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The Winter Oak
 


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The Winter Oak


  THE WINTER OAK

  The Wildwood: Book Two

  by James A. Hetley

  Copyright Information

  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author‘s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  Copyright © 2004 by James A. Hetley

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

  eISBN: 978-1-937776-36-7

  Also by James A. Hetley

  The Wildwood Series:

  The Summer Country

  The Winter Oak

  Stone Fort Series:

  Dragon's Eye

  Dragon's Teeth

  Visit James online at www.JamesHetley.com.

  Follow him on Twitter @JHetley.

  Table of Contents

  THE WINTER OAK

  Copyright Information

  Also by James A. Hetley

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Special Excerpt from The Summer Country, The Wildwood Series Book #1

  Author Bio

  Chapter One

  David gritted his teeth and followed Jo's hand through the darkness. He assumed the rest of her was still attached. Damp, clammy nothings brushed past his face and hissed gibberish threats in his ears. Phantoms teased the corners of his eyes, shapes black against black, yellow against yellow, flowing through the ghost images his brain played to give substance to emptiness.

  The touches, sounds, and shapes plucked at his fear like virtuosi on over-taut harp strings. The air smelled of sodden graveyards, thick and rank in his nose and against his skin as if he had to swim through it.

  Under the Sidhe hill, he thought. Three steps between magic and reality. Magic with teeth and claws as long as his forearm, magic with vampire briars that had tried to suck his soul into the land and spread his life in a blood sacrifice to renew the perpetual summer of the Summer Country. Magic that Jo carried in her genes.

  He felt cold sweat between his shoulder blades and trickling down his sides under his arms. This was taking far too long. When Brian had brought him to the Summer Country, it had been step, step, step, and they were there, sunshine and green grass and warm sweet breezes contrasting with the icy mess of winter in Maine. David hadn't even had time to be scared. That had happened later.

  Jo's hand gripped his, tight enough that his bones creaked. It tugged, and he took another step and another. The darkness held firm. Hot breath chuckled in his left ear, and feathery fingers brushed across his eyes like someone testing ripe fruit in the market. He flinched.

  Jo scared him, but not enough to give her up. The other Old Ones, Dougal and Sean and Fiona, they were a different can of worms. No wonder Irish tales painted the Sidhe as lacking heart and soul. Anything they could do, they would do.

  Tunnels seemed to open to one side or the other in the black, wet air, felt or heard in receding echoes rather than seen. Despair flooded over him. They were lost.

  And then orange light flickered in the corner of his eye, a rectangle barred by darkness. He blinked, his brain whirled and re-set, and he recognized the window in Jo's living-room. Venetian blinds, half open, with the sodium streetlight beyond.

  Night, not the perpetual velvet blackness of the space between the worlds.

  Home.

  He sagged with relief, hugging the small woman who had just dragged him headlong through the caves of hell. She shivered in his arms.

  "Jo, you may be the sexiest woman alive, but sometimes you scare the shit out of me. I swear you'd teach a kid to swim by throwing him off the dock."

  She stepped back half a pace in his arms, enough room to wipe her sleeve across her forehead. "No. But I never did have training wheels on my bike."

  "What took so long?"

  He felt her head shake in the gloom. "So long? It was three steps, just like Brian said."

  "Next time, try shorter steps. I feel like I just chased you for half a mile." He paused and took a deep breath, calming his heart. "Cancel that. Ain't gonna be any 'next time.' I'll take the rest of my fairy tales out of books."

  She seemed to be looking at him funny, as if she was having second thoughts about getting tied up with a pureblood human coward. But he'd never claimed to be anything else. He wasn't a natural warrior like Brian, handling weapons like they'd been forged to fit his hands, his eyes always weighing every scene for attack or defense, his body rock-hard from running ten miles around the walls of Maureen's castle each morning without breaking a sweat. Guitar players don't need that kind of training.

  She shook her head, sniffed, and started looking around. The Old Blood had sensitive noses. Then David noticed it, as well -- something thoroughly dead.

  "Oh, shit. The garbage." And dishes petrified in the sink, milk curdled in the fridge, last night's lasagna two or three weeks gone and furry. He'd walked over to Maureen's place to check with Brian, because Jo hadn't come home that night. And they'd stepped out of the world without coming back here. God only knew what mutated life-forms now lurked in the potato salad.

  Jo groped for the light switch and flipped it on. David blinked like an owl at the sudden glare, catching flashes of the room as his eyes adjusted. Something didn't look right, but he couldn't pin it down.

  Dishes waited in the drainer, clean. The garbage pail was empty, with a fresh liner. Jo stepped over to the refrigerator and swung it open. No milk, no meat, no fresh vegetables or cheese, just a few unopened cans of soda and the like. Jo shut the door and stood staring at the answering machine. The lid was up and the tape cassette gone. She pulled out the drawer underneath the phone, fumbled for her emergency cash envelope, and checked it. It looked full.

  "Damnedest burglars I've ever seen, washing dishes and leaving the money."

  She stared at the phone for a moment and stood like a statue, plotting her next move. That girl could be ice if she wanted to, just like the Sidhe, no reaction or a flip comment where a sane person would dash around in panic. David headed for the apartment door, to check with the Mendozas and use their phone.

  Yellow plastic streamers barred the door, "Police Line" in reversed letters in the hall light. "Jo . . ."

  He felt her behind his shoulder, tallying up the evidence like a cyborg. "How long have we been gone?"

  Brigadoon. Rip Van Winkle. Spend a night in Faerie and find a lifetime has passed when you return.

  David clenched his fist and gnawed on a knuckle, staring at the door. A glued paper seal had joined the frame to the metal door, someone's signature now split by a rip through the middle. Proof the door had been opened, tampering with evidence. Jo studied it, calmly adding another tick-mark to her checklist.

  She's inhuman. He shuddered, reali
zing that the phrase meant just what it said.

  She nodded, computer run complete. "Okay, we need some excuse for opening the door, some way to toss off a few weeks without a story."

  She glanced up. The stairwell light flashed blue and went dark, filament burned out. She flipped the kitchen light off, plunging them back into night. Enough light filtered up from the second floor so that David could see her climbing through the tape, leaving it in place. He followed her, numb, and pulled the door closed behind him.

  She ticked off one finger on her right hand. "First thing we do, we buy a pint of booze and split it. We're drunk. Dark hall, drunk, we didn't notice the tape and seal in time. No criminal intent, no crime."

  Second finger. "We've been drunk or stoned for weeks, no idea how long. Off on a trip with Brian and Mo, celebrating. They're engaged, we're engaged, big party, got crazy and took it on the road -- out west, down south, Canada, don't have a clue where and when, you and I tell different stories, no problem."

  Third finger. "They've just dropped us off, Brian drove away, no idea where they're going. I've got to get back to my job, you've got gigs to play. Gonna be a hell of a hangover."

  * * *

  The chairs hurt. David couldn't recall anyone mentioning that in the detective movies, but his ass said that the chair had been designed to be uncomfortable. And they weren't even "under interrogation," just sitting in a cluttered detective's office across the government-issue gray steel desk from a polite cop. Everyone had been polite, and he and Jo were still together rather than split apart to see if their stories matched. He wondered how long that would last.

  He blinked and forced his eyes to focus. "Hey, what's this about, anyway?"

  The man in blue wrinkled his nose with disgust. The collar tabs called him a sergeant, square body with a bit of a donut belly and buzz-cut brown hair and medium-dark skin, maybe Naskeag or Black genes in there somewhere.

  David blinked again and focused on the nametag, working his way through half a pint of vodka. Getchell, that was the name. Sergeant Getchell. No ethnic clues there.

  "Family tried to call you, urgent. No answer for weeks, so they asked us to check. We went in with a key from your landlord."

  Jo squirmed in her chair, glancing across at David. "Weeks? Weeks? We've only been gone a week or two!"

  The cop frowned. He looked like he was giving a blood alcohol test by eye and nose. "Ms. Pierce, our records show that your last day at work was February fifteenth. Same for your sister. Last time anyone saw any of you was the next morning. Today's date is April thirteenth. I think your people had a right to be concerned."

  "Shit."

  Jo looked pale, worse than her normal fair skin. Scared. Now the freckles stood out like a rash. But that date explained the shrunken snow-banks along the road that had graced their walk to the cop shop. Mud Season, Maine's least lovely face.

  The silence stretched out until David felt compelled to fill it. "Why the crime scene tape? We were out celebrating. What's wrong with that?"

  "Food rotting, mail piling up, looked suspicious. So we called in a lab team. The forensics guys came up with blood between the kitchen tiles. A lot of blood, looked like, then somebody had scrubbed it up. Maybe murder. We secured the scene in case the DA wanted more tests."

  Oh. Brian's blood, from when Fiona had set a street gang on him, trying to capture him. He'd staggered back to Maureen for help. But they didn't want to talk about that . . .

  "Brian cut himself, bad. Kitchen knife. You go into their apartment, as well? Find the old bandages, same blood type?"

  The cop nodded, reluctantly. "Yeah. Forensics says there's not much doubt, blood type is rare as hell. But we still want to talk to this 'Brian Albion' of yours. Some street rats got beat up in an alley. One died. They identified him, by name. Kids like those, we wouldn't take their word for what day it was. Myself, even if the story's true I think he's done us a favor. But we still need to talk to him, to close the file."

  Right, thought David. And you think I'm drunk enough to believe that. Then you'll sell me some prime Florida swampland.

  The sergeant consulted his notes. "You say you spent last night in Toronto. Can you give me a name for the motel?"

  David glanced at Jo and shook his head. She waved it off. "Wrong. Last night was Syracuse. Toronto was last week. Brian had to return a car to this friend of his. Apartment, not motel."

  He burped and tasted recycled vodka. Damn good thing there wasn't any law against walking under the influence. "No. Car was in Detroit. Toronto was that big blue crew-cab pickup."

  The cop was getting pissed. "Look, my notes say that you claim to have rented a blue pickup in Kentucky. Is that the same vehicle?"

  Jo blinked and stared at David. "We were in Kentucky?"

  David nodded and then shook his head, trying to clear it. "Fort Knox. Brian wanted to see the old tanks and stuff at the Armor Museum." He flopped a hand at the police sergeant. "Brian was in the British army for years. Officer, Gurkha Scouts, SAS, all that macho stuff. Probably could take out one of those Russian tanks with a pocket knife."

  The cop's frown deepened. "British Counsel says those records are . . . confused. There seem to have been three or four different 'Captain Brian Albions' at different times, going back to the Second World War. Some embassy people would like a word or two with him after we get through. You sure you don't know where to find him?"

  David thought he smelled the smoke of burning bridges. "Look, are we charged with anything? Do we need a lawyer?"

  He almost saw thoughts chasing across the sergeant's forehead: "They've asked for a lawyer. They're drunk and incompetent. There are so many contradictions in this statement, it would be laughed out of court. Whole frigging thing stinks."

  The cop shuffled papers in their file. "You've got a citation here, 'Possession of a useable amount of marijuana.' Civil fine. That's it."

  Hell. Two joints in his guitar case. Three, and they might have tried to stretch it to "Intent to distribute," a felony. Anyway, another hundred bucks shot to hell.

  The cop's chair groaned as he leaned back, his face a study in disgust. "Time was, I could toss both of you into cells for the night, let you sober up. Can't do that any more. Bleeding hearts." He made the phrase sound like cussing. "But it's a slow night, and I don't have anything better to do. We all can just sit here and talk until you decide to tell this numb old cop something close to the truth."

  His eyes narrowed, and he squinted first at David and then at Jo. "Now let's start in from the top. What kind of car is Albion driving?"

  Jo swayed in her chair, face shiny with sweat. "I don't feel good." She lurched forward and vomited across the desk, drenching papers and the sergeant's lap. He jumped up and swore, inventively and at length, while he rescued their file. The reek of puked alcohol filled the room, and David's stomach churned in sympathy.

  The cop stood behind the desk and shook his head, jaw clenched. "I come on duty at 3:00 tomorrow. I want your butts in those chairs when I walk through that door. Clean, sober, and ready to talk. And I want a story we can check. Understand?"

  David nodded. The sergeant pulled out a small manila envelope and tossed it to David. "Answering machine tape. Get her out of here. Call her family."

  "Can we use the apartment?"

  "Hell, go ahead. Just get out of my office!"

  The air outside was cold and damp and raw, threatening rain or sleet, stinking of four months of winter filth finally surfacing again. It didn't help him any in fighting back the queasy vodka that surged at his throat. But Jo's timing had been too damn perfect, and she had seemed to aim. Even stone drunk, the Old Blood ruled her.

  Shadows lurked away from the streetlights, hiding furtive things with fangs. He shivered, remembering the fear of stepping between the worlds.

  Jo lifted her head and glanced around. She grinned up at him. "Did I get anything on you? Those notes he took aren't going to be worth a hell of a lot, once he gets them cleaned up."
r />
  She seemed to be cold sober. He wondered just how much she had . . . witched . . . that cop.

  * * *

  Something shook him hard enough to rattle his brain. It hurt. His eyelids seemed to be stuck shut, and his hands missed their target when he tried to knuckle the glue away.

  "Wake up, damn you!" The voice echoed from one ear to the other, across a cavern full of pain.

  He pried one eye open. Jo. She had a pitcher of water in her hand, aimed at his face. He ducked, and the sudden move made the room spin around him. He grabbed the sofa to make the cushion hold still. His stomach heaved.

  "Never again. No more booze. Done."

  "Screw that. We've got problems."

  He tried thinking for a moment. It didn't work. "Who cleaned the place up?"

  "Maria Mendoza, you idiot. The cops let her come in after they did their thing. Just kept an eye on her while she cleaned."

  The neighbor woman. Self-defense, probably could smell the garbage through the walls.

  David concentrated on breathing slowly, not rushing his nose and throat and lungs. Jo looked like she'd just walked out of a beauty parlor, bright eyes and every strand of hair in place.

  She waved the pitcher again. It rattled. She'd dumped ice-cubes in the fucking water.

  He struggled to sit up, holding his head in his hands. He felt like he'd just been on a month-long bender, just like they'd told the cops. She backed off a step.

  "Problems? That citation? For the grass? No worse than a parking ticket. And Brian doesn't give a damn about the cops."

  "I played that tape from the answering machine."

  David forced his eyes to focus. She looked mad. Mad and grim, with a touch of grief. "What's wrong?"

  "Mom fell, she's in the hospital. That's why Dad was trying to find us. Fucking fifty years old, and she had a stroke and fell down the stairs. Can't talk, can't move her left arm or leg."

 
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