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A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"Hrothgar looked on that long-treasured hilt
before he spoke. The spring was cut on it
of the primal strife, with the destruction at last
of the race of giants by the rushing Flood,
a terrible end. Estranged was that race
from the Lord of Eternity: the tide of water
was the final reward that the ruler sent them.
On clear golden labels let into the cross-piece
it was rightly told in runic letters,
set down and sealed, for whose sake it was
that the sword was first forged, that finest of iron,
-Beowulf (Michael Alexander, translator)
I'd only been outside a few seconds and the rain was dripping into my eyes, driven by a wind that sprayed the drops like bullets. I remember thinking that it didn't feel like May rain as I blinked and jiggled the key in the lock of the front door of my storefront.
I could blame the rain and the wind for how I didn't hear the man approach, but I'd rather be honest with myself. Silence was part of the nature of Darren Voort.
Of course I didn't know him then. Not when I turned from locking the door to find he'd been standing a step behind me, silent as if he was a feature of my street that had simply escaped my notice. I didn't know him, but I recognized him.
I screamed. And then I just stood there, because I froze up, and because I expected some sort of reaction from my scream. No one came out of their store or opened a second floor window curtain. No one closed one either. As a teenager I'd read about the murder of Kitty Genovese, and dreamed night after night of moms and dads in little upstairs apartments closing their windows and drawing their curtains, shutting out the screams of the woman being murdered because they didn't want to get involved. My scream wasn't even met with the closing of windows. Only the falling rain and silence.
The man didn't react either, not at first. He just stood there for a moment, looking through me. I probably could have run. There are always so many options when the moment is over and you’re looking back.
But I screamed once and then froze. I didn't try to run or fight and I stood there with water dripping into my eyes looking into a face I'd never seen in my life, but certain in the recognition that this man was the shadowy burglar who had broken into my store the night after I opened for business.
"Nancy Mateo?" He stood within reach of me, hands down, his voice quiet, measured.
I turned and started to walk.
"I'm calling the police." I tried to match the level tone of his voice, to keep the fear from showing.
His hand on my shoulder spun me back around to face him again. This time I really looked at him. He was tall, thin, and pale. He had a knit cap with a bit of light brown hair sticking out from the edges, and he wore a grimy rainjacket and fingerless gloves.
I nearly screamed again. His words stopped me.
"Look at me. You are Nancy Mateo? I want to talk. That's all. No, look at me. I need to see your face. I read lips. I'm deaf."
That was so completely unexpected that I did stop.
My mind raced, but I looked him in the eye and formed the words on my lips deliberately. "Deaf? Who are you?"
"I'm Darren Voort. Chester Hall will tell you. We're on the same side."
I gave it a moment's consideration. "I need to contact Chester. Come tomorrow, business hours. Then we'll talk."
He stepped back and turned away, and was lost in the blur of the rain in my eyes and the deepening shadows.
I only told Em part of the story. It was easier that way. I had never told Em about the burglar in the shop the night I opened. I did tell her that I'd been approached by someone who claimed to be a friend of a friend, and Em insisted she be at the store when I met with Voort again. She didn't know he'd been in the store, and she didn't know about the weird symbols he'd carved into my desk. I'd only ever shared that with Ted Markovitch, and Ted had assured me that he'd undone whatever kind of magik had been worked on my shop.
Em had been staying on my couch for the last few days. She and Belle had broken up. I didn't know the full story, just that Belle had gone steadily emo lately and Em had finally gotten fed up and walked out. They'd been together for so long, it was hard to figure out, and I was wondering if drugs were involved. Belle partied hard, and she didn't always hold her liquor all that well. I could only imagine what she'd be like on anything harder.
Em didn't have much to say about it, and as nervous as I was involving any of my friends in the weird shit that always seemed to circulate around Chester Hall, we were both looking for something we could focus on to take our minds off of Em's drama.
I emailed Chess and stayed up past midnight, refreshing my mailbox every few minutes in between chatting with Em, eating ice cream and taking turns on Em's Gameboy. We finally went to bed around two in the morning with no word from Chess.
There was no reply when we got up either. Em drove me in to work through more rain. It had been raining for days. She helped me get the store opened, and I finally got a reply from Chess just after I made my first sale of the morning. Chess isn't the type to waste words:
We are on the same side. But don't trust him.
>Darren Voort. He says you and he are on the same side. Can I trust him?
I'd barely glanced at the message when Voort walked in. He came over to the counter and I asked Em to bring him a chair. He was silent. How the hell did he keep so quiet if he couldn't hear?
Em stood a bit behind me, and Darren didn't seem bothered by her presence. It felt a little reassuring to me. Whatever this would bring, I wasn't facing it alone.
"I owe you an apology, Nancy Mateo. I had been misinformed."
"Misinformed?" I asked, "About what?"
He spoke slowly. "I was told you were an innocent in… in all of this. I acted accordingly."
"You usually break into businesses run by so-called innocents?"
He shook his head. "I was not aware you were an ally. I would have approached you openly."
"I'm not an ally. You have a long road of proving yourself ahead of you before I think of you that way. And regardless, I happen to believe that what you call approaching openly is a matter of common courtesy." The words that had comforted me that night came back to me now. "This is my domain that you intruded on, and I expect better treatment than that."
I didn't have to look at Em to know that last bit had surprised her; not the words, but the tone. I wasn't completely sure where it had come from, but I could tell by Em's reaction that I'd made an impression.
For a second, Darren was frozen in the same stone façade he'd shown since he walked in. I stared him down, waiting.
Just a slight nod of the head, and a downward sweep of the eyes.
"You are right, Lady. I thought you unaware of the matters in which I deal, and I warded this place without your permission, taking you to be unknowing."
Em spoke up. "Wait. Warded?"
He didn't react. He was still focused on me. I repeated Em's question.
"To conceal the location of the rune from those who would seek it."
I slowly reached down to the second desk drawer behind the counter, not too far from where Darren's ward had been carved. I opened it and retrieved a small bubble-mailer. The return address was here in Worcester, the name: Olson.
"This arrived yesterday morning."
For the first time, there was a hint of surprise in Darren.
"I sensed it yesterday. I thought the ward had failed."
I motioned for him to come around to my side of the counter. Em stepped back. She was taking all of this pretty well. It helped that she was a practicing pagan who'd done her share of intention magic. She was nervous, but she was following and learning.
I took Darren's hand and guided it to where his ward had been carved, where the mark he'd made had been burned away.
He straightened up and faced me. "You did this yesterday?"
"This was done six weeks ago."
I opened the padded envelope and shook it once. The small rune pendant that James Olson had found in his father's townhouse tumbled out, clinging to a sticky note scrawled with James's handwriting asking me to locate a qualified appraiser for the piece.
"The rune you are looking for?" I asked.
Now Darren really was surprised, and he'd given up attempting to hide it.
"No. And yes." He walked back to his seat. I sat back down and faced him.
"There are three. We… the society of which I am part… we lost them many years ago. We recently discovered information that traced the runes to three people. Have you ever heard of Nathaniel Wheland?"
I shook my head. I didn't know anyone by that name, I was sure of it. Except that I wasn't. There was a nagging feeling I'd heard it somewhere.
He continued. "I haven't been able to track Wheland down. All I have is the name."
"What about the other two men?" I asked, and then added, "Would one of them happen to be Robert Olson?"
"That's right. You have the rune associated with Olson there. But that means that you don't have the other one. The one I believed that you had. If you had it, then I would have known the moment you burned away my wards. Instead, there was nothing here to sense at all, until Olson's rune arrived in your mail.
"Wait a minute," Em said, "Are you saying that Nancy is the third person you've been tracking?"
"No. Not Nancy Mateo. Michael Stephenson. The former owner of this shop."
I smiled. "I have a guess as to who has it. And I think she's on our side too."
That seemed to satisfy him. He moved on. "All right, then it's vital that we locate Wheland before Christina Kenney and Craig Putnam do."
Craig Putnam. It all came back to me.
"Wait! I know where Wheland is too! Putnam just purchased property from him. In Lowell. I can get the address online from the County Register of Deeds."
"When did he close on the property?"
"It was in process. It could have been any time. Chess has me keeping tabs on Putnam's moves, and the closing paperwork isn't posted yet."
"Then we might still be able to get the rune out of that house." Darren got up. He wasn't about to waste a second.
I took two steps to follow him when Em stopped me.
"Um… If you're heading for Lowell, you have another problem. Either of you watch the news lately?"
The rain we'd had in Worcester was an annoyance. But a little bit to the north, the Merrimack River had risen eight feet over the flood stage. A burst main had sent 35 million gallons of raw sewage into the streets of Haverhill, and in Lowell they'd lowered the Francis Gate for only the third time in 150 years to keep the floodwaters out of the city's canal system.
The last time it had been used was in 1936, and that flood became the setting for Jack Kerouac's tale of Doctor Sax and the Great World Snake. In Kerouac's story the world is saved from destruction through the actions of the Universe, and in 1936 the great gate that had been criticized as a waste of tax dollars saved Kerouac's city of birth from destruction.
Now I was riding north in silence toward my own encounter with the mystical, not at all convinced that I could count on the Universe to dispose of its own evil. Darren wouldn't talk while he drove his pickup truck north through the storm. I had the radio tuned to one of the news channels, and they were talking about evacuations and road closings. I kept wondering if I should signal Darren to stop, so I could fill him in on the details I was hearing, but he seemed intent on making time.
Em wanted to come with us, but I insisted she mind the shop. She, in turn, had shoved her cell phone into my hand with instructions to call her at the store at the first sign of trouble.
We got off the highway and headed into Lowell, only to get turned back at a police roadblock. Darren tried another route in. No luck. A third approach was simply flooded out with no cops in sight. Darren shoved the truck into park and turned to face me.
He'd explained a little more about his deafness before we set out. Darren had some hearing, but the frequencies he could hear were limited. He could make out noises with the help of a cochlear implant, but needed to read lips and body language to really understand speech.
"I know one more way we can go." He told me.
I nodded. "Let's get this done."
We pulled into an industrial park, skirted a parking lot that had become a small lake, and pulled up alongside a muddy embankment. Darren got out and went around back, grabbing a crowbar, a coil of rope, and some bungee cords and throwing them into a mesh bag. I got out to see if he needed help, but he just threw the sack over his shoulder and pointed at the embankment.
We scrambled up, Darren's hand steadying me as I slipped in the mud. I was glad we were moving fast. It was keeping me from having second thoughts.
There were railroad tracks at the top of the embankment, and we made our way along the tracks toward the riverbank. The water was brown, frothing with boards and debris and tree limbs being swept and spun like twigs or leaves in a stiff wind. I stopped to take it in and when I turned my attention to Darren he was standing with his arm straight out, pointing.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me! No fucking way!" I shouted. Darren wasn't looking my way. He didn't hear me.
I could envision the real estate listing that Craig Putnam had looked at when he was shopping around for properties to buy. I'm sure that one of the selling points for the house was the lovely deck overlooking the Merrimack River.
Except that most of the deck had long since floated down the river and the house itself was sitting at a thirty degree angle on a bank of mud that was slipping into the floodwaters in little brown rivulets.
"Stay here," Darren told me.
Like hell. He turned to head for the house and I followed three steps behind. We cut through some bushes to the side yard. The place was boarded up, empty. Darren kicked in the plywood on a basement window. The cellar was just about filled with water, but the stairs leading up were within reach of the window. He crawled in and I followed. My clothes were soaked through by the time I got up the stairs and I was remembering how much I hated swimming lessons as a kid.
He finally noticed that I was still with him then, but he was past the point of trying to persuade me to go back. He motioned for me to search the front of the house while he took the back. Before he turned to go I shouted "Secret compartments!" at him. These people liked their toys and I was starting to catch on.
I made my way through the living room, banging on walls and floor with a loose piece of window frame. Darren had gotten the crowbar out and I could hear him banging on the woodwork.
The whole house lurched. I grabbed onto the mantel and I yelled for Darren. No answer. I made my way back through the kitchen, keeping close to the walls. He was in the back room, a den or a family room that opened onto the former deck, and he was smashing away at a spot on one of the walls. He reversed the crowbar and pried loose a board and reached inside a little hollow, and withdrew his hand. He pumped his fist up in triumph, the rune pendant dangling from its cord.
The floor split in two and half of the room tumbled into the river. Darren stood transfixed on the edge and for a second it looked like he'd keep his balance. Then he tumbled over the edge and away.
I lost a second yelling for him. Like that was gonna do any good. Then I stopped myself from running to the edge. I couldn't tell if the floor would hold. Finally I made my way out along the wall. I peered down, certain there would be nothing below but the torrent of brown and grey muck speckled with junk.
I saw him. The waters swirled into a calmer area, blocked off by some rock or foundation that slowed the torrent close to the bank under where the house had stood, and Darren was trying to stay afloat, tangled in the bag he'd had on his shoulder.
I was the little girl on the diving board holding up the line as I stared down into the space below while the swim teacher tried to sound encouraging, and I was screaming at myself to forget that stupid childhood bullshit. And then I was flying.
I hit the water, sank, remembered how to swim, paddled over to Darren, and got shoved under the water as he tried to keep afloat. Now I was fighting him and fighting the water, and I wasn't strong enough to win either way, but I managed to push myself deeper and slipped behind Darren, out of his reach. His left arm was twisted around the duffel bag strap and he was using his right to try to stay afloat, and we both started to drift out toward the fast-moving river.
I took a breath, ducked my head under, caught the strap of his bag and swung my legs around to press against his side and keep him back while I unwrapped the strap and got his arm free.
It somehow became easier after that. We started working together and pulled ourselves along until we caught one of the foundation walls. We used that to haul ourselves up into the mud.
Darren sat up and slowly opened his hand. The silver rune pendant sparkled in the muck.
When I finally had the breath to speak, I asked Darren, "What do we do now?"
"We get dried off. Then we protect these runes."
I remembered Chess's email. Darren was on my side, but I shouldn't trust him. But Chess could be a paranoid bastard when he wanted to be. Trust had to start somewhere.
"You keep that one." I offered. "Then we each have one. Safer that way until we track down the third."
I looked more closely at the rune. It was Raido in the runic alphabet, the equivalent of the letter "R".
"It is associated with journeys, a rune of safe travel."
I looked back at the rushing waters that we'd escaped from.
Darren didn’t hear me because I was facing away.
"We're going to need it." I said.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007