by Wen Spencer
"Welcome to Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden. Today, we're tackling a common garden pest, the strangle vine." Hal Rogers grinned at Jane Kryskill's camera and motioned for her to pan right with the slightest tilt of his pith helmet.
"No way in hell," Jane murmured. She did not need five years experience of filming in Pittsburgh to know that a half-eaten deer did not make good ratings. It might be sensational news on Earth. It was, however, a fairly typical outcome when an Earth animal met any number of Elfhome carnivorous plants. Eighty percent of their Pittsburgh viewers would not be impressed, and the other twenty would call the studio the next day, pissed off that their dinner had been ruined by the sight.
Hal's grin tightened slightly as he continued. "The strangle vine is a dangerous plant to deal with as it’s a master of disguise. It can produce up to five different types of foliage, depending on the type of anchor it attaches itself to. It makes safely identifying this plant very tricky. Thus, it's best to investigate any possible outbreak with weapon in hand. Some people like a machete. Others: an axe. Personally, I like a flamethrower."
He whipped up the wand and gave his signature evil laugh. The cackle inspired the rumors that he had accidentally killed someone on his previous show and thus his backslide to obscurity. She'd seen the videos. The only thing he'd killed was the ratings; he'd been bored silly doing curbside appeal remodels and it showed.
"This is a Red Dragon Flamethrower. You can get it at Wollertons on the South Side." Other places in town sold the same flamethrower, but they weren't sponsors of the show. "It comes with this wand with a squeeze trigger and this propane tank backpack."
Hal turned around to show off the ten-pound tank strapped to his back. "Simply turn this valve to on." He turned back, his grin widening with glee. "And apply a spark!"
Others might see Pittsburgh as a demotion, but Jane knew that Hal truly loved any excuse to wreak massive destruction. Where else could he routinely play with sticks of dynamite? Of course there was the small matter that his judgment was poor, hence the reason Jane had her job. She had been hired on originally to be nothing more than a glorified gofer. Hal had ignored, shot, or run over (figuratively and literally) everyone else assigned to the show until it was just Jane and her elfhound, Chesty.
Hal nearly took off his eyebrows applying the spark and blackened the rim of his pith helmet. It smoldered as he continued. "The six types of anchor plants that the strangle vine uses are the Elfhome Maple and Beech, the Wind Oak, the Silver Ash, Iron Wood saplings, and root-bound Black Willows. For this reason, we advise viewers to clear these native trees from their yards if possible. Strangle vines will use Earth trees for anchors but can't mimic their leaves, which makes them easier to spot."
The yard was filled with native plants, thus Jane didn't notice the vine creeping closer to Hal until Chesty growled a warning.
"Check." Jane silenced the big dog by acknowledging the threat. She pointed at the vine attempting to snag Hal's ankle. "Careful."
"See you!" Hal cried and let loose an arc of flame at the tendril. It recoiled at stunning speed. He laughed again, sounding slightly demented.
Jane's camera chimed quietly as Hal chased the retreating vine across the yard. Locking the focus and the microphone on Hal, she tapped the phone icon. "Hm?"
"You do remember what happens after every Shutdown?" Dmitri Vassiliev, station manager of WQED, asked dryly.
"We all waste our time in a staff meeting as Hal derails brainstorming for new story ideas with suggestions on blowing things up."
There was a moment of silence as Dmitri came as close as he would to acknowledging that she was right.
She continued on with what probably happened at the WQED studios that morning while she and Hal played hooky to film a new episode. "I figure that network just about shit themselves with last month's stories that you dumped on them yesterday and spent all last night flooding our servers with conflicting demands because they couldn't do anything as logical as actually reading your summary first. I also figure that they had ignorant questions like 'why didn't we get any video of the royal wedding' or 'where were the still shots of the new princess in her wedding gown' and 'why did we send them a hundred photos of hoverbike racers covered in mud instead.'"
The answer was that there been no "wedding" per se as elves apparently didn't go in for that kind of thing and the only photos of the bride were of her racing. They couldn't find a single picture where Tinker wasn't covered in mud, so they just sent them all.
"Someone did figure that out. Eventually." Which meant there probably had been several dozen patiently ignored emails before the light bulb went on at Network.
Jane laughed bitterly. "This is a large strangle vine in the backyard of an EIA desk jockey who has two little kids. He called his supervisor asking what to do about the half-buried deer under his tree, and his boss called Hal."
Dmitri huffed out as he realized all the vectors of the situation. The United Nations for some reason thought that clerical employees wouldn't encounter Elfhome's hazardous wildlife, so they provided no training on how to recognize lethal situations. The supervisor probably knew that there were professional exterminators to handle things like strangle vines, but decided to ask Hal for help. For all his love of explosives, Hal was a political creature, honed by years of clawing through the ranks of network television to achieve in-front-of-the-camera status. That he insisted that they tackle the strangle vine at dawn meant that the EIA manager was worth currying favors for – plus Hal would get to use his flamethrower. Lastly was that the lowly EIA employee wouldn't know to keep his children out of the yard until it was safe.
"How soon do you wrap up there?" Dmitri obviously was trying to sound causal while his blood pressure spiked through the roof. The meeting was long over, and Dmitri rarely reamed them out for anything short of setting someone on fire – which they hadn't done yet today -- so why was he calling now?
"What else did Network drop on us?"
There was a too-long silence that meant she was going to hate what Dmitri said next. "Network wants us to provide a 'native guide' for a crew filming on Elfhome…"
"You want me to play babysitter?"
"No, they asked for a guide, they're getting you as a producer, and you're going to keep them out of trouble even if you need to hogtie them, which I know you're fully capable of."
"I don't do babysitting!"
"It's not babysitting, and you're very good at it, otherwise Hal wouldn't be alive now."
Chesty went to point on a strangle vine staging a surprise rear attack. Jane sighed. When was Hal ever going to learn that these things were more like octopuses than snakes? "That is debatable," she said as Hal went down with a yelp.
"Ouch. Is he going to be okay?"
"Probably." Jane backed up to where she had the tripod set up and a small arsenal of garden weapons and a fire extinguisher.
Hal rolled, trying to bring the flamethrower to bear on the vine that had him by the ankle, cackling wildly. Unfortunately, the plant was much larger than the homeowner had led them to believe. It jerked Hal up into the air even as he squeezed the trigger. He went flying into the tree, leaving a contrail of flame behind him.
"Shit." Jane grabbed the chainsaw.
"Oh the viewers are going to love this one." Dmitri said and hung up, hopefully to call the fire department.
After Hal was packed off in the ambulance, Jane stopped in the Strip District to pick up supplies for the month. After a morning of fighting a giant man-eating plant with a chainsaw, she didn't want to talk to anyone, and certainly not Dmitri about some stupid babysitting job to some stuck-up New York City network idiots. It was going to be twenty-eight days of useless fighting back and forth until the next Shutdown proclaimed one of them a winner.
She silently loaded her cart with fifty-pound bags of rice, dried beans, coffee, and dog food while considering her choice in career. This wasn't what she thought she was going to do when growing up, but really she had stopped thinking about having a life when she was sixteen.
True, she had always loved making videos, but it had never occurred to her that she could make money doing it. She had graduated from high school without a plan, vaguely thinking she'd do something like join the Pittsburgh Police force or Fire Department or open a daycare. She lucked into the job at WQED and collided with Hal.
He'd pitched Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden to Dmitri as a remake of his hit lawn makeover show on a shoestring budget. In truth, though, it had been Hal's way to flee an avalanche of failure on Earth. The early episodes were boring, mundane and ultimately of no use to anyone. Hal zombie-walked through the episodes, sliding toward alcoholism. Jane had been assigned to be Hal's "production assistant" but what she'd really been hired to do was head off his self-destructive tendencies brought on by boredom.
Jane saw the need for change in the show – for Pittsburgh's sake and Hal's. Together they shifted it toward addressing the dangerous species of flora and fauna that crept into people's homes. It was important work. They saved lives at the risk of their own.
Of course they'd had to steamroll over their producer to do it. An imported New York City talent, the man just didn't understand Pittsburgh or how to stay in control of his minions. Her little brothers would have eaten him alive.
After they chewed through two more imported producers, Dmitri had promoted her into the slot. That was four years ago – and all four years they'd been the top show of Pittsburgh.
The checkout girl eyed the sawdust still clinging to Jane's blue jeans, the soot on her face, and the one lone leaf stuck in her braid. "Strangle vine, eh? They're bitches. Gave me nightmares as a kid. You know what Mr. Rogers says on PB&G?" She pulled a pair of pruning shears out of her back pocket. "Never go out unarmed."
PB&G was the locals' affectionate way of referring to Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden. The station ran with the nickname and changed their logo to look like a PB&J sandwich. The line was actually Jane's favorite saying that Hal stole for the show. It reflected what growing up in Pittsburgh had taught her. None of the New York imports had ever been able to wrap their brains around that. They used to mock her – quietly – for always having a variety of weapons near at hand.
No way she was going back to that.
WQED was one of the three channels still in Pittsburgh, one time proud home to Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, which made Hal's last name of Rogers faintly ironic. Originally part of the PBS system, they lost their funding when the United Nations took control of the city, which was a bunch of bullshit as a great deal of the population considered themselves "Americans." However, since Pittsburgh was now under UN jurisdiction, the residents only paid city taxes, not state or federal. WQED currently was affiliated with NBC since the local NBC station had been wiped out in the first Shutdown. The other two local TV stations hadn't fared much better; all three stations were on equal footing. It was a lose-lose situation for the television viewers.
As it was, the WQED studio in Oakland was nearly razed by the Rim as it cut its way through parallel universes. From space, the Rim looked like a perfect fifty-mile diameter circle punched through reality. At street level, the line wobbled oddly so you couldn't actually use map and compass to plot its course. She wasn't sure if it was because the orbital gate shifted over time or if the Rim varied in thickness at different points. Whatever the reason, WQED no longer sat deep within the confines of city, but at the edge of the mile wide field that was alternately used as a pasture, fairgrounds, or airfield for the big living airships. One of the massive creatures currently floated above the grass, announcing that the Viceroy was in town.
"No damage today." She told the studio's motor pool mechanic Juergen Affenzeller as he came out to greet her in the parking lot. She backed the production truck into its assigned space.
"Hey Jane!" Juergen leaned in the passenger side to pat Chesty. Since he'd been introduced as a friend to the elfhound, he didn't get his face ripped off. "Saw the show. That was epic."
"Really?" He couldn't have seen today filming but last week's show had been fairly tame for them. They tackled Earth's common poison ivy, oak, and sumac and Elfhome's death crown and bloodied lace, which were both deadly in a very sedate way.
"It was totally awesome! Yoyo Hal!" Juergen bounced up and down as an upright version of Hal falling repeatedly out of the tall wind oak only to be recaught and dragged upwards because he insisted on doing commentary in calm even tones. "It's important to note that a strangle vine can have as many as thirty-seven snare vines. Gak! You need to strike the base of the plant, its nerve center, to kill the strangle vine. Fuck! Never tackle one of these alone. Jane!"
She stared at Juergen in dismay. He'd seen all that? Live? Unedited? With all the embarrassing parts still intact? How?
The mechanic continued to act today's filming. "And you. Rawr!" He mimed the chainsaw. "That rocked! And then Brian! 'Don't try this at home, hire a professional pest control contractor.'" Brian was Brian Scroggins, Pittsburgh Fire Marshal and accidental guest co-host on a regular basis. "Just epic." She fled the embarrassing recount, ignoring the belated, "So how is Hal?"
Dmitri was in the break room, stealing all the coffee. Jane would have avoided him otherwise.
"I need some of that." She leaned against the doorway, waiting for the coffee and the questions.
He started a new pot of coffee brewing. "So?"
It was his way of asking all possible questions at once.
"The fire is out. Brian isn't going to press charges. Hal has a broken nose, a dislocated left hip, probably a mild concussion – once again that damn pith helmet saved him from anything serious -- and third degrees burns on his foot after his boot caught on fire. Nothing major but we're still out of production until his face heals."
Dmitri picked up the insulated pitcher full of coffee and tilted his head in a "follow me" signal. "Oh, didn't know you could dislocate a hip."
"It takes talent." Jane growled as she followed him through the studio. It would get her coffee faster.
The office area was a kicked anthill of activity with people on the phone and gesturing at each other madly. Still as Jane passed, people would nod and sometimes cover their headsets to murmur "Great job, Jane" or "Great show, Jane."
"What? Was everyone in production with you?" She clung to anger to tamp down on the hot blush of embarrassment burning at her collar line, trying to climb higher. She hated it when she ended up on camera. It meant she lost control of Hal, which was quickly followed by nearly losing Hal.
Dmitri snatched up the morning Post-Gazette and waved it toward her. "Princess Tinker came home last night with the Viceroy."
"I saw his gossamer out on the fair ground."
"Well, she just tore the living hell out of Perrysville North, beyond the rim."
"She strong-armed the EIA into providing bulldozers and dump trucks and started to build something."
"And we don't know what?"
"We sent Mark's crew out to the building site to see what they could find out." Mark Webster was WQED's reporter most fluent in Elvish. "The elves have not a clue; they're just blindly following orders. Apparently asking questions never occurs to them. One of humans Mark interviewed claimed that they were building windmills out of pickup trucks. Ford F-250s. Another claimed that they're building some kind of super computer running on magic. A third said that Tinker kept saying it was something that sounded like 'infrastructure' but he's not sure he was hearing her correctly."
"So, we still don't know."
"We were reviewing the video, trying to guess." Which meant everyone was in production with him and had seen the live feed from her camera. Juergen was probably included because of the windmill/pickup truck angle. The entire office had seen her rescue Hal with the chainsaw.
Jane cursed slightly as the hot burn threatened to climb higher.
"You did a good job, Jane." Dmitri flung the newspaper onto another desk as they passed. "Tinker invented hoverbikes that use magic to fly when she was twelve..."
"Thirteen," someone corrected him.
"Twelve! Thirteen! Who cares? The point is that she's a little mad scientist and the Viceroy just gave her complete control of the city because he's in love."
Dmitri opened the door and gestured that she was to go in. He'd successfully distracted her enough that she'd forgotten about the "network surprise" until she was five steps into the office. There were two strangers sitting on his leather couch. Empty cups waited on the coffee table, explaining why he'd stolen all the coffee from the break room.
"I found the coffee, and your new producer." Dmitri shut the door firmly behind him.
"What?" Jane whispered fiercely. She had assumed that the "network surprise" was in the way of a memo, warning of a film crew's arrival during the following Shutdown. She didn't think that they were already in Pittsburgh.
The two network men were polar opposites. One was a middle-aged Peter Pan, a schoolboy that never grew up, fair-haired, wiry build, and all grins. The other was a brooding wild man of dark hair beefcake. Host and cameraman, probably in that order.
"This is Nigel Reid and -- Taggart." Dmitri frowned as he realized that he didn't have a first name to stick on wild man. "They arrived late last night during Shutdown. Apparently they had visa problems at the border and were delayed. Almost didn't make it."
"Came across just before midnight, minutes to spare, like Cinderella." Nigel had a slight Scottish burr to his baritone voice. He beamed with the charisma that the camera loved but was pure hell to contain. People like him were sure that if they could just talk long enough, they could persuade anyone into anything. And, normally, they were right.
"Apparently our news stories to the network preempted their attention as we didn't hear about your arrival until this morning." Dmitri found a stray cup, inspected it to see if it was clean, and then poured coffee for Jane.
Taggart was obviously the behind the camera guy, from his unkempt black mane to heavy five o'clock shadow. His black muscle shirt, worn blue jeans and hiking boots indicated he expected to hit Pittsburgh running and be out filming shortly after arrival yesterday, not holding down a chair in an office today. "We were warned that last Shutdown the Viceroy had been attacked and was missing and that we might be walking into a war zone."
Jane snorted at the ancient news.
"It's complicated," Dmitri temporized. "Things are a lot more edgy here but so far, we're not at war with the elves, and we want to keep it that way." He indicated the spare guest chair, meaning he wanted Jane to sit. "This is Jane Kryskill, the producer of our top show, Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden."
"Backyard and garden?" Taggart leaned back, body language full of defensiveness that made lie to the vague query in his voice. Hopefully he didn't play poker with that many tells. "Nigel and I do award-winning nature documentaries all over the world. We've been a team for six years. I'd rather not add a third wheel to our machine."
Jane started to protest that the most dangerous places on Earth wouldn't prepare a crew for Elfhome and then caught herself. If they turned her down, she was free. She spread her hands in a "what can I say" motion to Dmitri. "I'd be a third wheel."
Dmitri gave her a stern look. "They're yours, keep them out of trouble."
"Excuse me," Taggart started. "I thought I made it clear…"
"No, let me make it clear. You're going to be driving around with a great big truck that says you are our responsibility. The elves might not speak English but that NBC logo is fairly universal. If you screw up, every human in this building becomes a target. You've been dumped in my lap without any warning, so you will play by my rules, or so help me god, I'll have the EIA lock you up until the next Shutdown and boot you back to Earth with no chance for a visa approved ever again, understand?"
"I say, I don't think there's any need to…" Nigel started to bring his charisma to bear.
Dmitri stabbed a finger at him. "Shut up! The only thing I want to hear from you is 'yes, sir' and 'thank you, sir.' From now on, Jane is not just your producer, she is your god. You will not go anywhere or do anything without her knowledge and you will do what she tells you to. If you even try to fight with me over this, I will have you locked up until you realize that this is Pittsburgh, and you can't do anything you damn well please."
There was a knock at the door and Michelle Baker leaned in. "Jane, Hal is – calling you." When Jane started to take out her phone, Michelle shook her head. "He's got your camera and he's broadcasting live."
"Oh shit!" Jane leapt to her feet.
"Jane!" Dmitri snapped to keep her from bolting. "They're yours." He pointed at the two men. "Keep them out of trouble."
She cursed and went. Maddeningly, they followed. At least Nigel had the intelligence to wait until they were in the hall to ask in a very quiet voice, "Would he really have us locked up?"
"In a heartbeat." Jane said. She considered telling them about what had happened to the last person who hadn't taken Dmitri seriously. Then she realized that if they were locked up, they'd no longer be her responsibility.
Hal's mark of bruises had darkened to solid black purple from ear to ear. They hadn't cleaned the sap out of his fine blonde hair, thus it stood up in wild spikes. He looked totally demented, making a great first impression on the two New Yorkers.
"What the hell, Hal!" Jane cried over the link. "How did you get my camera?"
"I told Johnnie Be Good the code to the truck's locker."
Johnnie Be Good was the slimeball of an EMT who had responded to the 911 call. She didn't trust him near her drinks at parties and she didn't trust him not to be stealing things off her truck.
"Hal! Damn it! Not again! Don't tell people that shit! You know what we have to do to change the fricking codes!" Actually it wasn't that hard, but she made up stuff so he wouldn't do exactly this. She continued while emailing a change order to Juergen, "And on top of everything, I'm going to have to come to the hospital and get the camera so no one steals it. You got me out of bed at 4:00 a.m. this morning, Hal. I want to go home, feed Chesty, and go to sleep! It's been a shitty, shitty day."
"They said I could leave if you came and picked me up." He dropped his voice to a whisper and pulled the camera closer. His pupils were blown wide, almost touching the rims of his irises. "The angry penguins scare me."
Jane pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to ward off a headache. "They've given you pain medicine, haven't they?"
"My state of medication does not make them any less scary. Tiny, angry, little birds."
He was talking about the ancient Catholic nuns of Mercy Hospital. They were one of the few things on the planet that actually frightened Hal. She suspected he would be even more cavalier about getting hurt if there was a hospital other than Mercy to go to in Pittsburgh.
"Please, please, please, please, please, please." Hal whimpered. "You've got the Fortress of Solitude. All those empty beds! Please!"
"Fine. You can stay at my place. I'll come get you." She slapped down her hand, cutting the feed.
The two men were staring at the display with surprise and amusement.
"Who was that unfortunate fellow?" Nigel asked.
"That's – that's the host of Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden, Hal Rogers. We had a rough shoot this morning."
Taggart was clearly confused by the answer. Obviously he thought PB&G was a simple landscape show.
Nigel raised a finger in question. "Speaking of beds, where are we staying?"
The two men trailed Jane to Ginnilee Berger's desk, which was alarmingly clean, as in not only was the desktop cleared of every yellow post-it note, all the pictures of England and peaches-and-cream complexion people were missing from the cubicle walls.
Jane caught hold of Louis Robinson, the station engineer. "Was Ginnilee fired?"
"No, she's on pregnancy leave. Has been for a month."
"She was pregnant?"
Louis stared at her a moment and then said, "Vespers."
She shuddered as unwanted memories tried to surface. "What?"
"You and Hal were off doing that show on vespers when we had the party for her. Yeah, she was like five months pregnant and planned to have the baby here so it would have Pittsburgh citizenship, but her ultrasound came back showing that the baby was breach. She had to go home; Mercy won't handle high risk pregnancies for people with visas."
"Home? To England?"
"Yes. England. She'll be back – if she can work out a visa for the baby. She's hoping for a joint citizenship, England and Pittsburgh, but it's unlikely."
"But who is doing her job until she gets back?"
"Where's the intern?"
"I think he went home too; it's summer break at the University."
"So who is doing the housing?"
Louis shrugged and backed away. "Not me."
Nigel looked slightly confused and concerned but Taggart immediately grasped the situation.
"So we don't have any place to stay?" Taggart asked. "Network said you would handle our accommodations."
"We would have if we had more than," she checked her watch, "fifteen minutes warning that Network didn't do shit about preparing for your trip. Just to be clear, that includes not letting us know last Shutdown to prepare for you showing up yesterday."
Nigel jumped in to prevent a fight. "We tried checking into a hotel last night after we crossed the border."
"No luck huh? Welcome to Pittsburgh. Strange thing about disappearing to another planet for a month at a time; really kills the tourist trade." What few hotels remained were booked solid in the summer months.
"We've just spent the last," Taggart paused to count back hours, "seventy-four hours in our truck, sitting in traffic, taking turns sleeping, pissing into a bottle. Three days."
She'd heard that getting across the border was hell on Shutdown. At least it wasn't winter. Taggart certainly looked like he'd slept in his clothes for three days. Nigel must have had a splash bath in the offices men's room and put on clean clothes.
"Doesn't the University and the EIA have people that stay just for the month?" Taggart asked with desperation in his voice. The man probably just wanted to fall over and sleep in a real bed.
"They have dorms," Jane said. She wondered if their morning of positive karma with the EIA could allow her dumping the two onto them.
"We can stay with you!" Nigel cried with the delight of a nine year old being told they were having a sleepover. "Your – your raccoon fellow says you have lots of beds. And we're going to be working together. It would be so convenient!"
Taggart merely watched, knowing the persuasive powers of a TV host. He couldn't keep the smirk out of his chocolate-colored eyes. She really needed to get him into a high stakes poker game.
"I have a really big dog," Jane said.
"Oh, I love dogs!" Nigel said with all sincerity. "And dogs love Taggart. It's his special talent."
Which apparently annoyed Taggart to all end judging by the wince.
Housing was plentiful in Pittsburgh but not necessarily safe. They could pick any empty house and squat. Finding a safe place before nightfall would be tricky. She knew better than anyone what could be hiding in an abandoned space. The memory of vespers pushed into her mind and she shivered again.
"Okay, fine, but only for one night. Tomorrow we find you someplace to live."
She'd missed their production truck earlier because Jeurgen had it in the garage on some pretense so he could climb all over it and drool. Taggart had state of the art cameras to go with it. Everything from battery life to resolution was all a hundred times greater than her camera. It put her ancient truck and ten year old gear to shame. Sheer jealousy made her want to kick the truck or something. She could see why, though, Dmitri assumed that they'd be driving the network vehicle all over Pittsburgh: her truck was too old to support their cameras.
The thing had a giant-sized logo of their affiliated network painted on its side as well as "Chased by Monsters," which apparently was the name of their show.
"Award winning nature documentaries?" Jane pointed to the show's sharp-toothed logo.
"It wasn't our first choice of names." Taggart obviously hated it.
Nigel, however, was a half-full kind of person. "The name isn't important, it's what we film that is. It's kind of catchy though."
Jane didn't want to agree. She hated this sense of being railroaded into babysitting. It opened old wounds. She was going to have nightmares tonight for sure. "I have supplies in my truck that need to be moved to my SUV."
That required a careful introduction of Chesty. He was too well-mannered to growl at them but he gave the men a look that let them know he would cheerfully tear their face off if Jane asked him to.
Nigel clapped his hands together in sheer joy. "An elfhound! Oh how wonderful. They're on our list."
"This is Chesty. Don't move while I'm getting him used to you."
"Chesty? As in Lt. General Chesty Puller?" Taggart got points for seeming unfazed by having something the size of a bear sniff him over. Even the most avid dog lovers were unnerved by Chesty's size.
"Yeah. My dad was a Marine." He had been a scout sniper to be exact, but she'd found men to be unnerved by the fact. Actually, almost everything in Jane's life unsettled strangers.
Nigel obviously was restraining himself from a petting orgy. "He's a beautiful animal. How old is he?"
"He's seven. The elves say that he'll live to be about a hundred, but he's full grown." She took Nigel's hand and let Chesty know he was to suffer the touch. "Just because he knows you, doesn't mean he trusts you. You have to earn his trust."
"Like his owner?" Taggart asked.
"I doubt you'll be here long enough for either one of us," she told them bluntly, but for some reason, it only made Taggart grin.
Much to Chesty and Taggart's dismay, she had the cameraman ride with her and Nigel follow in their truck. She had to keep them separated if she was going to keep them from running off and trying to film without her. From what she'd been able to observe, Taggart was the practical details person of the team.
Taggart put his back to the passenger door; either to keep an eye on Chesty in the backseat or to make sure Nigel was staying behind them. Both denoted a cautious outlook, which Jane approved of. It would make her job easier if Taggart was used to keeping Nigel in check.
"We'll see about getting you a place to live tomorrow," Jane said. "Any house that's unoccupied is free to anyone who is willing to take care of it. It's July, you won't have to worry about heating. The station can pull some strings to get you water and power. We watch each other's backs here." Hence the entire show this morning. They do a favor for EIA, and somewhere down the road, they could reasonably call in a return favor. "We're not going to let you screw things up and then drive away next Shutdown. We have to live here."
"Fine," Taggart growled as if it cost him to agree. "But it would be helpful to be caught up to speed. 'It's complicated' is bullshit."
It took her a moment to track back through the morning to find Dmitri's explanation of the current political situation in Pittsburgh. Okay, admittedly it was fairly sketchy.
"Okay, I'll catch you up but you'll have to be patient because it isn't simple."
She waited until he nodded in agreement before starting. She wanted to start laying ground rules of asking for cooperation and getting it. "Earth and Elfhome are parallel universes, mirror reflections with minor differences, the main one is that Elfhome has magic. Geographically they're identical. Recently the elves admitted that they could travel from Elfhome to Earth via a pathway through large cave systems."
"Yeah, we've always suspected something like that. All the legends we have of fae living under the hills."
"Lying is considered a major crime by elves, but not answering the question is an art form that they carefully cultivate."
"And apparently it rubs off," Taggart complained.
Jane ignored him. She'd scripted enough "how-to" bits that she knew that the key to understanding something complex required starting at the important facts that might seem basic but on which all understanding pivoted. "What magic does to the equation is that it superloads the DNA of all the native species. Basically everything on Elfhome could beat the snot out of its Earth cousin. We're genetically close enough to elves that we can interbreed, but they're taller, stronger and immortal. Chesty here will live almost twenty times longer than any Earth breed of his size."
"Do you mind starting with something I don't know? Like if the Viceroy is dead or alive? And why he went missing?"
Jane plowed on with her explanation. "There's a third parallel universe, with yet another mirror world, named Onihida, and it has magic. Its people are the oni."
He didn't startle as much as she expected and his next question explained why. "Whose theory is this?"
She dropped the big bomb. "Twenty-eight days ago, the oni made a very serious attempt at killing the Viceroy."
"Wait!" There was the reaction she was expecting. He stared at her eyes wide. Pure cameraman, though, that was the only body reaction to his surprise. Thankfully his voice made it worth everything, his normal rich near bass went all squeaky. "You mean they're here? In Pittsburgh?"
"Yes. Number unknown but possibly in the hundreds, if not thousands. Goal unknown, but obviously hostile to the elves. The elves have reluctantly also admitted that they had a running skirmish with the oni several hundred years ago. It started on Onihida, went across parts of China, and ended in the cave systems that lead to Elfhome. Or used to lead. The oni so scared the shit out of the elves that they blasted the pathways between Elfhome and Earth shut."
Taggart gazed out the SUV's windows at the city streets. Mercy Hospital was in one of the better areas of town since it lay protected on two sides by the river. All the windows had glass in them, the sidewalks were clear of weeds, and no wild animals were scurrying for cover. It could be any street in America. "I thought if the EIA was allowing people in, that the trouble had blown over."
Pittsburgh desperately needed supplies from Earth once a month. There simply were too many people and too little farmland for the city to feed itself, even in the summer months. It would have gridlocked incoming traffic completely if the EIA had tried to turn back everyone not transporting food.
Jane didn't point out that they'd downloaded all the information to Earth at midnight yesterday. The network had twenty-four hours to realize they were sending their people into a war zone and call them back.
Hal normally was excitable with a quirky sense of humor. On painkillers, he was manic loopy. Most people thought Hal was funnier with all politically correct safeguards brakes stripped off and the engine running at full. The nuns of Mercy Hospital, however, were not among that number. If anything, "loathe" was probably an accurate word to how they felt about him. Over the years, they had abandoned all "family only" rules for Jane in order to facilitate her taking him away. As far away as possible. They had hinted that his returning to Earth – permanently – would be a good thing for everyone.
Today was no exception.
Mother Superior of the Sisters of Mercy herself was lying in wait for Jane at the foyer. "You have to keep in mind we only can restock our supplies once a month. Frankly, it always stresses our supplies of medications when Mr. Rogers is having a streak of bad luck. With fighting breaking out right and left..."
"Mother Superior, this is Nigel Reid. Nigel, Mother Superior is head of the nuns that oversee this hospital. Anyone attacked by a monster is brought here to be treated."
Which of course was all that took. TV hosts were kind of like napalm. You threw them at any major infestation and they cleaned out the area of all hostiles.
Nigel lit up as if introduced to Santa Claus. "Oh, how simply wonderful to meet you!"
Taggart caught what she had done and his eyes glittered with his smile. "That was pure evil."
"Judicial use of resources is always appropriate."
For reasons that she could never understand, they always put Hal in pediatrics, as far from the nurses' station as possible. It was possibly because it was usually the least occupied floor, or perhaps it was a statement on what they thought his mental age was.
He was standing on the window ledge, hospital gown flapping open in the back, as he waved her camera around.
"Hal! What the frick are you doing with my camera? Get down! And don't you dare break my camera!"
"Jane?" Hal glanced over his shoulder. His two black eyes made him look like a startled raccoon. "Jane!" He cried with joy and then realized he was holding evidence of his crime. "Jane!" And that he was currently mooning her. "Jane!" And in trying to hide the evidence while pinning the flaps of the hospital gown, together, he started to wobble dangerously on the window ledge. "Jane!"
Cursing, Jane caught the wrist of the hand holding the camera and jerked him toward her. In what was an unfortunately well-practiced move, she pulled him into a fireman carry over her shoulder. "I swear, Hal, I'm going to tell them to tie you into the bed if you pull this shit again!"
She delivered him to said bed.
"But there was this huge bird! It was bigger than me! Black like a crow! Wings this big!" He was attempting to show her by spreading his arms. She, however, was prying her camera free. "Ow! Ow! Ow!"
"You break my camera, and we can't shoot for two months. I break your hand, we can still shoot tomorrow."
"Letting go!" Hal cried. "Letting go!"
She checked the lens for scratches. Camera parts needed to be ordered from Earth. They have to wait until next Shutdown to order replacements and then another month for the lens to arrive. If he's screwed up her camera, she was so going to kill him.
"I was just sitting here when this freaking huge bird came swooping out of nowhere." Hal was attempting to use his charisma to talk his way out of trouble, only because he was on drugs, he derailed quickly into incoherence. "At least I think it was a bird. Might have been a superhero. I am Batman! Only more like Hawkman – without the goofy cow." He meant cowl. He put his fingers to his head to make odd points on Hawkman's cowl. Obviously he hadn't seen himself in the mirror yet; he already was masked by deep purple bruises. "Cow. Cow. Mooo." He noticed Taggart for the first time and he went wide-eyed. He tilted his head, still making horns. "My god! You're Taggart with the unpronounceable first name."
"Yes, I am." Taggart rubbed at his face to cover a smile. "And you're Hal Rogers from Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden."
"I am." Hal slowly frowned as he tried to think through the confusion of the painkillers. He glanced about the familiar hospital room, the Boulevard of the Allies just outside his window with the Monongahela River beyond the steep cliff. "This is Pittsburgh. What the fuck are you doing here?"
"I'm wondering myself." Taggart said.
Hal suddenly lunged at Jane and wrapped both arms around her. "No. You can't have her!" He hissed like snake. "Jane is mine!"
Normally she didn't think of Hal as a small man. His personality could fill a room to claustrophobic level, making him seem seven feet tall. In truth, however, he came right to boob-level on her.
"Hal!" Jane worked at prying him off her. "If you want to get out of here, you better get dressed, because I'm not taking you out of here with your ass flapping in the wind."
"What's he doing here?" Hal whispered fiercely.
"Get dressed!" She gave him a shove and turned around so she wouldn't be flashed as well as mooned. Although after five years working together – and all various plant assisted disrobing and the subsequent ambulance rides -- she'd seen the entire package more times than she could count.
"Does Dmitri know he's here?" Hal asked and then answered himself. "Of course Dmitri knows. Dmitri knows everything. He's freaking omniscient. That's just an act when he calls right in the middle of something amazing and goes 'what are you doing?' like he doesn't damn well know you plan a glorious explosion. Just freaking glorious."
Hal was rambling on about his recent misadventure with high explosives. If Taggart weren't standing there, she would take advantage of Hal's drugged state and quiz him on that, because she still was trying to figure out where he got the C4. More importantly, if the source was going to supply him with more in the future.
The network cameraman was eyeing Hal over her shoulder with open surprise and dismay. "What exactly happened this morning? He looks like he's been flogged."
"We were victorious!" Hal shouted. "We looked that thing in all seventy-four eyes and burned out its heart!"
Jane sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. So many things wrong in that sentence, she wasn't even going to try. God, she prayed that Nigel wasn't anything like Hal. "Right, let's get going. I want to get home before dark."
Technically she lived in Pittsburgh but barely. The true city's edge was another mile or so north. Once the township of Coraopolis, the nearly unpopulated neighborhood, however, was one of the points where the Rim had migrated inward via invading Elfhome vegetation. What had been housing plans once gathered around Pittsburgh International Airport was now collapsing homes among ironwood forest. The trees were still considered "saplings" but already towered a hundred feet over her driveway. The harsh sun instantly softened in a way that seemed nearly magical.
Chesty jumped out his open window the moment she parked and started a perimeter parole of the front yard. The cost of living so close to the Rim was she had to be ever vigilant. Only after he'd made a full sweep of the front yard without signaling danger did she get out and take a deep breath of the green stillness.
Taggart slid out of her SUV and stood taking in her ancestral home in the sun-dappled forest. The massive stone walls. The turrets. The gables. "Wow."
"Welcome to Hyeholde."
"This – this is not what I expected," he said quietly, as if not to disturb the peace. "A castle? Here?"
"When my great-great-grandfather proposed to my grandmother, he promised her a castle. He never mentioned that they'd have to build with their own hands. It took them seven years just to finish the West Room."
He laughed. "So you are a native guide."
"You can't get much more native without being an elf."
"Mine!" Hal cried from the backseat for the zillionth time since leaving the hospital.
"So, you live here alone?" Taggart obviously was asking if Hal lived with her.
"Yes." She hoped the brusque answer would stop any more questions, but she hoped in vain.
"Your family went back to Earth?"
"Don't ask personal questions." Jane added a glare so he'd get the point.
"She's got lots and lots and lots of family in Pittsburgh." Hal shouted. "And they all drive her nuts, so she hides out in her Fortress of Solitude."
"Shush you." Jane considered duct tape for Hal's mouth. God knows what he might tell the New Yorkers. She keyed open her gun safe and took out her assault rifle. "Stay with the SUV until I've checked the house."
Her great-great-grandfather had built the castle to be a restaurant, so it had an industrial-sized kitchen. She'd opened it up into one of the smaller dining rooms to add in a small eating and living room space. She got Hal settled on her big leather couch and assigned Nigel the task of keeping him there, one way or another. For the next hour as she squirreled away her supplies, fed Chesty and made a simple dinner, Hal ranted at hyperactive speed about his time doing network television.
She knew the pain medication was wearing off when Hal grew quiet.
When she paused to check on him, Hal asked, "Why are they here?" in a small miserable voice that sounded nothing like the normal Hal.
She opened her mouth to answer and realized that she really didn't know why the two were there. She'd been so caught up in trying to wriggle out of responsibility and taking care of Hal that she hadn't actually found out the details.
He probably hadn't asked Nigel because, despite the friendly banter, he didn't trust the man. The common thread of his stories, she realized, was that on Earth he'd been betrayed and abandoned by people he thought he could trust to more famous stars. Wives. Producers. And ultimately fans. Had he kept to old Earth stories in order to keep from playing up anything connected to PB&G?
"They've got a network show called 'Chased by Monsters' and Dmitri wants me to keep them out of trouble," she explained.
Hal frowned and looked at Taggart who was now slumped in the matching chair, looking exhausted. "You're not here because network is betting on a war?"
"Depends on who you ask," Taggart said. "Ask me, no. I'm never doing that again. I've had enough of the stench of blood. I wouldn't put it past Network though, certainly they suddenly green lighted our show after months of having us on hold."
"Wait. What?" Jane had missed something important.
"Taggart is an award winning war correspondent," Nigel said because Taggart apparently was modest and Hal was falling into a pain stupor. "Network probably okayed our show because it created a win-win for them. If there's a war, they have one of the best men trapped inside. If there isn't, they get what promises to be a hit show."
It suddenly made sense why Network hadn't warned Dmitri last Shutdown about the men's arrival and yet had given them a freshly painted truck. The decision had been made to send them after they'd processed WQED's last news dump, and then it was too late to send an email to Pittsburgh.
Jane swore. "Bastards."
Nigel spread his hands slightly in a "what are you going to do" motion. "It gets us what we wanted, so we can't really complain."
"We've been trying to get onto Elfhome to film documentaries for years." Taggart scrubbed at his face. "The UN has a chokehold on information coming out of Pittsburgh. Most people wouldn't notice it. We notice because there's a huge black hole where things like wildlife documentaries should be. Jane Goodall's work produced sixty years of film. Jacques-Yves Cousteau alone had thousands of hours of documentaries. Oxford Scientific Films did four seasons on meerkats. What do we have from Elfhome in nearly thirty years? A whole new world with fascinating people, plants and animals? Zip."
"Maybe the networks don't think they'll sell."
Taggart snorted. "Documentaries are funded differently. Production companies like ours often fold their profit back into the next film, along with money from private investors, government grant money and philanthropists who have a special interest in the source material. Normally we make a film and then market off the rights to networks. It gives us creative control over what we do."
Nigel nodded along with Taggart's explanation. "We've had the money for the last three years, but our visa applications kept getting turned down. We just didn't have the clout to force them through. So we decided to see if a major network would have better luck – and they did."
"But you're stuck filming crap now." Hal snorted. "Chased by monsters? Better be damn good at running."
"And exactly how do you get hurt filming a landscaping show?" Taggart retorted.
"If it can't kill us, we don't film it," Jane said, to stop the fighting before it could start. "There's a lot of dangerous flora and fauna in Pittsburgh and it doesn't stay beyond the Rim. It comes into people's backyards and sets up shop. We teach our viewers how to deal with it, but it means we have to actually get close enough to get hurt."
"Deal with, as in kill?" Nigel seemed flabbergasted.
"This isn't Earth. These aren't endangered species. This morning we were dealing with a very large strangler vine in a neighborhood with lots of children. There's no way to 'move' it to someplace where it isn’t a danger, especially while it's actively trying to kill anything that stumbles into its path. Pets. Children. Automated lawnmowers."
"That one is always amusing to watch but it always ends badly for the lawnmower," Hal said.
"Well, yes, the idea behind 'chased' is that we aren't hunting the creatures."
She remembered that they'd mentioned a list when they first met Chesty. "Which creatures?"
They had a list that made Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden's fare look tame. She stared at it, trying not to slip to horror. Half the animals were mythical – possibly – and certainly never seen near Pittsburgh. Did they have the pull to get them all the way to the Easternlands to find out? Humans were discouraged from leaving Pittsburgh city limits, with the exception of the train crews, who actually got to travel to the east coast. The elves normally forbid humans from traveling to the other continents. Fame, however, opened many doors.
"What, exactly, did the network set up for you in terms of visas?"
"Why?" Taggart asked.
"Many of these animals aren't native to the Westernlands." She scrolled down and a laugh of disbelief or perhaps fear slipped out. "Basilisk? Bigfoot?"
"We thought we should list all legendary animals," Nigel explained – apparently without realizing it – why they had visa problems. "Can't hurt to ask. Dragons are real, right?"
"Elves say they are." Jane desperately wanted a scotch but if she had one, Hal couldn't resist needing one, and she didn't want go back down that road. "This list is suicidal if you're not willing to defend yourself. This isn't Earth, where you can sit in your Jeep and take picture of lions, or go sit in the middle of a bunch of apes. Most of these things will peel open an SUV like it’s a can of sardines and make a snack of everything inside."
"It would be amusing to watch but it would end badly for you," Hal murmured. It was hard to tell if he was making a play on his previous statement or if he didn't realize he was repeating himself.
"The list is a starting point." Nigel leaned forward, face lighting up with inner fire. "To get us in the door. What we want is all of Elfhome. To revel in all that it has to offer. The virgin iron wood forest. The beautiful immortal elves. The strange and magical beasts. And the humans that live peacefully side by side with all this."
Jane shook her head, trying to resist the power of a TV host beaming at her one-on-one. "Don't snow job me."
"I've seen this kind of shit before," Taggart said with quiet intensity. "When a country goes dark, its means someone has something it's trying to hide. And often what they're hiding is horrible war crimes like mass graves and attempted genocide. Someone is keeping the media out of Pittsburgh."
The knowledge that there were people sharing her house, people whose safety she was responsible for, weighed heavily on her. It sunk her into the murky waters of old nightmares, where well-founded grief blurred into something strange and nearly unrecognizable.
She bolted awake with Chesty nosing her face.
"I'm fine!" She pushed him away and sat up. Her alarm clock read six in the morning with the sky just lightening with dawn. Hal's soft snores invaded the normal quiet of her house. "I'll be even better when I get rid of all these men."
She stomped across the hall and pounded on Hal's door and got an "I'm up!" yelped in reply. She stalked down the hallway, shouting, "Daylight is wasting ladies! Time to get up!"
She wasn't prepared to find Taggart already in the kitchen. Judging by the smell, he had made coffee and toast. He wore low-slung pj bottoms and had been standing in front of the bank of televisions she'd set up so she could watch all three Pittsburgh channels at once.
He had dark curls on his chest that matched his long black mane, which only served to underscore her first impression of wild man. Judging by his muscled abdomen, he visited a gym often in New York. She could also tell in a glance that she was very much into dark haired wild men.
She opened her mouth to tell him to get dressed and nothing coherent came out.
He gazed at her with open worry. "Are you okay?"
"Just – just…" Needed to remember that she was extremely pissed at him for invading her life. "I had a nightmare."
He quirked an eyebrow.
"Lawn gnomes had taken Hal. I couldn't find him."
"Ah, so you don't really hate him?"
She was caught off guard by the question. "No! Why would you say that?"
"Friendship is a rare beast in our line. Most people only fake it."
"I don't fake anything."
"I'm starting to understand that." His gaze made her blush because it seemed to suggest he was into tall blondes. Then again, most men were, at least at first meeting. Usually after they met her father's ghost, though, they realized that tall and blonde only stretched so far.
"Tell me, who exactly is Tinker?" He nodded toward the televisions.
All three channels were covering the same story from slightly different perspective. Jane swore as the details filtered in, painful in the familiar cadence, as if time had wound back seven years. Vanished without a trace. No witnesses. Missing since yesterday. Jumpfish and river sharks made finding a body unlikely.
"Oh god." The cameras of the news crews picked out all the same trappings as when Boo disappeared. The police cars. The EIA river patrol boats. The family waiting on the shore for news. The only difference this time was that it was elves gathered into a protective circle. The Viceroy's face was full of unbearable grief.
"You know him?" Taggart asked.
"Her. Tinker is a girl." Not much older than what Boo would be now, if Boo was still alive. "Everyone knows her. She's famous." Jane thought of all the photos of the muddy hoverbike racer that they had sent Network. In every one of them, Tinker had blazed glorious. Determined in battle. Joyous at her wins. Grinning even in defeat.
"I'm sorry," Taggart said quietly and Jane realized that there was a tear rolling down her cheek.
"I don't really know her." Jane wiped at her face. "She's just eighteen; she's still just a kid." According to certain juvenile betting pools, Tinker had barely started to date before meeting the Viceroy. "But Pittsburgh is a small town. Everyone has dozens of points of commonality. My cousins are on her crew. My younger brother hangs out with her cousin. My mechanic's little brother is her best friend."
The impending ripple of grief moving through the city, touching everyone, made Jane's throat tighten up. She focused instead on the chaos on the screen trying to understand when and where Tinker had disappeared. Last Jane had heard, Tinker had been building something out beyond the Rim. How had she disappeared with all those people at her beck and call? She wasn't a kindergartener with five older brothers to distract everyone. Tinker might be barely five foot tall but her personality expanded to fill the room. Any time that Jane had crossed paths with Tinker, everyone in the area tracked her movement.
Maddeningly, none of the three reporters were actually covering what had happened. Chloe Polanski hated working with a crew (and from what Jane had heard, the feeling was mutual) and used an eyepiece camera. Her shots were either close-ups of herself or confusing sweeps of the river. The woman was good for interviews but sucked when there wasn't a warm body to tear into pieces. Kimberly Shotts was going for the human-interest angle and her cameraman stayed focused on the Viceroy. Only Mark Webster's cameraman was showing enough of the surroundings for Jane to get her bearings as to where the elves and humans were gathering. They seemed to be at the old Greyhound parking lot off of Second Avenue, about six hundred feet from the footings of the 10th Street Bridge.
Jane swore as Mark's camera showed the wreckage of Tinker's famous hoverbike in the emergency pull off lane of 376, just feet from the Monongahela River. "What the hell did she hit?"
As if to answer her, the camera panned upwards to the Boulevard of the Allies at the top of the cliff beside Second Avenue. The drop from the highway above was straight down several hundred feet.
"Looks like she went off the cliff," Taggart said.
"Not by accident," Jane said. "She could make a hoverbike do anything. She could fly…"
Jane realized that Mark was showing the edge of Mercy Hospital. "Oh, freaking hell."
She scrambled to her camera charging station. She'd swapped out memory cards before stowing her camera in the truck. If Hal had actually recorded anything yesterday, it would be the only thing on the fresh card.
The first thing was Hal's "call" to the studio. She had missed out on him thanking her profusely for her promise to come and get him.
"Thank you, Jane. You wonderful, wonderful girl. A true goddess! You magnificent Valkyrie! I love you…"
She hit fast forward, swearing softly, as she started to burn with embarrassment because Taggart had followed her from the televisions.
"Is that your main camera?"
"It's our only camera."
"That ancient thing? I thought you were the top show."
"Welcome to Pittsburgh," she growled. The truth was that Hal killed too many cameras to let PB&G have the newer equipment, not that what Mark's crew were using could be consider state-of-the-art. Jane paused as she found Hal's "big bird." Hal wasn't the best cameraman so it blurred in and out of focus. At first the scale was impossible to judge until a hoverbike suddenly soared out into the air near it. The rider and bike separated even as they both plunged toward the ground.
Jane gasped in horror. The rider was Tinker. Falling.
The black bird dove and caught Tinker in mid-air. Only then the size of the creature became obvious. It was huge.
"What is that?" Taggart asked.
"I don't know. I've never seen a bird this big."
"Is it a bird?"
"I don't think it’s a wyvern. Its wings look feathered. Wyverns are lizardlike with bat-wings."
"Are you sure?"
"There's a wyvern stuffed in the Carnegie Museum, just down the hall from the dinosaurs. Every other year in school we went there for a field trip because there's not much else to see in Pittsburgh."
Tinker thrashed in the bird's hold and then went heart-stoppingly limp. The black bird flapped away. Hal attempted to keep the bird in sight with zoom and things blurred in and out of focus again.
Swearing, Jane pulled the chip out of the camera and slotted it into her home video editor. She flipped through the frames until she found the cleanest shot of the creature.
"Does that look like a winged man to you?"
"What exactly do these oni look like?"
"Tall. Strong. Red haired. No one said anything about wings."
"So there's another player in town."
Jane cursed, dropping F bombs, and she found the clearest picture of Tinker being caught by the winged man and sent it to her printer. "They're searching the river for her body and she never went into the water."
"Congrats on the scoop."
"Scoop hell." Jane snatched the picture off the printer. "We're telling her family what really happened to her."
"Really?" He looked surprised and pleased by the news.
Jane pointed across the room at the center television where the camera dwelled on the Viceroy's open grief. "He thinks his bride went into a river full of man-eating fish. If anyone should know that Tinker was still alive, it should be him."
It was like having two children in the car with her. Okay, one child and a young adult that kept backsliding. Hal, of course, was attempting to prove he was really only eight years old. Taggart could resist the taunting part of the time. Nigel was the senile grandmother who never noticed that the children were fighting. He sat in the backseat, smiling serenely at the passing landscape. What made things worse was that Taggart called shotgun so he could film through the front window. That made it so she couldn't reach Hal to swat him into silence. She found herself tempted to hit Taggart just because he was beside her. And because he'd changed into a dark blue silk shirt and cologne that smelled so good she just wanted to roll in it.
"I can kill us all," Jane growled, gripping the wheel tightly, and resisted the urge to drive the production truck into the ditch to prove her point.
Somehow they reached downtown without her killing anyone.
The EIA had Hummers in camo blocking the on ramp to 376 and then again at Second Avenue where it ducked under the Boulevard of the Allies. She avoided the EIA for the outsiders that they were. She cut up Forbes Avenue to the Armstrong Tunnels. There was a Pittsburgh police cruiser and a wooden barrier blocking the inbound lane. Luckily it was Bo Pedersen. He started to wave her away until she rolled down the window. The motion turned into a greeting.
"Didn't recognize the truck. What happened to yours? Hal blow it up?"
"I didn't do a thing to our truck, Bowman!" Hal shouted from the backseat, leaving out that he'd set himself and a good portion of the neighborhood on fire.
"He's still on pain meds," Jane said.
Bo laughed. "Yeah, I heard that Hal set himself on fire yesterday."
Hal started to say something. Jane held up a hand to silence him without looking. Now that they'd stopped moving, she could and would climb into the backseat to beat him. Judging by his quiet, he knew this.
"I need through, Bo," Jane said.
Bo shook his head. "The elves are on the war path, Jane, and that means EIA is being pissy about who has access."
"Oh, Jesus, Bo. Just open the gate and let me through, or I'll drop Hal on you and let you babysit him."
"Hey, hey!" Bo backed away. "My wife's expecting. I'm going to be a daddy. You keep Hal."
"Congrats, Bo. Tell Patty to let me know if she wants my place for the baby shower." The price of taking over Hyeholde was constantly being asked to host family weddings, showers, and birthday parties. Since every single party triggered old nightmares, she hated the invasions. Still, if offering up her house would get her through the tunnel, she would just have to suffer.
Bo's huge smile indicated she'd just made someone very happy. "Will do!" He glanced toward the tunnel. "I suppose since WQED is on the 'approved' list that I can let you in. Just be careful! Tie Hal down or something."
"Thanks! I just might do that." Jane waited for him to move the barrier and then drove into the tunnel.
"I take it you know him," Taggart murmured.
"His wife is my second cousin." Far enough out that Patty probably wouldn't have asked Jane to use Hyeholde but would be overjoyed at the invitation.
"Jane is related to everyone," Hal said.
"Not everyone," Jane growled. "It just seems that way. Most of the people who stayed in Pittsburgh after the first Startup did so because they had a shitload of family staying. My family on both sides has been here for hundreds of years."
"Anyone that she's not related to went to high school with her or one of her five brothers."
Boo would have started high school soon. No one would have the chance to sit beside her in class, write in her yearbook, or ask her to the prom.
At the end of the tunnel, Jane turned left onto Second Avenue and drove down to the parking lot. The elves were still clustered around the Viceroy by the river's edge. At a safe distance were the human camps: the police, the EIA, and, of course, the news crews. Jane really didn't want to park near the reporters. They were bored and looking for something of interest and, if nothing else, Taggart and Nigel were something new. If she avoided them, though, it would be like blood in shark-infested water. She pulled in and parked beside the WQED news van.
Leaving Chesty to guard the CBM truck, she got out with her camera in hand. Hopefully she could get to the Viceroy without attracting attention. The more people who knew that she wanted to talk to him, the more likely she would be blocked completely. After the news crews there were another rank of police, the EIA, and the Viceroy's guards.
Complicating her attempt was the fact that Hal, Taggart and Nigel chose to trail behind her. Mark Webster knew already knew everything about Taggart and Nigel. He recognized their truck and waved in uninterested greeting. Kimberly Schotts was intent on filming the elves. She glanced over, saw Mark wave and dismissed them.
Chloe Polanski, however, locked on target. She was the type of person that gave reporters bad names.
"What are you and Hal doing here?" Chloe closed on them quickly. "You're not news – unless you run over your own cameraman."
"That was an accident," Hal said.
"Hal!" Jane tried to get around the woman but Chloe kept shifting at the same time, blocking her. "It's none of your business what we're doing here, Chloe."
"I want to know because I am news. What do you two walking accidents think you're going to do? Help kill river sharks?" There was a huge booming explosion and water fountained upwards nearly a hundred feet and came raining down with dozens of silvery fish of all sizes. "Because the Viceroy is doing well enough on his own."
"It's none of your damn business," Jane repeated, gripping her left fist tight. She normally didn't hit women, but normally women didn't need hitting. Chloe had been a bitch after Boo had disappeared, something Jane had worked hard to ignore at the time. She'd been under the mistaken impression that news coverage would actually help find Boo. All it did was make everyone in Pittsburgh think her mother was a horrible person, her mother included.
Chloe flicked her gaze down to Jane's fist and smirked. "What? Are you actually going to try and hit me? You do realize I'm filming this?"
Jane snapped her fingers over her shoulder at Taggart, trusting that he still had his camera in hand. "Film this. There, now so are we." She gave her camera to Hal. "Either get out of my way or I'm going through you."
"Oh, the college drop-out is going to try and make me move."
"Was that supposed to make me mad? I've seen your interviews, Chloe, you can do better than that." Jane gave a "come on" with both hands. "You want to fight, we can fight."
Chloe smirked and shifted into a karate stance. Being that the reporter knew all about Jane's upbringing and high school sports metals, her confidence could only mean that she was even better trained.
For a moment Jane was sure that she was about to get ass kicked but was equally sure that if she could get one good punch landed on Chloe's face, it would all be worth it. But then Chloe dropped out of ready stance and slid sideways, alarm filling her face.
Jane shifted, bracing for whatever third party was joining the "discussion."
One of the Viceroy's body guards was suddenly in their midst, a tall female with her hair dyed the same color as the protective spells tattooed down her arms like Celtic knots. Anyone with half a brain cell skittered backwards, hands raised in the universal sign of being unarmed. The female elf was one of the sekasha-caste, a holy warrior thought to be perfect, and had the freedom to kill anyone that pissed her off.
"What's going on here?" the female snapped in English that sounded pure Pittsburgh.
"We have something that the Viceroy needs to see," Jane said.
"It's important that I see it," the female held out her hand.
Jane reluctantly gave her the photograph of the winged man holding Tinker. There was no way she could fight her way past the female.
The warrior stared at the photo and then gave Jane a hard look. "If this is faked, I'll kill you myself. How did you get it? When was it taken?"
"I took it!" Hal leaped forward. "I was at the hospital." He pointed at his raccoon eyes as evidence. "And I was completely stoned. Still am slightly. Pain medication. Makes me all loopy."
"Hal!" Jane cried. "You're going to get yourself killed."
The female caught Hal's chin with her hand and turned his head this way and that. "You're the silly grass man."
"Yes!" Hal cried and then, "No! I'm not silly."
"Yes, you are," Jane growled. "Trust me on that. That's a single frame of a video he took while he was in the hospital."
"Why didn't you come forward earlier?" the warrior snapped.
"Because he was drugged, I thought he had only imagined a giant bird. I didn't hear about Tinker's disappearance until this morning. Once I realized that she went off the Boulevard right beside the hospital and that Hal had a clear view of that, I checked the footage. When we realized what it showed, we came straight here."
"We want to see this video."
Jane had never been this close to the Viceroy Windwolf before. All the elves she knew were young looking; immortality made them practically ageless. Surrounded by his hardened warriors, though, Windwolf looked like a lost boy.
He took a deep breath and breathed out, "Oh, thank gods, she didn't go into the river."
"It's a tengu," Wraith Arrow, head of Windwolf's bodyguards, said. "An oni spy. Their masters made them from crows; they like to flock together. If there's one here in Pittsburgh, there's more. There's probably several watching us now, laughing at us."
"He appears to be drugging her." The blue haired female was the only one of the elves that seemed familiar with the concept of "camera" and had explained it in detail while showing the video. She'd stopped it now on one of the frames and zoomed in on where the tengu held something white against Tinker's face. "So she would stop struggling and be easier to carry."
The female advanced a dozen frames and then turned, holding up the camera to align it with the lay of the land. "He took her upriver."
"He probably was trying to get to the treeline." The Viceroy's personal assistant, Sparrow, pointed out that the tengu was flying toward the closest edge of the forest without crossing the heavily populated section of Oakland. "Away from witnesses. From there he could have flown along the Rim and crossed back into the city where there're few humans."
Windwolf looked to the blue-haired female. "Discord?"
She looked frustrated down at the ground. "I don't know. This." She waved at the river. "This has always felt like a waste of time but short of racing blindly about, hoping for something to hit me, no. Nothing. Forgiveness."
"She's alive," Windwolf said. "That is what is important. And she is more useful to them alive."
The looks on older elves' faces said that death might be more pleasant than being at the mercy of the oni.
"The sooner we find her, the less damage they can wreak on her," Sparrow said. "We can cover more ground if we split into several search parties."
Having plowed through all three channel's news crews, it was no surprise that Dmitri called moments later. Jane winced at her phone's screen and glanced toward Mark's cameraman to verify that Dmitri was probably watching her as well.
"Hm?" Jane tried for innocent sounding.
"What are you doing?" Dmitri asked totally deadpan.
"Omniscient," Hal sang quietly.
Jane snorted. Nothing supernatural about Dmitri's ability when half the time they were beaming straight to the studio, just in case Hal managed to blow up the entire neighborhood. She explained about Hal filming Tinker's kidnapping.
"And you didn't think to share this with our news crew?"
"Her family had the right to know first," Jane said.
There was a long pause on the other side. "Jane, I know that you're going to want to help but you of all people can't."
"Why can't I?" Jane tried to keep her voice neutral but it came out cold and hard.
Dmitri sighed. "To make a long story short, because I said so. Do you really need the long story?"
"Yes." Her voice had gone colder and harder. Her father's voice when he was truly angry. Hal was retreating, quickly.
"I've tried several times to syndicate Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden. I know that the American audience would love it, but every time I get close to closing a deal, everything suddenly goes south for no reason. Nigel and Taggart told me yesterday about the troubles they've had getting visas to come in to film, so I checked with the other stations. They both have run into similar news black outs. This Chased by Monsters got past whatever gatekeepers are blocking us. We need for it to succeed because so far it's going to be the only voice Pittsburgh has on Earth if the elves and the oni go to full out war."
"You think there's enough oni here to start a war?"
"If the elves didn't want news leaking out, they'd be creating roadblocks for us here in Pittsburgh. EIA Director Maynard was handpicked by the Viceroy and he's proved himself loyal. To keep you and Hal off American televisions, they'd simply keep you from filming. Everything we know about the oni suggests that they're getting to Elfhome via Pittsburgh during Shutdown. If someone is blocking us at network level in New York, it’s the oni not the elves."
"You really think the oni care if humans watch Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden?"
"This is about politics, Jane. The number of troops sent to support a peace-keeping effort could be influenced by the fact that thirty percent of all Americans recognize the name Hal Rogers and know the faces of a handful of Pittsburgh homeowners."
In other words, whatever they could get out, in whatever form, was actually propaganda.
"Tinker is not your baby sister. The elves will look for a thousand years if they have to. I need you to make sure Chased by Monsters is our voice on Earth. Nigel and Taggart only have visas for two months and then they have to take whatever they have and leave. If they don't have enough footage for an entire season, the whole thing is canned. Do you understand?"
"Fifty-six days, counting today, to do an entire season?"
"You're the only one that has any hope of doing this because you're only one with the right experience with the kind of shit Elfhome can throw at a film crew. I need you focused."
"Fine." She hung up on him just to salvage some pride. Fifty-six days. They would need to do approximately one episode every three days to meet the network's minimum. "Taggart, Nigel! Set up! We're doing a shoot here."
"Shoot what?" Taggart asked.
"You want to do river sharks and jumpfish. There." She pointed at the dead fish piled on the shore, the larger fishes cut open so their stomachs could be searched for one missing princess. "Whole ecology of Elfhome rivers."
"We were hoping for living examples…" Nigel started.
"We will get to those. Right now everything within miles is probably dead or stuffed. This is once in a lifetime shot. We'll get this now. Now!" she shouted to get them moving.
"Right." Nigel clapped his hands and turned to Taggart, who was already filming. "Here we are with an unexpected bounty. In one place, a full selection of all the fish found in the rivers around Pittsburgh. This massive example here is known as a river shark. They are believed to have evolved from an ancestor similar to the fresh water sharks of the species 'requiem' on Earth. Like their cousins, these sharks have round eyes and their pectoral fins are completely behind the gill slits, which normally are five in number. While Earth cousins are normally found in warm seas and mouths of rivers, the Elfhome river sharks have slowly worked their way the entire length of the Mississippi and the Ohio, an amazing one thousand, eight hundred and eighty-one miles, to find their way to Pittsburgh."
Nigel crouched beside the shark. It dwarfed him. "While the largest of Earth's requiem sharks rival the Great Whites, Elfhome's river sharks are remarkably larger. This one here is nearly five meters long. The record here in Pittsburgh is an unbelievable six point four meters. What do these massive creatures eat? Let's see!"
In a move rival to one of Hal's, Nigel plunged his whole arm into the slit cut in the shark's stomach. He jerked back his hand wrapped in the pulsing glowing mass of a water fairy. "What do we have here?"
"Put it down!" Jane cried in warning.
"Trying to," Nigel said calmly despite the wince of pain that flashed across his face.
"That's a water fairy." Hal whipped out his ever-present expandable grab-stick. Joining Nigel in the frame, he used the tool to pry the gleaming mass from Nigel's hand. "It's a distant cousin of the cuttlefish that has been crossed with a jellyfish. This one is just a baby, but still a sturdy little critter, despite its appearance."
"How poisonous is it?" Taggart murmured as the water fairy was peeled free to expose a massive welt on Nigel's hand.
"Not very. Keep filming." Jane headed to her truck for her first aid kit.
Mark met her at the jersey wall. "Dmitri wants to know if you gave me a chip yet." Chloe and Kimberly trailed in his wake, hoping to glean what they could. "What chip?"
"This one." She thrust the memory chip at him and kept going. Kimberly paused, unsure which of them were the hotter story.
Chloe kept pace with Jane. "Jane Kryskill, you’re the camera woman of Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden."
"Field Producer." Jane growled her official title, which Chloe probably damn well knew.
"You're working with award winning war correspondent Keaweaheulu Taggart."
Did everyone in Pittsburgh but Jane know who the hell Taggart was? Keaweaheulu? What kind of name was that? It sounded nearly as bad as an untranslated elf name. Jane ignored Chloe and unlocked her truck. She needed to get back to Nigel before his hand swelled up to the size of a baseball mitt.
"How is it that he's here on Elfhome with footage of Princess Tinker being kidnapped? Did your network have foreknowledge of this? How did your network know to send an award winning war correspondent this Shutdown?"
The questions started to sound damning when left unanswered. It was almost lunch time, which meant Chloe might be broadcasting live, giving little opportunity for damage control by the channel managers.
"Our network knew nothing about the kidnapping until it happened. By dumb luck, Hal Rogers happened to witness and get footage. Surely, all your viewers know Hal and his dumb luck. Taggart is not here as a war correspondent."
"Then what's he doing here?"
"Trying to get eaten!" Jane turned to face Chloe square on. "Taggart is here is with world famous naturalist, Nigel Reid, to film a network show called Chased by Monsters. They want to film Nigel coming face to face with Elfhome wildlife and hopefully surviving the experience." She let her sarcasm drip through since most Pittsburghers were slightly disdainful of newcomers. "If any of Channel Five's viewers hears of any monsters in the Pittsburgh-area – other than reporter Chloe Polanski – please let us know."
They ended up drinking Iron City Beer and eating blackened river shark and grilled water fairy in the Neighborhood of Make Believe.
"I didn't realize you could eat water fairy." Jane had been dubious as Taggart carefully grilled the skewered pieces over the charcoal grill in the studio's parking lot. She wouldn't let him feed any to Chesty until he'd proved it wasn't fatal by eating some of the tentacles.
"Both cuttlefish and jellyfish are common street food in East Asia." He waved his beer to take in the surrounding sets of fanciful puppet houses. "Can't believe I'm drinking beer in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. It almost feels blasphemous. King Friday's Castle. The Museum Go Round. The Platypus Mound."
"The Platypus family was why I become a biologist." Nigel was eating left handed as his right was still swollen from the water fairy sting. "Dr. Bill Platypus and Elsie Jean and little Ornithorhynchus Anatinus."
"I thought her name was Ana," Jane said.
"It was Ana for short. Her full name was an in-joke. It's the Latin scientific name for platypus. I identified with them at first because they were Scottish, like me, and then because they were so not like anyone else." He pulled up his pants legs to show off the fact that both his legs were artificial. "Like me. I wanted to know everything about platypuses. And then to understand how unique they are, you have to understand the rest of the animal kingdom. One thing led to another and, voila, Dr. Nigel."
"The only egg-laying venomous mammal on Earth," Hal said. "God knows what the hell their cousin is like here on Elfhome. Can you imagine?"
"Have the elves even been to Australia?" Taggart asked.
"Not that we can tell." Jane said and then tapped on the table beside her tablet to draw their attention back to why they were at the studio in the first place. "Focus. We need to figure out what we're shooting tomorrow. I've got all the monster tips that were sent to the station. We take the most mobile first, any warg or saurus sightings, if there's any. Then work down by mobility."
Taggart lifted his eyebrows in question to what she meant.
"Black willow and will-o-wisps are slow moving and will be in the same general area for a couple of days. Last on our list will be completely stationary creatures. Steel spanners. Strangle Vines."
"They're also most common." Hal read off his lot of the tips. "Strangle Vine. Strangle Vine. Spanners."
"Loch Ness?" Nigel said. "Elfhome has a Nessie?"
Jane copied the tip and read over it. The caller had spotted "something huge in the river" from the I-79 Bridge. "What the hell was he doing down there?"
"What you mean?" Taggart asked.
"Oh I-79 is practically a road to nowhere since it's right on the Rim. Oh, it was right after Startup. He was coming home."
"A Loch Ness sounds promising," Nigel said.
Jane shook her head. "No. He probably saw two sharks close together or just one really big shark. We don't need more sharks for now. Besides anything in the river is going to be hard to find and bloody dangerous since we'd have to beg, borrow, or steal a boat."
"That would be fun," Hal said.
"No!" Jane snapped. "We'll do spiders before river monsters that may or may not be there."
"Gossamer?" Taggart said.
"What?" Jane held out her hand for the tip. The caller pointed out that no one had ever been able to coax the elves into a close look at their living airship. "Now that has merit. I'll see if Dmitri can get us onto the Viceroy's gossamer."
"I can call the homeowner from this morning," Hal offered. "He and his boss owe us."
"The Viceroy owes us," Taggart said.
Not that their video had lead to Tinker being found. Jane had checked for updates on the search all day. The EIA confirmed rumors that Windwolf had sent word to his cousin, the Queen, requesting for royal troops to help find his bride. The Pittsburgh Police were asking for people to avoid known deserted area. The updates accounted for everyone involved except the oni. It made it seem as if everyone in Pittsburgh was battling an invisible giant.
Jane put the gossamer tip aside. "Okay, that goes near the top, pending permission from the elves to tour the Viceroy's airship."
"Oh, I can try out my call," Nigel said.
"Your what?" Hal asked.
"Gossamer call." Nigel got a shy, embarrassed grin. "We've spent the three years of waiting for visas on researching everything known on Elfhome. The oddest thing was that the most comprehensive videos on Elfhome are a series of animated shorts by a strangely secretive production company known as Lemon-Lime JEl-Lo."
"Actually their name is the only thing anyone knows about them." Taggart added.
"Animated?" Jane wondered if she had heard them wrong.
The grin got even shyer. "The videos use a fairly crude method blending modeling and CGI work but they're hysterical. Each is about ten minutes of pure farce but the storylines interlock creating a very detailed world. The thing is, if you check their facts, they're spot on."
"What you can check," Taggart said.
Nigel nodded. "Which loops us back to the idea that all information about Elfhome is being strictly limited. One of their videos mentioned a gossamer call and indicated that it was ultrasonic in nature."
"What exactly is a gossamer call?"
"What they'd discovered was if you analyze video tapes of the gossamers arriving and leaving Pittsburgh, you can isolate the ultrasonic commands that the elves use to control the living airships. They've also pieced together information that any creature bioengineered with magic – such as wargs – have similar 'call commands' embedded at an instinctual level.
A month ago, Jane wouldn't have believed it was possible, but then the undeniable evidence had surfaced that the elves could manipulate DNA at fantastic levels via magic. "They had enough information to build one of these calls?"
Nigel's grin went from shy to incandescent. "I can't wait to try it out."
Jane made a note to herself to steal Nigel's gossamer call before they toured the Viceroy's airship.
"Oh! Oh!" Hal cried. "A saurus!"
Secretly she was hoping that they wouldn't get any tips on saurus sightings. With Hal, the filming was fairly simple: find it; kill it. They would pad the footage with how to tell if a saurus was in the area, the type of guns needed to successfully drop the big lizard, the dangers of bringing too small of a gun to the fight, the merits of such tactics as shooting from second story windows or tree stands and any other bullshit they could think of.
Nigel and Taggart, though, probably wanted to do something stupid like film the saurus without trying to kill it first. Things could get messy fast.
"Where was the saurus spotted?" Jane hoped the location was near the Rim where the T-Rex's Elfhome cousin might wander back off radar.
"Dormont," Hal said.
"Dormont?" Jane said. "That's nearly downtown!"
"It says Dormont." Hal read. "Sleepy Hollow Road. Where old Mt. Lebanon golf course used to be."
Jane took his tablet to read it. The tip had been sent by "Beef4U." The name sounded slightly pornographic and juvenile. Was it a joke? "That's Castle Shannon."
"Another castle?" Taggart asked.
"It’s a town," Jane said.
"Was a town," Hal muttered.
She pulled up a map to double check her memory. "Yes, for some reason the early settlers in this area all wanted castles. Castle Shannon was a farm that grew into a town."
"Pittsburgh never lets go of the past." Hal continued to mutter. "You get directions by what used to be there. Castle Shannon is mostly empty rowhouses."
Nigel sprang to his feet. "We go now?"
"No!" Jane cried. "It's already dark."
"It would be very atmospheric," Nigel started for the door.
"Sit!" Jane barked and pointed at the chair he just vacated.
He wavered and glanced to Taggart.
"You're hurt. I'm drunk." Either Taggart was a lightweight or exaggerating as he was only on his third beer. Jane always kept count of other people's drinks so she knew when to shut them off. She had thought Taggart would be good for at least four beers before hitting "drunk." "Hal is on pain killers. It's dark out. And there's a fucking war brewing. Jane is right. We finish setting up a shooting schedule, get another good night's sleep and start out at dawn."
They transferred everything she thought might be useful from PB&G's production truck to the CBM truck. It would be a week until Hal's face healed enough that they could film, so they could focus first on the network show. They hadn't resolved the housing issue except to verify that no one in the offices was actually handling those duties. She really didn't have any choice but to take the men home again.
It was nearly ten o'clock when they left the offices, a full fifteen hours since they left her house, but it still felt like she was slacking. Part of her soul wanted to be out looking for lost little girls. Even if Tinker were found, though, her soul wouldn't be satisfied. She would need her Boo back for her to be at peace and the nightmares to end.
As she pulled out of the parking lot, though, she turned on the radio and tuned to KDKA. Her cousin Sean was doing the news before leading into his show on local fusion music. Their video clip of the tengu was still the headline story. Pittsburgh Police had set up a tip line for anyone who might have spotted a black winged man flying over the city. Director Maynard of the EIA reported that he had requested additional troops during Shutdown. As Dmitri pointed out, the United Nations would have to approve the request, influenced most strongly by the United States. Sean repeated the news that Windwolf sent for royal troops. Once again, everyone in Pittsburgh was reporting in except the oni.
Sean transitioned to commercial with "You're listening to Sean Roach on KDKA."
Taggart chuckled quietly. "He's using the name Roach? Seriously."
"There's nothing wrong with Roach," Jane growled.
"They're cousins," Hal sang from the backseat.
"Your cousin's name is Roach?"
"Yes, my Uncle Bill Roach is a very successful businessman. All his kids are business savvy."
"And they stayed here in Pittsburgh?" Taggart asked.
"New York is not the center of the universe," Jane said.
"I didn't say it was. In fact I don't really like New York." He stared out the window at the forest to the north of the city as they drove down Bigelow Boulevard. The streetlights went up to the Rim and stopped abruptly. Beyond it, elf shines drifted over the dark canopy, a million earthbound stars. "I like quiet and solitude."
"Mine." Hal grumbled quietly in the backseat.
"What is that?" Nigel leaned forward to point through the windshield.
She glanced to see where he was pointing. They were crossing the Fort Pitt Bridge. Downriver was a glimmer of lights moving in the dark water below.
"Water fairies," Hal said. "Lots of them. I've never seen anything like it."
It was probably most dangerous section of road in Pittsburgh. Five lanes of traffic fed onto the bridge from three directions and had approximately five hundred feet of road-planning insanity to merge to two lanes into the tunnel or take the off-ramp to the river hugging Route 51.
During the day, Jane wouldn't have thought about stopping, but traffic trickled to a halt at night. She checked her rear view mirror. There wasn't any other traffic following them. She put on her flashers and stopped at the center of the bridge.
"Stay off the road," She warned.
A large truck rumbled across the inbound deck overhead.
They scrambled over the jersey wall to the sidewalk and set up tripods for the night shooting. The mass of water fairies flowed inexplicably closer, coming upriver.
"We could go to the Point," Hal murmured in the darkness beside her. He pointed across the water at the fountain set in the wedge of concrete that marked where the Mon and Allegheny Rivers flowed together to create the Ohio River.
Jane shook her head. "It would take us fifteen minutes to drop down to 51, swing across the West End Bridge, come back across the Fort Duquesne and get into Point Park. Another three or four minutes to walk through the park and set up."
"We could U-turn – there's room enough and --" Hal started.
"Hal, last time I listened to you, I nearly lost my license. No!"
"If they go up the Allegheny, we'll miss them," Hal said.
Nigel suddenly blew a loud piercing tri-toned whistle.
It made Jane jump, swear, and smack the man. "What the hell?"
"Am I supposed to hear it?" Hal asked. "I thought it was ultrasonic."
"It has four tones. Only one is t—…" Nigel started to explain.
The last of his explanation was lost under a deafening roar, seemingly in answer to his whistle. It was stunningly loud despite obviously coming from down river somewhere. The deep rumbling noise echoed off Mount Washington, making it impossible to pinpoint the exact origin.
Chesty leaned out the window of the truck and growled.
"What the hell is that?" Taggart asked.
"I don't know." Jane peered into the dark. The glittering shifting carpet of water fairies darted suddenly to the left and flowed up the Allegheny River. There was another roar and it seemed closer. Louder.
"You think it might be the Nessie?" Nigel asked.
"What the hell is the Loch Ness?" Jane said.
"The most popular theory is that it’s a plesiosauria, about the size of a sperm whale."
"Shit!" Jane cried. The last thing Pittsburgh needed was a huge river monster.
Nigel blew his whistle again. The answering roar from the dark waters sent shivers down Jane's back.
"Nigel!" She cried and snatched the whistle from Nigel's hand. "What the hell are you thinking?"
"That we get a picture of whatever it is." Nigel's tone indicated that he had no clue why she was angry.
"Is that it?" Hal was leaning far out over the railing to point at something arrowing through the river, coming at them at alarming rate. It seemed comfortingly small – barely a dozen feet in length -- until Jane realized that she was just seeing the creature's head. There was another wedge behind it, easily adding thirty feet to the creature. Suddenly the forty-some feet that the bridge deck was from the river's surface didn't seem far enough.
Chesty had gone full throttle warning snarl.
"In the truck," Jane commanded. She reached out and jerked Hal back. A second later, electricity flared in the water like a tesla coil discharging, outlining a massive crocodilelike body. The monster was nearly fifty feet long from nose to tip of tail. "Truck! Truck!"
"How wonderful!" Nigel cried. "Shouldn't we be filming this?"
"Too dark." Taggart shoved him into the backseat, earning Jane's love. "We'll film it tomorrow!"
They cautiously looked for the river monster the entire next day, careful not to stray too close to the water's edge, and Chesty on watch. Jane kept hold of the whistle and refused to let them use it.
"We could call Nessie to us," Nigel pointed out many times.
"No!" Jane kept shouting back.
Taggart finally broke the pattern. "Can you at least explain why?"
Jane growled. God, she hated being outnumbered. This was like riding herd on her little brothers, only worse because "I'll beat you if you do" wasn't an acceptable answer. "First rule of shooting a show on Elfhome." She grabbed Hal and made him face each of the two newbies so there was no way they could miss the mask of dark purple bruises across Hal's face. "Avoid getting 'The Face' damaged. Viewers don't like raccoon boys. Hal is out of production until the bruising can be covered with makeup. We've got fifty days and a grocery list of face-chewing monsters to film. We have to think about damage control."
"Second rule!" She let Hal go and held up two fingers. "Get as much footage as possible of the monster before you kill it. People don't like looking at dead monsters if you don't give them lots of time seeing it alive. Right now we have got something dark moving at night in water. No one has ever seen this before, so we can't use stock footage to pad. We blow the whistle and it will come out of the water and try to rip your face off – violating rule one – and then we'll have to kill it and thus break rule two."
"Sounds reasonable," Taggart said.
"Would we really have to kill it?" Nigel's tone suggested he equated it to torturing kittens.
"If it's trying its damnest to eat you? Yes!" Jane cried. "And if we just lure it out of the river right now, without some way to keep that from happening, we will have no other option. Until we know which of the three rivers this thing is in now, even setting up a safe perch to film from is going to be a waste of time. We don't have time for this. I can get people to keep an eye out for it and call us if it shows up."
She had Hal too well trained to argue with her. Nigel looked to Taggart instead of her.
"I think Jane's right," Taggart said. "Our end goal is to get enough great footage that we can get an open pass to Elfhome. We haven't shot anything but water today."
Nigel nodded reluctantly. "Okay, let's do the saurus tomorrow."
It came as no surprise that her nightmares had gotten worse. Between Tinker's kidnapping, the lack of any progress at finding her, and quiet sounds of someone else in her house, she had no hope. At three a.m., she slipped out of her room and padded down to the kitchen to find something to drown them out.
There was light on in the kitchen. It was in an odd place. She paused to feel Chesty standing beside her, not growling, before swinging the door the rest of the way open.
Taggart was holding her refrigerator's door open, studying its contents, wearing only his low pj pants.
"Do you not have shirts to sleep in?"
"Actually, no." He eyed her milk as if there was something strange about it.
"It's just – I've never seen milk in a glass bottle before."
"I get it from a dairy down the road. It's easier for them to recycle glass bottles than plastic."
"It's like I've gone back in time." He poured the milk into her smallest saucepot. "Do you have any sugar and cocoa I can put into this?" As she handed him her sugar bowl, he explained his lack of shirts. "Network wanted us in L.A. first before coming to Pittsburgh to do pre-production work. Design the logo, hire on the people that will be doing the graphics for titles and end credits. Mostly what we spent the month on, though, was having it drummed into us that we were going to film monsters. The bigger and more fantastic, the better. Then we flew to New York to drive to Pittsburgh – and half my luggage didn't make it."
"Luckily it was just my backup boots, some extra pair of jeans, and," he motioned to his bare chest. "The shirt I sleep in."
"We do have clothing stores." Jane put the cocoa on the counter beside the saucepot. "We can get you something tomorrow evening after filming."
"Thanks. Sorry about waking you up." Then reluctantly he added. "I have bad dreams. If I go back to sleep, it's like I just hit pause when I woke up."
"Been there, doing that. You didn't wake me. I've got my own little demons."
He did his eyebrow quirk, which was stunningly sexy since he had the most striking eyes she'd ever seen.
She found him a teaspoon to keep from blushing. She grew up with a small testosterone-driven army, but never had to deal with man alone in her kitchen, half-naked, in the middle of the night. At least, not one that wasn't related to her.
"I have five younger brothers." She stumbled for an explanation.
"Hal said something like that."
"Yes, well, what Hal hasn't mentioned is that I had a baby sister too. When I was sixteen, she was six."
He realized the implication and his face filled with sorrow for her. With the look, all the raw grief that been building up the last few days seemed to expand to fill her. Feeling like her heart was about to explode with the anguish, she found herself talking.
"My dad died when I was twelve. My brothers were ten, eight, six, four and two." Not that she had their ages memorized for that year alone; it had always been simple to figure out. "I'm not sure what the hell happened in June, but every other March, regular as clockwork, my parents had a baby."
Taggart nodded while mixing sugar, cocoa and a splash of milk into a dark paste. The fact that he continued to make hot cocoa, albeit in a very odd manner, made it easier to spill out her grief.
"I'd always spent a lot of time watching my brothers, but after my father died, it was like I became the Dad. Mom had just had Boo and needed to be the Mommy, so I took care of everything Dad used to do. Cut the grass. Fix things that got broke. Teach my brothers how to run and climb and shoot and fight. I didn't really mind it. It was just how things were. I didn't know anything else."
He stirred the paste in the hot milk. She realized that he'd made enough for two people. She got out two coffee mugs and set them down on the counter. As if she opened up floodgates, the words kept spilling out. There was something comforting about the dim kitchen, the quiet of the night. For once, not being alone was a blessing.
"My brothers. It was like they had a death wish, and every time I turned around, I had to fish them out of the river or cut them down from a strangle vine. Boo was smart. She was curious as a cat but she'd always get someone else to do stuff for her. She'd be there in the thick of things but she was never the one stuck and screaming."
He poured out the steaming cocoa, dividing it neatly, and then turned to wash out the saucepot.
"The summer that I was sixteen, our freezer quit working. Here in Pittsburgh, you have to have a freezer, especially with eight people in the family. You shoot a deer. You catch a shark. You butcher a cow. You can smoke some of the meat, but the rest, you have to freeze it or it will go bad. The thing is, they're harder than hell to get. There's one little appliance store down in the Strip District, just a hole in the wall. Every Shutdown they get one truck full of things – washers, dryers, refrigerators, hot water heaters -- and there are only one or two freezers per month. You can put money down and order one advance and wait two months. Or you can be the first person in the store as they unload the truck. Mom didn't want to be out the money and have to wait, so she decided that we go into the Strip District the night before Shutdown and just camp there until a truck came in and we'd get one. You know all the 'could have' and 'should have.' She still tears herself apart blaming herself. She could have ordered the freezer. She could have left us all at home. She should have left Boo with my aunt. It just eats at her. It eats at all of us."
Jane lifted her shoulders. "We don't know. One minute Boo was there, with us, and then the next, she was gone. It’s a crazy time. All the delivery trucks fight to get into the Strip District, unload and get out of the city before they get stranded on Elfhome."
"Been there. Done that."
"The police thought at first that maybe she went to the river's edge. We told them that she wouldn't do that. She was too smart. Then they thought maybe she tried to get home. We'd come all piled in my mom's pickup but there were other times we'd came in on the lightrail. We were all sick of being stuck in the Strip District, waiting for the truck to be unloaded. But she was about the only one of us kids that wasn't whining about going home. It was the first time she'd been in town for Shutdown. She'd never seen so many trucks at once. Whole families carrying everything into their stores fast they could. She was fascinated.
"And then, the police suggested that maybe she'd gotten into one of the empty trucks. At least, that's what they said in front of me and my brothers. And then they took my mom quietly aside and said what they really meant. That one of the truckers took her."
"That got the EIA involved and they stopped all the trucks that had deliveries in the Strip District that hadn't crossed the border already and searched them."
"You know when they first disappear, you're angry. You told them just to be good, stay close, and not get into trouble and now they're nowhere in sight. You look and you look and you look – just so angry you could hurt someone -- and you're rehearsing what you're going to say when you finally figure out where the hell they are. Then slowly this fear takes root, and starts to grow, and you try so hard to hold onto that anger, because it's so much safer than the fear.
"But it leaks away and all there is left is fear. And then that goes away too, because you know, whatever horrible thing that was going to happen has happened. It's over. It's done. It can't be undone. And you walk around feeling like a big hollow drum with no idea how you're supposed to feel."
The hot cocoa was the best she'd ever tasted, hinting that Taggart had spent many sleepless nights perfecting it. Her dreams for the rest of the night were unsettling in a totally different way and featured a wild man with chocolate-colored eyes.
The tip from Beef4u had specified the old Mt. Lebanon golf course. Jane hadn't been back into the area for years, so she had expected to find it overrun with possibly dangerous brush. She was surprised when they arrived in the early gray of dawn, to find the grass looking regulation height.
"What the hell?" She pulled to a stop to peer out over the lush rolling green. She was driving her SUV with Nigel following in the CBM production truck. "Don't tell me someone actually still plays golf."
"Wouldn't surprise me." Hal had volunteered to ride with Nigel. Based on the chatter over the voice-activated headsets, they had bonded over a mutual love of flora and fauna.
Taggart was in her passenger seat, smelling good enough to eat. She never met anyone that could be so distracting without saying anything. He was wholly focused on filming.
Something moved in the fog. She tensed. They couldn't be so lucky as to spot the saurus immediately – could they? The answer was no, as the forms resolved into cows grazing lazily.
She swore softly. "Shit. 'Beef4u.' A damn farmer sent in the tip."
Taggart laughed, his voice dipping down almost to bass.
Jane snorted out in disgust. "Okay, the good news is spotting the saurus just got a hell of a lot easier. Plus we've got a ton of free bait."
"The bad news?" Taggart asked.
"Smart boy. Cookie for knowing that there's bad news." Jane eased her SUV across the worn divided line to drive along the berm. "Bad news, Pittsburgh beef cows are the meanest son-of-a-bitches."
"So, we have to dodge several tons of pissed off sirloin while filming one hungry dinosaur?"
"Welcome to Pittsburgh." She drove slowly along the converted golf course. "Keep an eye out for oncoming traffic."
"What are you looking for?"
The farmer had gone to town on fencing, putting up eight strands of barbwire to create a six-foot wall around the golf course. Jane suspected that Beef4U was trying to keep animals out as well as in. Considering that wargs were a growing problem in the area, she couldn't blame him for trying.
She automatically jerked back to her side of the road and then realized that Taggart hadn't spotted an oncoming car but a monster. He had his camera already trained on the massive creature poised to attack.
"Oh! That's where that went," Jane said.
Truth was sinking in on Taggart. "That's – not real -- is it?"
"No, that's a proper T-Rex. Saurus are more velociraptor in shape, although just about the same size. I think that's from a miniature golf course that was like ten miles away. Yes, this is Sunset's stuff. There's Skull Mountain and Batman. I wonder where they found the pirate ship. Oh, god, they've got the dragon den statue from Sandcastle!"
"Pittsburghers love castles."
"It's an abandoned water park down on the Mon River. They couldn't keep the water fairies out. And yes, we do, it's part of the American dream." She was going to drive past but realized that Nigel had pulled into the parking lot. "What are they doing?"
"Oh, we can't pass this up." Taggart motioned for her to go back. "It's far too surreal. This is what we came to film. The real Pittsburgh."
"This makes us look like redneck nutcases." Jane backed up so she could pull in behind the production truck. Nigel and Hal were already out, gesturing at all the statues visible from the parking lot.
"We've got to get this, Jane!" Nigel cried as she and Taggart climbed out of her SUV.
"All right." She agreed before Hal could chime in. They only had a vague tip on the saurus and so far they hadn't seen any sign of one. Certainly the cows seemed unconcerned and the fence hadn't been breached. Most likely the putt-putt was as safe as any other place in Pittsburgh; which was to say, only somewhat harmless. "Set up so the T-Rex is in frame and you can do basic biology comparisons." She turned to Taggart. "Keep an eye and ear open. I'll be in the truck."
She would have liked to put Chesty on guard duty, but he would only guard her. Elfhounds were very loyal to a very small set of people and she'd never been able to get him to include Hal into that unit.
Because she and Hal killed their show's subjects every week, often with fire, they used the production truck to make sure they had good footage before fully engaging the creature. After the actual fighting started, whatever they got, they got. They'd also learned that while a smoking body afterwards rarely made great material, it was worse to come back the next day and discover that scavengers had found the corpse.
She flicked on screens and put in an earpiece to link her with Taggart and Nigel. "I'm set."
Taggart had a perfect frame already. Nigel waited until Hal got a light reflector in place.
Nigel stood a moment profile, looking up at the T-Rex looming over him and then turned toward the camera. "No more than this statue can capture the true essence of a dinosaur can our cameras convey the primal silence of this place. We're standing in the heart of the displaced zone on a Saturday morning. At one time two million people lived in this area. A sunny day, like today, would have heralded thousands of lawn mowers growling to life. Cars coming and going to one of a dozen malls. And across the street, people would have been lining up to tee off. Cows graze there now. We haven't seen another car for half an hour. All there is to be heard is the rustle of the wind through the trees."
Hopefully just wind, Jane thought.
"This miniature golf place stands almost abandoned. Someone is keeping the grass trimmed. There's clubs and a bucket of golf balls and a sign that reads 'play at your own risk.' Someone has added 'be careful of the water trap on third hole.' This place stands as a monument to what is quintessential Pittsburgh. The people of this city adapt and go on."
Jane was impressed by how much information Nigel had managed to gather since they'd arrived. She hadn't noticed until that moment, but he was right: someone was maintaining the place. Judging by the torn earth around the dragon statue, the owners of the park had only recently looted the abandoned water park in Homestead and dragged it halfway across town. Apparently, there was enough interest in the putt-putt to improve it but not make it a viable business.
"This fellow is Earth's Tyrannosaurus, or T-Rex. He is a theropod dinosaur, which means he's bipedal, or walks on two legs. As we see here, his eye-sockets faced forwards, giving him good binocular vision. But most importantly, he's been extinct for sixty-five million years. We are here today seeking something very much alive. The Elfhome saurus.
"This distant cousin is very much like this fellow here. It grows to a massive forty feet length from nose to tip of tail, and fourteen feet high at the hips." Nigel raised his hand and demonstrated that if his knuckles were the dinosaur's hips that the saurus would be considerably taller if it straightened up from its running stance. "This effectively doubles its reach. And unlike the T-Rex, the Elfhome saurus has very functional forelegs that can reach and grasp."
Nigel lifted his right hand slightly.
"Done?" Taggart asked.
"Done," Nigel said. "For now. I could talk for hours about the saurus but it would only be worth it if we catch one on film."
"How was that Jane?" Taggart asked.
She checked lighting and sound. "It was perfect."
"I want to do the water trap." Nigel pointed past Mario and the mushroom castle of the second hole. The moat of the castle extended out into a small pond with stepping-stones out to an island that acted as the tee for the third hole. The cup lay somewhere on the shore beyond the larger than life Batman standing guard on the flat roof of an old fashion police station.
"What do you think is in there?" Taggart asked.
"The mind boggles." Jane eyed the murky green water through the monitors. "The most dangerous things are in the river, not ponds."
Hal pulled out his grab stick and gave the water an experimental stir.
"Hal, out of the water."
"I'm being careful."
"Just stay out of the water and keep back from the water's edge."
"We could just throw a stick of dynamite in," Hal said. "Just to be sure."
"We don't have any liability waivers signed, so no dynamite."
Taggart gave a bark of surprised laughter. He was getting hauntingly beautiful shots at amazing speed. The nearly abandoned golf course in the early dawn light seemed luminous and yet achingly sad through his lens.
"Hush you," Jane grumbled, feeling mildly jealous. She wanted to be outside, filming too, but time didn't allow for that.
The men carefully picked their way around the water trap to where rooftop Batman stoically guarded the cup.
Nigel reached up to pat the statue's foot. "The stories you could tell."
And hopefully they wouldn't add any new interesting ones today.
Nigel leaned against the miniature police station and grinned with boyish glee. "It's really starting to hit home. I'm on Elfhome. I was eight when Pittsburgh suddenly vanished from Earth. It was like Christmas. The first Startup was in the middle of the night and we woke to a changed world. I remember how all the television channels for days played endless footage of the iron forest that sprang up without warning where the city once stood. How completely and totally dumbfounded the world was on how to explain what had happened. And after the first few hours of the wall of trees, the stories of the strange and wondrous animals rampaging in the suburbs that remained on Earth. For me the most amazing was the two saurus that made it to the Monroeville Mall parking lot..."
Jane saw a movement in the background. Something big and black was charging down the hill behind the Batman statue. "Cow!"
"What?" Nigel asked as Hal took off running, reflector held over his head.
"Cow!" Jane shouted again.
A big black angus bull came thundering toward the men who scattered in all directions. Jane swore as she realized that the loose bull could only mean a break in the fence, which meant something had taken the eight strands of barbwire down. Worse, Taggart and Nigel weren't heading toward the safety of the trucks. They looped around Batman with the bull chasing them.
The idiots didn't understand that the bull wasn't the real danger.
"Stay!" She gave Chesty the command to keep him out of her line of fire. Snatching up her weapons, she charged from the production truck. She ran toward the water trap, shouting as she ran. "Nigel! Taggart! Stop looping!"
Taggart shouted, waving his arms to get the bull's attention as Nigel scrambled up onto the roof with the Batman statue. Once safe of the bull's charge, Nigel yelled and kicked at the passing bull, trying to lure it away from Taggart.
"No, no, no. Incoming!"
Jane flung the stun grenade ahead of the bull and then ducked down, hands on her ears. Even with sight and hearing shielded, the explosion was a loud brightness on her awareness. The bull staggered backwards, disoriented by the light and noise.
Luckily, Taggart still had his combat reactions. He'd shielded himself from the blast. Unfortunately, he still seemed flabbergasted into inaction. "What the hell was that?"
"It’s a flash bang."
Taggart swore, uncovering his ears. "I know what the hell it is! Why?"
"Because I can't shoot the damn bull without having to pay for it! Get to the truck!" She pointed toward the production truck. Hal knew the drill; he was already clambering into the back.
"Nigel?" She turned to order the Scot down off the low roof.
A saurus loomed over the Batman statue.
"Huh?" Nigel hadn't shielded himself from the stun grenade. He was blinded from the flash. He clung to Batman's arm and shuddered like a worm on a fishhook.
"Down!" Jane grabbed Nigel by the leg and yanked him down.
The saurus struck even as Nigel came tumbling down onto Jane. She shouted in wordless dismay as she saw the massive head lunging downwards at them as she and Nigel slammed onto the ground, all elbows and knees. The smell of rotten flesh blasted over them on the saurus' breath.
Nigel twisted and kicked upwards toward the mouthful of daggerlike teeth. The jaws snapped shut on Nigel's foot and the saurus jerked him upwards, off of Jane. For a moment, all she could do was watch in horror as the saurus gripped Nigel in its claws and tore his foot from his leg.
Feel the fear, but don't be it, Jane! Feel the fear, but be Jane, and Jane can kill anything that crosses her path.
She scrambled up, swinging her rifle off her shoulder. Nigel was in the way for a heart shot, so she aimed for the wide left eye. Hold your breath. Squeeze.
Even fifty caliber wasn't strong enough to move the massive head. And like a beheaded chicken, the damn lizard didn't know it was already dead. Something misfired in its brain enough, however, for it to open both claws and drop Nigel. It was all Jane needed. She unloaded the clip into the saurus' chest.
The massive beast staggered to the right and then toppled with a heavy thud.
Her ears ringing from the gunfire, she reloaded and then caught hold of Nigel and dragged him back, keeping her rifle still aimed at the still monster. Nigel's booted foot stayed beside the dinosaur even as she pulled him to safety.
"Hal! Call 911!" she shouted. "Get an ambulance out here."
"No, no, I'm fine." Nigel said weakly. "Just a few scratches." He had parallel furrows on his back, seeping blood. He tried to sit up and she pushed him down.
"Lie still!" Jane jerked off her belt and slapped it around Nigel's thigh and twisted it tight. There was surprisingly little blood. No blood actually.
"Jane. It's all right." Nigel gave a weak little laugh. "I don't have feet."
"What?" Jane cried.
"I was born without all the right bones in my legs. The doctor amputated them at the knee when I was baby. I've never had feet."
Right. She knew that.
It was a typical Pittsburgh Backyard & Garden production in terms of content: angry creatures trying to eat them, explosions, screaming, yelling, occasional gunshots, and eventually a dead monster. The actual saurus attack, though, was gorgeously filmed. A true professional, Taggart had locked back on Nigel moments after the flash bang had gone off and kept focus on him despite the fact that he could have been filming the man's death.
Jane comforted her pang of jealousy with the knowledge that Taggart could only get the footage because she was dealing with the saurus. If she and Hal had an actual crew, they could get shots just as good.
"It's good!" Jane reported to the others. "Let's film a closing."
Nigel had been sanitized and bandaged but opted to put the torn shirt back on to wrap up the episode. He thought it counterbalanced the "very dead" state of the saurus, and Jane had to agree. The men set up to film. With Nigel sitting on the ground beside the massive head and the foot it had torn free, they started to film.
"This is not how I wanted this segment to end," Nigel said. "Considering the alternative, I'm happy to be alive, thanks to our brave and wonderful producer, Jane Kryskill."
Jane blushed hotly. She would have to be sure to edit that silliness out.
"Unbelievably, this is an adolescent male," Nigel continued on a more professional vein. "The elves say that saurus typically only live about a hundred years, which makes them fairly short-lived for an Elfhome species. This male is probably only ten years old and would have reached full maturity around fifteen. That's lucky for us, since if he was an adult, he probably would have had a mate and up to a dozen young nearby."
There was an odd noise over the microphone and after a few seconds, she recognized it. A police siren echoing off the hills as the squad car race toward them. Someone actually called the cops on them?
"Hold up, guys. We're getting company."
A few minutes later a Pittsburgh Police black and white came down the road, braked hard when it spotted their trucks in the parking lot and then came up the driveway at a cautious speed.
Jane went out to meet them, careful to leave all her weapons in the truck.
The responding officer was her best friend, Brandy Lyn Pomeroy-Brooks-Abernethy, which could be a good thing or very bad. Brandy had grown up with a burning desire to be Wonder Woman, complete with golden lasso and bullet deflecting wrist guards. She'd settled on policewoman as the nearest thing, much to the dismay of Honorable Lissa Pomeroy, her grandmother and Pittsburgh's only judge. Brandy gave out tickets to anyone that pissed her off, friend or foe, on the theory that it made it easier to find out who her true friends were. At any hearing, the offenders would find themselves locked in a legal battle between Judge Pomeroy and Brandy, as if it was a contest for Brandy's soul.
Thus Brandy was the only cop in Pittsburgh who would arrest Hal and anyone else rather than ask for an autograph.
"Hey, Jane. We got a call that a war was breaking out. Are you okay?"
"We're fine. Things got a little hairy, but I've got things handled."
Brandy looked at the "Chased by Monsters" truck, then at Jane, and then back again. "Is Hal okay? I heard he set himself on fire the other day."
"He's fine. Network just has us working on this show for a few weeks."
Brandy eyed the CBM's sharp-toothed logo and shook her head. "What do they think you are? A Monster Hunter?"
"Yeah, that's just about right."
She caught sight of Taggart. "Spend all day filming that? Your life is so hard." She noticed then Nigel's bloody, one-foot condition. "What the hell happened to him? I'll call for an ambulance."
"No, don't!" Jane waved her down. "The scratches look worse than they are and he's got a spare foot in the truck."
Brandy's face went to neutral. "A spare?"
"Yeah." Jane felt giggles coming on. It had been a stressful hour. If she laughed though, Brandy would go into Wonder Woman mode and arrest them all. "It's supposed to come off like that. We'll just pop the other one on."
Brandy put her hands on her hips and glared at Jane. "You didn't shoot any of the cows, did you?"
"We haven't touched the cows!" Jane covered her mouth to keep the giggles in. Technically, they hadn't touched the bull. "I shot the saurus; many, many times. We're just wrapping up."
There was the rumble and snarl of a big diesel engine and a half-ton Ford pickup came growling up the road. It turned into the drive and stopped behind the police car. For a moment, the truck seemed to have no driver. Then the driver's door swung open, a set of steps unfolded, and a tiny little old woman climbed down out of the truck, muttering obscenities the whole way. She looked like she was several inches under five foot tall, seventy pounds wet, and close to a hundred years old if not over it. She slid a cattle prod out from behind the pickup's seat before walking over with a gait that belied her age.
Jane didn't know the woman but Brandy did.
"Hi Grandma Gertie."
Oh, this was famous Grandma Gertie Betts, and she was over a hundred years old, having been born in the late 1920s. She'd been slowly annexing large sections of the South Hills to her farm, producing everything from apples to zucchini. She didn't have any children but a horde of adopted "grandchildren" that helped her run her various businesses.
"Well, god damn it, you could have fucking told me that you got my fucking email!" Gertie came to glare at Jane. "If I'd know it was PB&G down here, making all this fucking noise, I wouldn't have called the fucking police!"
Note to self, Jane thought, make an effort to swear less. I so don't want to grow into this woman. "We're sorry. Thank you for the tip."
"I would have shot the fucking thing myself but it's always such a hoot to see Hal be Hal." Yes, all stories of Grandma Gertie fully indicated that she would. If nothing else, there were two rifles on the gun rack in her pickup. "You two didn't smash up anything, did you? This is Hal we're talking about."
Jane considered a moment. Normally they did do property damage but today they'd been fairly conservative. "No. We didn't damage anything."
"Good. Its been a pain in the ass to get some of these hauled in from all over Pittsburgh but it makes a nice place for all my kids to come play."
Brandy escaped, leaving Jane to fend with Grandma Gertie. Jane in turn handed her over to Hal to keep busy while they finished shooting. Unfortunately, tiny women reminded Hal of the nuns of Mercy Hospital and he kept sending Jane pleading looks to rescue him.
Once they wrapped, she rescued Hal with an autographed official slickie produced by WQED on the show and a handful of still shots of Grandma Gertie with the other two men. Then firmly she escorted the old woman back to her pickup.
"Thanks again for the tip. New York gave us a very tight schedule which we'll only be able to keep if we can find subjects to film."
"I'll tell my kids to keep their eyes and ears open." Gertie slid the cattle prod in behind the seat and used the stepladder to climb the several feet up into her pickup. "But now, I've got a bull to find and chase home."
There was a little troll doll in the shadows of Grandma Gertie's dashboard, slyly grinning at Jane. The sight of it made Jane's heart go heavy and sink. She was about to pull back when the other details sunk in. The troll doll was wearing a little Viking helmet.
"Oh my god! Helga!" Jane snatched up the doll. There was a black smudge on the pushup nose and the cascade of white hair was dirty and ratty, but it was Helga. On her bare toes were the touches of purple paint for nail polish. Jane could barely breathe. "Where did you find her?"
"Those troll dolls used to be popular way back. I never saw a Viking girl before though."
"Where did you find it?" Jane shouted.
"I didn't find it, it found me." Gertie touched old thin fingers to the doll. "A few weeks ago I gathered up a herd of the kids and took them all to Sandcastle to get the dragon. I didn't think anyone would be there and everything would be free for the taking, but there were a bunch of people squatting there, using the swimming pools as fish tanks, although god knows why. There's been plenty enough fish in the river since we took to visiting Elfhome. We pulled the ride apart to get the statue and took it. Sometime in the confusion, the doll slipped into my truck."
For first time in her life, she abandoned Hal and her schedule. She wanted to head straight to Sandcastle, but her father had trained too well to go alone. She raced after Brandy, knowing that this close to lunch that she'd stop at the only food place still open.
McMicking's was a little deli at the Arlington lightrail stop. It was actually two tiny houses built on trailers. Ellen ran a tightly stocked deli and lunch counter out of one while she slept in the other. She made her store mobile just in case business became too poor she would be forced to move. Arlington was her third location. She had started at Library and worked back towards Pittsburgh, keeping to the light rail tracks.
Brandy was perched on the hood of her squad car, finishing off a bowl of Ellen's famous pumpkin and spinach curry over jasmine rice.
Jane waved the troll doll. "Look! Look!"
"Yeah, I see it." Brandy twiddled her fingers in a "give me" sign. "It's a doll. An ugly doll. Use your words. Tell me why it's important."
"Boo had this when she disappeared." Jane pushed the troll into Brandy's hand. "It showed up in Grandma Gertie's pickup when they were at Sandcastle. Boo is at Sandcastle."
Brandy examined the toy, shaking her head. "How can you know it’s the same one? We had a couple of these when I was a kid. They all look alike. Same beady eyes, big grin, pug nose and wild looking hair."
"With a Viking helmet?"
"No. But my personal experience isn't a true statement of how many Viking trolls there are in Pittsburgh."
Jane snatched the doll back and smacked Brandy with it. "Stop talking like your grandmother!"
"You come roaring up, waving a doll, talking all crazy about your little sister? I know what comes next. You're going to want me to go busting down doors and get ugly in someone's face. I'm just telling you what my grandmother is going to say when this hits her court."
"This is Sergeant Helga Teufel Hunden. She was my mom's doll before she gave it to me." All their toys were hand me downs and second hand store finds. Everything had been battered and ugly and half-broken even before they got hold of it. Helga had the virtue of being seemingly indestructible. "Before I gave her to Boo, I replaced her hair, and repainted her helmet and I made her a purple dress and I painted her toes to match. I can guarantee that even if there's a shitload of these dolls in Pittsburgh, this is the only one with purple toes."
"Good enough. But it's been six years. Someone could have found it lying on the ground in the Strip District the day she went missing and has been drifting person to person since then."
"Someone put it in Grandma Gertie's truck when they were at Sandcastle…"
"It could have been put into her truck at anytime, anywhere, by anyone. You know she doesn't lock her truck and has dozens of kids underfoot all the time. Everyone calls her Grandma for a reason."
"Why are you being so pig-headed about this?"
"Because I've watched your family tear itself apart and then have to rebuild itself every time we find anything even remotely connected to your sister's disappearance. That girl's body that we found in the woods two years ago. And the boy's skeleton two years before that. It's suddenly the day that she disappeared and you're all blaming each other for not keeping close enough watch on her."
"So for peace of mind, you want us to just say 'she's dead, end of story'."
"No, that's not what I said," Brandy growled. "Look it doesn't make sense. If Boo was the person that put the doll in Grandma Gertie's truck, why didn't she just stay there?"
"I don't know!"
"Jane, I love you like a sister, and if this was any other time, I'd round up some people and go tear Sandcastle apart. No one seems have noticed, but the shit hit the fan thirty days ago. A week after Windwolf was nearly killed, EIA started major housecleaning. They have two NSA agents going through all their personnel files and they started seizing EIA employees, Gestapo-style, and throwing them in jail."
"I – I haven't heard that."
"No one has. Someone is keeping a tight lid on the news. They opened up the county jail to hold them all."
"Wait? They're holding them? Why didn't they ship them to Earth for trail?"
"Because they're not human. The EIA has been infiltrated by the oni. It went as high as Director Maynard's personal assistant, who turned out to have a tail and dog-ears. The oni were using magic somehow to look human. The EIA was spending too much time trying to keep more oni from slipping into Pittsburgh to transport the ones in holding to the border."
"Why didn't you tell me this?"
"Because it's coming down from on high that hush-hush is best for Pittsburgh. Let the EIA clean house. The thing is that the EIA did most of the heavy lifting, and we have been picking up the slack. Now Tinker's been kidnapped, we don't have the resources to follow ghost leads."
Brandy looked away, shaking her head. "Jane. I can't. I can't drop everything because of a toy found in a pickup truck weeks ago. Grandma Gertie is getting old. That doll could have been in the truck for days before she noticed it. She could have been anywhere when it was put into her pickup. And why would a little girl who disappeared six years ago, put a doll in a truck, and do nothing else?"
Brandy's shoulder radio crackled and her dispatcher directed her to head to a shooting and added that an ambulance was responding. "I have a job to do! I have to do it because no one else is going to!"
The Chased by Monsters production truck pulled into McMicking's parking lot just as Brandy raced away.
"How did you find me?" Jane snapped. She didn't want them there, reminding her that she had her own job to do, one that no one else could do.
All three men tapped their right temple to indicate the headset she was wearing.
"Oh freaking hell!" Jane cried. "Don't tell me you heard everything I said?"
"Okay. We won't." Hal pointed at the deli. "It's lunch time. Let's do food." He turned to Nigel. "This place has amazing food. Good as anything you'd find in New York."
"Gypsy wagons!" Nigel clapped his hands in delight. He'd attached his backup set of feet, so only the faint blood staining through his clean shirt remained as proof how close a call they'd had. "Oh, how charming."
"Are you okay?" Taggart asked.
Jane nodded mutely as tears started to burn in her eyes. Somehow last night had broken down her defenses around him and it left her emotionally fragile.
He carefully took the doll out of her hands. He brushed the ratty, dirty hair back from its impish smile.
"People used to ask if Boo was half-elf because she was so beautiful. She had hair was so pale blonde that it looked white, the bluest eyes and skin like china. When she was clean and still – which was usually only when we were at church or a wedding or something – she was like an angel that had fallen from heaven. But with us, most the time, she was half naked, muddy, and grinning. To me, she was just as impish as this doll. And her hair. Her hair would be this mass of untamable curls. When I fixed Helga for her, I made the hair just like Boo's."
"We'll find her," Taggart said.
Jane shook her head, taking back the doll. "I can't put you at risk."
Hal came back carrying biodegradable take-out containers that perfumed the parking lot with the smell of rice and pumpkin curry. "I say we film a show."
Jane smacked him.
"Ow! I mean it! Everyone in Pittsburgh knows PB&G. Even if you don't own a television, there are all those billboards from this spring. We just do our normal shtick."
"Shtick?" Jane echoed.
"Come in with cameras, walk all over the homeowner, and blow the hell out of their property."
Jane stared at him for a moment as she realized that he was right. Shy of the Viceroy and the director of the EIA, the various TV personalities were the most famous faces in Pittsburgh. Unlike some of them, like Chloe Polanski, Hal was well liked because people sensed that at his core, what Hal wanted more than anything, more than ratings, was to honestly save people. It was the main reason that Jane put up with his craziness. Despite the homeowner's misgivings and the chaos they caused, they kept the dangerous flora and fauna from killing countless people.
But would his fame actually protect him?
"I can't ask you…"
"You're not asking," Hal said. "This is my plan and I'm quite proud of it."
"I think it’s a good plan," Nigel said.
She glanced at Taggart and he gave a sheepish grin as he nodded.
Oh god, this was what she was most afraid of: she was outnumbered by crazy men. Vague plans to call her little brothers evaporated as she started thinking of damage control. The fewer crazy men she needed to corral, the less chance of something going wrong. Hopefully.
Pittsburgh was full of forgotten corners. It was nearly two thousand square miles of space transported to Elfhome. For every handful of empty houses there was an empty quickie mart, gas station, dry cleaner, Starbucks and McDonalds. And with every failed business, there came another handful of empty houses. Desolation grew like a cancer. Homestead had been home of the famous steel mill, a fairly new mall, the sprawling water park of Sandcastle and sixteen hundred households. When she was little, there had been a strip of houses clustered around West Street, eking off a living from the still open Sandcastle. When the park closed, the neighborhood went under.
The entrance of the park looked no different from all the abandoned buildings that they'd passed coming in. Jane's heart sank. The squatters must have moved out after Grandma Gertie's tribe descended on them.
"What is it?" Taggart's question made her realize she had sworn softly.
"It's empty," she said.
"How can you tell?"
"There's no takens."
"Pittsburghers do stuff to show that a building is taken. Set up a planter with flowers. Paint the door Wind Clan blue. Put out a welcome mat. Install an obvious doorbell. Or put up a new mailbox, even if they can't get the mail delivered. It keeps other people from trying to move into their space."
"What if they don't want people to know they're here?" Taggart said. "They've got a little girl they've kidnapped and god knows what else. They don't want to be noticed."
He had a point.
On the theory that Hal was the recognizable one, he got out and pushed open the gate. It swung easily and silently open. Beyond them was the massive parking lot, cracked and weed choked. The tall waterslides towered on the other side like twisted dreams.
Everyone but Nigel cautiously got out of the truck. Silence reigned, broken only by the calls of crows.
Jane shouldered a backpack stuffed with every tool she imagined she might need for a jail breakout. She hefted the big light reflector like a shield while her heart hammered in her chest. There was a tiny little voice deep inside her that she currently was ignoring. It whispered that the only reason she was letting the men talk her into this was because she was being selfish. She was supposed to be the smart, level-headed one that knew when it was time to ditch and run.
Taggart glanced at her and read her face. "Oh, you can't back out now." Taggart brandished his camera like a weapon. "You promised us."
She didn't remember making any promises. In fact, that was so unlikely that she knew he was lying. It felt weirdly better, though, to know control had slipped from her hands, and with it, responsibility.
Hal took his place out in front, his pith helmet on, and his grab-stick tucked under his arm like a riding crop. He was grinning hugely, like he did just before he got to blow things up. Probably because explosives were well within the realm of likely outcome of their rescue attempt.
Chesty stood at her side in heel. The elfhound scanned the lot with open suspicion, which meant they weren't as alone as they seemed.
They went through an over-the-top mime of setting up to shoot. Don't mind us, we're harmless.
Hal, however, seemed slightly confused what their real mission was. "Should I intro as PB&G or Chased by Monsters?"
Jane bit down on the automatic "We're not actually filming!" No need to announce that to anyone who might have very sharp ears. Besides, she was fairly certain that Taggart was filming – in fact probably would keep filming even if gunshots and explosions occurred. "Do both. Depending on what we get, we'll use the video for one show or other."
"Welcome to Pittsburgh Lawn and Garden. I'm your host, Hal Rogers." Hal paused and straightened nervously. "Welcome to Chased by Monsters. I'm Hal Rogers." He half-turned, giving the camera his handsome profile, the raccoon mask of bruising covered up with half a bottle of concealer. "And this..." He waved a hand at the twin square towers that made up the front entrance. The landlocked builders had tried to combine Cape Cod, lighthouse and castle themes for the gatehouse and utterly failed. "This is Sandcastle: an eighty-seven acre water park with fourteen water slides and multiple swimming pools located on the banks of the Monongahela River. Opened in 1989, it bravely continued operating even after it found itself on Elfhome. It closed its doors…" Hal paused to shove open the accordion steel gate stretched between the two towers. "…in 2020 after a sudden outbreak of deadly Elfhome water creatures in its water supply. Despite heavy chlorination and an extensive filtering system, creatures such as river plankton, elf shrimp, and water fairies took over."
And in they went.
No one came forward to stop them. The place looked completely deserted. Jagger bushes grew waist high in every inch of lawn and weeds choked the cracks in the cement sidewalks. Chesty nearly quivered at her side, nostrils flared, jerking his head from one target to another. They were being watched by half a dozen things that Chesty considered dangerous.
So Boo's kidnappers wanted to pretend that Sandcastle was deserted? Fine. Jane and her crew would play ignorant.
Hal marched forward a dozen feet, pointing out the park's three large pools and the fact that the river lay just feet beyond. Oddly the pools had been covered by some kind of odd-looking tarps.
"Camo netting," Taggart murmured.
More evidence that someone was hiding something. Behind the buildings that lined the boardwalk, Dragon's Den lay dismantled by Grandma Gertie, the massive statue at the slide's heart missing. All that remained was the two stories of open wooden stairs leading to the now vanished launch point. Considering how big the dragon was, Gertie must have had dozens of people with her. It was little wonder they could come in and go without a fight. But why hadn't Boo just gone with them? Hidden herself in the truck instead of the doll?
Eighty-seven acres of possible hiding spaces.
"What monster do we track today?" Hal said as he paused at the decision point. Go into the gift shop? The park offices? Head for the buildings closer to the river or go on to the boardwalk? "Indeed that is the question: what is out there?"
Hal pointed out at the open river on the other side of the mushroom pool. Hopefully he could keep attention away from what Jane was doing. "The other day we spotted a creature never seen before in Pittsburgh, a massive river reptile generating a storm of electrical discharge. It had been described by one of our viewers as a Loch Ness monster."
While Hal gestured and info dumped about the river monster, Jane leaned the reflector against the wall and pulled out a Ziploc baggie. The first thing that had gone into their new freezer were several pieces of Boo's clothing to be used by scent dogs. They'd used most that first summer, but she'd found one still buried at the bottom. One last chance to find her baby sister.
"A long standing theory has been that the Loch Ness is a plesiosauria, which is a marine reptile that first appeared during the early Jurassic period and thought to be now extinct. These massive predators reached lengths of forty to fifty feet in length. What we witnessed the other night, though, seems to classify the Pittsburgh Nessie as a type of electric eel."
She pressed the cloth to Chesty's nose. "Seek. Seek."
Chesty whuffed in the scent. Dropping his head, he started to track.
"Electric eels get their names because they can generate up to six hundred volts of electricity." Hal managed to make his stroll forward, matching Chesty's progress, seem totally natural without losing track of the information he was presenting. "This powerful amount of voltage is five times the normal output of a household outlet and can easily kill a man. Those, however, are Earth's electric eels. The largest of these only reach about seven feet in length. How much voltage could a creature that is fifty feet long generate? The possibilities are staggering!"
Chesty headed to the boardwalk that once was lined with food stands with names that made it clear what they sold: Potato Patch, Uncle Tony's Pizza, Philly, Healthy Hut. The eateries had steel grates rolled down to cover their storefronts. Chesty passed the rows of locker rentals and went still at the first steel grate cover. Jane knelt beside the grate and gave it an experimental tug. It rose up an inch on well-oiled tracks. There was a large room beyond, dimly lit by celestial windows.
"We're going in." Jane lifted the grate two feet. Chesty crawled under and she wriggled in after him and let the door close behind her.
At one time, the place had been a café. Chesty bee-lined through overturned tables and broken chairs to the swinging doors into the kitchen full of large stainless steel appliances.
There was a startled squeak and someone ducked around one of the counters. The move, however, had backed the person into a corner. The girl stared at Jane and Chesty with eyes wide, hair a wild tangled bloom of unruly white blonde curls.
"Jane!" Boo skittered away from her outstretched hand, ducking through the shelving under the counter. "Go away!"
"Boo, I'm here to take you home!"
"They'll kill you if they find you here!"
"Who?" Because now that Jane found her baby sister, she wanted to know whom she was going to kill.
"Lord Tomtom's warriors."
"You have to go!"
"Carla Marie Kryskill, come here now!"
"Jane!" It was the little girl whine she remembered so well. "I can't leave Joey! He's my responsibility."
"Fine, we'll take Joey too." Who the hell was this Joey? Jane couldn't remember ever hearing of a missing "Joey." Maybe it wasn't another kid.
"They have him in a spell so he can't be found and he's chained."
"We'll get him out. Where is he?"
Boo stared at her for a long moment as if staring into her soul. After seven years, did she still have the ability to trust anyone?
"I promise," Jane whispered. "We will not leave without the both of you. Okay? Semper Fi. Leave no man behind."
Boo's eyes filled with tears and she gave a tiny nod.
"Take me to Joey."
Originally built as a row of isolated shotgun-style buildings, Boo's capturers had cut doors between the restaurants and built up walls until the structures were one big maze. In a dim back room, they found a little black haired boy, chained by one foot, inside a gleaming hologramlike spell. Jane stared at shimmering lines of power that wove from floor to matching design in the ceiling, creating a cage out of nothing.
She knew nothing about spells except they were much like lamps – they needed a power supply and a continuous loop to function correctly. In theory, breaking the circuit turned off the spell. She tapped the bar quickly. It felt as cold and hard as steel but it looked no more solid than light beamed through smoke.
"What's going on?" The little boy sounded very American. He looked like a kindergartener. "Who are you?"
"This is Jane." Boo reached through the bars to lace fingers with him. "She's came! She's here to save us. Both of us."
Jane dug frantically through her backpack. "Taggart, I found them. I'm going to kick the beehive to get them free. Get ready to move fast."
"Okay." Taggart seemed dubious at the wisdom of this.
She took out the bolt cutter and laid it aside where she could find it quickly. Once she started, they'd probably only have minutes to get to safety. She found the foam package of whack-a-moles. They'd developed the little explosives to force vespers out of their holes so they could be filmed. They worked on the same principle as a nail gun, driving a spike straight down into hard packed ground. She never tried them on concrete; hopefully they wouldn't explode like a pipe bomb instead.
"Here." She passed the light reflector into the cage. "Joey, hold this up like a shield. Boo, get behind that counter."
She used clay to create a seal between the explosives' barrel and the concrete over the spell etchings.
"Fire in the hole!" The explosion was deafening in the small room. Thankfully, though, the bars of the cage vanished.
"Jane! Incoming!" Taggart shouted. The grate rattled up back at the café's entrance. There was the loud whistle of the monster call. As the grate clattered down and gunfire broke out, there was a distant roar of the river monster.
Swearing, Jane snatched up the bolt cutter and scrambled quickly to Joey. The chain was stupidly short, only a few inches between a loop on the floor and the shackle around his ankle. The metal cuff had chaffed him raw and bleeding. She'd thought that there was something horribly wrong with his foot until she realized that it wasn't deformed. He had a bird's foot. Instead of a human foot with five little toes, he had a bird's with four scale-covered talons. Three long talons faced forward. A shortened fourth splayed out in place of a heel. Not as long as a true crow's foot, but long enough to allow him to grip a branch solidly with his foot.
Jane gasped as the image of Tinker's kidnapping played out in her mind's eye. The boy was a tengu. Boo had been taken by oni? The oni had been in Pittsburgh all these years? How many of the missing children – thought dead of jumpfish and strangle vines just like Boo – had the oni taken?
"Jane! They're coming!" Boo tugged at her arm. "Just go away. They won't hurt us; they need us alive. They want the call for the tengu flock! They need the blood of the Chosen to take control of the flock."
Jane's breath caught in her chest as she saw for the first time Boo's feet. The ghost white scales of her talons that matched her pale hair. Jane looked up into Boo's face. Her baby sister's face. Her baby sister's blue eyes.
"What did they do to you?" Jane cried.
Hurt filled Boo's face. "Just go away!"
"We're all going, now shut up," Jane snapped and cut through the chain.
"Jane?" Hal shouted over whistle blast and gunfire.
"Over here!" Jane started to unload her backpack of weapons.
A minute later, Taggart found them. "That door won't hold for long. Do you have any weapons?"
Jane laughed, checking the clip and handing him a pistol. "Two of my grandparents were Marines. The third was a moonshiner. The other was a part of the local mafia. Do the math."
"You've got guns. Lots of guns."
"My family all but bleeds bullets." Jane took out two more pistols. She held the little twenty-two out to Boo. "You remember how to use these?"
"Don't point it at anyone you don’t want to kill." Boo took the gun. "Which is a lot of people right now. Aim down the barrel, hold your breath, squeeze."
There was a roar, this time sounding far too close, and the whole building shook as if hit by a freight train.
"Where's the backdoor?" When Boo only stared at her in horror, Jane groaned. "Please tell me there's back door."
Boo shook her head. "They're nailed shut. That's the only door in."
"Shit! Shit! Shit!" Jane scanned the room. What should they do? She realized that there were too few of them. "Where's Hal?"
There was a sudden explosion from the hallway beyond the cage room.
"I've made us a door!" Hal called.
"Hal! Damn it, how many times have I told you to warn people before you blow things up?"
They went out the hole that Hal had blown through the back wall. A back service alley ran the length of the boardwalk, lined with boarded up loading docks. Electricity was crawling over the building like a lightning storm had been anchored to the storefront. They ran toward the truck that seemed a million miles away.
Jane realized that the monster call was growing faint. She nearly stumbled as she looked over her shoulder and realized that Taggart was running in the opposite direction, still blowing the whistle and leading the river monster away. A muffled roar came from inside the building and screams of something that could have been human.
"Idiot!" The park was a maze of deep waterways to anyone who didn't know the area. Once he was beyond the corner of the building, he'd be out of sight. Nor was there any guarantee that there weren't oni coming around the other way to cut them off.
"Hal, get Chesty and the kids to the truck."
"Truck! Go!" Jane shouted and pointed. "Chesty, follow!"
She headed for the stairs that one time led to the top of the Dragon's Den ride. "Taggart, you idiot, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Giving you a chance to get to the truck and into it without a horde of monsters on top of you. Five people and one large dog and only three doors."
He had a point.
The river monster came crashing out of the building into the back service alley. It looked like a weird cross between a catfish and a crocodile. Its mouth was a snout filled with teeth with long whiskers on either side. It had four stubby legs and a long whiptail. Electricity snarled and leaped from it to every nearby object.
Taggart whistled and the thing turned and crawled at stunning speed after him.
"Don't go left at the end of the buildings, Taggart. Swing right!" Jane ran up the steps keeping track of both Hal and Taggart as they both ran in opposite directions. "And stop blowing that stupid whistle. It turned already. Let it go chomp on someone else!"
Taggart's laugh came across the channel.
When Jane reached the second floor deck, she saw that a big male was running to block off Hal. She lined him up and only thought about how they'd taken her sister. Twisted her sister's body against her will until she wasn't even human any more. Jane killed him like she'd kill any other monster trying to stop Hal.
She turned and picked off a male coming across the building, carrying a rifle. A third that she hadn't seen took a shot at her from boardwalk's roof. The bullet whined past her. She didn't miss with her return fire.
"Jane, we're at the truck," Hal reported.
"Get out to the street and head toward the mall to pick us up. And be careful, Nessie might be out there with us."
One of the oni, however, cooperated nicely in drawing the monster's attention. She scrambled over the wall to the city street to join up with Taggart just as Nigel drove up.
"That was stupid," she said as she scrambled into the backseat with Chesty, Boo and Joey.
"Yeah, a little." Taggart squeezed into the back from the other side. "I spent three years as a war correspondent. My nightmares are all about sitting and watching people die and doing nothing. I don't think I could stay sane if I'd stood and watched you die."
"Mine," Hal muttered darkly.
Whatever she might have said was cut short as Boo snatched up Helga from the dashboard.
"Look, Joey!" Boo cried. "I told you someone would find Sergeant Helga Teufel Hunden and Jane would come for us."
"Why didn't you just go home with Grandma Gertie?" Jane asked.
"I told you!" Boo pulled the little boy into her lap. "Joey's my responsibility. I couldn't leave him. Big sisters take care of their little brothers."
Jane recognized her father's ghost even though he been dead before Boo could talk. She'd imprinted him into her little sister without meaning to, but this was all kinds of wrong. "Boo, he's not your little brother." The boy wasn't even human.
"Yes, he is!" Boo tightened her arms around Joey and glared at her with cold hard eyes. Her father's eyes. "You always said that you can't pick your family but still had to do right by them. The oni made us brother and sister. I'm Joey's big sister and I won't let anything bad happen to him."
From within Boo's protective hold, Joey blinked up at Jane. He looked only five or six but he'd been chained and caged like an animal. The only real difference that she could see between him and her brothers at his age was he had odd feet. But so did Nigel. This might be all kinds of wrong, but it wasn't this little boy's fault. She nodded. "Okay. If he's your little brother, then he's mine too."
A quiver of Boo's bottom lip was all the warning Jane got before she had her arms full of bawling little girl with poor Joey squashed between them like a teddy bear. Boo cried as if she had her heart torn out.
"Hey, hey, big girls don't cry," Jane said because in any moment she was going to lose it. If she started, she wouldn't be able to stop, and she knew from experience that her tears would burn like liquid fire. "It's okay. You're safe!"
"I was so afraid!" Boo wailed. "I prayed and prayed that you come for me, but I thought – I thought when you saw what they did – I thought – you'd say that we weren't s-s-s-sisters anymore!" She had been so scared that she could barely even say it.
"You are my baby sister." Jane held her tight. "Nothing anyone could do to you, no magic, nothing, could change that. You will always be my baby sister."
Once Jane got Boo and their new little brother safe, she was going to war. Not with her rifle, although she dearly wanted to, but with her camera. The oni obviously were gearing up for guerrilla warfare because they couldn't stand against the joint forces of humans and elves. The news blackout was their doing; keeping the two allies from uniting. She wasn't going to stand back and let them get away with it. She wasn't going to let them turn her city into a warzone. She was going to find out their every secret and broadcast it across two worlds. They were about to learn the meaning of "no better friend, no worse enemy."
Copyright © 2013 by Wen Spencer
Wen Spencer is the author of the critically acclaimed and popular Elfhome series of science fiction and fantasy hybrid novels, including Tinker, Wolf Who Rules and latest entry Elfhome. She’s also the author of contemporary fantasy Eight Million Gods.