The microwave chimed the completion of its reheat cycle. Emma Merrigan, her hand safely encased in a mitt that resembled a bright red calico lobster with button eyes, removed the last two portions of the weekend’s stew. One nice thing about stew: not even the most modern technology could keep it from tasting better the second time around.
Em decanted supper onto a pair of plates, garnished them with the dark green leaves of a warm spinach salad, and carried the plates out of the kitchen.
“You look awful,” her mother announced as Emma set the plates on the dining table.
Em let the words roll off her back without comment or reaction. Life with her mother–life in Eleanor Graves’ general vicinity–was an endless stream of non sequiturs. Emma had a mouthful of soft, sweet carrots when Eleanor erupted again.
“I’m not kidding, Emma–you look perfectly awful.”
Em swallowed hard. She’d come a long way since that night, more than a year and a half ago, when Eleanor had re-entered her life after a half-century’s absence– Never mind that her mother hadn’t looked a day over twenty-five that inauspicious evening and looked even younger above the stew on the left-hand side of the dining table. Eleanor would never be “Mom,” nor even “Mother,”but she’d gradually become a friend, except when she slipped and said something utterly uncalled for, something utterly Eleanor.
“I’m tired,” Emma replied deliberately.
“There’s no reason for you to be tired. There’s no good reason for one of Orion’s Children to ever be tired.”
Orion’s Children–that was a phrase Eleanor had stumbled upon last year to describe herself, her daughter, and a few thousand other humans. Let ordinary folk have the traditional zodiac, Orion’s Children were predators who walked across time hunting humanity’s curses. Emma had adopted the phrase, but in a more restrictive sense. She used it only for Eleanor and herself and the small group, both hunters and ordinary folk, who shared their secrets.
Conveniently, Eleanor’s variety of Orion’s Children could hunt curses while their bodies racked up beauty sleep which meant, as Eleanor had claimed, there was no good reason for a diligent hunter–and Emma was diligent; she bestirred herself to the wasteland hunting ground at least six nights out of any seven and had never missed more than two nights in a row–to sport the hollow, smudge-circled eyes Em saw whenever she looked in a mirror.
“You’re not tired,” Eleanor corrected when Em had failed to rise to her bait. “You’re worn out.”
“There’s a difference?” Em asked, not that she believed there was or could be, but rampant curiosity, which she’d nicknamed her “engineering gene” because she’d inherited it from her late father, a tenured engineering professor, had always been her downfall.
Eleanor smiled triumphantly. “Of course. Tired’s in the body. If you’re hunting, by definition you’re getting plenty of sleep; you’re not tired. Worn out’s in the mind, in the spirit. When was the last time you relaxed–really relaxed and let your mind float free?”
Emma shrugged. She had an answer for that question, but she didn’t discuss her private life with anyone, especially her youthful, but worldly, mother. There was a man whose presence both excited and relaxed her. In her mind, he was the core of her select version of Orion’s Children. His name was Blaise Raponde and he’d died in 1685–
No one, least of all Blaise himself, could explain why his essence–never speak of souls around Blaise, never say anything that smacked of religion unless you were prepped for a lengthy theological discussion–had persisted after his body’s demise. Then again, once you accepted the existence of curses and the barren extra-dimensional wasteland where they congregated, reasonable explanations ceased to be a top priority. It was enough that Blaise with his chivalrous manners, amber-pommeled sword, and outlandish clothes–the height of seventeenth-century Parisian fashion–had made himself a part of Em’s life.
Together, the two of them had conjured a hideaway, a subterranean bolthole beneath the wasteland’s weird magenta sky where the curses couldn’t interrupt their hours together. Most nights, after she’d mooted her self-set quota of curses, Emma checked in at the bolthole, hoping to find Blaise there waiting for her.
Talk about safe sex…
“See,” Eleanor intruded into her daughter’s silence. “You can’t even remember.”
“It’s been a long week,” Em conceded as she picked up her wine goblet and swirled the liquid against the glass. “I’ll relax tomorrow.”
Eleanor made a long face. “You’re not going to work tomorrow? You’re finally taking a Saturday off? May I quote you on that? What is it? Seven-thirty? This is the earliest you’ve been home for supper all week. Last night you didn’t get home until eight. Tuesday, it was nearly ten and I’ll bet you had popcorn and ice cream for supper.”
“You’ve been spying on me?” Em tried to sound indignant, but whether the word was weary or tired, it described her all too well and her accusation fell flat.
“I keep an eye out, yes,” Eleanor said without a hint of guilt or shame. “Somebody has to. You apparently don’t know when to stop. When are you going to put your foot down and tell those people at the library that they don’t own you? You could give notice any time, you know–take an early retirement, blow this town, and restart your life. You’ll have to sooner or later. Why not now?”
An August-sunset breeze wafted through the window screen, cooling Em’s face as she sipped her wine. Thank heaven Eleanor was a better tactician than strategist. She didn’t expect answers to her rhetorical questions and had no idea that Emma had taken them into heart and begun to ask them herself.
This summer wasn’t the first time the staff of the university’s Horace Johnson library had been dragged through a wrenching reorganization following the surprise resignation of one director and the ascension of its next. But the last six weeks of punitive memos, pre-emptive transfers, and all-out turf warfare added up to the worst summer that Emma could recall.
Gene Shaunekker had been a good man to have at Horace Johnson’s helm these last six years, but six years was an eternity among directors of first-tier university libraries and Em couldn’t blame Gene for leaping at the opportunity to run the works at an East-Coast, Ivy-League institution. He’d left in early January. Emma had expected his office to remain vacant for the better part of a year while a search committee fiddled, fumed, and reluctantly recommended. That’s how they’d selected Gene. But the U’s president had forgone committees and announced Gene’s replacement in mid-February, leaving Em and her cronies to wonder if the switch hadn’t been in the works for months before Gene’s departure.
The rumor was that Margaret Patrick had been hired to shake things up in the U’s library system. If the rumor was true, then Maggie–the woman prized informality while rattling the staff to its foundations–had been doing a damn good job from day one. In the first place, call it sexist or woefully old-fashioned, but Emma didn’t like working for another woman, especially a woman who arrived on campus with a hired-gun’s reputation for destroying morale while hacking a library’s budget with a dull machete.
As Director of Acquisitions, Emma had the sort of job security associated with tenured professors. No director could fire her, not without cause and a vote from the university senate, but that hadn’t stopped Maggie from making Em the Co-director of Acquisitions and Cataloging. Now she and a man she’d known and liked for fifteen years were locked in a turf battle neither could afford to lose. They each had a handful of years before they qualified for a fully-funded retirement. Years that might be very long indeed, if the number of hours Em felt obligated to sit behind her desk continued to grow the way it had all summer. She’d plotted the rising curve: by Christmas, she’d be living in her office twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
It wouldn’t get that bad; something would give way before then, Em only hoped it was Margaret Patrick and not her own health.
Lightning bugs circled outside the screened window, flashing their yellow-green love lights. There must be a female glowworm camped out in the branches of the evergreen shrubs banked against the townhouse walls. Later in the evening, getting on toward midnight, the ritual would be repeated in a cooler, bluer light because Michigan was one of those lucky places in North America with two resident lightning-bug species.
Emma Merrigan knew about Michigan’s lightning bugs because she was a librarian and librarians had access to an endless stream of trivia. Or was it her appetite for trivia–what Em often called a mutation of the engineering gene–that had pushed her into the library years ago when the aftershocks of an early and misguided first marriage had left her in need of a career?
“Cancel it,” Eleanor said.
Emma sat bolt-upright in shock. Her mind had been wandering and she didn’t know where Eleanor had been dragging their conversation nor for how long. She shook her head as a matter of principle.
“There’s no point to hunting curses when you’re already out on your feet,” Eleanor insisted with a grimace. “Call the others and tell them it’s off for tonight.”
So, they were talking about the regular Friday-night gathering of Orion’s Children.
“I’ll be fine once we get started,” Em assured her mother. “I won’t carry any of this to the wasteland, you know that.”
“What I know is that you haven’t…yet. There’s always a first time. I’m the first to admit you’ve put together a good team and we’ve been carving nicely through rogues and curses, but that’s all the more reason not to push things when you’re not up to par.”
“I wouldn’t drag you into the wasteland, if I thought there was risk.”
Eleanor was the senior curse hunter at the dining table, but thanks to a horrific stint as the captive of rogues and leaching curses, Eleanor was phobic about translating herself into the wasteland. She relied on Emma to get her there and bring her home to her body again. Em strongly suspected that it wasn’t a sense of curse-hunting duty that brought Eleanor to her daughter’s home to hunt each Friday night, but a desire–a need–to experience the translation.
For hunters, Think Young wasn’t an advertising slogan; it was a cardinal rule. Each time they translated themselves from the curse-ridden wasteland to ordinary reality, hunters remade themselves according to an internalized image of self. Eleanor’s flawless skin, her smooth, unblemished hands all needed regular translation to retain their youthfulness. Even Emma, who had made no deliberate changes in her fifty-ish appearance, had recently realized that she was less dependent on her assortment of reading glasses and no longer needed to cover the roots of her graying hair with applications of permanent dye.
At least she worked for her perks, chasing dozens of curses each night, annihilating them with beams of laser-like light shot from star of a ruby ring that had once belonged to her maternal grandmother.
On Fridays, though, Orion’s Children hunted rogues. Rogues were the most dangerous form of curses, a curse with a body, often several bodies, and an ability to slice through time and reality that was, if anything, superior to anything that Emma and her allies possessed. Rogues had an unquenchable appetite for misery and they stopped at nothing to satisfy it.
“What’s one Friday night without a rogue hunt?” Eleanor wheedled. “Call Matt and Nancy and tell them you’re beat to the bone and you’re taking the week off. God, Emma, it’s not as if the rogue won’t be there next Friday or the Friday after that.”
Emma shook her head. Rogues, with their time-hopping and body-hopping, were harder to track and trap than Eleanor implied, but they were also creatures of habit and Blaise Raponde’s prey of choice. The rogue Blaise had targeted for this week’s hunt was, by his own admission, a lazy, habit-ridden creature. Maybe he’d picked an easy target because he’d noticed that his partner wasn’t as sharp as she could be?
“I’ll call Nancy,” she agreed, then corrected herself. “It’s too late, they’ll be out having dinner–”
“Cell phone?” Eleanor said, turning the question into an exasperated reminder.
Emma might be the last person in America who still associated phones with places, not people. She shook her head. “No, they’re civilized. They wouldn’t want to field a non-emergency call in a restaurant.”
“You can’t remember the number,” Eleanor chided, then recited it from memory.
“I know the number,” Em insisted honestly. “I’m just not going to bother them, and everyone near them, with a silly phone call during their dinner. We’ve made our plans; we’ll see them through.”
Back at the dining table, Em picked at her cooling stew.
“Will you at least agree that you need to take a break, if not tonight, then sometime soon?”
Once again, the back of Emma’s mind sizzled with the idea that she was being set up. “I don’t know– Maybe,” she conceded before stabbing one of the smaller chunks of potato. “This isn’t the first time the library’s been turned upside down by an idiot director. Sooner or later, the place rights itself. Entrenched bureaucracy always wins in the end, and with my seniority, I’m entrenched with the best. It’s a matter of waiting it out, of being patient.” She swallowed the potato and shook her head. “I just don’t seem to have the patience I used to have.”
It was the closest Emma had come to telling anyone–including herself–that the job she’d held and enjoyed for years had become a millstone. For a moment, she was lightheaded from the revelation. Her hands and feet seemed to belong to another body. She wasn’t sure her fingers could find the stem of her goblet or guide the glass to her mouth.
If Eleanor had pressed for confidences or confessions, Em would have been defenseless, but Eleanor–thank heaven–was working from a different script.
“Didn’t you schedule a week’s vacation for September?”
Em seized the glass stem. “Third week,” she admitted. Little more than a month away, though, just then, five weeks might well have been eternity.
“Then I’ve got just the ticket for you.”
Eleanor smiled triumphantly then reached beneath the table for something she’d stashed on the seat of another chair. Emma wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t an inch-high stack of glossy brochures, each featuring sparkling water and an ocean liner on the front.
“I’m not up for a cruise.” Emma stifled a vision of oppressive sunlight, sweaty bodies, smarmy gigolos and giglettes, all of them her age or older. “They’re not for me.”
“Nonsense,” Eleanor countered, opening the topmost brochure. “What more could you ask out of a vacation? You check into a hotel and the hotel moves itself from one tourist trap to the next. Everything’s paid for in advance. All you have to do is lie back and be waited on. This ship’s got a French spa and four whirlpools that are open twenty-four hours a day. You get four nights of entertainment, two islands, a private beach, and all the wine you can drink–and, if we book tomorrow, a land-package that puts us up in theme-park heaven for three additional nights–”
“All right.” Eleanor selected a second brochure. “Here’s one for five nights out of Tampa: Key West, two days at sea and two in Mexico. If you don’t want to do the beaches, you can book a tour of the Mayan ruins and it’s still going to cost you less per day than staying five nights at the Bower Holiday Inn.”
The ruins tempted Emma. She fingered the brochure. Even the paper was bright. She got migraines from the considerably less bright Michigan sun. And the pictures showed crowds of deeply tanned attractive folk–as if crowds were an asset.
“Usually, when I go on a vacation, I like to get away from it all.”
“And where was the last time you actually got away from anything? Anything on this side of the netherlands.”
Em had to delve into her memory. Except for a librarians’ conference in June she hadn’t gone anywhere this year. The previous year, Eleanor’s stints in a nursing home and rehab had eaten through Em’s banked vacation time. And the year before that, the year Eleanor had shown up on her doorstep, was also the year that her father had died–
“In June I went to Chicago for a long weekend–”
“That doesn’t count. You were delivering a paper on databases–”
“Wrong, that was was last December, a different organization, and in Saint Louis. June was the Higher Learning Librarians and I didn’t have to do anything except stay awake and listen.”
“That’s what I thought. You need a vacation.” Eleanor pushed another of the brochures toward Emma’s hand.
This paper had a eye-soothing matte finish and the front pictures, in addition to the obligatory ship-in-profile, included a less-than-bronzed woman reclining in a shaded, comfortable-looking chair, a tall, tropical drink beside her and no one else in sight as the sun set in a wash of orange and amber.
“This is probably the most expensive of the lot,” Emma said as she dragged the brochure closer and flipped it open.
“So what if it is? The tourist industry isn’t exactly going gangbusters these days and, pardon me for pointing this out to you…again…but, in addition to your salary, your savings and whatever you inherited from your father, you’ve got a trust fund that’s been accumulating nicely for the last fifty years. Live a little, why don’t you? Be reckless…damn the torpedoes and reserve an outside cabin.”
Emma jerked her hand away from the brochure. Had it been that obvious that she’d been looking at the dimensions of the cheapest, interior, hugging-the-water-line cabin? When had Eleanor–oblivious and self-absorbed Eleanor–gotten to know her so well?
“But, alone… It would be–” Dawn broke slowly, belatedly over Emma Merrigan’s universe. “You mean the two of us–you and I–we should take a cruise together.”
“It had crossed my mind.”
“I don’t snore, Emma, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you and I to, you know, claim a bit of quality, mother-daughter time.”
Em stared silently at her mother’s flawless face, her maroon-tipped, auburn hair–still quite avant-guard for Bower, Michigan. No question which of them would be passing for mother and which for daughter.
You could change that, said the voice at the back of Emma’s mind, the conscientious voice she’d called her mother-voice all the years when Eleanor hadn’t been a factor in her life. Em shook the notion away.
“Why? We’re all the family either one of us has!”
Eleanor reached for the brochure. Em put her hand down with weight and kept it in front of her.
“It’s not you. It’s not anything. A cruise isn’t the vacation I would have thought of, but maybe you’ve got a point. Maybe I need to check into a moving hotel and let the world come to me. Heaven knows I don’t have the energy for anything more strenuous. If you can, get some more information about these guys–” She flipped the brochure over, looking for a name. “ ‘Fantabulous Cruises.’ The Excitation and Marvelocity. Good grief,
it sounds like a bubble-gum rock band. You’d think both ships would turn pink with shame–”
“It’s a first-class–”
“No. No, I’m sure it is. What else do I need to know? When it leaves… where it goes? Do I have to dress for dinner? Let me know. Try to make it all fit into the third week of September; I don’t want to have to beg to change my vacation time. If the price isn’t too outlandish–”
“Don’t worry about the cost. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of it all.”
Em realized there’d be no backing down–Eleanor could be decisive and efficient when it served her purpose. She was committing herself to a cruise, details to be provided later.
A cruise with Eleanor.
She must be more tired–more weary–than she’d thought.
Eleanor babbled about the Excitation and her sister ship’s many amenities. Emma let the words pass unhindered into her mind. She was thinking about the picture: alone with a tropical sunset. If Eleanor could deliver that image…
A car with mismatched headlights drove slowly past the townhouse. As it passed beneath the street lamp Em made out the lines of an ancient Escort. “Unless I’m mistaken and there’s another car with one regular headlight and one xenon headlight cruising the neighborhood, Matt’s here and he’s having trouble finding a parking space.”
“He’s early!” Eleanor complained.
She pushed away from the table and bolted up the stairs to Emma’s solitary bathroom, missing the sour look her daughter directed at her back.
“I really should have seen it coming,” Emma muttered to herself as she gathered the dishes.
Matt Barto was a computer geek in the best sense of the word. He’d quickly surpassed anything Em could teach him about the library’s patched-together systems and their semi-independence from the University’s all-encompassing network. He kept their computers running better than any of the last four sys-admins who’d come and gone without leaving a lasting impression in either the computer systems or Emma’s memory.
She liked him. Indeed, there’d been a time–before her life became complicated–when she’d begun to like him more than seemed wise or appropriate, which was why, probably, she found Eleanor’s behavior so unsettling.
If wishes were horses then Matt Barto would be hunting curses with Orion’s Children. The talent–the wyrd as Eleanor called it–did sometimes crop up unannounced in the general population of humanity, but it wasn’t hiding in Matt’s genes. He was one of three ordinary people who knew what Emma and her mother were. The second was Nancy Amstel. Em couldn’t have kept her curse hunting a secret from Nancy who’d been her best friend since elementary school or from John, Nancy’s husband and the third secret sharer. But, if she’d had a choice–if she’d known what the wyrd meant–she would have kept it from Matt.
And she surely would have kept Eleanor away from him!
Clearing the table, Em quickly forgot about cruising on the Excitation and began counting the reasons a romance between her mother and her friend was a Bad Idea of the highest order. She turned the hot water on full blast and rinsed the dishes with extra vigor. A few more swipes with a soapy sponge and she could have set them directly in the drying rack, but she loaded them into the dishwasher anyway and, since it already held her dishes from Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, dialed up a full wash cycle.
The machine was purring politely when Em strode out of the kitchen and into the scene where Eleanor and Matt stood in the doorway between the living room and front hall, wrapped in each other’s arms like lovers caught by mistletoe at Christmas. Em turned smartly on her heels before they noticed her. She neatened the dish towels and, though the trash can was only half full, knotted the plastic liner and carried it out to the larger can outside the backdoor.
The storm door slammed behind her, not entirely by accident, and when Em returned to the living room the couple had unentwined. Matt offered her a few sheets of paper.
“Based on what you told me, I couldn’t find much–and nothing definite. Funny, isn’t it? You’d think it would be easier to pinpoint a bar when you had its name and the makes and models of the cars parked outside, but it wasn’t. I maybe narrowed it down to a dive on the Baltimore waterfront–”
Emma took the paper. “It’s really just for curiosity’s sake,” she admitted. “It’s nice to know the where and when, but it’s not like we need it, not like there’re signposts saying this way to the Nineteen-Thirties or turn left here for Seventeenth Century Paris–”
For a moment Matt’s envy showed so clearly on his face that it hurt and Emma wanted to shove her mother against the nearest wall. Even if Eleanor’s motives were pure as the driven snow, the sooner Matt Barto walked away from Orion’s proverbial Children, the better. In the meantime, and despite Eleanor’s manifest disinterest, Em engaged Matt in a conversation about Maggie Patrick’s latest cost-cutting, morale-deadening innovations. Matt, who approached office politics with the same naiveté the rest of the world brought to their computers, was admitting that he was beginning to worry that his days in the library basement surrounded by servers and free from I-Tech’s supervision were numbered when Nancy knocked on the front door.
Fifteen minutes later, the four of them were sitting cross-legged (full lotus for Nancy, who’d been taking yoga classes for years) on the carpet. Emma took her mother’s hands between her own and began the utterly simple exercise of imagining a coin spinning, falling slowly.
Heads! she thought to herself, and heads it was. The living room was gone, replaced by the wasteland’s barren, alien vistas.
Eleanor knelt an arm’s length in front of her looking exactly as she’d looked in the living room. Emma, on the other hand, had translated her clothing from the T-shirt and lightweight jeans that were her off-hours summer uniform to a vaguely medieval dress that covered her arms to the wrist and her legs to the ankles. The dress was a Friday-night concession. Blaise Raponde was too much the gentleman–and too much alone–to object to twenty-first century styles, but he preferred his lover in more traditionally feminine attire. She’d completely ruled out corsets and all the other figure-modifying devices of his time, but indulged him on Fridays with clothing inspired by stained glass windows and pre-Raphaelite paintings. The other nights she stuck to T-shirts and jeans.
Em looked quickly to her right where a lustrous black stone broke through the parched, dark ground some ten feet away. The stone was the second-fastest way back to her body–Nancy back in the Bower and a strategically placed ice cube were the fastest–but so long as Em could get her palms on the way-back stone, she need fear no wasteland rogue or flaming curse.
“A little farther off than usual, aren’t we?” Eleanor sniped.
Emma shrugged. “A little,” she conceded when she’d risen to her feet. The bolthole exerted a magnetic pull on her mind. She guessed it was a quarter mile away and, true, she usually brought them in quite a bit closer, but a quarter of a mile was nothing in a reality where walking was the only means of transportation. “Maybe this time Harry will be there before us,” she mused as she set a good pace in the bolthole’s direction.
“Harry’s not coming.”
“What!?” Em spun around to confront her mother. The black stone was still ten feet to her right, maintaining a relative position to its creator in its inexplicable but reliable way.
“I called him this afternoon–about something else entirely–but I knew how weary you were, that you needed a rest–if not an outright vacation. If you must know, he was the one who suggested that, strictly speaking, tonight wasn’t necessary…”
“He suggested; you agreed?” Emma raked her hair. If she hadn’t been weary before, she was now; and Eleanor was the last person she wanted to share her weariness with.
“I told him I couldn’t imagine that you wouldn’t agree. It didn’t occur to me, or him, that you’d be all damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed ahead.”
“We could have called him again, before we left. Let him know we were still on–”
Eleanor shook her head from side to side. “He and James were headed out for a quiet dinner in the City. Some new place serving four star’s worth of Provençal cuisine. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to interrupt that, even if you could.”
To the extent that Emma had assembled Orion’s Children as a team for hunting curses and rogues, Harry Graves was one of its members; that didn’t mean she was completely comfortable with him. Harry was, by all accounts, the financial wizard who handled the legal affairs for just about every other American curse hunter, enabling them to transfer assets from one carefully crafted identity to the next. He was also the most ancient of the curse hunters that Emma was aware of. He’d been around longer than Blaise Raponde, dead or alive. To hear him tell the tale, Harry had applied his real-world wyrd for the winning side in the Revolution.
Lately, Harry wanted to apply them on Emma’s behalf. Em knew she’d eventually have to give in. Harry was almost as good as he thought he was and she didn’t know the first thing about crafting an alternate identity that would survive government scrutiny in the post-9-11 world. But she was holding out. Switching identities meant watching her friends grow old without her, and she didn’t want to face that devil even one day sooner than necessary.
Harry Graves could stand in for the devil. After Eleanor walked out on Emma and her father in the early Fifties, she’d wound up married to Harry Graves. Emma had the sense that the marriage had been a sort of penance for both of them, for undefined crimes and indiscretions that, maybe, include abandoning a baby; or, maybe not. Typically, Emma hadn’t been able to get a straight answer out of either of them regarding the current state of their marriage. Not that she wasted a lot of time asking questions; they were both reflexive liars.
All the curse hunters were. Lying went with the territory. Emma had gotten pretty good at fabrication herself.
Compared to Harry and Eleanor, Eleanor and Matt were practically the same age. And, compared to Emma herself, Harry looked more like a slightly older brother than a step-father. No wonder she felt chronologically adrift whenever she thought about him.
“Okay, that means we’ve got to improvise,” Em said as she started walking again.
“Improvise, or turn around.”
Emma didn’t dignify that comment with a response, except to dig her heels into the crumbling ground and walk faster. She’d finalized her improvisations by the time they reached the shallow side of the orange-wedge depression that hid the bolthole. She wasn’t happy with the tactics she’d concocted, but there really weren’t many options.
Eleanor couldn’t translate back to the absolute-present reality by herself. In an emergency Matt could pull her through with a well-placed ice cube or pinprick; that’s what he was in Em’s living room for. They’d tested the theory once and it had worked, though Eleanor had wound up unconscious and woozy for days afterward. For practical purposes, then, Eleanor needed a hunter’s help to get home and couldn’t be left alone either in the wasteland or the shadows of Baltimore where Orion’s Children expected to flush the rogue.
Emma was still at the apprentice stage when it came to flushing rogues. She wasn’t about to try flushing one on her own and, even if she were, she wasn’t foolhardy enough to leave Blaise and Eleanor together without witnesses. Oh, they got along all right–better than she and Eleanor did, if politeness were the only measure, but many things could legitimately go wrong when a rogue came barreling onto the wasteland and Em, if push came to shove, couldn’t count on her mother and her lover to help each other.
Put all the pieces together and they added up to Blaise was going to Baltimore via the bolthole window while she and Eleanor hiked to the wasteland point where they planned to ambush the rogue when it bolted away from Blaise.
“We had some bum communications back in the here-and-now,” Em explained to her lover when the three of them were in the bolthole.
She deliberately hadn’t mentioned Eleanor’s name or role in the confusion but Blaise glared in her mother’s direction anyway. Eleanor glowered right back.
“I’ll hike out to the rogue’s crossover point with Eleanor–” Em hadn’t exactly lied when she said there were no signposts in the wasteland. There were no pillars and arrows, but it was her particular wyrd to know the correspondence between parched dirt and historical reality the way plants knew sun from soil. Emma couldn’t describe the point where they expected to confront the rogue–it would look no different than any other patch of wasteland dirt, but she could find it with a thought. “The two of us will be waiting when the rogue comes through.”
“If it comes through,” Blaise correctly sourly. “With only myself to drive it au-delB, there is a greater chance it will veer away from where we expect it.”
Em decided to put a stop to the bickering. “It’s the exact same chance you had for the three hundred years you hunted rogues by your lonesome. If it veers, it veers, but if it doesn’t, Eleanor and I will be waiting with bells on. It won’t get away.”
Blaise sank into thought. By his own admission, three hundred years of solitude had transformed him into a more patient, pragmatic man than he’d been during his natural lifetime; and when it came to mooting curses or rogues, there was no denying the fierce determination Eleanor brought to the battlefield.
“Ah,” he declared with a shrug. He reached for his coat and hat.
In those rare moments when Emma was awake before the alarm went off and she seized the opportunity to wonder how much of her life was really real and how much could be attributed to imagination or hallucination, she always came back to Blaise Raponde’s clothing. She could never have imagined his dark-green damask coat with its huge lapels and incongruously striped patch pockets, or his broad-brimmed hat with its off-center array of natural and dyed feathers. They were both clearly the products of fashion in one of its more absurd moments.
Blaise’s trousers were even more outlandish than his hat being little more than balloons of damask slung from a belt and tied off at the knees like a pair of empty sausage casings. Or they had been; once Blaise had gotten a look at Harry Graves, he’d transformed his baggy pants into tailored slacks. He’d abandoned his flowing bleached linen shirts at the same time in exchange for the dark, silken turtlenecks Harry favored.
The final effect as Blaise wound a bleached-linen scarf around the turtleneck and tucked the lacy ends beneath his coat was less jarring than it might have been but still completely beyond the reach of Em’s imagination.
“When you’re right, Madame Mouse, you’re right.”
About the time that Emma would convince herself of her lover’s reality–if the alarm clock hadn’t gone off–she’d hit the language wall. Though Em occasionally emitted an idiom that Blaise didn’t comprehend and he sometimes lapsed into indecipherable French, the vast bulk of their conversation occurred in colloquial American English of the early third millennium. It wasn’t some mystic, magic, mental communication, either: now that she’d had an opportunity to watch Blaise speaking to someone else–Eleanor or Harry–Em was satisfied that his lips and tongue were shaping English phrases.
How, Em would ask herself, could Blaise’s clothes be so unimaginably authentic and his language so utterly familiar? Then the clock radio would begin to play or he’d give her a kiss for luck and all the nagging questions would recede.
Blaise picked up one of two identical foot-high hourglasses sitting on a dark-wood sideboard.
“Shall we?” he asked, flipping it over so the sand began to trickle.
Emma quickly flipped the other as Blaise headed for the leaded glass window that dominated one side of the bolthole. In yet another wasteland paradox, the window did not open onto solid dirt and rock. Most of the time it faced out to an autumnal garden Emma had copied from a painting that had hung over her bed in her childhood room, but it also functioned as a gateway into the shadow past where curse hunters pursued their elusive prey. As Blaise approached the window the garden scene darkened, as if the moon had overtaken the sun to cause a total eclipse. The view was midnight when Blaise lifted the latch and pulled the casement open–midnight broken by the glare of old-fashioned streetlights on damp pavement and the orange-red of a neon sign glowing somewhere just out of sight.
“Á bientôt,” Blaise said with a grin as he threw a leg over the window sill.
“Á bientôt,” Em agreed, because sometimes French was more romantic, more fun.
Blaise disappeared almost at once, the street lights, too. The eclipse ended and the garden reappeared. Em turned to Eleanor.
“We’d better get a move on.”
Half the sand and then some had descended into the hourglass’s lower bulb before Emma and her mother reached the place her gut said was the wasteland equivalent of the street Blaise had entered from the window. Though the wasteland lacked landmarks, it was not entirely featureless. The parched dirt rolled gently between hills that were, perhaps, some twenty feet high and a quarter-mile apart. Em positioned herself, the hourglass, and the way-back stone on the crest of a hill. She watched as Eleanor hiked another several hundred yards to the crest of the next hill.
No sun shone in the wasteland. What little light reached the ground was filtered through the dense, magenta clouds. Hunters could see one another at a distance only by an act of will that surrounded each of them with a faintly silver nimbus. Withdraw that will, as first Emma then Eleanor did, and the women became virtually invisible in the deep, threatening twilight. The last of the sand fell unnoticed into the lower bulb while Emma–and her mother–kept watch for the rogue.
Emma knew what to look for: a brief shower of sparks followed by the emergence of a dark silhouette or a pillar of flame, depending on the shape the rogue brought to the wasteland. But she was more often Blaise’s Friday-night partner, flushing rogues from their chronological lairs, and was unaccustomed to the role of ambusher. As a result, though Em spotted the sparks, Eleanor got off the first mooting blast.
And an impressive blast it was. Every hunter chose his or her weapon. After several unsuccessful experiments, Emma had settled on the ruby ring and its thin streak of red, laser-like light. Blaise coaxed a broader beam of golden light from the amber pommel of his sword. Both were potent weapons, but neither compared to the swath of flame Eleanor brought forth from the tip of a sparkling and beribboned Lucite wand.
The rogue let out an ear-splitting shriek and a gout of sticky flame that raced along the ground toward Eleanor. Emma had her wits about her then. Rising swiftly to one knee, Em imitated the snipers she’d seen in numerous movies. She braced her right arm with her left and, sighting down her forearm as if her ring were the muzzle of a rifle, she took aim at the stream of fire creeping Eleanor’s way.
The ruby ring came alive on Emma’s finger. Beneath magenta skies, the beam it unleashed seemed less red light than a dense ebony shadow, but there was no doubting its power. It scorched a line across the dirt that the rogue’s creeping flame couldn’t cross. Then, when Em was satisfied that her mother’s position was secure, she brought her wrath on the white-hot body of the rogue itself.
Be gone! she thought, and Be reduced to your component atoms, your electrons, protons, and neutrons, your quarks and your strings!
It was easier to annihilate a rogue when it manifested as alien flame than when it appeared with one of its stolen human faces. Emma focused her wrath and concentrated on burning a dark line across the middle of the rogue’s brilliant fiery pillar. She was about a third of the way through her self-appointed task when she realized that Blaise had arrived.
When all was said and done, the rogue was doomed from the moment it chose to stand against Eleanor’s flame; and once Blaise added his will to the fight, the rogue withered and was quickly reduced to a charred stain on the dark ground. Emma and her companions continued to paint the stain with their chosen weapons for several moments, like firemen soak the ruins of a three-alarm fire. Blaise stood down first, then Emma. Eleanor didn’t let up until Emma shouted her name.
“We got it?” she asked after Emma and Blaise had walked into conversation distance. When she fought, Eleanor slipped into a rage as blind and timeless as any rogue’s.
“Like clockwork,” Em assured her.
Eleanor began to tremble. She dropped her wand and hid her face behind her hands. Had Harry been with them, he would have put his arm around Eleanor’s shoulders and helped her to her feet. But Harry was off having a fancy dinner with his housemate and Emma was late off the mark coming to her mother’s aid.
“We’d better be going,” she said to Blaise who never seemed quite convinced by Eleanor’s post-rogue performances.
“You’ll be returning?” he countered and when Emma nodded, began the lonely walk to the bolthole.
She walked close to Eleanor who remained seated on the ground.
“That was a bad one,” Eleanor whispered. “I could see its face the whole time.”
Em didn’t challenge the assertion. The wasteland was a subjective reality. Expectations mattered and hunters took different memories away from the same event. Eleanor took rogues more personally than her daughter did. It was no wonder, then, if Eleanor saw them wearing faces, even faces she recognized.
“Are you ready to go home?”
Eleanor shook her head and shoulders together. “I don’t know how many more of these I can handle.”
If Eleanor could doubt, then Eleanor could stand. Emma braced herself and brought her mother with her as she stood. The way-back stone was in its customary position, a few feet to her right.
“You don’t have to come– I mean, you’re wanted and appreciated, but not if it’s ripping you apart. The three of us–”
“You’d miss more than you’d moot.” Eleanor took her weight onto her own feet. “And then the ones that get away will start comparing notes and it will get even harder. You need me– You need what I bring. And, besides, I’m not talking about quitting. I won’t quit until they’re all gone, every last curse and rogue. It’s just…I need–”
“A vacation?” Em asked with forged innocence.
“That would be nice.”
Em dropped to her knees beside the way-back stone with a sigh. No wonder Blaise viewed Eleanor with constant suspicion. She reached her left hand back to grasp her mother’s before placing her right on the stone’s unnaturally smooth, cold surface.
The translation was uneventful, effortless. Em was her complete, unified self again, sitting comfortably on her living room floor.
The clock read 8:20. They’d been hunting rogues for barely ten minutes.
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