Shadow’s Blade – Snippet 24
I let her go, unsure of what else to do. But I listened for the zipper on her tent, and only when I knew she was back with the kids did I cast a warding over my site and retire to my own sleeping bag.
Before I went to sleep, I checked the reception on my phone. I had a couple of bars and so called Billie.
“Hey there,” she said upon answering. “I had hoped to see you tonight. Did you get the message I left you?”
“Did you leave it at my house?”
“Yeah. Where are you?”
I started to answer, but stopped myself. “I’m not sure I can tell you,” I said. “I’m fine, I promise. But I have to operate on the assumption that someone’s listening in on our call.”
“Saorla. I wanted to check in and let you know that I’m thinking about you.”
After a long pause, she said, “I don’t like this, Fearsson.”
“I know. I don’t either.”
“Can you at least tell me what you’re doing?”
“I’m trying to keep someone safe, although that’s not going so well right now.”
“That doesn’t sound so good. How long are you going to be . . . wherever you are?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more.”
She didn’t answer at first. “Well, I guess I’ll be talking to you sometime.”
“I love you, Billie.”
“I love you, too. Hate your job, though.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, I get that. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Fearsson. Be safe.”
I closed the phone, folded my bomber jacket into something resembling a pillow, and lay down, shifting every few seconds until I found a position that was comfortable. It had been some time since last I slept on the ground. It wasn’t quite as much fun as I remembered.
The owl hooted again, and coyotes howled from nearby, their cries echoing off the cliffs. But I was listening for voices and the hum of car engines. I didn’t expect I would sleep much.
The next thing I knew, though, morning sunlight was filtering in through the nylon of my tent. I heard the puttering of a car engine and felt a frisson of magic over my skin. I grabbed my weapon — the Sig Sauer — zipped open the tent, and scrambled out on my hands and knees.
The engine belonged to a small pickup that idled by Gracie’s site. The truck had a park service insignia on the door, and a ranger stood on the road, chatting amiably with Gracie, who was making breakfast for her kids.
I placed my pistol back in the tent, where the ranger wouldn’t see it. Weapons were allowed in national parks now — not too many years ago they hadn’t been — but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by letting him see it. The ranger climbed back into his pickup and rolled toward my site. As he approached, I cast a spell removing my warding from the previous night; the moment I released the magic, Gracie glanced my way. So did her daughter.
“Good morning,” the ranger said, getting out of his truck. He held a clipboard and scanned it for a few seconds before looking my way. “You paid for a single night. You leaving us today?”
“I’m not sure. I was thinking of staying on for another night or two. My plans are a little unsettled, so I’m paying as I go.”
“Good deal. As you can see, we have plenty of room. But remember to pay again this morning before you go off hiking or something.”
“I will. Thank you.”
He jotted something down, raised a hand and smiled, and got back in his truck. As he pulled away, I glanced at Gracie. She was watching me still.
She said something to her kids, then started in my direction. She halted several feet shy of my site. Her hands were in her pockets again, and she toed the ground, her gaze lowered. She seemed at a loss as to what to say, and I’ll admit that I was in no rush to help her out by breaking the ice.
“Who’s Billie?” she asked, which was about the last thing I’d expected.
“Magic that lets you listen in on other people’s private conversations. That would be handy in my line of work.”
A faint smile touched her lips and dimpled her cheeks. She shrugged. “I told you I’d do anything I had to. Given what that could mean, eavesdropping seemed mild.”
A fair point.
“Billie’s a friend. She would have been worried if I hadn’t called.”
Gracie nodded, glanced around the campground. “I’m sorry for . . . I shouldn’t have threatened you like that. But I still don’t know much about you, and what you said last night . . .”
Comprehension came to me about twelve hours too late. “They’re not after you at all,” I whispered. “They want the kids.”
Tears welled in her dark eyes. After a moment, she nodded again. “They want all of us,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper as well. “But Emmy in particular. She’s much more than she should be at this age.”
“Does Neil know?”
She flinched at the question, but then lifted a shoulder. “I don’t know. I’ve tried to hide it from him, but it’s possible that he figured it out for himself. That’s why I left. I was afraid he’d notice, or that she’d tell him.”
“That’s why you left?” I said, unable to keep the incredulity from my voice.
Her lips thinned and anger flared in her eyes.
I was about to say, You didn’t leave because he was beating you? I thought better of it, though. I wanted to win her trust, and critiquing her approach to marriage didn’t seem likely to make that any easier.
“Go back to Phoenix.” She said it with such venom, I wondered if she had guessed what I intended to say. “I’ve already told you, we don’t need your help.”
A thousand retorts leapt to mind, none of them designed to smooth over our differences. I swallowed every one of them. “I came to do some camping,” I said, trying to make it sound like the truth. “So I expect I’ll be sticking around for a few days.”
Her jaw muscles bunched, and her glare didn’t soften even a little. I had the feeling she was swallowing a few choice remarks of her own. At last she whirled away and strode back to her site. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she packed up the kids and left, if for no other reason than to get away from me.
As a cop, I had grown accustomed to people responding to my presence with some level of wariness, even resentment. It came with the job. But since leaving the force and becoming a PI, I had run into that reaction far less frequently. These days the people I met who were in trouble wanted me around; they were willing to pay me to do the work. It had been a long time since I’d encountered this much hostility from someone who I was, at least ostensibly, trying to help.
I retrieved the bags of food from my dad’s truck and pulled out some dried fruit and nuts — my standard camping breakfast. I wasn’t hungry, but I forced myself to eat and washed it all down with some water. Then I walked back out to the campground entrance and paid for another night at my campsite. I made a point of walking by Gracie’s site on the way back to my own. The kids were playing some sort of card game and Gracie was washing their breakfast dishes at a water spigot by the nearest bathroom. She glanced at me as I walked past, but I pretended not to notice.