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Dangerous Ways

 

The Books of Winter: Book One

 

R.R. Virdi

 
Copyright R.R. Virdi 2016

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

***

Chapter Three

 

Entering one of the Ways, in the best of circumstances, can be disorienting. What followed served to redefine the word. A sea of green melted into a cyclone of colors. Blaring lights, snow, and the shades of the mortal world. The transition happened in a flash.

I landed hard. Equal parts fire and ice arced through my leg. Finding my balance was a task. Cassie slipped under my arm, helping support me. Grunting took effort, but it was the only sound I could make.

“Oh my God!” Cassie let go of me and I stumbled. She grabbed my collar and reeled me back. A car horn sounded as a red and black cab swerved to avoid us.

“Asshole!” the cabbie called. His car slowed to halt a few feet from us and he leaned out. His face could absorb no more black. A cotton cap clung tightly to his skull. “Get your hooker out of the street!”

Cassie bristled, taking a step towards him. “Aw, hell naw.”

The driver ignored her, turning back to mutter something under his breath as he eased his car down the icy road.

She stood there seething until I decided to redirect her attention. I coughed, nodding to my torn jeans.

“Oh, crap, you’re bleeding!”

“There.” I pointed to the building ahead. It was an exact representation of what I had described earlier. A small brick building, something that had endured close to a century. No one smell could describe the aromas wafting from it. Only one word to sum it all up: wonderful.

“Help me?”

“Yeah, duh.” Cassie took my arm again, helping me hobble through the street as we crossed onto the sidewalk. “What now? Looks like they’re closed.”

“She’s never closed. Not for me.”

“Ooooh, girlfriend or something?”

“She’s too young for me.” I winced. The muscles in my leg spasmed, tightening like an electric current passed through them. “I live here.” The step up to the sidewalk caused a little whimper to leave my mouth. The winter climate did nothing to dull the pain.

“Now what?”

“This.” I rapped the forest green door with my knuckles. Nothing happened.

“You’re lucky I have a policy about kicking crippled old men.”

“I’m not old,” I groaned. My fingers curled into a fist, and I pounded on the door.

Metal slid against metal. Something clinked against the door. It was barely audible. A chain. The door juddered from the impact. “Ta-ti-a-na!” Each syllable was punctuated with another bang of my fist. A louder, more solid click sounded behind the door. I let out an agitated huff of breath as she took her time unlocking the deadbolt. The knob twisted, finally. Being over a hundred years old did not mean I’d mastered patience. Snow rushed in to fill the gap as the door opened, flowing into the store.

There was a fleshy impact. A rolling pin struck her palm, hitting it several times as she stared at me.

I forced a cheery smile. “Tatiana.”

Her eyes were beautiful, the color of faded dollar bills with inner rings of pale gold. They hardened for a brief moment.

“Jonathan Hawthorne.” Another wooden smack accompanied my last name. “Do you know what time it is?”

“No, no I don’t. But since when have I been concerned with time?”

She arched an eyebrow. It was the same color as her champagne hair, which was pulled into a neat and out-of-the way ponytail. Tatiana was the embodiment of Nordic beauty. Taller than the average man, built with the lean, flat muscle of athletes without compromising her chest or lower half. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said she’d cheated to attain the physique. But I did know better, and learned long ago to be wary near women toting rolling pins.

“I’d like to enter my home now. It’s cold and we’ve had a long day.”

Tatiana’s eyebrow rose higher as she regarded Cassidy. “You brought a guest. A young woman. Here?”

I could feel her stare become telescopic. “It’s not what you think.”

She blew out through her nose. It was near enough to a snort, without becoming one, to be impressive. Tatiana pressed the wooden pin to her hip as her hands came to rest there. With a simple shift of balance, she stood at an angle and regarded me in silence.

“What does she think it is?” asked Cassie.

“Nothing. Tatiana, move. Please.”

Her eyes widened before she finished her appraisal, finally taking notice of my leg. “You’re hurt.”

“Yes.”

She flung her arms into the air and I flinched for fear of the wooden tool going airborne and striking me. “Of course.” She scowled. “Don’t track any blood on my carpets. I just cleaned them.” She waved the pin at my face as a warning.

“I’m bleeding. I can’t avoid that. Plus, you’re the one keeping me out while letting the snow in.”

The corner of her mouth twitched. A dangerous gleam filled her eyes, but she stepped aside, beckoning us to enter.

I placed a hand on the doorframe as Cassie helped me lumber in. The warmth of candles filled the place that was part-bakery and part-home. Tatiana preferred candlelight to illuminate her home during the later hours of the night, especially after closing.

Old stone and polished wood made up most of the bakery. A fireplace, set in mottled stone, housed a crackling fire in the corner. Everything from the counters, walls and shelves, was made from well-cared-for dark wood. The paneling on the sides of the refrigerated displays had been replaced with a burnished walnut, carved with images from Scandinavian mythos and legends. The place was colored in rich greens and earth browns like a forest.

Most of the products on display were various versions of sweet breads. One piece was a rainbow-colored knot of dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. Saliva built in my mouth as I stared at it. The blood loss was making me hungry.

Tatiana caught my stare, moving over to pluck a piece from the display. She lobbed it to me without looking. It was an effort to catch it with one hand. I fumbled the treat a few times, nearly dropping it altogether.

“Get him downstairs, girl,” said Tatiana.

I could feel Cassie’s body tighten. She didn’t like being called “girl” or being ordered about. I remained silent. Groaning, I nodded to a pair of heavy-set ebony doors festooned in Nordic art ahead.

Cassie paused before the doors. “What’s back there, the bat cave?”

“The pantry. Please stop talking.” The pain searing my shin and calf doubled. The muscle shook of its own accord. “Tatiana,” I rasped.

“I know!” Tatiana said. “You don’t have to remind me. I’ll get him.”

“Thank you.” I placed a hand on one of the doors and leaned into it. Cassie helped open the other. The smell of raspberries tinged the cool air as we passed into the back. Endless rows of jars lined racks, stuffed to the brim with fruit in the process of becoming preserves. I love raspberries.

Cassie’s voice was dry and unimpressed. “Don’t tell me you live back here, with the ingredients…”

I grunted. I limped past the racks, cupboards and equipment to a series of plastic flaps hanging over a doorway. Cassie followed along, holding me upright. “Through here.”

She led the way through. We entered a metal cage set into a stone wall. “You sleep in a cage?”

It was like something out of fantastical Victorian novel. An elevator made of soft metals, polished bronze and brass. A beautiful thing, highly impractical, and in need of constant maintenance. I liked it.

Everything around me dimmed. My hand flailed around before I found the wire gate. I swung my arm, sending the gate crashing shut. “Lock it.” My voice came out gruff, the moisture gone from my throat. I slumped against the wall as Cassie stopped supporting me. There was a click, thud as she locked the gate. “Lever,” I croaked.

Breathing was difficult. My temperature rose and I was sweating. Poison.

“Found it.”

I pushed off the wall, coming to stand in the center of the cage. My balance wavered. “Pull it.” Metal moaned, gears ground, and the cage shivered to life.

“This has got to be the most rickety-looking elevator I’ve ever seen.”

I didn’t respond. I sank to my knees, focusing on slowing my breathing. Calm, deep breaths, which hopefully lowered my heart rate. Whatever the poison was, I didn’t need my heart pumping it through my bloodstream any faster. Through my blinks, I was able to make out the aged stone walls as we descended. An itch developed between my ears, one I had no hope of scratching. Everything shook.

“Crap, this thing’s going to fall apart. I’m going to die in an elevator with someone older than Dumbledore.”

It took me a moment to rack up enough moisture in my throat to respond. “I’m. Not. Old.” The elevator came to an aggressive stop that rattled the metal bars.

“Worst. Ride. Ever,” muttered Cassidy. “Come on, Gramps.” She knelt beside me, easing my arm around her. “Don’t die. You’re supposed to be helping me, not the other way around.”

An indiscernible noise was my only response. Dull lights made up most of my limited view. A mess comprised of varied antiquities blurred by. “Chair.”

“You know, this single syllable crap is annoying. What chair?”

“Red chair.”

“Bravo.” I could picture her scowl. “Two syllables. You’re moving up. All right, here, let’s get you down slowly.”

My support vanished for a second. I fell an inch before Cassie’s arms wrapped tight under mine, cinching around my torso. She lowered me into my favored seat, an ancient couch I had found at a yard sale in the seventies. It was the same shade of red as a child’s fire engine, covered in velvet that somehow managed to remain perfect, and stuffed with clouds if I had to guess.

“Hot.”

“This isn’t the time to be hitting on me. Plus, I’m not into old guys.” Her voice wavered as she made the quip.

Humor is a great thing to calm one’s nerves. It deflects tension and heals wounds.

My coat stretched and pulled against me as she removed it. “Better?”

I lolled my head instead of making an effort to nod.

“Hey.” She patted my cheek. “You okay? Hey! Say something all Buddha-like.”

“It’s good…to be…home.” I struggled for breath after finishing.

She snorted. It was adorable to see a girl her age making such an indelicate sound. “Good enough. Crap, your leg’s a mess.”

“He’s always a mess,” came a tight, discontent, gravelly voice. “Aiyah, what did you do?”

“Who are you?” asked Cassie.

“The doctor, hsst!” Strong, thin fingers, calloused and wrinkled from age and work, cradled my leg.

“Shush me again and I’ll break your little finger,” Cassidy mumbled.

He ignored her, eyeing the wound I imagined. “Tch, bad. What did you do?”

“Got…involved.”

“Yaaaaah, stupid is as stupid does.”

I didn’t argue. He had a point.

A quick burst of breath left his mouth, making its way across my exposed skin. “Can’t do anything like this. Help me get his pants off.”

“Say what?”

“Pants, girl. Help me get them off. You want him to keep bleeding or let the poison to kill him?”

“Poison?”

“Aiyah, yes. Hurry.”

“So not how I planned my day.” Her hands came to my waist. I could feel her breath as she undid my belt. “Stuck here with two geezers, trying to get one of their pants off. Ugh, this is how pornos happen. It is so not happening here. Not happening.”

Honestly, I found her rant amusing. It helped with the pain, and there was lots of that.

Gasoline ignited within the wound and the surrounding area as the waistline of my jeans rubbed the skin. The only sound I could make was a sharp, pained wheeze. My stomach roiled like an ocean storm. Every inch of my body spiked in temperature. The only bit spared was my leg, which grew colder by the second.

“Alcohol. The good stuff; where is it?”

“Don’t you have medical stuff to clean it?”

“Don’t argue, child. Find it.”

Consciousness was a task to cling to. I pictured Cassidy’s reaction to being called a child. It helped. Maybe she would go as far as to hit the doctor for me. He deserved it on occasion.

“Man, this place is a mess.”

If I could’ve spoken, I would’ve rebutted with a quote from Einstein about cluttered spaces and minds. It may have been a mess, but it was my mess.

“Here, is this any good? It looks expensive. I mean the bottle does.”

When your vision dulls, your other senses compensate. More than a century of living also helps in honing them. I heard the liquid slosh, the top being undone.

“Here, sniff.” The doctor held the whiskey below my nose. I blinked, jarred by its strength. I smelled the dry aldehydes of hay, a hint of pinewood, and the sweetness of caramel. He clasped down a hair’s breadth above the wound. “This is gonna hurt.”

The smells dissipated when the bottle was pulled away. I could hear the liquor slosh around. My eyes were already shut, but I went as far as wincing. I set my jaw and tensed in anticipation of the burn.

Liquid left the bottle, but nothing happened. A dry rasp followed by a fit of coughs. “Ackh, tsch.” Another bout of coughs. “The good stuff always burns.”

“What about him?” said a scandalized Cassie.

“Need to steady my hands. Here.” More whiskey sloshed.

“Yeah sure, what the hell? Monsters, magic, trees, and bullshit.” I heard her take a swig. She let out a harsher fit of coughs. “Ugh, it’s like someone splashed vanilla into paint thinner.”

“Settles the hands and nerves.”

I wanted to protest about giving her the expensive eighty-year-old liquor. At her age, I didn’t think she had much experience with the harder spirits.

Cassie cleared her throat. “So does wine, but what do I know? My stuff comes out of a box by the gallon.”

The doctor’s hand shook. His grasp loosened as he chuckled. “Okay, hold onto your panties.” His fingers were rods of iron, applying enough pressure that I thought he would do more damage.

My body shook as it was enveloped in a cold that made winter seem like a cool autumn’s night. The limb went numb. Then came the other extreme, like my muscles were being grilled. The torn skin moved on its own. It felt like paper stretching too thin as my flesh folded, knitting itself together.

“Hey, old timer?” The doctor was taking a page from Cassidy’s book. Great.

“Will he…?” Her voice sounded like it was coming from further away. The weight in my skull increased and my couch seemed all the more inviting.

“Probably. He’s a tough old coot.”

I needed to keep Cassidy away from the doctor.

“He’s stubborn, too stubborn, but that can be a good thing here. And he’s survived worse. He’ll be hungry—”

The doctor was right.

“Thirsty—”

I was.

“And sleepy.”

It seemed like a good idea. Always heed the advice of your doctor.

 

***

 

The stiffness left my body when I woke. My muscles felt stringy, and my eyes protested against my decision to open them. A low groan escaped my mouth as I rocked my head from side to side, cracking my neck. My face snapped to the side as something flat struck my cheek. “Mmrgh!” I squirmed, placing a hand to my stinging cheek.

“He’s up,” said the soon-to-be-deceased doctor.

A face lined with eight decades of age greeted me. He had a complexion common in the Orient with all the features to match: narrow, intelligent brown eyes; thinned hair that had long ago turned white. If I were able to stand, the man wouldn’t reach my chest. Cassie was likely taller than him.

A small domed cap, too small for any practical use, sat atop his head. He dressed in a black turtleneck and blue pajamas depicting a British police box. Unlike most doctors, he didn’t carry any medical paraphernalia. His hands were coated in dried blood, and he wasn’t perturbed by that.

“Yeah, I’m up, George.” Every word pulled at the lining of my throat. “Why the slap?”

“Why not?”

I blinked, unable to refute that logic.

The pile of books resting on the floor tumbled over as something rustled. Cassie rose from her crumpled sleeping position. She placed a palm to one of her eyes, grinding it there. Her arms went up as she stretched and arched her back. She let out a light yawn, smacking her lips as she did. “Sup, Sleeping Beauty, feeling better?”

“I’m not sure. I had a horrible dream; I came across a young girl with a big mouth and an even bigger problem. She was falling between worlds. Trolls were chasing her, and I signed my death sentence by helping her. Did all of that really happen?”

She looked down to the hardwood flooring. “Yeah, yeah, it did.”

“Then I’m doing fine.” I leaned forward, giving her a smile. “What happened?” I pressed a palm to my temple, twisting it back and forth, hoping to assuage the drumming.

“You were poisoned,” said George.

“I gathered that much. By what?”

He shrugged. “Whatever it was, it was a pain to heal.”

George held up his hands. Blood coated them to the knuckles and crusted his nails. That wasn’t what caught my attention. Through the dark red veneer, his veins bulged like they had been replaced by steel cords. He gave me a knowing look. Something rippled below his skin, like a wave undulating through his veins. It rolled from his hand to his elbow before disappearing.

“Are you going to be fine?”

George exhaled, his voice coming out a bit drier than usual. “Probably. Going to be taking this, though.” He held up my whiskey. Half the bottle remained. “Good stuff.”

“I know. It’s worth a small fortune.”

He gave me a lopsided, toothy smile. “That’s my fee.” His head fell back as he tipped the bottle. After a quick swig, he capped the bottle, sighing in pleasure. “Let me know if he has any problems, eh?” he said to Cassie.

She gave him a thumbs up before releasing another groan. George waved his hand in a lazy salute and turned to leave. Cassie groaned again.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Ugh, your booze is hardcore.”

“You shouldn’t have drunk it, regardless of what George said.”

“Yeah, old people are taking advantage of me lately, it seems.”

It was my turn to groan. She refused to let up with the old man comments. I’d lived for over a century. Physically, I was thirty.

“I don’t suppose you have a magical hangover cure down here?”

“If I did, I’d be rich selling it—richer.”

“Yeah, for real. What’s with this place? It’s like the Batcave—a really nerdy, less gothic, Batcave. Without his car and all the—you know—cool stuff.”

My home was one large room. The size could dwarf many a cathedral. Bookshelves reserved for the oldest libraries and universities ran along the walls without a break. Each one overflowed with books, loose pages, and random objects plucked over the decades. A warm glow of yellow spread across the place, coming from the lighting above.

My place was a mess. Random tables made of varying woods in different hues littered the place. An ebony piano—never played—covered with more books. There were maps of the mortal world and beyond. Antiques and magical items were in whichever spot I believed best upon returning home with them. And there was plenty of “cool” stuff. A point I vocalized.

“There is no end to cool stuff in my home.”

She laughed, throwing her hands over her mouth to stifle it.

I pushed my way out of the chair, teetering on my heels for a moment, before I tapped her skull with my knuckles.

“Ow, oh my God. Aagh,” She cradled her head. “You’re such a dick.”

“Don’t drink and criticize.”

She mumbled something incoherent under her breath. After she had finished massaging her head, she pointed to George, who was stepping into the lift. “So, what was that about?”

“He healed me.”

“Yeah, I got that. He put his hands on you and, boom, your leg pulled itself together. I almost upchucked, no joke.”

“Glad you didn’t.”

She stared, waiting for an answer. When I gave none, she pressed for one. “So, he a paladin or something? I mean my whole life’s gone D&D anyways.”

“No. If you want to know more about him, ask him.” There was a loud clunk as the elevator came to life, pulling up and away.

“And Tatiana?”

“Ask her.”

“Mysterious characters are so uncool.”

I shrugged.

“Come on. Something?”

“They earn their keep,” I said.

“Wait. What? I thought you lived under her bakery?”

“I live here.” I waved a hand at everything in sight. “This is my building, all three stories and beyond. They’re my tenants, and they pay well.”

She arched an eyebrow.

“Tatiana’s bakery does well, but that’s not why I let her operate here. And George is an acupuncturist. A good one.”

“Funny, I didn’t see him sticking any needles into you.”

“Which is exactly why he doesn’t pay rent in cash. They’re good friends. I’ve known them a long time.”

“Yeah, well, it’s all relative isn’t it?” She smirked.

I snorted. “Yes.”

“So how long is long?”

“Long.”

“Tatiana doesn’t seem that much older than me.”

I didn’t comment on that. “No? But she’s a good bouncer.”

Cassidy clutched her stomach and broke into laughter. I kept silent. If Tatiana heard I laughed about her, she would give me an enema with that rolling pin.

“Ohhh.” She stopped, blinking several times. “Seriously, what was in that stuff?”

“Whiskey. Really old whiskey.”

“Ugh. I’m done drinking.”

“Good.” I placed my chin on my palm. “Now we can focus on the monsters chasing you, the why, and what to do about it.”

“Maybe I could use another drink. Forgetting this is happening would be awesome.”

“It’s an option. Sorry to say it won’t do much apart from cause another headache.”

“Yeah, I know.” Cassie looked away, staring into a faraway place that only she could see. Several minutes passed before she got to her feet. The young woman took another look around my home before walking over to a cream-colored love seat. She plopped onto it. Her legs dangled over the arm-rest, kicking occasionally. Cassie buried her eyes in the bend of her arm. “So, we’re safe here right?”

I saw no point in lying to her. “I’m not sure. My home is safe, to an extent.”

She inched her arm away just enough to peer through it. But she chose to remain silent.

“Tatiana won’t let just anyone or anything through. Members of the Timeless are exempt from that. The ones who know where I live, that is.”

“And how many is that?”

“Two.”

“Yeah, but your…crew aren’t the ones looking for me.”

“Until I know for a fact who is and why, everyone is suspect.”

“But I thought you guys weren’t allowed to get involved with this kind of stuff.” She made a series of random motions with her hand.

I cleared my throat.

“Right, so, how many of them are rebels like you?”

“I don’t know. I’m the only one stupid enough to get caught.”

“Yeah, how?”

I sighed and stood up, pacing around the couch as I thought. I had no bearings on this, no idea of what to do, or where to go. Cassie was a unique problem. A human being with no magical background, possessing the ability to pass in and out of the Neravene without any knowledge of it. Technically, what she was doing was impossible.

The supernatural world held little regard for that word. My thoughts quieted enough for me to hear a steady tick. I turned to the miniature replica of a clock tower, which stood against the nearest wall, wedged between another bookshelf and a weapons rack fashioned out of ebony. The tower was something I had commissioned after the Blitz. The face was functional. I had a little over two days left before I would be called to inquiry.

Forty-eight hours to come up with a strong enough defense to justify my offenses. Two problems; two days. Either problem could get me killed. The clock ticked on. I might have stood outside it, but time waits for no man.

“John?”

The clock ticked on. Little shapes resembling odd creatures—some winged, some with exaggerated mouths—spread over bits of the replica. The gargoyles were a nice touch.

“John? What did you do?”

The clock ticked on. Time slipped by and I had an idea. “Another time.”

“What? Why? We’ve got a breather right now. Can’t we chill for a bit? Tell me some more crap about this other world.”

“I’m sorry, but I know what to do. Where to go.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. We need to pay a visit to the Grand Marquis.”

***
End of ARC chapter three

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