Flight from mayhem, p.25
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       Flight from Mayhem, p.25

           Yasmine Galenorn
 

  “I can’t drive, I don’t have my license yet and I don’t have a car.” Furious that I had let it go this long, I waded through the ankle-deep water toward the front door. I had no clue where my purse was and I didn’t have time to look for it.

  “Let me grab my purse, I’ll drive you.” Tonya raced back up the stairs.

  I yanked open the front door and a rush of water flooded out and down the stairs, swirling around my ankles as it flowed out of the living room. I ignored the fact that my fish were splashing around, trying to breathe, and that my jeans were soaked through, and took the porch stairs in a single jump, landing on the sidewalk below. Tonya was right behind me, keys in one hand, my purse in the other. As she tossed me the bag, she held out her key fob, unlocking the car doors. I slid into the passenger side and fastened my seat belt. She slammed the door, jamming the keys into the ignition as she turned the engine. Without another word, she eased out of the driveway and we headed toward the office.

  We were halfway there when I managed to find my voice. “I knew it was a bad idea. I knew we shouldn’t have let her go ahead with it. Alex won’t be able to wake up for hours. What the hell are we going to do?”

  “We’ll take things one step at a time. First, you’ll call Chase Johnson. You tell him what’s going on. They will probably meet you over at her boat, to make sure that it wasn’t some run-of-the-mill burglar. You should check the community center as well. Someone there might have seen something. But you need to stay calm because panic isn’t going to help anything.”

  She was right, all panic would do would be to make things worse. I did my best to calm my breathing and clear my head.

  “I don’t understand how the creature knew what we were up to. If Bette never said who she worked for, why would it be suspicious? Or was it just in a panic, looking for a new victim as soon as possible?”

  “I don’t know, and there’s no way to tell at this point. We just have to focus on finding her.” She paused. “I should have brought my cards with me. Maybe Chai can bring them down to the office?”

  “I’ll give him a call. He can just lock up the house and we’ll deal with the mess later.” All my anger at Glenda had vanished for the moment, overwhelmed by my sorrow over my fish and my worry about Bette. I pulled out my phone. Chai answered almost immediately. “Hey, lock the doors and bring Tonya’s cards to the office, would you?”

  “Of course. I’ll meet you there.” He hung up before I could say anything else.

  Unfortunately, traffic was thick, and there had been a nasty fender bender in the middle of an intersection. As we sat there waiting for the tow trucks to clear the area, I began to fret. We were still far enough from the office that it would take me a while to get there if I ran, but there was no way of knowing how long it was going to take for us to get through the quagmire of traffic.

  “Some days it feels like everything is just falling apart,” Tonya said. “Just breathe, and we’ll get through this as soon as we can.”

  “Does this happen to humans a lot? Everything happening at the same time?” Right now, Earthside looked far less glamorous than it had twenty-four hours ago.

  Tonya gave me a sideways look. “I know you’re grumpy, and I know it’s because you’re scared for Bette and you’re mad at Glenda. But sometimes, shit just happens. It’s part of living in the human world. Don’t dragons have the same problem?”

  I didn’t want to admit it, but finally I nodded. “I guess we do. I’ve just never been part of society enough to notice. Whenever anything went wrong after I left the orphanage, it was easy enough to just pick up stakes and move on, to leave the chaos behind.”

  “You really didn’t have any roots back in the Dragon Reaches, did you?”

  I ducked my head, staring at my hands. After a few minutes, I answered. “Not really. Once the Lost and Foundling releases you, you’re on your own. And if you have no background and no relatives, you’re really and truly alone. I would sometimes wander the countryside for months without speaking to a single person. I kept to myself and kept away from the populated areas. I didn’t mind so much, usually. I’m good with my own company. But sometimes, I would pass by an isolated house or a dreyerie and I would see the lights inside, and it would hit me how much I wanted a home of my own. Just to gather around a table with a group of people who wanted me there. Those times, they were hard.”

  Tonya said nothing and I glanced over at her. I was surprised to see a single tear trickling down her cheek. “Are you all right?”

  She sniffled and dashed away the tear. “I’m just sorry that you had to go through that. And given the life span of dragons, even though you’re young, it sounds like you have spent so many years alone. I’m glad you’re here now, and I’m glad that you have friends. People you care enough about drop everything and run to help. And you know, if something happened to you, we would come running.”

  The tow trucks eased the cars out of the center of the road as we sat there. Another couple of minutes and the congestion began to thin out as we edged forward, turning onto a side street. Another five minutes and we were traveling at a decent clip down a back road. And a few minutes after that, Tonya pulled into the parking lot at the office. We dashed out of the car and into the building.

  Ralph was waiting at the front desk. He glanced at us—both Tonya and I had jeans that were soaked up past our knees. Chai was leaning against Bette’s desk, Tonya’s cards in hand. He thrust them at her and she grabbed them and headed into one of the conference rooms. Ralph and I followed, with Chai behind us.

  “Chai told me what happened at your house. I’m sorry. Glenda’s off her rocker for sure. Will insurance cover the damage?”

  “I have no idea. I don’t exactly have insurance against an angry succubus.” I shrugged. “But leave that for later. It doesn’t matter right now. Tell us what happened with Bette.”

  “I headed over to her houseboat. I knew she was supposed to leave for the community center before I got there, but I had borrowed a book from her that she asked me to return. She told me just to leave it in the box she set out for packages next to her door. But when I got there the door was ajar, and I knew something was wrong. Bette never leaves her houseboat unlocked when she’s gone. When I peeked in, I saw the place was trashed.”

  “How do you know it was the doppelgänger? How do you know it wasn’t some burglar that broke in?”

  “Her cell phone was on the floor and it had been smashed. I called down to the community center and asked if she was there. They said she never showed up. I looked everywhere in the boat and she was nowhere to be found. Her purse was missing, as well. I know, because she’s very attached to that leopard-print satchel and never goes anywhere without it. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I also found a roll of duct tape on the floor. It wasn’t new—about half of it looks to be missing.”

  “Have you called Chase yet?”

  Ralph nodded. “He and his men are on their way to her boat. I didn’t want to leave the office without someone here. Tonya, do you mind staying here in case someone calls? Shimmer and I should head over to Bette’s boat and meet the cops there.”

  “Not at all. Go. Take Chai with you, since Alex is still asleep.” She glanced at the clock. “When is sunset tonight?”

  “Around seven fifty. Damn daylight saving time.” Ralph pushed back his chair. “Chai, Shimmer, let’s get moving. Tonya, in case anybody calls about Bette, or on the off chance that she manages to get a call through to us, let us know immediately.”

  As we headed out the door, I found myself praying that a burglar had found Bette at home. Because she stood a better chance against a thief than against the doppelgänger.

  * * *

  Chase Johnson and his men were waiting at the boat for us. I had been to Bette’s houseboat a few times, and had seriously thought about buying one for myself. But I needed more space, and I would never be happ
y being cramped inside such a small vessel. On the other hand, it would be nice to have a boat that I could take out into the sound to make it easier when I wanted to go swimming in my natural form.

  “I’ll wait on the dock—that place looks too small to fit me along with everybody else,” Chai said.

  We nodded, leaving him right outside as the rest of us cautiously entered the boat, trying not to disturb anything.

  Chase motioned us in. “Come on in. We’ve taken all the evidence we can find. There are so many fingerprints in here that it would be useless to check them all. Anyway, we’re pretty sure it’s the doppelgänger.”

  My blood froze. “Why do you say that?”

  “First thing, I called the bank. Her savings account has been wiped clean, at least the one attached to her checking. Apparently she had several other accounts, and those are still safe. I told the bank to freeze all of her other assets.”

  “Then the creature was looking for money as quick as he could get it. How the hell did he work so fast? Wait . . . she never made it to the Community Action Council. So . . . it had to be waiting for her.” We explained to Chase what our plan had been.

  “I wish you had checked with me first. But then again, I’m not sure what else we could’ve done. Are you sure that she wasn’t in contact with the doppelgänger before this and didn’t know it? That it didn’t overhear her talking about the case?”

  I thought it over. Who had been around when we had been making plans? Tonya, but there was no worry with her. No, there had been somebody else . . . someone who . . .

  “There’s only been one person that I can think of who knows about all of this. And who might know that Bette was going to try to lure the creature out. But there is no way that she would betray us.” I glanced over at Ralph. “I’m thinking of Gerta, the Golden Frog. She was there when we were talking about this, although I think that Bette had taken her in the back to lie down.”

  Ralph paled. “I think I’m having the beginnings of a horrible thought. We need to contact Talamh Lonrach Oll. We need to find out if Gerta is still out there.”

  “What’s going on?” I wasn’t tracking his thought process.

  “What if the doppelgänger was still there when we got to Stone Weaver’s house? What if it had killed not only Stone Weaver, but Gerta?”

  I felt like he had punched me in the gut. Slowly lowering myself into a chair, I whispered, “Oh no. You’re thinking that we brought back the doppelgänger instead of Gerta? Please don’t tell me that we could have made such a huge mistake. How could she have cried golden tears? I didn’t think that doppelgängers could assume the powers of the creatures they kill and mimic.”

  “There’s a whole lot we don’t know about them.” Ralph was growing more pale by the second. “And when you think about it, we jumped to the idea that we’re dealing with the doppelgänger. Suppose there are more types than one? Suppose that we are dealing with a creature that has powers similar to a doppelgänger but isn’t the same? What then?”

  His suppositions ricocheted through me. He was right. We hadn’t even bothered to think of any other possibilities. We had jumped directly on the idea that we were dealing with a doppelgänger, and even then—we had assumed we knew everything that doppelgängers were capable of. I let out a sigh and stared at the table, not knowing what to say.

  Chase was listening to us, and now he leaned his hands on the table, staring into my eyes. “Do you mean to tell me that you might have made a mistake? That we might not be dealing with a doppelgänger at all?”

  “It appears that might be the case. I’m not sure.” I stumbled over my words. If only Alex were here to take control of the situation. He knew how to talk to humans better than I did. And Ralph wasn’t being much help. While the man was brilliant, he was socially awkward and right now he seemed wrapped up in tapping away on that stupid tablet of his. I swallowed, trying to think of something to say.

  “One thing is obvious,” Chase said, his voice softening. “Whatever we are facing, it can take on the visage of its victims. And it’s dangerous, and greedy.”

  “Do you think Bette’s phone was broken by accident, or on purpose?” I tried to think of some practical question that could give us some sort of information or lead.

  “Oh, I’m pretty sure that it was broken on purpose. It looks like something heavy and hard stepped on it. I’m guessing somebody wearing boots.” He relented then, sitting down opposite me. “So tell me, if it’s not a doppelgänger, then what else could it be?”

  That was a question to which I had no answer. I looked over at Ralph. “Do you have any idea?”

  He shrugged. “Offhand, no. But you know what? Tonya, who is back at the office, has that wonderful bestiary. Remember? The book she had up in Port Townsend?”

  “Of course!” I snapped my fingers. The volume was huge and magical. It had also been bound with a cover made of dragon leather, which gave me the creeps, but there wasn’t much I could do about that.

  “She had to have brought it with her, it’s one of her most prized possessions.” I looked around the living room. Bette had an eye for decoration, and as garish and flamboyant as her clothes were, her house was equally snug and cozy. “Let’s head back to the office, if there’s nothing else we can do here. Chase, do you want to come with us?”

  “I might as well, if you think Tonya can help.” As we stood and headed to the door, he glanced over his shoulder. “You know we’ll do all we can to find her before . . . well, before anything happens.”

  “We know,” I said. “We know.”

  * * *

  Tonya was waiting for us on our return. As we came through the door, she jumped to her feet where she was sitting behind Bette’s desk.

  “Did you find anything? Did you find her?” She scanned our faces, then slowly sat down again. “I guess not.”

  “Since you are sitting back there, can you figure out where Bette keeps her phone numbers? We need to find the phone number for the Fae Sovereign Nation. Its actual name is Talamh Lonrach Oll. We need to contact them and ask them if Gerta is still out there.” I leaned across the counter as Tonya began to search through the papers on Bette’s desk. A moment later she came up with an old-fashioned Rolodex.

  “Here it is,” she said as she flipped through the cards. “Do you want me to call them? I’m not sure what to tell them or who to ask for.”

  Ralph reached for the phone. “Hand the receiver to me and punch in the number. I’ll talk to them.” Tonya did as he asked. A moment later, they must’ve come on the line because Ralph shifted, straightening his shoulders as if he were talking to a teacher. “My name is Ralph Spangler, and I’m with the Fly by Night Magical Investigations Agency. We sent a member of the Elder Fae out there earlier. Her name is Gerta, the Golden Frog. We were wondering if she is still there and if we can talk to her?”

  After a pause, the smile vanished from his face. “I see. Well, thank you. Can you tell us anything else—it’s extremely important, a matter of life and death.” Another moment passed, and then another, and finally he murmured good-bye and hung up the phone. We waited as he stood there, shaking his head.

  Finally, I had to ask. “What did they say?”

  “Gerta appears to have murdered a couple members of the guard and then vanished. They have cast out magical nets to dispel illusions. Nobody appears to be out of place, so there’s a good chance that she’s no longer within the confines of the land. This happened early this morning. That would have given her enough time to reach Bette’s place.”

  I explained what we suspected to Tonya. “We need to know if you can tell us anything. Do you have your bestiary with you?” I was praying she would say yes.

  After a moment, Tonya nodded. “I’d never leave that behind. It’s too valuable. It’s actually in my suitcase at your place.”

  “I’ll be right back.” Chai turned and the
n vanished.

  Ralph paced back and forth. “The creature is devolving, whatever it is. But there has to be a reason why it took Bette with it. Otherwise, I would’ve expected to just find her body. The duct tape actually gives me hope.”

  “What do we know about Bette? Besides the fact that she probably has quite a bit of cash accumulated? Is there any other reason why it would have taken her hostage?”

  Ralph paused, as if unsure whether to answer. After a moment, he said, “I haven’t even talked to Alex about this. I didn’t want to alarm him or to stir up something that is better left alone. But I think there’s more to Bette than meets the eye.”

  “What you mean? Why do you say that?” He seemed pretty sure of himself, so I knew that he must know something.

  “One time, oh—about a year ago—I happened to come back early from investigating a case. Alex asked me to start writing up our reports while he finished up at the scene. The door was locked, which was strange because we were open for business. So I unlocked it, but I guess I was pretty quiet, because when I came in, Bette was sitting at her desk in a trance. I saw a tall glowing figure standing in back of her with its hands on her shoulders. The figure was shining so bright I had to shade my eyes. I guess I startled it, because the next moment there was a flash and it vanished. The shock wave from it knocked me off my feet, and when I stood up Bette was going about her business as usual. She glanced over at me, and asked what I had tripped over when I came to the door. I started to ask her what the hell was going on, but something kept me from speaking. I physically could not ask the question. So I tiptoed around the subject and realized that she had no clue about what had happened. I started thinking maybe I had imagined the whole thing.”

  “Why didn’t you tell Alex?”

  He shrugged. “I don’t know. Honestly, I was going to and then . . . I never did. Every time I thought about it, something came up to distract me. Until now.”

  “You mean, we’re the first people you’ve told about this? You never once mentioned this to Bette?” Tonya was frowning.

 
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