The wild ways, p.1
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       The Wild Ways, p.1

         Part #2 of Gale Women series by Tanya Huff  
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The Wild Ways
Chapter One

 

  A MELIA CARLSON'S OFFICE was large and the wide window overlooking Halifax Harbor kept it well lit in spite of the traditional dark woods of the paneling and furniture. Nothing in the room screamed money, but everything said it quietly, well aware - given the quality of the furnishings - that shouting wasn't necessary to make the point.

  All right, Algoma Hill, the Lauren Harris painting hanging across from her desk, screamed money but only because the price paid during the So-theby's auction, while unfortunately not a record, had been high enough to make the front page of even the American papers. She'd purchased it anonymously, of course, but the people it had been bought to impress recognized it and exhibited the expected sticker shock. So much easier to attract investors when her personal salary allowed her to purchase a painting by one of the Group of Seven.

  And they said that when her father died, the company had died with him. She may have been a competent Vice President of Exploration and Development, but they didn't hesitate to announce that a fort . . . thirty-six-year-old woman with a twent . . . fifteen-year-old engineering degree couldn't run the second largest oil company in the Maritimes. She wasn't a member of the old boys' club and she wasn't a hot, young Ph. D who'd picked up an MBA on the way to a petrochemical doctorate. Worst of all, at least to those running the largest oil company in the Maritimes, she had no extended family to help her. They said she'd run the company into the ground in two, three years at the most. Several of them had offered to take the company off her hands.

  A year later, a year of betting everything on one roll of the dice, and she was on the verge of gaining the rights to one of the biggest fields in the North Atlantic. After that debacle in the Gulf, no one else had the balls to try for it, to spend three hundred and sixty-five days quietly working behind the scenes convincing the decision makers to make the right decision. And they all had. The moment the Minister of the Environment stopped faffing about, appearing to weigh the potential of spilled oil against jobs and tax income, and issued the drilling permit, the barges would be out of Sydney Harbor so fast they'd look like jet skis.

  Granted, even given near guarantees of five hundred million barrels accessible of a three billion barrel potential by the best geophysicists in the business, there was no oil at all until drilling replaced science. Which was why the drilling platform had to be in place as soon as possible. Once they started production, they'd quickly surpass Hibernia's fifty thousand barrels a day.

  The board of directors had given her until the end of the year to get the permit. She'd been promised it by the end of the summer.

  They could shove their sexist, patronizing, dumbass . . .

  When the door opened, she raised her head, her expression neutral, and met the worried gaze of Paul Belleveau, her executive assistant.

  "It's happened," he said, "just like she told you it would. The Ministry of the Environment is being pressured by Two Seventy-five N, the same Hay Island group that stopped the seal hunt. "

  "Nice to have so much free time," she muttered. Two Seventy-five N were a group of crazy environmentalists run by an old Cape Breton family. The name referred to life jacket buoyancy. Measured in newtons, one newton equaling one kilogram of flotation, a two seventy-five newton life jacket was intended for extreme conditions. Amelia admitted it was a clever name and despised the anti-development, anti-growth rhetoric the group clung to. Until recently, she'd believed the group's successes could be laid at the door of deep pockets and an underemployed membership with time to meddle, but new information had revealed they were so much more.

  "We're front page in the Herald," Paul continued. "There's articles in both the Globe and the Post, and their objection to the well was the lead on Canada AM's business report. Mr. Conway isn't returning my calls, but his aide . . . "

  "The chatty one?"

  "Yes. He says that the minister is talking about a class two environmental assessment or even asking for a Royal Commission on offshore drilling, so he doesn't actually have to make a decision. "

  Royal Commissions could take years and were the traditional way politicians avoided handling hot topics while still looking like they gave a shit. With the investment Carlson Oil had already made in this well, they'd never survive the delay. She could feel the edges of her very expensive manicure cutting half moons into the equally expensive wood of the desk.

  "Rallies and protests against the drilling are in the planning stages," Paul finished, "although reports from the legislature say Mr. Peterson has already added us to his inventory. "

  Gandalf Peterson - he'd had his name legally changed - sat in front of the provincial legislature Monday to Friday, eight thirty to five thirty, protesting the Sable Island wells with a rotating series of sandwich boards. He was out there rain or shine, whether the legislature was in session or not, reasonably well behaved unless he recognized one of the industry players; then all bets were off. One of the most recognizable, Amelia made it a point to walk directly past him whenever she had to enter the building, accepting his vitriol as evidence of a job well done.

  "All right. " She took a deep breath and forced her fingers to release their hold on the edge of her desk. "She told us what was going to happen and she was right about everything up to and including Mr. Peterson. That leads me to believe her when she tells us she can fix things in our favor. "

  "Ms. Carlson . . . "

  "You don't believe her?"

  "Believe her?" Paul shook his head. "I'm not sure I believe in her. Or them. Or any of this. "

  "Any of this?" Had the Botox allowed her to arch a brow, she would have. "And yet, you still cash your paycheck. "

  "I believe in you. "

  "I'm pleased to hear that. " When he smiled, Amelia took a moment to admire the effect. While undeniably gorgeous, with the shaved head and neat goatee she felt only black men could successfully pull off, Paul's good looks were surpassed by his skill at the job which was surpassed in turn by his extreme discretion. He'd been with her just over two years, cut from the herd of brand new MBAs the company employed, and she didn't know what she'd do without him.

  Beyond the obvious: work twice as hard and get half as much done.

  "All right," she said again, although it wasn't. "She's proven her point. Turn her loose. "

  "No love, we're from Cape Breton. "

  "But you say b'ye like you're from Newfoundland. How's it going, b'ye. You want another beer, b'ye? What's up with that?" Charlie glanced around the tiny table at the four men who'd asked her to join them for a drink between sets - Fred Harris, Tom Blaine, Bill Evans, and Bill McInna, although Bill McInna had told her to call him Mac. Not that it really mattered what she called him since after tonight's gig, she'd never see them again and they all seemed like the type to think call me anything you want but don't call me late for supper was a lot funnier than it was.

  "They got the b'ye from us, didn't they?" Frank grinned and raised his beer. The other three returned the salute. "I mean, yeah, this here's the Newfoundlander's Bar . . . " The bottle became a pointer - at the flags, at the photos, at the fish mounted on dark walls barely visible behind the Friday night crowd. ". . . but it ain't just the b'yes from the Rock heading west looking for a way to keep body and soul together, is it? Economy's in the shitter all through the Maritimes. DEVCO's closed the coal mines, steel mill's been shut in Sydney . . . "

  "Used to make good money there," Tom sighed. He was the oldest of the four, late thirties Charlie figured, and the one with the strongest family ties to the east. She could almost see them stretching out and away, linking him with the people he'd left behind. It was one of the reasons she'd sat down. Her family, the Gale family, understood those kind of ties.

  "Used to make good money," Frank repeated. "That's my point, isn't it? And those suits in Halifax are telling us we should just be quaint for the tourists; like the Rankin family can put a roof on the house and oil in the furnace of the whole God damned place. Freezing our asses off in Fort McMurray, paying nearly three grand a month rent on a shithole apartment north of the downtown, complete with a leaky ceiling and rotten windows, that's the best option we've got left. "

  "And now they're talking layoffs. " Bill glared at the wet ring his bottle had left on the tabletop. "Investments are down, aren't they? Gotta cut the costs of getting' the oil out of the tar sands, so they'll find guys willing to work for less. "

  "It's how they built the fucking railroads," Mac growled.

  Frank rolled his eyes. "Jesus, Mac, you're a welder; you're good. They bring in cheap labor from overseas and it's the rest of us poor buggers that'll be heading home and back on the dole. "

  "Don't be giving him any sympathy now," Tom said before Charlie could speak. "B'ye just bought himself a brand new F250. "

  "Needed something that'd fit the new ATV in the back, didn't I?" Frank laughed. "And who knows, maybe it won't be so bad going home. I hear rumors offshore oil's expanding again, and we've got mad oil field skills. "

  Bill laughed with him. "Yeah, and the fishing's already for shit, so when the drilling platforms break up and dump a few million gallons of crude, who'll notice, eh?"

  "How long can you tread water?" Tom snorted. Charlie knew he was quoting, but she didn't know what.

  "When my brother called . . . " Something in Mac's voice said this was important and Charlie wasn't the only one who'd noticed. Frank and Tom and Bill turned toward him, closing him in the circle of their attention, closing out the rest of the bar, their silence pushing back the ambient noise. They'd have closed her out as well, but Charlie refused to go. "When he called, he said he heard Carlson's trying to get permits to drill near Hay Island. " Mac picked at the label of his bottle. The other three watched him watch his moving fingers.

  Hair lifting off the back of her neck, Charlie froze in place, breathing slowly and quietly through her nose so as not to spook them. If they remembered she was here . . .

  "Hay Island. That's the seal rookery," Tom said at last.

  Mac nodded. "My brother says there'd be a couple hundred jobs on the rig and more in the refinery they say they'll build by Main-a-Dieu, but his wife, well, she's against it. "

  "Yeah, well, she would be, wouldn't she?" Frank's grin twisted into a curve that hinted of secrets.

  Charlie had a Gale girl's objection to secrets she, personally, wasn't keeping, and it struck her that this particular secret wouldn't be pried loose by smiling and looking interested - no matter how few women there were in Fort McMurray. Prying free this particular secret would require a completely different skill set. She'd drawn her finger through a puddle of condensation and sketched out the first curves of a charm when a familiar hand landed on her shoulder.

  "Charlie, come on!" Tony, the drummer for Dun Good, had to lean forward and shout as the noise of the crowded bar rushed back in to fill the space around the table. "Break's over!"

  Wiping out the half drawn pattern with one hand, Charlie set her empty bottle down with the other and shoved her chair back to a chorus of protests from her companions. "Sorry, boys, music calls. "

  The music was, after all, why she was here.

  By the time she picked up her guitar, grinning at the raucous welcome the band's return to the stage evoked, she'd almost forgotten how that secret had licked a frisson of strange across her skin.

  Almost.

  Later that night she almost asked Mac what he'd meant, but, by then, they were trading other secrets.

  The drive south from Fort McMurray to Calgary took almost nine hours. Theoretically. They'd managed it once in nine and a half but only by keeping rest stops to an absolute minimum. Fortunately, in the last fourteen months of intermittent touring, they'd become old hands at covering the less well traveled parts of the western provinces and had two coolers of food stuffed in between the stack of amps and the box that held the snow chains and the twenty-kilo bag of clay kitty litter no one wanted to remove in spite of it being almost the end of July and nearly thirty degrees. Why tempt fate? They had six drivers - the band plus Tony's wife Coreen and Taylor's girlfriend Donna, who'd joined them at Provost just after they'd crossed back from Saskatchewan - and, of the six, Charlie was, by no means, the most disdainful of posted speed limits.

  Since Donna'd had no actual obligations during their last gig at the Newfoundlander's Bar, she'd drawn short straw as first driver.

  They were on the road by eight, five of the six passengers completely unaware of the charms sketched under the grime covering the old school bus, charms that had ensured an almost miraculous absence of mechanical difficulty considering the vehicle's age. Charlie'd done what she could for the gas mileage as well but suspected it'd need a full circle of aunties to drop it from Oh, my God to merely appalling.

  Of the three aunties she had available out west, Auntie Gwen had suggested they switch it to bio diesel, Auntie Carmen had sighed damply, and Auntie Bea had said, "If you choose to ride in that death trap, Charlotte Marie Gale, rather than Walk the Wood as any sensible person with the ability would choose to do, do not assume we will ride to the rescue after the inevitable fiery crash. "

  The aunties were big believers in you made your bed, you crash and burn in it.

  And, while Charlie was one of the family's rare Wild Powers, it wasn't as if she could take the whole band through the Wood. Of course she'd thought about it, even worked out the charms she'd need to handle the remaining iron in the bus, but had balked, in the end, at explanations. They were a country band; beer and Jack did not set the stage for the truly inexplicable.

  "They told me this road was only busy on Thursday nights," Donna muttered as half a dozen tanker trucks roaring north on 63 nearly sucked the bus over to the wrong side of the two lane highway. "They needed to define busy. "

  Sitting in the first seat back - Board of Education back-cracker seating having been replaced by the bench from a wrecked Aerostar - Charlie picked out a complex pattern nearly at the top of her fretboard and said, "Yeah, well, what do they know. "

  "Excellent point. What're you playing? It sounds familiar. "

  What was she playing? She had to pick out another four bars before she recognized it. "'One. ' It's Metallica. "

  "I know it. I hold my breath as I wish for death. Oh, please, God, wake me. " Donna met Charlie's eyes in the rearview mirror, and grinned. "Trapped in a broken body, begging for release. And I thought country music was depressing. Problems, chica?"

  "No, everything's good. It's just where my fingers fell. " Because everything was great. The band was getting some solid recognition, their EPs selling well enough that Tony was talking about them taking it full time and touring outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan. More Gales were moving west to Calgary and, as much as she enjoyed staying with Allie and Graham, Charlie'd been thinking of getting her own place. There'd been rumors that the apartment over the coffee shop next door to the Emporium would be available sometime in the fall and she couldn't think of anything more perfect. She'd gain a little privacy while changing almost nothing about how she lived.

  "Broken Wings?" Donna's question jerked her out of her thoughts. Apparently, her fingers had moved on without her. "Chica, I wasn't suggesting you play depressing country music. I mean, sure, there's nothing like starting the day with a song about a woman trapped in a . . . Shit!" Swerving onto the shoulder, she somehow missed the car suddenly in their lane trying to pass an oil truck headed north.

  Charlie hit a quick A minor 7th and managed to get all four wheels back on the pavement.

  "Know any songs about assholes on the road?" Donna wondered after they'd spent a moment or two remembering how to breathe.

  Charlie could feel a faint buzz under her skin. As though the adrenaline rush had plucked a string with its action set too low. "I know a few . . . "

  Almost eight and a half hours and an uncounted number of assholes slowing them down later, they reached Edmonton. An hour after that, pulling out of a gas station onto highway 2 on the south side of the city, Charlie gripped the bus' steering wheel and smiled. She could feel Calgary, feel the branch of the Gale family newly anchored there tugging at her. Anticipating home, she could almost ignore the lingering buzz.

  "Fifty says I can make it to Tony's place in less than three. "

  Before anyone could point out that a legal speed would take closer to four hours, Jeff, the bass player, took her up on it.

  Two hours and forty-seven minutes later, they unloaded the essentials off the bus in Tony's driveway.

  "If I hadn't seen it," Jeff muttered, handing over a twenty and three crumpled tens, "I wouldn't have believed this hunk of junk could make a lateral move across four lanes of traffic at one twenty. "

  "I didn't think it could do one twenty," Tony grunted, loading the last of his drum kit onto the bus' old wheelchair lift. "All right . . . " He straightened and stretched, twisting the knots out of his back, damp streaks of darker gray staining his pale gray T-shirt. " . . . since I'm pretty sure you lot are as sick of the sight of me as I am of you, let's give it a couple of days, and say Tuesday evening for the debrief at Taylor's place. "

  Taylor waved a finger but allowed the offer of her apartment to stand.

  Weighed down with two guitars, her mandolin, her banjo, and a duffel bag of dirty laundry, Charlie waved an entire hand and then staggered down the driveway to where one of the younger members of the family had left her car.

  "Allie, it could easily be stupid o'clock in the morning when we get in. "

  "Yeah, and they have these things called phones, you know. You could call when you're close. "

  Gale family phones began as the cheapest pay-as-you-go handset available, spent quality time with the aunties, and finished as free, reliable cell service - where reliable meant the aunties saw no reason to allow an absence of signal to interfere with their need to meddle. In the right liver-spotted hands, tech sat up and begged.

  Charlie'd rolled her eyes in her cousin's general direction. "Or you could just have one of the kids drop my car off at Tony's Sunday afternoon. "

  Given that their younger cousins considered the car theirs while Charlie was touring, they'd gone with the second option.

  Embracing the cliches of playing in a country band, she'd intended to buy a pickup, but safely transporting more than one instrument at a time turned out to be more important than a faux redneck image. Sitting behind the wheel, everything securely stowed, Charlie sighed and glanced up at her reflection in the rearview mirror. "I have a station wagon. "

  Her reflection wisely did not point out that the amount of crap she'd accumulated required a station wagon.

  She used to store her extra instruments at her parent's place, dropping by to grab what she needed when she needed it.

  She used to travel with her six string and a clean pair of underwear stuffed into a pocket on her gig bag. Some days, the underwear had been optional. The roads she used to take had no traffic, no GPS location . . .

  "No idiot driving like a gibbon with hemorrhoids!" she snarled, finally managing to get around the SUV driving 10K under the limit while hugging the center line.

  No Gale ever said driving like an old lady. Old ladies in the Gale family drove like they owned the roads. And the other drivers. And the local police department. And the laws of physics.

  Roaring up the ramp onto Deerfoot, Charlie felt the city tuck itself around her. It was nice. There was nothing wrong with nice.

  Glancing over at Nosehill Park, she searched the curve of the hill for the silhouette of a ten point stag. Even passing at 110K, she could feel the power radiating from both the ancient and current ritual sites, but there was no sign of David. It wasn't like she'd expected to see him. He'd been spending more time on two feet lately and, for all she knew, he'd headed into town for a beer.

  With the change under control, he'd been talking about finding some consulting work. Everyone felt a job would help him regain the scattered pieces of his Humanity where everyone, for the most part, meant Allie, who still felt irrationally guilty about her part in her brother's transformation into the family's anchor to this part of the world. Charlie figured it had been a fair trade for saving said world, but David wasn't her brother and Allie . . . Well, Charlie loved her, but Allie had a habit of holding on just a little too tight.

  Three weeks ago, just after the Midsummer ritual and before the band had left on this latest mini tour, Charlie'd spent some time with David in the park and he'd seemed fine to her. He'd been managing weekly dinners with Allie and Graham at the apartment over the Emporium, with Katie at Graham's old condo, and with Roland and Rayne and Lucy at Jonathon Samuel Gale's old house in Upper Mount Royal. Plus variable members of the family being a given in each case. Over the last year, three sets of Gales - couples of Charlie's generation - had transferred from the Toronto area to equivalent jobs in Calgary, and bought houses next to each other on Macewan Glen Drive. It wouldn't be like it had been back in Darsden East when Charlie was growing up, when the Gale girls had run the schools from kindergarten to college, but it was a start.

  Gale boys were too rare to be allowed out alone, but they couldn't run a ritual without at least one in the third circle, so Cameron, now heading into his second year at the University of Alberta, had been sent west with six of the girls on his list, carefully picked by the aunties to be distant enough cousins to eventually cross to second circle with him. Charlie hadn't bothered keeping track of the girl cousins who'd come and gone and returned and reconsidered. Cameron's list, Roland's list, David's list - Gale girls flocked around Gale boys like bees around flowers.

  Fortunately, only three aunties were required for a first circle. Although nine short of a full circle, three were enough to keep things going, particularly when backed by Allie's second circle why yes, I can do scary things level of power. After that whole saving the world thing, Auntie Bea and Roland's grandmother, Auntie Carmen had gone back to Ontario only long enough to pack up the essentials and have an extended meeting behind closed doors with Auntie Jane. No one could tell Charlie what had been said, but no one doubted Auntie Bea and Auntie Carmen were Auntie Jane's eyes on the ground.

  When they'd returned to Calgary, they'd been the first to buy property on Macewan Glen Drive as two of the twenty-five houses overlooking the park had gone on the market the moment they'd made it clear they were interested. They currently lived together in the smaller of the two and rented the other to Cameron and the girls. Cameron had the basement apartment and got in a lot of practice recharming the lock on his door.

  Auntie Gwen remained in the apartment over the Emporium's garage, refusing to share her leprechaun.

  Charlie'd spent most of the time she wasn't with the band helping the family get settled in and agreeing, as graciously as she could, to retrieve treasures forgotten in Ontario.

  The buzz returned, running across her shoulders. She nearly spun out on the off ramp trying to scratch the itch it left behind.

  At nine thirty on a Sunday night, 9th Avenue was empty enough that Charlie could make the left turn onto 13th Street without pausing. She parked in the alley behind the Emporium, noted what looked like a new scorch mark on the wooden siding, grabbed her guitar, charmed open the small garage door, and squeezed through to the inner courtyard. Extending the space to put Graham's truck and Allie's car under cover without collapsing the loft upstairs had required impressive charm work.

  Charlie couldn't have done it.

  But then Charlie wouldn't have done about eighty percent of what Allie'd been up to lately even if she could have. Second circle, Allie's circle, was by definition appallingly domestic and Charlie considered showing up in time for dinner to be quite domestic enough, thanks very much.

  Not that there was something wrong in always showing up at the same place for dinner; Allie was one hell of a cook. All the Gale girls could cook - Charlie herself being the exception that proved the rule. Her sisters claimed that Charlie's single attempt at lemon meringue pie still gave them citrus-themed nightmares. The grass never had grown back.

  Attention caught by a familiar sound, Charlie glanced up at the loft over the garage and grinned. Auntie Gwen and Joe were home. Her grin broadened as the rhythm and intensity increased. Joe was full-blood Fey; he'd survive.

  As Charlie crossed the small courtyard between the store and the garage, leaves rustled. All three of the dwarf viburnum in the center bed leaned toward her, creamy white flowers trembling.

  She could step into the Wood right now. Step out anywhere she wanted to.

  Anywhere.

  This was where she wanted to be.

  There was nothing wrong with that.

  The back door to the Emporium was never locked. It stuck a little, though. The buzz now making the muscle in her right calf jump, Charlie jerked the door closed behind her, turned, caught sight of her reflection in the huge antique mirror hanging in the back hall and said, "I'm happy to see you, too, but I've never met Paul Brandt and I'm not double jointed. "

  The mirror had belonged to Allie's grandmother, Charlie's Auntie Catherine. They'd found it up and running when Allie'd inherited the Emporium and, given that magic mirrors were rare on the ground, the odds were high Auntie Catherine had activated it. Problem was, she'd been banished from the city before providing an owner's manual. Although they had no proof, what little evidence they had suggested that, for Auntie Catherine, the mirror had been a full orchestra. Metaphorically speaking. For the rest of them, it was more a twelve year old with a kazoo and a dirty mind. Almost literally.

  Auntie Catherine was, like Charlie, one of the family's Wild Powers, but if that had given her an edge with the mirror, Charlie couldn't seem to get her own ducks in a row. The mirror reacted to her the way it reacted to everyone else - with juvenile lechery and vague affection. It reminded Charlie of Uncle Arthur, only without the persistent pinching.

  Resting her palm against the mirror, fingers spread, Charlie watched as her reflection's hair color cycled through various blues, reds, greens, purples, paused on the short cap of turquoise she currently wore, and finally finished with the dark blonde/golden brown that was the Gale family default.

  "You're right," she sighed, suddenly very tired. "The hair's become shtick. " She sagged forward until her whole body pressed against the glass and wondered, yet again, how Auntie Catherine had slid inside. What had she seen inside the mirror? Had she been Alice or the Red Queen?

  Stupid question.

  She'd been the Jabberwocky.

  Because Auntie Catherine had done what every Gale with Wild Powers did. She'd gone Wild. The we know best of the aunties had become a much less restrained I know best and anything that made the aunties seem restrained, was pretty freakin' scary.

  In the mirror, Charlie's reflection aged, hair graying, gray eyes darkening to auntie black.

  "Yeah, I know. " She straightened, feeling every kilometer of the drive south from Fort McMurray in a retired school bus with no air-conditioning. Her reflection continued to lean against the inside of the glass. "You're not going anywhere and I've still got plenty of time to work out how Auntie Catherine did it. "

  Halfway up the back stairs, the door to the apartment on the second floor slammed open, slammed shut, and Charlie suddenly found herself facing a seriously pissed-off teenage boy - the smoke streaming out of his nostrils a dead giveaway of his mood. He rocked to a stop and glared, hazel eyes flashing gold, pale blond hair sticking out in several unnatural directions, wide mouth pressed into a thin line.

  "Jack. "

  "Oh, you're back. "The smoke thickened. "Good. You can tell Allie I don't have to put up with this stuff!"

  "She's making you listen to Jason Mraz again?"

  "What?" He had to stop and think, rant cut off at the knees. Charlie gave herself a mental high five; she rocked at pissy mood deflection. "No! She thinks I'm helpless!"

  "Does she? Well, she thinks Katy Perry is edgy, so . . . " Charlie shrugged, letting the wall hold her up for a while. "Where are you heading?"

  "Flying!"

  "It's . . . " It was too much effort to look at her watch, so she settled for general and obvious. ". . . late. "

  His eyes narrowed. "That's what Allie said!"

  "Yeah, but I'm not trying to stop you. Go. Fly. " She waved the hand not holding the guitar in the general direction of the back door. "It's not like you can't handle anything that sees you. "

  "That's what Graham said," Jack admitted, the smoke tapering off.

  "He's smarter than he looks. Just try to handle it non-fatally, okay? I've had a long day, and you know Allie'll make me come with her to deal with the bodies. "

  "Bodies. " His snort blew out a cloud of smoke that engulfed his head and he stomped past, close enough Charlie could feel the heat radiating off him, but not so close she had to exert herself to keep from being burned. "Jack, don't burn down the building," he muttered as he descended. "Jack, don't turn the Oilers into newts and then eat them. Jack, don't eat anything that you can have a conversation with. This world sucks!"

  He made an emphatic exit out into the courtyard, slamming the door with enough force that the impact vibrated past Charlie's shoulder blades.

  "Well . . . " Charlie lurched away from the wall's embrace and up the remaining stairs. ". . . that explains why the door's sticking. "

  Jack loved hockey, although he thought it wasn't violent enough. He'd spent his first season as an enthusiastic Calgary Flames fan, learning the unfortunate fact that enthusiasm wasn't enough and devouring their opponents wasn't allowed.

  The new scorch mark on the apartment door came as no great surprise.

  "Because he's fourteen," Allie was saying as Charlie let herself in, put down her guitar, and closed the door. "And we're responsible for him. "

  "He's a fourteen-year-old Dragon Prince and a fully operational sorcerer. " Graham wasn't visible, but the double doors to their bedroom were open, so Charlie assumed that Graham was out of sight in the bedroom. There were other, less mundane possibilities, but he'd probably sound a lot more freaked had Jack made him invisible, microscopic, or transformed him into furniture. Again. He'd made a surprisingly comfortable recliner. "There's nothing out there that can hurt him. "

  "You're missing my point. " Even looking at the back of Allie's head, Charlie could see her eyes roll. "He's a fourteen-year-old Dragon Prince and a fully operational sorcerer. "

  "That's what I said. " Graham sounded confused.

  Charlie snorted. "Dude, she's not worried about Jack. "

  Allie spun around and Charlie had a sudden armful of her favorite cousin. At five eight, Allie was an inch taller, but she was in bare feet and Charlie's sneakers evened things out.

  "Don't you ever knock?" Graham asked, coming out of the bedroom, charms covering more skin than the shorts. Most of the charms were Allie's, a couple were Charlie's, and one was David's. And wasn't that interesting. "Never mind," he continued, crossing toward her, "stupid question. "

  He didn't bother pulling Allie out of the hug, just wrapped his arms around both of them and squeezed. Graham wasn't exactly tall - Charlie knew damned well he lied about being five ten - but he was strong. Even working full time at the newspaper, he'd managed to hang on to the conditioning his previous part-time position had required. Although, why an assassin needed muscle when the big guns did all the work, he'd never made clear to Charlie's satisfaction.

  "Did we know you were coming in tonight?" he asked, dropping a kiss on Charlie's temple.

  "I did," Allie gasped, crushed between them. "Charlie, sweetie, you stink. " A judicious elbow broke Graham's hold.

  "Yeah, twelve hours on the highway in a bus without air-conditioning will do that. "

  Graham snorted. "Even to a Gale?"

  A quick pit check suggested stink was an understatement. "Please, we sweat flowers. "

  "Seriously?"

  "Occasionally. " Charlie patted Graham's cheek and Allie's ass on the way to the bathroom. "If Jack starts another apocalypse while I'm in the shower, fix it without me. "

  "He's a teenager. " Washed, dried, and wearing black silk boxers under a faded Dun Good tank, Charlie snickered into her mug of tea and added, "He has to spread his wings. "

  "Wow, that's original . " Allie poked her in the shoulder as she set a piece of strawberry pie down on the table and handed her a fork. "You should put it to music. And he's been spreading his wings plenty. They had to stop mail delivery in Bayview because a hawk . . . "

  In the three weeks Charlie had been gone, Allie's air quotes had gotten a lot more emphatic.

  ". . . kept attacking the postal worker. "

  "Big difference between a hawk and a dragon, Allie-cat. And Jack's a big dragon. "

  Allie dropped in the chair next to Charlie and prodded her in the thigh with her bare feet. "Jack's a sorcerer. And we know his uncles played with their sizes, so it may be a Dragon Prince skill and have nothing to do with sorcery. "

  Too tired to make the obvious played with themselves comment, Charlie waved her fork, bits of pie crust speckling the tabletop. "Yeah, but no teenage boy would willingly make himself smaller. Dragon. Prince. Sorcerer. Doesn't matter which, it's not going to happen. It's all bigger is better at that age. Actually . . . " She frowned thoughtfully as she chewed. " . . . bigger is better at any age. Ow! Allie!"

  Graham sat down across the table with his own piece of pie. "Somewhere in there you have a valid point, but the attacks on the postie stopped when Gwen threatened to clip Jack's wings. "

  Jack had spent his first thirteen years under the tender care of his uncles. Tender care when referring to Dragon Lords meant no need to marinate. He knew a legitimate threat when he heard one.

  "So if the attacks have stopped, what's the problem?"

  "He's working twelve hours a week at the Western Star this summer," Graham told her.

  "At your skeezy tabloid?" That was new. She leaned away from Graham's swing. "Why?"

  "Why?" Allie rolled her eyes. "Because school's out and he needs to do things like a normal boy. "

  If anyone asked, they were home schooling Jack which had the added benefit of being the truth, even if lessons tended toward it's a bus, you can't fight it rather than algebra. Although Roland had also taught him some algebra. Dragons were surprisingly good at math.

  "Yeah, but he's not a normal boy. " Charlie flipped up a finger. "Dragon Prince. " And another. "Sorcerer. " And a third. "Gale. Strike three. " She frowned at the sheen of turquoise on her nails, the same shade as her hair. "Oh, that's definitely too precious. What the hell was I thinking?" The buzz crawled across her forehead.

  "Why is your eyebrow twitching?"

  "It's a thing. Back to Jack. "

  "When it comes right down to it," Allie sighed, "this world isn't shiny and new anymore. No one's threatening to eat him, and he's bored. "

  "So send him to the farm; Auntie Jane'll threaten to eat him. "

  Auntie Jane made Auntie Gwen look reasonable. Auntie Jane made Simon Cowell look reasonable.

  "Only as a last resort. " Allie's lip curled. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life listening to the aunties go on about how I failed to deal with him. "

  When Jack broke through from the UnderRealm looking for his father - Stanley Kalynchuk aka Jonathon Samuel Gale - the aunties had been forced by circumstances to explain that sorcerers were Gale boys gone bad. Jack was both a Gale boy and - thanks to the magical means of his conception - a sorcerer, but Allie had argued that, as a Gale, until he turned fifteen he was too young to be judged. The aunties had agreed, and Allie and Graham had started their marriage as the de facto parents of a teenage boy with a Dragon Prince's power and undetermined sorcerous abilities, who not only smoked in bed, but occasionally set fire to his pillow.

  The first few months had been fun. Allie had overreacted, Charlie had underreacted, and Graham had hit the roof about the marshmallow roasting over the coals of an empty industrial building by the airport. Somehow or other, mostly because Jack absorbed new information like a sponge, they'd muddled through.

  Charlie swallowed the last mouthful of pie and pushed her plate away. "So send him off to eat a bison and sleep for week while he digests. Works while the Stampede's on. "

  Horses and cattle at the Saddledome, barely two kilometers away from the Emporium, were more temptation than anyone expected Jack to resist.

  "Unfortunately his cave was a little to close to Drumheller. " Graham stacked his empty plate on hers. "Couple of dinosaur guys from the Tyrrell found his scat and nearly had kittens. I had to cover the story in the Star to discredit it. I'm not saying it isn't a skeezy tabloid," he added when Charlie snickered. "I'm just saying I don't need anyone else calling it that. "

  "Sensationalist rag?"

  "That's better. "

  "He's been so moody lately," Allie explained. "I miss how he was in the beginning. You know, minus the whole burning things down and using sorcery to jump the line at the Apple Store. "

  "He's fourteen. That's the definition of moody. " Charlie at fourteen had a brief, intense flirtation with Three Days of Grace. "And now that I think of it, isn't fourteen a little young for a job?"

  "He can't exactly join a soccer team, can he?"

  Stronger. Faster. Liable to eat the opposing strikers. It was like raising Clark Kent had Clark Kent been likely to make a meal of Lana Lang.

  In spite of the imagery, and the sugar she'd just ingested, Charlie found herself suddenly unable to keep her eyes open. "As much as I'd love to keep discussing your crappy parenting . . . Ow!" She rubbed her thigh where Allie'd kicked her again. " . . . it's past eleven, I've had a long day, and I need to fall over. You going to wait up for him?"

  "I'm not. " Graham pushed his chair back and stood. He sounded pretty definite, but then he'd spent thirteen years killing nonHumans for Kalynchuk and while he'd made his peace with the Gales, that didn't mean he gave a half-eaten rat's ass for a half Gale/half dragon.

  Tonight, Allie was more concerned for her city than for Jack in a teenage snit, but she'd fought to have Jack regarded as a Gale boy and Gale boys, vastly outnumbered by the girls, lived in a bubble of protected indulgence. Her view of Jack was as skewed as Graham's.

  Charlie, who'd spent more time than either of them with his uncles, had trouble seeing Jack as a special snowflake.

  As Graham put the dirty plates in the sink, Allie leaned against Charlie's shoulder and murmured, "Coming to bed?"

  Before Graham, she wouldn't have asked. Nor would she have asked right after Graham had chosen, but about six months in, while acknowledging that Graham was both family and not exactly subject to the obligations of blood, the three of them had worked out an effortless arrangement.

  Nothing wrong with effortless.

  The buzz had spread out, defused by whatever charm Allie had baked into the pie. Charlie yawned. "No, I'll open a sofa bed and talk to Jack when he comes in. "

  "What makes you think he'll listen?" Graham asked, arms wrapped around Allie's waist.

  "Novelty. It's been three weeks since I told him anything he didn't want to hear. "

  When the wind was from the north, like tonight, Jack liked to hang out by the big concrete dinosaurs at the zoo because it only took a minimal glamour to make him look like he was part of the display. When the wind was from the south, he didn't go near the place because his scent made the animals go a little crazy - okay, a lot crazy - and he'd stopped thinking that was funny when Allie'd gone up one side of him and down the other.

  Even without fangs or claws or fire, she could be way scary.

  Sometimes, she reminded him of his mother.

  He didn't miss his mother because his mother was like his mother all the time, and Allie was only like that sometimes. When she was like that, then he missed his mother. Only not in a good way.

  He frowned at the small flock of Pixies fluttering around the pole light.

  His mother didn't care when he went flying or what he destroyed or who he ate. In the UnderRealm, he'd been expected to take care of himself.

  He kind of liked being taken care of. Most of the time, he liked knowing he'd survive the day. But it had been more than a year of days in this world's time and he knew Allie assumed he'd stay and he liked being a Gale, but he also liked being a Prince and a Sorcerer and they were fine with him being a dragon as long as he was careful, but he didn't have subjects and . . .

  "Highness?"

  Okay, maybe he had a few subjects.

  The Courts came through all the time, more than even the Gales knew - not that the Gales cared if it didn't affect the family, they were like dragons that way - but the lesser Fey slipped through with the Courts, and it turned out there were a lot of them here.

  He looked down and frowned. Right here. At his feet. Looking familiar. "What?"

  The Brownie bowed. "I bring a petition asking that you roast . . . "

  "Hold it. " Jack folded his neck and peered down his muzzle - it was never easy focusing on things so much smaller than him. "You're that Market Mall Brownie who's totally baked about the outlets, right? Dude, for the seven millionth time, I'm not destroying your competition. Have a sale or something. "

  "It's a matter of quality, Highness. "

  "Still not going to happen. "

  "You fear the old women, Highness. "

  "Well, duh. " The aunties could send him back to the UnderRealm. Okay, he wasn't sure they could do it without Allie - they'd needed Allie to send his mother and his uncles back - and Allie didn't like to do what the aunties said, but they were all so stupidly weird about the sorcerer thing - even though he almost never used it - that they'd probably send him back anyway as soon as he turned fifteen and their rules said he wasn't a child anymore, but . . .

  "They are keeping you a child, Highness. "

  Was it reading his mind? No way was that allowed. Jack reared back. "You want me to roast someone? I could always roast you. "

  The Brownie turned slightly green. "Highness!"

  Snorting out a cloud of smoke, Jack watched the little weasel scurry away, sent a silent apology to weasels because they were actually pretty cool, and thought that maybe if he was gone long enough, his mother would clutch again and he wouldn't be able to go back. He'd have to stay.

  If they let him.

  Why weren't there ever any easy answers? Questions sucked.

  He spread his wings and launched himself into the sky, a sweep of his tail knocking the head off the concrete Apatosaurus.

  Crap.

  When the charm jerked her awake, Charlie blinked at the familiar shape sneaking past the end of the sofa bed. Blinked again as the night-sight charms sketched on her eyelids kicked in and Jack came into focus. "Have fun?"

  He spun around to face her. "I didn't destroy anything!"

  The sudden billowing cloud of white smoke seemed to argue differently. A wave got rid of the smoke although the scent of dragon lingered. "I didn't say you did. "

  "And I only ate a goose. It tasted like old french fries," he added sounding disgusted. "Even the food here sucks. "

  "There's a reason no one eats those things. And remember . . . " She sat up, legs crossed, sheet pooling in her lap. " . . . if you're not happy here, you can go back to the UnderRealm any time. "

  "I never said I wanted to go back!" Jack's eyes flared gold. "I like . . . " He waved a hand, searching for the words. ". . . you know, stuff. "

  Charlie liked stuff, too. The band. Allie. Family. Calgary. They wrapped around her warm and comforting. She twitched.

  "You okay?" Jack saw fine in the dark without charms.

  "Yeah, I'm good. " Nothing wrong with warm and comforting. "So what brought on today's rebellion?"

  "They won't let me do anything. "

  "At all?"

  "Nothing . . . "

  Charlie thought he was going to say fun - obvious response - and was a little surprised when he shrugged and didn't finish.

  "I want to do something," he said after a moment.

  "What?"

  "I don't know!" Another small puff of smoke. Charlie let this one dissipate on its own. Jack glanced toward the double doors leading to Allie and Graham's bedroom and lowered his voice. "It's just . . . it itches under my skin. "

  Fingers curled to scratch at her shoulder, Charlie dropped her hand back into her lap and didn't ask him what itched. Or if he could also call it a buzz. "The job at the newspaper . . . "

  "Is lame. "

  About to explain that pretty much everything seemed lame at fourteen, Charlie reconsidered. It wouldn't help. And Jack was . . . well, more than just fourteen that was for damned sure. "No promises, but I'll see what I can come up with. "

  "Vague much?" Jack snorted.

  "Butt munch!" Charlie shot back.

  "That makes no sense. "

  "What does?"

  He stared at her for a long moment. "You used to be cool," he muttered and stomped off to his bedroom, the faint whisper of wings following behind him.

  Amelia stared at the pelt draped over Paul's arm. "Is that . . . "

  Paul nodded, holding it out toward her as though he was handling a dead animal instead of just the useful, external bits. "It was on my chair when I got back from setting up the board room. " She could hear a hint of hysteria seeping out around the edges of his voice. "No one saw her come in. Or go out. "

  "Well, they wouldn't, would they?" Beckoning him forward, she hoped he'd reward her trust by postponing his reaction to this evidence of just what exactly they were involved in until he left the building. Only the two of them knew about the arrangement, and she'd like to keep it that way. If he said too much, she was willing to declare the stress of the job pushed poor Paul into a breakdown, but she'd rather not. Who had the time to find a new assistant who was both attractive and efficient?

  "This proves they're vulnerable," she declared as he reached the desk. "And now they know who holds the cards. "

  "Card," Paul amended, nodding at the pelt. Her lack of reaction seemed to have helped to stabilize him.

  "There'll be more. She knows my needs and she's being paid very well to fulfill them. As for our suddenly pelt-less opposition, they've been informed that they're to give their full, and fully visible support to our well off Hay Island. Once drilling has begun, they'll get their property back. "

  "They've been informed, Ms. Carlson? She's dropping off ransom notes?" When Amelia nodded, he shook his head. "Writing this kind of thing down . . . "

  "Means nothing. They can't exactly go to the police, can they?" The fur was surprisingly soft under the longer, coarse, and oily hairs on the surface. This was, Amelia realized, the first time she'd ever touched a seal pelt. "A pity they stopped killing the white coats back in 1987. If they'd kept it up, we wouldn't have this problem. Not to mention, I'd have an upgraded winter wardrobe. " She pulled the heavy skin from his hands, draped it around her shoulders, stroked it thoughtfully, and looked up to see Paul staring at her, brows up. "A little too Cruella de Vil?"

  He held his thumb and forefinger about a centimeter apart. "Just a bit. "

  Charlie's phone woke her at eleven the next morning. Graham, Allie, and Jack had already woken her at seven, eight, and eight-thirty, further convincing her that she had to get her own place. A "Ride of the Valkyries" ringtone modulated her greeting to a fairly neutral, "What?"

  "There's no need to be rude, Charlotte. "

  That, she'd expected. The particular voice, not so much. "Auntie Catherine?"

  "How nice your current lifestyle hasn't entirely rotted your brain," Allie's grandmother confirmed. "I have a proposition for you. "

  "A what?" Charlie rolled over and blinked at the ceiling, scratching under the edge of her boxers where the elastic had dug into the skin. Easier to blame the elastic for the itch. "I mean, what kind of proposition?"

  "You and I are not so different, Charlotte . . . "

  Given the shit Auntie Catherine had put them through, Charlie wasn't inclined to jump on the Wild Powers all together now, rah rah, go us bandwagon. "What kind of proposition?"

  "One that will get you out of Calgary. "

  "I'm happy here. "

  "Please. " That was possibly the most definitive eye roll Charlie had ever heard. "Meet me in Halifax and we'll talk. "

  "Of what?"

  "Ships and seas and sealing wax, tentacles and kings. As if I'd risk the others overhearing. "

  "Is that what's causing the buzz in the line?"

  "Have a coffee and jumpstart your brain, Charlotte. I don't have time for this. "

  Auntie Catherine had a distinctly emphatic way of hanging up a cell phone.

  "Dude!" Charlie smacked the mirror frame on her way by. "Tighten things up. It looks like my skin doesn't fit. "

  In the store, Allie and Joe stood staring at something on the glass counter. Their expressions suggested a hazmat suit might not be a bad idea.

  "A nail?" Charlie asked when she got a little closer.

  "The nail," Allie replied glumly. "For the loss of a nail," she continued when Charlie shook her head. "Horseshoe, horse, battle all lost. This is the nail. "

  "It's rusty. "

  "Don't think that matters," Joe muttered. He wore a mid-thirties glamour these days. Young enough for Auntie Gwen's ego, old enough that public PDAs had stopped attracting dangerous attention. The aunties' response to people stuffing their noses in where they didn't belong was not subtle by several fairly terrifying degrees of not. "It was in a jar with a bunch of screws, nuts, bolts . . . "

  "Nails?" Charlie offered.

  "Yeah. "

  "What's it do?"

  "Nothing until you lose it. Then you lose everything else. "

  "So put it back in the jar and sell it. "

  Allie looked disapproving. "That's a bit irresponsible, don't you think?"

  Charlie shrugged. "Depends on how you're defining irresponsible. Seems like the responsible thing would be to get it the hell out of here. It's not like family's going to pick it up. "

  "Tony, your drummer, he builds stuff, doesn't he? Suppose he came down and bought the jar with the nail in it because he needed some cheap screws and then he took it home and somehow lost the nail and lost his wife and his house and . . . "

  "Yeah. " Charlie cut her off. "I get it. It's dangerous. So what are you going to do with it? Lock it up with the monkey's paw?"

  "No . . . " Allie reached under the counter and came up with a hammer. ". . . I'm going to put it where it can't get lost. " She turned, lifted the signed photo of Boris off the wall, used the claw to pull the more mundane nail, and slammed the lost nail in about two centimeters higher.

  "Gale girls know where the studs are," Charlie said.

  Joe snickered.

  "Why don't you go next door and get coffee," Allie muttered, hanging the Minotaur's photo back up.

  Kenny Shoji looked up as Charlie came through the door of the coffee shop, muttered something that sounded uncomplimentary even at a distance, then moved to the row of urns behind the counter to start filling the tall red mugs he kept for the Emporium staff.

  "So," he said without turning, "you're hanging around again. Wasting your life. "

  "I like my life. "

  "So you say. "

  "I don't feel trapped!"

  He turned then. "Who said anything about trapped?"

  "No one. You just . . . I mean . . . Look, whatever. " She frowned purposefully at the small TV next to the cash register. The mute was on, but the banner across the bottom of the screen announced CBC News at Noon was showing visuals of the Hay Island Seal Rookery. Why did that sound familiar?

  She jumped a little when Kenny set the three mugs down in front of her.

  He looked from her to the television and shook his head. "Bad deal that. Some oil company's been pushing the Nova Scotia government for permits to drill just off the island. All hush hush. Some group that works to protect the seals found out, just about at the last minute, and there were a couple days of protest but they seem quiet now. Lots of oil, the company says, and no one's arguing that, but too close to shore and way too close to the seals if anything goes wrong. "

  "What could go wrong?" Charlie snorted. The visuals changed to an attractive woman speaking earnestly to a reporter. The banner now read Amelia Carlson, CEO of Carlson Oil. She wore the glamour money provided in order to look in her mid-thirties, plumped lips lifted in a smile equally as unreal. "I met some guys up in Fort McMurray . . . "

  "Good for you!" Kenny's face pleated into a thousand wrinkles when he smiled. Even when it was a sarcastic smile. "I hear that's what happens when you hang out in bars. You should watch the news more. "

  ". . . they were from Cape Breton," Charlie continued, ignoring him. "They talked about Carlson Oil trying to get offshore drilling permits. Said the company'd build a refinery and everything. "

  "Lots of jobs," Kenny sighed. "That's hard to argue with. It's always been tough going in the Maritimes. I know money was tight back when I was surfing off the north shore. "

  "Wait. " Charlie moved her attention from the television to the very old man behind the counter. "You used to surf the north shore of Nova Scotia?"

  "That's where I met Robert August. " He pointed to one of the framed photographs on the wall of the shop. It was a signed, black-and-white shot of a young man in board shorts, cutting a sweeping line down a wave. "That was in the summer and the ocean was still cold enough to freeze your manhood off. And speaking of freezing . . . " He pushed the mugs toward her. ". . . take these before they get cold. Oh, and the apartment's free end of September. You can have it if you want it. "

  Sleeping in without interruptions. Practicing without silence charms. Still close enough to Allie's cooking. And bed. Charlie opened her mouth to say she wanted, but nothing came out.

  Kenny shook his head. "I'd cut you off if I hadn't already poured. Your lip is twitching. "

  Auntie Gwen, Auntie Bea, and Auntie Carmen were waiting by the counter when Charlie got back to the store. Joe had left. Apparently Kenny's uncanny ability to know who wanted what coffee could be thrown out of whack by the presence of the aunties. Hardly surprising; whole civilizations could be thrown out of whack by the presence of the aunties. And if some of the stories were true, had been.

  Auntie Bea looked stoic, Auntie Carmen looked concerned, but Auntie Gwen's expression lifted the hair off the back of Charlie's neck. She shot a silent What's up? at Allie, who shrugged an equally silent I have no idea.

  "We just got off the phone with Jane," Auntie Gwen said as Charlie put the mugs down. "And we decided you should be told this in person. "

  "I should be told?" Charlie asked, licking at the coffee slopped on the back of her hand.

  "Everyone here in Calgary needs to be told," Auntie Bea announced. "We're just starting with the two of you. "

  Auntie Carmen shook her head, concerned expression morphing to mournful. She took a deep breath, opened her mouth . . .

  And Auntie Gwen cut her off. "Alysha, your grandfather . . . "

  Charlie moved to Allie's side. Alysha's grandfather, Charlie's Great Uncle Edward, held the same position back in Ontario that David did here in Calgary. Allie adored him.

  ". . . wavered during the ritual at Midsummer. It has been decided, there will be a Hunt. "

 
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