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Gently bending the speed limit, eh? Turnpikes were fine things, out here in the Southwest; long stretches of arrow-straight macadam where you could really burn up some hydrocarbons. With one eye on the radar/laser detector and one ear on the CB radio, Tannim was confident there weren't too many Smokies, plain brown wrapper or otherwise, that he wouldn't know about long before he had to back down.
Heat waves distorted the landscape on either side of the Mustang, and made false-puddles on the asphalt ahead. Tannim had forgotten how hot it was in Oklahoma at the end of May, and how intense the sun-glare got by midmorning. Despite the protection of his ultra-dark Wayfarers, he still squinted against road-shimmers, the glare of sunlight off the metal and glass of other vehicles, and the occasional flash from reflective debris beside the road. In Savannah, Georgia, it was still spring; here it was already summer, and the long grass in the median showed the first signs of sun-scorch. Not as much as there would be by the end of June, but enough to make the ends of the cut stems noticeably brown, even at the speed he was moving.
One good thing about traveling by day. No ghosts. Usually. He wouldn't have been entirely surprised to have seen a weary spirit trudging along the shoulder, equally weary ox beside it, pulling a wagon that would not have been much larger than the Mach I Mustang he drove now, laden with all the worldly goods the long-dead pioneer owned. Or an Osage or Cherokee, trying to defend the last corner of the homelands he'd been promised.
He chuckled at his overactive imagination. In all the times he'd driven this stretch of the turnpike, he had yet to see a ghost, and he wasn't likely to this time, either. Not unless there was another Ross Canfield somewhere down the road, existing in an endless loop of time and replaying the mistake that got him killed, over and over againuntil Tannim or someone like him happened by to free him.
Shoot, by now, Deke Kestrel's cleaned up every highway ghost between here and Austin.
The Mach I's air-conditioning worked overtime against the heat outside the car. This morning in the motel outside Little Rock, the weatherman on CNN had predicted temperatures in the upper 90s for all of Oklahoma. Tannim suspected it was closer to 110 than 90, at least out here on the open road with no shade. He recalled working on his first cars in heat like this, spending every free moment during the school year and most of his summers out in his old barn, with no a/c and scarcely a breeze to dry his sweat. He'd come a long way from that barn, and the kid with all the dreams. Never had the dreams included anything like what had really happened.
Funny, when I was a kid, I thought the things I "saw" were nothing more than oddball hallucinations, entertaining as hell, but no big deal. Like an imaginary friend, only better, some a lot sexier than any imaginary friend a high school kid would imagine. I just chalked it up to puberty, but they're still on my mind. Hell, back then I even thought Chinthliss was an "imaginary friend," and I figured that still seeing him just meant I had a better imagination than everyone else. Until the spring dance, I never knew it was all real.
How old had he been? Young enough to think he knew everything; old enough to impress that visiting writer playing chaperone with his "maturity." Then things at the dance got ugly. Somebody there was using the emotions as a power source. I noticed, and so did that lady writerTregarde? Was that her name? She not only saw what I saw, but knew it was trouble. An adult, seeing it as sure as I did. It wasn't my own little fantasy anymore. Showed me I'd have to stop playing around with magic, or it'd eat my lunch. He'd had a long talk with Chinthliss that sleepless night. Given how things looked on the surface, intensive psychotherapy seemed like a fine option until his not-so-imaginary friend had confirmed it all. The magic he'd been playing with was real; the things he'd been seeing were real. In pilot parlance, it was time to get out of the simulators and take a real stick, or give it up. I grew up on heroes; I opted for taking a shot at becoming one and doing something about the bad guys. Clever me, I thought that just having magic would let me take care of everything. Always happened that way in the comics.
Since then, he'd seen things no "rational" person believed in anymore; he'd been shot at and beaten up and chewed onas his often-aching left leg reminded himby creatures nobody'd ever heard of outside of myths and horror movies. The magic had brought him good times, too, but plenty of moments when he wished he'd never taken the particular path his life was on. Sometimes he wondered if it had been worth it. If the green-eyed kid had known what was going to happen to him, would he still have gone for it? Or would he have sold off every piece of chrome, burned his little notebooks, and gone into accounting?
Well, maybe not accounting. Maybe art, like my folks thought I would.
His eyes itched, and he groped reflexively for the package of antihistamines on the seat beside him, popping one out of the foil and into his cupped hand without taking his eyes off the road. This was the time of day when people suffered highway hypnosis, especially people in cars with no a/c; more than once he'd had someone in front of him start to swerve into his path as they dozed off. And there were always the "Aunt Bee" and "Uncle Josh" types, who thought forty-five was way too fast to be driving; you could come over one of the deceptively gentle rises and be right on top of them before you knew it. Especially out here. But the double-nickel was just too slow, and the sixty-five limit wasn't much better.
He washed the bitter pill down with lukewarm Gatorade, and tossed the now-empty foil packet in the back seat with its crumpled brethren. Hopefully the pill would kick in before his nose started again.
Right. Your Majesty, may I present the Incredible Hero Mage with the dribble-nose. He'd learned pretty quickly that magic was like any other abilityyou needed to be aware of it to use it, and not only did it not solve everything, it didn't solve most things. It was about as miraculous as a lug wrench. Hell, he couldn't even cure his own allergies with it!
He never had any trouble remembering why he'd left Oklahoma; his allergies never failed to remind him, usually long before he crossed the state line. He sighed and downed another mouthful of his drink. The planet must dump every substance I'm allergic to on the state when I head this way. The only good thing about his allergies was that by the time he graduated from high school, they were so bad that he needed no excuse to leave the family farm. Not when I can't get within twenty feet of a cow without my eyes swelling shut. Never mind that the antipathy between Tannim and farm animals seemed to be mutual. Cattle took a perverse pleasure in chasing him, geese hated him on sight, chickens went out of their way to shed feathers on him, and as for horses
The only horses that don't try to flatten me come under sheet metal hoods.
That was most of the reason for his sinking feeling of dread as he approached the outskirts of Tulsa, headed ultimately southward toward Bixby. His father's last several letters and phone calls for the past year had all been about the changes he was making. Since he had resigned himself to his son's career-track in car testing and racing and Tannim was not expected to take over the family farm, his father had decided to turn the farm into something more lucrative. Not incidentally, it was also now more likely to sell when he retired. The old homestead was no longer a farm, it was a ranch. A horse ranch. Doing well, too, it seemed.
Quarter horses. Just what I need. They're going to take one look at me, and I know what they'll do. Tannim had never once gotten within a foot of a horse without it stepping on him, kicking him, biting him, or attempting other assorted mayhem on his person. Dad would expect some help, even if it meant that Tannim had to take allergy pills until he was stony. Well, Al told me that Joe likes horses. Maybe I can talk him into helping Dad out, and getting me off the hook, at least until we can head back to North Carolina and Georgia.
Young Joe was the other reason for this trip, besides the Obligatory Familial Visit, though the connection between the young man who now called himself "Joe Brown" and Tannim was a convoluted one.
Yeah. Once upon a time.
It all started with Hallet Racetrack.
Hallet International, the small and slightly silly monument to the desire of men and women to hurl their bodies as quickly as possible around a loop was not all that far from Tulsa, or more importantly, Bixby, where the old family farm stood. And last summer, Hallet was where two Fairgrove Industries mechanics had been sent to help out in track-testing the first Fairgrove foamed-aluminum engine block to leave their hands.
Fairgrove also "employed" Tannim as a test-driver, mechanic, public relations, and general "outside" man. Or, as Rob had called him, a "gentleman flunkie." He also drove for their SCCA team, but he'd have done that without the pay.
So far, so good. Ordinary enough; plenty of racing concerns had a guy who was that kind of jack-of-all-trades. And plenty of racing concerns hoped to become big enough one day to field engines or parts of them to other teams. But that was where the ordinary took a sharp right and snapped at the apex.
One of those two Fairgrove mechs that had found themselves out in the heart of Oklahoma just happened to be a Seleighe-Court Sidhe.
In other words, Alinor Peredon, "Al Norris" to the real world, was a genuine, pointy-eared, long-haired, green-eyed, too-pretty elf-guy, just like the kind that clogged sci-fi bookstore shelves and played Tonto in the comic books. So, too, was the head of Fairgrove, one Keighvin Silverhair, Tannim's long-time friend and employer.
The other mech, a laconic fellow by the name of Bob Ferrel, was human enoughbut he just happened to be a wizard. A minor wizard, whose magics mostly had to do with making engines purr like kittens, but a wizard nonetheless.
Not that he's in my league, but he isn't bad in his own area. Al's better, of course, but you don't dare send an elf out into the Land of the Mundane without a human helper to keep him from blowing his cover. They may be competent enough Underhill, but out here in the wild world, they're rubes.
Perhaps if Tannim had been sent along on that little junket, things would have turned out differently.
Then again, maybe not. Some way or other, though, I'd have wound up with severe bodily injury. I always do. Why is that?
Somehow Alinor had gotten himself mixed up with a desperate mother, her kidnapped and mediumistic child, and a looney-tune preacher. The preacher called himself "Brother Joseph," and manufactured bargain-rate zealots that made skinheads look like cupcakes, and called his little social club the "Sacred Heart of the Chosen Ones". . .
. . . add in a Salamander from the era of the Crusades, the ghost of a murdered child, and a bigger bunch of incendiaries than the Branch Davidians. Naw, I don't think anything would have been any different if I'd been there, aside from my hospital bills. The situation was too unstable. The Feds would still have moved in, and the Salamander would still have blown things sky-high. Nasty creatures.
Alinor and Bob had to handle the whole mess on their own; Keighvin Silverhair and Tannim had their own fish to fry at the time. A spiteful bunch of Unseleighe Court creatures had made themselves nuisances over a crucial period out at Roebling Road Racetrack in Georgia. They'd almost cracked up the Victor GT prototype, and they'd managed to cream Tannim's good knee while they were at it. Coincidence? Maybe; maybe not. The Unseleighe had ears and eyes everywhere; like Murphy's Law, they always chose the worst possible time to act.
For the most part, Al and Bob had handled it all very well. Alinor had been rather sloppy towards the end, though; he'd had to play fast and loose with the memories of several of the humans involved, and he'd had to do a quick identity switch on himself. But by and large, there hadn't been too many loose ends to deal with, and most of those had been taken care of within a month.
All except one: young Joe, the teenage son of the lunatic preacher Brother Joseph, a boy who had taken his own life in his hands to expose the crimes going on in his father's compound. He'd turned informer partly out of a revolted conscience, but mostly hoping to save the little boy Al had been looking forJamie Chase, the kid who'd been kidnapped to the cult by his own father.
When everything was over, Al had forgotten there would be one person around who still knew something about the supernatural goings-on. He couldn't really be blamed for that. He was a mechanic, not a military strategist or superhero. Young Joe still had unclouded memories, and he had no relatives, nowhere to go. For the short-term, the Pawnee County Deputy Sheriff, Frank Casey, had been willing to take the boy in. Joe was eighteenbarelybut did not have a high school diploma and was not particularly well socialized. Frank felt the young man deserved that much help.
Young Joe had seen a little too much for his own peace of mind, and not enough to keep him from getting curious once most of the furor had died down.
Turned out that he was both curious and methodical. It wasn't hard for him to find out some of what had gone on, not when his little friend Jamie Chase and Jamie's mother Cindy were spending a lot of time with Bob at the track. Between one thing and another, he'd managed to ingratiate himself with Alinor and Bob before the test runs ended, and that was when they discovered that the kid was a potential wizard himself. He was telepathic and also had that peculiar knack with human machines that Bob, Al, and Tannim shared.
Now, there were several options open to them at that point, including shutting his newly awakened powers down. But while he was not quite a child, he was still close enough to that state to qualify for elven assistance, at least so far as Alinor was concerned.
Alinor had an amazingly strong streak of conscience, and was quite a persuasive master of argument when he put his mind to it.
He had stated his case, articulately and passionately, to his liege lord, Keighvin Silverhair. In the short form, Al wanted "Joe Brown" brought into the Fairgrove fold, as many other humans had been in the past. Bob backed him up. They both felt the kid had earned his way in; certainly Jamie would have been dead two or three times over if Joe hadn't protected him.
Joe sure was emotionally and spiritually abused by his old man, which qualifies him for help as far as my vote goes. Poor kid. I wouldn't have wanted to go through what he did for anything. Then you figure out what he must have felt when they told him that the compound went up and that the Feds shot it out with his dad and killed him. Poor Joe; everything and everyone he knew either went up in smoke or is rotting in a federal pen. And rescuing that little Jamie kid by going public and turning his nut dad inthat took some real guts. From all Al said, the cult played for keeps; people like that usually find ways to deal with "traitors." Permanently.
Keighvin listened and Keighvin agreed, allowing Al and Bob time enough in Oklahoma to reveal something of their true natures to the boy. If he accepted them, he could be invited to join the human mages, human Sensitives, and elves of Fairgrove Industries. That organization was loosely affiliated with SERRAthe South Eastern Road Racing Association, which itself had more than a few non-mortals and magic-wielders in its ranks. And if he freaked, they would wipe his memory clean, shut his powers down, and let him go join the normal world.
Joe didn't freak; in fact, he was relieved to find some kind of explanation for what had happened at his father's compound. Either the kid was very resilient, or this was a side effect of being taught so many half-baked, conflicting notions that nothing really seemed impossible anymore. Bob was convinced that the kid would make a first-class Sensitive and a fine assistant to Sarge Austin back at the Fairgrove compound. Sarge would make a good role model and father figure for young Joe; a true rock of stability, with honest, simple values. The one place where Joe had actually been happy was military schoolworking under Sarge should do wonders for him. The only potholes in the road were the facts that the kid was barely eighteen, being watchdogged by the Feds, under the temporary guardianship of the local sheriff, and they couldn't just kidnap him.
So they reached a compromise, worked out with Frank Casey: Joe would finish his last year of high school in Oklahoma, so that he had a genuine diploma. When he graduated, someone would come from Fairgrove to pick him up with a "job offer." And meanwhile, Al and Bob would keep in touch with him through letters, phone calls, and occasional visits, by means both mundane and arcane.
Enter Tannim, who hadn't been back home in more than a year. The elves felt very strongly about the ties of kith and kin, and took a dim view of people who treated such things carelessly. Around about March, Keighvin had begun to hint that it would be a good idea for Tannim to "spend some time with his family." By the end of March, the hints had turned about as subtle as a ten-pound sledgehammer upside his head.
In April, Tannim thought he might get off the hook; a major disaster Underhill and in the more mundane lands of North Carolina had left Elfhame Outremer in ruins and all of the Seleighe Court in shock. Virtually everyone on the East Coast was needed to help put the pieces back together again. But by the middle of May, with Joe about to graduate, Keighvin's hints turned into an order. Tannim would go visit his family, and while he was there, he would pick up young Joe and bring him back to Fairgrove. But not until he had spent at least two weeks in the family bosom.
Go rest, he says. Spend time with your family. They miss you; they need to know you're all right. Relax, he says. Like I'm going to be able to relax around my parents! I can't tell them more than a tenth of what I really do! And good old Chinthlissif he gets wind of the fact that I'm not busy, he'll want to show up, and the last time he showed up
Tannim yipped in startlement and rose straight up in his seat, narrowly avoiding running off the road. He was no longer alone in the Mach I.
Lounging at his ease in the bucket seat next to him was James Dean, famous boyish good looks, Wayfarer sunglasses, red leather jacket, and all. There was just one small addition: in fancy chrome over the right breast of the jacket was a tiny logo composed of two letters.
"Mind if I come along for the ride?" Foxtrot X-ray asked with a lopsided smile.
Tannim calmed his heart and his temper with an effort. There was no point in getting mad at Fox; the Japanese kitsune-spirit operated by his own rules. There was no point in complaining. Fox wouldn't understand why Tannim was upset. And Fox was good-hearted. He'd done Tannim plenty of favors since they'd met.
"Can anyone see you but me?" Tannim demanded, his attention torn between his sudden passenger and the road. Having a James Dean lookalike along was going to complicate an already complex situation. . . .
Why couldn't I just be gay? It would be a lot easier to come out of the closet than to explain any of this to my parents. . . .
"Of course not!" Fox replied. "Why? Do you want to show me off? That could be fun"
"No!" Tannim shouted. "No, I do not want anyone else to see you! Not my parents, not the neighbors, not the people in the next car"
"Oh, they won't be able to see me," Fox said, shrugging dismissively. "I don't know whether your parents have the Sight, but even if they do, I can keep them from seeing me if you really want. They won't think I'm real, and that's half the battle. Half the fun, too!" Fox cracked a vulpine grin. "But what about that kid you're supposed to pick up? He could probably see me even if I shield from him, unless I made a point of not coming around while he's with you. That could be fun, too. I could make it a game. You sure you want me to stay hidden?"
Tannim paused a moment before saying anything, thinking hard. It could be useful to have Fox appear to Joecould it cause problems as well?
"I don't know," he said finally. "Just do me a favor and stay out of sight until I get a feel for the situation, all right?" It was useless to ask Fox to just go away; there wasn't a chance in the world that he would if he thought Tannim was going to be doing anything really interesting. Fox had more curiosity than a zoo of raccoons, and every resource imaginable to indulge that curiosity. There was no place here, Underhill, or in any plane known to Tannim, that the charming and often annoying fox could not go. He was not a powerful spirit, as power was measured among such beings, but what he had, he used cleverly.
Fox sighed and shrugged his leather-clad shoulders. "I 'spose so," he said with some reluctance. "It won't be as much fun, but I 'spose so. Hey, how 'bout some tunes?"
Glad for something to distract his uninvited passenger, Tannim fumbled for the still-unfamiliar controls of the CD player in the dashboard. Not exactly stock equipment for a '69 Mach I, but then, neither were the in-dash radar-detector, the cassette player, the CB, the police-repeater scanner. Tannim had never been one to let authenticity get in the way of gadgetry.
Even if he had been, this CD player, gift of a friend, would still have become the crown jewel in his dashboard.
Donal, my friend, I never jack up the volume without honoring your memory. Miss you, pointy-ears.
He'd forgotten what he'd left in the player, but the first bars told him. Icehouse. "Great Southern Land." Appropriate. Fox certainly appreciated it; he slouched down in his seat with every appearance of pleasure, propped his black fox-feet on the dash, and surveyed the rolling hills beyond the window. An Australian "digger" hat appeared from nowhere to cover Fox's head.
"So, where are we going?" the kitsune asked innocently. "For that matter, where are we?"
"Oklahoma," Tannim said in answer to both questions. Fox's brow wrinkled in puzzlement.
"Isn't it supposed to belikeflat?" he asked. "No trees? Covered in dust?"
Since that was what virtually everyone said, Tannim only sighed. Fox wasn't stupid; he had perfectly good eyes. "If you want flat and treeless, I'll take you to West Texas," he said. "Not everything's the way you see it in the movies. Most things about Oklahoma are filmed out in California anyway." He had no idea if that was really true or not, but it probably was.
"Except UHF," Fox reminded him with glee. "Supplies!"
Trust a Japanese kitsune to remember an obscure Asian joke from a Weird Al Yankovic film, Tannim thought, grinning in spite of himself. "Okay, you're one up on me. How about sitting back and enjoying the ride while I get us through Tulsa rush hour?"
"Tulsa rush hour? Both cars and a mule?"
Tannim smirked. "Just you wait, silly fox."
They survived rush hour, although Tannim had never been able to get used to the schizophrenic traffic patterns even when he still lived here. The mix of granny drivers too timid to merge, urban cowboys determined to prove their macho behind the wheel of their pickups, guys who'd stopped off for "one for the road" before heading home after work, midwest Yuppies in Range Rovers, and people who just plain shouldn't have been allowed in the driver's seat all made for some white-knuckle maneuvering. By the time they escaped the stream of traffic headed out of the city toward Broken Arrow and outlying bedroom communities, Tannim's tangled hair was sweat-damp and he had to force the muscles in his hands to relax.
No way am I going to go through this on the way back. I'll wait until after dark and start the drive at night. I'm a racecar driver, I don't need commuter craziness. It's too damned dangerous.
Fox wasn't the least bit perturbed, which was aggravating. Then again, if there was an accident, Fox wouldn't have to stick around and suffer the consequences of someone else's stupid driving. I've been in fights that were more relaxing.
Never mind. The last of it was behind him now. In a few more minutes, he'd have an entirely new set of problems to worry about.
"Don't try to talk to me when my folks are around, okay?" he said to Fox. "Don't try to crack me up, don't make faces at me, don't play practical jokes. Don't try to distract me. Whatever you think about doing while they're there, don't."
"Would I do that to you?" Fox replied, all injured innocence.
"Yes," Tannim said shortly, and left it at that.
Fox pouted. Tannim ignored it.
Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. Look what I brought home. Oh God, all I need now is for Chinthliss to show up.
He resolutely put the thought away, because sometimes simply thinking about Chinthliss would conjure him up.
No. I do not need that.
Finally, with a mixture of anticipation and dread, he turned down a county section-line road running between two windbreaks of trees. Beyond the trees were fields that hadn't seen the touch of a plow in decades, dotted with the fat brown backs of grazing cattle. The road itself was bumpy and pitted; they didn't exactly pave roads out in the county, they just laid asphalt over what ruts and holes were already there, and hoped it wouldn't wash out too soon. As long as it stayed flat enough that VW-swallowing valleys didn't form, it would usually do.
He crossed two more section-line roads, ignoring the rough ride. Not a lot of money in the county budget for fixing these roads. Well heck, a few years ago they hadn't even been paved, just graveled, and wasn't that hell to drive on? The blackened remains of an old barn loomed up on his right out of a sea of uncut grass, and he averted his eyes. That, if anywhere, was the place where his current odyssey had begun, in the ruins of that barn, and his budding "business" of restoring cars. If the barn hadn't burned, would he be the person he was now?
Rhetorical question. One that did not need answering. One thing led to another, and if one path was not taken, who was to say that another would not have brought him to the same end?
One more section-line road, and then a bright red, oversized mailbox with "Drake" in reflective letters on the side, and "RT 4 Box 451" appeared on the left. It was his father's little surprise for mailbox-bashers; it was really two mailboxes, a smaller one inside a larger, with a layer of concrete poured between them. Anyone who hit that with a bat was going to regret it, and anyone who tried to run it over with a truck was going to be a very unhappy camper. Depending on whether they were driving a tall truck or a short one, it would end up in their radiator or in their laps.
He signaled, and turned into the gravel drive. There were changes evident immediately.
He replaced the fences! That was an expensive proposition, especially since the post-and-barbed-wire had all been replaced with welded pipe. He must've dug out my old welding rigI didn't know he knew how to weld! Behind the fences, instead of cattle, horses looked at him with interest, while foals sparred with each other.
The house looked a little more prosperous, too. And
I don't believe it. I do not believe it. He put in a satellite dish!
The mesh dish presided over a front yard patrolled by guinea hens, birds which were noisy as a Lollapalooza tour, but the only sure-fire means of getting rid of ticks without spraying. Tannim pulled up in front of the garage, beside a pair of shiny aluminum four-horse trailers.
Altogether it looked as if the quarter-horse business was doing well.
"Vanish," he growled out of the corner of his mouth, as the front door opened and two middle-aged, slim people in jeans and work shirts came out to greet him.
Fox vanished, eyes wide, obeying the warning in Tannim's voice. Parents. Now things were going to get scary.
Tannim had always known that his father loved techie-toys as much as Tannim did. He just hadn't realized that Trevor Drake knew as much about techie-toys as his son did.
". . . so we've got a LAN hooking up the office, the stable, and the kitchen, since your mom has to access the database if we get a call from a customer and I'm out in the fields," Dad said, as Tannim's head spun under the burden of all the computer neepery. "We're using dBase for our data, and I've got a record not only of full pedigrees but everything I've ever done with every field. Got a plat of the property in a CAD program, can keep track of where every buried line and fencepost is to the tenth of an inch." Trevor's voice filled with pride. "We're doing as much without spraying and chemicals as we can, and we let the horses free-range all year except for foaling and really bad storms. The file-server's a 486 with a 2-gig read-write optical driveit's in the closet in your old room so don't kick it or drop something on it."
There was no doubt that Trevor was Tannim's father; the two had the same slim build, although Trevor's hair was lighter as well as laced with gray and cut as short as a Marine's. Their faces had some superficial similarities in the shape of the jaw and the high cheekbones; Trevor's was tanned to a leathery toughness by years in the fields in all weathers. But there the resemblance ceased; Trevor was as muscular as a body-builder from all those years of hauling hay and wrestling calves, and if he looked like anyone, it was Will Rogers. For all his strength, Tannim really didn't look as if he could defend himself in a fight against a wily garden hose, and he looked more as if he belonged on MTV than behind the wheel of sophisticated racers. Unlike his father's buzz-cut, he'd had his hair styled short in front and on top, but let it grow long in the back, where it formed a tangle of unruly curls. That changed due to the couple of months he usually went between haircuts, though. He was expecting to hear something about the length of his hair, but so far the only comment had been from his mother, a compliment on the style. Peace flag up and accepted.
Trevor cocked an eyebrow at his son, a signal that Tannim knew meant he was waiting for a reply.
"It's very cool, Dad," Tannim replied dazedly. "I didn't know you'd been doing all this"
What he was thinking was, Where did he get the cash? The beef market hasn't exactly been booming. Even if he liquidated the whole herd, he wouldn't have had enough for all those horses, let alone computers, software, satellite dishes, renovations. . . . There were a number of ways he could think of where his father could have gotten a bankroll, but none of them were on the Light Side of the Force, so to speak. It worried him. If I'd known he really wanted all of this so badly, I could have found a way to make it happen, somehow.
"Well, I wouldn't have been able to, if it hadn't been for that boss of yours," Trevor Drake said, with a certain fond satisfaction. "You signed on with a good firm, there. Remember when you had that pile-up a couple of years ago that landed you in the hospital, and he sent you off for some rest?"
When that mess with the Unseleighe against the Underhill side of Fairgrove happened, and I creamed my knee the first time, yeah. He nodded cautiously. Dad had been talking about wanting to convert to quarter horses, but he didn't have the bread. A certain suspicion dawned, hardening into certainty when he dredged up a vague memory of drugged hallucinations while healing. Yeah, he'd been babbling something in a dream about his parents' money troubles, how he was worried about who'd take care of them if something happened to him, and how it would take a big load off his mind if only he could do something about it.
"You wouldn't believe how well he has you insured," Dad continued. Tannim nodded cautiously again. "Turns out he's got a basic load of policies on you, with us as beneficiaries on some of 'em. And when you tore up your knee, once the fuss all died down, they sent us a check. A really big check. I thought it was a mistake, so I called Fairgrove, but your Mister Silver said no, it was right, and I was supposed to keep the money, and then he asked if the herd was still for sale. Paid me top dollar for 'em. Between that and the insurance money, we had enough for some top stock and all the rest of this."
That pointy-eared Tannim bent down to adjust his pant-cuff as an excuse to keep his father from seeing his face flush. He throttled his reactions and simply shook his head, expressing mild appreciation of "Mister Silver's" generosity. Actually, he wasn't quite sure how to feel. Not that he wasn't pleased that his folks had been taken care of, but
It felt like a cheat.
You've got no right to feel that way, he scolded himself, as his father led the way to his old room and showed him where the file server lurked in the back of the closet, humming to itself. Dad's worked hard all his life. He earned all this, it wasn't just given to him! Yeah, Keighvin was making sure that Mom and Dad were going to be okay. That's the way he operates. No matter how modern he acts on the surface, underneath it all he's still a medieval feudal lord, and medieval feudal lords take care of their people and the relatives of their people. It comes with the territory.
Put that way, he felt a little better about it all. But it would have been nice if Keighvin had asked first.
Medieval feudal lords don't ask, they dictate. It's justdammit, he took it all out of my hands, and they're my parents! I thought I was doing all right by them, and then Keighvin comes in and trumps me! I feel like he took me right out of the loop, and he eavesdropped on my dreams to do it. I suppose I ought to be grateful he didn't send them a bag of gold or something.
"It was pretty funny, sonMister Silver had the check for the cattle sent over in a Wells Fargo bag marked `gold bullion.' I thought I was gonna bust a gut laughing!"
That does it. Silverhair Stew when I get back to Georgia.
"When you're ready, come on down to the stables," his dad was saying while Tannim brooded over the file server as if it was personally responsible for all this. "I've got some stuff down there that I have to take care of right now, and a lot more I can't wait to show you."
"Great" Tannim began, but his Dad was already gone.
He turned around slowly, and shut the door. The Ferrari poster he'd hung on the back of the door when he was ten was still there; so were all the models he'd built, although he had never arranged them quite so neatly on the shelves. And he didn't remember all those shelves being there, either.
The plain wooden desk was empty, except for a clean blotter, a phone, and a single pen next to a cube of notepaper. It had never been that empty when he'd lived here, not even on the rare occasions that he'd actually cleaned the room. It was always piled with car magazines, comics, rock rags, books about art, and paperback science fiction books. His autographed picture of Richard Petty had been neatly framed and now hung right over the desk, but the holes where he'd thumbtacked it to the wall still showed near the edge of the mat. The drawers of the desk and the matching bureau beside it were empty, but all of his paperbacks were in a new bookcase on the other side of the desk, with a set of magazine-holders taking care of the magazines. There was a metal Route 66 sign hanging on the wall opposite the Petty photo, and his tattered Rush 2112 banner.
Someone had refinished the desk, and done it well enough that all the stains from oil and WD-40 he'd made when he rebuilt carburetors on it were gone. He ran his fingers slowly across the edges and surface. It felt as if someone had erased part of his life with the stains, even though he had tried to remove those stains himself a hundred times.
The room had been repainted and there were new curtains, but the carpet was the same, and the bedspread. But in place of his old clock-radio on the stand beside the bed there was a new digital clock-radio that included a CD player. Replacing the old black-and-white TV he'd rescued from the junkyard and repaired with Deke Kestrel's help, there was a new color portable. No cracked case, no channel knob that had to be turned with vise-grips; this television had an auto-tuner. It could effortlessly lock in a vivid image, just like he had tuned in those strong images in that very bed, so long ago, of the dragons and magic and her. All she had done with himand to himhad seemed so rich and real, erotic and more. But only a few of those images of dragons and adventure had come true, and his ethereal lover had yet to appear in the real world.
This, the real world, where he stood like an artist who has walked into a gallery to see his life's work re-framed while he was away for lunch.
The room felt both familiar and alien at once. This is surreal. Very, very surreal. He just wasn't certain of anything at the moment; he felt unbalanced, uncomfortable, as if he had tried on clothing that was too tight.
This is why I don't come back. Because you can't come back. I can't be what I used to be, I can only try to fake what my folks remember. If I just act . . . no . . . if I'm just myself, they'd never be able to handle that. They'll wonder what they did wrong. Parents are as fallible as anyone else, and they made mistakes with me. They want to know what they did rightbut like anyone else, they have rigid ideas of exactly what's right. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that a boy-genius grease monkey isn't what a farmer wants or expects.
As he stared down at the worn red ribcord bedspread, Fox materialized on the bed. He looked a little less like James Dean now, and a little more like the lead singer of the Stray Cats.
"Hey," he said cheerfully. "Nice place! You seen the stables yet?"
"No," Tannim replied cautiously. "Why?"
Fox just snickered. "You're in for a big surprise."
Tannim stared at the horse. The horse stared back and laid its ears down in an unmistakable expression of threat. "Just hold the reins, son," Trevor repeated patiently. "He won't hurt you."
"Dadthat's a stallion. Stallions are aggressive, even I know that much. And he doesn't like me." Fluorescent lighting hanging from the metal rafters of the ceiling showed every nuance of the stallion's expression, and it was not a friendly one. Tannim would have backed off another pace, but there was a cinder-block wall in the way. The horse bared its teeth at him and stamped its foot on the rubber mat covering the cement floor.
Trevor sighed. "That horse is a kitten. Tannim, your mother can hold that horse."
"Then why isn't she here instead of me?" he asked, as the stallion stamped his foot a second timepossibly indicating what he wanted to do if Tannim's feet got within his reach.
"He's not interested in you," Trevor replied, patiently. "He has other things on his mind right now."
"I'll bet," Tannim muttered, trying to inch away.
Trevor stood beside something that vaguely resembled the gym apparatus known as a pommel-horse, holding an object like a cross between a large hot water bottle and an elephant's trunk, he referred to as an "AV." He said he was going to "collect" the stallion, and he wanted Tannim's help. Tannim did not want to know what an "AV" was, and he certainly did not want to help in what he thought his father was going to do.
"Dad, that horse is going to kill me." He said this slowly and carefully, so there could be no mistake. The horse confirmed his words with a neigh, a snort, and another exhibition of teeth. "That horse wants to kill me. I did not drive all the way from Savannah to be killed by a horse, or to assist you in giving one a good time!"
Trevor shook his head, whether in denial or in disgust, his son wasn't entirely certain. But at that moment, Tannim's allergies realized that he was standing in straw, in a stable full of hay, dust, and powdered grain, and not more than ten feet away from a large, sweaty, dander-laden animal.
He exploded into a volley of violent sneezing. The horse lost all interest in killing him, and backed away from him in alarm as far as the lead on the halter would permit. The horse's eyes rolled alarmingly, and it uttered a pitiful whine as it danced around and jerked on the rope holding it to the side of the stall. Trevor swore under his breath, put the "AV" down, and worked his way hand-over-hand up the rope to the stallion's head to try and calm it. Tannim took this as permission to escape.
He retreated immediately, eyes streaming, nose running, only to meet his mother at the kitchen door. "Dad deeds you, Bomb," he got out between sneezes. "Dable. Wid da dallion."
Correctly interpreting this as a message that Trevor needed help with his champion stallion, Tannim's mother thrust a box of tissues at him and trotted across the backyard in the direction of the stables. He continued his retreat to the bathroom across from his room, where he had prudently stashed everything he was afraid he might need.
He turned on the shower as high as it would go, and steam poured over the top of the curtain-rod, giving him a little relief. As he popped pills out of their plastic-and-foil bubbles and gulped them down, he heard the shower-radio come on all by itself.
It can't be heat- or water-activated. So He stripped off his clothing and ducked into the shower, putting his head under the hot water to ease his aching sinuses. It's him. Maybe if I ignore him
"Hey! It's Fox-on-the-Radio, taking the third caller who can tell me Elvis Costello's favorite flavor of chewing gum, or answer the Super Mondo Nifty Keen-o Boffo Kewl Bonus Question: Just what is Tannim, the most eligible bachelor mage in southern Bixby Oklahoma, listening to?!" came an all-too-familiar voice from the waterproof speaker.
Tannim took his head out from under the stream of hot water long enough to look blearily at the white plastic radio. "Fox," he said at last, "you are weird."
"Hey! That's the right answer, caller number three! And you wina bar of soap!" A bar of soap popped out of the bottom of the radio, forcing Tannim to grab for it before it got under his feet, only to discover that it was an illusion. "That's right, it's WYRD, weird radio!"
"WYRD is in North Carolina," Tannim corrected automatically. "In Haven's Reach. This is Oklahoma."
"So how 'bout that reception?" Fox replied gaily. "It must be something in the pipes. Yes, it's WYRD, all-talk-talking, all day, all night, all the"
Tannim reached over and turned off the radio with a firm click.
One super-hot shower with lots of steam, half a bottle of eyedrops, two antihistamines and a few squirts of lilac-scented "prescription stuff" up his nose later, he felt as if he might survive until suppertime, at least. Even if he was groggy now, it was better than being unable to see or breathe.
Maybe I can just stay in the bathroom for the whole visit?
No, that would be the coward's way out. Besides, Fox would DJ him to death. Or worse. The fox was shameless.
He ventured out into the hallway, hearing voices from the kitchen, and decided he might just as well face the music. The kitchen had been redone, too, but he knew that he had paid for that, at leastit had been his Mother's Day gift about three years ago. Right now, that made it the one place in the house he felt the most comfortable in.
His father was sitting at a stool at the wood-and-tile breakfast bar while his mother did something arcane with a piece of raw meat. Both of them looked up as he came in, and to his relief, both of them were smiling.
"I was beginning to think I'd failed my Test of Manhood," he began, and his mother giggled. She still looked a lot like her old high school pictures from the late '50s; a little grayer, a little older, but still remarkably like a Gidget-clone.
"I'm sorry, son," Trevor said, with real apology in his voice. "I keep forgetting about your allergiesthat is, I remember them, but I keep forgetting how bad they really are. I shouldn't have even asked you to go out there with me."
This, of course, immediately made Tannim feel even more guilty than he already did. Didn't live up to their expectations, again. "Look, I should have known better," he interrupted. "I brought a respirator, like we use for painting cars. It's in the trunk. I could wear that and"
His mother shook her head, still giggling. "Oh nodear heaven, no, don't do that! The horses would be terrified!"
Well, that'll be a first. Usually they terrify me.
"It's all right," his father said hastily. "Your mother can help me, it'll be fine. She's the best hand with a stallion I've ever seen, anyway."
Tannim bit his tongue to keep from saying anything really crude, and managed to dilute all the things that sprang immediately to mind down to a mild, "Well, she did rope you, didn't she?"
That made his father roar with laughter, and his mother blush and giggle, and eased at least a little of the tension among them.
He managed to keep the conversation on safe subjects up to and through dinnermostly on what those few of his classmates who were still in the Tulsa area were doing. He didn't really care, if the truth were to be told, but it gave his parents something to talk about, and when they were talking, they weren't asking him questions he couldn't answer.
In a way, it was rather sad. The stars of the high school athletic teams had all, to a man, washed out in college or in the minor leagues and were now selling cars, or working oil field or construction jobs. Most of the girls that were still in the area were married, and on either their third kids or second divorces. Tannim hadn't kept in touch with any of them, for good reason. He'd had nothing in common with them in high school, and had even less now.
The only kid he had kept in constant touch with was Deke Kestrel, and he knew right where Deke was. Down in Austin Texas, working as a studio musician, and doing a damn fine job of it. Deke was sitting in with Eric Johnson and the other local heroes of the Oasis of Texas. He was also training his more "esoteric" skills, but once again, that was something he couldn't talk to his parents about.
"What ever happened to that girl you used to date, honey?" his mother asked, breaking into his thoughts. "The one who was so into science? Trisha, Trixie"
"Trina," he corrected without thinking. "She finished her doctorate. She's at Johns Hopkins, doing research into viral proteins."
"Oh." From the rather stunned look on both his parents' faces, this was not something they had ever anticipated hearing over the dinner table. How niceand you drive cars for a living, dear? Congratulations Tannim, you certainly killed that subject dead in its tracks. But his mother was persistent, he had to give her that. "Well, what about that friend of yours that went into musicals"
"I don't know," he lied. "I lost touch with him after he went to New York." I lost touch with him after he died of AIDS, Mom. This was turning into the most depressing dinner conversation he had ever had. I'd better talk about something cheerful, quick. "I heard from Deke Kestrel just a couple of days ago, thoughhe's doing backup work for a really incredible guitarist in Austin. It's the guy's fourth CD, and Deke says the guy might do a guest shot on his first solo project."
That revived the conversation again, and he managed to keep it on Deke and how well Deke was doing until the dishes were safely cleared and in the dishwasher.
Then he pleaded fatigue and fled to his room. At least he could call Joe and get that much accomplished. Set up the meeting, feel the kid out, make sure he wanted to go through with this. Try and tell him what the pros and cons of the job were. That was one thing Chinthliss had never been able to get through his head, but Joe already had a taste of the "cons." And at least with Joe, he would not have to hold anything back.
It wasn't very comforting to think that he had more in common with Joe, someone he didn't even know, than he did with his own family.
He moved the phone over to the bedside stand, called directory assistance for Frank Casey's number in Pawnee, then took a deep breath to steady himself and dialed.
"I'd like to talk to Joe Brown, please," he said carefully. "This is Tannim, from Fairgrove Industries. . . ."
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