I answered the phone, and Susan Rodriguez said, “They’ve taken our daughter.”
I sat there for a long five count, swallowed, and said, “Um. What?”
“You heard me, Harry,” Susan said gently.
“Oh,” I said. “Um.”
“The line isn’t secure,” she said. “I’ll be in town tonight. We can talk then.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay.”
“Harry…” she said. “I’m not… I never wanted to…” She cut the words off with an impatient sigh. I heard a voice over the loudspeaker in the background, saying something in Spanish. “We’ll have time for that later. The plane is boarding. I’ve got to go. About twelve hours.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll… I’ll be here.”
She hesitated, as if about to say something else, but then she hung up.
I sat there with the phone against my ear. After a while, it started making that double-speed busy-signal noise.
She said our daughter.
I hung the phone up. Or tried. I missed the base. The receiver clattered to the floor.
Mouse, my big, shaggy grey dog, rose up from his usual napping spot in the tiny kitchenette my basement apartment boasted, and came trotting over to sit down at my feet, staring up at me with dark, worried doggy eyes. After a moment, he made a little huffing sound, then carefully picked the receiver up in his jaws and settled it onto the base. Then he went back to staring worriedly at me.
“I…” I paused, trying to get my head around the concept. “I… I might have a child.”
Mouse made an uncertain, high-pitched noise.
“Yeah. How do you think I feel?” I stared at the far wall. Then I stood up and reached for my coat. “I… think I need a drink,” I said. I nodded, focusing on nothing. “Yeah. Something like this… yeah.”
Mouse made a distressed noise and rose.
“Sure,” I told him. “You can come. Hell, maybe you can drive me home or something.”
I got honked at a lot on the way to McAnally’s. I didn’t care. I made it without crashing into anyone. That’s the important thing, right? I pulled my battered, trusty old Volkswagen Bug over into the little parking lot next to Mac’s place. I started inside.
Mouse made a whuffing sound.
I looked over my shoulder. I’d left the car door open. The big dog nosed it closed.
“Thanks,” I said.
We went into the pub.
Mac’s place looks like Cheers after a mild apocalypse. There are thirteen wooden pillars irregularly spaced around the room, holding up the roof. They’re all carved with scenes of Old World fairy tales, some of them amusing, more of them sinister. There are thirteen ceiling fans spinning lazily throughout the place, and the irregularly shaped, polished wooden bar has thirteen stools. There are thirteen tables in the room, placed in no specific pattern.
“There’re a lot of thirteens in here,” I said to myself.
It was about two thirty in the afternoon. No one was in the pub except for me and the dog–oh, and Mac. Mac is a man of medium height and medium build, with thick, bony wrists and a shining smooth pate that never showed signs of growing in. He could be anywhere between thirty and fifty and, as always, he was wearing a spotless white apron.
Mouse stared intently at Mac for a moment. Then he abruptly sat down in the entryway at the top of the little stairs, turned around once, and settled down by the door, his chin on his paws.
Mac glanced toward us. “Harry.”
I shambled over to the bar. Mac produced a bottle of one of his microbrews, but I shook my head. “Um. I’d say, ‘Whiskey, Mac,’ but I don’t know if you have any whiskey. I need something strong, I think.”
Mac raised his eyebrows and blinked at me. You’ve got to know the guy. He was practically screaming. But he poured me a drink of something light gold in a little glass, and I drank it. It burned. I wheezed a little, and then tapped a finger next to the glass.
Mac refilled it, frowning at me.
I drank the second glass more slowly. It still hurt going down. The pain gave me something to focus on. Thoughts started to coagulate around it, and then to crystallize into definite shape.
Susan had called me. She was on the way.
And we had a child.
And she had never told me.
Susan had been a reporter for a yellow rag that covered supernatural news. Most of the people who worked there thought they were publishing fiction, but Susan had clued in to the supernatural world on her own, and we’d crossed trails and verbal swords several times before we’d gotten together. We hadn’t been together a terribly long time–a little less than two years. We were both young and we made each other happy.
Maybe I should have known better. If you don’t stand on the sidelines and ignore the world around you, sooner or later you make enemies. One of mine, a vampire named Bianca, had abducted Susan and infected her with the blood thirst of the Red Court. Susan hadn’t gone all the way over–but if she ever lost control of herself, ever took another’s lifeblood, she would.
She left me, afraid that if she didn’t, I’d be the kill that turned her into a monster, and set out into the world to find some way to cope.
I told myself that she had good reason to do so, but reason and heartbreak don’t speak the same language. I’d never really forgiven myself for what had happened to her. I guess reason and guilt don’t speak the same language, either.
It was probably a damned good thing I had gone into shock, because I could feel emotions that were stirring somewhere deep inside me, gathering power like a storm far out to sea. I couldn’t see them. I could only feel their effects, but it was enough to know that whatever was rising inside me was potent. Violent. Dangerous. Mindless rage got people killed every day. But for me, it might be worse.
I’m a professional wizard.
I can make a lot more things happen than most people.
Magic and emotions are tied up inextricably. I’ve been in battle before, and felt the terror and rage of that kind of place, where it’s a fight just to think clearly through the simplest problems. I’d used my magic in those kinds of volatile circumstances–and a few times, I’d seen it run wild as a result. When most people lose control of their anger, someone gets hurt. Maybe someone even gets killed. When it happens to a wizard, insurance companies go broke and there’s reconstruction afterward.
What was stirring in me now made those previous feelings of battle rage seem like anemic kittens.
“I’ve got to talk to someone,” I heard myself say quietly. “Someone with some objectivity, perspective. I’ve got to get my head straight before things go to hell.”
Mac leaned on the bar and looked at me.
I cradled the glass in my hand and said quietly, “You remember Susan Rodriguez?”
“She says that someone took our daughter. She says she’ll be here late tonight.”
Mac inhaled and exhaled slowly. Then he picked up the bottle and poured himself a shot. He sipped at it.
“I loved her,” I said. “Maybe love her still. And she didn’t tell me.”
“She could be lying.”
“I’ve been used before. And I’m a sucker for a girl.”
“Yes,” he said.
I gave him an even look. He smiled slightly.
“She’d be… six? Seven?” I shook my head. “I can’t even do the math right now.”
Mac pursed his lips. “Hard thing.”
I finished the second glass. Some of the sharper edges had gotten softer. Mac touched a finger to the bottle, watching me. I shook my head.
“She could be lying to me,” I said quietly. “If she’s not… then…”
Mac closed his eyes briefly and nodded.
“Then there’s this little girl in trouble,” I said. I felt my jaw clench, and the storm inside me threatened to come boiling up. I pushed it down. “My little girl.”
He nodded again.
“Don’t know if I ever told you,” I said. “I was an orphan.”
Mac watched me silently.
“There were times when… when it was bad. When I wanted someone to come save me. I wished for it so hard. Dreaming of… of not being alone. And when someone finally did come, he turned out to be the biggest monster of all.” I shook my head. “I won’t let that happen to my child.”
Mac folded his arms on the bar and looked at me intently and said, in a resonant baritone. “You’ve got to be very careful, Harry.”
I looked at him, shocked. He’d… used grammar.
“Something like this will test you like nothing else,” Mac said. “You’re going to find out who you are, Harry. You’re going to find out which principles you’ll stand by to your death–and which lines you’ll cross.” He took my empty glass away and said, “You’re heading into the badlands. It’ll be easy to get lost.”
I watched him in stunned silence as he finished his drink. He grimaced, as though it hurt his throat on the way down. Maybe he’d strained his voice, using it so much.
I stared down at my hands for a moment. Then I said, “Steak sandwich. And something for the pooch.”
He grunted in the affirmative and started cooking. He took his time about it, divining my intentions with a bartender’s instincts. I didn’t feel like eating, but I had a little time to kill while the buzz faded.
He put my sandwich down in front of me. Then he took a bowl with some bones and some meat out to Mouse, along with a bowl of water. I ate my sandwich and idly noted that Mac never carried food out to anyone. Guess he was a dog person.
I ate my sandwich slowly and paid Mac.
“Thanks,” I said.
He nodded. “Luck.”
I got up and headed back for the car. Mouse followed beside me, his eyes lifted, watching me to see what I would do. I marshaled my thoughts. I had to be careful. I had to be wary. I had to keep my eyes open. I had to keep the storm inside me from exploding, because the only thing I knew for certain was that someone–maybe Susan, maybe my enemies–was trying to manipulate me.
Either way, Mac was right.
I was heading into the badlands.