Flight from mayhem, p.19
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       Flight from Mayhem, p.19

           Yasmine Galenorn
 

  But she just laughed. “My young stud? Hunk-a-hunk-a burning love? I told you, I was going to break up with him. I don’t want anything long term and he does. I’m planning on dropping by his apartment in the morning. So I can put a spin on it and play it out like he broke up with me. I can play the dumped girlfriend to the hilt, and make it out that he thought I was too old for him and how horrible I feel and insecure. If the doppelgänger is around, that will give it the perfect opening.”

  Ralph frowned, rapping his knuckles on the table. “It does make sense.”

  “I hate to admit it, but I concur.” Alex rubbed his head. “But don’t you go playing heroine. You keep us fully informed. If this does draw the doppelgänger out, we need to know the minute you think he—it—has made a move. We have to walk a fine line here.”

  “Sure thing, sugar.” Bette took a long drag on her cigarette. Ralph coughed as she breathed out the smoke in a long plume. Just then, my cell phone jangled.

  I glanced at the Caller ID. Chai. “Hello?”

  “You at the office, Little Sister?” The sound of traffic roared past in the background. Where was he, given the streets were fairly empty during this time of night?

  “Yes, I am. What’s up and what’s that noise?”

  “There appears to be a bit of a road race going on, and the cops have just shown up to put a stop to it. But I called you because I was out for a stroll and smelled the salamander. I know where it is and thought if you guys were up for a rumble, maybe we can take the sucker down. He’s got himself trapped inside a fenced-in schoolyard and I slammed the gate on him. He doesn’t realize it yet, but if you get over here, maybe we can take care of the problem. Though I’m pretty certain he’s probably eaten a transient or two by now.” Chai let out a snort. “He looks fat and sassy to me.”

  “Do you think you can gate him back to the plane of Fire?”

  “Only if I have somebody to distract him while I’m setting up the gate. So get over here pronto.” He hung up. I had put him on my cell phone plan and he wasn’t shy about making use of it, even though he knew very few people. He liked playing games on the thing.

  I glanced up. “Salamander is caged and Chai thinks we can take it down if we get over there. Or rather, that he can gate it back to the Elemental plane of Fire if we distract it while he sets up the gate.” At the ding of my phone, I glanced at it. “He just texted me directions. Not far from here, actually—the creature’s got itself stuck in an abandoned schoolyard.”

  Ralph and Alex were on their feet immediately.

  “Tonya, you stay here with Bette and Gerta.” I slipped on my jacket. “Let’s go, boys.”

  As we headed toward the Range Rover, I glanced back at the clock. Four o’clock and all was ready for hell to break loose in the shape of a giant lizard.

  * * *

  By the time we reached the enclosure, Chai had managed to prop the gate shut on it and trap the salamander inside. The lizard was slamming around against the chain link, and it wouldn’t be long before it managed to smash its way out.

  “We’ve got to do something soon,” Alex said. “What’s our next move? I have no clue how to control one of these beasties.”

  Chai eyed the flailing lizard. “I need to open a gate to the Elemental plane of Fire. Chances are, the creature will dive straight through it once it senses it. Usually, Elementals who have been summoned don’t really want to hang around, so it should want to go home. But I can’t get close enough to open the gate without getting hurt, unless you distract it. So I guess . . . act as bait while I open the gate?”

  “You’re a poet—” Ralph started to say, but Chai cut him off.

  “Yeah, yeah . . . just don’t get near its mouth. It might not be a Komodo and have the bacteria they do, but those teeth could sever you in two, wolf boy.”

  Ralph grinned. “Then we play a game of keep-away. Alex and Shimmer and I will take turns distracting it while you set up the gate.”

  Oh, lovely, I thought. Just what I wanted to do with the rest of my evening, but we really didn’t have a choice, so I steeled myself and—as Chai opened the chain-link fence—we swung in behind him. Alex immediately raced over to the right of the salamander, yelling at the top of his lungs and waving his hands. It swung on him, and Chai slipped past it and began setting up for the gate. As the salamander charged on Alex, Ralph ran to the middle and set up a racket. The giant lizard stopped, then turned and lunged at him. I immediately picked up on what they meant by keep-away and—as the salamander careened toward Ralph—I took the left side and pelted it with a nasty rock that was near my foot. And so we went—back and forth, taking turns keeping the thing distracted. I knew this lull wouldn’t last long, though. Pretty soon the creature would get so frustrated it would charge one of us and not pull back. I had the feeling we were rapidly reaching that state.

  I spied a two-by-four and darted forward to smack the hindquarters of the salamander as it nearly caught Ralph in its teeth. As it spun on me, Chai let out a yell. He was standing by a fiery-looking gate—flames were shooting out of the portal. I dashed toward him, the salamander on my tail. At the last minute, I leaped to the side. The lizard paused for a moment, glancing at me, then at Chai, then back at the flames. It flicked out its tongue, eyeing us as if it were deciding whether we were crunchy enough to stick around for, but then apparently decided we weren’t worth the bother and lurched through the gate. Chai shouted some sort of incantation—guttural and harsh—and the gate slammed shut and disappeared with a wisp of smoke.

  “What do you know about that?” The voice took us all by surprise.

  As we all whirled around, a man staggered into view. He was holding a bottle of what looked like whiskey, with a bemused look on his face. “I didn’t realize this stuff was so pow . . . pow . . . strong.” His words were slurred, and I realized he was drunk. He looked like a college frat boy.

  Ralph hurried over to him. “What are you doing here, dude?”

  “I . . . I’m sorry, sir . . .” The college boy fell back, landing on his ass. It was only then that I realized he was wearing what looked like a toga, and from the open slit on the side, I could see a pair of pink panties. I coughed, not knowing what to say.

  “You’re being hazed, right? Pledging to a fraternity?” Ralph let out a long sigh.

  With a nod, our frat boy leaned to the side and vomited on the pavement. I grimaced.

  Ralph glanced over at us. “We can’t leave him out here. He’ll get himself killed.”

  Alex was frowning. “I hate this sort of crap. These organizations think the way to induct members is to make them humiliate themselves, or to put them in outright danger. Look, mate, where are you from? Where do you live?” He made the mistake of smiling, and his fangs peeped out.

  The college kid freaked. “Vampire!” He tried to scramble to his feet, but only tripped over his toga and went sprawling face first. Alex reached down and grabbed him by the arm, hauling him to his feet. He forced the sodden frat boy to stare at him. A moment later, the kid relaxed in his grip.

  “Mate, I just asked you where you’re from and what’s your name?”

  “Westminster House. Western Washington College of the Arts. I’m . . . Curry . . . Curt.”

  “I know where that is,” Ralph said. “It’s a new, very private, very exclusive conservatory. In West Seattle near Alki. Ask him what he’s supposed to be doing?”

  Alex asked him.

  “I . . . I . . . drink the bottle and find my way back.” The boy hiccupped.

  Alex snorted. “I say we take him back and drop him off at the dean’s house.”

  “He’ll get in trouble, and so will the fraternity.” Ralph frowned.

  “Too bad. They deserve to be upbraided for this stunt. Haul him over to the Range Rover, Shimmer, while Ralph and I make sure there are no remaining signs of the lizard.”

 
Chai joined me. He picked up Curt and gently tossed him over his shoulder. “I’ll never understand humans and their need to degrade their own kind.”

  “Dragons are good at that, too.” I hated to admit it, but humans had nothing on my kind when it came to games of humiliation.

  “I know, Little Sister.”

  We situated Curt in the backseat, and Chai crawled in next to him. By that point, Alex and Ralph returned. Alex eased out of the dead-end street and we headed toward West Seattle.

  “At least the salamander is taken care of. One case closed.”

  “For all the good ten dollars a month will do.” Alex laughed ruefully. “But we’ll consider it our good deed for the month.” He sobered. “What do you all think about Bette’s plan? I have a really bad feeling about it.”

  “Yes, Han,” Ralph said.

  “I’m more of a rogue than he was, and my bike is way cooler than the Millennium Falcon.”

  Suddenly getting the reference—I had been watching a lot of movies as of late—I laughed. “You may be more of a rogue, but you aren’t as mercenary.” But then, I, too, sobered. “I don’t like Bette putting herself out on the line, but she’s right. We don’t have a clue as to what to do other than this. There’s no way to find the doppelgänger without luring it in.”

  Ralph let out a long sigh. “Shimmer’s right, Alex. Otherwise, this thing will kill again, and then move on to fresh fields.”

  Chai narrowed his brow. “What are you talking about?”

  I explained Bette’s plan.

  “Dangerous, definitely. The woman is brave. But truly, what else can you do at this point? Ralph is correct—the creature will move on to a different city and try the same game. No matter how much you warn people, when someone is lonely, they don’t want to believe that the person who is offering them love is a fraud.” The djinn shrugged. “Let her try it—we can keep a close eye on her.”

  And with that, we were decided. We delivered Curt to the security at the conservatory, with a plausible story that we had found him running around outside a bar. As he spun his tale of a giant lizard to the man, I put on a wide-eyed have-no-clue look, and the security guard just shook his head and hauled him off to his frat house, muttering something about rich kids.

  After that, we headed back to the office. There, we found that Bette had sent Gerta packing out to the Fae Sovereign Nation known as Talamh Lonrach Oll.

  “I put her in a taxi. I thought that would be the safest place for her at this point. Tonya’s out picking up takeout for us. Well, not for you, sugar lips, but then, you drink your meals.” She winked at Alex.

  “You sure Gerta will be okay with the Fae Queens?” He ignored her taunting.

  “Yeah, they’ll take care of her and hopefully snap her out of moping. What about the lizard?”

  “Sent back to its home.” Chai joined us in the break room.

  Bette nodded. “Then I can close it out on the books and contact Lydia?”

  “Go ahead. Tell her we took care of it.” Alex dropped into the chair at the head of the table, his legs stretched out in front of him. He dropped his head back for a moment, then straightened up and pulled himself close to the table. “Bette, we talked over your plan to bait the doppelgänger.”

  “Don’t you say no—” she started, but he interrupted.

  “It would seem, after much discussion, that we agree it’s the best option.” He gave us a pointed stare. “Some of us agree more reluctantly than others. Provided the creature’s still in the area. We have no way of knowing that. So, if you could set it in motion, maybe we’ll see results. But I want you to promise me . . . to promise all of us . . . that you won’t go anywhere with anybody without checking in. Promise me you’ll be extra cautious. I know you can take care of yourself, woman, but the doppelgänger is smart.”

  Bette stared at him for a moment. “You wouldn’t be so worried if you didn’t think I might be taken in by it. I assure you, I’m not that susceptible to flattery.” She sounded almost insulted.

  He shook his head. “No, you aren’t. But there are other ways to worm yourself into someone’s life. You’ve shown yourself in the Community Center to be someone who can take care of herself, but you also have shown yourself to be someone who has a soft spot for people in need. I’m just thinking this creature may attempt to get to you in some other way . . . through your desire to help out friends in need.”

  Bette frowned, but didn’t contradict him. “Yeah, yeah. I get your drift. I’ll watch myself. Meanwhile, I called Dent and told him we needed to chill things down. I was going to go over there for breakfast, but really, it’s just . . . it’s done. Tomorrow, I’ll have lunch at the center and put our plan into motion.”

  Alex gave her a slow nod. “Until then, what do we have on the docket?”

  Bette tossed a clipboard on the table. “Not much, we’ve closed out most of our current caseload.”

  At that moment, Tonya entered the room, carrying two big bags of food. “I couldn’t decide what to get, so I stopped at a couple all-night joints. We have tacos, and fish and chips. I also picked up a box of doughnuts.”

  Ralph jumped up to take the bags from her. He set them on the table. As Bette and I began unpacking the food, Ralph brought out paper plates and napkins from one of the cupboards.

  I glanced at Alex. “Does it ever bother you to sit and watch us eat?”

  He shrugged. “Once in a while. I do miss food, but it’s been long enough that I don’t give it much thought anymore, love.” With a wink, he added, “Not for you to worry yourself over.”

  Tonya slipped out of her jacket and hung it over one of the chairs, then settled in beside us. “I heard what you were saying. Since you don’t have anything pressing, would you mind hearing me out?”

  “Be my guest, love.” Alex pulled out his tablet and prepared to take notes.

  She filled her plate with a couple of tacos and a fish fillet and fries. “I think I’m being stalked, but I’m not sure.”

  Ralph frowned. “What do you mean, you’re not sure?”

  Tonya took a bite of her fish, then—after swallowing—said, “I’m not sure. I’m not sure if I’m reading the situation wrong, or if there’s really a problem.”

  Alex flashed her a warm smile. “Why don’t you start at the beginning? Maybe we can figure it out.”

  After a moment, Tonya took a long sip of her soda and then let out a long, slow breath. “It started before we met—before you came up to Port Townsend to help Patrick. I have a MyFriend page, like half of America, and I started getting friend requests from people I didn’t know. Some I accepted, because they sounded interesting and we had mutual friends. Others, I didn’t know—they were smarmy guys, or people who wanted me to teach them magic. I refused those. But then, I got a friend request from someone who said he knew my mother. He said that while I was gone—when I moved away—he became friends with her. He told me how sorry he was that she died, and said that he missed her. That she had been like a second mother to him. The whole spiel. So I accepted his friend request. His profile places him at around my age, and he doesn’t have much personal information listed. Mostly that he lives in Gig Harbor, and that he runs a chicken farm.”

  I didn’t know much about social networking, though it seemed to be a huge thing among humans. I did know enough that, if I had decided to create a profile on any site, I would probably be overly paranoid about accepting friend requests. In fact, given my nature, I rather doubted I’d allow anybody on there, so it would be pointless.

  Alex was jotting down notes. “What’s his name?”

  “Jack Skelton. S-K-E-L-T-O-N. At first it made me think of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but that’s Skellington, not Skelton.” She frowned. “His middle initial is P, but I’m not sure what it stands for.”

  “Got it. Go on.”

  “Anyway, so shortly
after I friended him, he sent me a direct message. He told me I was beautiful, like my mother had been, and that he really appreciated all she did for him. It was a little . . . it wasn’t crude or anything, but it implied a lot. I thought maybe it was my imagination, though, thanked him, and left it at that. After that, the messages started in earnest. He began sending me at least two or three messages a week. We should meet for coffee, or he would come up to Port Townsend and take me out to dinner. Again, nothing rude, but I began to cringe when I saw his name. Something just felt . . . pushy?” She shrugged, looking both confused and irritated.

  Bette leaned forward. “It sounds like you felt crowded?”

  “Yeah, sort of like . . . every time I turned around, there he was. Again, the messages weren’t overtly sexual, but they were . . . insistent, I guess the word would be.”

  Alex nodded. “What did you say to him? How did you answer them?”

  “Most of them, I didn’t. At first, before I realized I might have a problem on my hands, I said sure, that a meet-up would be fun. But then I began to get nervous. I started avoiding MyFriend. After a couple weeks when I didn’t go on there, the e-mails started. Now here’s the thing: I don’t have my private e-mail address listed online. I have the one for the shop, yes, but nowhere have I listed my private e-mail addy. I keep that for a few good friends. I have a separate e-mail for online shopping, newsletters, that sort of thing.”

  “And let me guess. He sent his letters to your private address?” I was beginning to get the gist of the problem. The guy had gone out of his way to find info on her.

  She let out a soft sigh. “Yes. He asked where I was—said he missed me on MyFriend. He asked if I was mad at him. I didn’t answer him, but I posted a note on my profile that I was taking an Internet break and that nobody should worry. He stepped up his e-mail campaign then. Was I okay? Was somebody bothering me—it took everything I had to not respond and say, ‘Yes, you are.’ But I didn’t. A week or so after that, he began to get abusive. His language devolved from polite to crude. He said I was a cocktease, and that he didn’t like to be strung along.”

 
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