GNOME'S head lay in her hands. Audrey stared at it for one painful, horrified moment and dropped it on the floor of the cabin. Gnome's head rolled and came to rest against a trunk.
They threw his head at me. Gnome is dead, and it's my fault.
"Stubborn, greedy fool." Kaldar picked up the head and deposited it in a wicker box.
A weapon. She needed a weapon. A crossbow hung on the wall of the cabin. Audrey lunged for it and saw a rifle. Even better.
"Audrey," Kaldar said.
She ripped the rifle off the wall, flipped the safety off, chambered a round, took aim at the tattooed asshole standing on the cliff, and fired, all in the space of two breaths. The recoil punched her shoulder.
A screen of white lightning burst from the blond woman. The bullet exploded against it. The tattooed man grinned at her, muscles bulging on his frame like body armor.
Audrey chambered another round. If only the repulsive magic would leave her alone for one second, she would make this one count.
Kaldar's hand clamped on the rifle. "You're wasting your bullets. That's a blueblood. She can stop a shell from a bazooka with her flash shield."
Audrey let go of the rifle. Anger filled her so hot and intense, she had to scream, or she would've exploded. The Hand's magic, still burrowing into her flesh, only made her fury hotter. "What kind of a sick fuck throws a severed head? What the hell are those people?"
"That's what the Hand does." Kaldar shrugged.
"And you! You don't seem surprised by any of this!"
A man shouldered his way into the cabin, his hair a glossy black curtain. The man sat next to Jack and George in the corner, and she saw his face: powerful jaw, strong line, slightly slanted eyes of pale silvery gray. Slabbed with thick muscle, he looked strong enough to wrestle a bear, but the eyes were young. He couldn't have been more than twenty. The man smiled, displaying serrated teeth. "This ought to be good."
A small separate part of Audrey realized she ought to be shocked, but right now Kaldar was more important.
"I've told you, I've dealt with the Hand before," Kaldar said.
"No, there is more to it than that. It's like you knew that they would be coming. You even sent the kids to keep watch." She pointed to where George and Jack sat. A new thought occurred to her. "You sent the kids to keep watch!"
"I think we've established that," Kaldar said.
"You knew that the Hand was coming, the Hand who murders people, then throws their heads at their friends, and you sent children as lookouts right into their jaws?"
"Um." Kaldar took a small step back.
"Are you insane? Did your mother drop you on your head when you were a baby? What were you thinking?"
"I think it's a very reasonable question," the black-haired man said. "What were you thinking, Uncle?"
Kaldar pointed at him. "You stay out of this."
"And what if the kids didn't get a chance to escape? That blond bitch would've cut them into tiny bite-sized pieces, and we would be picking up their heads now instead of Gnome's." Audrey shuddered. "I can still feel their magic. It's crawling all over me. It feels like someone doused me in lighter fluid and set me on fire."
Kaldar stepped toward her. "The Hand's magic causes an allergic reaction. If you hold still - "
"I don't want to hold still!" she barked. "Don't touch me!"
Kaldar stepped back with his hands raised. "It will go away, Audrey. Everybody gets it the first time. You have to wait it out."
"How did you know the Hand would be coming?"
"I didn't know," Kaldar said. "I suspected."
Oh, please. "I don't believe you. You lie all the time."
"No, I don't."
"You kind of do," George murmured.
She pointed at the boy. "See!"
Kaldar growled under his breath. "Now you listen to me. The Hand is following the same trail of crumbs I did. We can't find your father, which leaves you or your brother as a target. The only way to make sure that the Hand didn't get to you would have been to kill your brother. I could've done it, but I didn't. I just gave him some drugs."
"You gave an addict in rehab drugs, and you want credit for it?"
"Of course it sounds bad when you put it that way."
"It sounds bad whichever way you put it. I know Alex. Drugs fried his brain, and he thinks the whole world owes him. He would've tried to bargain with the Hand." She stopped. "My brother is dead, isn't he?"
"Yes," Kaldar said.
Two people had been murdered because she had been too weak to say no to her dad. Alex had it coming. But Gnome was just a neighbor. He could be mean sometimes, and he was an ornery old bastard, but he had always helped her. Now his head, with glazed-over eyes, was sitting in a wicker trunk in the corner of the cabin. She shouldn't have taken that job. She should've convinced Gnome to run with them when the Hand showed up. Should've, could've, would've . . .
The kids were looking at her, as quiet as two birds.
"Audrey?" Kaldar asked.
Alex was dead. She had prepared herself for that possibility years ago, but now it finally hit home. She would never see him again. Deep down in the hidden recesses of her being lived a tiny hope that Alex would get better, that one day he would walk across her threshold, clean and sober, grin that handsome grin, and say, "I'm sorry, sis. I was an ass. Let me make it up to you."
The Hand's magic had burrowed so deep into her, it finally reached that hope, and Audrey felt it die. Something vital shattered at her very core. Her own magic, so familiar and easy, rebelled and bucked inside her like a runaway horse, fighting back in self-defense. The pain almost took her off her feet.
Audrey cried out. Her magic burst out of her body in a sweeping wave. Every bag and box in the cabin flew open. Jack jumped a foot in the air. George gasped.
"Leave!" Kaldar barked, and the three boys scurried out to the front.
"I killed Gnome, and I killed Alex." Her voice came out dull and creaky. "And more people will die because I was selfish, hurt, and stupid. I was always so smart. How the hell could I be so stupid?"
"Happens to the best of us," Kaldar said. "How the hell did I get stuck with the Marshal of the Southern Provinces' teenage brothers-in-law and a woman who thinks I'm ugly?"
"You have to send them back," she said. "They will be killed, Kaldar."
"It's too late now," he said. "It was already too late by the time I found them because the Hand has their scent. To go home, they'd have had to fly over Louisiana territory, and Gaston doesn't have a lot of experience with piloting wyverns and doesn't know how to avoid detection. The Louisianans would track them down at the border, and without me, they would kill them or worse."
"What could be worse?"
A grimace twisted his lips. "Like I said, their brother-in-law has unprecedented access to matters of Adrianglian security. The Hand would torture the boys to gain influence over him."
This was just getting better and better. "Then put them on a plane in the Broken and have them cross into Adrianglia through the Edge at the eastern coast."
Kaldar sighed. "Being in the Broken didn't protect your brother. Besides, even if I bought tickets and made them go through security, they'd escape the moment our backs were turned. They're here because they want to be here, and they are clever enough and well trained enough to be trouble. Trust me, I've spent two days thinking it over, trying to find some way to get out of this blasted screwup. The kids have to remain with me. That's the safest option."
Audrey couldn't handle being responsible for the deaths of two kids. In her head, it wasn't even George and Jack specifically; it was all the Jacks and all the Georges who lived in the Edge. All the lives her stupid caper had put at risk.
Some things even a Callahan couldn't live with. "Then there is only one solution."
Kaldar crossed his muscular arms. "Please. I'm all ears."
"I have to get the diffuser bracelets back."
She had to set it right. She would fix this, whatever it took.
"Why the sudden change of heart?"
Audrey shrugged. "Who else is going to do it?"
She gave him a drop-dead stare. "Please. You got yourself Tasered and tied to a chair because you were too busy watching me eat little mints."
Kaldar grabbed her. One moment he was there, and the next he clamped her to him in a firm grip. Suddenly, his face was too close. His eyes were pale brown, like old whiskey, and he looked at her the way a man looked at a woman when wanting her had pushed every other thought out of his brain. A little electric thrill danced through her. She was pretty sure that if a volcano suddenly erupted in the cabin, neither of them would've paid it any mind.
"Mmm, Audrey," he said, his voice low and intimate. The sound of her name caressed her like velvet against her skin. Tiny hairs rose on the back of her neck.
"You should let go of me now."
"You know what the difference between you and me is?"
"I can think of several." Oh yes, yes she could, and what fun differences they were. And at a different time and in a different place, she might even consider exploring them, but not now.
Kaldar leaned over her. His whisper touched her ear. "The difference is, I don't need a Taser."
He turned, his mouth so close to hers, the distance between them suffused with heat. He looked at her, drinking her in, his gaze sliding over her eyes, her cheek, her mouth...
She felt his breath on her mouth, the first light, teasing touch of his lips on hers, then the stronger, insistent pressure of his mouth, and, finally, the heated touch of his tongue. She let her lips part, and he slipped his tongue into her mouth. They met, and his taste washed over her - he tasted of toothpaste and apricot and some sort of crazy spice, and he was delicious. He chased her, teasing, seducing, and she pretended not to like it, then teased him back again and again, enticing, promising things she didn't intend to deliver.
They broke apart slowly. Her whole body was taut as a string stretched to its limit, and just before she took a step back, one of those differences he mentioned earlier pressed hard against her stomach.
Audrey looked straight into his smug eyes and slapped him. It was a good slap, too, loud and quick. Her palm stung.
Kaldar let her go and rubbed his face. "Really?"
"I told you no, and you still did it." And it had been glorious. When she was old and gray, she'd remember that kiss.
Kaldar looked at her, amused and slightly predatory. All of his smooth polish had vanished, and the part that was left was dangerous, reckless, and very much up to no good. Audrey had heard about the Mire before. It was a savage place, and Kaldar had grown up there, which made him both savage and crazy. Now all his sleek manners had sloughed off, and the real man emerged. And he was hot.
He must've been a feral terror at eighteen, especially with that face. Now he was older and wiser, and he hid his crazy better, but it was still there, buried deep under the surface, and he had let it out for her benefit. Well, wasn't she privileged.
Kaldar winked at her. "You enjoyed it. It made you feel alive. You were looking kind of green."
You bastard. "Oh, so it was a lifesaving kiss."
"Well, if you want to put it that way . . ."
Arrogant jackass. "Do me a favor: next time you think my life needs saving, just let me die. I'd really prefer it."
She shook her head. "I'm going to the front with the boys. Don't follow me. You and your paramedic kisses need time to cool off."
Audrey swiped Ling off the floor and marched to the front of the cabin.
THE wyvern dipped down, banking above the clearing, which felt only slightly less thrilling than plunging down a drop in a roller coaster. Audrey clutched on to her seat. The front of the cabin offered only two seats, and the boys had graciously let her sit next to Gaston and the enormous windshield, which she now sorely regretted.
"It will be fine," Gaston told her. "The wyverns are difficult to stop, so we're just going to spiral down for a minute. Landing is actually kind of fun."
Jack bared his teeth at her from his perch on top of a trunk. "He just says that because he isn't human."
Audrey tried to look anywhere but at the rapidly approaching trees. "Not human?"
"His grandmother had sex with a thoas," Jack told her.
"Why thank you, Jack." Gaston showed him his fist. "You're so helpful."
"I like to be helpful," Jack told him.
"I have strange teeth, and my eyes glow, while you turn into a lynx and run around spraying your spunk on bushes. And you're calling me not human? That's rich."
George cleared his throat.
Gaston looked at him. "What?"
George nodded at Audrey.
"What is it?"
George heaved a sigh. "We have a lady in our company."
"I'm aware of that. I am not blind."
"He's telling you to watch the crude language," Kaldar said, emerging from the cabin. He stopped between their two chairs, leaning on the backs with his arms. "How does it look?"
"Looks good," Gaston said. "We're in the clear."
"Take him down."
Gaston leaned forward to a complex, polished set of levers and knobs and pushed several switches.
"So how does the wyvern know what you would like him to do?" Audrey asked.
"He's wearing a receiver device over his spark glands, just under his chin," Kaldar told her. "When Gaston adjusts the magic frequency of the console, the receiver sends the new signal through the glands. The wyvern is trained to recognize the specific commands."
"Just like a dog," Gaston told her. "He knows 'sit' and 'stay.' Except in his case, 'sit' takes about five minutes."
"Why?" Audrey asked.
"He's very large," Kaldar said. "So for him to land, everything has to align just right: approach, speed, wind, and so on."
"What if he decides that 'sit' means turn upside down in the air?" she asked.
Kaldar leaned closer to her. "Then we all die a horrible death."
Great. Audrey squeezed the chair's seat, willing the wyvern not to fall out of the sky.
"Afraid of flying?" Kaldar asked.
"No, I'm afraid of falling to my death."
"If it will make you feel better, I could hold you."
"In your dreams . . ."
The wyvern plunged down. Audrey gasped. The ground rushed at her as if she were in the cabin of a train hurtling at full speed.
Audrey dug her nails into the seat cushion.
The trees jumped up. The cabin jerked, and the wyvern's feet smashed into the ground, skidding. The huge reptile careened and stopped.
Kaldar leaned toward her ear. "You can breathe now, magpie."
Magpie? "I don't need your permission, thank you very much."
"Beautiful landing," Kaldar told Gaston. "Your best thus far."
If that was the best, what in the world did the worst feel like?
"Let's go," Kaldar called. "We need to make camp. The sky is clear, so we'll be sleeping outside today. Audrey can have the cabin."
"That's all right," she told him. "I can manage. I can sleep outside just fine."
Four pairs of eyes looked at her with a distinctly male skepticism.
"It's only proper that you have the cabin," George said.
"You're the only lady," Jack added.
"What they said," Gaston said.
"Then it's settled." Kaldar pointed at the cabin. "Quilts, pillows, sleeping bags. Once we're done, Jack, you find us something to eat, and George, you set up some sentries. Let's go."
Fifteen minutes later, their sleeping bags were on the ground by the wyvern. Audrey had always pictured dragons as fast and agile. But lying in the grass, the wyvern appeared barely alive, like some monolith carved from blue stone, with a blanket of green moss on his back.
Kaldar extracted a foot-long bronze box from one of the trunks and opened it. Inside, on a bed of green velvet, rested a large mechanical insect. Another gadget. The people from the Weird called them automatics.
Kaldar opened another box, pulled out a small printer with a cord sticking out of it, and plugged a camera into it. The printer whirred and spat out a picture. Audrey peered over Kaldar's shoulder. The blond blueblood woman stared at her from the cliff. Her haughty face radiated scorn.
"You took a photo? When?"
"When we landed in the cabin. I don't know her, and she isn't in any of the Hand's roster available to me. I would've recalled that face, but I need to identify her, and I can't simply patch myself through the Mirror's network." Kaldar waved the photograph around to dry the ink. "Any magic contact will be intercepted, and given that we're in the field, we're under strict orders to limit our communications."
He took the insect out of the box, flipped it on its back, and gently pressed the thorax. A bronze panel slid down, revealing a small, clear crystal. Kaldar held the photograph to it, rattled off a string of numbers, and said, "Activate."
Tiny gears turned within the insect with a faint whir.
A ray of light stabbed through the crystal from the inside. The light slid over the photograph, and the crystal went dull.
"Encode," Kaldar ordered.
The insect's long legs moved and trembled. The panel over its thorax slid closed, hiding the crystal. Kaldar flipped it back on its feet.
The insect's back split. Gossamer wings emerged, shook once, and blurred into movement. The insect rose from the box, hovered above the grass, and streaked into the sky.
"We'll get an answer in a few days." Kaldar stood up. "Gaston, you and I have to see to the wyvern."
A moment later, Kaldar and Gaston went to get some water to mix some sort of special food for the wyvern.
Jack walked up to Audrey, holding Ling. "Could you please put her in the cabin for the next hour?"
"Of course." She took Ling from him. "Why?"
"Because I need to change, so I can hunt, and I don't want her to freak out." Jack went behind the cabin. Audrey took Ling inside and deposited her into a large wicker trunk where the quilts had been stored.
"Now stay here."
She shut the lid. Thin tendrils of magic extended from her hand, and she clicked the lock shut and went back outside.
A lynx trotted out from behind the wyvern on massive paws. As big as a large dog, his fur thick and luxurious, the big cat glanced at her with green eyes.
Audrey held very still.
The lynx's large ears with black tufts on the ends twitched. The lynx opened his mouth, showing her his pink tongue, winked, and took off for the trees.
She turned to George, who was unrolling the sleeping bags. "Was that Jack?"
"Yes, my lady."
This was getting weirder and weirder and not in a good way.
Audrey perched on top of a heap of blankets. "You know, you really don't have to call me 'my lady.' I'm just an Edger."
George gave her a small smile that lit his angelic face. "I'm just an Edger, too."
"But I thought Kaldar said you were a blueblood?" That wasn't exactly what Kaldar had said, but fishing for more information never hurt.
"Our sister married a blueblood. We're just Edgers. People in the Weird remind us of where we come from quite often. In case we forget."
Ouch. They must've had a bad time of it. "I'm sorry."
"It's fine," George told her. "We're well taken care of. We go to a very good school, we have a large allowance, and Rose, our sister, and her husband love us very much. Someone would dislike us because of all that one way or another. The Edge is a convenient excuse."
Audrey sat next to him on a quilt. "If you're so well taken care of, why did the two of you stow away in Kaldar's cabin?"
"Because of Jack. The Weird has problems with changelings." George smoothed the sleeping bag in place. "Jack is difficult. He cares about other people, and he's kind, but he doesn't always get how people think. And he's very violent, which scares people. In Adrianglia, changelings like him are sent off to a military school. It's a very bad place. Jack is in a lot of trouble right now since he almost killed someone, and he thinks that Rose and Declan - that's her husband - are getting ready to ship him off. He thinks that Declan's best friend, who is a changeling, can convince them otherwise, but he's gone on a trip. We're buying time until he returns."
She caught the faint hint of disapproval in his tone. "So that's what Jack thinks. What do you think?"
George grimaced. "Jack is spoiled. Things are hard for him, but he isn't the only one who doesn't have it easy. He gets away with crazy things because he's a changeling and he's different. Jack could behave better, but he stopped trying. He decided that he's worthless and that nothing he could do would make any difference."
George rose and reached for a large cooler sitting by the wyvern. The muscles on his arms bulged. He strained. Audrey got up and took the other handle of the cooler, looking straight ahead without meeting his eyes. No need to make the boy self-conscious.
The weight of the cooler nearly toppled her over. The stupid thing was huge and likely full of ice. Eighty pounds at least. They dragged it over to the patch of clear grass.
George knelt by the cooler, and she sat in the grass across from him. Neither of them mentioned dragging the cooler, as if it hadn't happened.
"When we were little, Rose worked a really crappy job," George said. "It made her bone-tired, but she did it because she wanted us to have a better life. You asked me what I thought. I think Rose would work herself into the ground just so she wouldn't fail me and Jack. My brother misinterprets things. I don't know what he heard, but I doubt he's getting sent off. My sister loves him too much, and Declan never came across a problem he didn't attack straight on. He wouldn't palm Jack off on someone else. It would mean giving up."
Talking to George was almost like talking to an older wise adult. At fourteen, she supposed he was almost an adult by some standards, but still, his maturity was startling. Was there a fourteen-year-old boy somewhere in there, hiding behind all of that logic?
"I get why Jack ran away, but why did you?"
George popped the cooler open. "Because he needs someone to look after him. We barely know Kaldar, and Gaston and Jack don't care for each other."
She grinned. "You don't say."
"Jack baits him all the time until Gaston loses his patience and hits him, and then it's on." George rubbed the back of his head. "Gaston hits very hard."
"Speaking from experience?"
"Yes. I don't take it personally. We are a pain in his . . . head. I came because without me, my brother would do something rash and stupid. Wouldn't you do the same for your brother?"
Audrey shook her head. "No."
"Why?" George reached into the cooler and pulled out a big bird. It was black and very dead.
Audrey stared at it. Another bird joined the first one on the grass, then another. What in the world? "It's a long story, and you probably don't want to hear it. What are these?"
"The sentries," George explained. He picked up the first bird and closed his eyes for a moment.
The bird shivered.
Oh, my God.
The bird rolled on its feet. It spread its large wings.
"Go on," George murmured.
The bird flapped its wings and flew into the woods. George watched it go. "I'm a necromancer. The birds will keep watch, and I'll know if anyone comes close."
Wow. They were some pair. One was a lynx, and the other one brought corpses to life.
"I would like to hear your story." George picked up the second bird.
"My childhood wasn't nearly as bad as yours, so this will sound like I'm throwing myself a pity party, and I am. To you, my problems might be small, but to me, they're huge. Funny how it always works that way. Ask a man how much a dollar is worth, and he'll tell you, 'Almost nothing.' Try to take a dollar away from him, and you'll get yourself a fight." She smiled.
"You're right, my problems are the biggest problems ever," George said. "No, honestly, it's horrible to be me. I'm rich, talented, and I make girls cry."
"How do you make girls cry, exactly?"
George turned to her. His blue eyes widened. His lovely face took on a forlorn, deeply troubled expression. He leaned forward, and, in a theatrical whisper, said, "My past is tragic. I wouldn't want to burden you with it. It's a pain I must suffer alone. In the rain. In silence."
She laughed. "That was pretty good, actually."
George shrugged, back to his normal self. "It works sometimes. Still, I'd like to hear about your parents. Please?"
Oh well. Why not. "My parents were grifters. I don't think either one of them earned an honest dollar in their entire lives. Every day there was a new con or a new heist. Sometimes we'd have a ton of money. Dad would check us into a great hotel, we'd have steak and lobster, and he'd buy Mother jewelry. And the next week we'd be sleeping in some abandoned car. It was chaotic, but it was fun.
"My brother was eight years older than me. He was handsome and so funny, and I thought he could do anything. All the girls fought over him." Tears heated her eyes, and she blinked them away. "Alex could teleport short distances. That was his special talent. He was a really good thief, too. He would steal ice-cream bars for me from gas stations. I thought he was so cool.
"We worked a lot, my brother and I. We'd steal things, and our parents would sell them. And then, when Alex was twenty, it all went to hell. He became a drug addict. And it was our own father who got him addicted. Dad was always looking for that big score. Every con was supposed to make us rich for life, just like the one before it." Audrey paused, then asked, "Do you know what the Internet is?"
"People in the Broken sometimes use debit cards instead of money. They're small plastic cards with a magnetic strip. When you swipe one through a card reader, it subtracts the price of whatever you bought from your bank account. Criminals steal the debit-card numbers and the little code you have to use to authorize the money. It takes some technical skill to do it. Then they sell the card numbers on secret forums on the Internet. You can buy the numbers, sometimes for ten or twenty bucks each, and you can make your own cards. You can take these cards to ATMs - do you know what those are?"
George nodded again. "Automated banks that give out money. They're very heavy."
"That's right." Audrey nodded. "I once tried to steal one, and they have to be made of lead, because we tried to winch it onto our truck and the winch broke. But anyway, if you have fake cards loaded with debit-card numbers, you can go to ATMs and withdraw money straight from the people's accounts. You could clean out one ATM, then go to the next, for several days even, until the banks caught on. You could make thousands. My dad loved this idea. In his head, it was ridiculously easy free money. You see, the bank insures people's accounts, so if the money is stolen, the insurance company replaces it. My dad thought it was a victimless crime. Oh, if only we'd get in on this scam, we would all be rich and happy forever."
KALDAR paused behind the wyvern. Audrey's voice carried over. She was talking about her parents. She kept it light, but he heard the underlying tension in her tone.
Kaldar put down the two buckets of water he'd carried from the stream and held up his hand. Behind him, Gaston stopped, and murmured, "What?"
"Shhh. I want to hear this."
Gaston shrugged, set his buckets on the grass, and sat near the wyvern, his long, dark hair spilling down his back.
Kaldar leaned against the wyvern's scaled side. The boy had talent. Getting Audrey to talk must've been difficult. She was smart, and she guarded herself carefully.
Her reaction to the Hand's magic might have played a part. The Hand's agents were so twisted by the magic, they emanated it. Magically, they stank like roadkill left to bake in the sun for a few days, and most people "gagged" when they came into close contact with them for the first time. The reaction lasted a few hours, depending on the intensity and brand of magic and how sensitive the victim was to it. Some exposed felt invisible bugs on their skin; some panicked; some went into convulsions. Audrey was the burn type: they reported the feeling of being set on fire and the sensation of being skewered or chewed on. That reaction came coupled with lowered inhibitions. Whatever brakes Audrey had were malfunctioning. She was hurtling out of control down an emotional highway, and Kaldar wanted to be there for that ride. Curiosity was killing him. He wanted to know what she liked, what she didn't like, what made her happy. He wanted to know why she lived in the Edge by herself.
The more he knew about her, the easier it would be to impress her. The more impressed she became, the more she'd like him. And he wanted Audrey to like him. Standing next to her was like standing in the sunlight.
AUDREY'S voice caught a little, and she cleared her throat.
"My parents never understood the Internet. They didn't realize you couldn't just go on to the debit-card forums to buy the numbers. You had to be introduced or get a password from someone.
"Dad found this guy - Colin - a real scumbag. Colin was a big shot on one of the forums, so Dad told Alex to make friends with him and get the password. He told him to do whatever it took. 'Get the password, Alex. Just get that password.'"
She sounded so bitter. Audrey felt bitter too, bitter and angry. "Colin was a cokehead, and the only way to get to him was to supply him with drugs. So Alex would sell him coke, and Colin wanted him to sit there and do it with him, so that's what Alex did for two months. Finally, Colin ODed. He took too many drugs, and they killed him. We did get the password to the forum, and Dad bought a bunch of numbers. Drained our reserves completely. And then on the fifth ATM he hit, an off-duty cop noticed him feeding a bunch of cards into the machine, and Dad got arrested. It was a huge mess. When Dad got out three months later on some technicality, he and Mom put Alex into rehab, but it was too late. He likes . . . liked being an addict. It was an easier life than being Dad's errand boy all the time, and he would guilt-trip Dad into buying him drugs. He never stopped after that. All we did from that point on was work to get enough money to put Alex into a new rehab."
Audrey paused. She didn't want it to sound all "oh-poor-me," but there was no help for it. "Sometimes I went to school, but mostly I didn't. I didn't have friends, I didn't get to do any of the normal things twelve-year-old girls do. I guess I still had hope that my brother would come back to us. Then, when I was almost seventeen, Alex sold me to a drug dealer. He wanted some prescriptions, and he didn't have the money, so he told the guy that he could do anything he wanted with me. The guy cornered me as I was coming back to the Edge. I've never been so scared in my whole life."
SO that was it. Kaldar clenched his teeth. How could you trade your own sister? How could you trade Audrey? Beautiful, sunshine Audrey. His mind understood, but the part of him that was a brother and an uncle seethed at the thought. That was not done.
In the Mire, he would've put Alex Callahan down like a rabid dog.
"The drug dealer took everything I had on me," she said. "And then he told me that I could either steal more drugs for him, or he would rape me and kill me. So I did it. He took me to a bad neighborhood to a drug house owned by a gang. I snuck inside, stole the drugs, and gave them to him. Then he beat me. The first punch knocked me to the ground, and he kicked me for a while. Broke two ribs. My face was messed up for months. Still, I got off easy."
"That's fucked up," George said.
The profanity startled her, coming from him. Audrey cleared her throat. "I came home and told my parents about it. My face was all black-and-blue. I couldn't have hid it if I'd wanted to, and I didn't want to. They did nothing. That night I decided I had to leave. From that point on, I saved up my money. I had to hide it very carefully because Alex was very good at finding whatever money we had. I actually left a few bucks hidden somewhere obvious so he'd find it and not look for my stash. Here." She reached into her pocket and pulled out the cross. "This was my grandmother's. She gave it to me when I was little. I stole it back from the drug dealer when I made up my mind to leave. It took me almost two years, but I finally escaped."
"What about your mother?" George asked.
Kaldar shook his head. George needed more experience. With a conversation like this, you didn't push. Audrey might catch herself and stop talking all together.
"My mother liked pretty things," Audrey said. "We moved a lot, and in every new place, she'd plant flowers and hang pretty curtains. She liked jewelry, makeup, and nice clothes. She'd make herself up just as pretty as she could be every morning: hair brushed, war paint on. We'd be stuck in some hovel, but she'd make it all spotless, plant flowers, and send us out to steal pictures to put over the holes in the walls. She would always make sure that my clothes were clean, and I had my hair just right, and my makeup was perfect. But she couldn't really deal with any kind of crisis and ugliness. She just pretended it didn't exist. When Alex hit rock bottom, it got really ugly. She'd let him have one room, and the rest of the house would still be perfect."
"She wasn't much help," George said.
"No. She ignored me until my face healed. When I finally gathered enough money and escaped, I went as far as I could and started to build my own life. It took me three months to get the house up, and when I did, for half a year I didn't do anything. I was just happy. By myself in my little house. Then I worked and got enough money to apply for a driver's license, and eventually I bought a car, and then I got a better job. I kept making improvements to the house. I was perfectly happy for years, then my father showed up. For the first few moments, I thought maybe he had come to tell me he was sorry, but no, he just wanted me to do a job for Alex. So I told him that either he could have me do the job for the very last time, or he could have a daughter. Well, we all know what he picked."
"I'm sorry," George said.
"Thank you," Audrey told him. "I didn't tell you all this as a play for sympathy. My life wasn't that bad. Many people have it way worse. My parents never beat me or abused me. I never had to sell myself on the street. No matter how low we fell, we always had food. I just . . ." She hesitated. "Gnome was my neighbor, and now he's dead because of me. That's a terrible thing, and I'll have to live with it. It's tearing me up inside. I just wanted someone to understand why."
"I understand," George said. "You didn't steal the diffusers because you were greedy."
"Right. I stole them because my father made me so mad, I couldn't think straight. I was selfish and stupid. I had daddy issues and a chip on my shoulder, and I wore all of it like a badge. It seems very small now, compared to Gnome's life."
Kaldar picked up the buckets and retreated a few steps. Gaston watched him with an amused grin on his face.
Pretty Audrey. Honed into a tool. Used like one, then shoved into a drawer and forgotten until she was needed again. He had the strong urge to punch the entire Callahan clan in the face one by one.
Snap out of it, you fool. A pretty face and a sweet smile, and you've lost all common sense.
Kaldar kicked some bushes, forcing them to rustle.
"Hurry up, Gaston!"
His nephew pushed to his feet, swiped the buckets off the ground, and croaked in a choked-up voice. "Yes, master."
Kaldar rolled his eyes and carried the buckets to the wyvern's mouth to feed him.