TUESDAY, JULY 26, 10:37 A.M.
Allison Hampton made me want to weep in despair.
Nothing in my entire life had prepared me to look as put-together and attractive as she had every time I’d met her. Her thick blonde hair was wrapped in a twist, keeping its weight and heat away from her shoulders. She wore a sleeveless pearlescent shell blouse and above-the-knee slacks-weight shorts that showed off tanned legs and low-heeled strappy sandals that looked both attractive and comfortable.
I looked at my feet. The hem of my jeans rode low over a pair of open-toed black clogs that added a couple of inches to my already considerable height. They were comfy, but they were not sexy. The jeans were new, and low-cut enough that I needed the belt that had come with them, and my green knit tank-top had seemed quite sufficient to an off-duty tour of the police station five minutes earlier, when Allison hadn’t yet arrived. She was wearing dangly gold earrings. My ears weren’t even pierced. I was wondering if 93 degree heat was sufficient to excuse me for melting into a sad greasy puddle of comparative unattractiveness when a little girl rocketed from Allison’s mini-van and launched herself at me.
“Ossifer Walker! Ossifer OFFICER Walker! Guess what guess what guess WHAT!”
I caught her, grunted, and staggered back, trying not to laugh at her enthusiasm and her mother’s dismay. “Hey, Ashley. What?” At least Ashley wasn’t dressed to the nines. Then again, she was six. Blue jeans and a pink t-shirt suited her just fine.
“Today is MY BIRTHDAY!”
“You’re kidding.” I rolled my jaw, trying to get hearing back into my ear, and blinked toward Allison, who nodded ruefully. “Seriously? You’re spending your birthday getting a tour of the police station? Well, happy birthday!”
“Inside voice, Ash,” Allison said hastily. We weren’t inside, but my eardrums were grateful for the comparative modulation of the little girl’s voice.
“It’s what I wanted! I’m going to be a police ossiofficer when I grow up. Just like you!” Ashley wriggled all over, rather like a puppy, and slid down my hip. I clutched at her, but apparently down was what she was after, and a couple of seconds later she tore up the precinct building stairs to stand by the doors, all straight and proud.
I turned to Allison. “Don’t take this wrong, but you have a sort of peculiar kid.”
Allison laughed. “She’s convinced policemen are superheroes ever since you got us that ambulance. This is by far the longest she’s ever wanted to be one particular thing when she grows up.”
“I kind of hope she doesn’t outgrow it for a while. She’s cute.” We let Ashley open the door for us, and I guided them through the building to my boss’s office.
Captain Michael Morrison got to his feet with a much more genuine smile than I was used to seeing when I entered his personal space. He always looked good at work–okay, I could have stopped that sentence after ‘good’ and it would still be accurate–but I’d warned him I was bringing the Hamptons in for their tour today, and the captain had gone to a little extra trouble to look sharp. His silvering hair had had been trimmed, and he hadn’t yet abandoned the suit jacket that usually landed on a coat rack or the back of his chair by mid-morning. Allison Hampton’s smile went a bit softer and more inviting than I liked, and I bit my tongue hard. Pretty women finding Morrison attractive was none of my business, even if it made me want to break a strap on those expensive sandals of hers.
“Ashley.” Morrison offered first the little girl, then Allison, a hand to shake. “Mrs. Hampton.”
“Ms, actually,” Allison said pleasantly.
“Ms,” Morrison said equally pleasantly, and I reminded myself that this was not a good time to suggest they could get a room. God forbid they should actually do it, for one. Morrison came around his desk to lean on it and look down at Ashley thoughtfully. “Seems to me I said something about a case for you to work on, didn’t I.”
Ashley did the puppy wriggle again, nodding until her hair shimmied like a scarecrow in the wind. “One all for me!”
“As it happens, I’ve got something for you.” Morrison very solemnly offered her a page in a file folder. “We’re missing a very important box, Ashley. Did you know that police officers come around to the Seattle schools and talk about safety?”
“Of course I do!” Ashley caroled. Allison’s eyebrows went up in disbelieving amusement and she caught my eye to mouth ‘no she didn’t’. I forgot I was busy hating her and her polished look and her flirty voice, and grinned back.
“Well,” Morrison said, still solemnly, “we’ve lost our box of materials that we bring to the schools. I was hoping you could help us find it. Why don’t you sit down and read over the notes we have, and then you and Detective Walker can work on solving the case?”
My grin went a bit foolish. The ‘case’ had been Morrison’s idea to make up for me disappointing Ashley a few weeks earlier. I’d spent half the previous afternoon running around the station setting up clues and the eventual reward of the box for Ashley to discover, and had done it all with a warm fuzzy feeling. I’d spent years with Morrison as my own personal bugbear. I kind of liked discovering he had a squooshy side.
Ashley’s smile lit up the room. “Okay!” She flung herself belly-first on the floor and squirmed halfway under Morrison’s desk to make herself comfortable. Morrison blinked, first at her, then at Allison Hampton, who’d crouched as soon as Ashley hit the floor.
“She never met a floor she didn’t like. Ashley, come out–”
Morrison shook his head. “It’s fine. She won’t be long.”
“Still, I’m so sorry–” Allison stood back up, the better to apologize.
“Hey,” Ashley said from under the desk, “there’s a rabbit hole under here.
“Really.” I bent over, amused, to take a look.
Thing was, there was a rabbit hole under Morrison’s desk.
“Uhm.” I cleared my throat, hoping for a somewhat wittier bit of repartee to burst forth. None did. “Um, Morrison, can you see that?”
I could hear the exasperated look he gave me. Apparently humoring small children with invented police cases was one thing, but humoring me playing along with rabbit holes was something else.
I couldn’t really blame him, truth be told. A little over six months ago I’d gone from an aggravating but extremely skilled mechanic to an extremely aggravating and utterly unskilled shaman. Morrison did not like inexplicable things like the Wild Hunt or banshees turning up in his precinct. Neither did I, for that matter, but I’d come to terms with the fact that it was my job to deal with them.
“No, Walker, I don’t see…” Once more, I could all but hear Morrison’s change of expression, this time accompanied by the grinding of gears in his skull. After a moment he said, “I take it you do,” in an extraordinarily measured voice.
Ashley squirmed further under the desk, calling, “I’m going dooooown!” as she half disappeared into the rabbit hole.
I straightened up, hoping my smile didn’t look as forced as it felt. “Boss, if you don’t mind us taking over your office for a few minutes, Ashley and I can work out the clues in the map during our adventure in the rabbit hole. Maybe you could take Allison for a cup of coffee over at The Missing O.”
“Oh, I couldn’t leave you–”
I felt a little sorry for Allison, who sounded as though she really meant it, and who looked suddenly as if coffee with an adult would be manna from heaven. Coffee with Morrison, who was not only an adult, but attractive and nice to her kid, would presumably be…whatever was better than manna. Ambrosia.
I broadened my smile, trying hard to make it look genuine. “Don’t worry about it. Morrison’s too much of a stickler for time to let a coffee break run more than fifteen minutes. Ashley and I will be fine.”
“We’ll be fiiiiine, Mooooom!”
Ten seconds later they were out the door, and I dove down the rabbit hole after Ashley Hampton.
I was not in the habit of departing this world–the Middle World–in physical form. I’d spent a fair amount of time over the past six months leaving it in spiritual terms, visiting a whole host of realms–Upper, Lower, Astral, Dream, Dead–but I hadn’t once physically crawled down a hole that led somewhere else. On a gut level, I thought Ashley and I were traveling into the Lower World, the plane of demons and power animals and extremely powerful, living mythology. It was the root of the universe to which the Middle World belonged; the Upper World was the branches, people by spirits and, er, well. Power animals and extremely powerful, living mythology.
Ashley, gleeful, shrieked, “There’s a raaaabbit! A white raaaabbit! C’mere, bunny! C’mon, Ossifficer Walker! Help me catch the rabbit!”
The part of my brain that was no help at all made me mumble, “It’s Detective Walker now, actually.” The part that was more helpful connected white rabbits with–well, Alice in Wonderland, as anybody would, but the Alice half of the Hampton Duo was off having a doughnut with Morrison.
Moving on, then. I went from Wonderland to the briar patch, and leggy trouble-making Brer Rabbit. Not for nothing had I spent some of my formative years in Cherokee County. One part voodoo god, one part wise man, Brer Rabbit was a trickster, full of foolish cunning.
All of a sudden I really didn’t want Ashley to catch the critter she was after. “Ashley, wait up!”
I erupted out of the tunnel in a shower of soft loamy sweet-smelling earth. The world around me stretched flat for an instant, going two-dimensional and awful, then snapped back to a more comfortable three dimensions, though a hint of flatness remained. The sky above was rubbed with red, sunlight pouring down with less intensity than I was used to. The vegetation responded to the light, growing tall and thick but with black edges to the leaves: not sinister, but not normal. I was on a low hillside, above a slow-moving river that ran through the valley bottom.
Ashley scampered off across the landscape, shouting, “Come back, come back, Mister Rabbit! I want to have a tea party!”
A flash of cottontail white stopped and turned around to examine Ashley. I swore and scrambled to my feet, chasing child and bunny at top speed. There were aspects of the astral realms which I could travel at impossible speeds. This wasn’t one of them, and by the time I caught up with Ashley and Brer Rabbit, they were seated at a pink-clothed table which, thankfully, did not also have a dormouse and a Mad Hatter in attendence.
Still, a rabbit and a little girl sitting down to tea was really pretty much weird enough. Ashley saw a white rabbit. I saw a brown one, much less cartoony than Disney would have me imagine him, and looking at him gave me the same shiver of awe that the thunderbird and Big Coyote had.
“Well, how do you do, Ossifer Walker.” Brer Rabbit, a sparkle in his eyes, tipped his cup of tea toward me in greeting. I didn’t like that sparkle at all: it said that like far too many things in the Other parts of the universe, he knew more than he was saying. He’d call me Ossifer Walker for Ashley’s sake–in fact, the fact that he was talking at all put the whole worldscape solidly in Ashley’s view, because none of the primal animal beings that I’d met had talked, previously. For a disconcerting instant I saw through the button-nosed form sitting at the tea table: Saw through it, with the astounding second sight that I still hadn’t become entirely accustomed to.
Through that sight, Brer Rabbit was elemental, a thing of spikes and sparks and fractal patterns, chaos embodied. He was every trickster that had ever been, every one that ever would be, and he went back and forward through time as easily as wind blew through leaves. I forced my eyes shut, not that doing so affected the sight, and willed it away. I didn’t think human beings, even shamans, were supposed to spend much time contemplating chaos. I was afraid my brain would melt, and I wasn’t quite being hyperbolic about it.
My voice came out in a whisper, somewhat less certain than I’d have liked: “How do you do, Brer Rabbit.” Less certain and more Southern, which surprised me. Mostly I sounded like I was from Nowhere, U.S.A, due to having grown up Everywhere, U.S.A. as my father drove us around. Once in a while, though, the years in North Carolina came through, and for all that the storybooks spelled it br’er, I couldn’t help just swallowing most of the letters and turning the word to bruh, Brother, the way it was supposed to be.
“Won’t you sit down and have some tea, Detective Walker?” Ashley poured me a cup without waiting on my answer, and put two small cookies onto a plate for me. I sat down, not so much because I wanted to break bread with Brer Rabbit as I had no idea what he might do with Allison Hampton’s daughter if I didn’t. Every story I knew about him danced through my mind, and the rabbit managed to smile at me.
“Now, it won’t be the Tar Baby nor the briar patch that looses you of me today, Officer Walker. Nor will it be the tortoise and the hare, nor the scarecrow. We know those tales, you and I, and we will not tell them again here and now.” He sounded like that certain style of old Southern gentleman, the ones who say every syllable in slow concentration, though even so, “Tar Baby” was a rolled-out luxurious, “Taah Baybeh”.
I picked up my teacup to give my hands something to do. “What is it that you want?”
Affront came into the rabbit’s brown eyes. “How can you think I want anything, Officer Walker?”
“You’re Brer Rabbit. You always want something.” A fragile smile worked its way past the edge of my teacup. “Usually something you shouldn’t have.”
It took everything I had not to look at Ashley. Brother Rabbit didn’t have that same restraint, and glanced her way before smiling at me.
“Did you know it’s my birthday?” Ashley beamed at Brer Rabbit, at me, and at the birthday cake which hadn’t previously been on the table. “I’m seven today,” she added self-importantly. “How old are you?”
“Why, I’m as old as the very hills, Miss Ashley. I’m as old as human dreams. And I did know it was your birthday. If it weren’t, you might never have seen that rabbit hole I dug just for you.”
“My mommy couldn’t see it. Sometimes grown-ups don’t see what’s there. Except Detective Walker. She sees things. She’s a superhero!”
Brer Rabbit looked from Ashley to me and back again. “Is she, now. Well, I have an idea, Miss Ashley. If Officer Walker is so much a hero, perhaps she’ll play a little game with me. If she wins, you go home with her, back to the place you call home. If I win, you’ll stay with me, here in this magical land.”
Ashley chirruped, “Sure!” before I could stuff half the cake into her mouth and silence her. Some superhero I was. She turned her bright little smile on me and lifted a china pot. “Would you like some honey in your tea, Detective Walker?”
“Um.” I looked into my undrunk tea. “No, thanks, sweetie. Not right now.” Not until after I’d rescued her from a chaos elemental. Ashley shrugged and began cutting pieces of her cake, though she didn’t go so far as to offer any to me or Brother Rabbit. I supposed there were limits to what you could expect of a seven-year-old left with a cake and no parental supervision. I turned my attention back to Rabbit, warily asking, “What game?”
“A game of chance,” Rabbit said, and it struck me maybe a little too late that for a creature dredged out of Ashley’s imagination, he was awfully well-spoken.
“It’s not just her imagination I spring from, Officer Walker. She may be hearing something very different from what you hear. Tricks,” Brer Rabbit said with a shake of his head. “They’re terrible things.”
What was terrible in my mind was that one, he appeared to be reading my thoughts, and two, Brer Rabbit generally came out ahead of the other animals in his stories. Being out-smarted by a rabbit didn’t seem like a good way to build my shamanic confidence.
Well, said my ever-present sarcastic voice, you could try remembering your mental shields.
Glimmering approval turned Brer Rabbit’s brown eyes to amber as I belatedly constructed the Enterprise-like shields that Coyote had taught me to build. I really needed to get in the habit of maintaining those things twenty-four/seven. “I do come out ahead,” Rabbit agreed, “but so would you, if you were the hero of your own stories.”
I stared at him a long moment, unable to stop myself from looking back over the last seven months of my life in that light. Technically, I’d come out ahead, in that I wasn’t dead. On the other hand, quite a few other people were. I wasn’t all that sure I qualified as the hero of anything.
“Ooh,” Ashley said happily. “Carrot cake.”
Brer Rabbit sat up, paws tucked to his chest, nose a-quiver, just like the most rabbity rabbit there ever was. He looked avariciously at Ashley, who had managed to smear cream cheese frosting all the way from her eyebrows to her chin. I checked the cake, but there was no face-sized imprint in it. I had to admire the kid’s tenacity, in that case.
“Tell you what,” I said dryly. “You can have a piece of carrot cake if you let Ashley go. In fact, you can have the whole carrot cake. A nice full round tummy and a nice warm sun to sleep under. What could be better than that?”
Brer Rabbit’s nose twitched again and for about a millisecond, I thought it was actually going to work. Then he sank back into his seat, whiskers drooping. “I’m afraid keeping the girl is more important.”
“Why?” Nerves suddenly cramped my hands and I was glad I’d remembered to shield my thoughts. None of the stories I’d heard talked about Brer Rabbit stealing children. That was more of an Irish fairy tale.
A thunderous cloud rolled over the sky, cutting out all the light. The Lower World stretched flatter and thinner, like it was trying to hide from something, or, it came to me, as if it was trying to hide something. Me, maybe. Me, or Ashley. My own voice came from far away, pulled into discordant tones by the distorted world: “Who sent you, Bro’ Rabbit?”
He wouldn’t tell me, but I knew the answer already; knew it as though it had been burned into my bones. There was a creature out there, something the banshee had called Master, and he had haunted me since the day my shamanic powers awakened. I didn’t know what he was or what he wanted besides a piece of me, but all of a sudden Ashley Hampton looked like a very tempting piece of bait. I’d followed her into the rabbit hole without a second thought. I’d go anywhere to keep the kid safe. Little girls didn’t deserve to get mixed up in my weird-ass world.
Ashley, miserably, said, “I want to go home.”
“Oh, but not yet.” Brer Rabbit threw off the gloom–literally: the sky lightened again, darkness fleeing before his smooth Southern voice–and I put an arm around Ashley’s shoulders protective. “We haven’t had our cake yet,” he said.
Ashley sniffled. “Okay. But it was more fun before, when we were playing.”
“We can play as long as you like,” Brer Rabbit promised.
Kids were amazing. Mercurial little monsters, in the depths of despair one moment and happy as larks the next. Ashley brightened right up. “Will you dance with me?”
For a rabbit, he did a surprisingly good job of looking non-plussed. Then he stood, came around the table, and swept Ashley up in his rabbity arms.
The child I had my arm around stayed right where she was.
Carrot cake and honey and a pink table cloth stuck to Brer Rabbit’s face and chest and paws.
Ashley grabbed my hand and whispered, “Run!”
We raced back out of the rabbit hole so fast I clobbered my head on the underside of Morrison’s desk. Ashley flung herself to the side, eyes wide and dramatic as she gasped at the ceiling. I rubbed my head and spluttered, then finally began to applaud. “How’d you do that, kid?”
“He said Tar Baby wouldn’t work, but he didn’t say anything about a Honey Baby!” Ashley pushed up on her elbows, eyes still very wide. “I just had to build it real fast while you and him were talking. I pretended real hard that I wasn’t doing anything and hoped he wouldn’t see!”
“I didn’t even see.” And I was supposed to be a grown-up who noticed things. “That was brilliant, Ashley. That was fantastic. You’re amazing.”
She beamed at me, though the expression went away again almost instantly, turning instead to conspiracy. “I think we shouldn’t tell my mommy, okay?”
I laughed, a sort of frantic noise in the back of my throat, and fumbled around for her case file. “I think that might be a good idea. How about we go find this instead, so she can be impressed when she gets back?”
Ashley scrambled to her feet and took my hand a second time. “I’m going to be just like you when I grow up, Detective Walker.”
I followed her out of Morrison’s office, wondering if she just might be.