Rose gave Evan a piece of cheese puff from a bag, then took her time rolling up the bag and binding it closed with an elastic.
“No objection?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I told her. “You haven’t elaborated on anything.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked, her voice pitched low. “They’re testing the water, seeing if our resolve holds up when the pressure is on. It’s… it sucks, but we have to call them on it.”
“I need more details than that,” I said.
“They’re going to take me away,” Rose said. She leaned forward, arms folded on the kitchen counter, “It’s even possible they’ll lock me up or drug me. The dead man’s switch… they’re counting on the idea that I’ll crack before they do.”
“Rose?” I heard the voice from the living room. Dad’s.
“-A guy who can read the future,” I said. “And Laird knew how to counter demons. He can share that knowledge. You can’t play chick-”
“Rose?” Roxanne piped up, her voice perfectly pitched to pierce anyone’s thoughts and seize their attention.
“-en with someone who has no reason to be afraid,” I finished.
Aunt Steph appeared in the doorway, and Evan took off, flying around Rose. She took the warning for what it was and turned around.
“Problem?” Aunt Steph asked. She smiled, but it looked forced. All of her smiles did. Uncle Paul’s first wife, they’d had Kathryn, Ellie, Paige and Peter. She’d gone the stay at home mom route, let herself go in the worst way while Uncle Paul kept himself more or less presentable, and when they split up, never really pieced herself together again. At present, she was wearing clothes that were surprisingly nice, almost certainly dry cleaned or brand new, and her hair was professionally cut. Whatever her attention to the broad strokes, she missed the mark in the details. She was groomed in a perfunctory sort of way, basic makeup and a comb through her hair, and she’d missed areas. A mole sat on the side of her neck with coarse hairs sticking out of it.
I didn’t like to judge people by appearance. If I did, I wouldn’t have liked Alexis like I did. Alexis’ hair was sometimes like Aunt Steph’s, an afterthought more than something she focused on, and even Aunt Steph would have paid more attention to fixing her teeth. The big difference was that Aunt S’s grooming issues were a symptom of something else that was going on with her personality and worldview. Rather than work, she’d lived off the teat of child support and disability allowance that was almost certainly trumped up. Ellie and Peter, the two children that had gone to her in the divorce, had followed a similar road to very different destinations. She’d given them only the bare minimum they needed to get by, and as far as I could tell, had taught them that if they wanted more, they needed to manipulate others to do it.
I could imagine a world where the stars had aligned differently and grandmother hadn’t tainted or taunted the family with the inheritance, and where I actually sort of liked my family, as a whole. A world where the general nastiness hadn’t bubbled up and out and twisted them. In this theoretical world where I could see my Uncle Paul or Callan or any of the others at Christmas and exchange presents, I suspected I’d still have a deep seated dislike for Aunt Steph.
“I was taking a moment,” Rose said.
“Maybe you should ‘take a moment’ later, when you don’t have the rest of the family in the other room, waiting for you,” Aunt Steph said. I could imagine she thought she sounded sweet, saying it.
Maybe you should go fuck yourself, I thought. Rose met my eyes, and I could tell we were on the same wavelength there.
“Of course,” Rose said, turning. She stood straighter, and then she smiled. I would never have been able to do that. She tapped the counter in front of me, and her inflection was slightly different as she said, “Have to think of the others. I’ll have to give you the benefit of a doubt.”
“Good,” Aunt Steph said. She smiled, and it was a smug, too-pleased-with-herself sort of smile. If I hadn’t already known what they were doing, that smile would have given the show away.
But Rose’s words there hadn’t been for Aunt Steph’s benefit. They’d been for mine.
She was going ahead with this. Damn it.
She held out a hand, and Evan flew to her outstretched finger.
“Dirty,” Aunt Steph commented, frowning.
“I should be able to flip the bird to people,” Evan said. My head snapped around to look at him. He continued, “It’s called flipping the bird, so why can’t a flippin’ bird give someone the finger?”
My eye moved over everyone in the living room. Evan had been heard only by Rose and I, as far as I could tell. The family had made deals with Sandra, Johannes or Duncan, but there was nothing to suggest they’d been clued into the real goings-on.
Rose was silent, ignoring Aunt Steph’s comment as she headed back into the living room to rejoin everyone.
I remembered her words. ‘Have to think of the others. I’ll have to give you the benefit of a doubt.’
Rose’s plan, apparently, was to hope that Sandra, Johannes, Duncan, Alister, and all the rest backed off and let her back before the dead man’s switch kicked in. Which meant that the rest of us were left with Hillsglade House to look after.
That meant Evan, Alexis, Ty, Tiff and I all needed to survive, and we had to do it while the defenses of the property were a fraction of what they had been. If Johannes and Sandra were cooperating enough to arrive at Alister’s side, and Sandra wasn’t leaping at the chance to take Alister out of the running, there was some kind of deal in place. That meant all of our enemies were probably gathered in a loose coalition against us.
Putting aside grievances to deal with Rose and her dead man’s switch, and quite possibly Molly as well.
Rose knew it, but she still wanted us to stick it out.
I couldn’t let it come to that, if I had any chance to avoid it.
When I returned to the living room, I could see the others gathered. Uncle Paul had one armchair, Aunt Jessica stood behind him, with one hand on Roxanne’s shoulder, another on James’. Very protective. Mom and dad –Rose’s mom and dad- were sitting on the couch, taking up more space than they needed, with Ivy as their ready excuse.
Aunt Steph nudged Ellie, and Ellie reluctantly vacated the chair for her mother, before standing next to Peter. Kathryn shifted a bit away – the oldest of the cousins, mother to the first of grandmother’s great-grandkids, she didn’t have her kid with her. I wondered how that worked.
“We’re worried about you, Rose,” Rose’s dad said. “We talked earlier, I tried to make that clear. Your mother and I have talked it over. I want you to know that whatever comes next, we didn’t want this. We agree it’s probably in your best interests, but we didn’t want it to play out this way, not when we were just starting to reconnect.”
“Da,” Ivy piped up. He reached down to brush her hair with his fingers, tidying the part in her wisp-thin blonde hair.
“You can’t have it both ways, dad,” Rose said, raising Evan up to her shoulder. “You don’t get to trash my clothes and leave me without anything-”
“That was an accident,” her mother said.
“-And you don’t get to meet with all the others and discuss strategies for getting me out of the house or selling the house out from under me and then turn around and pretend to be my ally in all this.”
I saw Ellie smirking, almost as if she agreed. Then again, Ellie, the third oldest of the cousins, was probably the least proficient when it came to the finesse side of things. She probably thought all the cloak and dagger stuff was bullshit.
“I’m your family,” Rose’s dad said.
“You’re my relative. You’re far from being my family,” Rose said. “Unless you want to tell me what the rest of these guys have planned?”
“We discussed that,” he said. “While we don’t agree with the timing, we think everyone will be happier in the long run, the way things are. Please cooperate. If you just… go…”
He trailed off. Rose had one hand to her face, and was laughing softly, laughing only to herself.
When she moved her hand, the look in her eyes was alien. Cold.
Her dad lost his train of thought.
“I grew up with you, dad. I have a rule when it comes to you, you know? It makes dealing with you easy.”
“A rule?” he asked.
“It’s really simple. Whenever you say something, I flip it around. You say you’re doing this to make everyone happy? No. What you really mean is you’re doing this to make you happy. You want us to be a family again? I hear that, and I interpret it as ‘you aren’t my daughter’.”
“That’s unfair,” Rose’s mother cut in.
“Paranoid, even,” Peter chimed in. He just couldn’t resist dropping that barb.
“This is exactly why we’re worried about you,” Rose’s dad said. “You’re not of sound mind, you’re not making good decisions for the family or the inheritance.”
“Wait,” Rose said, raising a finger, “I got this. Give me a second. ‘This is exactly why we’re trumping up charges against you. You’re just a little too clever right now, and we don’t want you outplaying us in terms of the inheritance.’ How’s that?”
“That isn’t cute, funny, or productive,” Aunt Steph said.
“It’s a little funny,” Peter said. His mother shot him a look.
“What’s that even about? Trumping up-” Uncle Paul started. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
Rose smiled slowly. “You act well, Uncle P, but someone already gave it away. I have an idea of what’s in that contract. Some people are supposed to turn up pretty soon, aren’t they? They’ll take me away, and I’ll wind up talking to a shrink or locked in a padded cell, all doped up? That’s how you think it’ll go?”
Jesus. I could feel the atmosphere in the room change. I’d dealt with demons, I’d dealt with other monsters, and I’d done my time in the Drains. This was a different kind of creepy. The expressions didn’t change, nobody moved, but in the act of putting on poker faces, there was a collective sort of pause. A moment where nobody else in the room exchanged glances or moved, because a glance or a movement could potentially give it all away, confirming Rose was right.
Six adults and seven children who were so versed in the lies and deception that they could all manage to avoid reacting in surprise.
“It wouldn’t normally work, but you’ve got a friend, someone local, who can pull strings?” Rose asked. “I know. I’m pretty sure I can handle it. I’m betting I’ll be out soon, even.”
Aunt Steph piped up, “This is that paranoia-”
“Stop,” Rose cut her off. “Just stop. I know the details. A member of this family pointed me in the right direction, a little earlier.”
She briefly met my eyes.
The facade cracked, the poker faces slipping as some members of the family looked at one another. A lot of eyes turned Ellie’s way.
“You want to game me?” Rose asked. “You have little conception of what’s really going on. You raised me to play this game, to scheme and backstab and to see through lies. One member of this family thought they could achieve their goals by passing the information along to me.”
“So you say,” Uncle Paul said.
“Do you know why the policeman and the community leader held a meeting and decided to reach out to you?” Rose asked. “They’re just a little bit worried about me. Think about that. Consider the idea that maybe the house and the money it’s worth is one of the least important things here.”
“There’s more money in play?” Aunt Steph asked. “You got the assets on the property. Something valuable?”
Rose smiled, spreading her arms.
She was divulging information she maybe shouldn’t. In fact, she was very much the egomaniacal villain from the movies and kids cartoons, who explained far too much of their master plan.
I wondered momentarily about that.
Rose was falling back on the little bit of Conquest that was inside her. Why?
Because she was scared, or hurt. If I put myself in her shoes, it would have sucked, knowing that dad hadn’t been on the up and up when he’d said he genuinely wanted to be a family.
Some people hid behind an act. Rose had a whole other side of herself to hide behind. Tapping into the Conquest inside her was one thing, drawing strength from it, but if she was using it as a crutch, consciously or otherwise, then that was a problem.
Power had a price.
“You’re distracting from the subject at hand. Your knowing doesn’t change anything,” Uncle Paul said.
“We’ll see,” Rose said.
The family was sufficiently distracted.
I didn’t trust myself to give away a piece of myself. I needed to strengthen myself before I acted.
Nothing suggested the family knew about the practice. Even if they did, I should be free and clear with a little mischief.
I stepped around to the front window, and I smashed it.
Every head in the room turned my way. I could feel the note of fear, and smiled a little as I stepped off to one side.
“The hell was that?” Uncle Paul asked. He’d sprung out of his seat. “Gunshot?”
“No, gunshot wouldn’t make a window explode like that,” Ellie said.
“How do you even know that?” Peter cut in.
From the television set, I could see the family at the one side of the room, peering outside.
“I saw someone,” James spoke up, he was a kid between Paige/Peter and Roxanne in age at fourteen, wearing glasses. As far as I was aware, he wasn’t as bad as Ellie or Peter or Callan or Roxanne, but that was more a case of them being horrible excuses for human beings than him being particularly good. He was a nasty little shit who’d been prone to sprees of vandalism and hanging around with equally nasty grade schoolers around the time I’d left home.
“There’s nobody out there,” Uncle Paul answered.
“I believe I mentioned something earlier about there being outright attacks on the house,” Rose commented.
Technically true. Misleading, but true.
I could feel the unease growing. Ivy was whimpering, apparently picking up on the atmosphere, and Rose’s parents were shushing her, bouncing her in place.
Then Ivy’s eyes fell on me, and she broke into actual tears, squirming.
“Company’s here,” Uncle Paul commented. He didn’t try to hide his smugness behind a poker face.
“Man! A man with bad face!” Ivy cried out, almost fighting to get further away from me and squeeze herself further into her mother’s embrace.
Peter grinned. “Your uncle does take some getting used to. I know I’m still working on it, after nineteen years.”
His father shot him a look. “Don’t be childish.”
“Black line face man!” Ivy cried out. “In the T.V.!”
I stepped out of the television before anyone turned their heads.
One picture was up on the wall in the hallway. I vaguely recalled it being knocked to the ground, but I supposed someone had picked it up and hung it again between the time the priest had invaded the house and the present.
From the hallway, I watched the family. I still held the reflection of the paperwork that Uncle P had brought.
I reached into my chest.
No birds available.
“C’mon,” I muttered to myself. “I scared Tiff, I scared those guys…”
Damn spirits, I thought. You want more?
Replenishing my power wasn’t that easy, it seemed.
A moment later, I returned to the window.
“Bad man!” Ivy shouted.
Roxanne raised her eyes. I might have thought she was young enough to be innocent, but she looked right past me. At most, I might’ve been an odd shadow she wouldn’t notice unless she was looking for it.
James, at fourteen, was two years Roxanne’s senior. He saw me.
Why the difference? Was it that James was quieter, more studious, less exposed to the ugliness of the world? Or was it that James had never truly grown up or defined himself outside of the shadow of his parents and their desires?
All the same, he caught a glimpse of me. His eyes went wider.
I wish I was more apologetic about this, I thought. Just scaring them.
I smashed the window, but what I didn’t expect was for James to raise his hands, flinching as I moved my arm. In the doing, he put his hands right against the glass. Glass flew, and with the jumble of people, there was more chaos this time. James fought to get away, and hit others in the process. Kathryn fell, and knocked over Roxanne.
No time to do anything about it. Back in the hallway, I reached into my chest for the second time, and I collected one bird that had been stirred into activity by the excitement.
I pushed it into the paperwork I held, then watched the scene.
Dad was on his feet, mom was focused on Ivy, who was shrieking, while the rest of the people in the room, Rose excepted, were trying to untangle themselves in the space between the armchairs and the now-broken front window. Rose stood behind the couch, her back to the kitchen door, watching it all impassively.
“By the bonds of sympathy,” I said. “Crafted by the same coalition, drafted by the same beings, equal in weight. I bind this to that and forge a connection of like to like.”
I moved the contract, sliding it off the table and beneath the bookcases.
Ivy continued to scream. When she did speak, it was in gasps, between wails. “Wanna go!” Screech. “Wanna go!”
James was crying. He held his hands in front of him, and there was blood on them. As his mom and dad tried to help him, he flinched away from the more sudden movements of nearby family members. I had to strain my eyes to see in the midst of the chaos, but the cuts were shallow. A lot of the blood came from one short cut at the hairline.
I hadn’t planned on hurting him, not like that. But all the same, damn. I did feel stronger after all that.
Uncle Paul stepped away from Roxanne, leaving her to Aunt Jessica. He grabbed the man purse or soft suitcase or whatever the accessory was supposed to be called, and then looked to the coffee table.
“Where is it?” he asked.
“Your son is hurt and you’re focused on something else?” Aunt Jessica asked.
“He’s fine. Just spooked. Rose took the damned contract.”
“I haven’t moved from this spot,” Rose said. “Right mom?”
Caught between loyalty to the group and her charade of wanting to be the dutiful parent, I could see Rose’s mom hesitate.
“Rose honestly hasn’t moved an inch,” she finally said, holding Ivy against her shoulder.
Uncle Paul scowled. “Find it. I’m going to talk to the men in the driveway and ask if they saw something.”
“I’ll come with you,” Rose’s dad said.
Then they were gone, moving right past me as they entered the hallway and turned a hard right.
I saw Aunt Steph duck down, no doubt to search under the coffee table.
I reached between the legs of the bookshelf, grabbed the reflected contract and lifted it up, pressing it against the underside of the bookshelf. Through the bond of sympathy, I held up the contract in the real world.
A good fifteen seconds passed.
“I can’t find it,” Aunt Steph finally admitted.
I relaxed, putting the contract down.
“You need to,” Rose’s mom said. “There’s pertinent details in there for…”
“For you to get me sent away?” Rose asked. “I’m not sure it matters. They’re bending rules like crazy to make this possible in the first place. Which is why it’s not going to stick.”
“We’ll see,” Aunt Steph said. “I need to talk to Paul.”
“Aunt Steph,” Rose said. “One thing.”
I reached the little patch of glass that I could peer through, a porthole into the real world. Aunt Steph was a matter of feet away. Rose’s mother and Ivy were right next to her, apparently joining her on the way out the door.
Rose continued, “Did you consider the fact that they want me out of the house so they can destroy it? Or that if the house just happened to burn to the ground, it might render the area worthless? That everything that our family did in terms of the inheritance might be for nothing?”
“The value’s in the parcel of land. It has nothing to do with the house,” Aunt Steph said.
“You read that contract backwards and forwards. If there’s a problem and it’s judged to be malfeasance on our part, the property goes to the lawyers, not any of us. What’s to say the lawyers won’t just turn around and sell to the city? We’d get virtually nothing if it played out that way.”
“That’s not how it’s going to play out,” Aunt Steph said.
“They’ve pulled strings to get me stuck in a hospital. A local hospital, right? If it’s deemed to be a psychological problem, then I could get stuck in there indefinitely. You’ve been so focused on getting me out of the way like that that you’ve failed to consider the thing at the core of this. There are powerful people in Jacob’s Bell who want us gone. All of us. They want us gone to the point that there’s a ridiculous price tag on the property, that they’d break laws and manipulate the system to get me out of the way, and you don’t think they’d take the simple, expedient route to getting rid of us by simply burning it all down, the first chance they get? You don’t think they’d call in similar favors and pull similar strings, so the police department is a little slower to arrive, or the fire station misses the call?”
If it was as easy as burning the house down, they would have done it already, I thought.
But she’d basically told Aunt Steph what the problem was. If the house was left undefended…
“Ellie and Peter can stay,” Aunt Steph said.
“Don’t volunteer me,” Ellie said.
“Those two don’t know what to watch out for,” Rose said, as if it were very matter of fact.
“I know how to watch my back,” Ellie said.
“If you did it, my children can do it,” Aunt Steph said.
“There’s a chance their lives will be in danger,” Rose said.
“This is that paranoia thing again, isn’t it?” Peter asked.
“Idiot,” Ellie said. “She’s not really paranoid. If she says my life’s in danger, I’m listening to her.”
“Molly died. Do you think that’s a coincidence?” Rose asked.
“That was murder?” Ellie asked. Rose had her full attention.
“It was,” Rose said. “Then it wasn’t. I don’t think it’s anything particular now. Just… glossed over.”
“Don’t fucking use my sister in your games,” Callan said, a distance away.
“Tell me I’m wrong,” Rose said. “They alluded to it being suicide. If you think they’re right, that she was the type, and she was in that state, look me in the eyes, tell it to me. I’ll drop the subject of Molly’s death right here and right now.”
Callan looked away. “That doesn’t mean you’re telling the truth.”
“Fine,” Rose said. “Let’s leave it at that, then. Consider it on your own. They’ll put me in a hospital, maybe for the rest of my life if they can get away with it, which they can’t, and they’ll pull some sketchy stuff. You think you’re safe? That this house is? That the money is? You’re really willing to put your kids in the line of fire?”
“Eh,” Peter said, shrugging. “If it comes down to the money or us, mom’ll take the money.”
He sounded so nonchalant about it.
Though they weren’t identical twins, obviously, he bore a striking similarity to Paige. Where Paige was prim, proper, crisply dressed as a matter of habit – no doubt Aunt Jessica’s influence, Peter was all about favorite pieces of clothing that he had sentimental attachments to, wearing them until they were frayed. He had tousled hair that had been lightened to a near-white, and eyes that were exceedingly sharp.
I heard Uncle Paul’s voice, even if I didn’t have an angle to see him. I’d destroyed the front windows beyond the point that I could occupy them. “They’d like to see Rose. It’s time to go.”
“Think twice before you force my friends out,” Rose said. “They’re able to tell you who and what to watch out for. If you’re smart, you’ll bow and scrape and at least pretend to be nice to them.”
She passed by me, and gave me a sidelong glance.
Evan took flight before Rose was out the door, returning inside.
“I’m going to take James to the hospital, make sure he doesn’t need more attention,” Aunt Jessica said. “Watch the house. Roxanne, stay for now.”
“Sure,” Peter said, smiling. “I’ll look after her.”
Aunt Jessica gave him a look. “Kathryn? Can you look after things as the adult here? Keep an eye on Rox?”
“I’ll watch her,” Kathryn said, sounding unimpressed. Roxanne shot her oldest sister a look. There was nearly a twenty-year difference between them.
The door closed. Aunt Jessica and James gone.
“…Coward,” Peter threw a final retort. Sharp tongued as ever.
Kathryn, at thirty-two, was the most senior cousin among those who’d remained. I was honestly surprised she’d stayed, given she had the excuse of a baby to look after.
Callan flinched as Evan flew by. Not a fan of birds, apparently.
Callan was two years younger than Kathryn, taller, stronger, and narrower. Molly’s older brother. He looked vaguely uncomfortable. was it because this was the house his sister had spent so much time in before she died? Or because he didn’t like what Rose had insinuated about it being murder? Things had been glossed over magically, but the dissonance was real. If it weren’t for Christoff, his younger brother, I suspected he wouldn’t be holding it together as well as he was. Both of Callan’s hands rested on Christoff’s shoulders.
I didn’t know much about Christoff. When I’d ran away, he’d still been wearing footie pyjamas. He hadn’t evinced much personality in the short run-ins I’d had with him.
Ellie, with tattoos far less cool than my own, more a hodgepodge blend of different tattoos that didn’t flow together. The sort of look one picked up if they allowed themselves to be practice for a tattooer friend. A novice tattooer’s doodles more than tattoos with theme or thought put into them. She still hung back in the living room, lying on the couch where Rose’s parents had sat with the baby, far from the window. Four years older than me and Rose, she looked younger and smaller than Rose, just by virtue of a slight slouch. I’d likened her to a weasel in appearance. She had an extensive criminal record, but had managed to avoid doing too much time. Aunt Steph’s natural talent and lessons in gaming the system turned to simply getting away with shit.
Peter, Ellie’s younger brother, was at the far end of the room, almost completely opposite me. He’d never been as outgoing as Ellie, nor quite so lazy as his mother. From what I’d been able to pick up in conversations with Paige, he coasted through life on natural talent and intelligence. If anyone got in his way, be they teacher, fellow student or whoever, he made them regret it. Ellie was more the type to hit someone. Peter would have had made teachers cry.
I remember how he’d made his own twin sister cry. They’d gone in to see grandmother together, and he’d left Paige devastated.
And Roxanne… Roxanne looked oddly at ease, all things considered. I wasn’t about to toss around words like sociopath, but… well, when the time had come for her to tell very specific, very loaded lies about people in the interest of maneuvering for the inheritance, she’d done it without flinching. She seemed remarkably calm, considering how spooked and bloody her older brother had been, and all the talk of danger that had been bandied about.
Alexis, Tiff, and Ty, I noticed were standing on the stairs at the end of the hall.
“You’re staying?” Alexis asked.
“Rose was trying to convince us to be nice to you and not force you out,” Peter said.
“She’d be right,” Alexis said. “There’s two kids in town who’re the children of a professional killer. One has bombs.”
“Bulllllshit,” Callan said, drawing out the word. “I lived in this town for most of my life, if you think I’m going to buy that-”
“Then don’t,” Ty said.
“I believe you,” Peter said.
Ty’s eyebrows went up.
“I have other questions,” Peter said. “Like how the fuck do you guys know Rose?”
“We met in Toron-”
“Or,” Peter said, “Why is Rose different? That’s kind of the same question. Because the Rose I knew was a no-life sad sack loser with no friends.”
“Right now, here, she’s been fighting for her life because of a thing her grandmother set into motion,” Alexis said. “We’ve been helping her.”
“Oh, I see,” Peter said. “You have certain talents that make you indispensable when there’s a threat of something like arson or murder?”
“Um, basically,” Tiff said, looking like the exact opposite of a person who had ‘indispensable talents’.
“This is ridiculous,” Callan said. “This isn’t an action movie.”
I looked at the others. Kathryn was silent. The kids looked a little spooked, except for Roxanne. Ellie was leaning forward, her attention trained on the conversation.
“I’m going to go use the facilities,” Callan said, “Then I’ll put something over that broken window, if you just tell me where stuff is.”
“I’ll help with that,” Ty said.
“Stuff’s upstairs,” Alexis said.
“Tea, anyone?” Tiff asked, almost hopeful. She only got glares and blank looks in return.
“I’ll have some,” Alexis said. “Just give me five. Kathryn, if you’d like to-”
“Don’t even,” Kathryn said, “I’m not taking orders from a freeloader.”
“Then we’ll postpone sweeping up,” Alexis said. “I’ll handle it in a minute.”
“What do you think?” Kathryn asked Ellie.
“I’m taking Peter’s lead,” Ellie said. “He’s still a kid, but he’s smarter than me. If he sees an opening, we should go for it together.”
Kathryn nodded. “You’re going to be good?”
Ellie snorted. “I might grab some of grandmother’s stuff. Get some of the inheritance we’re due. Be easier if you watched my back.”
“Share,” Kathryn said.
Slowly, people sorted themselves out, the youngest kids moving to the living room with Kathryn. I heard the television come on. I couldn’t wrap my head around just sitting around while cold wind blew in through the shattered window, but… that was them.
Alexis held her phone to one ear, roaming the house. Evan was perched on her shoulder.
Not talking to anyone. Just wanting an excuse to talk to thin air. To me.
I offered a tiny whistle. She found me.
“You get any of that?”
“Eavesdropped. Missed the little stuff.”
“Well,” I said. “As last-minute defenses go, filling the house with innocents, if that even works for these guys, it’ll slow down a lot of the stuff they could throw at us.”
“It’ll slow us down too,” Alexis said. “We have more defenses to put up. But I guess this is better in a way. No practitioner is going to want to risk cluing these guys into what’s going on in reality, not with the amount of badditude headed our way.”
“We’ve got until dark, then things get messy,” I said.
“Yeah. What can you tell me, going in?”
“Only that you should watch out for Ellie, Peter, and Roxanne. Ellie’s a bit crook. Peter’s a con artist in training, just the type to take that route, smart as he is, and Roxanne’s… toxic. I can explain more when we have more time.”
I made a sudden gesture as I saw a shadow behind her.
“Hey,” he said. He smiled.
“Hey,” Alexis said, voice low.
He stepped close, and she backed away a step.
“So,” he said. “Couldn’t help but notice the symbols on the floor. There’s a story there. Are you going to share details, or should I bring it up with my sister and cousins?”