“This sucks,” said Mickey.
“Yeah, I know,” Ethan replied and he moved into an opening he found between several parade watchers on the curb. It was moving along the vacant buildings east of Nathaniel Bridge and west of Wicker St. It was moving west, just past the fancy Equine Acres, and now looked like a rundown different world. He had known the town was dying the instant he arrived back in July but never was it as clear to him as when he watched the Bartlett Bay Thanksgiving Parade on that cold November 22nd.
He wore jeans, black boots, a white t-shirt, black gloves, a leather jacket, a black beanie and an orange and black striped scarf around his neck and felt suitably warm but all around him there were people dressed far less severely, some of them even in casual windbreakers of all things. It seemed that a lifetime of living in California had by no means, prepared him for a Connecticut winter that had not yet even begun.
He suspected he wouldn’t have any fun and wouldn’t have come at all but Jen Everson thought that Alfred the Thanksgiving Turkey might show up as he dearly loved dancing in the parade and she offered him some money to help find him. By that time, he had already looked over the parade twice using Mickey’s eyes and saw nothing and it was sort of winding down to its end by then anyway.
It was going to cut off around Alberta, passed Mandy’s Diner and the Merrick Hotel.
All he had seen were an abundance of depressing floats, all looking as if they were made with little or no skill and without any financial backing but, he admitted, he saw some degree of care and passion. One of them was for Mandy’s Diner with the Randals. Tori, Francis, her husband James, their other child, that teenage boy Ethan met the first day he came and still didn’t know or forgot the name of, and James’s sister who he never met were all riding on a red thing that was supposed to be a lobster. He had learned somewhere that lobster was their signature food before it became too expensive for them to buy. They still sold crab but it wasn’t a very high selling item for them.
“Is this sad?” asked Mickey. “This looks sad.”
“It’s sad,” Ethan replied and he felt pretty sad himself. Escaping his family had been as ugly as it could be, their threats not being bluffs by any means and he ended up paying thousands of dollars in order to satisfy his “failure to pay rent” to his family and “reparations” to two of the people he “assaulted” in February. He didn’t have a lawyer and theirs, Julian Bartlett’s old lawyer, was mercilessly evil and obeyed Margaret as if she was his queen.
It was devastating to lose seventy percent of what he had earned over the last five months but in the end, he had successfully cut free of them and was living in a small apartment over a laundromat on Worthington St. He felt surprised he had gotten off so cheap considering they all seemed to genuinely believe he had wronged them somehow but it didn’t make him feel much better.
He felt more and more like everything was crashing down and without any kind of employment, he could end up on the street. He kept thinking back to Grace O’Brien and, if his plan with her went through, he could get out of this mess. Unfortunately, he was unable to get to her. She had disappeared off the face of the Earth and no one would tell him where she was. Her family, notably Franklin’s sister Beth, responded with incredible hostility when he politely asked them about Grace while they were coming out by the Anglecliff Country Club one day.
“Ethan!” called a voice.
He looked over and saw Christine Taylor, who he still found hard to think of as Mrs. Merrick, walking up to him away from a crowd of friends. There was a certain special something about her, something that separated her from the typical beautiful girl and he found he liked her from the very instant he first laid eyes on her. She was an athletic, tall, perfect, dark-skinned beauty with long hair with large curls that hung down past her shoulders. Her face was easily supermodel level.
She wore a dark blue jacket with tight blue jeans wrapped over her supple sexy legs and tall black boots. Her dainty fingers were wrapped in black gloves, she wore a black scarf around her neck and was wearing an adorable blue beanie that served to make her look just incredibly cute.
“Hey, Chris,” he said as she walked up to him. “How’s married life?”
“Oh it’s fine,” she told him quickly and then smiled vibrantly. “How have you been?”
“Been better, honestly,” he replied. “My birthday kind of sucked.”
“Really?” she asked in a caring way.
“That was the morning I was hit with the double whammy from Julian Bartlett’s lawyer. November 6th, 2012. Afterward was okay. Darcy Hamilton cheered me up with Argo and dinner at Outback.” It would have been better if she had been single but he decided not to dwell on that.
“I heard about you and your family,” she told him sadly.
“Yeah,” she replied. “People talk in a city like this, you know. I also heard you were dating Nora Tan.” She said the last sentence in a way only a woman could, hinting at something that could mean something as much as it could nothing in absolute perfect equality.
“Ha!” said Mickey.
“It really didn’t work out,” Ethan told her.
“Why, what happened?”
“They found out I was white.”
She raised an eyebrow up at him. “Really, Ethan?” she asked.
“I don’t think her father is a liar,” he replied simply.
“Are you sure it’s not just the wealth thing?” she asked. “My mother said they own hospitals all over America and are worth millions. She was Nora’s teacher down at Oliver Wolcott, that private school by Lake Chelsea, and I think she said Nora alone might inherit millions.” She touched his arm to get his attention. “What happened with her?”
“Well,” said Ethan, “Her father apparently did not want his princess running around with poor white trailer trash from California. He also said that he believed I wasn’t going to go anywhere ever and our children would have been hideous half-breeds because I’m white and she’s pure Chinese and there is that thing with her breasts that he thinks I might be responsible for.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that?” she half-whispered with wide eyes.
Ethan half-laughed, half-shrugged. “I’ll tell you about it someday when we have more time. I can tell you now it’s a weird story that has certainly widened the gap between mother and daughter and, for whatever unknown internal reason, ends with Daddy’s little princess telling him she had sex with me just to piss him off. He, in response, threatened to disown her if she didn’t dump me and so that was that.”
“I’m sorry,” she told him and she looked genuinely sympathetic. “What did she say, exactly?”
“Goodbye,” Ethan and Mickey said at once.
Ethan looked at his bird. “I was bored,” he said with a shrug.
“Bitch,” said Chris.
“It’s fine,” he told her with a wave of his hand. “If only she didn’t wait till I came by holding roses and then do it loudly in front of her father to let him know she was serious.”
“You’re making that part up.”
“He’s not,” said Mickey. “It was really, really sad. His birthday was the next day too. That was also really, really sad.”
Ethan sighed and frowned at nothing particular in the parade and saw out of the corner of his eye Chris looking concernedly. “Her whole family was there frowning at me except Jamie who was out with her boyfriend who is, ironically, also white but then he does have a scholarship to Harvard and she’s an adopted Japanese which I guess makes a difference. I’m not making any of this up nor am I making up the fact that I was ‘let go’ at my job at Johnny’s Pizza Palace the day after my birthday either.”
“Yeah, it’s been a pretty shitty week,” said Mickey.
“Willy fired you? But he’s so nice and he keeps that douchebag that always flirts with me even though I complain.”
Ethan turned his head toward hers. “Funny thing,” he said in a hard voice. “Did you know that Charles Pennington has a significantly large ownership of the Bay City Mall?”
“Either did I when I went into that mall to apply for a job. A week after starting, Pierce Pennington came in with his friends and, after taking free pizza of course, took one look at me and said in his uppity preppy voice, ‘I’m going to get you fired.’ Then he did. Willy can’t keep me employed if the property manager wants me gone.”
“I’m sorry, Ethan,” she told him and then she kissed him in the cheek in a way that left her lips there too long to be casual. He smiled, surprised, and then saw her group of friends not far away, four boys and two girls, all black, which led him to believe they were from her original home in Applewood and had maybe even known her since childhood. All four of the boys were giving him hard, distrusting and envious glances.
Ethan shrugged at them and their eyes darkened.
One of the girls saw one of the boys, her boyfriend, briefly look over Chris’s body in admiration, frowned angrily and then slapped him in the chest promptly before walking away. Ethan couldn’t hear him but he could distinctively see him groan the word “fuck” before going after her.
“You got admirers.”
“My family and friends are very concerned about people mistreating me,” Chris told him.
Ethan’s face fell. “Mine aren’t.”
Chris smiled in a way that was both sad and loving at the same time. Ethan found himself smiling back at her expression but a little nervously because though he rather liked it and it made him feel warm inside, he had absolutely no idea what he had done to earn it. She had also given him that same look at her wedding where he felt it was even less justified.
“You have an admirer too,” she told him, biting her lower lip and creating a very cute, mischievous expression on her face.
Ethan tilted his head over his shoulder and saw Jessica Downs about twenty feet away and frowning at Chris jealously. Her mother had her arms around her neck to keep her from running around, smiling happily at the parade and had dressed Jessica in a dark pink jacket, white leggings, white gloves and a cute pink beanie. “You can do better than a black chick!” she called out to him and Jane Downs’s face filled with utter horror.
Ethan and Chris both burst out laughing and Jessica groaned and stomped her feet in adorable aggravation.
He turned back to Chris and then remembered the day after Halloween. “Hey Chris,” he said. “Did you have relatives in the 1940s or 50s who perfectly resembled you around your age? Someone who maybe died about your age?” She looked into his eyes and he saw it flash across her face, the knowledge that she knew exactly what he was getting at, but it was gone as quickly as it came. “No?”
She shrugged, took his hand and squeezed it tenderly. “I’m sorry about your girlfriend, Ethan.”
“I’m not,” he told her honestly. “Nora was born with incredible wealth and was more interested in guys who are a little freer with their money and have less embarrassing cars. She wanted to go to fancy clubs down in New York City every weekend and eat at expensive restaurants all the time and that wasn’t really my style or in my pocket book’s capacity. She didn’t seem particularly broken up over our relationship in the end and frankly either was I. She was probably bored with me.”
“Bored with you?” Chris replied with a laugh. “Somehow I find that hard to believe.”
He shrugged and said, “I think she’s more interested in guys she can play her stupid girl games with or who get themselves in really stupid situations and need her to get them out of.”
“I know girls like that,” she said. “Men always end up hating them in the end and they usually end up alone and divorced.”
“Little comfort to the man,” Ethan replied with another shrug and saw at that look of hers again. “Seriously, what is going on through that sexy ass head of yours? That look is so—odd.”
“It’s nothing,” she said even though it clearly wasn’t. “Anyway, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something when I got a chance. What do you know about African magic?”
“Very little beyond the few universal laws of magic we share. It’s incredibly different from European magic although it can have similar results at the end such as both our fireballs burn, both our lightning bolts have electricity, etc., etc. It’s said we honkies can throw mean curses but it’s strongly rumored that witch doctors can curse a whole lot better, even summon things from the void, and basically the whole comic horror voodoo thing, but who the hell knows.”
She took off her gloves, held out her left hand with its palm up and frowned at it. “Wait.” She jerked her hand upward once more, frowned, then did it again and that time a small blue flame appeared in her palm. “Check it out, honkey.”
“I didn’t know you were a magician,” he said.
Chris smiled, stuck her gloves into her pocket and made a bowl out of her hands and the fire grew bigger instantly. “My grandmother taught this me,” she told him. “Unfortunately, I have only around a twenty-five percent chance casting the three dozen spells, dozen rituals and other knickknacky things I know. Something wrong with how I’m casting.” She blew on the flame and the flame grew larger, almost a foot tall, and became much brighter.
“Neat,” said Ethan. “I don’t have any fire spells but I will get it sooner or later.” The fire suddenly turned a natural orange, burst into nothing and she shrieked in surprise, the bottoms of her bare hands slightly burned. “What happened there?”
“I told you, I’m casting the spell wrong somehow,” she told him and sucked on the left index finger, which got it the worse. “My family’s magic can be traced back through the women of my family hundreds of years all the way to African before we were slaves in Louisiana but something got lost on the way and I always screw it up.”
“You are totally shitting me,” he said.
“I am totally not,” she replied as she looked at her slightly burned hands unhappily. “I know all this African magic from an African shaman woman somewhere in West Africa around the Gambia like Kunta Kinte although that location part might be something my grandmother came up with because she was a super big fan of Alex Haley. The point I am making is that if I could only find a reliable witch doctor who would actually talk to me, I’d probably be as good as you by now. You might not know this but most are frauds or are like me and are missing vital parts of the casting process to be any good. The very few of us that can cast are secretive as all hell; an unfortunate holdout from the slavery days trying to dodge white devil.”
“They are like that,” he agreed. “Jane Downs had a similar revelation forty years ago.”
“Just couldn’t get any to talk,” he said and thought that was the truth, he suspected that with witch doctors it went deeper than that. There was such an intensively secretive nature to witch doctors’ magic that even professional scholars of modern magic often found them complete mysteries. It was usually said to be attached to religion and that there were spiritual complications in revealing its secrets. Whatever the case, as far as Ethan could tell the only way to learn how to become a witch doctor or learn anything substantial about one was through a one-on-one private education usually from parent to child.
“I’m really, really, bored with this,” said Mickey. “I’m going to fly over there and hopefully find a view that won’t make me want to peck myself to death.” He flapped off without another word.
“Cute bird,” said Chris.
“Yeah, he’s my sweet little bastard,” Ethan replied. Chris looked at him and gave him that strange, same sad smile once more. “Seriously, what does that look mean?”
“I—you used to be—I remember—” she laughed. “It’s silly.”
“You knew me from another life,” he said blandly. “Was I named Thomas Bartlett in that life?” Her eyes went wide. “Yeah, I have those visions too—” Chris suddenly put her arms around him, startling him, and then held him tightly. “It’s okay,” he said after a minute of confusion and then he put his arms gently around her. “It’s cool, Christine. We all have past lives unless we’re—” he shrugged “—on our first ones, I guess.”
She looked up at him. “Ethan,” she said. “Do you remember my house in Applewood?”
“I—” Ethan looked into her dark, beautiful eyes and in the split second he was lost in them he saw something: something like dead young black people. He remembered the Black Night Massacre, vividly, so he knew it wasn’t that. It supposed it could have been anytime in Thomas’s life during the later years of the Civil War when blacks served as soldiers but after a moment’s contemplation, he decided that wasn’t it either. They weren’t soldiers, he was sure of that much, but nothing else. “—no,” he concluded. “Not that exactly.”
She looked up into him more lovingly with her dark, deep eyes. “I don’t know how to explain what I know.”
Chris just smiled, hugged him again and kissed him in the cheek and once again, it lingered too long but that time definitely with some sexuality into it. “Someday I’ll tell you,” she whispered into his ear as she let go of him. “Or maybe someday you’ll remember.”
“I have a feeling I will,” he replied.
The boys in her group now looked at him with the expressions of the utterly stunned. Ethan shrugged again and they gave him very dirty looks. “Well damn,” he said and he turned back to the parade.
He thought Chris would go back but she didn’t. She looked at him again, bit her lower lip, and said, “I like this parade.” He gave her a “do you really” look. “I mean it,” she said. “Thanksgiving marks the end to the Civil War.”
“Not quite,” he replied. “Lincoln proclaimed it in 1863 two years before the war’s end.”
“Oh, that’s right,” she replied and then she laughed. “You’re no fun.”
Ethan nodded, licked his lips and thought he could taste turkey in his mouth. He also thought he could taste beans and canned fish, the kind John Coughlan’s cannery made, and an apple pie Thomas’s mother had baked and had sent to him. He blinked hard and felt something bubbling up in the back of his mind. “The Civil War…” he whispered to himself.
He looked over and saw the beginning of the school band in their purple and green uniforms. He distantly recalled hearing or reading somewhere that they had won some kind of regional award and had been given the honor of escorting the mayor in the parade. They were playing the Star-Spangled Banner and it was that which had brought back the memory.
It began to double over in his mind with a band over a century and a half gone playing the same song.
“Ethan, you’re sweating—” he looked to her and she stopped speaking for a second “—are you alright?”
He wasn’t, actually. The memory was one of such intense sadness that he felt as if he was on the verge of weeping. “It didn’t end at or on Thanksgiving,” he told her quickly. “It ended at Appomattox Courthouse but it didn’t really end there either.” He took a deep breath. “It also didn’t begin at Fort Sumter,” he said softly. “At least not with me.” He shut his eyes and—
* * *
—thought about how he had looked out of his window and watched the band playing the Star-Spangled Banner as they approached the barracks of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was on his way to his brother Nathan’s regiment when the thought of how that band came bubbling up.
It had been at that moment in West Point when all doubts Thomas Bartlett had for war had been finally defeated.
Thomas, sensing nothing out of ordinary at first, had looked out of his window casually as they came by only to suddenly hear the sound of some students loudly singing “Dixie” in an attempt to drown out the “Star-Spangled Banner.” He looked across the barracks to another window and saw Dixie was being led by Thomas Rosser, an acquaintance of his and a really good friend of his friend Autie, whose real name was George Armstrong Custer.
Instantly, he heard someone singing out the “Star-Spangled Banner” from his side and he wasn’t the least bit surprised to see that it was Autie himself. Others took up the call and there was a kind of power in the air, one that he was drawn into himself, and soon the cadets on either side were screaming their songs at each other until they were hoarse.
He realized later that it had sparked a rather dark fear in him. The rage on the north and south were both extraordinarily high and the students’ heartfelt unchangeable passion gave the sense of everything being set in motion like a rock rolling down a hill. He could see then that they were just itching for a fight, the way a man who wants to beat up an annoying neighbor for years is itching for an excuse to do so, and it seemed from then on a simple sentence was written in their eyes as surely as if they were words in a page:
“War is coming.”
It was war and not some simple easy secession of states and if the South actually thought the government was going to just let them walk away with billions of dollars’ worth of land, property and businesses, then they were severely brain-damaged. The North was equally stupid if they thought the South was going to simply bend over backward like a beaten cur just because the North had all the money, technology and numbers.
His Uncle Andrew had always seen the war as a strong possibility and Thomas realized that he had mostly agreed just because he understood Andrew was smarter than he was. At that moment, it became very clear to him via his own understanding that it really was going to happen.
There seemed to be a lot of talk in Washington and the world about “possibilities” and they seemed to confuse more than help. Would they secede? Would they have dare fight when denied secession? Would they do this? Would they do that? If politicians wanted to know the truth, all they needed to do was look into a cadet’s eyes, the eyes of a man still young enough not to know how to lie or delude himself, and then they would know the truth. After that, it would be clear the real direction they were going was not south to Virginia or North to Washington but down into a grave.
The south is going to secede, he had thought, and when they do, they’ll take the cadets with all their skills of war with them. Thomas felt anyone who had even an inkling of what kind of training went on behind those walls and somehow still thought it would be a two-month war was a complete moron.
He didn’t relish the idea of meeting any of those cadets in battle but not because of that. It was because too many were close friends, especially Anderson Greenwood, who had then been on the other side with Rosser yelling out Dixie.
Andy and Thomas had been the best of friends since they both arrived, both united in their love of magic and the only cadets who could do more than just simple tricks. They were a match in personality and temperament as well but Thomas was from Connecticut and Anderson was from Tennessee, so they wouldn’t be on the same side when war came. The singular rarity of magic-trained cadets meant they were the only officers matched in magical combat and thus bound to cross paths eventually.
Their eyes met during the screaming match and they both stopped singing, both sensing what was coming at the same time, and Ethan’s face along with Andy’s, with his fine dark hair and dark eyes like a mirrored opposite of Thomas, turned cold.
They were already mentally preparing to battle each other.
The higher-ups had even changed the school’s oath of allegiance as if that could do anything but make people angry, and to everyone’s surprise except him, ten cadets openly refused to sign it. No one had done that in the fifty-plus years of the academy and the southern students, impressed and moved, banged their feet on the ground in a form of applause while the others, “his” side, drowned them out with boos and hisses.
It’s coming, he remembered thinking. I can feel it like some kind of monster crawling through woods to kill us all.
It seemed Thomas would have to meet Andy, Rosser and J.B. Washington and all his other southern friends in battle and he felt that would be the hardest part of the war. A faceless southern man trying to kill him would go down a lot easier because he could imagine him as some kind of Simon Legree or some overseer beating a slave to death if he just didn’t know the man.
But these other men were brothers, far more so than his real ones, and if he killed them in battle, he wasn’t sure he could truly live with himself.
Slaves they might have but they weren’t Simon Legree. They were good people and they were his friends. He felt that element of good humanity, however it managed to exist alongside the tyrannical element of slavery, was the most dangerous thing about the South in the end. If they were evil people, there would be no confusion, fear, or possible acknowledgment from foreign powers, which had been one of the major factors in separating the United States from the English less than a hundred years before with the Revolutionary War.
So it was going to be bad and far more than anyone knew. Foreign people would see both sides and become split themselves and some in the north would sympathize with the south, some in the south the north, and people, even as close as family, would turn on each other with their hot-blooded and deeply convicted feelings.
When Fort Sumpter fell sometime later, Thomas knew the war was upon them but he did feel a glimmer of hope there, however, because only a horse died in that battle and he thought maybe with that as its example, he would find it wasn’t going to be as bad as the battles Walter Kent had participated in. After all, it had been around three hundred and fifty years and things had improved a great deal since then. Maybe.
Not that it really mattered, one way or the other. It had begun regardless; the northerners and southerners alike had started a war, easily avoidable, with some ridiculous notion that it would be over in two months with an enemy as easy to defeat as a group of girls having an imaginary tea party. He clung to the hope it would be relatively clean and semi-bloodless but the more he thought about it, the more he doubted it would be.
It would be the first war in history if it was.
The year before Sumter, on November 6th, 1860, specifically the day Abraham Lincoln, a good friend of Uncle Andrew’s who was also one of his fiercest supporters, was elected President of the United States and almost instantly a large number of southern students, three quarters or more of them, resigned or found ways to be discharged or dismissed. Andy had been one to resign.
“Good luck, brother,” he told him as he shook his hand and then he looked into Thomas’s eyes and added, “You were right to worry, Tommy. We’re going to hurt you Yankees. We’re going to hurt you bad.” He didn’t say it like it was a good thing though and he sounded rather sorry about it.
“We’re going to hurt you bad too, rebel,” Thomas replied. “The Murder Parade has come and gone, Andy. The old bastards got on their high horses and told us all a bunch of horseshit about rights, honor and slavery and we’re all going to die so one side can feel right and the other wrong.”
“Someone is going to die for it,” he agreed. “Murder parade.” He grimaced. “It’s fitting. It’s very fitting.”
Then, uncharacteristic for both of them, they hugged each other tightly. “You’re my best friend, Tommy,” he told him. “If you’re going to get yourself killed at least make sure it’s by a gentleman.”
Thomas laughed. “You too, Andy.”
“A true southerner can only be killed by a gentleman,” he replied. “That being the case, the only fear I have is accidentally being shot by another southerner.”
They had both laughed and then Andy was gone.
In a later letter, Andy had told him that men in the south were rushing to the nearest offices to join the army to fight for what they were then calling the Confederate States of America and so many of them had done so that some large number, like half or a third, had to be turned down.
“They didn’t want to miss the fun,” was how he put it but his words somehow sounded bitter.
Thomas graduated with his class in 1861 when he was supposed to, although Autie got to graduate with him early, and was tossed off to his brother’s regiment for battle. He would have gone higher but to the fury of various officers who had interests in placing him elsewhere his father had pulled strings to keep him under Nathan in his regiment as a lower officer, a captain specifically.
As he was looking out of the train’s window on his way, he recalled a couple of fistfights he had once witnessed. One had been between a weak man versus a strong man, both drunk, and the strong man knocked out the weak man with one easy swing. The other fight was a boxing match between a man who seemed weak but was rather just skinny and very dexterous versus another man who was larger and much stronger but slower.
The first was quick and painless because one side lost easily but the second, evenly balanced with speed and dexterity versus strength and durability, was long, drawn-out and bloody. When the bigger man finally did win his face was such a mess you could hardly believe he had been the winner and it took all fifteen rounds to do it.
That seemed to be the essence of the oncoming war in his mind: a big man versus a skinny, but not weak, man. He wouldn’t hit as hard as the big man would but he would be limber, tricky and fast. There would be no quick knockout, no easy maneuver, and it would go round after round with both sides taking one hell of a beating.
It was going to be a bloody few years.
* * *
“Are you okay?” asked Chris softly. “You look so—regretful.”
Ethan blinked hard. “I’m cool,” he said. “Parade seems a bit weak. Maybe because of the flood.”
“I’m told it hasn’t really been nice since the cannery and fisheries closed,” she told him. “The community has fallen apart since then and most of us, white and black, have left. Some of us stayed but we’ve become much poorer. You wouldn’t know it now but Applewood used to be a pretty nice neighborhood.” Chris suddenly smiled and pointed down at the coming school band to their right. “Look over there,” she said happily. “There’s the mayor.”
Mayor Janine Fuller was riding a magnificent black stallion amid the school banding smiling out at the crowd. Ethan heard the Fullers owned a large acreage of farmland above the freeway east of the airstrip where they still bred their horses not far from their large mansion home. Janine and many members of her family were serious horse lovers and the stallion she rode was some kind of thoroughbred winner, probably worth around a hundred thousand dollars or more but he couldn’t say for sure because the one time he asked Jen Everson, she and her husband argued about its amount.
Ethan suddenly remembered going to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California once or twice and while he did not expect the Bartlett Bay City Thanksgiving Parade to be that good, it somehow felt stunningly worse when he made a mental comparison.
“Ethan,” said Chris and when she had his attention she pointed up at one of the flat, house-like business buildings that were no longer in use located farther down the way to their left just past Annabelle St and in the section between it and Orange St.
He didn’t see anything there when he looked. “What is it?”
“There’s some kind of Predator blur up by the ledge near that chimney.”
“Camouflage?” he asked as he cast his Sense Magic spell. It took him half a minute of looking afterward but then he did see it, barely, shaped like a person crouched by a chimney. It was European magical invisibility, perfectly invisible to the non-magical eye, and barely visible to the magical one when it knew where to look. Perhaps Chris saw it instantly probably because her African magic skewed her perception of magic just enough to throw it off.
“What is it?” she asked
He didn’t answer and made sure he put himself directly across the street from the invisible figure with a building beside him and with enough space for him to back up into a doorway’s entryway for cover.
Chris looked worried as she followed after. “What are you—”
He fired an orange lightning bolt from his right hand across the street, over the head of the parade and right into the figure’s center. It wasn’t his most powerful shot, he wasn’t sure he wanted to kill or seriously injure whoever was up there, but it was strong enough to stun anyone it hit.
The spell broke and almost everyone looked up, following the lightning bolt’s path like an arrow, and then as they all saw what had been hidden by the invisible spell, there was a disturbing pause where only parts of the band remained unaware of what was going on and continuing to play happily.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Ethan softly with wide eyes. A flash of something crossed his mind, men with burlap sacks over their heads and some with horns sticking out, riding on horses on some moonlight raid somewhere in Thomas Bartlett’s life. It was there for a moment and then it was gone.
A man dressed as a modern member of the Ku Klux Klan had stumbled backward from the spot where he was hit, hurt and momentarily stunned, and their eyes met across the distance. His robes were utterly white with the red and black circle before a cross as a badge on his left shoulder and a hat like that of a long pointed wizard’s hat. It was a look so infamous that it could not be mistaken for anything but what it was by anyone.
In his right hand, the Klansman held a rifle with a scope.
Ethan held out his hands and cast dual ice shards at the Klansman. The very next instant another Klansman appeared out from behind a chimney, a magician, who began parrying his spells away.
Another spell, one very powerful and no doubt requiring a ritual long since prepared, was set into motion by the Klan mage and the people in the street who barely had time to register what was happening, screamed as it went off. Something cherry red spread paper-thin out from front of the school band, slicing across their bodies and musical instruments like an enormous blade, and Ethan instantly saw that it was a portal.
And then, before Ethan could even think about what he could possibly do to close it, it poured out monsters.
Goblins, and lots of them, came pouring out armed with blades and wearing kids’ clothes and started hacking at anyone and anything between them and the general direction of west down the street. There was no coordination in their actions; they were just slicing at whatever they found in whatever direction laid before them all the while laughing almost hysterically. Ethan knew that to be very ungoblin-like behavior as they were typically too cowardly for that but he had no time to contemplate why.
He looked back up and saw the Klansman aiming his gun but it wasn’t at him. It was aimed at the mayor and she sensed what was coming because she had tried to get her horse out of there quickly, her eyes darting back from the Klansman to the goblins, but the band had rushed around her in screaming panic. The horse suddenly rearing up in fright and, aside from trampling over the high schoolers to escape, the mayor had no choice but to remain in the street.
Ethan tried to fight through the Klan magician’s parrying but the mage knew what he or she was doing and nothing got through allowing the Klansman to fire his gun off multiple times. It hit the horse at least three or four times, the mayor in the right leg once and then the animal fell over and knocked over an overweight trombone player and crushed the mayor’s other leg. The mayor’s mouth opened into a shriek that could not be heard over the clamor.
Suddenly, there was a wave of heat and Ethan saw a blue fireball shooting up at the Klansman from Chris’s hands. She had stepped forward a bit, thrown it with all her might, and concentrated with all her will to keep it steady. Ethan could easily tell it wasn’t cast properly, it fluctuated from golf ball to basketball size as it flew forward, and her face distorted painfully in her effort to keep it from dissipating.
The Klan mage stepped forward, a woman by the look of her shape, and readied to parry the spell as it awkwardly flew forward. The instant she made to do so Ethan shot his ice shards rapidly at her instead of the sniper and she cried out in shock. She parried them frantically to avoid being impaled while the blue fireball touched the roof right at the foot of the sniper and went off.
There was an explosion and the sniper was thrown backward across the roof, half on blue fire and shrieking in horror, while the mage leaped across the rooftop to avoid the explosion and managed to save herself from everything but singed robes. She was up an instant later and threw her own cherry red-colored fireball at Chris. Ethan felt the spell, felt it would explode over the crowd if he tried to parry it, so he grabbed Chris, jerked into the little doorway, and shielded her with his own body instead.
It exploded on the sidewalk and since most of the civilians had fled back through the buildings alleys or were in the street it was only he, and a few other unlucky people who were too stunned by the sight of the goblins to move, who were burned.
Ethan threw off his burnt jacket, scarf and beanie and shoved them into Chris’s hands. “Stay!” he cried as he rushed out across the street. She said something but he didn’t hear it and, when he looked up, he saw the Klanswoman was out of sight.
It came with little surprise that as the goblins jumped at their loved ones, most of the people just started to kill them, many by simply beating them with their hands or by picking them up and snapping their necks, breaking them over their knee or smashing them face-first into the ground. Others had used their feet to great effect while some had thought to fight back using whatever they had on them, some women used purses and pepper spray, but some of the others had chairs or something similar which they had found could be used as decent clubs.
It was all rather effective because goblins were small, scrawny and weak, all the very reasons that made such a tactic ungoblin-like.
The police that had been escorting the parade were readily beating the goblins down with their nightclubs or using pepper spray and, a few that panicked had thoughtlessly started shooting at them. The clearer-headed cops were screaming at them to stop, the goblins too mixed with the marchers for such tactics to be even remotely safe. Several marchers, and civilians, were already on the ground crying out after being accidentally shot. Luckily, goblins were small and most were just hit in the legs.
Ethan quickly rushed across the street, grabbed a dropped butcher knife with his left hand, a dropped clever with his right, and rushed into the fray despite the nervous police without hesitation.
He sliced through the goblins that came rushing at him as he went by, slaying them easily until he heard a sudden shriek of terror and saw their leader, a hobgoblin, a creature of which many people had taken to calling “orcs” after the film version of the Lord of the Rings.
Like its smaller cousin, it had greenish-black skin, was somewhat scaly, with a long, pointed nose, crooked and occasional pointed black teeth, with greasy black hair and beady black eyes. Unlike the other goblins, it was muscular and as tall as a man although it remained slender. It clearly wasn’t stupid like a goblin either, its eyes calculating and cold, but it was just as as mean and probably crazy.
That hobgoblin was taller than Ethan was, skinny even for its race, and wearing a plain black t-shirt, ripped cargo pants and tall biker boots all splattered with red blood. In its right hand, it carried a long black machete, in its left a trashcan lid like a shield. The fact that the police had not shot it was a shame, as it was the only one they should really be afraid of.
There was a moment’s pause as the two read each other quickly.
The hobgoblin then jerked forward like a madman. Ethan blocked the oncoming machete with the butcher knife but it hit like a hammer from a blacksmith injuring his wrist while slicing off the tip of the blade, and it swung harder, more savagely, and that one he parried with his clever. It feared nothing and was not short of talent if short of training.
He had always heard hobgoblins were gifted killers and he knew then that it was no exaggeration.
The weapons he had were no good for combat and the hobgoblin knew it. It also sensed his injured left wrist and aimed at that side bringing his machete down hard, trying to slam at him repeatedly, its lips curled back in a sneer-smile as it tried to break through his parrying defenses. It knocked him back one instant, nearly injuring Ethan’s right wrist as well, and then sliced him across the chest.
That all happened in less than a few instants.
At the moment Ethan was knocked away, the hobgoblin dropped its shield, pulled out a kitchen knife with its left hand, and threw it to its left. A young policeman who had turned to shoot at it jerked as the knife stuck into his chest. He stood for a moment before falling to his knees, the tip of the blade several inches or more into his upper left chest.
Ethan fired a lightning bolt without using his hands, harder to do but still effective and he hit the hobgoblin in the chest solidly before rushing forward. It resisted the spell somehow, he saw it unravel as the creature just willed it away, but he had no time to wonder how.
He sliced it across its chest and it hit him across the face with its free hand, almost breaking his nose and with enough force to send him stumbling away. Ethan felt the machete go across the lower right side of his back missing his spine but cutting him otherwise so easily that it was an almost casual, possibly even unconscious, gesture. Ethan cried out as he stumbled forward, blood leaking down the back of his right leg.
He heard screams and he saw several people had come at the hobgoblin at once when they thought it was distracted. It turned, spun around, and sliced at them violently, cutting them in vicious, mortal or maiming stokes, and then it turned and punched Ethan in the chest as he blocked the machete, doing both the swing and punch almost without looking, and Ethan was knocked backward. His cleaver had almost been cut in half.
Ethan fired another lightning bolt into its chest and again the spell dissipated.
Its initial resistance wasn’t a fluke, then. He had not heard of many people or things that could resist magic. It was a very difficult talent to master, one Ethan as a magician was far too in tuned with magic to ever hope to ever do, and how a hobgoblin could learn to do it, was just another mystery dumped in a pile of mysteries. Whatever the reasons were, resisting the spell caused it to wither and fall apart on impact causing little if any damage.
The hobgoblin, uninjured and unimpressed, cracked its neck casually, pulled out another knife, spun it to readiness in its left hand, and smiled.
Then it came forward.
Ethan did the same right back. He had hoped it would startle it but it hadn’t. A hobgoblin really was a born killer apparently, plain and simple, and it lived ate and breathed what Ethan was giving it.
They clanged hard, Ethan pushing it back, it making a sneer in concentration but not fear. Ethan was better with two weapons and when he parried the machete away, quick enough to beat the hobgoblin’s sense of its opponent, he managed to create an opening.
He stepped forward and sliced it across the belly with his butcher knife at the same time he sliced it across the neck with his clever, his arms spreading out in a wide outstretched motion. Gooey greenish intestines spilled onto the asphalt from one wound, a small flood of black blood pouring out like a splashing waterfall from the other. The smaller knife dropped from the hobgoblin’s hands but despite its apparent pain its eyes went wide, its rage turning to berserk, and it started forward with its machete still ready even though it could easily trip on its own intestines.
It swung its blade still competently at Ethan with a loud scream and he parried it with the butcher’s knife and then chopped it onto its neck with the cleaver. It fell to its knees before him and he chopped it again and then third time and then after the fourth chop, the head came off. “Son of a bitch!” he cried angrily and then he looked up. “Son of a bitch!” he repeated with significant more worry and began moving backward.
An ogre was rushing toward him with what appeared to be a two-handed sledgehammer in one hand.
An ogre was very much like a man only averaging about eight to nine feet tall with a sloping caveman-like brow, long, dirty gold hair and beady dark eyes. Its skin was tanned, Caucasian-like, covered in scars from its many fights, its teeth huge and flat. Its nose was wide, kind of bulbous, but otherwise normal, and its body was stout covered in heavy muscle and coarse hair. It wore only some kind of dirty brown loincloth.
It raised the two-handed hammer above its head, its eyes growing wide, and Ethan fired into it with a shard from his left hand, uncertain of when he let go of his knife. The spell stuck right in the ogre’s left shoulder and while the ogre did not resist as the hobgoblin had done, it simply was too angry or excited to notice the damage or pain.
The hammer came down hard, making a hole in the ground where Ethan had barely sidestepped in time. As soon as its weapon made contact, Ethan slammed his cleaver into its left side just below the ribs, which had a feeling like chopping into a soft tree. Then there was a gunshot causing the ogre to jerk and Ethan looked over to see a pretty, dark-haired woman in a dark blue jacket with a black pistol held in both hands. She had fired one careful shot, hit it right in the forehead and a moment later the ogre fell over dead.
Ogres were sometimes confused with trolls and due to that disassociation were often believed to be supernaturally durable. While they were more durable than a man was, they certainly weren’t durable enough for a bullet.
Ethan dropped his weapons, snatched the machete, and grimaced from the pain of his left wrist as he looked around. The woman, who was in her late thirties, early forties, had backed up carefully to a crowd where several children were being guarded by another woman and was holding her gun with both hands competently. Down the street, the mayor was still trapped under her deceased horse, surrounded by a group of people ready to protect her, several policemen and several civilians among them. He saw several of Chris’s male friends were among them, and one of his ex-girlfriend’s family members, a young Asian man with balding very dark hair with thin glasses he thought might be named Kyle or possibly Carl. A doctor like most of them, no doubt, rushed out there to make sure the mayor was all right.
The portal was still open, the front of it bright cherry red, but it was transparent enough for him to briefly notice a house. Between him and the portal he saw another ogre and, to his bafflement, the Tall Man. The giant blue figure fighting with the ogre in its usual brown pants and red suspenders but, unlike his original physique, it had become hugely muscular, at least as big or bigger than the ogre was and Ethan felt that had it been that strong before, it would have been rather unlikely he could have defeated it on either occasion.
The third and last ogre had been tackled by ten civilians and was then being beating violently while on the ground, the creature roaring in rage as it vainly tried to push them off.
From the portal, he saw a line of hazy red magic back to where its caster was which, unsurprisingly, was on the roof of the same building the Klanswoman was on. He quickly rushed up to it over the piles of dead goblins and dead people, the goblin dead outnumbering the human dead five to one or more, and tried to open the door to the building but found it locked.
“Shit!” he said and, realizing he was in agony, drank one of his Heal potions. He felt better and quickly looked for a way up.
Suddenly, Ethan felt a powerful, indefinable magic under him and he was shot up into the air. He caught onto the ledge of the building, tossed his machete onto it, and then quickly scrambled up. He grunted in agony as he clambered up to his feet, clutching his left wrist which he accidentally hurt again, and then grabbed the machete.
“Sorry!” he heard Chris cry out from below.
The right half of the building where he landed was charged by the fireball while the Klanswoman was safe on the left, clutching right wrist for some reason, and standing up to face him as he turned to her. She was standing next to the chimney, the portal’s magic ending at her back, and did not look afraid.
She held out both white-gloved hands and cherry red flames filled her palms and flickered harmlessly through her fingers. Ethan tossed the machete down, he doubted he would never get close enough to use it without being incinerated if he charged forward anyway, and held out his own hands covered in orange icy mist.
They cast together and for the first time in Ethan’s life, he found himself caught with someone else’s magic. Their spells mixed together and blurry red-orange lines of power were strung between them at the hands and it was clear the Klanswoman had no more certainty of how to proceed than he did.
According to his reading, the magic had taken on a kind of raw power form and if it broke off violently into one party, they would receive the full grunt of it. He could feel that verified, the power shifting between them back and forth like some kind of hot potato, and instinctively they both began pushing toward the other and desperately hoped that one of them would lose enough concentration for it to break on their end.
He felt what happened perfectly. They simply tried to form their magic too close, too similarly styled and completely unaware that they could end up locked like that. He, and likely she as well, was unlikely to make such a mistake again and could prevent it from happening if they were ever that close or even closer in the future, but that was of little help right then.
“You’re not a pussy like every other man in your worthless family, are you?” the Klanswoman asked in a bitter girl’s voice and she pushed the magic against him hard. He felt his head turn hot and blood leak out of his nose and ears. “James Bartlett’s prodigal grandson returns!” she added with a sneer he sensed behind her mask.
“Oh you know him,” he replied and he threw the magic back at her hard enough to make her jerk, blood hitting the face of her mask from the inside. “What are you supposed to be anyway?” he asked with a laugh. “The Klan’s grand wizard?”
“Hardy-fucking-har!” she hissed and she jerked it back as hard as she could. He was ready for it, took it, and then gave it back easier than before. She jerked harder, bleeding more, and cried out in agony. The effect was mostly pain and if there was one thing Ethan could handle, it was pain.
He then realized that it wasn’t really a magical contest anymore and perhaps never had been. It seemed it was more a contest of will against whichever mage personally could push it harder and take the pain better. He hit her again, the magic exploded on her end as she lost it and she jerked hard, vomited blood inside her robes, and fell onto her knees. “You fucking asshole!” she whimpered.
“Ethan, look out!” cried Chris from below.
Ethan turned his head to see a new Klansman was pointing a pistol at him from below almost the same spot by the doorway he had been standing at earlier. He jerked behind the chimney, the gun firing off with a miss, and then when he looked back he saw the Klansman pointed his gun at Chris. Instantly, one of her male friends threw himself into him from behind and when the gun went off it missed Chris barely, causing her to let out a startled high-pitched shriek, and in that moment of distraction, Ethan rushed to the edge of the building.
He couldn’t have cast a spell at them, the two were spinning around like tops, and he knew he would have to go down there. He looked back, saw the Klanswoman had disappeared somehow leaving only a small trail of blood, and then quickly dropped down onto the ledge, held onto it by his fingers for a moment, and then climbed down as quickly as he dared. Just before he reached the bottom, he heard a gunshot go off.
He looked over at saw the young man that had tackled him was on the ground with a bullet in his leg. The Klansman pointed his gun at the man’s head casually.
Ethan fired a lightning bolt but missed the target of the man’s head and hit the shoulder instead. The gun fired off, hitting asphalt by the boy’s head, and Ethan took the few stunned seconds he had to charge across the then mostly empty street at the Klansman. His magic hurt him but not nearly as much as it should have. It turned out wrapping his magic with the Klanswoman’s took too much out of himself and it was weak through a soreness that was not too unlike a muscle that been overused enough to prevent a limb that it was attached to from competently punching.
The Klansman almost shot him, the gun deafening him when Ethan caught his arm, and the two wrestled with the gun. The Klansman head-butted him in the face but Ethan was ready, making it a glancing blow, and then head-butted him back right at the nose. He too was ready and grunted with little damage and the gun was suddenly pointed vertically amidst their fighting.
The gun fired off three times, deafening the Klansman as well that time, and then went down and fired off randomly, hitting a woman in the leg who was standing in the center of the street for God knows what reason. Their fight seemed to go on forever, each taking fast hits at each other in an attempt to knock the gun free, but only when the man was stunned by a single gunshot too close to his head was Ethan able to hit him through his defenses well enough to wrench the gun free.
The Klansman punched Ethan across the face with his then free right hand and made a straight line to the portal, which Ethan then saw was shrinking and was by then the size of a typical doorway.
Ethan stumbled a bit and looked up to see the Klanswoman had gotten down somehow and was shambling past the red haze of the portal, another member of the Klan standing with his arms crossed looking at him coldly through the haze. Behind them, Ethan saw the house again.
Then he recognized it. The building itself, a windmill on top of the small hill and the fence were all so very clear in his mind. It was unmistakable.
Ethan straightened his back and raised the gun almost casually toward the back of the running Klansman. He wasn’t going to kill him, just wing him so he’d fall before the portal, get arrested, and give so goddamn answers to whatever was going on. He lowered the gun to the leg and was about to fire when he heard a loud, “Drop your weapon!” through his buzzing ears.
Ethan turned his head slightly to the left and saw a policeman pointing his gun at him, utterly ignoring the Klansman. He watched the policeman for a moment, debated whether to shoot the Klansman anyway, but then realized he would get shot. He saw it in the policeman’s eyes.
He tossed the gun down and had a full moment to watch the Klansman leap into the portal, turn around and give him a smug bowing gesture with his arms before the portal closed. The Klanswoman fell over, and, as the portal started to close, he saw her being carried away out of sight beyond the edges of the portal along with the burned one that had a sniper rifle who was covered in mostly charred clothing.
“Fuck,” he said as he held up his arms while the policeman approached. He was gestured to a wall at gunpoint, the forty-something policeman’s eyes holding great terror but also hate: intense hate. At the wall, the policeman grabbed his arms, pulled them behind his back and handcuffed him. “You’re welcome,” Ethan said unhappily.
He was checked carefully and aggressively for weapons. “Why is it that the day you came, this whole town turned to fucking shit?” asked the policeman.
“It’s always been shit, officer. You just see it now because I create controversy by kicking the shit out of the monsters instead of peacefully letting them go free. I suppose Tori Randal and Sarah and Britney Wellington would all have disappeared rather quietly if I wasn’t around.” He looked over at him and saw the policeman had, of all things, a look of self-righteous indignation. “Well, unlike you, I guess I was never strong enough to save the Ku Klux Klan,” he added.
“You shut your mouth!”
“Say, officer, you do realize the mayor is black, right? Could be bad for your career in law enforcement—”
“I said shut your fucking mouth, Bartlett!” Then he did something that, under normal circumstances, was probably considered police brutality.
He grabbed Ethan’s head and slammed it into the brick wall behind him.
* * *
The hit didn’t knock the boy out but it stunned him for quite a while.
Detective Caitlin Christopherson watched Officer Perkins talking to the captain in his office, her arms crossed, wearing the civilian clothes she wore to the parade, which in her case was a black shirt, jeans, casual shoes and a white jacket. He had seen her shoot the ogre with the gun Officer Champ dropped when he was jumped by five goblins. He was in the Bay City hospital right then in stable condition but his left hand was an absolute mess and might end up being amputated. At least Murkowski was going to be all right. They took the knife out of his chest and the doctors said that it missed all the major organs and he was most likely going to make a good recovery.
She liked Bartlett but was annoyed with him because on his way in he took in her attractive, sexualized shape, sensed she was an off-duty policewoman somehow, and then gave her a wide smile and said, “So, Officer Hotness, you want to get together later? Maybe go see a movie? Have some dinner?”
Her partner Detective Mary Merrick had let out a loud surprised laugh from behind and was still laughing as she held up her hands and turned away from Caitlin’s venomous look.
Caitlin had simply given Bartlett one of those icy stares that boys were usually repelled by and ruffled his hair like he was a child. Then he was taken grinning away into the other room and was being spoken to by Captain Simms who did it mostly out of curiosity. It was quite clear that no one was going to arrest him even though he should never have gotten nearly as involved.
Her ten-year-old daughter Lacey was sitting in Caitlin’s office, heavily shaken and had been crying all the way over. Caitlin looked at her where she was sitting with some other kids for several full minutes and found she was afraid that what happened in that parade would age her internally. She would, as her own father’s death had for Caitlin, turn her into an adult overnight and she would no longer like games, toys and pretty clothes and would start worrying about death and age and time.
Caitlin took a deep breath and turned away thoughtfully. Her uncle on her mother’s side died a few years back leaving her, the only member left in his family who would visit him every year on Christmas, a gorgeous, fully paid off two-story home on Center Way St. She was also given five hundred thousand dollars, which she immediately used to pay off her debts and create a fund for Lacey’s education, and a significant number of good stocks.
She moved to Bartlett Bay from Baltimore, Maryland with the strange idea it was calmer and a better environment for her daughter to grow up. The money wasn’t bad, her child would have a nice neighborhood with nice kids to play with, and she was rising quicker and faster in the Bartlett Bay department than she did in Maryland even though it significantly lacked the glamour or fun.
Until that Thanksgiving.
Goblins, ogres, an orc and the Klan: what the hell was happening?
It had the Gurney name all over it, no one else hated black people or the mayor enough to try such a thing, but the proof would be elusive. It was a cluster fuck of death, a PR nightmare involving children, an orgy of clues that would lead nowhere, and no one got a remotely good look at any of Klansmen except maybe Bartlett but nothing there would be provable in a court setting. Most of the police were unprepared, she was there as a civilian, and seemed to have done more damage, but who knew for sure.
God, they were lucky that portal wasn’t as sharp as it appeared. It only slashed the schoolchildren instead of cutting them to pieces. They were also lucky with Trevor. She could not believe he fired into a crowd like that, luckier than he could have possibly imagined in managing not to shoot a bystander, and she really could not believe what Perkins had done.
John Perkins had always been a jerk and an idiot but holding back that psychotic boy against the Klan was a bad, bad move. Caitlin could already see his career dying because that mayor and her family were a powerful force in the city and with the Merricks, who had a member aiming for the district attorney spot and, not to mention, all the blacks on the force he would have to work with who would not going to what he did lightly. Oh sure, there was a way to weasel out of it and she doubted it would be the parade they nailed him for, but even when Caitlin was a little girl staying in Bartlett Bay on the weekends with her uncle, she knew not to screw with the Fullers.
Actually, the rule was not to screw with anyone in the city with an inkling of power. The Bartletts, Fullers, Merricks, Gurneys, Le Sueurs, Hamiltons, Tans, Mastersons, Andersons, and Michaeladises: they were all nuts, every one damn one of them, and each had their fingers in everything and most were incredibly vindictive. They usually got what they want in the end.
Caitlin knew too many things about Perkins’ life, too many little crimes he had committed, and if he thought that his career could bounce back from a Fuller-backed investigation, he was fooling himself. If he was still a police officer by Thanksgiving next year, she would be surprised.
Perkins wasn’t the only thing on her mind, though. Again, there was the feeling that something deeper was roaming around under the town, something dark and ominous and just plain wrong that locals often didn’t see. What was it that boy had said? She heard him when he was speaking to Simms earlier.
“Interesting holiday,” Simms told Bartlett.
“Just another day in Stephen King’s Connecticut,” he had replied.
She knew what he was getting at. Her ex-husband, Ed, had been a Stephen King fan and sometimes commented on the theme Bartlett was implying about Bartlett Bay: a pleasant town veneer hiding some unspeakable evil. Sometimes, she wondered if that could be true. After a few drinks, the old-timers who were on the force for decades would sometimes hint at horror stories they would never reveal in a court. Unsolved supernatural nightmares that would ruin careers, terrify locals, and just traumatize people.
Out in Baltimore, there were some doozies. Out there, usually the Pinkertons were the ones that were involved. Dangerous, and sometimes suicidal, the decedents of the Wild West era detective agency were professional monster hunters of a level higher than Bartlett was and most others as well. They seemed half-suicidal, known for diving being deep into the darkness and willing to fight whatever was hidden down there. They were had been known to be easily scared by anything.
And yet, they avoided this place.
Whatever it was that made Bartlett Bay so scary seemed centered in that damn forest: a forest that was, what, maybe one to five miles in diameter. She was never quite sure the distance and, when she thought about it right then and there, she found, even grown into a woman with decades in the police force, that she was still terrified of them.
Caitlin looked into the window where Bartlett was talking to Captain Simms and found he was looking at the boy with a strange mix of respect and dislike. The Bartletts, Julian specifically, had ruined his brother Hank’s business venture back in the 1960s and then his second in the 1970s, both electronic stores, and then his third, an electronic and video game store combination, in the 1980s. Julian Bartlett had no interest in any of the businesses, no gain in destroying them, but he did it out of spite and even managed to put the man in debt with his timing.
Hank was killed in a car crash miserable and in debt in 1988 leaving behind two young children and a distraught wife. Simms’s brothers, fishermen sorts, were themselves nearly destroyed too when Julian closed the fisheries and cannery that had been the town’s bread and butter since the 18th century or even earlier. Caitlin’s family was out of Maryland but she suspected that had her parents irritated them in some way, he would have destroyed them too.
It seemed hard even for Captain Simms to hate that boy. He was doing too many crazy wondrous things for a man like Simms not to respect him even if he didn’t want to.
“He’s special, isn’t he?” said a voice.
She turned to see Ellen Fuller moving up beside her. She was youngest of the middle Fuller generation, mid-thirties or so and almost twenty years younger than the eldest, wearing a lavish fur-lined jacket and a stunning white dress. She was the most glamorous of them by far, everything tailor-made or possibly just bought out of Paris or someplace in Italy, whichever was the classier. Caitlin was never much of a girly girl but she would eat her own hat if that woman was wearing anything less than fifty thousand dollars in the jacket alone.
She was also the most beautiful Fuller. She was a tall, slender glamorous type with intricate, straightened hair, sensual eyes and flawless, dark skin. “Hello Caitlin,” she said. “How is your daughter holding up?”
“She’s fine,” she told her and faced her. “How is your sister?”
“The mayor’s left leg was broken in three places and her shoulder was scraped by a bullet but she is so much more upset about everything else she barely notices. The death of those poor people, some of them children, has near driven her to frenzy and, if truth be told, she rather loved that darn horse. To her, the fact that he was worth almost half a million dollars is nothing compared to his loss.”
“I hope she gets better, Ms. Fuller.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry about Officer Perkins. I heard he panicked, unable to take the pressure of his position I suppose, and actually pulled a gun on that boy.”
Caitlin didn’t appreciate being indirectly questioned about that from one of the Fullers or any non-policeman for that matter. Perhaps it was old-fashioned non-Bartlett Bay thinking but she didn’t feel it was appropriate to explain police business to any civilians. “I’m not at liberty to say,” she replied simply. “Captain Simms will handle it, I’m certain.”
She smiled in a beautiful yet unpleasant way; a starlet smile that promised pain for those who had wronged her. “I know he will,” she said and then, in unison, they both looked through Simms’s office window at the boy sitting on a chair. “Smart young man, isn’t he? Handsome too. Is it odd that he’s only, what, six years older than your girl and so gosh darn dangerous?”
“Yes,” she admitted.
“Is it true he called you Officer Hotness?”
Caitlin sighed. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, he did. He also asked me out on a date.”
Ellen smiled amusedly. “Did you accept?”
“No,” she replied with a returned but tired smile. “I ruffled his hair and said he was cute.” He was cute, actually, and quite sexy with that hard, extremely well-sculpted body of his. At eighteen she would have been all over him but as a single mother at forty with a solid reputation in the department as an all-businesswoman who never mixed work with pleasure, she wasn’t about to let anyone know that.
“He is cute,” agreed Ellen. “I don’t see a lot of white boys that have such—magnetism.”
Ethan Bartlett was leaning back against the chair and telling the captain about one of his adventures. The door was open and she could hear him say, “So we ran through the woods at a full sprint being chased by a hunger crazed troll wearing nothing but pants.” Simms nodded, looking unimpressed but probably was. All the men in the department dared each other to enter those woods, even had a hazing ritual where they got the new guy drunk and left them there at night but it was in actuality a different and harmless set of woods up north just to mess with him. They never dared do it for real and the half-spoken rumors among some of the chatty older officers persisted that the one time they did, it ended very badly.
Like everyone in Bartlett Bay, the police avoided the Engelstad. Caitlin had never realized how real the threat was until long after she had moved in, long after it was too late, and sometimes she found herself in abject fear Lacey would find herself lost in it just as Sarah and Britney Wellington had.
Caitlin looked over her shoulder in what felt like instinct and saw Mary Merrick was talking to George Fuller, the one his friends called “Fully” and who was the head of the Fuller family, in an apparently casual manner, which she felt was anything but casual. The Fullers were a powerful force in the black community and the Merricks had always been their close allies.
“Fullers are the brains and the Merricks are the muscle,” someone had once told her. She couldn’t quite recall who had said that to her, she was a girl at the time, but what experiences she had in the black community and with her partner, Mary Merrick, showed it to be pretty much accurate.
Suddenly, a bird landed happily on her shoulder. She looked over at Ethan’s black hawk and Ethan’s black hawk looked over at her. “Shoo,” she said and tried to shake him off.
“Shoo yourself, Officer Hotness.”
Ellen laughed at that. “Get off my damn shoulder, bird.”
“I could do that,” said the bird. “But I’d rather stay here and be petted while my pet over there is being harassed by the Man—”
“Leave,” she commanded and she gently pushed him off with her right hand and he flapped away.
* * *
“Hey, I know I’m cute,” Mickey said irritably to himself as he flew around the police station looking for somewhere comfortable to land. Eventually, he found his way to a deer’s head some hick policeman put up on the walls and he landed casually on one of the horns and relaxed there. “I also know I’m bored,” he added. “Bored, bored—”
He frowned when he saw Robert Le Sueur enter just about the same time that black policewoman turned and walked over to Officer Hotness.
He looked rather angry, which was no surprise since Mickey had never seen him otherwise, and he wore an expensive black suit jacket with a matching hat combo, which somehow made Mickey think of the Monopoly Guy. Le Sueur had this strangely determined look in his eyes, started toward the room where Ethan was and then, out of the blue, another black human, named Fully according to that black policewoman, stepped out of a hall and clapped him on the chest to stop him.
No one was close enough to hear what they were saying except Mickey who was just above them and neither had noticed he was there.
“How is Janine?” asked Le Sueur with a note of nervousness.
“She is more upset about what happened to those innocent people and her horse than any injury on herself.” He was looking at Le Sueur very coldly, almost aggressively, and Mickey found he wasn’t bored anymore.
“Fully, why is your hand on my chest?”
Fully lowered his arm. “Bob,” said he in a forced calm voice, “We go way back, don’t we?”
“Went to Yale together, decent friends, we were at each other’s weddings, you were really close to my brother Carlton before he died. You remember all that?”
“What are you getting at, Fully?” Le Sueur asked with a note of nervousness.
Fully smiled and it was a rather unpleasant smile that didn’t touch his eyes. “Tell me something,” he said. “Are you really going to walk up to that police captain and try to convince him that Ethan Bartlett had something to do with the Ku Klux Klan trying to murder my sister?”
“That’s not what I’m going to say,” he said and he instantly became very uncomfortable.
“Oh, I certainly hope it’s nothing of that sort. If it wasn’t for him and Christine Taylor, there is a strong possibility my sister would be dead right now.”
“There is something going on with that boy!” snarled Le Sueur with sudden ferocity. “Don’t you see it? He is setting up some fucked up chain of events and we’re all going to get caught up in it! I can feel it!”
“He and Christine Taylor almost managed to kill the man who tried to kill my sister,” Fully said in a hard voice. “Is he being chopped death instead of my sister being shot the chain of events you’re talking about?”
“It was quiet before he came,” snarled Le Sueur. “It was quiet and peaceful.”
Fully suddenly seemed tired and he rubbed the bridge of his nose with his left hand. “Look, Bob,” he said. “All I know is that my father, uncle and brother were all shot with rifles just like the one that Klansman on that rooftop had and it’s a damn good thing Bartlett was there because as much as we all love Christine Taylor, I don’t think she’s much of a fighter.”
“Christine—Merrick. Her name is—” he shrugged it off. “That boy is trouble, Fully! I can feel it in my bones!”
“Listen, Bob, I don’t know what your family’s deal is with the Bartletts but I don’t ever want to get involved with it and I expect you to do the same for my own family affairs.”
“You think is something to do with the Gurneys?” asked Le Sueur.
“I didn’t say anything of the sort,” he replied in a curt voice. “All I mean is that what should concern you now is that if you get involved and try and pin something on the boy who very well saved my sister’s life then you’re going to have two families you’re going to be enemies with. I know you have a family in Louisiana politics, Bob. Black voters don’t vote for Klan sympathizers, you understood?”
Le Sueur looked at him with a controlled expression and nodded soberly.
“You’re making a mistake,” Le Sueur told him. “Ethan Bartlett is trouble.”
“Like his grandfather was? My father had nothing but praise for the man and I never knew him to be wrong in his reading of people.” He then shrugged. “So he’s a little bastard. He’s been saving lives since the day he came here. What do you want from him?”
“Something is happening here,” said Le Sueur. “Something big. I can feel it and that boy—” he pointed at the office where Ethan was “—is at that the absolute fucking center of it.”
“Just stay out of this thing, Bob,” said Fully and he pushed him away from the office gently. Le Sueur frowned at him for a moment, not liking it, but then he turned and left. Fully went off to talk to Ethan.
“God, that Le Sueur is such an asshole,” Mickey said to himself.
* * *
“So, Officer Hotness,” said Ethan as he stepped out. “Have you reconsidered our date?”
The black detective that was with Detective Christopherson hid her smile beneath her fist.
“No,” she replied coldly and then she saw the black hawk land on his shoulder. “You know your bird thinks of you as a pet?” she asked, which was most likely a ploy in order to get him to stop flirting with her.
“Yeah, I do,” he replied. “I never should have shown him 101 One Dalmatians.”
“We’re going to start a Dalmatian plantation,” said Mickey happily.
That actually made Christopherson smile. “Go on, kid,” she said and he did. He threw on the remains of his charred jacket and his beanie which a policeman got from Chris earlier, grabbed his potions and left the station with a random patrol officer to drive him back to his car. He drank one of his Heal potions casually as he got in the police car and felt a great deal better.
No one had arrested him or anything and although he saw Robert Le Sueur, who no doubt was trying to spin it all against him, so far nothing had happened. The man they called “Fully” talked to him for half an hour away from Simms about the fight, notably asking him questions about the female Klanswoman. He told him everything but nothing seemed to come of it.
After Mickey told him about an interesting conversation between Fully and Le Sueur, he decided he was probably safe.
He got into his car, tossed his charred clothes onto the passenger seat, and drove to where he saw the portal. It had been hours, the police not believing he saw that house claiming it was because a dozen people saw a different place through the portal, a tricky element of the spell perhaps.
He knew the Klan wouldn’t be there but he still wanted to see it with his own eyes.
He drove west down Edmonton, passed Mandy’s Diner, and went out what called the Everson Property, the last bit of farmland in central Bartlett Bay, and stopped in front of the gate. That gate led up a path to a lovely plantation home that was officially known as Dustwood Plantation, often referred to as the Gurney Plantation, and most commonly referred to as the Murder House.
Christine Taylor stood at the gate and watched him approach with a nervous expression on her face.
Once upon a time, the Gurneys owned most of the central and northern area of Bartlett Bay. The east half had been mostly Bartlett territory. They were two major powerhouses in the city back in the old days before the Civil War and all the other ones popped up.
Ethan parked his vehicle, walked up to the gate beside Christine and looked at her nervous expression. “Saw it too?” he asked.
She nodded. “I’m scared to go even near there alone. It’s—haunted.” She said the word “haunted” as if it wasn’t quite the right word to describe what she believed was there. “If you’re going to check it out can I go with you? I don’t think they’ll still be there.”
He had the strangest feeling that she wasn’t talking about the Ku Klux Klan. Rumors of it being haunted had been prevalent even in Thomas Bartlett’s day.
“There’s no need to go in there. They were never there. We all saw different things.”
The house itself, old but otherwise unchanged by time, was a creepy almost southern-style plantation house. It was dark where the walls were a kind of light brown almost beige instead of the typical plantation white with dark brown pillars and gothic-style windows. It seemed to loom up against the sky like some kind of tombstone.
“Someone was here,” she replied and she handed him an envelope. He picked it up, looked at the front, and saw the word “Meddling Jew” written on the front. He opened it, pulled out and letter, and saw one thing written there. “Come and find us, Kike.”
“Delightful,” said Ethan and looked over at the trees around the house.
“It’s so creepy,” Christine told him. “Even in sunlight on a day a hundred and fifty years after the event, it’s still so scary.” She tilted her head to the left, toward the tree alongside the house, and her eyes went wide. “Good God!” she gasped and Ethan looked up at what appeared to be an empty tree. “Did you see it?” she asked in a hush voice.
“I, uh—” He looked at the tree and remembered the girl in the yellow dress. She hung from the branch by her neck, a pretty black girl of six, next to her parents. She dangled gently back and forth, creaking as she did, and young Thomas staring up in horror at it in the year 1850. “I—”
Christine took a deep intake of breath and stepped back. “They weren’t here! We would know if they were!’
“Just trust me! We would!” She grabbed his arm and pulled him back toward his car. She had no vehicle and had evidently walked her way there.
“It is wrong,” he said. “The windmill isn’t here—”
She practically shoved him to the car and stuck herself into the passenger seat. Ethan looked back at the house, felt the cold wind move across it, and then looked back at the tree. He did see something odd then, something small that moved just out of sight.
Probably just a squirrel.
He got into the car and started to drive. “They’re in the northwest of town,” she told him.
“What makes you say that?”
“That’s where the Gurney farm is,” she replied simply.
“Yeah,” he replied softly as he drove.
They had portal magic, which was very strong and intense, but not expansive enough to have killed Janine Fuller from a distance. He guessed they had one or two really good spells but not a library of them. Once the portal was made, they resorted to monsters, fireballs and bullets like a low-level magician would. A mage capable of designing a portal spell could have made a spell to cause Janine Fuller’s heart to explode from the comfort of their living room.
“What’s their leader’s name? Herbert?” He knew very little of Herbert Gurney except that he was a shut-in who was openly, and notoriously, racist and was somewhere in his seventies, eighties or possibly even nineties. He also was supposed to have a nephew or grandnephew named Wendell who was reputed to be completely insane, as in genuinely so, and also never leaves the form.
“I’ve never—” Chris swallowed “—I’ve never seen a Klansman before. The boogeymen of my people.”
“Just a bunch of ex-confederate Tennessee cocksuckers trying to get back their free rides on your people’s back,” he said without thinking and then his eyes narrowed. “They are dangerous, though.”
“What do we do about them?” she asked as he parked in front of Mandy’s Diner.
“They came from the Confederates,” he said and then he felt something horrible come bubbling up. “The north, we Union men, were just so certain would kick the shit out of them. I can hear their yelps right now, that evil rebel banshee shriek filling the air.” He realized he wasn’t just saying that and his eyes went wide.
We licked them! We’re going to hang Jefferson Davis from a sour apple tree! They all laughed at that, the lyrics from “John Browns Body” amusing them all, and even he was certain it all come true, and then the man added, We’re going to string him up like the niggers he owns, Thomas! We’re going to crush this goddamn rebellion tomorrow and be home loving our wives the day after! Hooray for the United States of America, brother!
“Hooray,” he whispered softly and that same man, someone unknown lost Union soldier from one hundred fifty years back, was still laughing exuberantly in his mind.
“Ethan? Are you all right? You look horrible.”
Ethan turned his head toward hers, distantly aware that he was sweating, and said, “We were wrong about them.” He laughed in what sounded jagged and half-insane. “God, just wrong.”
* * *
When Thomas was drifting through camp later, he could not believe people actually came out to the city of Manassas to see a “real” battle and he really could not believe he had not seen it for the ridiculous idea it was at the time.
It seemed like such obvious idiocy later and it felt like it could never have happened before, not in Washington’s time, not even in Walter Kent’s time, and maybe not even in the Greek or Roman times. Who goes out to a battle like it’s some kind of holiday. There were blood seekers, young boys sneaking out for a glimpse of glory and, of course, reporters, writers, photographers, artists and other such sorts but actual civilians with their families? Everyone knew Valley Forge was a nightmare so what changed? Did they all of a sudden think the battles of the American Revolution were perhaps a glove-slapping contest with the English where no one got hurt?
He had fallen for it himself to his endless surprise. He guessed it was the delusion that the battle would be quick and easy, that they would thrash the hell of the rebels with no trouble whatsoever, and the sight of Connecticut’s own Lafayette S. Foster out to watch the great victory made it all worse. It fueled the deception: Lafayette S. Foster was a senator and not a particularly stupid one either and that gave credence to the idea it all would end well.
He tried to remember how many people died in the Battle of Long Island in the Revolution War. It was about three hundred and maybe a thousand injured if memory served. What had just happened by that little river near the city of Manassas? He wasn’t too sure what or why it went wrong or why it had done so very suddenly and savagely but it didn’t matter because in the end. It had and that was all that mattered.
There was at least as much death as the Battle of Long Island, possibly even the Battle of Flodden where somewhere around ten thousand Scotsmen had died, or so Walter Kent’s memories believed possible but weren’t certain. He suspected there were more wounded men than in either battle who were at that very moment, probably still screaming every step of the way as they limped back to Washington.
The glamour of war, if there ever was such a thing, was gone and Thomas wasn’t the only one who thought so. “We are betrayed!” his fellow federalists had cried out when the end started to come and they meant every word.
Whatever optimism that had been felt when the war began would never return.
It was in the morning on the 21st of July when General Irvin McDowell sent them across Bull Run Creek to meet the Confederates who had made a line of men miles wide on the other side. They were fully alerted, prepared and waiting. When Nathan Bartlett’s regiment crossed Bull Run, they slammed into the rebel lines like a hammer on soft wood. All the civilians were excited, waving hats and cheering and hooting happily and Thomas never remembered a time where he felt so alive.
It all seemed to be going so well throughout the morning and afternoon that it was almost flawless. Later, when Thomas was shambling back in Washington, he had heard people were so confident they even started picking up souvenirs from the battlefield. He had not gotten that deluded and couldn’t have imagined doing that even if he wanted a souvenir.
In the later afternoon hours, quite randomly it seemed, anarchy began to break out all around him and he got an inkling of what was to come. He moved behind a tree on foot, his horse had been killed out from under him in what seemed like absolute luck on the rebels’ part, and he grabbed his binoculars and looked out at the Confederate line near the center where it came to a hill. There he saw the man on that hill and knew the tide was changing.
Sometimes it takes just one to do so, a voice of some great thinker, Erasmus or Thomas More maybe or someone else possibly, speaking casually through the memories of Walter Kent.
He sat on his horse with his men, still is a statue, with something about his countenance that was both unique and yet distinctively a West Pointer although Thomas didn’t know exactly what made him think that. He found there was also something deeply disturbing about the way he calmly looked down at the battlefield and held his post as if what was going on below was just some kind of dumb and even boring carnival show with wooden props and not some bloody, savage battle.
Then, a moment later, his side degenerated into a rout and stunningly fast.
The counterattack came like a giant gray wave crashing onto a blue shore. The man on the hill sent his men down shrieking banshee cries of death and Thomas’s men were almost all butchered as he called a retreat. That last was a useless gesture as they were already all running for their lives and couldn’t hear him over their screams. Some overheard conversation as he stumbled through camp said the rebel reinforcements had come by train, which had never been done before in war, and that explained how it happened so fast.
Whatever the reason, men were dying with ridiculous speed all around him. Their bullet-ridden bodies seem to explode with every hit and one such, to a man of almost equal height running next to him, was hit in such a devastating way to the head that it splattered his brains against the right side of Thomas’s face, neck and shoulders.
The commanders screamed, yelled, demanded and even pleaded for them to fight but it was no good. The moral was not just broken, it was shattered, and it was every man for himself. Thomas decided it was time to get out while he had enough people around him to absorb enough of the gunfire for him to escape with his life.
He had only looked back once during that initial sprint away and what he saw was bizarre. The man on the hill was riding into battle with his arm raised in an almost comical manner that made the man less of a joke, as it would have been for a different man, and more of something crazed and feared.
The run back to Washington stretched out into one long, miserable second of agony, with the Confederates seemingly at their heels. It was over twenty miles back to Washington and with the very real fear that if one slowed down, they would be shot by an approaching Confederate force from behind, they pushed themselves to where their hearts almost burst.
Sometimes he fell and someone helped him up, sometimes others fell and he helped them up. He remembered a few people he met on the way there, John Walker Atkins of Maine, William Porte of Massachusetts, Elliot Leonard Howe of Pennsylvania, Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Rhode Island, John Stapleton of New York: the whole north was running with him it seemed.
The latest toll on his brother’s regiment had been over a hundred men lost. When Thomas found him after his blackout sleep upon his return, knowing him to be unharmed, he had expected to find him his usual self, disregarding others pain as casual and unimportant as he always did, weeping at his scrapes and cuts and laughing at others’ deep injuries as if they were weaklings. What he found startled him more than anything involving Nathan ever had.
Thomas found himself without words for one of the few times in his life.
Nathan had looked up at him with a face that looked like it had aged two decades. His eyes were wide like a child’s and filled with terror and he was only able to meet Thomas’s for an instant because Thomas’s face had turned to ice for reasons he did not fully understand. He found he could not seem to break his own ridiculous calm.
Nathan’s hands were shaking badly but he said something eventually. “You have something to say to me, little brother?” he asked in a hollow voice.
“You need to get yourself together, Nathan,” Thomas said in a voice that seemed at the end of a long tunnel. “The men will need you in control.”
“Go to Hell,” he said.
“We’re already in Hell, brother,” Thomas replied and then he turned, left the tent, and as he wandered away, he wondered what it was he expected exactly to find in his brother’s face. Time had passed and it was when he was wandering aimlessly afterward thinking his thoughts, unable to stop reliving the moments of the battle, when he found himself where the wounded were being treated. That was when his calm finally broke and had transformed into a look of disturbed horror instead.
Treated was not the correct word even though that was the word they were probably using. They were actually sawing off their limbs, cutting them off as mercifully as possible but certainly not mercifully enough to justify the word, and the screams that came without stop were like one horrid chorus of agony. They were pleading and begging and Thomas could only stare aghast at it as they were, for lack of better option, ignored. The operations were like gears of some great machine and they moved with frightful efficiency and with just about as much emotion.
He walked forward, held out his hands and felt his magic extend out from his center making orange light emanating from the palm through his fingers. He found someone who was injured enough for his spell to help but not so injured that he couldn’t save him, then pressed his hands against the man’s chest and cast his healing spell.
The man let out a breath of relieved air, his wounds scabbing over with some puss leaking out which meant that it was already infected. He wasn’t healed completely but his bleeding stopped and his wounds were more or less closed with, hopefully, no further infection.
Thomas wavered on his feet only then recalling that he was still exhausted.
He sadly wasn’t very good at healing. Practice was needed. Practice and refinement. He never did reach Ireland to get that proper schooling and with the war, he thought he probably never would. A nearby doctor, a man in his later years with a bald head and a front drenched in blood, looked at him as he went over to another man and used the same spell on him. “Son,” he said with disturbing calmness, “You are a magician healer?”
“Barely,” he replied.
“Crab,” he called to a nearby assistant, a man in his thirties with dark gold hair. “Get this man immediately to the worst off. He might be able to keep some of the men alive and even save a limb or two.” Thomas was led away wondering how that doctor could possibly be so calm and detached while standing less than five feet away from a pile of severed limbs.
Thomas managed to heal about ten more men before he collapsed. Crab said something he could not hear as he laid him down onto the ground and he passed out. Falling asleep was not the blessed relief he would have thought because he had a dream.
He dreamed about the man on the hill.
As he fled the battlefield, he kept looking back and every time he did the man was still there. The dream echoed his agony of the run, the time he spent stumbling and falling, but now it was not only Bull Run, but Flodden, and the Scots were also chasing him. The man on the hill, never far away, was always just behind him in the front of the rebels and Scotsman, on a horse, never tired and with his arm comically raised. He woke up in the night somewhere, got up out of the place he was laid down, healed a couple more men and fell asleep again.
That time he awoke in the morning.
He took a deep breath, felt the warm light come over him, and felt better for the first time since his run. He jerked in surprise as Crab suddenly appeared above him. “You alright, son?” he asked.
Thomas stood up shakily with the word “no” on his lips but for some reason, he said instead, “The man on the hill will be trouble.”
Crab nodded, somehow knowing exactly whom he meant. “That he will,” he agreed and then he slapped him on the shoulder in a casual, friendly manner. “You have any more in you?”
“Not sure,” Thomas said earnestly. “If I try it’ll hurt, bad, and almost certainly not succeed.”
“I know,” he replied. “Give me a few more hours and I’ll have some more.” Looking out at all the dying, screaming men, he was overwhelmed at how useless his magic had been overall. How many men had he had helped? Fourteen or so? How many needed his help? Hundreds? Thousands?
When he was ready, he helped Crab some more as much as he could before shambling back off to his regiment. As he went about his duties, his mind drifted back to that dream again, and specifically on how the man in the hill kept following him. Eventually, he came to what he believed his dream was telling him.
The man on the hill would not die easily and they would one day meet again.
* * *
“What is it?” asked Chris.
“I just watched the innocence of America die,” he told her and he leaned over and looked at her. “It was the Civil War and the First Battle of Bull Run.” She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him deeply, startling him. “You’re married.”
“I know,” she whispered into his ear.
“You know I can’t have sex with you if you’re married.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s part of what I like about you.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “My son died in that war. Do you remember?”
“No,” he said and he felt her near-perfect body press up against him as she wrapped her arms around him. “Many people died in that war, Chris, but it’s over. The days of slavery and Civil War are long, long gone.”
“When I see the crosses burning on our lawns, I’m not really so sure of that,” she replied. “Someday, we’re going to walk up into the farm across the freeway and burn it to the ground.”
Ethan swallowed and said, “‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’”
“The Merchant of Venice,” she said.
“You know what,” he told her with sudden cold anger. “This is the same shit that’s been going on forever. Roman citizens over non-citizens, noblemen over peasants, Egyptians over slaves; it’s all descended from some caveman asshole who one day grabbed a rock and beat another caveman to death because he felt his lifestyle was threatened and his rights were impugned.”
She looked at him for a moment and then kissed him again.
“The world just never changes in its core,” he told her. “Not ever.”
“Some things do,” she replied and kissed him deeply and lovingly.