Six years after The Rescue……
“This is beautiful”
The stubby little man in front of me holds my dagger up. Afternoon light falling through high windows dance over the hilt. Ivory glowed, gold blazed, gemstones flickered with hidden fire – a beautiful weapon in the hands of a monster. It was almost poetic.
“Ivory?” He asks, his face turned up so that light illuminates his craggy, pock-marks.
“Yes, and the inlay is gold.” I answer averting my eyes to the dagger, because that face is a lot of ugly.
“The stones on the hilt?” The pudgy hand moves, turning the stones up.
“Real.” I answer, wishing I could see my watch, “Ruby, sapphire, and emerald.”
“It must be valuable.”
The beady eyes squint, “There’s an inscription.”
“Yes, it translates, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’“It was used by the Catholic church to torture witches in the fourteenth century.”
His beady bloodshot eyes swing to me where I was hogtied to one of the huge 14th century chairs that sat in the great hall of McGovern Castle. My hallowed halls, my burden to bear, my birthright, and a lifetime ago, the place I called home.
And soon to be the place this man will take his final breath.
I nod in the direction of the far left wall, the one with the portraits of all the McGovern Lairds, “They tortured my ancestor with it before they tied her to a stake and set her on fire. She was convicted of witchcraft.”
The troll shuffled over to the wall. He was fascinated. My warped family history, a built in stall for time. I figured I needed about ten more minutes. Piece of cake.
Troll boy shuffled along the wall, “Which one?”
“Mckenna McGovern, a little ways to your left.”
He made his way down and studied the portrait I’ve been fascinated with since childhood. I just waited. It usually took a few seconds for people to see it.
“Shit!” Warty’s bauble-head swings back and forth between me and the portrait, “She looks…”
“Like me, yes, except for the hair.” The first Mckenna McGovern’s hair was inky black. Mine is a dark auburn, but the rest, the pale skin, the full mouth, the eyes a green so dark they appeared black – yes, we looked remarkably alike. When I give my annual tours of the castle, it was always a highlight to see me standing next to her.
Wart-man scuttles back to me on his stubby legs, “How did you end up with it?”
Yep, he’s hooked. “After she died, a plague-like illness hit the village. Thing was the only people affected were the two priests who tortured her, the Bishop who pronounced her guilty, the people who testified against her, and the man who lit the peat. They all became ill and died before the turn of the next full moon, exactly as my ancestor said they would when she cursed them from the flames.”
Beady eye’s narrow, “Poison.”
Ah, possibly he’s not as stupid as he looks, “Yes, very good, poison. She had three daughters and all McGoverns, even to this day, are highly skilled with poison. They must have taken the dagger off one of the priests after they killed him.” I shrug, “It’s been in the family ever since.”
“And now it passes to me.”
Please. I’d have that dagger back from his grubby hand in …oh I’d say….three and a half minutes.
One of Wart-Man’s toadies stumbles into the hall from the outer courtyard. I turn as far as I can in the chair, which isn’t far, and can just make him out. Hmm, not looking good.
“Boss, the men are sick or something.”
“What?” Warty turns around, annoyed at the interruption.
The man stumbles forward, “Look,” He extends his hand. I crane my neck to see around Stubby. Yep, he’s got the tremors, won’t be long now.
Warty studies him for an instant, then his head swings to me again, “You.” Nope, not as stupid as he looks. Still plenty dumb, though.
“Me. Although, I can’t take the credit. I’ve never been much of a brewer, but my youngest sister was some kind of prodigy. This is a new one of hers. It’s trans-dermal. Everybody always wants to touch the money…”
Warty cuts me off when his pudgy fist connects with my jaw. It was a hell of a punch. Pain explodes in my face and shoots from my teeth and up into my skull. My head snaps back and my vision dims. I taste blood. My lip burns. The gray fades and I’m staring at the hideous face inches from my own, “I’m going to kill you slow.”
“You could try that, but…” I’m interrupted by a gurgling sound and then the man in the room with us goes stiff as the cadaver he’s about to become and falls forward like a tree. Paralysis has set in, death won’t be far behind, “I don’t think you have that kind of time,” I nod down at his hand that’s still holding the dagger, “The tremors have started, won’t be long, but if you cooperate with me I can…”
My words are cut off again. This time by rapid gun fire.
No, that’s not possible, but my ears are telling me it is. No mistaking that rat-a-tat-tat. Dammit. “What the fuck?” I strain against the ropes, attempting to turn far enough to see behind me and through fifteen foot double arched doors to the courtyard where Toady’s men are gathered and should be peacefully laying down and dying. There should not be gunfire. No gunfire. None. Zero. Zilch.
More gunfire. Lots more. Oh, that really pisses me off, “Goddess be damned!” I spin back to the head toad in charge, wincing as the ropes twist and move, burning me through the my flannel shirt “What the hell time is it?”
Toad-Man blinks at me. Yeah, plenty dumb. “Shit, never mind.” I peer into the beady eyes and hope for a sliver of intelligent life, “Listen to me, the good guys are out there. They have big guns and your men are dying. You are dying. They’ll be in here in minutes. If you want to live, cut me loose and get us out of here.”
He looks at the door and back at me and at the door again.
“Fuck, fuck fuck a fucking damn duck!” Why, why can’t people follow simple instructions? Military people are supposed to be good at taking orders. I whip up a sloppy plan b. I need to get scuttle-but on board now, “HEY!”
Toad man swings his head back to me, “You. Are. Dying. I need you alive.” For a little while anyway, “I’ve got the antidote. We’ve got about three minutes to give it to you.”
The gunfire is growing steadily louder. I can hear shouting now, the special forces team that is supposed to show up five minutes from now getting closer, “Come on, Wart-man, we don’t have much time.”
Finally he moves. Grabbing the gun his minion dropped on the floor, he takes my dagger and one handed, slices through my bonds. Pulling me up, he pushes me in front of him, towards the gunfire, “No dammit, you’re going the wrong way. There’s a passageway…”
“Shut up! You’re my way out.”
Goddess, I’m surrounded by idiots, “Out won’t do you a damn bit of good. You’ve been poisoned. You need the antidote.”
“Stevros,” The shout coming from the courtyard cuts me off. “Your men are dead and dying. Come out and let’s make a deal.”
I recognize that voice. Luke Sawyer. The guy who was supposed to be where I am right now, only he was late and now he’s panicked and moved early, leading the idiot brigade and shooting my brilliant, full proof, poetic plan all to hell.
“Back off, or I kill the witch.” My idiot shouts.
I feel compelled to correct him. I have a thing, “I’m not a witch. We’re pagan.”
“Shut up.” The troll jerks me in front of him and continues his march of stupidity straight into the firing squad.
“Stay out of this, Kane.” Luke one-man-fuck-up-your-plan Sawyer yells over the sounds of his men popping lead into men who are for all intents and purposes already dead.
We are so going to have a nice little game of kick-ball later.
“I don’t take orders from you, Sawyer.” I shout back, picturing him on the ground writhing in pain. I get a warm fuzzy feeling, “And while we’re on the subject, can you not tell time? I instructed you to wait until the top of the hour. You screwed up everything.”
Butt-Ugly jerks my arm, “I said, shut up.”
And that is my idiot limit for the day. I spin around to face him, “You know what? How about you shut up.”
Troll gets in one more jerk before he goes suddenly stiff. I have a split second to smirk at him and grab my dagger back before he falls sideways, but his hand is still attached to my arm and he pulls me along with him. At the same time somebody decides to shoot. Only problem is now I’m standing where he was aiming. I feel burning hot pain in my shoulder, the impact shoving me back as the petrified troll yanks me down. Screaming like a little girl, because dammit, getting shot hurts, I hit the ground on top of a paralyzed, but still breathing Troll.
Well, shit. I’ve been shot. I don’t see how the hell anybody could have gotten a shot off. Then I see the small narrow strips of light coming from long thin windows. Five on each side of the door. Deeply recessed into the stone walls. I forget about those. Back in the day they were free of glass so that archers could fire arrows at invaders. Fourth window down on the left side of the door. The glass was shattered. That glass was from the early seventeenth century. I’ll never be able to replace it. Dammit.
My vision goes wavy. The wet stickiness of blood seeps from my shoulder. Right, I’ve been shot. Focus.
I need time. Taking the chance that since we’ve hit the floor the men can’t see us I shout, “You missed dumbasses. Stop shooting before you get me killed. He’s got a gun to my head.”
Hoping that buys me a couple minutes, I take off my bracelet. The McGoverns have taken the medieval poison ring and run with it. We have a whole line of poison jewelry that my sister, Allie designed and had made for us. Popping open one of the chunky god pieces. I take out the tiny plastic bubble, hold it over one of Warty boy’s staring eyes and squeeze the antidote. My Granny Rose was a stickler on this. We never pack a poison we don’t have an antidote for. It limits us, but the insurance is worth it.
The gunfire gets closer. Blood rolls down my arm and onto my hand and shit, I need more time.
“Don’t you dare come in here, Swanson.” I yell over my shoulder, “He says he’ll kill me. And if I die Gavin will rip you apart.”
“Stavros that would be stupid.” Sawyer yells back. Then he starts saying stuff they always say in hostage situations. I tune out all the Come on outs and don’t make it harder. You know there’s no way out. Blah blah…. Swanson’s stalling until his men can find another way in. Fine good. Perfect.
Under me, Stavros coughs.
I hold the dagger, point down, over one black beady eye, “Where are they?”
The eye stares back at me, putrid with hate, he chokes out a rasping, “Ffffuck you…”
“Wrong answer.” I slide the dagger across his open eye like a pencil on paper. He tries to scream, but can’t get enough air.
Torture doesn’t appeal to me for its own sake but I’m out of time. Time. I turn and yell over my shoulder, “He says he’ll make a deal. He knows where the girls are. He says they’ll die if you don’t get to them in under two hours.”
Swanson shouts for him to let me go and something about good faith gestures Sheesh it’s like he got the script from some corny action movie. It will buy me maybe three minutes. Good enough.
I give my full attention to Warty, “I gave you a partial antidote. It is just enough to delay death for oh…. about four hours. You won’t be able to move and every breath will be a struggle. It will become more and more difficult to breathe as the antidote wears off and you will suffocate to death.”
Eyes that were filled with hatred are now dancing back and forth in panic, instinctively searching for a way out.
As disgusting as it is I lower my face until I am all he can see, my blood drips onto his cheek. I stare into the monster’s eyes and allow my own monster to slip her leash.
As she surfaces, I lay one hand on his cheek, and with the tenderness of a mother kissing her child goodnight, I whisper, “It is an excruciating way to die.”
The terror of recognition fills his eyes.
“Do you see me?” I tilt my head, I feel a smile stretch my lips, “I see you.”
And I see the exact moment the survival instinct takes over. The desperate desire for life drowning out all higher brain function. Yes, he sees me. Very very good.
“Tell me where they are.” The monster whispers stroking his cheek turning slick with her blood, “You know they will make a deal to get to him. You can live out your days in prison or you can suffocate to death. It is your choice, but you must choose quickly.”
What I’m saying doesn’t add up, but he’s too far gone to see the inherent flaw in my plan. Desperation makes people gullible.
He struggles to take in air, tries to form a word. Tough to do when you can’t breathe.
“Slowly.” I slide my hands under his neck opening the airway. My blood is coating my arm. A wave of nauseating dizziness sweeps over me.
That is not good. I’m running out of time. I lower my head turning so my ear is at his mouth, “Breathe in and say the word on the exhale.”
Two shuddering painful breaths later, he spews forth one barely audible sound, “Prague.”
I knew it, My vision blurs. I swallow down bile, “Where in Prague?”
Horrible rasping wet sounds become words, “Hos…tel…. K… 5.”
A photo from the numerous piles of evidence I’d been sifting through for days slides sluggishly to the forefront of my mind. I swallow again, “Hostel K5?”
Another rasping sound that means yes.
A youth hostel. A hostel I’ll bet none of victims had ever visited. No, they were taken there to be sold.
“I believe you.”
Relief fills his beady eyes. I slip the dagger back in the sheath under my wrist and reach for the gun that still rests in his hand. A large klunky handgun he’d been uselessly struggling to lift the entire time he lay there struggling to breathe. I slide the gun slick with my blood, loose from his grip, hold it over his head between his eyes and watch relief become terror. Then, while he choked on my blood and his own pleas for mercy, I pulled the trigger.
Gore flies up in an explosion of blood, tissue, and bone. I feel it spatter my face. And the monster that had hurt so many innocents became an inert sack of blood and bone. I pull my own monster back. Satisfied, she settles to sleep. A ghostly presence slumbering in my consciousness.
Yep. Plenty dumb. And that is a lot of blood on the floor. It was my last thought before I fell forward into the gray mist sliding over my eyes.
“Goddammit, Go, go!”
A sharp pain and shouting. I’m being jostled and jerked. I try to open my eyes. My lids flutter but the light shoots into my brain. I try for speech, but I can’t get words out, my throat’s so dry.
“Sshh, babe don’t try to talk. You just stay with me. You hear me Mckenna, you will stay here with me.”
“Gavin.” Thank the Goddess. I breathe and say the word on the exhale, “Prague.”
“Babe you can’t talk.”
I breathe again, “Girls..”
“The girls. The ones he was selling…”
“Prague. Hostel K-5 No time.” They would die. The evil that held Stavros’ leash wouldn’t leave anything to chance. They had hours, maybe.
“Right, okay babe I’m on it.”
“All alone. Dark.” Children should never be left alone in the dark.
“Ssshhh….we’ll get them. Hostel-5 in Prague. I swear to you, babe. We’ll get them Mckenna. I promise.”
Gavin never breaks a promise.
I let go and fall under again.
Voices pepper my consciousness.
“What the fuck was she doing in the middle of all this, man?”
“I don’t know, but I’m damn well going to find out.”
“You’re lucky the bullet went clean through. That tourniquet saved her life.”
“And that’s the only reason Sawyer’s still breathing.”
Through the swirling confusion in my mind, I remember something about that name Sawyer. “Kick-ball,” I rasp through papery lips.
“Mckenna?” I hear rustling next to me, and a gruff voice familiar and gentle, “Mckenna baby, can you hear me?” A large, warm hand takes my cold one, “Dammit she’s like ice.” That same voice, barking out orders, “Get me some blankets in here, and turn up that heat. She gets cold! I told you!” Then that tender voice is back, “Baby, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand.
All I can manage is barely a twitch, but it seems to please the gruff voice, “That’s good sweetheart, that’s perfect.” Then Gavin McIntyre leans down and tells me what he knows I have to hear, “We got them. All of them Twenty-three. They’re safe.”
A strange mix of relief and sadness settle in me. Safe now, but forever changed. Scarred by a darkness they should have never known.
“Sleep Mckenna, I’m right here.” I feel warm breath and the brush of lips on my brow,
“Okay.” I rasp, and sink again.
“……. told you everything I know, I swear. She never gave us details, didn’t want us getting in trouble.”
I wake to Lena’s dry voice
“You know, on account of how mad you got last time.” That was Christy.
“Yes, I recall.” Gavin.
Uh-oh, somewhere in my befuddled mind it registers that I’m in trouble.
“She worries Gavin, more than we do,…” Allie’s signature huskiness.
“And that makes this okay?” Gavin whispers a bellow, “She nearly bled out. Fuck, her heart stopped.”
“My heart stopped?” I hear rustling footsteps. My eyes flicker open to see four anxious faces looking down at me. Three identical sets of blue eyes, and one set of hazel.
“Where am I?”
“Warrick Hospital in the thriving town of Warrick, North of Whales.” Lena answers.
Like magic a cup appears in front of me, held by a perfectly manicured hand, “Sip it slowly, Mac.”
Allie advises as I go to sit up, but before I can, strong arms are lifting me and the head of my bed is being elevated, the old fashioned way, with a crank.
“You can’t put pressure on that shoulder yet, Mckenna.” Gavin’s warm breath stirs my hair, one hand brushing lightly over the shoulder that has now begun a dull throbbing ache.
I take the cup, from Allie and go to take a sip, but my brain picks that moment to wake up and all the memories flash behind my eyes, “Sawy ..”
It’s all I can sputter. The water goes down the wrong pipe, leading to a fit of coughing, wracking my body, setting off sharp shooting pains in my shoulder. With a muttered curse, Gavin leans me forward and holds me so my body doesn’t quake, easing my shoulder until the coughing passes.
“That fucking idiot.” I spit out as soon as I can get air into my lungs “He fucked up everything. Where is he? I’m going to make sure he can’t pass that idiot gene on to future generations.”
“Uh, well,..” Christy ducks her head.
“You see,…” Allie makes a big deal of putting my cup back on the tray.
“He’s one floor up.” Lena’s answer earns her a glare from Allie.
Since Lena’s my only source I look to her for my follow up, “Did he get shot?”
“No,” Her crop of dark hair swings with her head shake, “He made it through the fire fight, what there was of it, just fine.”
“You don’t need to worry about Sawyer.” Gavin interrupts, gently placing me back on the bed, “You concentrate on getting better. Then you can explain to me just what in the hell you were doing in the middle of one of the most dangerous operations to capture one of the most dangerous criminals ever to be wanted by the FBI, CIA, Interpol… fuck you name it, and baby, it better be good.” Gavin’s eyes blaze down at me and even though his voice never lost that gentle gruffness, I know he’s pissed. And honestly, I don’t blame him. It’s why I’m always so pissed at him.
“I’m sorry.” My voice is thick with tears. I tell myself I’m emotional from blood loss. His hazel eyes turn a molten, his hard masculine face softening, he lowers his head, “Get better, Mckenna.” He brushes his lips across my forehead. Then rises and heads for the door, “I’m going to let the doctor know you’re awake.”
But watching his retreating back I feel the old fears rise, “Gavin…”
He looks back at me, “The plane’s ready to go. The doctor is going to come check you out, and then we’re out of here.”
It’s not enough, “You’re coming right back?”
“Count to a hundred,” He refers to the trick we’ve used since my childhood, “I’ll be back,…”
“Before I get to fifty.”
I blow out a breath, my eyes closing in relief.
“Hey, what are we? Chopped liver?” Lena breaks in on my count. I was at five.
I open my eyes to see my sisters staring at me, I shrug, “It’s different.”
“Yeah, I know.” Lena nods smiling grimly, then under her breath, “Just how different is the question.”
“Nothing Mac,” Allie sniffs, leaning in and fluffing my pillow. I get a whiff some expensive fragrance, “Ignore Lena, she’s got crazy ideas in her head.”
“Crazy, huh? You do remember Sawyer’s upstairs.”
“Not our business.” Allie insists.
“We did agree….” Christy’s soft voice from the other side of the bed.
“Yeah, yeah, fine.” Lena relents to whatever the hell they’re talking about, slumping in the uncomfortable looking chair in the corner.
“Somebody want tell me what’s going on.”
Lena speaks up again, “Sawyer has six broken ribs, a fractured jaw, and what else, oh yeah, a spectacular broken nose.”
“Gavin beat the crap out of him.”
“Gavin? Gavin McIntyre?”
“The very same.” Lena confirmed, Allie shooting daggers at her.
“Um Sawyer shot you, you know….” Christy murmured from my other side, almost reluctantly.
No I didn’t know, but hell, he screwed up everything else so it made a crazy kind of sense.
“It was an accident.”
“Yeah, well Gavin didn’t care. He was beyond pissed.” Lena lost her usual sardonic expression to plain old freaked, “I’ve never seen him like that. Six years ago was nothing. I really thought he was going to kill him.”
“Gavin doesn’t like it when you get hurt, Mac.” Allie pointed out, timidly.
A soft snort escapes me, “He doesn’t like it if any of us get hurt. That’s just Gavin.”
“Not like this, with you,….” Allie trailed off.
I blink at her, “What?”
All three of my sisters, “It’s different.”
Five days, and a lot of pain meds later, back home, with the morning sunlight streaming through the lace curtains in my bedroom. I’m propped up on pillows in the massive four poster bed that’s been in my family for over four hundred years. I square my shoulders, take a deep breath and face the inquisition.
“You will tell me everything. You will leave nothing out, and do not even think of lying to me.”
I wince, “There’s not much to tell.”
“Really?” Gavin raises one eyebrow, his 6’5” frame squeezed into my favorite reading chair that I’ve always thought of as big until now.
“No, after the whole bitch-slut incident. Some guy from the Government approached me.
I try for nonchalance hoping that it will make it not a big deal that I’ve been working for everybody from the CIA to Homeland Security to the DC police, and apparently Interpol, for the last six years. If the red color of Gavin’s complexion in any indication, I’m going to have to lower that bar.
“Really?” his voice is deadly quiet.
“And just what was this guy’s name.”
“Mckenna now isn’t the time to try my patience.”
“He said I could call him Bart.”
“Okay, and what did Bart say?”
“He, uh…” I study my nails, that unlike my sister Allie’s, are too short and stubby and never painted. “He said that he would keep me updated on everything you do, everywhere you go, everything. If I would help out occasionally.”
Gavin went from red to puce, instantly, “What?”
And I decide I just can’t sit around and wait for the inevitable explosion, so I blow first, “Dammit Gavin Ian McIntyre, don’t you dare get all pucy and shouty with me. You caught us, the gig was up. We wouldn’t be spying on you anymore, and you were right, okay? It was stupid. I knew that, but I let them do it anyway, because, I couldn’t stand not knowing.”
I turn away from him, and stare at the wall, usually the soothing colors in this room, cream and a soft sage green, help calm me, it’s not working today. Having to face the demon that is the insanity of my mind is too much, but I keep my eyes on it anyway and hope for the best.
“Okay Mckenna.” Gavin sensing I’m at my limit. Let’s it go, “Okay Mckenna.
We sit in the quiet.
“Why did you poison them Mckenna?”
The question surprises me. The answer is so obvious, “So they would die.”
Gavin just stares at me, blinks and stares some more, then blinks again.
“I’m a McGovern.” I remind him.
Resignation slumps his shoulders, “Right. Tell me about it how did you get involved in this?”
“Bart brought me a box. That’s the way he always did it. He would bring me everything in a box. I like to work from hard copies.”
“Girls were disappearing. Lots of girls in eastern Europe.”
“That’s nothing new, babe.”
That is a sad truth.
“One was the daughter of someone important. I don’t know.”
“A member of the consulate.”
“That sounds right. She didn’t fit the profile. It made no sense. Unless…”
“Unless she knew something.”
“So I started pondering what could she know? That led me to what it would take to smuggle human beings across borders so effortlessly. “
“A corrupt official.”
“Yes, Stavros was in a perfect place to do it. It was a brilliant plan you know. I worked the theory right in front of him. Went over the entire thing. Then said it didn’t matter who the inside man was because he’d be dead in less than forty-eight hours.”
“Stavros fell for it.”
“Hook line sinker…he should have; it was true. He’d fucked up. Thresher would have killed him and left the girls to rot.”
“You were hoping he’d deal.”
“I wasn’t hoping anything.” Shit, I didn’t care whether he dealt or not. My plan worked either way. A guy starts suffocating he’ll give up just about anything for a breath of air, “I was just waiting for him to confirm. I had to be sure. He confirmed when he ran. Then contacted Interpol.”
“Andre’ you mean.”
“He was in Prague.”
“Yes, he didn’t like it, but I knew the girls would be there. It was the only thing that made sense.”
“Prague is the Paris of eastern Europe.” Gavin ran with my train of thought, “He was ready to move. Got to them in under an hour.”
“How close was it?”
“Close. How did you get them to set the meet at McGovern.”
“I made sure he knew about the tunnels.”
“How’d you get him to go for cash? Not a wire transfer.”
“I made sure he knew about Lena.” Lena could have tracked that money to hell and back.
“No tracing cash.” Gavin agreed.
“Once the cash gets in Russia there are plenty of ways to dump it. I was going to wait in the tunnel. But Sawyer was late. I had to make the drop. Then Troll lost it when it all went south and forgot about the damn tunnels.
“So your plan was, he’d have gone in and the drug would have kept him there.”
“Yes, he would have died terrified, buried alive.” If Gavin’s shocked he doesn’t show it, “But then Sawyer was late. He was the only one I’d dosed with the antidote. I couldn’t risk someone else touching the money. I might not have gotten to them in time.”
“So you went.”
“Yes. Sawyer ruined everything. They would have tried to take the tunnel. It’s blocked two thirds of the way through. The paralytic would have kicked in and I could have given them the partial antidote. Gotten the information and left them there in the cold. In the dark, Trapped in the earth. They would have suffocated. It would have taken hours.”
“The way the girls would have died.”
And that was all of it. Done finished. Only one thing left to do.
“I was afraid it would happen again,” I whisper the fear that’s never far away, “And then that guy showed up and it seemed so easy,” I shudder and suddenly, my bed feels suffocating, tossing the covers back, I throw my legs over and go to stand up, but my body has other ideas, my legs wobbling beneath me. Stumbling, I reach a hand and grasp the bed to steady myself, but with a harsh curse Gavin’s up and across the small space separating us and I’m lifted up off the floor against his chest, “Gavin, for fuck’s sake, put me down.”
“And you didn’t tell me.” He places one hand under my chin, and lifts my face so I’m looking in his hazel eyes and the emotion I see there is so much worse than anger – disappointment. I pull my chin away, lower my head, and continue studying the sleeve of his tee-shirt, but my fingers mostly just trace the muscles of his huge bicep.
“You would have stopped me.” I whisper.
And for some reason the possessive male authority in his voice just pisses me off. “Oh that’s right, you’re the only one who can put yourself in danger time and time again, and we’re the ones who sit at home and wonder if you’re going to come home in a box, or maybe in pieces.” The bitterness in my voice is so acrid I can smell it. And maybe I’m being unfair, but I just don’t care.
I cut him off, watching my hand grip his bicep so hard my knuckles are white, “Don’t you dare tell me you’re sorry. I’m sick of sorry. Everybody’s always so sorry. Do you know when we found out Aunt Heather was sick, a part of me was relieved,” I finally vocalize the horrible truth that had tortured me for four years, “Relieved, Gavin, because I knew you’d stay close, as long as Heather was sick, you wouldn’t be off somewhere doing your best to get yourself killed.” I feel wet on my face and realize it’s tears, my heart is racing trying to pound its way out of my chest, “That’s how crazy I am – how wrong.” The harsh words explode from me. And the room slides away.
I’m standing in a freezing January rain, looking down at a spray of colorful flowers, pink roses, yellow daffodils, blue Iris, and white lilies with bright fuchsia, like a star in the center, Star-gazer lilies. The happy blooms lay over Heather’s casket. The smell of earth fills my head. My aunt is in that box. The woman who took me in and loved me with her whole heart. No matter what strangeness I followed my mind into, Heather was always there waiting for me when I returned generous and kind. And now she was gone. Her body preserved in a perverted imitation of life. She looked like she was sleeping, like she’d wake any moment. It’s a sick twisted joke. Bile rises in my throat. The cold rain sinks into my bones, my shivering turning to wracking shudders. I sway where I stand. Then a warm arm wraps around me and I’m pulled against a mountain of heat.”
“Don’t babe, don’t think about it,” The words are warm on my ear, “She’s not really there.”
The shudders continue to wrack my body and I hear strange rasping sounds. It’s not until I feel a large hand brush my cheek that I realize those sounds are coming from me. Broken sobs ripping from my chest and up my throat. So much pain I’m drowning in it.
“Sshh, Mckenna it’s alright, come on baby.” I curl into that voice, and blink. Gavin’s staring down at me. I’m in my bed. “You back with me?”
I nod. I can’t bring myself to speak, afraid if I open my mouth, those horrible sobs will follow me into the present.
“It’s alright, I’m right here, you’re with me here” He takes my hand in his and places it on his chest over his heart. “Feel that.”
“Yes,” I manage a hoarse whisper.
“Take a deep breath and tell me what you smell.”
I breathe deep, and that clean, spicy Gavin smell fills my head, “Books, and something spicy, and furniture polish.” I make that up, because something in me just doesn’t want to admit that filling my head with Gavin grounds me like nothing else.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in my house, in my bed, in your lap.”
I hear Gavin’s sharp intake of breath, but his voice is soothing as always, “That’s right.” He pulls me closer and gently tucks my head into his chest, rubbing my crown with his chin, “I want you to listen to me Mckenna. You loved mom and she loved you. There’s no right or wrong in your feelings. They just are. If there’s any blame, it’s mine. I should have known you’d be afraid the symptoms would come back. That’s on me.”
“I don’t see how.” My fingers are tracing the tee-shirt sleeve again.
“Let me take this one, Mckenna.”
“Okay, I’m too tired to argue anyway.” I murmur feeling my remaining energy slip away, but just as I’m drifting off I hear a small voice, “I miss her.”
And a soft warm rumble, “I know babe, so do I.”
Two weeks later, I wake bright and early on Sunday morning to the most god-awful stench, like someone took fish guts wrapped them in day old banana peels and left then in the Mohavi desert for a couple weeks. I open my eyes to see huge yellow spikes. Blinking, I focus my eyes and my brain finally registers what I’m seeing, teeth – giant, yellow teeth.
“SHIT! WHAT THE FUCK!” I fly about a foot up in the air, ending up in a squat at the head of my bed, and from a laying down position, that’s just fucking remarkable.
Pushing my hair out of my face, I stare at the thing now cowering in the corner of my bedroom. Huge, four legs, shaggy fur in every shade of gray and brown, with a massive head and blood red eyes.
“Christy get the fu….”
Before I can finish yelling for my sister she’s careening into my room, her sock feet sliding spectacularly across the old hardwood floor. Arms flailing wildly, she hooks one of the bed posts with an elbow and swings to a slipping, skidding halt.
“Goddess be damned Christy, what the fuck is that?”
But my sister hasn’t even looked my way. She runs over to the creature, stooping down, wrapping her arms around it and crooning softly, “Poor Trudy girl, did the wicked witch scare you?
Oh, hell no.
“Christy, I don’t know what that thing is but,…”
“This is Trudy,” Christy looks up from soothing the hideous beast. “Remember I told you I was bringing one of the puppies from the shelter home this week. She gets separation anxiety and,….”
“That is not a puppy,” I fling one arm at the giant monster in the corner, “That is some kind of weird bear, horse, hell-hound hybrid.” The huge thing whimpered and started shaking, then I saw a golden puddle spread on the floor.
“Mac, you need to calm down.” Christy’s eyes turn chiding, “Trudy’s very sensitive. You’re scaring her.”
Oh, mother fucking fuck.
“Hey, what the hell is all the racquet you two? It’s not even seven a.m, I had a late night…..” Lena hits my bedroom and just stops, her mouth dropping open, “What the…?”
“Her name is Trudy.” I inform her from my post at the top of my bed, “She’s a puppy. She gets separation anxiety. She’s sensitive.”
Lena’s eyes narrow, darting from Christy to the hell-hound and finally to me, “Oh hell, no.”
“It’s just temporary. She gets scared at night,” Christy turns those big blue eyes on me. Damn, that’s playing dirty. “The shelter’s been reported. She barks if she’s left alone. Please, you guys. She was so badly abused.” Oh damn, and now they’re filling with tears. “There were scars all over her, cigarette burns. She was starved and abandoned, and she’s so sweet and loving. She deserves a chance.”
Well, shit. I look over at Lena. She gives me that one shoulder shrug.
“Alright, but it’s just temporary.” I feel I should at least put up a pretense of resistance.
“Yes, just until I can find someone to take her. It won’t take long. She’s such a good girl, aren’t you,” Christy scratches the beast behind its floppy ears and goes into that adoring low vice that is universally accepted as official dog lover language, “Aren’t you? Aren’t you a good girl? Yes, Yes, you are.” Then with promises of doggy treats and something called “frosty paws” my sister with the soft heart leads the thing from my room, leaving a giant puddle behind her.
“Well, fuck.” I rub my eyes.
“I’ll get it. Lena disappears down the hall, returns with a towel, and proceeds to mop up Trudy’s leavings. “You know that temporary talk is total crap, right.”
“Yeah, well it makes sense. After all we’re witches and now we have a hell-hound. It’s a perfect fit.”
Lena rises balling the towel up carefully then sprays the floor with some kind of urine-stink be-gone spray. We’ve learned to always have a couple of bottles in the house. “What do you think she’ll bring home next.”
“I don’t want to think about it.”
Christy had been bringing home strays since she was old enough to walk, but when my Aunt Heather got sick everything got put on hold. Even Christy’s campaign to save every stray on the east coast. But now that she was volunteering at the shelter… all bets were off.
“Damn,” lena tosses everything into the bucket, “What the hell is it going to be like when she becomes a vet?”
“How many years away is that?”
“Well, she’s in her first official year of college, so normally I’d say seven or eight, but…” A shrug.
Yeah, I knew where she was going. Christy’s a genius. A prodigy when it came to anything relating to chemistry, biology..whatever. She’d been in college level courses by the time she was a sophomore in high school.
“If we’re lucky, five…”
“Damn, we’re going to need a bigger house.”
“MAC,” Allie hollered from somewhere in the house, “LENA, CHISTY!!! Paddle!!!
“What the fuck?” Lena looks up from her mopping.
“Allie must have run into the puppy.”
“PADDLE PADDLE PADDLE……GAVIN!!!”
“Shit!” I’m off the bed and at my bedroom door in two leaps. Lena right behind me. We fly into the hallway where a still sock wearing Christy crashes into us from behind. All three of us clamber down the stairs, colliding with a breathless Allie half-way down.
“Next door,… Gavin….” Allie pauses to gulp air.
“I was,..” gulp for air “getting paper..” Allie holds up her copy of the New York Times, or rather Gavin’s copy. We’d been taking it from his front porch every Sunday morning for years. I’m pretty sure it was the only reason he continued to have it delivered.
“Damn, Allie, you got this out of breath running next door and back. You need to step up that yoga with some cardio.”
Allie smacks Lena with her stolen property and takes another gulp of air, “Gavin….”
“Gavin, what about Gavin?”
“Big… .” more gulping
“Okay…..” Gavin’s big….
“Gavin bought a big black car.” I sputter at lightning speed like we’re playing charades
“At 7:00 am on a Sunday?” Christy squeaks.
No, that didn’t make a damn bit of sense. I always sucked at charades.
Allie shook her head, still breathless.
“Allie for fucks sake” Lena grabbed her shoulders and gave her twin a shake “spit it……”
“BART!” Allie finally gets a word out we all understand.
My ‘Oh shit,’ is drowned out by Lena’s ‘damn, he’ll kill him; Christy’s, horrified, “This is going to be very bad” pulling out the rear.
All four of us hit the front door, plowing down the exterior steps and heading to Gavin’s, who conveniently lives in the townhouse next door.
I hear a familiar greeting from across the street, “Good mornin’ girls.” And though Christy, Allie and I are running pell-mell down the sidewalk and Lena’s in mid-air jumping the hedge the four of us still respond in perfect sing-song unison, “Good Morning Miss Maddie.” We’ve been saying good morning to Miss Maddie Goode since we were little. I wave at her over my shoulder.
“You girls are always in such a hurry.” The tiny African American woman raises her coffee cup to us from her usual morning post on her porch swing, her white hair liftng in the breeze, “You come on back and see me when you have a minute.”
And in that same sing song unison, “Yes, ma’am.”
Lena gets to Gavin’s front door and the big goon guarding it first, “Ma’am I’m sorry but,….” his words ended with a girlie girl scream, which means Lena didn’t mess around and went straight for the man parts. She’s usually more creative, but as she’s told me more than once, “When a girl’s got to make her point in a hurry, there’s nothing like the classics”
By the time we hit the front steps she has the guy down with her knee in his back, ”Go, go, go, get in there” She throws her head in the direction of the door, “I can’t hold him down forever,” We head through the door, and I hear her voice drift over the threshold, “You got any cuffs on you, man.”
“Little girl you are in trouble.”
“Really? That’s all you’ve got, like that’s anything new.”
Then I shut the door behind me, and we hear….nothing. No yelling, no groaning, no screaming – total silence.
“Shit! We’re too late.” The three of us stampede through the empty living room and down the hall, checking rooms for random body parts as we go. We get to Gavin’s office at the back of the house and freeze in the doorway to find – a mess.
“Oh, my.” Allie murmurs
“That looks painful.” Christy goes with the obvious.
My contribution is a series of barely audible nauseated, “Oh no’s”
Then Lena pushes us through the door, “What’s going on….Oh, shit! That’s gotta hurt.”
Gavin was standing over the man known only as Bart or what was left of him. Bloody fists clenched at his sides his lungs pumping. Adrenaline and male aggression crackling in the air around him.
“I can’t believe he came to talk to Gavin alone.” Allie whispered
“Yeah, that was stupid.” Lena again
“He never did strike me as the brightest bulb in the pack.” I said squinting down at the contorted shape, searching for any obvious signs of life.
“Well, if Gavin didn’t succeed in knocking some sense into him, it wasn’t for lack of trying.” Lena takes a couple of cautious steps forward.
Oh, yeah if it were scientifically possible to have sense beaten into you Bart would be an off the chart genius. He was unconscious in the middle of the floor. His face swollen and bloody, his leg bent at a very unnatural angle, and his arm trapped beneath him in a way that shouldn’t be humanly possible.
Gavin’s head comes up. He blinks at us, “What are you girls doing up so early on a Sunday?”
“Uh…” I just stare at him
“What?” Christy shakes her head like a dog trying to get water out of its ear
Allie waves her New York Times.
Lena taps the guy with her bare foot “Is he dead?”
“So, these are the infamous cousins.”
“Twenty-three times removed.” Unison again, all four of us spin around. Big goon guy is loose, but there are two other men with him. Both wearing suits. They hovered in the doorway, “Damn, I told that idiot to wait for us.” One of the men stepped up to Bart. He was a good looking guy, tall, maybe 6’2” and even through the suit I could see he was fit, his dark hair was cut short, not military, but it was the lazar sharp intelligence reflected in eyes of palest blue that gave my brain its answer, “Secret Service.”
The man’s eyes swung over to me from Bart’s crumpled form, “Alex Kane, I presume.”
I tilt my head in a small nod, “Some days.”
The man’s gaze then proceeds to move over me head to toe, and that’s when I remembered I’d just sort of jumped out of bed.
“Annwyn Mckenna Alexandra what the hell are you doing running around like that?”
Aaaaaand Gavin’s back with us. My eyes jumped to his, “Uh, well,…we just..um…” my words die off at the look in his eyes, as he too runs his intense gaze up and down my body.
“It looks like we dragged these ladies from their beds,” My eyes shoot to the other man in the room. He looked like some California Surfer Dude, all sandy shaggy hair and light caramel eyes, that were currently roving over me and my sisters like we were candy and he was thinking over which flavor he wanted to try first. They, like me, were still in sleep-wear.
Obviously, the man had a death wish.
No sooner had the thought hit my brain than a giant fist comes out of nowhere and slams into the man’s jaw, snapping his head back. Damn, I never even saw Gavin move. Lena must get her speed from the McIntyre side.
“Damn McIntyre, what the fuck?” Sandy rubs his jaw.
“Get the fuck out of here and take what’s left of Bart with you.” Gavin’s nostrils are flared his hands fisted at his side. The residual adrenaline from his Bart beat-down still pumping through his system. “Now McIntyre,” Ice-blue put both hands up, and took a cautious step back, but overall held his ground with remarkable poise for a man looking death in the face, “You know we’ve got to talk about this.”
“Yeah, and you can damn well wait until everybody’s decent.” Gavin’s working himself up again.
“Uh, well,” Sandy rubbed his jaw, trying to hide his grin, “I suppose if we have to.”
Oh good, he’s an idiot with a death wish. This is going to be all kinds of fun.
“Goddammit, do not mess with me Wyatt. Not about this.”
“Dude,” Lena interrupted, “You should take a good look at Bart and learn something.” Then shooting me a look, “Shit, do you think the President knows he’s got a bunch of morons working for him.”
“Most likely they’re the B-team.” I wave a dismissive hand in the idiot’s direction, ignoring the snorts, and turn to Gavin, “It’s fine. We’ll go change, and then you guys can meet me at the bakery. I’ll make scones.”
The corner of Gavin’s mouth lifts in that half smile, “Good plan,” Then his eyes narrow, flicking over all four of us, “At least now I know why I go through tee-shirts like crazy.”
I follow his gaze, and realize that like myself, my sisters are each wearing one of Gavin’s old tee shirts. They hit my sisters just above the knee, but I’m a good bit taller so, while I’m covered it’s not by much.
“They’re so comfy.” Christy said.
“And soft.” Allie adds.
“Plenty of room in ’em.” Lena flaps her arms like a chicken.
“Uh, what she said,” I carefully avoid Gavin’s gaze. My reasons for sleeping in his shirts don’t need to be examined that closely, “Give me about a half hour.” Turning, I lead my sisters from the room.
“You guys need to fucking look somewhere else.” Gavin’s growl follows us from the room.
“Damn, he’s a Goddamn Papa bear.”
Forty five minutes later, the smell of fresh coffee fills the little Bakery/Coffee house as I pull a pan of fresh scones from the vintage1943 oven I keep in the front for ambiance. Most of the baking is done in the back, but I bake a pan of scones in this oven on the hour all day. They’re always gone before they can hit the cooling rack. You’d think with the bakery being closed they’d make it today, but as soon as I turn around Gavin’s grabbing two, Lena, takes more than I can count, and Ice-blue, Shaggy and Big Goon Guy, who are seated on the stools that run halfway down the front counter, decide since everybody else is grabbing, they should too and I’m left holding an empty hot baking pan. “Sheesh,” rolling my eyes I step through the doorway to the back and slide the pan onto a cooling rack, “Lena one of those better be for me and where’s my coffee?”
I turn to find Gavin right behind me, handing my coffee over. I take a grateful sip, knowing it’s going to be creamy and sweet. Gavin’s great at getting my coffee perfect.
“Be careful with these guys, Mckenna.” he whispers, tucking a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “I don’t like you talking to them.”
“They work for The President, Gavin. He outranks even you.”
“Still don’t like it.”
“I know, but it’s not their fault. I like The President and things are hard enough for him up there, trying to swim in that sea of idiots. I don’t want to be another problem he has to deal with because of Bart’s stupidity.
He leads me back out to the front, where I stand behind the counter, and watch The President’s men scarf down warm scones.
“So,” Johnson after scarfing down his second scone, decides to speak, “there’s no MIT grad student.”
“No computer program using some cutting edge statistical algorithm?”
I laughed at that one, “That’s what he told you? That would be another no.”
“You’re Alex Kane.”
“Shit,” Shaggy speaks up around a huge bite of scone, “Barttell enlisted the help of an eighteen year old Wiccan, who bakes cakes.”
“Scones,” I correct him, “I bake scones, and according to Gourmet magazine they are the best on the east coast.”
Shaggy swallows, “Uh…yeah, they’re real good.”
“Thank-you, and we’re not Wiccan. Our religion is much older. Our ancestors worshiped the Mother Godddess. Cailleach, keeper of winter, maker of mountains.”
“Whatever,” Johnson cuts me off, “You can see, Miss McGovern how this could look awkward for the President.”
“Hey,” My sharp exclamation brings all three heads up, “Don’t ‘whatever’ our religion. My ancestor was burned alive defending it.” That gets me a look, and no I don’t practice it, but that’s not the point, “And you do not want to mistake us for a bunch of Do no harm pacifists. McGoverns can render a great deal of harm. We excel at it. And yes, I can see how this might be problematic, my advice is don’t leak it.”
“Damn, wish we’d thought of that.”