The Wild Ways
Chapter Three

 Tanya Huff

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THE PELTS SMELLED like fish. Paul hadn't noticed it before, but piled on the backseat of his car, tucked into suit bags that made fine camouflage but terrible filters, the scent was unmistakable. Technically, he supposed they smelled like the ocean, like brine and kelp rotting on the shore, but the signature, the grace note, was definitely fish. And not fish the way he preferred it, filleted almost transparent and lying on a bed of sticky rice next to a serving of sake; this was fish the way he remembered it from meeting his dad at the docks and nearly gagging on the stink rising off glistening piles of guts speckled silver with scales. It stank of barely getting by and wearing his cousin's hand-me-downs and being expected to never achieve his full potential because if kids like him went to work for Carlson Oil, it sure as hell wasn't in the office.
The odor anchored the skins in a pungent reality that removed any lingering disbelief. Why worry about the hard left his worldview had recently taken when his time could be better spent worrying about getting the smell of the docks out of his car. It was the first new car he'd ever owned and he really didn't want the past he'd worked so hard to shake to take up residence in the upholstery.
He cranked up the air-conditioning another notch and thought about how he'd never have been expected to transport sealskins while working in Toronto. He'd been thrilled when Ms. Carlson had gone from VP to CEO and wanted him to remain with her, but he'd been significantly less thrilled about returning to the Maritimes and his family's incessant: "Why don't you drop by, Paul." "We never see you, Paul." And the ever popular: "Well, if you're not gay, what's wrong with meeting Mrs. Harris' daughter for lunch? You're not getting any younger and your grandmother, who'd like to see you settled before she goes, won't live forever."
His grandmother had every intention of living forever.
He'd nearly cheered when Ms. Carlson had decided it would be good public relations to temporarily relocate to the Sydney office. It wasn't out of the province, but at least it was out of Halifax.
"You have reached your destination."
The voice of his GPS was bland, generic North American; entirely unremarkable for a businessman using a tool. He'd downloaded the Darth Vader program but never installed it, well aware it would give the wrong impression should Ms. Carlson ever need to ride in his car. She hadn't needed to in the two years, four months, and twenty-seven days he'd worked for her, but that didn't mean she never would.
Dewie Center Self-Storage consisted of long, beige rectangular buildings with red roofs and doors, bordered by just enough asphalt to get trucks in and out. Paul had already stopped by the office - shared with the local U-Haul rental - to sign the papers and pick up the key. Fake name, fake address, paid in cash.
The middle-aged man behind the counter had looked down at the money and up at Paul. "You hiding a body?"
Paul had looked down at the man's left hand and the tan line on the empty ring finger, did the math, and said, "No. Just hiding some stuff from my ex-wife."
There'd been no further questions.
Forty square feet of storage had seemed like a lot when he'd rented it, but Paul had no idea how many pelts Ms. Carlson would eventually need him to store, and moving pelts between units if the space he'd provided turned out to be too small would only attract attention. They didn't need any more of that. In spite of everything they'd done over the last year to keep the permit process out of the news, Two Seventy-five N had shone the bright light of public opinion on Carlson Oil. Even years later, BP's adventure in the Gulf of Mexico continued ramping the reaction to maritime wells up to hysterical levels.
Stacked against the back wall, the three bulging black suit bags that had so dominated the backseat of his car looked slightly pathetic, dominated in turn by all the surrounding concrete.
If there was a descriptive phrase more depressing than "surrounding concrete," Paul didn't want to hear it.
The bags, or more specifically their contents, didn't look like they'd provide the leverage necessary to silence the Hay Island group, but appearances could be deceiving. Ms. Carlson gave no outward indication of how entirely ruthless she could be although a growing list of people - and evidently other things - had discovered the inner Amelia. To her credit, she'd never tried to hide it from him. After the other two young men who'd made it to the final job interview had emerged from her office, mere shadows of the arrogant MBAs who'd gone in, Paul had decided he didn't need to prove how smart or ambitious he was, but how useful. It was, after all, better to stand beside the devil than in front of her.
When he turned and saw the slender figure silhouetted in the storage unit's open doorway, he had to bite his tongue to keep from shrieking.
"This isn't good enough," she said.
"Storing them off-site is a good start, but this . . ." Silver bangles clanged together as she gestured. ". . . isn't good enough."
Without the sun behind her, the figure became a woman on the downhill side of middle age. Tall and slender, with thick gray hair in a long braid, she wore an ankle-length, sleeveless dress, a mix of blues and greens and yellows, in a batik pattern that had been popular a few years ago. His mother had one but didn't wear it nearly as well. The legs flashing through the slits in the skirt as she walked toward him were in great shape. This older woman had been a looker once and hadn't entirely left it behind.
"I'm sorry," he said politely. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Her dark eyes narrowed, and he had the strangest urge to run. Then she smiled. "Where are my manners?You're Paul Belleveau." It wasn't a question. She knew who he was. "I'm Catherine Gale."
He felt like a butterfly pinned to a corkboard. "These . . . those . . ." He nodded toward the back of the unit and fought to get a grip on his reaction. ". . . are yours."
The second and third pelts had appeared as mysteriously in the Sydney office as the first had in Halifax. Delivered mysteriously by Catherine Gale.
"Mine? Don't be ridiculous. They're yours now. I'm merely the intermediary," she added before he could protest.
Paul didn't need the emphasis to know that the woman in front of him had never been merely anything.
"However," she continued, the curve of her lip suggesting she knew exactly what he'd been thinking, "it turns out I need to become more involved in order to keep my plans from being disrupted."
"You don't think items like these can be picked up without planning, do you?"
He didn't. He also didn't believe that was what she'd meant, but he had no intention of challenging her on that. He liked his balls right where they were, thanks very much, and anyone who thought Catherine Gale wasn't following her own agenda had never met her. He'd been in a storage locker with her for barely three minutes and it was entirely clear to him. "I'm sorry, go on."
"You can't leave the items here." Her tone suggested here was the equivalent of a damp cardboard box. "I've found them."
"Why were you looking for them?"
"To see if I could find them."
"Ah. So you think they'll find them?" It was the only logical conclusion.
"Oh, please, tradition suggests they can't find the damned things if they're wrapped in a shawl and stuffed in a box under the marital bed. No . . ." Catherine Gale ran a hand down the drape of her dress, reminding Paul of a cat smoothing its fur. ". . . there's a new player in the game, and once she realizes she's playing, she'll need to prove something by returning these to their original owners."
"Prove what?"
"That has yet to be decided." The last time Paul had seen that smile, it had been on a shark. "You have a short grace period while this new player gets up to speed."
"I see." Paul suspected the new player was yet another thing he'd prefer not to believe in. "How long is short?"
"I have no idea. But the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin depends entirely on the dance."
"You wanted to know how long short was."
"That's not what . . ." She knew it wasn't what he'd meant. He bit off the rest of his protest and took a deep, cleansing breath. It smelled of fish. Not entirely reassuring. "Not to presume, but can't you deal with the new player?"
"I can." But I won't came through loud and clear.
"All right." Given where they were in the suburbs of Sydney, it took a moment to lock his phone onto a wifi signal. "I'll need as much information as you can give me."
"You have as much information as I'm going to give you."
"But . . ."
"The rest is no business of yours."
"No offense, but it sounds like it's very much my business." No point in mentioning that Carlson Oil had bet everything on this roll of the dice. If they hadn't already invested so much that sinking this well was an absolute necessity, they wouldn't have accepted Catherine Gale's impossible offer.
"It's only your business if she finds the pelts, which she won't if you put them somewhere safer." A business associate had once declared Amelia Carlson had a smile that could flay small animals. Current evidence suggested that business associate had no idea what that particular smile looked like.
Thankful he'd emptied his bladder before leaving the office, Paul considered his options.
What was safer than an anonymous storage locker? A vault would require a lot more paperwork and, even if he could get access to one, there was the whole fish stink to consider. It would have to be an empty vault and emptying one would also cause the kind of attention they wanted to avoid. On the other hand, Carlson Oil owned a lot of property in Nova Scotia.
"We have mines. Closed mines," he expanded.
A steel-gray brow rose. "Are there still open mines? Rhetorical question," she added. "Dropping them down a shaft is not . . ."
"I'd secure them in a cross tunnel. It would be impossible to stumble over them by accident and difficult to find them on purpose. The link between Carlson Oil and the mine is well hidden inside a number of shell companies," he added reassuringly. "Coal gets no respect."
Catherine Gale frowned thoughtfully, drawing the fingernail of her right index finger along the bracelets on her left wrist, head cocked as she listened to them chime. "Do any of these tunnels extend out under the water?"
"Of course. It's not that large an island."
"Excellent. Water will slow her down."
The shark smile returned. "The new player. She'll work around it but, fortunately, you only need a short-term solution. I believe you were promised a decision on the permit by the end of August?"
"Now the public knows . . ."
When Catherine Gale snorted, Paul half expected smoke. "Given what's in those bags, Two Seventy-five N will issue the requested retraction and, in this province, where Two Seventy-five N stands on environmental issues, so stands the public. If the potential for public embarrassment leading to an election loss is all that's holding back the permit, you'll have it by the end of August."
"Before the legislature breaks for Labor Day."
"That would be the end of August."
"Right." Paul fought the urge to apologize for stating the obvious. He knew he could maintain a perfectly neutral expression regardless of the patronizing, sexist, and racist comments tossed his way by the old school oil men he dealt with on a daily basis. He was young, he was attractive, and he was black. Even worse, he worked for one of the few women who played with the big boys and won. He knew he could maintain that neutral expression indefinitely, because he had.
Catherine Gale looked right through it.
"Relax, cutie, or your face'll freeze that way and you'll never get laid."
"Hey, you got a new van." Charlie patted the side of the big silver box. "What did you do, mug a soccer mom?"
"I did not so much mug a soccer mom," Mark said, sliding the bags holding his cymbals in along beside the snare, "as I charmed a lovely woman into giving me an excellent price provided I got TIM TO CALL HOME on occasion."
Charlie leaned away from the sudden increase in volume and grinned at Tim. "Your youngest sister went away to college and your mom wanted to unload the mom-mobile?"
Grunting under the weight of one of the amps, Tim managed a single, abrupt nod.
"How do you remember that family shit?" Shelly asked. Her own vehicle crammed full, she leaned against the hood and watched them tesseract the van.
"I'm good at family shit," Charlie told her. "And trust me, next to my family, remembering a couple of sisters and a mom with a van is nothing much."
"As I recall from our previous time together, Chuck's family is large and enthusiastic. Largely enthusiastic. And a bit weird." Mark jumped out of the van, examined the odds and ends still piled on the gravel and then, head cocked, mentally measured the crammed interior. He beckoned to Charlie without turning and she handed over her gig bag, watching not exactly nervously as he slid it into a space with about a millimeter to spare on all sides. It had been charmed against every possible type of damage she could imagine . . . but this was Mark.
Shelly snorted as the remaining spaces began to fill. "Good thing Bo travels light."
"And speaking of the one man we can't do without because Lord knows an accordion, a bodhran and a pennywhistle can walk into as many bars as they want, but they won't win shit in a Celtic festival without a fiddle. Where the hell is Bo?"
Tim smacked Mark on the shoulder and pointed at the ancient pickup truck pulling into the parking lot. It paused long enough to disgorge their missing fiddler and an old hockey bag before roaring off in a cloud of dust.
It wasn't Bo's girlfriend behind the wheel, unless she had what looked like a '70s pornstache attached to her upper lip. Not that Charlie was judging.
While Shelly, Tim, and Mark argued over who was to ride with whom - although as usual Shelly and Mark were making most of the noise - Charlie joined Bo, who'd taken over Shelly's spot slumped against the hood of the car.
"You look like shit."
He scratched at stubble and yawned. "Gee. Thanks."
"You get any sleep last night?" They'd closed up the ceilidh around three when the poor women who'd had to lock the Center behind them had finally kicked the last musicians out. Charlie'd crashed in a cheap motel room walking distance from the Center with the other three but Bo lived in Port Hastings, close enough to go home.
He yawned again. "Not much."
"Girlfriend still upset?"
His fingers drummed out a tune Charlie nearly recognized. "You know the phrase weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth? Multiply by ten."
"By ten? What the hell did she lose?"
"It's a . . . thing. A family heirloom . . . thing."
To Bo's credit, he was a terrible liar. He knew exactly what the "thing" was. Charlie wondered if he was embarrassed about the actual object or embarrassed because he'd agreed not to identify it to anyone and that made venting awkward.
"She actually thought I'd taken it. I mean, I was there the night she lost it. With her the night she lost it, so how . . ." He slapped his hand down against the hood, loud enough for Shelly to turn and yell at him to fuck off or he'd be riding with Tim and Mark. "Okay, she didn't mean it, not really, but her and her sisters, they're talking Gaelic now, like they don't want me to know they're still suspicious of me, but I feel like I . . ." He sighed, shoulders sagging. "Fuck it."
Charlie filled in the next bit of the lyric line. Who knew that year playing country music would come in so handy. "You feel like you failed her even if she doesn't blame you."
"You don't know her." Both hands pushed thick, dark hair up into spikes. "How do you know she doesn't blame me?"
"Dude, you're here while Tanis is still freaking about what she lost, so she obviously told you to go. She gets that the festival is important to you. If she really blamed you for taking her . . ." Air quotes. ". . . thing, she wouldn't care how important it was to you. And, while she might have told you to get out, you'd have shown up acting all defensive." Charlie slapped him in the chest. "Which you're not."
Bo's eyes widened theatrically. "I'm not? Okay," he added after a moment, "I'm not. I feel guilty for leaving, though. Even if she didn't want me there." He managed half a grin. "I miss her, you know? I just left her an hour ago, but I really miss her. Is that pathetic? Because it sounds pathetic. She says she'll join us up coast," he continued before Charlie could agree that, yeah, it sounded pathetic. "She has more family up there and . . ." His laugh held little humor. "I think she thinks she's going to need to defend me when they find out."
"Even though you didn't take and/or lose the thing?"
He snorted. "Even though. It's just . . . we're amazing together, but it hasn't been that long and maybe her family disapproves of the brown. Or the itinerant musician thing. Or that my family moved here from Toronto."
"Toronto? Damn. Around here, that's definitely going to count against you."
"Tell me about it."
"She have overprotective parents?"
"I don't think so but lots of cousins. And her family, it's tight."
"I hear you." Charlie stared down at her bare toes for a moment. The raised voices across the parking lot blended with the cries of the gulls wheeling overhead and came out sounding like half a dozen aunties arguing in the kitchen. "Could it have been stolen?"
"What would be the point in someone who wasn't family stealing a family heirloom? And it sure as hell wasn't someone in her family."
"You sure?"
He was staring out toward the sea now, never very far away in this part of the world. She could feel the force of his gaze reaching for the distant horizon. "I'm sure."
And that was no lie.
"They're my cousins, right? You like spent all your time with your cousins growing up; that's a Gale thing. Family. The cousins out here, they think I'm pretty cool and it's not like I'm going to be playing soccer with them or anything." Jack still didn't understand the point of chasing something and not getting a meal out of it. Sure, let it go a few times, have a little fun running it down, but in the end, eat it.
Soccer balls tasted like farts.
And the yelling afterward had gone so long, he'd gotten bored and flown away.
"Anyway . . ." He folded his arms, looked Allie right in the eye, and tried very hard not to smoke. "Either I'm a Gale, or I'm not."
"He's got you there." Graham sounded like he was smiling around a mouthful of cereal, but Jack didn't dare check. Gale girls were tricky. He'd learned that in his first twenty-four hours here. If Allie had a countermove, he needed to stay on top of it.
But Allie only looked thoughtful. "What did you have in mind?"
"Just, you know, spending time with my cousins. Like a Gale."
"I had no idea you were interested in doing that."
"I wasn't." Dragons spent time with relatives for two reasons, politics or food. Okay, technically, one reason. "Now, I am."
Allie wanted him to be interested. That helped convince her. "No sorcery."
Jack snorted. "Gales don't do sorcery."
"Not and survive it," Graham muttered from the other side of the smoke.
"All right, this is ridiculous." Charlie grabbed Bo's arm and dragged him over to the van. She had no idea what Shelly and Mark were arguing about beyond passenger seating, but it clearly went deeper and just as clearly had no resolution. Odds were, it was left over from Aston, his love of cheese, and his lactose intolerance. "It's past noon, we're playing at four, and we're still not on the road. Bo!" When he pivoted to face her, she held out her fist. "On three."
"The original or liz . . ."
"The original. One. Two. Three. Scissors cuts paper, I ride with Shelly. Let's go!"
"Well, that works, too," Mark observed philosophically.
Riding with Mark and Tim meant listening to Mark expound constantly about nothing much for the duration of the trip. But the odds of arriving in one piece were higher. Charlie settled in with her bare toes on the dashboard and a bottle of ice-cool plum nail polish in her hand. Between the aunties and Dun Good's old school bus, she'd used up all fear of dying in a fiery car crash.
"Uh, Shelly, it's a twenty-minute drive to Port Hood. Is warp drive really necessary?"
"You wouldn't ask that if you were hauling Moby Bass. I want parking as close to the stage as possible and there's eight other bands who want the same thing. Bump."
"Thanks." Charlie lifted the brush as the car went momentarily airborne. The flight wouldn't mess things up, it was the landing. Good shocks, though. However, since the car was pre door airbags, she painted a quick plum charm on the gray vinyl interior.
"What're you doing?"
"Just a little insurance."
"Right, Mark says you're into something like that Wicca thing."
"Like," Charlie allowed, "but not." Wicca was a religion. The Gales were a family. "We've gotten kind of far ahead of the van."
"Yeah, that's because the van's so top-heavy. Mark gets up any kind of speed and he splats the curves." Yanking the wheel hard to the right, Shelly tucked in front of a trailer of openmouthed tourists just before a slightly larger trailer filled the space they'd been occupying in the other lane. She fishtailed on the gravel shoulder for a moment, then got all four wheels back on the asphalt and accelerated.
Port Hood, the self-proclaimed step-dancing capital of Cape Breton, was the first stop on a festival circuit that would, over the last of July and through all of August, cover the island, knitting together various fairs and community celebrations, as well as the varying and ubiquitous Highland Games. Music was a huge part of the Cape Breton lifestyle, and every summer it became a huge part of the Cape Breton economy as tourists flocked to the island to tap along to the jigs and reels, gawk at the men in kilts, buy tartan-covered kitsch, and create traffic jams that made some of the most scenic coastline in the world the most frustrating to drive. With the mines closed and the fishing heavily regulated, the locals were well aware they needed tourist dollars to survive, but most of them would prefer said tourists stop about midpoint on the causeway, toss their wallets over, and then go the hell home.
And speaking of home . . .
Charlie fished her ringing phone out of her bag and checked the caller ID. "My mother. . . ."
"Say no more." Shelly turned the radio up. "I'll be listening to the local maritime weather report."
"Thanks." Years spent with bands that never quite made it big enough to get out of each others' space, made faking privacy a necessary skill. Charms not needed. Charlie thumbed the connect and pitched her voice below the earnest CBC announcer listing wind speeds coming in off the Northumberland Strait. "Mom?"
"The twins want to spend three weeks traveling through Europe before school starts."
"Okay." If they wanted to go badly enough, there'd be a last minute seat sale for exactly what they had saved; that was how the family worked. "So they go after the second of the month; what's the harm?"
"Do you honestly think it's safe?"
"Mom, it's Europe."
"Cultural differences . . . "
Personally, Charlie thought Europe could handle it. However, based on the way Montreal had survived the twins' freshman year at McGill . . . "You want me to check on them occasionally, don't you?"
"If you wouldn't mind popping in and out. Don't tell them I sent you. And speaking of the second . . ."
Had they been?
". . . I know you're based in Calgary now, with Allie, but her circles are very small and Cameron will likely have at least a dozen girls to cover . . ."
"He's young. He'll survive."
"It's just that you won't have many options, not for years, and . . ."
"And the aunties say you're traveling again, so . . ."
"I said, maybe, Mom. Gotta go." She cupped the phone in her left hand and said, "My mother wants me home for a family thing." Faking privacy included sharing enough information to soothe unavoidable curiosity.
"Your family's tight, right?"
New branches of the family separate, Charlotte. And then they evidently get into a pissing match over who gets the Wild Power at their ritual. The phone rang again, the tag of a commercial jingle for a children's cereal repeated over and over. Charlie didn't bother glancing at the screen before she answered. "I didn't tell my mother which ritual I'd be at, Auntie Gwen, and I certainly didn't tell her I was going back to Ontario. Auntie Jane's poking you with sticks." This time after disconnecting, she dropped the phone back into her bag. They'd chew at each other for a while now and leave her alone. "Oh, yeah," she sighed, "we're tight."
"Cool. Now, me, I have cousins I haven't seen since I was twelve."
"They move away?"
"No," Shelly laughed as she reached for the radio, "we just don't like each other."
Frowning at a half-heard introduction, Charlie blocked her hand. "Hang on a minute."
". . . in many ways it's actually safer to drill in close to shore. Should, God forbid, anything go wrong at a well off Hay Island, equipment to contain a spill can reach the site much more quickly than it could in a deepwater situation. And it wouldn't take weeks to cap the wellhead."
"So you believe certain other companies took too long . . ."
"I believe that Carlson Oil has plans in place to cap a wild well off Hay Island in less than twelve hours regardless of weather conditions. Less if we can move some of our operations onto Scatarie Island."
"Scatarie Island is a protected wilderness area."
"And we'd be there to protect it."
"So you agree that things could go wrong."
"Of course things can go wrong."
Charlie was impressed. The aunties couldn't have thrown in a more obvious subtextual, What are you, an idiot?
"And because we acknowledge that," the entirely reasonable woman's voice continued, "we're prepared. Because of the proposed location of the wellhead, we can put our preparations into action quickly and efficiently. We have people on our team, local people, who know how to work these waters. People who've survived only by making the right decisions. But putting a well out in the deep water? Well, I think experience has proven that in deep water, sooner or later, the ocean always wins."
"She doesn't say much, but she says it loud." Shelly snorted and turned the radio off as a used car commercial attempted to raise the ambient noise about seventy decibels. "Amelia Carlson, taking care of the seal problem by dipping them in crude."
"There's a seal problem?"
"There is if you're in the bullshit department at Fisheries. I mean, Jesus Christ . . ." The car rose up onto two wheels. Drifted down again. ". . . dudes in Halifax only just shot down a motion to reopen the Hay Island seal hunt. Bo met Tanis at the protests."
"Protesting for or against?" It was never wise to assume. If Tanis' family were fishermen . . .
"Against. Tanis' whole family's big in the environmental movement, run this high-profile group called Two Seventy-five N. Funky ass name, but they've got some weight to throw around. You, though, you haven't been back east for any length of time in a couple of years . . ." Shelly braced the steering wheel with her knee as she fixed her ponytail. ". . . what's your interest in Carlson Oil's line of bullshit?"
"Besides thinking that dipping seals in crude is a bad idea?" Charlie frowned down at her half-painted toenails. "I don't know yet." She'd been ear wormed by the chorus since Fort McMurray - seals or oil, rinse, repeat - but still had no idea of the verse.
The last coal mine in Cape Breton closed in 2001, but when a Swiss mining consortium won the right to develop an abandoned mine site in Dorkin, Carlson Oil had taken notice. If coal was set to make a comeback, Amelia's father had reasoned, it wasn't coming back without them.
As a result, Carlson Oil owned two small abandoned collieries in Inverness County and a much larger old DEVCO mine in Lingan. Hedging their bets, they'd also invested in the wind turbines erected along the cliffs outside of Lingan - the later investment significantly more public than the former. As Paul had told Catherine Gale, local coal got no respect in the media in spite of the fact that coal imported from the United States and South America powered the Lingan Generating Station at the same time as unemployment hovered perpetually around 16 per cent and the economy of Cape Breton tried to fiddle its way into solvency.
While the collieries across the island in Inverness County were more isolated, the mine in Lingan, the Duke, had gone much deeper with lots of damp, extended cross tunnels perfect for making terrifying old women happy and, more importantly, it was half an hour away from Sydney. About at the limit Paul was willing to have those pelts stinking up his car.
"You want to take the sealskins from an anonymous storage locker and drop them down the Duke?" Leaning back in her chair, mourning the loss of the ergonomic wonder in her Halifax office, Amelia almost thought she saw here we go again cross Paul's face.
"No," he said, so carefully it convinced her she had indeed seen that flicker of impatience, "I'd descend into the Duke and place them carefully in a cross tunnel. They'd come to no harm."
"I was being facetious, Paul." She steepled her fingers. "Carlson Oil owns the Duke.The . . . creatures behind Two Seventy-five N are going to be looking for those pelts, so they're going to be looking at Carlson Oil holdings. Particularly those holdings a convenient distant from the remarkably ugly office we're now spending our time in."
"They'd have to be high-level hackers to get through the shell companies between the Duke and Carlson Oil."
Amelia waved that off. "Why shouldn't they be computer wizards? They're already impossible. You haven't said anything to convince me that dropping the pelts down a mine . . ." Deliberate phrasing so she could enjoy how well he hid his annoyance. ". . . is safer than anonymous off-site storage. We only have her word for it that there's a new player, after all."
"We only had her word for it that they existed," Paul reminded her.
"Point." Leaning back far enough to cross her legs, Amelia indicated he should go on.
"When Catherine Gale introduced the new player, she began by reminding me that she, Catherine Gale, had found the pelts and then pointed out that the previous owners of the pelts wouldn't be able to do the same. She then told me that the pelts wouldn't be safe in the storage locker. Because she, Catherine Gale, had found them, the new player, whoever the new player is, could also find them. We don't know what Catherine Gale is, but I doubt there's only one of her."
"That's a thought to give a person nightmares," Amelia murmured. Catherine Gale reminded her of the nuns who'd taught at her primary school - only with the powers that terrified children had always assumed the nuns could manifest. Two of whatever Catherine Gale was, well, that was two too many.
"The conclusion that best fits the facts we have," Paul continued, "is that Two Seventy-five N have hired something like her to retrieve the pelts. We therefore know they can find the storage locker. Catherine Gale believes the mine will hide the pelts from the new player long enough for the permit to clear if they're in a tunnel that extends under water."
Amelia tapped her upper lip, wondered if it was time for more collagen, and said, "Do we believe her? She could want the pelts in the mine for her own reasons."
"Does it matter? For whatever reason, she doesn't want them found, and that works in your favor."
A significant part of Paul's job description involved shoveling through the details to find the bottom line and, bottom line: Catherine Gale, seal pelts, and the availability of the Duke all came back to keeping imaginary creatures the hell out of her business. Carlson Oil had everything tied up in this well. In order to pay for the platform, the refinery, a new rail line - not to mention bribes and "entertainment" of local officials - she'd sold what she could and borrowed against what was left. If she had to hire a character from a fairy tale to stop a character from a fairy tale in order to finally get that oil out of the ground, then so be it.
"Take the pelts to the mine." A raised hand held him in place. "Tomorrow," she told him after a moment spent appreciating the way he'd instantly responded to her gesture. "The rest of today is booked solid and I need you here."
"Tomorrow, then. Catherine Gale did say it would take a while for the new player to get up to speed," he added making a note on his phone.
"How convenient her information dovetails with my needs." When Paul ducked his head in silent apology, reminded of which she he worked for, Amelia pushed a government file folder across her desk. "Right now, we've kept the honorable member of parliament for Cape Breton South waiting long enough." Long enough he knew her time was valuable but not so long as to devalue his. "Send him in on your way out to find me a chair exactly like the one in my Halifax office."
"That particular chair won't fit behind the desk, Ms. Carlson."
"Then replace the desk." The Gale woman had obviously rattled him; she shouldn't have had to tell him that. "Oh, and have the room painted. I can't work in this shade of green."
Jack's family lunch turned out to be a picnic in Nose Hill Park with an aunt, an uncle, and seven cousins. Aunt Judith and Uncle Randy weren't married to each other, but both of their mates were at work.
"We don't say mates," Aunt Judith corrected.
Jack cocked his head and frowned. "Why not?"
It was another one of those things no one had a good answer for, so he let it go. Maybe Allie would explain later.
When he'd decided to be more Gale, he'd forgotten that he was pretty much exactly in between the cousins who'd come west for university and the cousins who'd come west with their parents. The older cousins were all working . . .
Jack stared down at his vanilla-glazed, custard cream doughnut with sprinkles and snorted. "You know this isn't actually food, right?"
"You can't smoke in here," Melissa sighed.
. . . so today was all about the kids. He didn't mind. He'd been youngest for so long, it was kind of cool being the oldest.
"I think you should take us flying."
Jennifer, who was part of Aunt Judith's clutch, was eleven and closest to him in age although Wendy, who was Uncle Randy's, was only a few weeks younger. Even after a year, it still kind of weirded him out that Gale fathers were so . . . alive. Female dragons ate their mates.
"Jack!" Jennifer poked him in the chest with an imperious finger. "Did you hear me? I think you should take us flying!"
He caught her hand, careful not to hurt her. "Why?"
"Because you aren't seven years older than us." Tugging free of his grip, she folded her arms. Her expression dared him to argue. "We totally can ride you. I saw the movie."
"You can carry both of us because you're so big," Wendy added. "Auntie Gwen says you're big enough to come with bar service."
Wendy shrugged. "I don't know either, but that's what she said."
"We should go now." Jennifer grabbed his hand and pulled him away along the path. "We should go while Mom is busy with Richard."
Richard was only just hatched, smelled bad a lot of the time, and screamed when he wanted feeding, but Aunt Judith didn't seem to mind.
"How fast can you get into the air?" Wendy asked as they crested the hill.
The girls leaned out to exchange a look across his body that made him think of Allie and Charlie.
"You should do it fast," Jennifer told him. "Hit the air as soon as we get on. Oh, and change now. Right now."
They'd all seen him change. Allie hadn't wanted anyone relocating to Calgary who had a problem with him, although Jack had assured her he could deal with them. Turned out dealing with them topped the list of things that weren't allowed.
The moment between skin and scales burned. Sometimes, Jack wanted to get lost in the fire. Just let it burn and not worry about who he was or what he was supposed to be doing or what world he was supposed to be doing it on. He'd bet lower dragons did it, just woke up one morning, decided they'd had it with never knowing the answers, and burned away. But he was the Prince. And, right now, he was a Gale.
He shrugged, settling into scales, shifting a wing at the last moment so as not to knock down a small tree.
For all they wanted into the air right away, the girls wasted a moment admiring him . . .
"Oh, my God, so totally gorgeous."
"He gleams like real gold in the sun, doesn't he? He just gleams."
"He's definitely prettier than Connie Anderson's stupid pony."
. . . before they ducked under his wings, scrambled up his tail, and climbed until they sat together on his shoulders; Jennifer out in front, arms as far around his neck as they could reach, Wendy behind her.
"Go, go, go!"
So he went. Balancing with his tail, he rose up onto his hind legs, slammed his wings down, and grabbed sky, moving as fast as he could. He could hear them shrieking with laughter, but he tucked his legs up against his belly and concentrated on gaining altitude. At his size, he felt a lot better when he had a bit of distance between him and the ground. Leveling out at about two hundred feet, wings sculling to maintain lift, he suddenly realized he couldn't feel Jennifer's arms. Or the insignificant weight of their bodies. Or the drumming of their heels.
When he looked down, their pinwheeling forms had almost run out of sky.
He couldn't reach them in time.
There was only one thing he could do.
Standing on a riser built to look a bit like an overturned dory, Bo played "The Duke of Gordon's Birthday" as a line of step dancers formed a wall of nimble feet and nearly motionless upper bodies along the front of the festival stage. Festival rules required one traditional dance tune per set and, at just over three and a half minutes, this was the longest strathspey any of the bands had played yet. Mark and Tim had bodhran and accordion out in support, but this was all Bo.
He was good. More than just technically good, although he was that, too. Bow flying over the strings, he made an emotional connection with everyone listening - not just the dancers who smiled and moved as though it was the music lifting their feet off the floor. It was as close to magic as most of the world ever saw.
Charlie's fingers itched to take it that single step further, but she wove them together, rested them on the shoulder of her guitar, and distracted herself by watching the crowd.
She appreciated the chance. Bar lighting made it impossible to see much of anything, but outside, on a midsummer afternoon, the audience - on blankets or lawn chairs or sprawled on the bare ground - was as well lit as the bands on the stage. A number of people were up and dancing and a spirited, if spatially challenged, square dance dominated the far right. A pack of kids too old to be easily contained and young enough not to be cynical about traditional music ran around and occasionally through the more sedate groups, grandmothers reaching out to swat at them as they passed. A lot of the heads were gray and as many of them were moving to the music as not.
The other fiddlers, and there were dozens seeded through the crowd, not even counting the ten from the other bands, all stared at the stage with expressions of fierce possessiveness, claiming the music Bo pulled from his fiddle as their own. Later, they'd pick it apart like a group of aunties over a chicken carcass, but while he played, they were one.
In the open space between two spread blankets, a girl no more than three danced in place, chestnut curls bouncing, one hand clutching a fistful of her tartan shorts, the other swinging a stuffed animal over her head. It was so exactly the sort of heartwarming scene the local news loved to show that Charlie checked for the camera, half convinced it had been staged.
Apparently not.
Behind the girl, a patch of stillness drew Charlie's attention. The woman, tall, with a rippling fall of long dark hair stared at the stage with eyes so black Charlie's heart said "auntie" even as her brain said, "too young" and "not here." Charlie had never seen anyone listen with such intent. Her generous mouth was curved up into a smile that made Charlie think the word beatific although it had never been part of her vocabulary before and she'd shifted her weight forward onto the balls of her feet as though the music was physically pulling her in.
She was different. No, she was more.
When Bo finished, drawing out the last few bars with a not exactly traditional flourish, Charlie lost sight of her in the swirl of dancers leaving the stage. Before she could find her again, Mark called them into place for the next song.
"When I'm right, I'm right; you sounded good, Chuck, it's hard to believe you've been away from real music for so long. And hey, nice fake on the last verse of "Highland Heart"; you forget the words?"
No. The old imperfect rhyme had finally gotten to her.
"Just a little bit," Charlie lied to Mark's ass, as he bent to shove his cymbal stands in under two hockey bags. "Think anyone noticed?"
"Besides me? Not likely. Lyrics are pretty flexible even with the shit this lot's heard a hundred times. I'll put money on them noticing every extra wiggle Bo tossed in, though."
"We get points for extra wiggles?"
"Who the hell knows?"
Bands registered for the Samhradh Ceol Feill collected points every time they played. The more often a band played, the more chance for points, but that was the only straightforward part of the exercise as far as Charlie could tell. Still, Mark had managed to get Grinneal signed up for nearly the entire circuit, so they had a good chance of taking first prize and scoring the studio time with the MacMaster's recording engineer. The ten song EP they were already selling wasn't bad, but even Mark admitted it could use a professional polish.
"Right, sorry." She handed over her gig bag. The party'd be going on for a while, but, given the number of guitars around, she'd decided to stick with the mandolin - easier to carry and more chances to play. She could stuff everything else she needed in the pockets of her cargo pants.
Mark shifted his snare and slid the bag in on top of Tim's keyboard. "Bo's good, and fiddles rule the trad stuff, so I'm not ruling out points for extra wiggles. You know," he added, somehow backing out without losing the coverage of his kilt, "this might be the last part of the country where I'd feel safe leaving the instruments locked in the van." He straightened, turned, and dragged his hair back off his face. "I mean, this shit is our livelihood and if some asshat walks off with it, we're screwed, but this is me walking away and feeling good about it." Grinning, he slammed the door and tucked his thumbs under the strap of his bodhran case.
"You're not walking away," Charlie said after a moment.
"You're not walking away," she repeated. "You're standing by the van."
"Yes, I am. Because I'm completely full of shit and I don't want to leave this stuff unguarded. Maritimers as a whole might be their mamas' darlings, but give it another hour. Once it's fully dark and the kiddies have been packed off to bed, half that lot hanging around will be pissed and the other half well on the way. I don't trust drunks."
"Every vehicle parked back here behind the stage has instruments in it. There's a one in seventeen chance the drunks will find ours. Less because we're buried safely in the middle of the lot."
"Less than one chance in seventeen?" His eyes narrowed. "You're blowing smoke out your ass, aren't you?"
"The numbers don't lie, Mark."
"Okay." He patted the bumper as he moved away. "I can work with those odds."
"I thought you could." About to fall into step beside him, Charlie heard a sound that stopped her cold. It ran under the music and laughter and gulls and screaming children the way the ocean did, cadence rising and falling with the crash of the waves against the shore as the tide came in.
"Hey! Chuck?" When she looked up, Mark was already at the edge of the field given over to parking. "You coming?"
"In a minute." The sound pulled at her. It was important, whatever it was. "I'm going to go down to the shore for a minute. Clear my head."
"I'll join the party without you, then. If I leave Tim on his own for too long, he makes friends with everyone under five, forgets what an asshole I am, and starts thinking about starting a family." With a jaunty wave and a flick of the kilt Charlie could have done without, Mark jogged around the stage and disappeared into the crowd.
Charlie spent a moment sifting through the ambient noise, then she followed the pull of sound out past the last car, across the road leading to the jetty, and stopped when she saw two women standing by the water's edge, so similar in appearance they had to be related. Tall and slender, with dark hair and dark eyes, they stood at the place where land met sea, looking more real in the dusk than they could possibly be in full sunlight. Water swirled around their feet and up over their ankles, but they didn't seem to care. One of the women clutched the other, clutched the woman Charlie had seen listening so intently to Bo's playing, and it was obvious, even from a distance, the first woman was on the edge of hysteria.
". . . stolen . . ."
The rest of her lament blew away on the wind.
The Gale family did not involve themselves in anything that didn't involve the family first, but the whole point of being a Wild Power was being, well, wild. Unpredictable even.
Charlie stepped forward.
Her phone rang.