echoed the spyhole-style used at the enclaves. “Just look at this. Isn’t it beautiful? It has a very straight, even grain with a fine texture and high natural luster. It seems nearly luminescent since it reflects so much light. The very core, the heartwood, looks like polished gold. This is a truly amazing material. Wood hardness is measured via the Janka hardness test. It’s the pounds of force required to imbed a small steel ball into the wood to half the ball’s diameter. The hardest wood on Earth is Quebracho, which is from the Spanish term ‘quebrar hacha,’ which literally means ‘axe breaker.’ Ironwood is ten times the hardness of Quebracho. Because of that, it is amazingly difficult to work with. The only way to craft it into amazing pieces like this,” Nigel shifted to show off an elaborately carved headboard of a king-sized bed, “is to use magic.”
He took a few steps, sweeping his hand to take in the cavernous workshop. “I’m here at the marvelous Gryffin Doors, a custom furniture maker that specializes in ironwood. It is the only human-owned company that does so on two worlds. This amazing young man, Geoffrey Kryskill, is the wizard behind all the magic.”
Geoffrey blushed and looked younger than his twenty-two years. “Thank you, Nigel.”
“Please, can you explain the process of turning those massive trees into something like this?”
“Um.” Geoffrey looked boggled for a moment, and then plowed into the subject. “Felling the trees is managed by the EIA. We’re only allowed to harvest a small number to protect the forests around Pittsburgh. They can’t be cut down with chainsaws. It dulls the blades too fast. Some idiots use dynamite but that’s a total waste of wood. They destroy a quarter of the tree trying to bring it down. I think that’s the real reason the EIA controls the cutting, to keep people from blowing up a half dozen trees to get the same amount you get carefully logging one or two trees with magic. The virgin forest is dangerous, but when you clear out the ironwoods, it gets deadly. Soil erosion aside, you get more strangle vines, Black Willows, steel spinners, so forth and so on. Everyone loses when you lay waste to the trees. It’s in Pittsburgh’s best interest to protect the forest. Sorry, I’m ranting. I’m tired and it’s a trigger for me. Nothing pisses me off than to find some newcomer idiot has blasted a big hole in the forest and then just let the trees lie there because they can’t cut them up into logs small enough to move.”
“You use a spell to cut the tree down.” Nigel gently steered the interview back to the main subject.
“Yes. The spell is called taelikiatae or to strike with wind. You slice away bark on opposite sides of the tree—just like you’d notch a tree with a chainsaw—and draw the spell on the side of the wood underneath.”
“I imagine it’s difficult to peel the bark off one of these trees.”
Geoffrey nodded and sipped his coffee. “Its insanely hard to do without the right tools. It’s the main reason people just blast the trees down with dynamite. You can’t buy the tools nor will anyone give them to you. You have to make them yourself.”
“Why won’t they sell them?” Nigel said.
“Um,” Geoffrey studied the ceiling as he tried to figure out a way to answer. “It’s hard to explain the mindset. It’s kind of like the ‘give a man a fish’ vs ‘teach a man to fish.’ Tool grade edges last for one tree. Only ejae have lasting edges and only the sekasha are allowed to carry those. So you cut down one tree and then you need to use spells to sharpen the blades of your tools. That includes the blade on your saw mill, jigsaw, hand planers, every tool that you use. If you can’t make the tools in the first place, it’s useless to sell you a tool.”
“You can’t use conventional tools at all?” Nigel asked.
“Well—you could—maybe. I got a high-grade steel blade with solid tungsten carbide tips on my Peterson portable sawmill. It will stay sharp for two years or more because I use it only on oak and walnut. If I tried to use it on ironwood, it would be dull by the end of the day, and the day after that I’d burn out my motor. I’d need a dozen blades or more that I could have in constant rotation to protect my shop equipment. Each sharpening reduces the life of the blade. You’re literally honing away metal until you have an edge. Eventually there’s nothing left to sharpen. There were some people that set up woodshops in Pittsburgh after the first Startup. They were using all man-made tools. None of them could keep up with the maintenance required.”
“So your knowledge of magic is essential?”
“Magic. Wood. Furniture making. My big weakness is business. Since my family all own their own businesses, I know the basics. I took accounting in high school because I knew I wanted to be able to understand bookkeeping. It wasn’t until I met Usa—someone who went to college for it that I saw that there was this whole big picture that I’d missed. We’re trading services. I’m making a table for her.”
Geoffrey waved a hand toward a massive expansive of maple wood. It looked like it sat nearly twenty people. The bunnies were multiplying like bunnies.
Nigel backtracked in the conversation to pick up a dropped thread. “I’ve read that the ejae are ‘magically sharp’ but I’ve never seen anything that explains that.”
“Probably because no one really understands magic that speaks fluent physics—except maybe Tinker. Tinker domi.” Geoffrey fumbled with Tinker’s new title. He knew the new Vicerine from before all the madness. “The Elvish for the various blades are ‘sharp,’ ‘tool sharp,’ and ‘magically sharp,’ so when you’re told it’s ‘magically sharp’ it’s a literal translation that describes the type of edge it has. ‘Sharp’ is a metal blade like a normal steak knife. See you can’t use magic and metal together—reliably—so any metal blade will be your typical steel ground to an edge. The elves are trailing behind us in that technology. They can’t produce high carbon stainless steel or vanadium alloys, or ceramic blades. They import those from Earth. ‘Tool sharp’ are tools that are iron-wood that are given an edge via magic. They’re fairly easy to make. Not simple—you need to know what you’re doing and have the right tools—but easy. They’re like this table. It would be very difficult for my friend to make it. She doesn’t have the workshop or the power tools or the experience. She could do it, if she worked at it, but it would take her days to do what I did in a few hours.”
“So you couldn’t make magically sharp blades if you wanted to?” Nigel asked.
Geoffrey shook his head. “No, I don’t know the spells involved.”
“I’m sorry,” Nigel said. “But I’m fascinated by this and I want to understand. How do you take a piece of wood and make it be able to cut through anything?”
“What makes a knife sharp is the thinness of the blade. Carbon alloys and such are all about how durable that edge is, but the actual ability to cut is the thinness. When a blade becomes dull, it’s because the edge has worn back to the point where it’s no longer thin. A normal steel knife is sharpened to an edge that is only microns wide. You can take wood down to an edge at the molecular level via magic.”
Chesty rose from the floor just as the door opened to the production truck. Jane rolled back, pulling her pistol.
“It’s me,” Yumiko was disguised as a pizza delivery woman. The tall, willowy female wore a pair of easy to kick off flats, blue jeans and a T-shirt from Church Brew Works as kind of a makeshift work uniform. By smell, she’d brought one of the Brew Works signature pierogi pizzas with mashed garlic potatoes, sautéed onions and cheddar cheese. With a pizza box in hand, she wouldn’t draw a second look.
Jane forced herself to lower her weapon. She still didn’t completely trust the tengu but as supposed allies, she should at least seem like she did.
“You’re having us watched?” Jane posed it as a question but it was the only way that Yumiko could have found them.
“For your own safety. At the moment, the oni are not sure what happened with Joey and Boo. They might have been eaten by the namazu. Kajo controlled the hatchery. He cannot discount that Lord Tomtom might have found the camp prior to the namazu returning to spawn, killed the guards himself, and took the children prisoners. Kajo has not told Lord Tomtom about their disappearance, so it’s possible Kajo still suspects him.”
“Are you just watching me or my whole family?” Jane asked.
“All of your family,” Yumiko stated calmly. “If you ask us to stop, we will be forced to take Boo to Haven. We cannot leave one of the Chosen bloodline unguarded. The oni could use her in the worse possible way to gain control of the flock.”
Jane remembered how Boo had been able to stop Yumiko with a single command. Jane would hate to have someone who had that control of her. “You sure you can trust the people you have guarding us?”
“They would die rather than betray our people. They know better than anyone what the oni would do to us if they had complete control. We are already just animals in the greater bloods’ eyes.”
Jane didn’t like it when she ended up on camera. She didn’t like being watched. It meant she lost control of the situation.
A flash of light made her glance at her monitor. Geoffrey was demonstrating how the pieces of wood could be bound together at a molecular level with magic, thus eliminating the need for glue or nails. Nigel looked utterly enchanted.
She hated that her family was now in the spotlight. It meant if she lost control of the situation, they’d be the ones in danger. Her little brothers were now men; they had the right to choose how they lived.
The camera panned to the right as Hal fell over into a pile of sawdust, still tied to the chair. He apparently had been trying to escape. Taggart lingered on Hal long enough to verify that he was unharmed and then focused back on Geoffrey.
They were going to have to edit that out.
“Why is Hal tied up?” Yumiko asked.
“Because this place is too dangerous for him to wander loose. He can’t keep his hands in his pockets when he’s bored. Did you find someone that can help us with the nests?”
“You can use these.” Yumiko held out a Mylar envelope. Inside was a ream of paper printed with identical copies of the same spell.
“Where did you get these?” Jane said.
“Don’t force me to lie to you. The truth is too dangerous.”
“Dangerous or damning? This is Elvish.” Jane tapped the runes. “But elves don’t use printers. You got this from Tinker somehow. You’re making it hard to trust you.”
Yumiko stared at her for a minute before looking away. “You tie up Hal to keep him safe. He still trusts you. It’s the same principle.”
“Hal has proved that he needs a babysitter time and time again. I’m not Hal.”
“If you do not know the truth, you can’t repeat it to the wrong person.”
“All you need to say is ‘this is secret’ and I won’t repeat it to anyone.”
“I’m to trust the man that you tie up with my secrets?”
“I won’t tell my team.” Jane partially lied. She would tell them if they needed to know.
Yumiko thought for a moment before sighing. “It is a long complicated story, the kind that comes into being when someone like Pure Radiance dabbles in the lives of others. Impossible convergences of fate lead to extraordinary events. The more I tease apart the cause and effect, the more I realize that there are multiple oracles warring with each other, moving others around like chess pieces. What we’re seeing today is the collision of their plans as they crash toward their end game.”
Yumiko continued. “Thousands of years ago, the greater bloods rose up to enslave all of the oni people. We did not count ourselves as tengu then; we were humans living on a foreign planet after escaping the cruel Emperors of China. We lived in a remote area, cut off from everything, and we were safe and happy in our ignorance. Then, one day, Wong Jin met Providence and everything changed.”
This sounded like a snow job, but Jane settled back to listen. Everything she knew about the oni and their world came from six-year-old Joey. Anything she learned would be useful.
“We believed that were only two worlds. Onihida and Earth. That day we learned that there were multiple worlds layered upon each other, like a stack of cards. Just as we could go from Onihida to Earth, there ways to go from Earth to Elfhome. Somewhere, beyond Elfhome, there were more worlds, and from those worlds, came the dragons.”
“Dragons?” Okay, that wasn’t good. The elves had always said that dragons were much larger than wyverns, which were freaking huge.
“These are not Elfhome dragons, any more than gorillas are humans. Distant cousins, perhaps, but no more. The dragons of Ryuu are like gods. Unimaginably powerful, they are also wise and noble. The rulers of the elves were envious. They wanted to steal the dragons’ strengths for themselves. They devised traps and ensnared the dragons one by one. They captured Brilliance who had been too curious for his own good. They captured Honor who loved him and came searching for him. They captured Clarity who should have known that she would be taken. They captured too Providence’s beloved daughter, Nirvana.
“To steal their powers, the elves shattered down the dragons and started to experiment with them. They were cowards, these monsters that called themselves elves. They were afraid of endangering themselves, so they made slave children to test their results. In their cowardice, they bred their own downfall. They gave their slaves gifts of the gods and then failed to understand how that would change everything.”
Jane glanced at the monitor. They were on a ticking clock with the eggs hatching and this had nothing to do with the digitally printed spells. She had never heard any of this, an entire world that she was ignorant of, and yet somehow figured into this war that was embroiling Pittsburgh. Yumiko had distracted her away from her original question of how the tengu ended up with the spell.
“What does this have to do with Tinker?”
“Everything. The elves gave their slaves godlike power and then couldn’t contain them. It threw their world into chaos. Everything you know about elves came after the fall of their masters.”
“Still not seeing the connection.”
“Tinker was not taken because she’s Windwolf’s bride, she was taken because she contains Brilliance’s genetics. Plans to kidnap her were put into motion even before she met the Viceroy.
“Tinker was born human.”
“No, she’s only appeared to be human. When Riki hacked into her datapad, he realized what she was and why Pure Radiance is using her as a weapon against the oni. Brilliance’s offspring are dangerously unpredictable when cornered. The oni do not know what they have captured. They believe they’ve caught a girl who had been human, clever but helpless. She will destroy them before she gives them what they want.”
Yumiko sounded very confident of that.
Jane connected the dots that Yumiko had laid out. “If the oni know this spell came from Tinker, they might guess what she is and how dangerous she can be?”
“Yes. If they knew she was actually a wood sprite, they’d change how they’re treating her.”
“Keep your cards close to your chest,” Tooloo said.
This might explain Tooloo’s odd rant. Pure Radiance was keeping her “cards” hidden as she played Tinker against the oni. Like in poker, the opponents’ ignorance was half the strategy. If the queen’s advisor flashed her hand, everything would be for nothing.
Lemon-Lime had foreseen Jane’s fight at the putt-putt golf course; they’d made a video of it months before Nigel even reached Elfhome. They’d given him the monster call and warned him about the oni. If they were the newest oracles pushing around chess pieces, what was Tooloo? Jane knew almost nothing about the intanyei seyosa beyond the fact that Pure Radiance was Queen Soulful Ember’s personal adviser.
It seemed that Tooloo was wondering if Lemon-Lime had the maturity to know not to expose the people the twins were using.
Or was Jane just overly paranoid, seeing connections where there were none? How would anyone know that Nigel was Lemon-Lime’s pawn? Even Taggart hadn’t known.
Jane ran back over both Yumiko and Tooloo’s conversations. Both of them were weirdly out of left field. Were they connected? Jane could understand what Yumiko was explaining but not why. The trip through history seemed the most inefficient way to explain the situation. Having to work on scripts for PB&G, Jane had become sensitive to how to lead people to information. How the listener could be diverted from one subject and made to focus on another. Why focus on dragons? Weren’t the button-pushing oracles the real game players? Boo had said that the oni had shifted camps merely because Pure Radiance had come to Westernlands. So far, Jane hadn’t heard even rumors of dragons being involved. After nearly thirty years, the creatures were still mythical in Pittsburgh.
“If the dragons were godlike,” Jane asked. “Why didn’t they go to war with the elves?”
“It wasn’t their world. They felt that since their children were trespassing, they should abandon them to their fate. It was not a popular decision but once made, all agreed to put the world of the elves in edict. They’d tear down the connections between the worlds with magic, where the elves would be most dangerous. They left the pathways to Earth simply because the damage that the elves could do to their neighbor was limited.”
“So they’ll stay out of this war?”
“Normally I would say yes, but I’ve heard a rumor that the oni captured a dragon. Some of the yamabushi have returned to Onihida to see if this is true, and if it is, free the dragon.”
So that wasn’t why Yumiko focused on her history lesson.
“Are there other monsters we haven’t found yet?”
“Yes. We have heard rumors that Kajo has camps somewhere in the forest. It is said that he has created massive beasts of war that he plans to unleash on Pittsburgh.”
Yumiko shook her head. “We have mostly dealt with Lord Tomtom, as we call him. His true name is Tomaritomo. He’s a lesser blood, which means that a greater blood created his bloodline using animal DNA as well as oni. One of his ancestors was a ghost lion. For a lesser blood, he’s fairly intelligent but he operates mostly on brute force. In terms you’d understand, he’s in charge of the infantry. Think berserkers.”
Yumiko laughed. “You don’t know your own history. Berserkers were Vikings who went to battle without armor, wearing only wolf skins. They fought in a trancelike fury; neither fire or iron could make them retreat. Savage, unthinking, fearless brutes. There is no reasoning with them. They’ll attack until they’re dead.”
“He has Tinker?” Jane flashed to the five-foot-tall, hundred-pound girl.
Yumiko waved away her concern. “Tinker will think rings around him. She bargained him into letting her keep her sekasha guard. Brilliance and Honor together? Lord Tomtom is doomed. Kajo is the dangerous one. He’s named after the most poisonous snake on Onihida, the Yutakajodo, for a reason. He’s a greater blood, which means while he looks harmless, he’s dangerously intelligent and resourceful. Gods forbid you ever come face to face with him, but if you do, don’t hesitate to kill him instantly if you have the chance. You will only have that one chance, and then you’ll be in a hell that you cannot even imagine.”
Kajo was the oni that took Jane’s little sister, Boo. He’d kept Boo as a plaything until his “Eyes” told him that she was too dangerous. Jane had proved them right by wiping out the monster hatchery at Sandcastle.
The Eyes were the oni’s seers. Pure Radiance was the elves. Lemon-Lime was weighing in with the humans. How did Tooloo fit in?
“Yumiko left already?” Nigel said. “I was hoping that we could interview her. She’s such a fascinating person. It must be wonderful to be able to fly.”
“She didn’t want to stay longer than her cover disguise allowed.” Jane put the pizza on a worktable for the others to share. “She brought copies of a spell but I still need someone who knows how to cast magic that won’t ask weird questions.”
“You’ve got me.” Geoffrey sounded hurt that she didn’t even consider him.
“You’re snowed under with work.” Jane pointed out.
“Pft!” Geoffrey threw up his hands. “If even one of these monster hatches out and gets away, the oni can start over again. We can’t be shortsighted and do a halfass job at this. The elves and the oni are looking at the big picture, and it’s not pretty thing. The oni will wipe the elves out here in Pittsburgh. They’ll have to. The elves lived as slaves of the Skin Clan and they will not go back to that. They’ll die fighting first. The oni have to win, and win big, here and hold all of the Westernlands before they can take the Easternlands. If they don’t win big, the elves can bring in serious backup. I’m not going stand by and let everyone I love be butchered.”
“Okay.” Jane said.
Hal cocked his head at Geoffrey. “You’re dating elves?”
“Hal!” Jane snapped. Geoffrey had gotten teased in school for his lack of dating experience. Boo’s disappearance had affected all her brothers in different ways. Geoffrey had thrown himself into learning all about woodcrafting.
Geoffrey blushed. “Yes.”
“You are?” Jane said. “Why didn’t you say anything. What’s her name?”
Geoffrey blushed deeper. “Floss Flower and Snapdragon.”
“Snapdragon?” She knew the male elf. “He plays drums for that one band. Naekunan?”
“Yes. Floss Flower is a weaver. She makes really cool fabric in silk.” Geoffrey plowed on, his chin getting that familiar Kryskill hitch that said he was going to let his fist talk if he didn’t like what he heard in reaction to his confession. “They want me to join their household.”
“Bisexual as papaya trees,” Hal murmured.
Jane smacked Hal before he got punched in the nose.
“Ow!” Hal cried. “What?”
“Not another word.” Jane had questions that she really didn’t want to hear the answers to. Geoffrey was twenty-two. He had the right to do what he wanted with whoever he wanted, as long as they wanted it too. And what he wanted to do was protect those he loved. “Okay. We need a boat.”
Jane tried to borrow a boat for their hunting, but nothing panned out. The tugboats were still shifting the barges that crossed into Pittsburgh during Shutdown. The EIA was searching far up and down river for Tinker. The police refused to pull their boats off guarding the city’s river fronts from any monsters that Jane’s crew might have missed. There were no fishing boats; Aaron Wollerton was completely right about that.
Out of sheer desperation Jane had called her cousin.
He’d told her that he owned a boat. He’d told her it was large enough for her crew plus Geoffrey. He’d told her that he would handle piloting the boat, freeing Jane up to film. He’d told her to meet him down at Neville Island dry docks. He’d told her not to worry, he’d have it ready by the time her crew got there.
He hadn’t told her that the boat was a hundred and ten foot long, three-deck high, paddlewheel.
Jane felt a sinking feeling as they stood on the edge of the river and gazed at the Three Rivers Queen.
Once upon a time, when steam engines were a big thing, paddlewheel boats had carried people up and down the Ohio River, making it simple to reach as far as New Orleans. The crafts had almost completely vanished before the first Startup took Pittsburgh to Elfhome, killed by the speed and efficiency of railroads, highways, and air travel. The Gateway Clipper Fleet owned the last six ships in the area. While the boats retained their signature paddlewheels, they’d been retro-fitted with diesel engines. The fleet did river cruises and operated a shuttle service during special events like baseball games and concerts, allowing attendees to use parking lots all over the city. Jane thought all of their ships had been sold; steaming downriver during Shutdown to return to Earth. Obviously she was wrong.
The Three Rivers Queen was swarming with people. Most of them she recognized as members of Team Tinker. She’d wanted a stealthy search of the river, not a traveling circus act.
“Jane!” Her cousin Andy waved to her from the top deck. He turned and shouted up to the pilothouse. “Roach! Jane’s here!”
His older brother can bounding down to greet them. “Welcome aboard the Queen! Isn’t she a beauty? I’ve been thinking of renaming her. I’m not sure if I should call her Queen Soulful Ember or Princess Tinker. I’ll have to market test it.”
“Where—How did you—?” Jane said.
“I won her in a poker game! She was dry-docked here while the Gateway Clipper Fleet was tied up in probate court after the founder died in 2009. Apparently everything in Pittsburgh was entangled in the entire question of do humans or the elves own orphaned property. This spring, the heir used his inheritance as excuse to get a visa to visit Elfhome. He didn’t have any way to get the boat back to Earth, so he used it as collateral in a high stakes poker game. I pulled a freaking royal flush. I won twenty thousand dollars and this!”
“Twenty thousand dollars? What were you doing at a game like that?”
“The heir hired me to be native guide. What he really wanted was access to a pit crew. He was a rabid hoverbike racing fan. I figured if I turned him away, he’d just pay Team Big Sky or Team Bonzai. I had Nathan keep a close eye on him and made sure he knew he could look, not touch, especially with my riders. He got me into the card game, but he sucked at poker.”
Her family were all sharks at cards. Once in, it wasn’t surprising that he’d cleaned out the richer players. The surprising part was that they let him keep the winnings.
“You can pilot this?” Jane asked.
“Not me. Sean!” He turned to point at the pilothouse. Her oldest cousin waved and tooted the horn.
Jane recognized the man beside Sean. “Wait. That’s Lee. He’s a sound engineer. He worked for WQED until KDKA hired him away.”
Roach backed out of striking range. “Yeah, yeah, Sean is going to be taping part of the hunt for the monster. I’m sorry, Jane. Please don’t hit me! It’s the only way Sean would do this. He spent four years crab fishing in Alaska before coming back to Pittsburgh to do the DJ thing. Everyone in town is going nuts about the oni and Tinker and these monsters. Sean thinks that having the listeners know that someone is doing something will go long distance in calming people down. And I have to agree with him. Besides, we’re all big fans of Nigel Reid. We want to meet him. That thing he did with the red pandas? Far too cute for words.”
Jane waved at the Team Tinker members moving about the boat, getting it ready to cast off. “I would have thought you’d be out looking for Tinker.”
“We did for a week. I had to cut Andy out of a strangle vine and we got chased all over the South Hills by wargs. We don’t know if she’s even in the city. The oni might have taken her down river a hundred miles by now.”
Everything Yumiko said seemed to indicate otherwise. Team Tinker didn’t even know which haystack to look in for the needle.
Team Tinker was the last group of people Jane wanted to know that she was working with the tengu. Her cousins would protect Boo, but the others would want revenge for Tinker. “I didn’t want all these people along. I don’t want someone along who doesn’t how to stay out of my firing range.”
He nodded. “I totally understand. Lee isn’t staying. He’s afraid of Hal. Apparently working at WQED, he got to know Hal a little too well. He does not want to be stranded with Hal in the middle of a shark-infested river with a crate of dynamite. I’m not sure I want to be onboard with Hal. I know how accident prone he is.”
“I’ll be sitting on him. Your team . . .”
“Is not staying. I just needed help with the engines. It’s been a few years since the motors were last run. Also I wanted someone here checking for leaks. I didn’t want to put her in the water and have her go straight to the bottom with my entire family on board.”
“Andy can stay.”
“Nah,” Roach drawled out and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Baby brother means well but I think he was dropped on his head once too often as a child, which probably is entirely my fault. He’s dangerously absentminded and has two left feet and hands. Giant river monsters, you shooting at anything that moves, warriors from another universe kidnapping people right and left, a crate full of dynamite, Hal…” Roach shuddered at his list of dangers. “I’m going to send him off on a wild goose chase to keep him out of our hair.”
The wheelhouse was a small room on the top deck. The KDKA crew had soundproofed the space with acoustic foam for a clean recording. The space that remained was not much larger than the front seat of a truck. Between the cramped quarters and Sean’s need to stay focused on the river, Jane decided to set up two fixed cameras to record the interview for Chased by Monsters. It gave a slight fisheye view but most likely she’d only use the audio part of the conversation over more interesting shots of the river. She placed more cameras at the boat’s cardinal points of stern, port, and starboard.
Jane set up the portable monitor station on the bow of the middle deck. She would listen to the interview with an earpiece while keeping guard with her rifle. She had the box of dynamite secured nearby so that Hal couldn’t get into it without her noticing. Taggart paced the ship, camera on his shoulder, carefully picking his shots.
They were going to be on the river for hours, if not days, so Sean allowed the conversation to flow naturally, only occasionally reining it back to the nests that they were hunting. After years of being one of Pittsburgh’s most popular radio personalities, Sean had much of the same hosting super powers as Nigel. He held his own in the lively conversation.
Nigel clearly was fascinated by the idea that Sean had been born on Elfhome, left to work on Earth and then returned. It made Sean a very rare beast. Nigel had worked on a documentary featuring the wildlife of the Kodiak Island where Sean’s crab fishing boat had been docked. Their conversation drifted from Nigel’s visit to Pittsburgh to the differences between the Alaska wilderness and the forest of Elfhome.
“Kodiak wasn’t as fierce,” Seth maintained. “Yes, there was the grizzly bears and the wolves and sharks.”
“And the cold,” Nigel added to the list.
“Oh god, yes, the cold. But that was about it. Here in Pittsburgh we’ve got the man-eating plants on top of bears and wolves and river sharks. Alaska has nothing like the black willows, saurus, the wargs and steel spinners. The Alaskans talked a lot about how newcomers couldn’t take the isolation of the little towns but in truth, you could pick up the phone and call people all over the world. You could watch five different football games on television at once. Live. You can go online, order just about anything you can freaking imagine from Amazon and have it delivered within a week. In a day if you paid the insane shipping cost of next day air. I have trouble even explaining Amazon to my listeners. It’s like something out of a fairy tale. A genie in a box fulfilling wishes.”
“We were filming in the Maasai Mara.” Nigel realized that Sean’s listeners would have no idea where that was. “It’s in Kenya. Africa. It’s a five hundred and eighty square mile game reserve with elephants and zebras and giraffes. We were staying at the Keekorok Lodge, which is in the Mara, in the direct path of the wildebeest migration. It was the height of the migration, thousands and thousands of these massive beasts were swarming around the stone bungalows, and someone stole two of our bags. Camera. Lens. Memory cards. The entire lot. Gone. We went online, ordered replacement equipment, paid an exorbitant amount for express shipping, and in a matter of two days we were back to filming.”
“Exactly!” Sean cried. “If you have the money, you are not truly isolated anyplace on Earth. Not like here in Pittsburgh where if you can’t find it within the city, you cannot buy it. We are in a universe wholly separate from the sun and moon and the stars of Earth.”
“What brought you back to Pittsburgh?” Nigel asked.
“Family,” Sean said. “I realized that if I met someone on Earth, I would never be able to talk them into living on Elfhome. Not after watching one person after another wash out of living in Alaska which isn’t nearly as isolated. Living separate from my family for a couple of years, that was fine, but getting married without my whole family there? My kids never knowing their grandparents? Their uncles? Their cousins? Shit, no.”
“You have a wedding ring on,” Nigel said. “You’ve met someone?”
Sean laughed. “Yeah, the girl I dated in high school and had been a complete idiot for leaving. We got married two years ago.”
Jane glanced toward Taggart as guilt stabbed through her. His parents were going to miss the wedding. Worse, she was about to immerse him in the full insanity of a Kryskill family celebration. That at this moment, her mother was charging about the city, overflowing with joy and plans. Her mom already purchased supplies for the thousands of cookies traditionally baked for a Pittsburgh wedding. She was probably descending on the priest and printer like an avenging angel, demanding schedules to be cleared. If she couldn’t find the names of Taggart’s parents on the Internet, she’d be calling for the information.
Jane had to warn Taggart. She made sure no one was in earshot and whispered the news. “I had to tell my mother about the wedding.”
“She caught me buying protection.”
He looked confused. “What kind of protection?”
She felt a blush burn its way up her face. “Condoms.”
“Oh! That kind of protection! Sorry, I’m kind of in the ‘fighting monsters’ mindset. I thought you meant ammo or flash bangs or big guns.” He’d turned to film her. “Yes, good thinking. I brought nothing. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love here.”
She didn’t scowl because she knew it would make her look worse on video. “I don’t like being on camera.”
He turned away to film an old railroad bridge sliding overhead. The twin smokestacks of the Queen barely fit under the crossing. “You’re so beautiful. I can’t help looking at you. Only where my eyes go, my camera goes. Sorry.”
“I suppose I should get used to it. You are a cameraman.”
“So—how did your mom take it?”
“She cried and then bought the store out of sugar and flour.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“It should keep her busy for the next few days.” She felt a stab of guilt again thinking about how his mother—if he had a mother—was going to miss the wedding. Did he have family? “I feel like you know everything about me and I don’t know anything about you.”
“I grew up in Hawaii on the island of Moloka’i. It’s actually smaller than Pittsburgh with only seven thousand people on it. Where I lived, on clear nights, you could see the city lights of Honolulu. Moloka’i is a beautiful place with a dark history. It had been a leprosy colony where people were rounded up on other islands at gun point and basically thrown off the boat to swim ashore with nothing but the clothes on their back.”
“Oh my god!”
“I understand the elves wanting to hold on to what they have. We were an island kingdom; my people had lived in isolation for nearly two thousand years. We had our own language and religion. When the Europeans first came to our shores, we embraced their technology. The palace of the king had electricity before the White House did. But the Europeans brought more than just technology. They brought diseases like leprosy and small pox. We died by the thousands until we were a quarter of our number. They brought rats and mosquitoes and invasive animals that decimated our native songbirds. They brought their riches from far away to buy up the land, imported indentured servants from Asia, and became more powerful and influential than any of my people. When the queen realized what was happening, she tried to pass laws that would protect us. The nephew of the United States President, Andrew Jackson, talked his uncle into sending a warship filled with marines. Once it was in Pearl Harbor, the white landowners stormed the palace and forced the queen to give up her powers. In the years that followed, they stamped out our language, banned hula which are dances that tell our history, and made us third-class citizens in our own country. There was no great battle. No epic fight that we lost. It was just a long, slippery slope down. You ask an American now about Hawaii and they’ll tell you that we were ignorant, naked savages that the United States ‘made a territory’ as if we had nothing, no government, no businesses, no international trade, not even proper houses. To this day, people will ask if we live in little grass shacks.”
“It’s an old song which seems to be the full extent of some people’s knowledge.” He coughed to clear his throat and then sang, “I want to go back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii. I want to be with all the kanes and wahines that I knew long ago. I can hear old guitars a playing, on the beach at Hoonaunau. I can hear the old Hawaiians saying ‘Komomai no kaua ika hale welakehao.’”
Jane laughed in surprise. He had a beautiful baritone voice but she only understood half the words. “Well, that’s more than I know of Hawaii. We’re taught American history but most kids don’t feel like it has anything to do with us. We’re Pittsburghers.”
He nodded. “I grew up feeling so isolated. You can stand on a cliff’s edge and look out over the ocean. It’s water for as far as the eye can see, but you know there’s a full world out there. Too far to swim. Too far to sail by most boats. Too far for even small planes. I wanted to see new things. Explore new worlds.”
“You’re not going to feel trapped in Pittsburgh?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think so. Lately the world has seemed too big for a small island boy like me. I’ve thought about going back to Hawaii, but the reason there’s only seven thousand people on the island is because there’s nothing there. As kids grow up, if they want to be a scientist or engineer or television producer, they have to leave. The only jobs are fishing, farming, and being a native guide to tourists. Even on Oahu, I’d have trouble finding work.”
“What about your parents? Is it going to be okay that they miss the wedding? That you’re going to stay on Elfhome?”
“The problem of being from a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific is that when you leave, it’s usually for good. My family has had years to adjust to the idea that I’d marry a woman with roots elsewhere. They will be happy that I found someone; they were starting to worry that I never would.”
It should have made her feel less guilty but it didn’t. It was probably because she was so newly—and painfully—aware of how much more important the ceremony of a wedding was to her mother than to herself. Cummerbunds? She could care less what color they were! She disliked being the center of attention. It made her feel like she’d lost control.
Tinny music suddenly started to play loudly. It was like someone was playing a slightly off-key church organ. At first she thought it was coming from something crossing the bridge overhead but then realized it was coming from somewhere below deck.
“What the hell is that?” Jane shouted over the noise.
“I think its ‘Smoke on the Water,’” Taggart shouted. “Sometimes these things have calliopes.”
“Hal!” It had to be him. Faintly she could hear Geoffrey shouting at the man too. “Damn him! Roach, where is that thing?”
The bass chords started over again.
There was a sudden discord, as if all the keys were hit at once, and then silence.
“Ow!” Hal cried into the silence. “You could have just asked me to stop!”
There was another discord, as if Hal’s head had been bounced off the keyboard.
“Don’t break my calliope, Geoff!” Roach called.
“Okay, okay, okay, I’m walking! I’m walking!” Hal’s voice grew closer as Geoffrey force marched him through the ship.
A minute later Geoffrey shoved Hal toward Jane. “Spells are triggered by sound. I can’t cast if someone is making a racket like that.”
“I’ll keep him away from it,” Jane promised.
Geoffrey stomped off. Taggart drifted away to give Jane a chance to deal with Hal privately.
Hal wiped at his bloody lip. “He could have broken my nose again.”
“They’re going to broadcast to the entire city. Everyone will know we’re out here. They’re out here.”
He meant the Chased by Monsters team, not him. “You’re jealous?”
“No!” He looked at the blood on his fingers instead of meeting her eyes.
“Okay, maybe a little. This is my city. My world. They’re going to waltz in, get on the radio, and in the end, all anyone is going to remember is that they were here on the river. Not me. No one is ever going to get to see all the scenes of me being glorious—mostly because you keep leaving me behind!”
No, he was not going to take the news that she was marrying Taggart well if this was how he was already.
“I will talk to Sean,” Jane said. “You will get on the radio. People will know you’re out here. They’ll probably even feel better knowing you’re out here. Pittsburgh trusts you. Only a few of them know who Nigel is.”
Hal gestured wildly at the river. “We should be taping! Not Chased by Monsters. It’s going to be months before anyone gets to see that. We should be taping for Pittsburgh! To get on the air right away! We should be answering questions, not KDKA.”
She locked down on a knee-jerk “no” and gave it fair consideration. It did seem shortsighted to trust other people to warn the city when they knew more than anyone else. “You’re right. We should be filming. In the past, we’ve been careful not to step on toes and kept carefully in the bounds of ‘DIY lawn show.’ We need to break out of that. We need to go bigger.”
“Hell yeah!” Hal cried.
“I’ll call Dmitri.”
“Hell no! Forgiveness is easier to get than permission. We film like normal and dump an edited episode of Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden on Dmitri too late for him to do anything about it.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Jane smacked him. “That would work for exactly one episode! Dmitri will hire a new producer. He’ll find someone hungry enough that they’d risk being set on fire by you. Probably several people to guard each other’s backs. We’d be hip deep with people who believe that they have the right to tell us what we do. If we want to keep getting the show on the air, they’d be right. You know that Dmitri doesn’t dick around.”
Hal huffed and then sighed. “Career planning was never my strong suit.”
Just as Dmriti rarely called Jane unless something had gone drastically wrong, she never called him unless it was to warn him of a possible legal shitstorm about to blow up.
Thus Dmriti answered his phone with “What did he do this time?”
“Nothing.” Just to get that over and out of the way.
“Did you tell Hal about the wedding?”
“Not yet.” Jane had her other hand over Hal’s mouth. Judging by the lack of reaction, Hal hadn’t overheard Dmriti’s question. “Things are too complicated at the moment. We want to put Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden on hiatus and film a different show.”
“You should be focusing on Chased by Monsters.”
“Yes, I know. This would be concurrent with that. KDKA is going to scoop us on yesterday’s fight with the river monsters.”
“What?” His voice went cold.
Jane explained as simply as she could about their needing a boat to find the nests and destroy them. “It will make a good segment for Chased by Monsters. More importantly, Pittsburgh would be screwed if we don’t find these nests. I needed to work with my cousins to get a boat. You know my cousin Sean Roach?”
“I understand.” Meaning that Dmitri recognized the name as one of KDKA’s top DJs.
She could skip over the rest of the explanation and get to the reason she’d called him. “We can film one segment, use both Hal and Nigel Reid as hosts, and then edit it however needed for both shows. Hal can be ‘this is what is happening now’ with the local show and Nigel will be ‘this is what happened in July’ for the network show. We’ve got a week to find these nests. Hal can have a show ready for our Sunday slot on Saturday which will be whatever we’ve managed to film by then. Nigel will have the entire hunt, start to finish.”
“It’s Wednesday,” Dmitri said.
“We’ve already have enough footage. We just need to shape a narrative. Editing will take the most time.”
“Okay. I can have production do a trailer for the change in programming. What are we calling this?”
“Pittsburgh…” That would be a nod that it was Hal’s baby and salve his ego. “Pittsburgh Here and Now.”
“That’s lame,” Dmitri said bluntly.
“Pittsburgh War Notes.”
“Pittsburgh Under Siege.”
“Pittsburgh Phantom Menace.”
“I don’t want an alarmist title. I don’t want the EIA any reason to pull executive power on us and have us yank it as yellow journalism.”
“Pittsburgh Predators. Wild Pittsburgh. Monsters in the Mist. Monsters in Our Midst.”
“Monsters in Our Midst. That will work.”
“Okay. We’ll have the first episode to you by Thursday afternoon.”
Dmitri hung up without saying goodbye, probably because he would have massive amount to work to do on the studio side of the production. Title credits, theme song, promotional material, and most importantly, sponsors to manage.
“Pittsburgh Monster Hunt?” Hal asked excitedly.
“Monsters in Our Midst.” Jane watched his face crash. “It’s catchier. PB&G is catchier than our original title of Pittsburgh Yard and Garden. Nigel is going to be focused on Chased by Monsters, so you’re anchor. Normal twenty-two minute format. This week’s episode will be the namazu. We’ll use what we got of Sandcastle hatchery. The swimming pools full of monsters, the first nest, the ecology of electric catfish, and the need to find the other two nests.”
“The shootout with the six monsters downtown?” Hal asked excitedly. It would make him a hero in the eyes of Pittsburgh.
“You weren’t there.” Jane reminded him. “And no, I don’t want it public knowledge that we were anywhere near that. We’ll just use Maynard telling us to hunt the namazu, which explains why we’re on the river. We can film you here on the boat for the end caps.”
“Yes. You’ll need a script. There’s too much we can’t talk about. We need to film clean so we can edit fast.”
He wasn’t smiling but he was projecting excitement like a searchlight.
“Just do a practice run,” Jane said when Hal reappeared claiming he scripted out the opening of the new series. Hal saying outrageous bullshit was part of the appeal of PB&G. She didn’t trust him to actually keep tight to a script.
“The light is good,” Hal pointed out. He’d shaved, applied makeup to conceal his two black eyes, and styled his hair with his mystery product.
“I want to hear it first.” Jane held her hand for the tablet that Hal was carrying. She didn’t look at it since his handwriting was horrible. On Earth, apparently they stopped teaching children penmanship just about the time that Hal entered kindergarten. Even after six years together, she couldn’t read his scribbling. Only his signature was legible. Whenever possible, she had him use a computer but Hal’s carelessness and the open river seemed too dangerous to give him access to any of her precious equipment.
He found his mark, turned toward her as if she was aiming a camera on him and turned on his hosting super powers. “Nearly three decades ago, humans opened a door to a new world. We confidently swaggered in. The natives seemed armed only with weapons made of wood and bone. We thought we could do what we’ve done with people of lesser technology since the start of time. Push them off their lands and take it for ourselves. Upon encountering natives seemingly armed with nothing more than wooden swords, American soldiers with assault rifles backed up with Bradley troop carriers attempted to round up the elves to lock into a holding area. We’d invaded their world and because we thought we had superior weapons that we had the right to detain them.”
This was not the introduction to the show that Jane expected. Where the hell was Hal going with this? She flipped the pages of the script, trying to jump ahead of Hal. The writing was too messy to read.
“We all know how that ended,” Hal said of the failed attempt to detain the elves. “Windwolf stood up against us. He demanded that we treat his people as equals. He forced us to recognize that Elfhome is exactly that: the home of the elves. Its theirs and the human race are merely visitors.”
Accurate but not the diplomatic way to put the first Startup. Maybe she should have written the script.
Hal changed his pose and dramatically waved toward the river banks. “You might fiercely argue that this world also belongs to the local humans, but come next Shutdown, you will return to Earth. You have a home world. It may not be the one you were born on. It may not be the one you want to live on, but it’s there. It’s yours by the genetics in your body. Every cell in your body is a statement of ‘I belong to Earth and it belongs to me.’ And if someone from another world came to take Earth away by force, humans would stand up to fight to the death for it.”
“What the hell?” Jane muttered. Was he trying to piss off all of their viewers?
Hal sped up his pace, obviously trying to get to the end of his script before she shut him down. “The elves are gracious hosts. They have forgiven us for that messy encounter. They’ve met with us in peace and came to a written agreement so we could co-exist on their planet.”
That wasn’t a bad point but when was he going to get to the monsters?
Hal was talking at auctioneer speed now. “This is amazing because they know us. They know our history. Elves have been trading with humans, peacefully, for thousands of years. They watched Alexander the Great conquer Macedonia and all its neighbors as far as Egypt. They watched the Trojan War play out. They saw the rise of the Roman Empire spread across the face of the planet. Genghis Khan and the Mongolian horde. The Great Wall of China built on the bodies of the Chinese people enslaved to build it. All the Crusades, as the Christians marched to the Holy Lands again and again to claim for their own because they wanted land for their younger sons. Think of it. You have this amazing virgin property that you haven’t even start to explore and boom, suddenly there is this stinking, sprawling, concrete wasteland filled with toxic chemicals and rusting steel mills and railroads sitting smack dab in the middle of your land. Your new neighbor? He’s fresh out of prison for rape, murder, and armed robbery...”
“Hal! No!” Jane shook the script that Hal had written. “We want to make our audience feel safe, not insult them! Focus on the oni.”
“But I don’t know that much about the oni.”
“You know more than most people in this city. Talk about the monster. No one can top you there.”
“No, he’s on equal footing. Will you please stop acting like a spoiled brat? I know you like Nigel and respect him. He likes you and respects you. Neither he or Taggart got to shoot the big gun any more than you. One radio interview shouldn’t throw you into hissy fits. This isn’t healthy thinking.”
Hal covered his ears. “Oh, God, not the healthy thinking campaign.”
Jane winced. That was a throwback to their first year together when every day was a battle to keep him from sliding into drunken depression. “I’ll stop with the healthy thinking—unless you keep this up.” She shook the script at him. “This isn’t the right way to start this.”
“I was getting to why the elves haven’t told us about the oni up to this point.”
“No! Don’t put words in their mouths! We don’t know why for sure. Hal, talk about yourself.” Jane knew that despite his ego, Hal rarely did talk about his past. Only when he was drunk or high on painkillers did he open up. “The people of Pittsburgh don’t know that you have the education that puts you on equal footing with Nigel. They think you’re just a television personality; that maybe you have a bachelor’s in communication. This is your chance to tell them that you know what you’re doing.” She shoved the paper back into his pad. “Talk about yourself!”
“You’re right! Most people in the city don’t realize I’m a naturalist. That I have a doctorate in biology from UC Davis. Most people don’t even know what UC Davis stands for. I should let them know that I’m well qualified to deal with magically altered creatures.”
“We can’t say that we know that the oni are magically altering them. That information came from Boo.”
“Right.” Hal paused a moment, shaking a finger before exclaiming. “Snapdragon! We’ll interview your brother’s boyfriend.”
“Oh god, don’t say that out loud!” Jane slapped a hand over his mouth. “No one else in our family knows!”
“There’s nothing wrong with being bisexual.” Hal mumbled through her hand. At least, that’s what it sounded like he said.
“I don’t know if my cousins are homophobic or not.” Jane whispered. “We are not going to out my little brother, not even to my cousins. He will tell them when he’s ready.”
Hal mumbled something into her palm.
Jane lifted her hand. “What?”
“This is one of those things where you will hurt me very badly if I slip up?”
“Very, very badly.”
“Okay. Just checking.” Hal dropped his voice to a whisper. “We can question any elf we can corner, like Snapdragon, about what the elves know about the oni. They might tell us things we don’t know already. Regardless, if they don’t tell us about the whole magical bioengineering, we can edit the interview make it seem like they did.”
Hal’s sneaky side could come in useful in this.
“Fine. Just write it out so you’re clear on what you’re going to say. I don’t want mistakes to end up on video.”
The first day was nearly anticlimactic. If it wasn’t for Hal trying to sneak sticks of the dynamite, the river sharks, the jump fish, and the occasional brush with the EIA who may or may not be oni, it would actually have been relaxing.
They started at Sandcastle and worked their way toward the city. They nosed the Queen into the mouth of Nine Mile Run and then trolled westward. Some of the little streams they investigated, she knew their names like West Run, Glass Run and Becks Run. Others were barely more than culverts, possibly without a name.
It turned out that the boat had some radar on it to keep track of the depth of the water. They stopped often to let Geoffrey cast a spell and frown at the result.
Eight hours on the river and there wasn’t a time that she thought it was safe to tell Hal about the wedding. He was being weirdly fragile, which might mean he’d already figured it out. She’d discovered when fighting his drinking problem that he’d ignore uncomfortable truths if not dragged out into the light of the day and chained around his neck.
She’d also learned that she could only force him to acknowledge so many uncomfortable truths without him collapsing under the weight. On Earth he’d lost everything—career, friends, and wife—in a sudden cascade of betrayals. He’d fled the planet rather than face the truth. Would she have liked him better if he hadn’t been so damaged when they met?
To be on the safe side, they left the dynamite with Roach.
While both naturalists chafed at calling it a day, her family had plans to once again eat as a family at Hydehold to celebrate the win against the namazu. It was really a flimsy excuse to be together as a family. They all felt that Boo needed it, especially since the tengu had taken Joey off to live with his cousins. A single meal would not erase six years of horror.
It came as a surprise when the tengu arrived in a car like normal people. It was a green, nondescript, SUV that would draw no attention to itself.
Joey threw open the door the moment the car stopped, half falling out of vehicle. “Jane!”
She crouched down to his level as she realized that he was crying. He flung himself into her arms. He clung to her, gripping her tightly as he buried his face into her shoulder.
She gave Yumiko a hard look as the tengu female stepped out of the car.
Yumiko shrugged. She had changed out of her pizza delivery outfit. She wore a backless black tank top which showed off impressive muscle tone for such a thin woman. “He forgot his Ravenclaw T-shirt and wanted to come back for it. I told him that someone could just pick it up but he said he had to be the one to get the shirt.”
“They won’t know!” Joey wailed. “I have to be sure! I need to see!”
“Marc.” Alton murmured quietly.
Yumiko frowned at Alton. “What about him?”
Jane picked Joey up, marveling anew how little he was. How little he weighed. It was hard to believe all her brothers were once this small. All she could remember from growing up was that they were all about equal-sized. “Boo, didn’t you pick up presents for Joey?”
“Yes, we did!” Boo took the hint. She swooped in to relieve Jane of the little boy. “We got a real drawing pad, the kind that artists use, and colored pencils.”
“Really?” Joey sniffed.
“And we’re making spaghetti for dinner! Do you want to help?”
“Spaghetti? With meatballs?”
Yumiko looked torn between the fact that Boo was carrying Joey away and the fact that the boy had stopped bawling hysterically.
“When my dad died,” Jane said quietly. “Marc was about that age. He used to get up in the middle of the night and go from bedroom to bedroom, making sure everyone was okay. He needed to know that the people he cared about hadn’t died while he wasn’t watching. Joey’s aunt and uncle might have been dead for months but to him, they just died. He’s dealing with it the best he can. Boo was his only comfort for months and I saved him. I know you mean well but you’ve shattered his world a second time. Yes, he has his cousins, but he’s smart enough to know they’re just children and that he can’t lean too heavily on them. That’s why he ran to me, not Boo.”
“You’re an expert on little kids?”
“I have five little brothers, and a score of younger cousins that I had to ride herd over, on a planet with man-eating plants. When kids are rattled hard enough, there’s nothing a child their own age can do to get them settled down. They want an adult that can put the world right.”
“So he wants the woman with the biggest gun.”
“Kids aren’t creatures of logic. They’re pure emotion. I could pull my little brothers out of trouble, but they’d want mom before they’d stopped being scared. You guarded Riki, right? You went off to college with him and were at the house when it was filled with the other adults. You weren’t the one that fixed all the little disasters of Joey’s life when he was a toddler. You’re big sister but not mom.”
“Getting him out of the cage made you mom.”
“Kids don’t always make sense. You can’t argue with their logic because they don’t use it to see the world the way you might.”
“I guess we’re staying for dinner.”
“I hope you like spaghetti.”
Jane’s mother had made a quick and simple meat sauce over angel hair pasta for the first family dinner. It barely qualified as “spaghetti” in their terms. To do it right, first homemade loaves of bread needed to be made. The stale bread was reduced to crumbs, mixed with ground beef, pork, sautéed onions and garlic, freshly grated Parmigiano, eggs and basil picked fresh out her mother’s window garden. The resulting meatballs were then browned, baked and added to a marinara sauce made with fresh tomatoes that simmered for hours.
When Boo was little, they had it every Sunday. The aroma of the shimmering sauce would fill up the house. It was the smell of home. Jane had not realized how much she missed it until she walked into her kitchen. It wasn’t surprising that Boo said it was her favorite.
Her mother was beaming with joy. She hugged everyone as they came in so that she had an excuse of give Taggart the official “welcome to the family” hug. At dinner, her mother quietly made sure that he got the biggest and best of everything. It made Jane glad that she’d warned him that her mother knew, otherwise he’d probably be caught off guard by the sudden bombardment of affection. Luckily all the other news of the day distracted Hal and her brothers. She let Hal and Geoffrey cover the events so she didn’t have to lie about where the tengu got the spells. Yumiko stayed too focused on her plate; the female was obviously listening closely to see if Jane had betrayed that information. With a nervous glance at Jane, Hal managed to dodge around the discussion of Geoffrey’s sexual orientation while broaching the subject of questioning the elves about the oni.
She took command of the conversation to make sure that he didn’t misstep. “There’s a lot about the oni that we know only because of Boo. We need to figure out other sources of the same information so that we can share it without fear of exposing her. Since they never mentioned the oni up to now, the elves have been holding back . . .”
“We should corner one,” Hal impatiently jumped forward on her argument. “They can’t lie... Ow!”
Jane had kicked him under the table. She wanted to keep control of the conversation. The damage had been done. Her little brothers took it as permission to talk.
“They can dance around the subject like crazy,” Guy muttered darkly.
“They lie by omission,” Duff said. “Oh by the way, there’s an entire universe we haven’t told you about. We’re at war with them. We stranded them on Earth a few hundred years ago. They might have bred like crazy. There could be thousands.”
“At least they don’t stand there and lie to your face,” Marc said.
Alton snorted. “That’s for sure. There’s some humans that I wouldn’t trust a single word coming out of their mouth.”
“We’ll interview any elf we can corner.” Jane said loudly to gain control.
Her brother ignored her attempt.
“Damn right we’ll corner them!” Guy shouted.
“We should start with major domos at the enclaves,” Alton said.
“What?” Everyone chorused in surprise.
“We’re filming this,” Alton explained his logic. “The major domos are the ones that speak the best English. They’re also all in their quads; they need four digits to express their age. It means they saw the start of the war. A lot of the elves we know as friends, like the ones that live with Moser, are fresh out of doubles. They were born after the war.”
“We?” Jane said. “No, no, this is not a family project.”
Alton turned to Geoffrey. “Tell her. You know how elves are. If it’s a subject that they’ve been avoiding, then they’re only going to talk to ‘one on the inside,’ not total outsiders.”
Geoffrey nodded slowly. “Yeah, he’s right. The elves have dozens of words that track alliances. There’s someone in your household. A member of another household that is Beholden to the same domana as yours. Then there’s the households who have different domana but their lord is in alignment with your lord.”
“You don’t think they’ll talk to Hal or Nigel, but they’ll talk to you?” Jane asked Alton.
“They might not even talk to me,” Alton said. “The whole oni thing has them rattled. After that first attack on Windwolf, they tested to see if I was an oni in disguise.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” Jane said.
“It was no big deal,” Alton said. “They cast some type of spell on me to make sure I was human. It took two seconds and it didn’t hurt.”
“The spell simply removes any magical disguise,” Geoffrey said. “It’s completely harmless as long as you’re not oni.”
“They did it to you too?” Jane growled. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you’d be pissed off,” Alton said. “Besides, it was no big deal. It was like getting a background check for a car loan or something. The spell was written out on a strip of paper. They called it a biatau. They laid it on my arm, said the activation word, and boom, it was over. It felt like pulling off a wool sweater in a dry house. The enclaves wanted to be sure I was selling them food that was safe to eat.”
Geoffrey added in, “I needed access to the non-public areas of Raisin Sauce’s enclave where Oak Spindle has his workshop.”
“Raisin Sauce!” Nigel murmured. “The elves have such marvelous names.”
“The Viceroy is at Poppymeadows,” Geoffrey said. “So we won’t be able to talk to anyone there. The enclave closes to public when he’s in residence. I think Raisin Sauce is our best bet.”
Alton nodded. “If that fails, we should try Chili Pepper. He’s likes to talk.”
“We should still talk to the young elves,” Taggart said. “That way it would seem as if we learned enough to ask the older ones the more advanced questions.”
“I can talk to some of my friends,” Geoffrey said. “They might know something even if it happened before they were born. Certainly we could all talk some about historic events like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the World Wars. They might be even more willing, since it’s ancient history to them, instead of something they lived through.”
The conversation was interrupted with the need to clear the table and wash dishes. For the second time in a row, a small miracle happened and her brothers finished up quickly without soaking one another. Her family moved into her spacious living room. They reviewed video and brainstormed interview questions that they could ask to draw out information that they already knew. Boo kept Joey entertained with his new sketch book and colored pencils. Joey settled into drawing, successfully distracted.
“Hal’s opening on the deck of the Queen is five minutes exactly,” Jane said. “It’s a little long if we get good footage on the river in the next few days, but we can edit it down slightly if needed. We can follow with footage from Sandcastle. Maynard actually asking Hal for help will explain how Hal went from PG&B to Monsters in Our Midst. Let’s start here at timestamp 9:52 and run to 11:37 for a total of one minute and forty-five seconds. That leaves us just shy of fifteen minutes of explaining about the eggs and hopefully finding them. If we don’t find the nests before Friday night, we might ask our viewers for help finding the eggs before they hatch.”
“Are you sure you want help?” Alton asked. “It could turn into a circus.”
“It would make the common person feel like they’re part of the solution,” Jane said. “It would go a long way uniting us when everything else is dividing us into factions.”
Joey came to climb into Jane’s lap. “Look! I drew Boo when she gets her wings!”
“Wow, that’s a wonderful picture!” Jane said before the subject matter sunk in because it was amazing drawing for a six-year-old. Her family loved to put up pictures that her brothers and cousin drew, so Jane was well educated on the average artistic abilities of children. At six, kids normally drew stick figures with big round heads. Joey had rendered Boo in detail that seemed more on par of a child in high school. The drawing had all Boo’s limbs on scale with her body. Her platinum blonde hair fell in curls down over her shoulders. She wore jeans without shoes, her crow feet plainly visible. Her massive wings were as pale as her hair, spread wide, dwarfing her. If Jane had not seen Yumiko’s wingspan in person, she would think it was a child’s exaggeration of scale. In the drawing, Boo smiled with happiness.
Jane’s stomach rolled with a sick feeling. Did Boo want wings that badly? Would they make her happy or would they make her more aware that the oni twisted her body into something alien?
“What is this?” Nigel leaned over to point at a small lizard in the background.
“That’s Providence!” Joey said. “He’s the guardian spirit of the tengu. He gave us our wings after the oni changed us. The oni gave us the desire to fly but no way to do it.”
“What type of creature is Providence?” Nigel asked.
“He’s a dragon!” Joey said. “Not like the ones in Harry Potter. He doesn’t have wings. He has a mane, like a lion, kind of. He used it to cast spells.”
“Can he talk?” Nigel asked.
“Only to the Chosen One,” Joey sighed. “We haven’t been able to talk to Providence for years and years. Not since Jin Wong went into space.”
“Hush.” Yumiko said. “We don’t tell outsiders about Providence.”
“Please, this is very important,” Nigel said. “I need to know about Providence.”
“There is nothing to tell,” Yumiko said. “His body is dead. His spirit cannot speak with us. We’re drifting, lost, without his guidance.”
“What would the oni do if they captured a living dragon?” Nigel asked.
Yumiko glanced suspiciously at Jane. She obviously thought that Jane had revealed the truth about Tinker.
“Nigel, why are you asking about dragons?” Jane asked to make it clear that she hadn’t talked to the man.
Nigel gave Yumiko a searching look as if he was trying to judge her trustworthiness. Finally he sighed and glanced to Taggart. “I’m sorry I haven’t told you everything. I was protecting Lemon-Lime Jello. When I spoke to them in New York City, they had a wee dragon with them.”
“What?” Yumiko cried. “Who is this—this—Did you say Jello?”
“I don’t know their real names.” Nigel started out by carefully concealing the real identity of the twin girls. “They asked to meet with me anonymously. I left the meeting place up to them. They chose a charity event on Mid-Summer’s Eve. It was run by NBC and they set up an elaborate spread that featured this massive five-tiered cake. It was a white cake with vanilla frosting and . . .”
“Forget about the cake!” Yumiko shouted. “What about the dragon?”
Nigel made soothing motions with his hands. “The cake looms large in the story.”
Yumiko leaned closer to Nigel. “Tell me about the dragon!”
“As promised, Lemon-Lime met me in private and warned me that I was in grave danger.” Nigel continued his story. “They had picked up on the fact that the oni were blocking access to Elfhome. They were worried that the oni might try to keep me from reporting on what I found.”
“The dragon!” Yumiko growled.
Nigel refused to be sped up. “They had given me the monster call and explained how it worked. I thought it would be harmless to give it a test blow, so I did. That’s when the dragon appeared.”
“What did it look like?” Yumiko said. “What color was it?”
“I couldn’t tell what color it was as it was covered in white frosting,” Nigel said. “It offered me some cake that it was holding in its hand.”
“What?” Yumiko cried.
“I told you that the cake figured prominently in the tale,” Nigel said calmly. “I found out later that it had burrowed its way into the heart of the cake unseen . . .”
“What? A dragon?” Yumiko threw out her hands to measure something huge.
“Oh, no, it was just a wee thing.” Nigel held out his hands to measure out something the size of a squirrel. “It appeared on my shoulder out of nowhere, covered in frosting, with cake clenched in one claw.”
They stared at him and the image he’d painted.
“Cake?” Yumiko said finally.
Nigel mimed cutting slices of cake. “I found out later that when they cut open the cake, the entire heart had been hollowed out. The serving staff never saw the dragon. They assumed rats had gotten to the cake and whisked it back to the hotel’s kitchen.”
Nigel had broken Yumiko. The female tengu sputtered, hands approximating the size of the described dragon.
“The dragon asked me if I wanted cake and said that it was yummy,” Nigel continued as if unaware that he just hurt Yumiko’s brain. “Lemon-Lime was quite upset at her. I got the impression that they had given her a large dinner before leaving home. They pulled her from my shoulder, scolded her firmly, and—and hid her away.”
“No. No. You must be mistaken. Dragons are not that small. They don’t—don’t— don’t—you don’t scold them. They’re like gods.”
“She looked very much like what Joey drew.” Nigel pointed to the picture. “She had a mane, and small five fingered clawed hands, with these proportions to leg to body to head. Lemon-Lime warned me that the oni might have more of these darling little things held prisoner. They did not know, though, what the oni planned to do with them. I fear the worse having seen the namazu. Since we humans don’t know anything about dragons, I can’t even guess what the oni could make from their DNA.”
Yumiko laughed bitterly. “You’ve met creatures made from dragons. The sekasha are all that remains of Honor. She was shattered down and combined with elf DNA to create the holy warriors. Pure Radiance is the granddaughter of Clarity. The Chosen are descendants of what was left of Providence’s daughter, Nirvana. You have no idea what the greater bloods can do with bioengineering. There is no limit to the perversity that they can create. The war between the oni and elves started when a Stone Clan trading party found an overlooked passage between Onihida and Earth. Without their connection to the Spell Stones, the domana could not protect their people. There had been twenty to thirty sekasha among the party. The oni used the warriors in an attempt to reverse the process and create a true dragon. What they created were evil mockeries. They had a fraction of their ancestor’s intelligence and none of the sekasha’s nobility. They did have great cunning and many of the dragon magical abilities. The oni call them dragons, but we tengu refuse to give them that name. They lack a true soul and are purely beast in nature. All but one was killed at the start of the war. Malice is all that remains.”
Jane waited for her to add in the recent discovery but Yumiko did not mention it. The tengu’s trust did not extend to the men. “If they did get hold of a real dragon?”
“They would make more monsters.” Guy guessed as Yumiko considered what she should admit.
“It is not that simple,” Yumiko finally broke her silence. “One of the things that the oni discovered with their experiments was that they could create transformation spells fueled by the body of a dragon and aimed by their souls. They had limited success with the creatures they had cobbled together with the sekasha DNA. The elves will tell you that their holy ones breed true—that no matter how diluted the blood stock becomes, the divinity of the warriors is dominant. It is the nature of the dragons, part of their ability to phase through walls and walk between worlds. There is a magical bond between their bodies and souls, a cohesion that cannot be broken. The oni have discovered how to twist this and create a spell that affects all creatures of a selected profile. When they captured Providence, it was with the intention of testing the full potential of the spell. Providence begged us to kill him so that wouldn’t happen. As punishment for our obedience to our guardian, the oni used us as test subjects. With his dead body, they transformed our entire tribe from human to tengu in a single spell. What can the oni do with a true dragon? The answer is beyond your worst nightmares.”
“Jesus,” Jane whispered.
“Pray,” Yumiko said. “And hope your god can protect you better than ours could. You said you saw this ‘dragon’ in New York City? Tell me where exactly. I’ll have yamabushi go and search for this creature.”
“It was at the NBC gala. I believe that Lemon-Lime crashed the party. They had hacked the hotel security to unlock the door of the room we met in. They wore masks throughout the meeting. They didn’t give me their proper names or any direct way to contact them. They are very careful with their identities; millions of their fans have been trying to determine who they are for several years.”
“Wait, Lemon-Lime Jello?” Yumiko connected dots and recognized the name at last. “You mean those cartoons?”
Joey threw his hands up in the air and twiddled his fingers. “Blast it all!”
“Yes!” Nigel said. “Indeed! Aren’t they simply brilliant?”
Yumiko looked like Nigel had broken her again.
Nigel had carefully not mentioned that they were twin little girls. He obviously didn’t trust the tengu with the girls’ lives. Jane wasn’t sure if she did either. The woman was willing to kill to keep Joey and his cousins safe from the oni. What if she decided that the twins were a liability? Yumiko controlled operatives that could easily travel to Earth and Onihida. She could send someone to New York to kidnap or kill the little girls without Jane ever knowing.
Jane distracted the conversation the future episodes of Monsters in Our Midst. “What else do the oni have hidden around the city? Do they have Malice here? Can we safely discuss the tengu?”
“No.” Yumiko said. “Nothing on the tengu.
“If we could get the Pittsburghers to understand that the tengu . . .”
Yumiko stood up, fists clenched. “There is so much that the oni do not know about the tengu. We have spent hundreds of years keeping them ignorant of our strengths and weaknesses. We cannot allow them to know anything of us!”
“A tengu kidnapped Tinker.” Alton earned a dark look from Yumiko. He held up his hands. “Hear me out. What do all the humans in Pittsburgh know about the current events? That some kind of animal killed the Viceroy’s sekasha Hawk Scream, possibly a pack of wargs. That the oni were behind the gunfight on the Veterans Bridge. That a shitload of monsters were downtown trying to eat Bowman. And that a tengu kidnapped Tinker.” Alton had been ticking the events off on his fingers. He held out the four fingers. “Four logical stories for Hal to cover. If he doesn’t cover them, people are going to wonder why.”
Jane swore as she realized he was right; they’d painted themselves into a corner.
“Pft!” Hal waved the concern aside. “We save the tengu for last and bury it in misinformation. Who could blame us for getting it wrong?”
“No, no, if we can’t do the truth, we’re not doing it.” Jane said. “We have three weeks to dig up dirt on other more important things like this Lord Tomtom and Kajo and the Eyes.”
Yumiko shook her head. “You won’t be able to find out anything about them. The only people who know about them are those loyal to them and the tengu. The oni will know that you’ve somehow won the tengu’s trust and are too dangerous to live.”
“We have three weeks. We’ll keep our ears open. All of us.” She pointed at Geoffrey and Alton. “You two talk often to elves. We need sources to get the real truth of what is going on. Windwolf requested royal troops. When will they show up? How many are coming? What does it mean for humans? Will the Wind Clan stay in control or will that change?”
“How do elves fit in as beasts?” Guy asked. “Isn’t the point of Monsters in Our Midst to cover monsters?”
Jane glared at her littlest brother. Her family had to stop being right all the time.
“Airships,” Nigel said. “The royal troops have to come to Pittsburgh somehow. They will need to travel either by airship or train. No one has ever done an in depth story on the gossamers. Presumably they’ve been bioengineered like the namazu. How do they fly? What do they eat? Where did they come from? How long do they live?”
Jane pointed her finger at Nigel. “Perfect! We should write this down. We can also cover the train. Maybe we could even get special permission to ride to the East Coast. No one has video of the elf holdings at the other end of the line. Three hundred miles of wilderness that no one goes out into and then the port that no one has ever seen.” Jane pointed at Marc. “What’s happening with the EIA?”
Marc looked confused. “All the networks have already covered Maynard asking Earth for more troops.”
“That’s brilliant!” Nigel cried. “We could interview the oni that the EIA have imprisoned! It would be wonderful for Chased by Monsters too! A whole third race that no one on Earth has ever seen before.”
Jane paused to take notes. Maybe they hadn’t painted themselves into a corner.
An hour later, they’d talked through two months of shows. By then both the EIA reinforcements and the royal troops would have arrived, hopefully bringing new stories with them. Lemon-Lime wasn’t mentioned again. Sprinkled all through the notes were nuggets of information that Joey, Boo and Yumiko added but couldn’t be used.
“Second show should be the disguised oni,” Jane said. “And how harmless the . . . what was the spell called?”
“Biatau,” Alton said.
“No, that means any spell written on a piece of paper.” Geoffrey said. “What I’m using on the river qualifies as a biatau.”
“Whatever,” Jane said. “Close enough for Pittsburgh use. People here give directions via landmarks that aren’t there anymore. We should let our viewers know that the biatau that the elves are using to find oni are harmless to people.”
Joey was curled up on her lap, making writing notes difficult. He yawned deeply.
“It is time for us to go,” Yumiko said.
The tengu female carried Joey out to their car. The boy was nearly asleep, head on her shoulder. He cracked open his eyes, waved sleepily, and closed his eyes again.
Taggart waited until the engine had faded into the distance before saying, “Nigel, what else haven’t you told us about Lemon-Lime?”
“This will take a while. Let us put a kettle on.”
Jane didn’t want alcohol fueling the conversation with Hal and her little brothers present. After the last twenty-four hours, though, she really wished she could opt for something stronger than tea. Too many secrets. Too many unknown angles. Too many lives on the line.
She would have liked to shoo away her family but she couldn’t order her mother around. Once her mother dug in her heels, Jane wouldn’t be able to budge her brothers. Jane did warn them all to keep the following conversation secret.
“I’m very sorry, lad,” Nigel said to Taggart. “I’m sorry that I didn’t trust you with this. I was hoping that Lemon-Lime merely let their imagination run wild. Certainly their videos seemed to indicate that they were prone to flights of fancy, until all the shards of truth fell into place. It makes me wonder about Queen Soulful Ember’s mental state.”
“I need to see these videos sometime.” Jane said.
“Yes, you must!” Nigel said. “They’re brilliant. I have them all on my tablet. I can show them to you!”
“What else haven’t you told us?” Taggart said calmly.
“Here, this is easier to show you.” Nigel took out his tablet computer. For a moment, Jane thought Nigel was going to show them the cartoons, as he turned on her biggest screen television and linked his tablet to it. “Sometime ago, an anthropologist returning from Elfhome came upon a startling discovery. Many of the museums on Earth had in their collections artwork created by elves. These items weren’t recently added pieces but mothballed antiquities whose original was unknown. The initial piece was a vase given to Thomas Jefferson after he finished Monticello in 1809. The anthropologist set up a crowd- sourced program that had curators around the world rechecking their inventories to find similar works. Hundreds were found, all of clearly elfin design. Many were ancient but none were later than the mid-1700s. Knowing now that the elves had traveled between Elfhome and Earth for thousands of years and that they stopped doing so at the start of the Oni War, the reason for the age of the items become clear.”
Nigel was cycling through pages copied from the American Museum of Natural History’s website. “I’m not sure if this was a fully human organized endeavor or if it was the oni trying to find something they’d lost. However it started, the end result was this.” Nigel stopped on a large block of wood with spell runes around the upper edge.
“A spell locked box!” Geoffrey shouted with surprise and excitement. He leapt up to eye it closely. “Can you make it bigger? I want to see the lock.”
“A what?” Jane couldn’t see anything that looked like a lock or a lid on the block of wood.
“It’s a box that is locked with a spell,” Geoffrey said. “I can’t make them. Not even my teacher knows how to make them. The box itself is simple; it’s basically a hollow piece of ironwood. It’s the locking spell that’s insanely difficult. Somehow they embed a verbal code phrase into the lock. It’s kind of like ‘open sesame’ of the old fairy tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. If you say the correct words, the locking spell triggers a secondary loop that seals or unseals the binding on the lid. They’re the ultimate cool thing to do with ironwood but no one in the Westernlands can make them. The only one I’ve seen is the safe at the enclave and it’s heavily guarded. I can’t believe elves would take one to Earth; you can only get them open with magic.”
“The museum didn’t know what it was,” Nigel said. “They have it listed simply as a decorated block of wood. Lemon-Lime claimed it belonged to an elf that had been trapped on Earth and later was killed in the insanity of the French Revolution. As I said, I couldn’t be sure what they told me was truth and what was flights of fancy. The important part of this box is what’s inside.” Nigel flicked to a picture of an odd, elaborately decorated egg. “Lemon-Lime believes that it contains eleven of these devices that imprison little dragons like the cake-eating darling. The problem is that the museum returned the box to the elves via Sparrow.”
“Holy shit,” Taggart breathed. “Is that why we went back to the museum after the Gala? I wondered why you suddenly wanted to interview all the staff. It was all painfully boring but you kept plugging away.”
“I’m sorry, Tag. You’re simply a horrible liar. Once I realized the scope of the conspiracy and the danger Lemon-Lime are in, I felt it was better if I just kept it all to myself.”
Nigel started a film clip showing him interviewing a man in front of an elegant vase. “This is the vase that started it all?”
“Yes, this is the Jefferson Chinese Vase on loan from the Smithsonian,” the man explained. “It had been stolen from Monticello during the Civil War by a confederate soldier. He later donated it to the Smithsonian in an attempt to make things right. It sat in the Smithsonian basement for a hundred years before the Elvish runes were recognized by . . .”
“We can skip this part.” Nigel forwarded the video. “Tag is right; it’s painfully boring. The man loved to talk. I let him since I didn’t want to be obviously leading the interview to the item that I actually came to check on.”
In the video, Nigel was flipping through a slickie which seemed to be some kind of souvenir item of the exhibit. “I noticed that there’s some items missing from the exhibit. This ‘block of ironwood.’ I don’t see it here.”
“Ah, yes, that. That’s a bit of a sore subject at the moment. The UN took a vote and it was decided that in the interest of universal peace that the elves would have a chance to claim any of the items in the exhibit. Most of the museums were quite willing since these were items normally not on display since their origins weren’t known. The Jefferson Chinese Vase is one of the few exceptions and its historical importance comes from the fact that it belonged to the writer of the Constitution, who was one of our Presidents, and that it been stolen during the Civil War. Most items are like this block of ironwood. We don’t know where it came from or what significance it holds. It has no intrinsic value except for the mystery it presents. How did something from Elfhome find its way to the basement of the Louvre Museum in Paris?”
“I say!” Nigel faked in surprise in the video. “You mean that when Sparrow Lifted by Wind came to New York City, she came here to see the exhibit? Did you get to meet her? What was she like?”
Nigel was a very good liar. He’d gone to the museum knowing Sparrow had been there and taken the box. Listening to him, though, he sounded honestly amazed at the news.
“Yes, I met her,” the curator said. “She was stunningly beautiful. She took my breath away. Otherworldly.”
“I wish I had been here in time to meet her. I was tied up in L.A. I’ve wanted to meet an elf since I was nine. I’m so looking forward to finally getting a chance when I go to Elfhome next Shutdown. I’m slightly confused. Are you saying that of all the things on exhibit, the elves chose this mysterious block of wood?”
“Not just that. They also took this bracelet and this necklace.” The curator flipped through the slickie to point out the pieces of jewelry. Nigel turned and held up the digital souvenir booklet so Taggart could record the other missing pieces. The bracelet was a set of rich blue lapis stones strung as prayer beads with a small ironwood miniature prayer wheel to the Elvish god of luck. The necklace was a more elaborate piece with flame sapphires and polished heartwood. Both were obviously from Elfhome. “Sparrow said that unlike the other jewelry in the exhibit, these were highly personal in nature. Because they’re one of kind, it would be simple to reconnect them with their original owners.”
The curator flipped the slickie back to the picture of the box. “The Louvre is throwing a total hissy fit over this block of wood. They were supposed to send a flame sapphire tiara but the French government stepped in and refused because they were afraid that the elves would take one of their national treasures. When the Louvre found out that Sparrow took the ironwood, you would have thought she’d gotten the tiara. The block had been donated in 1820 and sat in the basement for over two hundred years. France is making a total mountain out of a mole hill.”
“I followed Sparrow’s visit closely on the news,” Nigel said. “I was hoping that I could wrap things up in Hollywood and then fly here and try to pull strings to see if I could get an audience with her. I didn’t see any video about her visiting the museum.”
“It was all hush hush,” the curator said. “We were getting bomb threats and a bomb went off a few blocks away. It took out an art gallery that specialized in artwork imported from Elfhome. We thought it would be wiser to keep a lid on ‘the elves raid the museum of priceless treasures.’ The elves came in after hours and made their selection. Oh. Please. Don’t air that.”
“We’ll edit it out.” Nigel promised. “Did Sparrow tell you anything about the history of the items that she took?”
The curator shook his head. “I’m afraid not. There simply wasn’t time. There was paperwork to sign. Then we needed to get a special visa for a curator who was going to deliver the items to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.”
“The museum?” Nigel seemed honestly surprised. Apparently his inside information hadn’t covered this detail. “I thought the elves were taking the items.”
The curator waved off the possibility. “Oh, no, we couldn’t allow that. There’s a standard protocol for handling exhibit items. They need to be transported with a bonded and insured carrier with a curator. Once the items got to Pittsburgh, the director of the Carnegie could hand them over to the elves with all proper ceremony. Or at least, that was the plan.”
“What happened?” Nigel asked in the video what Jane was wondering.
The curator laughed. “What didn’t happen? The Viceroy was attacked. His guard killed. Windwolf is missing. There was a shootout between police and smugglers during a traffic jam. Our curator crossed over the border, called in to report that he was stuck downtown as the police dealt with a bomb on one of the bridges and then—Startup. He didn’t get out. Shortly before midnight, the Carnegie said that he still hadn’t arrived. We have no idea what happened to him. We won’t know until next Shutdown.”
Nigel turned off the video. “I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I was there to find out about the box, so I got him to talk about the other two items and Sparrow’s visit. Apparently when Sparrow was there, she encouraged her guard to explore the museum. The Chinese Ambassador to the UN arrived with one of the museum trustees and they had a long discussion in French.”
“French?” Jane’s mother said. “That’s a weird choice for an elf and a Chinese man. How does Sparrow even know French?”
“She’s fluent in many languages, including Mandarin,” Nigel said. “Also the Ambassador is fluent in English. Obviously they wanted to speak freely without being understood by anyone that might overhear the conversation. That fact made me believe Lemon-Lime’s claim that Sparrow took part in trying to kill Windwolf. She’s obviously deeply involved in something suspicious.”
“Wait! What?” Alton cried.
“Sparrow betrayed Wolf Who Rules?” Geoffrey said.
“Nigel!” Jane snapped.
Nigel raised his hands to fend off any physical attack. “Your family should know that she cannot be trusted if something were to happen to us on the river.”
Jane hated that he was right. The problem was that her brothers would want to do something about Sparrow’s betrayal. “We have no proof. We can’t go to the elves and accuse her.”
This raised a shout of denial from Duff and Guy and a low, angry growl of “We’ll see about that” from Marc.
“Jane’s right.” Geoffrey and Alton both said.
Alton continued, “The other elves don’t like her but she’s Windwolf’s Voice. Slandering her would be like attacking him. They’ll defend her because she’s one of them and we’re not.”
“With something like this, we would need solid proof of her guilt,” Geoffrey said.
“Even with the sekasha?” Guy asked. “They have the right to kill anyone with or without proof.”
Geoffrey and Alton glanced at each other.
Alton shrugged. “Elves and I discuss dead animals. You have a broader range than me, Geoff.”
“It would be Russian roulette,” Geoffrey said. “Someone would die. The question would be if it was me or Sparrow. I don’t want to play that game.”
“I know!” Hal cried. “We could put up a big sign in the middle of the night opposite of the enclaves saying ‘Sparrow is a traitor!’ Do we know the Elvish word for traitor?”
“No, I don’t,” Geoffrey said. “And we couldn’t get it up without being caught. The laedin have increased their patrols around enclaves.”
“We’re not tipping our hand,” Jane said. “Sparrow doesn’t know that we know. It’s our one advantage.”
“Jane is right.” Her mother backed her. “You’re not to tell anyone.”
“Sparrow might suspect we know,” Taggart said. “She’s tripping over us every time she turns around.”
“We could make it that she trips over a lot of different people every time she turns around,” Guy said.
“What?” Jane said.
“Other people live in this city,” Guy said. “If they knew what was going on, they’d want to defend it. They have a right to defend it.”
“No,” Jane said. “We’re not going to get a shitload of people involved. We trust them. They trust other people who trust other people until someone trusts the wrong person.”
“We can’t fight an entire army by ourselves,” Boo whispered. “That’s what the oni have. An army.”
Jane’s family had to stop being right all the time.
Alton did his oldest male thing. “The EIA and the police have their hands tied in this. If we don’t do something, then if this goes south fast, no one is going to be ready.”
“Ready?” Jane shouted. She had to get this back under control. “The last thing we need is a bunch of people with a bone to pick with the elves and who have no military training an excuse to get trigger happy. We need to have them focused on the oni and that’s what we’re doing with Monsters in Our Midst.”
“Let’s militarize our viewers.” Hal said. “Hal’s Army! Roger’s Rangers! Hal’s Heroes!”
“Hal!” Jane caught herself before backhanding him. This wasn’t something she could stop simply by hitting him. There was also the fact she needed to tell him about the wedding. A highly active fan group might stabilize him after she yanked the ground out from under him. “Fine. Hal’s Heroes.”
“Yes!” Hal shouted. Then he realized that she had caved too easily. “What’s the catch?”
“You need to be very careful with what you say. Written scripts. No improvisation. No information without showing a source other than the tengu or Boo or Lemon-Lime. We need military precision, not a circus.”
“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” Taggart said.
“It’s a great idea!” Hal started to bounce in place. “We could set up a uniform like red berets and spy cells. I could be Adam Selene. Lemon-Lime would be Simon Jester.”
“Who?” Jane asked. “What?”
“Oh, Jane, you really should read more,” Hal said.
She was changing her mind about smacking Hal.
“Ow!” Hal cringed back from her. “It’s from a book!”
“We need to find the box,” Nigel said. “I thought the issue was that whoever had it was smuggling possibly sentient reptile eggs. I didn’t realize that Lemon-Lime understood the dangers so fully.”
“We need to find the namazu eggs,” Marc said firmly.
“Yeah, the namazu nearly killed Bowman and they almost took out us,” Geoffrey said.
“How are we even going to find the box?” Guy asked. “I mean—it disappeared over a month ago.”
“It could have ended up at the Carnegie,” Hal said. “We’ll never know until we ask. You all know how traffic gets at Shutdown. Between the traffic and the rivers and the bridges being out and the GPS maps all being wrong, it would have been easy for them to get lost for an entire day. You know it happens.”
“I didn’t call the Carnegie,” Nigel admitted. “Since it had been over a month, the issue didn’t seem to be pressing as what we found ourselves caught up in.”
They’d been busy saving Boo, Yumiko, killing man-eating monsters, and planning a wedding. (Although she wasn’t sure if Taggart had told Nigel yet that he was best man; it had been a hectic twenty-four hours since she proposed.)
Nigel explained more why he hadn’t called the Carnegie Museum after arriving in Pittsburgh. “The wildlife of Elfhome is still fairly unknown because most species can’t exist without magic. Living specimens of plants are shipped to Earth but they die shortly after arriving. Even insects and bacteria fail to thrive—it’s the main reason why we don’t need to worry about invasive species during Shutdown. This lack of things to study pre-production made it simple for me to show up at the American Museum of Natural History saying that I wanted to research all things related to Elfhome. Here in Pittsburgh, though, I’m surrounded by native wildlife. The title of my show is ‘Chased by Monsters.’ What possible reason would I—a naturalist—have for researching a necklace, a bracelet, and a mysterious hunk of wood?”
“Who needs an excuse?” Hal said. “You point a camera at most people and they become blathering idiots.”
“Not always,” Jane warned. They used the tactic to their advantage in the past. The fire marshal, Brian Scroggins, was one of the people they could manipulate by putting a camera on him. Brandy was not. It was almost guaranteed that if they tried to involve her, they’d end up with a ticket and possibly jail time.
“They have that huge wyvern on display,” Hal said. “We say we want to film it as an example of bioengineering that the elves have done in the past.”
“Are wyverns bioengineered?” Nigel asked.
“Who knows? Who cares?” Hal said. “We can ask the elves later and not use it if they say no. In the meantime, we get in. Poke around. Ask a few questions. The oni probably have someone planted at the Carnegie.”
Jane stood up to signal the end of the discussion. “Okay, tomorrow morning back on the river. Once we find both nests, we’ll hit the museum.”
“Don’t hit it too hard,” her mother said. “The Carnegie is a treasure that we can pass on to our children.”
Jane thought finding Boo would have ended her nightmares. The fear that the oni would come thundering down on their heads, though, had fueled new dreams. At three in the morning, she tiptoed down to her kitchen.
Taggart was already there making hot cocoa. “Bad dreams?”
He held out his hands to her. “Me too.”
It felt good to lean against his bare chest. It felt better to kiss him. After a few minutes, she decided she wanted a locked door between them and anyone else who might be roaming about the house in the middle of the night. She grabbed his wrist and pulled him toward the stairs.
“Wait.” He reached out to switch off the boiling milk. “Okay.”
Upstairs. Door locked.
Chesty rose from her bedroom floor with a low warning growl.
Door unlocked. Chesty ordered out of the room. Door relocked.
There was a freedom in knowing that they’d already committed to marriage. That he’d seen her at her heavily armed and pissed off mode. That he’d met her brothers all in their heavily armed and pissed off mode. That he’d seen her channel her father’s ghost. That he’d seen her eat, and cry, and deal with inner demons. That he accepted her at her very worst. There was no need for her to hide any part of her life. She could be wholly herself without fear of turning him off.
It surprised her how aggressive it made her. She felt safe enough to take the lead in finding out what they both liked.
She had always wondered why people went on and on about sex. For the first time, she understood how good it could be to be so open and intimate and honest with another human being.
“I think I’m going to like being married to you a lot,” she murmured on the edge of sleep.
“I know I’m going to love it. You’re wonderful.” He laughed sleepily. “I’m kind of amazed by your mother. I was worried that she wouldn’t want someone like me as a son-in-law. I’ve never seen anyone look so happy before.”
“What do you mean? Someone like you?”
He put his bronzed hand on her upper arm. “Most people don’t see me as white.”
“Hm.” She had thought he was merely very tanned but now that she glanced down over him, she realized that he didn’t have any noticeable tan lines. Either he sunbathed nude, or he was naturally dark skinned. “I’m just ridiculously pale. Really. In winter I’m as white as Boo. Besides I’m twenty-six. She was starting to worry that I was gay.” Which made her think of Geoffrey. “She’s probably not going to be okay with Snapdragon. I don’t know what to do.”
“You don’t do anything. I mean, your mother and Geoffrey are both adults. They have to work their way through this on their terms. You’re not going to be able to change either one of them.”
“Are you an only child?”
“No. But I’m the baby of the family. One of the many reasons I left Hawaii was because my older brothers and sisters were always trying to tell me how to I should live my life. Everything from I should focus more on our culture, to not taking Journalism in college, to not taking a job on the mainland, to not going into the middle east to cover the war. Okay, so they might have been right about the war part, but I needed to learn that for myself. I didn’t listen to them. I didn’t want to listen to them. If I had listened to them, I wouldn’t have been happy because they wanted me to do things that would make them happy. It’s hard to see your sibling as a wholly separate person who has radically different needs to make them complete. When your older brother or sister keeps trying to ‘fix’ things simply because they’re a few months older than you, it gets extremely frustrating. You start to put distance between you and them every time they treat you like a child.”
“So you think I should act like my mom and my little brother are some strangers squabbling over their private life?”
He squinted. “I’m trying to decide if the truth is going to get me kicked out of bed.”
She laughed. “No. I want to know what you think. Honestly. I might totally ignore your advice but I want to know.”
“If your brother asks for help, champion him to the hilt. Until he asks, let him run his life how he wants to live it.”
Three Rivers Queen. Day Two.
Jane missed how the conversation started. She’d been focused on shifting their gear from the production trucks and making sure they were secure. She came on board to hear Roach say “Red beret? No. You don’t want a lame hat like that. Hey, Andy, give me your hat!”
“Just shut up about the damn hat!” Andy cried from below deck.
“Andy!” Roach shouted.
Andy came stomping up from below, flung his hat at Roach, and yelled, “I said I’m sorry already!” He stomped away.
Roach ignored his little brother. He picked up the hat and dusted it off. It was a wide-brimmed boonie similar in style to the standard military-issued jungle hat that Jane wore. Andy’s was Wind Clan blue instead of camo print. “See, it’s even the right color.”
“I was hoping for black and gold.” Hal sounded dubious.
“But this gets your fans allied with the elves,” Roach put it on and attempted to make it look stylish. Despite its military roots, the hat utterly failed to be impressive. He waved a hand toward Jane instead. “See, combat ready.”
Hal glanced at Jane. The doubt receded as he realized that the limp blue thing was similar in style to Jane’s. “It’s workable. I suppose we could tailor mine so it reads better for the camera.”
Jane couldn’t imagine anything could be done to the boonie to make it more stylish but said nothing. “What’s the deal with the hats?”
“I have ten thousand of them,” Roach said.
“Ten thousand?” Jane and Hal both exclaimed. There were only sixty thousand humans in the whole city.
“I let Andy handle ordering them. The idea was something like the Terrible Towel. All the Team Tinker fans would have the same hat and they could wave them in the stands during the race.”
“Terrible Towel?” Nigel was British. There was no way he would know about something that died off when he was eight. Pittsburghers held on tight to things that no longer existed.
Jane explained ancient history. “All the Pittsburgh professional sports teams had black and gold as their colors. Football was the Steelers. Baseball was the Pirates. Hockey was Penguins. At some point, back before my mom was born, the Steeler fans came up with this yellow towel with ‘the terrible towel’ written on it that they wave during games to cheer on their team.”
“It was the first rally towel,” Roach said proudly. “Our grandfather has one of the original ones hanging on his game room wall signed by Terry Bradshaw.” Nigel obviously didn’t recognize the name.
“Local football god,” Jane said.
“Four Superbowl championships!” Roach added.
“What is this design?” Jane pointed to something that vaguely looked like a hashtag mark in the center of the hat’s crown.
“It’s supposed to say Team Tinker,” he shouted the words.
“How many times do I have to say ‘I’m sorry’?” Andy shouted back from below deck.
“I order stuff online during Shutdown all the time. You put in a batch order during one Shutdown and take delivery during the next. The team T-shirts, our racing leathers, the helmets, the whole nine yards. I’ve never had a problem, so I thought Numbnuts could handle it. He screwed the whole order up. He exported the wrong artwork and ordered a hundred times what I told him to order!”
Roach shouted the last part.
“I’m freaking sorry!” Andy shouted back.
“Then all the bullshit with Tinker happened,” Roach continued. “Oilcan is acting as our anchor rider, but he’s not as good as Tink is. She’s fearless. It’s like she’s got eyes in the back of her head or something. If you see her suddenly duck and run, you just go, don’t stand there wondering why. Shit is about the hit the fan.” His voice got rough and he turned away. “Fuck,” he whispered. He wiped at his face. “Sorry. We started to hang out with her and Oilcan when Tink was ten. At first it was like ‘why do you need to bring your baby cousin with you?’ but she shows up, driving this go cart like a bat out of hell, and goes ‘hey, we could turn that pile of wood into a trebuchet.’ We spent the rest of day flinging rocks half a mile across the landfill. It was fucking awesome. Eight years of watching her grow up. Watching out for her. Keeping her safe. And then she’s gone. It’s like Boo all over again.”
“She—she’ll be okay.” Jane caught herself before saying something that would make him realize that she knew more than she was telling. “She’s crazy smart and has eyes in the back of her head. The oni are the ones that are going to get the short end of that stick.”
Roach laughed. “Yeah, you don’t want to corner Tinker.” He took a deep breath. “Anyhow. The logo kind of looks like two ‘H.’ You tell people its “Hal’s Heroes” before you show them the logo and they’ll see it.”
“How much?” Jane wondered if she could get the station to cover the cost. They could give them away in some kind of promotional deal.
“If you want, I could handle the merchandising for Hal’s Heroes. Do some posters. The hat. Have an autograph session . . .”
It would give Hal much needed ego-boo and salve her own conscience for not telling her cousins about Boo and Tinker. She was fairly sure Roach would keep his mouth shut, but Sean was a DJ for the largest radio station in town, and Andy was a bit of an idiot. “Deal.”
Sean interviewed Hal as they churned up river to where they left off searching for the eggs. They’d let Sean know that they were doing a new show so all the questions were geared at building excitement for its premier. He admitted that Nigel’s section was still in editing as KDKA decided that it didn’t want to make one of their most popular DJ’s a target of the oni. Much to Hal’s delight, it meant that his interview could be aired first.
Shortly before noon, they found the first nest.
Beck’s Run was marked on maps but was diverted underground the last few hundred feet as it was crisscrossed with roads, railroad tracks, and the abandoned paved walking trail. The culvert was wide to allow for flood water and marked with a sign that lay flattened in the undergrowth covering the steep river bank.
“There’s something weird down there,” Geoffrey pointed at where the creek spilled into the Monongahela River.
Hal came out of the wheel house. “I got this. Taggart? Camera.”
He wore his new Hal’s Hero’s boonie hat and a huge grin. With the concealer covering the last of the fading bruises, Hal seemed like his old self as he beamed at the camera.
Nigel held the light reflector as Jane checked on their mobile production system.
“It looks good on this end,” Jane said.
At Jane’s announcement, Hal carefully wiped the glee off his face but not completely out of his eyes. “We’ve found a likely site for the nest. We’ve nosed the Three River Queen into the mouth of Beck’s Run. Down below, in the murky water, we believe lies a nest of thousands of apple-sized eggs of the river monster.”
Hal followed their script and dodged using the word ‘namazu’ without even twitching.
“I’ve come prepared.” Hal lifted up a bucket on a chain. “First we’re going to attempt to fish out some of the eggs to verify we’ve found an actual nest. As you might recall, the fish finder sonar merely shows blimps on a screen. It’s very difficult to determine what the finder is showing. It could be some kind of vegetation or garbage dumped into the river. I’ve drilled holes through the bottom of this bucket so that the water drains out but the eggs will remain inside. It should operate much like a net.”
A second dodge around the fact they were using spells to locate the eggs. Jane had told her cousins she wanted to keep Geoffrey’s scry spells a secret. She didn’t even have to lie when she said that she worried what the oni might do if they thought he was dangerous to their movements in the area. Roach had created a fake fish finder by wrapping a cellphone inside of a bulky plastic housing with fake knobs. A tap on its screen made it display screen shots of the real thing. They’d already filmed Hal explaining how a fish finder worked. They’d carefully scripted the scene so he never stated outright that they were using it to find the nests. They were using smoke and mirrors to keep their cards close to their chest.
Hal lowered the bucket over the side of the boat. They needed to do three takes to get it right as it kept floating away before tipping, filling up with water several yards from the correct position. On the last attempt, he got it to go straight down.
“The eggs are heavier than water, so if we scoop like so through a large mass of eggs, in theory, we should be able to dredge up at least one.
Hal waited until Taggart had the camera into position. Roach was doing a good job keeping their secondary camera on Hal. Like Jane, he’d gotten into photography from their grandmother. He usually worked with still shots to create racing posters.
Hal quickly dragged up the chain, hand over hand. It took a full minute for the bucket to appear, leaking muddy river water.
“Come on. Come on. Be there.” Jane whispered.
“Oh yes!” Hal cried as the bucket reached the edge of the railing. He hauled it in and tipped it so the cameras could see inside. There were two large yellow gelatinous orbs inside. He picked one up and held it out for the camera’s close inspection. It had one red blood line striped across the surface of the egg with veins feathering out from it. “These are fertilized eggs. You can see already the two dark spots that will be the eyes. Peering closely, I can make out the heart beating. Based on the size of this egg, I believe that the newt will be approximately six inches when it hatches. We’re not sure how long that will take. We’re going to put these two eggs into an aquarium so we can monitor their development and know more about these monsters. Knowledge is power.”
This was news to Jane but Nigel was standing by with a second bucket full of river water for the two eggs.
Hal continued to hold out the first egg. “Since every one of these can grow into a forty-foot-long, man-eating monster, we will need to be careful to kill every one of them. We’re going to dredge up as many as we can and then drop dynamite to hopefully kill anything that we missed.”
“We are?” Jane muttered. How did Hal think they were going to dredge up the eggs?
As if on cue—and judging by the fact that Hal had pulled out his cell phone, it probably was on cue—a boat blared its horn just downriver from them. It was a tugboat pushing a set of barges, one of which was loaded with a bright red crane. The long boom of the crane was lowered so the barges could fit under the many bridges that spanned the rivers.
Hal stood up and pointed at the incoming boat. “And here are Hal’s Heroes, Glacial Sand and Gravel, who dredge the bed of the Allegheny River for important road building material, both for Pittsburgh and for export to Earth. They’ve volunteered their services to help keep our city safe from the threat of huge, man-eating monsters!”
The incoming tug boat blared its horn again. Taggart turned to focus on the boat.
She ripped off her mic, grabbed her rifle, and charged for to the bridge.
Hal saw her coming and edged behind Nigel.
“Shit, Hal, what did you do?” Jane scanned the incoming boat with her rifle’s scope. There seemed to be a dozen men and women on board, all in blue jeans, hard helmets, and tall rubber boots.
“They’re friends! We can trust them!” Hal cried. “Please don’t shoot them, Jane! We need them! We need them to dredge up the eggs and we need them to be role model heroes! Pittsburghers who volunteer to stand up and do something. We’ll film giving them hats and calling them heroes and it will be the start of something good.”
“How do you know that you can trust them?”
Hal pointed at Roach.
“They’re my cousins on my dad’s side.” Roach knew to keep the camera on Hal. “Second cousins actually. My great-aunt Esther married their granddad. They’re not Roaches, they’re McAvoys. Please don’t shoot them, Jane. My dad would be pissed.”
She recognized the name. She’d met the McAvoys at Sean’s wedding two years ago. They’d been rabid fans of Hal and offered then to take PB&G out dredging with them. She’d forgotten about them but apparently Hal hadn’t.
“Why didn’t you tell me that they were coming?” She asked Roach because she was fairly sure that Hal had a really stupid reason.
“Hal made it sound like it was your idea,” Roach said in defense. “You were just too busy to ask me.”
“You would have said no!” Hal stated his stupid idea. “You’ve been in maximum paranoid mode since Sandcastle!”
Hal meant getting Boo back.
“For good reason!” Jane glared at him and then switched focus to Roach. “How many people on that boat are your cousins? All of them or just the pilot?”
“Two are my cousins. One is engaged to Addison so he’s almost a cousin. One is their cousin on their mom’s side so that’s still family. The rest are their best friends from since they were little. It’s old school Pittsburgh. If we couldn’t trust them completely, I wouldn’t have called them. And if you can’t trust them, then trust me. I wouldn’t screw up something as this important.”
She trusted Roach. He had his father’s level business head. He lived and breathed risk assessment. “You need to tell me this shit ahead of time so I don’t shoot the wrong person.”
Jane opened the bolt on her rifle and took out the chambered round. She pocketed the bullet. She looked up to see that Taggart was grinning at her. It made her blush.
Sean found the Three Rivers Queen’s horn and blew it. It made his cousins toot their horn again, and Sean answer in kind. For a few minutes, no conversation was possible over the din of stunningly loud boat horns.
After a radio conference, it was decided that the nest would be marked by a buoy. The Queen would then back off and let the tugboat maneuver the barges into place. While the boats repositioned, the naturalist transferred the two eggs into an aquarium that had been set up on the first level of the boat. Through the glass sides, they studied the eggs intently.
“Well, they’re not following crocodile development, which is unfortunate,” Nigel said.
“Why is it unfortunate?” Jane asked.
“Crocodiles and alligators take weeks to develop,” Nigel said. “The Nile crocodile is reported to have an incubation period of ninety days while the American alligator can be as long as a hundred and twenty days. The namazu are keeping closer to a catfish, which is the six days we initially thought. It might be thirty or forty hours longer than a normal catfish but not much more, judging by this sample.”
“So we still can find the last nest in time?” Jane asked.
“These were definitely laid after the ones at Sandcastle,” Nigel said. “If we’re lucky, then the last nest was laid the same time as this one and not before the one at the hatchery.”
“But if it wasn’t, then we only have until Sunday to find it.” Jane said.
Once the boats were repositioned, they filmed Hal being shown how all the equipment worked, although he was strictly forbidden to touch any controls. (Hal was a known quality to Roach’s cousins. He’d gotten bored at Sean’s wedding and started to show off different flaming cocktails. Roach was even more paranoid and thorough than Jane and had a fire extinguisher in hand. Sean’s mother-in-law had only lost part of her ponytail before Roach put her out. Luckily the woman was rabid fan and had an amazing sense of humor.)
The McAvoys were careful people. They’d worked on the river all their lives. They scooped up bucket after bucket of the yellow globes and dropped them into the waiting empty barge. When multiple buckets came up with only sand, it was decided that they had done the best they could. They shifted both boats again and let Hal drop dynamite from the Three Rivers Queen’s long nose gangplank. The explosions made the water froth. Fish bobbed to the surface, killed by the blast. They scooped the free dinner out of the water. It did not surprise Jane that Roach had chests of ice waiting.
“That’s one down,” Taggart said when Jane called a wrap to the filming.
“Let’s find the other.”
They found the second nest two hours later. Everyone cheered every step of the operation. Hal made it a point of thanking the McAvoys, calling them “Hal Heroes” and rewarding them with boonie hats. Nigel recorded a wrap up on the hunt that was more haunting and elegant. Jane had pre-screened the footage to make sure nothing dangerous made it to film. No comments of Boo, Geoffrey’s spell casting or her impending wedding.
“Now all we need to do is one monster editing session at the station.” She stretched. “We’ve got more than enough video for both shows”
“If we’re going to Oakland, we should go to the Carnegie Museum,” Nigel had said. “The box may be there and our worries are for naught.”
“Things are never that simple.” Jane checked her watch. They had two hours before the museum closed. Until they determined if the box had arrived or not, they were spinning wheels. “Okay, let’s hit the Carnegie.”
They decided that Hal would spearhead their invasion of the Carnegie Museum. Yes, in part, it was to salve his ego. More importantly, his reputation was firmly in “beast stalker” territory. Nigel’s partnership with a war correspondent made him a “respectable journalist” which might equal to an unwanted element if the museum was controlled by oni. They took the PB&G truck and camera to reinforce the impression that Chased by Monsters had nothing to do with the foray.
Jane hadn’t been to either library nor museum for a decade. She wanted to go carefully forward, unsure of what they would find. The century old, limestone covered and statue festooned massive building took up an entire city block at the edge of Oakland. They found street parking on Schenley Drive instead of using the museum’s limited access parking garage. It put them at the corner of the Carnegie Library that connected with the museum.
Nigel insisted that they film the block long walk along the building’s massive stone façade.
“Andrew Carnegie was Scottish.” Nigel let his burr accent his pride. “He was born in my home town of Dunfermline in 1835. His family immigrated to the new world when he was just a boy. Carnegie became the richest man in the world but he gave ninety-percent of his fortune to charities before he died. His greatest gift to the world were his public libraries. He built his first one in Dunfermline. He did so because a Pittsburgher by the name of Colonel James Anderson would open his personal library of four hundred books to working boys. Carnegie had taken his first job at the age of thirteen to work as a bobbin boy in the local cotton mill. Without the chance to educate himself, he’d never have been able to improve his lot in life. Before his death, he’d built over three thousand public libraries in cities around the world. The man was not a saint, but he left legacy that reached out over a century to improve the lives of millions of people. I spent most of my childhood at the Dunfermline library. It’s a grand old building, much like this one, but smaller.”
At the far corner a life-size fiberglass statue of a long-necked dinosaur stood guard.
“A diplodocus!” Nigel pointed.
“Yes, we’re very proud of Dippy,” Hal patted the dinosaur on its stumpy foreleg. Jane backed up to stay out of shot as Taggart filmed the naturalist discussing the large statue. “In 1899, Carnegie funded an expedition to the Wyoming badlands to find fossils. They found a nearly complete diplodocus skeleton. King Edward VII personally asked Carnegie for a plaster cast to be displayed in London. After that Kaiser Wilhelm II and other European heads of state came begging. There are still copies of ‘Dippy’ on display in museums around the world. The Carnegie museum had the world’s largest collection of Jurassic dinosaurs at the time of the first Startup.”
“How marvelous!” Nigel said. “Did they move the collection all to Earth afterwards?”
“They considered it,” Hal said. “Queen Soulful Ember came to Pittsburgh to sign the peace treaty. While she was here, she toured the museum. She must have liked it because she demanded that it stay intact. It was part of the peace treaty, or so I’ve always been told.”
The aftermath of the namazu fight indicated that the English translation of the treaty might have been compromised by Sparrow. They still needed to track down a copy of the original and corner someone fluent in Elvish.
Hal swept a hand toward the museum entrance, a gracious master welcoming in guests. “The elves donated specimens of flora and fauna from other parts of Elfhome. It’s one of the draws of coming to here to study biology and a few other related majors at the University of Pittsburgh.”
Taggart panned the camera upwards to the bronze muses that sat along the roofline. “Do you think what we’re looking for is on display here?”
“I doubt it,” Jane said. “Let’s get in and start poking around. They close up fairly early.”
Jane bought four adult tickets to cover their entrance. The “guard” was an ancient old man in a bright red jacket. Jane felt slightly guilty knowing that they were about to walk all over him.
The ticket seller was a college student who went wide-eyed at Nigel. “You’re Nigel Reid! I loved the red pandas!” Jane winced as Hal’s ego was already bruised. The girl spotted Hal and went into sudden fan girl overdrive. “Omg! Hal Rogers! Oh! Oh! I love you!”
As the girl had Hal autograph random scraps of paper and then her arm and finally pose for selfies, Jane consulted the map that came with their tickets. Her memories of the exhibits during field trips were like snapshots, none connected to place or time. She could recall individual displays with vivid recall but had no idea where they were in relation to each other. In elementary school she’d loved the little dollhouses in their window displays. In Junior high, it had been the Hall of Architecture with the marble statues. The Goddess Nike had fascinated her. In high school, it had been the Photography gallery in the Museum of Art.
Her least favorite section of every visit had been the newest collection focused on Elfhome. As little kids, they’d be herded through the big dim galleries to turn a corner and find themselves face to face with the worst man-eaters on the planet. Every year, at least one child broke down crying. Jane would have nightmares for a week afterwards.
“What are you doing here?” The ticket seller asked.
“We want to film your wyvern for my new show.” Hal paused so he could dramatically sweep his hand over an imaginary marquee. “Monsters in Our Midst! It premieres this weekend. We’re going to be doing big monsters and so far, the wyvern is the biggest.”
The ancient guard finally realized who was chatting up the ticket seller. He pointed at Hal with wide eyes. “You’re Hal Rogers!”
Hal either ignored the panic dawning on the man’s face, or missed it entirely. “Yes, I am. Do you want an autograph too?”
“We don’t have time for this,” Jane growled. She pushed Hal toward the gallery with the Elfhome animals.
“Oh! Oh dear!” The guard exclaimed.
Jane recognized the tone. Someone in charge was going to get an excited call in a few minutes. She pushed Hal again as he slapped his pockets for a pen. “Faster.”
She hadn’t been to the museum since high school but it hadn’t changed any since her field trips days. It seemed like a place caught in time. In her memory, the museum was a dimly-lit maze. It surprised her to discover that her memory wasn’t wrong. They could film a horror movie in the place without changing a thing.
They turned the corner into the Elfhome section. It was weirdly satisfying to see both Nigel and Taggart flinch back in surprise and dismay. It vindicated dozens of school children scared shitless over the years.
“Oh.” Nigel finally whispered. His hands were pressed together as if he was praying. “Oh. My.”
Hal beamed with pride as if he’d given birth to the wyvern. “Isn’t he wonderful? It was one of two killed during the construction of the railroad. This is the male. Females are larger.”
Nigel stared up at the massive creature. Its birdlike feet were on the ground, its dump truck-sized head suspended on wires, its tail coiled around the edge of the area, and its leathery wings flared as wide as the large three-story courtyard would allow. “Oh. Oh. This is—it’s —I’m speechless.”
“Go ahead, take it in,” Jane said. “I will look to see if the box has been added to the exhibit.”
Jane left the men communing with the immense wyvern to scout the area. The elves had given the museum an odd assortment of camping equipment and tools that had been used on the railroad project. It was things like a horse drawn field kitchen. Folding canopy beds with insect netting. Tables that folded into suitcases. Lightweight collapsible chairs. Survey equipment with carrying cases. Humans complained that it had been done to save the elves the hassle of shipping the gear back to the Easternlands. The everyday nature of the items was what Jane liked about the exhibit. To her, it was the real elves. The camping gear was all sturdy, clever and elegant. She still found it enchanting.
Nigel broke his silence when she looped back to the men. “I thought the saurus was massive. I can’t even put the two together in my mind.”
“There’s an adult saurus under its left wing for scale.”
Nigel walked to the far left to see the saurus. “Oh! Simply brilliant! And dragons are larger than wyverns?”
“That’s what the elves say. Much larger.”
Taggart had been silent this entire time. Recording without comment was the sign of a great cameraman but now that he’d gotten in Nigel’s reaction, he whispered. “I’ve swum with humpback whales. I thought I wouldn’t be impressed by how big wyverns were. I was wrong. This is amazing. I can see why your father wanted a cannon to protect his family.”
“The box isn’t here,” Jane reported. “Let’s film this with Hal and Nigel separately. Someone from the museum will find us sooner or later.”
They filmed Nigel first so that he could charm any staff while Hal filmed. “I am nearly beyond words. This is an Elfhome wyvern. I’m sure that the film will do little to impress the size on our viewers since we can’t get enough distance so that it fits within our camera’s range. Here, I’ll stand beside the leg. Yes, this massive tree trunk object is its leg! Look at these talons. Each one is larger than my arm.” He laughed, giddy with his pure emotions. “The size of this is simply overwhelming. You could fit a party inside that mouth! I’ve been in elevators with less interior room.”
He signaled that he was done. “We’re going to have to record a voice-over later. I’m just too amazed. This has never happened to me before.”
Hal clapped Nigel on the shoulder. He tugged at his Hal’s Heroes boonie hat and readied for filming.
“Most of you are familiar with the wyvern. If you grew up in Pittsburgh, you’ve seen this fellow on your field trip to the museum. What you might not know is these creatures were created for war.”
Jane hoped that Hal wasn’t about to go off into left field with some weird rant.
“Sometime in the past, the elves had terrible wars and creatures like the wyvern were bioengineered using magic into the horrible monsters we know of today. The wyvern. The wargs. These and others are not natural animals. Nor were they selectively bred as we have done to create a wide range of dogs, from Saint Bernards down to Chihuahuas. The elves used a magic that we haven’t witnessed here in Pittsburgh to do direct gene manipulation of a level that we can’t even imagine. It was that process that changed a very human girl into an elf female. The oni have similar abilities of using magic to bioengineer normal creatures into monsters. At Sandcastle, we found evidence that the oni had tampered with the water fairies, making them larger, more aggressive, and more poisonous.”
From the direction of the stairs to the modern art wing came the rapid loud click of a woman in heels moving fast. Nor was high heel woman alone. Underscoring the fast clicking was the rumble of many heavy boot steps.
Hal glanced toward the footsteps and changed the direction of his monologue. “This wyvern was an unprecedented gift from Queen Soulful Ember because normally the scales of the creature are used to make the chest armor worn by the holy warriors and the ruling caste. It is, in essence, a completely organic bullet-proof vest. Now the word ‘bulletproof’ is misleading. The true term is ‘bullet-resistant.’ The material of the scale basically catches the bullet, causing it to deform. It mushrooms.” Hal spread his hands to illustrate the bullet increasing in surface area. “This spreads the energy of the bullet over a large area. It defuses the power which then allows the thick material to stop it. Earth has many creatures that have similar protective shells and scales. Clams. Snails. Armadillos, whose name means in Spanish, little armored one. It is the sheer strength of the wyvern armor that makes it remarkable….”
Jane shifted to intercept the incoming museum staff. She’d worn a jacket to cover her kidney holster. She shifted the fabric aside to make sure that she could draw quickly. Boo had said that the oni greater bloods could appear human. There was a chance that the museum staff had been infiltrated if Sparrow had orchestrated the movement of the box via them.
Nigel appeared beside Jane, crouching briefly to tug his pants cuffs into place. He stood, brushing hands over his shirt and slacks to neaten his appearance to pristine. Seriously, the man must have packed a travel iron and starch.
Jane would rather talk her way out of any situation. Nigel with his hosting superpowers would be better at it than her. Still, she hated to put the gentle man on the front line.
The woman was younger than Jane expected, with rich brown hair and smoke gray eyes. She wore an expensive gray business suit with a pencil skirt, a short sleeved jacket and accents of Wind Clan blue. Behind her were six burly guards. From her angry look to the muscle-bound men at her back, it was obvious that the woman was there to toss them out.
“Good day!” Nigel beamed at the woman as if her appearance made his afternoon complete. “I’m so sorry for dropping in unannounced but when I heard you had an actual wyvern on display, I simply had to see it for myself! I’m Dr. Nigel Reid. I’m a naturalist from Clare College. It’s a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. England, not Boston.”
“I recognize you. We do have televisions here in Pittsburgh,” the woman snapped. “You don’t have permission to film in the museum. I will not allow you to waltz in here and walk all over our protocols.”
“Oh, I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have let my excitement over this simply wonderful exhibit carry me away. I didn’t mean to offend you!” Nigel extended his hand for a handshake. “Shall we back up and start over? Call me Nigel. You are…?”
It should have melted icebergs.
The woman flicked her gaze to Taggart’s camera. “I’m the director of the Carnegie Museum, Genevieve Lefèvre.” She had a faint accent as if she’d grown up somewhere outside of Pittsburgh and perhaps even the United States. The French name might mean something more than an ancient family tie to Europe. She held out her left hand to make it clear that she had no intention of shaking Nigel’s hand. Her fingers were manicured with long red nails. A blue bead bracelet looped about her elegant slim wrist. “You will turn over your camera’s memory card to me.”
Jane’s heart jumped in her chest as she realized that Taggart had been filming them since they arrived at the museum. What had they talked about? The box? The tengu? Her sister Boo? “No, that’s not possible. If we give you the card, we’ll lose a day’s worth of work,” Jane lied. “We’ve only been here for a few minutes and everything we’ve filmed is open to public viewing.”
“It’s fine.” Taggart said. “I put a new card in out in the truck. There’s only what we filmed here in the museum on it.”
Jane glanced at Taggart. Did he misunderstand the situation? No, he was trying for poker face but after a week of knowing him, it was clear that he was trying to hide something. What did he plan to do? Swap cards?
He made a production of taking the camera from his shoulder and removing the memory card. Jane knew he could do it on the fly; she’d seen him do it. This was so slow that it was easy to see that he didn’t swap the memory card unless he knew magic tricks. He held out the card to Lefèvre.
What was on it? Jane reached for it, not wanting it out of their control.
The museum director snatched the card out of Taggart’s fingers. “All the cards you have on you.”
“What?” Jane’s outstretched hand curled into a fist. “No way! Do you have any idea how rare they are?”
PB&G used decade-old cameras because Hal killed equipment nearly as often as he set himself on fire. They were generations behind the new ones in every regard. Replacement parts could be found only second hand, online, on Earth. If they lost all their memory cards, it effectively limited them to live streaming only for two months. The only good side of having old equipment was that no one could easily access their recording.
Lefèvre tucked away the stolen memory card. “You should have considered that before bringing your camera in here. For all I know, this is blank and what you recorded is in your pocket.”
Was that the reason Taggart so calmly handed over the card?
Hal decided to enter the fray. “Now, now, let’s not be hasty. I’m . . .”
“I know who you are, Mr. Rogers,” Lefèvre snapped.
Hal skipped over whatever he was going to say and continued mid-sentence much later in his scripted discussion. “…and Nigel here has been telling me about visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York. They have a wonderful exhibit featuring things lost on Earth by elves. Have you heard about it?”
“Yes, of course.” She volunteered nothing else.
There was a pause as Hal waited for Nigel to jump in.
“It was a simply wonderful exhibit,” Nigel murmured. “What exactly do you need from us to allow us to film the wyvern? It’s an amazing, one of a kind specimen. The people on Earth have seen nothing like it. Please, email whatever forms you require to WQED. We can fill them out at your leisure and set up a time to come in and film later.”
Jane and Hal stared at Nigel in surprise. The man waved toward the exit, giving them a tight grin that didn’t reach his eyes. For the first time since the Chased by Monsters team arrived in Pittsburgh, she was seeing Nigel frightened.
“Yes, you’re closing, aren’t you?” Jane pointed Hal toward the exit. What did she miss? If Nigel was frightened, then the odds were good that the woman and perhaps all the men behind her were oni. The six guards were big muscle-bound brutes with pistols and nightsticks. They didn’t look like any of the fragile old men from Jane’s school field trip memories.
Hal either didn’t take the clue or decided to press forward anyhow. “According to a curator at the American Museum of Natural History—that is a mouthful—they sent you some of the items from exhibit. Is it possible we can film them?”
The director’s face went from angry to deadly calm. “They call it the AMNH, idiot. The items never arrived.”
“Never?” Hal pressed. He was too far away to kick.
“No. The AMNH claims that the truck made it across during the June Shutdown but never arrived in Oakland.”
“There was that gunfight on Veterans Bridge.” Nigel pointed out, edging toward the door. “The truck could have been caught up in that.”
“Did you file a missing person report?” Hal asked.
“Hal,” Jane growled warning. She was outnumbered and outgunned.
“We’re closing now,” the director said. “Give me all your cards and leave.”
“We’re leaving.” Oni or not, Jane was not going to let this woman hamstring them. “We weren’t obligated to give you the first one. If needed, we will take this to the police. The television stations operate under the United States constitutional right of freedom of the press.” She only had to use this defense once before. It was a legally shaky ground since much of Pittsburgh was under United Nations control. The EIA usually defaulted to the City of Pittsburgh in terms of the media. At the moment, Jane was willing to run the risk that the EIA sided with the director. “We cooperated in a manner that should have been acceptable. We will not be further hampered by unjust demands.”
Lefèvre flicked her hand toward Taggart. “Search him.”
Taggart swung his camera out to the side even as Nigel stepped back and intercepted it. “Okay, okay, you can search me!”
Taggart and Nigel were tag teaming with the camera, so Taggart had picked up on whatever Jane was missing. Then Jane realized what she was looking at. Lefèvre’s bracelet was the missing lapis prayer beads with a small ironwood miniature prayer wheel.
Nigel had recognized the jewelry. He knew that the woman was lying about the curator from New York. Sparrow had spoken French when she planned the murder of Windwolf. Lefèvre’s French name wasn’t accidental. Nigel must suspect that the female was an oni greater blood and that she killed the curator. He was trying to get them out of the museum as quickly as possible.
“I keep a spare in my breast pocket.” Taggart said as the guard roughly searched his pants pockets. “It’s blank.”
The guard ripped Taggart’s shirt taking the memory card out.
Jane clenched her fist. What should she do? She didn’t want them to take the card; it might be the real recording if Taggart switched the two. He’d been recording continuously for nearly a half hour. They could have talked about Boo or Yumiko or the box. She couldn’t fight six men without danger of her crew being hurt. Their lives weren’t worth a memory card. If it was actually blank and she folded now, she’d make Lefèvre suspicious of their real objective.
“Two men vanish off the face of the planet,” Hal continued. “Carrying irreplaceable items that you’re ultimately responsible for, and you don’t file a missing person report?”
Lefèvre huffed with impatience. “I was only told some items were on a truck and would arrive in June. How can I report someone without knowing who they were?”
Jane stepped back to kick Hal.
“Ow!” Hal cried. “What? She knew what was on the truck. She could have filed a report saying that the truck was missing with two men, an ironwood box, and some jewelry…” Hal finally recognized the bracelet. “Shit.”
“Box?” Lefèvre echoed.
The AMNH had thought the block of wood was solid. Hal shouldn’t know that the item shipped was a box.
Lefèvre pointed at Jane. “Kill them.”
Jane shut down her normal moral rationale. All that mattered was saving her people. First target was to eliminate chain of command. She shot at Lefèvre but the bullet hit one of the guards leaping forward. He roared in pain and rushed Jane. She spun with the impact, trying to throw him. He took her down with him and they hit the marble floor hard together.
“Fire in the hole!” Hal shouted.
“Hal!” Jane shouted as she realized that he had succeeded at smuggling sticks of dynamite into the museum. She rolled to put the guard between her and the dynamite.
The explosion in the confined space was deafening. The noise echoed through the halls.
The blast force struck the guard grappling her in the back. He loosened his hold. She twisted away from him and shot him in the head.
She scrambled to her feet, shooting the nearest guard as she took in the battlefield. The blast had effectively confused the oni for vital seconds. The guards didn’t seem to know what had just happened; sticks of dynamite weren’t common weapons. The oni apparently hadn’t seen Hal drop it into their midst, they scanned everywhere for the source of the explosion. Lefèvre didn’t understand basic sniper tactics, she was merely using her guards as cover instead of seeking shelter.
“Hal! Truck!” Jane shot the guard directly in front of Lefèvre.
“Going!” Hal took off running, haring through the maze.
“Nigel! Taggart! Follow him!” She shot Lefèvre in the chest.
“Jane!” Taggart hesitated.
“Now!” Jane shouted. At the moment, she had the guards’ focus because she was the only one with an openly displayed weapon. That would change the moment their confusion wore off.
Taggart took off. She emptied her magazine, sending the remaining three guards ducking for cover.
She followed her team, bullets whining around her as she raced through the maze. Weaving back and forth through the skeletons of dinosaurs. Around the massive globe of the Earth, bullets cratering the North American hemisphere. Past the darkened gift shop; most of the innocent employees had left for the day. At the grand three story staircase, Jane slid sideways on the marble, trying to make the tight turn. Down the hallway, Hal came rebounding through the revolving doors.
“Bad guys!” He shouted and darted through the door into the Hall of Architecture.
“Not that way!” Jane called after him. “That’s a dead end!”
Nigel and Taggart slid to a halt, unsure if they should follow Hal or wait for Jane.
“There’s a secret door!” Hal shouted. “It leads to the library! Only staff are supposed to use it! The library is open until eight!”
How did Hal know that?
Jane hit the end of the hallway. More armed guards were coming through the revolving door, slowed down by the inherit design of the doors. She turned into the Hall of Architecture. Sunlight poured through the glass ceiling. It was huge room scattered with massive facades, tall columns, plaster casts of famous marble statues and a miniature replica of some Greek temple. It offered dozens of hiding places in deep shadows that her team apparently took advantage of. She couldn’t spot them.
“Jane!” A chorus of loud whispers came from the back corner behind ninety-foot long replica of the façade of Saint Giles du Gard.
She ran toward the corner. Two lit sticks of dynamite tumbled past as the sound of boot steps grew louder behind her.
“Jesus Christ, Hal!” Jane swore, running faster. “It’s a museum!”
The two loud explosions were followed by screams and the rumble of architecture collapsing and falling.
“Oh! Oh! God! Hal!” Jane ducked behind the stone column holding up the roof. She swapped her empty magazine for a fresh one.
Her team crouched at the feet of the Goddess Nike.
“Don’t you dare blow her up, Hal!” Jane meant the statue which had been a childhood favorite. “Why are you even still here?”
“The door is locked.” Hal pointed a weirdly normal wood door in the shadows. There was a chair beside it, as if one of the elderly human guards sat in it, keeping library patrons from sneaking into the museum free.
“Why didn’t you blow it open?” Jane didn’t really want him to blow anything up, but his logic escaped her.
“It’s a library!” Hal cried.
She shot the deadbolt on the door. “Go!”
She spun back around the column. The dynamite had taken down most of the front part of the room. The floor was filled with broken statues and columns, how much of it was real stone and how much was plaster replicas, she couldn’t tell. Most of the oni were under the rumble, not moving. Hopefully they were oni. She shot them regardless because they’d moved beyond talking their way out of the mess.
Getting out alive was one thing. How were they going to get out of this mess on the grander scale? The innocent ticket taker and the elderly human guard both saw them enter. Even if they got away from the oni alive there was still the EIA . . .
…waiting at the entrance of the library.
An entire platoon of EIA in combat gear crouched on the stone steps, guns leveled at the door.
Jane put her hands in air and hoped that they didn’t shoot first and ask questions later.
Seconds later, her team was face down on the pavement, being searched for weapons.
The museum guards chasing them came spilling out of the building. One of them panicked at the sight of the combat troops. He opened fire and a hail of bullets answered.
The silence after the thunder of guns and the heavy thud of bodies was sickening.
Taggart was beside her, staring anxiously at her.
“I’m fine,” she mouthed. She turned her head. Nigel lay to her other side. There was a slight tightening around his eyes but he seemed unworldly calm. He gave a slight nod to Jane. Beyond him, Hal was curled in a ball, arms around his head. It was Hal’s normal fetal position when he couldn’t talk his way out of trouble or run from it.
“Cease fire!” A male voice shouted.
Someone walked through the bullet casings that littered the ground. Jane could only see knee high boots. They stopped inches from her.
“When I asked you to kill the monster—” Director Maynard glared down at Jane. At Sandcastle, he’d assumed that Hal ran the show. He’d realized his mistake since then. “—I wasn’t giving you carte blanche to run amok in my city.”
“Half the museum staff are disguised oni,” Jane said. “We did something that spooked them. They tried to kill us.”
“What did you do?”
“We filmed without permission,” Jane said as honestly as she dared. Maynard would report to Windwolf or Sparrow. Since Jane couldn’t prove Sparrow was a traitor to her race, the truth could be deadly. “I think they thought we saw something we weren’t supposed to see. I did field trips here as a kid; I didn’t see anything new on display or anything missing. The director showed up with a bunch of guards. She confiscated our memory cards and then ordered her men to kill us.”
That sounded innocent enough.
Maynard called an officer over. He pointed into the museum. “Find the director and get the memory card off her. If she refuses, tell her we don’t need a warrant for stolen property.”
Jane considered telling them that she’d killed the director. No, they would find out soon enough. Besides, the woman might still be alive.
There was a sudden parting of the EIA personal as if an invisible force cleaved through the gathered mass. From Jane’s prone position, she couldn’t tell what was coming. If it was Sparrow, they were lost.
The last rank of EIA stepped aside, revealing a sekasha male. Jane wasn’t sure if she should cheer or cringe at the sight of the warrior. He could free them with a single word or strike them down. No one could stop him. She didn’t recognize the male; the sekasha only came to Pittsburgh with the Viceroy. The male wasn’t Dark Harvest, who’d saved them after the fight with the namazu. He seemed young, but it was hard to tell with elves. His black hair was gathered into a single braid threaded with blue glass beads. Despite his youth, he was taller than most of the men gathered around Jane. His wyvern armor vest and the shield spells tattooed down his arms were both in Wind Clan blue. He carried the magically sharp sword that only his caste was allowed to wield.
He was young, beautiful, deadly, and extremely confused looking.
“Walks Among Storm Clouds Looming on Wind.” Maynard bowed to the young warrior. “Is something wrong? Does Wolf Who Rules Wind need me?”
“A message has come via the distant voices.” The warrior frowned at a piece of paper in his hands. “It’s from the Queen. She sends an order to you. I’ve been looking for you to deliver it.”
“Me?” Maynard said in surprise.
The sekasha unfolded a piece of paper and read it aloud. “Our dear trusted ally, Director Derrick Senequa Maynard. You are to remember that the house of history belongs in full to the crown and not to the humans. It is only by our generosity that it operates as a place of study and reflection. Those who hunt monsters should be given full rein to the house of history in order to do a general cleaning of any and all vermin. Do not detain them in any manner.”
“It is a long complicated story,” Yumiko had said. “The kind that comes into being when people like Pure Radiance dabble in the lives of others. Impossible convergences of fate lead to extraordinary events. The more I tease apart the cause and effect, the more I realize that there are multiple oracles warring with each other, moving others around like chess pieces. What we’re seeing today is the collision of their plans as they crash toward their end game.”
Pure Radiance knew that Jane was looking for the deadly box. She just cleared the path for Jane to find it if it was still in the museum.
Yumiko had also claimed that Pure Radiance had set Tinker up to be captured by the oni, knowing full well that Tinker would destroy them.
“Thank you, Cloudwalker.” Maynard bowed to the young warrior. “I will obey the Queen’s wishes.” The director turned to his men and gestured at Jane and her team. “Let them go.”
While Cloudwalker seemed young and somewhat naïve, he quickly grasped what his queen meant by “vermin.” When all the dead guards turned out to be disguised oni, he called in laedin-caste warriors from the nearby enclaves to sweep the building. As it was after hours for the museum, it meant the librarians were rounded up and tested. Luckily they all turned out to be human.
Meanwhile the director’s body was found and the two memory cards brought to Maynard. He demanded that they play the video so he could see for himself what started the fight. Jane fought to keep her face neutral as Taggart slotted the card back into his camera.
The video didn’t start outside the museum or even with Nigel staring in amazement at the wyvern. It cut straight to Hal standing by the massive leg giving the later part of his segment.
“This wyvern was an unprecedented gift from Queen Soulful Ember,” Hal said on the video. “Because normally the scales of the creature are used to make the chest armor worn by the holy warriors and the ruling caste.”
Taggart had recorded up to the moment that Lefèvre held out her hand for the memory chip. He’d focused on the incriminating bracelet seconds before the video ended.
What the hell, Jane thought while struggling to keep the surprise off her face. There should have been a good half hour of recording on the chip before Lefèvre made Taggart hand it over. Somehow he’d swapped in a decoy when they’d heard Lefèvre coming, recording only Hal’s explanation of “bullet-proof” on it. The real memory chip with Nigel explaining his connection to Andrew Carnegie must have been the second one, the one taken from Taggart’s shirt pocket.
But it wasn’t. It was totally blank.
Relief warred with confusion. What had Taggart done with the real memory chip? It could be deadly evidence against them.
Jane remembered Nigel kneeling to straighten his pant cuff. Taggart must have handed the real memory chip off as cleanly as he later handed Nigel the camera. They’d done it without a word spoken, so she’d missed it.
Maynard switched from the blank chip to the decoy and played the short video a second time, frowning deeply. “What happened next?”
“She told her guard to kill us.” Jane left out them asking Lefèvre about the missing curator from AMNH. That part of the conversation wasn’t recorded anywhere, not even on the real memory chip—wherever it was. She was safe to skip everything about the New York exhibit. Even if Maynard was trustworthy, there were too many strangers standing around listening to discuss the still missing box full of baby dragon bombs. “They would have except Hal happened to have dynamite on him from our successful search for the monster nests on the river. We determined that there were two and found both of them earlier today and destroyed all the eggs.”
Maynard glanced toward where Cloudwalker directed the elves through searching the museum. “How did the Queen know you were here?”
“I have no idea.” Jane said truthfully. “We only decided to visit the museum this afternoon—after we found the nests. We’re doing a new show . . .”
“Yes, I saw the commercial,” Maynard said.
“And we thought that the wyvern would be a good example of what magic can do to normal animals.”
Maynard pointed at her. “I am allowing this merely because you’ve put on six years of much needed programming on how to safely deal with Elfhome wildlife. The city has been stronger because of your input. If you deviate now to yellow journalism, I will deport you along with the Chased by Monster’s team.”
Now was not the time to ask for an extension on visas, Jane decided.
“Can we continue filming now?” Jane asked instead. “We’re on a deadline.”
Maynard glanced again at Cloudwalker. “I think the elves will insist.”
On the pretense of filming, Jane and her team worked through the museum, tripping over scattered groups of laedin-caste warriors searching for oni. It became obvious that the bulk of the elves had come from Aum Reanu with the Viceroy and never been to the museum before. At every encounter their efforts were mutually derailed. They were the first elves that Nigel managed to nail down (not counting their previous brushes with the sekasha.) The warriors wanted translations of the museum information placards. They wanted to know if the mannequins in the dioramas like “the Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” were real humans. They’d never seen a globe of a planet—neither Earth nor Elfhome. They had questions and Nigel was more than willing to answer them all. He spoke passable Elvish but occasionally he needed Hal to jump in to translate. The two of them tag-team the elves, drawing out information that they already knew only via Boo, or the tengu, or Lemon-Lime Jello: the travel between the planets, the existence of multiple other worlds, the bioengineering via magic, and even some limited information on dragons.
Leaving her team to keep the elves occupied, Jane would examine each space carefully. The box had arrived over a month ago, so it was unlikely that they’d find it in a display, but she wanted to eliminate the possibility. The Carnegie was massive and full of surprises. When she was young, she never thought twice of all the monsters on display among the many glass cases. Aware now of how the oni could use DNA to make new monsters, she could only eye them with dismay.
Downstairs was maze of unfinished hallways, stark overhead lights and a puzzling array of rooms. There was a Quonset hut inside a secret courtyard filled with snake specimens. A Big Bone room. A Little Bone Room. (Contrary to Jane’s expectation, the room was small, not the bones contained within it.) A cafeteria and locker rooms for the employees.
They found the box in a massive workshop tucked in one corner of the basement. Someone had cut the ironwood box open, bypassing the magical lock with brute force. There was no sign of the little dragon bombs that been stored within.
Cold beer, grilled fresh fish, and her people all safe. Life was not perfect but at the moment, Jane was too relieved to care. They’d retreated to the studios of WQED. They only had thirty hours or so to edit several days’ worth of filming into a polished first episode of Monsters in Our Midst. Saturday morning, eight o’clock, they had to turn it over to production to add titles, music and credits.
Hal and Nigel were in the live room doing voice over narration. Taggart was in the control room with her, screening the footage for Chased by Monsters while Jane focused on Monsters in Our Midst.
“The EIA says that they got an anonymous phone call from a woman.” Taggart had fallen back to his war correspondent training. He’d interviewed some of the EIA while Jane searched for the box. “She said—and I quote—there are disguised oni at the library and sticks of dynamite. They are going to break down the door between the library and the museum and blow up parts of the Hall of Architecture.”
“Brilliant!” Jane opened her third beer. Yes, she was drinking heavier than normal but it had been a three beer week. Maybe four beer or even five. She’d lost track of the number of people that she’d killed. She’d pointed a gun at them, pulled the trigger, and seen them die. “The phone call made it sound like the oni had the dynamite but we’re the ones that did all that.”
“The EIA got the call at a quarter to five,” Taggart said. “The timestamp on our video doesn’t have Lefèvre arriving until seven minutes later. Hal was the only person that knew that he had dynamite on him. The Hall of Architecture is weirdly specific; there’s nothing in it except copies of famous statues.”
It had to have been Tooloo. The crazy old elf had complained about a new player at a dangerous game. She had implied without using the actual words that Jane’s team were game pieces to be moved about by an inexperienced player. For some reason, Tooloo and Pure Radiance both decided to get involved. “The phone call is nothing. The Queen got her message halfway across the world.”
“That was weird.”
Why had the two elves gotten involved? Was it merely to protect Lemon-Lime’s game pieces or had they thought Jane and her men would actually find the box intact? Did Jane miss something? The egg-like baby dragon bombs were smaller and thus easier to hide. Or did both adult oracles have other players in motion? Ones that weren’t driving around in fancy painted trucks and blowing the shit out of everything? Had someone slipped in and gotten the baby dragons while Jane’s team distracted everyone with explosives?
Taggart wrapped his arms around her. “Are you okay?”
“I’m coping.” She leaned back against his strength. The lights were down low in the control room so Hal wouldn’t be able to see in. “Things got crazier than I expected when we walked into the museum. It’s getting less clear what our priorities are. We found the nests and destroyed them. We found the box but we don’t know what happened to its contents. We weren’t even sure what the hell was inside. Was the animal that Nigel saw at the gala actually a dragon? How did the twins know what was in a magically locked box? It’s not like they could have opened it without magic. We don’t even know how long ago that the museum cut it open. A month ago? Today?”
“We can do what we do best.” Taggart kissed her temple. “Investigate and report.”
“That doesn’t seem like enough.”
“Yes, I know. It’s why I stopped. I was going into battle with just a camera to report to people—thousands of miles away—who weren’t even sure why their troops were there. What we did today with the nests was different, and important, and effective.”
Jane laughed. “There are some that would quibble that what we did on the river wasn’t investigating and reporting.”
“Screw them.” Taggart had had his share of beer. “I like being able to say ‘look, there’s a problem’ and then fixing the damn mess instead of hoping that someone else would actually react to what I filmed.”
“That’s what PB&G had always been about. We took care of the immediate problem but also educated our viewers how they could handle it on their own in the future.”
“I think Monsters in Our Midst is a good direction to go in. Nigel and I couldn’t have found the nests alone. We would have never been able to convince your little brother and your cousins and their cousins to drop everything and help us. I think doing Hal Heroes is important. It’s going be like an extension of your family. It will let us tap knowledge and resources quickly when time is of the essence.”
“So you’re behind all this craziness?”
“It’s not crazy.” He hugged her. “One of the things I find so wonderful about you is that you can do the impossible. Save your sister. Kill six giant monsters. Find two nests under miles of muddy river water. Find a box that has been hidden for over a month. You don’t even waver. You look trouble in the eye and make it flinch.”
“Are you drunk?”
“A little and very much in love with an amazing woman.”
He was lifting her spirits a lot more than the three beers.
Her phone vibrated with an incoming call from her mother. Jane winced at the screen and answered with, “I haven’t told Hal yet.”
“Oh dear God, Jane!” Her mother cried loud enough for Taggart to hear. He raised his eyebrows in question. “What are you waiting for? I need to be able to organize the cookies!”
“I know. I know.” It was a Pittsburgh tradition. The cookie table was far more important than the cake.
“I’ve already started the nut horns, the peanut butter blossoms, and the butter cookies. I’m scrambling to find the pineapple preserves for the Hawaiian tarts. It’s July! Everyone else in Pittsburgh have been planning the summer weddings for months! The stores are empty of wedding basic supplies!”
“We can just skip the tarts . . .”
“Bite your tongue. You are not getting married to a Hawaiian and not have Hawaiian tarts on the cookie table! I need to get my sisters involved if we’re going to get all the cookies done by the September Shutdown. I’ve drawn up the list and we’re looking at close to four hundred people if we just invite our family, your friends from high school, the people you work with, and a few others.”
Jane suspected that the “few” numbered over a hundred and included Joey and several tengu. Had she warned Taggart about the upcoming circus that her family called a wedding? She typed out “we need to talk” and then because Taggart looked worried, she added “Guest lists. Telling your family. That kind of stuff.”
He relaxed and nodded.
Jane focused back on her mother.
“. . . lady locks, macaroons, Italian knots, pecan tassies, linzer strips, raspberry and date kolacki, and of course, your favorite, pesche dolci.” Her mother was listing out the cookies. Most of them were cookies, like the Hawaiian tarts, were only made for weddings. “That’s nearly four thousand cookies. I need help or I’ll never get finished in time.”
Jane wasn’t sure if her mother intended to give out a dozen cookies per person or if she was just rounding up for easy math. “If you swear Aunt Lisanne and Aunt Marianne to secrecy, you can tell them about the wedding.”
“Oh thank you! But Jane, you need to tell Hal soon,” her mother said. “The man needs time to deal with it before the wedding or he’ll do something rash. With Hal, heaven knows what rash might entail.”
There was that.
“I don’t want anything to ruin your big day,” her mother said but meant “I won’t allow anyone to screw this up. I’ll do something if you don’t.”
“I’ll tell him,” Jane promised.
“Tell him . . . about the tarts?” Taggart guessed at the other side of the conversation based on what Jane had said. “What tarts?”
“Hawaiian tarts. I don’t think they’re really Hawaiian. They’re made with pineapple preserves.”
“Hawaiian tarts?” Hal had opened the door to catch her last sentence. He stalked forward with Nigel trailing behind, looking confused. “Hawaiian tarts?”
“What are Hawaiian tarts?” Taggart asked. “Why are we skipping them?”
“You are skipping them?” Hal pointed at Taggart. “Oh my God! You’re getting married?”
“Yes.” Jane snapped. This wasn’t the way she intended to tell Hal but it would have to do. There wasn’t any point to lying now.
“You are?” Nigel looked surprised. Did Taggart not tell him? Taggart had said he wanted Nigel to be his best man.
“Yes.” Taggart grinned. “We are.”
“Smashing!” Nigel cried with happiness. “Congratulations!”
“No. I do not allow this!” Hal shook his finger at Taggart, probably because he knew better than to point it at Jane. “She is mine.”
“I have never been yours in any way except as your producer,” Jane said as calmly as she could.
“Maybe Taggart and I should go get more beer!” Nigel said. “It’s going to be a long night of editing.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Jane said.
Hal pointed in the direction the two left to give Jane privacy. “You and him? Him? That—that—that—”
“Hal, don’t insult the man that going to be my husband. You know how I am about family.”
“Johnny-come-lately!” Hal shouted. “Why?”
“Hal, don’t make me be cruel to you.”
“What is cruel about telling me why? Why are you with him? Is it just so he can stay? I—I—I—I could marry him. That’s legal in Pittsburgh!”
“Oh god, Hal! Have you looked at the man? He’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. First time I saw him half-naked, I wanted to jump him. Do you remember the first time I saw you half-naked? Probably not—you’d just thrown up on me! You’d set yourself on fire, I had to take you to the hospital with first degree burns and you tried to down half a bottle of Vicodin on top of a flask full of Glenmorangie. Biggest waste of good Scotch I’ve ever seen! I had to take you back to the hospital to get your stomach pumped. Do you know how many times I’ve had to haul your half-naked unconscious body to emergency? I don’t know, I’ve lost count. Jesus, Hal, this is what I mean by being cruel to you. I would like to say I love you like one of my little brothers—I’ve seen you naked nearly as much as I’ve seen them without clothes—except they were toddlers when I had to take care of them!”
“I got better! I haven’t had Scotch for four years, six months and ten days.”
“Hal! You’re short! You hit me right in the boobs!”
“Yes, I know.” He got a slightly dreamy look. He realized that it wasn’t the proper face to be giving in the middle of a conversation like this. “That isn’t a good reason.”
“Yes, it is! It’s part of being sexy to me! I’m sorry but maybe it’s because my father died when I was young and it kind of got me all hung up on weird shit, but to me, husbands are taller than you. I’ve always wanted a man like the wedding cake toppers—taller than the bride! And he smells amazing! I thought it was his after shave or cologne, even though normally I’m not into that shit, but it’s him. He smells good to me!”
“I-I-I- use deodorant.”
“You wear Axe! My brothers all use Axe! Do you know how much that would mess with my head if I was attracted to the way you smelled?”
“I can change.”
“Hal! The chemistry isn’t there! I’m not attracted to you! There is nothing about you that I’ve ever found sexy! I like his black hair! I think he has the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. His eyebrows. His eyelashes. The brown of his irises. They’re beautiful.”
“I could dye my hair. I could wear colored contacts.”
“Hal, I don’t trust you! I have to threaten to hurt you to get you to listen. I don’t like that. It makes me feel like a rabid dog sometimes. And it’s not just me! You don’t listen to anyone! You’ve got this ‘I know better than anyone’ and go plowing through the world without any regard to personal danger. That’s fine for you but I want kids and I want to know that my children are safe with their father—because shit happens and he might be all that they have growing up.”
Without warning, she was crying. She realized it as the tears started to burn in her eyes.
Why am I crying? She wiped at her tears. Was it because she thought of her father? Or was it because, for the first time, she realized what her mother was going through, losing the love of her life so young? Her parents been married right out of high school. Her mother was only a three years older than Jane was now when her father died. Twelve short years was all they got.
“Jane! I’m sorry! I can change! I can be more careful!”
“Hal, I’m in love with Taggart.”
“You don’t even call the man by his first name.”
She smacked him. “It doesn’t matter what the fuck I call him. I might start calling him Beloved. Would that make you happier?”
“You don’t need to be nasty.”
“Jesus Christ, Hal, when are you going to stop thinking just about yourself? I have been tiptoeing around for days, not telling anyone I’m getting married, because I’ve been so afraid that you will throw a hissy fit, meltdown, and go back to drinking. I didn’t tell my cousins even though they dropped everything in their life for three days to help me! I haven’t told my brothers, for god sake! I’m getting married and your self-centered candy ass is the reason I’m getting no joy out of sharing that news with my family. Instead of doing that stupid girly-girl shit of calling Brandy and asking her to be my maid-of-honor, I’ve been worried that my best friend is going to drink himself to death before the actual day.”
“I’m your best friend?”
“Yes! Of course you are! Who the hell do I spend all my time with?”
“You never told me!”
“Because the minute I told you, you would be trying to make it more than just friends. You’re my best friend. I care very much about you. I would kill to protect you. But I don’t think of you in any way that includes kissing and sex and all that shit.”
“You could grow to love me.”
“No! Don’t do that! I feel how I feel. This is like food. I like broccoli and peas and spinach. I hate lima beans and Brussel sprouts. I love corn on the cob. Peas will never make me love them like I love corn on the cob. It just never, never is going to happen.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“It makes as much sense as you not being happy that I care very, very, much for you but I don’t love you. Not in the way you want me to. And I warn you, that if you screw up my wedding, I will not protect you from my mother. Trust me. She will hurt you very much if you do anything to mess it up. She has been planning this since she came home from her sonogram knowing she was going to have a girl. Nearly twenty-seven years! She will skin you alive if you fuck with it. That means on my wedding day you will be sober, properly dressed, and not draw any attention to yourself in any way. Anything else and you will be on her shit list. She will make you suffer. If you’re still alive.”
He fidgeted in that guilty way he had when she busted him before he could pull off something stupid or embarrassing. Jane pointed at him.
“I don’t know what is going through that mealy little brain of yours, but if you plan anything to mess this up on purpose, I swear to God, I will tell Dmitri to find someone else to be your producer.”
He looked properly horrified. “No. No, no. Not that! You’ve never threatened that before.”
“I love Taggart. But more importantly, this is the first thing in six years that I’ve asked you to do for me. Six years of all about Hal. I have cleaned up your vomit. I have kept you safe. I have made you the biggest name in Pittsburgh. I have made you part of my family. You betray me after all that—it’s over.”
He rocked back as if she hit him. “I—I—I’m going for a walk.”
Which meant he was heading for the nearest bar.
“No.” She pointed sternly at the abandoned stools in front of the microphones in the next room. “You’re going to sit down and record voice overs. You have your fans to think of.”
Hal hunched his shoulders, rocking in place. “I’m not that shallow. I can’t keep going just for some ego stroking by adoring fans.”
“Hal, right now your fans need you like air. No one is telling the whole truth. Not the elves. Not the EIA. Not the mayor’s office. Lives are on the line. Pittsburgh needs you to keep your shit together and tell the truth. Tell it loudly. Tell it bravely. Hal’s Heroes starts with you being a hero so that others know it can be done.”
“I’m only brave with you.”
“I’m going to be right behind you. Always.”
He stared at the floor, panting as if he was running.
She felt so bad for him but there was nothing she could do, not even break up with Taggart. Hal wanted something from her that she couldn’t give. If she could feel that way about him, something would have clicked in the last six years.
“Promise?” He whispered. “You’re not going to Earth with him?”
He shuffled back to the live room. He dragged one of the stools closer to the microphone. He sniffed several times as if he was crying. “I’m Hal Rogers.” His voice cracked with emotions. He took a deep breath and tried again. “I’m Hal Rogers, and this is Monsters in Our Midst.”
“A dark time has fallen on us. It is hard not to feel lost and alone. To feel that we are just one against a growing number of monsters.” He took a deep breath. “Take heart. Do not be afraid. Since the time that our ancestors climbed down out of the trees, picked up sticks, and stood against the many predators lurking in the shadows, our greatest strength has been our numbers. It is not coincidence that the most feared hunters are the ones that gather into in groups. The pride of lions. The pack of wolves.”
He faltered and glanced up at control booth. He couldn’t see Jane in the dark room beyond the glass, but he knew that she was there. “You are not alone. All about you are people who will stand with you. Your friends. Your family—both of blood and of your own making. Your neighbors. We are mighty.”
He stood up, growing more sure of himself. “When I say ‘we’ I don’t just mean those of you that sink your roots deep in Pittsburgh. Those of you whose family were here before the Startup, who called Pittsburgh home for generations, who came to Pittsburgh when steel furnaces roared through the night. ‘We’ are all the ‘people’ within the sound of my voice. The Pitt students in Oakland. The scientists gathered on Observatory Hill. The EIA personnel scattered through the city. The elves who live at the enclaves. ‘We’ are everyone who is willing to reach out their hand, clasp tight to their fellow beings, and stand strong against the monsters.”
He clenched his fist and raised it. “We are one people! Indivisible! That is our strength. We must not let out foes divide us. We are Pittsburgh. We are strong. We are not alone.”
I worked at the Carnegie Museum in the 1990s prior to the birth of my son. It was a wonderful but odd place to work. I was down in the basement, near the Big Bone Room and the Little Bone Room (I kid you not.) All the administrative offices were tucked all over the place, so directions were often given as “go past the globe, turn at the Dodo, take the door under the golden eagle.” Yes, the “secret door” to the library was there when I worked at the museum.
For those who are trying to figure out where the wyvern is within the museum, I made the assumption that they enclosed the Scaife outdoor sculpture court with two entrances into the area, one through the Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibit and the other via the stairs in the modern art wing.
Windwolf crashed a skylight into the museum toward the end of Wolf Who Rules and found it under construction. Riki led him down into the basement beside the fossil café. Originally I thought the dinosaur exhibit had a skylight but I couldn’t verify it since the book was written back when the volume of information you could find on the Internet was much less. I can now see that no, while the gallery is quite tall, it doesn’t have a skylight. I decided that the skylight is the glass ceiling of the Hall of Architecture. The reader must ignore the speed at which Windwolf and Riki arrive at the steps leading down. Say it’s because Windwolf is unfamiliar with the museum and not because the author landed him in the wrong part of building . . .
Copyright © 2022 by Wen Spencer
John W. Campbell Award Winner Wen Spencer resides in paradise in Hilo, Hawaii, with two volcanoes overlooking her home. Her novel Tinker won the 2003 Sapphire Award for Best Science Fiction Romance and was a finalist for the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Fantasy Novel. "Monsters in our Midst" is set in her popular The Elfhome series, which includes Tinker, Wolf Who Rules, Elfhome, Wood Sprites, Project Elfhome—and the upcoming Harbinger.