This is the continuing story of the Succubi called Storm Clouds…
More editing of Chapter 13 this week, the last of it, before Chapter 14 starts next week and Tom discovers that Camilla made a promise she shouldn’t have made…
Storm Clouds 77
Tom leaned against a tree watching as Brent played with his children next to a small fountain with a soaring angel in the center. He was puzzled by what the fountain was supposed to mean, and that showed on his face. After all, who would expect an angel motif in a place that didn’t seem to have a lot of angel-looking beings in it?
Camilla came around from behind the fountain, carrying a small box in her hands. When she came close to Tom, she asked if he had eaten anything. When he didn’t answer, she simply put a wrapped sandwich in his hands and, with a nod of her head, directed him to have a seat at a picnic table nearby.
After getting settled, Tom watched as she began to pick at a salad. As he unwrapped the sandwich, he asked, “Something bothering you?”
She paused and then began, “What bothers me, Thomas, is that I have lost a Sister. I suffer for that. But that’s nothing compared to Brent and his children.”
Tom picked out a slice of tomato, “How bad is it for Brent?”
She poked the fork into the salad with some force, “If he didn’t have the children, I am sure that he would … be no more.”
Tom considered that as he took a bite, “He’s still here. So are the kids. And you. He doesn’t strike me as the type to put a bullet to his head and end it all. Sorry, Camilla, I’m not going to dwell on that.”
“Heartless, aren’t you Thomas? Or is that just a means to protect yourself?”
Tom reached into a pocket of his jacket and tossed a small notebook onto the table between them: “Haven’t the time to dwell right now Camilla. Brent gave me a list of people that had something against him. I can look into the ones who are people. You game to grill the ones who aren’t?”
She turned the notebook around and opened the cover. After a moment she whistled: “I would not have guessed at any of these.”
Tom wiped his lips with a napkin, “How bad are the names you recognize? The ones I do are lousy, but I can take most of them from the list. I’m looking for a killer, and most of them are playboys, play-toys and thrill seekers. They don’t qualify.”
Another bite. “Three of them I’ll have to grill.”
She considered him, “At least your list is a short one. From this side I can see ten times that many creatures and things who would have loved to be the one to have done this…”
Tom shook his head, “Not love, Camilla. Need.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Tom explained, “Some people would love to get an advantage over someone else. That’s a wish, a hope and nothing more. Then there are those that need to get that revenge or whatever else they see it as. They have the power to do so, and more so, they wouldn’t be stopped by anything to get it. That’s need.”
She started back at the beginning of the list again, her fingers tracing down the names. Then she said, “Two that we can get to; one that I would not touch with a ten foot pole and an army of hellhounds behind me.”
Arching an eyebrow, he asked, “That bad?”
She shrugged, “Worse. We’ll need help to see that one.”
Tom considered his sandwich, “You know something? I am more inclined to believe that whoever did this is on your turf rather than mine.”
Raising her fork, she explained, “It can be that someone, as you say, on our turf started this, but you don’t understand how things work in your world. You see, Thomas, while some creatures like us can exist there and interact with your people, there are so many more that need an anchor, something or someone to believe in them and give them purchase in your world. Without that they can’t do anything physical.”
Confused, Tom just nodded for her to continue.
“Magic is thin in your world now. Creatures that once thrived in your world now can’t exist there. Oh they can look in, try to whisper thoughts and ideas into people’s minds and see what happens, but, without someone who believes, like a wizard, mage, or witch… they can’t actually do anything there.”
“Then how do you all manage to be there?”
She smiled, “Sex is a powerful thing. Love more so. If you are intimately connected with both of those, then crossing over isn’t a hard thing to do.”
He nodded slowly, “Base desires and overwhelming needs are the gateway to the soul or something?”
They were quiet for a time until Tom said, “I need to get back, get on and see those names. Can you check your list and … ?”
She shook her head, “No. You are stuck with me for the moment, Thomas. You can do your investigating there and then we’ll both see what happens.”
He frowned, “Are you telling me that I am going to have to go with you to see what you are afraid of seeing?”
“Afraid doesn’t mean I will not go there. But here’s the thing: you are a detective. You know how to ask questions and, moreover, you see more than I do. I think that you asking the questions of them will get us further than I can alone. Besides which, you have one power over them that I don’t.”
Tom looked shocked: “Power? I got nothing.”
Camilla gave a small shake of her head, “You have free will. You have the ability to choose. Most of the creatures we will have to see do not have that luxury. They are connected to other beings in ways that make them what they are. You however … you don’t have that flaw.”
He sighed, “No. I have the flaw that makes me always do the right thing.”
She munched on her salad, “That’s not a flaw. It’s a gift.”
A small smile, “Some gift.”
She just prodded her salad, “Better than most. Count your blessings Thomas.”
Tom chewed on that, and on his sandwich before asking, “Tell me something. Why is it that you always speak to me so formally? It’s always Thomas, not Tom. Come to think of it, I haven’t heard any of you use nicknames or shortened names, for that matter.”
“Manners count, Thomas.”
He gave her a look, “Well I can understand that, Mom always said that having a civil tongue was timportant, but…”
She shook her head, “No buts about it. You can get further with a kind word than with a foul one.”
Tom’s smile was just this side of wicked, “You can get further still with a kind word and a two-by-four.”
“Oh so you have met Tera before, then?”
A similar smile appeared, “You sound a lot like her when she’s in a mood, you know.”
Tom stuck the last of the sandwich in his mouth and mumbled, “Probably why she liked me.”
Taking the list back from Camilla, Tom reviewed it again trying to decide who he would try to see first. Running his finger down the list he tapped one name, “Okay. I think I want to start to get on the bad side of the big names in the city.”
Camilla put her fork down and opened her purse. Taking out a small business card, she handed it to him, “Take this. Some places, your badge won’t get you far. This will open those doors for you.”
Tom considered the card. It wasn’t made of paper. It was a solid piece of silver made into a business card. Written on it was a short line of gold text: He’s doing me a favour. And then a single handwritten letter “T”.
“You can’t be serious.”
Camilla finished the last of her salad with the reply, “Try it. But only as a last resort, okay?”
Deciding that this wasn’t a card to be thrust into a pocket to be crushed, he took out the billfold that held his badge and placed the card into the pocket on the other side of it. Snapping it shut, he replied, “Well, it might as well be next to that piece of tin, to keep it company.”
Camilla picked up what was left of the meal they had shared and tossed it into a bin nearby. Motioning to Tom, she led him to Brent and the children where she said her goodbyes to them. She spoke with Brent quietly for a moment before turning to the kids and giving them a long loving hug.
Tom knelt down to look into the kids eyes and said, “Look after your Dad, okay, kids?” The answer was just a shy nod from them both before they ran over to their father and hid behind him. Tom stood up and offered his hand to Brent, “Do her proud right?”
Brent shook the offered hand with a firm grip, “I will. Watch your back out there, Thomas. Not all things are exactly what they seem.”
Releasing his grip, Tom said, “Rarely is. But sometimes you see exactly what is there, Brent.”
He then turned away and walked to Camilla: “Let’s go. Time’s a-wastin.”
It was a short walk until they were out of sight of Brent and the children. Then Camilla’s horns and tail reappeared as she drew a pattern in the air. Moments later and a portal appeared.
“I don’t think I will ever get used to that.”
She laughed, “Be happy you don’t have to deal with a Tail.”
“Seriously: what exactly does that mean?”
Camilla just smiled as they passed through the portal and it closed after them, leaving a small whirlwind of dust in their wake.
Leaves fluttered around in the afternoon breeze moving here and there aimlessly until finally they came to rest on the green lawn beneath them. The chairs had long been taken away, the place where people had gathered to say goodbye was a plain open space once again.
Then, with a flash of light, a portal opened there, once again making the leaves spin and fly around until it vanished, revealing two figures standing there. Tom and Camilla had returned to the place their journey had begun earlier that day.
Tom looked around, “Looks like they all left without us.”
Camilla brushed some leaves from her hair, “What needed to be said was. Tera would have thanked them, comforted some of them, and reminded them that life needed to be lived.”
“She’s a theologian, too?”
A small giggle, “She is who she is.”
Tom paused for a moment to look at the scene around him, still not quite believing all that he had seen before offering his arm to Camilla, “We’d better get going.”
She held up a finger towards him to wait and then, to Tom’s surprise, her body and clothing shimmered. If looked as if she was underwater for a moment and then it vanished. Camilla stood there, no horns, no tail, and now wearing a blue sweater and jeans.
“You must save a lot of money on clothes with that stunt.”
As she took his arm, a wink and the words, “Well fashion is important to a girl you know.”
Together they walked side by side from the backyard, through the ground level, and out the front doors of the brownstone building.
As they passed through the front yard, they could see Tera, sitting on a balcony, high up on the third floor of the building. She was in the same dress she had worn for the ceremony that morning, looking concerned with what was going on and why someone would threaten her own. She rested on a wrought iron chair, a small table with some papers upon it beside that.
She watched as Tom and Camilla hailed a passing cab and then entered it. Tom was the last to enter, pausing for a moment to look back at Tera.
He touched two fingers to his left temple and then nodded to her. Tera’s reply was the raising of the tea cup towards him and a nod in return. As the cab left, she continued to pick apart what she had learned from those that had attended this morning, and, even more so, those that had not.
Someone was threatening her own; that was concerning, but, moreover, the reason why escaped her for the moment. Still, she had found someone to search the mortal realm, and she had placed with him someone who could help to protect him.
She hoped that wouldn’t be necessary …
As she sipped the cup of tea in her hand, a voice broke her thoughts: “Why are we doing nothing?”
Placing the cup on the table, she answered, “We are doing something. The old ways are long gone: we cannot simply strike without aim. Our kind is better and smarter than that. Come here, Daughter … It is not seemly to hide in the shadows and seethe in anger …”
A snort of derision was the only answer until Jane came into view. She walked past Tera and stared off into the city around them. Crossing her arms over her chest, she began to rant, “You place your trust in a human, someone who has no idea what he faces. You ask one of your own to look after that human and, moreover, you tell her to submit to his will. How can you do this?”
“I can …”
“That is not an answer.”
“Of course it is, Daughter. It is the very first lesson I learned, so long ago. I can believe in others. I can trust in others. That is the first lesson in knowing yourself and what you can do.”
Jane gripped the railing until her knuckles were white, the anger within her so very clear as she twisted her hands against the cold steel. Looking over towards Tera, she remarked, “I don’t believe that Brent told us the truth.”
“I know he has. For what reason would be lie about his Eternal? Just because you do not understand does not make his words false…”
“You have trust, Tera. I do not. I buried my twin today. I have lost a part of myself that … I should have known she was in danger and helped her … I couldn’t. I want someone to pay for this. I want to be there to strip skin from bones and cause an eternity of suffering for this.”
Tera’s sigh was long and sad, “Have you forgotten all that you have learned Jane? Are you really so willing to fall into darkness for this? You are still young in our ways, but you know well that what you ask for… cannot be.”
Jane didn’t look towards Tera, “I should have been there.”
“You could not, Daughter … You were not in a place to help her. No one was. She was targeted by someone or something that wants something from us.”
Jane continued to fume, “Then strike back against them… all of them… Tera, just send out the Syreen. They are hunters. They will find the ones responsible and make them pay.”
Tera picked up the cup, “All right, Daughter. Who shall we send them against? The humans for being here? Those beneath who wish us harm? Those above who cannot understand us?”
A sip of the tea and then, “Being vague would mean that you condemn all around you to the same fate, a fate that they do not deserve. The ones who did this? They will be found and then taught the error of their attack on us; but only when I have proof, and not a moment sooner.”
That made Jane pause for a moment, her thoughts putting what Tera had said together with something she had read that morning. Looking to the grass below, she whispered, “I saw a story in the newspaper today. It mentioned the place where Brent had been. It said that a man had been seen leaving the place before the fire started.”
Tera shook her head slightly as if to say no, but then she brushed a finger over her lips before answering, “That would mean someone else was there, obviously. Then the question to be asked is: what was he there for and what, if anything, does he have to do with what happened there?”
Another whisper from Jane: “Or Brent is lying about what happened.”
Jane heard the cup settle upon the table and then… silence.
That silence extended for a time and then, to Jane’s surprise, she felt a hand take hold of her right wrist and begin to pull her into the building, the tea cup on the table tumbling into space as she was forced inside and out of sight of the surrounding world.
When she turned around, she saw Tera standing there with her red horns and tail visible. The tail pointed at Jane as harsh words passed through the air: “If you see an error in my ways, Daughter, say so. If you feel that I am wrong, prove it. If you have a better idea, show me. If all you have is opinion and anger, you do me and your Sister not a single bit of good.”
Tera closed the distance between them, pressing Jane against the wall behind her in fear of her Queen’s wrath. She closed her eyes, waiting for the strike of a hand against her cheek and the words of displeasure she knew were to come.
But instead, she felt a brush of fingertips against that cheek and then, for a moment, all she could do was listen to Tera’s words as her body refused to move under that touch …
“How do you think I feel, Jane? How do you think I feel when one of you is harmed? How much more do I suffer when one of you dies? How much worse is it when that is for no good reason? You talk of the pain you have for Patricia’s passing in your heart. As her mother, do you not think I share that?”
Jane couldn’t look at her. For the first time since she had become one of Tera’s she felt ashamed for disappointing her. A tremble in her voice revealed her fear as she asked, “Mother… have… have I disappointed you?”
She found her head turned towards Tera, and could not resist the power behind that. Tera’s voice was soft again, “You have not disappointed me Daughter… Am I worried? Yes. Do I fear for you? Always. But you have not disappointed me. That would take far more than some anger towards me.”
Jane’s eyes fell upon Tera, seeing a soft smile on her lips and the love of a mother in her eyes. She felt Tera’s fingers stroke against her skin and then, unbidden, tears began to fall across that cheek, wetting the fingers that remained there. Jane managed a sob, “I …”
The sob was answered by a soft hush and the words, “Do not let the need for revenge or the hate that comes with it cloud your judgment …”
Jane whimpered the truth, “I can’t, Tera … I just can’t …”
“I know… I’ve been there before…”
She felt a tail wrap around her legs, and then she was in Tera’s embrace, the tears coming without end …
… and Tera just telling her to let it all out …
The cab ride was a quiet one for Camilla and Tom. When he started to ask her a question, she would either shake her head slightly or give his arm a little poke with a finger trying to get him to stop asking the question. Tom understood why she wouldn’t want to talk about her kind, or world, or anything else that was related to things normal people wouldn’t understand. But he couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t talk about her job, her life in the city, or anything else except the weather.
He noticed that she seemed to watch the driver intently for some reason he couldn’t figure out. This driver was a short, slightly pudgy man with a bald spot in his dirty brown hair. Tom also noted–by looking in the rear view mirror–that he was wearing mirrored sunglasses and seemed to be chewing on something.
Tom filed that information away and then returned to watching the city pass by. His thoughts turned to where they were going and, more importantly, the person that he… they were going to meet. It wasn’t really someone he wanted to see, but then there was no choice in the matter. He had to start someplace, and this was as good a place as any other.
The cab eventually stopped in front of an old, broken-down-looking warehouse on the south side of the city. It was placed on the edge of the piers near the shipping port there, a place that Tom didn’t know that well …
… but he knew of the people they were going to see.
The cab left after Camilla paid the fare. She was very insistent on getting a receipt for it and, when Tom asked her why, the answer was: “I am on company time, after all. They can pay for it.”
After the cab had left he asked, “What was the problem in the cab?”
“You couldn’t know, Thomas, but the cab driver was a troll.”
“Okaaay. Are you taking about things that live under bridges and ask for a toll to cross?”
“The same. They figured out that cab driving would fill in their role in life. That particular cab, and company, are owned by trolls. Have to be careful around them,Thomas; those that know about them also know they can obtain useful information from them.”
Tom rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, “It’s a real different world looking through your eyes.”
She tilted her head to the right, “Sorry, Thomas, but there are many things out there that you are not aware of and need to be. I said I would watch your back for things I know of … just doing what you asked of me.”
Seeing the practicality in that view, Tom nodded and then looked towards their destination, “Right. Welcome to the seedy underbelly of our fine city. In here, you will find an assortment of motley characters who would be happy stabbing you in either the back or the chest, whichever happens to be closer to them.”
“How nice … I shall have to send them a pie sometime …”
Tom just looked at Camilla: was she kidding? Then he realized that she was putting up a good front for him so that he wouldn’t worry about her. Taking the lead, he replied, “Let me do the talking here,okay?”
She just nodded and followed one step behind and to Tom’s right …
Opening the door and entering the warehouse, the pair found themselves in a small open area with a low railing surrounding it. It was large enough to have a couple of chairs by the door, a water cooler next to that, and–taking up almost all of the rest–a single large old wooden desk that faced the door. Beyond the railing, the interior of the warehouse was shaded in darkness, save for the few places where overhead lights burned with a low buzzing sound, illuminating the rows and aisles below.
Behind the desk was a red-headed young man. He wore a pair of overalls with the name “Billy” stitched onto a patch over his heart. He was more interested in the newspaper on his desk than the people who had entered, and, for a few moments,he just continued to read it and ignore them.
Seeing a bell on the desk, Tom struck it once, the sound being swallowed up in the depths of the warehouse. Billy looked up then: “Yah? You here ta pick somethin’ up?”
“We’d like to speak to the owner, please.”
“He tain’t in. Mebby be here next month ‘n’ you’ll have more luck.”
Tom was about to get a bit rough when he heard Camilla move behind him and then, to his surprise, the sound of the water cooler bubbling as water was taken from it. He turned to see Camilla taking one of the seats and sipping at the paper cup she now held in her hand. Tom had a small smile on his face then as he answered, “Well, that’ll be fine. My associate will wait here and I’ll just step outside and tell the SWAT team to start coming in.”
With that, Tom turned and strode to the door. His hand had begun to turn the handle when he heard a new, gruff voice behind him, “Y’all don’t need be getting out of hand here, ‘tective. The boy’s jus’ doing his job.”
Tom’s smile became larger when he had turned back and saw the newcomer. He greeted him with a chuckle: “Nice to know that I’m remembered, old friend.”
From the shadows appeared a man who didn’t fit the voice. He was dressed to the nines in a three-piece black suit that looked to be worth a small fortune on its own. A slender man, he looked almost frail, but Tom knew that under that exterior was a fighter. Dusky-haired, his piercing grey eyes belied an intelligence that many missed in dealing with him. He passed through a gate and then stopped in front of Tom, offering his hand: “Nice ta see ya Tommy. Been what? Five years?”
Tom took the hand in his and gave it a firm shake, “Seven. You left the force and turned into a man about town, Bill. Just don’t run in those circles.” Tom released the hand and then motioned for Camilla to join them. He explained, “This is Camilla. She’s new.”
She smiled and offered her hand, “Very nice to meet a friend of Thomas’.”
Bill took the hand and, to Tom’s surprise, kissed it in the old-fashioned way before releasing it, “I’m sure Tommy dun’ know how lucky he is. C’mon in; Lil’ Billy can watch the store while we talk.”
After passing through the gate, Tom struck up a conversation: “That’s Billy? Really? How old is he now?”
“Eighteen. Smart lil’ bugger. Mebby smarter than me at that age. Boy’s been running this place for the last coupla years. Proud of ‘im.”
“You should be. Wish I would have known that I would have found him here, wouldn’t have been such a hard ass.”
“Good for the boy. Builds character ‘n’ all that crap. Sorry Ma’am.”
Camilla laughed softly, “No offense taken, I promise.”
The three of them walked the length of the warehouse until they stopped at a large,glassed-in office space. It looked like the typical business office: computers, filing cabinets, rows of desks within cubicles. As they passed through, the occasional “Good morning, Sir” was greeted with a nod or a gruff “Mornin’” from Bill. The three entered a large office that had a nameplate on the door declaring to the world that“Mr. Shipping” was within.
Bill took his leather chair behind the desk as he motioned to Tom and Camilla to have a seat on the leather sofa nearby. After cracking his knuckles, Bill asked: “So what’s gotcha in here, Tommy?”
“I’m looking into a murder. Happened a couple of days ago. I hate to say it, Bill, but you are one of the people under investigation.”
The look of surprise was followed by: “Funny. Now, fer real; why ya here?”
“I’m not joking, Bill. The wife of a reporter was killed last night. Stabbed in the back;brutal, ugly mess. The investigation so far points at a small number of names,and you are on it.”
Bill rocked back in his chair and then tapped his right hand against the arm of the chair before saying, “Ya mean that rag reporter that goes around pokin’ into other people’s business, right?”
Tom nodded, “Read about it?”
A grunt. “Ya. Decided that going to the funeral wuz no good. Me and that hack dun’like each other. Pissed me off coupla’ years ago. Still am.”
“Have to tell me about it. You know the drill.”
Another grunt: “Right. Traci died after Billy was born. Didn’t think about anything but Billy till he got out of school. Managed that coupla’ years ago. Billy gave me a yellin’ to and told me ta get out there and find somebody cause I wuz a mess. Wuz right. Had put everythin’ into the business for so long after I left the force. Couldn’t stay in the force cause of … ya know.”
Tom nodded, “Still don’t believe that was your fault, Bill. Never have.”
He smiled, “I remember. Never forgot, either. Met a girl. Nice, proper, classy. Was doin’ well and finally I was gonna pop the question to her. Was in that old barbershop on 22nd–you know the one–talkin’ to the barber about why I wanted ta look purty, and in the next chair wuz that hack. Spilled the beans in his rag the next day. Took her to a nice place that night and, when I asked her, the newshounds were there, snapping pictures and shoving questions at us. Made a mess of it. Pissed me off. She ran off and I took a swing at him, knocked him to the floor, gave ‘im a busted nose, and that got into the papers, too.”
Tom sighed, “You always had a short fuse, buddy.”
“Yeah. Spent the next year suing the rag, him, coupla others. Called in some favors and made his life … rough.”
Bill leaned forward in the chair and brushed the top of his desk before answering, “I wanted him to know that I was pissed. So some of the boyz from the docks followed him and tried to scare him. Didn’t work. Tough bastard.”
“Did you kill her?”
The look of hurt in Bill’s eyes spoke volumes before the words did, “Nah. Tommy, I couldn’t, wouldn’t ever raise a hand to hurt a lady. Any lady. If one of the boyz did this. they know that I’d hurt them and then, if they lived, they’d be in jail where friends of mine would make sure that they’d never get out alive.”
Tom looked over at Camilla to see that she had a look of shock and disbelief in her eyes.
Bill continued, “Ma’am, ya need to understand that, in this business, you have to look tough and be tough or they walk all over ya. I am a hard ass, I can be a bastard and more, but I got honor in me. Some stuff is sacred.”
Camilla asked, “Did you ever see her again?”
Bill looked at the desk, “Still talkin’ to her. She’s shy, pretty ’n’ stuff; see her in quiet places so that she dun’ have that happen again.”
“But you did not give up? Even after two years?”
Pointing to his head, Bill replied: “Too hard-headed, Ma’am.
Camilla smiled, “Not that … you love her so … Do not give up on her, please.”
“Only if she gives up on me, Ma’am”
Tom broke in, “Bill, have to ask you something. Of all of your people, is there anyone that might have done this?”
Billy’s voice came into the room from behind, “Me. Y’all better talk to me, too.”
Tom turned to look at him, “Hello, Billy. Come on in and have a chair; maybe you can explain exactly what you mean?”
Billy leaned against the door jamb looking not at Tom, but Camilla. She turned to face him and then asked, “Something wrong, Billy?”
He looked away and then said, “Nuthin’. You look like someone.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
Camilla stood up and walked over to Billy. She took his right hand in hers and then started walking out of the room with Billy in tow, saying as she did, “We’ll be outside.”
Once she had him out of the office she asked, “You want to find someplace quiet to talk?”
She could see the blush on his cheeks as he mumbled something and then started walking out of the office and then out a door to the outside. It led to the pier behind the warehouse. Ships would often be tied up there, loading and unloading, but, for the moment, there was nothing and no one around. Billy guided her to a wooden bench against the warehouse wall and, after brushing off some dirt there,said, “Sorry t’ain’t cleaner.”
Camilla just smiled and took the offered spot, “Nothing to be sorry about, Billy. I promise I won’t break.” She straightened out her dress and watched him pace back and forth for a few minutes before she asked, “You are not to blame, are you?”
“No. No, Ma’am I didn’t. I coulda. Know enough bad people on the docks to have that happen. No. Wouldn’t”
“You are your father’s son.”
“Am, Ma’am. All he has is me and this place. Nothin’ more. I told him ta meet someone ’n’ he did, but that guy screwed my old man up. Now he’s afraid of stuff and won’t try again.”
Camilla was quiet for a time and then said, “Who do I remind you of, Billy?”
A sigh: “Sort of look like Mom in the pictures.”
“Come here, please.”
Billy resisted for a time, trying to be brave in front of a woman, not wanting to look weak, but finally he sat down beside Camilla before putting his hands over his eyes, “Ya know the thing, Ma’am? When it happened, I did want ta kill that guy for it. He’s got a wife, a family, and he messes up what we coulda had.”
“Your Mom wouldn’t be happy with you if you did. Your father brought you up right and I think you would never disappoint him. So why are you both so violently opposed to Brent? Why would your father be a suspect in this?”
Billy put his fists together and then rested his chin on them before managing the words, “They say he killed a woman when he was a cop, Ma’am. He couldn’t prove he didn’t, they couldn’t prove he did. So they gave him a pink slip and showed him the door.”
Camilla stroked her hand against Billy’s arm, “Thomas seems to think that your father is innocent. But he has to ask the questions and get answers to clear him, you know. The same is true of you. But you know something?”
He looked at her. “Wha’?”
“You believe in souls, Billy?”
“I do. I believe that when someone does something wrong, their souls turn black and that blackness shows on the outside. I haven’t seen anything from your father or you that makes me believe that you did this.”
A sniffle, “Thank ya, Ma’am.”
She shrugged a bit, “Not any good in a court, you know.”
“Dun’ matter. Someone believes in what Dad said. That means somethin’ to me.”
Camilla’s hand stroked his shoulder as she asked, “If you want to help your father, then can you do us a favor?”
He looked at her, “Depends on tha favor.”
Camilla told him.
Jane was confused.
This was something new for her, to put it mildly. She was impulsive, brash, and made the occasional ass of herself, but she was never confused … unless she talked to Tera. The simplest conversations always seemed to make her look at what she was and who she was instead of whatever it was that started her on a rant in the first place.
She had expected Tera to punish her in some way, or to try to make her change her mind. Something, anything that would show some anger from within her … but Tera didn’t. All she did was comfort her, talk to her, and in the end, after all of the words were out in the open between them … Tera just asked her what she wanted to do.
Jane’s answer was simple, she thought: “Find who did this and hurt them.”
But then she heard Tera’s thoughts and found them so much more satisfying, “Why hurt them when you are doing something so much worse. You can show them that they won’t win.”
For a moment, Jane was flabbergasted that she didn’t see things that way. It made sense, really: why just hurt someone when you could do so much more in so many other ways to show them that they made the biggest mistake of their lives?
So she now found herself standing on the curb outside of the place that Brent had set ablaze, looking for answers. The police had put their yellow tape around the border of the remains, but now it was in the hands of the fire department, and their investigations were inside, looking for the source of the fire, among other things.
Jane understood why she was here. There was something of a loose end to all this, and she needed to close it, or find where it led to. Tera had told her to find out what she could and then meet with Camilla and Thomas when possible. She still didn’t think a lot of him … or her … but she would look here for clues and would do as she was asked to …
… because she couldn’t let them win.
Looking at the people milling around and the security stopping people from poking around where they weren’t wanted, Jane came to the decision that she would have to use the thoughts and emotions of those around her to get inside and see what happened there for herself.
With a sigh, Jane closed her eyes and focused on the people within to see if there was someone she could use … and she found her.
On the main floor of the burned-out building, John Tanner was sitting cross-legged, staring at the main hallway and trying to piece together what this place once looked like. He was an Engineer in the department, recently transferred into the arson squad, and this was his first investigation. He had once been a regular firefighter, but after a three-alarm blaze, during which a building fell onto his company, he was shifted to arson investigations to give him time to recover from his wounds … both mental and physical.
Physically, John was your stereotypical fireman: muscular, clean shaven, blonde hair closely cropped, per regulations. He wore his cherished department windbreaker, blue jeans, and hiking boots. Not exactly regulation, but they said he could be comfortable, so he thumbed his nose at the regs while he could.
Putting his clipboard to one side, he stretched his back, the popping sounds reminding him that sitting on the floor was not doing good things to him. He was resigned to being in this job from here on out, mainly because, to be honest, he was scared to death of being buried alive again by bricks, wood, and fire.
A tap on his right shoulder made him turn around.
Standing there was the one person he didn’t expect to see today. Her name was Jenni: she was part of the department’s public relations office, and she was, to be blunt, his crush. He had known her for almost a year now and still didn’t know exactly what it was about her that attracted him. Maybe her short red hair? Her girl next door looks? Her laugh? He just couldn’t ever put his finger on what it was about her that he liked so much. But more importantly right at that moment …
… she had coffee with her.
Maybe it was the coffee?
Taking the cup from her hand, he took a sip … and decided that it wasn’t the coffee (God, it was awful).
Putting it on the floor beside him, he asked, “So what brings you into the ashes, Jenni?”
She shrugged, “Oh, P.R. mostly. The press want to write up what happened, who’s to blame, how the budget should be cut back, the usual stuff.”
“Right. Been on that path before, haven’t we?”
“Almost every other week.”
She walked away then, looking around the room and poking her nose here and there before asking, “Anything like a clue to what happened?”
He smiled, “Oh, I know exactly what happened.”
She turned to him with a look of surprise: “What?”
“Can’t you tell? There was a fire and the place burned down.”
Rolling her eyes, she called back as she exited the room, “So helpful. I’ll have to see that you get a medal of honour for that, you dumbass.”
John’s chuckles followed her out the hallway as she vanished from his sight.
Moving down the hallway, she eventually made her way into the basement before stopping at the bottom of the stairs and gazing into the darkness of it. For a time she remained there, unmoving, almost like a statue, before her form shimmered and Jane stood there in Jenni’s place.
Jane found herself of two thoughts. One was that John seemed nice enough; maybe one day he and the girl she had pulled from his thoughts would be together. The other was that she found herself oddly attracted to him for some reason she didn’t, or couldn’t, put her finger on at that moment.
Jane pinched her nose and then drew with her hands a pattern in the air. She was hoping to divine something of the magic used here. Every type of magic had a pattern that could be traced to the being, talisman, or other mystical thing that had created it. The hard part wasn’t the finding: here, in this place, there was so much of it embedded in the walls, floor, and space between that she was choking on it.
No, the problem was that, if there were any traps left behind, they might go off when she prodded them. Jane wasn’t worried about that, she had learned a great deal from visitors to the Realm, and felt that she was prepared for whatever might be still here in this place. Sure enough, Jane’s overconfidence in her abilities made her miss one small, simple spell that was triggered when her own magic touched it.
Upstairs, John was sketching a diagram of the fire’s source, and had decided that the next place to have a look was the basement. The scream from the basement that made him snap his pencil in half and sent him moving in that direction as quickly as he could …
He rushed down the stairs calling out Jenni’s name, hoping that she was alright in spite of the scream he had heard. What he found was not what was supposed to be down there.
It was the stuff of nightmares.
The basement was on fire. He didn’t stop to wonder what started it or why, because crumpled in the middle of the room was Jenni. The flames were raging around her, soon to be licking at her body if he didn’t get her out of there quickly.
She wasn’t moving and she didn’t answer him when he yelled at her to get up and get out of there. The fire was raging and crackling in the space, and he knew that waiting any longer or going for help would mean it would be too late to do anything for Jenni.
Gritting his teeth, and ignoring the pains in his legs that were screaming at him to top moving so fast, he covered his face with one arm and ran through the flames to collapse beside Jenni in the middle of the burning room.
She was curled up facing away from him, but was breathing, he took that as good news, at least. It took only a few moments to wrap her up in his jacket and then sling her over his shoulder.
But even as he acted quickly, the fire got worse; the walls started to burn and the ceiling began to crumble around them.
John tried his best to push the fears down so that he didn’t freeze. He couldn’t let that happen.
Struggling to his feet, he concentrated on putting one foot after the other, his focus on getting up the stairs and out of that place before the whole place came crashing down around his ears.
The wooden boards of the stairs creaked as he put his weight on them, the flames now running up the railings trying to close off the path to safety in front of him. To his horror, as he made it halfway up them, the fire became a wall, closing off the exit and trapping them.
Unless he ran through them.
The fears grew and he remembered the feeling of helplessness, the crushing weight of the debris that had almost claimed him once before. But then he heard Jenni coughing, and that made him take the risk and rush through the inferno.
Outside of the building, the flames were pushing out of the wrecked structure, the surrounding news crews taking pictures of it, the fire fighters on the scene calling for backup to fight the blaze once again.
In the middle of the confusion, John burst through the front door, smoke coming off his clothing and off of Jenni’s body. He ignored the offers for help, pushing his way through the crowd to his car, parked nearby. Placing Jenni on the ground beside it, he opened the trunk to remove an oxygen tank, intending to place the mask on her and help her to recover.
Pulling the jacket from her, he froze in confusion …
This wasn’t Jenni. Not quite. It looked like her, she was dressed like her, but there was one thing that didn’t fit John’s reality …
… she had two small green horns sticking out of her hair…