The next day, after a breakfast of eggs and bacon both Mrs. Michanovich and Mrs. Sedef insisted he had, Callahan went back to search the street.
It would be simple, he'd thought. He'd go down the road, marking off nexuses where the ley lines crossed, ask some locals on his way if they'd noticed any suspicious activity, then get home and report his findings. Hopefully either the locals or Harrington would have an idea what to do next, he'd find the perpetrator, wave his badge around and get them to stop, undo all the damage, and be home in time to turn in his iron bracelets. It was a simple plan and in his head, he was already halfway done to succeeding.
Five minutes after leaving the Michanovich house, he found another crossed line and stuck a sticky note on it. It was early, and there weren't very many people out, but he did catch the eye of a young, white-haired woman with half a dozen small, chattering children on child-leashes walking down the sidewalk. He took out his Order ID badge and walked towards her.
"Ma'am," he said. "Might I have a moment of your time-?"
Her eyes widened, and she quickly looked away. Without stopping, she dragged all six children past him, keeping her eyes set solidly on the ground, acting as though she didn't hear him as she did.
"Okay then," he said meekly to no one, still holding up the badge. He looked up and saw a man in the doorway of a shop nearby that had just opened.
"Sir?" he said, regaining composure. "My name is Callahan. I have a few questions-" The man grunted and turned away, closing the door before Callahan could stop him.
Callahan frowned. Was it something I said?
There was a man walking nearby, listening to headphones.
"Sir," Callahan said, his voice raised slightly. "Excuse me? Sir!"
The young man turned to face him. Callahan showed him his badge.
"My name is-" the words were barely out of Callahan's mouth when the man, eyes wide in shock, made a strangled honking noise and, in a flurry of feathers, transformed into a swan and flew away. Callahan was left standing on the sidewalk alone.
"What the hell?" he snarled. He shook his head and a few soft feathers fell out. He picked another off his jacket and scowled at it.
These people are hiding something, he thought. They had to be. Why else would they be hiding from a member of the order? Something was going on, and by god he was going to find out what. He made his way down the street, marking off more nexuses and thinking uncharitable thoughts.
Nobody wanted anything to do with him. A gaggle of middle aged women carrying groceries turned completely invisible when he approached them. A large, hairy man with a decidedly wolfish demeanor growled when he passed and refused to say anything when questioned. On two separate occasions the people he'd tried to talk to had thrown themselves against a wall and turned themselves into living spray-paint art (which then ran two dimensionally away down the side of the building) and when he finally managed to find someone who would talk to him, it was a decrepit old woman in possession of poor hearing and double cataracts who ate up nearly a half hour of his time in a desperate game of 'what was that, son? My hearing ain't too good these days' before finally hollering that she had no idea what he was talking about.
Disgusted, Callahan found the closest empty spot on the sidewalk and sat, his back resting against the concrete side of a building. He watched people cross the street so as not to pass where he was sitting, and scowled.
"I don't have the plague," he said to nobody and everybody at once.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the corner of a sheet of paper sticking out from under a loose brick in the wall of the building. He took the paper and saw that it was one of the street flyers.
The words "Mad Exorcist Terrorizes Town!" were in huge print on the front. There were pictures of him on the street, trying to talk to people, but they were all shot in such a way to make him look taller and more menacing.
I don't really look that angry, do I? he thought. No, he didn't, he decided. When he tried talking to the first people, he hadn't been mad at all. Someone had altered the pictures to make him look unpleasant.
He skimmed the article. It told him pretty much what the headline had promised; a biased version of the morning's events that depicted him as some crazed potential-killer tallying up Market Street residents to murder later under the guise of Order justice. They really didn't like the Order, it seemed.
Explains why nobody called us about the lines, he thinks. If they even noticed it. If they weren't all in on it.
He crumpled up the flyer and tossed it aside. It was obstruction of justice, that's what it was. When he found who was trying to incite panic with the flyers, they were going to have Words.
He was still silently fuming when the cat showed up. It was the same calico from the other day-- the one who had followed him. It's yowl was unmistakable. He glared as the cat trotted up to him, meowing.
"What? What is it?" he said sourly. Despite the tone, he still offered his hand out and scratched the cat's head when it rubbed against him. "People in this place are insane," he told the cat.
The cat purred in agreement and rolled into its back. He didn't know much about cats, having grown up with dogs, but he knew well enough not to touch its belly. The cat wriggled under his hand and, out of nowhere, wrapped its legs, its claws unsheathed, around Callahan's arm and, still purring, bit his hand.
Callahan yelped and pulled his hand away. The cat got up and rubbed his side while he examined his hand. No blood. At least that was something. The cat crawled onto his lap and rubbed its head against him.
"Enough of that," he said, shoving the cat away. He stood up. The cat meowed loudly and trotted a few feet away. Then it turned and looked at him and meowed again.
"What, you want me to follow you?"
The cat meowed.
Why not? he thought. Everything here was strange and nobody was helping him. Might as well.
He followed the cat.
I saw the man in black leave and thought, good riddance! Who needs a guy like that hanging around? The door closed behind him and I made myself turn visible again.
"Drea," my mom said on her way through the living room. "Were you spying?"
"Nnnnoooo," I said. "I was just checking."
"Well go check on the laundry, then, because last I saw, it still needed folding."
I proofed out of the room and went to the laundry room. It's a room for doing laundry. After that, she made me clean my room and then help with the dishes and by then, it felt like half the day was already gone.
"It's only noon!" she said when I told her.
"I've been here foreeeever," I said. She was gonna say something like 'no you haven't, quit whining,' but couldn't because then the door opened and a man stepped inside.
I thought at first it was the exorcist again, like he'd forgot something and had come back. The man was tall like the exorcist and wore a long black jacket like the exorcist, but this one's jacket only went down to his knees, and the buttons were gold instead of silver. His hair was curly black-black instead of straight almost-black, and his skin was darker and his face wasn't as frowny.
"Hello!" Mom said, all charm, like she hadn't been in the middle of yelling at me. "May I help you?"
"Yes," the man said with a smile. "My name is Seth. I registered over the phone earlier...?"
"Oh, Mr. Seper-Merue?"
"The one in the same," he said with a smile.
"Pleasure to meet you," mom said, stepping forward to shake his hand. "I'm Naomi, this is my daughter Drea."
"Hi," I said with a wave.
"Charmed," he said, shaking mom's hand and nodding to both of us.
"Here," said mom, walking back to the hall. "If you'd just follow me..."
The front door to our house leads into an entry hall with mom's desk at the end-- and I say desk, but it's more like a closed-off counter that goes wall to wall with a flip-top table thingy attached that she has to lift to get behind the counter. Behind the desk and behind where she stands is a wall of little doors behind her that open up tiny drawers where she keeps all the keys to the rooms in the house. Our house has five hundred rooms (though sometimes the number changes when there's an earthquake and some of the rooms split into more rooms or combine into fewer rooms), so that's a lot of keys and drawers. She has a little step ladder tucked under the desk so she can get to the drawers that are too high up to reach on her own. The sides of the entry hall open up to the living room on one side and the den on the other. The difference between the living room and the den is that the first has a TV and the second has a fireplace.
Mom led Sepper-Merue, who turned into just Mr. Sepper in my head, to the desk to have him sign in. I figured then was a good time to go invisible before she could have me wash the roof or something, so I did. I could've just poofed outside onto the street, but I wanted to get a better look at the new guy. He had the same sort of fizzy not-smell as the exorcist did, but when I went close, the fizzing changed.
The exorcist was like bees in a jar, all angry and trying to get out. The new guy's was like wolves. Like big sandy orange cats. I smelled dry air and felt dry dirt and felt hot gusts on my face, and for a split second, I almost thought I heard the wind howling.
I flew backwards away from him. It was all over in less than time it took me to blink.
"...like me to show you the way?" Mom was saying.
"Not necessary, thank you," he said. "I still have a few errands to run."
"Then allow me to take your bags up," Mom said. "Drea!" She called, looking towards then living room. "Drea? Where did that girl go? Pardon me."
She left the counter and went to look for me. Once she was gone, Mr. Sepper looked directly at me and said, "If you're going to run, I think now's your chance." His voice sounded like he was trying not to laugh. I grinned and vanished to the street and didn't think to ask how he could see me, even though I was still invisible.
The cat led him down the street until they reached what looked like an abandoned shoe shop. The widows were boarded and the door was locked, but the cat slunk around the back to a wooden side door someone had broken the knob to. The cat went through the cat-door at the base, and the movement of it doing so nudged the door open. After a moment, Callahan followed.
Inside was dark and full of dust. He thought at first that the floor was carpeted, but upon closer inspection, he was that it was actually covered in several inches worth of dust. The cat trotted ahead, leaving tiny paw print indention in the dust, but not clearing it. Now that he was looking, he saw tiny trails winding through the dust. They looked like they were from some small animals running around; more cats, probably. The place reeked of cat.
The cat he'd followed ran to the back and stopped to look at him. He dutifully followed, and it led him up a short flight of stairs that lead to a small hallways and a door that he knew must've led to an apartment. They did that in cities, he knew. Shops on bottom, homes on top.
The cat yowled and scratched the door. Callahan knocked.
"Hello?" he said. "Excuse me? I- uh. I think I found your cat?"
There was no answer. He didn't expect there to be one, but thought he'd check, just in case. He tried the knob and found the door to be unlocked.
"I'm just going to let him in now," he said loudly. "Don't mind me." He opened the door.
He regretted it immediately.
It wasn't just the overpowering smell of cat, or the stink of unwashed human. Nor was it the grime, dirt, and cat hair coating every visible surface. It was the feel of rancid magic that hit him like a punch to the gut and had him doubled over, retching.
He backed down the stairs into the shoe shop and struggled to breathe. It took a while for him to collect himself. While he did, the cat kept weaving in and out of the apartment at the top of the stairs, meowing at him, obviously asking him what the hold up was.
He leaned against the wall, hand covering his mouth and nose, though it did nothing for the stench. He would've told the cat to hold it's horses, but when he tried to speak, he felt his gorge rise and wisely decided against it. It took several minutes for him to collect himself.
"Fine," he said when he could speak again. He fumbled with his pocket. Eventually, after a silent struggle, it produced his spectacles, and by the time it did, he had steeled his resolve. There was clearly a magical disturbance here, and he was the only Order member present. He had a job to do, a responsibility to investigate and help, no matter how unpleasant it might turn out to be. He took a deep breath and entered the room again. He put on the glasses and took a deep breath, making sure not to breath through his nose. He entered the room again.
To Callahan's surprise, there wasn't actually that much loose magic in the apartment. After seeing the charms and spells on the street all day, and the ones inside the Michanovich house, he had assumed that every home on Market Street had a coating of spellwork mixed in with the wallpaper. But the apartment's walls were bare. There were some bright spots of magic from the cats; he counted at least a dozen of them around the place, and he noticed more the longer he looked, but no actual spells. Instead, the rotten magic was concentrated on one place: a woman.
Through his spectacles, she looked like a dry husk, totally and completely drained and covered in black sludge that stained the area and air around her like a dark aura. The only places where there was no sludge was in places where the cats were sitting on her. Their own light illuminated the area around them, and the darkness was kept a couple inches away from them.
He lifted the spectacles. She looked like a regular woman. Still decrepit, still vaguely husk-lke, but otherwise normal. There was no sign of the sludge, nor of the cats' inner light.
"Ma'am?" he said. "Ma'am, are you alright?"
She didn't answer and stared ahead, eyes open, face stony.
"Ma'am?" he tried again. "My name's Callahan. I'm sorry to burst in here like this, but I- uh. Found your cat. And I was wondering if you needed any assistance..."
The woman didn't move. he wasn't even sure she was breathing.
He waved a hand in front of her face. "Ma'am?"
"Her name is Yannon," said a voice behind him. He turned and saw the ghost girl, looking nothing like a ghost, standing in the doorway with a cat in her arms. "What are you doing here?" she said.
"I could ask the same of you."
"Nuh-uh. I live here. You're a stranger."
On the one hand, she had a point. On the other, he was a member of the Order. He shouldn't have to explain himself to children-- especially not ghosts.
"Order business," he said.
"Order what?" She tilted her head. "Like shopping?"
He deflated. "No, the order. The order. You've never heard of us?"
"Nope." She went to the old woman. "Mrs. Yannon, you okay?"
"Still alive," the woman rasped. Her voice gave Callahan a jolt; he hadn't been entirely sure she was alive, much less conscious.
"Need any help today?"
"Okeedokee. Hey, Mr. Exorcist. You take that way," she pointed down the hall, "and I'll take this way." She teleported away, into the kitchen.
Callahan hurried after her. "What are you doing?" he said.
"Why?" he said.
She vanished suddenly and appeared right in front of him. He didn't yelp, exactly, but he did gasp and step back.
"Fourteen in the kitchen, seven in the laundry room," she said loudly. He watched her vanish and reappear several more times around the living room before disappearing into the hall.
"twenty-three in the living room, seven in the bathroom, nine in the bedroom-- no, ten in the bedroom..."
Callahan opened a door to his left and peeked inside. It was a closet with cleaning supplies; broom, mop, vacuum, as well as some folded blankets and rolled towels on a shelf. Obviously, he thought, the cleaning supplies hadn't been used recently. On top of the blanket was a fat, fluffy orange cat. It stretched languidly when he opened the door and blinked at him slowly.
"There's one in the closet," he found himself saying.
She blinked into existence beside him. "That's 83."
Callahan frowned and ticked off his fingers. "You mean 62?"
Christ, he though. Sixty two cats. No wonder the place stinks.
"No. Yeah, but no. That's cat 83." The calico cat that had led him to the apartment slunk around the corner and weaves itself between his legs. "That's cat 36. She likes you."
Oh, he thought. She.
The girl pointed out several more cats around the room. "Cat 16 on the shelf there. Cat 43. You can see his tail sticking out from the cushions. Cat 57. Cat 62 and 63-- they're always together."
"I get it. How many are there supposed to be?"
"No clue," she said cheerfully. "The number is always changing." She went to the old woman. "Mrs. Yannon, there are 62 cats in the house today."
The woman closed her eyes and let her head rest back against the cushion. Callahan hadn't even realized she'd been holding herself up. "It's day time."
To Callahan's mind, the woman didn't speak. She merely opened her mouth the same time some disembodied voice chose to present itself. It had to have been her voice, there was no one else to whom it could belong, but his brain refused that connection. It was like seeing a bad movie dub; it was wrong. Even if the timing was good, it was still noticeably wrong. The voice hurt his head to hear.
"Not anymore," the ghost girl said, apparently fine with the woman's voice. "It was afternoon when I got here--"
"The others will be out a while yet," Yannon continued, ignoring the girl. "62 in and 38 out."
"One more and you'll have an even hundred," the ghost said brightly. The woman said nothing. "You want anything else?"
"No," said Yannon.
"Okay," the girl said. She blinked out of existence and manifested directly in front of him. Callahan took half a step back.
"Will you help her?" she said, her voice low. "You said you helped people. I don't know what's wrong with her. I think she needs help. Like real help."
"I can try," he said honestly. "But I don't know if I'll be able to do any good." He glanced at the woman. "She's a husk."
"What do you mean?"
"There's a dark aura around her, and no light inside. Her soul's been taken or lost or traded away-- at least most of it. There must be a little bit of it left to keep her alive, but just barely." He peered through his spectacles. "If it wasn't for the cats sitting on her, I think she would've died by now."
"How do we fix it?" the girl said.
"I don't know," he said. "I might be able to get someone from headquarters down here to help, but they might not want to waste resources when their main priority is the street--"
"The street? There's a problem with the street?"
"And if you fix it they'll help Mrs. Yannon?"
"I believe so--"
"Well if that's all!" She vanished again and appeared by the door. "Come on," she said.
"Where are you going?"
"To see Mr. Gregor. I told you before, he knows everything about the street. He and Trevor run the flyer. If there's something wrong, you can ask him. Then you fix the thing and then you can can fix Mrs. Yannon."
He looked back at the old woman. Several more cats had draped themselves around her, either lounging on her lap or on her feet or angled onto the chair. She didn't look to be breathing.
"Mrs. Yannon," the girl said. "Were going now."
Callahan possibly saw a slight movement. It might've been a nod. It might've been a cat twitching. But the ghost girl was apparently satisfied and turned out the door. He followed her out the apartment and out the first floor and out onto the street, where the girl stopped suddenly and looked worriedly at the sky.
"What time is it?" she asked.
"Uh." He checked his pocket for his cell phone. After the second time asking, he got it. "Seven." The screen flickered, and the time changed. "Or maybe six thirty?" He tapped the screen lightly and the time went back to six. "Huh. I think my phone is on the fritz."
She scowled at the sky. "Either way, we'll have to go tomorrow."
"I have to be home by seven, or else my mom and dad will worry."
"But you're dead!"
"Are you going to go on about that again?"
He opened his mouth to argue, realized it was pointless, and stopped. "No," he said. "Never mind."
"Okay. I'm gonna go home now before mom and dad get mad at me. So... bye!"
The girl vanished. No puff of smoke, no burst of light, no sound or smell. She was simply gone, replaced by empty air.
"Andrea?" he said. There was no answer.
He looked at the spot where she had been and fought off a twinge of guilt; some mad part of him thought he ought to have ensured she got home safe. She was just a little girl.
The smarter side of him scowled.
Safe from what? he chided himself. She's already dead!
There was nothing left to be gained from the apartment but more cat hair on his clothing. All the same, he tried talking to the woman again before leaving. It was no use. Her eyes were glazed and focused on the window. He had no idea if she was actually seeing anything at all. If he hadn't hear her speaking before, and if he couldn't feel the faintest pulse of life in her veins, he would have thought she'd been dead, and dead a while. He left. The cat that had lead him there watched him go from its spot on the mantle.
Well, he thought once back on the street. Now what?
It was too early to go back, and he was annoyed that he'd gotten nothing accomplished. He ought to be done by now, darn it. For lack of any other leads, he went down the street, hoping to check on the lines and crossings again. Maybe if he was lucky, there'd be some improvement. Or whoever who'd done it would be out like he was, checking the lines all nice and obvious for him to apprehend.
He walked along the street, keeping an eye on the ley line as he did.
Evening on Market was just as busy as the day had been, if not moreso. People were on porches and on the sidewalks, cars packed the road -- which made it particularly hard to see the line, and Callahan had to stop every once in a while and squint from the sidewalk to see if the line was still burning strong under the traffic. To his dismay, things only kept on getting more and more crowded as people started opening up shop on their porches, like garage sales. Woven rugs and oddly shaped candles steeped in home-made magic and oddly shaped glass baubles and clay pots. He had to keep taking off his spectacles to reorient himself; there was so much bright magic on the street that it was getting hard to see. He kept nearly bumping into street vendors selling food and flowers and glow sticks, and into people running around in ornate, masquerade-style masks.
It's not Disneyland, he thought sourly. What's going on? Is it a holiday? Or are these people just insane?
He never got an answer. He tried to ask a few people, but they ignored him. When he tried to pull rank on some people in masks, they shoved him out of the way.
He wanted to do something. Arrest them all and drag them back to the Order for questioning and for interrupting an investigation, or to tear off the bracer on his wrist and rain down hellfire on them all. But when he turned to face them again, they were gone. Everyone was gone. The road was empty. The street was dark and gray, no sign of the ambient magic, or the street lights, or the lights from the porches.
"Hello?" he said.
No answer. He was entirely alone.
On the road, the line was gone. No matter how hard he looked at the pavement, he couldn't bring the ley line back into view. It wasn't there.
If it's not there, he thought, then neither am I. This isn't market street. He looked around the gray world, scowling. Someone was dicking with him.
"Hello?" he said. he raised his voice. "Hey! Hey! I know someone's here. I don't know what you're playing at, but--"
There was a gust of wind behind him, and for a split second, he thought he heard the sound of far-off laughter. He whirled around and saw several dim shapes in the distance approaching. Gray lumps that slowly solidified into four-legged, dog-like creatures the closer they came.
The creatures weren't all that big. They were about the size of his sister's German shepherd and unlike Rowdy, these dogs were sleek, skinny things built more along the lines of greyhounds. Their legs were twig-thin and pointed, rat-like heads, and charcoal gray-black bodies with fur so short he almost mistook it for skin. The pack of them sniffed the ground in a group, weaving back and forth between another.
Dogs? he thought.
As if they hear him, the dogs, as one, raised their heads. Their eyes burned red in the dark.
"Hi," he said with a little wave. "Good doggies?"
They snarled and ran towards him.
For a while, he ran straight. He'd never been chased by anything before, especially not a pack of anything, and blind panic had him in one direction, with the dogs directly behind him. Sense kicked in ten feet away, and he turned down a small alley, hoping to find a fire escape to climb up.
The alley was a dead end; no fire escape, and no through path, just a wall. Of course. He shoved his hand into his pocket and mentally screamed, Marker!
The pocket, sensing the urgency of the moment, gave him a yellow highlighter. It would have looked like a regular, store brand yellow highlighter but for the odd, swirly script on the side where the logo ought to have been. Callahan tore off the cap and started scribbling on the wall, drawing five of the signs of power, each in its own haphazard circle, then drawing a much bigger circle around them. He closed the circle with a bit of will and a bit of power. The bracer on his wrist burned white-hot for a split second, and he winced. The markings he made began to glow with a faint yellow light.
The pack turned the corner and came into view.
"Last chance," Callahan said, sounding more confident than he felt.
The dogs snarled and came closer, walking stiff-legged, their hackles raised.
"Alright, then." He touched his hand to the sign on the wall.
Pain. Terrible, blinding, heart-stopping pain tore up his arm and through his chest. The signs on the wall burst into light strong enough to illuminate the entire alley as though it were day, and the explosive force of power hurled him to the side, against the wall. Elsewhere, the dogs howled in pain, but he couldn't see what happened to them. There was a gust of heat and wind, and then a sudden darkness as the light finally stopped.
He couldn't see. He'd had his eyes closed when the light went on, but even that hadn't been enough to protect his eyes. There was no growling, though, or whimpering or barking or any other dog noises, so he assumed he was safe. Callahan touched the wall and slowly felt his way to the ground, where he waited for his vision to return.
Noise came back before color did, though that was to be expected. He heard cars and people and music and the sounds of busy Market Street returning.
The side door to the building next to him -- a door that was not there when he first turned down the ally, a door that was on steps that also had not been there before, near a fire escape access that also also had not been there-- flung open, and a thin, owl-eyed man ran onto the steps with a flashlight.
"Hello?" he shouted. "Hello? I heard yelling. Is anyone out here?"
Callahan weakly dragged himself up and walked into the light.
"Sorry," he said, slurring the word. "Didn't mean to disturb you--"
"Good God man!" The owl-eyed man said. "You're bleeding! What happened?"
I am? he thought. He felt his head and then stared dully at the blood on his hands.
"Aminals," Callahan mumbled. "Aminimals. Dogs, but not. I... I think I need to sit down..." He meant to sit down right, just hunker down right on the pavement, but something went wrong between the thinking and doing, and his legs buckled and the last thing he saw was the concrete rapidly getting closer.