Excerpt from Thunderbird Falls

Thunderbird Falls cover
Book Two of the Walker Papers


Two words I never thought would go together: Joanne Walker and 6 A.M.

Nevermind that that’s actually four words, five if you spell ante meridiem out. If you’re going to get technical, you’re going to lose all your friends. The point is, it was Oh God Early and I was not only up, but at work. Not even at work. I was volunteering. Volunteering my own precious sleeping time, five hours before I was supposed to be at work. I’m so noble I kill myself, I tell you.

While I was busy admiring my nobility, a bunch of protesters linked arms and waded forward toward the police line I was a part of. There were considerably more of them than there were of us-hence me being there at all-and our power of authority as granted to us by the city of Seattle wasn’t pulling a lot of weight with them. They weren’t violent, just determined. I spread my arms wide and leaned into the oncoming mass, blowing a whistle that was more noisome than effective. The arm-linked protesters stopped close enough that I could count the individual silver hairs on the head of the man directly in front of me. They didn’t do anything else, didn’t move close enough to touch me, just stood there, Right In My Personal Space.

People have gotten shot for less.

Not, however, by me, and besides, as one of the city’s finest, I wasn’t in a position to be shooting people just for getting in my personal space. Instead I took a step forward, trusting my own presence to be enough to cow them a little bit. It was; the guy directly in front of me shifted back, making a bow in his line. I pressed my advantage, arms still spread wide, and they all fell back a step.

I let go a sigh of relief that I couldn’t let them see, herding them back several more steps before I let off and backed up again myself. They watched me, silent, sullen and short.

I was working on a theory that said all environmentalists were short. I knew it was wrong-Al Gore is a tall man-but it gave me something to do while I played push-me-pull-you with the protesters. Of course, most people are short compared to me: I stood a smidge under six feet in socks, and the sturdy black walking shoes I wore put me a smidge over.

Behind me lay the summertime glory of the Seattle Center, where a symposium on global warming was being held. Representatives from every oil company, every car company, every corporation that had ever been fined for too many dirty emissions being pumped out into the air were gathered there to argue their case against the bleeding-heart liberals who thought a little clean air was asking too much.

Sorry, was that my sarcastic voice? A result of the early morning hour, I promise. I’m hardly ever sarcastic. Honest.
Sarcasm aside, the greenies were losing major ground and had been since the symposium had opened two days earlier. The federal administration favored big money and big companies, and those companies were taking as much advantage as they could.

My own sympathies lay a whole lot more with the protesters and their concerns about little things like global warming. It was already in the high seventies and it wasn’t yet seven in the morning, which was just wrong, for mid-June. They tell me Seattle has terrible weather, but I’ve lived here nine years and have yet to be convinced of it.

But it wasn’t my job to have an opinion about who was right and who was wrong. It was my job to keep the several thousand men and women who were gathered at the Center from breaking through and rending the Armani suits from the bodies of the corpulent pigs managing the slaughter.

That was my sarcastic voice again, wasn’t it? Damn.

“Officer?” A woman’s voice, high pitched with worry, broke me out of my cheerfully spiraling cynicism. I turned toward her, one hand still lifted in warning against the crowd. I suspected a trick: distract the cop for a minute while everybody surges forward, therefore losing the law a few precious feet of land. There were more physical barriers than just the police officers keeping people off the Center grounds-bright orange, cordoned sawhorses surrounded the entire place-but it was its own sort of psychological warfare.

The woman held a pale-cheeked sleeping girl in her arms. “She fainted,” the woman said. Her voice was thready with concern and fear. “Please, I-I think we need a doctor.”

Right behind the bottom of my breastbone, centered in the diaphragm, a coil of energy flared up, making a cool fluttering space inside me. It demanded attention, making my hands cramp and my stomach churn. I rubbed my sternum, swallowing back the wave of nausea. I’d gotten good at ignoring that sensation in the last several months. Having it crop up so powerfully made me dizzy and as pale-feeling as the little girl. My hand, without any conscious order from my brain, reached out to touch the girl’s forehead. Her skin was cold and sticky with sweat.

A lot of things happened in the next few seconds. The first of them was that the energy within me, for the first time since I’d nearly burned it out in March, refused to take no for an answer. It shot through me, making silver-tinted rainbows beneath my skin, and strained at my fingertips, trying to pass from me into the chilly-skinned child.

The second was that I let it. Had she been an adult, I might have been able-and willing-to pull back and refuse the magic that was stored within me. I’d certainly succeeded in doing that day after day over the past months. I wanted neither the power nor the responsibility I’d been tricked into taking up, and I spent a lot of waking hours denying it existed. It didn’t help: it remained a part of me, stubborn and silent, wrapping around my insides and waiting for me to give in and acknowledge it again.

And now, for the moment, it had won. I coasted on silver-sheened power that told me in the most simple, non-medical terms possible, that the girl was suffering from heat stroke.

To me-a mechanic by trade, even if I was a cop by day-that meant her engine had overheated.

Fixing an overheated engine’s not a hard thing. You pop the hood, pour new water into the radiator and hope you don’t get burned by the steam, then do it again until the radiator’s full again and your engine’s cooled down.

Translating that to a child sick with heat was easier than it might seem. I wanted to take it slowly: reintroducing cooler blood to her poor brain could be a terrible shock to her too-warm system. The energy inside me boiled with eagerness to flow out of me and into the girl, but I held it back, letting it drip instead of pour. I could actually envision the steam hissing off her as heat gradually was replaced by my cool silver strength. It seemed a wonder that no one else could see it.

I was glad she was asleep. She couldn’t have been more than five or six. At that age she probably had very few perceptions about how healing worked, but one thing I’d learned is that to heal, you needed faith. It was a whole lot easier to heal somebody who wasn’t consciously disbelieving that what you were doing was possible.

I believed I could do it. I didn’t want to believe it, but right down through the very core of me, I knew I could. The energy stored behind my breastbone felt like it was dancing with joy at being used again.

I let my hand fall off the girl’s forehead. There was a little color in her cheeks now, her breathing somehow more steady and less shallow. She was going to be all right, though an IV drip to help get her fluids back up would probably be a good idea. From the outside, it looked as if I’d touched the girl’s forehead as an assessment, then said, “I’ll escort you out.” I was the only one who knew better, and I was grateful for that: headlines blaring COP TURNS FAITH HEALER! would not endear me to my boss.

The girl’s mother, bright-eyed with tears, whispered her thanks. I led them through the crowd, radioing for an ambulance as we walked.

Watching them drive away half an hour later, I realized I could breathe more easily than I’d been able to in months. I rubbed the heel of my hand over my breastbone again, irritably, and went back to work.

* * *

I left at nine, which was cutting it way too close to really expect to get back to the University by nine thirty. The traffic gods smiled on me, though, and I slid Petite, my 1969 Mustang, into a parking spot outside the gym with a whole two minutes to spare.

I had never been what I would call the athletic sort. Not because I was uncoordinated, but because I hadn’t been very good at working with a team in high school. I wasn’t sure I’d improved at it since then, for that matter. The basketball coach had been endlessly frustrated by me. Alone I could shoot hoops til the cows came home, but put nine other people on a court with me and I got sullen and stupid and couldn’t hold on to the ball.

So fencing lessons, which I’d started shortly after wrassling a banshee to ground, were the first actual sport I’d ever pursued. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, even with sweat leaking into my eyes and my own hot breath washing back at me against the mask.

Metal clashed against metal, a twitchy vibration running up my arm, even through the heavy canvas gloves. Block and retreat, block and retreat, lunge and attack. I blinked sweat away as I extended.

My epee scraped along the other blade and slid home, thumping my opponent solidly in the ribs. For a moment we both froze, equally startled. Then through the mesh of her mask, I saw her grin as she came back to a full stand. She pulled the mask off, tucking short damp hair behind her ears, and saluted me. I straightened and yanked my mask off. My shadow splashed against her white tunic, my hair spiking in frantic sagging points.

“We might just make a fencer of you yet, Joanne.”

Panting and grinning, I tucked my mask under my arm, transferring my epee to my left hand, and offered Phoebe my right. She grabbed it in an old-fashioned warrior’s handshake, wrapping her fingers around my forearm. I’d never seen her shake hands with anyone any other way. Phoebe was small and compact, a Porsche of a woman if I ever saw one. She had muscles where I didn’t even have body parts, and most days she made me feel large and lumbering and slow.

Of course, on a bad day, Godzilla could make me feel large and lumbering and slow.

“That’s my plan.” I shook Phoebe’s hand solidly before falling back a step, rubbing a thumb over my sternum. Phoebe’s dark eyebrows knitted. It was very nearly her dark eyebrow knitting, but I was afraid to even think that too loudly, for fear she’d hear me and beat the tar out of me.

“Why do you do that?”

My hand dropped as if weighed down by a concrete brick, and I twisted it behind my back guiltily. “Do what?”

“You’re the worst liar I’ve ever met, Joanne. Every time somebody makes a point against you and every time a match ends, you rub your breastbone. How come?”

“I had surgery a while ago.” I took a too-deep breath, trying to will away the sensation of not getting enough air. “I guess it still bothers me.”

“Heart surgery?”

“…more like lung.”

Phoebe’s eyebrows went up. “You don’t smoke, do you?”

“No.” I hadn’t snitched since January, when a steely-eyed cab driver refused to give me a smoke because his wife of forty-eight years had died of emphysema. I could learn from other people’s lessons. That was what I told myself.

Quitting smoking had nothing to do with the crushing sensation of being unable to breathe from having a sword stuffed through my lung. I told myself that, too. It turned out myself was a skeptical bitch and didn’t really believe me. “It wasn’t a cancer thing. It was sort of more like hereditary.”

“It still bothers you?”

Phoebe was right. I was a terrible liar. On the other hand, vague allusions to hereditary diseases were a lot more believable than the truth: not many hours after meeting that cab driver, a Celtic god tried to kill me, and in a shadowland between life and death, a Native American trickster offered me a choice between the two.

It turned out there was a whole world out there that I’d spent my life denying. It’s a world where spirit dreams are real and where old gods are neither faded nor weak. It’s a world where Mother Earth and Father Sky worked their will on two unlikely candidates, who came together to produce a third, even more unlikely one: me.

Oh yeah. That sword through the lung was a hereditary disease. I’d come into being in order to suffer that disease, and make a choice. Life or death. Shaman or mundane.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I chose a life as a shaman. I felt that coil of energy bubble up again inside of me, and squelched it. There was no one around who needed healing right now. Nobody but myself, anyway, and I didn’t deny I had a lot of self-healing to do.

Actually, I denied it all the time. Which was part of why I was learning to fence, instead of sitting somewhere quietly, as Coyote-the trickster who’d given me the choice-would like me to, focusing on my inner turmoil and getting it all sorted out. Inner turmoil could wait, as far as I was concerned. So far the things I’d met that came from other realms were inclined to kill me with swords or other pointy things. Learning how to parry, that was important. I wasn’t going to get caught with my pants down again.

Phoebe looked at me expectantly. I blinked at her, trying to recall her words to mind. “Oh! Um, yeah, sometimes. I mean, it’s fine now. Just still bugs me sometimes. I think it’s mostly mental.” I knew it was mostly mental. I didn’t even have a scar.

“Is that why you started coming here?” she wondered. “A lot of people find martial arts to be a great way to center themselves after they’ve had a life-changing experience.”

I ducked my chin and let out a breathy laugh. “Something like that, yeah. Plus I could use the exercise.”

“I thought cops were supposed to be in inherently good shape.”

I looked back up through my eyebrows. “Don’t know many cops, do you? Speaking of which.” I looked for a clock. “I better hit the shower and get to work. Thanks for the lesson, Phoebe.” I-jogged would be overstating it. Meandered. Off the fencing strip. Phoebe held the locker room door for me.

“My pleasure. I like beating up on the big girls. Makes me feel all studly.”

“You are all studly. And you’re not that small.”

“Compared to you I am.”

“Compared to me Arnold Schwartznegger is small.”

Phoebe laughed out loud. “You’re not that big.”

I grinned. “Nah. I lack the shoulders. I’ve read vicious rumors that say he’s only my height, though.”

“Which is what?” Phoebe dropped her fencing uniform on the floor and grabbed a towel while I was still struggling out of my tunic. I was pretty sure it had a secret mission in life to strangle me as I undressed.

“Five eleven,” I called after her, lifting my voice over the sound of the shower. Five eleven and a half, but who was counting? I was, obviously. That half inch was important.

“No way. I thought he was like six four.”

“I only report what I read in the entertainment magazines, I don’t make any claims to their veracity.”

“I didn’t know cops knew words like veracity.”

I walked into the showers, standing to the side while the pins-and-needles water pelted from cold to too hot when I turned it on. “I have an English degree, but they don’t let me talk about that.”

Phoebe laughed over the water. I stepped into the shower and groaned, leaning my hands and forehead against the wall so the hard tiny dots of heat could stab my shoulders. Water puddled around my arches. They always say to wear flip-flops in public showers, but I’ve never remembered to buy a pair. Thus far my feet have proven fungal-resistant. I have a theory that women’s feet aren’t as icky as men’s, based solely on my lack of athlete’s foot.

Solely. I snickered at myself.

The beauty of university showers is that they never run out of hot water. I stood there, leaning my forehead against the wall, until my skin turned boiled-lobster red. I heard the squeak of faucets as Phoebe turned her shower off, and in the fashion of university showers everywhere, the water in mine got significantly hotter. “Ow. Turn that back on, would you?”
“Sorry.” The faucets squeaked again and after a few seconds my shower faded back to a bearable heat. Water lapped over the top of my feet, and I pushed away from the wall with another groan, listening to Phoebe slosh to the drying area.

“Thanks.” I reached for my shampoo, scrubbing a palmful through my hair. If I weren’t so fond of standing mindlessly in the hot water, it would only take me about thirty seconds to shower in the mornings. A minute and a half if I used conditioner, which I usually didn’t. I wasn’t late for work yet, so I luxuriated in the heat. Water crept up around my ankles. “You know, I think the drain must be plugged.”

“Well, you look,” Phoebe said. “My feet are dry already. I’ll call maintenance if it is.”

“Okay.” I rinsed my hair, turned the water off, and wrapped a towel around myself as I slogged through the shower room in search of the drain.

Two stalls down from me, a naked black girl, her skin ashy blue with death, lay with her hip fitted neatly in the hollow of the drain.


Thunderbird Falls

CE Murphy