Chapter 1 – Declan

Only the crunch and ping of loose gravel between the tires and the asphalt of our parking lot announced the arrival of the big silver car; otherwise, it was dead silent. I pulled back slightly behind the edge of the big green dumpster that sits at the end of the building, interested to observing the unknown car but not wanting to be busted as some creepy loser kid. ‘Cause, you know… the truth hurts.

At first, the sun glinting on the windshield blocked all view of the occupants but as the car, an older model Buick, rolled to a stop in the shadow of my aunt’s restaurant, they became visible. Two females; the driver young, with short brown hair and brown eyes, the other an older version with the same brown hair but she had a different eye shape. A mother and daughter, I decided, seeing enough similarities to form that opinion.

The driver stretched her neck for a moment, like she had just wrestled the heavy car for miles. I figured she had, as the motor wasn’t running. Most likely, she had coasted down Macomb hill, fighting through the lack of power steering to make the winding turns. That sharp left curve in front of Macomb cemetery a quarter mile up the hill must have been a bitch, I thought.

Her head came up and she looked around the parking lot. I jumped back behind the dumpster, relatively certain I hadn’t been spotted but now slightly ashamed that I was lurking there at all. Pretty sad that my most exciting work break was taking out the garbage and spying on innocent travelers. The day was just starting, but all I had to look forward to was a full Sunday of dishes to wash before tackling three pages of Calc homework, then collapsing into bed for maybe six hours before continuing my fascinating life as a high school senior at Castlebury High.

Entering through the back of the kitchen, I dodged around the morning cook, Chet, who was orchestrating eggs, hash browns, bacon, and sausage on the big commercial griddle while humming along to a Dave Matthews song playing on the radio. I was careful to avoid bumping him as he could get verbally abusive if you interfered with his cooking rhythm, and while his anger was short-lived and easily ignored, it was just too early to listen to any crap.

Just outside the kitchen, floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with dishes faced a wall of stainless steel, high-temperature dishwashing equipment and long metal countertops covered with dirty plates, mugs, and flatware. My kingdom.

I was halfway through offloading and stacking a rack of plates when one of the waitresses, Emilee, pushed open the swinging doors from the dining room and looked my way. “Hey, Toothpick. Your aunt wants you out here,” she said before picking up a fresh pot of coffee and heading back into the Sunday morning fray.

I followed her out, wiping my hands on my apron, curious as to what my aunt wanted with me.

The owner of Rowan West was standing at a small table talking to two women, the same two women from the Buick out front. At first, I thought that the young one had busted me for spying on them and complained to my aunt. But the rational side of my brain dismissed that as paranoia. Let’s be honest. Who was going to even notice me spying in the first place?

“Ah, Declan, dear, would you be so kind as to help these wayward ladies out? It seems they’ve a spot of auto trouble and I’ve gone ahead and volunteered your services,” Aunt Ashling said in her lilting brogue.

Up close, I decided that the two women were definitely mother and daughter. Same brown hair, same facial features, but different eyes. The mother’s were gray, while her teenage daughter’s were light brown. The girl’s were also almond shaped, uplifted at the corners, giving her face a slightly exotic cast. Mom was tan with freckles while her daughter had a very light brown skin color that spoke of a more mixed-up ethnicity. Both watched me with frowns and narrowed eyes.

“That’s okay Ms. O’Carroll, we can just call a local garage,” the mother said quickly.

“Sure, and you can be overspending and getting under-repaired, if you know what I mean. The only lads that are open on a Sunday hereabouts aren’t the trustworthy sort. If he can’t fix it, he can at least be sure to dig out the problem for ya. Trust me on this one, dear. Declan is a bit of a wizard with cars and computers,” my aunt responded. I winced a bit at the wizard part.

“What does it do?” I asked, thinking some verbal diagnostics might move things along.

“It doesn’t run,” the girl said, her expression flat, eyes hard.

I felt my eyebrows raise themselves, matching the rise in my temper. My aunt was watching me, and she suddenly laughed.

“You walked right into that one,” she said with a pat on my back.

After a moment, I had to laugh, too. I had, in fact, set myself up, although from the girl’s expression, she hadn’t meant it as a joke. Nonetheless, my aunt had reset my attitude, so I tried a different tack.

“Ma’am, I’m really, really good with computers – desktop, laptop, tablet, or even car computers, so if nothing else, I can find out the problem so you don’t get ripped off. And if I don’t look at your car, then I have to go back to dishwashing,” I explained to the mom, pleading with my eyes.

Both the mom and my aunt laughed. The girl just kept frowning. Oh well, if I had fifty dollars for every girl who looked at me like I was a freak, I’d be richer than Gates.

“I guess I should just say thanks and let you have a look,” the mother said. “But you will be careful, right?”

“Yes ma’am. If I can’t fix it, I’ll back right off, Mrs…” I trailed off, realizing I didn’t know her name.

“Oh gracious. Where are me manners? Declan, this is Rachel Williams and her daughter, Sarah,” Aunt Ashling said.

“Nice to meet you. If I can borrow your keys, I’ll just take a look,” I said, patting my right jeans pocket to double check that I had my chalk.

“I have them. I’ll go with you,” the girl, Sarah, said, her expression still guarded.

I turned and walked out the front, past the gift shop area which held a bizarre combination of Vermont maple and cheese products mixed with spiritualist supplies like incense, crystals, tarot cards, amulets, and herbs of all kinds. Somehow, it all worked, although most of the New Age stuff was sold via the Rowan West website that I had set up for my aunt.

The girl was quiet as we headed toward the car, moving almost silently behind me. Something about her manner was creeping me out. The place between my shoulder blades was itchy, like I could feel her staring at it. Shaking the feeling off, I studied the car.

“Buick Regal. Looks older?”

“Twelve years, but low mileage,” she said, pushing the unlock button on the key fob. She opened the driver’s door and slid in before I could, inserting the key and turning the ignition. The dash lit up like a Christmas tree, but the engine didn’t make a sound. Not even the click of a bad starter.

I dropped into a squat and reached around her leg to pull the hood release, moving slowly, as I didn’t want her to be more on edge than she was. Although she seemed relaxed—just watchful.

Lifting the hood, I scanned the engine for any obvious problems, but it wasn’t going to be that easy. Taking my trusty chalk from my pocket, I drew Cen on my left palm and placed my hand on top of the engine.

“Try it again,” I yelled to Sarah.

“Why? It won’t start,” she responded in a flat tone.

“Humor me.”

Through the gap between the bottom of the hood and the frame of the car, I could just see her hand move as she twisted the key. Eyes closed, I relaxed and listened. Ah.

She was already sliding out of the driver’s seat as I stepped around the front of the car, like she had been coming to check on me. She looked into the engine compartment, maybe to see if I had stolen the whole thing. I took the opportunity to slide into the driver’s seat and look over the ignition switch, letting my left hand casually fall on top of the steering column.

I was getting back out when Sarah came back around, eyebrows raised in question.

“Let me guess. You were driving along and the engine just shut off?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I think you’ve got a faulty security system. It keeps thinking you’re trying to steal your own car, so it shuts everything down. Probably a loose wire in the ignition switch, which is jiggly as hell.”

“How could you know that? You don’t have any diagnostic equipment.”

“I didn’t say that I was certain… I said I think it’s the security system, but if you know better, that’s fine,” I snapped back at her.

“If I knew better, I wouldn’t even be here, would I?” her expression more puzzled than sarcastic. She was kind of weird. Cute, but weird. She was wearing loose-fitting jeans, a worn American Eagle t-shirt, no makeup, and running shoes. Vermont has all kinds of girls: hippie girls, fashionista girls, sporty athletic girls, save-the-world girls, brainiac girls, you name it. She must fit in there somewhere, but at that moment, I couldn’t figure out where.

Back inside, we found my aunt and Sarah’s mother sipping coffee and chatting while Mrs. Williams looked over a menu.

“Any luck?” my aunt asked.

I repeated my theory about the security system and the possibility of a loose wire, although it wasn’t a theory. It was flat-out fact.

“Can you fix it?” Mrs. Williams asked. She was a little intense. Sharp eyes set in a thin face. She was dressed in hiking pants, athletic shirt, and walking shoes. She, too, lacked any makeup and had a short, no-nonsense haircut. Absolutely no concession to beauty or fashion. Her build was lean, a runner’s body, with no spare flesh.

“Yes ma’am. I think I have a pretty good chance, although you’ll want a dealership service department to take a look when you get to your final stop.”

“They’re staying here in town, Declan. Mrs. Williams has taken a job at the University in Burlington,” my aunt said. She always called it the University in Burlington, rather than University of Vermont or UVM, which is what most of us called it. I studied my aunt for a moment. She was intrigued by these two, and I could sense her protective streak coming out. Hence my technical services being volunteered.

“Well, I’ll just grab my tools, and I think it’s a quick fix. About as long as it takes you to have breakfast.”

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been that specific about the duration of the job. Even a mechanic wouldn’t commit to that close a time guess. My aunt’s eyes flared a little, but she said nothing, instead asking the mother and daughter for their breakfast orders.

“Oh, Caeco, they have a Woodsman’s special that you might like,” Mrs. Williams suggested to her daughter.

My aunt and I exchanged a glance, then looked at them curiously. The girl looked pained and was quick to explain.

“My middle name. Mother uses it as a nickname.”

Mrs. Williams looked up, taking only a second to realize we were talking about her name change.

“Yes, my own pet name.”

I had trouble picturing this lady with a pet anything. The operative word here was cold.

I left to get my tools, happy for an extended break from dishwashing, not really caring if the people I was helping were a little weird. Hard to throw stones at that glass house.

My skills aren’t really of the automotive set, although I am naturally mechanical. I’m more of a computer and technology guy, but I’ve done enough work on my ’72 Toyota Land Cruiser to know my way around the inside of a car. The steering column was the slowest part, as I didn’t dare harm the old car’s cosmetic appeal in any way. The pair watching me through the window made me more than a little nervous.

Once I had the plastic housing apart, the rest went pretty quick. Tighten one loose wire and a spot of solder to keep it in place, and the meat of the repair was done. The Buick started right up, the six-cylinder engine surprisingly smooth. Another fifteen minutes of wrestling the column housing back together with a small amount of cursing for lubrication, and I was done.

Mrs. Williams was looking through a Burlington Free Press, an empty bowl of oatmeal pushed to one side. Aunt Ashling’s special cinnamon shaker caught my eye, tucked in among the salt, pepper, and regular table sugar dispensers. That was interesting.

The girl, Sarah or Caeco or what have you, was polishing off a Woodsman special; three eggs, hash browns, four pieces of toast, bacon, and a short stack of pancakes. It was my personal favorite, but it was a lot of food. Wiping up the last of the egg yolk and maple syrup with a corner of toast, she made it look easy. She was five-three, maybe five-four at best, and she’d just crammed in a two–thousand-calorie meal.

I dropped the keys on the edge of the table, but my aim was just a mite off. The keys slipped toward the floor, and I automatically went to catch them. Instead of metal, my hand encountered warm flesh. I was holding the girl’s wrist, and she was holding the keys. I let go like I had touched a wall outlet, the feeling of her flesh shocking to my own.

“Fast,” was all that I managed to say, obviously not referring to my wits. My reflexes are pretty good, but she had beaten me to the catch by a country mile. She regarded me for a moment before pocketing the keys and picking up her glass of chocolate milk.

“You play any sports?” I asked, making no progress in rebuilding my reputation for witty repartee.

She shook her head, adding, “Homeschooled.”

Which explained a whole bunch of things. “Declan, could you get your aunt for us? I think it’s time we settled our debt and headed on. Lots to do today,” Mrs. Williams said.

I nodded and left the two to head back into the kitchen. Time to get back to the stacks of dishes and away from the customers.

“Aunt Ash, your new friends are asking for their bill,” I said. My aunt was sipping a cup of tea and peering out the kitchen window at the big Rowan tree that gives our place its name. She nodded and headed out, a gleam of curiosity in her eyes.

I finished the half-rack of clean dishes and was just starting a fresh batch when my aunt came back with a tray full of dirty dishes. She set the whole thing down and then picked up the cinnamon shaker with a clean dish rag, crooking her finger at me to follow.

Safely tucked into her microscopic office, she used the towel to hold both ends of the shaker while she twisted it apart. Hand carved from oak, the shaker was a little larger than a can of soda. The top two-thirds held the cinnamon-sugar mixture and the bottom third held twenty-four miniature discs of wood, each cut from the same tree branch, the bark still on. In fact, they had all come from a fresh-cut limb of the Rowan tree outside our dining room window.

Each disc had a separate figure carved into its face—a rune.

“We’ll draw five, we will. I’ll draw first, as I was first to meet the lasses, then you draw the next three, then I’ll pick last, got it?” she asked. This was her area of expertise and she knew far more about it than I, so I would normally never question her, but I had a piece of information that she didn’t.

“Actually, I saw them coast into the parking lot when I was taking out the trash. Not sure if that counts?”

“Did you lay eyes on the both of them then, or just the auto?”

Feeling my face flush, I nodded as I answered, “I saw them both. Never saw the car before, so I was curious,” I added. She studied me with bright blue eyes that matched my own, nodding after a moment.

“That changes it. You draw one, I the next, then two for you and one last for me own.”

I closed my eyes and settled my mind, breathing in slowly through my nose and out through my mouth. When I had wrestled my unruly brain into a modest semblance of calm, I reached my left hand into the container of rune cover discs. As my fingers brushed the chips of wood, I pulled up the fresh memory of seeing the girl and her mother through the windshield of their car. Seemingly of their own accord, my fingers found a tiny branch segment and picked it up. I set it down on my aunt’s desktop before us and contemplated the rune scored into its surface. It had an upside down mutated F on it, the twin horizontal lines jutting up at a diagonal rather than straight.

“Feoh reversed. Slavery or bondage,” Aunt Ashling intoned. She reached into the wooden shaker bottom and pulled another rune. It looked like a poorly drawn, lower-case p, with the vertical line extending up too high. It was backward as well.

“The Thorn, also reversed. Danger,” she said before giving me a nod.

I pulled out an R with sharply drawn angular lines. It was right side up.

“Rad—a journey,” she said with a sharp nod to herself.

My next rune looked like an hourglass that was missing its top line and turned on its side like a C. “Peor—female, hidden change.”

Aunt Ashling’s final draw was a simple line, an I.

“Is, also called Ice. Treachery,” she said, her tone dropping into instructor mode. I already knew this, but I nodded anyway, waiting for her to pull her reading together.

“These two are on the run… fleeing captivity. True danger stalks them. The girl has a secret, or maybe she is the secret. Hard to know. They’ve journeyed far,” she said, still studying the five runes lined up in front of us.

“The car’s plates were from Colorado, and there wasn’t a whole lot in it,” I noted.

She turned her head abruptly, auburn tresses swinging around her face as she locked her gaze onto mine.

“Make no mistake, Declan me lad, these ladies are not fleeing some abusive husband or father. There is something uncanny about them, something more than a wee bit off,” she warned.

“I touched the girl’s wrist, Aunt Ash, by accident. I hadn’t wiped off my hand and still had Cen drawn on it. I got the weirdest flash from her, real short and sharp. It wasn’t the sort of thing I’ve ever gotten off a person, more like the feel of tech.”

She cocked her head to one side, eyebrows up in question.

“I can’t really explain it. Kinda like a computer or smartphone, but not. I don’t know… just weird.”

She looked worried. “Declan, the girl’s to start at your school tomorrow. I think you should keep an eye on her and maybe, if she needs it, help her out,” she said, sounding a bit uncertain.

“Help her out? With what? How much help? And just who are you and what have you done with my aunt?” I asked, blown away by the direction she was taking.

She smiled a thin, pressed-lip kind of smile. “I know I’ve hounded ye to keep your head down and all. But when we’re called to help, then help we must!”

Despite her constant preaching about flying under the radar, I knew my aunt had used her own gifts to help innocents from time to time. It was how she had met her partner, Darci. She had found a lost boy twelve years ago who would most likely have died of exposure to harsh Vermont weather. His searchers had been looking in all the wrong areas. Since then, she had helped a number of other times, working through Darci and her fellow deputies. A couple of missing college kids on a hike, a child kidnapped by her estranged father, and one runaway all owed their safety to my aunt, who had avoided any and all recognition of her contributions.

But she had been very steadfast in hiding me and my talents. I’ve never been allowed to use my true abilities, so really, what’s the point in having them? Now, if I was being directed to help, she was getting more from this reading than she was telling me.

“Declan, me lad, as cliché as it sounds I feel something coming… and it feels like a storm,” she said, looking up from the five rounds of wood.

Readings were her thing and she was very good at them, but storms, at least certain storms, were my thing and in that respect of my Craft, I had no equal.

Chapter 2-Miseri

Twenty-six-hundred miles and three time zones to the southwest, Felix Martinez glanced at the clock in the lower left of his computer monitor and noted the late hour. These rush jobs always seemed to turn into all-nighters. He finished filling in the data fields for the California DMV license form, then saved the page. After waiting a long moment for the website to update, he noted with satisfaction that an official California driver’s license was now entered in the name he had been given to work with.

Setting up false identification was a constantly evolving business. Some parts involved identity theft, some bribing low-paid government workers for their access codes, some involved researching names and social securities of people dead for decades, and lastly, there was always a little fiction writing to give a decent backstory.

A loud noise in the outer office caught his ear. It was quickly followed by another thud. Felix grabbed the 9mm semi-automatic that clung to a powerful magnet under his desk and moved to the doorway of his office. Opening the door, he looked into the reception area of what was ostensibly a tax preparation and bookkeeping business. A thirty-something-year-old woman was standing at the reception counter, smiling at him. Dressed in jeans and a light-colored blouse, she appeared attractive and pleasant, but something about her didn’t seem right. Felix stepped through into the outer office, automatically looking to the left where his assistant, Manny, should have been. At the same time, he tucked the gun behind his right leg, hiding it from the woman’s view.

Manny wasn’t at his desk, but after shifting stance slightly, Felix suddenly spotted a brown, shoe-clad foot on the floor behind the chair and desk. Alarmed, he started to move, but a steel band closed about his right wrist and squeezed hard enough to break bone.

Confused and in enormous pain, Felix felt his arm hauled over his head, pulling him up on his toes. At the same time, he became aware of a huge, looming presence at his side. The person holding him plucked the gun from his powerless hand and swung his body to face the woman.

Still smiling pleasantly, she nodded at him as if they were meeting for lunch. “Hi, Felix. I’m Miseri, and my associate is Clay. We have questions for you regarding some recent clients,” she said.

Barely able to speak through the pain in his arm and wrist, Felix still managed to bring up the most important information he had.

“I never meet my clients. I only do pieces of their overall identification package, not the whole thing. I doubt I can help you,” he said, his mind racing through everything he could do to survive this.

“Oh, I’m certain you can help us. I only need a few bits of information,” she said sweetly, pulling a long, thin dagger from behind her back. “In fact, I’m certain you’re going to be more help than you realize,” she finished.

An hour and seven minutes later, the woman who called herself Miseri left the small, one-story building on the outskirts of Phoenix, her huge companion at her back. The sun was starting its climb and promised to provide a full day of legendary Arizona heat.

Walking unhurriedly toward a silver Honda Accord, she spoke over her shoulder. “Clay, I will meet you later, after I check in. Be a dear and clean that up back there.”

The silent giant nodded and moved back into the building, pulling several small, rectangular black objects from his messenger bag as he did.

Miseri continued her nonchalant stroll but stopped suddenly when she detected movement at the mouth of an alley. It was only a cat, a kitten really, ginger-colored and very thin. The tiny creature stared up at the woman, shaking in hunger. It mewed, but the cry was almost silent.

“Oh little hunter! You’ve fallen on hard times,” the woman said, squatting down to rub the kitten’s head. The tiny predator butted her other hand with his head, then licked a small red spot from the back of her hand. “Thank you, little one! I must have missed that drop. It spatters so, but then, I imagine you know that already.”

The woman came to a decision, scooping up the cat and continuing on her way. “You will come with me. But what to call you?”

The kitten didn’t struggle but instead began to knead the shoulder he was pressed against, his sharp claws easily penetrating the woman’s blouse.

“Oh, that’s it! You will be Talon,” she said, keyfobbing her car door. Climbing into the late model Honda, the woman deposited the small feline on the seat next to her, then carefully buckled her seatbelt before driving away.

Behind her, the small building she had just left suddenly blossomed into a near-silent ball of harsh white light, the thermite and white phosphorus incendiaries hot enough to melt brick and bone, but she barely noticed. Instead, she was dialing a number on her smartphone.

“Central, this is Miseri. The name is Williams. First names are Rachel and Sarah. The source had little further information.”

“Confirmed, Agent Misericord. You and Agent Claymore are to await further orders.”

“Just let me know when you get a hit,” she replied.

“In the last five seconds, we’ve already gotten seventy-seven returns from those names, and the search is still running. We will filter and advise. Clear?”

“Clear, Central, but under no circumstances should your watchers approach the target. That cat has serious claws,” she said, hanging up the phone. “That gives us plenty of time to get you some food, Talon.”

The tiny orange cat purred and settled on the car seat, its half-lidded eyes watching its new human protector. The car continued away from the fiercely burning building as sirens rose in volume across the sprawling city.

Copyright John Conroe