Downtown Seattle, January, 1953
Three in the morning was no time for a girl to be out on the streets, especially the streets that ran under the half-constructed viaduct over Alaskan Way. But then, that was why I had Butch. The shotgun’s weight in the holster beneath my coat was a comfort; so was the thrum of the city’s energies, rising up into me right out of the ground with every step I took. My nerves were on edge, twitchy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but I was ready for whatever might leap out of the night.
I wasn’t ready, though, for a ragged voice bellowing somewhere in the darkness ahead of me.
“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth… done a hundred things you have not dreamed of…”
The words were familiar, I realized in a burst of shock. They were poetry. The sound of them drove me forward until I spotted the speaker: a man, stumbling along under the shadow of the construction overhead. He moved like he was tuckered out–or maybe three sheets to the wind, from the sound of him. But as I got closer he passed through a shaft of moonlight, long enough for his short golden hair to shine out like a candle, and that gave me a better look at him. He was tall and thin. And he was wearing a uniform.
What on earth was a military man doing out here at this hour?
My nerves hadn’t ceased their alarm, so I pulled out Butch and cut across the stranger’s path. My brother’d flown a plane over the Pacific for three years after Pearl Harbor, so I was able to peg the uniform. “Hands up, flyboy!” I called out.
He hadn’t stopped his bellowing, but at the sound of my voice his own cracked, and he staggered to a halt. “Put out my hand, and touched the face of God,” he said, more softly now, as I came up to face him with Butch levelled straight at his head. Then his expression turned bemused, and he added without breaking rhythm, his hands lifting as I’d ordered, “All that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes…”
“Byron and Magee don’t go together,” I said with asperity. Up close he was six feet of bad road, uniform or no. His hair had grown out of a military cut, long enough now to be tousled; several days’ worth of beard lined his jaw. Thin, I saw, didn’t begin to describe him. The features under his beard were pale and gaunt, and the tattered jacket and uniform hung on him loosely, too large now for a frame that looked skinny enough for a good stiff wind to knock over. He wasn’t drunk, I realized now. But he did reek, of mud and machine oil and who knew what else if he’d been stumbling around a construction site. “Who are you? What’re you doing out here?”
That threw him. “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state,” he breathed, only to blink several times and shake his head, as if to focus his vision. “I beg your pardon, miss,” he said then, his voice closer to normal now that he’d dropped the iambic pentameter, but no less raw, no less confused. “Are… are you real?”
I’ve had a lot of things about myself called into question in my time, but nobody had ever questioned my existence. That was enough to throw me in turn. Only then did I notice the flyboy’s eyes: skittish and lost and very, very blue. It wasn’t smart to lower my gun, but Jesus H. Christ on a jump rope, those eyes. He was human, and furthermore, the city’s magic was naming him mine; he was a resident of Seattle, then. And he had the eyes of a misplaced angel. I couldn’t keep pointing Butch at him.
“Of course I’m real,” I said, putting the shotgun away, and easing a little closer, like I might have done to calm a panicked horse. “My name’s Millicent. Millicent Wray. What’s yours?”
He stared down at me guilelessly, his hands still held out until he drew one up to scrub across his face, though his eyes never left me. His other hand flickered up to his head, and it took me a moment to realize that he was reaching to tip a hat that wasn’t actually there. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Wray,” he answered. His voice was still raw, but I could hear the ghost of a mellifluous tenor there now. “I’m… I’m John.”
“Howdy, John,” I said, and offered him a smile while I looked him up and down. I got close enough then to take one of his hands, and I wasn’t surprised in the least to find it shaking and hot to the touch. It was obvious that something was wrong with this man, even through the vestiges of manners he was displaying. Sick, most like. Since he was one of mine, it behooved me to find out. “You need some help? Why don’t you let me get you to a nice warm bed somewhere, huh?”
John’s lost-angel eyes went wide as he lifted my hand in his, and he gaped now at our joined fingers, as if the sheer idea that my contact was real left him whomperjawed. “Help,” he repeated. His grip tightened; his other hand came over to join the first. Both kept shaking all the while. “You can–”
He didn’t finish. Instead his head snapped up, just as my power roared in warning. I didn’t even need the terrified look he threw past me to know something was coming up behind us both. Fast.
Whirling, I whipped Butch right back out again, took aim, and fired. I had about two seconds to catch sight of a hulking dog-like shape with fangs as long as my thumb and eyes like red coals before my buckshot hit–and the thing vanished in mid-leap.
I stood there a moment, panting, while my power immediately settled down. That’d been it then, the thing that had drawn me out here into the cold, wet January night. Which should have been the end of it, only it wasn’t, because a barghest never should have been able to cross Seattle’s Wards to begin with. That one had manifested at all meant two things, both of which made me scowl: I still had lots more work to do to shore up the city’s defenses, and in the meantime somebody had bypassed them entirely to call up the thing from wherever spectral dog monsters came from.
Surely nobody had sent it after me–hell’s bells, I hadn’t been in Seattle long enough to make anybody cranky, magically speaking anyway. I was still very much second fiddle to Catherine, even if she didn’t have the juice in her to Ward a single block, much less en entire city. She sure enough hadn’t let me forget it.
Which meant it had been sent after–
I turned back to the flyboy and found he’d staggered several steps backward in his panic, stopped only by the concrete support column he’d bumped into. He clung to that for dear life as I put Butch away one more time; surprise or fright kept him rooted where he stood as I came over to him. “It’s all right now, John,” I said with a gentleness I hadn’t known I could muster. “It’s gone. It can’t get you.”
“You shot it,” he blurted.
“I shot it,” I assured him, and kept it at that. Why I’d had to shoot a barghest for him was a question I’d just have to answer later.
John stared at me all over again, but this time his face changed, relief like a cleansing cloudburst welling up in his eyes. Literally. “You saw it,” he croaked, and with those three hoarse and prayerful words, he started crying. My heart turned over at the sight of it.
“I saw it,” I said, gentler still. “C’mon, flyboy. Let me get you somewhere safer.”
Without a word of protest he let me take his hand and lead him away, out from under the viaduct and back to the heart of the city. The skin of his hand was still hot with fever, I saw, but his fingers had stopped shaking; his grip was as steady and trusting as a child’s. “Why are you helping me?” he asked as we went, and that too was childlike. Then all at once he smiled, with a sad and painful sweetness, and added, “Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat, whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride; or, being wrack’d, I am a worthless boat…”
Tsking, I watched him trip, and before he could fall I took his arm and looped it round my shoulders. This flyboy was going to stay on his feet until I got him to a doctor or behind some proper Wards, preferably both, or my name wasn’t Millicent Ann Wray. Just to keep him moving, I smiled my best smile up at him, broad and bright.
“What can I say? I like a man who knows his sonnets.”