He turned and climbed back into the car. He hoped that their uninvited guests would be gone by the time he reached home. It shouldn’t take long for Alan to tell them that there were magicians in the world who could call up demons and set them on people. That there were quite a lot of other things happening side by side with the normal world those idiots pretended they didn’t fit into. They had probably just heard the warnings Alan had spread and convinced themselves they needed “occult help.” wop.&rdqu
Chances were, after all, that whatever problem the pair had was imaginary. He turned the engine on. It roared to life, and he pulled away fast from the side of the river where the body was sinking.
Imaginary problems. Must be nice.
By the time Nick had turned the curve past St. David’s station, he was sure Alan was already finishing the usual spiel. He told everyone who came all they needed to know to protect themselves. If Alan had been less eager to help people and more concerned about protecting himself, Nick would’ve felt better.
Nick could almost hear Alan’s voice now.
There are demons living in another world, he would say, a world side by side with ours, and they are hungry.
They are hungry for the sounds and sights and sensations of our world. None of them can get in, though. None of them can touch you, unless a magicians’ circle builds a bridge for the demons. Stay safe. Stay away from the magicians. Stay away from us.
Worked for Nick.
He parked the car, jumped out, and came in angling the door so he could see everything, his sword half-drawn, as he usually did.
Alan’s voice drifted to him through the open door. “So, Mae — is that because your birthday’s in May? Because it’s almost May now….”
Alan had changed the usual spiel a bit, Nick noticed.
He pushed the door all the way open and slid his sword all the way out of its scabbard. This pair had invaded his house. He could scare them if he liked.
“It’s not May like the month,” Mae explained. “It’s Mae like Mae West.”
“Like you wish,” said Nick.
At the same time, his brother glowed and asked, “Are you a movie buff?”
The sitting room was brightly lit and conspicuous for its ordinariness, unlike their kitchen full of broken glass and dead birds. Alan had obviously made everyone a cup of tea, and he and Mae were sitting in the two big, broken-down armchairs. Jamie was perched on the end of their sofa, his tea untouched, as if he did not trust it. Alan was leaning slightly toward Mae, and she twisted her head at the sound of Nick’s voice and looked toward the door.
Nick observed the flicker of appreciation in her brown eyes. He wasn’t particularly surprised. She was just the type to like them tall, dark, and carrying a lethal weapon.
He let his lip curl. That kind of behavior was so stupid, he couldn’t bear it.
“You lot still here?” he asked. “When’s dinner?”
“We have a serious problem,” Mae told him, now looking angry rather than appreciative.
Nick came in, idly swinging his sword, and took a seat on the other end of the sofa. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “And I’m still hungry.”
“I’m sorry about him,” Alan put in, glaring. “He gets cranky.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “I’m only cranky when I’m not fed.”
“So he’s — he’s cranky?” Jamie repeated. “Cranky, and — and he carries a great big sword. Well, that’s marvelous, that is.”
Alan laughed, and Jamie relaxed again. Alan had a knack for that. Parents, bosses, animals, and children, they all liked Alan.
Girls liked Nick. He felt it was a fair trade.
Nick realized that since Jamie was in his class at school, chances were that they were the same age, but Nick had always looked and felt older than all the kids at school, and Jamie was small and wide-eyed: made to be his teacher’s pet and his classmates’ target.
He probably would’ve been less of a target if he hadn’t insisted on wearing lavender shirts and jewelry to school.
Nick didn’t blame Jamie for being nervous around him. Lots of people were, and besides that, Seb McFarlane and his lot were always hassling Jamie, and they were technically Nick’s friends.
Nick thought the kid was stupid for sticking his neck out when he didn’t have to and couldn’t protect himself, but he’d never laid a finger on him. It was a waste of energy; Jamie had never done anything to him, and Alan would have been furious.
He understood anger, though, the restless urge to lash out at anyone that made that little group of bored boys tick. Nick always gravitated to those boys, the troublemakers in every school. The other kids avoided Nick, as if they could smell the violence on him. It didn’t bother Nick; he could smell the weakness on them. These boys thought every danger sign was a show of strength. They weren’t afraid of him, and he needed a group. A boy alone got too much attention.
“So,” Jamie said, apparently now under the impression that he was welcome, “you two live together?”
He jumped a little when he saw the expression on Nick’s face, then edged so far down the sofa he was practically sitting on the arm.
“Yes,” Nick responded, in a voice of ice. “Because he is my brother.”
“Ah,” Jamie said faintly.
“Don’t take that tone with my brother,” Mae said, tilting her chin. “How was Jamie supposed to know? You two don’t look anything alike.”
Nick looked away from her and Jamie, to the mirror over the mantelpiece. It only reflected the lamp against the wall, the light a low sunset color inside the ugly orange lampshade. His grip on his sword tightened.
He didn’t need her to tell him. He knew that.
Mae and Jamie were not much alike, as siblings went. She was on the curvy side, and Jamie was a skinny wretch Nick could have snapped like a twig in one hand. Jamie was blond, and Nick suspected that under the pink Mae was a basic brunette, but they both had the same big brown eyes, the same heart-shaped face. They shared a few markers of kinship with each other, the small signs of shared blood that Nick would have wanted to share with Alan, and not with her.
Alan looked uncomfortable. Nick cleared his throat, and Jamie jumped again, as if the sound was a gunshot. “Alan looks like Dad. I look like Mum.”
It was as simple as that. He fixed both of them with a stare that dared them to ask further questions or make further personal observations. His family was none of their business.
Neither Mae nor Jamie spoke. Alan, however, could never be stopped from talking by any power of God or Nick.
“Now that Nick’s back, why don’t you tell us why you’re here and what you think might be wrong,” he said, still smiling. His eyes creased up behind his glasses when he smiled, until they were nothing but gleams of vivid blue.
It was Dad’s smile, and Alan used it to the same effect Dad always had.
Mae was apparently not immune to the smile. Her face softened and her back straightened as she smiled back.
“Well,” she said. “I’m psychic myself, you see.”
Nick snorted. “Oh, of course you are.”
Mae looked offended. “It’s possible that I’ve grown out of it, but very strange things happened around me when I was younger. Little objects used to smash by themselves, or fly through the air. I didn’t know what was going on, but I’ve researched and I’ve looked for people who might know something, and I’ve heard things about magicians and the demons who give them power. And it’s true, isn’t it? That man you — he’d turned himself into a bird! He was a real magician. It’s all real.”
Sounded like some of the Market people had been talking. Nick wished they could learn to keep their mouths shut, or at least learn not to take advantage of Alan’s soft heart, and stop sending the problem cases his way.
“It’s real,” Alan said, “but I don’t think—”
He looked worried about distressing the lady, so Nick came to his rescue. He leaned forward, looked at Mae, and said, “Let me put things simply so you will understand them. You’re not a magician. You’re an idiot. A few people in this world are born with a certain amount of magic, but they don’t grow out of it. They either learn to control it and keep it a secret forever, or they try to do something with the magic. Which means that most of them become magicians and call up demons. It’s the safest and easiest way to get more power, but there’re also rituals with the dead, and—”
“Rituals with the dead,” Jamie repeated in a faint, stunned voice. Nick turned and looked at him coldly. “I mean,” Jamie said, and swallowed, “how interesting and not at all creepy! Please go on!”
Nick was tired of this. They’d been attacked, they were going to move again, and he didn’t need these people witnessing what a mess his life was. He hated it that they were from his school: that Jamie had seen him trying to read, and now they were getting an illicit peek into his weird world. Afterward they’d go home, safe and warm, and they would think that they’d had an adventure.
He leaned forward and caught Mae’s eyes again, giving her the kind of look that made most people flinch.
“There are the magicians’ messengers, and people who can enchant others with music, and people who can make magical objects,” he explained, his voice low. “But funnily enough, there are no people who grow out of having magical powers. If you had them, you’d know about it. But you don’t know anything, and none of this concerns you. Go home and stop bothering me for no reason.”
Mae did flinch and immediately looked furious with herself. “I have a reason!”
Nick was ready to snap back at her when Alan leaned forward and touched his arm. His grip on his sword tightened, but he fell silent, and Alan said in a much kinder voice than any Nick could’ve achieved, “What’s your reason?”
Mae looked at the floor and said, “I told you. It’s Jamie.”
“It’s crazy, is what it is,” said Jamie. Nick turned to look at him again. Jamie did not seem overjoyed to have captured his attention. He swallowed and made a face, as if someone was forcing something bitter down his throat, and then continued, “It all started with — these dreams. I thought they were just dreams, strange dreams, of someone beautiful outside my window, asking to be let in.”
“A succubus,” Mae put in helpfully. Nick raised his eyebrows at the word and made sure she saw him do so. She frowned at him and continued, “Or an incubus, that’s the word for the men, isn’t it? I’ve read about them, they’re demons who come in the night and basically have their wicked way with you.”
“Their wicked way?” Nick repeated. “My, my. What kind of books have you been reading, and does your mother know?”
Mae glared, and Jamie’s face went scarlet. So did Alan’s. Apparently he’d never heard that there was such a thing as being too sympathetic.
“What happened?” Alan asked quietly.
Jamie looked up from the floor and found something in Alan’s eyes that made him square his shoulders and say, in a steadier voice, “I let him in. And then, in the morning, it was real. I mean, someone had really been there. There was—”
“All you need to do is answer the question,” Nick interrupted. “We don’t need details.”
Mae’s glare intensified, and Nick smiled, feeling pleased and vicious at once. These people shouldn’t have come here. School and home should not overlap. Nick was meant to be normal at school, and this was his place, his brother, his home, even his mad mother rocking upstairs. He did not care about their problems. He only wanted them to leave.
He leaned forward to say something else.
“Nick,” Alan said, and Nick reluctantly closed his mouth. Alan nodded at Jamie to go on.