Home > Downpour (Greywalker #6)(11)

Downpour (Greywalker #6)(11)
Author: Kat Richardson

“OK. So, what’s the skinny on these yaoguai?”

Ben sighed. “Unfortunately, I really don’t know. They are elemental in nature—or at least a lot of them are. The Buddhist legends say the smart ones used to be humans who died in some particular sinful way and became demons when they descended to hell. I’m not sure how they get to be demons, but they do, and then they sort of embody their sin, and their way out of hell is to acquire the power of a very magical or truly enlightened man—to the Taoists and Buddhists, enlightenment and magic are closely related. Anyway, the demons acquire this power by literally consuming it—they eat the power, usually by eating the man who has it. The demons trick people by using illusions and making bargains, because these are both considered degraded uses of the powers that lead to enlightenment. They get more sophisticated and powerful as they consume more, but they always remain tricksters at heart until they can devour a truly enlightened man. You see the general trend?”

“What happens after the demon eats the Buddha or whatever?”

“I’m not sure. I think they become humans again, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense that they’d get to go straight to heaven after eating people. I’m going to have to look this up. . . .”

I had to say his name twice to get his attention back. “It’s OK for now. I get the general gist of the thing. Is there a way to destroy these demons?”

“Oh, you can’t really kill them—they’re already dead. You can banish them back to Diyu—that’s the Chinese underworld—though, if you know the right spell. You write it on a piece of yellow paper and . . . I think you make the demon eat it. I think—”

“Yellow paper?”

“Or silk I think will work, too. Yellow is the Buddhist color of sanctity and enlightenment. Red for happiness and luck, white for death.”

“What about green?”

“Not sure on that one, either, but I’d make a guess at the earth or living things.”

I humphed, trying to absorb all the information, match it up with what I’d seen and heard in the past two days, and let my mind look for connections to other magical things I was more familiar with. I’d stand a better chance of using this information to my advantage if I could relate it to things I already had some facility with.

“OK,” I said, “I think I have a general idea about this. I’d like to know more, but I think that’s all I can take in right now. Can I drop in on Monday and pick your brains some more?”

“Sure. Oh! And I have some great news! But I won’t tell you now. I’ll tell you on Monday.”

“Tease.”

Ben laughed. “Mara says that, too. Do you want to come for dinner?”

“No, I need to get back out here to Port Angeles as quickly as I can turn it around, so I hope not to be in town late enough. And if I ruin one more meal at your house with some problem of mine, I don’t think Mara will forgive me.”

“She’s had to forgive me and Brian.”

“With an emphasis on had to, Ben.”

“Well, yes. . . .”

I smiled. “Can I call you before I come over?”

“Sure. Brian should be at day—um . . . play care until two, so if you come before that, we won’t have to chase him.”

“All right. I’ll see you before then.”

We disconnected and I leaned back into the pillows, still remarkably tired and sore, and turned on the TV, looking for something mindless. I wished Quinton was with me; we still didn’t live together or spend all our free time together, but I realized I’d become used to his being around. It had been a while since I’d had to run a case completely alone and I missed his input. I also just missed him. Snuggling Chaos wasn’t as satisfying, besides being a bit smellier.

After an hour of animal shows interrupted by explosions of ferret dancing, Chaos wound down and curled up next to my knees for some sleep. I stared at the screen until my brain went mushy. Then I put her back in her cage and went to sleep myself, wondering what, if anything, we’d find when the car finally came up from the lake.

NINE

My first impression at the lake in the morning was that this was going to suck. I was still achy and the sun was still on the shy side, the light it shed being thinned and turned platinum gray by the churning clouds overhead. It had stopped raining, but the air was colder than it had been the past two days and a crust of ice had formed on everything. The most interesting part of the morning was the behavior of the Grey near Fairholm where an array of magical power lines in every color seemed to have grown up out of the lake to shoot off across the ground to the south since my last time through the area. They made an electric singing as they stretched across the highway to vanish into the cliffs. They piqued my interest, and I would have cut my losses and pursued their mysterious terminus if I hadn’t needed to keep an eye on the car-raising circus.

I might as well have stayed in bed on that point, though. Nothing seemed to move as quickly as Ridenour expected and he’d become a bossy, irritating martinet. He dismissed my questions about Shea’s background and was on his phone or radio continually throughout the morning, issuing orders, corrections, or demands. I did my best to stay close enough to see what was happening without being in his sights much, but for the most part it was a lot of hurry-upand-wait.

The barge crew had trickled into the store at Fairholm, but they weren’t all there until after ten o’clock and each refused to get started without the others for various safety or legal reasons. Then the big diesel engine on the barge had been reluctant to start, coughing and dying several times before the three-man crew got it warm enough to keep on running. Finally, the barge cast off from the dock at Fairholm about noon and began its slow trip up the length of the lake. Ridenour had pointed out that the barge, while powerful and heavy enough to carry a crane and dredger, wasn’t fast; it would take about an hour for the barge to reach the car on the northernmost shore. With yet more time to kill, Ridenour and I returned to the ranger station at Storm King to meet the deputy sheriff the county had sent.

Deputy Strother turned out to be the lowest man on the totem pole—barely out of training and still unsure of his authority. The county administration wasn’t convinced that a truck was actually needed, and they wanted Strother to give his opinion first. I thought I smelled politics in the county’s action and I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been a few toes stepped on and noses bent out of shape in the past. Ridenour tried to cow Strother from the first minute, taking a much harsher tone with him than he’d used with me. “When can you get that truck up here?” he demanded.

Strother glanced at his watch and looked up again without meeting the ranger’s eyes. “Pretty quick. There’s a flatbed already out at Piedmont, and the driver’s on his way there. I’ll give him a call when the car’s up on the barge so I can see if there’s really a need for the truck at all. Shouldn’t take him but ten minutes to drive over. No sense in his just sitting here and freezing till then, not with the way things have gone so far.”

Ridenour scowled. “It’ll move along fine now, but you should light a fire under your man soon. That road’s pretty narrow and slick from here to Piedmont. Tell him to drive around to the highway instead. It’ll be longer, but safer, so he’d better get to it soon or we’ll all be standing around in the cold waiting for him next.”

Strother shifted his gaze to the side, hunching his shoulders a bit. “I suppose. . . .”

“Don’t ‘suppose,’ Strother; get it done.”

Strother shrugged and sighed. “Can I use your phone?”

“Can’t you radio him?”

“Driver’s coming in on his own time. He won’t have the radio on until he’s in the truck. Better to call his cell phone before he gets into the mountains.”

Ridenour seemed to resent letting the younger man into the ranger station, but he unlocked the picturesque little cabin that stood across the open ground south of the boat ramp and ushered us inside. “Keep an eye on that pocket-edition otter of yours,” he warned me. “This building’s full of crannies and holes she could get into.”

The interior of the small ranger station wasn’t a lot warmer than the exterior, but it had a fireplace at one end and electricity, as well as the phone Strother wanted. Ridenour pointed him to it with a grunt that gave me the idea he might have been enjoying this job more than the rest of us, but it still wasn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.

Chaos chose that moment to decide she needed to get out of my pocket and explore. The way she scrambled around made me think she—and the cabin—would be better off if we went back outside. Though I loathed missing the phone call and whatever exchange the two men might have, I excused myself and took the ferret out to the frozen grass and skinny alder trees before she pooped on the floor.

I looked around while the ferret did her business and began exploring the place. She didn’t like the cold on her feet, but she was intrigued by the area. I glanced back to be sure the cabin door was closed before letting myself slide a little closer to the Grey to see what she was so excited about.

The area around the lake was bright in the Grey, and the same sort of whizzing energy balls I’d seen around Lake Sutherland were much more active and numerous here. The air seemed to be thick with spirits that weren’t quite differentiated from one another, as if a crowd of specters had been blendered into a ghost milk shake and poured into the valley around Lake Crescent. But in spite of the sense of their cold presence all around, pervasive as oxygen, the lake’s shore seemed weirdly empty. I shuddered, disturbed by the expectant loneliness of the Grey around me, feeling as if something was waiting just beyond the edge of what even I could see. Was that connected to the sudden growth of energy lines near Fairholm? I walked around the verges of the clearing, looking for anything that might give me a clue about why the area was this way, but after half an hour I still didn’t have so much as an inkling.

Chaos had found a hole in the ground and was frantically digging in it to get at whatever tiny creature cowered inside; I decided she’d had enough exploring at the lakeside for now. I picked her up and wiped the dirt off her paws, glancing back toward the northeastern shore for a moment. I could see the barge just coming into view on my left past what a map on the ranger station wall labeled Barnes Point. The barge wasn’t fast, but it was making steady progress. In twenty minutes or so it should be in position to start hauling the car up onto its platform. I wanted to be as close as possible to it before the disputed truck took it away.

I returned to the ranger station and interrupted an intense staring contest. Neither man spoke, but their expressions indicated an unpleasant topic had been cut off in midsnipe. They weren’t going to pick it back up in front of me, so I went ahead and announced that the barge was passing the point.

Ridenour jumped up from the desk, cutting his gaze away from Strother’s with a sharp twist of his head. “Well, then, we should go up to the north shore and keep an eye on them.”

Strother lowered his inquisitive eyebrows into a scowl. “I should stay here and wait for the truck.”

Ridenour returned the annoyed expression, but he couldn’t argue much since he’d been the one to insist on sending the truck the long way. “All right. You coming or staying, Miss Blaine?”

I was a little conflicted. On the one hand I wanted to be as close to the action as I could; but I’d need to be here when the barge unloaded the car—that would be the best chance I’d have to get an upclose look at it and what might be inside. But I didn’t need to watch the preliminaries and I wanted to talk to Strother without Ridenour’s overbearing presence, so I said, “I need to use the ladies’ room. I’ll follow you up in a minute.”

Ridenour looked slightly appalled, but he shrugged and went out. I held Chaos out to Strother. “Would you hold on to her for a moment? She likes to eat soap, so I don’t want to take her with me.”

Strother looked a little nervous, but he took the ferret in both hands. Chaos sniffed him and flicked her whiskers. “She doesn’t bite,” I said, handing over the leash as well. “She’s very friendly. Just don’t let her get near your pant cuffs.”

I went out to the restroom and returned in a few minutes to see Strother tickling Chaos’s belly and trying to wrestle a pencil away from her at the same time. The ferret was adamant about keeping the pencil, but she wiggled around on her back on the desk, her head going one way and her butt going the other. She didn’t growl or squeak, because ferrets don’t, but she would have if she’d thought of it. She seemed to be having a good time playing with the deputy.

“You guys doing OK?” I asked.

Strother looked over his shoulder and Chaos took the opportunity of his distraction to hop onto all four feet and try to yank the pencil from his grip.

“Hey,” Strother replied. “She sure is feisty.”

“That’s her stock-in-trade. There’s not a lot of back-down in a ferret.” And there didn’t seem to be much in park rangers or deputy sheriffs, either.

He nodded, twitching the pencil out of her mouth as soon as she tried to get a better grip. Chaos launched into a weasel war dance hopping all over the empty desktop, waving her open mouth and showing off her tiny fangs. Strother laughed. “Damn, got some muscle there. She’s a lot tougher than she looks, too.”

I just smiled and picked the ferret up from the desk. She wiggled around in my hand for a moment, then resigned herself to having lost her pencil and scrambled up onto my shoulder to get a better view. “What did I interrupt?” I asked, keeping my eyes off him.

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