The huge discount store is doing a brisk business, even for a weekday. The overcast sky has a weird greenish tint — not the dangerous color that presages a bad storm, just a thick humidity that tints everything a strange hue. Frog and Lucas are still inside, debating the merits of various Hot Wheels. Auntie had grinned at the two younger adults and suggested that they go outside to the car and wait while she and Lucas conduct their business. Grace isn’t sure if Auntie was planning to buy Lucas some extravagant toy that she didn’t want Grace to protest, or if she just expects to come outside to find the two of them making out in the back seat of her sedan. But she and Hal aren’t kissing, they’re talking. Hal has just informed her that he’s been browsing the website for the Beacon Hill Academy, the BDSM training facility that she used to help Russell Derleth run.
“Nice pictures,” Hal says. His voice is dry, and Grace wonders if he’s upset, jealous. It doesn’t look like it, at least not in the odd light of the parking lot. “I was wonderin’ if I could get one of my hacker friends to go in, get some information for us. I need to know more about “Daddy Max” and how to stop him.” Daddy Max is Russell’s online persona.
Grace turns to him. “What do you want to know, Ogimaa? His real name? His street address? Bank account numbers? Business accounts? Social security number? Shoe size? Tailor?” She can feel herself grinning at the last one. “I could get his medical records, if you think that’d help.” She pulls a face. “Actually, I don’t think he even has the password to access his own medical records. Now that is just sad.”
Hal just gapes at her.
“Personal assistant, don’t leave home without one,” she says, with a straight face.
“You weren’t kiddin’,” Hal says, grinning. “Baby, you are so awesome, I could just kiss you.”
She holds up a slim hand. “You haven’t seen anything yet. It’s been awhile since I got into those accounts, he might have gotten somebody to work on them and alter the passwords. However…” She smiles, “… because he was worried a few months ago about security, I built myself some extra backdoors, just in case somebody pirated his accounts. Now, why he was worried about that, I have no idea. Can’t think why I didn’t ask, it’d make a huge difference what kind of threat you were trying to defend against, but I just… didn’t ask him. It just wasn’t done, you see?”
Hal chuckles. “Did the guy even have to wipe his own ass?”
Grace gives him a pointed look. “Hey, even I have hard limits. There is no way I would have been doing anything like that for him. Now, you, on the other hand? We could negotiate, if you like.”
Hal snorts. “Ahhhh, I ‘preciate the sentiment, but that’s okay.”
She’s laughing when Hal kisses her. This is one of those big, lingering, thorough kisses that take your whole body to do it right. Investigating her tonsils, as he puts it. It’s nice, but nausea has been growing inside of Grace ever since they started talking about Russell. Maybe it’s just the strange greenish light, but she pulls away after a moment to catch her breath.
That’s when she looks toward the front of the store, to see Auntie Frog plow into Lucas. Her son is clutching a plastic bag that is really way too big to be decent, standing still as a statue, staring hard. The look on his face makes Grace panic. It’s shocked, and curious, and pleased, in a way that is really not– right. He’s not staring into space. He’s staring at a figure leaning against the side of the store. The bag slips from his hands and falls to the sidewalk. He absently touches the notch of his throat, prods it as if it’s sore.
Grace follows his stare, sees the man in the black duster turn towards Lucas. His hair is longish, red even in the strange light. His profile is crisp as ever, like that on a coin.
“Daniel!” Grace can hear herself making a strangled little sound that meant to be a scream but never makes it that far. Her hand reaches out to Hal.
Hal is already outside, halfway down the row of cars, running flat out, hair streaming. Aunt Frog has dropped her bags and put both hands down on Lucas’s shoulders, firmly, and she’s glaring up at the stranger with grim eyes. Grace is coming out of the car when she hears Aunt Frog say, “State your business, Mister, or leave us alone.”
The man barely looks her way; his eyes seemed filled with the boy. “Lucas.” Daniel holds up both hands, empty. “I mean no harm, to you or my son, I swear it.” His Irish lilt is noticeable, but not too strong, not uncultured at all.
“Your son?” Aunt Frog says. “Then why do you come reeking of those people who would take away this sweet boy and turn him into a monster?”
“A monster?” Daniel asks. The man looks confused.
Hal comes charging up — it makes Daniel jump a little, and spin to face him defensively. “You stink of bug,” Hal says, flatly. “You stayed in a place that reeks of bug people.”
“What are you talking about?” Daniel says, clearly bewildered. “What the bloody hell is a ‘bug’?”
“Daniel,” Grace says, feeling more weary than days of very hard work at Pen’s house have ever made her. “If Russell Derleth is still alive by the time you get back to his house to report, I would be very surprised.”
“Why, is he dying or something?” Then he takes a closer look at the woman who’s just spoken to him.
“Claudia?” he asks, incredulous all over again.
Grace glares at Daniel impatiently. “Did you think I wouldn’t be with him?” She hovers near Lucas.
“Open your coat,” Hal demands.
“Or what?” Daniel says.
“Daniel, please, we’ll explain why we have good reasons to be cautious,” Grace says. She reaches down, and Lucas clutches her hand in one fist, and his bag in the other. He stares up at the stranger in the long black coat. Aunt Frog still has a firm grip on his shoulders, too.
“I’ve seen some of the culchies out there with shotguns–“
“What on earth is a culchy?” Grace asks.
“Ummm, locals. Country folk.” Daniel shrugs.
She nods her understanding.
“I’d welcome dose guys,” Hal says. “Dey know what dey’re shootin’ at. Either open yer coat–and yer shirt, for good measure–or yer in a worlda trouble.”
“Who are these people, Claudia?” Daniel asks.
Auntie Frog says then, “You know, dis could attract a lot of attention, and I’m plum starved, and my feet’re killing me. Now, ya can come along ta a nice place ta eat, and we can sit and talk like regular people, or we can tell ya some real horror stories in a hurry. Without a word spoken, okay? Picture’s worth a thousand words, all dat?”
“Sweet Jaysus and Mary, you’re Haroldine Stalks Fish, the potter,” Daniel says then.
“Yes, I have dat honor. And dis is my nephew, Hal Two Horses. And dis is Hal’s girl, Grace. But it looks like you mighta met already. Now, ya know, ya do smell a bit like folks we have reason to mistrust considerably, to dah point I wouldn’t send you back to them on a bet, knowing what they do to people in the dead of the night. If I were you, in fact, I’d make tracks in the opposite direction. Now, if you want to find out more, you can come along and talk with us. Or you can just make tracks. If you’re coming along, you can show us what’s under the coat. We purely dislike coats like that. I hope you never have to find out why personally.”
He opens the coat slowly. The clothes underneath are casual, but nice, as if he knows what looks good on him. Maybe a little too pricey for local standards, but he’ll get good service. There is an inner pocket, with something long and thin inside. The pocket looks custom. What’s inside is perhaps a foot and a half long, and about two fingers wide. He doesn’t seem to be carrying a firearm of any kind.
“Well, you came armed, didn’t you?” Aunt Frog says. “If you reach for that, we will know you have what they call unfriendly intentions, is that clear?”
“Now the shirt,” Hal says.
Daniel raises an eyebrow at Grace. “Your man there is a bit paranoid, isn’t he now?” Daniel says, glancing toward people who are exiting the store. He smiles, makes a light careful wave of his hand, and keeps his hands well away from the narrow custom pocket while he unbuttons shirt buttons down the front as if he’s got too hot in the humidity, a stranger who isn’t used to such warm weather. He has that sleek look of somebody who’s properly groomed for all occasions, who works out, who gets his hair cut by a good stylist.
Nothing at all like the ragged long hair of the coppery guy glaring at him.
“Not paranoid,” Hal says, “We’re survivors.”
“You don’t say,” Daniel says mildly. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Hal says, and everybody stands down just slightly.
Daniel flaps the tails of his shirt gently, fanning himself, and starts buttoning it up. Gotta give him points for style, maintaining his cover while people exiting the store are looking at him. Then he smiles at Aunt Frog, and he says, “Pleased to meet you, dear lady. My name is Daniel Sullivan. I would love to hear more about all this. Where would you like to eat?”
“Well, how are you on pancake houses?” Aunt Frog says.
“Oh Mom, pancakes and jam for lunch!” Lucas says then, looking up at them.
Grace blinks down tears. “Okay, today you can have pancakes and jam for lunch,” she says.
“Logistics,” Daniel says then, gently. “I have a rental car, but if you’re worried about being traced, I’d be happy to leave it here.”
“Because it’s a piece of junk from Hark’s Hunk of Junk rental lot?” Hal says, rudely.
“Exactly,” Daniel says, smiling. “And, Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph, it stinks to high heaven..”
Hal opens his mouth, glances at Lucas, and shuts it again. “Well, that’s an unhappy piece of news. We’ll explain later. Not here. Let’s get out of here. Lucas, you got your bag? You need help carrying that?”
Lucas shakes his head violently.
Grace opens her mouth, looking from the bag to Aunt Frog, who says, “Nope, don’t even ask.”
Daniel looks at the bag and smiles. If anything inclines Grace to think he might have good intentions, that is it. That’s the first hint.
“Well then,” Daniel says, looking at Aunt Frog’s rather battered car. He’s retrieved his suitcase and carry-on from his rental car — a Lexus. He did so cautiously, looking around casually while the others stay away a good long distance from it. His things won’t fit in the trunk, which is weighed down with bags of clay and boxes of bisqueware for a class. The springs are struggling already. “Ms. Two Horses, I am honored to share your pottermobile.”
She laughs. “Just watch out for smears of that ferrous clay on the seats, that stuff stains your clothes something fierce.” He winces a little.
Grace sits in the front, with Lucas and his rather large knobbly bag on her lap, in the front passenger seat. Aunt Frog drives.
Hal sits in the back behind Aunt Frog, strongly turned in his seat to face Daniel. After some silent considerations, they have him seated on the passenger side behind Grace.
Aunt Frog drives serenely, about twenty miles an hour slower than the posted speed limits, cruising along in rather overloaded-spring glory.
“Welcome to the swamp,” Hal says, and Grace is turned enough she can see his eyes are dark and angry and the irises have consumed the eye, as if he’s about to shoot off into dog-shape. Grace is just trying to keep her breathing under control. She wishes she were sitting next to Hal so she could pet him.
“You’re a pan-were,” Daniel says quietly. “I can feel–“
“Yes,” Hal says. “And believe me when I say, we have reason to fear the kind of people who gave you that car, and the place you stayed, and probably who gave you the job to find Grace and Lucas. Nobody human would send either of them back to Russell. We’re gonna talk a little first–and not in a way that might scare Lucas, so don’t go getting excited–and then I’ll show you a few things you really aren’t gonna like one bit.”
“I’ll have a light lunch,” Daniel says, with a grim little smile.
Hal turns his head a degree. “Take a loop here, would you? Drive down that second street on the right. Let’s show you what kind of stuff we’re talking about.”
At a bend of the street that loops out into the woods, there are several cars sitting abandoned on the side of the road. One of them looks burned out. All of them have holes, like bullet-holes, dotted along smashed-in sides.
“Those are not from bullets,” Daniel says after a moment, frowning.
“Bugs,” Lucas says clearly. He points. “They have arms, with bumps on them. The arms come out of their tummies like, whoa, so fast. They run fast, too.”
Hal closes his eyes a moment, rests his head in one hand. “Yes, Lucas has seen it. We all have.”
“You have to wash real quick if the juice hits you,” Lucas says. “Mom says it burns.”
“It does,” Hal says. “Lucas, make sure you get away first, then wash, right?”
“Yes, sir,” Lucas says. “Wow, the one that trashed that car was a big one. You think that was a mantis one, maybe?”
“Where do they come from?” Daniel asks.
He looks at Daniel, steadily, consideringly. “The people we’re talking about have a nasty habit of kidnapping people they don’t think anybody will miss. They take them out to some of those illegal black market labs out in the swamp, barbed wire complexes with machine gun emplacements like prisons. And then they make them into… bug troops. Creatures who do what they’re told. Some of them don’t look human at all, depending on what their job is. Some of them look very human, until they need to do something… like that.” and he gestures at the last car, as they roll away from it down the street, without ever stopping.
“Bloody hell, you’re havin’ me on,” Daniel breathes.
“No, we’re not,” Grace says. “Not even a little bit. We all wish we were.”
“Lucas, tell Daniel what bugs look like, will you?” Grace says then. “The regular ones, not all the special ones.”
“They’re kinda like zombies. They look like people, but they stare funny, and they don’t talk. Callie says they eat people’s faces, and she saw some really bad stuff, but she says they’re all bags and blobs of smelly goo inside that’s taking over the human parts they started with. Callie said they kinda collapse if the bags get cut open. I dunno. I just saw them running. They get these long arms , like the legs on crabs, but not pinchers, with the hard bumps that smush things and make holes when they hit. And they bite. They spit stinky stuff that burns. Their legs look kinda human, but they can unfold and get taller on some of them, like the mantis ones. Those have an energy beam thingie too. Umm, their hair starts falling out. Ummmm….the bug parts are kinda weird, they break off funny, like eggs do, all hollow or something. We think some of them can grow back arms that break off, but we don’t know for sure. And when you take out all those bug parts, I guess it’s really hard on them, and the people are really, really stupid after that.”
“There are pictures, we’ll show you later,” Hal says dryly. “Lucas is accurate in his observations.”
“These– these illegal installations must be enormous, to support a lab that can generate implanted growth tanks of that sort,” Daniel says. “You couldn’t possibly hide it! It must show up on aerial photographs!”
“Oh yeah, it does. Local authorities know it,” Hal says. “The same labs make all kinds of interesting chemical distillations, if you catch my drift. Lots of dirty, dirty money. Lots of toxins dumped out willynilly, wherever it’s convenient. Lots of stray releases of the kind of injection germs used to mod the genetics, just spew it out into the environment. We get lots of wild zoomorphs, like me. I can show you the figures on the local mortality and morbidity figures, the underweight babies, the childhood cancers–it just goes on and on. Blame it all on poverty and lack of local medical care, which certainly doesn’t help. Seems one of the reasons they picked this area–you’ll love this, Grace, just found this out from some of the Back Forty dudes pokin’ around places he wasn’t supposed to be lookin’–is how compatible a lot of the locals are with existing bug troop samples. Lots of military folks were recruited from here, the original bug troops were built off local boys and girls, and they’re still coming back to get more. Only they don’t ask. They just take people away.”
Grace has seen him give these same facts to other people. Quiet or impassioned, shouting, coolly logical, all different moods, whatever he thinks will reach and touch the person he’s trying to persuade. “I’ll send it to you, just look at the numbers!” he will say, the eternal cry of the community organizer.
“What’s a zoomorph?” Daniel asks. “I’m not familiar with that term, exactly.”
“You guys ready?” Hal says.
“Go for it,” Grace says quietly.
Hal lowers his head. When he looks up again, his eyes lack whites. Ears crawl along his skin, and he blinks, and he’s a large black dog with the same long hair he had as a man. Then he makes a sound in his throat, and Grace reaches past the seats and strokes his muzzle. He licks her hand. Then he shakes his head again, and he’s leaning back in the seat, hair flung about wildly, with his teeth gritted. His nostrils flare. “That,” he said, “is the quietest change I’ve ever managed to do.”
“Just glad you didn’t do the horse in my back seat, my poor car would bottom out completely,” Aunt Frog says placidly.
“You’re getting much better,” Grace comments, “all that practice is paying off.”
Daniel looks at her, and then at Hal. “How many shapes do you have?”
“Four,” Grace answers. “Of course, you’re not surprised. Why would you be? But… his changes aren’t a result of a hereditary condition, or… any manipulation of natural energy. It’s not a natural thing at all.”
“A zoomorph is an animal person, whether they can change shape or not. Some of us were constructed by military labs, like you’d build a tank from parts–“
“Like Mister Dance, he’s a kinda snake guy–” Lucas says.
“Yes, and some of us are wild mutations, or maybe damaged from stray lab releases–“
“Like Miss Estelle, she’s a bird lady, she was just born that way,” Lucas assures Daniel.
“–and some of us are a mishmash of parts that were modded onto a kidnapped person by black market labs using stolen military tech, something like the bug people. We are at odds with the bugs because they have no free will, and they are commanded by people who give no one free will,” Hal says. “And when you stank of them, we had to begin off the assumption you were one of their tools. They have some people who operate quite freely because they just like the money, you know.”
“I understand,” Daniel says. He looks sick, sweating under the black denim duster.
“It’s not magic, like that thing in your pocket, at all,” Grace says impatiently. “It’s science. Brutal, hard-core, difficult, and expensive bio-gen-eng stuff. They use the drug sales to pay for it. We think — some of us think, anyway — that the bugs themselves have become self-regulating. They’re starting to run their own show and tell whatever they like to their commanders, while they build to suit their own agenda. And the black market labs don’t care as long as the money keeps coming in.”
“That’s sick,” Daniel chokes. He puts his head in his hands, rubbing his temples like the world has stopped spinning on its axis.
“That’s reality,” Grace replies gently.
Then Lucas says, “Mom, you said it was wicked hard to do, making the bugs, right? Would magic be a good way to stop them?”
Daniel looks at his son. “Do you have magic?”
Lucas looks at him coolly. “I don’t know what you call magic. Uncle Russell used to want me to do all these boring exercises. It’s much more fun playing music.”
Daniel smiles a bit, like he agrees. He looks at Grace.
Grace says, “Why do you think we ran away, Daniel? The Philadelphia Regent of your damned Knights wanted Russell to give up my son to him, personally, and — and make him into some kind of — tool. It sounded like he wanted to sell him.”
“That’s impossible,” Daniel says, “he’s a child.”
“The Regent was telling Russell he would take my son the very next morning. Permanently. Somewhere in Canada or Alaska. He kept talking about putting him in heavy clothes. I think a nice long look at the business finance accounts would shock you terribly, I truly believe it would.”
Daniel stares at her. Then at Hal. And last of all, at Lucas.
“It’d be boring, going on a trip with that guy,” Lucas says. “That guy, the Regent? He always talked at me like I was a baby. He wanted me to do things over and over, like he didn’t believe it the first time. I mean, it stops working when you get bored, you know?”
“Does it?” Daniel says softly.
Lucas says, frowning, “I think magic might work against the bugs, don’t you?”
Aunt Frog pulls the car around into a parking space. “All right, children, it’s time for a little flapjack reality shock here.”
“Yay, pancakes!” Lucas hollers, totally diverted.
“Amen,” Aunt Frog says. “Let’s pour a little maple syrup on the drama, right?”
Lucas races her to the front door, giggling. Actually, they’re both giggling.
“Why didn’t you tell me that you were pregnant?” Daniel asks Grace, in a very tight, very controlled voice, once Lucas is out of earshot.
“What would you have done if I had told you?” she asks right back.
“I– I would have done the right thing…”
“So you would have married me when I was barely out of high school, and we would have been divorced before our fifth anniversary.” Grace feels about as sad and tired as she ever has in her life. “Let’s face it, Daniel, you’re hardly my type anymore.”
“True, we are different people than we were back then. It wouldn’t have gone over well.” He considers, then asks, “Would it help if I offered to get Lucas and you out of this– war zone?”
“And Aunt Frog–Haroldine– and Aunt Penelope, and Estelle, and Pen, and his kids– where do you stop rescuing?” Grace asks. “You can’t save us all.” She sees his eyes flicker at “us”, but he says nothing. Perhaps he realizes his offer is futile.
Then they’re at the door, and Aunt Frog makes Lucas leave his bag at a table while he goes off with Hal to the men’s room. Lucas is chattering and waving his arms. Daniel’s eye follows the boy’s red hair silently.
When he looks down, Aunt Frog says, “Have a seat. We got a minute for questions dat might upset Lucas.”
“How bad is it?” Daniel says.
“Dah only reason we don’t look like some of them war zones all over, if you want my opinion, is because the bugs want civilian supplies ta keep flowing normally, it’s cheaper,” Aunt Frog says. “Another way of putting it, crudely, would be don’t shit where you eat. Dey export deir war of conquest plenty of other places, a’course. Hal can show you pictures, reports, choke you on printouts and websites and whatall, and you give him half a chance, he’ll be in your offices recruiting your bosses along with you, if they ain’t already corrupted beyond stopping.”
“You have been warned,” Grace says, finding it in her to smile.
“Can anything be done to stop them?” Daniel grimaces. “That is, assumin’ you can figure out who ‘they’ even are.”
Grace nods. “There’s always hope.”
“I know. But what has been effective so far?” Daniel is shifting into trouble-shooting mode. It reminds Grace of Hal, a little bit. “This is shite, so what can we do to fix it?”
“I was hoping you’d ask that question.” Grace quips. Things are looking up. Auntie Frog smiles like she’s half smitten with the Irishman. Grace knows all about the Dublin charm. “We can take a look at Russell’s accounts, and figure out what to do from there. Hal has a hacker friend.”
“Or three, or four, or maybe more sometimes,” says Aunt Frog, rolling her eyes. “The way they go through the soda pop, you’d think it was a herd of them.”
“What works? Shuttin’ off deir supplies works,” Aunt Frog growls. “Hal has lists of what dose labs import all dah time. Things like micron water filters, gear like dat. And chemicals. Stop ’em from getting potassium nitrate, for instance, and suddenly we have a month or two where nobody goes missing. Get it coming in on the docks again down in NOLA, and all of a sudden Terrebonne Parish has a dozen people who don’t show up for church one morning, and Montegut Elementary School has ten kids gone, and so on. Hal recruited a coupla folks in a position to keep track of dah losses, compile dah lists of abduction victims.”
Grace leans forward. “I believe Matheson was investing in some of the companies who front for the labs. Hal has compiled lists of the corporations, and they match up to the lists of some of the donations that Russell was having me make. I noticed the names, you see, and I noticed some I recognized on Hal’s lists. Of course, at the time I looked them up, according to the guidelines of the stock investing classes I’ve had, and I warned Russell that these might be high-yield but it was pushing his portfolio toward the high-risk end of things. They had a terrible record, all short-term shell-game ephemerals. He just said it was important, and told me to complete the transactions.”
Aunt Frog grunts. “He’d probably like havin’ bug people do all his chores for him, never argue back, never ask questions, nothin’. Course, if they explode tryin’ to kill ya, it could get nasty.”
Grace nods at Daniel. “I think you may want to call somebody to go out and make sure Russell is still alive, I was perfectly serious. Once they have control of the money, they don’t need him anymore. Be discreet.”
“I’ll do that,” he says, looking at her, and he gets up, taking his coat with him. “When the waitress gets here, it’s coffee for me.”
Hal and Lucas and the large plastic bag crowd in beside Grace. “What’s he callin’ for?”
Grace looks at her son, who is grinning into the bag. She still has no idea what the indulgence in there actually is. Then she looks at Hal. “Sending somebody discreet to check if Russ is still okay.”
Hal nods. “They may need him to testify.”
Grace looks at Hal. Something frozen and frightened inside her melts, and she leans across and kisses him. “Thank you,” she murmurs.
Aunt Frog grins at them, and turns, looking around. She starts chatting with the waitress, nodding over local news, explaining that purty Irish guy out there is by way of being a distant cousin of Grace’s, and he wants his coffee.
When Daniel finishes his phone call, he heads for the men’s room. When he returns from that, he looks a little greenish, but better.
Aunt Frog and Grace both look at him. Hal sighs, and casts a long, watchful gaze at the parking lot, squinting out the window nearby.
“Bad news?” Grace says, bracing herself.
He nods. “Hal, I would like to go through the records you offered and make copies of whatever you feel comfortable sharing with my superiors. It would help to make video interviews of anybody who’s willing to talk on-camera about their experiences. I would like to set things right, and I would like to get other people who are trustworthy to help us do it. I’ll go home and talk to my Regent as soon as we have some hard evidence to show.”
“Trustworthy the way Russ was?” Hal says dryly.
“Oh, he was, within his limits,” Grace exclaims. “He just–” and she looks at her son, and falls silent. She knows Lucas heard her, and he will ask about it later.
“I can’t believe that Derleth has been acting the maggot like this.” Daniel groans. “He’s a right tosser, that one is. And Matheson? I don’t even have words for that one.”