Saturday, July 30, 2016

Maywitch Chapter 5: Liar

Nadia ground her teeth as she glanced down at her phone. The mission in Las Vegas had been completely unproductive, and their intelligence teams had failed to pick up any further information after Nadia and the others had left. They were completely back to square one, rummaging around in the dregs of whatever intel they had to find a clue.
The past several months had been tumultuous, to say the least, but whoever was causing trouble had managed to do a lot of damage without leaving many clues. Maywitch investigators had stumbled upon booby traps multiple times while on seemingly innocuous missions, like missing mages or mildly suspicious explosions. The Western Region in particular had seen a horrifying number of deaths and injuries, relative to prior years – or even decades. Nadia had heard that the death count for the past twelve months was now at ten, with fifteen still recovering from serious injuries.
The common assumption around the base was that it all tied back to the explosion in Illinois eight months prior. That rumor was true, Nadia knew, but she wasn’t about to tell anyone that.
She swerved around a corner and nearly ran into Holly, who seemed to be returning from Gardner’s office. “Sorry!” Holly said, nearly dropping her phone and stack of paperwork.
“No, my bad,” Nadia said. “Is that for Kay?”
Holly looked down at the papers she had almost dropped. “This? Yeah. Review stuff. She apparently hasn’t actually studied witchcraft in a minute, so we’re giving her a skills assessment…”
Nadia sighed. Kay, it seemed, was an absolute last resort for Maywitch. According to Gardner, Kay had tried to assimilate into society and minimize using magic for the past four years. There was no clear reason why. Perhaps Kay had decided that her magic wasn’t that much use after all, and that she was better off developing other skills.
Or, Nadia thought, perhaps Kay had been scared off by some of the more dubious characters of the witching world - but Nadia couldn’t blame her for that. She had almost gone down the same road of normalcy, at the same time Kay did, but had simply chosen the other fork in the road.
“Let me know if she ends up needing help learning,” Nadia said. “Can’t guarantee I can answer all her questions, but I can at least point her to someone who can.”
Holly nodded. “Will do.”
Nadia offered a supportive smile before heading to Gardner’s office, but stopped as Holly spoke again: “Nadia, you used to live near Houston, right? Did you two know each other?”
That was a little too perceptive of her, Nadia thought. She smiled as she turned halfway and shook her head. “Kay? I mean, not that I remember,” she said. “Why?”
“Nothing. I’m imagining things.”
Nadia laughed and kept walking. “Houston is a big city, and the mages there don’t hang out together much. Maybe our paths crossed at some point, though.”
She could sense Holly’s gaze on her as she turned another corner. For such a young mage, Holly sure had a good head on her shoulders, and there would be a hefty price to pay if she figured out she had just been lied to.
She already somewhat regretted pretending not to know Kay when they’d met in the hallway. She hadn’t even heard anything about Kay’s arrival, so seeing her again had been a shock.
And her gut reaction had been to try to start fresh and not reopen any old wounds. Nice, but na├»ve. It had all the potential in the world to backfire horribly, she thought as she rang the buzzer for Gardner’s office.
The door slid open, and she hesitated before stepping into the small, dimly-lit space. Gardner might well be a vampire with how dark she kept her office. “Morning, Director,” Nadia said.
Gardner tapped something on her tablet screen and smiled at Nadia. Her deep red hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, and she looked slightly more disheveled than usual. “Morning. I have some changes to your ongoing assignment. I’m sending maps and lists to your phone now. Let me know now if there are any questions.”
Nadia nodded and scrolled through her phone. The updated information was fairly straightforward, as was the map. “This all makes sense. Just to be clear - Kay doesn’t know anything, right? And it should be kept that way?”
“Of course.” Gardner folded her pale hands on the desk and stared intently at Nadia. “You don’t think she knows anything, right?”
“I don’t.”
“Is there any reason for us to tell her?”
“No.” Nadia shook her head fervently.
Gardner smiled. “She’ll find out eventually, though. Are you prepared for that?”
Nadia glanced at the floor. There was no guarantee that Kay wouldn’t set something on fire if she found out that Nadia had been hiding such an important secret from her.
“Not really,” she said, “but there’s nothing we can do about that.”
“Fair enough. Come see me if you need anything else.”
“Of course. See you soon.” Nadia turned and left immediately, knowing that Gardner preferred to keep their visits short and to the point. There was a good chance someone would start asking questions if they saw Nadia spending too much time in that office.

Kay slept late the morning after her first mission, and was annoyed when she woke up to a text message on her work phone from Holly: Call Juan as soon as you get this. We are trying to sort out logistics for something.
She rolled over and dialed Juan’s number. “Morning, Kay,” he said as soon as the call connected.
“Morning. What’s up?”
“How much do you weigh?”
Kay stared at the phone for a minute before answering: “The fuck?”
Juan sighed. “It’s a serious question. We’re trying to figure out who’s the smallest. You’re tall, but kinda skinny…”
“Fine. I’m 175 or so,” she said.
“Okay. I figured you weren’t the smallest but I had to check.” He sighed again, and Kay could hear exhaustion in his voice. “We may need you as backup on this mission tonight, though. Weird-ass earthquakes in Denver, and law enforcement is overwhelmed. We might have the source narrowed down. Feds haven’t given us permission to go in, though. These quakes are over 4.0 and actually doing some damage.”
Kay scowled. Since when did Maywitch need permission from the Feds to go after mages? Did the cops plan on doing it themselves?
“Just be on standby. We may need you at a moment’s notice,” he said.
“Sure thing.”
“That means be dressed and less than two minutes away from the conference room at all times.”
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, but then realized it didn’t matter since he couldn’t see her. “Sure,” she said. “Will do.”
“Thanks. Call Holly if you need anything in the meantime.”
There was a faint click, and Kay realized he had hung up. She sighed and laid back onto her bed. It was only a little after 10 a.m. - Mountain Time, she had to remind herself, which meant that she had slept in until her usual time if she was basing her schedule on Central Time.
She felt a pang of homesickness. If she was still in Houston, she would be heading to brunch right about now, and gorging herself on some of the best chilaquiles in the state. The food at Maywitch wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t nearly as good or diverse as the food back home. Maybe she could put in a request for some Mexican breakfast food, she thought as she stared at the ceiling.
There was a timid, almost inaudible knock at the door. She resisted the urge to groan. “Who is it?”
“Hey, are you on standby, too?” Holly’s voice said. “I figured we could go get breakfast, if you haven’t already. And I got some stuff for you from Gardner.”
Kay sat up. Holly didn’t sound annoyed at her at all. Ever since Kay had left her unconscious in an alley the evening before, she had been avoiding being alone with Holly. She didn’t want to get reamed out for dereliction of duty - though that would go against Holly’s nature, anyway, Kay thought. The girl seemed far too nice to curse anyone out for what could be considered a rookie mistake.
Kay stood, walked to her dresser and pulled on a shirt. “Yeah, good idea,” she said. “Dunno when the fuck we’ll get to eat next, huh?”
There was a faint chuckle behind the door. Kay opened it and mustered a smile, and Holly returned it. “It’s not usually this hectic,” Holly said. “Hopefully things won’t be too crazy in Denver, though. Set these on your desk, and let’s go eat.”
Kay obeyed and followed Holly down the hall. “Do you know what they’re serving?” Kay asked.
“I already heard Gardner saying something about banana pancakes. They try to mix things up sometimes. I heard tomorrow’s breakfast burritos and chilaquiles.”
Kay grinned for the first time in days. If she made it through the next mission, the chilaquiles would be a welcome reward.
“By the way…” Holly slowed and glanced over her shoulder. “There better be a good reason why you left your post last night.”
Of course she would bring it up, Kay thought as she quickly nodded. “I heard something fall, and I panicked. Maybe a trash can lid or something. It was the wind knocking it over, apparently, but my gut instinct was to check. In hindsight, that was stupid.”
“Oh.” Holly relaxed and smiled softly. “You must’ve been really nervous. Just leave it to the others next time, yeah?”
“Right,” Kay said, returning the smile. It was only a half-lie. She didn’t plan on pissing off Holly again unless absolutely necessary.

As Kay and Holly quickly ate their food, they kept an eye on their phones, knowing that they could be asked to leave at a moment’s notice. Just as Kay finished her pancakes, Holly frowned, tapped at her phone, and announced that it was time to leave.
They rushed to the conference room, where Juan waved them toward the garage. “We think we have it narrowed down to a single building,” he said. “Things have gotten worse, though.”
A tall, turquoise-haired woman met them a short distance down the hallway, her dark eyes darting over Kay with suspicion. “Kay, this is Perry Daniels,” Juan said, waving at the woman. “She’s been on medical leave for a few weeks. Perry, Kay’s new.”
Perry’s expression seemed to lighten somewhat as she extended a hand. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “You’re brand new, huh?”
Kay nodded. “Yeah. Nice to meet you, too.”
“Van’s loaded up. Let’s go,” Juan said, his voice echoing as they entered the garage. “And everyone better be on the lookout for trouble as we go.”
Nadia was already in the backseat of the van, her purse on her lap and her smartphone to her ear. Kay begrudgingly seated herself beside her. “Roger that,” Nadia said softly. “Yup. Bye.”
Holly offered Nadia a sympathetic smile, but it was ignored. Kay resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she looked out the window. If only Holly knew what Nadia had been doing last night. For a fleeting moment, Kay wondered if she should eventually say something to Holly, or even Juan, but decided to keep it to herself for the time being. A minor rule violation - if that was all it was, anyway - was no reason to turn Nadia against her again.
They barreled down the highway for nearly two hours before stopping for a bathroom break. As they walked from the gas station back to the van, Juan waved them away, a massive duffel bag slung over one shoulder.
“Helicopter’s on its way,” he said. “It’ll land in that parking lot next door.”
Holly looked alarmed, but Nadia merely nodded. “Guess we’re in a hurry, huh?” Nadia said, squinting at the sky to the east. “What’s the plan?”
“Bust into the basement of a church near downtown, see what’s in there, and hopefully get the hell out. It’s the source of the tremors, we think, so…”
Kay frowned. That wasn’t much of a plan.
“I thought that was someone else’s job,” Nadia said.
Juan shook his head. “The team that was supposed to check it out is dealing with demons on the outskirts of town. It’s up to us. Even the Feds get that now.”
“Demons…?” Holly glanced at Perry, then Nadia.
“They can handle it,” Nadia said softly. “At least, if they’re anything like the one Kay and Juan fought.”
A tiny dark speck came into view over the hills, and Juan waved them toward the parking lot of the abandoned fireworks store next door. The noise of the helicopter grew as it came closer, until Kay reached up and covered her hands with her ears.
She could hear someone yelling near the gas station behind her, but ignored it. Someone else would take care of civilian witnesses. She had to focus on not throwing up at the thought of flying hundreds of feet above the ground at 150 miles per hour.
Nadia seemed to notice her strained expression. “Ever been in a helicopter, Kay?”
“No,” Kay said, her voice laced with a healthy dose of ‘shut the fuck up.’
The helicopter slowly landed, its blades kicking up dust and debris as they whirled. Juan waved them toward it as its door opened, revealing a single pilot. Kay climbed in last, wanting to keep her feet on the ground for as long as possible. The less time she spent crammed into a tiny seat in a machine that was whirring loudly and going to be airborne any second, the less likely she was to throw up.
As she climbed in and fastened her seatbelt, she noticed Holly motion to Nadia, who sighed and reached into her purse. “This will help,” Nadia mouthed, seeming to know she wouldn’t be audible over the helicopter.
It was peppermint oil. It wouldn’t calm her down any, but it would help with the nausea. Kay took it reluctantly and nodded her thanks. The last thing she wanted was to be indebted to Nadia, but it was better than losing her brunch.
Then again, she thought, maybe throwing up was the least of her concerns on this mission.

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