Note: Today resumes Chapter 17 of my serial YA paranormal romance fiction, A Reason for Being after a long hiatus off in 2015! For those are starting from the beginning, Chapter One begins here. I hope everyone enjoys reading this as much as I did writing it.
I finally tracked Meredith down Sunday night at the Garden of Fortune. She was at the bar with the part-satyr, Lucy, and she was very decidedly off her face.
“Irish!” Meredith shrieked the moment she saw me. “Ah’m sho glad you’re here!”
“Meredith,” I said crossly as I disentangled her arms from my neck. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Hi, Lucy. How are you?”
“Lucy made me a new drink,” Meredith interrupted. “Eesh aweshome. Bitter Memoriesh. Really appro – appro – approshiate.”
“Bitter Memories?” I looked at Lucy.
“Absinthe, Bacardi, and Benedictine,” he explained. “Muddled through with strawberries and blood oranges and garnished with a sprig of rosemary. I’ll get you one.”
“Thanks,” I said, a little doubtfully. I wasn’t so sure about drinking absinthe right before a workday. Meredith, obviously, had no such qualms. “How many has she had?”
“Twelsh,” Meredith said as she gulped down the last of her drink.
“Twelve?” I said, aghast. “And she’s not fallen off the roof yet?”
“Na.” Lucy handed me my cocktail. “She did that on Friday.”
“What? Never mind. I’m not even going to ask. I think I’d better get her home. Could you call us a cab?”
“Cabs don’t come here,” Lucy answered. “I suspect half-breed prejudice on the part of the cab companies. But if we can get her downstairs, Irina will hail one for you on the corner.”
“That’s terrible!” I said indignantly. “That’s idiotic prejudice.”
Lucy shrugged. “That’s humanity for you.”
“Thatsh right,” Meredith interrupted. “Humanishy.”
“Except you, my darling Mary-Death.” Lucy reached out to steady her gently on her stool. “The first human who actually liked my horns,” he added to me. “Hold on here. I’ll get Mary-Death a pick-me-up while you finish your cocktail, and then I’ll make sure Irina gets you a taxi.”
Whatever Lucy gave Meredith – it smelt strongly of dandelion and bitter herbs – it worked like a shot (which was exactly how she took it) because she wasn’t stumbling so much when we got to the elevator. Once inside, she slumped against the wall and covered her face with her hands. “Oooh,” she moaned. “Fuck me.”
“Would love to, but perhaps another night when you’re feeling much better,” Lucy said gallantly.
“That was a great drink, Lucy,” Meredith said in muffled tones between her fingers. “The cocktail, I mean. Not the other one. That was horrible.”
“It sure sobered you up fast,” I said unkindly.
The doors opened, and we exited into the malachite room, Meredith moving slowly, but a little more surely. Lucy pulled open the door to the Den of Iniquity and we followed after him into the smoky interior, and that was when the first drop dead smoke grenade went off.
Meredith was rapidly returning to reality – no, I don’t want to come back to reality – and longing for a tall glass of ice-cold water when the explosion flung her against the wall. She swore as she caught her elbow on a protruding glass pipe.
“What the hell was that?” she shouted.
Lucy held up an arm, warning them back. “InterPara raid,” he said in disgust.
“InterPara?” Meredith felt the blood drain from her face, the violent twitching beginning inside of her.
Lucy waved her back. “I’ll deal with them. Mary-Death, you know where the back door is. You two go out that way.”
“Will you be all right?” Iris asked tentatively.
He smiled at her, a real smile. “Yes, I’ll be fine. They can’t touch me; I’ve paid enough bribes to this city. But you two must leave. Go on now.” With that, he plunged into the smoky den, now filled with a bitter fog that made Iris’s head spin.
“Come on,” Meredith said and grabbed Iris’s hand. At the same time, something small and dark came flying at them. It landed a few feet away and exploded into a confusion of bitter-tasting smoke.
Drop dead smoke. Iris sank to her knees, choking. Smoke bombs designed by InterPara to be strong enough to knock out most half-breeds. Already, her tongue and limbs were numbing. A few breaths were sufficient to take out a human. She toppled onto her side as the walls closed in around her.
Meredith stumbled to her feet, hand over mouth. She had known not to breathe the moment she saw the dark grenade flying at them. But Iris was on the ground, unconscious, and several dark shapes were marching toward them, bearing an air of authority she recognised only too well. InterPara.
Go, a voice hissed. Leave Iris. She’s human; InterPara couldn’t charge her with anything too serious.
But Iris was here because of Meredith; she had come looking for her, worried for her. She remembered that much through her drunken haze on the rooftop. Iris was her friend. She couldn’t leave Iris.
The Wildness reared itself up like an angry horse. Go! Iris will understand! You need to save yourself!
Meredith hesitated, torn with indecision. Then she swore and knelt, hooking her hands under Iris’s arms. She shuffled backwards, dragging the girl with her toward the malachite room. It was only a few feet away, and Iris was small, but an unconscious body was still a heavy body, and she was lightheaded from holding her breath against the drop dead smoke. And there were voices shouting at her through the fog to stop and put her hands up …
Meredith ignored the voices. She stumbled back over the threshold and slammed the door shut as a smoke bomb came flying at them. The bomb hit the door with a thud as Meredith inhaled the cool air of the malachite room with relief.
She dragged Iris over to the walnut door and touched her hand to the crystal orb. The snake bas-relief rippled to life. “Where do you wisssh to go?”
“Underground,” Meredith gasped. “Back door.”
“Sorry,” Mr Snake said. “Too many folks tried to get out that way and drew InterPara’s attention. They tried busting in through there, tripped the wards, and set off a backlash spell, sealing all entries and thus – exits.”
“You’re kidding me.” Meredith cursed. “All the exits?”
Mr Snake thought for a moment. “There are one or two windows left untouched. A question of necessary ventilation. Second floor. The Bathhouse.”
“Second floor?” Meredith considered this. “Good enough. Take us there.”
“What price ride?”
“Snake Eyes, we don’t have much time. You settle this with Lucy!” Meredith almost shouted.
The snake bristled and bared mini fangs.
“Ooh, you look nasty that way,” Meredith said admiringly.
Mr Snake drew back coyly. “You really think so?” Then, “All right, fine, you can go up. But I want two stories next time. And a really good joke. Something I haven’t heard before.” The doors slid back and Meredith heaved Iris into the lift.
The bathhouse on the second floor was empty, devoid of customers, all of whom had probably slipped out the back way the moment the alarm sounded. The air was muggy with clouds of white steam issuing over the rice paper and bamboo-frame partitions. Meredith hauled Iris down the hall, half-slipping on the slick tiles as she peered into each compartment until she found a laundry room filled with piles of dirty towels and robes, several industrial-sized washing and drying machines, and one blessed window left ajar.
“Yes,” she muttered, and dragged Iris in. She dropped the girl beside a thundering washing machine and went to look out the window.
Iris awoke a few seconds later, coughing and dry retching.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” Meredith said, racing past her with a pile of dirty laundry in her arms.
Iris blinked and sat up. “Meredith?” she said thickly. “What are you doing?”
“Saving the world for a better laundry day. Actually, I’m making good our escape from InterPara.” Meredith dumped the laundry out the window and went back across the room for another armful.
“Wh – where are we?”
“We’re still in Lucy’s den. There’s been a raid. The back doors got sealed. You got mugged by a smoke bomb. Do you remember that?”
“Yes … kind of.” Iris frowned. “But where are we?”
“Second floor. Bathhouse.” Meredith peered out the window. “That’s all the towels,” she said. “Should be enough to cushion our fall, you think?”
Iris stumbled over and stuck her head out to contemplate an old Chevy parked below, now swathed in clouds of towelling.
“You’re not serious,” she said. “You want to jump out that way?”
“We’ve got cushioning,” Meredith pointed out.
The sound of an elevator bell caused them to turn around. Half a moment later came the thundering of brisk, heavy footsteps.
“InterPara,” Meredith said grimly. “Let’s go.”
Iris needed no further persuasion. She clambered through the window after Meredith and paused at the edge of the ledge, shivering slightly, the cool night air after the claustrophobic heat of the bathhouse.
“Together, on the count of three?” Meredith suggested, reaching for her hand.
Iris swallowed. “This is crazy.” Then she gave Meredith a wan smile. “On the count of three.”
“One,” Meredith said. The footsteps were growing louder. “Two.”
The rasping sound of the screen door being shoved aside.
They leapt. For a moment, Iris was sure this was a really bad idea, that they were going to end up breaking an arm or leg or worse. Then they hit the towelling and the impact slammed through her, knocking the breath out of her. The car groaned under their weight.
Meredith went rolling across the Chevy and struck the ground hard with a yelp. She was up in a minute, massaging her right arm and hip. “Iris, you okay?”
Iris sat up slowly, and wriggled her arms and legs. “Yeah,” she said cautiously. “Saints, I can’t believe we did that.”
“Let’s go, quick.” Meredith helped Iris down from the Chevy and they took off down the road. As they ran, Meredith glanced over her shoulder. A blonde man stood at the window, his features indistinguishable as he watched them flee.
My head was still cloudy, my tongue numb, and after we slowed to a walk, I began to lean on Meredith for support, like an old woman or – irony of ironies tonight – a drunkard. I knew what was coming – the secondary effects of drop dead smoke, which induces one to speak bluntly. It is said to be the closest InterPara and the magicians had ever come to creating a truth potion.
“We’ll flag a cab down as soon as I see one,” Meredith promised.
“Where’ve you been, Meredith?” I mumbled. “Been sho worried ’bout you.”
“I’m sorry,” she apologised. “I got sidetracked this weekend. I should have called, or left a message at least. I’m really sorry, Iris.”
“Something happened to you,” I accused. “I can tell.”
“Things always happen to me,” Meredith said lightly. “But let’s not discuss it right now.”
“Why not?” I demanded, made bold by the drop dead smoke. “It’s got something to do with the last time you left town, isn’t it? Is it something to do with a guy?”
Meredith huffed. “Iris, I don’t think –”
“Is it something to do with your being a Wild One?”
Meredith snatched her arm away and jumped back. My ankles gave way and I collapsed in a heap.
“Oh, shit,” Meredith breathed. “Oh shit, Iris, are you okay? And how the hell did you know that?”
I rolled over and stared up at her. “It’s okay if you’re a Wild One, Mer.”
“Oh, jeez,” Meredith muttered, and started to help me up.
“I won’t tell anyone,” I promised, leaning heavily on her. “It don’t matter to me.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Meredith echoed with a note of grim desperation. Or maybe she was correcting my grammar. “Look, a taxi’s here. You take it. I’ll get the next one.”
“Meredith.” I grabbed her arm. “You’re coming home with me.” I blinked and shook my head, trying to clear it. Striving for tact. Now wasn’t the time for bluntness. On the other hand, only bluntness could have induced me to blurt out the fact that I’ve known what I’ve known for a while. “Remember the first time we met?”
Meredith hesitated. “You’d just moved to Berninski. We were both smoking in the girls’ room on the third floor.”
“Yeah. It was only my second day at school. We had put out our cigarettes and were just talking when Mrs Caper came in. She smelt the smoke and saw my cigarettes, which I’d stupidly left by the sinks.”
“Mrs Caper.” A spark of amusement entered Meredith’s eyes. “She was always bursting into the girls’ rooms, trying to catch us smoking.”
“And she picked up the pack and said, ‘Whose is this?’ Remember? I was so freaked out that I was going to get into trouble on my second day of school. And you looked at me, and winked, and said, ‘Those are mine, Mrs Caper.’”
“Mrs Caper’s all talk and no bite,” Meredith said. “I got a 15-minute lecture, most of which I tuned out while thinking about when my next smoke was going to be, and a couple of hours’ detention. No biggie.” She shrugged.
“Well, it mattered to me,” I said firmly. “And when I tried to apologise afterward, you just said, ‘Balls, who gives a fuck about detention?’ Well.” I looked Meredith in the eye. “That’s my opinion about your being a Wild One. Balls, who gives a fuck? You’re my friend, and that’s all that matters.”
Meredith opened, then closed her mouth.
“And friends are there for each other when they need help.” I squeezed her arm as the taxi stopped beside us. “Look. I understand if you don’t want to talk about it right now. But – I just want you to know that I’m here for you, okay, Mer?”
Meredith stared at me. “Are you sure you know exactly what I am?”
I met her gaze. “Very, very sure.”
I opened the cab door and was about to get in when Meredith grabbed my arm. “I’ll tell you,” she said impulsively. “I’ll tell you everything.”
I nodded and squeezed her hand reassuringly. We got into the cab and I gave the driver my address.
“It’s kind of hard to know where to start, though,” Meredith mused as we rolled on home. “It’s so weird and complicated and just plain freaky.”
“Start from the beginning,” I suggested.
“The beginning?” Meredith frowned. “I guess the beginning was a guy.”
I grinned. “I knew it! Okay, that’s a good beginning. Start with the guy.”
Go on to: Chapter Eighteen
Go back to: Chapter Sixteen
New to A Reason for Being? Start from: Chapter One.